Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Interview with writer Kelly J. Beard

Writer Kelly J. Beard is here today and we’re chatting about her new creative non-fiction (memoir), An Imperfect Rapture.

Kelly J. Beard practiced employment discrimination law in the Atlanta area for two decades during which time she was recognized as a “Super Lawyer” and one of the nation’s “Preeminent Female Lawyers,” and received a Certificate of Recognition from the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence. In 2016, she earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work appears in Creative Nonfiction, Santa Ana River Review, Five Points, Bacopa Literary Review, and others. An Imperfect Rapture is her first full-length memoir.

Welcome, Kelly. Please tell us about your current release.
Let me paraphrase a couple of the authors who offered early blurbs for my memoir. This works for me, in part because it’s a complicated story that doesn’t quite reduce to an elevator speech, and in part because I love what they’ve said but it would be impolite to say these things myself. Harrison Candelaria Fletcher said, “An Imperfect Rapture is a story of personal grace and self-realization; it’s the story of one woman’s path through the shadows of a fundamentalist youth. The memoir itself is a kind of prayer, a kind of promise, in which the vibrant prose shimmers.” And this, from Andre Dubus III: “What Kelly J. Beard accomplishes here is stunning: by stepping nakedly back into her youth as the daughter of Christian fundamentalists, a life-long couple whose love for one another never seemed to wane, she also steps back into violence and neglect, poverty and the shame of the poor, the striving for one’s very selfhood when few seem to be able to help or pay much attention. And Beard renders all of this, and more, with a poet’s clear-eyed search for the truth. An Imperfect Rapture is a plaintive hymn of forgiveness, and it moved me to tears many times over.” And this from the Contest Judge, Janisse Ray, who I adore: “Haunting in its recall, this elegiac book spins through a galaxy of fundamentalism, poverty, and mental illness. Instead of “coming of age,” it’s a “coming to terms” story, burning with desire to cut loose from a demon-possessed past. It’s an eyewitness account of what happened inside a dark house. Beard’s writing is vast, engulfing, accomplished. In many ways, An Imperfect Rapture is itself a faith healing.”

What inspired you to write this book?
I’d been practicing law for about two decades when my daughter (and only child) left home for college. I’d been preparing myself for her departure (I took up pottery and also started participating in an on-line fiction writing course) because I knew it would be a difficult transition for me. I was not a happy empty-nester, to say the least. She and I – as far as I knew – had been really close all her life. Even in high school she was kind to me and we often hung out and watched movies or enjoyed each other’s company. She was never snarky or mean, the way we always hear about girls of a certain age being. Well, she made up for that when she went to college. In hindsight, she was doing exactly what she needed to be doing (and probably should have done a few years earlier) which was individuating. For my perspective at the time, though, I felt completely shut out from her life, and our relationship seemed frayed and tenuous, at best. Despite my intent to buffer myself with those other activities, I spiraled into a serious depression. I’ve experienced a lot of cyclical depression in my life, and when I say it was serious, it was. In an effort to relieve the pain I was feeling, I went in to therapy, this time I chose a Jungian therapist. The therapist was an elderly man who had studied in Zurich and with one of Jung’s proteges, June Singer, and he was brilliant. During one of our early conversations, I asked him if he thought I should write my daughter a letter telling her how sad and abandoned I felt, and how I wanted to stay involved in and relevant to her life. I expected him to say what a great idea! Instead, he looked at me and asked, “But what about any of that doesn’t she know? What would you tell her that shed doesn’t already know?” That question ended up being the catalyst for the memoir. I realized I had never shared my early life experiences with her – in fact, just the opposite. I’d hidden them from her and from everyone. That’s the story I needed to tell.

Excerpt from An Imperfect Rapture:

[Opening Pages]

Palm Springs, 1960s
I learned this while curled at her feet, eavesdropping on her conversations during Bible Study. She and three other women from Desert Chapel huddled around our kitchen table cross- referencing the standard King James with the red-letter Schofield Bible. Afterwards, they prayed for everything from straying husbands to Rock Hudson.
That day, my mother told the circle of women about a call she received the night before. A boy. A teenager who came home from Youth Services to find his mother naked, thrashing in the shallow end of their swimming pool, gurgling like a baby. I hugged my knees to my chest, curled at the center of their shuffling feet, listening to my mother concede defeat. Even with the strongest man in the world beside her, the demons won that night. They spewed curse words in three voices, she said, all deep, like men.
Coffee cups settled.
She sniffed, reached under the table and scratched her leg while telling the women how she and Dad stayed all night, praying with the woman in the pool.
The whole time she’s flinging spit and the nastiest things at us. And this awful, foul odor.
She took a shuddery breath that ended in something like a hiccup. Blew her nose, and wadded the tissue into her apron pocket. We did everything we could. There were just too many of them. They were too strong.
The women sighed and sucked their teeth. Sister Busby snapped her gum.
I thought about Mama waking me the night before, how I’d listened to Daddy peeing in the tiny turquoise and white tiled bathroom across the hall while she told me they were leaving to
pray for a lady. I begged to go along. No, she said, we think she’s demon possessed, we can’t let you get that close. The toilet flushed. She disappeared into the dark.
I lay awake the rest of the night, my cotton gown sticky as I listened to my sister’s rhythmic huffs in the bunk below. She slept through everything. The ceiling had gone from black to a pale blur by the time the car crept back across the gravel drive.
My mother held a mystical place in my small world, her presence so pervasive those first years I believed I was her shadow, a sightless thing always at her heels, following her around by day, lolling at her feet until she put me to bed at night. After the three older kids left for school, she’d crack my door and with a quick snap my small soles reattached to hers. All day, I drifted behind her, skimming the nubby carpet while she vacuumed, hovering against pale green walls while she made beds, bobbing in the greasy puddles on the floor as she scoured pans soaking in the sink. Sometimes she napped, and I lay flat against her back.
While the women prayed and wept, I felt a chill of evil lurking outside the circle of legs splayed under the table. I shrunk into my skin, listening to the women comfort my mother for her failure. When Sister Fee started talking about a demon-possessed man who roamed naked through a hillside cemetery, I thought she meant someone we knew until Mama finished the story.
He chewed right through chains the villagers used to tie him to the tombstones.
Villagers, I thought, not people I know! Still, this fact didn’t relieve the crawl of dread that threaded through my veins while she finished the story, describing how a slew of demons wheedled a concession from Jesus, how he’d agreed to let them pass from the man into a herd of swine feeding nearby. No one explained why the pigs chose death over demons. No one divulged why the demons had to beg to possess pigs but not people. No one revealed how to avoid falling
for them. I knew they wore disguises, knew that what looked beautiful or enticing was most likely of the devil, but I didn’t know how to protect myself. I took precautions. I didn’t look Brother Pine in the eyes. I crossed to the center of the street fifty yards before reaching the terra cotta colored house with the tiled roof and flowering Saguaro cacti, preferring the mortal danger of passing cars to the spiritual hazard of getting too close to the house where my mother saw demons flickering behind the windows. I never took the Lord’s name in vain.
But I knew I was vulnerable. This knowledge kept me pinned to the floor at her feet, week after week, my cheek pressed against the cream and black speckled linoleum, the yellow ties of her apron dangling out of reach. Her feet made a papery sound when she rubbed them together. A blue vein draped across her ankle.
Now, in late middle-age, I still see that little girl prostrate at her mother’s feet, her lower lip nearly bit-through with fear. She doesn’t know yet how the demons lurking beyond the table’s circumference will be nothing like she imagines. They will not swirl around her in ghostly bodies with blood-red eyes. Instead, they will appear in fires and floods, in her family’s fractured lives, and in the carnage of their violent faith.

What exciting story are you working on next?
I’m grateful to be able to say that I have a few readings lined up and that I’m focusing on getting the book into the hands of readers just now. That said, I’m also working on an essay collection that I hope to finish by the end of the year. After that’s out the door, I’m looking at writing another full-length memoir, but you know what they say about how it saps the energy of a creative project to talk about it talking prematurely, so I’m just letting that gestate in the dark for now.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?
It’s funny because since this is a second (or third) career path, and since I practiced law for so long, I still usually respond with “lawyer” when people ask about my profession. I’m intentionally changing that, but it feels strange because when you have a vocation like being a lawyer it’s very clear, right? You are one or you aren’t one, and it doesn’t matter what you say about it or what you call yourself. With rare exceptions people don’t say they are lawyers when they aren’t, i.e., when they don’t have a license to practice law. When you’re a writer you don’t get a license – all the MFAs and whatnot do not make a person a writer. writer, or at least most people are. notwithstanding, those aren’t what make a person a writer. In some ways, I think the label is both overly narrow and overly broad (aren’t we all storytellers and writers trying to communicate our sense of the world?) But that said, I didn’t start really thinking of (or calling) myself a writer until after my memoir won the Zone 3 Press Creative Nonfiction Book Award. I remember looking through the list of finalists (including a number of writers whose work I knew and loved) and thinking, wow, maybe I really am a writer!

Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
I once read that Virginia Woolf could only write for two hours a day. After that, she didn’t have enough creative energy to warrant staying at the desk and writing. At the time I read this, I was heartened because I was still practicing law and I thought, well, great, writing two hours a day is doable. That’s what I did the entire time I was in the MFA program and finishing the memoir. I thought when I stopped practicing law I’d stretch those hours out to 4 or 5 or maybe even 8 or 10, the way I understand some people do, but I couldn’t. I think she onto something.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I like to write from 10 a.m. to 12 noon, to be facing a window that looks out onto a tree or something green and older than I’ll ever be, and I try to always open and close my writing sessions with a prayer or meditation.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A grammar school teacher. I still sometimes think about how fun and rewarding it would have been to teach little kids. I love the early grades, when they’re still sweet little sponges, and I have a huge soft spot for kids, especially kids who don’t have much privilege or for other reasons are at risk.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
Fun fact: I share a birthday with Oscar Wilde and I used a quote from De Profundis as my north star when writing An Imperfect Rapture, and used it as my epigram. It’s a perfect mantra for anyone writing memoir about hard relationships.

Thanks for being here today!

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