The Penmen Profile: “So Many Africas” Author Jill Kandel

by Rebecca LeBoeuf

Kandel Headshot sm

Creative nonfiction writer and memoirist Jill Kandel traveled the world and now writes about those experiences.

Kandel first submitted her book, “So Many Africas: Six Years in a Zambian Village,” to Autumn House Press‘ full manuscript competition. After winning the Creative Nonfiction Award in 2014 and being published a  year later, the book achieved the Sarton Women’s Literary Award in 2015.

Kandel’s writing has also appeared in many journals and two anthologies, “The Best Spiritual Writing 2013” and “Becoming: What Makes a Woman 2013.” For more information about Kandel and her writing, visit her website.

Have you always written?
I grew up reading and loving books, so even at a young age I was honing my love of words. In 1981, I married a man from the Netherlands and we moved to Zambia working with the Dutch volunteers. I thought living in a village would be a cinch. I was young and naïve.

My husband loved Zambia and had a dream job, but we were really foreigners to each other. I didn’t understand his culture any more than he understood mine. So we came into a new marriage and a new job and moved three thousand miles away from my family. For most of our six years in Zambia, there was no phone or internet. It was a ten-hour canoe ride to the nearest town. How can anyone be prepared for that kind of isolation? I was overwhelmed with culture shock, survival, finding food, cooking, washing and disease.

Words have always been an important part of my life and I was living in a village where the act of talking was a daily struggle. When you lose the ability to speak – to really communicate – there is a sense of loss and isolation. And something odd happens: when you stop talking, you stop hearing yourself. You forget who you are.

When we moved back to America, I needed to find the words in order to understand the years, so I began writing. I was 40 years old when I began to seriously study writing and write on a regular basis. I needed to put words into a time which was basically a big silence in my life. I was allowing myself to say what I hadn’t said. I needed to articulate both the grief and the glory. I needed to take away the silence.

What’s your process in developing your storyline and characters?
Because I write memoir, essay and creative nonfiction, I don’t need to make up characters or storyline. The challenge is to go back emotionally to those places that I need to write about. My process includes reading old letters, listening to cassette tapes we made (yes, cassette tapes!) and watching old family films. I also do a lot of research on the country, language and customs of the places that I lived in. I have too many stories to tell, so one of the biggest questions is figuring out which stories really fit and which ones aren’t necessary.

What challenges do you face in your writing, and how do you overcome them? 
Time is always the biggest challenge. I say no to people constantly because I need to protect the time I need to think and also to write. People don’t always understand how much solitude writing requires.

When I first started writing, I was homeschooling my four children so I’d get up at 5:00 a.m. and write till 9:00 when the school day started. I wrote six days a week, four hours a day. Early mornings were my only alone time. I’d wake up, drink coffee and write.

Now that my children are grown, it’s easier in some ways. I write from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. every day. I don’t make appointments or do other activities in the mornings. That’s my writing time.

Writing takes a lot of self-motivation. I’m the one who has to sit down in the chair and write. No one else will do that for me.

What has the road to publication been like for you?
My first publications were in literary journals. I was writing essay primarily, trying to understand many of the aspects of my expatriate life that baffled me. All of that essay work taught me so much. I learned to accept rejections and go back to a piece and ask myself how I could improve it. I learned to accept edits and to work with editors to make the essays the best they could be.

Over the years I had just shy of 100 rejection letters. I’ve also had essays published in Brevity, Image, River Teeth, The Pinch, Under the Sun, The Gettysburg Review and The Missouri Review.

After I’d written a dozen essays, I wove them together into a memoir. I ended up tearing the memoir apart three times and rewriting it to have a story arc, an emotional arc and a voice of reflection. When I felt it was complete, I sent it to the Autumn House Press full manuscript competition. The competition is run once a year, and three books are chosen for publication: one fiction, one poetry, and one nonfiction. In 2014, my book was chosen and won the Autumn House Nonfiction Prize. It was published in 2015.

How do you market your work?Kandel.So Many Africas_front_300 dpi
Joanne Kraft said, “Not all marketing people are writers, but all writers must learn to be marketers.” I didn’t believe that when I began writing. I didn’t want to. But it’s true. No one will read your book if they don’t know about it. So I learned to treat the marketing side of being an author as a part of my job. I do the social media thing: Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, Amazon author page, blog, website. I sell at a local bookstore, talk on TV, radio, libraries, book clubs, women’s groups and fine arts clubs.

I believe strongly in a local literary community and go to readings and book signings to meet other authors. A lot of times it’s those connections and friendships that surprisingly open up other doors. When my book won the Sarton Women’s Literary Award for Memoir, I went to the conference down in Austin, Texas. It’s expensive to travel and to pay for hotels, but sometimes it’s worth the money. I met the President of the National Association of Memoir Writers and I met the President of She Writes Press. Making connections within the writing world is invaluable. It’s also a lot of fun.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
I didn’t know much about writing when I started and I think that served me well. I was eager to learn and hungry to write and that was enough. I went to one writing conference, or workshop, or retreat each year. I studied writing like my life depended upon it. I’m glad I didn’t know what a long road it would be. I don’t know if I would have had the courage to continue.

Who are the authors that have inspired you most, and how have they inspired you?
Abigail Thomas always inspires me. Her writing is short, to the point, and just hits you. I read everything she writes, with a pencil in hand. She inspires me to be clear.

I also love Brian Doyle’s writing. He writes long run-on sentences that can cover a whole page. I’m always amazed at how joyful his writing is and how deep. I love his word choices. He teaches me to play with words.

And Lauren Slater’s work. Her book, “Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir,” is so ambiguous. She inspires me to write from an angle, to, as Emily Dickinson said, “tell it slant.”

I think all three of these authors, Thomas, Doyle, and Slater are unconventional. They break the rules. That’s what I love about their writing. I want to write clearly, to play with words and to make my readers think.

If you could keep just three books in your library, which would you choose and why?
“The Oxford English Dictionary” because it’s big and beautiful and would challenge me and keep my mind occupied for years.

“The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.” His writing and stories have had an inestimable impact on the world. I’d want to keep them to soak in his wit, humor and love of story.

The Bible. I grew up reading the Bible. I love it for many reasons. I memorize parts of it. I love the language, the metaphor, the story, the poetry. It challenges me emotionally, mentally and spiritually.