An Interview with Karen Lee Boren

Conducted by Julia Zgurzynski, Jason Welch and Caroline Wilson.

Karen Lee Boren grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a location she has kept with her in much of her writing. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee with a degree        in English, before getting an MFA in creative writing from Wichita State University. She then returned to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in order to earn a P.H.D. in English. As she continued to write, she also began her teaching career as a professor at Rhode Island College. She’s been published in many journals, including but not limited to WomenArts Journal, The Florida Review and the Santa Fe Writers Project. She has also published the novella Girls in Peril and the collection of stories Mother Tongues. As of now, she is working on her newest novel, Secret Waltz.

Interviewers: In Girls in Peril, you begin by the story by telling the reader that Jeanne’s extra thumb was going to be severed at some point in the summer. While “spoiling” the upcoming events is not the most uncommon writing technique, why did you decide to utilize it in this novella?

Karen Lee Boren: There are a few reasons I chose to present this information at the beginning of the novel, both craft and thematic reasons. In terms of craft, planting this seed of the thumb’s severing establishes one of the novel’s dramatic questions, which hopefully drives the reader through the novel, asking, “How, why, and when will her thumb be severed?” If the reader knows of this event, first it creates suspense (rather than mere surprise), and when it finally happens, the feeling is organic to the story.

Thematically speaking, Jeanne’s thumb becomes the objective correlative for her emotional state and for the coherence of the group of girls in the story. The severing of this thumb from Jeanne’s hand marks the irrevocable rupture in the tight connection the girls have at the start of the novel. Focusing the reader’s attention on this symbol early on hopefully calls attention to this aspect of coherence and rupture in the book’s theme.

I: Girls in Peril is told in the first person plural. It feels as if there is another unnamed member of the group who narrates the story. She is never acknowledged by the other girls, and she only provides collective thoughts. Why did you choose to have this ephemeral personality narrate the story?

KLB: First, I wanted the challenge of writing in this rarely-used point of view, and it did pose challenges, especially when writing scenes. As you so rightly note, the way I managed this was to create the presence of the narrator who is both a member of the group but unnamed and shifting.

Second, adolescence is perhaps the time when people most want to be part of a group outside their family unit, and I wanted to explore this moment but also explore the process of moving beyond it, to the point where one recognizes one’s individuality too. I think of it as a sort of second psychological mirror stage, a time when young people, often unwillingly, must recognize their separateness as individuals despite their intense connections to their friends. It’s often a feeling of loss, and I wanted to explore this loss.

I: Is there any specific place in your life that the inspiration for Girls in Peril came from? For example are the characters based on real people? Do you typically draw from personal experiences in your writing or do you prefer to take on a unique perspective?

KLB: Yes, I grew up on the south side of Milwaukee, about a block away from Lake Michigan. And I grew up in a time when families were big, neighborhoods were tightly knit, and children were given an amount of freedom to roam. Some of the characters are composites of folks I have known. The violence in the book though is based on an actual incident that happened in the neighborhood in which I grew up. It was a shocking thing, this violence, of course for the families directly affected, but for those of us in the neighborhood too. One of my sisters insisted on sleeping with her back to the wall for years after it. It rocked our understanding of family and safety and community. I will say that the family who was most directly affected by the original incident has not been at all happy that I wrote about it, directly accusing me of lacking compassion. I’m extremely sorry they feel this way, I really am, but I do think that having given over a year of my life to contemplating the pain felt by all those involved gave me a great deal of compassion and empathy for them too. Writers, though, if they are to write deeply, need to be prepared for others not to be happy with their work.

More generally, I write both from my experience and far beyond it. My most recent novel, Secret Waltz, has very little to do with me personally, and is more of an exploration of a time period when life was significantly more restrictive, 1966, for men and women. In this book, history drives the narrative as well as the character’s situations and decisions. The Irish writer, William Trevor, said he hoped he was more boring in real life than his characters were in his books. I agree with him.

I: The short stories in Mother Tongue captivated my attention by offering a brief yet incredibly nuanced glimpse into each character’s troubled life and ending before positive resolution occurs. What made you want to keep the stories in Mother Tongue so concise instead of expanding one or two into a longer piece?

KLB: I love short fiction. I really do. I love to read it and write it. Short fiction can pack a punch and, in some ways, it stays with a reader in a very different way than the long-read of a novel does. So one reason I write short work is because it’s impactful, but it’s also fun. You can experiment, set yourself challenges, go a little crazy without committing 3-5 years to the work, which is what I generally invest in a novel.

However, I do want to point out that at least one story in this collection has a happy ending. I specifically wrote “Fire and Rescue” so there would be a story that my young nieces could read, and I wanted it to be uplifting.

I: In Mother Tongue, Sister Charlene hears about peoples “basest instincts” and “deepest wounds,” their raw humanity. Some of your characters have a dark side, for example, Joey with his terrible crimes of stabbing Lois and killing himself. Do you ever feel like your experience as a writer is something like Sister Charlene’s, with your characters as the visitors, exposing their darkest secrets to you?

KLB: That’s a very insightful way to put it. Yes, it is a bit like that, but it’s such an honor to have characters reveal themselves to me, I don’t see it as a burden in any way. Characters don’t always reveal themselves, and then a story falls flat. Sometimes I have to wait years for them to tell me their stories. This is the best reason I can find for showing up to write regularly, because a character may be ready on that day to speak, and if you aren’t there to listen, you may never know that character’s story.

I: What kind of work did you write in college? Did writing fiction come naturally to you as a young writer?

KLB: Oh, gosh, no, writing still doesn’t come naturally. Wondering about people and what makes them do the things they do has always come naturally, but I’ve been pretty slow to develop my craft. I was a voracious reader my whole life, but I only really started writing in college, and I was very shy about it, very insecure. I think I had a sense of character then, but I didn’t know how to tell the characters’ stories. I had to work hard to learn narrative structure, to create scenes with tension, plotting techniques, rhythm and pacing with language. I do think other writers come to these aspects more easily than I did. I had to work hard at craft. I still do. I’m still learning.

I: Your work has been published in different literary journals, for example, Florida Review and Book Forum. What was the experience like? Do you remember your first acceptance?

KLB: I remember my first publication – and every single one of them since – very well. It was actually an earlier version of one of the stories I included in Mother Tongue, and it was in Epoch, Cornell University’s literary journal. There’s no denying it’s exciting to work on a piece for publication, and it’s different if you’re writing a piece that you know will be in a certain publication than if you are writing without knowing if anyone will ever read the piece. The BookForum essay was solicited, so I had some input from the editor as I researched and wrote; they also gave me a length and a deadline. All of these can be really helpful in crafting a piece that works with their publication’s focus and tone. When you write without knowing where the piece will end up, there is a freedom, but that freedom means you have to create your own rules, have to determine how long a piece will be and when a piece is finished, all by yourself. Then you try to find a publication that matches your work.

I: You write fiction and nonfiction. How do you manage to wear both hats comfortably?

KLB: Genre has its own demands. I let those lead me, even when I’m breaking rules or pushing at the conventions, I’m aware of them. Generally, fiction demands conflict, character development, scene construction, organized time structures, a narrative arc, and so on. Generally, nonfiction demands a strong voice, but structure is much more open, so one has to figure out what is compelling about a topic for the reader, how to connect with a reader through one’s personal experience, or the subject matter, in a way that may be outside narrative. And, of course, in nonfiction you have the basic contract with the reader that you will do your best to tell the truth, even as both reader and writer acknowledge that this truth is often based on memory and feeling as well as fact.

Interviewers: You are both an author and a professor. What drove you to take up a profession in teaching and how does teaching contribute to your growth as a writer?

KLB: Teaching has helped me learn about writing because I am constantly drawn back to the basics of craft when I present them to students. For many writers, the demands of teaching are inconsistent with their own writing, but for me they are a marriage; at their best, they feed each other in productive ways. Writing keeps my teaching fresh, and teaching provides me with the financial stability to make choices about what and how to write that are artistically driven rather than financially driven. I also love the interactions with student writers. I’ve been fortunate to work with some truly extraordinary talents, and to have any part in their development, well, it’s an honor indeed.

I: What advice would you give to an aspiring college writer?

KLB: Read widely. Read outside your taste. Ask how questions of the things you read: How did the writer create tension, intimacy, a full sense of place, a memorable character? Write a lot, and be open to critique, then rewrite. Don’t give up on a piece of writing because it’s hard. Stay with it until you or it loses energy, but make sure it’s not just uncertainty or fear pushing you away from a piece of writing. Be prepared to write badly. You must want to get better, and you will sometimes write badly throughout your writing life. But also let yourself feel the exhilaration and play of creation because there’s nothing better than this sense that you’re onto something good.