We have to be Honest: An Interview with Kathryn Silver-Hajo
Wolfsong (ELJ Editions 2023), Kathryn Silver-Hajo’s first full-length publication, is a gorgeous hybrid collection of flash fiction and CNF stories capturing formative moments in girls’ and women’s lives. There is pain in these stories. And longing. There are bad decisions. But there is also a remarkable fierceness in these girls and women and a deep wisdom, hard-earned. We respect these characters, we cheer them on, and we become invested in their journeys and outcomes. I had the great pleasure of speaking with Silver-Hajo about the collection, about writing (and knowing) strong women, character agency, the blurring of boundaries between fiction and CNF—and dogs. ~Diane Gottlieb
DG: You place the women in your stories in some very challenging, sometimes desperate situations, but you never paint them as victims. All your characters have agency, and they know it. How important was that to you?
KSH: It’s interesting. It certainly wasn’t conscious. I think it’s just intrinsic to my nature. I don’t believe in victimhood. I can remember situations where I was on a dark or isolated street, and I felt threatened. Instead of shying away, I would scream bloody murder or do something otherwise to make myself bigger rather than smaller. That’s who I am, so it comes through my characters as well. I didn’t want them to be victims, I wanted them to have agency. That’s very important to me.
DG: Did you have a lot of strong women in your life?
KSH: I’ve had a combination. I’ve had some very strong women in my life, and a few whom I would say were less in charge of their own destinies. That really bothered me, motivated me to be different. I do a lot of writing about family, either directly or indirectly, so some of those very strong women and even the more vulnerable ones are in there, usually finding ways to survive and thrive, to grapple with the difficulties they face.
DG: The collection is a hybrid of fiction and non-fiction stories—and you don’t tell us which is which! Do you sit down and plan to write either fiction or nonfiction? Is that choice in your brain before you put the pen to page?
KSH: Not necessarily. I think more frequently what happens is an idea or story comes to my head, something I know I want to write about. I don’t always know in the beginning if it’s going to come out as CNF or fiction.
DG: So, you’re surprised too. I imagine the distinction between fiction and non-fiction is not a critical one for you.
KSH: That’s very true. I love it when a journal has a prose category and doesn’t distinguish between the two. There’s more and more bending, or blurring of categories, more hybrid categories, and I love that.
DG: Your stories deal with some pretty serious subject matter, but I appreciate that there’s also humor in many of them. “A Changed Man,” for example, begins with this: “It was a year since Clementine had given Luke the boot. He was always crooning, ‘Oh My Darling, Oh My Darling.’ Air banjo on his knee, but he never cooked a meal, never put a dollar towards rent. So she rolled his duct-taped suitcase out the door, taking back his key.” I love that. I don’t know if younger readers among us will get the My Darling Clementine reference, but it certainly resonated with me—and made me laugh. How important is it for you to put humor in your work, and do you find it hard to pull off?
KSH: It’s very hard, for me. I love when I read humorous work, and my wonderful writing and critiquing buddy Mikki Aronoff is so good with humor. Her funny pieces always make me stop and think, “How did you do that?” So anytime I get a spark of something funny, I go with it. “A Changed Man” was written in a workshop with Meg Pokrass, and, of course, she’s really great with humor, too.
DG: Along with the touches of humor there is underlying sadness and longing in most of these pieces. “It Might Have Happened Like This,” comes to mind, a story where the narrator, a young woman tells of her 10-year-old brother’s horrific accident—and then rewrites history. Can you talk about that one a little bit?
KSH: Sure. That’s a CNF piece. My parents divorced when I was ten. That’s where some of the sadness that you sense probably comes from. My brother was from my mother’s second marriage, and the family never really fell back together as a cohesive unit after the divorce.
After my mother divorced her second husband, I was responsible for my brother when she was working. So there I was, the responsible adult, and then my brother had a serious accident. It was absolutely devastating. It was hard story for me to write, and a hard one for my brother to read.
DG: You told your brother about the story before it was published. Is that something that you do with most of the characters you write about?
KSH: No. I always try to write mindfully. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or go behind anybody’s back. On the other hand, I think as writers we have to be honest, have to be true. We have difficult stories to tell. Sometimes, my stories are straight fiction. Other times, I may take a factual element but fictionalize it, so it takes away some of the sting or stigma. And sometimes I just go for it and write straight CNF.
DG: There’s a sultriness to your writing, a sensuality, a mix of desire and danger, as in Three-Legged: “I might always have wondered how it would feel to touch your smooth chest slick with sweat in the still night, to hear your voice thrumming with want, feel your body vine around mine, fall into sleep already yearning for more.” I found myself wondering if you read a lot of poetry or write poetry?
KSH: Both. I have never formally studied poetry, but I love it. I subscribe to Rattle, which sends out a poem a day. I usually start my day by reading those. One of the things that attracts me to flash fiction is that it straddles that line between traditional prose and poetry.
DG: You write a lot about place as well. New Mexico appears in a bunch of these stories. And Lebanon. I especially loved “Snake, Taos, New Mexico,” which was nominated for Best Small Fictions, and “Banging Pots and Pans,” nominated for both a Pushcart and for Best American Food Writing. Neither of these two stories could have taken place anywhere else.
KSH: I lived in the Middle East and studied Middle Eastern history and languages. My husband’s from Lebanon, and we went back and lived there for several years after we both graduated. I have a very deep connection to the area, and my mother-in-law was one of those strong women you asked about, a very powerful woman—she’s in “Banging Pots and Pans.”
When my dad remarried, he and his second wife bought an old camper and drove out to New Mexico. They ended up settling in the mountains north of Taos and lived there until my dad died 15 years ago. So northern New Mexico is another deep influence in my life and is very dear to my heart.
DG: Kathryn, I love the title of the collection. How did you come up with Wolfsong?
KSH: So, none of the stories in the book is called Wolfsong, but you may have noticed that a number of them feature or have a dog in one guise or another. My little dog, Kaya, in spite of being cute and curly-tailed, can be quite fierce. Shiba Inu’s are hunting dogs, so she’s a huntress and can be ferocious and fearless but also extremely protective, loving, and tender, as can wolves. It struck me that this is also true of a lot of the female characters in the stories. They have all these different qualities, wolf-like qualities. Ariana Den Bleyker (the publisher) and I batted this idea around, and eventually, the concept and the name Wolfsong came together.
Diane Gottlieb, MSW, MEd, MFA is the editor of Awakenings: Stories of Body & Consciousness. Her writing appears in 2023 Best Microfiction, River Teeth, HuffPost, SmokeLong Quarterly, Hippocampus Magazine, The Rumpus, Chicago Review of Book, About Place Journal, and 100 Word Stories among many other lovely places. She is the winner of Tiferet Journal’s 2021 Writing Contest in the nonfiction category and on the 2023 Wigleaf Top 50 longlist. Diane is the Prose/CNF Editor of Emerge Literary Journal and the founder and author of WomanPause, a newsletter dedicated to lifting the voices of women over 50. You can find her at https://dianegottlieb.com and on FB, IG, and Twitter @DianeGotAuthor.
Kathryn Silver-Hajo is a 2023 Pushcart Prize, Best Small Fictions, and Best American Food Writing nominee. Her story, “The Sweet Softness of Dates” was selected for the 2023 Wigleaf Top 50 Longlist. Her work appears in Atticus Review, Bending Genres, Citron Review, CRAFT, Emerge Literary Journal, New Flash Fiction Review, Pithead Chapel, Ruby Literary, and other lovely places. Kathryn’s debut flash collection Wolfsong was published in 2023 and her debut novel, Roots of the Banyan Tree is forthcoming in the fall. She lives in Providence with her husband and curly-tailed pup, Kaya. Learn more at: kathrynsilverhajo.com; facebook.com/kathryn.silverhajo; twitter.com/KSilverHajo; and instagram.com/kathrynsilverhajo.
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