“I Sound Like a Crazy Writer”: An Interview with Dasha Kelly

Article by ben

by Benjamin Rybeck

Allow me to begin with a ridiculous generalization—one that, if pressed, I’m sure I wouldn’t even agree with: when poets write novels, language interests them more than character. Ready to throw something at me, poets-turned-novelists of the world? Consider some recent examples like Ben Lerner’s 10:04 or Dan Beachy-Quick’s An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky; I remember little about the novels’ characters, but much about the authors’ language.

Not so with ALMOST CRIMSON, Dasha Kelly’s first novel, which focuses on a young girl named CeCe at various points in her life, following her from her first day of school to her entrance in the working world, all the time struggling with her single mother’s depression and volatility. They language here is pointed—the sentences are bejeweled darts, and when they break your skin, you can only marvel at how lovely they are, even as you bleed. Added to that, the chapters are short, sequenced out of chronological order, never developing a “plot” per se. A poet’s novel? Absolutely. Yet CeCe is one of the most specific and complicated characters I’ve encountered in modern fiction.

“I’m wicked to my characters,” Kelly tells me on the phone, which surprises me, given the novel’s sensitivity—even toward a flawed character like CeCe’s mother. In writing this book, Kelly didn’t initially want to like the mother—didn’t want to like some of the novel’s other wicked characters. This helped her to check her own sentimentality—to make sure the novel stayed tough. She mentions Serial, Sarah Koenig’s mega-hit podcast that scrutinized a decade-old murder mystery. “What I liked about it,” Kelly says, “was that [Koenig] was very transparent in sharing that, okay, she knows how to ask a question [as a journalist] and parse out the information, but she’s still a human being, and she still has a bias.”

On the phone, Kelly’s voice has the sonorous force of a spoken word poet, which is just what she is, promising that her bookstore appearances for ALMOST CRIMSON (like her appearance at Brazos Bookstore on Thursday, June 25) will be more performances than readings. Yet she’s also self-deprecating about herself as a writer, and when I ask her questions about process and craft, she speaks about how she needs to “visualize the space” of the book, “like a movie reel that I see”—but then, she pauses. “I sound like a crazy writer,” she says.

Not at all, of course—and ALMOST CRIMSON demonstrates extraordinary discipline, especially in the piecing together of its short chapters. “It was like soduko,” she says of stitching together the novel’s non-chronological structure. “First, I had to put it all in order, so there was a patch of time where I had an actual timeline.” She considered structuring the novel according to that timeline, but ultimately didn’t feel like that was the point. “I had to consider how [CeCe] came to me,” Kelly says—unfocused, out of order, with the author examining and reexamining her character as she filled in her history, only eventually reaching understanding. “I wanted the reader to meet [CeCe] the same way,” Kelly says, “and peel her back [like I did] toward empathy.”

As a result, ALMOST CRIMSON is a challenging but rewarding read—pretty much the ideal novel for an independent publisher to take a chance on. In this case, it was Chicago-based Curbside Splendor. Kelly knew little about them when a friend, the poet Quraysh Ali Lansana, told her about the press. What an odd name, Kelly thought. But then, she prepared herself emotionally to share her draft with strangers: “Whatever your journey or craft—[whether you’re] a dentist, or a soccer mom, or trying to take over the world—you have benchmarks you want to hit.” Publishing a novel was one of Kelly’s benchmarks, so she felt the pressure as she slipped her sample chapters into the mailbox. But she chose to be “tenacious about the journey.” (“Cue the Disney music,” she laughs, demonstrating her usual self-deprecation.)

Catherine Eves, Curbside Splendor’s managing editor, felt drawn to ALMOST CRIMSON easily. What was it? “Its focus on mental health,” Eves tells me. “At some of her events, [Kelly] has discussions surrounding mental health issues, focusing on removing the stigma. [Mental illness] isn’t seen like a disease, like it should be.” In the wake of yet another awful mass shooting, as members of the press poke at the notion of mental illness like toddlers examining a dead pigeon with a stick, this degree of empathy and understanding seems especially important.

Curbside Splendor focuses on “publishing diverse Chicago voices,” Eves tells me, though their purview seems to extend beyond that, looking across the Midwest for exciting new authors. Even so, Eves says, “We make a point to work with authors who are as passionate as we are about the Chicago literary scene.” And what is that literary scene? “New York is supposed to be where indie publishing is,” Eves says, “but Chicago is growing.” She paints a portrait of a scene where, “if you’re a Chicago author, you’ll have a big support group.” Curbside Splendor works with both 826 National (Dave Eggers’ nonprofit) and local bars, and participates in Book Fort, “an amalgamation of Chicago presses,” Eves says, which sets up shop at the Pitchfork Music Festival.

Curbside Splendor approaches its authors’ careers a bit like a band manager: “organizing really expensive nationwide tours,” Eves jokes, and trying to get their people on the road. With her background as a spoken word poet, Dasha Kelly is ideal for this. Eves calls her “a natural storyteller,” with “a great stage presence. She has built her career on these in-store appearances.”

Kelly herself acknowledges that her experience with spoken word poetry makes her “a different reader”—especially at a bookstore event. “The way I write poetry is how I approach prose,” she tells me—and so, here’s a novel by a poet that cares about all the concerns of any novelist ever. After all, what does genre matter? Good writing is good writing, isn’t it? And whether writing poetry or fiction, Kelly’s voice will linger in your ears.

Almost Crimson Cover Image
ISBN: 9781940430485
Availability: Unlikely to Be Available
Published: Curbside Splendor Publishing - May 26th, 2015

Dasha Kelly signs ALMOST CRIMSON on Thursday, June 25 at 7pm.

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