Andrew Byrds: I wanna start off first by bringing up the title of this book, Aug 9—Fog. I bring this up because one of the first things people will notice getting into this is there are no actual dates listed in the book. Rather it’s chunked out by seasons—Winter, Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter. In the intro you mention many of the pages in the diary were made nearly illegible by water damage/age, but was the exclusion of dates due to this or was it more a creative decision?
Kathryn Scanlan: It was a creative decision—the dates are legible, but it didn’t seem important or interesting to me to include them. It would’ve been awkward to try, since on any given page there are lines or words from several different dates and years. I wanted to move away from the specificity of a certain date and into a sense of time that felt more nebulous. The title is an acknowledgement of that but also a nod to the diary’s original format, and it comes from a small scrap of paper that was tucked into the back. On it, the diarist had written only those words: aug 9—fog.
AB: The language of this book is refreshingly terse, yet stark in the laments and small-town praises the original author wrote all those years ago. It’s immensely Midwestern, and what I mean is having grown up in a small farming town in Iowa, most families are taught to hold all their poison and personal struggles inside and rarely complain. We’re taught to be stoic, kick against the pricks, be humble, and care for your neighbor. Even in the form of a diary, she maintained some of these aspects while being poetically open about her life. How do you think the language of writing hones our way of speaking?
KS: I grew up less than an hour from where the diarist lived. Her Midwestern vernacular felt deeply resonant, recognizable. When my mother read the finished book, she said it reminded her of her grandmother—a stoic, practical woman whose lifespan coincided closely with that of the diarist. I think the way one speaks (writes) determines what one says, and not the other way around. The diary was like a textbook that allowed me to study and connect with my earliest imprints of language.
AB: Your book is being advertised as a novel, though you make it clear that it is a piece of found literature. This may bring up for some people a conversation about whether or not this would be fiction or nonfiction. Could you tell me about some of the creative decisions that went into bringing this story to life, and the artistic merit of found literature, and how it challenges writers who traditionally work with fiction?
KS: Aug 9—Fog is not a piece of found literature, but rather a book built from a piece of found literature. I think ‘novel’ and ‘fiction’ (among other designations) are applicable because my book dramatically reimagines and reshapes its source text into something entirely other, entirely new.
When composing it, I attempted to amplify the diarist’s singular speech and to recreate the sense of disorientation and mystery I felt when reading the diary. I find it deadening when a writer attempts to explain. I tend to glaze over. When I read the diary, I was excited by its lack of information and explanation. My book is an attempt to test the limits of narrative possibility with a minimum of material.
Working with text written by someone else is something I am continually drawn to, and have done for many years—I’ve manipulated old books, children’s primers, advertising copy, found letters. It is the work of the editor. Learning to edit the work of others—both in the above capacity and, formerly, as a nonfiction editor of a literary journal—has taught me how to edit myself. Compelling language can be found everywhere and is something I always have an ear out for, am always scavenging in an attempt to vivify or resuscitate my fiction.
AB: You framed the story in such a way that the reader gets a brief understanding of what’s happening, but really it’s up for speculation. There are all these intricacies happening in the diarist’s life but nothing is ever made concrete. It comes off as poetry in that way. How would you label this book to someone who traditionally dies on a hill reading only fiction/non-fiction/poetry, etc?
KS: I wouldn’t. I don’t understand that sort of rigidity in a reader and feel that placing so much emphasis on what category or genre a book falls under is tiresome and misses the point of reading. There are elements of all three genres in this book, but it is also something other. The abundance of white space, the arrangement of the pages is an attempt to give the sentences the platform, the breathing room of poetry, but this is a strategy we see employed in other forms, too. Work where ‘nothing is ever made concrete’ is often what I’m drawn to as a reader of any and all genres.
AB: Have you tried getting into contact with any of the living members of the diarist’s family and show them what you’ve made from her words?
KS: For years I thought there weren’t any family members left to care about the diary, which was why it ended up in my possession. I’d searched the diarist’s name on the internet but never found anything. Before the book went into production last year, I searched again, and this time I was able to locate a distant relative through a genealogy website. I’ve been corresponding with her since. She and another cousin are genealogy hobbyists and are excited about my book—I sent them copies. I also sent them my scan of the original diary. They confirmed the diarist had one child (the daughter with whom she lived) who had no children of her own, so the diarist’s immediate family line died when her daughter died in the late 1990s.
AB: Is there a particular passage that really stood out to you in the diary, or one that first motivated you to tell this story?
KS: I think I painting may have been one of the first sentences that impelled me—I was (am) thrilled by its odd syntax and declarative force.
AB: Is there anything you realized about your own personal and creative pursuits having worked on this project?
KS: Creating this book was a lesson in composition. I worked on it in tandem with learning how to write stories. It was something I could turn to when I was frustrated or stuck in my fiction. The words and sentences from the diary became blocks to be moved and arranged to create meaning, narrative. Eventually this exercise freed me up to do the same with my stories.
AB: What, if anything, do you plan to take away from working on this book into your own life, and what are you hoping it will achieve with its audience?
KS: The diary is pervaded by its author’s patience, presence, and acceptance of death—all of which I struggle with. I’d like to say making this book has improved my capacities for the above, but I doubt that’s the case. The hope I have for it is the same hope I have for everything I write—that a reader who cares about language will find it worth their time.