An Unlikely Interview with Kat Howard

Have you ever visited Station Island and the site known as St. Patrick’s Purgatory, which plays a central role in All of Our Past Places? If so, what was your experience going there? If not, do you plan to visit, and do you think your perception of the place will be colored by having written this story?

I’ve been to Ireland, but not to Station Island. I’d love to go — I’ve been fascinated by the place since I first learned about it, and I’m also very interested in pilgrimage sites and sacred places in general. I love the idea that there are places that connect us more closely to the numinous, where the act of going is in and of itself somehow special or sacred.

When you travel or visit a new area, are you the kind of person who likes to use a map (or GPS) to get to know the place, or do you prefer to explore and figure things out as you go along? Similarly, when it comes to fiction, do you outline, or do you start writing and find the story that way?

I am appallingly bad at navigation. I cannot read a map, and seem to have a particular talent for getting lost. So much so, that when I told people I was working on this story, there was this sort of shocked pause. Seriously, if we are ever going anywhere together, do not let me drive, even if we have a GPS.

Perhaps because I’m so bad at navigation, I also tend not to be an outliner. I write because I don’t know how the story ends, and I want to figure that out. Now, this is a technique that sometimes has its disadvantages -- I’ve had to do revisions where I started over from scratch, and for this story, I literally cut a draft apart and stapled it back together during a revision. I will also get to the end of a draft, especially of a longer project, and then reverse outline, to make sure that what I think happened in the story actually made it onto the page.

Authors are notorious for working strange jobs. Stephen King was a janitor and J.D. Salinger worked as the entertainment director on a luxury cruise line. What’s the weirdest job you’ve ever had, and did it inspire any stories or teach you anything you’ve used in your writing?

This isn’t weird so much as unusual. I’m a former competitive fencer, and I filled in as an assistant coach while a friend was on vacation. Not bad in and of itself, but it was for a beginning youth class, so a room full of ten-year-olds with swords, which is an interesting set of people to be in charge of. And yes, I’ve put fencing in my writing, most directly in “The Calendar of Saints,” which was published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

One of the perennial points of contention in the world revolves around education — who should get educated (and to what degree), what should be taught, who should be excluded. Meanwhile, children in their classrooms ask, “Why do I need to know this?” Tell us one obscure thing you learned in school that you think is important, and why.

Well, I learned what and where St. Patrick’s Purgatory is.

It was sort of odd, all things considered, that I didn’t know before, (I’m Catholic, the bulk of my ancestry is Irish, and I’m a huge Shakespeare fangirl) but it was my first semester in grad school. I was TAing the Intro to Shakespeare course for the woman who eventually became my advisor, Rebecca Krug. She was lecturing on Hamlet, and explains the reason why Hamlet swears by Saint Patrick when talking to his father’s ghost — because of Saint Patrick’s Purgatory. I instantly became fascinated with the place — I wrote about it in grad school papers, read Seamus Heaney’s poems about it, Station Island, and once I started writing fiction, knew I wanted to set a story there. (I also love a good visit to the Underworld story.)

In terms of the world at large, is that important? No. But it reminds me that no matter how much you think you know about something, you can always learn something new. There are always things that we don’t see, so if you’re curious, ask questions, and keep on asking. And when you think about it like that, when you think about what parts of stories get told, and what parts of narratives get taught, and how those narratives are constructed, then it does become important.

We all start somewhere, and the learning curve from first publication is a steep one. What’s your first ever published work, and how do you feel about it now?

My first published work was the short story “A Life in Fictions,” in the anthology Stories, edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio. I am still proud of it, and it remains one of my favorite things that I’ve written.

What else are you working on have coming up you want people to know about?

I am very excited about the novella I have coming out in September. It’s called The End of the Sentence, and I cowrote it with Maria Dahvana Headley. It’s a haunted house story, full of mysterious letters from a prison inmate who may or may not be dead, or something worse. It has fairy tales, and mythologies, and writing it with Maria was the most fun I’ve had giving myself nightmares.

Kat Howard is the World Fantasy Award-nominated author of over twenty pieces of short fiction. Her work has been performed on NPR as part of Selected Shorts, and has appeared in Lightspeed, Subterranean, and Apex, among other venues. Her novella, The End of the Sentence, written with Maria Dahvana Headley, will be out in September from Subterranean Press. You can find her on twitter as @KatWithSword and she blogs at

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