Karen Bovenmyer - Drop and Give me 20! 20 Hard Questions for Hard Authors
Karen Bovenmyer earned an MFA in Creative Writing: Popular Fiction from the University of Southern Maine. She teaches and mentors students at Iowa State University and serves as the Nonfiction Assistant Editor of Escape Artists’ Mothership Zeta Magazine. She is the 2016 recipient of the Horror Writers Association Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Scholarship. Her short stories and poems appear in more than 30 publications and her first novel will be available Spring 2017. http://karenbovenmyer.com/
1. Are you “An Author” -or- “A Writer”? What’s the difference?
I’m absolutely a writer. I have this sense that most of what authors write is not only good, but publishable. That’s not me—I’m always doodling with words, playing with stories and characters, settings, images, thoughts—and they only sometimes resolve into a story I feel like editing to publishable quality and sending out. Sometimes I touch “author” status and have a feeling about a story—I know in my heart that the story’s good, worthy of being published, but it gets rejected from several markets before it finds a home. Instead of drastically revising after each rejection, I just send it out again, because I know revision is not what it needs. It needs the right home and for me not to mess with it. I guess for me, author means “#Published” and writer means “#AmWriting” and the latter is far more often my status.
2. What is your biggest failure?
Years ago, before I got my MFA, I was invited to write for a roleplaying game company—I’ve been a roleplaying gamer since the fifth grade and I was thrilled to have the opportunity. I was given a diagnostic assignment so they could gage my skills and a deadline. I ordered the books for the game and read them all, taught myself British spelling conventions so I could match the game book style, figured out a plot, and then sat down to write… and couldn’t do it. I pushed and pushed and nothing seemed good enough. I shared scenarios I created with other gamer friends, and even with their suggestions, I couldn’t make something I felt good enough about to send in. The deadline came and went. I felt awful about missing that chance for years afterward. At the time, I didn’t have the self confidence or skills to complete the assignment. In the long run, I think it was a good thing, but I’ll always feel a sense of failure for not getting that one done. I still accidentally use British spelling quite often too.
3. What is the worst lie you ever told?
I’m a terrible liar. I suck at it. My parents were in their 40s by the time they had me, and I had three older, waaaaay smarter sisters who could always tell if I was even slightly untruthful. Lying didn’t pay off, so I learned to tell the truth as adorably as possible and hope for the best. I have a creative writing fiction professor who signs her email “professional liar”—so I sometimes use that job title.
4. Do you Google yourself?
Yes. It’s not generally because I’m a narcissist though—people often spell my last name with an extra “e” between the “m” and “y”. It’s an unusual enough name that I know people may Google me if I’m a finalist for a contest or a publisher/interviewer is looking for my website, etc. I try to Google myself by the misspelling so I can ask for corrections. I also Google forthcoming poems and stories I’ve sold because sometimes publishers don’t tell me it’s been released.
5. How would your friends describe you? And what about your worst enemy?
I used to be the life of the party—I had people over all the time, playing board games, card games, roleplaying games, video games… but I lost a parent in my mid-30s and realized that waiting around for my dream of becoming a writer to happen by itself wasn’t working very well. I had to make a lot of hard choices and give up many social activities and gaming addictions and funnel that energy into my career. I think my friends would describe me as an unrepentant nerd and caring cheerleader who’s very positive and supportive—I don’t know that I have “worst enemies” but there were friends who depended on me to create those social spaces for them, and I think they’d describe me as someone who abandoned them. It still hurts to have lost friends because of my career choices, that haunts me sometimes, but I don’t regret making my dreams a reality. I try to take current friend teasing (“did we just have to schedule a lunch date four weeks in advance???”) with good grace.
6. What is your creative Kryptonite?
Not taking care of my meat-suit. When I haven’t been exercising, eating right, or sleeping enough, it’s really hard for me to create. Sometimes when I’m emotionally distressed, I can funnel that into a story, but most of the time if I’m going to create, I need a calm, ready, well-rested mind in a healthy body. I need about seven and a half hours of sleep, 10k steps a day, and a balanced diet to maximize my game. To quote Count Rugen, Princess Bride: “If you haven’t got your health, you haven't got anything.” I’m a cancer survivor and have had several surgeries over the last few years, and I’ve learned that general anesthesia and radiation are also my kryptonites—it takes about four weeks for my cognitive abilities to return after a major surgery or finishing radiation treatments. My body and my brain are absolutely connected and self care is vital to my creative process.
7. What popular movie/book/music which others adore, do you secretly despise?
I did not enjoy A Clockwork Orange. I have never enjoyed an AC/DC song (sorry, college roommate who loved them). Event Horizon was the only movie I was so angry at for baiting me with Aliens-style previews, I wanted to leave half way through and ask for my money back.
8. What is the worst criticism you ever received? How did it make you feel?
These are really hard questions! I’m a positive person and tend to delete/suppress bad memories (so my therapist probably loves you right now). I guess the worst criticism I’ve ever received was being told I’m a bad friend/or that things I’ve said or done are hurtful. That’s never my intent and I regret it deeply when it happens. See my answer to question 5.
9. What is a secret you’ve never told anyone?
I liked Matrix Revolutions. You may not think that’s a very important secret, but you’ve haven’t met some of my friends…
10. How long/how many rejections did you get before someone gave you your shot?
I was terrified of sending my work out. I wrote novel after novel and then put them in a drawer. I wrote long, complicated, mostly useless character histories for RPGs. I was given the roleplaying game opportunity I mentioned in my answer to question 2 and failed to return it. Friends would ask me to submit to things and I’d always say no. I wrote stories and novels to amuse my friends and then never did anything with them. I suppose I spent my first decade as a post-college writer not getting rejected because I wasn’t sending anything out. When I committed to writing and started sending things out, I started getting published pretty quickly. I think writing all those novels (I won NaNoWriMo 10 times) matured my writing in a lot of ways, nearly as much as aging did. I think eight rejections is the most a story’s gotten before it’s been accepted, though I have a couple of poems I’m shopping around right now that have nearly earned that many each. I tend to ignore rejections, focusing more on acceptances, but I do keep a spreadsheet for tracking. The person I credit with really helping me get started is Paul Genesse. He met me at the Gen Con Writers Symposium and invited me to submit to a horror anthology he was editing. He was so encouraging and inviting! I’d only been published twice and paid once for stories before I met him—selling him my third and fourth. He was the perfect editor for me too—catching things to change or fill in. I learned so much working with him. It was definitely Paul who gave me my first “shot.”
11. What was the last movie/book which made you cry?
The last movie I saw that made me cry was Cloud Atlas. I loved that book and I was sobbing (in all the good ways) during the last third of that film. The last book I cried my eyes out for was The Bridge to Terabithia, which I read as an adult while completing work on my critical thesis for my MFA. My focus was children grieving and portal fantasies, so, cheerful topic, but I was trying to process my own grief at losing my dad and I think it helped. The last short story that made me cry my eyes out was Aidan Moher’s “The Penelope Qingdom” which we published in our October 2016 issue of Mothership Zeta Magazine (I’m an assistant editor). When I read that story in our slush pile I cried so hard—our theme is fun and uplifting science fiction and fantasy, so it’s not sad. That story is truly great—it makes me cry the happy kind of tears.
12. Can you describe a single, personal moment in your life which made you, you?
I think it was the moment I decided to pursue an MFA in popular fiction at the University of Southern Maine. I knew I wanted to get my writing to the next level in ways that the novels I was writing every year weren’t, and I had a long talk with a writer and professor I respect (Gregory Wilson) whom I met through the Gen Con Writers Symposium. I was trying to decide if I should go full time into graduate school for a creative writing Ph.D. with a teaching focus or go for a low-residency speculative fiction M.F.A. My friend asked me what I wanted to improve most—teaching/studying creative writing techniques, or writing sci-fi and fantasy. It was a no-brainer answer. I wanted to write great scifi, fantasy, and horror. I signed up for the program and it was the best decision of my life.
13. On a scale of 1 to 10, what is your writer’s ego?
I think it used to be expressed in negative numbers, but my number seems to go up every time I sell something or place in a contest. I think it’s about a five or six right now, which I see as a very good thing considering how far I’ve brought it up out of the negatives.
14. What is your first dream you can remember?
Literally or figuratively? Literally it’s Frankenstein’s monster with a bunch of grapes. I had this recurring dream in elementary school where my family leaves me at a shopping mall. I make my way down into the mall’s basement, where Frankenstein’s monster is standing in a laboratory with a bunch of grapes. I’m not afraid of him. There is an open trap door in the floor and under it is a square of utter blackness. It’s that darkness I’m afraid of. Frankenstein’s monster tells me I have to go down there and save my little brother (I don’t have a little brother). I can hear crocodiles growling and terrified screams. The last thing in the world I want to do is go into that hole. Every time, I woke up wracked with guilt that I didn’t just jump right in there and save him. Figuratively, my first dream, as in, “what did you want to be when you grew up” was “a squirrel.”
15. Have you ever been in a fight/punched in the face? How did/would you react?
I’m an uncommonly tall woman (6’1”) and in high school I was extremely quiet. However, when I got passionate about things, I would not back down. One day, some girls were upset that the kids with mental handicaps earned better scores from the teacher than they did and were being loud and awful about it. I got fired up and told them they should be grateful for the gifts they had and to shut up. Before that day, kids had bullied me, called me names, assumed my Spock t-shirts meant I was prey—but they hadn’t accounted for the rare magic of a science fiction/fantasy nerd finding someone they could righteously defend. The girls followed me out of the classroom and into the hallway, where they ambushed me at my locker—calling me evil names while I put my books way. I closed my locker and turned to face them. One said: “B____, I’m going to kick your a__.” I used to slouch terribly to try and fit in, but that day, I let the fires of Mount Doom burn in my eyes as I rose to my full height and said: “Bring it.” The girl and her pack mates seemed to realize all at once that I was about a foot taller than they were, and seemed to also suddenly recall my belts in karate. With a nasty curse, they fled one and all. After that, kids didn’t pick on me anymore. We didn’t come to blows, but it was a near thing.
I’m like an Ent—slow to rise, but a force to be reckoned with once roused. I remember one time in the fifth grade a neighborhood boy spitting on my friend. I don’t remember taking him down. There’s a flash memory of his spittle hitting my friend’s black patent shoes, and the next thing I remember was that I had him pinned in the grass. He ran home crying. I have the feeling that, if I were in an actual hand-to-hand situation, it would be a no-holds-barred kind of visceral response thing. Any assailant with training and skills would probably overpower me, but I am stronger than I look/act, and I might surprise them. There were a few of drunk boys who got grabby at parties in college who found out I’m more than capable of lifting/throwing a 200lb assailant (on one occasion through a closet door). Maybe “Hulk” is more appropriate than “Ent”… but truly, most of the time I’m a baby rabbit and I avoid conflict as much as possible.
16. What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters with sexual identity different from your own?
Do you mean gender or sexuality? I guess the most difficult thing is trying to understand the character deeply and trust myself to take that empathy and run with it. Having just finished 80,000 words with a gay male protagonist and narrator (Swift for the Sun will be published by Dreamspinner Press first quarter 2017) , I have to say I wasn’t sure if what I found attractive about men would translate—and this book is so not about some straight woman fantasizing about two guys together. I wanted it to be an “untold history” set in the 1820s Caribbean and about adventure and discovery. I asked some writer friends who identify as the same gender/sexuality as my character to read some excerpts—they very kindly honestly shared from their personal experience what read “true” in those excerpts and what read “like a straight girl wrote this.” Speaking with them cultivated a deeper understanding that carried me through a 45,000 word expansion under editorial direction that I feel pretty positive about. I’m so proud of the book I changed my mind about publishing it under a pseudonym and am using my real name instead.
17. What do you feel the most pride in? And what makes you feel the most shame?
I have to say I glow whenever someone tells me they loved something I wrote. I feel the most shame when I disappoint a friend or family member.
18. I read your poem Red State: Blue Heart. Powerful, truly. With the political climate and the social climate the way it is, does this find its way into your writing? Or, is writing an escape?
Wow! Thanks so much for reading my poem and your kind words. I’m not a very political person usually, but when my LGBT and minority friends are scared and hurting, like they were after this election, I come alive like an Ent and march on Isengard. I work hard to recognize my own privileges and ignorance, protect my students and friends from microaggressions and toxic behaviors/situations, and reevaluate a lot of popular culture I mindlessly consumed before. Writing for me has always been an escape, but I find what I’ve published the last few years explores more of my personal experiences and challenges. I know I still get things wrong, and I’m scared, but I’m going to keep publishing anyway. I get really uncomfortable talking about race and I think that’s a great place for me to push and grow personally, so I’m going to take that uncomfortable feeling and use it as a guide to keep learning and trying to change. I do like to escape on occasion by allowing myself to write some pretty standard dragon-slayer/terminator/aliens/vampire action adventure/romance, whatever’s churning around in my hindbrain from a childhood of solid 80s/90s sci-fi and gaming. In the past, if something worthy of polishing and revision came out of that play, I’d have to go back and insert diverse characters, but now I find characters from a spectrum of shapes/sizes/colors/gender-status naturally growing into my fiction.
19. While walking through the woods, you hear a howl in the distance. Above you in the trees, crows perch, watching you. And, for a moment, you swear they are laughing, at you. From behind the trees you hear whispers and laughter but when you investigate, there is no one there. Turning around confused, you see three ghostly figures floating before you. The lead ghost points at you and smiles. From beneath you, skeletal hands burst forth from the ground. You can have one weapon of your choice, three books and one luxury item...what do you do?
Well, first I make sure that the Command Undead spell I just recited from one of the books was correct and the skeletons are actually under my control. Their first order will be set up my weapon of choice, the robot sentry (Aliens: UA 571-C Automated Sentry Gun) with silver rounds to hold off the incoming werewolves while they complete their second command, which is to dig some nice sturdy trenches. Considering the crows are watching me, laughing, and I hear whispers and laughter from the trees, I’ll tell the damn druid to stop goofing around and get her and her animal companions inside the parameter before the robot sentries are active and ask her to start laying down defensive spells before the pack arrives. Next, I’ll command the friendly, smiling ghosts to range out and around with the crows and report on the pack’s position and when we can expect incoming. Next, I’ll deploy my luxury item, Perkin’s tent from Harry Potter (remember the undetectable extension charm and the smell of cats?) so we have a base for however long this siege is going to last. Then I’ll settle in with the books and see what other spells may be of use…
20. What would you like fans and potential fans to know about you as a person?
I am a huge nerd and an extrovert and I love people. If you see me at a convention (I’ll be the tall woman in a Star Wars-print dress) please don’t be shy—come right up and start discussing either Aliens or Spaceballs.
Thank you so much for the interview! For more information about Karen, check out the links below!
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