Kat Gardiner is preparing to release her microfiction book, Little Wonder, which will hit the shelves on October 5th 2018. Published by Father/Daughter Records in their slowly expanding catalog of written words, this is a book which offers genuine pause from the norm.
Following a young couple’s unfolding dream, as they strive to open an all-ages coffee-shop venue in a remote Washington town, Kat Gardiner creates a lyrical portrait of process. Reflective, intimate, and often meditative, Little Wonder shows the value of effort, the magical qualities of memory, and the resilience required to simply keep moving forward.
We caught up with Kat. We asked her some questions about her book. Here’s what she said:
Finn: You’re ahead of release, but promotion of Little Wonder has now begun in earnest. Can you speak a little on your feeling ahead of the physical book hitting the shelves?
Kat Gardiner: It still seems unreal, or maybe far-fetched. I’ve been writing with serious intent since I was about 9, but–with few exceptions–I’ve put little-to-no effort into procuring high-level publication resumé tics. I never went to an MFA program. I haven’t been published in many literary journals. A few years ago someone I knew, in the know, told me flat out that I probably was never going to be published because my writing was too literary to be pop, and too straight-forward to be literary– and yet here I am.
Finn: Without oversharing plot points, how would you describe Little Wonder, and its format?
Kat Gardiner: Little Wonder is a collection of fragments fictionalizing a year of my life when my husband and I moved to the small town of Anacortes, Washington to open, and eventually close, an all-ages music venue and organic café. Each story is under 350 words, and contains one standalone moment. Together the stories are broken pieces of a narrative that form a mosaic of that year and a larger story of trial and error.
Finn: Throughout your work there’s a strong imagist approach. You pass from broad strokes to fine details to present the overall flow.
Kat Gardiner: I believe that in the details of life, you find the universality. Like in those old science class movies, where the camera zooms out exponentially into the universe, and then reverses and zooms into the molecular structure of a bee. Both ends of the spectrum look the same. I believe that ties into the humanity within each of us, as well. As a writer, my natural inclination is to make these big brush strokes of statement. It has taken years of study and practice to meditate on the small imagistic moments. I have Tom Spanbauer to thank for that.
It’s this practice of realization that the story is where you’re at–not what’s what’s come before or is happening next– that has opened my writing up to a world of the present moment. I find that the subconscious works through these details, as well. What we as humans perceive about an individual moment says as much about where we are in it, as the subject itself. As a writer, the exploration of a flower can be an ode to beauty or the fragility of life. Or both.
Finn: How conscious are you of avoiding a one-dimensional view, and sustaining balance between contrasting perspectives?
Kat Gardiner: In writing, it’s not a conscious decision I make. In life it is. I’m sure this reflects itself through my voice on the page.
Finn: You write in the first person, but often what we read appears like a document of an out of body experience. The device you use seems to question the validity of your own memory. Do you feel like the mythology of an event is more significant, or relays a deeper truth, than the concrete reality of a moment?
Kat Gardiner: I think memory mythologies itself naturally and makes fiction of all our pasts to one extent or another. The way I see it, the present moment is a series of barely solidified ideas in the form of action, and our interpretation of those actions comes much later, with the distortion of time and perspective and consequences. I’ve always found the meaning I took from a moment more interesting than the moment itself, and in writing, I like allowing myself to take it one step further without consequence of adhering to facts. It’s in this one-step further, I often reach my closest truth.
Finn: That said – there are some very gritty / concrete elements in the book. Can you speak a little on the editing process, which converts this incredible, emotional substance into a cohesive, relatable story?
Kat Gardiner: Again, I go back to the universality of the specifics, and the importance of emotional honesty in writing. When I set out to write about emotions, I go through the vehicle of the specific. The placement of a reader in scene, in a specific time and place and body, grounds them in a moment where the universality of feeling can be expressed in a more natural way. As far as editing goes, once I have my moment and my emotion, and a workable first draft, I spend most of the editing process focusing on the musicality of the words. I weed out analogies in favor of imagery. I cut down on densely packed words and try to break down what those words are trying to say. I watch for cliches and, when I find them, try to recreate them using new twists of phrase or cadence.
Finn: Many passages of Little Wonder are deeply intimate. There’s a level of bravery in opening yourself up to vulnerability. Yet, you’re always in control. During the writing process, aside from changing ‘names to protect the innocent’, did you ever make edits to protect the vulnerability of characters who may, or may not, be familiar with their role in your life, (and now book)?
Kat Gardiner: There have been a few stories I’ve written and decided not to publish for this reason. In the writing of those stories, though, I do not make edits to my truth to save hurt feelings. I just quietly allow those stories to remain isolated from the outside world. Most of the time, though, the people in the stories I write are not in direct one-to-one correlation to people in my life. There are elements of individuals, sometimes combined or isolated from different parts of themselves. There are also characters that have been omitted entirely, not because they lacked importance in my life, but because they would have muddied the story. All these things keep my work firmly in the land of fiction. Ultimately, though, I strive for a very flawed and subjective version of honesty and truth.
Finn: Little Wonder dismantles conventional plot devices – yet the continuity of characters, moods, and events propel the story. Is this approach something you landed on naturally, or was it a construct that you’d developed specifically to accommodate the nature of the story?
Kat Gardiner: Yes and no. Part of it was intentional, part was the method of how it was written.
I started this book as a cathartic project. A way to keep writing while life was taking all my writing time away from me. In specifics, I had just had a baby, and culture and circumstances and biology were all pointing me in the direction of losing the string of creativity of the mind, in favor of creativity of the body. Or creation of the body. I was not willing to let that part of myself atrophy, but the Big Novel I was working on before birth was too big to work on. There were no long stretches of silence to dive into such an immersive tale. I decided to challenge myself to write a story a day for a hundred days, and post each one online as an exercise of discipline and creation.
The micro element of the stories came about two fold. I had experience writing microfiction and felt comfortable with that sort of brevity. Lydia Davis is one of my favorite authors and I also love Richard Brautigan who was an early pioneer in extremely brief fiction. The other fold I referenced: the majority of these stories were written one-handed on my phone as my child nursed or slept on my other arm. I used the screengrab frame as a test of length. If the entire story could fit on one screen, it was short enough.
That’s all logistics, though, there was more of a reason to post than all that. Ultimately, it was a way for me conquer fear. There’s a lot of stigma surrounding writers sharing their work before it’s in the finished state. And by that, I mean before someone else has deemed it worthy to share. I was tired of shadowing my work. Tired of meeting so many people in other artistic pursuits–be it music or visual arts or performance– who were “allowed” to present their work freely, how they chose, without as much concern for the professional consequences of sharing without outside approval or permission.
I’m going on a tangent here. The fact was, I was isolated from the world I had known my entire adult life and I wanted to create and let my work breath with witness. I didn’t want to hold my work to my chest and submit it to various literary journals in hope that someday someone would read it. So I decided to stop worrying about it. To stop worrying about perfection or doing things the way I was supposed to. I wrote and I posted. I knew I wanted to riff off a specific time and place in my life, so every night, while my child was eating off my body, I would meditate on one specific story I needed to tell, and then spend time in the quiet of the night warping that moment into the truth of fiction.
When I took a step back and looked at the natural structure of the larger piece that was emerging, I could see it was taking the shape of memory. Splintered and fractured. After Father/Daughter showed interest in publishing the collection, I spent a few months in the editorial process. Stories were added and subtracted and formed into more perfect shapes. I wanted to retain the non-linear structure throughout the piece because it felt the most honest. I also wanted to retain some imperfection, as well. We as humans don’t remember things in linear procession but, rather, in moments of impression, glimpses. I wanted Little Wonder to reflect this complexity of reflection in a way that a more straightforward, linear structure couldn’t.
Finn: Usually the use of a first-person narrative can’t avoid the selfish gene. But, somehow there’s a tone of selflessness in Little Wonder. The whole sequence celebrates interdependence as much as it celebrates the individual. The result is that the narrator is always evolving. Are there any events, or individuals that you can’t fathom, or find reason for – but that still impacted on the progress of the story, and your life?
Kat Gardiner: There are certainly people throughout this story who haunt me with I-don’t-know-whys, as there are elements of our culture that haunt me with this same refrain. As a town, Anacortes hit this chord progression for me. That was perhaps the main motive I had for setting this story into words. To inspect a mystery of my past. Ten years removed from that isolated microcosm of my life, I wanted to delve back in and try to make sense of what happened, and why. Not sure if I did that, but I know I got closer. As far as first-person as a vehicle for story, I am the only witness I can be. I didn’t think a third person story here would have been honest. Plus, for all it’s selfishness, there’s a certain intimacy of first-person narrative that third-person lacks. With third person, the story is kept at a comfortable distance, a layer of narrative glass between the reader and the subject. With first person, the writer is asking strangers to take a moment to become someone else, rather than to sit back and observe them. Inviting them to feel the air on their skin. This was the sort of intimacy I wanted to bring to my stories.
Finn: The narrator of Little Wonder carries a sensitive tone. But there’s never a sense of her being a victim. Do you feel like resilience is a better approach than resistance to the slings and arrows?
Kat Gardiner: You can’t have one without the other. To successfully resist, you must be resilient to the consequences of that action. To be resilient, you must resist the urge to crumble to what’s expected of you. In other words, if you can’t absorb the shock of the world and find a peace within yourself after you have made the hard decision to go against the norms of your specific place and time, you will not have the stamina to stand against the wind for very long.
Finn: You’ve been sharing Little Wonder, story-by-story on social networks. Can you speak a little on that process, and the decision to share via socials before ‘full’ publication of the collected work?
Katt Gardiner: In addition to what I said earlier about the specifics of time and place–the specifics that began the project–I’ve gotten really burnt out on waiting for approval. Ultimately, this later reason is the one that drives me to continue to publish unfinished work on a daily basis–or mostly daily basis. I’m not good at seeking approval. I’m not good at bending my story or words to fit someone else’s ideals of perfection. And I don’t write to try and achieve the crystalized, yet arbitrary, “perfection” that so many literary ventures seek.
On the other end of the approval spectrum, I do not want my writing to be based on a formulaic hero/ine’s journey. That story has been told a thousand times and it bores me. Yet so much of our current literary culture is dependent on pleasing one of these ideals. I think there are few arts as much as literature and acting that rely on someone else’s approval for the world to be able to see your work. Frankly, I think it’s bullshit and there’s no need for it. I wish more fiction was available in a raw state, both as a reader and a writer. I’m all about rough edges.
Finn: Because of your use of social media, friends and family will have be among the first to read this work. The sharing of these stories will also be the first time your fictionalized version of events will be given. Can you speak a little on how your nearest and dearest have responded to some of the more intimate moments?
Kat Gardiner: There have definitely been awkward moments, but overall it’s been very uplifting and gratifying. The stories that became Little Wonder gravitated closer to my interpretation of actual events, so it was nice to share a part of my life with people who both were there and weren’t there to witness it. It was a very unusual undertaking, that café, and I don’t think many people knew what I was doing up there. My husband and I had only been together for about six months–I had only been out of college a year and a half–and while my peers were going to grad school, or interning, bartending, starting bands, I had moved to the country in an idealistic attempt to try and start something weird and real in a world increasingly plastic and normafied. It didn’t jibe with anyone’s expectations of what I should be doing. A nice side effect of Little Wonder is that it has given me a chance to clarify to a large swath of people in my life why we did what we did, and what happened, in essence, while we were doing it.
The current collection of stories I’m working on–another connected series of microfiction about a group of teenage friends growing up feral on an island in the Pacific Northwest–is much more fictional, though there are strings that can lead back to actual facts. For example, the stories take place on Vashon Island, where I did really truly grow up. So if you know me, and you’re reading along, it’s easy to think these stories are non-fiction, when in reality, they are not. It can be a bit more confusing, as these stories, too, are written in the first person and the tone of the piece is as real, raw and honest as I can make it. In other words, the fiction has been mistaken for fact by more than one person in my life which has lead to interesting conversations and misconceptions.
Finn: What have you learned about yourself through the writing of Little Wonder?
Kat Gardiner: The biggest thing I learned that is that it’s possible to share with imperfection. That it is ok not to figure everything out. I’ve learned to be less precious with my writing. I don’t enjoy glossy perfection in other people’s art; why should I strive to achieve that perfection in my own?
Finn: What inspired you to undertake the telling of this particular story?
Kat Gardiner: It’s a story I knew I needed to tell before I died. There are others like that. A ton. But this one lent itself best to the microfictional form I found myself embracing. Ultimately, in my heart and gut, it felt like the story I needed to tell.
Perhaps one more note before I leave this interview. There need to be more stories about failure. Failure is the means with which we grow and change and solidify what and who we are. A success story is aspirational, sure, but it’s not universal. There’s nothing more universal than failure. And, also, failure is beautiful. Our lives, in some ways, are a series of failures with good meals and conversations thrown in. I wanted to embrace this aspect of life and do what little I can to destigmatize us losers of the world.
Besides, losers have way more fun.
HURRY – BUY/PREORDER – KAT GARDINER – LITTLE WONDER