Kris Faatz (rhymes with skates) is a fiction writer and musician. Her first novel, To Love A Stranger, was a finalist for the 2016 Schaffner Press Music in Literature Award and was released May 2017 by Blue Moon Publishers (Toronto, ON).
Kris’s short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Kenyon Review Online, Potomac Review, Glassworks, Reed, Bluestem, Luna Station Quarterly, and Digging Through the Fat, among other journals. She has been a contributor at the Kenyon Review Writers and Novel Workshops and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and will return to the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop in 2017 as the recipient of a Peter Taylor Fellowship.
The following interview was conducted over email in Spring 2017, by Potomac Review intern Morenike Rossman.
Could you tell me a bit about your upcoming novel, To Love A Stranger?
Absolutely! To Love A Stranger has been almost a ten-year project for me: I started it in December 2007 and it’ll be released this coming May 23. It was also the reason I got into writing seriously. When I started brainstorming for it, I was between jobs and feeling kind of discouraged about life. The only thing I had for sure was an idea for a character. For some reason I thought it would be easy to write a book, it would take me only a few months or so. If I’d known then what I know now, I’m not sure I ever would have started. So I’m glad I didn’t know!
In the writing, I drew heavily on my own experiences as a professional classical musician. The book’s two main characters, Sam and Jeannette, are both musicians: a conductor and pianist, respectively. As a music student, I got an insider’s view of the backstage world of the classical symphony, which I love. The personalities, the drama, the creative process, and especially the way people come together to create something huge and beautiful, all fascinate me. I wanted that to be a key part of the story in Stranger.
The novel is really about personal acceptance. Sam and Jeannette both have heavily shadowed pasts. When they meet, both are, in a sense, running away from themselves. They connect very quickly as musicians: one of the things I wanted to stress in the novel is how music can let people connect on a deep soul level, even when they’ve just met. Sam and Jeannette connect in this way, and then both look for escape in each other. But they also both have secrets – Sam especially – that will ultimately drive a wedge between them.
Working on Stranger – an extended on-and-off process – was sometimes joyful and sometimes a total pain. The final version of the book ended up taking place over a much narrower slice of time than I’d originally planned. That was the result of a fantastic workshop I did about five years ago, where my teachers looked over what I had (a 500-plus-page multi-generational mess at that point), pulled out one plot thread, and said, “This is your novel. Write this.”
I’m thrilled that Stranger will be out in the world now. It’s really the fulfilment of a long-term dream. I think some of my original ideas might crop up as a sequel, which is also fun. I lived in the “world” of the story for a long time and got to know the characters really well; it would be great to use some of that extra material!
What is it like to switch from short stories to novels and back? In this case, was it always your intention to write a novel, or did a short story blossom into something bigger?
With Stranger, it was definitely always going to be a novel. At the time I started it, it was also the only thing I planned on writing, or wanted to write. I had loved creative writing in high school, and then gotten away from it in college and grad school. With Stranger, I came back to it knowing very little about the craft. Starting a book was a tremendous learning process. Along the way, as I took fiction classes, I also learned about short stories. My first “finished” short story happened about seven years ago, and it was a disaster. (I learned it’s not a good idea to write a dozen-page story in which the entire action consists of your main character sitting on a couch, reminiscing). It was another couple of years before I had anything worth sending out to journals.
I love working with both short and long fiction. Short fiction is sometimes “easier” because the time commitment will be less: fewer total pages. Although with a short story, you’re so tightly focused, and every word needs to be so precisely right, that in some ways the process is more intense. Small decisions can have huge effects. I’ve had pieces where I thought I knew what I was writing about, only to throw in a detail halfway through that suddenly changed everything, so I had to go back and start from scratch.
With novels, you have lots of room, and you can let yourself spread out on the page and try all kinds of ideas. The overall arc is much bigger, and you know you can go back and fix details without necessarily changing the larger structure. What I find more challenging about novels is that you have to sustain that storyline, and those characters, in your head for a much longer period. For me, sometimes working on a book feels like desperately trying to run across a bridge while it’s falling apart behind me. Other times, though, the story becomes a sustaining force that carries me along while I’m working.
I generally like to have a longer-term project on the back burner. If I’m not actively working on it (for instance, right now I’m turning over ideas for a book, but I haven’t really jumped in yet), I like to be working on short stories. Story ideas crop up all over the place. I always like to have “something” going, because it’s when I’m writing – or even brainstorming – that I feel most anchored.
You describe yourself as a writer and a musician. How has music colored your writing outside of being part of your characters’ lives?
Music has become a big part of my creative process. When I get stuck while working on a writing project, very often the best way for me to get the juices flowing again is to play the piano. It works best if I can play through music I already know well. Playing gets my hands busy, but sets my mind free. Ideas often work themselves out during those times. I’ve also always found music to be a mental release. I used to think of it as “talking” back and forth with the piano: I could let whatever I was thinking or feeling out into the piece I was playing. That also helps a lot with writing. I can get my mind clear, and come back to a project with new insight.
Many people find it difficult to incorporate their creative passion into their everyday lives; you have found the time for both music and writing. How to do you manage to keep them balanced?
Working as a musician (as a piano teacher, choir director, and solo performer) has been my source of income for a number of years. Every job has its frustrations, but to be able to work creatively is a big plus. My work also, in large part, lets me set my own schedule. That’s a decision I made several years ago, in opting to stay with freelancing and working as an independent contractor rather than shifting to more conventional work hours and a more stable income. It was (and is) a risky decision, but I wanted to have the time and, most importantly, the energy for my writing. I trained as a musician thinking that music would always be my main professional focus, but over the past several years, that focus has shifted. I’d identify myself pretty much equally as a writer now. When it comes to maintaining balance, I’ve chosen to trade money for time pretty often. I’m very lucky to have a supportive spouse who doesn’t mind that, and who is the anchor in our house!
Children play a large part in your collection of short stories, Unraveled Souls, as observers of adults and their struggles. Do you believe it is important to incorporate the perspective of children?
Absolutely, although I didn’t really start with that idea. Choosing the point of view for a story (or novel) is often challenging for me, especially if I’m starting with a plot idea rather than a particular character.
Writing from a child’s point of view is something I do only when I want a specific effect. Kids – especially younger ones – often don’t see the “whole picture” of the events they’re watching, in terms of underlying causes and/or bigger implications. In that sense, their point of view can be limited. On the other hand, though, kids can be extremely open-minded and uncritical, so that looking through their eyes can be kind of magical. And of course there’s often an element of innocence in their perspective, which you won’t find when you’re looking through older, more cynical eyes.
In pieces like my short stories “Fly Away Home” and “Great Blue Heron,” I wanted those qualities of innocence and magic. In “Great Blue Heron” especially, I wanted my narrator, twelve-year-old Rob Parady, to get fully inside the charm of my other main character Adele’s “magical thinking.” In both stories, I didn’t want my point-of-view characters to really understand what was going on with the adults in their lives. I also felt that the endings of both stories had more punch exactly because my narrators didn’t totally know what was going on. It was left to the reader to decide what had happened, or what was going to happen, and I wanted to create a collision between the child’s innocent view and the darker reality.
Overall, though, I do believe it’s important to bear in mind what kids see in the wider world. Everything they see has an impact on them, and shapes their view of life. I think it’s valuable to honor what they experience by using their voices in fiction.
I noticed that out of all the pieces included in your collection, “A Funnel of Time” is the only one with fanciful elements while your second novel, From the Circle House, is full of fantasy. Could you tell me about your experience with writing in different genres? Do you set out to write fantasy or does the story decide for itself?
I love to read fantasy, maybe more than any other kind of fiction, but I don’t usually write it. When I started working on “Funnel,” I knew for sure that I wanted to do a magical-realism piece. My main character (Mari) was a present-day woman, but at the same time, I wanted her to be able to connect directly with another woman from the past. I wasn’t sure I could make it work, but I loved the experience of playing with the fantastical idea of the “funnel of time,” through which two mentally abused women, from very different time periods, could support each other. In that case, the story definitely decided what it was going to be, and I knew what it needed to be before I started.
I had a different experience with my currently unpublished second book, From the Circle House. When I started brainstorming for it, I thought Circle House was going to be historical fiction. The inspiration for it came from a story about the largest known relic of the True Cross, housed in the Chapel of St. Toribio near Astorga, Spain. The story went that in the ninth century, the monk Toribio had traveled from Astorga to Jerusalem to bring a holy relic back for the new cathedral being built in Astorga. Toribio brought back the piece of the Cross, which was housed in the new cathedral. He was made a saint because of his pilgrimage. Then, a couple of centuries later, when the Moors invaded Spain, the monks in the Astorga cathedral fled into the mountains, taking the relic with them, along with St. Toribio’s bones. The monks built a new chapel, where the relic and the saint were re-housed. A sidebar to this story tells how another couple of centuries later, another group of monks looking for a holy relic for their own cathedral stole one of St. Toribio’s bones to fill that function. I loved how Toribio had gone from ordinary person, to saint, to holy relic in his own right.
So when I started thinking about Circle House, I initially thought it would be an historical fiction book that would re-create, as much as possible, the story of the real St. Toribio. I got away from that idea because I got scared of the enormous amount of research it would take; plus, I didn’t know how much information would be out there, and how much I might have to make up, and I didn’t like the idea of over-fictionalizing a true story. Also, I felt that there was already a lot of historical fiction based on Christianity and the Catholic Church, and I didn’t want to do something too repetitive or derivative.
That was when I started exploring fantasy. I wanted to keep the idea of holy relics, and use the idea of a quest for a relic as the central action of the story, but I also loved the idea of creating my own fictional world, with its own politics and religion. When I started playing with my main character, I got the idea of giving him a mental ability that gave him great influence over people and events, but also had its dangers. I wouldn’t have tried that outside a fantastical setting, but it opened up enormous possibilities for the story and gave it lots of energy.
Circle House was incredibly fun to write: the whole book pulled together in about three months. I did find, though, that as in my literary fiction, I was pretty focused on my characters, what they thought and felt, and how their decisions affected the story’s direction. Going forward, I’d like to keep a balance between writing literary fiction and fantasy. I find both genres very rewarding, but with fantasy, you can really let your creativity run wild. Sometime, I want to go back to Circle House’s fictional world and see what else might happen there.
Why Zelda Fitzgerald?
I love this question! Zelda appears as a main character in two of my short stories: “Night Roses” and “A Funnel of Time.” She has fascinated me ever since I read The Great Gatsby in high school. A couple of things about her, in particular, caught me. One is that she wasn’t at all the traditional 1930s wife and mother: she was a passionate artist who never got to realize her talents or dreams fully, because her husband wanted her to fit more into the accepted role of his supporter and “shadow.” I’ve always admired her rebelliousness and empathized with her longings as an artist.
The other thing that draws me to Zelda is the challenges she had with her mental health. I’ve had depression for a number of years, and have experience with the kinds of tricks your own mind can play on you. For a while, I got away from reading about Zelda, precisely because her mental illness and fragility were too real and scary for me. More recently, though, I’ve seen how she held onto her sense of self in spite of her illnesses (and in spite of the brutal treatments she went through, during a period when the long-term effects of electroshock and insulin shock therapy were poorly understood). In some ways, Zelda is a tragic figure, but in others, she’s triumphant. She was a complex, richly imaginative, extremely creative woman, during a time when it wasn’t particularly safe to be such a woman. I admire her for that.
Many people shy away from portraying characters outside of their own experiences and ethnicities, but you seem to embrace this. How do you find the courage and/or justify the ability to write stories about people with lifestyles vastly different from your own?
This is a terrific question: thank you. There are a couple of reasons why I get outside my own experience in my writing. One is that I often find a particular story so compelling that I have to give it a try, even while I know that as the person I am, with the background I have, there’s no way I can tell it even close to perfectly. My novel To Love A Stranger involves a gay main character. I knew all along that as a straight woman, it was going to be hard – maybe impossible – for me to write from the perspective of a gay man. After giving Stranger my best shot, I was scared that the writing still couldn’t feel authentic or do the character or story justice. Some feedback I’ve gotten has encouraged me to think I did a decent job: in particular, one advance reader told me that the book resonated with him, and that he had experienced very similar struggles in his own life to the ones my main character experiences. The biggest reason I kept working on Stranger was that I felt its story demanded to be told. It had to get out in the world, and as imperfect of a storyteller as I was going to be, no one else was going to write exactly the same book.
Another reason I write about characters so different from me is that I want to try, as best I can, to view life through another person’s eyes. Trying to tell another person’s story, when you don’t have their experience, can be very dicey. Some writers (and readers) see it as questionable appropriation. I get that, but I don’t really see it the same way. In telling a story, I know those are my words on the paper, and I have responsibility for them. I’m not suggesting I actually know what it’s like to be someone of a different sexuality, gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background than me: this is just a story I decided to try to tell. I hope it might resonate with a reader, but I understand if it doesn’t. Also, I find that exploring another person’s perspective is a way to work on some of my own fears and prejudices. Writing and storytelling can be powerful ways of getting across barriers, and this is something I always want to try to do in my work.
What advice could you give to student writers still learning the craft?
Two things. The first has to do with getting feedback: always keep your ears and mind open. This can be very hard. When I was starting out, I often got very defensive about my work, to the point where I couldn’t learn how to make it better. (It took some pretty brutal deconstruction for me to finally get the point!) At the same time, though, trust your gut when you get feedback. You’ll know if something suggested to you is the right thing for your work. Even if it means starting a project over, from scratch, you’ll be excited to try this new idea. You’ll see how it might let you explore new angles or achieve something you hadn’t achieved before. That’s the best kind of feedback, and you always want to be ready to receive it.
The second thing has to do with patience and resilience: two qualities I didn’t have when I started, and often still don’t! Writing is a tough, lonely, and sometimes totally unrewarding craft, at least when it comes to outside recognition. When you commit to this path, you’re strapping in for the long, long journey. I like to think of it as planting a seed that’s going to grow into a tree. It takes a long time for that growth to happen, but when it does, it’s worth everything you experienced to get there. Also, remember that you can give up as many times as you want…as long as you always change your mind again afterward.
What would you consider to be your favorite writing habit?
One thing that works well for me is to write first thing in the morning, before getting onto any other business of the day. That way I’m at my freshest, and also feel that I’ve gotten to the most important thing on my to-do list.
Which one of your writing habits would you most like to break?
I’m a feast-or-famine writer. When I’m deeply into a project – especially a big one like a book, or when I’m in the homestretch of a story – I want to work on it all the time, at the expense of other commitments and things like eating and sleeping. Sometimes that’s okay, but it can lead to pretty severe burnout (not to mention scheduling problems!). Then, when I finish the project, I tend to crash and get irritable and hard to live with. I’d like to have a more balanced approach to working, so that I’m always involved in a project on some level, but so that the work is more spread out and I can have a healthier approach overall.