Meet the Writer: Karen Lillis

I want to thank Karen Lillis for answering my questions. You can read more about Karen on her website. Be sure to check out her Small Press Roulette and see her read in NYC! Karen is also aWreckage of Reason 2: Back to the Drawing Board contributor. You can read a piece by Karen, and one from yours truly, by clicking the link or the book cover and purchasing this fantastic anthology filled with women writers.

What was the first story you remember writing about?

Elementary school: My best friend and I had a fort next to the creek. The creek was in the middle of a golf course, and we had to sneak onto the golf course to get to the creek, but once we were there we could play below the level of the creek banks and we were hidden from the golfers. One day we got to our fort and found some of our things missing. The next day we found the place ransacked, more things strewn about. The third day there was a lifeless bird–bloody but not eaten–next to the fort. I bought a notebook and started taking notes and trying to write the mystery of what had happened. Writing felt important to me for the first time. At first it was trying to solve something, and then it was trying to capture a story. I was fascinated by the moodiness of it, from our illicit spot to the series of unexplained occurrences to the brutal end of the poor bird.

My best friend and I played every day after school–in the winter it was in her basement.  We always made up scenarios for us to act out: We had sets and props; they were like soap operas. Storylines would go on for a few months before we would change characters and start whole new stories. So, those were the earliest stories, but they were not written.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

Mostly an artist, from a very young age. Visual art. I also wanted to be a ballerina, “a cab driver in New York for one year,” a doctor, a fashion designer, a Latin teacher, a translator, and a journalist. That’s the list in order between age 5 and age 15.

Do you think writing is taught, that we know how to do it instinctively, or both? Why?

I think some aspects of writing may come instinctively (or from one’s youngest environment), like one person might have a better sense of rhythm than another. I think other aspects of writing can be taught in a class, whether that is gaining a better understanding of the common rules of language or syntax, or whether that is helping a student to hone their critical ear as they read literature. But ultimately a writer in it for the long haul is teaching herself/himself. Writing has to be practiced, and, through practice, the writer finds out what her creative powers are capable of. By “practice” I mean both the noun and the verb: A habit, “a practice” like meditation, and “to practice,” something we choose to do over and over in order to improve our skills. Part of the skill of writing is learning how to accept failure of all kinds, like scrapping a few months’ worth of work and starting over–and accepting that it is part of the process.

There are many aspects of writing I don’t believe are taught in a classroom, like drive, commitment, and relevancy. I’m fond of the Langston Hughes quote, “The prerequisite for writing is having something to say.” But even this–for a writer to “have something to say” AND be able to say it–the writer has to understand what she is capable of voicing, given the strength of her desire to express plus her adeptness with the tools of writing. Living with the writing day in and day out, we can develop an intuitive sense for what we can do with words, with imagination. Not an intuition we’re born with, but a deeper sense of our creativity by being thoroughly engaged with it.


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What was your least favorite class at any point in your education? Why?

I think it was the studio art class where two of my fellow students were calling each other a “butcher” and a “whore,” sometimes metaphorically and sometimes explicitly, every time they critiqued each other’s work. The other students in the class did not know at the time that these two’d had an affair right before the semester began, a long weekend of torrid sex and nude photographs while one of them was going through a divorce and the other was waiting for a spouse to immigrate to the country so they could live together. The affair started after a class meet & greet and ended in flames the day before the first class. The female student spent the rest of the semester trying to get the negatives of the nude photos of her back from the male student, while the male student was engaged in a kind of emotional blackmail–hinting that he might return them to her, then not doing so. Meanwhile, as they critiqued each other’s work in class, they could be very articulate and intellectualizing about their hatred of each other’s art. The class managed both to stay oblivious to the underlying personal dispute, and to take sides with one or the other student down aesthetic and philosophical lines. The class was a really polarized, unhappy group; it was like we all got involved in this very emotionally explosive schism whose implications we knew nothing about. Afterwards, most people who had taken the class avoided each other because everyone wanted to forget about the semester entirely. Which is a real waste of an art class.

Are you reading anything right now?

I’ve been reading with a very short attention span this summer, so relatively brief works. Short stories by Jean Rhys and Mark Cronin. Poems by Lisa Panepinto and Doug Mathewson. A children’s biography of Harriet Tubman. The beginning of the Bob Dylan book by Greil Marcus. Two different introductions to Willa Cather. At the beach I read the Atlantic reparations article (“The Case for Reparations”) by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which was as long as my last novella. I think this is a must-read for any thinking American–really an incredible editorial that speaks through the formidable amount of historical research (and then contemporary interviews) Coates did. In an age in which so much of what we come across on the internet is strident, moralizing, and demanding, his editorial language was never strident or even emotional–Coates put all of his passion and opinion into digging up the facts and the literature, making connections, and demonstrating patterns and consistencies.

Now I’m reading bits of a lot of small press books as I get orders for Small Press Roulette and try to match the right books with the right readers.

Are you writing anything right now?

Besides keeping a notebook, I am definitely taking an uncharacteristic break from writing projects at the moment. All winter I worked intensely on a poetry chapbook, “The Paul Simon Project.” What a good winter for writing! At my house, we were surrounded by ice in every direction, with nothing better to do than stay inside and read or write. After I turned in the chapbook manuscript, I started working on some short stories as a palette cleanser. But this summer I decided (in part from seeing how hard it was to travel in winter) to put my energy into traveling for readings (San Francisco in late July & NYC in mid August) and getting the word out about Small Press Roulette. Small Press Roulette is a mail order bookselling service I invented a year ago. Readers choose a price point and a basic genre, and I send them a small press package of recommended reads. In July I also did my biggest outdoor book sale to date with Small Press Pittsburgh (the 3-D version–an all-indie press pop-up bookstand). I’m looking forward to getting back to my prose writing after my trip to New York.

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