T.L. Sherwood Interviews Author Karen Stefano
One of the strangest things I’ve encountered in my writing life is that I have as much trepidation for the good as the bad. Being short-listed for the Gover Prize tossed me into an angst filled gravel pit. I kept my head down and did my job–which I adore. After handing in my interview with Beth Gilstrap, I was confounded with the fact that Karen Stefano still hadn’t been interviewed for The Tavern. Then I won that insanely fierce flash competition. Unreal. I mean, come on, how did I win? It did give me the confidence to push ahead. I asked to interview an idol. I told Scott–and confessed to Karen–that I might be too in awe to conduct it properly. Both were gracious enough to let me make a gushy fool of myself…
T. L. Sherwood: Several stories in your collection, The Secret Games of Words have a female protagonist with a legal background. It’s not a secret that you have a JD, so I’m wondering how your litigation experience has informed your understanding of people.
Karen Stefano: For the first eight years of my legal career I practiced criminal defense. While it’s true that I met many bad people who had done terrible things, mostly I met people who had simply lost their way, people who had made mistakes, people who’d had radically unstable formative years, people who lacked both the financial and emotional resources that are so critical to getting one’s shit together. Our criminal justice system is broken. It is so much easier to get a good outcome if you have money. Poor people do not get a fair shake. Rich people can fuck up again and again, and because they have a safety net, it is easy for them to get out of their rut and move on to lead good and productive lives. Poor people don’t have that safety net and this radically impacts the trajectory of their lives.
Those eight years made me a more compassionate, empathetic person. I think those are two traits that are important for anyone to have, but they are particularly important traits for a writer. And let’s face it: I met some damned interesting people during those years, be they clients, prosecutors, fellow defense attorneys, or judges. The people with whom I interacted during that period definitely seep into my writing in subtle ways, informing and shaping some of my characters, such as the husband Public Defender in “Postcards In Tempo Rubato,” and Janet in “Undone.”
TLS: Do you usually start with a character or a situation when you begin your stories?
KS: It varies. Like everyone else, my work is heavily impacted by my own life experiences and the experiences of those around me. Sometimes it’s a person, sometimes a situation. But whatever it is, it’s going to be someone or something that has touched me deeply, on a visceral level.
TLS: “Different But The Same” is one of your stories that probes childhood cruelty with such sharp eyes. What were the schools you attended like?
KS: I did not attend schools where it was taken as a given that every single student would be attending college. Not even close. I attended public schools in incredibly diverse neighborhoods. There were extreme racial tensions at my junior high school, sometimes erupting into what the school administration referred to as “race riots.” (It’s funny that this term still lingers in my mind after all these years.) The administration’s phrase overstated things a bit. There were fights. There were restrooms on campus that I would not enter because I was a complete chickenshit (though in my defense, sometimes being a chickenshit reflects a keen instinct for self-preservation). By the time we all got to high school, everyone had mellowed out I guess because at that point we all managed to peacefully coexist, albeit in a very racially and social status-segregated fashion. The black kids hung out exclusively with black kids. Same with the Mexican kids, and the Vietnamese kids. Same with the white kids, though these kids were separated even further by social status, a structure virtually identical to what Janet describes in my story “Undone.” These groups included: Surfers, Stoners, Socialites, Brains, Jocks, and Dorks.
TLS: Which clique did you identify with when you were in junior high, and did the group change in high school?
KS: In junior high? The Dorks. Definitely The Dorks. And to be more specific, I mean the pimply-faced, racing each other to math class after lunch to do the extra credit problems on the chalkboard Dorks. Those were my peeps. By high school, I still hung almost exclusively with Dorks, but by then the essence of Dork social status had begun to shift and meld with the “Brains.” It started to dawn on people that Dorks and Brains were worrying about the SATs. Dorks and Brains were headed for college, and possibly, for better lives. People started to recognize the possibility that the Dorks and Brains might just be people after all, people on a different path.
TLS: The school I went to was very small and white. We figured that out a bit earlier because we all knew each other pretty well by sixth grade. There were a few surprises, like when one of the “Brains” got knocked up. All the Bad Words Start with V made me pay attention to all the “v” words you used, like “viral” in “Sara Turner’s Sublime Timeline of Grief” and “vacuum” in “Mystery Date”. Where did that title come from?
KS: Honestly? I have no idea. I think I wanted to emphasize the word “vows,” and all the other “V” words lined themselves up around that one. In fairness to “V” words, there are also some really awesome ones. Like veracity, Valhalla, valise, vampire, vasomotor, and vandal, just to name a few.
TLS: Valedictorian, too. The girl I mentioned was consistently in the top 15 of our class. She had a chance at it, but instead turned into a real life version of a cautionary after school special. Speaking of which, Jeopardy, The Guiding Light, I Love Lucy, Emergency, Mary Tyler Moore, Oprah. So many shows are referenced in these stories. I’m curious to know if you watch a lot of television.
KS: As a child, I watched tons of it. I’m talking four to five hours a day, minimum. It’s what my family did for fun, for togetherness time. For better or worse, television is a central point of American popular culture. Consequently, I like to use it in my stories as a form of shorthand. The type of show a character watches speaks volumes about that character. It’s a small detail. It doesn’t consume many words in the piece. Yet it says a lot. Like the kids in “Contradiction.” All they want is the simple comfort of sitting in front of the TV watching I Love Lucy. That’s not much to ask for children, right? To sit in front of the tube and have some breakfast? But they can’t, and they can’t because their mother is currently a ticking time bomb.
Today, I don’t own a television, but when my brain is fried (as it often is) and I don’t have the mental bandwidth to even read, I watch quite a few movies and TV shows on my laptop.
TLS: I’d probably watch more television, but I live in a valley where the reception is spotty. There isn’t a spot to aim a dish at the satellite and there’s no cable this far out, so I watch a lot of movies, too. I also read a lot. The book arrived right before a family gathering and I only had time to devour the title story that day. I ended up reading parts of it to my niece. The Secret Games of Words explores a complex relationship. Leslie, the narrator, admits to her faults unabashedly. Do you feel you’re as honest about your role in relationships that haven’t worked out?
KS: Well, I think I am. But then everyone thinks they’re self-aware, don’t they? I guess the proper answer to your question is: I try to be. Relationships are complicated beasts. Even the best of them take work. I am not a perfect person. I have flaws, and I do my best to manage them but I don’t always succeed. I spend a good part of my life shut away alone, self-isolating the way we must if we truly want to call ourselves writers. And I would rather read something fabulous than go to a party and make chit chat with strangers who are not likely to get me. I am not a party girl (with the exception of AWP!). I can also be anxious, insecure, and controlling all at once. So yeah, I appreciate how my lifestyle choices and my flaws have contributed to the failures of some of my past relationships. If anyone reading this is currently dating someone who says his or her ex was 100% to blame for the failure of that relationship, then I think you should probably run. Drop everything and Just. Run.
TLS: Ha ha, no one is going to date my exes now. And that will be yet another thing they’ll blame me for! I wish I were kidding. Relationships are complex when it’s just two people. Some of your main characters are figuring out their own lives while their parents are coming to the end of theirs. Forgive me if this is too personal, but is that something you’ve had had to deal with in your life?
KS: Absolutely it is something I’ve had to deal with –as have many, many other people, right? Watching a loved one journey toward death is soul crushing. It would not be an easy experience even under the best of circumstances, i.e., when all of the other categories of your life are going absolutely perfectly (Work is great! I have so much money! I can’t believe how I love my spouse more today than when I met him fourteen years ago! I am getting laid every single day! I look in the mirror and am simply amazed by how I keep getting better looking with age!) As I have observed a couple of these death journeys, things were far from wonderful in my life (hating my job, not being able to find a job, struggling to not lose my house, struggling to forgive a man I loved deeply for some really shitty conduct). In my experience, being present for this journey also makes one keenly aware of one’s own mortality, where they are going in this life, what matters, and what doesn’t.
TLS: Yes! Though I think some of my relationships would have stood a better chance if other familial bonds hadn’t become as dominant as they did. In my current marriage, we had a rough time when his mother was ill. It took up a lot of time and I didn’t know where to find stories like yours. They would have been a comfort, especially the misunderstandings from not hearing what was actually said. “Grievance” is misheard as “grief ants.” In “How To Read Your Father’s Obituary”, the protagonist mishears “homes” as “poems.” Has that happened to you, and what was the mix up?
KS: It happens to me all the time and I love it. I love words, their meaning, how they sound. Mixing them up, standing them on their head –it always makes me smile. I just eat that kind of stuff up. Does that make me a total nerd? One of my favorite games to play is the “What song lyrics have you misunderstood?” game. Personally, my biggest mix up was in 1976, with the Elton John and Kiki Dee duet, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” Part of the song goes:
“Oh honey if I get restless–“
Then Kiki Dee comes in and sings,
“Baby you’re not that kind”
So I am twelve years old and clueless and I think “restless” is “breast sets,” some additional horrible, mutilating sexually transmitted disease to worry about. I asked friends and they didn’t know what breast sets were, which worried me more. I even asked my mom and she didn’t know (but also didn’t tell me, “That’s not a thing”) and I was even more freaked out. I was kind of a weird and messed up kid.
TLS: Hey, I believed unicorns existed until 7th grade. If my English teacher hadn’t insisted they were mythical–and it took some convincing–I might still be a virgin. Don’t laugh! It’s possible! I can’t think of a song lyric I heard wrong, but an ex would sing “Angina” for “Hand Jive.” I’m not saying I haven’t gotten them wrong, but I’m the dork that looks up the lyrics on the Internet before I’ll sing along to it in my car.
Personally, I don’t like talking about a work in progress until I have a solid rough draft, so I know I’m pushing it, but I’ll ask anyway. How is your novel going and is there anything you want to say about it?
KS: Mine is still in the “shitty first draft” phase but I will tell you what I can at this point. It’s a historical novel, a three-generation mother-daughter conflict story that takes place during three different periods: the Great Depression, the 1970s, and during the financial collapse of 2008-2009. The working title is Woman Attacks Man With Scissors. I say “working title” because I doubt that title will fly with any publisher. The themes are survival, the complexities and cruelties inherent in mother-daughter relationships, how history is sometimes doomed to repeat itself, and how we as women are often doomed to repeat the mistakes made by the women who have come before us.
TLS: I would buy a book called Woman Attacks Man With Scissors! I just wrapped up a revision of my novel, so I wish you well on your adventure from shitty to shiny. I found a square of Ghirardelli Sea Salt Soiree per fifteen pages was a great incentive. I don’t know if that will work for you, but a little dark chocolate won’t hurt, right? It does sound like a great story. I look forward to reading it. Thank you so much for your time, Karen. It was a pleasure to talk to you.
Visit Karen Stefano’s website to learn more: http://www.stefanokaren.com
The beautiful acrylic and oil pastel canvas painting in the title banner, called How I Loved Caridad, was created by artist Mia Avramut.