a literary review
Novelist, poet, and playwright Thaïs Miller delves into Courtney Kersten’s ideas about astrology, Americana, and research.
Your coming-of-age memoir, Daughter in Retrograde, paints an incredible portrait of Midwestern culture. When you think of Midwestern “Americana,” what comes to mind?
I think of wood-paneled bars on dirt roads with neon beer signs, KISS pinball machines in the corner, and dramatically posed taxidermy bass on the wall. I think of the Dickeyville Grotto in southwest Wisconsin at the intersection of Highway 151 and Highway 35. It’s an elaborate series of shrines, honorees include the Virgin Mary, Christopher Columbus, and, if you walk across the parking lot, Jesus Christ. I drove to Iowa City once five years ago and stopped in Dickeyville for gas. I walked across the street and spent two hours wandering around the Grotto, looking at objects and stones stuck into mortar. There’s a gift shop too. I think of Packer’s foam cheese head hats and cross-stitched lamb patterns and prom corsages, crispy and forgotten inside high school closets.
I think of WCFW 105.7 FM broadcasting out of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. They play deep cuts of Simon & Garfunkel and the Fifth Dimension right along with the Backstreet Boys. Once I heard some polka. The radio announcer pauses between “The time is” and “twelve-thirty-two!” The station will stay with you on I-94 West past Menominee and fades out going East near Stanley. Sometimes I can’t find it on the dial in town. It’s a gift of a radio station.
How many different types of fortune telling have you dabbled in? Can you name them all?
I’m not sure if I would call my spiritual divinations “fortune telling.” I’m not looking for “fortunes” necessarily though I did cycle through many of those “Fortune Telling Fish” when I was a girl. I would get them in the quarter-candy dispensers at a pizza parlor or in the company of my mother or father at a bar. The fish were red cellophane and would writhe in your hands via your palm’s moisture. I thought they were magical and terrifying and completely full of meaning. I always forgot them in the pocket of my jeans where their cellophane bodies would shrivel and harden by way of the washer/dryer.
I’ve studied and practiced tarot, astrology, numerology, and the iChing. I’ve been to psychics and healers. I pray. I believe in being guided. I believe the universe speaks to us in lots of ways.
Can you tell me a little bit about your interest in American astrologer Linda Goodman?
Linda Goodman was the first astrologer I ever read. I’ve shared her work with friends who, aptly, tell me her work is antiquated—she writes within the normative gender roles of the time she was writing, the 1960s and 70s. But looking past this, her work is unabashed—it’s spot on, humorous, and spiritually radical. I think she’s fabulous and bizarre. I wish I could’ve known her.
I’m also interested in her life and experiences with loss. When I was a teenager I read about the lengths she went to in order to “find” her daughter Sally. Sally took her own life at the age of eighteen. I remember howling in laughter while reading about how Linda tried to find Sally—camping out on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City to protest the supposed “cover up” of her daughter’s death, hiring investigators and detectives, and spending a small fortune. Yet, years later I would experience similar feelings of disbelief in trying to reconcile my mother’s death. Linda dreamt of Sally and this dream initially led her to believe she was alive. I dream of my mother often. When I wake up, for mere moments, I feel such bliss at having seen her, even if only in a dream world. Sometimes I’ll go the whole day in a kind of giddy haze because I’ve “seen” my mother. Linda’s story resonates with me.
How has your writing shaped your current research, or alternatively, how has your research shaped your writing?
For me, research is integral to my creative work. As a nonfiction writer, I am constantly attempting to project past the “I,” past “me,” and into something more universal, more human, more relevant. I’m not sure if I’m successful in that, but it’s something I think about. I’m really no one—but through research and looking past myself, maybe through myself, I hope my writing can mean something to someone else. Research illuminates what can be universal, larger, more associative. It’s a humble and curious act to walk directly into the unknown and look around, to open a book and learn. I’m in a teaching group with doctoral students from all disciplines across campus and it is incredible what other people are doing and working on. Someone drew a picture of a myoglobin protein structure on the chalkboard yesterday. It was beautiful. I had no idea.
How would you describe your writing process for this memoir?
This is my first book. All-in-all, it took five years for me to write from the first word to publication. Much of that time felt like wandering around in a dark room, creeping up on walls that I thought may be passageways towards clarity, only to press my face against painted drywall and grope around until I found my way back around and tried again. To put it another way, it was a lot of trial-and-error. A big leap for me was working with one of my advisors at the University of Idaho, where I did my MFA, Mary Clearman Blew, who worked patiently and fastidiously on the sentence level clarity of my prose. It wasn’t until I was working with the University of Wisconsin press when I felt like I knew how to write Daughter in Retrograde. With the help of the anonymous reviews I received, my editor, and copyeditors, I felt as though I could finally see my way out; I understood what the book was about. I am deeply indebted to those that have helped this book come to realization. There are lots more people—friends, mentors, workshop peers—whose generosity and suggestions helped make this book.
Part of what my editor at UW Press helped me come to terms with was that my book truly is a spiritual coming-of-age story. I remember when I first started writing I “didn’t want” the book to be about spirituality, about any sort of connection to the divine. So, I wrote it that way—avoiding and dancing around the thing that it was about. This resulted, of course, in a book that didn’t really seem to know what it was about. A mess. It was only when I was able to embrace what my real story was—a woman grappling with her relation to the divine via her mother’s death—that the pieces fell into place. I had to own my experience.
In your book, astrology helps you engage with and navigate the unknown, particularly surrounding your mother’s terminal illness. What advice do you have for writers exploring grief and loss?
My advice for writers exploring grief and loss would be to carefully discern and weigh the advice they’re given about how to write about grief and loss. I should also specify that I mean writing about grief and loss for an audience—not personal writing or writing for therapeutic reasons. In terms of writing for an audience, I was told to wait to write about my mother’s death, that I was too young, it was too fresh. I was told this was a book to write when I was forty or fifty or fifty-six. I should wait until I was older than my mother was when she died. Maybe I should’ve—I suppose I won’t know until I, or if I, am able to look back and speculate. Maybe I’ll write another book about my mother’s death if I make it to sixty and compare it to this one. I, clearly, didn’t heed the advice though I do understand the spirit behind those recommendations. And, in some ways, I agree with it—don’t write until you’re ready to do it, emotionally, physically. If you want to publish and/or share your work, think of your audience and why you’re writing whatever it is you’re writing. Make sure you are in a place to be self-reflexive. To be comfortable with showing yourself as ugly and human, with showing those you love as less-than-perfect. Death and watching those you love pass away can rip you apart. Be willing to look at where the seams have torn and how they may be put back together or never be put back together. Be willing to meditate on that. Be willing to let others in. Know that this may be challenging. Know that this may be painful. I think, perhaps, that’s what the advice I was given was really suggesting. But, at the moment, I think I just needed to write it.
I suppose I wrote when I wrote, in the months immediately after my mother’s death, because it felt urgent. And, of course, most of that writing wasn’t meant for an audience. Details about my mother—her walk, her skin, the way her left pinky finger was crooked—had I not written them down would I have forgotten them? Moments with her, however mundane, had to be made semi-permanent in print just for my own memories and healing. Even now, when I think of the contours and wrinkles of her face I don’t know if I can even remember them with clarity without looking in my diary or at a photograph. I can’t truly remember her voice beyond a few phrases. Sometimes when I dream of my mother, when I can catch myself in the space between consciousness and a dream, I see if I can take her in, memorize her image. It’s usually then that I wake up.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on a hybrid-biography of Linda Goodman. I’m hoping to go to where she lived during the final years of her life this summer: Cripple Creek, Colorado. I’m also working on an essay about the history of mooning. Maybe I’ll write something about myoglobin protein structures now that I know how beautiful they are.
Courtney Kersten is the author of Daughter in Retrograde: A Memoir (University of Wisconsin Press 2018). Her essays can be seen or are forthcoming from Brevity, The Normal School, River Teeth, Hotel Amerika, DIAGRAM, The Sonora Review, Black Warrior Review, The Master’s Review, and elsewhere. She was a Fulbright Fellow to Riga, Latvia, the 2016 Writer-in-Residence at the Great Basin Writer’s Residency in Baker, Nevada, and is currently a PhD student in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of California at Santa Cruz.