Another Author of the Month at MyShelf.Com
Author of the Month
Karen Mueller Bryson [March 2003]
Chosen by Carolyn Howard-Johnson, author of This is the Place and Harkening
If I were to interview Karen Mueller Bryson where she works, it wouldn't be in a conventional office. I'd have to find her as she's waking up in the morning when ideas about writing come drifting into her conscious. I'd have to make a bedtime appointment to find her snuggled under her blankets with her laptop. I'd have to hitch a ride with her in her car where writing thoughts intrude on her as she negotiates the Florida traffic (and pray that she pulls over to take notes as she assures me that she does). And I'm sure she wouldn't be too thrilled if I showed up while she was taking a shower, one of the other places where inspiration comes to her.
This is one
of those times when e-mail proves itself more convenient than chatting
with an author face-to-face. I think you'll agree, though, that with an
author as many-faceted as Bryson is, the results are just as satisfactory
as a bistro or an office ever could be:
I remember seeing the title of your first novel before it was ever in
print. Hey Dorothy You're Not in Kansas Anymore is memorable. How
did you choose it and why?
Carolyn: Karen, I remember seeing the title of your first novel before it was ever in print. Hey Dorothy You're Not in Kansas Anymore is memorable. How did you choose it and why?
Karen: The novel was inspired by The Wizard of Oz, so I wanted to pick a title that would reflect that connection. I also wanted to give the book a fresh, young feel. Hey Dorothy You're Not In Kansas Anymore seemed very appropriate.
I also feel it's important to pick titles that are unique and memorable. My next novel, which was inspired by "Alice in Wonderland", is entitled Where is Wonderland Anyway. Most of my plays also have unique titles including: When Fat Chicks Rule The World, Thazel Hoffstetter Lives Here, But Does He Know Botticelli and The Story of What Happened When Bebe Romano Said She Was Having A Baby. As you can see, I'm not inhibited by length when it comes to titling my work!
Carolyn: When I reviewed Hey Dorothy, I noted that it was part of a new genre called chick lit. That term is being bandied about writers' conferences and in the book review sections. What do you think of it? Were you influenced by other chick lit books like Bridget Jones's Diary?
Karen: I never imagined I could write a novel and I wasn't sure I wanted to. When I thought of novels, I first thought of books like The Great Gatsby or A Tale of Two Cities. The type of stuff you'd read in literature class in high school. There didn't seem to be much being written that I could relate to. There were a few young men who broke out with unique voices - writers like Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney. But there still wasn't much out there written by, for and about young woman. Before the popularity of the 'chick lit' movement, women's fiction was mostly romance. I never had a desire to write in that genre. Then in 1999, I read a book called They Call Me Mad Dog!: A Story For Bitter, Lonely People by Erika Lopez. She is also the author of Flaming Iguanas: An Illustrated All-Girl Road Novel Thing. I'm an avid reader, but Erika Lopez's books were like nothing I had ever read before. She has a distinctive voice and her books are hilarious. She writes about young women with an attitude. When I read her stuff, I said to myself, "Now this is something I can relate to. This is the kind of stuff I want to write." A few weeks later, I started writing Hey Dorothy You're Not In Kansas Anymore. It wasn't long after that Bridget Jones exploded on the scene and a new genre was born. Now we finally have female characters who do more than fall in love. The book I'm working on now is what I call an 'anti-romance.' I want to write a book that doesn't depend on the girl getting a guy for it to have a happy ending. Let's hear it for strong, independent women who can have lives beyond falling in love!
Carolyn: Is your Dorothy based on your own life?
Karen: Hey Dorothy You're Not In Kansas Anymore is a work of fiction but in some ways it is based on my life. (My husband always says the book is much closer to my real life than I'm willing to admit!) In what ways is the book similar to my life? My father committed suicide when I was 25 years old. This had a tremendous impact on my life as well as the lives of my brother and my mom. I used this as the basis for the novel. Hey Dorothy You're Not In Kansas Anymore is primarily about a family dealing with the sudden death of their father. I think it's difficult for families to come to terms with the sudden loss of a loved one. It's often a crazy time. The characters in Hey Dorothy You're Not In Kansas Anymore reflect this craziness.
My husband is Canadian. We made a move from Tampa, Florida to Calgary, Alberta, Canada prior to my writing the novel. (I know - I know - we've been told we moved the wrong way - we've since moved back to Florida.) I tried to incorporate some of the funny differences between American and Canadian culture into the book.
I also used my own experiences in acting to form the basis of Dorothy's acting 'career.' I've got a ton of zany acting stories because it's such a wild business. The crazy types of acting jobs that Dorothy gets (like being a dead extra on a movie shoot) are not too far from the reality of some of the jobs I did when I was acting.
People often ask me if my characters are based on real people. Most of them come out of my imagination, but I have to say that many of the mothers I write have similarities to my own mother. My mom is a very funny character herself. (Please don't get mad at me mom!) She is an Italian-American from New Jersey and she isn't too far from the stereotype of a New Jersey Italian. Actually, she could step on to the set of The Sopranos and fit right in. I get a lot of good material from my mom.
Carolyn: You are an attractive young woman. Did you ever "do" anything with your looks as opposed to your intellect or talent?
Karen: Interesting that you should ask about looks. As I mentioned, I have been acting for many years. Acting is a very appearance dependent occupation. Actors are always worried about how they look - and for good reason. For film and television work, how you look is often more important than your skills and talent. (This isn't as true for theatre.) You can be the most talented actor in the world and if you don't look a certain way - you'll have a tough time in the business. No one cares what a writer looks like. Your skills and talent are what's important. For me, writing is a much more satisfying art form.
Carolyn: I am not familiar with your publisher. Are you self-published? Subsidy published? If so, why did you choose that route? I know you easily could have reeled in one of the biggies!
Karen: Thanks, Carolyn, but I'm not sure how easy it would have been for me to 'reel in a biggie!' I appreciate the vote of confidence, though. After I finished writing my first novel, it was a wonderful feeling. I thought I had made a real accomplishment. I had no idea that I was just starting with the hard work! What does one do with a book once it's finished? I could have spent a lot of time, effort, and money trying to secure an agent, who would have then tried to secure a publishing contract for my work. To me, it seemed like a tremendous amount of effort for an uncertain outcome.
That's when I decided to look into other options for getting my work out to the public. I discovered POD technology and its application for independent publishing. I decided to take my time, effort, and money and put it into a more certain outcome - knowing that my book is published and available for sale to readers. My publisher, Virtualbookworm, has assisted me in achieving that goal. And by publishing independently, I have been able to retain all of the rights to my work, as well as full artistic control.
I realize there is a tremendous stigma associated with 'self-publishing' or 'subsidy publishing.' That's why I prefer to use the term independent publishing or independently published. I would like to see the stigma removed from authors who choose this form of publication. We don't put down filmmakers who choose to create independent films. Quite the opposite. Independent filmmakers are often admired for adhering to their artistic vision and taking on the challenge to produce their own films. We've accepted 'indie films' for quite some time; it's time for us to start accepting 'indie books.'
Carolyn: Authors are getting so they do more of their own promotion all the time. I know I am very grateful that I have a PR background. Tell us what your favorite tack for promotion has been.
Karen: I've tried all kinds of avenues to promote my work. I've found it difficult to attribute sales to most of these promotional efforts, however. What I've found to be the most rewarding and most immediately gratifying method for promoting my work is speaking directly to readers and engaging in face-to-face direct sales.
I work for a large university in Florida. This holiday season, we were fortunate to have a forward thinking human resources person on our campus. She allowed us to have a kind of 'holiday sale' in which employees who made things could set up a table for other employees to purchase items. It was marvelously successful! I sold my books and I also got the opportunity to speak with coworkers about my 'other career' as an author. Even after the holiday event, I had co-workers coming by my office to talk about my writing and to purchase books. I even had family members of coworkers purchase my book. Nothing beats word-of-mouth advertising!
Carolyn: I noticed that your dialogue is fast paced and feels bright and real. I attributed that to your experience as a playwright. Do you concur?
Karen: I have been involved in theatre for over twenty years - mostly as an actor. I attribute my success as a playwright to my years of acting experience. I still feel like a novice playwright even though it's been eight years since I wrote my first play! I still have a lot to learn! I am fortunate to have a natural ability to write dialogue. It makes playwriting come more easily to me. I found writing in the novel form much more difficult. The first draft of Hey Dorothy You're Not In Kansas Anymore was basically one big play. Then I went back and tried to refine it to make it more like a novel. That's not the best or easiest way to write a novel. (I don't recommend it!) Since that time, I've done a tremendous amount of training and work on developing my skills as a novelist. My second novel I actually wrote as a novel - so it's a little less dialogue-heavy. But it's still fast-paced and 'real.' That's just my style of writing. And it's the style I most like to read.
Carolyn: Speaking of your being a playwright, could you quickly tell us of some of your successes in that field?
Karen: My plays have been produced throughout the United States and have received numerous accolades including an honorable mention in the McLaren Memorial Playwriting Contest, semi-finalist in the Henrico Theatre Company One-Act Playwriting Competition, finalist in the North Bay Theatre Group-Sonoma County Rep Script Festival, and winner of the Scriptwriters of South Carolina Playwriting Contest. Two of my plays are published by Brooklyn Publishers in Odessa, Texas and a monologue from one of her plays was included in Monologs For Young Actors II published by Meriwether Publishing in Colorado Springs.
Carolyn: I also thought I discerned the influence of your experience as a playwright in the way you set scenes. The reader is always very well grounded but the scene descriptions are hardly evident. Am I right? How do you do that?
Karen: It's so difficult to explain my writing process - but I'll give it a go! I don't plan anything out or doing anything intentionally - it just happens. I start out by creating very detailed and distinct characters. I give the characters a very basic conflict and then I let them go. Once the characters are created - they take on a life of their own. Then it's just a matter of my transcribing what they say and do. It's a little like the play Six Characters In Search of An Author by Luigi Pirandello. In that play, six characters set out to find a writer who will tell their story. My characters are just like that. They tell me their stories and I write those stories down for them.
It's funny that you say my scene descriptions are hardly evident. I hate what I consider 'excessive description' in fiction. When I'm reading a book, I usually skip over much of the description because I find description generally boring and mostly irrelevant to the story. I guess my writing reflects this bias. A good example of this is using Y'bor City as a setting for action in a story. If a book is set in Tampa, it's a pretty good bet an author will set at least one scene in Y'bor City. It's a section of town that has an immense history and culture. It has also developed into the place in Tampa for nightlife. There are lots of bars, restaurants, dance clubs, music venues, trendy shops and other forms of entertainment. I suppose a writer could go on for pages just giving a description of Y'bor city. When I set a scene in Y'bor City (as I did in Hey Dorothy You're Not In Kansas Anymore), it's because something is going to be happening there. I want to tell readers about what happens there more than I want to tell them about Y'bor City. I'll give readers a very basic description of the place so they can follow the story but I don't want my novel to suddenly become a travel brochure. I look for ways to capture enough of the place for readers to 'get it.' So my description of Y'bor city would probably be a few words like "Y'bor city is Tampa's New Orleans but on a smaller scale." To me that gives readers a good idea of what Y'bor City is all about so I can get on with what actually happens to the characters when they are there.
Carolyn: You live in Florida. Do you think that has influenced your work?
Karen: I'm not sure how much living in Florida has influenced my work, but I do like to have my stories set in Florida. Florida is a very interesting state! There are all kinds of wonderful characters here. And because of tourism and 'snowbirding,' we get people from all over the world coming to Florida. A writer will never run out of ideas in this state! There are several Florida writers (Dave Barry, Carl Hiaasen, and Tim Dorsey) that I just love who also set their stories in Florida. All three of them are absolutely zany. Then again, my writing is a little on the zany side, too! Maybe it's something in the water here - or that constant sunshine - that's tickled our brains.
I have also set some stuff in the Midwest because I went to college there (go Bradley Braves!) as well as New Jersey, because that's where I was born and raised. Characters from New Jersey are really fun to write about because they tend to be so bold and "in your face." I have the most fun with them. I could easily have a whole career just writing about characters from New Jersey.
Carolyn: Do you have a day job? Do you plan to get rid of it? Do you think it has contributed to your writing in any way?
Karen: Let's just say if someone would pay me my salary to stay home and write, I wouldn't complain about it. Until that happens - I have to work at a 'day job.' I have a background in counseling and have counseled diverse populations in a range of settings. I've worked with alcoholic and drug addicts, juvenile delinquents, abused and neglected children, children and families in crises, children 'at-risk' for addiction. I have enough stories to fill volumes of books from my counseling experiences alone. The biggest asset that my counseling career has provided is a tremendous understanding of people and of human nature in general. I think that's why it is so easy for me to create realistic characters.
Working with college students and working on a college campus definitely keeps me young and keeps me thinking youthfully. I think that is expressed in my writing as well.
Carolyn: I have a theory that an author's writing contains a little bit of everything she has done in life--even when she is writing fiction. What in your life as been the biggest influence in your writing career?
Karen: I have not had a 'normal' life by any stretch of the imagination. I've experienced a lot in a relatively short span of time. As I mentioned, I lost a parent to suicide. My mom had since remarried, so I've gotten the opportunity to experience the stepfamily thing. In my first marriage, my ex-husband and I had a son who died, so I've experienced the death of a child. I've also gone through a divorce. I've since gotten remarried. I think these experiences have given me an emotional depth that has enabled me to be a good writer. (Not that what I write has much depth to it!) I think I see things from a very different perspective than most people. I have also learned not too take life too seriously - which I think makes me able to find humor in any situation.
Carolyn: I understand that you have an MFA. I have a friend who has one who says she would not go that route if she had it do it over again. Then one reads about the overwhelming acceptance of Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones" and that it is at least in part attributable to her MFA training and contacts and another whole story takes shape. What is your take?
Karen: I am a huge advocate of education. My husband likes to say I have more degrees than a thermometer! For me, formal education and training works. It's not that way for everyone. In addition to my MFA, I also have a Master's degree in counseling. If you want to be a counselor, you have to have a Master's degree in most states to be licensed. You don't have to have a Master's degree to be a writer. You don't have to have any formal education - you just have to be able to write. Whatever it takes for an individual to acquire the skills necessary to write - that's the avenue they need to take.
When you're talking about making contacts, that's a whole different ballgame. That's one significant benefit of attending a prestigious writing school - the caliber of contacts you are able to make by virtue of your attendance at that institution. Not that I went to a prestigious school - I didn't. But if I had my life to live over again - I would definitely consider it - just for that reason.
Carolyn: What projects are you working on now? More novels? More plays? Both?
Karen: My second novel, Where Is Wonderland Anyway, will be published soon. Readers can get a sample chapter at http://www.homestead.com/whereiswonderland/ . I just started work on a third novel tentatively titled Halcyon Days. (I know - the title seems a bit short to me, too!) I am putting together a book of my plays, Plays For a New Generation, which I'll be publishing through a co-operative publishing group called Global Authors Publications. (It's a subsidiary of another wonderful group to which I belong and would like to plug - The NUW (Not the Usual Way) Authors Community.) I'm also working on a full-length play and my husband and I are collaborating on a sitcom. I've also been working very hard at trying to attract a production company to develop Hey Dorothy You're Not in Kansas Anymore into a film. I also made a promise to myself that I would finally finish my doctoral dissertation. I would like to accomplish that goal this year as well.
Carolyn: Do you prefer writing novels or plays? Why?
Karen: Plays can be more rewarding to write because theatre is a collaborative art. When a play that I've written is produced, I can see the fruits of my labor being performed, and I can also experience that performance with an audience. When someone reads a book I've written, I may never know what their experience was or how they enjoyed the work, unless they choose to take the time to tell me. With a play, you immediately know how an audience receives your work.
In terms of writing, it's much easier to write a novel than to write a play. With a novel, there is very little limit to what you can create. A play is limited by virtue of the medium.
It's sad to say, but playwriting is somewhat of a dying art form. Most playwrights write plays because they love theatre. It's difficult, if not impossible, for all but a small few to make money at playwriting. Many playwrights embrace other forms in order to have their work seen as well as for greater financial rewards. Many playwrights I know are also screenwriters. It seems to be the most natural transition and screenwriting can be quite lucrative.
Carolyn: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Karen: Thank you so much, Carolyn, for providing this opportunity for an interview! If anyone would like additional information about me and my work, please visit: http://www.homestead.com/karenmueller/ or http://www.homestead.com/heydorothy/
Hey Dorothy, You're
Not in Kansas Anymore
Reviewed by Carolyn Howard-Johnson,
After A Cyclone
Finding the Humor and Future in
I was intrigued by the title of Karen Mueller Bryson's book, and who wouldn't be? The English speaking world has been mightily affected by the metaphor of Oz. Hey Dorothy You're Not in Kansas Anymore does not disappoint.
A young woman
loses her father in a freak accident. She is one of a family with enough
peccadilloes among them to keep any reader fascinated. She decides she
will sleep her pain away, her mother decides she will run away with a
cult, and brother decides to bury himself in his achievements and try
to ignore the whole mess. The pain in this family is palpable but so is
their zest for living. Those who loved Bridget Jones's Diary
may like this book even better. It has the snap of the new genre called
chick lit to which "Diary" is a prominent member; like "Diary"
it explores the pain that twenty-somethings often experience in a society
that isn't keen on letting them grow up.
What makes this novel move along so quickly is the author's background as a playwright. The dialogue is quick and convincing. The grounding is much like a theater production. The settings are sufficiently presented but do not dominate. Mostly the humor is so natural. I laughed out loud three times in the first two chapters and chuckled even more often. All in all, this book is a good lesson that the absurd may be found in the most agonizing of situations and that it works ever so well as a healer.
Howard-Johnson is the author of This is the Place and Harkening
2003's Honorary List