Writer Kathryn Brown discusses her writing process and inspiration behind her creative nonfiction essay “The Rotting Man,” included in our 5th issue.
Interview conducted by the Arkana Staff
A: Your piece “The Rotting Man” deals with, like most memoir pieces, extremely personal raw emotion. How do you get enough distance from an event like the one you describe in “The Rotting Man” in order to write clearly about it?
KB: It takes time and many rewrites for me to set aside the emotional triggers of an incident like “The Rotting Man” and create a piece that is relatable to a wide audience. My first versions were filled with a lot of backstory and unnecessary detail, all to avoid writing about the actual trauma.
A: The last sentence of your essay claims, “We have become a society capable of heartbreaking indifference.” How can we, as writers and readers, combat such a huge societal problem?
KB: After this incident, it was no longer possible for me to ignore human suffering. I had been very successful in compartmentalizing the continual string of horrors that I dealt with, but something about the “Rotting Man’s” condition stunned me and broke through that carefully constructed protection.
I was struck by the lack of care or compassion for a man who is allowed to rot on a city street.
As a writer, it’s important to me that the reader comes away with a sense that ignoring the mentally ill and their suffering is simply not acceptable. But more importantly, my hope is that the reader considers the power of even the simplest act of compassion. Perhaps, one by one, we will begin to care for each other.
A: According to your bio, you used to work as a captain with the San Francisco Police Department. Is writing a longtime interest for you, or is it something you only focused on after retirement? Do you have any tips for juggling a separate career alongside an interest in writing?
KB: I began writing early in my career. I found it difficult to write seriously until I retired, but that’s because I can be lazy. If writing is your passion, write! Early in the morning, the middle of the night, whenever you can carve out the time, make it a priority and write. I find that if I write everyday, even for 30 minutes, my writing improves significantly.
I was a police officer for 30 years. Don’t wait that long.
A: When you sit down to write an essay, where do you start— with characters, themes, setting, etc.? Do you go into an essay knowing what you want to say, or do you find its purpose through the writing process?
KB:When I sit down to write a memoir piece, I completely emerge myself in the actual incident; allowing myself to remember smells, sounds, feelings. My initial versions are often filled with too much detail and too much emotional angst. After a couple of drafts, it’s easier to see what exactly I want to say.
I try to stay true to the characters involved, closing my eyes and seeing them, hearing them, smelling them. Writing has been an extremely cathartic experience for me and as I look back on some of my earlier writings I can see myself working out unresolved issues and feelings.
A: Any recent publications you’re especially proud of?
KB: The Baltimore Review published a story called “Ambushed.” It’s a favorite of mine. http://baltimorereview.org/index.php/winter_2016/contributor/kathryn-brown
Two Hawks Quarterly published “Misty.” Another favorite
Read Kathryn Brown’s “The Rotting Man” from Arkana Issue 5!