Madison's literati know Dale Kushner as a poet. That's why it's so surprising she chose fiction for her big national debut. Grand Central Publishing - part of Hachette Book Group, home of notable authors such as Kate Atkinson and David Sedaris - will release her first novel, The Conditions of Love, on May 14. To kick off her national tour, she'll read at A Room of One's Own on Sunday, May 19.
The publisher is giving the book a big push, which is a rarity in this era of shrinking publicity budgets. Kushner has a full-time publicist to coordinate interviews and public appearances. And she's heading to New York after events in Madison and Milwaukee.
Originally from New Jersey, Kushner has lived in Madison since her undergraduate days at the UW in the 1970s. She's published many poems in prestigious journals like Prairie Schooner and Witness, and she founded the Writer's Place, a center for writers she operated on State Street in the 1980s and '90s.
Kushner opened the Writer's Place partly because she needed a place to work and find camaraderie. It was also a way to support other writers in Madison. The center hosted lectures, classes, brown-bag discussions and author visits before closing in the late '90s, in part due to Canterbury Books and Borders, which offered readings and writing groups as well as coffee and scones. Ultimately, Canterbury and Borders were decimated by Amazon and the consolidation of the publishing industry.
Kushner says institutional support is lacking for local writers, but that hasn't kept her from chasing her literary goals. She worked on The Conditions of Love intensely for five or six years but began it even earlier.
"In the beginning, it seemed I was listening in to a conversation between a mother and daughter. I didn't know who they were, but their voices were captivating, so I began to write down what they said," she explains. "Gradually, their story emerged, as did the other characters in the book."
Unlike many novelists, Kushner doesn't write from an outline. Instead, "fragments lead to other fragments." Kushner describes the process as "iterative and associative."
In place of her peers at the Writer's Place, Kushner worked with a local writing group, which provided much-needed support and inspiration.
"I was a poet, and I had to teach myself the craft of fiction," she says. "But there are no rules. I was just guided by my love of language."
Kushner sees her transition from poet to novelist as a natural progression.
"I needed a bigger canvas, and writing fiction uses different parts of the brain than poetry does," she says.
Building a myth
The Conditions of Love has a magical quality. Kushner describes it as a fable. Yet this coming-of-age story about a teen girl, Eunice, and her search for love doesn't seem like a fable at first. There are no anthropomorphic animals, no obvious moral lessons. But a careful reading reveals how Kushner uses elements of fable and myth to cast a spell on her readers, taking them to a place that both is and is not the rural Midwest of the 1950s.
When the book opens, Eunice lives with her mother, Mern, a hairdresser. It's obvious that Mern isn't up to the task of mothering Eunice; she's not very good at taking care of herself. They soon move to Wisconsin, where a flood carries Eunice away. She is rescued by Rose, who lives alone in a cabin in the forest. This woman proves to be a far better mother than Mern was. Eunice also meets a mysterious man named Fox. They explore passionate love, and she rescues him from a horrific accident.
The book's elemental events (flood, fire, pain) and archetypal characters (mother, child, hero) add to the mythic impression and tie in with Kushner's interest in Jungian psychology. The book also explores the theme of creativity. Both Eunice and Fox are artists. They use drawing to process their sorrow and connect to one another.
Early reviews have been extremely positive. Publishing industry powerhouse Kirkus Reviews says Kushner is "remarkably poised for a first-time novelist" and called The Conditions of Love "a fine exploration of growing up, weathering heartbreak and picking oneself up over and over."
From solitude to social marketing
When Kushner finished writing the novel, she embarked on a path many new novelists dread: finding a publisher, or rather, finding an agent to connect you with a publisher. She says it took a while to find an agent, but when she did, she sold the manuscript quickly.
"I feel enormously lucky," she says.
Kushner is lucky. The influence of traditional publishers has waned in recent years. Authors have had to pick up the slack themselves, often through social media campaigns and self-funded book tours. For example, Emma Straub, a first-time novelist and UW alum who spoke at the Wisconsin Book Festival last year, took a leave of absence from her job at a New York City bookstore to travel the country and publicize her book. She solicits reviews and interviews over the Internet and blogs about her interests and activities.
Kushner recoils at the idea of promoting herself this much, and this publicly. It's difficult to imagine her being chatty on the Internet; it's neither her generation nor her personal style.
In fact, Kushner's approach to connecting with her readers is decidedly old school. Not a fan of social media, she prefers to talk to readers in person; that one reason she's looking forward to her book tour. She seems skeptical that Facebook and Twitter are really useful tools for writers.
Kushner isn't afraid of technology, but she wants to use it for face-to-face interaction. She's especially eager to use Skype to talk to book clubs, a trend that's gaining popularity among authors.
Courage and creativity
It's clear that Kushner spends a lot of time thinking about writing and the creative process. Tiny and elegant, she exudes wisdom as we drink our coffee at EVP on Mineral Point Road. We talk about her fiction and poetry, her interest in Carl Jung, and her search for a creative life.
Throughout our conversation, I am charmed and disarmed by her warmth and openness. I find myself talking too much about my own creative pursuits, but it's hard to resist: Kushner invites confidences and listens well. Perhaps it's all fodder for her next project, a nonfiction book about living a life where creativity is central, about "discovering and giving expression to our deepest dreams and desires."
On her blog, Kushner writes that artists and writers aren't the only people who can live a creative life. The key, she says, is "to identify and embrace the core passions that give meaning to our existence."
In addition to being a writer and poet, Kushner is a faculty member at Vermont's Assisi Institute, a school devoted to the study of Jungian personality archetypes. She describes creativity as a kind of "seventh instinct." In Jungian psychology, an instinct is an involuntary drive toward certain activities. Kushner feels compelled to explore her own creativity and to help others find their creative path. So she spends several weeks each summer leading the institute's seminars on - you guessed it - creativity.
Kushner relates a recent experience that helped her harness her creativity and courage. When she was bogged down by a draft of the novel, she signed up for an immense physical challenge: scaling a 40-foot climbing tower. Her daughter Jessica, who was biking across the country to raise money for Outward Bound, helped set it up.
"I hadn't planned on climbing it," Kushner admits, "but somehow, once there, I wanted to try, too. I'm terrified of heights but had to do it."
Kushner says she was fearless until the last few inches of the climb. Then she froze. Ultimately, some loud coaching helped her finish "exuberantly."
"That's the point of tower climbing," she explains. "If we take the risk, we uncover courage we didn't know we possessed. And so it is with writing."