A Conversation with Kimi Cunningham Grant

by Jeanne Van Blankenstein

Kimi Cunningham Grant is a poet and author whose fiction is planted firmly in the woods of Pennsylvania. Her first book, Silver Like Dust, shares the story of her grandmother’s life in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. Her move to fiction began with the novel Fallen Mountains, a taut mystery centered on the disappearance of a man in a small mountain town wrestling with the effects of fracking. 

In her latest novel, These Silent Woods, an Indie Next List pick for the month of November, Grant returns to the Pennsylvania woods, this time with an Afghan war veteran, Cooper, and his young daughter, Finch, tucked away in a remote cabin, carving out a life for themselves in hiding. Their sparse but creative world depends on keeping their very existence a secret, but things begin to unravel when the friend who brings supplies doesn’t show up and they realize another person has been visiting their woods.

Kimi loves being out in nature and often finds inspiration there. She and her family spent a good portion of their summer “boondocking” through the Black Hills of South Dakota and other parts of the upper Midwest. I was able to speak with her on Zoom following her return.

TCR: Your first book, a biographical memoir about your grandmother, took a long time to write because she lived in another state and it involved several visits and some coaxing for her to open up and share her experiences with you. Your second book, Fallen Mountains, was a lengthy process too. You said the transition to fiction was trickier than you expected. Why do you think that was, and what challenges did you encounter?
KCG: I think nonfiction and fiction each have their own challenges, but I thought, Well, I read a lot; I’ve already written a book; I can probably do this. It was harder [than I expected]. Writing the first book, there were certain parameters laid out for me. There were facts that I had to work with, and there was a timeline that I had to work with, so in some ways [it] helped me to move along, whereas with a novel, anything could happen. You could start at any point and end at any point. I just wrote so many words, and I was having fun. I enjoyed myself, but I ended up at one point cutting forty thousand words on an edit, which was half of the book. That was the point at which the person who ended up becoming my agent said, “I’m interested in the book, but I think you need to make some edits and then I’ll have another look.” She asked me to revise, and at that point I went back and sort of rethought what I needed to do. And then I cut the forty thousand words and rewrote them, and we submitted it. It took some time.

TCR: I appreciated that you explored the background of your grandmother’s story, discussing the cultural climate, the actual laws in place, all of which allowed for the internment camps to happen. I had forgotten that the Pomona Fairplex was used as a temporary holding center for the people being sent to Heart Mountain in Wyoming. Going to the Los Angeles County Fair every year is one of my family’s fun traditions, and yet it’s also the place where your family was sent and held, and your grandparents met there in the first months of their internment.

In Silver Like Dust, you tell much of the story from your and your grandmother’s perspectives. In your second book, Fallen Mountains, the perspective is third person limited, which allows you to move around a little bit. But in your newest book, These Silent Woods, you went straight from Cooper’s perspective. How was that transition, writing the entire piece from one character’s perspective?
KCG: Well, for me, I don’t know if it’s because it was my second novel or if it’s because I did not try to do third person limited from multiple points of view, but once I got the voice, I really liked writing in that voice, and it came faster for me. So I wrote These Silent Woods faster than I wrote either of my other two books. I think it was really refreshing for me to get into one voice and just roll with it and write in that voice.

TCR: Cooper has a very particular rhythm in his speech. Was that something that came to you right away or did it take time to find it?
KCG: You know, I listen to people when they talk, and I try to think about and notice idiosyncrasies that they may have or different ways of expressing things. So I’m sure that Cooper’s voice is like a conglomeration of many voices I’ve heard. He’s probably pretty Pennsylvanian. That’s how I picture him, at least.

TCR: I noticed a theme in your books: In Fallen Mountains you use the quote “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past” from Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun, and you raised a question in another interview—“How do we reconcile our past mistakes with our present notions of who we are and who we want to be?” You were working on These Silent Woods at the time, and that idea comes full circle with the character of Cooper and the decisions that he makes at the end of the story. Is this a theme that you like to revisit?
KCG: I didn’t even realize I said that while I was working on Cooper. That’s really interesting that I was thinking along those lines. I think it’s definitely a theme in my last two books and something I think about a good bit and want to sort out. I want my characters to be complex, and I like for them to wrestle with things and figure out who they are.

TCR: Cooper’s past weighs on him quite heavily. It’s a constant battle for him. He’s trying to build this life for his daughter, and every day he’s aware of how tenuous it is and that it can’t last. And Finch was a fun character. I’m really interested in how you were able to get into the mind of this eight-year-old girl who’s never encountered another female and  only interacted with her dad, her dad’s friend, Jake, who brings them supplies every year, then the elusive, distant neighbor, Scotland, who shows up from time to time.
KCG: Yeah, I was thinking about this, and I started writing These Silent Woods when my oldest kid was eight, and then I finished the final revisions on it, and it will come out when my youngest is eight. I know that there are things in this book that are directly pilfered from conversations with them, so I have definitely stolen little things that they might say or do. In a later version, once I was working with my editor, I knew there were some things that I wanted to shift about the book, and I asked them, “What would you do if you came upon someone who was hurting [another person]? What would you do?” I just wanted to see it from their point of view.

And they said, “I would throw a rock at them, or I would try to attack.” That seemed reasonable to them that they would see something that was wrong and they would want to act on it. That is a good instinct, and what I think is interesting about an eight-year-old’s perspective is that, of course, you’re going to act, and you don’t think about how that will ripple out and affect [things later]. I think kids really live in the moment, and I liked this idea that their morality really is a lot more black and white than ours get as adults. We have so many other factors that we weigh in, and I liked that idea and where it took me. In an earlier draft, Finch [is more of an observer], and I wanted to play with the idea of what if she intervenes? because I think she would. I think that was fitting with her character. So I’m always stealing things. My older son—well, both of them know a lot of names and information about the natural world, and this is where we live. We live in the woods, and they just learn and read. In many ways, Finch is built upon their influence.

TCR: Well, she does have a very strong moral compass. She reads a great deal, and is influenced by it, and it’s interesting what she’s taken from all of that. One of the things I enjoyed was the fact that she quotes poets—Whitman and Roethke—and directs it at her father when she’s calling him out on his behavior or when she’s trying to convince him to do the right thing. Poetry plays a large part in your work. You are a published poet, and I am curious about how poetry finds its way into your fiction. Is it something that leads you into the project or highlights certain parts of the story for you as you’re writing, or is it something that you find as you work? Is it something that comes to light later?
KCG: Well, I think it’s a little bit of both, although it’s interesting because originally the book was called Flight, so the different quotes and some of the different poems I had were about flying or had birds in them. But the publisher wanted a different title, and I found that sometimes I get attached to these poems or quotes that I put into a book and then they lose their meaning when your title gets changed. I was feeling so clever.

TCR: I love that you didn’t put the text of the poem from Mary Oliver [that you referenced] in the book. It forces the reader to look it up.
KCG: I hope that the reader will look it up.

TCR: This reader did.
KCG: Oh, good. It’s one of my favorites of hers.

TCR: Aside from the use of poetry, I was moved by Scotland’s comments about grace, that you either accept it or not. It’s outside the realm of merit.
KCG: We have this idea that we have to earn—or we want to earn—what we have, or that we don’t earn what we don’t deserve, so I liked playing with that idea.

TCR: You’re right. We like to weigh things, measure, qualify. We do a lot of that.
I want to talk about the way you use and create tension. In Fallen Mountains, because you told the story in limited third person from each of the various character’s perspectives, you peeled away little layers. One person’s story adds color to another person’s story, maybe negates a little of it or shows it in a different light, and when you finally revealed what happened, it felt almost poetic, gently rendered. It was beautifully done. In These Silent Woods, it’s a different type of tension entirely because it’s there from the very beginning, almost like a fog that they’re living under, and it expands as more is revealed about their circumstances. For Cooper it’s like a weight. Not so much for Finch because she doesn’t know the events that brought them there. She’s in her little bubble, but at any moment, things could go wrong, and when Jake doesn’t show up to bring them supplies before winter sets in, things become more precarious. How was that different for you to write?
KCG: Ideally, I want there to be tension from the very first paragraph. I think about Celeste Ng and her Little Fires Everywhere. From the very first paragraph, you want to find out what happened and why there are fires everywhere. Ideally, I want there to be good tension from the get-go. Maybe I’m getting better at that. That’s one of the things, as a writer, that I feel I struggle with. I just get more into character development or scene development, and I [realize] I’ve written thirty pages and nothing really exciting has happened. My agent calls it that lean forward component that makes a reader not want to put the book down. That’s the part that I always have to remind myself to keep working on.

TCR: Let’s talk about the character Scotland. I think the reader is almost caught somewhere between Cooper’s cautious assessment and the desire to believe this guy is on the up and up. Did you aim for that?
KCG: I did aim for that. There was a very early draft I had two friends read, and one said, “Oh, I liked Scotland from the beginning; I always liked him; I never doubted him.” And I thought, This is supposed to be one of my sources of tension. So he’s too likable, because I wanted you to feel that doubt that Cooper feels. It’s one of those things that, in hindsight, you could look at everything that Scotland does and say he really did have good intentions, and he really did want to keep them safe. But as you’re reading it, I want you to think it’s weird [what he does]. I wanted the reader to feel a little unsure. I think, depending on how people read him, they will probably have a pretty wide response to him.

TCR: I think you definitely achieved that. Thank you so much for talking to me about your work.

Jeanne Van Blankenstein is pursuing an MFA in creative writing from UCR Palm Desert. She lives in Southern California.