An Interview with Katherine Fawcett, by Liz Mathews
September 2, 2015
In the opening of his NPR book review of Katherine Fawcett’s The Little Washer of Sorrows, Jason Heller writes that the book “is not what it seems.” Halfway through the third page of the first story of the collection the reader gets a heavy sense of this, and even though the tale clearly breaks from any reality you or I might recognize, you just have to know what’s going to happen next. This is true of pretty much every piece in the collection, including a short one called “Cannonball,” from the perspective of a kid whose mom is giving him some bad news. Have you ever bothered to consider bad news from an eleven-year-old’s point of view, since you were eleven? Afraid to go down that path? Indulge yourself.
That’s what Fawcett has opted to do—at least as far as her writing goes. She started her career in sports reporting, moved toward freelance journalism and commercial writing, and by motherhood/age forty decided to give those fiction voices in her head a chance. I was able to ask her about what it was like to prepare stories for a collection, how her previous writing experiences aided her when it came to working on a book, and how she can take something so basic as an elderly couple on vacation and make them both more real than you’d ever considered and more real than you’d ever want to consider. Meet Katherine Fawcett.
What was it like to work on a story collection, for a book? In the past you’ve worked as a sports reporter and a freelance journalist, among other things. Did any of those previous experiences prepare you for getting this book published?
Working on The Little Washer of Sorrows was fantastic and frustrating at the same time. I love it when the words and ideas flow—there’s no finer feeling (except perhaps finding a place for a seven-letter word in Scrabble that happens to land on the Triple.) However, being a working mother of two teenagers doesn’t leave much time to stare at clouds, mull over ideas and wait for that special inspiration (let along board games.) It doesn’t come easily for me. I had to get up early, ignore the laundry and forgo TV in order to get this book done. But I also had to listen to that little inner voice that told me the stories I needed to write.
To be honest, I didn’t write these stories as a “collection” at first. Rather, I started writing fiction as a way to regain my voice after years of writing lots of rather mundane material for my job. (One of my major freelance gigs was writing about new innovations in heavy equipment and machinery for a Western Canadian mining supplier.) With short fiction, I could go nuts. Even in sports reporting, which I only did for a short time because I wasn’t very good at it—never did like hockey much—there wasn’t a lot of room for true creativity. However, what my previous writing jobs gave me, for which I am very grateful, was discipline. Those jobs taught me that writer’s block is an indulgence that I couldn’t afford. When something needs to be submitted, you have no choice but to write. When I started producing fiction, I missed the deadlines that editors would set. I solved this problem by entering contests held by some of the great Canadian literary magazines. It was my success with some of those entries that encouraged me and eventually led to this book.
Several of your stories in The Little Washer of Sorrows touch on mythology or folklore. Did you have to do any additional research once you got a sense for where you wanted to take the story? Did you write them and then make sure all the little details were correct? Or is it all part of your background?
I read all kinds of weird things which inspire me and inform my fiction. (Books of classical mythology, fairy tales etc.) Sometimes I encounter established characters that I’d like to explore further (the Greek Sirens, for example) and place them into a different context just to see how they’d fit or how they would approach an issue that is outside of their experience. To make this effective, a degree of research is crucial—and lots of fun. With research I can get to know the characters I’m dealing with and be sure the details are accurate. In this way I can give the characters wings, then push them off sky-scapers.
How did you choose what stories to include in this collection? And why did you determine “The Little Washer of Sorrows” to be the title story, rather than, say, “Scratching Silver Linings” or “The Siren Sisters”?
I can’t take credit for the story selection…my publisher, the wonderful people at Thistledown Press in Saskatchewan made the final call on which stories would be included. There were a few that didn’t fit in this collection—I’m keeping those ones in my pocket for now. As for the title story, I thought that “Captcha” would have made a good one too. However, “The Little Washer of Sorrow” is really representative of what I did in many of the pieces, which was bring the element of surreal/strange/unexplainable into the concrete reality. Without giving too much away, The Little Washer of Sorrows also known as a Banshee, an Irish mythological creature who wails a mournful cry while she washes the garments of someone who is about to die. The story arises when we find her working as a bankruptcy trustee for a troubled couple in a Vancouver insolvency firm.
When you sit down to write, how do you get started? Some writers have an opening sentence and they write to see where it takes them, while others might have an ending that they work backwards to attain. Or some do both. What’s your process?
My process is all over the map. Occasionally I start with a big concept or question and plug it with “What If.” Sometimes I simply start with a character. There have been stories that began with just an interesting sentence. Eavesdropping is another great way to start writing.
What’s it like to look at the world as Katherine Fawcett? For instance, in “Captcha,” the opening story of the collection, the story starts off very upfront but also very normal and potentially heartrending: the woman can’t have children. The story then takes a pretty unexpected turn. How much of your daily life feeds your creativity?
In my daily life I’m a bit of a worry wart. I’m also kind of lazy, so although I worry and fret, I don’t often do anything about it, I just sit around imagining crazy scenarios. I can take a perfectly calm, benign situation and twist it around to envision every unpredictable or horrible thing that could go awry. I’ve heard it said that worrying is unproductive. I feel that if you let go of trying to change things and simply let the worry travel through you and pay attention to where your mind takes you, it can actually be a very creative outlet.
Liz Mathews is a former publishing veteran recovering from her years in New York by living in Minnesota. After years as a copywriter for a science fiction and fantasy publisher, she now attends science classes, thinks about statistics, and sells books to business people in her spare time.