Exclusive Q&A with Elisabeth Sharp McKetta AB ‘01

Elisabeth Sharp McKetta AB '01 is an award-winning writer, a writing teacher, and a mother of two. With a PhD on the intersections between fairy tales and autobiography, as well as a seven-year streak of writing weekly poems for strangers, she teaches writing for Oxford Department for Continuing Education and for Harvard Extension School, where she won their highest teaching award. She has authored thirteen books across genres, most recently the novels SHE NEVER TOLD ME ABOUT THE OCEAN and ARK, the essay collection AWAKE WITH ASASHORYU, and the personal growth guide EDIT YOUR LIFE, based on her experience living three years in a 275-square foot backyard guest house with her family of four (five, if you count the Labrador). She co-edited the anthology WHAT DOESN'T KILL HER: WOMEN'S STORIES OF RESILIENCE, which Gloria Steinem described as stories that “will help each of us to trust and tell our own.” Elisabeth’s work with myth and memoir, which she began studying at Harvard College (B.A. 2001), has been spotlighted in HARVARD MAGAZINE.

Q: Your newest novel, ARK is an uplifting middle-grade story about relying on family (including pets!) during tough times and the challenges of isolation. This was inspired by your own experience living in a 275-square-foot tiny house with your family during the pandemic. Can you talk about that experience and how it morphed into this wonderful book?

Of course. My husband and I wanted adulthood to feel simpler, so in 2017 we simplified house. We moved as a family—6-year-old daughter, 3-year-old son, two Labradors, and us—into a backyard guest house that we called “The Shed”. Living there meant that we had no living expenses and very little housework, and so had the freedom to spend more time doing the things we like best: interesting work, deliberate parenting, fun adventures, and lots of travel. It was one of the best choices we’ve ever made. COVID-19 threw everything into disarray for everyone. It was fascinating to try to figure this new life out. Though in many ways it was scary and uncertain, it was also interesting and creative. It felt like we were living on a very small planet with only four people! My books always have fairy tales, myths, or very old stories at the core, and in the spring of 2020, I found myself thinking a lot about the ark story and its theme of withdrawal from life as it had been. Starting in lockdown, I gave myself the assignment of writing five short poems each day—they could be really short, or they could be prose poems, or anything at all—inspired by our family’s experience. Quickly the poems morphed into fiction, and us into composite characters, and then ARK the novel was born. It was born from life-writing, but quickly flung itself into fiction. I loved writing it. 

Q: What do you hope that younger audience members take away from reading ARK?

What a wonderful question. Two things above all. First, I hope it engages young readers’ “can do” spirit. In ARK, 11-year-old narrator Arden has the hardest time accepting three major changes in her life. When the story starts, she’s scared about the pandemic, miserable about her family’s move to a tiny house, and desperate for a dog. Only when she realizes that she can use the ARK to give a home to dogs who have been turned out does she begin to see her own problems with a fresh perspective—which is often how it works. When we’re stuck, changing one thing (anything!) with an eye for helping someone else (anyone!) can get the water moving again, and can help more people downstream. I would love for young readers to reflect on how they might engage their own powers of kindness and creativity to effect real change. Second, I’d love for young readers of ARK to reflect on their own relationships with and responsibilities toward animals. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum observes in Justice for Animals: Our Collective Responsibility, “No non-human animal escapes human domination. Much of the time, that domination inflicts wrongful injury…” Therefore we owe animals “a long-overdue ethical debt.” In ARK, I have tried to write about this ethical debt in a way that is joyful, loving, and hopeful. I hope young readers can think about ways to act toward animals and the natural world in that same spirit. 

Q: You’ve authored thirteen books, ranging in genre from poetry to middle-grade fiction to nonfiction memoir. How did you come to have such a diverse body of work as such a versatile writer, when many authors tend to pick one specific genre and stay with it for most of their careers?

I keep thinking I’ll grow up and pick a genre! But that hasn’t happened yet, and I doubt it will. I mostly write what feels exciting or necessary during a given life season, as ARK felt for the pandemic, and SHE NEVER TOLD ME ABOUT THE OCEAN felt in my early days of motherhood, and AWAKE WITH ASASHORYU: ESSAYS felt as I looked back at my twenties from age forty. Often, I write a book as a way to solve in writing a feeling or fear, or to lay something to rest. Other times, a fun and challenging project is offered to me—like my grandfather’s biography Energy, or collaborations with artist Troy Passey, or my Boise picture book, which my local bookstore asked if I’d write. I believe a writer grows a psychic inch or two with each challenging project, and I like to take on projects that will help me grow. Each new genre feels like facing a vertical rock wall and wondering, “where do I put my foot?” But through the climb, the writer gains strength, and in the end gets to see things from a new perspective. 

Q: Your Ph.D. dissertation was about the phenomenon of writers (usually female) using fairytales to map onto a description of their own lives, which you coined the coin “asymptotic autobiography” to describe. Myth and memoir continue to be strong features throughout much of your published work. Can you talk about how your work and research as a doctoral student impacted your storytelling path?

In every single way! Though my genre is all over the place, my use of fairy tale or myth as narrative seed or spine is the common denominator of nearly everything I do. There are shards of these wonderful old stories buried in the language and the plots of all of my work—including the bedtime stories I make up for my children! I recently developed a course for Harvard’s Writing Program called “Mythic Memoir”—it's been a dream to teach. I owe this obsession/intersection to two exceptional teachers who I learned from in college: Maria Tatar for fairy tales, Hope Hale Davis for memoir. They left their mark. I love how both fairy tales and memoirs engage what feels like the only question worth asking: how do we become?

Q: What’s your process like for starting, writing, and finishing a story? What are the challenges, and what comes easiest to you?

I think of the writing process as a trio of concrete but very different verbs: Create. Craft. Connect. Of these 3 writerly Cs, I love the first one most—the freewheeling “write anything” messy generative part. I love waking up into a project. During the “Create” phase, I write sentences and stories the way my kids make cardboard apartments for their stuffed animals. It’s pure play. Pure discovery. No expectations of greatness. Just the fun of an art project. Then the “Craft” stage starts when I’ve got enough written to ask what this project IS and what it needs to be—to start shaping and editing it. This part takes the longest and is the least orderly—but it is the most satisfying stage, because it’s here that the writer learns the most (and discards the most!) In this second “C”, the piece—whatever the genre—identifies its ideal form. At some point, after weeks or months or years of (often haphazard-feeling) craft decisions, a project becomes 92% perfect—or good enough to get feedback on and send out to wise, big-hearted readers. The “Connect” stage—polishing, publishing, marketing—is the one that feels the most vulnerable, because it’s fraught with opportunities to fail and to hear “no.” Once I got over my fear of hearing no, I started enjoying this stage too, especially when I think about the collaboration that comes with publishing, and how cool it is to have readers, and the many ways an author can think of the work in a “yes &” way. This is the stage where the work meets the world.

Q: How did you know you wanted to become an author? What did you do early on that set you down such a successful career path?

think a lot of writers know early. The evidence is pretty easy to find: all you want to do is read and write! The trick is always creating a “floor” for the writer to safely stand on while starting and finishing projects. Sometimes that’s a financial floor; other times it’s a floor of trust in roommates or family members to support and encourage the writer (often by leaving them alone during certain hours!) A writer’s floor is the ability to trust that there is time and space to complete the project here, now. To take it as far as it can go. In my twenties, I took on every odd job I could find, from selling hats to reading college application essays. But I tried to write as often as I could. I failed. I tried again. Also, I stayed in school for a PhD, because I knew that becoming a better reader would certainly help me become a better writer—and I also knew that I’d love teaching. When I turned thirty, teaching adults became my financial floor, and writing in the mornings became my creative floor. Both still are. Moving to the Shed helped immensely, because it edited our life and bought me writing time. It also taught my family to communicate well and fairly over shared resources—time, space—which is really useful. But there’s no denying that setting up a career as an artist can be a really fumbly thing, because unlike so many careers, there’s no clear road to it—you’ve just got to crash through the woods and find your own path. 

Q: Which project are you most proud of that you’ve worked on, and which one taught you the most?

I am always proudest of the most recent project, because it’s the highest rung on the ladder of my growth as a writer. Always, when I start on a project, my ambition for it outstrips my skill. But in working on it, and learning new ways to approach it, my skill grows and the project changes into something I can do. So I come out of each project feeling like a better writer than I was before. The book that “grew me up” most was definitely my first novel, SHE NEVER TOLD ME ABOUT THE OCEAN. I had written and abandoned five novels before I wrote it. I knew how hard the revision would be. I wanted it to be the biggest thing I could possibly write, a mythology about mothers and daughters, birth and death. It would be four intertwined stories about how we face fear, and the ways women ferry each other through hard times. It took ten years and received over 300 rejections. During those ten years, I wrote other things too, and each one developed different writing muscles. But OCEAN felt the hardest to get right. I wasn’t sure I could even get it right until my publisher finally sent it to print. 

Q: What’s your biggest tip for aspiring authors?

I have three. 1. Just write! Set a weekday writing and reading practice. Give it a daily dose of your best energy, rather than just leftover time. Claim your role as writer through your regular attention to it. 2. Say yes to projects that come your way, for each one will add to the creative fermentation that will be your weird, wonderful, surprising career. 3. Starting immediately, resolve to be a writer who helps writers. Participate in that generous chain, thinking creatively about what skills and kindnesses (great and small) you can offer. You will be glad you did. Each of these three investments—writing and reading, taking brave leaps, nurturing relationships—will pay forward a thousand times.

Q: Finally, which project have you both been most proud of being involved with?

The membrane between writing and life for me feels really permeable. I like to spend most of my hours teaching, writing, and loving on my people, especially my family. These three intersect; I like that they do. While I like having a writing schedule, I determined early on that in order to be portable, I’d be willing to work flexibly (meaning not mind working early mornings, weekends, and vacation days) so that I could take my work anywhere. This has worked well. I like to distill my work into short “pods” of focus, and spend the rest of my days with family, friends, and students. I have two children (age 9 and 12) who still like spending time with me, and I love to take them on adventures out in the world, even just to a cafe or a bookstore. But I also love to walk, read, talk, and cook.

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