March 17, 2011
Ten things to say about Cyn Kitchen, assistant professor of English at Knox College, and "Ten Tongues," her new book of short stories:
1. The title is drawn from one of ten stories in the book. "I had set myself a goal of getting ten good stories. And I've been working on the book for about ten years," Kitchen says. "Throughout the book, I refer to 'tongues' in both a religious sense -- a tongue as a language -- and in a physical sense. I'm a writer and you could think of my fingers as my own ten tongues. On the cover, a pair of hands reinforces the symbol of fingers as tongues while evoking, I hope, a sense of struggle and grace, something each character and story represents."
2. Every one of the stories in "Ten Tongues" is about someone with a physical vulnerability. "I've been influenced by Flannery O'Connor," Kitchen says. "I like to build on the foundation of a physically flawed character, and then other flaws are uncovered. They are in some way impeded from expressing their true selves. They haven't yet reached the place where they are content to be who they authentically are and the stories are largely about their struggles to reach that place."
3. There's definitely some personal experience reflected in Kitchen's stories, some familiar characters, but it's not a memoir. "I haven't lived any of the stories," she says. "I hope one thing for my characters -- that they get to be who they are, no matter how insane, hopeless, or plain their lives."
4. Kitchen isn't into fads. She's a graduate of the highly regarded Writing Program at Knox, and studied under many of the faculty who are now her colleagues. "My teaching is a cycle of reciprocity. I use the techniques that I know have worked, because I experienced them."
5. Kitchen's number one tip for student writers: "Good readers make good writers. I know from experience as a student the value of close reading, and I work to impress that on my own students. I like them to recognize a work for its parts, and how the synthesis of those parts creates a greater whole -- it's the craft that builds the overall work."
6. Even with tips and lessons and experience, writing does not come easily. "I'll do almost anything to avoid writing, until the weight of the story is so great that I have to get if off of me and onto the page." She's now working on a novel.
7. Critics love "Ten Tongues." Neela Vaswani: "Brimming with dramatic tension and sensuality... at once macabre and lovely, perverse and profound." Brad Watson: "Dark and funny, refreshingly pared to the truth, this is a tough and brilliant debut from the real heartland." Silas House: "Sharp with wit and poetry... one of my favorite short story collections -- ever." Pam Duncan: "Compelling prose... searing honesty... a stunning debut story collection."
8. You can buy "Ten Tongues" from Motes Press, or the Knox College Bookstore, and, yes, from Amazon.com, where it's ranked #1,443,856. Which tells you that "it's becoming a very crowded field," Kitchen says. "There are more writers and books, each getting less exposure -- it's a challenge to find an audience." Knox is a great place for a writer to find an audience. Writers' Forum gathers students and faculty for student readings; the Caxton Club, Fellowes Fund and Honnold Lecture, among others, have brought top American and international writers to campus.
The Smith House, circa 1876
9. Kitchen lives in, and is constantly renovating, one of Galesburg's historic homes, the Smith House, built in 1876. "We've had to deal with lots of wildlife -- bats, cats, pigeons, squirrels, snakes. One day I walked into my bedroom and I found three baby raccoons." That point about personal influences -- one of the stories in "Ten Tongues" is about a destructive raccoon that threatens to dismantle a house and a marriage.
10. Kitchen grew up in Galesburg, earned an associate's degree at Carl Sandburg College, and was a non-traditional student at Knox, completing her bachelor's degree, magna cum laude, in 2000. At Knox, she won the Davenport Award in Poetry and served as fiction editor of Catch, the College's award-winning literary magazine. She received her MFA in writing from Spalding University in 2005, and has taught creative writing and literature at Knox since 2006.
Founded in 1837, Knox is a national liberal arts college in Galesburg, Illinois, with students from 48 states and 51 countries. Knox's "Old Main" is a National Historic Landmark and the only building remaining from the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates.