I had the great pleasure of meeting Katherine Preston for coffee in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn a few months ago. She made the bold move of asking a stranger (me) to join her for a cup o' joe, and I made the rare exception of trekking over to Brooklyn mid-day. I kid, I kid, it's really not that far :) I am so glad I did. Katherine's warm, kind personality and charming British accent immediately won me over, and she speaks with a stutter but doesn't let that stop her. Katherine has written a memoir about overcoming this very challenge — her book, Out With It: How Stuttering Helped Me Find My Voice, launches this week after five years in the making. Actress Emily Blunt called it a "must-read" and author David Mitchell described it as a "compassionate, unflinching memoir."
Before we jump in to the meat of the post, I want to share the first few paragraphs of the book — they completely gripped me, and reminded me of the courage and perseverance Katherine exhibits every single day:
London, September 1994
I can taste the other side of my name, and yet it hangs resolutely out of reach. The wall has come down. My name has been broken in half. My tongue lies taut and heavy, the tip glued to the base of my mouth.
"KKKKKK KKK K K K K K K K K. KKKK KK K K K. kkkkkkkk kaaaa kaaaa."
I feel the familiar hand clench slowly around my throat. As the seconds pass, my chest twists tighter. Panic winds its way through my nervous system and holds my useless body hostage.
"KK kkkk kkk kaaa ka ka."
My fingernails dig into my palms in penance. My knees lock my legs and freeze my body into position. My eyes widen desperately. I can taste the stale air as it slips out of my mouth. I have no idea if I will say the word or if I will be trapped here indefinitely.
Desperate, unfocused anger addles my brain and pricks at my pores. I hate the boy's intrusion.
—Excerpted from Out With It: How Stuttering Helped Me Find My Voice
I've invited Katherine to answer a few questions here at LAC — please help me give her a very warm welcome!
Q&A with Katherine Preston
Give us the 3-sentence synopsis of your memoir
Out With It recounts the journey that I went on to come to terms with my stutter. Having spent years of my life battling against my speech and wanting to be normal, I spent a year traveling around America talking to hundreds of stutterers, from every walk of life, trying to find answers. What began as a search for a cure became a story about embracing my imperfection, failing in love and making myself heard.
What was the hardest part about growing up with a stutter?
I felt like a had a million things to say and I didn’t trust my voice to say them. I had incredible friends and family but, from a very young age, I felt ashamed by my stutter, I felt like it was something that was my fault. Completely unfairly, I piled a lot of guilt on myself. As a result, hid it and I created a silence around it. Long into my twenties I had a wall around myself that I did not want anyone to see past.
What about the "blessings in disguise" that came from it?
Stuttering has influenced me and shaped my life, more than anything else. I cannot imagine who I would be without it. As difficult as it can be, stuttering has given me more than it has ever taken away. It has ensured a love of language, of the rhythm and the taste of words. It has given me a fighting instinct and it has forced me to be vulnerable. Finally, it has become a filter for how I see both the world and highlighted the people I want to gravitate towards.
What's something most people don't know about you?
As well as writing a book, I’m the Creative Director of a business called ExchangeMyPhone. As stutterers, my fiance and I both grew up hating the phone (as teenagers aspiring to be ‘cool’, talking on the phone was challenging at best) and we were excited to create a business that would transform those dreaded phones into vehicles for good. We pay people for their used and broken cell phones and give our customers the option of turning every phone into a charitable donation.
Tell us more about your book — what inspired you to write it?
When I was 24 years old I decided to change my life. From the age of 7 I had battled against my stutter, desperate to be normal. By the age of 24 I felt like I needed to regain control of my life, and my voice. So I handed in my resignation, booked a flight from London to Boston and set off on a year long adventure around America searching for answers.
I interviewed over 100 stutterers across the country with the aim of writing a book of oral histories. I wrote the first draft of the book weaving myself quietly behind the scenes and telling the stories of various people I interviewed. It was all very well intentioned but it didn’t work, the book just wasn’t very good. I wasn’t doing justice to the people I met and I believed that I could write a better, more compelling book. I realized that I had to allow myself to be as vulnerable as the hundreds of people who had generously told me their stories. So I radically changed the book and I turned it into a memoir, something that was far scarier for me.
Lots of people are self-publishing these days and it can be rare to actually land a publisher. How did you decide to go the traditional route, and what steps did you take to get your book deal?
I think self-publishing is a fantastic way to go if you feel certain in your own editing, publishing and marketing capabilities. When I was writing this book, I didn’t feel certain of anything. I knew that I had a story to tell, and I knew that many people had shared some incredible experiences with me, but I had no idea how to get my book out into the world.
I feel certain that I would never be where I am without the talents of my editor and my agent. They believed in me, and encouraged me write the best book I could possibly create. It was their confidence in my abilities that carried me and pushed me forward. Saying that, it was an incredibly hard journey to get my book into the ‘right’ hands. I had many, many rejections and many, many teary nights until my proposal finally made it to my editor’s desk.
Writing a book can be a very overwhelming process. How did you overcome your fear and resistance?
My fiance and my parents all have this unerring, endless faith in me. Even when I felt that I didn’t deserve it, I appreciated that they never let me look back or admit defeat. Bringing a memoir out into the world is a vaguely insane thing to do. I still worry about how people will react to the book, and whether anyone at all will read it. But the best things in my life have always come about when I was scared and vulnerable, so I try to have confidence that this will all be ok.
What impact or statement do you hope to make with this book?
Although the book is about stuttering, it is really about all of us, about all of the ways that we are scared and brave and perfectly imperfect. I want people to see that whatever weakness we perceive in ourselves does not diminish us. Quite the opposite. We are attracted to those who don’t have a façade up, those people who are raw and unpolished and unapologetically human. Success and strength comes from believing that we are enough.
What are your top three bits of advice for the LAC community?
Dream big. speak up, and let yourself be fully seen.
More About Katherine
Katherine Preston was born in London and now works as a public speaker and writer in Brooklyn, NY. She is the Creative Director of ExchangeMyPhone, and you can find her on Facebook and Twitter. Out With It is her first book, on sale everywhere from your favourite local bookstore to Amazon.
P.S. Here's a fun mini-movie of her book on a Times Square billboard!