Courtney Kersten’s work been featured in Brevity, The Normal School, River Teeth, Hotel Amerika, DIAGRAM, The Sonora Review, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere. In 2018, the University of Wisconsin Press published her debut memoir, Daughter in Retrograde.
Thaïs Miller met with Kersten on the campus of the University of California at Santa Cruz, where they are both pursuing PhDs in Literature with a Creative/Critical Writing Concentration. Astrology plays a large role in Kersten’s memoir, so they decided to conduct the interview after a tarot card reading.
Thaïs Miller (TM): Why do you love tools of divination?
Courtney Kersten (CK): For me, divination is a journey of self-discovery and growing in my inner-knowledge and strength. Sometimes when I talk to people about tarot, the I Ching, astrology, or other forms of divination or alternative forms of knowing, they tell me that they think these tools can “predict” the future—I initially thought this too. Some people express understandable fear or doubt in using such tools. In my experience, these tools have helped me learn to listen to myself and trust my inner-voice. Often, when I go to the tarot or I Ching hoping for an answer, it will not give it to me—instead it will throw the answer back at me as if to say, you have to answer this for yourself. Or it will show me my state of mind—anxious, disappointed, restless, etc. It does this to show where my confliction is coming from or why I’ve asked a question in the first place: a lack of trust or impatience in a situation.
TM: Do these tools provide any comfort alongside the reality checks?
CK: Of course, I’ve gotten wonderful advice through divinatory tools. They can comfort and console—like a friend who won’t let you indulge in the chattering of your ego or your desires. I have to remind myself not to ask a question unless I really want to know the answer. For me, using tools of divination are acts of interpretation and translation: how does the symbolism in this card relate to you? How does the energy of this planet relate to what I’m going through in my life right now? What does this I Ching reading mean for me?
Translation and interpretation are challenging; there often isn’t a definite one-to-one translation or answer. In my experience, I must always look to my inner-world and sense of internal knowing and have confidence in my inner-knowing to guide the way.
TM: Do you feel you are intuitive?
CK: I think everyone has the capacity to be intuitive. It’s just a matter of tuning in to our feelings of inner-knowing and guidance. Most people have had some experience of this—knowing something without having scientific proof or material knowledge. I’ve noticed I tend to push those feelings away. I try to experiment sometimes when I feel this way—what happens if I follow this feeling? For instance, what happens if I stay in a place when, intellectually, I feel I have to go? Oftentimes, something happens that I would’ve missed had I left. Other times I wake up with a feeling that a letter or message is going to arrive. If I let that feeling sit with me, often something does arrive on that day. These are small instances, but I believe that this form of knowing is available to all of us. We often push such feelings away in our culture because they’re not scientific and often associated with “feminine” forms of knowledge.
That said, I do believe that some folks are especially gifted when it comes to intuition—a few friends and mentors I’ve worked with. Whenever I see one friend of mine in particular (whom I love very much) I always gush at how gifted she is, I tell her she’s an “earth angel.” But she always reminds me that she is human too—and she must listen to her inner-voice; that we can choose to ignore it. It’s a practice for her too, even if she is particularly gifted.
TM: As a skeptic, I have to admit that every time I have seen you perform tarot card readings privately or at public readings, the results have been devastatingly accurate in capturing the mood of the room, and today was no exception. And while reading your memoir, I also found that your writing captured striking situations and emotions with devastating accuracy. How is your writing or editing process similar or dissimilar to divining the cards?
CK: This is a great question and something I think about a lot, especially as I approach my next project, a biography about the astrologer Linda Goodman. I’m hoping to actively use divinatory techniques in the writing of the book and to, possibly, self-consciously talk about this process in the book. Like divination, writing nonfiction is the act of translating our memories, histories, lives, lived experiences into language. Part of that, for me, is attempting to be present and embodied when I write and edit. I notice that when I am present and editing or writing I feel it within me. For instance, if a sentence lands awkwardly, I can feel a little pit in my stomach or if a passage is particularly moving, I can feel my heart lighten or flutter. These are subtle, of course—otherwise editing could be a devastating experience! I’m not sure if other writers experience this, but in the process of writing and editing Daughter in Retrograde I experimented with listening to this embodied knowledge and trusting it. So, once I made it through the final manuscript without my stomach wavering, I knew the manuscript was close to done. I would say this is similar to divination because you are attuned to a force that’s beyond rational or scientific knowledge. It’s something embodied and within you.
TM: Your memoir mainly spans the years surrounding your mother’s terminal illness. Every chapter in your memoir opens with a horoscope reading for your astrological sign: Aries. Why was it important for you to structure your memoir in this way?
CK: One of my favorite memoirs of loss and family is Joan Wickersham’s The Suicide Index. It’s a brilliant memoir about Wickersham losing her father that’s organized like an index. It masterfully conveys the overwhelming and complicated emotional journey of grief in relationship to how we are often asked to compartmentalize our emotions and experience in Western culture. This book widened my ideas of how a memoir could be structured.
I played around with several ideas to incorporate a larger structural concept into my book that had to do with divination and astrology. But, they ended up being obscure and not tangible to folks who weren’t well read in astrology. I decided that including invented astrological readings (like newspaper horoscopes that many people are familiar with) would be the best way to do this because it’s accessible (most people know what those newspaper horoscopes look like) and because it models the process of divination: which includes the central questions of the book—how do we maintain our faith when we feel like our guides have left us? Where do we turn when we cannot know?
TM: As a native of Wisconsin, was it important for you to find a Wisconsin-based publisher? Can you describe this book’s publication process?
CK: I initially sent the book to many publishers—mostly in New York—and it dawned on me that this book made much more sense being published by a Midwestern publisher because the book itself is so Midwest-centric. I then focused my efforts on Midwestern publishers and I was fortunate enough to find a wonderful home at the University of Wisconsin Press. Being a university press, the process was a bit different than if I had worked with a commercial publisher. The book was reviewed through a series of reviewers who gave advice and guidance that was so helpful. They’re anonymous reviews so I have no idea who the kind souls are that helped me, but I am so grateful for their help and assistance in editing my memoir.
TM: After living in Wisconsin, you pursued your MFA at the University of Idaho. You mentioned to me in the past that there you showed your committee member Mary Clearman Blew this memoir and her feedback was very helpful. What advice did she give you while working on this project?
CK: Mary Blew is amazing. You’ve maybe read her essay “The Unwanted Child,” which is widely anthologized, or her memoir-in-essays This is Not the Ivy League. Mary Blew lived and taught in Montana for many years; I used to joke with her because there’s a line in “The Unwanted Child” about loving (or something of that ilk) a man from Helena, Montana, who liked to fly fish and I dated a fly-fishing fanatic from Helena! We had those Helena men in common. Anyway, Mary Blew helped me with sentence structure and the flow of a passage from one sentence to another. This sounds so basic but because I wrote Daughter in Retrograde over the course of four years, I had to unravel the non-intentional work I did while I was early on in my MFA program. It was a profoundly helpful experience for me and she was so patient, going sentence by sentence, helping me write precisely.
TM: Did you find it easier to write about your life in Wisconsin from afar, once you had left?
CK: For a few years after I graduated college, I lived abroad (mostly in Eastern Europe). While I was abroad, I was astounded by my “Americanness” and felt distinctly Western. I was very young, of course, and part of this, perhaps, had to do with my naivety. Once I returned home and moved to Idaho, I no longer felt distinctly “American” but deeply Midwestern. It was clear that I was from a culture different from that of the American West. I am so grateful for having been able to live in Idaho. It helped me more clearly understand my home and, yes, it felt much easier to write about it because I felt such a contrast. Now living in California, I feel like I have further insight into the places I have lived before as well.
TM: How has your writing routine changed since you moved to California?
CK: I’ve had the good fortune to work with the wonderful Micah Perks at UC Santa Cruz and she, like Mary, has helped me become much more intentional and precise in my writing. So, I suppose my routine hasn’t changed much but the energy behind what I’m doing is much more measured and deliberate. I’ve become much more familiar with sitting with a sentence or a passage and working until it becomes clear. But, like engaging in divination, I feel that writing is always a process of growth and self-awareness, trial-and-error, and experimentation. I’m just on the journey and trying to become more comfortable being a work-in-progress as a human and writer.
Thaïs Miller is the author of the novel, Our Machinery (2008), and the collection, The Subconscious Mutiny and Other Stories (2009).
Headshot photo by Kat Lewis.