Interview with writer Elena Kaufman

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I’m thrilled to interview Elena Kaufman about her brilliant new short story collection Love Bites. Elena and I first met in 2002 at the Shakespeare & Company bookshop in Paris, where  she co-founded and directed Paris Playwrights, and I led creative writing workshops. Elena has an MA in Dramatic Literature (Toronto) and an MSt in Creative Writing (Oxford). She also studied classical acting in England and has played on stage in Toronto, Paris, and Hamburg. As a Canadian who has made her home in Europe, she is passionate about the idea of cultural identity and belonging. Today, she lives in Hamburg, Germany, where she’s a member of The Writer’s Room and is currently working on a novel, “A History of Walking” set on the St James’ pilgrimage across Spain.

You’re originally from Vancouver. What brought you to Paris?
I was studying for an MA in Drama at the University of Toronto and also working at The Fields Institute for Mathematical Sciences as a conference organizer and editor. Surrounded by these brilliant scientists, I happened to fall in love with one of them – a German physicist. We had a two year long-distance relationship between Potsdam, Germany and Toronto until he got a job offer from an institute in Paris. He asked if I’d like to come over for a year and try our relationship out. It would have been the worst mistake to say no.

What took you to Hamburg?
For three years in Paris I was teaching English, acting in a touring company, and co-running a playwrights group out of Shakespeare and Company Bookstore. It was a creatively fertile time surrounded by excellent expat friends, amazing food, and the love of French culture. The French academic system is a challenge for foreigners and at one point my husband was offered a much better opportunity in Hamburg where his family lives. It was a difficult decision for us to make but I was committed to our marriage and it made sense to be closer to at least one of our families. As a freelance teacher and performer I could imagine finding other possibilities in a new country. Being an expat teaches us resilience and flexibility, I believe.

In addition to being a writer, you are an actor. How do these dual careers complement each other?
What is similar about both art forms is the ability to explore characters/people who are not our selves. To delve into the motivations of people and then either play these out on the stage or the page is a joyful challenge. Also, both fields are about storytelling and, in some sense, entertaining. When I teach writing courses there is an exercise called ‘the hot seat’ wherein an actor or writer sits in the hot seat and plays, behaves, acts as her character. She is interviewed by others and has to answer in the voice of that character. This improv game can bring up new information, spontaneous creations, and much laughter. As well, I’ve found doing theatre improvisation a wonderful way of learning about story structure: playing a scene for an objective, finding a beginning, middle, and end, albeit as a group. It’s storytelling on its feet and feeds me as a writer when I later sit down at the page.

I am in awe of you for completing a collection of short stories, which is truly the hardest art form. Can you talk about the process of writing the book and how the stories are connected?
As a slow writer, or perhaps I should say a ‘slow editor’ it takes me ages to truly finish a story. Either I just can’t let go of it, or it’s still incubating and I let it brew for quite a while to get more of an objective perspective on whether or not it’s working. Some of the stories didn’t fit into the themes in the collection: loss, isolation, strangers connecting, and the expat experience wherein our identities are shifted by our geography. The stories set in other places: London, Vancouver, and Toronto were more easily written after I’d left these cities. Some of the stories set in Paris I started while living there but they were quick and dirty sketches, notes, and impressions. After leaving that city I could get some distance to work on them more seriously. The stories were my training ground as a writer and I’ve learned a lot about structure, character, working on minimalism and focus, delivering more in what is not spoken but hinting at, or teasing out ideas and deep emotions.

What were some of the challenges of writing the collection? Some of the rewards?
Delving into topics that might be considered embarrassing, for example the girl who wakes up thinking she’s grown a penis, were difficult to explore when I became too concerned about what people might think of me. Also, I believe that all writing reflects on the writer and so we writers are exposing ourselves in a deep way. I’m not saying that we are reflected in every character but our choice of genres, themes, and so on express how we see the world and where our focus lies. In acting, (where we interpret a story that came before us) I can always say ‘the character made me do it’ rather than ‘my mind created that character’. For me, there is more responsibility that comes with writing, more fear, and also a deeper blow when rejection comes. The rewards of jigsaw-puzzling the stories into a collection were satisfying. I didn’t set out to write a collection but after re-reading the stories I’d written with this in mind I found the red threads through them and hung some of them on a master line to make a collection.

What advice would you give to someone interested in writing short stories?
Enjoy the process – write as fast as you can with a clear image/character/incident in mind, then put it away for a week or two before re-reading what you have. Try to ignore the judgemental voices while writing but let them creep back in while editing. Write what’s deep within you, put yourself on the page and try not to be afraid of other’s judgement. Think about one main character, one main event, and a potential resolution. Short stories are much more like watercolours while the novel can be seen as an oil painting. Short stories give impressions, impart an emotional experience, and serve as snapshots, little glimmers of truth. Finally: read, read, and read some more. It’s our duty as artists to read, absorb and learn from the experts who come before us. Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, Anton Chekhov, Aimee Bender, Mavis Gallant, Alice Hoffmann, Tobias Wolff, and Lauren B. Davis are favourites of mine but there are so many other wonderful short story writers to discover. Literary journals such as Glimmer Train, Boulevard, Mslexia, the New Yorker, are great places to start. Most libraries carry the big journals and the yearly ‘Best Short Story Collections’ from various countries.

What is the best advice you have received?
To finish each project or truly let it go. My problem is holding on to these old stories which never really worked and hoping to hammer them out at a later date when really I should ditch them and move forward. There is magic in finishing a project and so it is only fair to try or to make a decision to let go. I’ve had some incredible teachers: Lauren B. Davis, Joan Barfoot, Wendy Lill (playwright), and Isabel Huggan. They’ve all taught me many things but finishing is one of the biggies.

What books are on your nightstand?
Alice Munro’s collection is part of the décor of my nightstand and I dip in and out of that one. At the moment, I’m reading two books on Kindle written by friends: April Bosshard and James Benmore which are both entertaining. I’ve gotten into an addictive genre lately with Joy Fielding, a Toronto crime writer who came to Hamburg for our literature festival. Another writer from the festival who I didn’t know about before is Lauren Groff, who wrote “Fates and Furies” which which blew me away and I’m still digesting that one. Also, I’m waiting for your second novel since I so thoroughly devoured your first.

What’s next?
Presently, I’m crowdfunding this collection of stories LOVE BITES on Unbound, an alternative publishing site based in London, England. Once an author’s projected is accepted by the board she must raise interest and money by gaining pledgers who believe in the project. Pledging the book gets its supporter a pre-ordered copy with their name printed in it and access to the shed where the writer updates them on the process. Different levels of pledging offer goodies such as: lunch with the author, a writing workshop, a Skype chat, a personal dedication, limited edition cover art, even the naming of a character after the pledger. Once a project reaches 100% it is taken into the hands of the Penguin Random House folks who copy edit, design a cover and get it out into the world. It’s a very hands-on and exciting process and I’ve reached 75% so far, so there’s a little ways left to go. Interested readers can check out the project and press the red pledge button if they wish: https://unbound.com/books/love-bites

  1. Lizzie Harwood

    Lovely interview you two! Hope to see 100% very very soon for Love Bites!

  2. Elena

    Me too, Lizzie Harwood. Thanks for your support!

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