I’ve met Kaya McLaren in person only once, but I feel like I know her. A few years ago when she was in Central Oregon, she stopped into Paulina Springs Books with her dog, Big Cedar. We talked for a few minutes before she revealed that she is an author. She was so sweet and genuine–when I told her my dog had just died, she teared up and said, “Oh, I’m so sorry, sweetie.”
With her red hair and fair skin, McLaren looks a little bit like me; as she put it once, “We look like relatives.” Soon after that, she sent me a friend request on Facebook. Reading her posts was so entertaining and delightful that I decided I wanted to read one of her books. I ate up On the Divinity of Second Chances while I was at a PNBA conference in Portland. If you’ve ever been to a regional booksellers’ event, you know it’s a great testament to McLaren’s writing that I was able to focus on this book after hours of banquets, meeting authors, and wonderful but exhausting workshops.
Recently, I was picked (by McLaren, I think) to receive a special early advance reader of her new book, How I Came to Sparkle Again. It’s a novel set in a ski town—Sparkle, Colorado—that centers on three women (well, okay, two women and a preteen girl) who have lost their sparkle and need to get it back. Jill returns to Sparkle after a miscarriage and the ruination of her marriage. In Sparkle, Jill reconnects with Lisa, an old friend who is tired of treating her body like a cheap motel and decides not to sleep around anymore. Jill finds employment caring for Cassie, a young girl whose mother has recently died. I think I read Sparkle in two days, unable to put it down.
McLaren is an elementary school teacher and lives on the East slope of Snoqualmie Pass in Washington State. I caught up with her by email while she was out on her book tour, and she answered my questions from the road.
McLaren also has a great website, www.kayamclaren.com, where you can read more about her very interesting career history and about her road to publication, a fascinating story. Since her website covers these topics so thoroughly, I decided not to focus on them here but to ask her mostly about her new book.
AM: Your other two books, Church of the Dog and On the Divinity of Second Chances, have heavy elements of mysticism, including Mara in Church having intuitive powers and dream traveling experiences, and Jade in Divinity seeing and speaking to her spirit guide and believing in past lives. However, there’s only a slight hint of anything mystic in Sparkle—Cassie and the heart-shaped rocks, seemingly messages from her mother, who has died. Was it a conscious decision on your part to make Sparkle less mystical, or did it just develop that way?
KM: Well, I think it just developed that way, probably because I’ve been going through a time in my life where I’ve been more interested in taking things at face value and appreciating the divinity in the ordinary– like this winter I had a scary surgery and my nurses and doctor seemed every bit as angelic to me as anything involving wings and a halo. My fourth book, which I just finished writing, is pretty literal as well, but my fifth book is going to take place in New Mexico, which is the land of milagros. There’s going to be some fun magical, mystical stuff in that one.
AM: In your other two books, I thought I could identify a somewhat “Kaya-like character” in each one—Mara in Church, Jade in Divinity. But in Sparkle, I didn’t have this impression. Is there a character in Sparkle you identify with most?
KM: Lisa. We’re confused and uncomfortable about the same things.
AM: Sparkle contains a couple of romances that develop in a more expected fiction-romance way than any of your other various stories of love. How did it feel writing this kind of romance?
KM: I didn’t mind writing Lisa’s love storyline, because that’s just where she needed to go, but Jill’s love storyline was more uncomfortable for me. Really, I wanted her to end up a happy single woman, who had a friend with benefits that sometimes did home repair for her. It was an interesting opportunity to examine any beliefs I had that longing for romantic love is weakness, and come to the conclusion that romantic love is simply part of the human experience.
AM: Something that ties all your books together is that you show very beautifully the different forms of love we humans experience, including family love, friends who are like family, and love of animal companions. Did you purposefully set out to display how varied love can be, or is it more your own experiences shining through your pages?
KM: Both. Love is everywhere all around us in infinite forms all the time. We could never lack it. We are it. I think that’s a really important message. I don’t believe love is something we give and receive like money. I believe it’s a state of being that we cultivate within ourselves.
AM: Sparkle is so different from your other books. What has the response been like from readers who loved the other two?
AM: Do you find you are picking up a lot of new readers with Sparkle?
KM: It’s only been out a week, but so far, yes! I’m on my book tour through Colorado ski towns at the moment and they’re all so excited that there’s finally a novel with heart that is about their world.
AM: I saw some discussion online of the fact that Sparkle is now for sale at Costco, as well as being on the front tables in Barnes & Noble stores. How does that degree of exposure and success feel?
KM: It’s awkward, because I can’t bite the hand that feeds me, but I feel very loyal to and protective of all the independent bookstores who have been with me from day one.
AM: You’re also a teacher, which I know is both a joyful and a frustrating profession for you. If your writing gets to the point where it can support you financially, do you think you would stop teaching?
KM: It’s true. Teaching gives me the opportunity to laugh every day, and I really enjoy making learning fun. The national teacher witch hunt really gets to me though. Teachers aren’t the problem; we’re the solution. Being treated like the problem makes me want to leave the profession. But, you know, I work in a really great family-like school with a very kind and supportive boss. I’ve got it good. It will be hard to leave that, but ultimately, I would like to live a more creative life. I’m on a leave of absence now. I love getting enough sleep and having enough time to chew my food. When I teach, I eat soup for lunch every day because there is no time to chew.
AM: I know you’ve been working on (or maybe have now finished) a fourth novel. Tell us a little bit about your fourth novel.
KM: I just finished writing The Embers, a book about six women who save each other while they attempt to save a summer camp. It’s lovely! It’s a book about friendship, but I think it’s also a book that asks questions about what we value right now when it comes to kids. It’s important to consider, because what we teach them shapes the future of our society.
AM: It’s been very encouraging for me being acquainted with you through Facebook, etc., because you’ve made being a published writer seem more accessible and less scary. What would you most like to say to new and emerging writers? Any pithy advice or encouragement?
KM: First, write to entertain yourself. Write the book you want to read. And when it comes to getting published, just know it’s a lot like dating. Just because someone isn’t looking for your particular set of qualities doesn’t mean you’re not a catch.
Amanda MacNaughton is a front-line bookseller and the events manager at Paulina Springs Books in Sisters and Redmond and a regular NWBL contributor. In addition to her monthly Bookselling in the Desert column, MacNaughton has interviewed Ceiridwen Terrill, Jane Kirkpatrick, Anjali Banerjee, Marcus J. Borg and Brian Doyle.