Kim Fairley: “Don’t let the negative reviews get you down”

You may never feel your work is finished I’ve made changes to my manuscripts every time I’ve reread them. At some point, I’ve just said, this is enough. Time to move on to the next story. As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I […]

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You may never feel your work is finished I’ve made changes to my manuscripts every time I’ve reread them. At some point, I’ve just said, this is enough. Time to move on to the next story.

As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kim Fairley.

She is a Michigan writer and the author of “Shooting Out the Lights: A Memoir” which will be out on July 27th. She also is the author of “Boreal Ties: Photographs and Two Diaries of the 1901 Peary Relief Expedition” about her great grandfather’s trip to the Arctic.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

Well, at thirteen I became my family’s genealogist. My mother was from one of those New England families that came over on the Mayflower. Her grandfather had been to the Arctic in 1901 and my great aunt had shown me her father’s collection of Arctic photographs. As soon as I heard about the controversy over who made it to the North Pole first — Cook or Peary — I was hooked. So, when I did my MFA in Mixed Media at the University of Michigan, I created collages related to Arctic exploration. At art shows, people wanted to know more about the history, so I began writing narrative. Since then, I’ve been passionate about writing family stories.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

Having a father who was a fearless interrogator, and one obsessed with uncovering secrets, I’ve always been interested in dark family stories. I remember my father’s asking his aunt repeatedly why his grandfather had spent most of his life in a mental institution. Since she admitted she never really knew, she asked her father’s doctor, who said her father had suffered from “alcohol and women.” Alcohol and women — what was that? Ten years later in contacting the institution for his medical records, I discovered he had died from complications related to syphilis. He had left his wife and two children in England and come to this country to marry again. He was a bigamist! Not only that but this was in the days before penicillin, so he transmitted the disease to his second wife, who then transmitted it to their six children. I thought this was fascinating. David Sedaris says “There are things nobody wants to hear. But the disturbing things are great.” That’s how I feel about my dark family stories. I want to share them, and I want my readers to know that it’s okay to share secrets and talk about them as well.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

In the writing of Shooting Out the Lights, I thought just the story itself was good enough. I didn’t see the need to expound or add a lot of emotion. But people who read my work wanted to know how I felt and why. They didn’t want to guess. And I didn’t want to go back and immerse myself in the experience all over again. That’s been one of the hardest things about writing a memoir. If you don’t experience the emotion as you write, it’s very difficult to convey the emotion to the reader.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I first started sharing my story with my writing group, we would pass out copies of our chapters and take turns reading them to the group. We would jot suggestions to each other in the margins. My mistake was that I forgot to mention that my book, Shooting Out the Lights, was a memoir about my marriage to Vern who was thirty-two years older. Some in the group wanted me to change the story because it didn’t sound believable. On one of my copies a man in the group wrote, “I love the writing, but the relationship is revolting.” From that day on, I learned to emphasize up front that my story is a true story from my life.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

There are dozens of stories that never made it into either of my memoirs — Shooting Out the Lights or my next memoir, Swimming for My Life, which will come out in the fall of 2022. Right now, I’m working on a collection of short and micro-memoirs. It’s interesting because writing the shorter pieces takes a different skill set. You have to be able to reduce the story to only the most essential elements and make an impact in a much shorter time.

This also is true with live storytelling, which I’ve been trying recently. Memorizing a seven-minute story with a narrative arc and then baring your soul in front of a live audience can be challenging.

Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

In recalling some of my husband’s stories from his childhood, I mention that in high school he skipped class one day and climbed a 130-foot-high, 30-foot-wide standpipe to skinny dip with his buddies in the town’s water supply. There was more to the story, but my favorite part was hearing that the two old ladies, the Detwiler sisters, were said to have boiled their water for three months after that.

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

I’d love for my readers to decide to write their own stories. Joan Didion once said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” For me it’s the same, but I would add “and to connect and share what I’ve learned,” which is empowering.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.

It takes a lot to become a great author and I’m still working on it, but here’s what I’ve learned from great authors who inspire me:

  1. You may never feel your work is finished I’ve made changes to my manuscripts every time I’ve reread them. At some point, I’ve just said, this is enough. Time to move on to the next story.
  2. Write every day. I rarely wait for inspiration. I just start writing and stories come to me.
  3. It’s all about the process. Like exercise, it can be painful while I’m writing, but when I finish writing for the day, it feels great.
  4. When someone gives you criticism and it upsets you, that’s the criticism to take the most seriously. Some feedback from others will cut close to the bone. Once I get over the hurt or irritation, I try to figure out why I reacted. The information I come up with is often material for my next memoir. I try to look at it as a gift.
  5. Don’t let the negative reviews get you down. There will always be people who hate your work, and so what? It’s part of being human to have preferences.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

I’m still working on trying to be a great writer, so I’m not sure I have all the answers. But one thing I learned as a competitive swimmer is that it’s the consistency of the work that pays off in the end. I would swim all season with mediocre times in swim meets but at the end of the season, knowing I’d put in the work helped me believe I could finish the season and feel proud.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

I’m drawn mostly to memoir, to other peoples’ stories, and especially those that resonate as honest. My most recent favorites are Tara Westover’s book, “Educated,” Dani Shapiro’s, “Inheritance,” and Chanel Miller’s, “Know My Name.” They’re all three set up chronologically so as readers we travel along on their journey with them.

It’s easy to pull punches in writing memoir. I like it when writers reveal the unflattering parts of their story or when they discover something they’ve written isn’t exactly what happened and they are honest enough to say, “Wait. That’s not true. This is really what happened.”

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

What movement would I want to start that might help others the most? It seems like our education system would be the first place to start. It would be wonderful if more students could be given equal opportunities for creative writing, and writers and artists could be sent into public schools on a large scale to help students express themselves. Wouldn’t that be fantastic?

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