Award winning novelist Karen Brown–recipient of the Grace Paley, O. Henry and Praire Schooner Book Prize for Little Sinners with a debut novel The Longings of Wayward Girls out July 2nd by Simon and Schuster–has agreed to an interview! She couldn’t decline. After all, I’m proud to say, she is my sister. I hope you enjoy!
Q: You have published an enormous variety of stories in literary journals and anthologies and won numerous awards and accolades for your short story collections, including your latest entitled Little Sinners which is the recipient of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize. How has your gift for the short story helped you with writing your novel?
I’m afraid that being able to write a good short story doesn’t necessarily prepare you to write a novel. For a long time I believed that a short story was just a miniature version of the novel—that you might create a place and a group of characters, provide them with some quirky conflicts, have them react and interact, and leave them in a different place than you found them—and if you stretched this out to three hundred pages, as opposed to twenty, you’d have a book. I tried this method five times—and I’ve got five bundles of printed pages filled with some interesting bits of potential material—but I don’t have five books.
I approached my current novel differently—with an eye toward the whole. I wasn’t entirely sure how it would end, but I established from the opening a reason for the reader to want to get there. I learned you can’t rely on beautifully written scenes, but that you have to focus on the reader—on why she is reading, and what might keep her reading. If you’ve dangled a lure, you can’t forget to return to it, to involve it in the story. It sounds like plot, but plot has everything to do with character. I guess if I learned anything from the short story it is that—the character is an integral part of the momentum.
Q: What advice would you give the short story writer who is considering writing his or her first novel? Who were some of your earlier influences?
It sounds like you’re asking about reading—about what writers I read as I wrote my novel, or what writers influenced me as I wrote. I’m certain that all writers are influenced to some extent by others, and for each project (novel, short story) we undertake there are a set of influences that emerge. I’ve always been a big fan of the work of Cheever, Salinger, and Updike. They wrote with a certain tone about a certain time and place that I felt I knew—the suburban world—and they inspired me to look at this setting in an entirely different way. Salinger’s “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut” brilliantly revealed how characters might feel forced to hide their true emotions—often loss and longing—dictated to behave in a certain way by the society in which they lived.
I think each short story inspires certain reading, and certain reading finds its way into each short story. I used to keep notes about what I read as I wrote, but I stopped that practice several years ago. I do sense that each story has its own tone and voice, its own style. Whether this came about because I was reading Wuthering Heights, or a short story I discovered in The New Yorker, I couldn’t say now. With the novel I read more as research—not for inspiration for style, but for ways to flesh out the setting and themes. I read articles about Connecticut lore, diaries of colonial mid-wives. I read about 1970s cars, and clothing styles. While the short story feels closer to the poem—dependent on style and mood—I feel the novel requires a wider scope of reading, a wider confluence of sources of inspiration. You can’t throw everything in of course. But you’re working on it for so long it becomes a project you live with, and you gravitate toward the reading that best informs that world, deepens it and makes it viable.
Q: Women are your theme–women in a variety of roles. Yet in each, you tap into the deepest recesses of women’s unrequited desires and ambitions. Women are always seeking some lost part of themselves. How does your work, and especially your debut novel The Longings of Wayward Girls, achieve this?
I’m not sure that it is just women who feel that along the way—growing up, maybe marrying, having children, or a career—they lost some vital part of themselves they come to mourn. Maybe it is a creative side, or a potential they once believed in. Perhaps it is a talent or skill they felt they might one day explore. As children we all seem more authentically ourselves. Traditionally, women tend to believe that they must live their lives for others—children, husbands, family—that this is a nobler role than pursuing a dream. In The Longings of Wayward Girls the protagonist, Sadie, grows up being the one in charge of all of the creative neighborhood games—and particularly one that leads to tragedy. Her regret, and guilt, has followed her to adulthood, and possibly influenced her choices in life. When she loses a child, and runs into someone from her past, she is prompted to revisit that time, to re-examine these choices. The book’s setting alternates between the present and the past so that we can see Sadie as both a child, and an adult, at the same time. This structure emphasizes the power of choice, and the inability to control the choices of others.
Q: I’ve read most of your work before it was even published. Your descriptions are poignant, reminiscent of an older forgotten style of writing such as Willa Cather or Mary Shelley. It’s interesting to read a review sharing a similar observation that your characters, at times, possess a haunting presence about them. I would venture so far as to say, in these moments, the description becomes the dominant feature in the passage with the characters floating in and out of scenes or placed like props. I happen to love this style of writing. Do you feel this is a conscious habit, or is it more on an unconscious level?
I once told a friend from a writing group that I wasn’t so much interested in having things happen in a story. My job, as I saw it, was to make the reader feel what it was like when things did. To this end, the atmosphere, the setting of a story, through the perspective of a character, has always been vital. It is basically the classic John Gardner writing exercise from The Art of Fiction: Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, or war, or death.This may have been something I practiced and perfected, or it may have simply been something I’ve always done. I’m not sure which.
Q: We grew up together in Connecticut and share similar memories. Yet, your memory for things and particular details of a situation, is uncanny. Is that part of a writer’s innate style or can it be developed?
In a fiction class I’m teaching this semester we’re reading Alice LaPlante’s excellent creative writing text, Method and Madness, and she talks about just this thing in her opening chapter. Cultivating the habit of noticing the world around you is something that any writer can do. I think it is necessary, and should be developed. And honestly I am always impressed with the amount of detail other writers can produce—writers like Steven Millhauser, for example, who can recreate a childhood bedroom in such brilliant detail. As for remembering more than you—no two people remember the same things, and I began the practice of “noticing” before you did.
Q: A writer requires a tough skin to stick with it. What is some great advice you have to offer an aspiring novelist?
Read widely and practice your art so that you are always improving. This means know your genre, and your readers. Try to publish some stories, and build up a list that might attract an agent when your manuscript is completed, revised, and ready. Find some like-minded readers who will take a look at your drafts. Don’t forget that you are writing for them.
I’ve already shared the existence of my first five novels—persistence is a writer’s winning hand. If you don’t enjoy what you do, and recognize that you will do it regardless of any measureable success, if you aren’t willing to set time aside, if you don’t see small things as encouragement (the rejection slip with “try us again!” handwritten on the bottom), you aren’t going to be a writer. In the meantime, as you wait for fame, be conscious of how wonderful it is to be caught in the grip of a story, to have it follow you through the day, to jot down some lines that you know will tie up all the loose ends and finally finish that piece—so you can start all over again.
Find out more about Karen Brown at Simon & Schuster and here at www.karenbrownbooks.com