A Sudden Country, Karen Fisher’s first book, was recently a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. In 2005 it was the Mountains and Plains Bookseller’s Association choice for Best Fiction. What a wonderful way to start off a publishing career. Karen who lives in Lopez Island, Washington is married with three preteen children (Ellen is 13, Grant is 11 and Lachlan is 7). Besides being a writer she is a carpenter. Currently she’s working on a screenplay for A Sudden Country.
Moe: Looking back was there something in particular that helped you to decide to become a writer?
Karen Fisher: I knew I loved books from the time my mother read me Ferdinand the Bull. I knew I wanted to write from the time I read Clyde Robert Bulla’s Star of Wild Horse Canyon. I think I was eight. I entered University as an English major and realized immediately I had nothing at all to write about (though I already had volumes of journals and added volumes more during that decade.) It wasn’t until 1991 when I began to understand my own story and identity enough to know what I ought to be addressing in fiction. It was many more years before I felt wise enough to do what I thought was good work.
Moe: What inspires you?
Karen Fisher: Who I am. Where I come from. What I can’t accept. What I love. The truth.
Moe: On a typical writing day, how would you spend your time?
Karen Fisher: I’ll spend twelve or eighteen hours in a day writing, if I have the freedom to do it. It doesn’t happen often, but these are the most productive days. It takes me an hour to remember what I meant to do, another hour to feel like doing it, and by the third hour something good might be on its way. So I’m most indebted to my husband for taking the kids camping for a weekend, or off skiing, thereby minimizing the start-up time for me. Long solid blocks are great, and I seem to have a limitless attention span when writing. I began to write the year my first daughter was born, though, and now have three children, all who were very small during the years I was writing A Sudden Country. I was always working for a living as well, so it was catch-as-catch-can for all three activities (work, mothering, writing). Most of the writing happened between the hours of nine at night and the small morning hours, when the house was finally quiet. Now I get to start at nine in the morning when the kids are in school and the chores are done, and can go until 3:30 or so when they get home. I’ll still put in time at night when some project seems pressing or irresistible.
Moe: How long does it take for you to complete a book you would allow someone to read? Do you write right through or do you revise as you go along?
Karen Fisher: I’m very shy about submitting work in progress. I would never agree to estimate how long it would take me to write anything for anyone. I’m a perfectionist (though I might be deluded about what perfection is), and too compulsive for my own good. I shouldn’t revise as I go, (I’ve thrown too many hundreds of carefully revised pages away), but I do.
Moe: When you have your idea and sit down to write is any thought given to the genre and type of readers you’ll have?
Karen Fisher: I worry about who’ll want to read what I write, but my approach in life has always been to be as authentic and true to myself as possible. It’s too difficult to be someone you’re not, and not satisfactory to be loved for something you aren’t. Genres are confining and encourage a kind of conformity I can’t enjoy. I try to keep truth as my only guide, and let happen what will.
Moe: When it comes to plotting, do you write freely or plan everything in advance?
Karen Fisher: I keep in mind what makes stories satisfying, what keeps them tight, but it seems like a very bad idea to plot anything too closely before writing. The best part of writing is discovering what is true, and it’s impossible to know before you begin to write, before you begin to ask and try to answer the thousands and thousands of questions that make up a work of fiction.
Moe: What kind of research do you do before and during a new book? Do you visit the places you write about?
Karen Fisher: I research meticulously. What is true is always more interesting and surprising than what I contrive or imagine. I try never to describe a place I haven’t seen. What is there is always more real and vivid than what I expect to find.
Moe: How much of yourself and the people you know manifest into your characters? Where do your characters come from? Where do you draw the line?
Karen Fisher: The only person I really know is myself. The only way I can depict someone other than myself is through my own lens of experience and emotion. So all my characters are aspects of myself I understand and recognize in others. It’s interesting, in writing characters, to push the boundaries of what I myself am capable of thinking and feeling–writing is very much like acting, it’s impersonation to a degree. But my ability to impersonate comes from the ability to find, in myself, something I know and understand in the character I’m addressing. I do take physical descriptions from people I know, and the occasional mannerism–I study what seems to be revealing. I use my children, my animals, my friends, I hope kindly. I have used the names and experiences of ancestors as starting points but with the hope no one believes I believe I am truly recreating people I have had no way of knowing–these characters are certainly fictional depictions, they are imaginary manifestations of who I might be if I had inhabited their life and time. Because I believe no good art is mean, I would hope never to use anyone unkindly. Compassion is the source of revelation, and revelation makes good writing. But the whole matter of literal and emotional truth, as they exist in fiction, can be very confusing. Fiction, as a category, exists to help us transgress normal boundaries of tact, honesty, and confession without doing the kind of harm (and raising the kinds of expectations) literal truth might.
Moe: Writers often go on about writer’s block. Do you ever suffer from it and what measures do you take to get past it?
Karen Fisher: I do. I flail around. I take a bath. I go for a run. I open a thesaurus and find a word that makes me want to write again. I read something brilliant but not too intimidating. I read something old that gives me confidence I’ve made some progress beyond a certain stage. I look at photographs. I think. A lot. I accept I’m afraid, and that if I start writing I’ll forget I’m afraid. I remember most of what I write gets thrown away. I remember I write because I love to write, and I’ll give it up for good on the day I don’t. That threat usually works.
Moe: When someone reads one of your books for the first time, what do you hope they gain, feel or experience?
Karen Fisher: My hope of every work of fiction is it makes its readers more compassionate. My hope is that love is contagious, and that writers who love well–who love their characters and their stories, who love what they see and feel, who love ideas and revelations–will help heighten a readers’ ability to love those things as well. If art did not do this, it wouldn’t be important. But it does, it is, and I hope my art does this work well.
Moe: Can you share three things you’ve learned about the business of writing since your first publication?
1. Splitting and delivering cords of firewood pays better, is easier, and is possibly more useful.
2. The only measure of success is whether you love your life.
3. All criticism (good or bad, even what seems contradictory) is correct. All awards (for you or anyone else) are both arbitrary and deserved. No one thing is ever true.
Moe: How do you handle fan mail? What kinds of things do fans write to you about?
Karen Fisher: I have had the great pleasure of replying to all fan mail, at this point. I always enjoy hearing the stories of people who have found my book–who they are, what they do, why this book touched them. The great privilege of having a published book is it serves as a kind of message in a bottle, multiplied by thousands. Some drift onto the beaches of people who feel like they were waiting their whole lives to find this message. Some get lost in the current forever. Some get tossed back without comment, to float on again. It’s all about us, waving from our beaches, waving from our boats, calling “here I am, where are you?” Replying, “I’m here, where are YOU?” Wolves do it. Horses do it. We’re doing the same thing as humans, but we make it all so complicated.
Moe: What’s your latest book about? Where did you get the idea and how did you let the idea evolve?
Karen Fisher: A Sudden Country is set during the Oregon Migration of 1847 and is based, in part, on the reminiscences of my great-grandmother’s grandmother, who crossed from Iowa to Oregon in that year. I think I could say my inspiration came from three main sources: The first was my own pioneer heritage. Growing up, I heard vague stories about my ancestors on both sides of the family, most of whom were early Oregon and California pioneers. Later, as a history teacher, I found myself reading the overland journals left by such men and women, and being fascinated as much by their restraint–by what they left unsaid–as by the literal accounts they contained. The kind of perception and imagination it would take to tell one of those untold stories seemed like a compelling challenge.
The second source of inspiration was my early and continuing fascination with explorers and exploration and with the “mountain men” of the west in particular. It started with the discovery of a biography of Jim Bridger when I was eight, and led, in high school, to a kind of displaced romantic affection for nineteenth century explorers in general, which grew into a more serious intellectual interest in college. The third source of inspiration was linked to these first two, in that, growing up, I’d really been handed the golden story of “How the West was Won,” in which the pioneers and explorers and cowboys I identified with and adored were heroic and unimpeachable. Of course, this history underwent a considerable public revision during the seventies and eighties when I was getting my university education–by the time I graduated I was a fierce environmentalist, an advocate for Indian rights, and a very guilty white descendant of American pioneers. In the following years, I began to question both the romanticism of my youth and the revisionism of my college years, to wonder what the truth was, and how I might honor and tell that truth as it was perceived in its own time, by both Indians and whites.
The real shape of the book, and the motivation for it, came from my marriage. My husband Dave and I began our married life together on horseback in the Sierras, and have always spent good parts of our years on pack trips and hiking trips in the wilderness. We ended up snowbound in a little cabin in the Los Padres Mountains one spring, with some disappointing reading. We liked truthful, insightful, important stories with a few strong characters we could really identify with; the kind of page-turning love-and-death story that felt comfortable around a campfire or by a mountain lake. But so many of the ones we read seemed to fail on one or more counts. Dave told me I could write as good a book as any we’d brought along, and that I should do it. And with all the cavalier enthusiasm of youth, I agreed, and began. I had no idea the project would span twelve years, seven computers, four careers, three children and three states… so I’m grateful above all for the only things I had one of: an unfailingly supportive husband and a great ambition to write this story as well as I could write it.
Moe: What kind of books do you like to read?
Karen Fisher: Ones that are emotionally truthful, brave, well-crafted. Life is too short for anything less.
Moe: When you’re not writing what do you do for fun?
Karen Fisher: I have a bunch of horses I don’t seem to be able to live without. I run, hike, play the marimba, sing, travel, find empty places in the world to camp in. Lurk around in antique stores. Watch movies. Cook. Grow things. All of this, of course, with my family–it wouldn’t be as fun alone.
Moe: New writers are always trying to glean advice from those with more experience. What suggestions do you have for new writers?
Karen Fisher: The only way to be original, the only way to write well and truthfully, is to see clearly, think clearly, and write exactly. Don’t expect to learn to write well from anyone else. If your world is full of birds that flutter, grandfathers who shuffle, suns shining brightly, then stop. Forget your own language. Look and listen much more carefully. Then start again. Repeat for as many years as it takes to get things closer to the truth. Don’t expect to be paid for any of it.
Moe: If you weren’t a writer what would you be?
Karen Fisher: Much wealthier and more comfortable.
Moe: What is your favourite word?
Karen Fisher: The one that’s exactly right.
Originally published 3/26/2006 at Literary Fiction, BellaOnline.