A couple of months ago I was given a list of books to review, as I always am, by my wonderful boss at BookBrowse and I chose Small Damages by Beth Kephart. I was excited to read the book, but by the time I was a few chapters into it, I felt something much more electric than excitement. I felt transported—both out across the ocean to Spain and inside my body into my senses which were popping, buzzing and humming (a Spanish guitar riff…) Small Damages is an intimate, immediate story; filled with breathtakingly drawn characters. One of those characters is landscape. And while it doesn’t have dialogue per se, it does sing and moan and whisper and breathe.
I knew I wanted to interview Beth here, and she couldn’t have been warmer or more enthusiastic about it. It was a complete joy to connect with her. I am thrilled and honored to have Beth Kephart here today. Welcome Beth!
KTE: Small Damages is so rich in its attention to landscape. It was impossible to NOT feel like I was right there with Kenzie—smelling the saffron, feeling the thick heat, tasting the oranges. How did you gather and then articulate the details of this landscape?
BK: I am very blessed in that my brother-in-law and his family lived in Seville for years. I visited a number of times, and often in different seasons. My relationship to the country changed from tourist to something deeper, for I had the chance to return to favorite places and re-experience them over time. The cortijo that forms the backdrop to Small Damages is based on the actual cortijo of a man (no longer alive) who raised Spain’s most prized fighting bulls. He took me out among them one day, in his open jeep. He let me stand among his horses, his prickly pears, let me stand and look down his long roads. He spoke English, thankfully, so he answered many questions.
I traveled through southern Spain. I wrote while I was there. I took many photographs. And then I did the kind of research that every writer does, reading the travel diaries of those who knew Spain when my older characters—Estela, Luis, Miguel, and the gypsies—were young.
KTE: What is your personal relationship to Spain?
BK: Spain is where I am very happy. In addition to my travels there to visit my brother-in-law, I chose Madrid as my honeymoon city. I’ve always had an interest in the country. A few years ago we spent many days in Barcelona; I wove some of that into my young adult novel, Nothing but Ghosts.
KTE: You told me that, for you, landscape is a character. It is for me too. Can you explain that a bit here? Why is this so? How do you manifest this belief in your work?
BK: Landscape shapes us. It defines our legs and lungs as we walk through it. It shapes the way we see, how we define horizons, what seems impossibly far away and what seems gratifyingly or frighteningly near. Landscape is proximity, and it is distance. It is another way of measuring time. And so, in much of my work—the memoirs (especially my book about marriage and El Salvador), the river book, a YA novel that takes place in Juarez, a YA book that takes place in a garden (and Barcelona and Portugal), another YA novel that takes place in Centennial Philadelphia, and of course Small Damages—I am placing my characters down among very specific places and learning how it shapes them.
KTE: Can you speak more about this shaping process? I wonder what you think about the idea that landscape holds stories. The way a piece of land is, for instance, itself shaped over time (from sheep pasture to forest, for example) and what that means for the people (characters) walking and breathing within it. Do those stories get told? Or are they felt? It seems to me that landscape taps into some ancient part of us, some part that is connected to what has come before us, and as such it grounds us, or stirs us up. I feel that with Kenzie on the cortijo. Of course it is tough to separate what she learns from the landscape itself and what she learns from Estela and Esteban as they connect to it…
BK: I am fascinated by changes in place over time. I like to go all the way back, to molten earth, or to sea-drenched earth. I read a lot of the naturalists, try to imagine all the ways the earth could have been and what it is and what (a much sadder thought, usually) it will become. I have been known to stand on the top of a hill, closing my eyes, trying to somehow commune with the wafting ghosts of the past. I do the same thing in urban locations, for cities are landscapes, too. Kenzie is connected to the stories southern Spain holds. Estela, Esteban, Miguel, and the gypsies make sure that she is. Those long dusty roads are not just earth. They are all the places people went, and all the places they stopped going.
BK: Southern Spain is, for Kenzie, so many things. At first it is exile—the place where she is forced to go by a mother who will have nothing to do with her pregnancy. It is loneliness, it is too much distance, it is everything she doesn’t want.
But soon southern Spain is teaching her—about other people’s histories and heartaches, about a mysterious young man, about the dreams that are forged in foreign forests, among unusual birds. Southern Spain releases Kenzie from the myopia of her own troubles. It gives her perspective, new sun, new distances to travel. By dislodging Kenzie from her self-centric worries, southern Spain gives her hope and wisdom and, magnificently, color.
KTE: What does landscape, in general, mean for you?
BK: Landscape roots me, and at the same time it surprises me. I walk the same terrain every afternoon, my neighborhood, and love the familiarity but love, too, the unexpected things (a giant turtle, a snake!).
KTE: I feel exactly the same thing! I run the same terrain every week, on a river trail near my house, and I can't ever get over the incredible feeling of familiarity and surprise that it always brings me. There is something powerful about ritual as it relates to landscape. If you spend enough time SOMEWHERE you both become a part of it and see it anew. Do you have any other thoughts about that? Do you feel that this experience (this kind of ritual) is part of the process of coming to know self?
BK: When you are first entering into a new place, its strangeness is rich and wonderful; that’s when I take the best photographs. I have a sensual relationship, an ecstatic relationship, an I’ll never capture it all sensation. But then, in time, something else happens. I would suggest that what happens relates to a sense of belonging. When we belong somewhere, we can slow down, take note of receding details, stand there and watch the shadows without having to snatch up the exotica. Time within a landscape yields a depth of understanding—of the place and of ourselves.
I travel just to see how the world folds and blends in other places. Landscape answers so much that is curious in me and about me. It is the inspiration for my photographs, and for so many books.
KTE: Oh thank you Beth, for all of this! I could ask you so many more questions on this topic alone, but I will stop here...and offer this instead: a photo montage of images that inspired Small Damages. Beth took the photos (as well as all of the photos here) and her husband played the music. See and listen.
Small Damages, Beth Kephart’s fourteenth book, received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Shelf Awareness and Kirkus and a featured review in the New York Times Book Review. In 2013, Handling the Truth, her book about the making of memoir and its consequences, will be released by Gotham, and in early 2014, Philomel will release a new novel set against the Berlin Wall in 1983. Her blog, twice nominated as a favorite author blog by the BBAW, can be found here. Beth teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Pennsylvania.