Storytelling and house-building. Here’s what I’ve been up to…

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To build a house

 My grandparents' house, built in 1929, was the original inspiration for my second novel, which I'm working on now. My aunt gave me a list my grandfather had kept of the costs of the project, and also the date on which each phase was completed, offering me an invaluable snapshot of how the house was built. Photographs from my father's album told me more. The house was built in the Colonial Revival style, popular at the time, with redwood siding and copper downspouts and a cedar-shingled roof. The foundation was dug in June on my grandfather's twenty-eighth birthday, and the house was completed when the floors were shellacked in mid-September. Six weeks later, the stock market crashed. My grandparents spent the next decade worrying they might lose the house. They did not. They lived in it for forty-eight years, and I fondly remember my childhood visits there. The house still stands in Old Tappan, New Jersey, a reminder of the resilience of things far beyond our life with them.

It's not too late!
I'm still collecting digital photographs of treasures from my readers for my 45 Treasures project, housed on Pinterest and on my website. Do you have an ordinary, everyday item that dates to between 1900 and 1945? If so, I would love to include it in my research gallery. I'll choose 45 of these treasures to write into the novel as well. Yours could be one of them! Submit with a brief description of your item to my e-mail: KLCzepiel at 

Now Available:

My short story "Intuition" tells the story of Hattie Paige, an overeducated young woman teaching chemistry at an elite school for girls in 1889. Hattie determines to solve the problem of spoiled milk that kills thousands of babies each year in New York City. But book knowledge alone won’t ensure her success. She will have to enter a new world far from the sheltered mansions of her youth, where testing her hunches requires risks she has never taken before. 

Upcoming Events

May 9, 2014
Presentation, 10 a.m.
Institute for Learning in Retirement
New Haven, CT

May 14, 2014
Reading, 1 p.m.
Bristol Public Library
Bristol, CT

I do book club visits, in person and via Skype. For more information, send me an e-mail: KLCzepiel at


?Why do we tell stories

       This spring I’ve been teaching my favorite course again. It’s called “The Power of Story,” and it asks the question: Why do we tell stories? Many of my students at Quinnipiac University think at first that this is a simple question, one that couldn’t possibly sustain an entire semester of reading and writing and discussion. We tell stories for entertainment, they say. Yes, of course. But there must be other reasons, because stories have existed in some form in nearly every human culture from the beginning of time. Why? Many students see learning as an accumulation of facts, and for that reason stories appear to them to be entirely frivolous. But over the course of the semester, interesting things begin to happen. We read the original versions of some of the sanitized fairy tales they grew up with, and they are shocked to recognize the undertones of rape in the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” and the brutality of the stepmother (never mind the witch) in “Hansel and Gretel.” We notice similarities between oral stories of the Dakotah and Ojibway Indians and stories from Judeo-Christian traditions. We write our own family stories and discover the unintended repetition among classmates of common American themes—rags to riches, love that was meant to be—and the presence of some of those same themes in our beloved American legends. We hear from theorists like Bruno Bettelheim, who tells us that children need the original, unsweetened versions of fairy tales, which will help gain them “access to deeper meaning” in life. Joseph Campbell teaches us about archetypal mythic heroes, and biologist Paul Hernadi argues that good storytellers may have had a biological advantage in human evolution. We finish our semester with a reading of Salman Rushdie’s playful allegorical novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories, in which saving the Ocean of the Streams of Story from pollution and ultimately death is the protagonist’s lofty goal. By the end of the course, my students are formulating their own ideas about the power of stories in our lives, the purpose they serve, what works and what doesn’t, why stories matter.
            As a writer of fiction, in this course I am working on perhaps my own biggest question. Does being a storyteller matter? Or is it just play? (Or does what we call “play” actually matter?) The questions ever fascinate me, and over the years, I have come to my own understanding of the power of stories, of what they give us that real life (and, by extension, often non-fiction) does not. I find it interesting when people complain that a story wasn’t “realistic” or that “it’s not how things really work” because, of course, that’s the point of fiction. Telling a story allows us to create what we are missing in “real life.”  Stories make sense of that which in the living often seems senseless, make logic of the illogical, make patterns out of chaos. Even in a story that doesn’t end happily ever after, there is a comforting progression, an order to things, a beginning and a middle and an end which follow through cause and effect one upon the other and which ultimately lead us to some conclusion about the world. There are other kinds of stories that take a greater interest in playing with the form of storytelling itself. But traditional stories never go out of style because they give us these things. I don’t tell my students that I’ve reached this conclusion. For one thing, I haven’t finished thinking about it for myself. But more importantly, it is their question to explore, their discovery (different from mine) to make. Think about it: what do stories do for you?
Illustration: Pablita Velarde, Old Father the Storyteller


I just read. . .

A.S. Byatt’s incredible historical romance Possession. Don’t let the term “romance” fool you. This is a rich and challenging novel that won the Man Booker Prize upon its publication in 1990 and has since become a classic of our time. In Possession, a down-and-out English scholar, Roland Mitchell, stumbles across an undiscovered letter written by the poet he has spent his entire career studying; that letter suggests an attraction to and perhaps even correspondence with an unknown female poet. Sounds a bit dry? Believe me, it’s not. Mitchell and a colleague, Maud Bailey, set off on a literary detective case that reaches a page-turning climax. What’s most stunning, however, and what sets this novel apart, is the fact that Byatt has created an entire, rich world of scholarship out of thin air. The nineteenth-century poets whom Roland and Maud study are themselves works of Byatt’s fiction, but they come with such convincing letters and poems and tales and histories and scholarly references, all interwoven with the real Romantic poets, that we cannot believe they aren’t figures from literary history. At the same time as readers are staggered by the breadth and depth of Byatt’s knowledge of her subject, we are swept up in this story of heartbreak, deceit and desire just as we might be by any simpler romance. Possession is not to be missed, but take your time. I know I only peeled the surface layers of this novel, which will be worth a second read someday. It is one to be savored, not rushed.

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Copyright © Kathy Leonard Czepiel