AWM recently spoke to writer Michael Katakis whose most recent book, A Thousand Shards of Glass, has just been published in the US. In this interview, Michael describes the pleasures of travel observations and the benefits of writing them down. Michael is a writer and photographer and also manages Ernest Hemingway’s literary estate. His writing is reflective and thought-provoking. He is unafraid to write honestly about painful truths in his own life and, more broadly, in his country of birth, the US. Michael’s other books include Traveller, Despatches, and The Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. He is also a photographer whose works have been collected by the British Library in London, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., and Stanford University’s Special Collections Department. Michael also edited Sacred Trusts: Essays on Stewardship and Responsibility and Excavating Voices: Listening to Photographs of Native Americans.
AWM asked Michael about his writing career, writing habits and how to convey emotion on the page. You can read more about Michael Katakis on his website: http://www.mkatakis.org
You have primarily built your career on travel writing. How did you get started?
In fact, I never intended to write about my travels but was writing about them all the time in my journals. I have always been fascinated by other people’s lives and cultures so at age 17 I left home to discover the world. I am 64 years old now and have never stopped traveling or asking questions and observing. I realized, years later that when I looked over my journals they had a literary quality to them and that the writing was good and clear and was trying to go deep. I never thought they would be considered for publication but I suppose their appeal was I was describing, for myself, what I was seeing. Even now when I read the entries from my years with my late wife Kris, who was an anthropologist in Sierra Leone, there is a freshness about them, something alive and current.
You began managing Ernest Hemingway’s literary estate in 1999 after working on a collection of essays with Hemingway’s son Patrick. What have you taken away from this experience?
What I have taken away or more accurately learned from handling the Ernest Hemingway literary estate is how absolutely disciplined Hemingway was in regard to his work. He was writing on everything, envelopes, old telegraph paper. He made lists about words and expenses, about things he had seen and experienced. He fretted about his book covers. He was always neck deep in words. He worked very hard. Was he a genius? I suppose so but part of that genius, in my opinion came from tremendous dedication and his hard work. Of course his talent played an enormous role as well.
I know what you mean. The entries in Traveller do seem alive, nearly like a film in words for the reader. My method is a very simple one: the attempt to observe and to see the poetry of life in the actions and desires of people no matter good or bad. I try not to simply report but rather to go deeper. I treat my journal in the field as a word sketchbook. Hemingway, instead of keeping a journal kept bullfight tickets or receipts or letters and train tickets and so many things, that he would use over the years as a kind of visual journal, something to spark his memory.
You have an exceptional ability to translate the sense of a place onto the page. What advice would you offer to writers trying to succinctly capture experience of a place for the reader?
My advice for aspiring writers would be talk less, listen and observe more. Leave your cell phone at home and move through your journeys with pencil and paper. Use anything that helps you get into that state of self-reflection and quiets you while you observe and listen to all that is around you. There is magic in this world and you must choose between looking down into a screen or looking up at the world. One is a great help to a writer and the other a thief that robs you of serendipity and the unplanned experiences and knowledge that is the poetry of life.
In your epilogue in A Thousand Shards of Glass you write about your wife, Kris Hardin. Your prose is incredibly moving and conveyed measures of sorrow and love. Could you give us some advice for writers writing about deeply personal experiences?
If you wish to write truly and meaningfully you must, as best as you can, write truthfully, reaching deep within yourself but avoiding at all cost sentimentality. The epilogue that I wrote about my dear wife Kris in A Thousand Shards of Glass was written while I was enveloped in great sorrow and anger and was close to suicide. You must go deep and be painfully honest, first and foremost with yourself. You must write for yourself.
A Thousand Shards of Glass was published in Australia and the UK in 2014. It has now been published in the US through Australian publishing venture The Author People. How did you come to work with The Author People?
Quite simply I came to work with the Author People because of the remarkable Lou Johnson. Lou was the person who believed in me and my work when she headed Simon and Schuster Australia. She published A Thousand Shards of Glass while at Simon and Schuster and really believed in the book, so much so that when American publishers, in spite of really wonderful reviews, shied away from it because of its scathing essays on America, Lou with her new company that she created asked if I would sign with them to have the book released in the United States. It took me less than a few seconds to say yes and have the opportunity to work with Lou who I admire greatly for her risk-taking and love of books. She is a real publisher in the oldest and best sense.
Zoe Biddlestone is currently studying a Master of Arts in Writing, Editing and Publishing at The University of Queensland. She also has Bachelor degrees in Arts and Law. Zoe works full-time and enjoys freelance editing and proofreading after hours. She loves reading travel writing, the classics and translated fiction.