Stephanie Kallos was born in Idaho and grew up in Nebraska. Before coming out of the closet as a writer, she had a varied work history which included many years as a musician and a long career in the theatre as an actress and teacher of voice, speech, and dialects. Her short fiction has received a Raymond Carver Award and a Pushcart Prize nomination. Her first novel, Broken for You, was published in 2004 by Grove/Atlantic; it was chosen by Sue Monk Kidd as a "Today Show" book club selection, and received the Washington State and PNBA Book Awards. Her second novel, Sing Them Home, also Grove Atlantic, was published in 2009, a Pacific NW Independent Booksellers bestseller, it was selected as a January '09 IndieNext title and chosen by Entertainment Weekly as one of the 10 Best Books of 2009. Stephanie lives with her family in a North Seattle neighborhood which has no sidewalks and looks very much like a small town.
Her third novel Language Arts, from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, was published in June. The Seattle Times called it "beautifully written, harrowing".....Paste says it's "enthralling," and BookPage describes it as "a riveting read". Stephanie is currently at work on her fourth novel, a loose-retelling of the Cyrano de Bergerac story set in Britain before, during, and after WWI. She is a proud member of the Seattle7Writers and its offshoot band, The Rejections.
I first met Stephanie at a SIBA convention in North Carolina when I was her rep for Broken for You. My God, this woman can write! I consumed both of her first books as soon as I got the advance copies, they are so incredibly good.
Well, we hit it off and she was one of the first authors to answer my time travel question (see below). I was, quite frankly, stunned by her answer. The word "German occupied France"" and "where would you go" don't usually appear together in many sentences.
She has been a true friend through the years even though we get to see each other about never. Here are her answers to my questions:
Tell me about where you live and why you love it so much.
I live in a North Seattle neighborhood that bears very little resemblance to the hip, glamorous Seattle that is much-hyped in the news: it has no sidewalks, is diverse in all the ways that diversity manifests, and resembles a slightly impoverished small town – which is why I suppose I’ve felt at home enough to have spent nearly two decades here: the first five years of my life – very happy ones – were spent in just such a place.
Do I love it? Our little slice of the city has been a very good place to raise my sons, and goodness knows Seattle offers up natural beauty on a daily basis even to those of us who aren’t skiers, campers, hikers, cyclists, or sailors. (I’m always embarrassed to admit this, but I mostly get my views of the surrounding mountains from whatever I can see from I-5. In my defense, I’m a great walker.)
I love the community I’ve found here, the patchwork of people who have become family in a very real sense.
I don’t love the traffic, the noise, the cost of living, the need for a car. I’m not a fan of big city living in general, and frankly, I hope one day to relocate – at least part-time – to a less populated place. But – luckily for me – I’m a writer. So I can stay pretty much hunkered down in my office most days and live in denial about the fact that I’m an urbanite.
Where were you living when you were 7 years old? Are they fond memories?
My folks moved us to Lincoln when I became school age and we lived on a house on East Eden Drive. (I kid you not.) There are some very happy memories associated with that time and place - although our move there also marked the beginning of a shift in my awareness and in our family dynamic that very much underpins some of the scenes in Language Arts.
But, keeping with what was good: our house and all the others in the neighborhood sat on land that was once an apple orchard, so everybody had plenty of trees to climb and fruit to harvest in their backyards. Also, there was a down-sloping sidewalk that led from our house to the outdoor public swimming pool and adjacent part: I loved riding my skateboard down that hill at what felt like super-sonic speed and trying to catch old of a giant apple tree limb that extended over the sidewalk at the very bottom. It was a kind of childhood that kids rarely get anymore (mine didn’t anyway): in the summer months especially, we were able to head out the front door in the morning and not come home until dinnertime. I walked to my piano lessons with Mrs. Childs, who lived a couple of blocks away. I spent hours nestled into those city park trees reading comic books and not caring one whit about what time it was. I truly mourn the loss of that kind of childhood for today’s children. And it’s been shocking to learn lately that many people have come under scrutiny and censure with various child protection agencies because they support the concept “free-range parenting.” Unbelievable.
Did you have a favorite teacher and are you still in touch with him or her?
Teachers have always played an enormously important role in my life. Several of my elementary, junior high, and high school teachers got a shout-out in the Acknowledgements pages of Language Arts - a book that, among other things, is intended to be a love letter to those members of the teaching profession who give so much of themselves and their lives to the young people under their tutelage.
It’s actually funny that you ask this right now.
For many years I have wanted to reconnect with a teacher who had a profound affect on my life when I was (ever so briefly) an acting student at Julliard, from 1978-79. That was an extremely difficult time in my life for many reasons, but the short version is: it became clear after a few months that living in NYC was not working out, the training was not a good fit, and I began to question the wisdom of staying. When I revealed these thoughts to my parents and college teachers, I was met with vehement anger and a fair amount of shaming. One of my college professors said, in a tone I have never forgotten “If you leave Julliard, you will regret it for the rest of your life.” There was one teacher, however, my dance teacher at Julliard, who showed me extraordinary kindness. (I gave one of the most beloved characters in BROKEN FOR YOU her surname: Kosminsky.) When I expressed these uncertainties to Jane, she replied, simply, and without a trace of any personal agenda, “There are many paths.” Those four words of sage counsel were some of the most profoundly affecting, compassionate, and reassuring I have ever heard. And I have re-appropriated them countless times with other young people facing similar quandaries.
Here’s the great thing: While accompanying my younger son on a tour of Julliard this past April (he wants to be an actor), I had the great good luck of running into Jane in a hallway and was finally able to express my deep and enduring thanks to in person. That experienced marked the closure of a very important circle.
Do you have a favorite children’s book?
What first comes to mind is A WRINKLE IN TIME, which I read over and over again as a young girl; also biographies of scientists and inventors – Galileo, the Wright Brothers – and stories of horror and the supernatural. A favorite book that has survived the long trip into late middle age is a dog-eared anthology from my parents’ bookshelf that I adored as a child and that I’m sure is long out-of-print: ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S STORIES FOR LATE AT NIGHT. It has some of the best writing I’ve ever encountered, and I still revisit it from time to time. Especially around Halloween.
Is there any message you want to give to or anything you want to say to your great-great-great grandchildren when they read this?
Love, be loved, and follow your passion. Pay attention to the people and the experiences that light you up, immerse yourself in those relationships, and know that staying absolutely true to what attracts and nourishes you is the fertile soil on which one builds a rich, abundant life. That’s all there is, really.
How did you meet your wife/husband? How did your first date go?
My husband, who is Italian, was an hour and a half late for our first date and two hours late for our second. If he had been late to our third date, my children wouldn’t be here.
And finally, the time travel question with Stephanie's amazing answer:
IF YOU COULD GO BACK IN TIME
to any period from before recorded history to yesterday,
be safe from harm, be rich, poor or in-between, if appropriate to your choice,
actually experience what it was like to live in that time, anywhere at all,
meet anyone, if you desire, speak with them, listen to them, be with them.
When would you go?
Where would you go?
Who would you want to meet?
And most importantly, why do you think you chose this time?
Sitting down to respond at length to Jon’s question, I found myself less interested in writing a work of fiction related to my reply, than in investigating the reasons why that reply sprang so readily to mind. I think my answer surprised me as much as it surprised Jon.
So what follows is a meditation on where creative obsessions come from, and how it might be true that novelists are always – consciously or unconsciously – writing under the influence of that most unreliable of all first-person narrators: their child selves.
Flannery O'Connor once said that if you survive a Southern childhood, you have enough material to write about for the rest of your life. Surviving a Midwestern childhood has given me a warehouse of inventory to work with as well.
* * * * *
It must have been my parents’ idea – signing me up to take French lessons after school, at a time in the history of American public elementary school education when enrichment programs weren’t necessary, because we had singing classes and art classes and even elective instrumental classes (piano OR Tonette!) as part of the regular curriculum. No foreign language classes, however. This was the Midwest after all, in the mid-1960s.
By the time I was in 5th grade, it’s possible that my father was starting to regret his decision to embrace all things American, thus raising his only child in a staunchly uni-lingual household. No daughter of his would start kindergarten speaking Greek-accented English and be ridiculed and ostracized and called the n-word because of it. (To this day, my Greek vocabulary consists of: How are you? Fine, thank you. Dolmades. Spanikopita. Kiss.) Maybe Dad decided that it wouldn’t be such a bad idea for me to learn another language – just not his language.
Or maybe the nudge came from my mother, who was also in her own way engaged in the process of separating from her origins. My grandmother spoke German; so did her younger sisters Clara and Ruth and Alvina and Mildred. When I asked Mom about this, she informed me that there was “low” German (which is what regular, common folks used) and “high” German (which was spoken by educated people and in the bible). I somehow knew not to ask which version was spoken by my grandmother and great-aunts.
Do you speak German? I asked.
A little, she answered.
This was exactly how she replied to my question about childbirth, which was probably posed around the same time:
Does it hurt?
It was clear in both exchanges that these two words for a little locked door, highly fortified. I either had to storm that barricade, or imagine what was behind it. At eleven years old, already indoctrinated to be compliant and polite, I chose the latter. I shut up and wondered what my mother wasn’t saying. This kind of thing is excellent training for anyone aspiring to a career as a novelist. Say what you will about Parental Transparency in Child Rearing: the truth is, nothing stokes the fires of a child’s imagination like parental taciturnity.
Given all this, it’s logical to assume that my parents encouraged my early study of French – a language that had no familial associations for either of them.
French was the language of kings and high culture. It was exotic. It was beautiful. It was worldly. Although my parents were to travel to France many times in their future lives – as well as to England, China, Russia, Greece, Spain, Holland, and New Zealand, to name a few – at this point the farthest they’d ever ventured from their Midwestern roots (and I’m not talking about miles here but about something less measurable) was when they went to New York City in 1960, to be contestants on “The Price Is Right.” (I still have the black-and-white photo of them flanking Ed McMahon. They look completely star-struck.)
Whoever steered me toward my first extracurricular experience (I suppose it’s possible that it was my idea; I truly don’t remember) I soon loved taking French lessons because:
1. It made my parents very happy; this meant that peace reigned in our emotionally volatile household, and our three-person country remained – at least for short intervals – a demilitarized zone, and
2. After school French was taught by my school’s prettiest teacher. Her unlikely name, Miss Pardee, could have been an alias, a sly reference that old lyric, how you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?
Not only was Mlle. Pardee the prettiest teacher at our school; I soon noticed that she became even prettier when speaking French, especially when pronouncing the vowel “u” as in une soeur. I can still see her demonstrating the way to achieve this sound: she would draw her lips wide, into an exaggerated version of the wide-mouthed Nebraska smile, and begin repeating the sound eeeee as she gradually moved her lips forward, into the rounded, kiss-inviting shape of an ooooo: an “e” on the inside, an “oo” on the outside. It’s an inspired way to teach the sound, brilliant really, and thanks to Miss Pardee I’ve never lost my ability to pronounce it like a native.
I still also have pretty decent French “r”s. I don’t remember how Miss Pardee taught those, but I know I owe that facility to her as well.
* * * * *
I’ve been thinking about the words “courage” and “resistance,” the fact that they’re spelled the same in both English and French. It is only in the voicing, in the placement of the syllabic stress, that they differentiate:
COUR-age becomes cour-AGE; re-SIST-ance becomes re-sist-ANCE.
I love the way this linguistic flip-flop makes those words conclude with a committed bang instead of a whimper.
My 1964 College Edition Webster’s defines courage as: “the attitude or response of facing and dealing with anything recognized as dangerous, difficult, or painful, instead of withdrawing from it; a quality of being fearless or brave; valor; pluck.” Among several definitions for the word resistance are “opposition of some force, thing, etc. to another or others” and “the organized movement, often underground, of resistance to a government or occupying power regarded as oppressive and unjust, as in France during the Nazi occupation.”
In any marriage, I suppose, there is the potential for children to become artillery in their parents’ marital wars. As the only child of a mother and father whose relationship swung wildly between two extremes, that of combatants and that of paramours, I experienced a perplexing range of roles within our family, at some times wielding great power, at other times wielding none at all. Generally I chose withdrawal over confrontation, passivity over opposition. My parents’ battles were on a grand scale; there was no way my petty complaints could rival their Sturm und Drang.
So I laid low, taking the role of wary, watchful civilian instead of soldier, assuming an identity that had the greatest guarantee of contributing to familial peace: I smiled, aspired, excelled, and achieved – becoming in every way I could think of the opposite of rebellious.
Once in awhile I did the one thing that was guaranteed to incite a mild testiness in my fashion-conscious mother, wearing a favorite dress twice in the same week. And I committed at least one act of theft during this era: I still have the Advanced French textbook I filched from school, with phrases like Je suis tres fatigue… and Merci Dieu pour la Vendredi demain! penciled into the margins in big balloon-y letters – the kind we used to make pep club posters.
But mostly my courage was a paltry thing; whatever resistance I expressed was so muted or muttered that it was barely noticed.
By the time I was sixteen years old and a sophomore in high school, I had established myself as a good girl by anyone’s standards: straight “A” student, classical pianist, fluent in French, junior class president, babysitter, virgin. My best friends were bright, funny, geeky, artistically-inclined and athletically-challenged girls, also beloved by their parents for their goodness. We were glad to have found each other and formed a tribe. None of us defined our eras’ ideals of beauty; none of us got dates to the prom. On Fridays and Saturdays, we had pajama parties. We wore our odd-duck, dateless status as a badge of pride.
Whenever any of my folks’ friends bemoaned their kids’ misdeeds – academic failures, curfew violations, drinking, smoking, drug use, sexual escapades – by parents remarked with pride (and within earshot), “Oh, we never have to worry about Stephanie.”
I may have chafed inwardly at that sentiment – and what it implied about my character – but there were great rewards in abiding by the status quo. One such reward came in April of 1971, when my parents pulled me out of school and took me to Paris.
For those ten days, I became the unofficial guide and translator for my parents and their traveling companions: a group of University of Nebraska alumnae, all of whom were my folks’ age (forty-something) or older. I helped them order wine and snails, locate the bathrooms, get directions to museums. I taught them all to say “Where is the bar?” and that became a standing joke, the kind of shorthand that fellow travelers rely on in years to come to summon the espirit de corps of a particular shared experience. It was surely during this trip that I began contemplating a future career as a UN interpreter. (If my translation skills made Mom and Dad this happy, imagine how much I could accomplish toward achieving world peace!) It was also during this trip that my parents took me to my first opera.
The national opera house was closed for renovations, so we went to the Comedie Francaise, a much smaller and more intimate venue, and saw a production of La Boheme. During the curtain call, the actors remained frozen in place – Mimi on a chaise, her eyes open in death; Rudolpho kneeling beside her; a stunningly beautiful stage lighting effect that made it look as if a gentle snowfall was cascading over the scene.
On our last night in Paris, my mother and father and I had dinner in a dark, cavernous restaurant next to the Sienne. Our waiter told us that this spot had been a covert gathering place for members of the French Resistance.
I certainly didn’t experience any kind of epiphany at that moment, but as a result of that trip, I did fall in love with France – and, over time, with a corresponding idea (and it was of course a highly romanticized one) of who I might have been had I lived in Paris during the German occupation.
Would I have behaved in the setting of a real war the way I behaved in the hostile country that was our family, i.e. with fear, passivity, and compliance? Would I have risked my life to meet in a place where, thirty years later, my mother and father and I enjoyed a meal and reminisced from a safe distance about the sacrifices of the good soldiers of WWII?
I’m still asking those questions, still wondering if I’d be able to violate the boundaries of the impeccably obedient behavior I cultivated so successfully (and with good reason) throughout my childhood.
I long ago lost my French fluency – if not my accent, thanks to Miss Pardee – and I haven’t set foot in France since 1978, but my love affair with all things French continues to this day. I sent three characters from my first novel to my adopted country, and for the many years I worked on that book, a map of Paris was tacked up on my office wall so that those characters and I could walk the streets together.
The echoes of that 1971 trip with my parents are still with me; and I like to think that my father time-traveled back to our night at the opera when he died, while listening to the final strains of a recording of La Boheme, at the exact moment Ruldopho cried, “Mimi!”
I said at the beginning of this essay that my answer to Jon’s question surprised us both; and yet, having examined my enduring love affair with France and French language through the lens of personal family history, my wanting to go back in time to the German occupation of Paris seems almost inevitable.
Anne Tyler once said that one of the joys of writing fiction is the way it allows one to live many lives. To imagine myself in France during the occupation is to imagine a self very far removed from me indeed.
A novel I’ve had in mind for many years and that I hope to write one day will involve a Jewish-American soldier fighting in France during WWII. I don’t know much about him yet, but I do know this: he’ll be brave, and at some point he’ll find himself in a cave next to the Seine River in Paris, among members of the French Resistance.
Thank you Stevie, I have no doubt you would have all the courage you would need.
Thank you Stevie, I have no doubt you would have all the courage you would need.