Katherine Ellis

“Made of Metal and Constructed with Fire”Katherine Ellis
Winner of the Goldenberg Prize for Fiction, 2009
Selected by Rosellen Brown

What is your biggest challenge as a writer?

Writing the first draft. I love to revise but am too critical in the beginning and I have a hard time getting the words onto the page. 

Do you structure your writing before you write, or do you begin by writing freely?

I do not structure my short stories. I start with a series of scenes, moments, or bits of dialogue that have been bouncing around in my head. Then I build from there.

Does others’ writing contribute to the development and craft of your own writing? What other writers have inspired you?

I am inspired by good short stories and have to keep a notebook nearby to write down ideas as I’m reading. I read a lot of literary journals – BLR, Paris Review, One Story and A Public Space are some of my favorites. I also love the O. Henry Prize Stories. My favorite story writers are: Pam Houston, T.M. McNally, Lydia Peelle, Ron Carlson, Lucy Corin, Tim Winton, Aimee Bender.

Are there instances in your writing to which you did not intend to give thematic or symbolic meaning, but which you became aware of after writing them?

Happens all the time. Fortunately I have some very good readers who point them out to me. I tried to write out an example of when this happened in a different story but summarizing it into a few sentences made the piece sound contrived. So I guess you’ll have to take my word for it.

When you start to write, do you know how the piece will end?

If I do, the story ends up predictable and an utter failure.

I really didn’t know where I was going with this story until it was almost complete. At first, I only knew that I wanted to take a welding class and write about it. Then I knew that I wanted to put it together with the cancer retreat. Then I knew that the opera needed to play a stronger role. Only when I had completed several drafts and felt like the story was really settling into place did I realize the act of welding itself was transformative. Actually, I may not have realized that until just now…

Sometimes I intentionally avoid working on the last paragraph of a story until I know that the rest of the story has really locked into place. Then I agonize over the last few sentences until they’re right.

What motivated you to write “Made of Metal and Constructed With Fire”?

Most of the story is true. I desperately wanted to take a welding class and write about it. My instructor was so great. I carried around a notebook and wrote down every random/off-color comment he made. He thought I was a diligent student taking notes on safety, rules and procedures. After I combined the welding class scenes with the retreat scenes, I realized the climax wasn’t strong enough and I needed to bring out the opera. I guess in an unacknowledged sort of way, I wanted to show all the different ways we try to recover our selves. Or maybe I’m just realizing that right now… 

Did you develop the story or the characters first? How did you develop your characters?

All the characters and scenes started as real events and people and developed simultaneously. I was so lucky that Bean, the welding instructor, was handed to me whole with dialogue and all.

Why did you structure the story the way that you did? (i.e. switch back and forth between the welding class and the breast cancer retreat)

I wanted to put these events together to see what they would create. The narrator was so desperate to find some peace that she was willing to try almost anything. It was the accumulation of all these efforts that lead to her transformation and entry back into the world.   

How did you come up with the title for your story?

Hours of agonizing. Dozens of bad ideas. Then a good conversation with a great writing group that led to the right line being pulled right from the story.

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