Gulfport author Claire Kemp may not be as well-known as Ernest Hemingway, John Updike or Joyce Carol Oates, but her short story “Keeping Company” was published alongside these famous writers in the 1993 textbook Literature and the Writing Process, Third Edition.
“Growing up, I was a voracious reader which inspired me to write,” says Kemp, whose “Keeping Company” was selected by the PEN Fiction Syndicate for publication and also published in the Chicago Tribune magazine in 1990. That led to textbook publishers Prentice Hall deciding to include the story in a section of the writing textbook titled “Gender and Relationships,” alongside literary legends.
Kemp says she started writing when she was six or seven years old growing up in Worcester, Massachusetts, during World War II.
“Back then you didn’t buy paper,” says Kemp. “But my father was a bookkeeper, and he would bring home old ledgers. One day I picked up a pencil and started to write, using the back of the ledger paper.”
She was later encouraged by a high school English teacher who told her she had the ability to write anything she wanted to. Apart from that, Kemp says she has had no formal writing training and doesn’t read books about writing. She still writes longhand on a yellow legal pad.
Kemp’s sister, a medical transcriptionist who lives in New Hampshire, types the finished short stories that Kemp either mails or reads to her over the phone while she types. The most recent result is a collection of 34 short stories with illustrations by Cal Navin. She has written enough stories for another collection, she says, that will also include a novella.
“My sister says these stories are my children, which makes them her nieces and nephews,” says Kemp.
In reality, Kemp has four children, and she didn’t always have time to write on a regular basis. She began writing “for real,” she says, after a series of personal adversities.
“Those experiences showed me that life won’t go on forever, and I better get busy,” she says. “A situation that seems untenable can become tenable through fiction.”
Last year Kemp entered a writing contest with her short story, “The Doll Maker,” a dark tale about a drifter who comes to a small town and puts down roots, winning – then betraying – the trust of the townspeople. The story won the Broad River prize for prose, and was included in the 2016 issue of Fall Lines—a literary convergence, a literary journal based in Columbia, South Carolina. This summer Kemp went to South Carolina for a reading of her work.
“People always ask me if I write any stories that are light and fun. Even though I had an uneventful, happy childhood and a loving family, my stories are always a little dark,” she says. “Lighthearted and fun is not reality. There’s always a little bit of horror out there waiting to pounce.”
Despite her success, Kemp still gets up in the middle of the night if she wakes up and has an idea or the missing piece to an unfinished story. She is always thinking about the next story. Although she has entertained thoughts of writing a novel, she feels most comfortable with the short story format.
“I’m used to that neat little box you can end whenever you feel the story is finished,” she says. “I love words. It’s interesting and fun to create a setting and manipulate the characters to do what you want.”
Click here to read “Keeping Company” in the Chicago Tribune.