Karen Stefano is Fiction Editor for Connotation Press: An Online Artifact of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, drama, and book reviews. She’s published her stories in The South Carolina Review, Tampa Review, Santa Fe Literary Review, Epiphany, and elsewhere. Karen was nominated for a 2013 Pushcart Prize. Her collection, The Secret Games of Words, is available in Kindle and paperback formats on Amazon.com
Interview by Robert Hambling Davis
RHD: Karen, when I read The Secret Games of Words, I was immediately impressed by two of your many strengths as a fiction writer. I’ll address them separately. The first one, which I call formatting a story, I mentioned in my short review. Did the personality-inventory format of “Undone” come to you with the idea for the story? Or did you write a draft of the story first and then decide on the best format to present the narrative, for the most emotional impact?
KS: I’ll spare you the details, but in 2007 I began seeing a therapist who would not take a new patient until said patient completed the MMPI. So I got busy with the test and found that the questions delighted me (Would I like to work as a librarian? Hell yes I would!! Do evil spirits possess me? I sure as hell hope not!! Do I hear voices? Yes, but fortunately only when I’m writing!!). I thought every single question provided an excellent prompt for story-telling. It took me awhile to figure out how to put it all together, to make “Undone” work in terms of “the occasion for telling,” but actually taking the test is how this story came about. Reading the questions also harkened me back to my days as an undergrad at Berkeley, where I was a Psych major, so I suppose the MMPI and other diagnostic tools have always held a place in my heart.
Generally speaking, format and structure are always difficult for me. I wish I could say I have an organized method for creating short fiction, but I don’t. The shape of my stories seemingly come about on their own, but only after many, many rounds of edits.
RHD: Of the twenty-three stories in your collection, several are flash fiction. The collection is a mix of short and long, and I enjoyed the changeup. As a fellow fiction writer and editor, I’ve heard other fiction writers express their inability to write flash fiction, saying, “I can’t write short.” You don’t seem to have that problem. Do you read a lot of flash fiction? Do you conceive of a flash fiction piece the same way that you conceive of a longer story? Along these lines, I especially liked “Visitor,” which is a page and a half long, a complete story about a shoplifter who sells counterfeit Ray-Bans on the side of the road, to make enough money to pay her rent. By the end of the story, she’s no longer worrying about her rent as she feels compassion for an abused young girl.
KS: I had never written a word of flash before 2013. That year I joined a writing group consisting of myself and the uber-talented Meg Tuite, Len Kuntz, and Robert Vaughan, each of whom are masters of the form. Every week for an entire year we took turns providing the prompt, then we were expected to circulate a draft of a story not exceeding 500 words within the next week, then we had another week in which to critique each other’s work. The experience was immensely productive and satisfying. “Look!” I could say to myself, “I finished something! I wrote a whole story in just a week!” You have no idea how great this feels when you are working on a novel, when you are a person for whom writing takes a long, long time. “Visitor” stemmed from one of those weekly prompts of 2013. Flash also teaches a writer that every word matters. It’s an incredibly disciplined form and I would encourage anyone who says, “I can’t write short” to give it another try. I am a strong believer that writing flash makes one a better writer overall.
RHD: You have over twenty years of litigation experience, with a JD/MBA (specializing in law and business administration). How much does your day job inspire you to write fiction?
KS: Yes, and I want to note for the record that I started practicing law when I was just five years old, okay? But to answer your question: So far, very little. I did criminal defense for eight years and to say I met a lot of interesting people would be the understatement of the year. I was thrown into so many situations that touched me deeply. I’ve tried to write about them, but the experiences have just not translated onto the page for me yet. I also worked at a large civil litigation firm that was comically dysfunctional. I hope to make use of that pain on the page some day, but that hasn’t happened yet either. But with all of that being said, smidgeons of my life as a lawyer sometimes come through in my work. The prosecutor in “Undone,” for example, is based on a real life prick I used to encounter all too often in the courtroom.
RHD: Who are some of your favorite short story writers?
KS: Oh, there are too many to list, but I’ll try. Lorrie Moore, Deborah Eisenberg, Flannery O’Connor, Benjamin Percy, Steve Almond, Miranda July. There are also many emerging writers whose work I love. Donna Trump, for example, who we featured recently in Connotation Press, writes beautifully. I hope that in the very near future she gets the wide audience she so richly deserves. Robert P. Kaye (another Connotation Press alum!) is another of my favorites. His work is brilliant and with the right exposure I see him as the next Karen Russell (and no, I’m not overstating it).
RHD: Aside from the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop, you’ve been to the Tin House Workshop twice and to the Breadloaf Conference. What’s your feeling about writing workshops and conferences in general? Do you feel you’ve had stories published that perhaps wouldn’t have been published if you hadn’t workshopped them?
KS: Honestly? In my view, the most beneficial thing about workshops is the people you meet, the relationships that are formed. Take you and me, for example. We met at Squaw, in a workshop, which by definition can be a setting where one can feel pretty vulnerable. You and I connected because we enjoyed one another’s work and we stayed in touch and exchanged work for awhile thereafter. I’ve had similar experiences in other workshops and the results are amazing. I mean, I’ve formed some real friendships, friendships that have gotten me through some pretty rough times in the past year or so. That is a remarkable gift. We need each other. Writing itself is difficult. And the writing life is even more difficult. We need to cheer each other on, to help one another through the days of self doubt.
And yes, getting edits and critiques from people I’ve connected with has definitely helped shape stories that would otherwise have been “DOA.” But that doesn’t always happen in the workshop itself. The reality is that not every writer in the workshop is going to have useful and productive suggestions for your work. You have to pick and choose what and who you listen to.
–Robert Hambling Davis is a fiction editor of The Fox Chase Review. He has been published in The Sun, Antietam Review, Memoir (and), Philadelphia Stories, Santa Monica Review, and elsewhere. He’s been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes, and received three Delaware Division of the Arts grants, two for fiction and one for creative nonfiction. He was a fiction semifinalist in the William Faulkner Creative Writing Contest in 2002 and 2012, and a creative nonfiction winner in 2013. Robert helps direct the Delaware Literary Connection, a nonprofit serving writers in Delaware and surrounding areas. He is a member of the Delaware Artist Roster, and has given writing workshops and readings in the Mid-Atlantic.