Conversations with Mindful Writers: Kathleen Shoop
For several months I will be conducting a series of interviews with Mindful Writers, titled Conversations with Mindful Writers. The first one in the series is my interview with the best selling author Kathleen Shoop.
A prolific and gifted writer, Kathleen Shoop’s historical fiction comes alive with authenticity of setting and characters that breathe. I met Kathie in 2005 at writers groups, Fat Plum and at Pennwriters Critique Group North. We became friends and continued to read and critique each other’s rough drafts. By 2009 she had completed six to seven novel manuscripts.
Then slowly, her attendance at the critique sessions dwindled until she stopped coming. After a year of deep thinking and soul searching Kathie had decided to boldly venture on the path that most of us were hesitant to take. She had decided to self-publish. She was unable to come to the meetings because so much of her time was spent with concept editors, plot whisperers, line editors, proofreaders, cover designers, formatters and so on.
Like most of us, she had struggled with the idea of self-publishing her manuscripts only after piles of rejection letters had accumulated in a drawer of her writing desk. So she boldly took the path that was discarded or sneered at by most of us five years ago.
Since then she has published six historical fiction and romance novels, won awards and accolades and sold hundred thousand kindle editions of her books. Her seventh, The Road Home, is to be released on 23 June 2015.
Her first novel, The Last Letter (2011) was inspired from letters written by her great grandmother to her fiancé. This gripping novel about a determined and strong protagonist Jeanie is heartfelt. It brings to life the natural disasters of 1888 that shook up the lives of homesteaders in Dakota Territory. The setting and characters pull you in. The winter blizzard and storms, fire and frost, the unforgiving land, and primitive way of life compel you to thank God for your daily life in the present century. The story revolves around the deep love between Jeannie and her daughter, Katherine, and bitterness caused by misunderstandings and finally forgiveness. The Last Letter won several awards including a Gold Medal in Independent Publishers Books Awards.
Her second novel, After the Fog, was also inspired by the historic episode of Donora, PA in 1949, the year when unusual weather patterns resulted in overlaying air mixed with poisonous smoke that billowed endlessly from steel mill furnaces. The author successfully depicts Rose Pavlesic’s unforgettable controlling and demanding character. A nurse, Rose struggles to fulfill the demands from her dysfunctional family and increasing number of patients affected by the smoke. After the Fog (2012) won a IPPY Silver Medal and was a category finalist in the 2013 Eric Hoffer Book Awards.
Kathleen holds a Ph.D. in reading education and has taught at universities and in classrooms for twenty years. Her teaching experience is reflected in the third novel, Love and Other Subjects. (2013) The novel hooks you from the first page when the protagonist, Carolyn Jenkins, confronts a student who has a gun pointed at the belly of a classmate. The scene establishes the tone of this tense and humorous tale. Carolyn’s dream of changing the world through her students is challenged when she faces school politics, cultural clashes and racial conflicts. Kathleen weaves whimsical dimension to the story when this idealistic teacher falls in love. Love and Other Subjects earned a Silver Medal in IPPY and an Honorable Mention from the San Francisco Book Festival.
Kathleen has also published three romance novels in her ENDLESS LOVE SERIES titled Home Again, Return to Love and Tending Her Heart.
For a couple of years Kathie had been telling me to self-publish my short stories and novels. “What are they doing sitting in a drawer?” she said. I smiled and nodded but had no intention of self-publishing. I had observed her striving through the treacherous business of getting her books published. I couldn’t imagine myself doing what she was doing as I continued to stack my share of rejections.
Each time I met Kathie she would coax and prod me that I get my work published. At one of our breakfast meetings she insisted that I begin the process. She handed me a few pages stapled together. It had the names and email addresses of the editors, cover designers, formatters and so on that she had used. At that time I did not realize what a treasure trove I was given by this very generous, selfless, and caring writer.
Now I do! My story collection, Chance Meetings: Stories About Cross-Cultural Karmic Collisions and Compassion would not have seen the light of the day if it were not for my dear friend Kathleen Shoop. She held my hand and led me on the path that she was brilliantly and successfully striding. Once she was convinced that I could manage it myself she let go of my hand and watched me from a distance. She joyously nods when I succeed and picks me up when I fall.
At one of our recent breakfast meetings I got a chance to formally talk with Kathie about her writing and about life. Here are some excerpts.
Your debut novel, The Last Letter was inspired by your great grandmother’s letters to her fiancé. And deathly smog in Donora, Pennsylvania ignited the idea for your second novel, After the Fog. What inspires you intrinsically to write historical fiction?
Thanks Madhu! I think I’m inspired to write historical fiction for many reasons. I enjoy the idea of reintroducing a world to people that is forgotten or misinterpreted (or simply interpreted in one predominant way). I think the stories of people and their struggles, their loves and losses, and joys and triumphs are the same over time. But, what changes are the little details that bring to bear those transformative experiences. Jeanie’s story in The Last Letter—at its core—is played out every single day. A woman gives everything to her family and loses it all. Because the world values women in a certain way, to a certain degree in 1887-1905, she is handicapped in making her life better. Everyone, man or woman, is handicapped by something in life. For me, burrowing back in history to reveal particular obstacles is fascinating. So, to me, what I need is a transformative event to work my fiction around—it doesn’t matter so much that it is born of family letters or a famous environmental/industrial disaster—I start the research and fall in love with the time and place. To me, getting to write about bygone times and places is simply heaven.
Would you describe your process of writing, from the time an idea strikes to the time the novel reaches your readers?
I am drawn into a particular time or place and I begin to research. The characters then begin to leap to life and I plant their lives on paper. While walking, snippets of conversations, beliefs, events, confrontations, poignant moments, sorrows and times of laughter come to me. I jot them all down and wait to see how they will work themselves into my story. Soon after seeding ideas this way I jump into the first draft. This ends up being a skeleton, an extended outline with dialogue and events, but there is not yet meat on the bones. I might dump historical facts or “things,” that I absolutely need in the story, into the text, but it’s not until the second round of drafting that I add the meat to the bones in a way that is natural. The third draft is where I fuss at the sentence level and then of course I do that in the copyediting and proofing stages. In between drafts, I share the book with trusted readers who see what works, what is missing, what needs to be plumped up! Editors, proofers, cover designers, readers, all help in shaping my work throughout the process.
What do you want your readers to take away from your novels?
I’m not really sure what I want… to understand the characters in the particular time and space they lived, I suppose. Our modern minds always want to argue with what’s happening in a given forgotten time. For instance some readers are bothered that Jeanie boarded her children out because she could not afford to “keep them.” “I would never do that, no matter what I would not,” one reader said, angry that my character did. Well, not only was it common for people to board children out, the mothers who did it saw it as an act of “saving” children from starvation. No, we middle-class, educated, problem solving, with access to the work force women would NOT board our children out, but Jeanie was not any of that. She was definitely smart and educated, but she had no choice. That blew me away that the reader saw Jeanie’s choice as one that could be compared to a choice she or I would make. So, I guess I want readers to see the world another way after reading, even if it’s through a fictionalized lens. I think…we have sanitized views of the past. Especially eras that have been presented on network TV. In After the Fog, the language is coarse and the houses are dirty. What is “true” or factual about a time is not always what readers “remember” or have been given as fact. With extensive research using primary sources I was careful to capture the time and place of a 1948 mill town in a time of crisis. Some of what happens in that book (including some of the course language) does not sit well with readers. They attach the constraints of their life, their memories, their education, their exposure to similar times and places and deem something accurate or not. My research revealed much contradiction and coarseness about a time that we traditionally view as very polite, clean, proper, and exacting… I chose to go down the path less known, less stereotypical. I want readers to tread that path even if it doesn’t match their own experiences or memories exactly. I love when I do that as a reader…some readers do not enjoy that journey.
Why do you write?
Because I have to.
How does your writing reflect your values and beliefs?
I’m not sure that it does. There’s a story to be told and from places, times, and characters that leap to life, the story starts. Just because a character does something, doesn’t mean I would. The second book I wrote is still unpublished. But my mom read it. She came to me, very hesitantly, and finally spit out what had been bothering her. She wondered if I had a secret shed of antiques I was hiding from my husband like the character in the story was… uh NO!!! It was so strange. Even books that I draw from my life like Love and Other Subjects are 95% fiction. Yes, I draw anecdotes, or memories (which have probably evolved over time anyway) or observations from real life, but I write fiction and with that comes all sorts of things that don’t reflect my values or beliefs at all!!
How does writing help you manage day-to-day life?
It complicates it. If you mean the job of writing. It’s hard to cobble together the demands of normal life with that of a creative endeavor. That said, I’m lucky to get to do it!!!! If you mean, how does the act of writing help sort out a complicated life, then I can do all sorts of fictional things that “fix” life’s problems. Best therapy ever.
How has writing helped you grow?
It forces me to examine what I do think and feel about certain things in order to write about it. Even if I disagree with a certain thing a character happily does, I have to access a place where I can imagine how it feels to make an awful decision. I can then come back to my real life with new eyes and a sense of being fortunate that live the life that I do. It’s wonderful to research different jobs, to live through different characters and either reshape or appreciate my life because the rendering has revealed something I hadn’t seen before. The process of writing has made me more precise—all different types of writing influence each other, enhance each other and I am so lucky to write across genres and types. Everyone should write both nonfiction and fiction, I think…each requires elements of the other in order to be compelling.