Novelist Katherine Arden ’11 on embracing the unknown

By SOFIA MAKAROVA

“The important things in your life,” Katherine Arden ’11 said, “happen when you say, ‘screw it, let’s do it.’” Arden and I sat in the Adirondack chairs by McCullough on one of the last warm days in Middlebury, which comes about two months earlier than in many other places. Arden, a current Middlebury resident, is no stranger to this phenomenon. The national best-selling author, with five published novels and six more on the way, had no idea that post-Midd life would include being a full-time novelist. 

Her plan was to take time off, get a masters degree in interpretation, and eventually work for the U.N. That path couldn’t be more different from the one she’s on now. Recounting her fascinating detour, Arden said that she worked on a farm in Hawaii with World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) during her free time. “I got bored farming so I started writing a book,” she said. “I enjoyed it and decided to put the interpreting on hold to finish the book, and I sold it to a publisher as part of a trilogy.” Arden’s first book, “The Bear and The Nightingale,” was published in 2017, and the series’ second and third installments were published in the two years that followed. More recently, Arden has written two children’s books titled “Small Spaces” (2018) and “Dead Voices” (2019). 

“It’s been super rewarding and I enjoy the freedom, the traveling and making stuff up for a living,” Arden said.

Of course, as a college student, I was curious about how Arden’s Middlebury education had impacted her career. Arden graduated with a degree in Russian and French. She recalled using what she learned in class to “seed” her first novel, which is set in Russia. “I guess trying to create an authentic sense of a place is challenging, and it helps to have been there and to have studied it,” she said. 

You don’t have to know everything right away and make decisions right away. The achievements will still be there, the advanced degree will still be there if you take two or three years and just discover.”

— Katherine Arden '11

On the topic of practicality and stability in career choice, Arden said that she is the only one of her friends to pursue the same career path since leaving college. “Everyone tries different stuff, everyone goes back for a second degree, everyone tries to make it work in this weird 21st-century economy,” she said. “It’s important to make decisions based off what is right for you. You can’t think, ‘This career won’t give me security,’ because, well, it has for me. Professionally, financially… spiritually. It’s been a good and stable career. You never know, and there’s so much self-motivation involved.”

Cognizant of the pressure that students feel to have their futures mapped out, Arden offered words of advice. “One thing that happens in college is that you have this sense that ‘I must hurry, I must decide, I must not get behind everyone else —  the sense of a rush. In reality, when you’re 21 you have so much time; you have tons of time. Take a year off, go be a ski bum in Colorado. Do what I did and go work on a farm in Hawaii. You don’t have to know everything right away and make decisions right away,” she said. “The achievements will still be there, the advanced degree will still be there if you take two or three years and just discover.”

This leads us to another monumental influence in Katherine’s life: travel.

Already having spent a year in France and Russia before coming to the college, Arden returned to France and Russia in her junior year abroad. Before returning to Vermont, she farmed in Hawaii on two separate occasions, worked as a teaching assistant in the French Alps and backpacked across the world. “Traveling is important. It’s how you grow and learn about places that aren’t your place,” she said. “And it’s more than just being a tourist. It means going and trying to live somewhere else. Just going and looking at the Eiffel Tower isn’t going to make a difference,” she said. “Life surprises you, I didn’t expect to come back to Vermont. But I did, and it ended up being home.” According to Arden, it was travel that gave her confidence in herself and her purpose. 

It’s easy to get caught up in the culture we establish on this campus. It’s even easier to get caught up in the opinions of others — on our goals, our majors, our summer plans. But coming from someone who has been in our Blundstones, who has hiked up the same Snake Mountain and found success in doing what she loves every day, I ask that you don’t take her advice too lightly.

“Take advantage of the freedom while you have it,” Arden said. “Because you will eventually have responsibilities, and then it gets harder to keep exploring. You might discover weird life curve balls, like being a novelist.”

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