Meet Kathleen: She Earned a Solid B+ in College Poetry Writing

This is not our van, but this is exactly the type of scenery I refused to appreciate.

When I was in elementary school, my family used to load up our Dodge Ram each summer and head west. Seatbelts, while included in the price of vehicles back in the 1980s, were more of a suggestion. My brother and I spent hours sprawled all over that van–on the floors, across the luxurious third row, and sometimes in the “way back,” wedged up next to the camping equipment. My parents sat up front listening to Dolly Parton and John Denver tapes on endless loops. We had one of those fancy cassette players that auto-reversed, no need to press eject and flip.

I kept hearing that the scenery on these trips was really something else. Mom and Dad kept yakking about mountains and glaciers, flora and fauna.  “Look!” they’d say, delight in their voices upon cresting yet another vista in Montana or someplace. But I couldn’t be bothered with majestic views. I was busy with The Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley High; Mary Downing Hahn, and Judy Blume. Flipping pages fascinated me far more than whatever we passed outside. My obsessive reading frequently irritated my dad, Captain of the Van. I remember offering intermittent, lukewarm “wows,” and quickly turning back Mary Ann and Logan, despite his obvious disappointment.

In seventh grade then, still a compulsive reader (V.C. Andrews by this point, Cynthia Voight, and Mary Higgins Clark), I decided I’d someday become an English teacher. I began saving my own teachers’ materials–study guides and grammar quizzes–for use in my future classroom. High school passed in a heady cloud of Thoreau and Fitzgerald and Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. (Women and writers of color were relegated to a single week in May during my junior year). In college, despite Dad’s insistence that a degree in economics would be more practical, I pursued my English major, finishing novel after novel in my dorm’s common room. My favorite writers included Louisa May Alcott, Keri Hulme, and Toni Morrison. I cranked out papers about character motivation and themes. My efforts at creative writing garnered me a solid B+ in poetry–hardly a harbinger of literary success. 

At age 21, I taught my first set of 150 eighth-graders. The job consumed me, and I spent nights and weekends grading papers and planning lessons. That first year of teaching, I met my husband, a whip-smart and hilarious law student. A few years later, I had my first son and four years after that, another one. Between work and family and graduate school, my “pleasure” reading fell off. I wrote snippets on a personal blog, but otherwise, I penned only report card comments and Facebook updates.

Out of the baby haze by 35, I made a New Year’s Resolution to read 52 books. At 36, I realized that if I wanted to “someday” write a novel, as I always theoretically had, the time was nigh. I’d turn 40–a mental milestone for me–whether or not I tried to do it. 

Here I am smiling ridiculously because I’m holding a galley for the first time. We had spaghetti that night, the sauce for which you can see smeared on my plate.

And so, here I am, decades from the brown-carpeted floor of that Dodge Ram, a life-time reader and at 41, a debut novelist. I’m deeply grateful for the opportunity to share the publishing road trip with the readers of The Debutante Ball. I’ve been a visitor here for many years and look forward to interacting with many of you.

You can find me (and tell me which of the Babysitters you are–I’m a Kristy, though I wished I were a Dawn) most easily at Twitter and Instagram, but also in other places you can find linked here. You can read more about and preorder my novel, Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes, right here. Thanks for reading! This year is going to be so much fun.

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Kathleen West

Kathleen West is the author of the forthcoming novel, Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes, out 2/4/20 from Berkley. She lives in Minneapolis with her family.

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