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Author Profile: Iowa City author Kate Kasten put off writing until later in life

Kate Karsten

Kate Karsten will read from her new story collection, “Foreign Ground,” at 3 p.m. on July 29 at Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City.
Kate Karsten Kate Karsten will read from her new story collection, “Foreign Ground,” at 3 p.m. on July 29 at Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City.

Kate Kaste knew she wanted to be a writer as a child, but when she compared her own works to authors like Mark Twain, she found her own to be lacking.

As a result, she didn’t entertain the idea of becoming an author until she was in her 50s.

“I sat down after New Year’s and said, ‘Kate, you’ve always wanted to write, so just do it!’ ” the Iowa City writer said.

“And isn’t that a concept — just do it, whatever it is — because I had always had the idea you’re either born with a talent or you’re not, and if you’re not, you can never learn it,” she added. “It had never occurred to me you can learn it. It had never occurred to me you can learn just about everything. So, I started writing.”

Kasten is the author of four novels: “Better Days,” “The Deconversion of Kit Lamb,” “Ten Small Beds,” and “Too Happy” as well as “Wildwood: Fairy Tales and Fables Re-imagined,” and her short story collection “Foreign Ground,” which she will read at 3 p.m. July 29 at Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City.

Kasten began by writing short stories but longed for the deep characterization and epic plot that only a novel could provide. Now, four novels later, Kate decided to bring together eight short stories in her newest work, a collection titled “Foreign Ground.”

What she learned very quickly about writing is the importance of a first draft, but also the importance of editing and revisions. With the proliferation of computers, Kasten herself has a digital setup in her apartment. Writing novels by hand is now a simple quirk of an author, as opposed to a necessity.

Something Kasten found that helped her writing was finding a community of writers, by signing up for classes and workshops. There, she was able to not only read her peers’ work, but also get valuable feedback about her own projects.

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“(The group) approaches that task constructively, not saying, ‘Oh, that didn’t do it for me,’ or, ‘Oh, that’s too depressing.’ They say, ‘If you did this, would it make it more accessible?’ (They gave) very concrete suggestions.”

Kasten’s current project tells her experiences from 1968 to 1986, when she was heavily involved in the women’s liberation movement, as well as stories of counterculture America from the 1960s into the 1980s. One of the most challenging things Kasten has encountered with this project is organizing the chronology of almost two decades.

“It’s been a tricky process, I might end up calling it a novel,” she said. “I know the stuff, but it’s taking the events — organizing the year by year, month by month, and day by day of things I think would be relevant to this story — that is time consuming. I’m an archivist in my life, and I’m going back through letters and newsletters, and it’s amazing. It just brings back a major part of my life … You remember what it felt like, what you learned and didn’t learn.”

And while this reflection is nostalgic, some aspects are embarrassing in hindsight.

“I’m not embarrassed to be a feminist. I’m still a feminist, but that’s why I’m calling (the project) ‘A Certain Time,’ ” she said. “It was a particular time, but it was also a time where I thought everything I believed was an absolute fact and there were no other points of view. And that’s embarrassing because at my age, I know there’s much more, and many points of view. I know so much more about people, who they are, what they think. It’s … embarrassingly ignorant.”

Now faced with writing a memoir about this time in her life, Kasten’s archivist tendencies are paying off with letters and newsletters she’s held onto over the years. When moving to her current apartment, she had to downsize and had to adopt her own rules for deciding what would survive this culling. That question was: Do I want to write about this?

Kasten’s desire to save things she encounters comes across in recording her dreams.

She keeps a digital recorder next to her bed, that she will sometimes use to record her thoughts after a particularly interesting dream, which she will then name and keep in case she wants to develop an idea later. From plots to dialogue, Kasten is inspired by the life around her. This is seen especially in her characters.

“They’re not autobiographical,” she said. “But you use things you’ve seen and heard, bits of yourself, things that happened in your life, bits and pieces from all over your life. But that doesn’t mean the main character’s views are reflective (of you). People make that assumption if you write in first person, people think you’re talking about yourself, when that’s not the case.”

“Foreign Ground” feels like an apt title of a short story collection, as Kasten forays into something she’s had experience with but has never published until now.

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Kasten said she is considering a second volume of short stories. Now, it’s just a matter of sifting through all of them to find the ones she loves the most.

Book Reading

• What: Kate Kasten will read from her book “Foreign Ground”

• When: 3 p.m. July 29

• Where: Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City

• Cost: Free

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Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.