by Ramona Reeves
Karin Cecile Davidson grew up in New Orleans and frequented other Deep South locales as a child and adolescent. Her second book, The Geography of First Kisses, is a collection of stories that dips into those childhood places, as well as several from her adult life. Her book is fiction, and the characters and story lines are by no means autobiographical, but Davidson knows the Deep South and Gulf Coast, as well as Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Columbus, Ohio. Readers can’t escape place in her fiction—not that they will want to. Her lush prose is capable of delivering a cool breeze one moment and a gale force wind the next. While Davidson’s characters do not emerge unscathed, they are endowed with agency and rendered with tremendous empathy. Published by Kallisto Gaia Press, The Geography of First Kisses received the 2022 Acacia Fiction Prize.
Ramona Reeves: I loved reading your collection, Karin. For readers unfamiliar with your work, I’ll mention that the first syllable of your name is pronounced the same as a four-wheeled vehicle, i.e., car, which I learned from a friend of yours who came to a reading I did in Fairhope, Alabama. Like a car, the stories in The Geography of First Kisses take us places, particularly to Louisiana and Mississippi. Did you always know the region would play a key role in these stories, and how did you first conceive of this collection?
Karin Cecile Davidson: Thanks, Ramona! I love that you discovered my name’s pronunciation from a friend of mine at one of your Gulf Coast book events. That’s too funny!
It’s true that there is movement within the collection in terms of geography and within the stories themselves. Place is where I start out in stories, usually via an image that belongs to that particular place. This not only grounds me and the characters but eventually the readers. Louisiana and Mississippi, as well as Florida, are places that I knew in childhood, that I revisit as an adult, so their landscapes and details are pressed into my mind. The title story begins with that idea of the first kiss on a beach in Maine, but the truer outcome for the unnamed character takes place in New Orleans, a city which also formed me. The final story occurs in the countryside outside Picayune, Mississippi, where, like the main character Carly, I internalized the scent and sway of pine trees and the sound of quail murmurings from a young age, with New Orleans just a drive away.
As far as the collection goes, I wrote the stories without a collection in mind. For many, place was something they had in common; for others, themes of love and longing and the appearance of dynamic female characters created connections. I guess it was about ten years of getting the words down and then looking at the stories collectively that led me to believe, yes, there is a collection here.
RR: Many stories revolve around the lives of girls and young women. What attracted you to those voices and stories?
KCD: I think it was more that these girls and women called to me. They’d appear in my mind, sometimes shy and sometimes shouting. Memories also called me to write of children whose parents become absent, and here I wanted to explore themes of only children, in various early stages of their lives, who in some stories had their own children, and so the cycle of absent parents continues or is broken. Occasionally, I would find myself trapped by circumstances which I got through by knowing that I was going to write the hell out of them someday. Two stories emerged that way—“The Geography of First Kisses” and “We Are Here Because of a Horse”—and both won prizes. So there you go.
RR: The lyrical use of language supports the themes of desire and longing that recur throughout this collection. The prose feels sensuous at times, and at other times, reverberates with innocence, particularly in “Bobwhite” and “If You Ask Them Nicely.” How did you think about desire in the context of your characters? What drew you to include this theme?
KCD: Yes, there is a lot of longing and desire in these stories. For me, language does the work of calling up place, creating characters, pushing through barriers that might seem to block those characters from reaching what they want. With the unnamed girl in the title story, it’s that first kiss she desires. With younger, more innocent Lizzy in “If You Ask Them Nicely,” it’s the wish of catching minnows, holding them in her hand, feeling their little aquatic souls for seconds before releasing them. She wishes for much more than this, of course, but I won’t spoil the story. I will say the ultimate image that brings her to the realization of just who her cousin May really is—well, this not only surprised her, but me as well, as did her reaction. I don’t blame her, but wow. And sweet, funny Carly in “Bobwhite” longs for her mother, for her life back in New Orleans, but on the other hand, she navigates her situation pretty well, don’t you think? Her aunt, uncle, and cousin are genuine, generous people. They include her in their life in the Mississippi countryside, and she finds a way to nestle in, to belong. Finding the right language to move the characters along, whether to help them linger in a moment or chase an idea or fling themselves into adventure, is the way I approach the writing. Seriously, I follow, they lead.
As far as including themes in these stories, I don’t think I attempted that at all. The themes turned up and then kept turning up, whether of longing or desire or wishing to belong, as in all three of the mentioned stories. I think this happens to all of us as writers and artists—we create and then we see recurring themes and motifs and even obsessions. Maybe some writers aim to place themes within their work. For me, this is one of the sweet surprises in my stories.
RR: Your epigraph contains lyrics from a Lucinda Williams song, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. For me, that song captures the tone of your book, bluesy yet comforting, the perfect road trip piece. Do the songs from that album equate to your playlist for this collection? Would you add other songs/artists?
KCD: I’m laughing here. That epigraph is so perfect, and yet those lines didn’t occur to me until I had thought about them for a long time. Lord knows why this took me so long to understand. But seriously, the three lines speak to the collection in many ways. The comforts of home that could any moment turn mean, the innocence of the child, the attentions or inattentions of the parent, the beckoning scents of breakfast crossed with an adult’s straighten-up-and-fly-right attitude, the call to look outside eventually followed by let’s go and see the world from another perspective. How could I not know immediately that these lines and this song were echoing moments from these stories? After all, I heard the music well before I’d done the writing and then all along as I was drafting and revising the book.
All that said, while I think the song “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” reflects the collection’s tone, I don’t think the album does. Recently, I made a very long playlist for The Geography of First Kisses, which includes Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” (sung by Rufus Wainwright), Wilco’s “You & I,” James Booker singing “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home,” a couple of songs from Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, a bunch of BeauSoleil, Jason Isbell’s “Dreamsicle,” a dark version of “Cotton Candy Land” (originally sung by Elvis Presley) by Stevie Nicks and Chris Isaak, of course Lucinda Williams “Crescent City,” two versions of “Where or When?” by Wynton Marsalis and Peggy Lee, and, because it just belongs, Taylor Swift’s “happiness.”
RR: Your prose shines in its rich descriptions and blended moments in time. There are so many examples of fresh and apt turns of phrase in your work. Walker Percy, Marguerite Duras, Tim Gautreaux and Emma Pérez came to mind as I read, and I wondered, did you look to other writers’ work as models when you were writing these stories?
KCD: Wow! I love this quartet of voices: Duras, Gautreaux, Pérez, Percy! To be honest, I read all the time. Even when I’m writing. I was in graduate school during the drafting of many of the stories in Geography, so I was definitely reading while writing. More recently I’ve read Duras and Percy, but during that ten-year period of composing these stories, I felt drawn to women authors like Shirley Ann Grau, Sheila Bosworth, Elizabeth Spencer, Holly Goddard Jones, ZZ Packer, Louise Erdrich, Stephanie Vaughn, Joan Silber, and so many more. The grace and honesty, the humor and clarity and depth of their novels and stories. I felt swept away. But it wasn’t just books that called to me, it was also music. The voices, the lyrics, the instrumental progressions. The playlist above is just a glimpse.
RR: While many of your protagonists are young, they do not come across as victims; they possess agency, even in the face of grave danger, as in “The Biker and the Girl.” Was it important to you that your protagonists defy stereotypes, and if so, what are some of the ways you accomplished this?
KCD: I’m heartened and relieved that you read “the girl” in this way. She has total control of her actions, even when she places that red helmet over her high ponytail and sits close behind “the biker” on his Harley. There are many ways to respond to your question, but I’ll narrow the path. The girl is one of the many “only children” in the collection, and as we all know, “the only child” is sometimes seen as spoiled and egocentric and at times nearly perverse to the idea of “the family.” Throughout the drafting of these stories, only children kept appearing, each one clear and capable and crystallized, each one an individual with distinctive drives created out of DNA or destiny or that hallway argument between parents or the way the world seems to spin. The girl was not defined by perspectives and opinions, but by her own kind of endurance and reflection and understanding and—yes, there it is again—longing. Generalized perceptions of others is something that seems to create insensitivity, myopia, fear, even hatred. Pushing through these generalizations to point out that which is unique and lovely and maybe even something in common with those doing the questioning is the goal.
RR: In the story “Bobwhite,” you explored grief through the characters of nine-year-old Carly and her teenage cousin Robbie and masterfully weave together their separate traumas. What drew you to this story and these characters?
KCD: The image of dead bobwhites being cleaned at dusk was a memory that drew me in and asked to be examined. Each autumn in the country outside Picayune, Mississippi, there was a weekend celebration with pond swimming, volleyball, hammock-lazing, board games, cooking, hunting, and adult nonsense like smoking and drinking. One member of the hosting family, a teenage boy named Robbie, at the end of a long day showed me how to clean the little quail he’d shot, maybe hoping to shock me. Even at age eight or nine, I wasn’t easily shocked. But I’d never forget that image and the smells and the sounds of the setters, their huffed breaths, their metal tags shifting and singing, as they waited patiently for their prize of innards. When it came to writing the piece, there were Robbie and Carly, certainly the real Robbie and me at the start, but even in the first few pages, they became their own selves, with uncertainty and anger, compassion and grief drawing a line between them and then slowly pulling them together.
RR: This is your second book. Was it easier or harder to write, or simply different than writing your first book Sybelia Drive, a novel? How long did it take you to write this collection? What was your process for arranging the stories?
KCD: Well, to be honest, The Geography of First Kisses is the first book I wrote. The stories were composed in tandem with the novel, which sounds insane, and perhaps it was, but given grad school and kids and twenty other things going on back then, it’s just the way things went. In estimation, the stories and the novel took about ten years to complete. Sequencing the stories took some time and in the long run was decided by tone, pacing, length, and perhaps trust. Ironically, though the collection was completed before Sybelia Drive, the stories sat and waited their turn. One just has to love the publishing world and its love of novels, right? In my opinion, wrong, but that’s for another day. It’s all fine, though, as the stories became stronger and were all accepted by individual literary reviews in the meantime. And in the end, the one last try of throwing the collection out to contests worked! Thanks be to Kallisto Gaia Press and the Acacia Fiction Prize!
RR: I’d love to talk about the story “We Are Here Because of a Horse.” The story is beautifully developed, seamlessly jumping through time. I wondered what sparked this narrative, and how did you approach the handling of time?
KCD: Oh, Lord. The genesis of this story. Well, call it a young dark horse too shy and weary to show, a DoubleTree Inn where things were out of control, all with the background of strange, magical, troubled Tulsa. I just had to write out of those circumstances, and this wild, curious narrative arrived. I’m ever grateful to Caitlyn Horrocks and Passages North for awarding the story the Waasmode Prize.
In terms of time, the motif of drums added a kind of beat and momentum to the present story, braided with the backstory of how Sam and Meli met. I’m thinking a little bit out of order on this response, in respect to “handling time,” so bear with me. The editing done on the collection as a whole changed this story more than all of the others. In the original, each section is numbered consecutively from One to Twelve, adding an echo to the drumbeat as well as creating a definite structure:
Tulsa by night shines like a shattered gold watch…
We are here because of a horse.
The horse has disappeared from the Expo Center stall…
I appreciate both versions. The literary review version where the story stands on its own, that extra pulse added within the structure: One, Two, Three. And the version that belongs to the collection, each section in the story distinct but not calling attention to itself, still keeping a count, still thrumming, but without the emphasis.
And the braiding? I think this is perfected in writing over the years, practicing, trying, not quite succeeding, trying again until the present and past weave together without fraying, or with just enough fray to make things interesting, textured, bright.
RR: Several stories deal with women who’ve experienced physical abuse by a parent or partner, or the threat of abuse is present. In each case, you find unusual and unique ways to tell these stories. Did you spend much time looking for the right perspectives and angles from which to approach such narratives? I’m thinking of “Gorilla,” “We Are Here Because of a Horse,” and the title story.
KCD: With each of these stories, I felt I had to tread carefully. In “Gorilla,” the abuse becomes so complicated that I had to step back several times, to find the right path to understand how abuse can linger within families, how it can become as attractive as it is threatening. The subject is heavy enough, so I wanted to avoid a heavy-handed approach. Establishing subtlety early on seemed a way in, and moving between the ape house in the Berlin Zoo to the domestic scene at home guided the narrative. In “We Are Here Because of a Horse,” the narrator will never really understand his wife’s origins and the abuse she went through. Writing a story through this lens is nearly impossible, and maybe too subtle, but it’s also a reflection of how family violence is hard to fathom when one’s own family is loving.
RR: Can you talk a little about your writing journey?
KCD: Oh, I don’t want to bore anyone. In a nutshell, reading, bad poetry, terrible stories. More reading, writing, children, writing on grocery receipts, reading children’s books aloud, writing workshops, graduate school, more writing workshops, interviewing authors, writing like a madwoman. And to date, that equals one novel, a story collection, a nearly full draft of another novel, the beginnings of another collection, and over sixty interviews. Best part about the whole journey? The very generous literary community. So many amazing people who write so many amazing things!
RR: Your sentences elegantly carry the reader from one sentence to the next. Here’s an example:
Black raspberry hibiscus, lavender orange honey, lemon ginger and matcha.
Chloe finds the assortment pretty, but pointless. Until she tastes one and
it disappears over her tongue like no kiss she’s ever known. She imagines a
damselfly’s wings might taste as ephemeral, sheer strands of sweetness, gone
as soon as they land, as soon as they’ve left you with the sense that you’ve
remembered something you’d forgotten. Round on the outside and high in
the middle. Something that makes you want to cry.
How would you describe your writing style? Do you think it developed over time?
KCD: Oh, Chloe. I love that character. She does float, doesn’t she?
My writing style definitely developed over time. All that bad poetry and terrible prose I first wrote must’ve helped me toward a better direction. I’ve heard my writing style described as poetic, evocative, sensuous, lyrical, and recently from the wonderful C. Morgan Babst, author of The Floating World, “prismatic and crystalline.”
RR: Let’s talk about your story leads, like “Tulsa by night shines like a shattered gold watch.” What is your process for beginning and ending stories?
KCD: Seriously, these lines come to me. I think about the images or circumstances or hearsay or whatever I’m drawn to via obsession or memory or what-have-you, and then I sit down to write. The lines come. I’m never thinking in terms of leads or hook lines, I’m just mulling over the moment in mind and the language arrives. I suppose my mind is a strange thing. I’m capable of so much on the page, while in conversation I might become speechless or trip over my own words. Ending stories is sometimes more difficult. At both sides of a story, beginning and end, for me, it all comes to trust.
RR: Another theme that shows up in the collection is direction/misdirection. Sometimes, as in the title story with its compass points, this theme rises to the surface for everyone to see. Did you think about direction/misdirection both literally and figuratively in the telling of these stories, and if so, what interested you about this theme?
KCD: I love this question. In response, I’ll be direct and indirect. Direction: NSEW, wind, distance, decision, crossroads, compass points, and suddenly Dorothy and Toto and “Now which way do we go?” Not to mention, straight ahead, around the bend, and just up the road. Misdirection: wrong turns, indecision, getting lost, sailing too close to the wind, spinning in circles, searching for that missing horse, missteps, saying yes and meaning no, finding a way in while thinking it’s a way out. The literal and figurative of where we’re headed and where we end up. Come on, I’ll take you there! Exactly, therein lies the terrain of a story. How a character determines that landscape and whether to cross or crisscross is the adventure.
RR: Thank you for speaking with me, Karin, and congratulations on this collection of stories. As a final question, what are you working on now?
KCD: Thanks so for the opportunity and the amazing questions!
The last question about direction and misdirection leads in a straight line to the novel-in-progress, which is about all these things. See the last response for “all these things!” Direction begins with the working title Highway 61 and proceeds north to south and, yes, reveals a road trip of sorts, if a wife leaving her husband in the middle of the night in their 1962 Ford Fairlane counts. Then comes all the misdirection which led the main characters to their present direction, New Orleans. And there I go again, heading to the Gulf South.
Ramona Reeves writes fiction and essays. Her linked short story collection, It Falls Gently All Around and Other Stories, won the 2022 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was published Oct. 4, 2022 by University of Pittsburgh Press. More about her is available at www.ramonareeves.com
Author photo by Angela Liu