By Leslie Lindsay
I am super-excited to welcome Karen Brown to Write On, Wednesday. Ms. Brown is the debut novelist of THE LONGINGS OF WAYWARD GIRLS (Washington Square Press, July 2013). She has written several books of short stories in the past and teaches creative writing & literature at the University of South Florida. Without further adieu…
Leslie Lindsay: As a first time novelist, how did the writing process differ from writing compilations of short stories? In what ways were you particularly surprised or challenged by the creative process at hand?
Karen Brown: “The short story is all about compression—how much of a world can you create in as few words as possible. You have to reveal a conflict and have something happen to a believable character in a scant twenty pages or less. I’d gotten used to this form, adopting a particular lyrical style—and I enjoyed hinting at things, letting the reader guess or intuit the characters’ motivations. The novel is so very different. I still feel I’m struggling to make the transition, and I have to prod myself to tell more, to show more, to expand scenes. I feel I’ve had to abandon the style that depended on the reader—this worked for a handful of pages, but what reader will spend three hundred pages trying to muddle her way through prose that only hints at things? I’ve found that readers want characters they can identify with intimately, and sometimes this means showing parts of their lives that would be a waste of words in a short story. It’s as if I’d set up my own rules, and now I have to break them!”
Leslie Lindsay: THE LONGINGS (of Wayward Girls) is a complex story teetering between the past (1979) and the present (2003) of Sadie Watkins-Stahl’s life. Sandwiched between the past and present is the disappearance of a young girl who has yet to be found, twenty years later. As the story unfolds, Sadie recounts various summertime moments that trigger a certain sense of nostalgia. How many of those summer memories were uniquely yours? What advice would you give writers so they don’t clog their manuscripts with too many personal asides?
Karen Brown: “The neighborhood of Sadie’s childhood is my own—we did create a “Haunted Woods” and charge admission, and a friend and I did once trick a younger girl by writing a letter from a “farmer boy” and leaving it under a stone. I’ve taken these events and amplified them. Our “Haunted Woods” wasn’t nearly as elaborate, and of course the neighborhood girl never went missing. I used the Haunted Woods in the book because it was an odd, eerie event, and it created a certain tone—one of manipulation and fear. As a child I did write a play, “The Memory of the Fleetfoot Sisters,” and attempted to put it on. I remember being very invested in the show, and when everyone quit I got my first sense of real disappointment—though with what exactly I wasn’t sure. I gave this part of my past to Sadie because she is struggling to keep the creative side of her childhood, and yet knows she is moving past it. So, while I drew on details of my own childhood summertime activities for the novel, I knew I had to pick and choose those that did the job I needed them to.”
Leslie Lindsay: In reading THE LONGINGS, I was particularly struck by the ease and accessibility of Sadie’s affair with Ray. Without giving too much away, what is it about those old loves that have us wanting to relive the past?
Karen Brown: “In Sadie’s case, Ray represents a particular summer in her past—one in which things changed irrevocably for her. But I think she latches onto who she was before things went awry. Ray seems unchanged, and she wants to reinvent herself as the person she might have become. It’s as if she is able to re-do her life with him. There was no real relationship between them in the past—there was only what she imagined. Ultimately, they both use each other for their own selfish purposes.”
Leslie Lindsay: Are you a pantser, or a plotter? What advice would you give a panster who doesn’t like to plot, and a plotter who must have things “just so” before even taking pen to paper?
Karen Brown: “I’m not sure how anyone could keep things straight without writing something down, but I’m a firm believer in letting the story unfold naturally. It’s so much more fun! If I’d known everything that would happen beforehand it would seem tiresome to write it out. I guess for me the writing is a form of discovery. That said, once I knew where I might want to head I did keep notes for myself. “Sadie finds Bea’s love letters” for example. I have a file called “Notes” for each project, and I write things down as reminders. I think a happy mix of notes and fearlessness is necessary.”
Leslie Lindsay: A hot topic—even in fiction—has to do with a writer’s platform. Can you describe what a platform is, and why it’s so important, anyway?
Karen Brown: “I knew that I needed to have social media in place if I wanted to publish a book, so the basics—Facebook and a website—have been a part of being a writer for me for a while. I added a few other things—Twitter, for example, the summer my book was on submission. I’ve also published stories in magazines, and won a few awards, which gave me something to stand on. It’s always been difficult for me to be an outgoing social media participant. Writing is work I do alone, and I’m not always eager to share anything related to it. But as a teacher I’m trained to be supportive, so I like to think I am a supporter of other writers and of work that I find admirable. Occasionally I will sneak in something about my own process, but rarely about my personal life. In this sense a writer’s platform is a sticky subject for me. Some do it so well—their personalities are open and engaging, and they feel comfortable sharing themselves. Or, their newest project has a basis in a topic that’s historical or cultural, and they use this as a way to project themselves. I do believe publishers want writers who have established some connection with the world—even if it’s just one part of it.”
Leslie LIndsay: What are you currently working on?
Karen Brown: “I’ve been revising a novel draft I’d set aside a few years ago. Part of it was set in the Caribbean, and while I’d never been there before I wrote it, I did travel there this spring. I decided to read the draft again, and I discovered I had captured that world pretty well! I also found I still liked the draft—so I thought I’d continue work on it.”
Leslie Lindsay: What are you currently reading?
Karen Brown: “I used to read one book at a time—I wouldn’t even consider reading another before I finished it. But lately I find I’m reading a few books at once—partly due to the variety of ways I’m reading things now. As an ebook, Submergence by J. M. Ledgard, in print, Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead, and online I’m reading Clairvoyance by C.W. Leadbeater.”
Leslie Lindsay: Can you share your social media and other ways to reach you?
Karen Brown: “Certainly!
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Karen! Very insightful and inspirational!
And now….give-a-way details: Karen has graciously agreed to provide one lucky winner a signed copy of THE LONGINGS OF WAYWARD GIRLS. Here’s what you have to do: Comment on the blog or send me an email leslie_lindsay(at) hotmail.com about one of your favorite summer activities as a child. That’s it. It can be as long or as short as you’d like. Winner will be drawn at random next Wednesday, August 21st. Open to U.S. residents only. Please check your junk mail as winner’s will be notified via email. Thanks and good luck!!
Up next: Karen, along with authors Caroline Leavitt, Amy Sue Nathan and singer/songwriter Matt Wertz will be joining us later this August to share their ideas of “home.” a common, yet complex theme in many literary subtexts.