14 Oct

Student Spotlight: Rachel King

Rebecca | October 14th, 2011

by Lisa Beans

I took that path which led
to this one, and here I am,
the far-away one who listens.
— “What I know of Happiness” by Rachel King

IMG_2383 Rachel King makes it a goal to travel outside of Morgantown twice a month. As I write this article, she is currently exploring the White Mountains in New Hampshire. Yes, part of the impetus for travel comes from the need for a literal change in scenery, but more that that, Rachel has a deep curiosity of the worlds around her. She is an observer, a listener, a wonderer. Writers are always told to write what they know. Rachel doesn’t limit herself to that.

Her writing takes the readers to a monastery in West Virginia, post World War II Portland, and the coast lines of Prince Edward’s Island in 1835. Not only does she excel at creating a different physical world, but she is able to clearly represent other people: a nine year old boy building a fort, a young woman taking a train ride across Siberia, a drifter stopping over in a sleep clinic to make a quick buck. Even though Rachel works to create these worlds that are so different from her own and ours, we always feel for her characters.

Author Tim O’Brien states, “The goal, I suppose, any fiction writer has, no matter what your subject, is to hit the human heart and the tear ducts and the nape of the neck and to make a person feel something about what the characters are going through and to experience the moral paradoxes and struggles of being human.” This is what Rachel’s characters make us feel no matter what continent they appear on, no matter what century they live in.

Rachel is a Portland, Oregon native. She has resided in Maine, Maryland, Russia and currently West Virginia where she is a third year MFA candidate in fiction. Her stories and young adult novel have won contests through the West Virginia Writers, Inc. She has poetry forthcoming from nibble and a short story, “Elevator Girl,” forthcoming from the Farallon Review. While at WVU, Rachel has worked at West Virginia University Press as an Editorial and Production assistant. She works on copy-editing, proofreading, and the layout of books in InDesign. Because the press only has ten to fifteen titles come out every year, and only has a staff of about five people, Rachel has been able to actively work on titles. Last fall, she was able to copy-edit Ugly to Start With, a short story collection about a boy who grows up in Harper’s Ferry. She was able to work with the author as the book went through publication. This fall she gets to work on another fiction project as well. Not only has she been able to see the publication process first hand, but the job has also taught Rachel a great deal about West Virginia history.

I asked Rachel a few questions about her journey with writing.

When did you start writing fiction? What drew you to this genre?

As far as I can remember, I wrote my first fictional story, a pioneer mystery story, in fifth grade. The next year I wrote a story about a Jewish family who escapes from Poland in 1939. Writing, to me, was a natural effect of being an avid reader. I learned to read maybe later than some writers; I was seven. I remember simply being alive in the world and then being alive in the world and being alive inside books. I’ve always viewed myself as living inside two worlds. Perhaps I’m drawn to fiction, and specifically to novels, because it creates a completely different world, whereas poetry and nonfiction seem a little more reliant on this one

Who are authors that have influenced your work/life? How so?

As a child, my favorite books were Grandpa’s Mountain, Huckleberry Finn, and Emily of New Moon. As an adolescent, my favorite writers were Willa Cather, C.S. Lewis, and Fyoder Dostoevsky. All these books/writers confirmed or challenged how I viewed the world and/or influenced the kind of writing I like. I’ve gone through different favorites as an adult, but currently the writers whose work I think about most are Carson McCullers, Mary Gaitskill, Jim Shepard, and Jack Gilbert. McCullers, Gaitskill, and Shepard all, to a greater or lesser extent, are teaching me how to effectively use backstory, how to describe emotion precisely and without sentimentality, and how to embed historical events/attitudes within the all-important stories of characters. Gilbert’s work dares me to be more fully alive.

You don’t seem to write by the mantra “Write what you know.” You stories are often research based exploring other times and cultures. What draws you to writing about worlds outside of your own?

Maybe this predilection relates to my view of fiction as another world. In this world I rely on my practical nature, but I enjoy allowing my strong intuition and imagination to take over in fictional worlds. If I wrote solely from my own experience I’d limit my imagination, and my writing would suffer. In fiction-writing, I get inside different psyches and time periods, and share those experiences with the reader. I’ve always read a lot of history and historical fiction, so using historical events as a jumping off point for my imagination seems natural. I’m also a quiet observer, taking in whatever people and situations I’m in, and I consciously or unconsciously conjure up these observations when I formulate characters. I guess sometimes I write more from observational experience than personal experience. All that being said, I utilize personal setting or object or anecdotal details, even if the plot or protagonist is very different from my experience or me.

You’ve had some interesting life experiences (living in Russia, teaching in Baltimore, growing up in Oregon). How did you end up at WVU? And do these experiences impact your writing?

Growing up, I always wanted to be adventuring. As I became an adult, I realized that, for better or worse, being a traditional tourist wasn’t a sustainable option for me, because I take a while to process new situations, and I’m concerned with depth and intimacy. Wherever I live, I’ve tried to take Barry Lopez’s advice in his essay “The American Geographies”—to seek out a local or locals who know and love that place and allow them to share their love and knowledge with me. In Morgantown, I’ve been privileged to work at the co-op and WVU Press, both places in which I’ve learned much from WV locals about WV history and culture.

You’ve taken workshops in all three genres since you’ve been here. Has this had an impact on your fiction writing? If so, how?

Writing poetry and nonfiction has probably affected my fiction, but I’m not sure exactly how. While at WVU, in whatever genre, I’ve been trying to pay more attention to the integrity of my sentences. The impetuses to write in certain genres, at least right now, are different. I write fiction to tell an imagined story, often about people and places outside my own experience. I write poetry to work through personal emotions. I have so many story ideas that I know I’ll be writing fiction forever. Because my emotions vary, I’ll be writing poetry forever, too. I’m a fairly private person, so if I write more nonfiction, I’ll probably try my hand at scholarly creative nonfiction, not memoir.

What have been the most valuable lessons you’ve learned here at WVU?

A few lessons: I’ve learned not to interrupt. I’ve learned writing deliberately and well is very much preferable to writing quickly and poorly. I’ve learned to curb my inclination for backstory. I’ve learned how to use ellipses (in poetry). I’ve learned “revising is writing.” I’ve learned to let life happen to me more; to not be such a go-getter.

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