Interview with Kathryn Jankowski

Rappahannock Review Nonfiction Editors: “In My Father’s House” opens with the jarring image of a black house which becomes the central image concerning your father. How did this image in relation to your father shift or change over time during the writing of this piece? 

Kathryn Jankowski: What I originally viewed as a symbol of anxiety and isolation became more nuanced. As a woman who values solitude, I began to see the house as more of a dark cocoon, a place in which my father sought to insulate and protect himself—and, by extension, his family—against a noisy, stressful world.

RR: What was the most difficult part of finding the balance between the character of your father for this piece versus the personal effect he had on you?

KJ: Choosing what to include and what to discard. I didn’t want to sound like a victim or make my father a villain, I wanted to be honest without casting blame. To peel back the layers of both our personae. It wasn’t easy. I went through many drafts.

RR: We admire how this piece tackles difficult and sensitive topics. Can you talk about how your process of writing creative nonfiction differs from your fiction?

KJ: They’re remarkably alike in the sense they both require attention to central story elements. Plot. Narrative tension. Character development. Details that support the emotional content and meet readers’ expectations. What needs to be said? What doesn’t? Is the promise of my opening fulfilled by the story’s end? One difference is my CNF pieces may go through several iterations before I find one that works, as opposed to following a trope like The Hero’s Journey for a book. I also draw upon my journalism training, which taught me to begin each story with as compelling as a lead as possible, keep the momentum flowing and omit needless words. CNF’s main distinction is the emotional challenge. I’m trying to relate the personal to the universal, which demands confrontation with often painful memories. It’s a process that can drain me as I write yet lead to an unexpected catharsis.

RR: Your bio mentions you’re a retired teacher who fostered a love of literature with elementary and middle-grade students. How did that work influence your writing?

KJ: One of the joys of teaching literature is seeing how kids respond, how they reflect and connect to what they’ve read. Their honesty in sharing personal stories inspired me to dig deep and not shy away from hard truths.

RR: What’s your favorite Nancy Drew book?

KJ: The very first: The Secret of the Old Clock. It introduced me to a spirited teenager who didn’t let anything or anyone get in the way of her quest for justice. I loved her spunk, her tenacity. It was a delightfully girl-positive series and a welcome respite from damsels in distress who waited for men to save them.


Read “In My Father’s House” by Kathryn Jankowski in Issue 11.2