“What I had in mind was how people never know each other entirely, no matter how close or intimate they are.” A conversation with Maggie Kast

Interviewed by Jan English Leary

Maggie Kast at a reading of her work, pre-COVID

Maggie Kast fell in love with dance as a six-year-old, inspired by Ethel Butler, her teacher and a former member of the Martha Graham Dance company. After college, Kast founded the Chicago Contemporary Dance Theatre, which she led for many years while also raising her children. In 1977, she lost her three-year-old daughter in a car accident in Jamaica. She turned to the Catholic Church, and began to use the practice of dance as part of worship. After her dancing career wound down, Maggie turned to writing as a different way to turn life into art.  

Her fiction has appeared in Rosebud, NimrodCarve, and Birmingham Arts Journal (winner of the Hackney Literary contest). Her essays have been published in America, Writer’s Chronicle, Fiction Writer’s Review, and elsewhere. After completing an MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts, she taught writing and composition at Columbia College in Chicago. Her essay, “A Crack Between the Worlds,” was published by Another Chicago Magazine and later anchored her memoir, A Crack Between the Worlds: A Memoir of Loss, Faith and Family, published by Wipf and Stock in 2009. The memoir deals with the loss of her daughter and her subsequent discovery of faith. Fomite Press published her novel, A Free, Unsullied Land, in 2015. Her new book, Side by Side but Never Face to Face (Orison Books), a beautiful collection of linked stories, follows a fictional couple going through the loss of a child and imagines its way into events in the lives of both the wife and husband, before and after the accident.

Maggie and I met twenty years ago at an alumni event for VCFA. After realizing we shared more than writing, we became friends. I admire Maggie’s courage in revisiting real-life events as well as imagining and inhabiting the minds of characters separated by time, place, and experience. I was interested in the process of writing fictionally what she’d previously treated in memoir. Ordinarily, we’d have conducted this interview at one of our houses, sharing home-made food (she’s a wonderful cook), but because of the pandemic, we chose FaceTime. We talked on May 22, 2020.

Jan English Leary: I loved this collection. The pieces are about all kinds of love: marital love, parental love, love among friends, empathy, understanding people, failing to understand people. I like how the title connects to the text—on the one hand, there’s a sense that side by side is less than face to face, but one of the strongest images in the book comes from a time when Greta and Manfred are side by side in Vienna. I’ll read it:

The two stood silhouetted, his solid form joined with her spare one to make a single figure. Slowly shoulder, hips, hands and filigreed fingers took form with edges sharp as paper cutouts, a red-orange glow between them.

They’re side by side but they are one, and they make this beautiful composite. What does the title mean to you, and how did you come to it?

Maggie Kast: I got the title from Kevin “Mc” McIlvoy. He read the novella at an early stage and suggested the title from a section title in the manuscript, which I took from a line that’s been part of the novella from the beginning: “From worlds apart—she thinks, she hopes—we’d see each other face to face.” But what does it mean to me? There’s an online journal called Hmong Studies which I used a lot, and there’s an article in it about raising children in the US. A father uses that expression in the piece when describing his teenaged children. “We’re side by side but never face to face.” When I agreed with Mc that the title was applicable, what I had in mind was how people never know each other entirely, no matter how close or intimate they are. It’s been said that when there are two people in bed, there are always four. To me, this means there’s always the real person and the one you imagine, sometimes overlapping and sometimes not.

It made me think of a psychoanalytic session where the patient often lies on a couch and doesn’t make eye contact with the analyst. Sometimes you can be more direct when you’re not face to face. I also thought of the conversations that a parent can have with a child in a car, where they are side by side and more able to open up than if they were face to face.

That makes me think of teenagers, after they’ve been with their friends all day. Then they come home and lie on the couch upside down and talk to the same person, freed by absence to bare their souls.

I read your memoir, and I know there are parallels between your life and the events in the collection, such as your marriage and children. What are the challenges in taking events from your life and fictionalizing them?

The hardest thing in this case was that I found myself writing about the same things I wrote about in my memoir, and I was afraid I was just repeating myself. I did complain about this to my writing group, and one person said, “It doesn’t matter, if you’re writing about it in a different way,” so I made it as different as I could, by changing the point of view or using different incidents.

You also have stories about characters in times and places you couldn’t have known: Manfred as a boy or young man in Vienna, and Maria, his mother, in the 19th century Czech lands, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. What did you learn by writing in the point of view of those characters?

I made use of photos and family stories, and then embroidered on them freely. The story about Maria was really a mess for a long time. I started it when I was at Vermont College of Fine Arts, twenty years ago. At one point my writing group suggested, “Try it like Sebald, with pictures,” so I took photographs of my mother-in-law’s paintings and wrote text that ran to fifty pages before I cut it all down to the straightforward story that’s in the book. In the case of “To March With,” the story about Manfred in his late teens, I made it all up, but I based some of it on research into the brief civil war in Vienna just before the Anschluss. When the book was accepted by Orison, I had already applied to Writing by Writers’ Manuscript Boot Camp, so I went and worked with a small group led by Garth Greenwell, a fabulous critic, editor and teacher.

I thought the non-linear sequence of the stories was successful. The sad story at the beginning and the uplifting ending of the novella at the end were great anchors for the collection. Did you have any sense when you were writing that the stories might be part of a linked collection? Did you have a concept and write stories toward it? And how did you decide to order them once they were finished?

I worked for a long time on the novella and thought of it as a stand-alone piece, and then when I saw that there were few opportunities to publish a piece of that length, I put it together with a bunch of stories. I’d written them separately, so they did not really hang together. When I got to Writing by Writers, Garth Greenwell read it as a single work, possibly because he’d been in the same situation with his recent book, Cleanness, which he was considering publishing just as fiction, rather than short stories or a novel. Garth wanted all the stories in my book to account for all the characters, so that a was big part of the editing I did post-Boot Camp.

You write movingly about being the mother of a child with developmental disabilities. You bring Allen to life in a way that’s universally relatable to parents. The love, the guilt, the bond, the distance — all of that is really clear. And I was interested in the use of the second-person voice. Was it intuitive or was it something you determined you needed to do?

I’ve always been interested in second person, and that story about Allen, “Joyful Noise,” I wrote before and while I was at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I was interested in the different meanings of “you.” It can refer to  the narrator, the reader, or people in general. While I was working on that story Ellen Lesser, my first mentor at the college, steered me to the work of Pam Houston. In her collection, Cowboys Are My Weakness, she has one or two second-person stories, and in the discussion at the back of the book she says she uses it to confess actions of which she is ashamed, too ashamed to admit to them with an “I.” I was ashamed of how I’d acted at the climax of that story, at least in the original, true version. Ellen wanted a happier ending, so I changed it. Actually I’ve enjoyed presenting it both ways: first reading the story as published with the happy ending and then revealing my guilty secret. I find it very interesting to write the same story as fiction and as nonfiction.

I think the “you” also adds to the universality of the story. Many parents reading it might imagine that they were in that situation.

Do you ever write in second person?

Maybe someday. I’m really interested in questions of empathy in relation to faith and cultural difference. You take those up especially in the novella. You introduce the character of Cua Paj, an adolescent Hmong girl living in Door County with her family. How did you become interested in the Hmong and how does that inform your story?

I was dealing personally with questions of difference and “otherness,” difference from my husband and from my psychiatrist, and I wanted to take it a step further, to a cultural and religious difference, and then I came across a documentary film, The Split Horn, about a Hmong family living in Appleton, Wisconsin. I found their adaptations and cultural preservations admirable and eye-opening. And then I read Ann Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down as well as many contemporary works of Hmong literature and papers on the Hmong Studies website. I was interested in that cultural intersection and how it would affect the characters that I’d been with so far.

Now food! Food is such a big part of your life.

We are fellow cooks.

If you eat someone else’s food or eat a food that’s foreign to you, it’s a way of trying to empathize with that person, to convey who you are, and what your culture is. It may be a challenge to understand another culture’s rules for butchering animals. It was so interesting to see how food is used in your writing. Greta with her Catholicism thinks of communion as a meal, and a meal as a form of communion. Then the Hmong family has a big feast for the funeral of their grandfather and his journey back to his birthplace. Greta prepares food from Manfred’s childhood, like the Liptauer cheese that Allen particularly loves. Food plays a big role in the health crisis that Allen faces. I have a related quote I’d like read:

If one eats with a fork and the other eats with chopsticks, these customs can cancel each other out—both eat. If one dances to make the rain fall and the other seeds clouds with silver iodide from a plane, both seek water. If one comes from the sky and the other comes from a god, both need a tale to explain their short time on earth. From worlds apart she thinks—she hopes—we’d see each other face to face.

I thought that was beautiful. How do you think food informs your writing?

First, I overcome the tension of trying to write by cooking. For me, food is a very strong symbol.

Sharing food is one of the ways we communicate, and it’s a symbol of relationship. It almost is relationship. And taste is one of the five senses, sensory detail being essential to communicate emotion in writing—the so-called objective correlative. Next to smell, taste is the strongest sense in terms of conveying emotion.

In the midst of the pandemic, reading has been a good escape, but I do find myself surprised that the characters can gather in groups, and I worry about how they get their groceries or why they’re not wearing masks. What has it been like for you to launch a book in the middle of a pandemic?

Launching a book and the whole process of publication is confusing enough as it is, but the pandemic has just made it more so. I had six June readings scheduled. They were cancelled and only two were rescheduled in virtual form. For a lot of the time that I’ve been in quarantine I’ve not been able to write anything new, which felt bad, because I’d been working on food essays for the last several months. But I think it’s coming back now. I’m getting used to the way life is and tolerating the underlying layer of anxiety.


Jan English Leary is a writer living in Chicago. She received an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and taught writing to high-school students at the Francis W. Parker School and to adults at Northwestern University. Her novel, Thicker Than Blood, which deals with interracial adoption, single parenthood, and self-identity, was published by Fomite Press in 2015. Her new collection of short stories, Skating on the Vertical, will be available through the  Fomite Press website and at Women & Children First Bookstore.