An Interview with Writer Kathryn Ionata

Photo by Stephen Brown

On Tuesday, February 20, Temple alumna and writer Kathryn Ionata will participate in the Libraries’ Beyond the Page public programming series as a featured artist in our Midday Arts Series. Join us at 12:30 PM in the Paley Library Lecture Hall (1210 Polett Walk, Ground Floor) to hear Kathryn read. All programs are free and open to all.

I had the opportunity to speak with Kathryn ahead of her reading, and ask her about her time as a Temple student, writing in multiple genres, and what she thinks you should be reading.


Beckie: Can you tell us a little bit about your experiences as a Temple student? When did you know you wanted to study writing?

Kathryn: I actually applied to Temple as a psychology major. Although I had always wanted to be a writer, I viewed that desire as separate from any academic or career interests I had. This may have been because as much as I loved reading and taking creative writing classes in school, I wasn’t crazy about Beowulf, for example, and mistakenly generalized the idea of an English major in that way. Once I visited Temple, I talked to professors about Hyphen and the Philadelphia Writers Conference and everything else that was exciting about writing and I realized that this was what I needed to be doing. I loved the electricity of the campus (and still do!) so much so that I decided to go for my MFA in Fiction, also at Temple, after I graduated. And I had a teaching assistantship, which is when I realized how much I like teaching as well as writing.

B: It sounds like Temple was a great place for you to develop as a writer. In terms of your work, you write and publish across genres, like poetry and fiction. How do you know when an idea is a poem or a story? What is your process like?

K: That’s a really good question and one that is tough to answer. I think the best way I can describe it is that poems come to me as more abstract feelings or moments that I wouldn’t be able to convey with a plot. Stories come to me as a larger concept, something more based in character and circumstance. And I suppose flash fiction is somewhere in between! Sometimes the same inspiration stays with me and lends itself to different genres.

B: Speaking of inspiration—set the scene for us! You are writing, and the setting is perfect. Where are you and why?

K: A perfect writing day means that I will have conquered that terrible combination of procrastination and anxiety and the words are coming easily and it feels natural rather than forced. I’ve gotten some good writing done on the third floor of Paley library in those orange and wooden chairs. I’ve also got a spot at home next to a window where I work well. (Also, I think eating candy while I write helps. I’m sure a dentist would disagree).

B: You mentioned earlier how much you like teaching. How do you, as a writer, approach the teaching of writing?

K: I try to approach it with empathy, because I know the terror of showing something personal to others and not knowing if they will like it or not. I try to convey the idea that writing is a process we rarely perfect on the first try, and that there are many different, legitimate kinds of writers and writing. I also encourage my students to immerse themselves in other art forms, whether that takes the form of music, visual art, film, or anything else.

B: What do you consider required reading for students who want to study writing?

K: There are a few classic short stories that you’ll find in many creative writing classes (including some of mine) such as “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver and “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin. But the lessons they contain about structure and dialogue and character can be found in a great many other pieces. More than any list of texts, I think what’s most important is to read widely. Read writers of different races, ethnicities, and genders. Read fiction, poetry, and the unclassifiable. Here are some of my favorite authors and texts across genres that I’ve assigned recently or hope to assign soon:

  • Danez Smith, especially Don’t Call Us Dead
  • Kim Addonizio, especially What Is This Thing Called Love
  • Alice Munro, “Passion”
  • Jamaica Kincaid, “Girl”
  • Dan Chaon, “The Bees”
  • Helen Ellis, “The Wainscoting Wars”
  • Sam Weiner, “Your Mass Shooting Thoughts and Prayers Are Accidentally Going to the Angry God of a Distant Planet”

B: I’m definitely going to check those recommendations out! Thanks for your time, Kathryn, and we are looking forward to your reading next week.

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