Karen Brown received the 2011 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction for her book Little Sinners and Other Stories, which is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press. Her first collection of short stories, Pins and Needles, received AWP’s Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction and, in 2007, was published by the University of Massachusetts Press. Her work has appeared twice in the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, in Best American Short Stories, The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, and in many standout literary journals, including Epoch, The Georgia Review, American Short Fiction, TriQuarterly, and Five Points. Currently, Brown lives in Tampa, Florida and teaches creative writing at the University of South Florida. You can learn more about her work at her website.
Do you have a specific criteria of things you’re looking for in a story when putting together a collection? That is, are you writing from the beginning toward something central thematically, or in the content, and the stories come together because of a common focus, or is it just a matter of allowing the book to coagulate on its own, of writing stories without a collection in mind, and seeing what themes and styles emerge? Did the process change with Little Sinners and Other Stories from how you did Pins and Needles?
I don’t write stories with the intention of putting them together as a book, but I’ve found that I go through thematic phases, so that batches of stories seem to deal with similar themes, or have a similar tone. This was the case with Pins and Needles. I was writing a lot of stories very quickly, and they all seemed to have women exploring their own sexuality. The trouble was how to organize them so that “married woman having an affair in kitschy motels” came next to “pregnant teen seducing guy at work” and not “married woman having an affair in a vacant 1950s ranch.” With the new collection, I did do more selecting from stories past and present, so there’s an older story—one of the first I ever published, and a brand new one I added in the editing process with U of Nebraska Press. There are stories in the new collection that were written at the same time the Pins and Needles stories were, but didn’t fit in that book (“married woman having an affair with suburban neighbor”).
Is there a secret strategy you can (or are willing to) reveal about how to win a book contest? The Prairie Schooner Book Prize is the second you’ve won in the last few years, with Pins and Needles taking the 2006 Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction of the AWP Award Series. Winning two prizes is pretty good, and your work bears this out. Is there a secret?
Before I won the Grace Paley Prize I’d submitted manuscripts for several years to AWP and the other short fiction prizes as well—Prairie Schooner, Drue Heinz, Flannery O’Connor, Mary McCarthy. I was a semi-finalist years ago for Sarabande Books’ Mary McCarthy Prize, and last year Leaf House was listed as a semi-finalist. I, too, thought there must be a strategy, but looking back the only strategy I can see is that I kept writing new stories, that the stories seemed to get better, and that I kept changing the manuscripts to include the newer, better stories. Pins and Needles was the result of my putting together the last fourteen stories I’d written.
The studio MFA seems to be more and more popular these days—and MFAs more ubiquitous in general. As someone who took a creative PhD track, do you think there is something missing in a purely studio curriculum, as opposed to a writer’s formal education that is heavy on literary study?
Writers don’t need to learn how literary theorists approach creative works, unless they are interested in practicing in that field themselves. I enjoyed the exposure to literature I might not have normally read, but I think writers at the graduate level can pursue this intensive reading without having to study critical works and come up with paper topics. Most writers I know read widely. No two writers will derive the same thing from what they read, and I think it’s better to cultivate reading as a writer, than undergo a formal study of literary works.
Rituals play a prominent role in Little Sinners and Other Stories, particularly sexual rituals, the rituals of birth, and those of friendship. The stories have such power because of the ways in which the characters violate their society’s sense of propriety while at the same time participating in quasi-sanctioned rituals. Often these are people either at the end of adolescence or the beginning of middle-age, vulnerable people who are willing to transgress. Is there something you look for when writing a new character that places them in this kind of moral limbo? Or do your characters find their way to these sorts of trouble on their own?
I think the goal is to create a character with a problem, and for many of my characters lately these problems arise when they clash with the unspoken rules of the world they come from—the pastoral landscape of the suburb, with its sense of safety, and carefully maintained landscaping—a world I grew up in. It’s a place I understand, one that relies on continuity and tradition, and where rituals are often used to mask transgression. Regardless of what happens, or what the characters do, the lawn is still cut on Fridays, the Memorial Day tradition continues.
In some of the stories, it’s like you start writing about the crowd in the beginning of the narrative and wait until the last moment before narrowing in on the character who takes center stage. Is this something you have contrived as an author, or is your process a little more by the seat of your pants? I guess, by the end of the story (in your writing process) is it important that you be surprised by the story as well? And not just by what happens, but even who the story is about?
I do like being surprised by a story. It wouldn’t interest me to write it if there wasn’t the promise of something I didn’t expect waiting for me at the end. Sometimes, though, mid-way through, I realize the ending. Then it’s just a careful, sort of picking-my-way-over-stones to get there.
If it were possible to do so, what advice about writing would you give yourself five years ago?
I think I might tell myself to listen to my instincts about when a piece is really finished, and not rush to be done with it. The process of revision is just as important as the first draft.
What are you working on now?
I’m revising a novel, an expanded version of the short story “Little Sinners” that appears in the new collection.
The 2012 Prairie Schooner Book Prize is currently accepting submissions through March 15. More information can be found on our website.