One of the best parts of being a writer is connecting with other writers. It is especially exciting when you open a book and discover that it has themes and characters similar to your own book, but expressed in a different genre. Author Rebecca Kelley's contemporary romance novel Broken Homes and Gardens and my experimental short novel, Somewhere In Between both feature characters who are navigating their relationships with each other while also trying to find a sense of self in their surroundings. Rebecca and I recently got together on gChat to talk about our books, process, and writing life.
Katie wants to chat on Hangouts!
Rebecca Kelley: Is it working?
Katie Li: It is! Horray! Thanks so much for doing this sort of unconventional interview/chat--I have some questions, so I figure we can jump right in?
RK: Sure. I have some Qs, too!
KL: Cool--so, whenever I end up talking with another writer, I'm always curious to know what their process is like. How did you go about writing Broken Homes and Gardens?
RK: I wrote Broken Homes and Gardens on the tail end of my non-fiction project. My friend Joy Hatch and I co-wrote a book called The Eco-nomical Baby Guide. We had a blog (which my cousin has since taken over) and an agent and a publisher--we were really into it. I realized, though, that I really wanted to get back to fiction writing. Fiction writing had been my goal all along. The year the non-fiction book came out, I dove right back into fiction writing. I wrote the first half in a big rush. Then I stalled out and shelved it for a long time. I just couldn't figure out what happened next. I wrote a scene in which my characters were literally walking around in circles in this neighborhood of Portland where all the streets go around and around . . . so I gave up.
I didn't pick it back up again until I joined the writing group I'm in now. I brought in seven pages a week, and when I ran out of pages, I had to keep going. Finally, I had a draft. I submitted it to friends, did a lot of revisions, sent it around. Basically, it took YEARS!
KL: Do you think that break in the drafting though worked to your benefit? One of the biggest pieces of advice I've read is to shelf a manuscript for a decent amount of time before you start revisions--and it sounds like you got a bit of that before you joined your writing group?
RK: Well, yes and no. I don't think it was closing the shelf so much as opening it back up again that made the difference. I think it's very easy to start new projects. Picking up an old project and finishing it is really the challenge.
KL: Oof, yeah, I've run into that a lot myself. For me, whenever I come back to an old project, I always end up getting more new story ideas that always sound better than whatever I'm working on at the moment.
RK: I have a related question. In Somewhere in Between, Magnolia and Rom discover a portal to what seems like another dimension—what they call “the in-between place.” Every time they visit, it’s different. And, as the back cover copy reveals, “every time they enter, they alter reality.” The In-between Place helps them deal with the real world, in a way. It also brings them closer and closer to each other.
So my first question is, how on earth did you go about planning the story? Did you plan out the various iterations of the In-between Place ahead of time, or is your writing process more spontaneous?
KL: I think it was a bit of planning, but I also try to keep my outlines really open. I find that if I plan a story too much, I suck all the life out of it. So I'll do some bullet points that I feel like are important to the plot, but I let the details fill themselves in as I write. But for the setting I took a lot of inspiration from my own neighborhood. I live in a part of Boston that has always been really diverse--culturally, racially, economically. There has been a lot more tension in recent years as it's become gentrified, so I wanted to try and capture some of those opposing forces in Somewhere In Between.
RK: Two sides of the tracks . . . or MORE than two sides. . . .
KL: Yeah, exactly! I was curious to hear more about how you go about writing places and creating settings. I've never been to Portland, or Nevada, but after reading Broken Homes and Gardens I feel like I've been there, the descriptions are that incredible.
RK: I really don't like books that have no atmosphere to them. I like having a sense of place and mood. I think in Portland, especially, you start developing a relationship to the rain. Either you hate it (and probably move away) or you embrace it.
KL: As I was reading Broken Homes and Gardens I had the sense that the places the characters inhabited were a reflection of their emotional situations, but also seemed to affect their daily lives. When you were writing, did you see the setting as a sort of character as well?
RK: Joanna is often trying to transform her surroundings. She lives in various depressing, dilapidated apartments and houses and seems unable or unwilling to make changes. She also struggles against nature as she tries to transform her weedy yard into a backyard oasis. So there is a pretty obvious connection between the settings and her emotional landscape . . . but I hope it's not too obvious, or too literal. I don't even know if it is a literary device so much as an observation of real life. Sometimes people do have a hard time fitting in or finding their "home."
How does bringing in the surreal elements help you tell the story you wanted to tell about Magnolia and Rom? Could they have had the same connection, and the same revelations, if they hadn’t found the In-between Place at all?
KL: Huh, I never really thought of that! I think of it as they always had the connection, or at least the potential for the connection, but I don't think it would have had the chance to develop without their circumstances bringing them together.
RK: I was thinking that Magnolia and Rom's relationship was sort of another "in-between place" for them. Both of them had other lives, but only when they were together were they able to makes sense of their individual problems.
KL: Yeah, absolutely
RK: So finding the right person = your in-between place. The wrong person takes you further away from yourself.
KL: I think they are drawn to each other because they can be themselves, but they are also scared of somehow wrecking it. Like if they got too close and did make a mistake, it would take them even further away than if they had been with that wrong person
RK: Yes, exactly. That IS like Malcolm and Joanna!
KL: Yeah! It seems to me like both our books question the nature of relationships--like the relationships that our characters have are built on a connection or some sort of mutual attraction or need that exists despite themselves. I guess I wonder, do you think these kinds of relationships are only possibly in fiction?
RK: No, I feel like people do this kind of thing all the time. They don't know themselves or trust themselves enough to connect themselves to the right people. And they spend way too long with the wrong people. I also see people making a lot of rules for their relationships and then getting upset or confused when feelings muddle everything up. That's one thing I was getting at in Broken Homes and Gardens. No one is just in a regular relationship anymore. Everything is like, "we're just friends with benefits" or "we don't believe in labels" or "we're together for now but no strings attached."
KL: I wonder if our sort of FOMO phenomenon has played into that.
RK: I think so. I just read Aziz Ansari's book Modern Romance. It talks about how these days, people are less likely to "lock it down" because we're always waiting for something better to come along. I'm wondering--do you think of Somewhere In Between as a love story?
KL: I do--at least, that was my intention when I started writing it, although I realize that it doesn't follow the conventions of the romance genre.
RK: That leads to my next question. Your book doesn’t fit solidly in one market category. I’ve seen it listed with Y.A. books, but even though your characters are teens for part of it, that doesn’t seem quite right. They grow up and pretty intense, adult stuff happens. It’s not exactly a romance, not really sci-fi. How do you see the book and what are your challenges in finding the right audience for it?
KL: Yeah that's a good question, and was probably one of the toughest tasks when it came to indie publishing this book. My background is pretty eclectic. I didn't take a traditional approach to my writing education--I went to a performing arts high school where I majored in Theatre. I learned about storytelling from staging plays and taking film classes after school, and then focused more on creative writing when I was in college. But even then, I didn't do an English or Comp Lit major--most of the reading I did was experimental fiction and comics.
I took a lot of inspiration from these sort of alternative books and comics, particularly this one anime, FLCL--which was great for the actual writing process, but then when it came to figuring out the genre, it put me in a really awkward position, because it was so alternative, I had no idea where it fit in anymore. I had even looked up the genre of FLCL, and it's actually a spoof anime that combines all these other anime genres and is sort of ill-defined, as well.
RK: Yes, I read that in your acknowledgments. "Ever since I was 16 years old, I've wanted to read a book that could be an anime." That hadn't occurred to me while reading, but it made perfect sense once I read it.
KL: Yeah I've always been sort of interested in seeing what we can do with language--if there are better ways for us to convey our ideas than the conventions we've been using... it's a weird sort of in-between place of it's own. But when it came down to figuring out the genre, I just tried to focus on who I thought would be drawn to this kind of story. I think a lot of my work appeals more to older teen girls and young women, so I was trying to reach them. I think marketing the right genre one of the harder tasks when it comes to publishing.
RK: Yes, I had similar marketing troubles, though my book is a lot more straightforward than yours!
KL: Particularly nowadays I see a lot of books that are sort of blending genres and subject matter--which makes for some excellent reading!--but it's hard to know where to find those books on the shelf at the bookstore. So, I found that once Somewhere In Between was published, there was sort of a shift in my mentality--did you notice that after Broken Homes and Gardens came out?
RK: How do you mean?
KL: I think for a long time I sort of felt like the only way to have any sort of legitimacy as a writer was to actually have a book--which I realized after the book came out was false thinking. So I guess, some of the urgency to get the first book written was taken out of the way. I wasn't sure if this is sort of, part of the first-time author experience or maybe my own neuroses.
RK: Oh yeah, I get that. Actually, at every stage of the writing and publishing process I go through a little crisis. First you think all your problems will be solved when you get an agent. Then you think, "If only this would get a publisher." Then, "If only someone major would review it." It doesn't stop!
KL: Yeah I found that to be true, too. I was at a writing conference a while ago, and went to a panel where Bret Anthony Johnston said, “The reward is in the work.” The notion resonated then, but it really makes sense to me now.
RK: I wanted to ask what Katie Li fans can expect next?
KL: That's a good question--and one that I am still trying to answer for myself. But I think, having gone through the process of indie publishing an experimental novel, I'd like to do something more conventional. Although, I have been working on a script for a graphic novel, so there's that, too. haha. What about you? I had that question for you, too!
RK: I've actually written THREE novels since BH & G. (I finished it a long time before it ever got published.) One I gave up on, so it will never see the light of day. Another book is getting shopped around right now, so keep your fingers crossed. The last manuscript I just finished, so I still have a lot of revision to do before I show it to anyone.
KL: Oh that's exciting! Is it also contemporary romance?
RK: Yes. I tried to make it fall more solidly in the contemporary romance category than BH & G. It's a bit funnier and lighter than BH & G.
KL: That's great—good luck with submissions! Keep us posted, can't wait to check it out!