Smoke and Mirrors—An Interview with Kristin S. vanNamen

by Gay Degani Read the Story April 3, 2015

EDITOR’S NOTE: In Fall 2014, SmokeLong Quarterly ran a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for our website redesign. For Kristin vanNamen’s generous donation to our campaign, she received an original story written by one of our staff with her as the main character. Below, are the questions that Gay Degani asked Kristin in order to develop the story “Cords.”

What scares you the most? What are you afraid of?

I’m afraid of bungee jumping. I did that once. Never again. Haunted houses: real ones and Halloween (fake) ones. Scary Movies: I leave the room and come back when the scary part is over. I’m also afraid of not finishing my novel. I’ve spent so much time and energy working on it. I finished a PhD. I ran marathons. I’m a get-it-done type of gal. I should’ve finished it by now.

My other fear is losing people I love. I have some hard years ahead. I fear losing my mom, my older sister, and my husband most of all. I don’t want that grief. I don’t want to know the person I’ll become without them.

What do you think is your strongest asset?

I asked my husband. He said, “Acceptance. You accept people for who they are and where they’re at.”

My answer is not acceptance. I think my strongest asset is intellect: my ability (perhaps patience and faith) to learn, analyze, and understand.

Second strongest asset?

My husband said, “You’re writing, but that’s kind of a given.” My answer: not afraid of working hard to make something work.

What makes you laugh?

Something that’s unexpected and slightly humiliating, but not in a life-altering way.

What makes you cry?

Everything makes me cry and seeing other people cry makes me cry.

When I was in high school, I cried while watching The Price is Right. This guy spun the wheel, and it landed on 100. He was so happy he started crying. I was home with a head cold, and I was so happy for him I started crying too.

What do you want out of life? Materially? Spiritual? Intellectually? Relationship-wise?

Materially. I associate material wealth with monetary wealth. I want enough money to say yes.

“Will you fund this program?” YES!

“Will you build a well in Africa?” YES!

“Are you attending your brother’s wedding in England?” YES!

“Will you send your friend money to get her utilities back on?” YES!

Spiritually. I’d like to forgive the universe. There might be something up there, but down here, we’re on our own.

Intellectually. I’ve got it: the PhD. It haunted me for decades in the same way the novel does now. I wanted it so much that I had trouble seeing my way through to it. There was a lot of doubt.

I had no idea I was smart until my junior year in college when I asked my roommate if everyone borrowed her papers too. She laughed until she realized I was serious. She said, “You don’t know? You really don’t know?” I didn’t until she told me, “You’re smart.”

Relationship-wise. I want my husband to want to marry me again.

EDITOR’S NOTE: After Gay wrote the story, she needed a little more help to make sure she got the facts correct, so she sent off another note to Kristin.

Is the advisor called “the advisor” or something else? What is the relationship between the advisor and the candidate like?

The candidate’s dissertation committee is made up of four tenured professors. The most important person is the committee chair, but referring to someone as a chair outside academia might be odd, so advisor works just fine.

The relationship between advisor and candidate is intimate in a familial way. Nelsen was very much like a father to me . . . a father with very high expectations of the quality of my work.

Would there be any meetings/last minute edits for the diss? What dissertation situations would cause her stress when her ex shows up?

The big finale is the dissertation defense in which all four committee members are present, plus a supervising professor from another department. If a doc candidate misses her diss defense, she’d better be in the hospital with a life or death situation. About a month before the defense, I was required to submit paper copies to the entire committee for their review and approval. It’s one of the final steps and is time sensitive. I think I turned mine in on the very last day possible.

What happens if someone is running late? What are the stakes?

Deadlines are tight. Running late could jeopardize the entire schedule and delay graduation by another semester, which doesn’t sound so bad on the surface, but what it really means is spending about another 10K on tuition and possibly delaying career opportunities.

More than anything, I’d say that what’s at stake is that any mistake is a misstep, and each misstep creates a delay that could easily lead to the reality of becoming not a PhD, but an ABD (All-But-Dissertation). It’s estimated that 50% of doctoral candidates fail to complete the dissertation. Becoming ABD is a constant and crushing fear that feeds off of self-doubt and takes the form of obsession.

What’s the pressure like?

There’s a peculiar thing that happens to PhD candidates: Dissertation Brain. Our social skills tend to decline because everything we encounter is placed within the framework of our diss theses. For example, a friend had painted his bedroom walls, and the color reminded me of a scene in one of Toni Morrison’s books. I began an (impromptu) in-depth analysis of the impact and symbolism of the color in relation to Morrison’s work and the uses of color for emotion and intimacy . . . until I realized my friend was staring at me like I’d gone mad. When I stopped my monologue, he said, “I asked if you liked the color. You don’t have to write a dissertation about it.”

About the Interviewer:

Gay Degani has been nominated here and there for Pushcart consideration, Best Small Fictions, and a few various and sundry honors including the 11th Glass Woman Prize. She is the author of a full-length collection of short stories, Rattle of Want (Pure Slush Press, 2015) and a suspense novel, What Came Before (Truth Serum Press, 2016). Her micro "Abbreviated Glossary" appears in the anthology New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fictionedited by James Thomas and Robert Scotellaro. She occasionally blogs at Words in Placeand is currently working on another novel of suspense.