Creative Secrets of Fiction Writers: An Interview with Katherine Catmull and Heidi Jon Schmidt
on March 19th, 2019
I admit it: when I am about to edit anything Heidi or Kathy have written, I pour myself a cup of tea and settle in. I know what I’m in for. I’m about to read a piece that crackles with energy, shines with wit, and brims with heart. There’s nothing left to do but simply hang on and enjoy the ride.
Kathy is an editor, writer, and actor. She lives in Austin, Texas, and is a company member of Hyde Park Theatre. She’s also a voice you might recognize from games like DC Universe Online (Oracle) and Wizard 101 (Myrella Windspar). Her first book, Summer and Bird (Dutton Young Readers), was named one of Booklist's 2012 Top Ten First Novels for Youth. The short story collection The Cabinet of Curiosities, of which she is one of four coauthors, was named one of the New York Public Library’s 2014 Best Children’s Books of the Year. Her most recent book, The Radiant Road (Dutton Young Readers/Penguin), received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal in 2016. Her play theatre for youth, Summer and Bird, which was commissioned by Austin Playhouse, premieres in April 2019.
Heidi has written five books: The Rose Thieves, Darling?, The Bride of Catastrophe, The House on Oyster Creek, and The Harbormaster’s Daughter. She has also been published in The Atlantic, Grand Street, Agni Review, Yankee, Best American Nonrequired Reading, the New York Times, and other publications. She has won multiple awards, including the O. Henry, the Ingram-Merrill, and the James Michener. Currently living in Provincetown, MA, she teaches fiction writing in workshops. In the past, she has taught at Colby College, Queens University, The Fine Arts Work Center Summer Program, fawc.org, and other schools.
To say that the two of them are gifted in their craft is a wild understatement to say the least.
At RTC, we’re incredibly lucky—spoiled rotten, actually—to have these two deeply talented writers and editors with us. For every one of us who have had the privilege of learning from them, we know they have wonderful insights into the craft of writing. All of us who have known them as colleagues and friends know how warm and kind they are in every interaction. Recently, I was fortunate enough to sit down with both of them to talk about fiction writing.
Agata: Where do stories start, and how do they start for a fiction writer?
Heidi: I think some of the best short stories start with knowing the end and knowing the very last line or the very last paragraph. Because stories are short, they have to pack that punch. I usually start with something that I can’t stop thinking about, then I write about 12 drafts to bring it out. Which is why those people who think I sit down and write with a pen from the beginning to the end are wrong.
Kathy: Yeah. So much of writing is figuring out what the heck you are saying. It is very true.
Heidi: And going back to a paragraph and thinking, “No, that doesn’t get it right. I am going to try that again.” It is an amazing process where you are excavating the most interesting things; it sure isn’t putting one brick on top of another.
Kathy: Another thing that I think people—myself included—fail to remember is that the process only happens with fingers on keyboard or hand on pen. Me thinking about it, outside of actually sitting there writing, is absolutely useless. I really need to be writing to understand what I am thinking; writing is a form of thinking in a way. It is the form of thinking that works for writing.
Heidi: Exactly. I remember we had a story in our family that was a great story. It actually became part of my first published story, and years after I wrote the story, I found a notebook where my mother had been kind of obsessed with the same narrative and had tried to write it out. She wasn’t a writer, and I could see that she was trying, but she didn’t know there are so many levels underneath everything. She could feel them. She knew they were there, but she didn’t know how to push the pen down that far.
Kathy: Yeah! “Push the pen down that far.” I agree with Heidi that, with a short story, you want to have a flash of the overall thing, almost—obviously not all the details—but a story where you know this happens and you know that ending. With a novel, it is much different. For me, I will have a little stack of ideas when I am starting, and the most interesting one to me is the one that is kind of opaque. It has a certain quality where I have a question about it. It is something I don’t understand but at the same time is quite intriguing to me. So I need to write it in order to understand it.
Heidi: You are exploring it.
Kathy: Exactly. You are helping it, cultivating it, so that it will grow and you will see what it is going to grow into.
Heidi: And there is always that level of mystery left that you haven’t gotten to that is even more intriguing to the reader.
Kathy: The stuff that you haven’t fully explored or teased out—the deeper reach of it leaves space for the reader to bring themselves to it. Readers are constantly discovering things in a story that make you as a writer think, “Oh yeah, that is great. I didn’t think of that.”
Heidi: It seems to me that is what artists are. We are like the candle that comes in the dark. What we are expressing ourselves and our understanding of what is coming out of the culture. I think fiction is about the story far, far from polemics[i] and deep, deep into human nature, and, if you are lucky, that story may be interpreted for centuries in different ways by different people.
Kathy: I completely agree about not wanting polemics in my fiction. I wrote a piece once for a local arts journal about political theater, and I interviewed Kirk Lynn for the piece. He said most political plays are like a bowling ball: They set the bowling ball down, and you kind of watch it roll towards the pins, and then it knocks the pins down. Stories are more like football, because you never know where a football is going to bounce. There ought to be that football element in any good fiction—play or story or novel—because that is much more like life. That is where the richness is. That is where the truth is, ultimately.
[i] Polemics: a strong argument against something, especially someone else’s opinion or a controversial subject
Agata: Could you dive a little bit deeper into what the layers of fiction are?
Kathy: There is sort of the obvious very superficial layer—of what people are saying or doing. Then I want to dip down to the look or gesture they have while they are saying it—whether they are looking at you or looking away. You’ve added another layer just by having a character looking at the floor instead of looking someone right in the eye.
Heidi: A scene presents something that you need the reader to swallow and understand to build the next things on—whatever it is. Maybe it is the relationship between two people or the way a woman’s atmosphere surrounds her; it could be anything, but then you go back to that scene and you start seeing aspects of it that you didn’t see the first time you were just getting it down. You start to realize more about the scene. For me, often a dialogue will come, and it is the right thing, and god bless it, and then it turns out the dialogue pushes me into the next place the story needs to be. I start to understand things that I didn’t understand. I see my own unconsciousness put down on the page, and then I can go beyond that.
Kathy: One of the most crucial things about finding layers and getting deeper in the writing is to write to the reader’s body, write with the senses in mind so the reader can feel it. It’s the only way, ultimately, to emotionally engage the reader and also get to the truth of what is happening, because so much of the information we take in from the world we take in with our bodies.
Heidi: Yes, I think sensory writing is everything—even to the extent of the sound of the sentences and whether they are lulling you or stabbing you or causing a different reaction.
Kathy: So, so true.
Agata: How do you know when a sentence works or when it is stabbing you verses lulling you?
Kathy: If you feel uncertain about whether a sentence is stabby or lulling, really all you have to do is read it out loud and then you will know. Because it will stab you or it will lull you. It works the same on all human beings. There is a reason lullabies sound the same in every culture.
Heidi: When you read things aloud, you will hear the awful false note in the line of dialogue or that spot where you have gone too far. It pops right out at you. It is amazing; you wouldn’t have known it before you read out loud.
Agata: What happens when you do hit that false note? How do you get to that point where you feel good about what you have written?
Heidi: I will bet that is different for everybody. For myself, when something is wrong, it is a sign of an opportunity. I think, “Why did I get that wrong? What am I trying to say there that I have not said?” Sometimes it is totally an intuition thing, and I can’t put into words what I am getting wrong, and sometimes I think, “No, I am not revealing the depth of the character’s self-pity there,” or there will be some little hook into the work that I can find when something sounds wrong and feels wrong to me.
Kathy: That is such a smart way to come to revisions. I too often struggle with the feeling of “This is boring, and I hate it,” and I have trouble getting past that, getting past “It seems like it has to be working! But it totally is not!” I can get stuck a long time in that place.
Heidi: Me, too.
Kathy: One time I was so mad about a chapter I had been stuck on forever that I got a great big piece of paper and I got a big marker. Usually I write in little notebooks—I have little, tiny handwriting—with a very fine point pen. But I got a big marker and I was in such a rage that I went and sat in a different place in the house than where I usually write and decided, “I am going to write some bullshit. Just massive, massive nonsense just to get myself writing.” And I wrote one of the most powerful things I have ever written. And it was completely crazy—it was way out of left field for what was happening in the story at the time. But then I realized, “Oh, this works.” So, if somehow in your journey you get caught in this place, you may need to do something completely wacky to climb back out.
Heidi: I feel this so much. You are banging your head against a brick wall, and you don’t think you are ever going to get out of this. For me, if I take a walk or sometimes if I am taking a shower, it will come to me. But it may not come to me for a long, long time, and there may be a long time where I can’t even bear to look at it because it feels so wrong and bad and small compared to what I am trying to do.
Kathy: It is kind of like you are dreaming out loud. When you are writing, you are, in my opinion, in something very similar to a kind of guided dreaming, but you may get to a place in a dream where you are stuck. Well, just find out whether you can jump. “Well, I am in a dream—maybe I can jump straight up.” I realize a writer reading this might be thinking, “I have no idea what you mean,” but really what I mean is just try something, try anything.
Heidi: I think that is so great. It is like guided dreaming, and that is why real surprises will come to you. Sometimes you need to jump to see if you can get access to that deepest layer of your unconscious.
Kathy: Heidi suggested taking a shower or taking a walk. I hula hoop sometimes, and I once mentioned that to a bodyworker who said, “Oh that really makes sense, because you are moving back and forth diagonally, left brain, right brain.” Again, we live in bodies, so, if you are sitting at your desk being stuck for an hour or two hours or six hours—move, move, move.
Heidi: Somebody said something to me years ago that was so helpful: that you are taking the reader by the hand, and you are showing her what is in this corner and how the light is coming in over here and why that character is so devastated by this small thing and on and on and on. You are leading the reader on a path through the world you are building.
Kathy: I am so thrilled that you said that, because it is so true! If there is a mistake I see more often than not in any kind of narrative writing that I edit or coach, it is failing to guide the reader very well. I mean, it is such a simple thing, but if you don’t let me know where we are in space and time, I feel like I am floating in gray space. I am just in a void, and I am totally untethered and lost and confused. And there is no quicker way to get disengaged from a book than if I don’t know where we are or what is happening or what time it is or what day it is. When a reader doesn’t know what is happening, that is even worse than boring the reader. If you think of a great storyteller, you think of them at a fireplace or a campfire, and they are really leading you slowly. They are in such fantastic control of the experience that you are having. They know exactly when to pause so you want them to say more and when to skip along.
Heidi: It goes back to telling that story as if you had the reader there. What would you do to make that story vivid for them?
Kathy: And wouldn’t you try not to be that kind of storyteller where the audience constantly has to interrupt you and say, “Wait, I thought you said he was the shorter guy”? You have to be so clear because your reader is blindfolded and totally in your hands.
Agata: So, when you are leading the reader around, how do you know which details to include and what to leave out?
Heidi: Chekhov said that, if you want the reader to know that the moon was bright, you don’t say, “the moon was bright,” you say, “the moonlight glinted off the dead soldier’s brass buttons.” You choose what makes the scene vivid. What detail reveals the most? What detail shows the most things at once?
Kathy: You want the details that you choose to do work. You are building a machine to create an effect. That is why I am always using the ghost story as an example for clients. It is a terrible ghost story if you just summarize it in a few sentences; it becomes a good ghost story when every detail is chosen to heighten the tension and scariness.
Like if you’re describing a child, say: remember, you’re not filing a police report, you’re trying to make the reader feel, “Who is this kid and where is he right now?” “He’s about four-foot nine, dark hair, jeans” is a police report. ”Sweaty dark hair, sunburnt, torn holes in the knees of his jeans because he’s sliding down a ravine”—that tells us who he is in this moment.
The first way to evaluate the details you are choosing is to ask, “Are they creating the effects that I want? Are they telling the reader what the reader needs to know and not a bunch of random facts?” But the other thing is—and I think the reason writing is so hard--what do you think is cool? Every comma, every color, every adjective is all you looking as deep as possible into yourself and asking, “What do I want to see right now? What do I want to hear right now?” Writing is exhausting for that reason—it is just decision, decision, decision. Hopefully, it’s a decision you are making based on your deepest gut.
Heidi: Exactly. I used to think of it like rolling out dough. The first draft is kind of a lump, and then the next draft it is smoother and more incorporated, but there are still lumps. Each draft gets smoother until finally you are going through it detail by detail, and you can almost explain why every comma is where it is.
Agata: How does one write emotionally powerful scenes without delving into the Harlequin kind of situation where everyone is sobbing and heaving over everything?
Heidi: You need to induce emotion in the reader the same way it was induced in the character. When you see someone crying, you have a new emotion based on that person’s crying, but if you want your reader to feel what a crying character feels, you have to bring the reader into what has happened to the character.
Kathy: That is really good. You have to have established what the stakes are for the person, which explain what has made this event such a sad thing. You have to have done that work beforehand so you have invested the reader in the stakes. Imagine creating a story where a character really likes someone and thinks they are liked back. You build that so when the love object says, “Oh, I like your friend,” the reader will feel shattered on behalf of the character, and you don’t have to show the character snotting and sobbing. In acting, if you are trying to make yourself cry, you might actually think of something that happened to you that makes you sad but then you repress it. That is what people actually do in real life. They try to push it down and push it down. They say, “I am perfectly happy. There is nothing wrong, there is nothing wrong.” So, if the character who really likes someone finds out the object of their affection likes someone else, they think, “When he said he really liked my friend, he probably didn’t mean that.” That would make it so much harder on the reader, because we see what the character is doing to herself and you know she is setting herself up for an even worse fall.
Heidi: Beginning writers, especially, think the stakes have to be high—that you have to fall into a volcano. The fact is fiction is almost always about things that other people would see as low stakes. The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen, is about a mother trying to get all her kids together for Christmas. But the stakes are huge for her, and I think all fiction is like that: it is about how high-stakes daily life really is for human beings.
The other thing about making fiction compelling is tone. Tone is so essential. I remember a story about Virginia Woolf, who just stopped writing for months at one point—until she sat down and wrote the first page again and she realized, “Oh, this is the tone,” and she had no problem then. That has happened to me a million times: I just don’t know where I am going and what I am doing, and I put it aside. I come back in the morning and there is some little voice, and I just think, “Well, I am going to change the first paragraph and see what happens.” And somehow everything else goes from there.
There is something about beginning again. Something has changed in you already because you already wrote that one draft, and you begin again and you know things you didn’t know before. There are slight changes of tone that happen there.
Kathy: In beginning again, do you rewrite the whole thing from the ground up?
Heidi: No. For years I always thought when I was beginning again, I did have to rewrite. Well, I have had to rewrite from the ground up, but more often I would start with a new first chapter and then suddenly the rest falls into place and starts to flow from that first chapter. You kind of see “Oh, I can cut this out,” and “Oh, I have to write another chapter here.” Starting again for me is getting the corner of something that I can then follow.
My husband is a big one for always writing a new title. It’s another way to shoot a bunch of energy into it.
Kathy: I just did that with this novel I have been fighting with for a few years, and it did help quite a bit. I also gave my heroine—I have never been totally happy with her name—a name that I love and that is so perfect, and that really helped, too.
Heidi: That is such a great feeling. It is because you know her well enough now, don’t you think?
Kathy: Yes, you’re right.
Agata: What is the difference between narrative voice and tone?
Kathy: Well, a tone could shift from scene to scene. The narrative voice will be fairly consistent—I might be happy or very sad, but it is still all my voice and very different from Heidi’s.
Agata: What do you think makes readers care about a character?
Heidi: We feel them in ourselves. I have been teaching a class on character, and what I found was that some beginning writers don’t think about character as deeply as I think you do once you have written a lot. If you spend a month just thinking about your character, it is amazing how much of the story you start to understand, too. John Gardner has a writer’s game he may have made up: “What kind of smoke would this character be?” Not “What kind of pipe does this character smoke?” But “Is this character the smoke from a burning tire, or is he a cherry-wood pipe smoke?”
Kathy: Or a campfire.
Heidi: Yes. There is acrid smoke and there is comforting smoke and there is danger smoke. Thinking outside “What characteristics does this person have?” to really getting in there and visualizing that character and feeling that character in a setting and having a sense of what the character will do next—that’s the magic. When the character drops a wine glass and it shatters all over the floor, what does the character do? It is about going way beyond any way of describing a character to knowing a character so that you know how that character moves through space, how they react, what they say.
Kathy: I think that, if you can get the reader to relate to the character, to identify a little bit, then they will identify with what that character wants and needs. It reminds me of being on Twitter the other day, and some guy said something awful and I was angry. And then I went to his profile to see if he was a bot, and it turned out he was an army veteran, completely disabled, and he was apologizing anxiously because he has to use speech-to-text, “so please forgive any errors.” Suddenly, I had a totally different picture of this guy. It didn’t make it okay if he was racist or sexist or whatever, but it just makes him a more complex and relatable guy. Or in The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen could show somebody’s mother—“God, Mom, stop obsessing about this ridiculous thing”—or you can show this woman in her kitchen all alone making things and listening to the cat and looking forward so much to Christmas when she will see her kids. Now suddenly you are on her side.
Kathy: Yeah vulnerability. In his Twitter profile, that guy was so vulnerable that suddenly I saw him in a completely different way.
Heidi: That reminds me of a writer who had written a racist character, and she felt she had skewered this woman perfectly. Everyone was going to be in gales of laughter. The editor told her, “You can’t do this,” and she finally realized she had to approach that character with love. Once she did love that character, the racism was still going to come through, and you were still going to hate it, but it was going to be rubbing at you every place. There is something about seeing a character’s weaknesses, seeing where they fit you, where their vulnerabilities fit yours.
Kathy: That is so true. That is what is missing on social media. If everybody comes on fully armored in “ready for war” armor and “I am a perfect person whose life is completely flawless” armor, we don’t get any kind of picture of each other. It is so unsatisfying and yet weirdly attractive. People go there to tribe up with their tribes, and they just speak to the worst in our little monkey selves. “I am in a tribe and you are the bad guy.”
Heidi: That is why you need fiction.