Meet Judy Kirscht and Her Debut Novel, Nowhere Else to Go

My guest this week is Judy Kirscht, Past President of the Skagit Valley Writers League. Her first novel, Nowhere Else To Go, has just debuted.

I recommend this book as a wonderfully engaging coming-of-age story, showing change and growth in her characters, their small town, and American society during the 1960s era of racial unrest. Crossing the bridge from the “poor” side of town to the integrated school on the other side is a powerful metaphor for life, no matter our station in life or skin color.

Synopsis: A quiet Midwestern college town is caught up in the social and political upheavals of the 1960s. Racial tension comes alive in the schools and tears lives apart. An earlier version of this novel, entitled The Delta, won an Avery Hopwood Award from the University of Michigan.

Judy, would you share the story of how this book came about? Where did the idea come from?

During the Sixties and early seventies, when campus protests, riots, and civil rights marches were in full swing, I was raising my family in Ann Arbor. My husband and I had always been involved in politics, and in fact, he was a city councilman during this time, which made us a target. The story itself and its characters are purely fiction but the feeling of being pulled apart—and seeing my children pulled apart– by forces polarizing the nation gave birth to the novel.

Did this novel take a lot of research?

Not really, oddly enough. I knew from my own past the culture of the various communities involved in the book. I’d worked as a caseworker in black inner-city Chicago along with many black colleagues, been a part of academic communities all my life, and lived in a neighborhood like the “Delta.” I chose 1968 as the time setting for the novel because, with the assassination of King and Robert Kennedy, it marks the depths of national turmoil—a time that, for me, didn’t need much research. It was memorable.

Tell us about your background. Were you a college professor? How did this help you in your writing?

Well, let’s start with the fact that I wasn’t a professor. I was a non-tenured lecturer, teaching writing. That made me one of the fringe faculty many professors felt to be unnecessary. If you can’t write you shouldn’t be in college. I was, however, raised in academia and my husband was a professor, though he never felt at home in that culture and was happiest in the basement, working with wood. All of this certainly resulted in a feel for those alienated from their home culture—the sort who ended up in “the delta.” My own experience as a teacher was at the college level, so I don’t know how much that contributed, except that I was well aware of school politics and educational dogmatism. Finally, I was always active in politics. It’s a longstanding love, and so we lived very close to the fire in those days.

What other writing have you had published?

In that long ago time when I was a grad student at the University of Michigan—actually the time when this novel was first conceived—I published one short story. Then, for years I published teacherly non-fiction on academic writing, ending with the publication, with a colleague, of a textbook on writing in the various fields of study. Once I retired from teaching, I turned to fiction in earnest and have published two excerpts from another novel, and two more short stories. I also published the essay that won another Hopwood Award back when I was a U of M student. It’s strange and somehow gratifying that the two works that won awards thirty-five years ago have now seen the light of day.

What project are you working on currently?

Projects, and too many. I’ve just finished the first draft of a novel titled The Camera’s Eye, which sprang from a short story, and while that is cooling I’ve been revising another, earlier novel. I hope to have that finished in a couple of months. In addition, I’m currently marketing a novel I finished soon after retirement and another is waiting on a back burner for revision.

Who/what motivates you to write?

I don’t know, honestly. My mother said I wrote wonderful stories as a child. I don’t remember that. I simply woke up one morning thinking I was going to do something else with my life besides raising children. I was going to write. So I went into the room at the UM where creative writers hung out—the Hopwood Room–and made an appointment to see Robert Haugh, the professor who resided there. Then, as I awaited the day, it occurred to me he surely would want to see some writing! I had none. So I sat down that afternoon and wrote. When I showed him the piece, he said I was a writer. That was it. One of those moments that change your life. He offered to work with me a special student (not enrolled in a program) and I began to write. I wrote two novels under his tutelage, Nowhere Else to Go and another. Fifteen years later, that first piece I’d shown him won the Hopwood essay award.

What authors have inspired you?

My first love was short stories—Flannery O’Conner, Eudora Welty, Dorothy Parker. An Acquaintance recently reminded me of Saki, who I haven’t read in years but loved. As for novelists, Ursula Hegi, Margaret Attwood, Amy Tan, and Nadine Gordimer are favorites, along with some classics like Tolstoy and Steinbeck. Kaled Hossein’s Kite Runner and Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants are recent additions to that list.

What audience are you targeting?

That’s a tough one. Those who like a good read that takes you deep. My critique group says I write literary fiction, but I aim at a mainstream audience. So I guess I’m aiming at something called literary/mainstream or literary/commercial. I believe—or hope—my writing is accessible to anyone who wants a good story.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

 Write. Don’t wait for inspiration. If I hadn’t had to show Robert Haugh a piece of writing that afternoon, I never would have written a word. And I hadn’t a clue what I was going to say when I sat down with that yellow pad on my knees. That sounds strange, and it is, but many if not most authors with confirm that ideas don’t come until your finger are at the keyboard. Then, don’t fall victim to the “I only write for myself” defense. Like all defenses, it is born of fear. Face up and share. That’s what writing’s about—sharing our view of the human condition because in that sharing we deepen our bonds. A critique group is the first and best motivator to love and stay with the craft.

Judy’s book is available from Florida Academic Press (www.floridaacademicpress.com), Amazon, or local independent Washington  bookstores (Snow Goose in Stanwood, Tattered Page in Mount Vernon, Watermark in Anacortes, and the Next Chapter in La Conner, WA).

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. What an interesting background Judith Kirscht has had. I’ve read this excellent book, Nowhere Else to Go, and enjoyed it. But more than that, I appreciated its cultural message.

  2. Congratulations to Judy for this terrific accomplishment! I can’t wait to get my hands on this intriguing book.

  3. So nice to see you here, Judith. All the best with the book’s success.

  4. I’m honored to say, “I know this author, and what a teriffic person and talented writer she is. Keepup the good work… Jared McVay

  5. We forget sometimes the trials and tribulations of past times and think only in terms of today’s news and fear for the outcome of America. I also have to say, “Wow!” You wrote a piece while waiting to hear if you had the goods. I love that he read it and said, “You are a writer.” For a fledging writer, It doesn’t get any better than that.”


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