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Monday, May 14, 2012

Interview with Andrea Kayne Kaufman

Andrea Kayne Kaufman is here today as the proud author of Oxford Messed Up, a book so unusual that my review may have seemed more mixed than I intended. I love unusual books, especially ones like this, that have positive messages, and intend to promote them as much as I can whenever I find them!

JK: Welcome, Andrea. I understand you're from Chicago, like Gloria, your main character.

AKK: I’m from Beverly Hills but have made Chicago my home, through and through.

JK: Among other things, Oxford Messed Up is academic in atmosphere. Does that have anything to do with your non-fiction career?

AKK: I have a Masters in Education and a law degree and currently serve as Chair of the Department of Leadership, Language and Curriculum at DePaul University. I try to create a balance between my life as a professor, my life as an author, and being a mom and wife. It’s a full, wonderful, and busy life.

JK: Tell us a little more about the book and who you envision reading it.

AKK: Oxford Messed Up is a unique literary love story that transports readers on a meaningful and emotional journey where the academic world of Oxford, the music of Van Morrison, and an old claw-foot bathtub serve as a backdrop for learning, self-discovery, and transcendent love. Rhodes Scholar Gloria Zimmerman is an academic superstar who has come to Oxford University to study feminist poetry. Yet the rigors of the academy pale in comparison to her untreated Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Her next-door neighbor (who is also, to her mortification, her loomate) is Henry Young, the appealing but underachieving musician son of an overbearing and disapproving Oxford don. Gloria and Henry's relationship evolves from a shared obsession with Van Morrison's music into a desire on the part of each to fill in the gaps in the life of the other. Yet the constraints of a debilitating illness and the looming revelation of a catastrophic secret conspire to throw their worlds into upheaval and threaten the possibilities of their unlikely yet redemptive love.

The intended audience is anyone who’s ever thought about whether they deserve happiness and love, anyone who’s struggled with a self-saboteur, anyone who loves poetry or music. Come to think of it, I think, anyone who’s ever breathed!

JK:  How does real life affect your fiction?

AKK: My love of Van Morrison and poetry are infused throughout this book, which starts out in my hometown of Chicago. My experience watching and helping a family member cope with OCD fueled this novel. The notion of a love triangle between two loved ones and their internal self saboteurs are all too real. My main characters, Henry and Gloria, each have pieces of me in them.

I value language tremendously and thought through every word choice in this book to an exhausting degree, particularly the language surrounding Gloria’s OCD. I wanted and needed that to be authentic and accurate.

JK: What is your favorite book?

AKK: My favorite book is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It’s also my favorite feminist treatise of all time. I think Elizabeth Bennet’s rejection of Darcy’s first proposal is one of the most important scenes in all of literature. With no dowry and no prospects, Elizabeth is self-actualized and has the courage to say “no” to one of the most eligible bachelors in England. For years, I have strived for her internal locus of control, rereading Pride and Prejudice every year on my birthday.

JK: What else influences your work?

AKK: What doesn’t influence my work might be a better question! My teaching and research do, as does my personal life. Clearly music and poetry inspire me. My family, my city, my love of travel, and my desire for personal growth. Everything is a potential muse.

JK:  Do you have a favorite word?

AKK: For this novel, redemption was my touchstone word. It’s what both characters want and need and something I’ve spent a lifetime working to allow myself.

JK:  How much time a day do you devote to fiction writing? What is your work area like?

AKK: I have writing days. I also have teaching days. So on a writing day, I try to devote the day’s work to writing. My day starts with a long walk along Lake Michigan to clear (or fill?) my head. The familiarity lets me enjoy my surroundings while also letting my mind off its leash. Some days I even have to sit down to capture a character’s voice or epiphany on my iPhone recorder.

Then I head home and write in my office. I’m not going to lie; I’m not as organized as I’d like to be or as neat as I’d like to be. I’m no Gloria! But, because I have classes and students and my own children and my fiction writing, I can’t be Henry either.

JK: Do you have any methods that might seem unusual or inspiring to other writers?

AKK: My methods involve a lot of music. Each character gets a soundtrack or song that I’ll often listen to while thinking or writing about them. I was also known to read scenes aloud from the bathtub, much to the amusement of my husband. Many of the critical scenes in this book take place in or near an old clawfoot tub. I considered those long baths I took research!

JK: They certainly were! When and why did you get started writing? What characteristics from your first efforts survive today?

AKK: I’ve always written. It’s just been a matter of what. Poetry has been a part of my personal canon for as long as I can remember. As I moved into the world of academia, research-based writing was my primary medium. And, as I said, this novel emerged from a particularly challenging time in my family’s life. I got started writing so I wouldn’t lose my mind. My family is in a much, much better place now but I’ve found that fiction writing is an incredible balance to my world as a professor.  Deep in the recesses of my basement, I have journals filled with poems and people and other fragments which I am now bringing into the world.

JK: I personally couldn't find a balance between fiction and academia, so I stand in awe. Are your family and friends supportive? What other kinds of feedback have you gotten?

AKK: Many people tell me Oxford Messed Up made them cry, in a good way. I have heard it described as a page turner.  People tell me they miss Gloria and Henry when the book is over.  One reader recently told me she made excuses to go to the washroom during work because she had to know what happened. The feedback I get tends to be a sense of gratitude for writing a smart book about smart people trying to figure stuff out. Gloria and Henry resonate with people because they feel real, human, flawed, and well, just like us.

I took presenting OCD accurately and with sensitivity so seriously that I think the community of people impacted by this disease have rallied behind the book. It’s thrilled me. But this book is not meant for just the people who have experienced OCD. It’s about the fight we all must undertake to embrace and choose happiness. As I was writing, I was thinking about what I needed to do to embrace and choose happiness and it’s something I try to keep in mind daily since finishing the book.

I hope that anyone that likes a good love story, smart, believable characters, and of course Van Morrison, find something to love about Oxford Messed Up.

JK: Do you have any advice for writers based on your successful experience as a novelist?

AKK: My advice to new writers: Start. Speak into a voice recorder. Pick up a pen. Put some paper in the typewriter. Open a new document in Word. Whatever your medium the characters cannot tell you their stories unless you are willing to take steps to record them. They’ll tell you where to go.

JK: Thank you so much for being here today, Andrea.

See more about Oxford Messed Up, with availability and links, here. See more about Andrea and her writing here.