R. M. Kinder is originally from southeast Missouri, Crowley’s Ridge, specifically Bloomfield, Stoddard County area. She holds a PhD from the University of Arizona-Tucson and from1989 to 2002 was a professor of English at University of Central Missouri, where she served as editor of Pleiades literary journal, and established Pleiades Press.
Kinder’s fifth book, A Common Person and Other Stories, was released February 1, 2021, by the University of Notre Dame Press as part of their Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction Series. Her first collection of short fiction, Sweet Angel Band, won Helicon Nine Edition’s Willa Cather Prize and was published in 1991; her second collection, A Near-Perfect Gift, won the University of Michigan’s Literary Fiction Award and was published in 2005. She is the author of two novels, An Absolute Gentleman, (Counterpoint Press, 2007) and The Universe Playing Strings (University of New Mexico Press, 2016.) She is co-author with Lowe-Martin of a dual-media biography, Old-Time Fiddling: Hal Sappington, Missouri Fiddler, published by the Johnson Country Missouri Historical Society in 2012. Kinder’s short fiction, non-fiction, and poems have appeared in numerous publications.
An avid amateur musician, Kinder plays acoustic bass, guitar, mandolin, mountain dulcimer, a bit of ukulele, harmonica, and is attempting the fiddle. She is also a videographer. Her YouTube channel (rosemariekinder) features regional musicians, including those who participated in the New Harmonies Roots Music Project, a project coordinated between the Smithsonian and local communities.
I interviewed R.M. about her new story collection in July, 2021.
Evelyn Somers: Let’s start with the broad view of your writing career: you’re a Missouri native, but you completed your undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of Arizona and began successfully publishing stories and your first story collection. What preceded that? What launched you into a writing and teaching career?
R. M. Kinder: The word “launch” is stronger than what my experience suggests. My course was more wavering, as priorities shift, and life directs. I was writing from a young age, and encouraged to do so, but my family and most of my personal community revered teaching and nursing as high achievements for a woman. Recently a friend told me that in our high school yearbook I announced that my goal was to be the next great American writer. That had to be tongue in cheek, because I was never that confident, and I’m now embarrassed at the statement. But writing was a constant pleasure, not a hobby. I finished one year at SEMO, then married, worked as a legal secretary, and didn’t return to college until I was 33, with two children, and a policeman husband. I had completed two novels but I still didn’t think of writing as a career. Now that time seems like an impasse, where the desire had to wait on a door or a shove. I had no writing community and no faith. I planned to become a teacher. In my first English classes at the University of Arizona, an instructor, Ruth Gardner, urged me fervently to take creative writing courses. She was a strong-willed encourager. Then a succession of professional and student writers buoyed me on. They identified themselves as writers and were nurturing and demanding. I loved them, even the ones I didn’t like. That writing community was valuable to me and still is. My MFA was in Creative writing and my thesis was a collection of short fiction. That would be my first publication, and that occurred after I was teaching education majors at UCM. My modified manuscript won Helicon Nine Edition’s first Willa Cather award. I was shifted into Creative Writing and the move was permanent. But, ironically, though I continued to publish small pieces, and I published wonderful writers through the beginning of Pleiades, I didn’t publish another book until after I retired, 16 years later. Since retirement, I’ve published two novels and two more collections of short fiction. Maybe I’m in a new phase. I don’t feel launched. Maybe I’m launching.
ES: As an artist, you’re creative in multiple art forms—not just writing but music (you play several instruments) and most recently making videos. Are these different forms and kinds of creativity ever at odds in your life?
RMK: They complement each other. When I’m heavily involved with one, I can’t be as active in the other, but they are all of one cloth to me. Music tells stories–even with no lyrics music leads the emotions through stages, to unity or discord. We know where there’s pain, where joy. My best videos are of musicians, and my eye follows what I’m interested in that the ears can’t capture—the musician’s hands, for example, or the facial expressions. When I write about musicians, I have those images in my head, which gives me a more complete concept of person and action. And there’s my love of ballads and lyrics—music and stories, a large part of my background. The prose I admire and aspire to write has rhythm and grace and appeal to the senses. All this mingles. There is one possibly separate aspect. I’m more sensitive to sound than sight, so videos and photographs train my eye.
ES: Your new collection, A Common Person and Other Stories, begins with the title story, set in the recent past, in which the protagonist, Maggie, a woman in her midseventies, makes a facetious quip on social media about wishing a political candidate would be assassinated. The consequence is that she is investigated and interrogated at length by the FBI. The story explores questions of privacy, surveillance, and the individual potential for violence. It’s by far the most topical story in the collection. What drew you to take on these issues?
RMK: Maybe it’s the most topical, but not by far. Many of my stories explore abuse of power and the conflict between individual freedom and responsibility in the midst of a community. What makes “A Common Person” more topical is the expanded community, a global one, whose members can overhear, invade, and can be stranger or neighbor. Here it’s government, but the spy, truthful or lying or unsavvy, has always been able to ruin an individual’s career, if not her life. Through technology our community is now vast, wherever the internet carries our words. I’ve been particularly amazed at one specific aspect of current surveillance—the over-zealous scrutiny of what a person says, taken out of context, even out of era. While this story was written some time ago, the last few years have seen people pilloried by some statement or act they may have outgrown spiritually as well as socially and politically. But the truth takes a long time being known and may have no effect. Maggie represents a number of issues, including gun control and owner responsibility. Another point which I try to convey in many stories as well as Maggie’s is that a person should fight when she can, for those who can’t. Some people work two or three jobs, have no transportation, no time to write letters or make appointments. They have to let issues and mistreatment go just to survive. Those who have the time and believe something is wrong should fight. Maggie doesn’t like dealing with police or anything ugly. She suffers a generalized fear. But she’ll ask for her guns back because she believes it’s a right.
ES: The individual stories in this collection were originally published in journals across a span of quite a few years; yet the aesthetic, and vision, feel unified and cohesive. What aspects of your artistic vision have endured over the years you’ve been writing—and are there ways in which they’ve evolved that can be seen in the stories in the new book?
RMK: Like most writers, I want my fiction to be entertaining. I also want it to be honest to experience, to foster what I believe in, not pander to anything base—to have an ethical and moral perspective—and to have beauty. I don’t achieve all that I envision, but my understanding and perspective grow, as they should. Over the years, I’ve wanted to move toward a more optimistic view and perhaps a slightly more sentimental one. This is partly by choice, because my early work was bleak and the writers I most admire celebrate life without much sentiment, just powerful writing. “Everyday Sky” in this collection was a definite change toward a brighter, softer story. “Stuff of Ballads” offers the observing but hopeful community I believe in, and the kind of woman whose real beauty is beyond physical, who breaks the rules, survives, and wins.
ES: Another related question: How did this book come together over time? Did you assemble the stories fairly recently, or has it been evolving as a collection over a longer period?
RMK: Both are true. I write on similar issues, but some stories work well together. “Everyday Sky” is a relatively new piece, but “The Bully’s Snake” is old. I was very fond of it but kept it out of collections because I thought it too fragmentary and sweet. This collection had a number of stories (maybe all of them) about proper caretaking—of people and of animals. A boy caretaking a snake in a jar fit right in with “Everyday Sky,” “A Fragile Life,” “Little Garden,” “Brute,” and even “A Rising Silence.” I still have favorite pieces that have never been included in a submitted collection because they are too different, but they’re coming together now. I also have stories cut from novels that would form a collection, particularly some from The Universe Playing Strings. Several minor characters in that work were originally major. Cutting them was so difficult, but absolutely necessary. Milosh, who is a favorite character in two of my collections, could have made a separate collection—maybe a novel—and still may.
ES: A striking feature of these stories is the surprising endings. Sometimes it’s an abrupt insight the narrator leaves us with. Sometimes it’s an event or action we didn’t see coming: a college student who has been spinning his wheels over the problem of his neighbor’s abused dog suddenly enacts a marvelous plan to rescue it; a woman’s new parakeet wastes away—and the final revelation about what killed it is nothing we could have guessed; a young man’s semi-joking attempts to cure his roommate’s snake phobia turn in a tragic and shocking direction. Tell me about this trait of your stories to end this way—where do you think a story should take or lead its reader?
RMK: This question surprised me, since I dislike stories that end in any way not well earned. They can be surprising at first or subtly, but on reflection, the reader should be able to see that the ending was earned and maybe inevitable. Sometimes an ending surprises me—it isn’t what I thought was coming. But then I realize, of course, it had to be. I recall Nancy Pickard, the mystery writer, saying she realized after a book was going into print that she had the wrong murderer. It had something to do with when flowers were delivered. That kind of insight into your own work can happen. I didn’t plan an ending for any of these stories. They unfolded and the ending came into sight. One you mention, in “Little Garden,” was forecast by Jonathan’s tossing of rubber snakes, the origin of David’s fear, and David’s standing still. About the parakeet: I almost didn’t write about it. I knew of the occurrence, but I wouldn’t have written toward that alone. I didn’t know the resolution, what changed in the character or what the story meant to me. Both of those I learned by writing it.
ES: The vulnerability of animals, and humans’ responsibility for them, are recurring themes in the stories. In several, it’s a central element of the action. I was especially startled by the number of stories that include snakes—I think at least four of them, and in three of the four, the snakes feature prominently. Is there a reason for all those snakes?
RMK: I was surprised myself by the number of dogs I had included in these stories, and now I’m amazed that there are four snakes. Three seem too many, but I’ll find that fourth one. I don’t plan on including animals, and once they’re in a story, I try to avoid over-sentimentality. They’re just part of the communities in which I’ve lived. People feed birds, raccoons, squirrels. Backyards are filled with all sorts of small battles, characters, personalities. I read a great deal about animal intelligence and emotions. And about trees, too—different life forms. We are just one of many species and all are fascinating. The ones close to me get in the stories.
ES: The title of the collection suggests the kinds of people we find in this book—common people, mostly in the Southwest or Midwest, with “ordinary” conflicts that revolve around family, relationships, work, neighbors. But the characters’ consciousness is not particularly common; they’re not just self-aware but very aware also of the imperfections in their lives and relationships. These imperfections are sometimes articulated quite painfully. It’s a good reminder of how much courage it takes to simply live a life. Are you aware of that as you’re writing fiction? Do you consciously seek to create heroic characters and heroic moments for them?
RMK: Since I see heroism in everyday life, for whatever reason, I guess it’s not a conscious choice. If you look closely at any life, there are grand moments, at least to that person. Maybe “grand moments” is a better term than “heroism” overall. I’m certain, though, most people could name personal heroes and support the title. Heroism occurs all the time, given who’s acting and what’s the challenge. It would be too painful to know much about all the import occurring around us, but it’s there. The news media catch some occasions and bring them to broad attention, such as when a young girl threw herself over her toddler brother who was being attacked by wasps. Is that heroism or instinct? It’s a grand moment. When people rise above themselves to help someone else or just rise above the best of their own nature for a moment, that’s grand. I recall reading in, I believe, To Kill a Mockingbird, about a woman who had been addicted to heroin but gave it up as she was dying of cancer. She wanted to beat the addiction before she died. When she needed it most and could have it, she gave it up. All around the great stages are the small ones, similar challenges, losses and wins. Some people may have a limited ability to be unselfish or kind, but a small kindness at the right moment can change lives, and that raises the value of that kindness. Young Milosh in “Everyday Sky” is a heroic young man. The couple in the “Stuff of Ballads” share a grand passion and she, in dealing with the changes in life, is heroic.
ES: This book came out in the middle of a pandemic. How did that affect its publication and your work to promote it?
RMK: The news came in January, the 18th exactly, when judge Valerie Sayers phoned to say I had won the competition. I can’t describe my joy. I couldn’t tell anyone except my close family, because the announcement wouldn’t be made until March or April, or so it seemed. Well, the pandemic descended. The news release was sent out by Valerie Sayers but I guess everything was in such chaos that the notice didn’t appear in Poets and Writers or the Chronicle. I think the release came in July or August and the book was up for pre-order very early. But there was no way to promote it given my circumstances. My husband had a mild stroke in July, and I could barely stay on task getting the manuscript through the editing process and trying to set up Zoom readings and learn how to Zoom. So the promotion was hard, but the sheer promise of the book, one that was more optimistic, possibly my last published work and award, that promise just made every restriction and limitation bearable. After all, living where I do, in a small town, being confined to my house wasn’t that strange. I couldn’t go to jam sessions, but the book filled that void. I could still play. My husband and I played dulcimer to help bring his muscle control back. The pandemic was a tragedy for families and for the nation and world. It was present every day. But the book was, too, a constant positive act, and hope.
ES: Do you have more stories underway? A novel? What’s your current creative endeavor?
RMK: I always have work underway, some novels or stories tucked away forever, others on the brink, maybe tomorrow. I have a budding collection of children’s stories and an almost completed collection of ghost stories. I also have novels that might be good if I would work on them, and I probably will. My goal, though, is to write better, not just switch genres. And I’m not sure that my “otherly” works have the qualities I want. I’ll have to study on them. I would like for all my fiction to form an open novel, so that the same characters appear in different works, and their connections geographically and socially, as well as thematically, unify the fictional world. Since I write about both Missouri and the southwest, the interrelatedness is harder to do than if the settings were all in one state or region, but then, people move and take a sense of one place to the other, and they often return. I met Missouri musicians in Tucson and moved back to Missouri only to meet one of the Tucson Missourians who had returned, too. Life is strange and wonderful. An open novel. That’s what I want my fiction to do, to be.
The following excerpt from the title story of A Common Person and Other Stories is published here by permission of University of Notre Dame Press.
A Common Person
“Maybe someone will shoot him before he takes office.” Maggie posted that statement to her Facebook page. She did so early on a Monday morning, with her first cup of coffee already downed. As she fixed the second cup, she rethought the post. It was the kind a person could pay for in many ways, now and later.
In her tiny study, she returned to Facebook and saw five likes already. She hovered over the number and the responders’ names appeared. Friends. She didn’t want to be cowardly. She preferred boldness in most areas. Still, she opened the drop-down edit box and clicked delete.
Are you sure?
Maggie clicked Yes.
Then she turned to real work, house and yard tasks. She was seventy-six years old, retired, but highly energetic and fascinated by many activities and subjects. She could get sidetracked on Google and study something for hours, dark matter, seahorses, vocalizations of nonprimates, Victorian dress styles, the smallest dog. She avoided the computer except to check her Facebook page, ensuring that the post was gone. Even though it was obviously deleted, she scrolled down the feed page, too. Someone might have shared it a split second before the delete. It existed somewhere, she had no doubt. Nothing ever put into cyberspace could be completely destroyed. It was like a thought wave that traveled throughout the universe.
In the afternoon, as she was refilling bird feeders, her cell phone chimed. The message was update completed. She checked the app icons. There were so many she wouldn’t recognize a change. She wished she still had her old phone, a flip one that could be snapped shut. This one required a most sophisticated silencing. From the kitchen, she watched the birds descend, then startle, then descend again, wave down, wave up. They perched in the plum trees, quick, not too hungry, flitting and living their lives. Maybe she had been a bird once, she loved them so. Maybe she would be one.
At 3:00 p.m. she answered her ringing home phone and, in seconds, heard the click that usually meant a computer call. A couple hours later, that happened again. Her cell phone was updated again, too. Someone was checking on her. She felt a little quickening of her breathing and heart. She needed not to blow this all up into a threatening situation. It was how she thought—always to the extreme. She was hypervigilant by birth, not by choice.
They came for her after seven, in the midst of a televised update on the president elect’s last outrageous tweet. She heard the car pulling into the driveway, heard two doors shut. She turned off the television and stood back from the front door. A horizontal, oblong window allowed her to see them approaching. They wore suits. How ridiculous to be so obvious, but then, that was a kind of honesty. Suddenly, she wanted to text her daughter in California, saying, “I posted a joke about guns and I’m afraid I’m in trouble.” She didn’t have time to text anything. They were knocking.
The men were courteous and upfront, simply responding to a concern raised by a Facebook post. In a short time, she was in the back of their car, one of them beside her. They had her cell phone, her purse, and the medication she had been allowed to gather up. They had also her two revolvers, the scant ammunition, and a fishing knife she had been given long ago and kept in the nightstand drawer. “I’m not a well woman,” she said to the man next to her. He was blond, and very lean, with a sharp nose. “I have to stay calm.”
You’re not in any danger,” he said. “This is a process and will be over soon. You just need to answer some questions and give people time to check your answers.”
It’s a scary process from my end of it, and unnecessary. I can answer questions from my house.” She had already explained three times that the post meant nothing, was a kind of joke, and she had deleted it because she realized it wasn’t funny and could leave the wrong impression. “I want to phone my daughter.”
“I protest,” she said, and focused on the terrain, on small points, as she might have done if she suffered from motion sickness.
“We have a facility in Kansas City,” the man in the front seat said. “It’s very comfortable. You’ll have dinner, bed, whatever you need.”
That meant she was staying, no telling how long.
What about my dog and my cats? I have two cats who are probably home now.”
“They’ll be taken care of.”
The need to cry and run swelled in her chest so she gulped for air but didn’t turn her head away from the window. They passed deep fields, twilight softening the shapes into shadows. Fireflies flickered. She saw a mare and colt, saw cattle. Cars passed them, headlights cut the night ahead. The flat land turned to gentle hills. Her fear became more a pulse and she could think in the dips. In at least a day or two, her daughter would begin to worry and would take steps to locate her mother. She wasn’t really alone or at the mercy of strangers. This was America, her country. She had done nothing. She was just an old woman who owned guns and made a foolish statement. She would be inconvenienced. As would her companions.
“Is someone going to feed my animals tonight?” she asked.
“They’re accustomed to dinner at six.”
“That’s being handled,” from the blond one.
“How do you know?”
“It’s pretty standard procedure.”
From the other one: “Please don’t worry, ma’am. We follow a procedure. We report where we are, what the situation is, and we request any need be met. If there are kids or animals involved, they’re taken care of.”
“You wouldn’t have known about my cats if I hadn’t told you. And what about the birds? I feed them twice a day, sometimes three.”
The man beside her held a tablet up, the screen lighted and showing her Facebook page, a past post of her two cats lying on her desk. He scrolled down to another post. The bird feeder with a burst of bird flight like an umbrella.
“The birds can actually feed themselves,” he said, leaning back.
She didn’t respond. The exchange and the screen had involved her in the mystery of the day’s occurrences and of her future. She believed the men that she wouldn’t be harmed, not by them. But terrible consequences could ensue that the men might not consider harm. She might be housed and fed and medicated for the rest of her life. She might never see her home again, or her animals, or her daughter. Might never be free again, not physically.
They bypassed the city proper where she might recognize streets or stores and came to a stretched-out industrial park, seemingly deserted. The building they parked near was five or six stories, austere, with black, glass windows. The ostensible lobby was empty except for a clerk behind the counter. A small woman eventually came from a hall, her heels clipping on the tiled floor, and introduced herself as Rita Quitano. She was cheerful and chatty and showed Maggie to her room for the evening, explained its features—bath, shower, pajamas, extra pillows and blankets, no television.
I don’t want to be here,” Maggie said. “I want to call my daughter, and I want to go home.”
“It’s a standard procedure, hon. You’ll probably be home tomorrow.”
“I’m not at ease. I’m very frightened but I’m trying to cooperate. I want it noted that I have asked to call someone and to go home.”
“All right. Noted.”
A younger woman, slim, with red hair so curly it could have been rolled in corkscrews, brought a cart with dinner tray. The food was some of Maggie’s favorites. “Anything about me they don’t know?” Maggie asked.
When they left, taking the untouched food with them, Maggie waited a few moments and tried the doorknob. It didn’t give. She didn’t try the phone but if she needed to, she would try. Any minute.
She prepared for bed in the glare of the tiny bathroom. Only once did she think of being locked in as a fact, no windows, no escape hatch, no large vent, no hope, and that moment her body flooded with intense heat and she had to relax, relax all over, let it pass, let it pass. She was so weak then that she trembled as she walked to the bed. She sat down, stared at her feet, thought about relaxing from toes upward, and then about changing the colors of a tree she remembered.
That brought the birds and her yard and the babes, her dog and cats. She sat very still, head bowed. Slow, Maggie. Slow.
She didn’t truly sleep, but she slipped into dreams and came out to feel the room was dream, too. She left a light on and was grateful they hadn’t timed it to go off, plunging her into darkness and a personal kind of terror.
The meeting room was two halls, L-shaped to the left, from where she slept. It was small, windowless, but with a built-in screen in the center of one wall. Three well padded, upholstered chairs with low arms were positioned at a round, low table. A coffee service, three cups, and a platter of individually wrapped cinnamon rolls were on the table. Maggie sat down in one of the aligned chairs, though she assumed the more separated one was hers. She poured coffee into a plastic cup and opened one of the roll containers. She preferred a different sweetener than they provided, which was comforting.
They didn’t arrive for an hour, or so she timed it. A man, blond and bulkish, but sweet looking, much like her Uncle Carl as a young man. And the young woman who brought last night’s dinner, now in blue slacks and heels—no stockings—and a pale yellow blouse. Her hair was in a large, unruly bun. She looked like a bouquet, which, Maggie, thought, she was. “You’re very pretty,” Maggie said. “I like the color combination.”
Thanks,” with a terse little clip nod, charming despite her intent.
The man was Bruce, the girl Sally. He laid a folder on the table, opened a roll, and as he unwrapped it, began their exchange.
“Your post about shooting someone was reported, as I’m sure you know. We’re meeting because you have been associated with violence and with violent people for a long time. Given that, and some of your personal tendencies, you pose a possible threat that has to be evaluated and, if necessary, contained or deflected.”
“I’m not a violent person at all,” Maggie said. “I can’t bear violence.”
“Yet you said maybe someone would shoot the candidate before he was elected. You want that to happen, it seems.”
“If it would be best for our country, then I wouldn’t mind if it happened. But I don’t want it, and I wouldn’t do it.”
“You’d support someone else doing it.”
Maggie entertained that thought, weighed it. “In principle, probably. I wouldn’t actively support it”
“What do you mean by actively?”
“Join a group dedicated to that or give them money. I would accept the necessity, but leave it up to someone else, and especially to God. Maybe we’ve earned this president in His opinion.”
“What faith are you?”
“None. More hope than faith. Could we stay with guns? Or could I go home? May I demand to go? I need to be there. My creatures are accustomed to me and I am to them. They’re my small responsibility. I wasn’t suggesting someone shoot a person. I was conjecturing what might happen. My history, which you must know, surely indicates I’ve never been violent in any way, never even went hunting. Most of my life I’ve attempted just to stay calm. It’s a battle.”
Now he seemed amused. He had cocked his head as she spoke, and raised a blond, bushy eyebrow. It might have been an appealing look in another situation.
“You’re describing what the file shows,” he said. “You haven’t been in therapy for years. That can be a red flag, especially if you begin talking about violent acts, against yourself or someone else—thus, our reaction to your post. Even your leisurely activities show you’re drawn to violence. You like suspense and survivor movies and books.”
“I read history too, explorations, research, anything about animals.”
“Yes. But you favor violent, dangerous activity.”
“It keeps up with my body.”
“Sometimes reading what you can’t do dissipates tension.”
“Like feeding a hunger.”
She had considered that herself. “Possibly. Probably that, too. But here, mentally,” she touched her temple, “I favor history and the natural sciences—for the layperson, of course. I’m a commoner.”
“What does that mean to you? Commoner. Do you see society divided into commoners and royalty?”
“Of course I see society that way, but that’s not what I meant. I meant I’m a common person, not an intellect, not a scientist. I’m not even a mathematician. Admittedly, I know our country is severely divided between the wealthy and the not wealthy. We’re losing a middle class. But I’m not taking up arms in that fight, which has, as anyone knows, always been with us. It will right itself.”
“Resistance to the old always rises. The new asserts itself and a new paradigm rules.”
“You’re talking rebellion.”
“Could we go back to my guns or my violent history? The conversation is leading to my execution.”
The girl gave a small snicker, not ugly, and Maggie frowned a bit, just to indicate it wasn’t an appropriate response, though it might have had a positive effect on the male interrogator. It lightened the moment.
The man smiled. “All right. Let’s get back to what I know instead of where you’re leading me.”
Evelyn Somers is the longtime associate editor of the Missouri Review. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared widely in journals, and her work has been longlisted for Best American Essays. She recently finished a comic novel about an empty-nester and her supernatural pet and is at work on a new novel.