Marissa Bell Toffoli

Interview With Writer Peg Kingman

In books, fiction, writing on September 10, 2010 at 10:40 pm

Peg Kingman

Peg Kingman. Photo by Marissa Bell Toffoli (2010).

An introduction to the author of Original Sins (WW Norton, 2010). Peg Kingman’s first book, Not Yet Drown’d, was set in Scotland and India. Original Sins: A Novel of Slavery and Freedom, set in nineteenth-century America, tells of a young woman’s journey into the slave-holding South. These first two novels will become part of a trilogy, connected but independent, Kingman explained, so the books may be read on their own in any order.

Quick Facts on Peg Kingman

  • Kingman’s website
  • Home: Mendocino County, California
  • Comfort food: mashed potatoes made with cream cheese, garlic, butter, and rosemary
  • Top authors: Dorothy Sayers, Dorothy Dunnett, Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope
  • Current reads: Thomas Robert Malthus’ Principle of Population, Charles Darwin’s work, and A History of the Chartist Movement by Julius West

What are you working on at the moment?

Research for my next book, which would be the third and concluding book of the trilogy that includes Not Yet Drown’d and Original Sins. In this third one we return to Scotland.

Where did the idea for your most recent book come from?

Well, I did not know I would write a second book until halfway through my first one. I realized that there was more, there were other themes I wanted to explore in detail. There were themes that didn’t belong in the first book and I started to dare—it felt like such a dare—to dream that I could do this in a second book. Eventually it seemed like the most obvious solution.

Who do you picture as the ideal reader of your work?

Myself, actually. I wanted to write the book that I wish somebody would have written for my reading pleasure. In that sense, I am my ideal reader. There have been times when I’ve pictured other readers or felt myself writing for a particular person. I’ve caught myself thinking, “oh, that was good. I think he’ll like that.” I finally realized, hey, this was not the way to write the book I wanted to write! I had to put that out of my mind.

I would also say that there are lots of readers I am not writing for: people who are in a big hurry. The way there’s fast food and slow food, I believe there are fast books and slow books. Mine is a slow book, for people who would like to sink down into it and spend some time with it.

Where and when do you prefer to write?

I prefer to have written. The writing itself I do not enjoy as much. It’s a battle every time to make myself stop procrastinating and do the writing. I generally write in a very bad, old travel trailer that has been gutted. It’s parked on the crest of a hill, overlooking a very beautiful valley in Mendocino County, California. I’ve got my desk, computer, books, and all my mess there.

Do you listen to anything when you work?

Usually I listen to North Indian classical music, or something similar. I often listen to a group called Ghazal. I turn on the album and listen to the first few notes, and then it’s just the roller coaster down to the place where I need to be to write. I often do not hear it again until the music stops.

Do you have a philosophy for why you write?

I think I write as a meditation on subjects that puzzle me and interest me; I write as a way of making  time and space to contemplate them as deeply as I know how.

How do you balance content with form?

I’m tempted to use everything I find in my research. I do my best, before it goes to my editor, to cut out the stuff that I know he’s going to wring his hands over. I do love research; I think the stuff itself is so fascinating. For form and content, the key point is that I’m writing novels. I’m telling a story. I cut stuff out when it doesn’t help the story.

Is there a quote about writing that motivates you?

Winston Churchill: “Never, ever, ever give up.”

Then I ask myself, “Wouldn’t you rather die trying?” Yes, I would. We’re going to die either way.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Aside from, “Never, ever, ever give up”?

The soul of writing is in the rewriting. The fact that your first draft is terrible, awful stuff is not a sign that you’re doing it wrong or that you should give up. It only means that you are doing something very difficult, and that you have a lot of work ahead of you. Embrace the rewrite. We are so lucky as writers that we don’t have to perform our art in real time in front of people; we get to hug it to ourselves in private until we feel safe enough to let it out. Make full use of that privilege.

Is there a question that you wish people would ask more often about your work?

What do you hope or wish readers will take away from this book? I think that’s an important question for the writer to think about, and I find it interesting to hear what readers think about it, too.

Somebody asked me that about my first book and I was surprised. I thought about it and answered, delight. Delight still applies, for both my books, but in Original Sins an important theme is that anyone may be wrong, and that everyone may be wrong together. The fact that a view is generally received is no guarantee that it is right. I’m not sure that’s exactly what I want people to take away from my book, but it’s very close.

What book do you wish you owned a first edition of?

Fanny Parks’ Wanderings of a Pilgrim, her journals and diaries while in India.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

As little as possible. I garden. I walk. I travel. I lie around reading magazines. And, I love to go treasure hunting at thrift shops and secondhand stores.

About Peg Kingman

Peg Kingman’s first novel was Not Yet Drown’d. Formerly a tea merchant and technical writer, she lives on a mountaintop in northern California.

[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Peg Kingman.” Words With Writers (September 10, 2010),

Original Sins

Original Sins by Peg Kingman (WW Norton, 2010)

  1. A brilliant novel, and an insightful interviewer.

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