BEHIND THE BOOK
What Falls Away
A CONVERSATION WITH KARIN ANDERSON
We sat down with author Karin Anderson to talk about the inspiration for her latest novel What Falls Away, her hopes for what readers will take away from it, and all things related to home, her writing process, narrative, and the meaning of family.
Torrey House Press: Hi Karin! We’ve recently started to talk about our work as “books the world needs.” For us, What Falls Away is certainly a book the world needs. Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration for the novel? What are your hopes and dreams for What Falls Away now that it's published?
Karin Anderson: The landscapes that I grew up in have been overwhelming from the start. They don’t leave me, they find who I am, they feel molecular to me, I love them and I want to represent them in meaningful ways. But also on top of that, this landscape is a deeply devout religious culture that almost doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world anymore. There is something about Utah, the mythology that comes from their ancestors, how deeply woven it is into the land, the deep anxieties of a culture that wants to be super enclosed yet at the same time come off as normal and regular. I’ve lived long enough in it to have an evolving relationship with this place. I really think that my experience growing up in this culture can represent that people who stand behind encompassing stereotypes are human beings with powerful experiences, relationships, and personal histories that make them very distinct. I think our penchant for categorization and brutal stereotypes happens as soon as we don’t see people as human beings. I think literature is about seeing the human beings. I want to carefully de-villainize whole categories of human beings. I think the world needs to remember how to do that. And I think that literature for generations has taught us how to do that. I think the world needs to put the knife in the sheath.
THP: Why did you choose to publish this novel with Torrey House Press?
Karin: One of the reasons I love Torrey House Press so much is because they are very sensitive to the rules of publishing right now, but in extremely human ways. They take chances and risks that I think are humane and moral risks, but they are risks. I’ll be loyal to them forever and ever, in some ways, simply because of that. So many of us who write from this region, who really have eyes for it, have been waiting for Torrey House Press, in some ways without even understanding what we were waiting for. It can sometimes feel like you are trying to write into a black hole, and it is very frightening. They (THP) are an answer to a niche, but also to a sensibility that comes from the places we write from. That sensibility is something I’ve tried to nurture and preserve, complicate, and enrich my whole writing career. It’s wonderful to have someone waiting for that on the other side. Writers and publishers need community. It’s always terrifying to take the manuscript out of a such an isolated place and knowing that it has a place to go and that it will find the kind of conversation that we are looking for gives me the courage to write. Torrey House Press gives me the courage to write.
THP: We are so honored to work with you! All of us on THP staff and editorial were captivated by this truly stand-out story, from the first manuscript. We all took so much away from your words and this story. What do you hope readers will come away with after reading this novel?
Karin: I want us all to remember that our hope for the planet is in our children, and it doesn’t really have to do with our ancestors anymore. This planet belongs to future generations. If there is any hope for a meaningful future, our kids almost have to divorce us and reinvent relationships and loyalties. Most of our divisions right now are ancestor based. I don’t think our kids owe much to that at all, especially with the multiple ways children are born on this planet and the ways they are claimed and owned. I know heritage is important to many cultures and people, but who we are in the future can’t just be reiteration. I also want us to remember this: Why does it matter which children are genetically ours? They are all our children.
THP: If you could put a copy into the hands of anyone in the world, who would you want to read What Falls Away?
Karin: There are a lot of people I wish would read What Falls Away. In a certain way I wrote this for the community I grew up in, but at the same time I don’t think that culture really values what I do. I think I would like for good, critical readers to read What Falls Away and understand what it’s really doing and what it’s really about. It’s about beautiful language. It’s about the absolutely astounding transformative power of higher education, or even just K-12 education. It’s about hearing a voice outside that calls to you. It’s about pushing through that threshold to something painfully meaningful outside of Eden as opposed to staying happily inside of Eden. Cassandra pays a terrible price. She lost her connection with her family, she lost her child, and getting out was a terrible trade. It shouldn’t be dismissed. I would like to be able to represent what Cassandra lost. I wish that people who really valued narrative would read What Falls Away.
"I think literature is about seeing the human beings. I want to carefully de-villainize whole categories of human beings. I think the world needs to remember how to do that. And I think that literature for generations has taught us how to do that. I think the world needs to put the knife in the sheath."
THP: What Falls Away is such an honest portrayal of family. What is your relationship with your own family, and how do you define family?
Karin: My four kids are the unwavering sense of who I actually am and how I define family. I remember when my first daughter was really tiny and I was so shocked thinking that the whole world could just come get her. If I didn’t do everything right, somehow a diesel truck was going to come right through our living room wall and smash the baby. You just have these horrible fears and a lot of them come true. Horrible things do happen to children, as you see in What Falls Away. Understanding that those things happen made me realize that my children are no more special than anyone else’s. To me, family is grounded in my maternal relationship and my maternal identity. I think I began to really imagine characters and put them on the page by imagining my children and other children.
THP: What is feeding you these days?
Karin: All the major important things I’ve done in my life, (my career, my education, having kids) most of those things have taken longer than the time I have left. I’m shooting for 20 more years of something really meaningful. I saw my mom really spin out at 80, so I’m not really looking forward to after 80. That gives me 19 more years, and that’s not very long. So I’m sitting there doing the math and thinking, “okay what’s feeding me is thinking about how to use they very precious next couple of decades.” It’s a little morbid, but it’s true. Also, planting things and watching them grow is meaningful to me. I want to see the trees in my yard reach maturity.
I’m looking forward to writing the things I’ve spent my whole life hoping and wanting to write. I’m looking forward to seeing how my kids figure out how to live meaningful adult lives in a pretty tricky world. I think I will be amazed by how they find their lives and how they put together their elements. I don’t think it’s going to be tragedy free, but I think they can take it on. I am looking forward to seeing them rise to the occasion. I am looking forward to having the time to rise to my own personal creativity.
THP: Much like your writing, that perspective is so honest and grounded. We'd love to get updates on how your trees are maturing. Do you write at home, mostly?
Karin: One of the central driving preoccupations of my writing is a search for home. Home is not an easy definition. Over very beautiful and very terrible seasons of my life I have lived in a tiny house in Salt Lake City that is mine. I love that my kids, who have since moved out, find it to be a good home base for them as well. The other day my daughter referenced my writing chair in my house. It sits in the corner of my living room by the big windows that look out on Mount Olympus. It’s always a place I gravitate to. Sometimes I’ll wander different places, but when it’s really time to produce, I’ll sit in that chair. I do my best writing in that chair.
THP: Why do you write?
Karin: I really love my career. I like teaching. I discovered how much it meant to me to work with so many students who I admire so much. I still see students from my class 25 years ago and the first thing I remember is what they wrote. With writing, there have always been distractions and diversions or people who have meant a lot to me who have said, “Who do you think you are? What do you think you are doing? Why do you think you have anything to say?” I just need to write and craft those sentences and I feel like it’s the single part of me that is immovable and that I can’t give up to anybody. I ask this question and answer it because I think there are so many people who want and need to write. They aren’t always perfect, but no one writes perfectly. If you need to write, you just can’t give it up. I write because I’ve told my kids their whole lives that their creative lives are valuable and they mean something. I just feel so incredibly lucky that I have a few years to turn fully to my own creativity and to my own limited but meaningful gifts. And it does matter that there is a readership out there. Writing has to talk to someone else. I write for whoever needs it and whoever craves it.
THP: And lastly, if we could ask every reader to do one thing after reading your book, what should we ask of them?
Karin: I go back to the poem I reference frequently throughout the book, especially the line: “of those so close beside me, which are you?” If I were to ask every reader to do anything after reading my book it would be to turn to the people so close beside them and ask “which are you?” Really ask them. How are you my child? How are you my mother?