Visiting with Karen Munro
by Claire Guyton
What inspired your story “Nocturne”?
I wrote this story so long ago, I don’t remember anymore where it came from. It was part of my thesis collection when I finished my MFA—in 1999. So yes, this little story has been hanging around more than ten years. To be fair it spent most of that time in a drawer (or actually on an old laptop) and it was only about a year ago that I rediscovered it, blew the dust off, and thought, Hm, this kid seems to have most of its limbs—maybe it could go out and earn a living somewhere. In a former version it was much more mannered and gawkily stylized, and a couple of editors saw it and suggested, gently, that maybe it did not have to be quite so extreme. Those were good and wise suggestions, and I did my best to follow them.
Tell us about your writing process—either generally or specifically with regard to the birth and development of this piece.
I work full-time, so I’m always hunting around for stretches of time greater than, say, the fifteen minutes I have in the morning before I run off to the bus. I write evenings and weekends, mostly. I used to try to get up early to write before work, but that exhausts me and after a few days I’m just pecking away with big bags under my eyes. I have a friend who gets up at 5:00 AM to write every day, and I’m in awe of her. She does not have big bags under her eyes. I have no idea why not.
I write best when I write every day, but for a long time I didn’t do that. I only really returned to a dedicated writing practice about two years ago, after many years of concentrating on my other professional life as a librarian, so I could eat.
I think I have eating covered now, but it’s sobering and humbling and a little daunting (and other things ending in “ing”) to realize: (a) how hard it is to find writing time and space and energy in a grown-up life, and (b) how hard it is to return to regular writing after so long away. But I think that in some ways, aging and being pulled in other directions has been good for me. It’s made me more honest with myself about why I’m doing this, and what I really value in stories: things like humor and compassion and little glimpses of the fantastic.
All writers have favorite words we have to guard against over-using. What are yours?
“Great,” in the sense of “large and imposing.” I should be charged a dime every time I drag that in. Also “dark,” which slips in everywhere because apparently my fiction-writing brain likes chiaroscuro. For a while, I, like everyone else, rammed birds into every nook and cranny. I’m probably still guilty of that one, actually—I have a crow in one piece I’m working on, and some grackles in another. (I forgot about the grackles!) I gravitate toward places and things that are old, abandoned, disused, handmade, grubby, and covered in rust. (My father-in-law says such things have “patina,” or “teener.”) I’m terrible with the em dashes: see above. Also semicolons and colons. I’ve also noticed a strange thing that crops up a lot in my own work, and in other people’s too: whenever I use a number in a sentence, I’ll use another number shortly afterward. There’s just something about saying “three weeks” that leads naturally to “eleven days.” Or whatever. I see that around a lot. So basically, my ur-sentence is something like:
“The six great dark birds—unobserved by human eyes—landed on the electrical poles two miles from the old power station; fortunately, the current had been shut off eleven years before: no feathers were lost.”
What does your writing space look like?
I don’t have a dedicated space. I’m not sure what I’d do with one if I did have one. (Well, I guess I’d write in it. But I’d feel so overawed!) My wife is deliriously supportive of my writing, and she’s becoming an architect, so sooner or later she’ll probably trick the house out with some kind of writing studio/sauna/potting shed, to cater to all my vices at once. At that time she will be beatified. I’m of the school that one writes when and where one can, just as one reads and works and does other stuff. I also believe in tricking myself, bribing myself, and occasionally beating myself up.
Right now I’m working on a novel, four pages a day (almost) without fail, and I have a growing collection of short stories in various stages of experimentation and completion. It’s a little like The Island of Lost Toys—this one’s missing an eye, that one’s springs are shot. They all need love and attention and a coat of paint. So I’m super-excited and very grateful that I was just granted a two-week collaborative residency at The Cabin at Shotpouch Creek, just outside of Corvallis, Oregon. Two weeks of writing time in a forest cabin with a great writer friend—I’m ridiculously excited. I’m very, very excited. Did I mention that I’m excited? I am.