Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Q&A with author Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

Please welcome Kristin Bair O’Keeffe for today’s author Q&A! Kristin’s debut novel Thirsty (Swallow Press, 2009) tells the story of one woman’s unusual journey through an abusive marriage, set against the backdrop of a Pittsburgh steel community at the turn of the twentieth century. Her work has been published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Poets & Writers Magazine, San Diego Family Magazine, The Baltimore Review, The Gettysburg Review, and many other publications. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia College Chicago and has been teaching writing for almost fifteen years. Kristin lives in Shanghai, China, with her husband and daughter.

Welcome, Kristin! At its heart, what is this story really about?
You know, when I give the “elevator pitch” for Thirsty, I say, “It’s the story of one woman’s unusual journey through an abusive marriage, set against the backdrop of a Pittsburgh steel community at the turn of the twentieth century.” But at the heart of it, Thirsty is an intense family saga that explores how being the victim of domestic violence is passed down in families from mother to daughter and how f’ing hard it is to break that cycle.

Is it true that a poem you wrote in 1987 was the inspiration for Thirsty? Tell us a little about this.
Before I wrote fiction, I wrote poetry. In fact, I was rather obsessed by it. (Spent a good part of my adolescence reading Sara Teasdale’s work—angst, heartbreak, kissing, romance, etc.—perfect stuff for a preteen girl hitting puberty.) In 1987 as an undergraduate at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, I wrote and published “Crumbling Steeples,” a poem about how the crash of Pittsburgh’s steel industry affected its steel communities (and in particular, my grandfather). After I wrote it, I thought I was done writing about Pittsburgh and steel. But around the same time, this woman started floating around in my head (the woman who eventually became Klara). I didn’t see her clearly for a number of years, but she was always there, giving me small glimpses of her life and her struggles.

When I started graduate school in 1992, I took a creative nonfiction workshop in which one of our first assignments was to choose a topic to research. Still driven by my experiences as a kid in my grandparents’ steel community—Clairton, Pennsylvania—I chose the steel industry in Pittsburgh. That’s when Klara and the setting of Thirsty began to take shape.

You grew up in Pennsylvania and now live in Shanghai. How does travel and culture influence your work?
As a writer, I’m deeply inspired by place. Certain towns, geographic nooks and crannies, countries…places where as soon as I step a single toe for the very first time, I feel something. A kind of magical, mystical roaring in my soul. A roaring so insistent that once it starts, the only way for me to quiet it is to write about the place that triggered it.

Pittsburgh, the setting of Thirsty, was the first place to inspire me. I grew up there, in the shadows of the mills along the Monongahela River, and from an early age I was hooked.

After that it was a 588,000-acre ranch in New Mexico.

And now, China.

Something good happens on the page for me when I’m nudged (pushed/shoved) out of my comfort zone, plunked down into a culture about which I know little or nothing, and get to discover a place that encourages (forces) me to reexamine who I am and how I define myself in the world.

You also write non-fiction and are quite the freelancer. How do you balance your various writing interests?
There’s an optimistic assumption in your question that I do a good job of balancing my writing interests (thanks for that). Some days, that’s true. Other days, I’ve got less balance than an egg trying to stand up on one end.

To have more good days than off-balance egg days, I try to work on my fiction (at present, my second novel) early, early in the morning before my daughter wakes up. I’m a much happier (or as my husband puts it, much less grumpy) person if I can squeeze an hour or two of writing in before the sun rises. There’s nothing better than waking up, rolling out of bed, and working while in the creative state of mind I call “Writerhead.” That’s when I do my strongest work.

During the afternoons when I have childcare help, I work on essays and articles. One of my balancing strategies is to write nonfiction only about the things I’m passionate about: place, travel, nature, weird stuff in China, mamahood, writing, and a few other bits and pieces. If someone asks me to write a piece about, say, child-friendly restaurants in Shanghai, I shake my head and say, “Oh, no, no, no. I’m not the writer for you.”

What can you tell us about your experiences with writing workshops?
As an undergrad at Indiana University (Bloomington) and a grad student at Columbia College in Chicago, I spent a lot of time in writing workshops. Some terrific; some god-awful. I’ve also been teaching writing workshops at the college level for the past fifteen years. Overall, I’m a big believer in the benefits of being in a workshop with a good teacher. A strong workshop can (and should) help you recognize and connect to your own voice, help you discover the driving thread of your story, and provide you with loads of helpful feedback. But while I do believe that there are times in a writer’s life when she should be in a workshop with a built-in, constant audience, I also believe there are times when she should be hunkered down on her own in a private space. Before diving in to a workshop, it’s important to figure out where you are in your process and your writing path.

Where can readers learn more about you and your work?
Visit Thirsty’s website at and my blog “My Beautiful, Far-Flung Life” at You can also follow me on Twitter: and friend me on Facebook at


I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s Q&A. Be sure to come back next Wednesday for the Q&A with Bella Mahaya Carter.

Also, check back in for Friday’s blog as I have a lot of great writing news to share. Until then….


  1. Thanks for letting us know about Thirsty. It's on my list.

  2. Thanks so much for having me on your blog, Lori. Great to connect with your readers.

  3. Amy U wrote:
    Lori---Thank you so much for sharing Kristin with us. I've read and LOVE Thirsty. Being from Western PA, I enjoyed the historical aspect of the novel. As a woman, I was captivated by the emotional journey of the characters.
    From your blog, I most enjoyed hearing how Kristin balances her day.