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Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Interview with Karen Brown, author of Little Sinners

I am so delighted to have Karen Brown with us to answer questions about her writing journey.  Mother, writer, professor, she is truly accomplished.  Her book, Pins and Needles, won the Grace Paley Prize for short fiction and Little Sinners, won the 2012 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction.  If you are a short story lover, you will love her work. 

Tell us a bit about your journey as a writer. Also, how did you manage your writing life with having children and a family? How has this evolved as your children have grown? 

Like many writers, I started as a child writing plays, poems and stories. I was lucky enough to have plenty of siblings and neighborhood friends who would perform the plays, a poet uncle who read my work out loud at holiday gatherings, and teachers at school who encouraged me. Being a writer was an accepted part of who I was from an early age. Of course, I went through phases in which my writing took on other forms. In high school my family moved out of the small Connecticut town where I’d grown up. I wrote twenty page letters to friends, creating an imaginary world in which all of us had a part. When I worked in a department store after high school I scribbled things on the back of used register tape. In college I thought I should study a profession, but I learned that Creative Writing was a major I could pursue, that I might teach in a university, and continue to write, so I chose that.

When you’re a mother, a college instructor, and a writer, the “writer” part is always relegated to third place. On the surface. To your family and friends writing is something you do on the side. It doesn’t bring in any negligible money so it’s seen as a hobby. But if you’re really a writer (and that means you’ve decided that you cannot separate the writer-person from who you are) then you become shifty, secretive, and resourceful. You cancel class every-so-often and tell students it’s a free “Writing Day!” You awaken before everyone in your household—sometimes hours before school lunches need to be made, and children dropped off—so that you can revisit the story you’re writing, and add a page or two. You streamline your work for classes so that all available time to write is maximized. Rote household chores are perfect occasions to invent scenes, to listen to characters speaking to each other. At night, before sleep, you run through it all again so that in the morning you can put it all down. For years, when my children were young, this is how it went. Now that they are older, and now that publication has provided validation for my role as a writer, I find I have as much time as I’d like. But, I find too, that when writing isn’t comprised of stolen moments, when it’s a job, it’s more difficult to write.

Your female characters are often at critical junctures in their lives or on the precipice of choosing another life. How do you think motherhood has informed your ability to create these vivid female characters? How do you ‘grow’ a character, especially one unlike yourself? 

As a mother you don’t usually imagine ever being without your children, or not being the person who satisfies their every need—preparing their meals, washing their clothes, doing things for them exactly the way they’re used to having them done. I’m always interested in characters who chose to do things I haven’t—it’s a little like making the choice myself—living vicariously through them, suffering their regret, their loss. Motherhood is a complex mix of turmoil and joy, but it’s been a very grounding experience for me. I like the unexpected, and I suppose I savor the unsteadiness—the surprises. You have control, but in the end, you have so little control over who these people will turn out to be—and I’m referring to children, and to characters!

This is a slightly self-interested question, but, have you ever struggled with where to go with a story or how to end a story? What is your way of dealing with a story you feel wants to be told, but gets a bit stuck? Do you completely abandon it, take space for a certain time or seek critical feedback? 

I’ve always finished everything I begin. I find that even if I’ve been away from a story there’s a point in it—maybe a bit of description of the setting, or a character’s actions—that reminds me why I started it, and I can work my way through to the end. Recently, though, I began a story and took a very long break to revise a novel, and now I find I am truly stuck. It’s not the sort of story I usually write—the setting is surreal, and it’s hard to ground the characters in it. In this case, I feel that sitting down to work every day, confronting the choices I’ve set up, and reminding myself why I began it (it started with a scene in a dream I had) I’ll be able to finish it.

I enjoy your writing voice very much. In what ways have you honed your voice to create one that is authentic, realistic and compelling?

In the beginning, like many writers, I practiced the voices of writers I loved. For a while I sounded like Hemingway, Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Faulkner. I like to think that eventually what emerged was my own voice—but I imagine we are all a combination of the voices we’ve practiced. And I also feel that a writer’s voice changes, even if only in subtle ways, the longer she writes. We read a lot of Alice Munro, for example, and that goes into the mix.

Tell us how you have dealt with rejection in the past.

For a brief time I read manuscripts for the literary magazine Epoch, out of Cornell University. The submissions arrived in plastic crates, and the piles we waded through were stacked a foot high at a time. I realized that magazines are inundated with manuscripts, and that the readers who see your work first may often be tired, hungry, or irritated. They may be preoccupied, and sitting in a room that is too hot, or too cold. They may be eager to find a new voice to bring to the editors attention. They may simply be struggling to get through the stack. Rejection is to be expected, and never a personal indictment. It means only what you tell yourself it means. For me, it was always: It’s good, but not good enough. Rejection challenged me to make the next story better.

Tell us what is next for you and what we can look forward to seeing from you in the future.

I’m thrilled to report that my debut novel, THE LONGINGS OF WAYWARD GIRLS will be published in July 2013 by Atria/Simon & Schuster. Until then, I’ll be starting another novel, and hopefully, finishing up that stalled short story.


Thank you so much, Karen, for sharing your insights with the Mother Freakin' Writers!