» Interview

Daphne Kalotay on Female Friendships in Literature and Life

Cover of Calamity and Other Stories by Daphne Kalotay.     Cover of Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay.


Cover of Sight Reading by Daphne Kalotay.     Cover of Blue Hours by Daphne Kalotay.


When Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize in literature, Maya Angelou threw her a party. Eudora Welty tried to teach her friend and mentor, Katherine Anne Porter, how to drive. George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe; Jane Austen and Anne Sharp… Probably I shouldn’t be so surprised that these female friendships are not as well known or well documented as those of literary men. As Margaret Atwood writes in her foreword to A Secret Sisterhood, “In accounts of the lives of male writers, peer-to-peer friendships, not unmixed with rivalry, often loom large—Byron and Shelley, Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. But female literary friendships have been overlooked.” So, when I read Daphne Kalotay’s Blue Hours, which tells the story of a close relationship between two women, I felt compelled to ask her if she’d be willing to talk to me, not just about her book and writing life, but about female friendship.


In addition to being a talented writer, Daphne is one of my oldest and closest friends. We’ve known each other since we were nine years old, when the neighbor whose yard stood between hers and mine in suburban New Jersey cut back his hedges so that we could commute back and forth without getting scratched. We walked home from grade school together and, when we were older, sometimes walked aimlessly, flipping a coin to determine which way we’d turn. In high school, Daphne and I split the cost of a The International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses, and I distinctly remember hearing back from one of the journals that I should not send my handwritten drafts.


Since then, Daphne has published four books:

  • Calamity and Other Stories,which was short listed for the 2005 Story Prize;
  • Russian Winter,which won the 2011 Writers’ League of Texas Fiction Prize and has been published in over twenty foreign editions;
  • Sight Reading, winner of the 2014 New England Society Book Award and a Boston Globe bestseller;
  • and Blue Hours, out in the summer of 2019 from Triquarterly.

She’s received fellowships from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, the Bogliasco Foundation, MacDowell, and Yaddo. After graduating from Vassar College, Daphne attended Boston University’s Creative Writing Program, and then went on to complete a PhD in Modern & Contemporary Literature, also at Boston University. Her doctoral dissertation was on the works of Mavis Gallant (and her interviews with Mavis Gallant can be read in The Paris Review‘s Writers-At-Work series.) She is currently teaching at Princeton University’s Program in Creative Writing.


Kirsten Menger-Anderson for TFR:

Do you remember any of the notes you got back from those early high school submissions? Did you get any encouraging ones? Did you publish anything back then?


Daphne Kalotay:

I remember thinking that I had to grow up to be a writer. In fact, I have a distinct memory of telling a wonderful babysitter of mine, when I was quite young, that I wanted to write a book about the street another friend of mine lived on, about all the adventures of the kids who lived on that street. And the babysitter asked why I wasn’t writing the book now, and I said I had to grow up, and she told me not to wait—but I was very suspicious of that; I knew I had a lot to learn. I recall that around the time you and I bought The International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses, a poem of mine won some New Jersey student contest and was published in some sort of broadsheet. But I wasn’t even in the highest level English class, if I’m remembering correctly. And yet I have a memory of somehow being allowed to join your English class, which was a grade ahead of mine, on a class trip. I think this shows the teachers were trying to help me!


Menger-Anderson for TFR:

I love that Mim, the protagonist of Blue Hours, is an author and that I can read about her first submission, too: her decision to submit to Harper’s, where she knows no one, instead of The Atlantic, where she’d interned: “Perhaps it was fear of being rejected by my former colleagues. But there was something else, too. I wanted objective, completely impartial, affirmation of my brilliance. I am not ashamed to admit this.” I loved this line. Many of the details you capture—from the party where everyone is an aspiring writer, to Mim’s hesitation to identify herself as a writer, to how it felt to check the mailbox for the submission response—the thrill of a personal note, the dread of a form—really resonate.


Reflecting on her early success, Mim notes, “I hadn’t yet found my voice; I simply wrote down those other voices that would not let me sleep.” It’s interesting to hear Mim reflect on her own early work, and I was hoping you could talk a little about your own work and voice over time.


What was your first publication? And do you feel like your early work reflects your voice now?



Interestingly, my first publication wasn’t my own voice; it was translations of three poems by the Hungarian poet Attila József, published in the Partisan Review. This makes sense to me, that this would be my first work good enough to be seen in print. My first original work was published very soon after that, a story called “Alabaster Doesn’t Count” that came out in a broadsheet called Bellowing Ark. These little magazines are so important, precisely because they are so often the ones that give us these first chances, our first publications. They’re that first pat on the back that says, You’re a writer!


Menger-Anderson for TFR:

Like Mim, who continues to write and publish, you are, decades after our high school submissions, a successful writer. Is it what you imagined when we were kids?



You know, I’m not sure I even had a vision of what a “successful writer” looked like or what that life would be, just that I wanted to write something people would want to read. The funny part is that I remember as a kid often playing at being a teacher, and teaching creative writing is also how I make my living, so that part of the vision definitely came true.


Menger-Anderson for TFR:

Blue Hours is your fourth book. Do you feel like you’re now an expert when it comes to bringing a story into the world, or is each book/release different? Can you talk a bit about what you love about the process and what is difficult? And how friends can help?



I don’t feel at all like an expert when it comes to launching a book. In fact, I think I’m pretty bad at it. I’m not on Twitter or Instagram, and I’m reluctant to send out email announcements; the other day I signed up for MailChimp simply because I can’t figure out a simple way to use Gmail to send out announcements, and I just felt like I was spamming everyone–but then I got all these wonderful messages back saying, “Thank you for sending me this announcement!” That’s the part I love about launching a book: hearing back from people I haven’t seen in years, seeing old friends at readings, meeting readers who come to have their books signed and tell me what my books have meant to them.


What’s hard is all the external business I have to keep up on that has nothing to do with creativity and takes up so much time and emotional energy: remembering to list my events on Facebook and anywhere else that might be relevant; fulfilling any press requests or opportunities the publicist secures; making sure my website is up to date and fixing it when I realize I have wrong event info—stuff like that. I imagine there are people who are good at it and enjoy it, but I find it alienates me from myself. As for how friends can help, just by showing up to my events, my friends have been so supportive. And friends like you have gone even further, by doing exactly what you’re doing here: coming up with a collaborative way to create something fun together.


Menger-Anderson for TFR:

One of the things I love about Blue Hours are the letters, a record of one friend thinking of another, as well as a record of sadness, as the letters were not sent, at least not until much later. In one, Kyra writes:

Sorry my letters always sound kind of down. I should write you on good days too. I see amazing things, Mim. Incredible people. Incredible beauty. But I guess I mostly write when I’m feeling blue.


When I was fifteen and doing a student exchange that was not working out, I wrote what must have been a miserable aerogram to you, and you wrote back immediately with a note that read, “it sounds like you need chocolate,” and included a box. Years have passed and I still think about that kindness, and that correspondence is a really beautiful part of friendship, even when it’s blue.


How did you decide to use letters in Blue Hours? Was it clear from the start that these should be part of the text? And that the receipt would be delayed? Or did you come to these decisions later?



I remember letters from you in college, too. In fact, as I write this, it occurs to me that I must have been thinking of “Kirsten” when I came up with the name “Kyra”!


Regarding the letters in the book, yes, I knew they would be important and that their receipt would be delayed, but I struggled to figure out how to deliver them to the reader. Part of the problem was that I was using the letters as a way of avoiding going to Afghanistan. In the original draft, Part 2 was, instead, all of Kyra’s letters, in chronological order. I wrote them all out, year after year, from every country she had lived in. And then two things happened. One friend who read the book said it was too much to have all the letters in a row like that, and another friend said I had to have Mim go to Afghanistan. So, I did a year of research and wrote the Afghanistan section and interspersed the letters throughout the book—but then realized people were not reading them all, and that there were some letters I really needed people to pay attention to. In the end I just kept the parts of letters that I wanted to make absolutely sure no one missed.


Menger-Anderson for TFR:

I was really struck by the friendship between Kyra and Mim, and how often they viewed each other with admiration and love. “I thought maybe this was what it was like to have a sister, to be that close,” Mim reflects at one point. Or at another (and another of my favorite passages), Mim thinks about the first time she met Kyra:

Now it strikes me that I must have sensed this even in my very first glimpse of her, on the train: the no-nonsense part of her, the flat gaze. I think that frankness was what I picked up on—was perhaps the very source of her familiarity, the reason I thought I knew her. Really what I was recognizing was, I suspect, myself. That is, the possibility, in another person, of being fully, truly seen.


I love how the relationship is not plagued with competition, which often factors into the way female friendships are characterized. Were there any particularly challenging parts to developing their friendship? Or, alternatively, parts that came easily?



What characterizes my best friendships is precisely that last line: being seen fully, in all of one’s aspects, and being loved for and despite them, in one’s totality. In developing their friendship, I knew my characters would connect as artists passionate about their art. What came easily, too, were the class differences and how that would complicate things. What was difficult was the mystery around Kyra, who is so elusive, hiding so much of what roils deep inside her. There’s so much we don’t know about her until much later in Part 2.


Menger-Anderson for TFR:

We often talk about writing in our emails. You’ve also read and responded to pretty much all of my work at some point or another. You once wrote me “I really want you to be true to your vision of the book,” and I know that when you give feedback, you are trying to help me realize whatever it is that led me to take on the project to begin with. In Blue Hours, Mim tells Kyra she finished her short story, and we see the theme of friendship and critique in the novel as well:

Her face lit up. “That’s fantastic!” Then almost shyly, “Do you need a reader for it?”


It hadn’t occurred to me to show it to anyone. “I already sent it out.” My heart sank at my folly.


Kyra seemed to notice. “Well, if you ever need another set of eyes…” I had never seen her look bashful before. “I mean, I’d love to read your work.”


A bit later in the conversation, Mim adds:

“You’re always working together with other dancers, so you’re used to sharing work in progress. Writers work alone. It can be scary to show your writing to someone else.”


Can you talk a little about friendship and critique? I don’t think the two have to go hand-in-hand, but when they do, how does that benefit (or, alternatively, complicate) the experience?



I’m so lucky in that I have friends I share my work with, whom I trust implicitly and without whom I truly could not complete my projects. For me, the friendship part is important because it means we know each other’s personalities that much better and can be that much more honest, with that much more nuance. It doesn’t make it any easier. I still have to brace myself for feedback. I have a friend who cries when her work is critiqued—but part of the reason she can cry is because she is one of my closest friends and knows she can express her fatigue and frustration when a draft still isn’t finished.


Menger-Anderson for TFR:

I don’t want to reveal too much about the novel’s plot, but at one point, when Mim is in Afghanistan, she is led to the women’s tent, while her male companions are taken to tea with the village elders. The things Mim learns and experiences at that time are different from her companions. Throughout history women have been excluded from power, their experiences, and their bonds with each other—despite being equally vivid and powerful—often diminished. Even Mim’s friend (and Kyra’s ex-husband), Roy, dismisses Mim’s romantic relationship with Kyra as a “phase,” for example. I was wondering if you had thoughts about female friendships in this larger context—either in the novel or in life.



It’s especially interesting to me how easily dismissed female friendship is when really our relationships are often the sustaining forces in our lives. More than one friend has confessed to me that it’s her relationships with her women friends, not her husband, that she most “needs.” And when I tell women readers I’ve written about two women friends, I immediately see eyes light up and am told “I want to read that!” The first publisher who saw this book sent back notes for suggested changes—and one of the main suggestions was that Kyra and Mim not be friends but sisters, and that instead of a lesbian love affair I have a heterosexual one. You can see the bias there, this implicit assumption that strong bonds between women are somehow less novel-worthy than those between a man and a woman (unless those women are siblings). Probably if I’d made those changes I could have sold the book a lot more quickly!


Menger-Anderson for TFR:

And finally, can you talk about the role of female friendships in your own life?



Particularly because I’m single and unmarried—meaning that I don’t have the support of a partner in my day-to-day living—and partly because I have a very tenuous existence as a writer who tries to eke out a living as a professor of creative writing—my friendships are one of the only reliable positive constants in my life. They are the nourishing force that keeps me going, remind me that I’m loved and that my love is received back. Many times in just the past year, I’ve been reminded that my core group of women friends are there for me even when I might not realize it.


Please also see Daphne Kalotay’s story “Relativity” in 41.2 (Fall 2017) of The Florida Review.


Kirsten Menger-Anderson and Daphne Kalotay, in grade school, feeding ducks.

Kirsten Menger-Anderson

Kirsten Menger-Anderson is a writer and researcher based in San Francisco. She is the author of Doctor Olaf van Schuler's Brain (Algonquin, 2008).