Love, perseverance and creative grit
Auburn writer Christian Kiefer finds the spiritual space to juggle writing, family and community
When we picture a novelist at work, it’s easy to imagine that person ensconced in hours of solitude, at a desk engaged in deep soul work.
Christian Kiefer doesn’t fit the stereotype. The Auburn resident works a full-time job and two part-time. He also has seven children, including a critically ill toddler.
All this and a new book coming out in April.
So how does he manage? By not letting go.
“I can’t really remember the spiritual space a novel occupies unless I keep my toe in it every day,” he says.
He can usually hit 1,000 words a day—basically, the length of this article. “If you only have a half-hour to write, you don’t mess around,” he says.
Kiefer is a full-time professor at American River College, where he founded Ad Lumen Press and helped create Summerwords, a writing festival that ran for three years with Pulitzer Prize winners and nominees as speakers. He’s also director of the Ashland University’s Master of Fine Arts program, which he runs remotely, as well as the newly named West Coast editor of the Paris Review. Add in those seven kids, and a writing career would seem impossible.
But it’s possible.
Phantoms, his new novel that explores Northern California’s history of Japanese-American internment during World War II, has earned fantastic reviews from well-known authors, including Jesmyn Ward, Luis Alberto Urrea and Jonathan Franzen.
“Christian is one of the most exciting fiction writers working in California, and … every page is steeped in California and its history,” Franzen said in an email interview. “When I was reading … I felt like I was living in the golden foothills.”
The Sacramento-based writer Michael Spurgeon agrees. “Christian Kiefer might be the finest composer of sentences working in American fiction today,” he says.
When the two met 10 years ago while working at American River College, Spurgeon says they quickly found common ground. “He was focused on making music at that time, but he’d heard a rumor that I had written a book and he wanted to read it,” Spurgeon says.
Spurgeon initially declined to let the then-unpublished author read his novel, but then Kiefer sent him a draft of what would later be published as his second novel, The Animals.
“I realized he had real talent, and we quickly became each other’s first reader,” Spurgeon says.
Years later, Kiefer’s third novel is his most ambitious yet.
Set in Newcastle, Phantoms addresses the plight of the Takahashi family. Owners of a booming orchard business, the Takahashis are interned at Tule Lake in Newark. Their son Ray goes off as a soldier; he returns to find that the white Wilson family, previously landlords and friends, have released the Takahashi home and property to other tenants. Even deeper secrets plague the past, as the modern-day protagonist, a white Vietnam veteran, learns.
“I grew up in Auburn and lived in Newcastle, and I knew that Japanese internment was an important part of our story here, but it’s not one we locally focus on,” Kiefer says. “I did some early research and was surprised to find how many Japanese Americans were displaced in Placer County.”
He describes looking through an old yearbook, full of Japanese-American faces before the war, and “emptied” afterward. “It was heartbreaking to see what choices my people made during that period,” he says.
He points out that his main character, John Frazier, can be called an American, but “no matter how many generations a Japanese-American family has been here, they will always be hyphenated. Children of Russian immigrants will be American, while children of Korean immigrants will be Asian-American.”
Kiefer says he’s aware that being a white, male author could make such a novel tricky:
“I don’t think we need more white writers writing about people of color, frankly, but for me, I only have one idea at a time, and I figured out a way to write through a narrative voice that gave me permission to get things wrong.”
Still, when a writer takes on a story of another culture, it’s important to get it right. “I have smart writer friends who are people of color and read my drafts and were available for questions,” Kiefer says.
And Kiefer adds, he had a mission. “I wanted my book to be one where the potential white savior isn’t needed at all.”
Still, all the publishing accolades mean little if a child’s health is at risk.
Anyone who follows Kiefer on social media or knows him in real life is aware that in recent months, his family has feared for the life of Vivian, or as she’s called on Twitter, “the Best of All Babies.”
Kiefer, his wife Macie and their five youngest sons have been camped out at a hotel near Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Stanford. His school-age sons are doing independent study, playing a lot of Minecraft and watching Harry Potter movie marathons.
At the hospital, Vivian, almost 2, fights multiple battles. She was born with Down Syndrome, and this year, she’s suffered pulmonary hypertension, pneumonia, a stress ulcer, fever, clotting issues, mono and more.
The experience has been nothing short of terrifying.
“The doctors were definitely preparing us for the worst,” Kiefer says. “It’s just so hard to worry about a child’s potential death every minute for days and weeks at a time, and be a dad to all her brothers and a husband to the emotional needs of my wife, who will not leave Vivian’s bedside, even for a minute. She’s incredible.”
Kiefer set up a GoFundMe page to cover the hotel stay (thankfully, his insurance covers Vivian’s health care). In one hour, 206 people donated nearly $12,000, exceeding the family’s goal of $10,000. At 12 hours, the amount had doubled and by the end, more than 614 people had donated $35,000. Recently, the family launched a new campaign to offset its continued expenses (gofundme.com/f/help-for-the-kiefers-second-verse).
“It’s an awkward thing, asking for help, but it reminds you that you do exist in a community, and the work you’ve done with that community shines back on you,” Kiefer says. “Boy, did my people come through.”
That community—at least in part—helps the writer forge the time and spiritual space he needs to write.
Although Kiefer insists he only has one idea at a time, he has already turned in two more new novels to his agent, and has edited a science fiction anthology with contributions from Janet Fitch and others. With manuscripts banked for a few years, he can step back.
“I’m going to take a year off and play with my kids,” he says. “Get my Dungeons & Dragons game on.”