“The Houseguest,” Kim Brooks’ debut novel, began as a story of characters the author loosely based on her grandparents. The dire historical underpinnings of the finished novel’s plot were not originally part of the project.
“When I started it,” Brooks said in a phone interview, “I didn’t set out to write an historical novel or about this time or these themes.”
But while doing some research, she learned something intriguing about the response of American Jews and Jewish organizations to the atrocities in Europe before the United States entered World War II.
“I sort of assumed it was a unified response, and I discovered that was not the case at all.”
Indeed, Brooks discovered there had been significant acrimony and discord.
“Of course, discord is very good for a fiction writer,” she said.
And Brooks, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, put that discord to excellent use, composing a moving novel of individuals struggling in the face of world affairs.
Even with world-changing events swirling in the background of her story, Brooks primarily is invested in her characters, and is clear about her role as a writer rather than a historian.
“What interests me most is what’s universal,” she said, speaking about the human experience of being conflicted in the face of difficult problems while yearning for clear cut and simple answers. She is deeply interested in “the psychology of the human experience of being in the world.”
She explores that human experience as an essayist, as well.
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“For me, there’s not a huge difference between writing fiction and non-fiction — or at least the kind of non-fiction I’m interested in reading and writing,” she said.
Fundamentally, Brooks is engaged in storytelling, whether writing short stories, novels or lyric personal essays.
She discovered the similarities between the forms during her time in the Writers’ Workshop. She wrote short stories grounded in her personal experience and found it a short leap to essays. In both her fiction and her non-fiction, she has come to value and pursue a sense of evenhandedness, seeking to give those she writes about — whether imagined or real — an even playing field to tell their side of any given story.
“Learning to do that in non-fiction helped me with fiction, too,” Brooks said.
Brooks graduated from the Writers’ Workshop in 2003 and calls herself a “late bloomer” when compared to many of her classmates who published novels soon after completing the program. But her memories of the program are fond, because of an important relationship.
“I’m a little biased because I met the person who became my husband during the first week,” she said.
And, of course, the workshop experience was important to the development of her writing, as well.
“It was definitely an experience like no other experience I’ve ever had,” Brooks said.
Next year, Brooks will publish a memoir in which she considers parenthood and fear.
“It’s inspired by an essay I wrote a number of years ago for Salon about an experience I had with my son,” she said.
That essay, “The Day I Left My Son in the Car,” recounts the legal trouble Brooks found herself in after she ran into a store while her young son waited in the car. A bystander alerted the authorities without engaging with Brooks at all. The forthcoming memoir, Brooks said, investigates “how as parents and as a society we deal with fear and a lack of control when it comes to our kids.”
• What: Kim Brooks reads from
• Where: Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City
• When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
• Cost: Free