A Chat with Katherine O'Hara

EF: K — you're the one responsible for sending Hobart "More Filling Than Berries" in 2019. It's an excerpt from a novel, and it's an excerpt that isn't just beautiful, it's beautifully patient with its empathy, too. You can't not see it when you read it.

There are so many ways in which we could begin, so I'll just fire a hodgepodge of questions your way and let you pick your favorite: where do pages like these begin? What does it mean to you to 'sink into character?' What does it mean to be patient or to grant patience to a character or a place or a way of speaking or seeing the world? What happens when empathy or patience expands its focus to include more than one person at a time?

KH: I think I draw from place and combined experiences more than anything else. “More Filling Than Berries” is an excerpt from a novel manuscript that I hope will become my debut. In this excerpt, we’re hearing from Ophelia—one of three narrators in the manuscript. I like to think of each narrator as an extension of myself, a certain part of me that I pull from and make whole. Ophelia explores my evaluation of love, my hesitation and also yearning for it.

Ultimately, when it comes to place, I do my research. I’m passionate about how location can be its own character. I love learning the history and heart that people develop with a place or what feels like home to them. When writing about Cankton, Louisiana — yes, there’s my experience of growing up in southern NC to pull from, and, yes, there’s my experience of visiting Cankton. I wanted to stand where my relatives stood. But also, there’s conversations with my mother about her childhood, there’s writing my great aunt and hearing her stories of growing up sharecropping as a child …

This project would be nothing without the people that shaped it. I’m forever grateful to my family, the Leger and Moreau family, as well as to Tim Savoy and Elaine Léger specifically for helping me feel immersed in our family’s history. I’m thankful too to Tulane University and the Louisiana Endowment of the Humanities for the Dictionary of Louisiana French: As Spoken in Cajun, Creole, and American Indian Communities. My characters, including Ophelia, speak beyond the Cajun French I remember and sound authentic to their home because of this collation of knowledge.

Getting into character is as much exploring the depths of your emotion as it is respecting and honoring the complex ecosystems of what/where you’re writing about. Both are incredibly important to me and what I try to impart when working with students.

Your phrasing “[the excerpt] is beautifully patient with its empathy” is such a generous and kind consideration. I suppose I’ve never equated this all to patience, this wondering of place and the self and how they interact with each other. I think in the end what it means to consider place and people and self as fully as possible is to hold yourself accountable when you make mistakes (this includes in your research), be willing to learn, be generous with your listening because everyone has an important story, and most importantly, through it all, do your due diligence, educate yourself and dedicate yourself to being gentle with yourself and this earth.

EF: If someone ends up reading this who's interested in doing research for an art-project of theirs but has never done research before, what would you advise?

KH: If it’s place-based, travel there. If others have written about/painted/etc. this topic before, read their books, view their art. Reach out to them and develop a connection. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Research is as much reading as it is immersing yourself in community. But realize also, that people don’t owe you a look into their world. Respect those wishes.

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Research is as much reading as it is immersing yourself in community. But realize also, that people don’t owe you a look into their world. Respect those wishes.
Katherine O'Hara Seal ™