Kaia Solvig Preus Wins the 2018 Essay Press MFA Book Contest

Available now from Small Press Distribution, your local bookstore, and elsewhere.
Selected by Rebecca Brown for the 2018 Essay Press | UW Bothell MFA Book Contest.

The War Requiem blends memoir, research, and historical fiction, in order to explore Benjamin Britten’s dynamic piece of choral and orchestral music, the War Requiem, Op.66. Written to commemorate the new Coventry Cathedral’s consecration (following World War II bombing), the composition blends the Latin Mass for the Dead with nine poems by Wilfred Owen. Just as Britten’s piece pulls together many threads and subjects, this book braids three separate stories of Britten, Owen, and the author, to better understand the process of art-making and the lasting effects of both art and war.

KAIA SOLVEIG PREUS teaches writing in Minneapolis. She received her MFA from Hollins University and is a 2019 Author Fellow through the Martha’s Vineyard Institute for Creative Writing. Her work has appeared in Barely South Review, The Briar Cliff Review, The Drum, Pleiades, and Watershed Review. She is currently at work on a novel and a collection of essays.

Interview with Kaia Preus

Kaia Solvig Preus

Author Kaia Preus’s new book, The War Requiem, blends memoir, research, and historical fiction in a multi-threaded narrative exploring artistic process and the impacts of war. Preus interweaves her story of learning the soprano choral part of the musical work, War Requiem, with the story of how English composer, Benjamin Britten, composed the piece (completed in 1952), with the life story of World War I poet Wilfred Owen whose poems are used as the English text for “War Requiem.”

1. What was the impetus for writing this particular hybrid novel? Tackling the challenging soprano choir part in Britten’s opus, War Requiem, provided no guarantee of mastery (or applause) at the end. Researching and writing your new novel, The War Requiem, also had no surety of publishing acclaim. And yet… your visceral feelings for the music and protagonists inside are clearly sustained throughout your book. Was writing this piece a compulsion or an aspiration?

I love this question. Writing this piece was both a compulsion and an aspiration. At first, it was just straight compulsion. I began writing this piece during my first year of graduate school when I had an opportunity to turn in a long-form piece for one of my seminars. I had been writing and turning in mostly short stories and essays at the time, but I wanted to try something different. I looked back through my journal and saw that amidst all of my character sketches and story ideas, I had written the words War Requiem every few pages. It kept circling in my mind no matter what else I was working on. I decided to use my long-form assignment as a space to give this piece––whatever it was––a shot. As I started researching and writing, I found myself being more and more drawn in by the art and lives of Britten and Owen. I honestly had no idea if anyone would be interested in what I was writing, but at a certain point, I didn’t care. I was fascinated. I listened to the music again and again––and here’s where the aspiration part comes in––and I remember thinking that I wanted to make a piece of art that was as bold as Britten’s Requiem. He was so audacious in creating this piece. Some people didn’t understand or care for what he created, but he did it all the same. I wanted to be like that, too.

2. You are an interdisciplinary artist – a writer, a singer, and a painter. How do you feel that these different aspects of your creative identity have collaborated in writing your book, ‘The War Requiem’? 

My process was very multi-modal. The entire time I was writing the book, I was singing or listening to the Requiem. I also enrolled in a painting class during graduate school, so much of the time I was writing, I was also going to the painting studio late at night and writing while I waited for layers of paint to dry.

You can also probably tell from my book and from the way that I work in many different media, that I am a person who doesn’t like to stick to one thing at one time. I love to bounce around between projects and let them inform one another––usually more through process than subject matter. While writing my book, I loved the freedom of jumping from a “me” section to a “Britten” section to an “Owen” section, but I also loved the challenge of connecting so many disparate pieces. I often drew upon my painting experience in that I would think of building my book in terms of color or atmospheric moods. For example, there are a few quiet moments when Owen tilts his face toward the sun. I tried to place these light points very carefully in the draft as I would place flecks of a pale yellow or white, let’s say, on a canvas that was mostly deep colors. I often felt that my book was so abstract and unwieldy in its subject matter that I really needed to make things as concrete as possible. What are the colors I see here? What do I feel in my body when I sing this section? How can I write that? I broke it down into thoughts and images that felt graspable to me. I could feel them, in some way. And then I could take what I felt and turn it into what I really think of as the ultimate artistic magic––words and sentences that can then build the visual, the sonic, the sensory for the reader.

3. You have taken what is, by many measures, an exceedingly complex musical work – evocative personal poetry, liturgical weight, massive performance requirements, complicated tonality, the emotionally fraught topic of the consequences of war – and added multi-threaded commentary atop it within your book. What were your main concerns proceeding under these realities? Were there particular strategies you employed to keep the narrative and intensity bearable for you or the reader?

When you write it all out like that, it really does look heavy and sprawling. And as I was writing it, I sensed all of that, for sure, but I often felt bowled over by the weight of it all when I thought about it too much. I tried to keep my thought process and writing process as simple as possible, and for me that meant focusing on the three narratives. Above all else, I focused on story and on the process of art-making for all three of us. Once I had written a draft, it was easier to go back in and excise or add what I needed to in order to make the more philosophical considerations work within those narrative structures. If I had turned to a blank page and told myself that I needed to make a commentary on war, I would have frozen up. I needed to think in terms of story and in terms of discovery. Researching Britten and Owen and reading their letters gave me so much more wisdom on subjects like art and war and solitude and companionship. I looked at each new section with an attitude toward learning. I followed their letters and let what they wrote shape what I then wrote. Later, once I had something on the page, I could look at it and decipher it and say, “Oh! In this section, I’m writing about Owen getting better after being hospitalized for shell shock, but what I really need to make sure I hit upon is the fear of going back to war. Then I’ll have a doorway to discussing the cold machinations of government officials determining the course of these peoples’ lives.”

As for the reader––this has been a huge consideration for me the entire time I worked on the book. I knew that my subject matter would not be well known and that the book might come across as too intellectual or stuffy. But my hope was that as soon as a person opened it up and started reading, they would find it inviting and interesting. I wanted the prose to be easy to read, even if the subject matter wasn’t always simple. I think often of my great uncle Chris, who got his Ph.D. from Princeton and spent much of his life as a preacher in a small town in Northern Minnesota. He always said that “people should speak so that everyone can understand.” I have held on to that as I’ve worked to discover my own voice and as I wrote The War Requiem. I wanted anyone who picked my book up in their hands to feel as though the sentences both welcomed them in and spurred them onward.

4. You reference many sources, and personal experiences as well, but how much of this work is fiction created in the spirit of the tale, as you say, “spinning scenes out of nothing”? For example, the rehearsal (and other) interactions between the composer Britten and his partner at home, or details of poet Owen leading his company of soldiers. Did you see the role of fiction as an imagination-glue to join disparate realities into a cohesive whole?

I really like the idea of fiction as “imagination-glue.” What a great conglomeration of words. The question of fiction versus nonfiction is one that interested me greatly throughout writing the book and still interests me. We know that even when writing nonfiction, writers often borrow elements of fiction to bring a scene to life. For example, when I was writing the choir rehearsal scenes, I did not have a recording of those rehearsals. Everything that I wrote, I wrote from memory, but I still feel comfortable and confident labeling those scenes as nonfiction––especially because these stories of my life are from my point of view. I didn’t have to worry about overstepping boundaries in a way that I did when writing from the points of view of Britten and Owen.

Fiction can be very freeing, but in writing the Britten and Owen sections, I was very cognizant of the fact that I wanted to represent these two men and their lives in a way that was respectful and as truthful and accurate as possible. The books of their letters were never far from my fingertips and I made sure that every important or interesting detail came from fact. I’m thinking of a scene where Owen was sitting in his tent, reading a letter from his mother, and eating a slice of vanilla cake. The vanilla cake is real––his mother really sent it to him and he wrote about it in a letter. That detail stuck out to me so much and I knew I had to put in. On the other side of things, I did have to rely upon my imagination to fill in gaps or to color events that I knew took place but about which I did not know very many details. For example, I knew that Britten and his partner Peter Pears met after their mutual friend died when they were both sent to sort through this friend’s personal effects. I knew that Pears picked Britten up on his motorbike and that they sorted through his letters and writings together, but that was it. I could not find anything else about that moment in time in their letters or in biographies written about them. I was not privy to their conversation or their first impressions of one another or any of the heart matter that I knew must have been present between them at their meeting. When I turned to write the scene, I tried to infuse it with warmth because I was privy to many other beautiful and intimate moments later down the road for them. I wanted to portray their meeting in a way that would set up their relationship for its future depth and love.

All of this is to say that, yes, fiction was very much an imagination-glue that helped me bring all three of us together in a way that, I hope, is compelling and honest. I think it helps, too, that in high school I was in all of the plays and musicals, so I’ve been practicing dropping into other characters for a long time.

Storytelling has always been a way in for me when it comes to understanding things about the world. I can be shocked or intrigued by a statistic or article––either about historic or current events––but I don’t fully engage until I hear the human side of things. I need story to make sense of the world. When I started researching Owen and Britten I did not want to write a straight biography because I truly wanted to make their stories present and engaging for the reader in a way that would feel nothing like reading a textbook or an article (though there are many very well done biographies of both men). I very deliberately chose to write the Owen and Britten sections in present tense and my section in past tense. I wanted the historic to feel visceral––to feel here. I wanted our lives to slow down and overlap and intersect in a way that made it clear that the past is always present.

5. You mention in section 4, Sanctus, needing to “break the rules” when singing the “pleni sunt coeli….” Did you have to break any rules in writing this book?

Yes! In a way, I often felt that writing this book at all was breaking the rules because I had never come across anything exactly like it in my reading before. I felt very bold and a little bewildered at myself when I started to realize what exactly I had undertaken. One of the best rules I broke because it totally set me free was deciding not to care or worry about if this book would ever be published. I think if I had focused on that, I would have never written this book. In many ways, it felt like I was taking a lot of risks. I was writing about a piece of music that most people have never heard of. I was an American woman writing about two English men who died decades before I was born. I was blending fiction and nonfiction. I was writing in short chunks. I was spending hours researching what the buttons on Owen’s uniform would have looked like and what kinds of furniture Britten had in his studio. I had no idea what the pay off would be from writing this book––but then I realized that the pay off was occurring as I was writing it. When I truly let myself invest in whatever it was that I was trying to make, small magical moments happened between me and the work that would sustain me in my life and spur me on through the next odd research topic until it happened again.

I want to mention, too, that in writing this book, I both broke rules and set very firm rules for myself. I made sure that my points of view and tenses were consistent among each section of each braid. I made sure that every vignette mentioned the name Britten, Owen, or the “I” for my sections, within the first or second sentence so that the reader would have no doubts about who they were with at that moment. I made sure that every section about me was either trained on researching the work or singing the piece––there could be no extraneous information about me because the focus needed to stay on the War Requiem. Following these rules so diligently helped me successfully break all of the other ones that I needed to break in order to create the book.

6. There is much complexity and variety of musical form within Britten’s War Requiem. For example, descriptions of vocal entrances as part of a musical fugue or containing inverted note sequences. Was it hard to translate those musical aspects into words, creating sentences that would help the non-musical reader hear the music in their mind? A related aspect: how would you imagine your book to be experienced as an audiobook rather than being read?

It was and it wasn’t. Though I sang in a prestigious choir, I was not a music major and I sometimes struggled with reading music. While I was learning the War Requiem, I felt very much like a landlubber set out to sea. There were so many pieces of the music that I was convinced I would never be able to understand or sing. Because I––someone who had a fair amount of a musical background––struggled so much, I think it really cued me into how purposefully I needed to write visuals and sensory details into the sonic for people to understand. I think most people have been moved by music in some way, so I knew that people could relate on that level. But I don’t know that every person who reads my book would then turn on Britten’s piece and be moved by the music. As I wrote in the book, so much of it is strained and harsh and ugly. But I wanted people to understand both the beauty and the sheer level of genius contained in the work. In order to do that, I had to make the music almost like its own character.

Trying to translate how the music sounded or felt into words was such a satisfying puzzle for me. It was hard to get it right, but so exciting when I felt like I did. I think my painting background also helped me make those mental leaps because I was used to looking at the world around me or examining my own thoughts and trying to put that in a new form using color and structure and texture.

As I was writing, I was very deliberate in how and what I wrote because I wanted it to be as sonic or as lyrical as possible. In a lot of ways, I think this book is meant to be read aloud, just as a musical score is meant to be played or sung. I would love to make this an audiobook.

7. What was your multi-year process of assembling your book? You describe Britten’s composing technique as “paper poor,” ideas swirling in his mind and only committed to paper later. For yourself, you mention notebooks, sticky notes spread out and brought together into a cohesive whole, years of rumination and drafting, and emotional engagement with the material. Do you have any advice (for emerging writers) that you discovered through your creation process?

The first two years were just writing and cutting and rewriting. Then I’d take a few months off and return to it again. More cutting. More rewriting. More researching. More time off. Then repeat it all again. I often felt like I was assembling an accordion. I would add sections and stretch things out just to cut a lot back and do it again. I would often print out an entire movement, or chapter, cut it into pieces and rearrange it on my living room floor. Visualizing it in this way helped me trim the fat and only keep the very best. After my book won the Essay Press and UWB MFA Book Contest, it went through some dramatic revisions that made the book stronger, but that were also very difficult for me. After my revisions with my editor at Essay Press, I had a book that felt radically different. I sent the revised manuscript to two close friends from graduate school who always “got” what I was trying to do even when I wasn’t there yet. When one of them said that the book “was more itself” after the revisions, I knew it was all going to be okay.

My biggest advice for emerging writers is to listen to yourself and do what works for you. Every artist is different. I remember being really hard on myself at the start of graduate school if I didn’t write every day, because I thought that to be a writer I had to write every day. I kept hearing that somewhere. But I’m not the kind of person who writes every day, and so I would get trapped in these cycles of guilt. Similarly, my father, trying to be supportive and helpful, always told me––still tells me!–– that I needed to get up early and write standing up like Hemingway. But the opposite works for me. I’m actually much better at writing in the late afternoon and very late at night. I also always had this vision of a beautiful writing desk with color-coded notes written in those fancy fine-tip markers, but that just isn’t me either. I’m best at a kitchen table with sticky notes and coffee-stained notebooks and candy wrappers everywhere and, weirdly, lately, the same song on repeat in my headphones. My writing life morphs and changes and I try to be easy with it. I’ve always been told that I’m disorganized or have too many things going at once, but I’ve started to just embrace it all and work with myself instead of against myself. How the work gets done is going to be different for everyone, but the work needs to get done. The people who write are the people who spend time writing. It might not be every day or for hours at a time, but they write. They put things on paper. They try.

Oh––a couple of other things: Protect your writing time. Put very few things above your writing time in terms of importance. Don’t share too much about your projects until you know that enough magic is there to keep you moving forward with it. When you’re really flowing and don’t want to leave the computer or the notebook, don’t. Bail on the happy hour. Don’t bail on your creative self. When you get stuck, go outside or dance. Try a new art form and don’t worry if you’re bad at it. Relish the little moments where things click together or feel magical. And always, always have snacks nearby. 

8. At the beginning of the book, you say “This page is a staff. These words, musical notes. Periods, commas, question marks, and, of course, the dashes – rests. I close my eyes and listen. My part will become clear.” This motif, to seek clarity, repeats for all protagonists throughout the book and still stands at the conclusion. So, the question remains: has your part become clear, both in your art in general and within the narrative of this book?

Yes. To me, my part has become clear in both respects. In terms of my art in general, I think writing this book showed me how much I need to create and experience and ingest art in order to be truly alive. What it is that I end up making might surprise me––The War Requiem certainly did––but as long as I’m creating something, I’m doing what I need to do in this life.

In terms of my narrative within the book, I think my part became clear in the way that my narrator-self learned to follow her curiosity wherever it led her. She learned to open herself up to appreciating more than she thought possible at the beginning of her journey with the War Requiem. She ends in a space of deep gratitude and hope, both of which will help her in her future artistic endeavors.

9. Have any other artistic works – musical pieces, theatrical, cinema, visual art, dance, etc. – affected you in a similar way? We know that you have some new artistic works underway. Would you like to mention anything about them?

Perhaps because of my past as a self-proclaimed high school drama nerd, I have been drawn to and very interested in theater. I’m lucky that my home, Minneapolis, has a very vibrant arts community. It is quite literary, and it also has a very strong theater scene. Before COVID-19, I was able to see some amazing work at a number of theaters and I’m looking forward to the day I can attend shows once again. I’m currently working on a young adult novel that draws inspiration from an interesting staging of Romeo and Juliet I saw at The Guthrie in downtown Minneapolis a couple of years ago. I also taught high school English for a while and was able to teach that play to my ninth graders. Lots of foam swords were involved. All of that is swirling around my mind at the moment and I’m enjoying trying to translate yet another art-form––acting––into words.

The Interviewers:

Annika G.R. Bunney is an interdisciplinary creator focusing on traditional writing, nature-based creations, and assorted textual pieces. She is a second-year student in the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing & Poetics at the University of Washington Bothell. Her ever-evolving work draws on classic literature, folklore, and mass media. She has been published in Clamor and The Journal of Occurrences and is continually evolving throughout her creative endeavors.

Sabina Livadariu is a writer originally from Romania interested in a broad set of issues from the friction between utopia and dystopia, to how memory shapes creative identity and the transforming power of violence in art. Sabina Livadariu holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing & Poetics at the University of Washington Bothell. She has been published in multiple media in Clamor and enjoys experimenting with artist books and installations.

Cliff Watson is a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing & Poetics student at the University of Washington Bothell, graduating in 2021. His current work blends fiction, poetry, digital media, and performance. In 2017, his piece Dialogue about croquet in a library was performed by acrobats in a circus show. 2020 publications include hybrid works in Clamor and poetics in The Crow.