An Interview with Kim McLarin, Keynote Speaker at CCAE’s 20th Annual Writer’s Conference

Character and the Writer's Role

Kim McLarin is the author of the novels Taming It Down, Meeting of the Waters, and Jump at the Sun and the memoir Divorce Dog: Men, Motherhood and Midlife. She is the co-author of Growing Up X with Ilysah Shabazz. Her nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, Glamour, the New England Review, The Washington Post, Slate, The Root, the Morning News, Calaloo and other publications. She is a former staff writer for The New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Associated Press and is an associate professor in the Department of Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College. McLarin is also a regular commentator on Basic Black on WGBH in Boston.

Find more information about Kim at her website, kimmclarin.com.

How did you get into writing?

I was born a writer. I think some people are, though I also believe some people can become writers and that everyone can gain from writing and writing well. I learned to read relatively early and loved it and started making up stories when I was in first or second grade. By junior high I knew I wanted to be a writer--though I didn’t really know if such a thing was possible for a poor, Black girl from Memphis.

Who are some of your inspirations or favorite writers?

James Baldwin is my personal hero and spirit guide. I believe he is one of the most important voices of the 20th century. He was courageous, compassionate and clear-eyed. I aspire to be like him.

You are a professor at Emerson College in the Popular Fiction and Publishing department. What classes do you enjoy teaching the most?

I enjoy every class I teach. I mean that. I am very fortunate. I teach both creative writing and African-American literature and I love both.

What do you find students of writing struggle with the most, and what key advice do you give them?

I can’t identify one thing -- writing is hard work and every writer worth her salt struggles with something. My best advice is to read, read, read and write, write, write. That sounds simple but it really encompasses everything. Apprentice writers must read widely and carefully -- they must learn to read not as readers but as writers, taking apart the book, the chapter, the scene in order to see how it was built. Then write, write, write. And get feedback -- good feedback. Not from your mother, who will tell you everything you write is wonderful.

When you teach, are there key pieces of fiction you ask your students to read?

That varies, depending upon many factors: short fiction versus novels, grad students versus undergrads, reading for plot versus reading for dialogue, structure, characterization, etc etc.  A few stories I think writers can learn from: “Eve of the Spirit Festival” by Lan Samantha Chang, “Powder” by Wolff, “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker -- but those are just off the top of my head and there are many, many others.  A few writers I teach: Baldwin, Graham Greene, Octavia Butler, Toni Morrison, Henry James, Joyce Carol Oates, and on and on and on.

One recurring conversation I’ve encountered in writing classes is regarding the privilege involved in writing experiences that are not one’s own. I know writers who shy away from writing from the perspective of different races, genders, and abilities, and others who vehemently affirm their right to do so. Do you ever encounter this conversation, and how do you respond?

This is an old and ongoing question. Every writer and writing teacher encounters it constantly. I begin by saying that of course a writer has a “right” to write whatever he or she wants. No one can stop him/her and if the writer is convinced of the legitimacy of his creation, what does he care if someone objects?

I think the bigger question a writer should ask is why? Why do you want to write a fill-in-the-blank character? To prove a point, or just because you have a right to do so? How tedious.  What role does that character serve in the story? Most of all, can you write this character convincingly and with integrity? Can you create a three-dimensional character who inhabits the sociological, psychological space that someone of that race, gender, ability, etc would really inhabit in this (or whatever) society? How do you know?

I think every writer has an obligation to ask himself those questions. I do. And when I’m satisfied with the answers I go ahead and write what I want.

What connects you to your characters?

What connects me to my characters is what connects me to everyone on the face of the planet, which is the business of being a human being. Characters are not people -- they're more like people condensed. But ideally they should represent the truth about what it means to be human in this world, for good and for ill, flaws and all.

What do your characters teach you?

I'm not one of those writers who say their characters come alive or take on a life of their own or talk to me --that kind of stuff would freak me out. Sometimes when I'm writing I will change something in a character or have him or her act in a different way, or I'll get a better idea about who they are or what they should be doing than I began with -- but that's me doing it, not the character. So I can't really say my characters teach me anything except to keep writing and paying attention to the world, which is where the real learning comes from.

Your work has largely centered on motherhood, womanhood, and being black. Are there additional themes/ideas you hope to explore in the future?

I would say my work has largely centered on what it means to be human in this world at this particular time, which is what all fiction should center on. Which raises the question: what “additional themes/ideas” are there?  It’s important to say that because too often Black writers and women writers who write about Black and/or female characters have their work subtly reduced to “only centering on motherhood” or “only centering on being black” in a way that male writers and White writers do not -- nobody ever asked John Updike if he hoped to explore any other ideas other than being white suburban, sex-obsessed middle-class American male. Or Jonathan Franzen for that matter. For the first part of her career interviewers and reviewers were forever asking Toni Morrison if she ever planned to write about “something other than” Black people. Toni. Morrison. Come on.

What inspires you?

This is one of those questions I always have trouble answering, especially without sounding like a contestant in a beauty pageant: "Fall days and winter nights, birds on the wing, etc etc." Part of the problem is that the question is so broad -- inspires me to do what? If the question is what inspires me to write the answer--without being flippant or trite--is that the same thing that inspires me to breath is what inspires me to write: the desire, conscious and subconscious, to stay alive. I write to stay alive. I mean that figuratively and, at some points in my life, literally.

What are you working on now?

I'm working on a collection of essays and, with my partner, on a series of wise, witty guide books for living life. We're calling the series, "So, You're Twenty-one" (and then, "So, You're Twenty-five," etc.) So that's fun. I'm also working on a novel but that's a longer project. I try not to talk too much about my work while it is underway as it drains the energy.


What current reading suggestions might you have for our audience?

A nonfiction book -- Evicted by Matthew Desmond. Just finished. Great.