Q&A with Katharine Beutner
Posted on 29 November 2010
Welcome to my first author Q&A post! I’m happy to introduce Katharine Beutner, author of Alcestis, which was published by Soho Press in early 2010.
Full disclosure: Kate and I went to the same high school. We both worked on the school lit mag and attended the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts for creative writing. I knew from the first time I read Kate’s words that she was an insanely good writer, the kind who could make you go crazy with jealousy if she weren’t so nice and genuine. So I wasn’t exactly surprised to learn that she published her debut novel earlier this year.
This novel is a retelling of the Greek myth that surrounds Alcestis, who volunteers to take her husband’s place in the underworld. This book is so lovely — the writing, the voice, the imagining of the underworld — that I seriously suggest you pick it up.
I haven’t been in touch with Kate since our old high school days, so I was excited to use this Q&A to learn a little about her writing habits and process. For more about Alcestis, I urge you check out this wonderfully in-depth interview conducted by Matthew Merendo over at The Hipsters Book Club. They discuss everything from literary fiction vs. fantasy, how Alcestis is in part an exploration of a goddess “happening” to a woman, thoughts on GLBT literature, and more.
I’d like to start by posting a short excerpt from Alcestis, a part of the novel that I felt beautifully sums up some of the wonders and horrors in Alcestis’s world:
Snakes became wood, wood became snakes, girls became trees. A sea or a river might rear up as a dripping god and seize a girl in watery arms, as my grandmother had been seized. Only a year or so ago I had heard of a giant swan that had seized a woman from the ground and coupled with her in the sky in full view of her people, the woman screaming and the swan’s wings buffeting the air. The woman had birthed a monstrous egg from which two small children had stepped, perfect in every way. They were beautiful children, yes, and they were hers. And yet they were the swan’s, and they would make the woman think of the swan, of Zeus, every time she saw them. Always she would think of the egg pushing out of her body, the inexorable, smooth force of it. The thought made me shiver in horror and envy. I was right to be afraid.
And now on to the questions!
Q: I chose the excerpt above for its allusion to the mysteries and terrors that lurk in Alcestis’s daily life. How did you approach making Alcestis at once so relatable and real while also conveying the realities of her mythical world?
KB: One of the most important changes I made to the book was the switch from third person POV to first person, which I decided to do after I’d written about four chapters of the novel. I workshopped the tight-third version in my first semester at UT, and people kept saying that they felt too distant from Alcestis. So I redid those chapters in first person, and by “redid” I mean “search-and-replaced the pronouns and did some light editing.” Alcestis’s voice and POV were already there, but they were being obscured by the psychological distance of third person.
As for the fantastic elements of the book, I just tried to make her reactions to them as psychologically realistic as possible. I grew up reading SF and fantasy and watching Joss Whedon shows, so that tactic didn’t feel unusual to me.
Q: Back in our high school days, I knew you as a poet. When and why did you transition to writing fiction? Do you still write poetry?
KB: I started writing short fiction in college—nothing that I tried to get published, just little pieces that were often test runs of ideas or images that have ended up in my novel projects. I started my first novel the summer after I graduated from college, though I thought it was a novella or long short story when I began writing it.
I switched from poetry to fiction because I realized that my poems essentially were fiction—they were often very narrative, and they had started to sound to me like prose with line breaks. So I ditched the line breaks and tried to teach myself how to plot.
Q: Was the experience of publishing your first novel what you expected? Why or why not?
KB: I’m not sure that I knew what to expect, really! I was also buried in graduate school work, so the whole process post-contract-signing felt like it went very quickly. All of sudden, copyedits would appear and demand my attention, or whatever. And everyone at Soho has been just great, the whole way through.
The one thing that did surprise me was how time-consuming it can be to do promotional work, even when you’re a debut novelist with a small press title and are doing comparatively little promo. I can’t even imagine how busy more established writers are around book release time.
Q: Has the experience of publishing one novel affected how you work on or view your next book?
KB: It’s made me want to make the next book better and more gripping, but I wanted that already. Beyond that, I’m not sure—the two books aren’t related, so I don’t feel concerned that readers would come to Killingly looking for Alcestis 2.0. (I have had a few people ask about an Alcestis sequel, but I don’t have any plans for one right now.)
Q: Do you have a specific writing schedule or routine?
KB: Sort of, but I’ve spending a lot of time in the last year on my dissertation, so that schedule has been more academically oriented than fiction-oriented. My ideal working day would probably be: get up, run, eat breakfast etc., and start work around 9:30-10. When I’ve had periods of time that I could devote only to writing, I’d usually aim for around 1000 words/day—I think that’s about as fast a pace as I can sustain. Sometimes that takes two hours, sometimes it takes ten.
Q: You had a short-short story published in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. Are you currently writing and/or submitting short fiction, or are you mostly focused on the novel?
KB: I have one short story out for consideration, but it’s something I started writing a decade ago and finally rewrote to my satisfaction (we’ll see if it satisfies any journals). I don’t tend to have short-story-length ideas—usually they’re either novel-length or short-shorts. I really enjoy short fiction, and I especially enjoy working with it in the classroom, but I’m not a short fiction writer.
Q: Do you have a particularly heartbreaking, frustrating, or funny rejection story you’d like to share?
KB: Isn’t every rejection at least a tiny bit heartbreaking? I haven’t experienced any that were very dramatic, though. I just went back and looked through my email from when Alcestis was being shopped around and all I have is a few polite “not right for our list” or “loved this, but” sorts of replies
Q: Can you describe your process of outlining a novel, and whether any surprises or unexpected changes cropped up as you wrote Alcestis?
KB: I tend to write long narrative chapter-by-chapter outlines—the outline for Alcestis was fourteen single-spaced pages. It has some notes to myself in it, too, things like [WHAT ELSE WOULD HAPPEN HERE? WHAT OTHER STRANGE THINGS WOULD SHE SEE?] and [MAKE IT WORSE. PUSH HER. SEE WHAT SHE DOES.]. The underworld section is what changed the most, I think; that’s what had to be made worse, particularly the relationships between Hades and Persephone and Alcestis. I don’t think I quite had a handle on how I wanted to portray the gods when I wrote the outline, and so I kept going back over that section and making it darker, like shading in more and more heavily with pencil.
The outline for Killingly, the book I’m working on now, isn’t actually broken into chapters—it’s more like a proof-of-concept impressionistic version of the story. Now that I’ve started writing a bit of it, I think I’m going to have to make two other outline documents, too—a timeline that’s actually in chronological order, and then a new version of the outline I already have broken out into chapters. [Beutner’s novel-in-progress Killingly surrounds the unexplained disappearance of a Mt. Holyoke student in the 1890s.]
Q: What is the biggest piece of advice you’d like to offer aspiring writers?
KB: Read books you assume you won’t like, whether that means genre fiction or literary fiction or nonfiction or the books you were assigned in high school and never finished. Give yourself the opportunity to discover books that surprise you, because those might end up being the books that teach you the most about writing.
Q: Finally, what is your ultimate literary goal/dream?
KB: I—wow. I don’t know. I want to keep writing novels, and ideally I’d love for them to be critically and commercially successful? Apparently my dreams are non-specific yet wildly ambitious.
Q: Thanks so much for answering these questions! I just have one more, and an important one: You’re a cat person, right?
KB: I am totally a cat person (I like dogs a lot too, just haven’t ever had one). I didn’t have my current cats yet when I was writing Alcestis, but as you can see in the photos I mentioned, they were very involved in the publication process!