Thursday, June 27, 2013

Author Interview: Karen Shell

I recently sat down with my friend, Karen Shell, in her home here in Toronto, Ohio to discuss the writing craft. I’ve known Karen and her family for over a quarter of a century. At one point, we lived on opposite sides of the same duplex wall. So when we discovered our mutual desires to break into publishing, we became crit buddies. She proofed and offered some valuable stylistic advice before I released the second edition of my novel, Extreme Unction, and she has also proofed a novella in the series which I am currently shopping to various anthologies. Meanwhile, I am proofing and critiquing the current version of her epic futuristic sci-fi “history,” A Greater Plan Than This.
Set on a geographically unrecognizable version of Earth over a thousand years in the future, A Greater Plan Than This involves an intricate plot about government spying, empire building, space colonization and seeding, and one family’s efforts to set things right. Karen has been toiling on this book for a decade and a half, making alterations, researching contemporary ideas in physics, and diagraming family trees, story arcs and anything else that might make the story more compelling. She has it all organized in two three-ring binders each over two inches thick full of marginal notes, sketches of Greek characters and MC Escher optical illusions.

As we shared some unsweetened blackberry/pom iced tea, I dived into the conversation with a standard interviewer’s query.

Me: So how long have you been writing?
Karen: Since I was probably ten.

What kind of stuff did you write when you were ten?
I tried to write books that would be similar to Nancy Drew. It was going to be a series, and my protagonist was Francis Forrest. The first one was Francis Forrest and the Giant Amoeba. (Laughter) And I started writing autobiography, and I remember one of the chapters was The Coming of the Kids, because at first it was just me. I was the oldest in my family, and then all of these brothers and sisters come along. Then in High School I would write short stories for my girlfriends who also wrote short stories for me; Our Crushes. You know they would be little romantic stories.
Binders and notes for Karen's novel.
So who are your influences?
More recently Anne Rice I like, and of course I read Mark Twain who I love. Then I got into reading more non-fiction, so... I don’t know what to tell ya. I didn’t anticipate this question. (Laughter) I might think of it later. Then you can add.

We’ll append.
The story that you’re working on right now is in the science fiction genre. Is that something you’ve always wanted to write in?
I enjoy science fiction. I guess I could say Ray Bradbury was one of my influences, Isaac Asimov. I took a science fiction literature class while I was at Bowling Green - which is a lot of reading. We read Dune, and that was one of ten books. I just like the genre. I didn’t exactly mean to start writing in it, but I envisioned another world, and so that takes you there, you know? 

To me as I’m reading your material I see a lot of Heinlein as far as the family relationships. Have you read any of the Howard series?
This set me off on a tangent describing the Howard series. I’ll spare you that.

What have you published in the traditional publishing realm?
Actually I’ve had music published, and I’ve had two or three poems published throughout my life, but never anything in prose, so this is new.

That’s a long endeavor for one…
I know. (Laughter) Well, I started in 1998, and after I got through it, you know life went on, but the characters lived. It’s like I haven’t seen these people in a long time. It’s almost as if they were real; and I had to keep coming back to it. It hasn’t let me go. It’s got me … you know.

The characters are very well written and the story is plotted very well so it seems like something that you’ve done before and that you’ve developed this ability to write. The fact that you’re saying that this is your first endeavor at this kind of thing is really impressive, because usually the first couple of stories that you write in a new genre are just practice.  So there’s no practice here. If you’re going to commit this much time to it.
Well this is my third re-write of it. So the first one was kind of like the practice one. And I liked it well enough. Then I went through and fixed it up a little bit. Then after a few years went by I re-read the book and there was the first part of it – I wasn’t crazy about, but as the book went on I thought – oh, I like this story! I still like it! And so I wanted to get back to that.

So are you trying to work out whatever kinks you saw in the beginning?
Right. Yeah. In fact, I did send it out in that version - in the second version to six publishers. Five of them came back normal rejections. One of them was – we really considered this, but thought it would mean a little bit too much work. They only did like six books a year or something like that. They were very small, and they didn’t want to spend that much time with it, but that I should work on the dialog. And I had sent I think maybe just the first chapter, and because the book developed much more than I knew was going to happen when I wrote that first chapter, I had a big re-write there, and it was daunting, but...
Are you going to consider that same publishing house when you are ready to publish again?
I think so. 

Have you tried agents at all?

Here we went off topic on a tangent about agents vs publishers. 

So what are your plans for the world that you’ve created for the future?
Well, I have got at least four sequels. I have besides A Greater Plan Than This, then will come Daggers of Glory, Immortal Invisible, Savior, and Mary McGifford which will be a flashback to the beginning when it all started intertwined with what’s going on in the present. 

So the last story is sort of a prequel. It’s your Hobbit.
In a way. But it will combine with what’s going on in the present time so there will be a flashback in an omniscient kind of point of view while these other character points of view are happening and intertwined with that. 

I see, so by the time you’re all done and you’re ninety years old …
(Laughter) Yeah I know, it’s going to be a long time. I’ve got to get a quicker way to get these things done. 

Well, I’m looking forward to reading the rest of these chapters, I can tell you that.        It’s really been … I know it seems like I’m taking forever to read it for you, but that’s because I’m editing while I’m reading. If I wasn’t editing while I was reading I’d have had them all read in a night because they’re that good.
Well thanks. 

And I would have been waiting for the next chapter to come, but because I’m editing them as I’m reading then that …
It’s work. 

It’s work, right. So that's why I keep putting it off.
I know, that’s how I was with your book too. It was the same thing. I want to get to the end of it, but do I want to work? (Laughter) 

Thank you very much for your time. This has been fascinating, and good luck with the work.
Thank you.

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