Sunday, June 13, 2021

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Katie Cortese

Katie Cortese is the author of Girl Power and Other Short-Short Stories (ELJ Editions, 2015) and Make Way for Her and Other Stories (University Press of Kentucky, 2018). Her work has recently appeared in VIDA Review, Gargoyle, Indiana Review, Blackbird, The Baltimore Review, and elsewhere. She teaches in the creative writing program at Texas Tech University where she also serves as the fiction editor for Iron Horse Literary Review. Visit her at or @KatieCortese on Twitter.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

My first book arrived three months after my first baby and in my mind it's hard to separate the two. Both existed in theory for a long time before they began to take physical form, and both represent significant labor, imagination, and perseverance. My first book changed my life because it helped me begin to believe that I could achieve at least some of the seemingly impossible goals I'd set for myself, and that writing could coexist with momming and teaching and life generally going forward. My first book, Girl Power, is all flash fiction, and features all female narrators. It was a joy to write, partly because I didn't know it would be a book until I had forty something stories that shared some key concerns. The second book, Make Way for Her, is again focused on women and girls, but the stories are longer, so there's more space to explore the narrators' inner lives and dreams.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?

I probably write more fiction than anything else because I read more fiction than other genres, though I do read memoirs and other forms of nonfiction and write essays as well. I've always been a consumer of narrative, whether in a book, on television, on the stage, or by paying attention to the way people interact in life, and I don't remember a time when I wasn't trying to make meaning out of events by fitting them into some kind of "beginning, middle, and end." Plus, I like the challenge of building worlds and scenarios from scratch that feel real and compelling enough for readers to want to go along for the ride.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

Flash fiction usually comes out whole the first time, but requires a lot of shaping on the micro-level--consolidating words and phrases, making images more precise, cutting and cutting until they say the most they possibly can in the fewest possible words. Short stories used to emerge through the same process, but I hit a point when the physical price for pulling all-night writing sessions grew too steep. Now I take weeks or months to piece together a big, messy draft, and then it can take years--sometimes setting it aside, sometimes concentrating on one scene or page or final line--to mold them into the best versions of themselves. So far, I've written three novels and each came out a different way--one almost linearly; one with scenes written out of order and stitched back together; and one from extensive research. So far, all of those drafts are still becoming, still in process. Deciding what they want to be.

4 - Where does a work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

My first two books are collections that I didn't know they were going to be books when I started them. The flash collection was written over a period of five years and many of the stories sprang from one productive semester of my PhD when I took a class with Robert Olen Butler. We had to turn in a story every other week, and I didn't trust myself to write a good story for every deadline, so I wrote a lot--not quite one every day for four months, but close. I owe my colleagues at FSU a great debt for exchanging stories with me outside of class so that even when the instructor's eyes didn't fall on a piece, I still got lots of useful feedback. For the longer stories, I wrote them one at a time over an even longer period--probably ten years or so--and then pulled together the ones that had the most to say to each other. I'm grateful to Lisa Williams, the series editor for my book at the University Press of Kentucky, for her role in shaping Make Way for Her into the book it ultimately became.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I enjoy readings because I started out, way back in high school, thinking that I would go into theater. I was in drama club, did community theatre in the summers, studied acting in college--the whole bit. I love performing and haven't had the chance to do any acting in years, but when I write stories they are very scenic and focused on characters interacting in space and time, and when I read them out loud, my hope is that the audience can see the story the same way they might watch a play (except with the added benefit of interiority and narration filling in gaps). I love hearing other writers read too. To me, it's magical when someone's words succeed in sweeping me away to another world, or a different understanding of the one I'm in, and I like sharing those experiences with other listeners in real time. I'm that weird person who even loves Zoom readings--no commute, no rooms that are too hot or too cold, and the luxury to turn off the camera if one of my kids wanders into the frame.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I think there are as many questions as there are writers--or people, regardless of whether they write. I can't say that I'm conscious of trying to answer questions, but when I've had the chance to go back and look at my work (either to defend it for a degree or to compose a synopsis for the submission process), I see a lot of the same concerns: agency and fulfillment in the lives of women and girls; what it means to love and be loved; the grave peril we face from climate change; the ways in which we can learn from and look toward the past and future; how to be a person in this messy, dangerous, troubled, and sometimes beautiful world. For me, the stories come first and the questions come after.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

Similarly to the last question, I think there can be as many roles for writers as there are people who write. In my life, I look to writers to help me understand both the lives of others and my own life, but I also look to them for instruction, solace, clarification, to be moved, to step sideways out of my own perspective for a while, to be reminded of how much I still don't--and probably won't ever--know or experience firsthand. I think people will always turn to writers for comfort, for community, for context, and for ways to say things that are notoriously hard to express. That's why poems are most often heard in mainstream culture at weddings and funerals, or else in viral social media posts after tragedies or great accomplishments. That's why people describe scenarios as Kafkaesque or talk about "the milk of human kindness" even if they don't always have a good working knowledge of "In the Penal Colony" or The Grapes of Wrath. Books influence culture because writers say what people feel but don't have their own words to explain.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I love getting eyes on my work. Especially after writing on a project for weeks or months, it's easy to get a kind of tunnel vision, and editors--or outside readers--poke all sorts of holes in the tunnel to let the light hit places that need attention or repair. Though I've heard of editors imposing their own vision on writers to the detriment of the writing, I've only ever felt grateful for anyone willing to engage with my work. I don't always agree with every editorial comment, but every suggestion is an opportunity to clarify my intentions with a word or sentence or chapter, and editors are necessary reminders that writers write for others. Without readers, we're writing journal entries or scribbling "notes to self," and while there's nothing wrong with someone writing with no intention of sharing the work, anyone who'd like to publish has to consider the person who will engage with the story or the book out in the world. Kurt Vonnegut gave such great writing advice over the years, and one piece I like a lot is that we should "pity the reader," or in other words, make it easy for people to access and connect with our writing.  It's a gift for anyone to read my work, so I'm going to honor their trust and generosity by creating the best story for them that I can.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

One of my wisest and most generous writing mentors, the great Julianna Baggott, always says writers should picture themselves whispering their stories urgently into the ear of just one person. I love that idea--we're not blasting out a message to a throng of people nodding in appreciation, but telling one person a story that needs to be told, and doing it in such a way that they can hear the story clearly, experience it vividly, and be moved.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short stories to essays)? What do you see as the appeal?

I find that short stories evolve more naturally for me, probably because I feel them out rather than think them into being, but while essays take more effort to jumpstart, there's some comfort in having a set number of facts or true events to guide their progress toward completion. I write in each genre for different reasons. Usually, stories are prompted by feelings or images, but essays are sparked by ideas or experiences. In the process of writing and revising either genre, though, once they get going, there's little difference for me in the composition, or in the tools I use to craft them. I make use of scenes, setting, characters, plot, props, dialogue, and other storytelling elements in both genres. The appeal for me in either genre is looking closely at something I don't fully understand and making discoveries along the way, and then in shaping those questions and explorations for readers.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

When I first started writing, I worked best in binges--marathon-long sessions 2-4 times a week, and would usually either draft a full story in that time or tinker with a revision. I kept that up until my MFA where I heard somewhere that writers should write every day, and then I tried to do that, but I'd miss a day and then feel bad about it, and then I'd miss a couple in a row, and it just added unnecessary and unproductive pressure to the whole enterprise. I didn't want to go back to binge-writing, though, because that didn't seem sustainable either in the long run, so I had to teach myself to start a story and leave myself a few breadcrumbs in the form of notes for the next scene, and then I'd come back to a given piece in the next few days and there would be a readjustment period, but I found that I could still jump back in pretty easily. I still write that way now, except children and a full-time job sometimes force the gaps to last longer than I'd like. The best answer is that in an ideal world, I would wake up, take my kids to daycare, have an unhurried breakfast, and then write for five or six hours with a few snack and bathroom breaks (and I'm on development leave now--i.e. sabbatical, so I have been getting to do this most weekdays), but in less ideal versions of the world, I fit writing in the spaces between other responsibilities--an hour a day three or four days a week, if I'm lucky. If that time doesn't materialize, then I can usually count on a two and a half hour block during my weekly writing group meeting, which has been my saving grace for the past four years. Big shout out to the Women Faculty Writing Program at Texas Tech University: my second book--and any that might come after it--wouldn't exist without you.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I find that I don't often get stalled in writing, but I do sometimes fall victim to imposter syndrome or feel too drained to enter either the imaginary world of a short story or an essay that requires me to employ critical faculties. In those instances, I find it useful to "write the bad out." Basically, I just keep typing until either I trick myself into getting invested in a piece (even if I later throw it away), or I feel competent enough to start something new that I'm actually interested in from the start. When I need inspiration, though, I usually read (my go-tos are ZZ Packer, Karen Russell, Celeste Ng, Octavia Butler, Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, Louise Erdrich, and others) and before long I'm usually ready to look at my own pages again. In a maybe-unpopular opinion, though, I tend to find plenty of inspiration in television too, especially smart HBO shows and (more or less) faithful adaptations of books or other published material, like The Handmaid's Tale and The Walking Dead, but I'm really a fan of anything with a good storyline and cast, and I learn something from every show I've seen even if it's what not to do.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

The ocean. I miss it terribly where I live now in West Texas, hundreds of miles from the Gulf of Mexico and more than two thousand from the coast where I grew up.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Theater has had a big effect on my work, as I mentioned earlier, though I'm not sure if I can point to any one work in particular. It's more the idea of being present in a scene, using the physical surroundings to reveal character and motivations, and in working through the "beats" of a scene like an actor would study a script, determining motivation and justifications for characters' actions on a line-by-line basis. Anxiety about climate change also sneaks into my stories, and I've published a few pieces that I think could be classified as "cli-fi," or climate fiction.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

I mentioned some of my go-to writers for inspiration already, and I credit two of them with making me a writer today. The first is Stephen King because I read It when I was thirteen, and that was the first time I remember not just enjoying a book but deciding that I wanted to try and do for my own readers someday what he'd done to me. There's something about the way that book swoops through time and in and out of realistic-feeling situations and pure (often horrific) invention that showed me more of what was possible with a novel than anything I'd read to that point. Margaret Atwood is the other writer whose work always gives me so much to aspire toward. Her novel Cat's Eye gave me permission to explore the lives of young people and to privilege the stories of women. The Blind Assassin, Wilderness Tips, The Maddaddam Trilogy, The Pennelopiad, and of course The Handmaid's Tale have been hugely important for me as a writer, woman, and human.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

I would like to go to Calabria in Italy to see where my grandfather was born--a village called Magisano. I've been to Italy but haven't traveled further south than Rome. To keep with the theme, I'd also like to be fluent in Italian.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

My first goal was to be an actor and I majored in theater and English as an undergrad. My school was located about three hours north of New York City, and I had loose plans to go there after graduation, rent a tiny corner of a tiny apartment, work seventeen barista jobs, and audition until I broke or my budget did. I had headshots taken and everything, but someone told me in my last semester of senior year that there was something called an MFA in Creative Writing, and if I got in somewhere, the school would pay me to learn to write and teach. I thought they were kidding; it sounded like such an impossibly good deal, I thought it must be a scam (of course, the jury is still out on this notion for a lot of people--in my mind, MFAs are great places to develop a portfolio and make connections with mentors and colleagues, but only if one has a lot of support in and outside of their cohort so they don't have to rely on workshops for personal growth, and only if one doesn't assume that MFA degrees will lead directly and immediately to a job; I loved my MFA experience, and I wouldn't have landed the job that I feel so lucky to have if I hadn't started with an MFA, but I know they're not all created equal, and though I lived below the poverty level, I didn't have to go into debt for mine--plus, I had the privilege that so many people don't have of having supportive parents who would have extended their safety net and welcomed me back home if something went off course, so I had a better experience than a lot of people; and I had the freedom to fail, which was essential for me, and is not a privilege afforded to far too many immensely talented writers, artists, musicians, and entrepreneurs). Anyway, my heart about-faced immediately, and I realized that I didn't want to do anything in the world except write fiction. Since I was too late for the current year's application cycle, I got a temporary work visa with a friend and moved to England for six months, where I worked at the National Museum of Science and Industry in London, and then I moved in with a friend in San Diego, where I worked at SeaWorld for another six months, and then it was off to Arizona State University to learn how to write. Honestly, writing is something that I did before I earned any kind of paycheck, and it weathered all my other passions and tangents and preoccupations, so I'd probably still be a writer no matter who signed the checks that paid my bills. I'm just lucky enough to be able to get paid for doing what I love, and a day doesn't go by that I wonder how I lucked into my life.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I have a vivid memory of my mother coaching me to recite one of Juliet's speeches for her long-retired, elderly-by-then, high school drama teacher, Sister Gretchen. "Give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die, Take him and cut him out in little stars...," etc. I was three, and we were in Sister Gretchen's living room at the front of her very old house across from a set of train tracks. Beyond that, I could see a stretch of sand called Monument Beach. I remember the balding Persian rug beneath my feet, and feeling surrounded by a forest of house plants, and seeing Sister Gretchen delighted, leaning in to hear, clapping when I was done. That did it, I think. Language and performance and place wrapped up in one formative package. We've been cleaning out some old boxes at my house lately to reduce clutter, and I came across a trove of documents my mother kept from my childhood. Every third sheet of paper is a story dictated to her before I could write, or a staple-bound book in my own terrible handwriting, or a poem riddled with cutesy rhymes. The poeming didn't stick, but the stories did.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

I'm reading Pachinko by Min Jin Lee right now, and its depth and breadth are amazing as well as instructive for anyone who is thinking about writing historical fiction. I recently loved Nimona by Noelle Stevenson, Zone One by Colson Whitehead, Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang, and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. I haven't read as much as I've wanted to lately, but as soon as my kids are older (and getting lost in their own books), I am counting on returning to a book-a-week habit. As for movies, of course, I haven't been to a theater in ages--even before the pandemic, it was rare that I'd have the chance to see a movie, but I loved Parasite, Arrival, Get Out, and Coco from the comfort of my living room couch.

20 - What are you currently working on?

Currently, I'm working on two projects--a story collection set "fifteen minutes in the future" in a world beset by dramatic climate change. I have two more stories to wrap up for that book (well, it's looking like one story and a novella) before I can try to order and finalize the project; the other manuscript is a historical novel focused on an Italian immigrant family in the North End of Boston during World War I, the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, the culmination of the women's suffrage movement, the onset of Prohibition, and alongside a few other significant moments from that era. Both books are forcing me to move past my writing comfort zone, and that's scary, but it's a good scary, and I'm excited to stretch and learn as I go.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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