Karen Heuler is the author of numerous short stories and four novels. Her newest collection of short stories, The Inner City, just came out from ChiZine, and Karen was kind enough to answer questions about herself, the stories, and much more!
Please welcome Karen to the blog!
Karen, will you tell us a bit about yourself and your background? Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I wanted to be an Indian when I was very young; I don’t remember why, except I felt that I could be very stealthy, not snapping a twig (what twig? I grew up in Brooklyn, New York City!) as I crept through the woods (what woods?).
Since I didn’t become an Indian, I became a writer. The fiction thing really kicked in when I hit puberty, because then there were stories in my head about those mysterious invaders—boys—and plot twists to meet them.
I’ve been getting things published since my twenties. For decades, I considered myself to be writing literary fiction, but at the borderline of reality. A lot of magazines have a good range, and I got quite a lot published. It all depended on how far I pushed that line, and eventually, I started pushing it over some more. I then often found myself to be too speculative for literary fiction, and not genre enough for speculative fiction. However, I could see from Jonathan Lethem, Kelly Link, Aimee Bender, George Saunders and now Karen Russell that it was possible to travel back and forth between these two worlds. And in fact, I retain dual citizenship.
Will you tell us a bit about your new story collection, The Inner City?
I’ve had this sense for a while now that the world is going buzzing along and ignoring how oddly out of step life really is. If you’ve ever been in a major accident or disaster, you know that dislocating experience of watching something happen that is not supposed to happen—how it gathers significance and remains with you. A lot of my stories come from that sense—that what is happening shouldn’t be happening, and yet it does, and life goes on.
What are some of your biggest literary influences?
First and foremost and always and forever, Alice in Wonderland. Austen, Bronte, Marquez and Bulgakov were probably more formative than Dostoyevsky, though I always wanted to get at big questions the way he does. Shirley Jackson snuck into the back of my brain early and stayed there. Oliver Sacks, oddly enough, in that he showed me how much perception can be organic and therefore indisputable. There’s a whole lot more, including the accurate metaphors of Emily Dickinson and Kafka’s sense of injustice; it’s hard to know where to stop.
Do you find it more difficult to write a full length novel or a short story?
They demand different amounts of time, of course, but there are certain expectations that go along with each of them. I expect to invest a few years in a novel and I’m okay with that. I expect, however, to take breaks from the novel and write stories simply because they can be finished relatively quickly and thus provide satisfaction along the way. Lately, however, I’ve been fighting with some of my stories—I don’t like their endings or I can’t find their endings or the central idea is just not right. Instead of speeding me along, they’re bogging me down. So, ultimately, when the stories aren’t working, they’re more difficult because they want to be treated like novels, taking years to get where they’re going.
What do you look for when reading a good book?
Clear, clean writing, at least one character I can feel for; a plot that interests me. The older I get, the more I realize that, yes, adjectives need to pass muster. Too many adjectives and the writer is obviously more in love with words than with story.
Which is not to say that I despise them; I don’t. But if you’ve ever used too much salt on your food, you know that even good things have a measure to them.
Is there anything that could make you put a book aside and not finish it?
I do that a lot, actually. I decided long ago that there were far more books in the world than I could ever read, and I’d rather spend my time on the ones I like. If a book doesn’t grab me quickly, then I let it go. Someone else will like it. Someone liked it enough to write it and to publish it, so I think someone else will read it.
That being said, I’m a fan of stories that are surprising in terms of plot or character. I don’t want to read about a character like me living in a city like mine; instead I want to encounter more than myself. I want to meet people who face different crises; who triumph or fail but never stop trying. I put down books that may have all these attributes but are just too awful in some way—too cruel, or too casual in their cruelty.
It’s true in both literary fiction and genre fiction that writers can be lazy, sticking to the same stories or characters. I worry about that, and I should worry about that, in my own writing. Raymond Chandler said that whenever he got stuck in a story, he’d send in two guys with guns. By which I think he means writers should surprise themselves, give themselves an unexpected problem to avoid becoming predictable.
Despite the gun quote, I don’t like violent stories, I don’t like women-as-victims, I don’t like animal or child abuse. I don’t like “pretty writing.” And I admit I’ve done some pretty writing of my own.
What’s next for you this year and beyond?
I have an odd year ahead of me—a few surgeries, a pause in teaching, another book coming out next year, from Permuted Press, a novel about a glorious end to the world. I’d love to get organized, get some filing cabinets, clean out the folders in my computer (therefore straighten out the virtual and real worlds). I’d love to get my story collection about dementia accepted for publication. My mother died in 2011 from it; harrowing. The collection isn’t all weepy, though there is some of that. I’d like to set this collection free.
About THE INNER CITY:
Heuler’s stories dart out at what the world is doing and center on how the individual copes with it. Anything is possible: people breed dogs with humans to create a servant class; beneath one great city lies another city, running it surreptitiously; an employee finds that her hair has been stolen by someone intent on getting her job; strange fish fall from trees and birds talk too much; a boy tries to figure out what he can get when the Rapture leaves good stuff behind. Everything is familiar; everything is different. Behind it all, is there some strange kind of design or merely just the chance to adapt? In Heuler’s stories, characters cope with the strange without thinking it’s strange, sometimes invested in what’s going on, sometimes trapped by it, but always finding their own way in.