Through the priceless Atria Books Galley Alley, I received a book by an author as yet unknown to me. The book: The Longings of Wayward Girls. The author: Karen Brown. Wayward Girls is her first novel, although she is already a highly successful short story writer.
I was intrigued by the cover; read the book right away. Although I’ll do a full review of Wayward Girls on Thursday, here’s a tease: I loved the book enough to contact the author and tell her so. I even begged her to do an interview on my blog. So without any further ado from me, I present …
An H and Five Ws with Wayward Girls Author Karen Brown
How did you first get published?
As an undergraduate majoring in Creative Writing I wrote stories for class. One of my professors also assigned us the task of choosing one journal or magazine where we felt our work might be published, so I sought out the “periodicals” section of the university library, and the trove of literary magazines collected on the shelves.
At the time these were the venerable journals like Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, The Yale Review—and even though I wasn’t sure any of these would take my work, I started submitting to the ones that published stories I enjoyed. I think this professor was keenly aware of the nature of submitting—you want to align your own sensibilities with the editor, and you want to submit to a journal impressive enough that it pleases you to imagine your story in its pages.
Of course I had many rejections. But I also learned that once a story was complete, I should start another, and eventually my stories got better, and a couple of years later I was lucky enough to be pulled from the slush pile of The Georgia Review, one of those venerable publications I’d discovered on the library’s shelves. My first publication was an incredible honor—the journal is beautiful, and has featured so many fine writers.
Who is your biggest literary influence?
I think my influences change all the time—I’ll read something that really resonates with me for whatever reason, and some sense of it always reverberates in my work. But my first biggest literary influence was J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories. I read it in Junior High, and was drawn to Salinger’s characters and settings, to the way the stories all feel very large, as if we know more about the characters than he is actually telling. But I was most intrigued by his tone—often darkly funny. Later in college, a professor read us “The Laughing Man” from Nine Stories, and I remembered the book and read the stories again. It is probably the book I’ve reread the most, and each time it is a different experience.
What are you most afraid of?
A fear I’ve long-held, that I’ve never overcome is that of being lost. I’m so leery that I don’t even trust the GPS. I have to map out new routes, and any change in the plan—a detour, a roadblock—makes my heart race and my palms damp. I have vivid memories of my mother, cigarette in hand, at the wheel of our station wagon. All six of us children are loaded in the back, our luggage is tied to the roof, and she is in a panic, trying to negotiate the interstate on the way to the beach. I’ve heard, too, that my grandfather had zero sense of direction. I like to blame it all on a faulty gene. It would be wonderful to embrace the whole “Sometimes you have to get lost in order to find yourself” thing. Maybe one day?
Where do you get your ideas?
Stories surround us, and as writers we learn to become attuned to them. They don’t always exist fully formed—they can be part of places, or involve people we observe. I’ve come to recognize when the story is one I can tell, one that combines what I know, and what I want to know. So most of my ideas come from vague memories of the past, or places I visit, or sometimes a vivid dream. The story unfolds from that—I don’t often know what will go into its telling, or where it is headed. I don’t know what details I’ll discover in the writing of it, or which I’ll pull from memory. It’s a strange sort of combination that occurs.
When (if ever) have you wanted to give up on being a writer?
Once I began to write regularly I knew I’d never give it up. Even when I couldn’t write all the time, when work or life interfered, I knew I would get back to it, that writing was waiting. Someone I met at a reading recently said that if you’re really a writer you are one for life.
WHY are you a writer?
I thoroughly enjoy making things up. I always have. It’s like playing house as an adult. I like crafting the words on the page—putting them together so that they create worlds the reader can enter and live in for a while.
As an endnote: Any advice for a novelist looking for representation and/or a publishing house?
I never fully understood what revision was until I wrote a novel. For me, it wasn’t the story or the characters but the structure—the way the story was presented—that posed the most trouble. You have to be open to telling the story the best way, and sometimes the best way—the one that allows the reader access—isn’t the method you’ve chosen.
I’d advise anyone writing a novel to have a handful of careful, like-minded readers take a look at the draft, and then to be open to their feedback. Carefully crafted query letters are also vital. You can’t acquire an agent or an editor until you’re able to attract them to your story, and provide a strong manuscript when they request it.
(To learn more about Karen Brown, visit her website: http://karenbrownbooks.com/. Full review of The Longings of Wayward Girls will be posted Thursday, but if you can’t wait … just go buy it now. You won’t regret it.)