Interview with Kim Culbertson, Author of Instructions for a Broken Heart

Kim Culbertson photoYesterday I reviewed Instructions for a Broken Heart, a young adult novel by Kim Culbertson. Today, Kim answers a few questions for readers at Mother Daughter Book Club. com.

How did you decide to become a writer?

KC: I feel like writing is something that chose me.  I have always felt like it was as much a part of me as being a reader or an athlete—it’s just something that makes up the fabric of me.  Being a writer is a mindset—it’s a point of view.  I talk about Point of View in my monthly newsletter a lot.  It’s the way we see the world and it’s wholly unique to each person.  I tell my students all the time—you’re a writer if you feel that you’re a writer.  Being published doesn’t make you a writer.  But, of course, becoming a writer who gets paid for writing is a whole other thing.  I decided to head down that path about ten years ago when Cicada published my first short story.  I remember getting a check for that story and thinking, “Hmmmm, that’s really cool.”

In both of your books, Songs for a Teenage Nomad and Instructions for a Broken Heart, you write about teens who are dealing with difficult issues. Do you think the teenage years in general are a challenging time of life? If yes, how so?

KC: Oh, for sure they are. They are this amazing, huge time—a time where they are climbing out of that childhood nest and peeking out onto the adult landscape. I’ve taught high school for 14 years and I think teenagers are the most remarkable of creatures. They are so passionate and idealistic and have dreams but they also still love the warm, small space of being a child. I think it’s the bumping together of those two worlds that creates all the tension.

Songs are also woven throughout your writing. Do you think music has a role in helping people cope or figure things out?

KC: I think songwriters are our culture’s high profile poets (especially good songwriters). I think teens especially really cling to their music because it provides some analysis and insight into that adult landscape I was discussing before. They can listen to a song and say, “oh, other people feel broken-hearted or afraid or angry or happy—me too” and it gives them a connection to a more universal experience. I think reading does this too but it’s not quite as immediate as a song.

I understand you teach high school. What do you like about teaching teens?

KC: As I mentioned, I find teenagers just a wonderful source of energy and light. I love my students—they can passionately discuss a novel in class and then get really worked up that someone sat in their seat. They’re on this cusp and I love getting to hang out on that cusp with them.

What are the challenges?

KC: I want so much for them to love literature and see all the things in it that I see which is totally unfair because I’m 36 years old—I’ve already gone through so many things that help me navigate a novel in a different way than they do. I have to always remind myself to hold back and let them experience it in the way that makes sense at 17, and it reminds me of that profound feeling of understanding something for the first time in a really individual way. I prefer to be the kind of teacher who acts as a “guide on the side” not a “sage on the stage” but it’s hard not to jump in and “tell” them everything I want them to know. I find, though, that this is the most amazing thing because when they have the space to tell me what they’re seeing in a book—I get to learn that book in this whole new, interesting way.

Have you ever led a group of students on a major trip like the one in Instructions for a Broken Heart?

KC: Another teacher and I took 16 students to Italy when I was a second year high school teacher. It was a thoroughly incredible trip. I watched so much eye-opening going on during that trip (including my own) about what it meant to be a traveler in this world, what it meant to see and smell a place for the first time.  It was an amazing trip.

Instructions is part travelogue as well, with Italy starring in a supporting role. Have you been to the places you described in your book?


KC: I pretty much used the exact footprint from the trip I took with my students. I changed pretty much everything else, but the footprint stayed the same.

What do you think people can learn when they travel to places outside the norm for them?

KC: I think traveling to a new place takes a person outside of her comfort zone and this just creates more space for self-reflection. For me. That’s just the way I’ve experienced it. That might not be true for other people  I find if I am really chewing on a huge decision I need to go somewhere a bit out of my normal loop and somehow that new geography lets me rethink things.

Jessa and all the kids from her school on the trip are in the drama club. Do you think actors are more likely to be more emotional?

KC: I don’t think they’re more emotional, per se—I think they might tend to be a little more willing to lay it all out there for people  In my high school teaching experience, I’ve found that all kids have that emotional piece—some just don’t like showing it off. Many of my high school actors have been more comfortable putting it out there for people to see. However, it’s not across the board. I’ve had plenty of student actors who save their drama for their characters and really don’t put their personal life on display. I think it’s really about personality.

Is there anything else you’d like to say to readers at Mother Daughter Book Club . com?

KC: I want to just thank you, Cindy, for all you do for readers and authors—you’re the best!!

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