A penetrating and powerful novel about the deep undercurrents of love and regret in one Midwestern family.
An Interview with Kate Southwood
You grew up in the Midwest, but not Iowa. What drew you to Iowa as the location for Evensong?
I grew up in Chicago, but I’ve always had family in Iowa, and I spent a lot of time there as a child. My mother grew up in a small city on the Mississippi River, an absolutely gorgeous area with bluffs and bridges and long green islands in the middle of the river. Evensong is very loosely based on my mother’s family, and so it was logical to set the story in Iowa.
Why did you choose to title your book Evensong?
Evensong is the Anglican evening prayer service that marks the end of the day. I thought that suited my novel, which tells the story of a woman looking back on her life from the perspective of old age.
Evensong is an intensely introspective narrative. Did your position as an American, writing a book from Oslo, Norway, influence your main character’s sense of isolation?
It certainly seems possible, and even likely, although there’s no control for that—no “second me” writing somewhere in the States to compare to. The answer needs to be both yes and no, I think. I suspect my living abroad has made me more introspective in that I am isolated in Norway in the way that most foreigners abroad live in a perpetual bubble, but my chief traits as a writer—that tendency toward introspection, my fascination with the psychology of my characters—have always been there, since I was a child.
Your story is told from the perspective of a strong matriarch, and yet you dedicate the book to your father. Why?
You could say that the novel is a love letter to my grandmother, on whom my narrator is loosely based. I could have dedicated the book to her memory, but I wanted to dedicate it to someone still living, and the obvious choice was my father, who was my first and best teacher of writing.
Evensong has been compared to Housekeeping and Olive Kitteridge. Did you knowingly take any cues from Marilynne Robinson or Elizabeth Strout? Who are the female writers who have influenced you most deeply?
I was thrilled to hear my work compared to Robinson’s and Strout’s, and their work has functioned as a master class for me as a writer. I’ve also learned a great deal from reading Jane Smiley and Anne Enright, and recently I’ve been devouring the work of Pat Barker, Helen Dunmore, and Kate Atkinson, who are all British.
Within the first two pages, the story jumps from the bed of two young lovers to a hospital bed. What roles do both creation and loss play in your book?
This novel began life as a short story over twenty years ago, and since then, while I’ve been revising and gutting and rewriting this novel, I became a wife and mother, and I buried a good number of my older relatives, including my own mother. Twenty years ago, I simply did not know things about life and death that I have now learned. Creation and loss are paramount in this book because they are always there together in life, every day, all around us. And you might say that the leap from the honeymoon bed to the hospital bed in those first two pages says something about how little time we have on earth and how that time seems to telescope as we get older.
The holidays are a time when family dramas often play out. Does the book’s plot hinge on everyone gathering at Christmas time?
It needed to be a major holiday—either Thanksgiving or Christmas—when people reliably gather to be with their families. It could have been either, but I preferred Christmas because it comes close to the end of the year and is a time to reflect, remember, and take stock, just as my narrator, Margaret, is reflecting and looking back at her long life.
About Kate Southwood
Kate Southwood is the author of Falling to Earth. Her articles and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Huffington Post, among others. She lives in Oslo, Norway.
Books by Kate Southwood
A penetrating and powerful novel about the deep undercurrents of love and regret in one Midwestern family.More