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Artist Profile: Rachel Kadish on Stories, Storytelling, and ‘The Weight of Ink’

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“What would it take not to die without a word?” award-winning author Rachel Kadish asked while writing her 2017 historical fiction work, “The Weight of Ink.”

The story was borne of a nagging question — a pinpointing of something that bothered her. She identifies this questioning as a representative germination point for all of her stories. For “The Weight of Ink,” the question came as a response to Virginia Woolf’s imagination of the fate of Shakespeare’s hypothetical equally talented sister: “Alas, she never wrote a word.”

Determined to investigate to what lengths a female writer in the 17th century would need to go in order to evade Woolf’s dismal sentence, Kadish crafted a story that interweaves the lives of a modern female historian and a rabbi’s female scribe living in the mid-1600s. The book, a recipient of the 2017 National Jewish Book Award, serves as an apt testament to Kadish’s brilliantly insightful approach to storytelling across her literary corpus. A fiction fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts and Massachusetts Cultural Council and recipient of numerous literary awards, it’s clear Kadish has joined her own characters in rejecting the fate of Woolf’s female Shakespeare.

In an interview with The Harvard Crimson, she described her successful approach to writing in a neatly consolidated equation: “People, characters, plus pressure equals plot.” Her stories indeed explore the distinct reactions of characters to the pressures acting upon them, critically analyzing the world through the lens of these two forces.

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For Kadish, stories have always been her cherished keys to understanding the world. “I loved books. They were these precious, life-changing objects, but I didn’t think very much about what it took to write them,” she said.

Aside from a screenwriter family friend, she turned to mentors outside her circle for inspiration in the writing craft. She attributes parts of her perspective on stories and storytelling to her education, citing exceptional insights from her third and eighth grade teachers.

“Each of them just opened up worlds for me. Those were teachers who gave me so much as far as understanding what a book can be and what it can do and how we interact with books.”

Yet she recalled one teacher with particular fondness, bashfully characterizing her mentorship as an “outsized gift” bestowed upon her during her undergraduate studies at Princeton.

The gift? Studying under the late literary legend Toni Morrison, who also served as her thesis advisor.

“It’s a good thing in life to know how lucky we are in the moment,” she said of her time learning from Morrison. “Everything she said, I was sitting there going, ‘Remember this, remember this.’”

Her teachers weren’t the only ones who sculpted her view of stories. Kadish also spoke of what she learned from the Covid-19 pandemic and her consequent foray into a new medium of experiencing stories. When asked about her personal share of the pandemic’s impact, she laughed.

“During the pandemic, we were isolated from the world. At the same time, I had two teenagers who had virtual school for a year. That’s not exactly solitude,” she said. “I felt like I was living in someone else’s novel, which is terrifying because I don’t know where the plot is going.”

In response to 2020’s unique uncertainties and challenges, she shared her longing for external human contact through storytelling — a desire she sought to satiate through audiobooks.

“I needed that human voice, that human contact of someone telling you the story. I switched over from reading on the page to listening to audiobooks.”

Audiobooks enabled her to engage with stories in a yet unexplored format, especially while busy with other tasks like cooking or walking the dog (named Henry, short for Henry David Thoreau). In that sense, the pandemic shifted Kadish’s very relationship to the act of storytelling.

Still, she counts the pandemic as one of life’s many inevitable interruptions. Interruptions, she said, never get the opportunity to derail her writing.

“Life is going to be full of interruptions. A rich, full life is full of interruptions,” she said.

She initially felt that life’s necessary disturbances placed her at odds with writer John Gardner’s assertion that a novel should be a “vivid and continuous dream.” In the middle of interruptions like the pandemic, she found herself asking, “How am I supposed to write in a vivid and continuous dream?”

Her struggle with this question prompted a lightbulb moment.

“The vivid and continuous dream is for the reader,” she said. “Even if I can’t get it while I’m writing, or I can only get it in bits and pieces, it’s my job to put together that vivid and continuous dream for the reader.”

For Rachel Kadish, it’s essential to be forgiving of oneself despite the often unattainable idealizations of a writer — both story and storyteller are, after all, set in the midst of living.

“Most of us write in the middle of the muddle of life,” Kadish said. “That’s as I want it and how it should be.”

—Staff writer Marin E. Gray can be reached at marin.gray@thecrimson.com.

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