Thursday, May 30, 2013

Andromeda: 4.9 Questions with Flashes of War author Katey Schultz


Katey Schultz's Flashes of War was officially released on Memorial Day.


Andromeda: My first exposure to your work came when you offered a 49 Writers Craft Talk about your research process, during a visit to Alaska in February 2012, just after you’d done a January residency in Sitka. I will admit that I was mildly skeptical at first, since I am a strong believer in travel and in-person immersion-style research, while you were using other ways to imagine your way into the lives of soldiers, Middle Eastern citizens, and so on. But your talk wowed me, opening my eyes to new possibilities, and reminding me that we need to trust our powers of empathy. And the authenticity of your resulting work – flash fiction pieces that take us into multiple perspectives, a kaleidoscopic vision that exceeds what many single-narrator stories or novels might be able to offer -- speaks for itself. Please explain to readers how you managed, instead of “writing what you know” (that tired bit of advice), discovering and writing what you wanted and needed to know.

Katey Schultz: The thing I learned about myself by writing Flashes of War is that the greatest motivation I can have as a writer is the lure of an unanswered question. If something catches my eye, my heart, my mind, or some combination of all three, I’m bound to want to know more. As someone who makes sense of the world through story, I think it’s only natural that I often seek answers through my own wits and imagination. But when dealing with the terrain of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are still unfolding before us, I knew I had to tread carefully. This tempered my imagination and slowed down my entire writing process. It took time to write a scene between two soldiers, because even carrying on a conversation in the middle of a war zone can be tricky. What if the characters can’t hear each other over the roar of the Humvees? What if they’re on a night mission, and can’t turn on their headlamps for fear of becoming a target? What if a citizen is trying to engage with a soldier that doesn’t speak his or her language—and how can that manifest on the page with clarity and a sense of urgency? The challenges writing Flashes of War were not only craft-based, but culturally- and logistically-based as well.

Giving the Craft Talk for 49 Writers gave me an excuse to reflect on my writing process for the book and that’s when I was finally able to articulate to myself—and to others—that I had struck a balance between research and imagination. The research occurred largely through Google maps, satellite images, and Google images searches to make locations, villages, and military bases as true-to-life as possible. I picked up what I could about Middle Eastern culture through documentaries filmed in Iraq or Afghanistan, and by speaking with a friend of mine who happened to be foreign war correspondent during the “shock & awe” phase of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. I also read numerous books by American authors about the day-to-day life of soldiers on the ground.

I know there are things that I missed, and certainly my studies could have gone much deeper…and perhaps that’s where your insight, Andromeda, about “the power of empathy,” comes into play. It was that need to connect with another human being, perhaps, that pushed me to try and write these stories as beautifully and factually as I possibly could. At a certain point in the research, I become so “overstuffed” with images, words, colors, phrases, dilemmas, and ideas, that something had to burst forth. That’s usually when the first line of a story or the concluding image-based metaphor of a flash piece came into view, and I began putting pen to paper. [An interview about Katey's research process is available here.]

Andromeda: Let’s talk about flash fiction itself. It seems especially well-suited to this particular work, giving us many small glimpses of violent conflicts which inevitably throw together unlike people, in confusing and dreadful situations—often brief, surreal, nearly incomprehensible. How did you start writing flash fiction, and did you have other favorite flash authors or collections as sources of inspiration? How did you come up with the idea of applying it to this subject?

Katey Schultz in her 1970 Airstream Trailer
I first became enamored with short form prose in graduate school when I read a nonfiction anthology edited by Judith Kitchen titled Short Takes. This collection of very short vignettes or “flash nonfictions” gave me permission, as a writer studying memoir, to write my own voice-driven, short, nonfiction, lyric essays that ultimately became my thesis. Little did I know; it was the form itself—not the genre—that had captured my heart. As soon as I graduated from Pacific in 2008, I couldn’t stop writing fiction. As I went on to try and publish some of my work, my nonfiction was routinely rejected while my fiction got picked up. That motivated and encouraged me, and I stuck with stories. Without even knowing it, I was writing primarily flash. Then I re-discovered Tom Hazuka’s anthology, Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories and I finally had a name for what I was doing. I read the collection again and again. From there on out I read any flash I could find—Smokelong Quarterly, You Have Time for This, Sudden Fiction, Sudden Fiction International, Lydia Davis, Steve Almond, Amy Hempel…It was difficult to find entire collections of flash by a single author, but I found work in anthologies and hunted down more pieces by authors I loved the most. Tara L. Masih’s work on the genre, The Rosemetal Press Field Guide to Flash Fiction, proved instrumental both for its history of the genre and its samples across a wide spectrum.

With regard to applying flash fiction to the wars, it was never a conscious effort. The thought simply didn’t enter my mind. I wrote my first flash war stories about Vietnam—two of them, in fact—and then made myself stop. Something didn’t feel right and I knew exactly why. I needed to write about my generation’s wars, even though I felt embarrassed to admit I hardly knew a dang thing. My research began, and at first all I could write were very short pieces about Iraq and Afghanistan because my knowledge of the wars wasn’t deep enough to sustain a long narrative. I also felt attached to the power of short prose because I’d inadvertently been obsessed with it since graduate school. The language of wartime drew me in as well, with all kinds of new words to play with on the page. Finally, the short form let me focus on the more human moments of wartime and avoid the longer arc of politics and deception, which felt important to me. In 2010, I wrote my first contemporary war piece, “While the Rest of America’s at the Mall,” and haven’t stopped writing about war since.

Andromeda: While Flashes of War was making its way into print, you were on quite an amazing three-year journey (with stops in Alaska every year since 2009), trekking between residencies and other literary opportunities you set up for yourself. Tell us about that, how it has shaped you as a writer (if it has), and how it dove-tailed with or complicated the writing, editing, and publishing of this book.

Katey Schultz: First, I have to talk about Alaska. I generated the majority of Flashes of War in your state. There is absolutely something there for me in The Last Frontier that balances the intensity of the writing life in precisely the ways I need. My single-most productive time as a writer, to date, was 2 weeks I spent in a cabin outside Fairbanks piggybacked by 2 more weeks in a cabin in Denali (these were owned by writing friends who generously offered). I wrote over 80 pages of war stories in those cabins, and a major part of my productivity had to do with the fact that in the “land of midnight sun” (I was there at the end of summer), I could work all day at the desk and still start a hike or bike ride at dinnertime and have plenty of daylight to explore. That felt very freeing to me, and when I walked or hiked or camped in Alaska I was never let down. Every place I looked I could always pinpoint a spot on the horizon that, surely, no human being’s feet had ever touched. Whether it was ridgeline or rockslide, I felt the power of all that remained undiscovered and it fueled me to explore with abandon in my writing. I cannot stress enough how my Alaska experiences have shaped me, haunted me, encouraged me, and inspired me in every way imaginable.

Regarding the travel in general, your question is a wise one. I spent 31 out of 36 months on the road. Originally, I left home with the goal of landing a book contract or a post-graduate fellowship after two years. But two years later, with more rejections than I can count under my belt, I had neither. This fueled my writing and dedication to the book even further, because I had put my entire life on the road. Everything I owned (except 17 boxes of books) fit into my Volvo station wagon. I didn’t want a 9-5 job and I didn’t want to be a full time teacher. I insisted with every cell that I could be a full time writer and, after two years, I felt tired but not at all ready to give up. So the more I travelled, the harder I wrote, so to speak, and I rallied for a third year on the road to try and reach those same goals.

That kind of focus will do something to a person. I became even more comfortable being alone, or if I was a crowd, remaining as a fly on the wall. I fell in love with communities and people a hundred times over, only to leave them again and again. It invigorated and exhausted me, and there was something in me that knew it wasn’t sustainable. If I focused on the writing, though, I could ignore that fact for a little while longer, and indeed I did.

After rejections from well over 70 post-graduate fellowships, 23 NY agents, and 44 presses, the day before I got into my car to drive back to North Carolina and “settle down,” I received my publishing contract from Loyola University Maryland. This wasn’t big time or big bucks, but it was a respectable publisher and I didn’t think twice.

It was only then that I was able to look back and admit how road-weary I felt, and that it was time to address some very heartily ignored aspects of my personal life and lifestyle choices and try and give “stability” another go. I signed the Loyola contract in August 2013 and moved into my 1970 Airstream trailer bordering the Pisgah National Forest. For the most part, I’ve stayed pretty close to home since then…though I’m about to embark on a book tour.

Andromeda: You were published conventionally, by an academic press, but if I’m not mistaken, you’ve hired your own publicists to help spread the word and organize events. Tell me about that investment, and how it was worked for you, as well as any other DIY tips you can share with authors who read this blog. What has been your biggest challenge getting exposure for this ambitious and unusual book?

That’s right. I hired MindBuck Media to handle publicity and an independent book tour manager for gigs and events. This has been a large financial investment for me, and I operate on a tight, self-employed budget. I feel confident that I can earn that money back over the next several years, and if I can break even with my first book and come out slightly more known and respected in the end, I’ll be happy. If somehow I can get noticed by a “biggie” looking for a low-res MFA faculty member or a novel about Afghanistan (my current project), then even better. In short, I’d tell all writers working with smaller presses that they absolutely have to hire their own publicists. With 900 new books published a day in the United States, it’s impossible to do it alone. There are a series of posts on my blog about what I learned from hiring a copyeditor and a publicist, as well as posts about handling distribution, marketing, and book contracts. Any of those buzz words are good search terms for The Writing Life Blog (www.kateyschultz.com), and your readers will find the best answer to this question there.

The biggest challenge to receiving exposure for my book might be that I’m not published by a big house and the structure of the collection is unique. I say “might” because I’m still in the pre-release/pre-order phase of what I affectionately call Bookland, so I’m still learning. But I have friends with contracts that include copyeditors and entire marketing teams, advances, and travel stipends. That’s just not the world I found myself in and that feels like a challenge—albeit one that I’ve tried to mitigate. The other challenge is one I can’t do anything about and don’t aspire to change, and that’s the mixed flash fiction and short story blend of the book. It’s an unusual format, though Hemingway did it for In Our Time, and his flashes (before they were called “flashes”) were also about war. I had at least half a dozen agents tell me my writing was strong by they didn’t know how to market a flash collection. So be it. Flashes of War found a home in the end and I’m quite happy about it.

Andromeda: The final, quick question--what are you working on next?

I’ve completed the first draft of a novel set in Afghanistan. It’s inspired by two stories from Flashes of War, “The Quiet Kind” and “Aaseya & Rahim.” The working title for the novel is The Longest Day of the Year and I’m currently seeking representation for this work.


Andromeda Romano-Lax is a co-founder of 49 Writers and author of The Spanish Bow and The Detour. Katey Schultz is the author of Flashes of War and Lost Crossings. She is also a freelance writer and teacher of creative writing. You can find many more links to recordings of her readings and other added features at her author website. 

5 comments:

Lynn Lovegreen said...

Great interview! The book sounds fabulous, Katey. Hope it goes far!

Tara Masih said...

Thanks for the shout out! And congrats on the great reviews it's getting.

Bill said...

Insightful questions and insightful answers. I enjoyed "listening in" on this wonderful conversation. Thanks!

Sandra Kleven said...

Hi Kate and Andromeda,
Really enjoyed reading the interview. Introduced me to much I had not pondered previously. At the end, you mentioned hiring a promo outfit and a book gig outfit. I've been setting up this kind of thing myself and having some success... but what does it cost to turn it over to the pros. Even roughly. That would maybe make some things easier if they were good at what they did. Thanks for all the other info. I admire what you did... putting in the time. I will read your book! (I am in the middle of War and Peace, seriously, but your book will follow). Sandy Kleven PS Your paragraph about rejections is one I will copy and paste as an example to young writers.

Sandra Kleven said...

Ignore those underlined words that appear to be links. I did not place them there. SK