Today I have the honor of introducing my new interview series with an interview with the wonderful Karelia Stetz-Waters. I’ve reviewed a number of her novels, including The Admirer, Something True, and Forgive Me if I’ve Told You This Before. I’ve loved all of them, despite (or perhaps because) them being across a range of genres.
Karelia Stetz-Waters is an English professor by day and writer by early morning. She has a BA from Smith College in Comparative Literature and an MA in English from the University of Oregon. Other formative experiences include a childhood spent roaming the Oregon woods and several years spent exploring Portland as a broke 20-something, which is the only way to experience Oregon’s coolest, weirdest city. She now lives with her wife, Fay, her pug dog, Lord Byron, and her cat, Cyrus the Disemboweler. She teaches at a rural community college which provides ample inspiration for writing, as the college attracts all walks of life, from Sudanese refugees to fresh-out-of-the-closet drag queens. Her interests include large snakes, conjoined twins, corn mazes, lesbians, popular science books on neurology, and any roadside attraction that purports to have the world’s largest ball of twine.
I feel like I should ask you about your most recent novel that I read, The Admirer, but perhaps it would be more interesting to talk about the novels you have planned for Wilson and Helen. I’m dying to get my hands on your next one, The Purveyor. What am I going to love about it?
- The Purveyor is an emotional tour de force. It’s long and gorgeous and anguished. But it’s also a story of redemptive love, so the end is, in the language of gamers, an “epic win.” I also think it contains one of the most unique, beautiful, and controversial sex scenes you’ll find in contemporary literature.
When you were younger, did you know you wanted to be an author? Did you study at university because it was expected, or because you enjoyed it?
- When I was twenty, I volunteered at a feminist magazine. I remember sitting in the office with the older staff members. Someone asked me what I wanted to do after college. I said I wanted to marry a woman, be an English professor, and write a novel. They laughed, but I’ve done all three. As for college, I loved it and it was expected. I’m a third generation teacher.
You say it’s taken 10 years for you to publish a novel, have you ever thought about self-publishing? What made you aim for professional presses?
- Self-publishing is a great option for some people, but it robs the author of one vital part of the creative process: crushing rejection. I aimed for professional presses because I wanted to know that I was good enough to get in. My early rejections – and I got A LOT – pushed me to be a better writer. Here’s a bit more on surviving rejection.
In other fiction, using repetitive symbols can equally be annoying, or wonderful if used correctly. Do you ever actively connect symbols and the actual characters you write? From what I’ve read about ‘The Purveyor’, the conjoined twins are a sort of metaphor for Adair to break away from her family.
- I think the key is to let symbols arise naturally from the story. The Purveyor is about the people to whom we are bound: by love, by family, by sin, by desire, by hatred, by slavery, by guilt. It was very important to me to make the conjoined twins complex characters (not just a freaky sideshow) and by the end of the book I realized they embodied all those connections, but I didn’t plan it that way.
Do you start feeling like you are the characters in your novel as you are writing them? I certainly get into the heads of them while I’m reading them, that’s what makes your novels so enjoyable.
- There is a point in the writing process when I hold the entire story in my mind, and it is like having another world, another life that travels alongside me. It makes boring meetings go faster, but it’s dangerous too. Sometimes I’ve missed out on my real life because I was so immersed in a story.
Do you have a writing schedule? What does your writing process look like? I love the idea of using index cards to move the scenes around. Do you use a special pen or composite notebooks to write in?
- I write every morning before work. I usually write with a Lamy fountain pen in one of those black and white composition notebooks. I do try, though, to remember that writing is not about the perfect pen. I knew a woman who claimed she could only write on a particular sofa at a particular coffee shop. When the coffee shop closed, she never wrote again.
Can you tell me about a typical week? Have you ever been on a scheduled writing retreat, or is your self-motivation enough?
- I’m very sociable and I get more done when I’m busy. I write 10+ hours a week, teach three classes a term, and I’m the chair of my English department. My colleagues ask me if I would ever consider a sabbatical, and the answer is no. I’m like a border collie. If you leave me alone in the house for too long, I’ll eat the sofa.
Is keeping up with your online presence daunting? How do you gauge how successful your social media campaigns are?
- I love social media. It’s so gratifying to hear from readers who have enjoyed my work. With that said, I don’t know how good my social media campaigns are. I did a big video blog campaign for The Purveyor, and I don’t think it helped much, although I’ll enjoy looking back on those videos. They capture a lot of my. This is my favorite: First Day of Summer.
Do you believe in ongoing promotion of your novels? It seems like most novels come out as new and if they don’t sell in the first month, then they’re gone. Your novels have the right to shine for longer than that.
- I think that every good book I write builds an audience for my other work. I wrote The Admirer hoping to drive traffic to my at-that-time-unpublished Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before. As it turned out Forgive Me got more critical acclaim and drove traffic to The Admirer instead.
You’ve given a number of other interviews:
A couple of these people also write novels in your genres. Have you read their books? Did they reach out to you for an interview?
- I’ve read work by Jody Klaire, Liz McMullen, and AJ Adaire and enjoyed them all. I don’t remember exactly how we connected, but I do know that I owe a lot to Sapphire Books. It’s a great press, and they helped me connect with readers around the world.
Finally, are there any questions you wish people would ask, or wouldn’t ask? This could be about anything you want to talk about further.
- Both The Admirer and The Purveyor contain a lot of sexual content, some of it quite edgy. Very few people have ever asked about this aspect of my work, which is fine (I blush easily!) but if I were interviewing, I would probably ask.
- One thing I’d like to talk about more, perhaps just to help me understand it myself, is my Estonian heritage. My mother was an Estonian war refugee, and that did and did not have a big impact on my childhood. I wrote about that experience in a blog called “My Grandmother Poses with a Desiccated Corpse.” The thesis is that we are more deeply connected to the past and to the world than pure logic can ever explain.
Do you have any further questions you would like to ask of Karelia? Working with her in order to obtain copies of her novels, and to ask for an interview has been a rewarding process, and she’s a very personable person to talk to.
You can find her on a range of platforms:
I hope this interview leaves you wanting more. I have a chance to ask interesting questions of a range of authors that I review novels from. Let me know who you want to see next!