by Kaylene Johnson-Sullivan
Have you ever turned the last page of a good book and wished you could sit down and have a meaningful conversation with the author? I had just finished reading an advance copy of Three Ways to Disappear by Katy Yocom and decided to act on that impulse.
Both Katy and I were members of the charter class of the Spalding University MFA in Writing program, graduating in October 2003. Katy is also the Associate Director for Communications and Alumni Relations for the Spalding School of Creative and Professional Writing. Her debut novel will be released by Ashland Creek Press on July 16. In the years since graduation, whenever we met, I asked Katy about her novel-in-progress. I was always intrigued that the novel involved tigers.
It turns out the book was about far more than tigers. My husband and I read a book aloud between us before bed each night—a private book club of sorts. We invariably talked about Three Ways to Disappear over coffee each morning. The book was thought-provoking on many levels. Along with the plight of the tiger, the book is about damaged families, the longing for connection, and how the empowerment for change can prove dangerous. Crafted with passion and precision, the story follows a pair of Bengal tigers in the Indian preserve of Ranthambore. It also follows the relationship between sisters in the aftermath of family tragedy. And it explores the complexities of culture and tradition against the yearnings of the human heart.
After we turned the last satisfying page of the book, I emailed and asked if Katy would be willing to discuss her journey to bring her novel, Three Ways to Disappear, into the world. She was, and we spoke about it by phone.
Katy, you bring a lot of passion to this project. What inspired you to write about this topic?
It all started with the tigers. As a kid growing up on a horse farm in Kansas, I became fascinated with the movie Born Free. (Based on a true story, the 1966 British film Born Free portrays a couple who raise an African lion to adulthood and then release her into the wild.) I thought I had outgrown that, but when my husband told me that a litter of tigers had been born in the Louisville Zoo, there was this snap of recognition. I knew that I would watch these cubs grow up into magnificent, powerful, charismatic animals. Then I began researching tigers, and what had begun as a simple infatuation grew to a more complex understanding about tigers.
Then, in 2005, I was on my deck, planting impatiens in some flower boxes, when I heard a sentence in my head. This sentence just came to me, something like Sena says the first line of Ahab’s Wife came to her. I can’t say it here because it would be a spoiler for the book. But the sentence was a starting place and gave me the idea for the arc of the story. In the end, it didn’t wind up in the book, but it was the starting place.
How did you choose the title Three Ways to Disappear?
Initially, I think “three” came from the number of children in the DeVaughan family, and “disappear” came from the threat of extinction for the tiger. But the concept of disappearance reverberates in several different ways, and its meaning has changed for me over the years. For instance, I think of my characters’ longing to connect spiritually, emotionally, and physically. I’m happy with the title because it keeps me (and I hope the reader) returning to the question, “What are the three ways to disappear?” I like that it’s a living question.
What was the timeline for your writing process?
I started on the first draft and got about fifty pages into it when realized I couldn’t imagine the world of this book enough without traveling to its real-world setting. A grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation funded my trip to India. My experiences there were incredibly vivid and intense, and when I got back from India, I didn’t write at all for nine to ten months. There was so much to absorb, and it was all marinating. I eventually took a couple of writing retreats and finally took a two-week retreat to complete the first draft. From the time of the trip until the first draft was completed was about a year and a half. But then it took years of revision. The story was changing all the time.
What were the biggest challenges in writing this novel?
The hardest part in terms of craft was deciding on the point of view. I took so many different shots at it. At one point I had a 108,000-word manuscript with four main POV characters, plus scattered chapters from the POVs of the tigers and a few minor characters. It won the Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature from Ashland Creek Press, but the prize was not a publishing prize. So I boldly asked if they would consider the book for publication. They said it was “a little sprawling” and twenty-five percent longer than it needed to be. It was 400 pages, and they needed me to cut it to 300 pages before they could even consider it for publication.
I took it as a challenge. The Siskiyou Prize came with a month-long retreat in central Oregon. I had to do some slashing and burning. You know the phrase “kill your darlings”? Well, with my journalism background, I knew how to be ruthless. As I was paring down, my most painful “darling” was taking out the scene from William’s point of view in which he is listening to Sarah and Sanjay upstairs. I really mourned losing that scene. A version of it remains in the book, but the change in POV blunts its power. But there was no way around it.
I cut 28,000 words while I was in Oregon and took out all the chapters that weren’t from Sarah’s or Quinn’s POV, or in a few cases recast other characters’ chapters in the POV of Sarah or Quinn. In the end, it turned out that the editors at Ashland Creek Press were exactly right. It needed to be a more compact work. It was better that way.
Did you have any regrets – things you wish you’d done differently in the process of writing the book?
I have an undergrad in journalism from the University of Kansas with an emphasis on newspaper and magazine reporting. When I went to India, I didn’t take a lot of notes or write in a journal. I wanted to keep it open-ended and absorb the place and culture without assigning it a narrative right away. So I was left with impressions and memories but lost the details. I wish I’d taken more journalistic notes. The photos proved invaluable in that aspect because they provided the detail I needed.
From the beginning of the novel, tension in the story builds, and there are several surprises at the end. Did you map out the book in advance? Did you use an outline?
Oh no, I fumbled my way through the plot. I’m a “pantser” when it comes to plot. You know how some people plan and outline a plot? They’re plotters. Other authors go by the seat of their pants; they’re pantsers, and that’s what I am. But at some point, you have to assert some authorial control. The story has to have narrative unity, and once you know the arc, you can go back and seed things at the beginning.
My revision process was never just about polishing a draft—instead, the story was always changing. In a way, I’m glad, because that endless iterative process helped create layers and deepen the themes, but it also meant that certain passages were highly polished while others were brand new. For instance, the involvement of Sanjay’s ex-wife came as a surprise very late in the revision process. I’d already sold the book and was making revisions by the time I brought her onto the page. I’m happy that I let her have a voice in the book.
What character do you most identify with in the story?
Sarah and Quinn represent different aspects of me. I relate to both of them. Like Sarah, I’m a traveler. I love adventure and I have a love of the big cats. I gave Sarah my imaginary journalistic life—the life of a globetrotting traveler. But I also identify with Quinn. They are both trying to protect the things they most love, but they each manifest it in different ways. Quinn is a worrier. Sarah is a warrior.
As a reader, I found myself immersed in the countryside of Rajasthan, the city of Sawai, and the gorgeous tiger preserve of Ranthambore. As a writer, what do you think is the key creating a sense of place?
I love the immersion approach—going to a place, moving around in it, eating and doing things and conversing with people. Those experiences—being in a place and absorbing it through your senses and bumping up against the surprises—make it so much easier to write a place. You come away with a sense of what makes a place feel like itself. After spending time in Indian cities, I couldn’t not write about the traffic.
I try not to paint a static picture but to show a place at a particular moment in time, to show the movement of life through it. In the natural world, instead of just describing a tree, I’ll try to capture, say, the moment a flock of parakeets comes pouring out of its branches. In a human setting, place grows out of everything from clothing and customs and culture to, literally, infrastructure. I’d written a scene where a character was running a hot bath in her home in Delhi. I had to change that when a reader pointed out to me that the home—even though it belonged to relatively wealthy people—wouldn’t have had hot water pipes. It’s easier for me to create the sense of an unfamiliar place than a familiar one, to be honest. If I’m writing something set in the States and I say someone ran a bath, that’s all I have to say. We know what that means. The assumption of shared knowledge can really flatten out the writing. It’s harder to make it fresh.
In what ways did your time as a student at the Spalding MFA in Writing program inform your work on this novel?
I decided on getting an MFA at Spalding because I had an idea for a novel—a different novel, set in the dot-com days—but was up against the fact that I didn’t know how to write one. The program offered deadlines, community, and the opportunity to learn skills that I could put in my writer’s toolbox. I took a full-length manuscript workshop in my fourth semester, and that feedback was a huge learning experience. What I learned in that workshop—and for that matter, everything I learned at Spalding—later informed Three Ways to Disappear. But just as important was the community I gained here. The support and feedback and camaraderie of my Spalding writing community, along with the support of my family, makes my writing life possible.
Three Ways to Disappear will be released July 16. It’s available at your local independent bookstore, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other booksellers. For more information, visit Katy’s website or Ashland Creek Press.
Kaylene Johnson-Sullivan is the author of several non-fiction books published by Alaska Northwest, the University of Alaska Press, and Ember Press. Her work has appeared in The Louisville Review, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications. She is a frequent contributor to Alaska magazine and makes her home on a horse farm in Palmer, Alaska.