Monday, April 20, 2020

Interview with writer Katie Nolan

Helping me kick off a new week is writer Katie Nolan. We’re chatting about her memoir, Confessions of a Hobo’s Daughter.

Welcome, Katie. Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
I was raised poor by a former maid and a former hobo. We lived in such a remote place in the Cascade mountains that, as my father stated, “the authorities would never think to look.” Originally, only an old logging road led up to the house where my parents settled, a house that was originally used as a goat shed and that had no indoor plumbing. I received my PhD in philosophy from SUNY Binghamton when I was fifty years old, and taught philosophy in Seattle until I retired. Recently, I experimented with off-the-grid living and taught myself how to build from pallets. I hug trees and have never met a 2x4 I didn't want to salvage. 

Please tell us about your current release.
Eight-plus years in the writing, Confessions of a Hobo's Daughter began as a re-telling of my father's story as a hobo and a fugitive, based upon stories he told me. Eventually, it seemed to demand a telling of my part in it, as his daughter. The story begins at home, a subsistence farm nestled on the west side of the Cascade mountains, where I grew up and where I helped my father with the farming. When I was a young woman, with Mt. St. Helens off in the distance, my father told me his terrible secret about how he once killed a man. He asked me to tell no one about that revelation, including my mother. I believe this strained my relationship with my mother and wondered whether keeping such a secret, even from my intimate relationships, contributed to them always ending in disaster.

I had come to a breaking point in my most recent long-term relationship, feeling particularly hurt when he refused to accept my gift of a pillow embroidered with, “Stay with me, the best is yet to come.” I was retiring to the Olympic Peninsula and he had no interest in joining me. With little planning, I bought a thirty-day train pass on Amtrak, taking my journals along, hoping to confront this past littered with failed relationships. Throughout this train trip, I gazed out the window wondering how my father had felt riding on the top of the train, a much more uncomfortable trip than the one I was on. I began to use my journals to write on the train, wrestling with my story and my father's story. I tried to meditate in my seat, discovering that it no longer brought a rather peaceful feeling but instead brought tears streaming down my cheeks. Embarrassed, I turned my face to the train windows, and gradually couldn't get myself to meditate, a scary moment because I thought meditation would solve all my problems. I didn't set out to write a book that would work as therapy, but eventually I did gain some insights that have helped me to move forward. As in my life, the book ends on a hopeful note, as my best friend Audrey encourages me to meditate in spite of the tears, and to pursue a connection with a fellow zen student and writer.

What inspired you to write this book?
I've always struggled with my father's past as a fugitive and as a hobo. Perhaps I wanted people to understand that so-called criminal behavior can be environmental, that is, we would respond similarly in that situation. Thus, I always wince upon hearing, “You've done the crime, you should do the time.”

In my father's case, he did kill a man but it was in self-defense. But who would believe it was self-defense when the man he killed was a prison guard? I wanted to honor my father's life and those men like him, who were caught in the terrible injustices of the Great Depression, during which men were imprisoned for having less than a dollar in their pocket via vagrancy laws. They were then put on chain gangs and delivered free labor, all the while beatings and “killing for sport” of prisoners by guards was condoned, or at least ignored.

I recall very few statements by others’ word for word, but I recall vividly my father stating, “The guards was killing us one by one.” Each night the men were crowded into a cage that looked just like the old-fashioned circus cages that were once used for transporting animals. I tried to capture this experience with the following passage, which begins with my father's bumming around buddy, Harry, shouting, “Let's go!”  My father had just killed the guard so they could make their escape.

Everyone in the cage who could still move came tumbling out. Those with gangrene from the long months of the chain cutting into their ankles looked on with disinterest. The rest began running down the dirt road, with me and Harry in the lead. When we heard the dogs coming after us, we ducked into the swamp. No one followed, believing the swamp, with its quicksand and adders would be sure death...When we could no longer hear the dogs, me and Harry sunk down in the mud.

Perhaps not surprisingly my father taught me that being happy was more worthy of our attention than living to make a buck. While I was reasonably content teaching philosophy, I felt like something was missing in my life. A friend mentioned that they thought with all my activism for social justice (stop police brutality, peace marches, environmental issues, taking students on trips to rebuild New Orleans), I had forgotten to live my life. I was struck by this, and it was certainly true that I had essentially worked the equivalent of two full-time jobs, rushing from teaching to sponsoring student clubs, to activist meetings, with little space between them. It was rare that I had an evening to myself. So retiring and dropping all of these activities so I could write the book, I think was inspired by my wanting to reverse that condition of “forgetting to live my life.” I honestly didn't realize at the time just how much the writing of the book would turn out to help me.

What exciting story are you working on next?
My present book, Confessions of a Hobo's Daughter, ends with multiple insights, including those regarding affairs of the heart, but one of the aha moments is that for some of us, meditation alone will not bring peace or enlightenment. Spiritual growth may also require a Western-style therapeutic approach. So my next book takes off from this. It is a travel/spiritual quest memoir, tentatively titled Path of Doubt, that includes my facing an uprising in Taiwan, living in a Tibetan monastery in Seattle, and facing my fear of snakes in Japan, all in an effort to work with Soto-shu and Rinzai zen masters. I pose the question to myself as to why I am stuck on the spiritual path and hope to find some answers to that question, and others, through continued research and by interviewing some spiritually realized masters and therapists.

In the book after that, tentatively titled Building Solitude, I wish to explore what it means to be a woman builder. I want to address how I became literally entranced with power tools, once I overcame my fear of them. I am intrigued by Bachelard's Poetics of Space, and I plan to interview women builders to inform my own phenomenology of building. I love to build in solitude and find great peace as I become one with the tools and materials. What does it mean for women to build? Why have I been drawn to building since I was a child?

When did you first consider yourself a writer?
When Hedgebrook awarded me a three-week writing retreat, based upon some gritty autobiographical poems I had written (now published as Zoot Suit Redux, an ibook that includes many WTO poems), I had some time and space to focus on writing for the first time. I couldn't believe I was accepted and I was so nurtured as a writer there! That made me believe I could write.

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 don't write full-time. I work part-time jobs painting and plastering, a way to supplement my retirement income. I've also recently bought a tiny house, a fixer-upper, and spend a lot of time on repairs. That along with removing a quarter acre backyard of six foot blackberry bushes by hand has kept me pretty busy! I tend to write more in the winter, setting aside a couple hours each morning. But I do most of my writing in marathon sessions at writing retreats, and was able to finish this book at Hypatia-in-the-Woods, a marvelous cottage in the woods near Shelton, Washington, where writers are sponsored for various lengths of time by the organization.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I like to write in public spaces, including on the train, in coffee shops, and in diners during their slow times. I find it encouraging when folks at nearby tables ask me questions about what I’m writing, then show an interest in the topic.  So my thanks goes out to other customers at Farm’s Reach Cafe in Chimacum, Washington, who cheered me on.  Early on, while living off-the-grid, I wrote in my car with a long orange extension cord snaking out the window to an outdoor plug at a local community center. So thank you to Coyle Community Center for being so generous with your electricity!

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I loved growing up on a farm, so naturally I wanted to be a farmer's wife and live out a “Cheaper by the Dozen” type of life. It was the 1950s so I couldn't imagine being the farmer! When no flourishing farmer came to court me, I changed to wanting to be a missionary nurse. Now, of course, I understand the colonizing attitude implicit in that idea. But the missionary nurse idea does still fit with the ongoing urge I've had since childhood to live simply in a hut in a forest. I really have no idea why that urge is there.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
Writing Confessions of a Hobo's Daughter pushed me to rethink my own ideas on prisons. Because I had filed away my father's story into a memory vault that was safely distant until I wrote the book, I hadn't fully confronted what it meant to put a ball and chain on a human being or to put someone in a cage. Strangely, given my father's history, I once stated to a prison abolition activist that “We still have to incarcerate people who have killed someone.” I'm startled to think how I had occluded the fact that my father had killed a man. Now, I believe that no human being should be put in a cage. 

Thanks for joining me today, Katie.

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