In the Spotlight
Program Director, Sag Harbor Creative Nonfiction Writers Conference
New York, NY Member Since: 2012
About: Donna Kaz is a multigenre writer and feminist activist based in New York City. For her work creating activist art, she has received the Yoko Ono Courage Award for the Arts, the Skowhegan medal, and the Venus Theatre Lifetime Achievement Award. Her book, UN/MASKED: Memoirs of a Guerrilla Girl on Tour (Skyhorse Publishing) was named best nonfiction prose book of 2017 by Devil’s Kitchen Literary Festival.
Photo Credit: Sara Brown
IWhat are you reading right now?
I just finished Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers, an amazing braided narrative of the 1980s AIDS epidemic in Chicago and its effects 30 years later. I’m also savoring Judy Jordan’s gorgeous new poetry collection, Hunger, a perfect summer read because of Jordan’s rich references to flora, fauna, and insects. Next up on my nightstand is Jeff Chang’s We Gon’ Be Alright and Richard Powers’s The Overstory.
Who encouraged you to be a writer?
My tenth-grade English teacher at Glen Cove High School, Mr. Maurer. He convinced a group of bored teenagers that reading was fun by playing recordings of Shakespeare plays and acting out all the parts. His class was the only one I really looked forward to, and because of him, I spent my free time in the library reading Shakespeare. It really does take just one teacher to inspire a lifetime love of words. The first thing I wrote was a sonnet. After that I began working on short plays. I went on to study theatre in college and have written in almost every genre since.
If you could meet any writer, who would it be? What would you say to her or him?
I became a member of the activist/feminist group Guerrilla Girls in the mid-1990s. All Guerrilla Girls take the names of dead women artists to put the focus of our work on the issues of sexism and discrimination instead of on ourselves. I chose Aphra Behn as my Guerrilla Girl name because Aphra herself wrote under a pseudonym, was a spy for Charles II, and is known for writing bawdy plays, inventive prose, and political poetry—it is almost as if she was an early Guerrilla Girl herself. I would love to sit down and chat with Aphra Behn about so many things: Where did you grow up, what inspired you to write, how did you develop your style of inserting yourself into your main character’s narrative. Then I’d tell her about feminism and give her a copy of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.
What do your books look like once you’ve finished reading them? Do they have broken spines and dog-eared pages? Notes in the margins? Or do they still look brand new?
The books I have loved reading all have broken spines, tape flags coming out of the pages, and sections marked up with yellow gel highlighter. I keep these books and go back to them often for inspiration.
Which book should be required reading for young people?
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. The book you could read again and again is George Eliot’s Middlemarch: I am addicted to Eliot’s sharp prose. The book you could never read again is Moby Dick by Herman Melville: I like this book very much, but I have already read it twice. I do not think I need to read it a third time.
When do you find time to write?
I schedule my writing times by marking out days on my calendar. I try to plan out my week by separating days where my goal is to accomplish chores around the business of writing like sending email blasts, checking submissions, and making queries, from the days where my goal is to work on a specific essay, book, or play. I try to write a certain number of words on those days. I spend a lot of time on the road giving talks on activism and art, so I find I am most productive when I can schedule my writing time and my “business” time in advance.
Do you feel influenced by your peers to produce a certain type of creative work, or do you feel free to follow your own interests and passions?
It is important for me to be aware of the work that is being produced by all kinds of writers around me, but I do not feel pressured to try and come up with the “next big thing.” For many years I did not understand what was meant by the expression “write what you know,” because I did not believe I knew anything. Finding my voice as a writer took time. It is also an ongoing and never-ending quest. The voice I had yesterday will not necessarily be the voice I have tomorrow. So being true to myself and honest in my work is key for me. You could say I am in a constant search for my most truthful voice.
Where do you get your best reading recommendations?
Readings, blogs, social media, book reviews. Whenever I meet another author I read their work.
Describe your writing process. Do you write every day? For how long? Do you listen to music? Do you type at a computer or write in longhand?
I work on a computer and always have music on. I do not have a set writing schedule. Sometimes a lot of my work involves thinking about it before I sit down to write. Going for a walk or a run helps me get my thoughts together before I write.
What is the greatest compliment that you could ever receive about your writing?
“It made me laugh.”
What is the best lesson that you have learned from a book?
Fall down, stand up.
What is your favorite thing to do when you should be writing, but just can’t find the motivation?
Cook. Especially an elaborate, new, untried recipe that takes hours to prepare. “I cannot possibly write today because I have to make a three-chocolate mille-feuille for dessert!”
Would you like to share a project you are currently working on?
I was very lucky to be given a residency at Marble House Project in Vermont this past June. While there, I finished a draft of my next book: 9 Steps to Make a Difference with Activism and Art. Look for it to be released in 2019.
Who/what do you follow online?
The Binder/Writers on FB. For blogs: Erika Dreifus, Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative, Words of Choice, Hyperallergic. I tweet @donnakaz and watch Randy Rainbow as often as I can.
What is your favorite line from a book?
“For me, writing is the only thing that passes the three tests of métier: 1) When I’m doing it I don’t feel that I should be doing something else instead; 2) it produces a sense of accomplishment and, once in a while, pride; and 3) it’s frightening.” –Gloria Steinem, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions
Do you own an e-reader? How has that changed your relationship to books?
I tried reading books on my iPad, but I missed the feel of paper, so no, I do not own an e-reader.
Why did you decide to join AWP?
I first heard about AWP at my MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte. I was encouraged to attend the AWP conference and joined. My very first conference was 2013 in Boston when there was a blizzard on the first day.
How has AWP helped you in your career and/or creative endeavors?
There are so many great resources AWP provides, from the Job List to The Writer’s Chronicle and of course the annual conference. My writing has improved, and I have grown as an author because of them all.
What would be your advice to new AWP members on how to make the most of their membership?
Take advantage of all that AWP offers. Make it a point to attend the conference and prepare for it. Come with a game plan. You can research who will be there and what kinds of panels and talks you might want to attend in advance on the conference web site. Make up your own conference schedule, but feel free to toss it aside if something else interests you once you get onsite.
What is your favorite AWP Conference memory?
I have many. The panel on publicity where I met Michelle Blankenship, who helped me with my first book. The VIDA: Women in Literary Arts booth and their charts on how many women are published by literary journals and magazines every year. Taking a selfie at the Headmistress Press booth with poets Robin Reagler, Freesia McKee, and Carolyn Book. Participating in an offsite reading. The year Annie Proulx gave the keynote, and she and I wore the same sweater.