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Author Q&A: Steph Kilen

Steph Kilen is a freelance writer and editor who has taught creative writing at a correctional facility. She has an MFA from Pacific University and makes her life in Milwaukee, WI.

TBL Author Q&A Series: Steph Kilen

Tell us about yourself. How did you begin your career in writing?

In general, I’ve always been crazy about words—their origin, how they work together, how black marks on a page can inspire longing, hatred, an escape. I’ve been a journalist, copywriter, and copyeditor for over 15 years. I get pretty turned on by proper grammar and smart riffs on it. A few years ago I had an idea for a novel and realized how much I had to learn about fiction writing. This lead me to pursue my MFA in creative writing at Pacific University’s low-residency program, from which I graduated in June. Though I still support myself with “professional” writing, I’m working toward a writing career that is more fiction-and teaching-focused.

Tell us about “Pie Girl.” What was your main source of inspiration?

“Pie Girl” was inspired by a teenager in my neighborhood who made and sold pies. I couldn’t get enough, and sometimes she wasn’t available. I teased her, telling her that I wished I could employ her, that she would live in my basement so she’d be around to make pie whenever I wanted it. So it started as a fantasy, but when I began to write it, I realized I wanted to explore my own fantasy of being able to support myself doing only the thing I loved. What would life be like if all you had to worry about was doing the thing you loved? What would you be willing to give up to do that?

Is there a particular style or genre that interests you? Why?

I like stories that leave room for reader participation, and I try to do that in my work. Carver did this. Amy Hempel, too. Even when everything is pretty well spelled-out, each reader brings an element of collaboration to a story through his or her imagination and experiences. I try to be aware of ways to inspire that collaboration when writing.

I like real stories with a splash of uncanny. Many of us with active imaginations go through life with an overlying parallel narrative embellished with fantastic elements. I love work that illustrates that facet of the human experience.

What are some of your literary influences?

I love the way Michael Ondaatje uses a sort of literary synesthesia in his descriptions. Every day I’m trying to write like Anthony Doerr’s short stories. In his “The River Nemunas,” so many terrible things happen to a little girl and he is able to show her deep sadness without ever showing her cry. That’s magic. What I wouldn’t give for a peek into his brain.

It’s no surprise I read a lot of Amy Hempel, Karen Russel, Amiee Bender, Kellie Wells. Rebelling against reality is a beautiful and powerful way for us gals to buck what is expected of us.

What would you say is the most important element in crafting a good story?

A good balance of art and craft. You can have perfect grammar and structure, but no heart. Or you can have all sorts of heart and ideas or new spins but be so sloppy no one can get through it. Knowing the basics so well you don’t have to think about them too much frees you up to take your story all the wild and interesting places it wants to go.

Is there something in particular that you look for when applying to contests or journals?

I’m writing stuff that is just a little “off” in some way, so I look for journals that are publishing things that allow their readers to take a bit of a leap with their writers. Often judges of contests will comment on what they are looking for. I pay a lot of attention to that.

What can you tell us about Phoebe? What drove you to submit your work to them?

I submitted to Phoebe based on what the 2014 judge, Ben Percy, said he was looking for. I looked at other pieces they had published and saw they had a record of publishing work that was slightly dark, slightly twisted in some way.

Has winning their 2014 Fiction award opened up new opportunities for you?

First off, I had a really nice rapport with the editors, and that lead to my reading for them, which I have found a very interesting and enriching experience. My local independent bookstore, Boswell Books, invites local published and emerging writers to “open” for authors giving readings, so I got to do that. In general, it was a kickstart to my confidence as a fiction writer. When I was writing “Pie Girl” it all felt so right, and then to have it received so well—it’s a feeling I’ve been chasing ever since.

Is there any advice you would give to starting writers?

It is tempting to send something off as soon as you’ve finished, but I find if you can let it rest a month or two or more, it can benefit from fresh eyes and a final polish that just isn’t possible when you’ve been deep in it for so long. As a slush pile reader, I’ve noticed even more how important a killer opening and tight writing are.

What are your future goals for your writing? 

I’ve just finished my MFA and am looking forward to taking on the second draft of the novel I had set aside for the last two years. I can’t wait to apply fresh eyes and all I’ve learned. “Pie Girl” is part of a growing short story collection of well-behaved women in odd situations. I’m looking for homes for those stories. “Alternate Escape Route,” a story from the collections, was recently published in Cream City Review. My main goal is to get to spend as much time as I can with my ass in the chair and my laptop on my lap.