Books

Kaethe Schwehn finds freedom in writing post-apocalyptic novel

Arnab Chakladar

Poet Kaethe Schwehn has written a book, “The Rending and the Nest,” which focuses on a post-apocalyptic world.
Arnab Chakladar Poet Kaethe Schwehn has written a book, “The Rending and the Nest,” which focuses on a post-apocalyptic world.

Kaethe Schwehn studied poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, earning her second of two MFAs in the art form. She’s expanded her range since then, penning first a memoir and now a novel. “The Rending and the Nest” is a beautiful and mysterious book in which a small society comes together after an inexplicable apocalyptic event.

Schwehn let the mysteries of her story unfold in the writing.

“I think when I’m first starting to write, I’m always just following an image or a character. There’s very little thinking and planning that goes on ahead of time. So I’d say with everything, I’m encountering it as it’s happening rather than dreaming things up in a very rational way,” she said.

Looking back on what she’s written offers the opportunity to reflect on what it might mean, she said.

“Most of my thinking about a book happens afterward when I’m trying to understand myself where it came from. And I think now that I can look back on it I would say I do think post-apocalyptic books and dystopian books offer us the possibility of encountering our present day world but at a slant or from the corner of your eye. And so I think it permits us ways of talking about current realities that we might not talk about as easily if we were confronted with them head on.”

Fairly early in the novel, the women of Zion — the small, makeshift community in Minnesota where the primary characters dwell — begin to give birth to inanimate objects. Soon after, the book’s narrator, Mira, begins crafting nests for the objects. Given that Schwehn was discovering her story in the act of writing it, this was a surprising and challenging turn of events.

“It was a terrible moment! I felt terrible for this character, and I also thought, ‘Oh, crap, what does this mean? What am I going to do with this?’ So I spent a lot of time along with the characters stressing out about how that was going to work out. And I think it does ultimately resolve in certain ways by the end of the book.”

Upon reflection, some real-world situations subconsciously had shaped her writing.

“When I got done writing the book, I realized that two of my dear, dear friends had gone through a series of stillbirths and miscarriages during the time that I was writing. Although I never would have said I was consciously writing about that and did not consciously think about this at all — because again, the post-apocalyptic world allows me as the writer to think that I’m approaching something that isn’t reality, this has nothing to do with my lived experience — when I got done writing I could say: ‘Oh, during this time I was witnessing my friends dealing with tremendous amounts of grief.’ ”

Schwehn felt well-equipped to work through the unusual plot point she had created for herself.

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“I think poetry prepared me for that really well. A poem is such lower stakes that it’s fine to let absurd things happen because you can always write a different poem the next day,” she said. “I think it gives you good practice in risk and good practice in creating these mini-worlds on the page, because each poem can be its own world. And so I think that the training of poetry really prepared me to watch what was happening and to stick with it and to follow it where it was going to lead. And I think I was more interested in that than I was in whether that was right or whether it was going to work out.”

While the deep background in poetry served her well as she wrote her first novel, she also has found writing prose liberating.

“The great thing for me about writing a novel is that I felt like no one expected me to know how to do it. I have two MFAs in poetry, and by the time I got done at Iowa, I was kind of paralyzed because I knew what was wrong with my poems as soon as I got to the second line. It was very hard for me because I felt like I should know what to do. I felt like I should know everything. And so writing both the memoir and the novel was such a delight because I felt really freed of expectations from myself and from other people.”

Schwehn attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop from 2004 to 2006. Her feelings about the experience are complicated.

“There are things that were amazing about the education that was offered. ... But just like a relationship with a parent — you’re grateful for what they give you and then, during the course of your life, in some ways, you’re defining yourself against that as well.”

She sees post-apocalyptic fiction serving as a lens through which to view the present.

“To me, that’s a very real thing that’s going on in the world right now, as we struggle with fake news and who’s telling what story, and even the Me Too movement. These questions about who gets to tell the story and when do they get to tell it — I think they’ve very real. They’re real questions.”

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