Family History as Muse
Vol. 2 Issue #9
This month’s issue is dedicated to the inspirational Kathryn Holzman, a writer who looks for and finds stories everywhere: on her morning walks, in her news feed, eavesdropping in restaurants, and in her own family history.
I met Kathryn in my first writing group and was instantly impressed by her work ethic and her dedication to the craft of writing. Like me, she started writing more seriously after retirement. In just a few years she has published three novels and has almost completed her fourth!
Read on for samples from her published novels.
Kathryn says, “The excerpts below, of course, are mine, but each was inspired by the spirits of those who came before me. This is the magic of fiction, its ability to change form, talk with the dead, and wrestle with inconsistencies. As an author, I am honored to listen to the voices that came before me, and, if I am lucky, share them with you, the reader.”
We are lucky, indeed, to read the remarkable stories inspired by Kathryn’s family history. Enjoy!
The Cost of Electricity (2023)
Kathryn introduces the novel: I first discovered Lulu, the protagonist “The Cost of Electricity”, in a cardboard box maintained by the University of Oregon’s special collections. During a summer vacation/research trip, the librarian retrieved three boxes of my family history from the University’s collection in the library’s basement. One contained material about geologist Thomas Condon, my great-great-grandfather, the first State Geologist in Oregon. The second contained material on Justice Robert Sharpe Bean, my great grandfather, and the 16th Chief Justice of the Oregon Supreme Court. The third box, simply labeled “The Bean Family,” contained information about ancestors who were early students at the University.
Although I had been raised on stories about the two illustrious men above, I was not there to learn more about their well-documented lives. Instead, I was pursuing a mystery. According to family lore, my grandfather, Condon Roy Bean, had mysteriously divorced in the early 1900s. At the time of his death, we knew nothing about this marriage, not even his first wife’s name. My mother hinted at this secret but didn’t know the details. All she could tell me was that he had divorced his first wife long before marrying my grandmother.
After my father’s death, I discovered the strong willed and accomplished woman who was my grandfather’s first wife. Virginia “Lulu” Cleaver became the protagonist of my second novel, set in Oregon in the first decade of the 1900s.
In this excerpt, Lulu declares her independence, wrapping strait-laced Al around her little finger in an effort to seduce him.
“I refuse to let my family history define me,” Lulu declared. “Our parents’ lives are so public, especially here at the university. How many times have I heard that your father was a member of the first graduating class?”
Al hesitated at the corner, shielding her from the splashing mud of passing carriages. “We fought to keep the university open.” Al imitated his father, parroting the opening line of the story that Judge Bartlett recounted at every assembly.
Lulu laughed, surprised at the boy’s audacity. “I understand. They’re proud of their progress. But what does that have to do with us?”
“It’s refreshing to talk with a woman who is not afraid to voice her opinions.”
“Contrary to what my parents think, I intend to use my education to prepare for a career, not simply to latch onto a husband. I’m going to write for a real magazine one day. Women have careers as well as men, you know.”
Instead of arguing, Al nodded in agreement. “I imagine you will find a way.”
Kathryn introduces the novel: Further back in my genealogy, I discovered five generations of Baptist ministers in Nova Scotia. The first of these emigrated from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, recruited to replace Acadians who had been expelled from Nova Scotia after the French Indian wars.
In researching Nova Scotia, I discovered a fascinating, horrifying history of colonization. My ancestor, much lauded in the writings of his time, raised a large family and became a leader in his community. In my third novel, I tackle his legacy. How does one capture the “truth” of one’s origins, especially in light of damage done?
After struggling with this dilemma, I chose two voices for this novel. Lucy, the high-spirited daughter of the settler (with whom I could identify) and Meuse, a young Mi’kmaw who befriends her.
In the following excerpt, the Parker family travels to the Gasperaux River for their father’s Baptism by immersion, unaware that they are being stalked my Meuse, a Mi’kmaq bent on revenge.
Lucy: I held on to my brother William, ahead of me in the saddle, for dear life. A thick woolen blanket padded the horse’s bony back, but not nearly enough. Ahead of us, a convoy of parishioners, adults in the lead and children in the rear, followed a narrow path along the Gasperaux River as it snaked toward the Bay of Fundy, its water as red as bricks. By the time we arrived at the beach, my legs were like those of a newborn calf, my blood curdled, and my bottom surely bruised as blue as a berry. I slid off the horse, only to have my knees buckle beneath me.
“Lucy,” William said, “you clumsy girl. He offered me his hand, but the other children laughed. We were here to witness my father’s baptism, but I, his sinful daughter, had landed in the sand face-first.
Meuse: Amen. Even Meuse recognized that word. He had learned it in the French church. It often echoed in the Acadian mission his family once attended but now stood in ruins. But these people were not French. And they were not Catholic. They were New Englanders who had recently resettled in the Kespukwik Valley. They were not his friends.
Meuse stalked the men along the dirt path that paralleled the river, hiding behind the reeds, where the congregation could neither see nor hear him. Their horses pranced, mirroring their riders’ excitement. Their voices echoed through the pines, drowning out the birds’ twilight chorus. Meuse proceeded unnoticed.
Although he did not understand English, he could spot Elders when he saw them. He recognized the respect the short man wearing robes showed the taller man whom he addressed as “Parker,” and that man’s easy acceptance of the crowd’s attention. The boy concluded the congregants had gathered this day in recognition of Parker’s high status in their tribe.
Real Estate (2020)
Kathryn introduces the novel: Real Estate was inspired by my childhood in California’s Santa Clara Valley, which transformed in a very short period from an agricultural valley filled with apricot orchards to what is now known as Silicon Valley. The protagonist’s next-door neighbors are loosely modeled after my family. The older brother, a stand-in for Steve Wozniak, was inspired by my own brother, a science nerd who competed with Steve in high school science fairs.
When Air Force pilot Joe Jackson moves his family to the Santa Clara Valley during the turbulent sixties, Harriet, her father’s eyes and ears, is drawn to next door neighbor, Bobby, aspiring circus performer and math whiz.
In the following excerpt, Bobby, the future computer maven tries to fit in with the neighborhood boys.
They were waiting for a magic trick. They were asking him to be a friend.
With clammy hands, he set down Superman and walked towards the counter, convinced that his pounding heart could be heard all the way to the back of the store where Artie was filling a prescription. He looked down at the bags of M&M's; he tasted chocolate melting on his tongue, felt the crisp crunch of the sugar coating even though it was only ten o'clock in the morning, too early in the day for any good boy to be eating chocolate.
He was so tired of his mother's rules.
Looking once more to the back of the store, he grabbed the bag of candy and prepared to scurry back to the gang watching him with obvious amusement.
"Boy," a man's voice bellowed, "what do you think you are doing?"
His so-called friends ran from the store, giggling and jostling one another as they grabbed their bikes, leaving Bobby standing alone, the bag of candy in his hand.
True story. Sorry, John, for outing you.
About Kathryn Holzman
Raised in Seattle and the Santa Clara Valley of California, Kathryn Holzman left the west coast of the US seeking adventure in the Big Apple where she met her husband at a poetry reading. After attending Stanford University and NYU, she became a health care administrator and worked with public inebriates, dentists, urologists, and cardiologists. When the right side of her brain rebelled against endless databases and balance sheets, she moved to New England with her husband where they both flourished in the lush beauty of Vermont and the creative communities of Massachusetts.
Her short fiction has appeared in over twenty online literary magazines and print anthologies. She is the author of three novels, THE COST OF ELECTRICITY (2023), GRANTED (2022), and REAL ESTATE (2020), as well as two collections of short fiction, MIGRATIONS and FLATLANDERS. She received the Grand Prize in the 2020 Eyelands International Short Story Contest for The Long Lost Bottom, published by Strange Days Books in October 2020. Learn more about her work at kathrynholzman.com.
Interview with Novelist Kathryn Holzman
LC: When did you start writing and what inspired you?
KH: In fourth grade, I wrote a poem about sand dunes, and my teacher accused me of plagiarizing. I was taken aback, but a bit flattered. This was the first time I learned writing is about a lot more than inspiration.
LC: Can you describe how you grew into the identity of a writer?
KH: Being a writer has always been my secret identity. I hid it under a variety of costumes, mother, businesswoman, woman-who-longed-to-be-a-hermit. But until I retired from my day job, I was never able to give writing priority. With more time on my hands, I started polishing my short stories and was elated when a few of these were published. Then, my sister-in-law told me about Nanowrimo. Writing 50,000 words in the month of November gave me momentum. All three of my novels started as Nanowrimo manuscripts. With the support of my Amherst writing group, and the Green Mountain Writers Conference, I polished each of these over the course of several years.
I always aspired to be a writer. If you asked me as a young girl what I wanted to be when I grew up, my answer was always “an author.” When I moved to New York City in my twenties, I wrote poetry. In fact, I met my husband at a poetry reading he ran in Manhattan. Unfortunately, for many years, my career and family eclipsed my writing, though it always remained high on my “to-do” list.
Now that I have the opportunity, I let writing be my lens. I participate in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) each November and have several historical novels in the works. I have a great writing group that encourages me to continue writing my short stories.
LC: How has your writing changed over the years?
KH: During my career, I took several stabs at short stories, but in retirement I raised the bar and extended several short stories to full novels. When my first novel, Real Estate, was accepted by a small press, that dream finally came true. Sadly, Propertius Press has since closed (under a dark cloud), but I will always be grateful for that first validation.
My second novel was accepted by a hybrid press. However, after signing the contract, I realized that the fees required greatly exceeded any profit I might make. Besides, the well-known publisher still expected me to hire an editor and publicist. After some deliberation, I cancelled the contract and published both Granted and The Cost of Electricity, through my imprint, Picaflor Press. This allowed me to maintain control of the publishing process. Self-publishing allows me to focus on the joy of creation and self-expression.
One more novel, a pandemic murder mystery, is still in the works, but recently I have re-focused on the creative process itself. A lens that has always enriched my life. This summer, I’ve dabbled in sketching, amazed at how a quickly drawn line can catch the essence of a person or thing, and one errant erasure can make it disappear. It’s amazing.
LC: Who are some of your favorite poets/writers?
KH: Barbara Kingsolver, Geraldine Brooks, Jennifer Egan. I like strong women and complicated stories. Genre fiction leaves me cold.
LC: What are you reading these days?
KH: This summer I read The Great Believers (about AIDS in Chicago in the 90s). It is beautifully written and devastating. Also, The Covenant of Water, by Abraham Verghese (a multi-faceted depiction of 20th century India). I highly recommend Me Before You, by Jojo Moyes, which takes chances in a way many novels avoid. I’ve also been exploring magical realism in literature and film.
LC: What’s the best advice someone has given you about writing?
KH: I love Annie Lamott’s Bird by Bird and found Save the Cat a useful guide to outlining a book in progress. BUT, one of joys of writing AFTER my career rather than AS my career was the freedom not to follow the rules once I learned them. So, I rely on beta readers and editing apps to keep me on track, but I also let my characters take the wheel. It’s so much more fun that way.
LC: What inspires your writing?
KH: A good book. Generous people who exude compassion. Book clubs. I am an inveterate user of prompts, and a lurker (on the internet and in real life), always on the lookout for a good story. All writing starts with the author, their history, their emotions, but the best ascends to a higher plane, exploring our commonalities. As an author, I can be anyone. Why not try? In Granted, I introduced two characters, a Mi’kmaq Indian boy and a colonial child. Each spoke to me. While many of the best books I have read recently are products of the Own Voices movement, I would also like to see more dialog, an integration of what we have learned from the past with what we could be in the future.
LC: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
KH: You shouldn’t listen to “should”s. Listen to those voices in your head. Let them speak. In my current Work in Progress, the protagonist survives the pandemic by talking to the photos of women on her wall. Or maybe that is me...
LC: Do you prefer pen and paper or keyboard for drafting?
KH: Keyboard. I edit as I write and any attempts to write on paper end up illegible mazes of scratch outs and arrows.
LC: How do you know when a piece is finished?
KH: With a novel, I don’t think one ever knows. There is always room for improvement. Arbitrarily, I’ve decided that once it is published, it’s done. But whenever I read my own work, I see places it could be improved so that could change. No rules, right?
LC: How has being a writer influenced the way you see the world?
KH: I love to see things through the writer’s lens. I walk down the street and pick up the seeds for a dozen stories. I read the news and imagine how the events of the day affect certain individuals. Every person is an inspiration.
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