In Conversation with T Kira Madden
by Vanessa Friedman
T Kira Madden is a lesbian APIA writer, photographer, and amateur magician. She is the founding Editor-in-Chief of No Tokens, and facilitates writing workshops for homeless and formerly incarcerated individuals. A 2017 NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in non-fiction literature, she is the author of the memoir Long Live The Tribe of Fatherless Girls.
T Kira graduated from Sarah Lawrence College with an MFA in fiction in 2012, and returned in 2018 to teach a non-fiction craft class. Vanessa Friedman took this class and promptly fell in love with the dreamy reading list T Kira curated and the generous, thoughtful, inclusive way T Kira taught the craft of writing.
Vanessa reviewed Long Live The Tribe of Fatherless Girls for Autostraddle, and sat down with T Kira to talk about her writing and publishing process, how she landed on the title of the book, and the benefits of community for LUMINA Journal.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Vanessa Friedman: Congratulations on your first book!
T Kira Madden: Thank you!
VF: What is the most exciting part of knowing that your book is now out in the world, in readers’ hands?
TKM: I always go back to the first time I met with my now-agent, Jin Auh. She was the only person [I met] who didn't focus on the business side of things and instead said, “I think this book could really help kids in your situation.” In that moment, I knew she was the right agent for me because that really was my central focus when I was working on Long Live The Tribe of Fatherless Girls. Because it wasn't a fun book to write. But when I thought about it in terms of creating the literature I wish I’d had [growing up], then it became worth it, just to open up that dialogue and conversation and let kids—or anyone—know that addiction is not an exception. Addiction is something that's everywhere, there are real humans behind addiction, and it's not something that needs to be shrouded in shame. So, it’s exciting for me, being able to stand behind that.
VF: You graduated from Sarah Lawrence with an MFA in fiction. Have you always written across genres? What inspired you to write non-fiction for your first book?
TKM: It might sound a little “woo,” but non-fiction really found me. My focus had always been fiction. It wasn't until after my father died, and I went to a residency to work on my novel, that he started appearing in my fiction—characters like him, dialogue like his, and stories and questions I hadn't really worked out. Because I was away and alone at this residency, I decided to go with it in a way I might not have if I were at home. I just explored that, and by the time I left [the residency], after working out so many of these questions and memories which I thought was just journaling, I had almost 100 pages of non-fiction. It was kind of accidental that an agent picked up those hundred pages before my novel.
VF: Now that you've written a memoir, are you going to be doing more genre-bending? Or are you excited to go back to fiction? Or both?
TKM: I'm really excited to go back to fiction, and just to be working that part of my brain, which feels very different. But I do think I'll keep writing non-fiction and who knows what else. I have no gift in poetry writing, I know that, but maybe I don't want to count anything out the way I used to. Now I realize that across genres we're all doing the same job.
VF: Can you talk a little bit about the journey of the book, from creation to publishing, and what that trajectory looked like?
TKM: Sure. I left the residency with those hundred pages...and I sent them to an agent who had scouted me for years, who wanted my novel. And she rejected me, and it broke my heart. She said, “You know, this memoir, whatever this is, is not for me, I don't stand by it, I can't support it. But I do think it's a book. And I do think you should pursue it and find the right person for it.” And I hadn't really known if it was a book yet—it was just pages that I was showing her. I didn’t know what it was yet.
Then I met my agent, Jin Auh. And she saw the vision and the color of it, and talked to me about what she saw for it and where she thought it could be placed. She encouraged me to double or triple it in length, and worked with me through big gaps that were there. Also, she felt it was a memoir, not a collection of essays. She encouraged me to look at the order of things and find the threads, find where things could be expanded upon, or where things could fill in the gaps to make a more cohesive story. I really credit her for helping me for about a year to develop it into a much longer piece.
Then I sold it to Bloomsbury and my excellent editor Callie Garnett, who is a total weirdo like me. She's the perfect editor for me—she encouraged me to lean into the experimental, to write more fragmented pieces, to write short pieces and long pieces. We just threw a bunch of pages at the wall and tried to see what made a more compelling story. There are hundreds of pages that didn't make it.
Then I signed the book. And it's coming out two years later, after I signed. I've been editing the book in real time as things have happened in my life. The whole third section was not there when I sold the book, and then I wrote the ending, and things kept changing. So, it's been a living thing until a month ago, when it went to print.
VF: In class last semester you mentioned that initially the book had a different title. If you're willing to share, I'm curious what that was and why it changed?
TKM: It was originally The Rat's Mouth, which is Boca Raton, and I just thought that was a really perfect title for it. That it's this gritty, off-translation of such a vain and glitzy city felt perfect to me. But apparently it's a nightmare marketing something called The Rat's Mouth. Also, my editor Callie felt it was almost like a punchline that closed and didn't open, which I really appreciated. Then I fought for the title Tell The Women I'm Lonely, which is the title of the third section now. But everyone felt it skewed a little sad and a little negative, and they wanted something a little more triumphant for such a dark book. I fought against the title until the very end, but now I feel that they made the right choice because Long Live The Tribe of Fatherless Girls seems to be resonating with a lot of people. And it does feel triumphant, in a way, and less defeated. That's the title journey.
VF: Can you speak a bit about “telling the truth” in a memoir? How do we as writers grapple with the truth in non-fiction, and in all writing?
TKM: Yes. I think it's important to talk about because, you know, you have worst-case scenarios like James Frey being called out on national television by Oprah herself for not being honest. And though I agree with that, I feel like you don't hear about what happened behind the scenes with his marketing team and his publishers. I don't claim to know [what happened with James Frey], but I can tell you that there is a whole business side of it, and authors that don't know when or how to stand their ground on certain things can easily be swayed in different directions by being told, “You know, no memoir is true, it doesn't matter, it has to be marketed this way.” And as anyone who's been through grad school knows, there are no real classes or guides on how to navigate that system. If I didn't have friends to talk to about that, I wouldn't have known how to navigate so much of the business aspect.
That being said...truth is weird. With non-fiction, I'm definitely a believer that once the idea or the memory is rendered on the page, it is no longer true, it becomes the truth or reality of the reader, of the dialogue between writer and reader, because you're changing the purity of that memory—you’re crafting it. And that's what's amazing about writing. But I don't buy the whole Hemingway, you know, sit down and bleed into your typewriter and spill everything, and that’s the book. That's not the book. With fiction or non-fiction or anything, you're compressing, you're cutting people out, you can't have every character of your life in a book, you can't have every event, you can't possibly remember dialogue that we had 20 minutes ago, nevermind 20 years ago. The moment you start writing something, it becomes imagined to the best of your ability, and that's relative. When we have these conversations about things you have to change for legal reasons, that doesn't make it less true, as long as you're still telling the story to the best of your ability. That doesn't make it phony. It doesn't make it fiction. It's protecting the person.
VF: How did you navigate the process of writing the story the way you wanted to tell it, while also balancing the business and legal sides of the publication process? Was anything surprising to you?
TKM: I recommend to always write the thing as true as you can at first, without worrying about how it will be marketed, to whom it will be marketed, how you might have to change facts or protect certain people, because that will come later. And that is the part of the process where the book no longer feels like that living document that's yours. It's slowly becoming somebody else's, it's becoming your editors’, and then your legal team’s, and the publishers’, and then it will become readers’ and consumers’. And it happens slowly. So, it's important, I think, to preserve that first part, when it's just you writing the story to the best of your abilities. It's a really different skill set, to go in once you begin sharing, to edit, to cut people out, to make it cleaner, to protect people's identities, to build composite characters if there are too many characters...but that's a different job. That's the job of revision. And that's a collaborative job. It's good, I think, to have the truest starting point that you can, before you begin editing.
The legal process was kind of surprising to me—if I didn't want to be in touch with someone for permission, then I had to change any identifying qualities about them. Different laws in different states require different changes to be made, and different numbers of changes to be made. That was all really difficult. And then you start realizing you can only use two lines of someone else's work, like music, literature, epigraph, and you pay for those rights. The author always pays for the rights, not the publisher. You have to get permission, you have to pay for it...But again, first do it the way you want to do it without thinking about any of that, and then work it out to the best of your abilities through editing.
VF: I would love to talk about your work with No Tokens, your work with the Right to Write program, and the work you now do to facilitate writing workshops for homeless and formerly incarcerated individuals.
TKM: Sure. I think my work with No Tokens and my work with marginalized, incarcerated homeless people is all in conversation.
No Tokens was originally built from the community I formed at Sarah Lawrence, with the intention of raising the bar in publishing and giving voice and platform to people who don’t seem to be published widely. We started No Tokens, I think, the year the first VIDA pie charts came out. And we didn't know much about publishing, but we saw those charts, we went to AWP, and we saw how all the tables there looked the same, with the same editors publishing the same names. And I thought, “Why does it have to be this way?” So, we started our own journal for writers and people like us, to elevate those voices.
My work is always, I hope, in service of raising other voices who have been told that they didn't have a voice, or that there was no place for them. At first I went into Right to Write as a very young grad student thinking I was going to be teaching. And yes, one could call it teaching. But I soon realized that I wasn't teaching, I was facilitating—they already were all natural storytellers. It was just about helping them harness what those stories were and crafting them, and telling them, “Your story is valid. What you're saying is valid. And here's a channel for it.” It was just about saying “this is important” to people who have been told their whole lives, in some cases, that nothing they have to say has been important. And that's still all I care about.
VF: What does your writing practice look like? How do you make purposeful space for your writing?
TKM: It's really difficult. I think writers who work with regulation and certain hours are doing it right. I don't. I always say I'm a sprinter, not a jogger. Like, I don't do a little bit every day, I'll have a day, even if that's once a month or once a week, and just do it all, and I'll just sprint through it.
I'm lucky enough to have been able to go to residencies, and that's definitely sprinting time...I have nothing else to do or think about, no Internet, all I do is write. Outside of residencies, or little residencies I make for myself, I spend time at home mostly heavily revising and editing, because the fresh work usually comes when I'm detached from my everyday responsibilities and jobs.
I have a great team on No Tokens, and I can leave certain things to them for the month or the two months that I'm away [at residencies]. I'm so lucky to have that. I'm lucky to have a mother-in-law who's in Upstate New York and my mom, who is on Long Island. I always have a place to go and make that separation.
I don't think I'm a spiritual person, but I have to be really spiritual about my work. I'm in the process of taking everything out and off of my desk and rebuilding it for a new project because when I write I have to have like—this lava lamp, [which] was my companion through this book, and I just bought a new lamp for my next book, and I have my amber candle on that table, which is my writing candle. And I only light it when I'm writing, and the smell tells me it's time to work. I have certain ritualistic things that tell me this is a sacred time to do my work. I'm making the decision to do my work. Whereas if I'm in bed, I can play with a sentence and then get on email, and then get on Twitter. But when I have my desk set up—I had one typewriter that I used for this whole book, and I'm getting a new typewriter for my next book—the whole thing will feel sacred in that way that I have to honor the space I've made, like the mood I'm trying to create for a book. Does that makes sense?
VF: It does. Do you take your typewriter to residencies?
TKM: Always. I couldn't take my typewriter, a big electric typewriter, to Hedgebrook—it’s on an island. So I ordered the same exact model to be shipped there. It was really, really cheap on eBay. But it came broken, and so I couldn't use it. I tried to do a lot of handwriting and computer writing, but it really just wasn't the same. I could only do really short, fragmented pieces there. I couldn't really get into a chapter. I didn't write anything long there. Every little fragment in the book was from that residency, and everything longer was with my typewriter.
VF: When I think about your book, I think about how it is such an interesting narrative shape—the story as a whole and the individual essays are all crafted so carefully. Do you go into the writing process knowing what shape you want each piece to look like? Does it take shape as you write? Or is it something that fully happens in revision for you?
TKM: That's a really good question. I think when I'm working on a smaller scale, with stories or essays, often I know the shape right away. With “The Feels of Love,” I knew immediately as I was living it, and writing it, that it was going to go back and forth between the past and present. I was going to try to create friction between those two different timelines and that they would somehow converge. With other essays or stories, I know where they have to go and therefore how to get there.
But with the book, I can't even take credit for it. I just had a bunch of pages. And then other readers, an agent, an editor, would give me ideas of how to organize it. I think Lidia [Yuknavitch] said that about Chronology of Water too; that when she found her agent, she just had all this material on the floor. And then that agent literally put one piece next to another, and they just found the best order.
I tried different shapes [for this book]. And with the novel I've been working on, I still don't know what it looks like. I know the story and the characters, and story isn't usually what comes first, but it did with this book. But I still have to figure out the shape and what it looks like. And it's going to be—it already has been—years of trial and error to figure that out.
VF: The revising part of writing is very hard for me, so I'm always curious to hear what other people do.
TKM: It's so hard! I need other people to read it. That's the answer. I need my readers, I need my writing group, you know? It's romantic to think no one else could solve your problems, that you as the artist have to come up with the lightning bolt moment and know what to do next. But in my reality with my writing group, even when we're writing in different genres, different stories, we very often solve each other's plot problems. We'll say, this person needs to get here, or this person needs to fuck this person, and then it clicks. It's not like we're doing the work for the other person...but sometimes you need other people to say, like, the tension drops at page five, try this. We solve so many problems that way.
VF: Who are some of your favorite writers?
TKM: Heather Lewis, Lynda Barry, Grace Paley, Julio Cortazar, Kenzaburo Oe, Jaquira Diaz, Annie Proulx, the prose of Elizabeth Bishop, Lidia Yuknavitch, Elizabeth Hardwick, Alice Sola Kim, Joy Williams, Beth Nugent, Melanie Rae Thon, Kristen Arnett, Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, Jayne Anne Phillips, James Salter, Yasunari Kawabata, the Poet Ai, Frank O'Hara, Christopher Isherwood, Jamaica Kincaid, and Mary Gaitskill are probably the authors I return to the most.
VF: Are there any specific books you're super excited about that are coming out this year?
TKM: Kimberly King Parsons has a book of short stories coming out this year called Black Light. A lot of the stories are really queer, and she's engaging with language and lyricism in a way that, I feel, has been dropped with short stories, or out of fashion in certain ways—people are really leaning towards subtlety and minimalism. And she's kind of similar to Jenny Zhang—really interested in maximal language—and I love that about her book.
VF: To conclude, what words of wisdom would you share with other writers about being a literary citizen and leading a writer's life?
TKM: Like I said, I think it’s a romantic idea that to write, and to be an artist, one must be alone, or a loner, or sad. But in reality, I think it is so much about community and generosity. And I know when I was at school, at Sarah Lawrence, certain people were just in it for themselves. It always seems like there are certain writers who are in it for themselves, and other writers who are in it to bring other people in their community with them. I feel the thing I've learned the most is to be engaged with the community when you can, when people ask you for things, unless you have a real reason not to. And that everybody has had doors opened for them—most people have—and it's our job to open the same doors for other people when we can. We can't always, but if we're asked for recommendation letters or to read a friend's manuscript and offer edits...someone's probably done that for you. And you need to do that for other people. And those people will then show up for you. Because it's a lonely business, it's tough, but the community is pretty small. Be generous and support people in the ways you hope you will be supported as an artist because it's very difficult. And most of us are doing our best. It's not a competition. Truly.
Vanessa Friedman is a queer feminist Jewitch writer, editor, and photographer currently based in New York. She’s the community editor at Autostraddle and an MFA creative non-fiction candidate at Sarah Lawrence College. She writes about queer friendship, home, nature, and the body. You can also find her on Twitter and Instagram.