Karin Lin-Greenberg’s debut novel You Are Here is set in a deteriorating, soon-to-be shut-down Mall in Albany. The people who inhabit the mall, a disheveled father working as a bookseller, a lonely older lady looking for connection, a high school student interested in acting, a single mother and her son who are just getting by, have big dreams. Lin-Greenberg expertly weaves the connections that bind these characters together and has the reader rooting for them all. She also offers a sensitive take on larger issues of the day, while holding the reader in thrall as the small important moments of her characters’ lives unfold. She discussed the making of You Are Here with Authorlink:
AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your apprenticeship as a creative writer. Did you have a mentor who offered advice that has stayed with you that you can share with us?
“I think I was lucky to work with so many different teachers and to have many voices and ideas about fiction…”
LIN-GREENBERG: I didn’t have one particular mentor, but I did take as many creative writing classes as I could, starting with an elective in high school and then I completed a creative writing minor in college. After college, I took continuing education classes at a local university for a few years, and then after that I completed an MA and an MFA. In the years since I’ve attended community writing workshops and also a handful of writing conferences where I participated in workshops. I’ve studied with a lot of different teachers and took something about craft or how to read fiction or how to talk about fiction from each class I attended. I think I was lucky to work with so many different teachers and to have many voices and ideas about fiction in my head as I wrote, instead of just one guiding voice.
I think what was most valuable for me during those classes was having the opportunity to read the unpublished work of all my classmates and having the chance to respond to their work. Being in so many classes helped me to consider the logic of fiction and forced me to think through stories and novels critically. Before I started taking writing classes, I read purely for enjoyment and didn’t think about how fiction was constructed and how the decisions writers make can affect a reader’s experience with the text. Being asked to articulate what felt successful in my classmates’ stories and what might be revisited in a revision helped me become a better editor for my own work.
AUTHORLINK: James Dickey said the idea for Deliverance came to him as a vision of a man standing alone on top of a mountain. His job was to get the man off the mountain. Where did the idea for You Are Here come from?
“Usually, my work emerges from character, but in this case, it was the realization that a lot could happen in the setting of a mall…
LIN-GREENBERG: You Are Here sprang from the first chapter, “The Sweeper of Hair,” which was originally published as a stand-alone short story in The Chicago Tribune. Usually, I’m happy to move on after I finish a short story, but I realized I had more to say about the characters that inhabited the mall, which is the setting for the first story (it takes place in a hair salon in the mall). Usually, my work emerges from character, but in this case, it was the realization that a lot could happen in the setting of a mall involving people who frequented or worked in this setting.
AUTHORLINK: You are known for your short stories. Talk about the transition to writing a novel. What elements of short story writing carried over? What parts were challenging?
“Sustaining a plot over 300 pages instead of over twenty pages was a challenge for me.”
LIN-GREENBERG: I think everything I learned about and have worked on with characterization in short stories carried over to writing a novel. Sustaining a plot over 300 pages instead of over twenty pages was a challenge for me. I created the overarching conflict of the impending closure of the mall in the novel (all the characters interact with this space in some way) and used that to create conflicts for each individual character relating to how they spend their time, what they hope for in life, and what their next step might be after the mall closes. It was helpful for me to think about each chapter almost as a separate short story as I was writing and make sure there was some sort of movement from the beginning to the end, even if that movement was internal. Likewise, it was helpful to have the larger conflict of the mall’s closure to tie the narrative together.
AUTHORLINK: Talk about the choice to set much of the story in a mall.
“Characters do not necessarily have to seek each other out; they can run into each other…”
LIN-GREENBERG: I think a mall is a place that is full of possibilities for bringing various characters into contact with one another. Characters do not necessarily have to seek each other out; they can run into each other or be forced to interact because they need something from each other (even if the need is something as simple as one character needing another character to ring up their purchase). It’s an environment where people who might not otherwise interact could talk to and, in some cases, even become close to one another. It also interested me because it’s a place where a variety of people work, yet they’re all doing very different types of work. I enjoyed creating scenes within this setting because I was able to bring together a lot of people with different backgrounds and experiences.
AUTHORLINK: Each of your characters seems to be searching for a purpose and connection. How did you come up with this cast and why do you think they worked so well together?
LIN-GREENBERG: I decided I wanted to focus on multiple perspectives in this novel (I ultimately chose to include five point-of-view characters) and I wanted the characters to be different from each other in terms of age, jobs, educational backgrounds, and other factors. The three characters who work at the mall are a hair stylist in the mall’s salon, the manager of the mall’s bookstore, and a teenager who works in the food court. I wanted to round out the cast of characters with people who visited the mall, but I had to figure out who would come to the mall often. The protagonist of the first chapter/story is the young son of the hair stylist who comes to the mall after school and hangs out in the salon and does homework so his mom doesn’t have to hire a babysitter. Then the final point-of-view character in the book is an eighty-nine-year-old widow who is incredibly lonely, so she makes weekly appointments at the hair salon so she can come and interact with people at the mall.
“Even though these characters are all quite different…they share the similarity of searching for purpose and connection.”
Even though these characters are all quite different on the surface, you’re right that they share the similarity of searching for purpose and connection. All of these characters are unsure of something in their lives, whether it’s their career or whether they should pursue a passion, or whether it’s how to connect with other people. So despite their surface differences, the characters are all dealing with similar internal conflicts.
AUTHORLINK: You deal with gun violence in this book with great sensitivity. How hard was it to broach that subject and did you have any fictional role models you turned to when developing the novel?
LIN-GREENBERG: When I thought about all the possible things that could happen in the setting I was working with, I realized one of the possibilities was violence. I hate that this is something that came to mind, but I think it’s hard to think about large public spaces in contemporary America without the idea of gun violence crossing one’s mind. I wasn’t thinking necessarily of fictional role models when I was writing the chapters that occur after an act of gun violence at the mall but rather about something I often contemplate when I see stories of violent and tragic acts on the news. There’s so much reporting on the event itself, but there’s so much less reporting on the aftermath, especially after evidence of violence is cleared away and the regular patterns of life resume. The event is the big and loud and dramatic thing, but in You Are Here I didn’t want to focus on the actual event and depict gory details. What I thought a lot about was how these kinds of acts have a ripple effect on a community and how even people who were only peripherally involved or were witnesses or might not have been involved at all are still affected—sometimes deeply so, on a physical or emotional level—by a violent public event. My goal with the second half of the novel was not to linger in the descriptions of the event but rather to explore what happens after and how it affects the characters.
AUTHORLINK: You teach and I’m wondering what advice you offer to apprentice writers about either craft or staying in the game.
“I try to talk to my students about the patience that’s required if you want to have a literary career.”
LIN-GREENBERG: I try to talk to my students about the patience that’s required if you want to have a literary career. I mean patience in every way. First, writers need to be patient with themselves as they learn and grow in a large sense, but they also have to be patient with each draft of a new work. I have some students who get frustrated if they don’t like the first draft of the first story they ever write. Sometimes I ask them if they ever played an instrument and ask what they sounded like the first day they picked up their trumpet or violin. I think because most people have been writing in some capacity since they were children, they expect to immediately be good at creative writing. But like any other art, there’s a lot of practice involved and a lot of learning about craft. I tell my students there’s no rush to publish, and I encourage them to enjoy their time as learners who aren’t under any pressure to publish. And we talk, too, about the process of publishing and how it can take months for a submission to a literary journal to be read and then, if it’s accepted, more time before it’s published. And, of course, the road to book publication is even longer. But all of this is just part of the process, and being patient is, in my opinion, one of the best traits a writer can possess.
AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on now.
LIN-GREENBERG: I’ve written a few stories in the last year and have been happy to get back to that form for a bit. I’m also working on a new novel about leaving home and then returning as a changed person and seeing if you can fit back into an old place once you’ve gained a new perspective.
About the Author:
Karin Lin-Greenberg’s first story collection, Faulty Predictions, won the 2013 Flannery O’Connor Award in Short Fiction from the University of Georgia Press and won gold in the Short Story category of Foreword Reviews’ INDIE Book of the Year in 2014. Her second story collection, Vanished, won the 2021 Prairie Schooner Raz-Shumaker Book Prize in Fiction and was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2022. Her debut novel, You Are Here, was published by Counterpoint Press in May 2023. Her stories have appeared in literary journals including The Antioch Review, Boulevard, Colorado Review, Shenandoah, The Southern Review, Story, and Virginia Quarterly Review.