Colleen Ryor: When did you begin writing stories?
Jo Neace Krause: First story? I can't remember when I first started writing, because I was writing in my head before I learned to physically write. I grew up in one of those old dark mountain railroad towns where the only excitement was the L & N train that ran twice a day. Everything important to us came in on those trains. They were beautifully constructed passenger cars, dark blue, with strangers sitting in the windows who had no interest in us, and never turned their heads to examine us. Nothing is more exciting than a stranger.
I would make up stories about these strangers, I remember—their clothes, their hairstyles. And wondered what they would do if the train broke down at our station, and they had to stay all night in this place.
I remember one story I had in mind where the train is traveling through a dark place, above the river, and a woman, beautifully dressed in a silky white dress, and high heel shoes, suddenly stands up and pulls the emergency cord, bringing the train to a halt, then without looking at the alarmed faces around her, gets out of the train and starts walking rapidly into the gloomy, brush-choked hollow. I had forgotten the image until recently seeing a painting by a Mexican woman, I believe, of a lone woman in a long white flimsy dress walking across a desert landscape surrounded by nothing but rock and cacti, yet carrying a boom box. The woman's aloneness is so forceful you want to cry out for her.
So I thought a great deal about stories...but, like most people I did not know where to send a story once I wrote it. There seemed three or four places. The Atlantic Monthly. Harper's. The New Yorker. Seventeen. When your stories came back from there, you were finished as a writer. Or so I thought. I had never heard of The Yale Review, which published my first story. I was just ignorant I guess, and because I never told anyone I wanted to write, no one mentioned the vast number of college journals available to writers.
One day a story came back from The New Yorker with a little bit of human hand writing on it.
It said, Sorry. So Sorry. Now this excited me. I had gotten someone's attention. Isn't that pathetic?
CR: You write both fiction and poetry, and you actually had a poem published in The Adirondack Review several years ago. What are the differences between writing poetry and fiction for you?
JNK: Yes, I do write poetry as well as fiction. I love to write poetry. And to read it, to feel a vision jump from one mind to another doing it with only the right words. How do some of them find such words? Green rustlings more -than- regal charities / Drift coolly from that tower of whispered light. Forever fruitless, and beyond that yield of sweat the jungle presses with hot love./ And tendril till our deathward breath is sealed–That is Hart Crane's "Royal Palm." A tower of whispered light! And just to think the mind that said such beautiful things still jumped in the deep blue sea and destroyed itself! Unbelievable and sad to those of us want no fly speck of mistrust upon the face of beauty and passion which makes us endure.
CR:You live in the South, and have been considered an Appalachian writer. How do you feel about this label, or about labeling writers geographically in general?
JNK: Yes, I live in the South, and was born in Kentucky, in an area with a strong mythology..until you really get to know it. Then you realize that the myths are not myths, but are real history.. The violence lingers everywhere, from family feuds, the Civil War to the Coal Wars. (Striking coal miners are the only civilian group the federal government has bombed from the air and tried to kill in peace time) .
CR: Your stories in The Last Game We Played have widely divergent settings. Where do you get the ideas for the characters and settings in your stories?
JNK: The world today has no center. With mass communication, the computer and wireless phone, etc, we can live anywhere and reach anyone first thing in the morning. People from my part of the world have never stayed home, they want to "get out." No one from there, particularly a writer, wants to exist in a cultural coffin, writing about grandma-grandpa-hawgs and dawgs, roosters, and telly telly things out behind the barn. They want "to get dressed up, get out and go," like a Jayne Anne Philips' character. This is why my stories in The Last Game We Played are all over the place, but they are universal as war.
CR: You are also a successful visual artist. Specifically, you paint and your own painting Nude with Hat adorns the cover of your prize-winning short story collection. Tell us about your work as a painter. How does the creative process differ from your writing?
JNK: Yes, I am a visual artist. My agent is the Kentucky Folk Art Center in Morehead. There is nothing so pleasurable as oil paint. I think I paint to get close to people, to touch them in a quick flash., as if to say, this is how I am inside. I love to see the faces of people looking at my paintings for the first time. Not that they don't feel repulsed at times, but when they turn to me and ask, "Did you do this? Did you really? How did you? Why did you? That's so....so.. ." And when they smile I cant help beaming at the warmth of it all.
CR: What are some of your favorite works of fiction? What draws you to them?
JNK: Some of my favorite works of fiction? I am always coming back to the same books. I open and read them like people back home read the Bible. Just turn to a page and read: the great Emily Bronte, War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, Moby Dick, Thomas Mann, Kafka, D.H. Lawrence, William Faulkner, Joyce Carol Oates. I am drawn by the music in their prose and the adventure of these minds at work.
And I like a book you don't hear much about these days. It is by a Frenchman , Jules Romain, called The Death of A Nobody. It is written in a whisper almost. You feel someone is carefully and unhurriedly, in a quiet familiar voice, telling you about a man getting a pain, feeling the first touch of mortality in his bones, and then dying. After he dies a young man rides by on his bike and tries to remember his name.
CR: Who are some of your favorite painters? What do you love about their work?
JNK: One of my favorite painters is Paula Becker Modersohnn. She was a German and a leader in the German Expressionist Movement at the turn of the last century. She died in childbirth at a very young age, I think not yet thirty. Others I like are the nineteeth and twentieth century painters, French of course, and Americans. The Ash Can Painters. What do I like about them? I think it is that they want so badly to show us something they have in them, to connect with mankind, and not exist like Melville's great whale, "who lives upon this earth and never touches it."