The L-Word Literature – Interview by Lynne Jamneck

Karin Kallmaker 18th and Castro, Craft of Writing, Events and Appearances, In Every Port, Maybe Next Time, Substitute for Love, Touchwood

Keyboard2

When did you first start writing? Have you kept everything you’ve ever put down on paper?
My first clear memory of writing fiction is in the fifth grade, so I was probably 10 or 11. I wrote a short story about a young peasant girl who helps the queen run away from her husband, whom the queen “abhors.” I remember having to look up “abhor.” I wish I kept things because I’d like to find that short story. My recollection is that it was quite earnest and had a happy ending. Not to mention that whole adoring young girl sitting at the knee of her queen — baby dyke, anyone?

But I don’t have a lot of my early ‘work.’ College-age work and rejected manuscripts? I kept some. But I’m not the type to go back to old work and edit it. If anything I read the old work, find something in it that inspires and write all fresh.

What was the first piece you ever sold?
I believe it was called “One-Time Special Offer” which was published by the Natomas News. It was an essay about junk mail and new home ownership.

My first fiction piece published was my first lesbian novel, In Every Port. Before that I had three manuscripts rejected by Harlequin (I read Harlequins at the rate of one a day in my teens). Given how mainstream publishing of serial romance has changed, I’m glad I never made it there. I can’t imagine not owning my own work, or my pen name. I’m very grateful for whatever fate led Barbara Grier to accept IEP.

Which authors, past and present, would you consider to have had the biggest influence on your own writing?
Without question the biggest influence is Katherine Forrest. Curious Wine was the universe to me for at least my first five novels. It set the boundaries, tone and texture of my writing in a liberating, encouraging way. Katherine herself—classy, soft-spoken, respectful and thoughtful—she has been and continues to be a role model to me. I am hoping that the last time we spoke I wasn’t as tongue-tied as usual. I was swilling wine and gobbling up smoked salmon at a reception in her honor and it still feels as surreal to be casually chatting with “Kathy” as the first time we met did and I couldn’t say boo about boo.

Add to that—she edited In Every Port and taught me so much about craft in the process. She was instrumental in the rewrite of Touchwood, my second book, making it actually a good book. Otherwise I might have produced a weak second effort and been dismissed thereafter as a one-hit wonder. She took the time to improve me and there just aren’t words to honor that. So I have tried to make good on her investment in me by improving myself, with every book.

I am influenced, too, by fantasy and sci-fi writers who are imagery and wordsmiths. CJ Cherryh, Guy Gavriel Kay, Gael Baudino—I love the flow and language of epics. I always feel as if I’ve had a refresher course in vocabulary and sentence structure.

I get very little time to read these days, so lean heavily toward books I know will make me think or laugh. I have a probably unfounded fear of writing something derivative, so I actually avoid writers who are similar to my own style. I struggle with character voice; self-doubt will often have me discard a voice thinking I’ve heard it somewhere else.

How long did it take you to write your first novel-length book?
Two years-IBM Selectric with a changeable font ball (the cutting edge!). Then I retyped it on my Mac Plus. PCs came along at exactly the right time for me. I can barely type fast enough to keep up with my brain—there was no way I could write fast enough and still read it. Even when I’m trying to be neat I can’t read my own handwriting. I also edit on the fly most of the time, and I found handwritten and typewritten editing to be incredibly frustrating. Likely, I could use the discipline that process would enforce but I’m grateful I don’t have to. I can easily say that most of my work has been intensely edited by me 80-100 times before it goes to the editor.

Tell us a bit about your new book, 18th & Castro.
I’ve been on a bit of a crusade for several years about the trends in lesbian erotica beginning five to seven years ago. I listened to my readers and talked to friends and it seemed like the more we read of “ultimate” and “best” erotica for lesbians the more we felt we might have a different definition of “lesbian” sex. We weren’t shy, nor prudes, but we weren’t into domination, pain and humiliation. And, mostly because we were all lesbians, we liked stories about women exploring their lesbian sexuality. Ergo, gender-bending wasn’t a big turn on either. Also, there wasn’t a lot being written about sex within long-term relationships until Bella, Bold Strokes and others began publishing anthologies.

So in 18th & Castro I wanted good blend of erotic experiences that a range of lesbian readers would enjoy. It’s a collection of short stories—some call it an anthology, but technically that’s incorrect as it’s a single author’s work. Anyway, the collection includes a little bit of kink, some bondage, a modicum of dress up, a dash of heartbreak, a dose of shivers and a whole lot of love and respect. I wasn’t going so much for “something for everyone” as I was arranging a variety of voices and experiences that my readers could find in some way familiar. If it’s not something she herself does or tries, it’s still good fodder for fantasy. I also wanted to validate that sometimes we’re just too tired to get out all the accessories for a wild romp—a cuddle, a vibrator and familiarity can put a smile on everyone’s face. It’s the communication that works the biggest nerves we’ve got. At least I think so, and so most of the stories feature a lot of talking.

It’s not exactly a novel, but it felt like some of the same creative work was involved. It was fun to create all those voices and hear them talking. Some good things happened, like the narrator of “Tick, Tock.” She started writing a love letter and I just typed what she said…I didn’t suspect it was a ghost story until a few paragraphs in. Experiences like that keep me absolutely certain that I have a great gig.

What’s next for you, writing wise?
I’m just finishing up Finders Keepers, which is due out late this year. I really like to focus on internal journeys and both women in this novel have a lot of issues. They’re still strong, still competent and confident, but they’re far from perfect. As soon as that’s off to edit I turn to my contribution to Stake through the Heart: New Exploits of Twilight Lesbians. This anthology effort is so much fun because we pick a theme and the four of us then do completely different things, it seems, when we create. Just finding out what the others did with the theme makes the effort worth it. It’s fun. Finally, then, I turn all of my attention, for 4-5 months, to Forge of Virgins, the third in Laura Adams’ Tunnel of Light trilogy.

Do you have a preference for writing either short fiction or longer works?
Not generally, no. I prefer one or the other depending on how I’m feeling creatively and what I want to provide to my publisher. That sounds sort of “well, duh” doesn’t it? I didn’t write much short fiction for years, though I enjoyed it, because my publisher at the time (Naiad) didn’t have a venue for it. Other publishers at the time weren’t interested in the work of a “romance” writer, an attitude I still run into now and again. But things change, the publishing world has changed, I’ve changed. Now I’ll toss off a short story when I’m frustrated with other efforts. It gets the creative juices flowing, so to speak.

And I said “toss off” just to make the Brits laugh.

Do you try to keep to a strict writing routine or do you find that it stifles your creativity?
I work my writing around my family’s needs, which means I write primarily when there’s nobody home or everyone else is asleep. I balk at too much structure, but try to maximize my time. The older I get the more difficult I find it to create new text when I anticipate being interrupted. I can edit nearly anywhere. Given my commitments and that I get probably 16-20 “alone” hours a week, a case of writer’s block can be a real schedule-buster. All it takes is 3-4 weeks of nonproductivity on new text to put me behind the proverbial Eight ball. Sometimes I thrive under the added pressure, other times my brain freezes up. Every time I meet up with Linda Hill, my publisher, I expect her to smack me by way of “hello.”

What is your creative atmosphere like?
When I’m writing new text it’s very quiet. I might have a little new age or light trance music on, but usually…quiet. Editing I don’t care as long as no one is looking over my shoulder. That gives me the heebie-jeebies.

How do you handle rejection slips?
Fate has been very kind to me and I’m not sure why—I’ve only had a few. The Harlequin rejections were hard as I think I wrote decent enough work. The last manuscript I submitted was very good—better than some of what I’d sampled before submitting it. That was some time ago, though. So I was never quite sure why they turned it down and I would have liked to have known so I could learn from it. A few short stories have been rejected along the way. If there’s any feedback at all I listen closely and try to learn from it. There is very little unbiased feedback available out there, as I’m sure you know. Our community is small to the point of No Degrees of Separation.

When you start off with a new story, do you usually approach from the plot point of view or do you consider yourself a more character-orientated writer?
It’s a mix, but heavy emphasis on character. For Finders Keepers I wanted a shipwreck. I wanted a life-threatening challenge. I wanted a woman who wasn’t sure she would survive…which put me into the character and who that woman was. After that first impulse about a plot point or a theme, it’s all character. I develop her voice, her reactions, what goes on in her head when things happen to her. She interacts with other people and their characters start to develop. If I’m lucky the voice will click in a big way. Faith in Wild Things and Brandy in All the Wrong Places both wrote their own material. I was just the typist. Both were first-person narrative, a point not lost on me either. But many readers don’t care a lot for first person and it’s also limiting as the character can’t know anything she doesn’t directly experience. It’s a challenge to have a character witness an event, interpret it one way and yet the reader knows something else is what really happened, but I love doing that.

Do you have a favorite amongst all the books you’ve written so far?
My sentimental favorite is still Touchwood, my second novel. After it was released I got my first independent print review and the reviewer (who was known to savage others) liked it. It was the first time I felt like a real writer. After that it’s like picking between children. Substitute for Love is my favorite plot. Sleight of Hand is think is my best epic writing to date. Maybe Next Time is my favorite internal development novel. And so on…

How much rewriting do you usually do?
I’ve only rewritten one book, Touchwood. As in I took it apart, kept about half and wrote whole new sections, changed the setting, the plot…and so forth.

But if you mean how much editing, tweaking, fiddling and general mucking about with a book, I do a ton. I write linear (usually) and pick up the thread of where I last stopped by re-reading at least the two previous chapters. I edit those as I re-read them. Get new ideas. Have moments like,

“What happened to the dog!? There’s a dog in this book!” and “The photos! She would have received the photos by now!” and that was a plot point I meant to include so I fix all that and by then it’s time to get the kids from school and there was no new text written that day.

Except there was, paragraphs and sentences woven throughout the previous pages. While editing chapters they can double in length. I often discover I started in Chapter 2 and need to write a Chapter 1 or that Chapter 3 was really the short version of Chapters 3-5.

What works about this is that when I see I’m making no real forward progress I know what I’ve done so far isn’t quite right as a foundation for the rest of the book. So I fix that, and fix it, and fix it until I finally read through, make nearly no changes, and surge into the next several chapters, almost without stopping. Lather, rinse, repeat, almost ad nauseum. By the time I finish a book I am so sick of Chapter 1 I’d rather have a sharp stick in my eye than read it again.

How do you think you are still improving yourself as a writer?
Well, the first thing I thought was how I’m not improving—I don’t read for pleasure enough. Reading inspires writing and I sometimes feel my language gets stale. Most of the time when I read it’s for “work” and I have a mental red-pencil in my head if not my hand.

Editing other writers is definitely one thing that improves my own work. If I can explain coherently to someone else how something ought to be, I can apply it to my own work.

I think by creating new characters for virtually every book I do keep my creative muscles limber. On my final edits, and in working with editors and studying other writers (which isn’t the same as reading…it’s work) I try hard to say more with less. Over time my style has definitely become more spare.

For the last several years I’ve been working specifically on living without exposition. That inspiration came from CJ Cherryh’s Pride of Chanur. She writes a tale about space-faring felines in a universe completely alien to our own and uses not a single word of exposition and yet…everything is perfectly clear. We know Meetpoint Station is cold because our heroine winces and growls when the pads of her feet touch the decking.

I’d like for my writing to be that rich and simple without wasting time telling the reader about body temperatures and the metallic chemistry of the decking. Those details add nothing to the story I’m interested in. What matters is that our heroine is cold and grumpy about it. I recommend Pride to any writer as a primer. Oh, and it’s a good read, too!

Tell us something about Karin Kallmaker no-one else knows…
There’s little that nobody else knows and what there is I’m not telling! But not many know I had a huge crush on Bobby Sherman as a young teen. It is my only crush ever on a boy.

What kind of submissions are you interested in at the moment/near future – any particular genres you’d still like to tackle?
I’d like to write more fantasy and dust off my “Laura Adams” persona. The work I’m doing in the New Exploits series is the closest I get to Laura’s work. When I finish Forge of Virgins I’m not entirely sure Laura will write again. But I’d like her to.

What excites you about a piece of writing?
That I forget about the red pencil in my head. When I completely lose myself in the story that is truly exciting.

What turns you off?
The reverse of what excites me. No matter how earnest and lovely a writer is and how heartfelt her tale, if I’m getting the urge to red pencil something on every page it annoys.

What do you think are some of the most common mistakes new writers make?
Point of view. Head hopping. Unless a writer really knows how to work omniscient, being inside any head but the main protagonists’ is jarring to me. Every time a new point of view is introduced the reader gives it significance. If a character POV is used only once or twice, I really feel the POV should be eliminated and the writer instead concentrate on bringing that character’s essential thoughts or reactions in through dialogue or actions that our main protagonists relate to us. It takes work but the writing is better for it and the reader has a smoother experience. The main protagonists can even be enriched through the effort.

Another is a little harder to describe, but it’s a narrative viewpoint similar to a television camera. I’m thinking of one passage where I literally thought “and now the camera is panning down” because the style so closely resembled a screenplay with exposition and actions added. We don’t read the same way we watch images and I find an author’s “camera-view” intrusive to letting the characters come alive. I never lose the sense that I am watching the characters from a distance instead of living the story with them through their own points of view.

Stage direction is the other common thing I see. A character can be reading in her armchair, then standing in front of the refrigerator trying to decide what to eat without us seeing her put down her book, stand up, walk, turn, stop and fold her arms. A simple, “A few minutes later, arms folded in resignation as she stared into the nearly empty icebox,” suffices. Readers can figure out that she must have put down her book, stood up, walked…etc.

A happy writer is…
…one with time.

© 2006 Karin Kallmaker, Lynne Jamneck

Copyrighted material.