There’s an interiority that is striking in Kristine Langley Mahler’s new book, A Calendar is a Snakeskin (Autofocus Books, 2023). She is telling us about her dreams, her hiking meditations, her daughters and her fears about failing them, her marriage, her connection to places she loves—the ones she lives in and doesn’t, and how she feels like she’s changing. She knows she is shedding somehow, growing in some way, but into what? It is the best kind of exploration, the one where the narrator doesn’t know yet where she’s going or why, but just that something has shifted.
These three essays, totaling just over a hundred pages, are defined by their economy of words, artful language, and pithy punches. Autofocus Books publishes “brief books of literary autobiography,” and it feels like the perfect home for this work. The themes and motifs deepen on subsequent readings and the “Easter Eggs,” as she will explain them to me, are an exploration in craft and conversation with other great nonfiction writers.
She opens the book looking for signs, or rather, running into a sign: the bear from a recurring dream she’s had for years. It is a total goosebump moment, when you know something isn’t a coincidence and you aren’t sure if you should shout it from the rooftops or keep it all for yourself. But Mahler is taking note, and then taking us along for this ride. From her tarot card pulls, and the quartz along the hiking path, there are signs and messages all through the year she is chronicling. She is seeking meaning while knowing full well something is happening that she must pay attention to.
She has her astrological world turned upside down by a chart reader in New Mexico and suddenly I’m learning about Whole Chart readings and the North and South Nodes and wondering what happened when I was 38 (Am I in my truth-seeking house too?). Her quest is relatable. Who hasn’t wondered where they are going with their relationship, job, kids, or spirituality. What makes Mahler’s journey memoir is the dive through her past to explain the present. Sorting through her relationship with her siblings and family. Her relationship to New Mexico and Nebraska. Her relationship to the job that got her through three young kids and the job that might take her somewhere new.
I spoke with Mahler about tarot, the appeal of short books, and the importance of indie publishers.
M.D. McIntyre: I’m so curious how one thing can kick off a whole artistic work. I feel compelled to start at the beginning. You open the first essay with a bear sighting. Did you know that this search for a sign was going to be the heart of your next book?
Kristine Langley Mahler: I didn’t know I was writing a book. I can say that for sure. It started with the eclipse and then the next day I saw the bear. I’d been waiting for this for years and I had dreamt about this for years. The fact that the sighting of the bear happened so close to the eclipse told me I really needed to pay attention. I wanted to believe this event wasn’t happening out of nowhere, and I started documenting so I could make sense of the event. I wasn’t sure of what I needed to pay attention to, but I thought, here is this thing I dreamt about for so long. I couldn’t let that go.
MDM: The calendar starts with the month you spend in New Mexico in July of 2020, and then ends in June of 2021. This is the locked-down stage of COVID. I found there is a starkness to the writing. There’s a lot of empty space, both literally and in the New Mexico and Nebraska environment that you describe. There are hikes where you are alone or only with your family. Do you see this book as COVID writing—if that’s even an aesthetic we can identify?
KLM: I would say I see it as COVID writing now. I tell people the events take place during COVID, but it isn’t a COVID book. I really don’t talk about COVID or all the fear we were carrying then. But looking back, I can see a COVID aesthetic in the spareness. I was trying to write in the headspace I was in, which was sparser and more isolated. It is almost like a happenstance thing, but for sure it is a document of that time. I wasn’t intentionally invoking COVID, but what, written during that time period, wasn’t?
MDM: I can definitely see how there was a lot of self-reflection in writing during that time. As a writer and editor is there a lot of COVID work coming through now?
KLM: We have a great nonfiction editor at Split/Lip, but I do spy on the nonfiction work that is coming through. We got more COVID writing during the thick of it than we get now. More people were processing it in real time then. But I think more great COVID writing will come through as people take time to process what it meant. A lot of us were writing during that time, but as we move away from the intensity, the narratives that will emerge that we didn’t realize were there will produce some of the best writing. I just read Kate Zambreno’s The Light Room, which very much happens during COVID and is centered on the isolation during COVID, and it is just a fantastic book. We can’t all process it that clearly in real time. I think people are sitting on their work now, and we will see some really thought provoking and reflective work coming through later.
MDM: The book is described as three essays. I felt like there were moments where you moved between prose poem, lyric essay, and then also speculative nonfiction. Did you think at all about genre or form while you were writing, or did the arrangement all come later in the process?
KLM: As far as genre, I have never not been a nonfiction writer. I have never been able to fictionalize my work. The search for truth has always interested me. There are a lot of forms of experimental nonfiction writing I work with, some that go toward the boundaries of the genre. Speculative nonfiction for sure— all the ghosts! Are they real? They felt real to me, and sometimes they were a metaphor that I brought into being. I think that using different forms of experimental nonfiction helps get closer to those many definitions of truth that exist within all of our situational narratives. You write one way when you are in a situation, another when you are out of it, another when you are anticipating it, and another still when you try to see it from other people’s perspectives. All those perspectives are true, but when you are writing nonfiction and sticking strictly to the facts, you miss a lot of nuance if you aren’t willing to acknowledge that nonfiction doesn’t always look like nonfiction.
MDM: Mothering and motherhood feel so important to the story you have in this book. Your contemplation of how you mother, and when you struggle with the difficulty of working and caring for children really resonates with me. I want to read you this passage that felt so relatable.
My children are growing up, and I am not cleaning or cooking but staring at a screen instead, either absorbing other peoples’ lives or retreading my own. My daughters will disappear into thin air, ghostgirls guarding the random hugs they once gave me, an absence I will only notice when I lift my eyes and reach out my arms to find them gone.
It was so easy to see the metaphor of the molting snakeskin applying to the various stages of motherhood. Talk about transformations! And you highlight that this includes the kids leaving home. It is vulnerable writing. What was it like examining motherhood in this book?
KLM: I feel like that’s something I’ve been taking tentative steps toward for a long time. I haven’t written much about my kids before. That sentence you quoted, I have thought about it for such a long time. It just plagues me. As a working parent at home, my children have grown up with me sitting in front of a computer to either write or do the various other jobs I do. It is so hard to feel like I should be present because this time [with my kids] is passing, but also this time in my life is passing as well. I am trying to be a full person who is an essayist and a writer and honor that is what I am called to do right now, and I am also called to parent and mother my children. I am toggling between the two.
I think the best parent I can be to my children is the one who is authentically myself. Sometimes that means I am writing instead of on the floor playing. That hurts me sometimes. But the crux of Snakeskin is the desire to be loved for who you really are. Sometimes we shed a skin we want to, sometimes it is one which life makes us shed, but at our core we are still the same and that is a sensitive and difficult thing. You can love your children and want time away from them. You can be afraid of them leaving and also be afraid of the repercussions of not spending all of your time with them while they are still home. It is a dichotomy we have to manage as parents, and I wanted to touch on that in the book.
MDM: I don’t know a parent-writer who isn’t thinking this same thing, so I really related to it. And the word “toggle” feels like the best way to describe that back and forth. Were there any books that really influenced you while you were writing this one?
KLM: The entire first essay in the book, “Ghostwatch,” came because I was reading Jenny Boully’s craft book Betwixt-and-Between: Essays on the Writing Life. I would read an essay or a section, and then let that be my entrance point and I would start writing in response to what it was making me think about. All the sections in that first essay are responses to Boully’s book. I love to hide Easter Eggs in my books, and I guess I am just telling people what this one is! That essay is really about being between phases in my life.
MDM: You wrote a short book, and Autofocus Books, your publisher, specializes in the short book. It is really neat to see that, do you feel like this is a trend right now?
KLM: I feel like that is at the heart of a lot of what we’re doing at Split/Lip. I was so happy to see Autofocus open up when they did. At the time when I submitted it, I think only Mike Nagel’s book Duplex was out, but there might have been a few others, and I think Holly Pelesky’s Cleave was on its way. I was just so thrilled because I know Michael Wheaton. I’d met him at AWP and I loved what he was doing with the press. Mainly I was so thrilled to see a press that was willing to look at shorter nonfiction books because there’s such a dearth of them in the publishing world. At Split/Lip a lot of the manuscripts we take are shorter than what you will see at a traditional publishing company. Short story collections, and our novels and novellas are shorter. We were most recently open for novels and novellas, though the last three we took from that genre’s reading period were novellas which, you know, those are hard to find a home for—but we’ll be the home! We also do a chapbook each year which, by its nature, is going to be short.
I think it is because I respect and honor the fact that people write shorter books, and they are complete as they are. I feel like it’s unnecessary to try to pad them to make them fit some arbitrary word count, or if a press feels like a book isn’t worth their time if it isn’t 200 pages—both of those approaches frustrate me. I want to see more presses like Autofocus who are willing to respect that sometimes a project is complete when it’s under 100 pages printed.
MDM: There are so many cool themes that I felt got richer and deeper in subsequent readings of the book: astrology and tarot and wildlife. What was your editing process like for this book? Do you have early readers or do you edit alone?
KLM: Two of the essays went through my writing group. I have two friends and we meet every other month or so. One is a fiction writer and one writes autofiction and I write nonfiction. They helped give me some feedback on the first two essays, and that helped me figure out where I was going. Then I submitted the book to Autofocus and Michael Wheaton said this is awesome, and I’m also bringing in an editor: Lena Crown. I knew her from the literary world, and I loved the work she did when she was at Phoebe, the lit mag out of George Mason University. When she sent me the manuscript with her edits, there were so many edits from her, and I was like, What? This is a lot of edits for an accepted manuscript. But she was right. She was right on where to expand, where to pull back, where she thought I needed to clarify. She did all the things a good editor does. She made it more cohesive, and it was a very important experience for me as a director of a press and as a former editor myself. There are things that weren’t in the original book that I submitted that I am so glad could come into being, that I needed to breathe into the form they are in now. Yes, there are a few stories I wished were still in there, but it was one of the better editing experiences I have ever had.
MDM: It can be really hard to find time to write when your job involves reading other people’s work all day. What are your writing habits—is there anything you do to push yourself into a project?
KLM: There’s two things I think that have been helping which I’ve really been leaning on. For three or more years now, I’ve been writing down my dreams in the morning because I really do believe that our dreams are our subconscious trying to tell us something. When I get up, the first thing I do before I start making tea, before I start eating my breakfast even, I’ll come out when it’s dark in the morning to my table and I light a candle and I try to write down my dreams. If I start turning on lights, or I can see all the mess in the house—I think, I should be cleaning up, I should whatever. But while it’s still dark, and I am in the lull of dream space, I write down the dreams I can remember. Then I come back to them and transcribe them to my journals every six months or so. It is so interesting to see these dreams I’d forgotten and to be able to understand what they mean. Dreams can be a pretty fertile place to see what I was meaning to write about, and sometimes I can take off with the ideas since they’d had time to marinate on the page.
The other thing I do is that I have a list of prompts that a friend of mine got in a great writing class. She saved these great prompts and shared them with me and every once in a while, I pull one out and write toward it. I’ve done the list all the way through at least three times and each time I come up with different themes. I always try to write what I am thinking about right at that moment. I have found the longer I write, the more I need those prompts—maybe as I get older and further into my writing career, I’m not as inspired instantly like I used to be. Maybe I’ve told most of my stories by now, I don’t know. But having these prompts helped me go back into my subconscious to see things that I have been meaning to write about but never got around to. I guess that’s how I find a way not to sit in front of a blank page forever.
MDM: I think that’s wonderful. I’m definitely a prompt person. It sounds like you are saying, when you get good prompts hold onto them and reuse them?
KLM: Yes. Hold on to them. Reuse them. Don’t think that just because you did them once that now they’re done, and you never need them again. Let yourself change. As a nonfiction writer, you change, you gather new experiences, and you think of different things when you see the same words.
MDM: It is clear to me you have a deep fascination with astrology and tarot, did you do research for the book, or was this really just a byproduct of what you already do and love?
KLM: Not other than research in real time, which is in the book. Like I was googling “what is this rock” and then at metaphysical bookstores picking out rocks and looking up their meaning and seeing what people thought their meanings are. I mean, I am still a novice with tarot and astrology. I pull out Tarot for Beginners every time I do a pull for tarot. I am not an authority.
I know a lot of people who use the CHANI App. I listen to the Chani Nicholas podcast; I have this Sunday ritual where I listen to her and I go on my afternoon walk. I hate it when it is too cold in the winter, I totally push the season to do my little walk. But I think what I like about astrological writing is when people ground their astrology in their own experiences, first and foremost. We’re all trying to figure out what things mean.
MDM: Any books you are excited about right now?
KLM: Yes, Jami Nakamura Lin’s The Night Parade is coming in the mail today, and I have been waiting for that book and really looking forward to it. It sounds like what I need right now. I mentioned The Light Room by Kate Zambreno—that was one that I read right when I needed it. Jenn Shapland’s Thin Skin, same thing, I just keep circling back to the book and it really fits with me. I read Brutalities by Margo Steines, which was amazing and so interesting. The Loneliness Files by Athena Dixon, which just came out with Tin House. We published her first book at Split/Lip, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, and it was one of the last books I was the nonfiction editor on. Oh wow, I can’t forget Blackouts by Justin Torres. I just finished that a couple days ago and it was just incredible.
Kristine’s work has been supported by an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Nebraska Arts Council and a residency from Art at Cedar Point Biological Station, twice named Notable in Best American Essays, received the Rafael Torch Award from Crab Orchard Review, won the Sundog Lit Collaboration Contest, and has appeared in print and online at DIAGRAM, Fourth Genre, Ninth Letter, Brevity, and Hunger Mountain, among others. Kristine is the director and publisher of Split/Lip Press. A memoirist experimenting with the truth on the suburban prairie, Kristine makes her home outside Omaha, Nebraska.
Cancer sun, Aquarius moon. Ask her where she’s “from” and she will spread out the maps.