How to Live: A Conversation with Kelle Groom— curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Kristina Marie Darling:  Your gorgeous memoir-in-essays, How to Live, just launched from Tupelo Press.  Can you say more about the significance of the title? 

KG: Thank you, Kristina. The title changed over the course of researching and writing this book. It was originally called The Quiet People, after an art installation by Reijo Kela of one thousand figures in colorful clothing on the highway side outside of Suomussalmi, Finland. When I began this book, thinking about home, I initially focused on my Finnish, Irish, and Wampanoag ancestors. As they left little written record, the title seemed fitting.

But as I continued writing about home, my chapters about my ancestors became another manuscript, The Year Without Summer, and my focus turned to my own personal search for home. An early essay published in Ploughshares, “How to Live with Uncertainty,” became the title. I needed to know how to live with fear and uncertainty, grief and loss, and I hoped that the writing of this book would help me discover ways to live.

While in residence at Djerassi, in the Santa Cruz Mountains, I tried to draw the elements of the book, with the title at the top of the page. I wrote How to Live and stopped. I thought, this can’t be the title. But I let it sit. While the book encompasses many questions about how to live, including how to live a creative life as a writer, it also deals with desperate, basic questions about how to stay alive. This element was submerged in early drafts, and in bringing it to the surface, it seemed even more important to have this title. At the same time, it reflects my reading of Montaigne, and his important formal influence.

KMD:  What are some of the unique possibilities of the form you’ve chosen (e.g., a memoir-in-essays)?  How is this form different from a more traditional memoir?  

KG: While reading Montaigne, I was inspired by his decision to write “a book with a wild and eccentric plan” which asks the Renaissance question, how to live? As in Montaigne’s essays, I liked having each piece be its own separate world. As How to Live encompasses not only the central four years of traveling to places where I’d mostly never been, and knew no one, but also chapters that step back in time, it seemed important to have a clear way of grounding the reader. So, I took the kind suggestion of a friend/editor, and organized the book by titling each essay by place name or house, and including the specific city/state/date at the beginning of each piece.

While the book is generally chronological, and the reader is going forward in time, each essay stands alone as its own world. It is less expository than a traditional memoir. In form, it’s probably closer to prose poetry. As the propulsion for the book is the need to discover and experience and understand, each essay is more about paying attention and living in a series of moments, rather than explaining, summarizing, and coming to conclusions.

KMD:  You have written across genres. In addition to your achievements in prose, you have a formidable background as a poet.  In what ways can poets learn from prose writers about crafting a powerful narrative?  

KG: It’s such an interesting question, as I’m usually asked it the other way around – what can prose writers learn from poets. When asked why I write prose, or how I know when a piece is a poem or prose, it comes down to needing more space, more room. All of my prose begins with a question, something I desperately need to find (and often, my poems). It’s the need to discover and the force of obsession that drives my prose. So, I would say that identifying your obsessions, the questions you return to again and again is a crucial part of crafting a powerful narrative. What do I need? It’s the energy that sets me in motion and keeps me going.

KMD:  In addition to your accolades as an author, you are celebrated as a nonprofit leader.  Can you say more about the ways your writing is empowered by community?

I’m fascinated by the artistic process of other writers and artists. As a student, I attended my first artists’ residency with 30 poets, musicians, and painters, and I never wanted to leave. It inspired me to create a literary organization in Orlando, presenting over 100 events in five years. People often thanked me after events, told me that they wrote for days, etc., as if it were a selfless act. But I did it because I was lonely for other writers. I needed to hear their work, be among them. While I’ve also often taught writing, my career has been in the arts (and homeless services), with over 15 years working specifically for artists’ residency programs.  It is thrilling to create opportunities for emerging writers and artists, to provide support, and to celebrate their work. I love working in places where artistic creation is taking place, and doing what I can to facilitate that. I also serve as a Nonfiction Editor for AGNI Magazine and experience that same joy of encountering and celebrating new work.

KMD:  You’ve done many readings across the country to promote How to Live.  What was the most rewarding aspect of your book tour?  The most surprising?  

During the first winter of Covid, I was working at the Fine Arts Work Center. We could no longer meet in person, for workshops or events. I met with Marie Howe, to talk about what we could do. We had ideas for virtual craft conversations with other writers, and Marie offered to host a literary dinner on Zoom (which we were all quickly figuring out how to use). We met with Victoria Redel, Nick Flynn, and Lili Taylor, and created Opening to Wonder, a series of 12 virtual literary craft conversations that would be, as Marie said, a place to gather around a hearth. We needed each other.  It was an extraordinary series, and got us all through that winter.

But it was all virtual. As our lives were for so long. The great joy of my book tour is that for the first time since the pandemic began, I gave readings and talked with audience members in-person. So, the people were the most rewarding aspect. The hugs. Pre-Covid, Joan Wickersham and I always had a June lunch in Provincetown, MA, when she came to teach every summer for the Fine Arts Work Center. A long lunch where we talked about our writing over the past year. I’d greatly missed these lunches, and being in conversation with Joan at East End Books in the Boston Seaport about How to Live was an immense joy. We’ve been talking about the book for years, and to listen and respond to her brilliant questions at the book launch made it part of our ongoing conversation and friendship. The most surprising? I think the conversations, questions. I especially love this part of each event. The most surprising comment, and one that I loved came from a student at Penn State who said it seemed that How to Live takes place in the past, present, and future simultaneously. I’m so grateful to everyone who read with me, talked with me, came to these events, to the bookstores and booksellers, and those who hosted events. When I told my friend, Ann, how happy I’d been on the book tour, she said, “Oh, you’re with your people.” I’ve missed them.

KMD:  What else are you working on?  What can readers look forward to?

KG: I’ve just completed the manuscript of my fifth poetry collection, The Red Album. I’ve also recently collected my short, flash, and micro-stories written over the last two decades into a fiction manuscript, News from Florida. Right now, I’m in the midst of working on two non-fiction manuscripts, both of which take place on Cape Cod. The Year Without Summer is a search for my ancestor, Thomas Greenough, last of the South Yarmouth, MA Wampanoags, and the ways in which time, history, lives (including my own) are layered in a place. Tideland is a collection of essays exploring the places where land and water meet, beginning with the title essay which takes place at Hatches Harbor in Provincetown, during the first spring/summer of the pandemic.

Kelle Groom is the author of How to Live: A Memoir in Essays (Tupelo Press, October 2023) and I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl (Simon & Schuster) a B&N Discover Great New Writers selection and New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice, and four poetry collections, most recently Spill (Anhinga Press). A National Endowment for the Arts Fellow, Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellow, and two-time Florida Book Award winner, Groom’s work appears in American Poetry Review, Best American Poetry, The New Yorker, New York Times, Ploughshares, and Poetry. She is a Nonfiction Editor at AGNI Magazine. Groom lives in New Smyrna Beach, Florida where she is director of communications and foundation relations for Atlantic Center for the Arts, an international artists-in-residence program.