‘Familiar,’ by Carol Kapaun Ratchenski
Available for download at smashwords.com
She didn’t realize it as she was writing it, but Fargo writer Carol Kapaun Ratchenski really struck a chord with her new book, Familiar. After reading it, friends have told her that the experiences of the main character, Christina, and her single mother, Mamababy, are eerily similar to their own.
“I had a couple of readers who said, ‘oh my god, Carol, how did you know my mother acted this way?” Ratchenski said.
It’s that intimacy between her characters that breathes life into Ratchenski’s novel, now available to download in e-reader format from Smashwords. Told through a series of vignettes spanning six years, “Familiar” is set in early 1960s Wisconsin and tells Mamababy’s story through the eyes of Christina as she eases her mother through the trials of alcoholism.
“She’s something of an archetypal figure,” Ratchenski said of Mamababy, “and she’s more familiar to people than I would have liked.”
Christina deals with her mother’s shortcomings while striving to build her own sense of identity through the cultural landscape of Gilligan’s Island and Elvis Presley. Mamababy refers to Christina as her familiar (as in, a familiar spirit) at one point in the book, invoking the dark dependency built into their relationship and lending the book its title.
Despite her slight aversion to the term, Ratchenski calls “Familiar” a coming-of-age story (“Maybe all first novels are coming-of-age stories,” she quipped). In one vignette, Christina and her friend, Ellie, pretend to be Ginger and Mary Ann from “Gilligan’s Island.” As they do, the two use a mirror to explore their anatomy, as they’ve heard it explained in health class but don’t fully comprehend, then begin to use the mirror to practice movie-star faces. At the end of the vignette, Christina moves it slowly back and forth in front of herself. “I didn’t think about hating Mamababy then or changing her by loving her enough,” Ratchenski writes, “for once, I couldn’t even remember what she looked like.” The tension between yearning to grow up and knowing its consequences drives “Familiar” forward.
This is Ratchenski’s first novel, although she has published in several poetry anthologies and journals throughout the region. The majority of the story was written about five years ago after a series of prose poems involving Christina were well received by readers in her MFA workshop group at MSUM.
“I was writing these things and I didn’t know what they were. But I was taken with that and started writing in this voice. If you want the ooey-gooey writer answer, Christina showed up in my head one day and started talking,” she said, laughing.
After a publisher fell through for the novel, Ratchenski shelved it and moved on in her career as a counselor. But, the prospect of self-publishing revived her interest in “Familiar” and she decided to forego the traditional publishing route.
“I liked this idea of an ‘indie writer,’ and the way it allowed me to separate creativity from commerce,” she said.
Self-publishing, she added, also works hand-in-hand with her career as a counselor, making it easier to juggle “serving two masters.” Ratchenski said she has never lifted story details in her time attempting to appease the two masters, but she does admit that her counseling background does give her a sense of how relationships like the ones in “Familiar” play themselves out.
“As a counselor, I tend to think in terms of systems, families, and patterns of behavior,” she said. “I get to lead a life of stories, and I hear as many stories of resilience and triumph as I do stories of heartache and despair.”
Image via Smashwords.