Marissa Bell Toffoli

Interview With Writer Céline Keating

In books, fiction, writing on June 7, 2011 at 11:05 pm

Céline Keating

Céline Keating. Photo by Mark Levy.

An introduction to Céline Keating, author of the debut novel Layla (Plain View Press, 2011) that has also been listed as a HuffPost Books On Our Radar: Best Books Just Out Or Coming Soon We Thought You Should Know About.” Keating’s articles appear regularly in Acoustic Guitar and Minor 7th magazines, and have also been published in Guitar World and Coastal Living magazines. Her short fiction has been published in many literary journals, including Prairie Schooner and Santa Clara Review.

Quick Facts on Céline Keating

  • Céline Keating’s website
  • Home: New York City, New York
  • Comfort food: Chocolate, cheese, pasta—but not in the same dish!
  • Top reads: Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, Henry James, and John Casey—for Spartina alone
  • Current reads: Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead, The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, and The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on a novel set in Montauk, on Long Island in New York, called Stranger to the Deed. Montauk is a tiny resort community on the ocean, just teeming with themes of land and loss and history that fascinate me.

I’m also marinating a completed novel, Blown Away; after a few more months I’ll allow myself to reread it, and then I will revise or polish it a bit more.

Where did you get the idea for Layla?

One day, I was talking with someone about how it would feel to have a child with very different values from mine, and the character of Layla and her mother-daughter conflict popped into my mind. As a writer, wrapping the plot in mystery elements was exciting and fun, with the young woman following clues from her mother’s past that lead her to discover something totally unexpected and life-changing. I’d been wanting to write about ’60s and ’70s activism for a while, but hadn’t found a way in. Suddenly there were former radicals in the news—for instance, there was a firestorm of reaction to the possible parole of Kathy Boudin, who had been in prison for decades for crimes from that era. This really brought home to me how potent the ‘60s are for many people, and how the repercussions of that period still have bearing today.

What do you hope readers will take away from Layla?

I hope readers will think about their own values, beliefs, and choices, and, if they are parents, that they will discuss their values with their children.

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

My ideal reader is someone for whom my writing resonates. So many times what I’ve read has given my life deeper meaning and happiness. It would be a great joy to be able to do that for others.

Where and when do you prefer to write?

The “where” doesn’t matter to me at all, as long as I can lock myself away. I usually write at home, where I can replenish my coffee cup!

Ironically, I love to write in public places—subways, libraries, and especially outdoors— anywhere I can feel invisible, yet sense the pulse of the life around me like a hum.

As for what time, what’s best for me is to fall out of bed and go right to the writing. If I can’t, then the earlier in the day, the better, to keep the world from intruding. Plus, I get lazier as the day goes on.

Where would you most want to live and write?

I have many fantasies of writing in exotic locations—on a terrace in Italy, in the remote West coast of Ireland, in a seaside village in Maine. But, where I live in New York City is really where I want to be. I am fortunate in getting to spend a lot of time on the beaches of Long Island and in the mountains of upstate New York.

Do you listen to anything while you write?

I can’t have anything but silence while I write. When I’m not writing but thinking about the book, I listen to something that somehow represents for me the mood of the book. For Layla, since music plays a role in the story, I listened to a lot of contemporary female singers, trying to get a sense of who Layla would like, as well as rock classics, including, Eric Clapton, whose iconic song the character Layla is named after. For mood, I listened to a wonderful acoustic guitarist, Andrew Hardin, whose music I’m using for the book trailer.

Do you have a philosophy for how and why you write?

Why I write is simple—it’s only when I’m writing that I feel really authentic in the world. I actually get depressed and irritable when I’m not writing. It functions a bit like meditation, maybe, in centering me. I also know that writing forces me to think and feel at a deeper level than I would otherwise.

“Writing forces me to think and feel

at a deeper level than I would otherwise.”

I used to feel guilty about this, seeing it as self-serving or trivial. Eventually, it struck me that if art, music, and especially literature give my life joy and meaning, then why not feel good about wanting to contribute to that for others? I now understand that art and art-making is essential to society and civilization.

How do you balance content with form?

This is something I really struggle with. My initial impulses toward fiction usually come from images or themes, and sometimes character, rather than story, so finding an organic form takes time. I’ve learned that an analytical approach, with diagramming or plotting, does not work for me. It strips the material of its magic, and basically just bores me. So, what I have to do is sort of dream over the material. I take long walks, I write in a journal—sort of impressionistic phrases or images—until one day a character, or characters, arrives in my imagination. I’ve learned that I have to concentrate hard on the characters for the story to emerge. This can happen quickly, as it did for the novel I’m just finishing, Blown Away, or can take a long time, as it is for the novel I’m working on, Stranger to the Deed.

Is there a quote about writing that inspires you?

Flannery O’Connor: “For the fiction writer, to believe nothing is to see nothing.”

Katherine Anne Porter: “Writing does not exclude the full life, it demands it.”

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Write, even if it’s only for 15 minutes a day. Everyone can find 15 minutes, and that 15 minutes will keep you connected to your work and yourself. It’s when writers aren’t writing enough that the demons of self-doubt and self-criticism can sneak in and take over. If you’re writing, you’re not giving them the space to get a toehold.

I’d also give E L Doctorow’s advice, which I follow religiously, of not reading more than a page or so of work from a previous writing session—otherwise you let yourself off the hook and start revising rather than writing. You have to resist the urge to judge your work; just write.

“Write what you want to know.”

And yet another, instead of “write what you know,” I think it should be “write what you want to know.” Follow your curiosity. Write the book you really want to read, that no one else has yet written.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?

Two things have really stuck with me, both from former workshop teachers.

The first, from Erika Duncan, is that writers should go with their strengths and ignore their weaknesses. In other words, rather than trying to be everything as a writer, and working on correcting weaknesses in your writing, instead focus and expand upon what you do well.

The second, from Meg Wolitzer, is to be ambitious in the writing, not to shy away from big themes and ideas for fear of not being good enough.

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

James Joyce’s Dubliners

Is there a question you find surprising that people ask you about your work?

I’m always surprised, since I write only fiction, when I’m asked if the story is true. People seem astonished that writers make things up!

“People seem astonished that writers make things up!”

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

I love talking about technique, and so can’t get enough of questions about those kinds of choices, from point of view to word choice to character motivation.

What do you find most challenging about writing?

I find the time aspect of the writing life challenging; there’s never enough of it, and it’s very hard for me to ignore chores and commitments, and put writing first, which it demands.

On the writing level, what I find most difficult is balancing the demands of plot (the forward momentum and storytelling aspect) with language, tone, and voice. I wish this were more organic for me. I seem to either be rushing along with plot, and other aspects of writing get sacrificed, or I’m focusing on mood, tone, and language, and ignoring the necessity to tell a story. Integrating these aspects is what I’m struggling with these days.

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

Music is a big piece of my life. I study classical guitar and review music for several publications. I’m also an outdoor person, and I walk and hike quite a bit. And then, there’s food…I enjoy cooking—and eating!

About Céline Keating

Céline Keating is a writer and student of classical guitar. She holds masters degrees in Urban Studies and Creative Writing. She has received two fellowships to the MacDowell Colony, as well as scholarships to the Bread Loaf and Writers at Work conferences. Currently, Keating lives in Manhattan and edits the newsletter for Concerned Citizens of Montauk, an environmental group for which she serves as vice president.

Buy the book, preferably at your local independent bookstore.

[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Céline Keating.” Words With Writers (June 7, 2011),

Layla cover

Layla by Céline Keating (Plain View Press, 2011).

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