Interview: Kristin Keane
In An Encyclopedia of Bending Time (Barrelhouse, April 2022), Kristin Keane (whose fiction, “The Thin Line,” recently appeared in The Florida Review) pushes the boundaries of craft as she struggles with the loss of her mother, which she refers to as ‘disappearance’ in the narrative. Here, she implores the unanswerable question: How can we hold onto what is no longer physically there?
In a wildly unique and tender craft choice, born of her childhood memory of the World Book Encyclopedias tucked in her family home, An Encyclopedia of Bending Time is written as a hermit crab memoir with alphabetized entries—much like that of an actual encyclopedia, complete with «SEE ALSOS » at the end of each entry, suggesting the cyclical and perhaps neverending aspect of grief. Keane indicates each of these vignettes weaves in complex concepts of grief, time travel, identity, and the limits of science.
Told in reverse, and encompassing aspects of the ocean, tides, quantum mechanics, and even pop culture like Alice in Wonderland and Quantum Leap, this is a masterfully organized, deeply felt narrative held together by the tenuous strings of love, memory and consciousness.
Keane artfully employs the often tricky second person narration, in a sort of ekaphrasic encylopedic letter to her mother, allowing the reader an intimate glimpse at the mother-daughter relationship; together we witness an achingly sharp loss and confusion, transforming a personal experience into the universal.
As a writer intrigued with the concepts of grief, motherhood, and unconventional narratives, this title captured and endeared me to Keane’s work, her ingenuity, and her sense of hope.
Leslie Lindsay for The Florida Review:
An Encyclopedia of Bending Time is a stunning yet heartbreaking exploration of love and sorrow, endings and beginnings. It’s about boundaries and expression. The cover embraces all of that: a flatlay depiction of an actual encyclopedia, a rose, leaves, a moth, and octopus tentacles. Can you share a little more about those images, please? How you see them as representing the text? The symbolism, if you will.
When we explored cover ideas, we spoke about the idea of using a meta image—one with an actual encyclopedia displayed in some kind of way. Shanna Compton executed the stunning design which depicts some of the most important symbology in the text such as the octopus, the rose, the moth. Alone, they each have relevance to different aspects of the story I’m telling about my life with my mother, but together also convey some of the broader questions and concepts the text wrestles with: How can grief be contained? How can loss, a thing which feels so out of control and unbounded, realize a kind of structure? My mother loved roses and preserving flowers, artifacts representing a specific time that dry out, wither and die, yet still hold shape. The moths appeared at the window the night my mother died, unable to cut through the boundary of the screen that borders the room and the night. The octopus is a motif I return to again and again, an image I conjured in my mind long before my mother was gone; trapped in my memory and in the text in a way, but also functioning to stretch and hold together the actual and figurative past, present and future versions of us. On the cover, all of the images are reaching beyond the limits of the book, as I do, throughout the text. The images I think cohere the conceit of the story which circle around the borderlines of science, memory, divisions between the living and the dead, but also around that which cannot be restrained—love and time.
I’m fascinated and awed by linked collections, mostly because this is how humans think. An Encyclopedia of Bending Time is told in a cyclical flow-of-consciousness, and sometimes in fragmentary form. To me, this seems organic. But it also speaks to the idea of an encyclopedia, the “See Alsos.” In that sense, this becomes a sort of endless narrative. One could continually flip pages, reading every “See Also” over and over and over. Was that your intention? The idea that grief never really goes away?
One of the features I loved most about The World Book Encyclopedias I reference reading as a child in the book, were their “See also” refrents, a structure which enriches the reading and learning experience, but also makes clear just how circuitous and unending that process is. This became a handy device throughout the book to both weave entries together and serve as a call-back to material that was explicitly and implicitly linked. In this way, as you point out, it does become possible to read it in a choose-your-own-adventure fashion as a never-ending interpretation of loss. One of the reasons I selected the encyclopedic form was because of this possibility, but I’d say more as a gesture towards underscoring the effect of loss, than as an actual suggestion for consumption. The story arc flows a bit untraditionally as I play with ideas of time-inversion and the dissary of grief, so I would worry that skipping around in the entries might create a sort of further scrambling effect that would confuse story lines and also introduce the possibility of missing material since not every entry has referents at its conclusion.
Your mother loved the sea and she is represented in a beloved photograph at the end of the book. What I like about this is exactly how you describe it: the sea is always changing; it’s never the same. The waves, that sand, the rock, even the color, shifts as does time. You liken this to the concept of photography, that a photograph of an individual can capture them at that moment, and while a photograph is enduring, the tangible form shifts. Same with taxidermy, another ‘entry’ in the encyclopedia. Can you expand on those concepts, please?
As I decended into an obsession with time, it became clear I had spent so much of my life observing my mother’s own preoccupation with it. Her interest in science fiction, time travel, taxidermy, and the afterlife all became entries in the book because they connect me very really to her as well as the process of trying to reach her again. Yes, I conjure the sand, sea, color—things that can shift with time, just as my experience with loss will. But I also conjure artifacts which are time-defying: photographs, taxidermy. It’s very interesting to me how we’ve engineered ways to paralyze and freeze these things which transform in ways that are so very out of our hands. The sea changes but you can preserve it a certain way, at a certain moment in time. The same is true for encyclopedias. The image of her we used in the interior back cover, another gift the Barrelhouse design team conjured, in some ways is the central image of the text for this reason. I write about how much this picture means to me, but also how very hard it is for me to look at. In some ways that is a central concern of the book: observing even when it can be so hard to. I wanted to break time—I still do. I’ve tried to look at these artifacts in the same way she does at the sea in that photograph, to make sense of the impossible reality that she is not here anymore.
In terms of the second-person POV, which I happen to love, but some may find disorienting, ‘tricky’ or a ‘bold choice;’ I found refreshing. It speaks to the idea that we don’t really know what we’re writing about until we write it, that experimenting with this form is a way to determine where we’re headed. You artfully take that POV and shift the structure even more: an encyclopedic letter to your mother. You mention about ‘writing [your mother] into you,’ as a way to observe, to pay attention. In a sense, that’s what text is—a weaving, as in textiles. Can you share a bit about your craft decisions?
My original intention with this project was a purely personal one: to write my mother letters before she left this dimension. I had collected ideas on little post-it notes in the period before she became really sick, one being ‘encyclopedias’ as they’d been such a central text and artifact of my early life with her. She died before that project had the chance to realize itself, and when I returned to the notes, I began thinking about the possibility of attempting to write to her as a means for understanding what had taken place instead. So, I considered that post-it in another way: an encyclopedia had personal meaning, was structure-laiden, and fit the criteria of attempting a communication with the dead (e.g. explaining concepts to someone who might no longer understand them). It seemed like a vessel full of craft possibilities. Like you, I think second-person at times can be tricky to execute effectively, but certainly because of this project’s origins, choosing any other perspective would have resulted in an emotionally flattening effect. One of the central conceits of the book is pushing against the limitations of science, knowledge, and intra-dimensional boundaries—all of which in my view meant I needed to hold her very close in order to interrogate the questions I put forward. I made the decision then, to address the possibility of her directly, by speaking to a disappeared version of her. I think writing in first or third person would have erased and diluted the intimacy that second person created.
One of the themes that emerges is your struggle to understand time and what reality is now that your mother has “disappeared.” You explore quantum theories and other ways to study to the mind to dip into this realm. An alternative Kristin Keane emerges, Alice in Wonderland comes along, so does Scott Bakula as Dr. Sam Beckett from the television series Quantum Leap, but also Freud and Barthes, among others. Did you find these constructs helpful as you pushed through the pain of grief? What did you learn about yourself in the process?
I had so many questions after my mother died and turning to thinkers and artifacts I’d been long preoccupied with brought comfort. I discovered the memory of objects and images from my early childhood and adolecence could be suddenly interrogated in new ways, carrying different meaning in her absence. The same was true in the case of some of the thinkers and works I bring forward as they too became imbued new significance, helping me to fortifiy my questions and also provide lanes for my examinations. In the case of Quantum Leap, for example, where before I saw only a story of time travel, was so clearly a tale of grief. With Alice, I became more drawn towards the focus on her bent reality, and the story’s preoccupation with limitations. These were interesting and meaningful exercises. I’ve been asked many times if I found the process of writing the book to be healing. Grief is as unique as fingerprints, and for me personally, the answer to that question is very firmly, no. My current belief is that I won’t be healed from this experience, something I learned in wrestling with myself on the page. I sometimes get the feeling that response might seem frightening, but that answer is the result of a lot of mental work I’m grateful for. It turned out I was in some cases, not asking the right things. How will I get over this ? became, How can I learn to exist in a space where there will always be a shape of emptiness ? In writing, I moved from wondering when the sorrow would lift, to understanding it wouldn’t. I know how sad that sounds, but I see this as a silver-lining as the state of understanding for me in this case, feels much more relieving than sitting in wonder. Alice, Scott Bakula’s Dr. Sam Beckett, Mourning Diary—and others—helped me make sense of myself and my experience. At a craft level, it became intriguing to me to encounter, question, and process them on the page. This book is as much about my experience with loss as it is about observing it. In a way, that feels more important and retaining tp me as a person, than searching for a space in the continuum where I am divided from my mother, but totally healed. At least, that’s where my thinking resides at in the present moment.
I want to end on the concepts of hope and love, how maybe these are the great connectors—that our love is the strings that bind, keep us tethered in this cosmic twist of fate. What can we learn about beautiful endings ?
I love this question so much—not what can we learn from them, but about them. In some ways, this question starts with sensibility as I think of beauty relating somewhat to satisfaction, which might be counter to other’s relationships to this word. This also depends on one’s conception of endings! This might mean ‘tidy’ or ‘complicated’ or something in between, depending on one’s preference for resolution. As a reader or viewer, I usually don’t need to be relieved of worry to find something beautiful at its conclusion, but in the experience of losing my mother, worry and questions were all I found in her death. I knew in embarking on this project that the ending couldn’t be neat because that quailty was so entirely untrue to my lived experience. My mother talked often about hope when she was sick, and we spent a lot of time dreaming that each new intervention would work to somehow change the anticipated outcome. All of my hope centered on her staying alive, which meant I suppose, that when she died that state dissolved. I could never have guessed how much I’d continue to cling to that word in the wake of her death, how I would come to desperately hope we’re wrong about the life/death continuum. That’s what this story became about for me: that there is not an end, that I hope for our dimensions to somehow dissolve to cease the missing. It’s pushed me to think differently about the possibility of upending what a conclusion even means. That possibility is very beautiful to me.
Keane is the author of the novella Luminaries (Omnidawn, 2021). Her work has appeared in The Normal School, The New England Review, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a doctoral fellow at Stanford University where she researches the teaching and learning of literacy.