Karen Brown’s Pins and Needles received AWP’s Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, and her stories have been included in Best American Short Stories and The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories. Her latest collection, Little Sinners and Other Stories, which won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize, is just out from University of Nebraska Press. Christine Sneed says of it, “I love this book. The characters in Little Sinners are sexy and knowing, and often behave badly, which makes them such fun to read about. They all possess bold, wayward hearts, and appetites that lead them to bliss or self-destruction, sometimes both.” Karen’s first novel, The Lost Girl, will be published by Atria/Simon & Schuster in 2014. Her path to publication, through short stories and contests, is a different and inspiring one. – Meg
As children, my sisters and brother and I were entranced and terrified by my father’s stories. The one about the boy who lives in the old Connecticut hardwood forests, who eats nuts and berries and can be glimpsed from the car window running, a flash of white limbs (“Did you see him? There he goes!” he’d say); the one he told summers at the beach about the crab babies who emerge at the end of the jetties at night, their claws clicking, their doll heads swiveling on crab bodies (his hands, shaped like pincers, would open and close, “Mama! Mama!”). The stories blended our landscape—a tranquil suburb surrounded by safe woods and pastures—with equal parts of fairy tale and history. I learned early on that it was his skill in combining the known and unknown, the real and invented, that drew us into the worlds he created, and my siblings and I, along with our enlisted neighborhood friends, followed his lead. We wrote plays and serialized stories, illustrated brochures for fashions in a futuristic world, and staged an elaborate show we held at night in summertime—frightening scenes set up in the darkened woods, for which the neighborhood children paid a dime to be allowed access.
I credit my teachers for fostering my early story writing by putting my work on bulletin boards and in literary magazines, for calling me up to their desks to voice their praise. I was lucky to grow up knowing that writing stories was something I did well. My first real publication happened when I was an undergraduate pursuing an English degree. I published a short story in the prestigious journal The Georgia Review, and a few months after the publication the magazine’s wonderful editor at the time, Stan Lindberg, came to town for a conference, and we arranged to meet for coffee. Stan asked if I would sign his copy of the journal in which my story appeared. He’d plucked it from the slush pile, and applied his wise, careful editing, and I was abashed at the request. I’d begun receiving letters from literary agents expressing interest in my work, a letter, even, from an editor at a publishing house. Unfortunately, they wanted a novel, and all I had was a handful of stories. I talked about this with Stan during our meeting, how I wanted to publish more stories, and put together a book, how I needed to begin a novel. Two weeks before, I’d given birth to my second child. Stan had listened, and sipped his coffee, and then held up his hand, Whoa! He eyed me, bemused. “What’s your hurry?” At the time, I’d brushed off his words. I felt an enormous urgency to produce, to embark on a career. The novel was what they wanted, and what I felt I must provide.
That was over twenty years ago.
What intervened was a lot of writing and waiting. Form letters of rejection, and hand-written notes of regret. Correspondence with editors, like C. Michael Curtis, of The Atlantic Monthly, whose opaque rejections, typed on the Atlantic letterhead, often ended with “You’re awfully good though,” and “Try us again.” One day when my father was visiting I showed them all to him, a neat pile paper-clipped together, and he read through them, and looked up at me. “They all say no,” he said. He couldn’t fathom how the few typed lines provided enough for me to continue. I attended college classes, wrote one novel, then another, and another. Four novels in all. Literary agents asked to read them, asked me to revise them, and ultimately decided the books were “too quiet,” or that there wasn’t enough “forward momentum.” I congratulated colleagues and friends as they published their books, won prizes and residencies and, ultimately, jobs in universities.
In those years I like to think that I acquired other talents besides writing. I received my Ph.D. in Literature. I had my third child. I made lunches in the morning, cleaned house, did school pick-ups and drop-offs, revisited lost high school subjects like Algebra, and taught freshman composition. I put together a collection of stories, and each year revised it, taking old stories out, putting newer work in, changing the order, the title, and I began submitting the manuscript to the round of prizes that included publication: Mary McCarthy Prize, Drue Heinz, Flannery O’Connor Award, Grace Paley Prize, Prairie Schooner Book Prize, Iowa Short Fiction Award. I made sure my stories were out in the world, even if it was just a small, literary world. I took pleasure in their being read. I didn’t tire of waiting. Instead, I remembered staying after class to talk to my Junior High English teacher, Mr. Doe, my poems fanned out on his desktop, his kind words of encouragement. I remembered Stan Lindberg’s counsel, which I saw came from his knowledge of the realities of the publishing world. He’d been trying to prepare me for the rejection ahead, reminding me to live my life around it. These memories sustained me, as did the support of editors who welcomed my stories in their magazines: Michael Koch of Epoch, in particular, who has published six of my stories to date, and Laura Mathews of Good Housekeeping, who spent time with me on the phone, discussing changes to my story so that it might fit the expectations of her readers. I never grew complacent. I simply grew to know that some of us need time to let the stories we are meant to tell emerge.
Eventually, with a mixture of joy and relief, I did publish a collection. Pins and Needles was selected to receive AWP’s Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, a contest to which each year I had submitted a new manuscript. Informed by agents that story collections were difficult to sell, I decided to stick with the contests. I kept writing and submitting and publishing stories, and I continued to put them together in book form. These newer stories explored the lives of mothers and children, and touched on my memories of a landscape of paths carved through woods, of hidden ponds, and the friendships, cruelties, and mysteries of childhood. This batch of stories brought a prize win from Prairie Schooner, and another collection, Little Sinners and Other Stories, out this fall.
And what of the novels? Those manuscripts sit untidily stacked in a room in my house with bookshelves, one my husband and I call “the library.” Their characters remain frozen in the settings and circumstances I invented for them, and occasionally I consider the venture of returning to them, dipping back into the pages with new eyes. Instead, I began another novel, one that revisited and expanded the title story of my newest collection. I acquired a dedicated agent who saw the potential in the manuscript, who worked long and hard to help me shape it. And just this summer we found an editor, one equally invested in the world I’ve created. Sometime in a future I am well-prepared to wait for, my debut novel The Lost Girl will be published by Atria/Simon and Schuster. – Karen