Debut Novelist Kate Betterton Talks About Fiction, Family, Death, and Life After Death

kbetterton-390-exp-best_cropped_teKate Betterton’s novel Where the Lake Becomes the River won the 2008 Novello Literary Award, an annual contest for writers from the Carolinas, sponsored by the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, NC, and underwritten this year by Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain Foundation.

The novel’s protagonist is Parrish McCullough, an artistic, open-minded young woman growing up in Mississippi during the 1950s and 1960s. Much of the story centers around Parrish’s various relationships within her family, particularly in the wake of her father’s death, and several friendships and budding romances. In her narration, the book stretches back even before her actual memories, imagining her family in Japan on the cusp of her own birth; examines Mississippi against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Era; and elsewhere reaches toward the otherworldly, specifically her belief that her father has appeared to her from beyond the grave. A fascination with death and with the idea of life after death permeates the book, and those two subjects form a persistent theme in Parrish’s student essays, which help to separate chapters and which inevitably invite the concern, frustration or even anger of the teachers and counsellors reading and commenting on them.

Betterton, a practicing psychotherapist in Chapel Hill, NC, is currently in the midst of a book tour through central North Carolina. This Wednesday, December 17, at 7:30 p.m., she’ll read and sign books at the Barnes & Noble at New Hope Commons in Durham.  In coming months, she’ll also appear at the Bull’s Head Bookshop at UNC-Chapel Hill on Thursday, January 29, at 4 p.m., and then at McIntyre’s Books in Fearrington Village, just north of Pittsboro, on Saturday, February 14, at 11 a.m.

Between stops, Betterton took some time to chat about her craft and the stories and beliefs that fed her first novel. 

Art Taylor: Where the Lake Becomes the River doesn’t follow a strictly linear format, with new chapters picking up where the previous one left off. In fact, individual chapters might easily be read as self-contained stories in their own right. Had you planned the novel’s overall structure from the beginning, or was it that independent stories ultimately just coalesced into a larger narrative?

kbetterton-210-betterton-novel1Kate Betterton: A story or novel has an inherent shape it wants to take, like a tomato plant or a rose bush. Writing it is a natural, unfolding, organic process. The story or novel will tell you what it wants to be, but you have to be patient — it can take a while for it to reveal its core. This book is really about immortality, the soul’s journey through the ages. To structure the book chronologically would kill it. Its time shifts are deliberate, attempting to capture something of that cyclical, timeless, circular feeling. The first chapter, about growing up in Mississippi, started as a story. I realized I’d left out the racism and intimidation of those years in Mississippi, and revised. This led to the Japan chapter/story and Harvey’s chapter/story, in which racism leads to the death of the narrator’s father. That opened up the chapters about ghosts, hauntings, the paranormal, as Parrish struggles to understand “The Truth About Life After Death.” So the book unfolded naturally, over many revisions.

Those ghosts and those paranormal events, that shadow of death and the interest in life after death — is this just a literary trope, some brand of magical realism as literary strategy (as it seems to be in Lewis Nordan’s Wolf Whistle, for example), or are those aspects of the book rooted in some spiritual beliefs of your own?            

A mystical spirituality is central in my life, and the novel’s cosmology reflects my own. Parrish’s exploration of spiritual and metaphysical mysteries mirrors my lifelong interest in these subjects. I’ve always been drawn to the mysterious and inexplicable — dreams, hauntings, synchronicities, reincarnation, life after death. The thin veil between this life and the next is the underlying theme of the book. Yes, it’s a book “about death,” as Parrish struggles to regain her lost spirituality, but ultimately, it’s about the fact that death is just a doorway to another reality, the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next.

Like Parrish, you were born in Japan. Like Parrish, you grew up in Mississippi during a time of great racial tension and then worked at a newspaper during the rise of the Civil Rights movement. How would you describe the process of drawing on autobiographical elements on the one hand and, on the other, trying to create a satisfying piece of fiction? 

Fiction takes off from real life like a winged creature emerges from a cocoon. “Novel” means something new. In fiction, experience, memory, and imagination merge into something new — often unexpected — with a life of its own. The writer gets to explore her interests and edges and quandaries while working hard to create an interesting tale for the reader. Hopefully, each gets something satisfying from the finished book. Reality’s just your starting point. I’m very interested in what happens when people of different races, faiths, or nationalities encounter each other and try — or not — to bridge the gap. The racism in my book is based on realities in the Mississippi of that era, but the events are all imagined. There was a “Papa-san” figure in my childhood, but the fictional “Mr. Takashima” of my Japan chapter wouldn’t recognize himself in the real man, or vice-versa; he’s become an entity in his own right, in the parallel universe where he resides.

Apart from being a novelist, you’re also a psychotherapist. How did your work in psychology or therapy help you in constructing and understanding your characters here?

Growing up in a large, eccentric family developed my understanding of people, relationships, group dynamics, loyalty and betrayal, love, anger, conflict, grief, and so forth, long before I began writing fiction or became a therapist. Reading hundreds of novels over the years helped me most in learning how to build stories and characters, along with reading books on craft, and simply listening to what stories and characters want. In writing, you tell people a story. In therapy, you receive people’s stories and help them to reshape their lives in ways that feel more authentic and fulfilling to them. In each enterprise, you have to get your ego out of the way and, rather than impose your own will, patiently attend to and assist the naturally occurring process that is trying to unfold.

— Interviewed by Art Taylor

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