Floating Through Time: An Interview with Kelly Easton

Please note that this interview was originally published on our old website in 2015, before our parent nonprofit—then called Tethered by Letters (TBL)—had rebranded as Brink Literacy Project. In the interests of accuracy, we have retained the original wording of the interview.

In Kelly Easton’s new novel, Time in the Sleeping Sky, each character is defined by his or her relationship to time. For Sonny, time moves too quickly. He wants to find a way to stop it, understand it, write stories about traveling within its ticks. Time for Sonny’s mother is different. Nancy wants all the things her self-help books promise, but like the hands forever traveling around the face of the hallway clock, she can’t find the strength to break the cycle. For Ben, her father, time does not move too quickly or too slowly, it simply falls away, like everything else in his life: his wife, his plans, his mind. And for Ben’s mother and father, time has stopped, their deaths now whispered memories. However, even the suspension of time cannot hide the secrets of murder that taint their family, and as Ben’s condition worsens, all five narratives begin to intertwine, bringing us closer to understanding how and why their lives have unraveled.

Tethered by Letters is honored to recommend Time in the Sleeping Sky, for within its pages, Easton brings us not only a beautiful story of one family’s struggles, but also shows us the power of great writing. Flawlessly interweaving a handful of vibrant narratives, Easton creates several angles and lenses through which to study a single family. From Ben’s stylistically stunning narrative—so infected by his Alzheimer’s that the words and concepts flow freely in and out of one another—to the laugh-out-loud humor of Sonny’s chapters—sparkling with the abrasive and insightful comments of a child with Asperger syndrome—Easton creates a dimensionality to their world that is rarely seen in a work so short.

However, one of the most impressive aspects of Time in the Sleeping Sky is the responsibility it forces onto the reader. Easton demands their attention, their powers of deduction. The characters’ emotions are conveyed through dynamic images; their language, the best indicator of their character; what they choose to see, the clue to their minds. In this novel, one will find no summaries of events, no explanations of plot, no lengthy monologues, because in less than two hundred pages, it has no time for them. Instead, the reader is thrust into the same world the characters themselves inhabit, a world that does not stop to explain what is happening, why some are losing their grasp on it, while others understand too much. Just like the characters, the reader is forced to discover the genetic threads of madness and genius that bind this family together, before time runs out for them all.

Easton on Time in the Sleeping Sky

Time in the Sleeping Sky was the first novel that Easton ever started, though her tenth to be published. “That should give you some idea about how long it took me,” Easton stated, sharing with me how close this project is to her. She began the novel in her twenties after reading Yasunari Kawabata’s novel, The Sound of the Mountain . Inspired by the way that Kawabata used a minimalistic style to create a “quiet novel,” she sought to write a story in which the plot and the internal themes were expressed through a very subtle medium. By allowing this “Buddhist” thinking to shape her prose, the process of writing itself reflected the content, creating a novel that was “very meditative to write.” However, the influence of Japanese literature also permeates the lives of her characters, resulting in the internal fascination with Japan and meditation that propels the plot forward.

This style, however, was not simple to adopt. In particular, the chapters centered around Ben, the oldest living family member, were very difficult for Easton. The combination of his intense grief from losing his wife and his deteriorating mental state created a narrative that was very challenging both emotionally and stylistically. To make the voice authentic, Easton allowed his Alzheimer’s to overrun the narrative, bringing us some of the most beautiful writing in the book. When I asked Easton about her inspiration to incorporate this challenging mental state, she explained that when she was in her twenties, a friend had told her a story of when her father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and how this radically changed his personality type. As his memories disappeared, so too did his more rigid idiosyncrasies, resulting in changes ranging from dietary preferences to sudden unusual behavior such as becoming inappropriately sexual. Easton found this behavior reversal “absolutely terrible and fascinating,” and it triggered her interest in Alzheimer’s and how it can change one’s identity. This inspiration later bloomed into Ben’s unique voice and character in Time in the Sleeping Sky.

Although Ben’s sections made the writing process “extremely slow,” the main reason Easton worked so long on this novel was she never felt like it was complete: “You have an instinct as a writer when something isn’t finished…when something is missing.” For years she struggled with this problem, not knowing why it wasn’t working. However, when the inspiration came to her to incorporate the narrative of Ben’s grandson, she knew she had found the missing piece. “When I got the voice of the child,” she explained, “it all pulled together and it was amazing!” After working on Time in the Sleeping Sky for almost two decades, she wrote Sonny’s chapters—which make up roughly a third of the entire novel—in only a week! “As a writer, that very rarely happens,” she added with a wide smile, “but the voice came and it all pulled together.”

Once she added Sonny’s voice, his optimism and humor perfectly balanced out the gloomier chapters centered on Ben and his daughter, Nancy, allowing the plot to move forward without bogging the reader down. This lighter voice also worked to open up the reader to the emotional aspects of the text, mirroring the odd relationship that humor and sadness share in moments of intense grief. “It’s like that in real life. Horrible things are happening, you’re sitting in a hospital room, and then you just start laughing. It opens you up. Sonny’s chapters did that.”

Looking back at a novel that Easton had been writing her entire career, I was curious to know how it felt now that it was finally in print. “I like it,” she replied simply. “Some things I’ve published were written on a deadline, and I wasn’t quite happy with them. I have a very Buddhist type of personality, so I tend to get detached at the end, but writing this novel was a very spiritual experience for me. It was emotional and hard to let go of…but I know that it’s finished.”

Easton on Writing and Publishing

In contrast to the majority of our past Tethered Tidings’ authors, Easton does not do revisions while she writes her first draft. “I’m a very unconscious writer…when I write a first draft, I write like hell; I write as much as I can. Maybe I write two hours a day. On good days, four hours. I write really fast and try not to think about it.” This is not to say that Easton doesn’t revise; she simply divides her writing into two distinct steps. “The first process is purely creative,” she explained, “so I go really fast with it. I conk out about a hundred pages but then it’s grueling. Revisions are like walking through mud.” Despite the difficulty presented by these “horrible” revisions, she believes they are the key to good writing. “The reason people don’t succeed as writers is they don’t revise enough,” she stated, “and I know that if I just keep going [with my revisions], I’ll end up with something good.”

Although Easton is a wonderful wordsmith, she told me that her true calling is teaching. For this reason, when I asked if she had any advice for our new writers at TBL, she was eager to share her experiences. To begin, Easton told me a story about the walls in New England, how they are built stone by stone. “Writing is like building those walls,” she said, “every day you put a stone on and one day you have a wall. You have to think about it in small steps and not get bogged down by the enormity of it. I think that’s the hazard of writer’s block.” Though she admitted that, after telling her son this idea, he corrected her by noting how many hours she spends revising, saying that really, her writing was like “taking the wall apart.” Easton laughed, commenting about how “cool” she thought the idea was, and even more so that her young son had observed it.

Secondly, Easton advises writers to be neither the critical nor the doting parent when it comes to their work. “Don’t think that you’re so fantastic that you don’t have to work hard, but don’t kill yourself, because what’s the point of doing it if it’s not joyful?” As we discussed, a writer needs to be proud enough of his or her ideas to dedicate the time to pouring them onto the page, but also humble enough to know the importance of revisions.

Lastly, Easton discussed the business angle of writing: “It’s like you’re applying for a job; you have to fill out a hundred applications before you get the job.” Emphasizing how hard writers need to work to get published, she told me a story of a friend who had sent her book out only three times and then stopped. “I couldn’t help but burst into laughter,” Easton confessed. “It’s about the numbers. You have to keep going.” This is not to say that Easton advises writers to ignore rejections. On the contrary, she sees refusals as an opportunity to improve. As a general rule, if Easton gets five rejections, she revises. “Take it as inspiration. Make your work better and better… If you’ve done the work, there’s someone out there who will want it. Just keep going.”

Excerpt from Time in the Sleeping Sky

Through a string of words Ben traces the thin branch of his thoughts: notes, lists, letter. He peers at the one piece of mail that is addresses to him instead of Resident, then shoves the circulars onto the floor.

Lately, his vision is disturbed. When he went to the bread box this morning, he thought mouth, the wooden jaw dropping open, and he stood there waiting; what would it say? He should see his optometrist. When he nicked his chin with his razor, the words that come to mind were, red tears. Like his life was a foreign movie, not that he’s seen many, only one: Japanese. The same murder described by three different people. Norma had taken him to a Japanese Festival and this was what they showed, the faces on the screen so leering and violent that he wanted to cover his wife’s eyes. Red tears would be something said in a movie like that.

He lifts the letter toward the overhead light as if it is not his and he’s spying. Could it be that grief has knocked him senseless, he whose emotions were as tidy as Norma’s sewing kit, each spool of thread lined neatly, the shades in descending colors. He pries the envelope open with the back of a spoon.

How are you? The letter asks. Has it been over a year since Norma died? How time flies. What a good wife she’s been to him. How is Nancy? Has she found another husband yet? And your grandson, Sonny?

How rare to receive a letter these days.

Ben reaches for the marmalade and spreads it onto the envelope, realizing his mistake only when he raises it to his mouth. “I should look where I’m going,” he says, embarrassed, but there is no one around to notice.

Kelly Easton, Interviewed by Dani Hedlund

Kelly Easton has always been drawn to the fantastical, to the powerful stories we fall in love with as children. For this reason, the majority of her writing career has been dedicated to writing and teaching children’s and young adult fiction. Despite this focus, there seems to be no part of the writing world Easton has not touched. She’s been a playwright, a short-story writer, a young fiction author, and has now published her first adult novel. Throughout the years, Easton has won wide acclaim for her works, including the American Asian/Pacific Literature Award for her novel, Hiroshima Dreams. Currently, Easton teaches at the graduate program at Hamline University in Minnesota, helping students write children and young adult works. When Easton isn’t submerged in the world of literature, she enjoys spending time with her family, studying Japanese culture, and wondering about the best way to get attention for her works without drawing attention to herself—and worrying that this might be a terrible paradox.

After the publication of her first novel at the age of eighteen, Dani Hedlund founded the international literary nonprofit Brink Literacy Project (formerly Tethered by Letters). Over the course of the last decade, Brink has grown into one of the largest independently-funded literary nonprofits in the nation, with bases across the US, UK, and Southeast Asia. She is also the founder and Editor-in-Chief of F(r)iction, an art and literary collection specializing in boundary-defying work. Since its inception in 2015, F(r)iction has risen to critical acclaim, becoming one of the fastest growing literary journals in the world. In her ever-elusive free time, Dani lectures about the ins and outs of the publishing industry, writes very weird fiction, and runs a strange little board game company called Bad Hipster Games.