Writer’s Passion for Music Fuels First Novel
An exclusive Authorlink interview
By Columnist Ellen Birkett Morris
To Love A Stranger
by Kris Faatz
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When Kris Faatz was between jobs as a musician, she took up the pen and started writing a novel that used the classic music world of the 1980’s as a background for the story of a relationship that was touched by that decade’s greatest challenge, the AIDs epidemic.
The result is the tale of Sam and Jeannette, who are brought together by their shared love of music and pushed apart by the secrets they keep.
Faatz discussed the writing process and why writers need to be driven in order to reach the finish line.
|“After the Kenyon novel workshop, writing the first draft of what became Stranger took about seven months. The whole process, though, from start to publication contract, took about nine years of off-and-on work.”
AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your apprenticeship as a writer – mentors, classes, degree programs, whatever was most helpful shaping your manuscript?
FAATZ: I started taking fiction classes in 2007, when I was between jobs and at loose ends. On a whim I applied to Johns Hopkins University’s part-time MA program in fiction. Much to my surprise, I got in. That inspired me to jump into a big project. I took classes at Hopkins for about three years, and then found the Kenyon Review Writers Workshops.
Kenyon changed everything. I took the short-fiction workshop six years ago, as a total newbie. The following summer, I took the first novel workshop Kenyon offered. I went to the workshop with a 500-page, sprawling, multi-viewpoint, multi-generational family saga, that had absolutely no plot.
Workshop leaders Nancy Zafris and Geeta Kothari sat me down, stripped the book to its bones, pulled one storyline out of the mess, and told me, “This is your novel. Go home and write this.”
AUTHORLINK: You are a musician by training. What made you want to pursue writing a novel?
FAATZ: I had no idea how hard it would be to write a novel, or how long it would take; if I’d known, I’m not sure I would have done it! When I was studying music, I got an insider’s view of the backstage world of professional classical music. I absolutely loved the energy, the intensity, the drama: the way so many people could pull together, especially in the context of symphonic and choral concerts, and create something beautiful. I wanted to capture that on the page.
The music world also gave me my first characters. Musician personalities, especially in the case of seasoned performers who know how to work audiences, are often larger than life. It’s like getting a story character handed to you.
Overall, though, if things had gone differently with my job back in 2007, I’m not sure if I ever would have gotten back to writing. At the time, I was heartbroken that a music job I had really wanted turned out to be a disaster. Now I know I was lucky.
AUTHORLINK: Where did this story begin for you? character? plot? image? first line?
FAATZ: Stranger began with Sam Kraychek. When I started, I knew his name, had a vague sense of what he looked like, and had a pretty clear idea of his personality (although his personality changed quite a bit over the first couple of years that I worked on the book). A lot of my early work involved getting to know him, writing sketches and scenes that ultimately didn’t show up in the book. Over time, I got to know him very well. He was always the driving force behind Stranger.
AUTHORLINK: How did the premise of To Love a Stranger develop?
FAATZ: In the early stages, I figured out that when Sam was young, he had some kind of serious conflict with his father. I knew quite clearly that he was estranged from his parents for a while and that he was cut off from his home, which was a source of great pain to him, but I wasn’t sure why that had happened.
Then I figured out that as a college student, Sam became romantically involved with another man (Gil Hart in the current book, though initially his name was Taylor Matthews). Right away, I knew that Gil/Taylor was an extremely important character and that he had a huge influence on Sam’s life. I also knew that the relationship between the two men, while difficult in many ways (because of the time and place, and the stigma surrounding gay relationships), was one of the most real things Sam had. I also knew, though – and still wasn’t sure why – that Sam and his first partner ultimately didn’t remain together. The loss of that relationship was another source of pain for Sam.
It took me a while to put these pieces together. I knew Sam’s home environment, his conservative Catholic father, and about the gay relationship in his life. I had a very tough time, though, letting Sam’s father Walter, whom I also knew very well by then, condemn and reject his son, but that was where the story needed to go. I looked at what the loss of “home” meant for Sam, and how he responded to it, and what he did to try to get back to the world he had loved. Eventually, all of that speculation brought me my other characters Jeannette, Carrie, and Nathan, and gave me a complete story.
AUTHORLINK: How long did it take you to write the novel?
FAATZ: After the Kenyon novel workshop, writing the first draft of what became Stranger took about seven months. The whole process, though, from start to publication contract, took about nine years of off-and-on work.
“One of the biggest sources of tension in Stranger is the fact that Sam has secrets from his eventually-wife. “
AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about the characters Sam and Jeannette. They are both marked by circumstances and not eager connect to others. What brings them together?
FAATZ: The first thing that brings Sam and Jeannette together is music. One of the things I wanted to capture in Stranger is how people can reach each other, and connect with each other through music, in ways that words may not permit. Sam and Jeannette are both gifted pianists, and each quickly recognize the other’s sensitivity to music, which forms an early bond between them.
Both of them feel isolated and at least somewhat misunderstood. Their fragility leaves them open, in the sense that both would like to feel connected with another person and accepted for who they are, but they don’t really expect to find that. Certainly (without including spoilers) there’s a lot they can’t hope to find in each other. Their mutual loneliness, though, is something else that brings them together.
AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about how you built suspense within the story.
FAATZ: One of the biggest sources of tension in Stranger is the fact that Sam has secrets from his eventually-wife. When I wrote the first draft of the book, I used both Sam’s and Jeannette’s points of view, but the whole first half of the book was told through Jeannette’s eyes, and the second half through Sam’s. Later, I alternated the chapters and cut out the duplication, which helped a lot with pacing. Telling it in two blocks, though, really let me see what each character knew, and when he/she knew it.
“The idea of dealing with AIDS, and how the disease and the gay community were perceived during the eighties, came about relatively late in the writing process.”
AUTHORLINK: What were the greatest challenges when writing To Love a Stranger and how did you overcome them?
FAATZ: I went through a period when I thought I couldn’t write through Sam’s eyes, because how can a straight woman write about a gay man’s experience? The biggest help I had there was a series of questions one of my Hopkins professors gave me, which he asked me to answer using Sam’s first-person voice. I had never tried to write first-person for Sam before, or even considered doing it. Sam’s voice snapped into focus for me then.
Another big challenge was simple frustration with the size of the project, how long it was taking, and when I started submitting it, how excruciating those rejections were. (And there were a lot of rejections.) I gave up on Stranger many, many times. I always changed my mind, though, because I felt that no matter how imperfect it was, the story needed to be out in the world. Nobody else was going to write exactly the same one, and I needed to see it through.
AUTHORLINK: How did music work for you in this story? The music is almost a third character, and certainly more than a soundtrack.
FAATZ: Listening to and playing music was a big part of my creative process. When I got stuck for ideas, I’d often sit at the piano and play for a while. Very often, problems sorted themselves out while my hands were busy.
I love the idea of the music as another character. It was really important to me, in telling this story, to translate the “heard” experience of music to the page. I knew a lot of readers might not be very familiar with classical music, and I wanted to give them a taste of it. One of my hopes for Stranger is that it might get classical music a few new listeners.
AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your research for To Love a Stranger.
FAATZ: For Sam’s home background, the small town in Pennsylvania where he grew up, I drew on my own family history. My great-grandparents on my mother’s side were all immigrants from Eastern Europe (Lithuania and Hungary, specifically). Both my great-grandfathers on that side found work in this country as coal miners. I didn’t have to look very far to get context for Sam’s father, Walter, who grew up in a small mining community in Scranton, PA. I did, though, get in touch with Scranton’s historical society, and got an envelope full of period pictures from the 1940s and 1950s, when Walter would have been growing up. Westbury, the town where Sam grew up, is fictional, but based on the real town of Berwick where my mother’s parents lived and where I visited a lot as a child.
The idea of dealing with AIDS, and how the disease and the gay community were perceived during the eighties, came about relatively late in the writing process. I remembered grade school teachers talking about the disease, reassuring us kids that you wouldn’t get AIDS from shaking someone’s hand or hugging them, but I didn’t really remember or understand the kind of fear that the epidemic caused. I did some online research about what AIDS patients experienced, including reading articles about how some patients were abandoned by their families for being gay and left alone in hospitals to die. I also spoke with a few people who could tell me more about the kinds of attitudes that became widespread, publically, during the late-eighties epidemic.
“I found my publisher through Twitter. In February 2016, there was a Twitter event called #Pit2Pub, in which you could tweet your pitch every couple of hours to a list of small-press publishers.”
AUTHORLINK: Talk about the process of revision for this book. What was it like working with your editor? How many revisions did you do and what was your main focus when making changes?
FAATZ: By the time Blue Moon and I found each other, the book had gone through full rewrites (including complete restarts, trying all kinds of different ideas) about seven times, and partial rewrites a few more times. So by the time it went to Blue Moon, it felt pretty “done.”
My editor played devil’s advocate with a few of the book’s thornier points. He asked me several questions about why my characters were motivated to do specific things they did. From the beginning, he told me that anything I felt strongly about could stand, but it was hugely helpful for me to get his take. By then, I had looked at the book so often myself, and for so long, that I just couldn’t see some things clearly. His comments made me think, “That’s true, it doesn’t make sense that she would do that,” or, “Yeah, he comes off as pretty obnoxious in this scene, and he shouldn’t; can I fix it?” and similar things. There were no major overhauls of the manuscript. I was able to tweak things, provide a little more context here, and clarify a character’s inner world there.
It’s important to be ready to receive feedback, and especially to recognize when certain feedback excites you: those are the new ideas your work needs, which will make it stronger. Even if someone tells you something that basically means you have to start your project over, you’ll feel in your gut if it’s the right thing to do. If you feel that, trust it, and go for it. Your work deserves it.
AUTHORLINK: Do you have an agent? If so, how did you connect?
FAATZ: I don’t have an agent. I submitted Stranger to a number of agents over a period of a couple of years, and didn’t have any luck. Meanwhile, I got interested in the indie-press route.
I found my publisher through Twitter. In February 2016, there was a Twitter event called #Pit2Pub, in which you could tweet your pitch every couple of hours to a list of small-press publishers who were watching the feed. If a publisher “favorited” your pitch, it was an invitation to submit to them. A couple of publishers favorited Stranger, and when I did some homework, Blue Moon looked appealing. I went ahead and submitted. I was never so surprised and shaken up as I was when they asked for a phone call.
AUTHORLINK: What sort of advice would you offer to apprentice writers on honing their skills? On staying focused?
FAATZ: Be patient. Writing is a tough, lonely, and sometimes totally unrewarding craft, at least when it comes to outside recognition. When you commit to this path, you’re strapping in for the long, long journey.
Write stories that satisfy you in some deep way, that address something you feel needs to be said. Worrying about who might want to read those stories, or what publisher might pick them up, isn’t worth it. You need to tell your own truth, and tell it your own way.
AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on now.
FAATZ: My publisher and I are thinking about a follow-up book to Stranger which would feature Miner’s Row, the coal-mining community where Sam’s father grew up. I’m playing with the idea of a collection of linked stories that focus on the experience of the immigrants who came to Miner’s Row, and the subsequent generations who were born there, who grew up and left, who were born elsewhere, and so on down to the present, when they may have very little connection with the Row except as a name out of the past.
|About the Author||
Kris Faatz is a pianist, writer, and teacher. Her short fiction has appeared in Kenyon Review Online, Potomac Review, Digging Through the Fat, Reed, and other journals, and her debut novel, To Love A Stranger, will be released May 23, 2017 by Blue Moon Publishers (Toronto).
See more information at: https://krisfaatz.com
|About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris
|Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning journalist whose interviews and reviews have appeared in Authorlink, Prairie Schooner Online, The Louisville Courier-Journal, and reprinted in the reader’s guides to The Receptionist and Clever Girl. Her fiction has appeared in journals including Antioch Review, South Caroline Review and Notre Dame Review. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink.|
This post was written by Ellen Birkett Morris