by Jen Kiaba, photographs by Jen Kiaba
Photo by Jen Kiaba

Photo by Jen Kiaba

For author and memoirist Koren Zailckas, moving to the Hudson Valley from Park Slope in 2010 was a kind of homecoming. After publishing the New York Times best seller, Smashed: Confessions of a Drunken Girlhood, and following it up with the raw memoir Fury, Zailckas was looking for a creative community of writers to return to. “It is a very bookish community in Park Slope,” said  Zailckas. “But you would see publishers or agents and the talk was about book as business. That’s not what I wanted.”

After settling with her young family in High Falls, Zailckas met Martha Frankel, the Executive Director of the Woodstock Writers Festival, and found her way into the Hudson Valley tribe of creatives. “Writing became a much more collaborative process after that,” she says. “It’s been great being a part of the Woodstock Writers Workshop and getting involved in local libraries with their community of writers and readers. The transition has been incredible.”

Working with a community of writers has also helped Zailckas with her process, she says. “You realize that they struggle with the same things that you do. It’s helpful to talk about that with other writers, and just to talk about the process itself.”

The writing process, particularly as it pertains to fiction, is a topic that Zailckas will be discussing as she joins the Read Local Red Hook Literary Festival for the first time this year. The festival was started in 2011 as a partnership between the Red Hook Community Arts Network (RHCAN) and Oblong Books as a way to bring attention to the richness of the local literary arts.

“The festival really began with photographer Juliet Harrison, who is a founding member of RHCAN,” says Suzanna Hermans, Oblong’s co-owner and manager of the Rhinebeck store. “She and other RHCAN members were building this vibrant artists’ network, but what she found was missing were the literary arts.” It was a particularly painful time for Red Hook, says Hermans, with Merrit Books having recently closed and its absence greatly felt. “We wanted something to show that we as a community were still committed to literature.” The festival originated with a strong group of authors the first year, and grew in its second. Now in its third year, the festival has continued to expand, with great enthusiasm and support from the Hudson Valley community.

Hermans, who headed up arranging the authors lineups in years past, noted that Zailckas was particularly sought out to be involved this year because of the arch of her career. “Juliet [Harrison] had read Smashed when it came out and was moved by Koren’s motivation for writing it,” says Hermans. “There is a lot of shame associated with turning to alcohol, so her writing was very brave.” Additionally, Hermans notes, it is rare to see an author transition from memoir to fiction. Usually, the transition is the other way around. “To see that transition done successfully,” she says, “is a rare thing.”

In 2013, Zailckas followed up her sophomore release by changing gears and releasing her first work of fiction Mother, Mother. The novel is a psychological thriller that dives deep into the dysfunction of the Hurst family, lorded over by a domineering mother Josephine. Employing a split-narrative technique, Zailckas explores the family dynamics through the burgeoning awareness of Violet and Will, a sister and brother who are both trying to survive their mother’s suffocating dominance.

Though, according to Zailckas, she never thought that she would write fiction. “When I became a mother I suddenly became more aware of all of the threats that there are,” she says. “I began reading and then writing these scary stories as a way of plunging head in and becoming in charge of those fears.”

Using Rosendale and High Falls as the backdrop for the family drama of her novel to unfold, Zailckas allows the peaceful countryside of the Hudson Valley to contrast starkly with the dark turmoil of her characters. “I fell in love with the area and wanted to celebrate it,” Zailckas explains. “It felt right to set Mother, Mother here. I love the wild anarchy and self-expression of the area and how it plays off of a family with tight control.”

Zailckas notes that when crafting fiction, the choice of setting is important. It affects how the characters interact with one another, how the drama is allowed to unfold, and what outside forces may or may not intervene. “This would have been a very different story if I had set it back in New York City,” she says.

Although the confined spaces of the city might have seemed to parallel the family dynamics of the Hursts, Zailckas is quick to point out that an author needs to look more deeply into their characters’ physical landscapes. “In the city, more of your life is on display,” she says. “I’m not sure the dynamics of the story and this family would have been able to flourish there.”

Though a work of fiction, Zailckas acknowledges that Mother, Mother draws from her own family experiences to a degree. “I feel as though I’m always trying to share the same story,” she says. “Having a family has made me realize how important it is to talk about these things and put them into the creative realm, instead of letting them bleed out into real life.”

Though the source material may be the same, the difference between her experience writing memoir and writing fiction lies in her process, says Zailckas. “In memoir, you have to dissociate and remember things as they happened, and then view them through the lens of the present.” In fiction, however, she is able to shift between her conscious and unconscious mind as the story develops, and approach the story with an evolving mindfulness.

Even after the writing itself is finished, she says that the fiction process and the deepening self-awareness continues long after. “It was about six months after I finished Mother, Mother that I realized that the story of Will was sort of based on fainting spells that I used to have as a kid,” she says. “Writing was a way for me to bring consciousness to it. Once identified, you can put these things away for a time.”

But, she admits, some things don’t always go away. Therefore writing about her subject matter and reframing it as a story is a way of making it more manageable and allowing for the memories to be unearthed when needed in order to have empathy for a character that she is creating.

With this in mind, Zailckas has begun work on a new novel. “It’s about memory, and what we let ourselves remember,” she says. Though she hasn’t settled on a location for it yet, she hinted that she might be setting it in the Dutchess County side of the river.

Zailckas will be speaking in-depth about her recent work and the process of writing fiction during the Read Local Red Hook Literary Festival’s Fiction Luncheon at the Elmendorph Inn on April 12th. Joining Zailckas will be authors Gail Godwin and Valerie Martin. The panel will be moderated by Suzanna Hermans and will be followed by a non-fiction panel at the Red Hook Village Hall. The festival will officially kick off the evening before, with an Opening Reception at the RCHAN Gallery in Red Hook.

For updates to the Read Local Red Hook Literary Festival schedule visit

0414Merc-Issuu-version.inddFRIDAY, APRIL 11

5-7 p.m.: Word Works
Exhibition & Lit Festival Opening Reception All are invited to see how area artists have created work inspired by the written word.

7:30 p.m.: Big Read
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson: Book Discussion led by Anne Margaret Daniel, Bard

Red Hook CAN Artists Collective Gallery
7516 N. Broadway, Red Hook


10 a.m.-noon: The Picture Book Experience – For the Youngest Book Lovers
Featuring: G.Brian Karas (Tap Tap Boom Boom and Tippy-Tippy-Tippy, Splash!) and Iza Trapani (My Jack, Little Miss Muffet).

Red Hook Public Library, 7444 S. Broadway

10 a.m.-noon: The Business of Writing
Panel moderated by Nancy Castaldo and featuring: Literary Agent, Bernadette Baker-Baughman; Publisher, Bruce McPherson (McPherson & Company); and Memoir and Fiction Author, Abigail Thomas.

Red Hook Village Hall, 7340 S. Broadway

12:30-2 p.m.: Fiction Luncheon
Moderator Suzanna Hermans of Oblong Books & Music leads a panel discussion with Gail Godwin (Flora: A Novel), Valerie Martin (The Ghost of Mary Celeste: A Novel) and Koren Zailckas (Mother, Mother).
Lunch food will be available for purchase (all proceeds going to support the festival).

The Elmendorph Inn, 43-45 North Broadway

2-4 p.m.: Hudson Valley YA Society Panel featuring Theo Lawrence (Toxic Heart), Tiffany Schmidt (Bright Before Sunrise) and Eliot Schrefer (Threatened).

Red Hook Public Library, 7444 S. Broadway

2:30-4 p.m.: Non-Fiction Panel Discussion
Moderated by Co-Owner of Oblong Books, Dick Hermans, with James Romm (Dying Every Day), Jenny Brown  (The Lucky Ones) and Jack Kelly (Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive That Changed the World).

Red Hook Village Hall, 7340 S. Broadway

Book signings will take place immediately following each panel at Bread & Bottle, (corner of Main and Market streets), where titles by all participating authors will be available for purchase.

7 p.m.: Stories on Stage: Hudson Valley Actors Read Stories by Hudson Valley Authors
An evening of short stories starring:*

Woodstock Players founder, Carey Harrison (Rex & Rex), reading T.C. Boyle’s Over the Edge;

Emmy Award-winner David Smilow (Racing Daylight and The Price), reads George Saunders’ Woof;

Broadway veteran Lori Wilner (Fiddler on the Roof), reads Teresa Giordano’s Sock Puppet;

Tony and Obie Award winner Mary Louise Wilson (Nebraska), reading her own story, My First Hundred Years in Show Business.

The evening will be emceed by Nina Shengold, Chronogram books editor, Actors & Writers member, author of Clearcut and Writers Guild Award winner for Labor of Love.

Linden Avenue Middle School Café,
65 West Market Street, Red Hook

*Line up subject to change based on actors’ commitments

All events are FREE and open to the public. Donations are appreciated.

Jen Kiaba is a photographer and writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. Her photography has been published internationally in magazines and on book covers. To see more of her work, visit

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