Telling Tales: For novelist Karen Guzman, the journey matters more than the arrival

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Karen Guzman (photo by Michael Marsland)

Telling Tales is an occasional series featuring members of the Yale community who write novels, short stories, poems, or plays.

By day, Karen Guzman is a senior communications writer at the Yale School of Management, but in her spare time, even “when the house is quiet and all the sensible people are fast asleep,” she writes novels and short stories. Her fiction has appeared in a number of literary magazines, and her story collection, “Pilgrims and Other Stories,” was a finalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award. Her debut novel, “Homing Instincts” (2014), won the Fiction Attic Press First Novel Prize. She recently spoke with YaleNews about what compels her to write fiction, the advice she would give her younger self, and her self-appointed task to write for at least 20 minutes per day for a year.

You’ve described the publishing business as “a hideous crapshoot with terrible odds.” Why did you roll the dice?

As writers, I think the odds are always against us. Over the years, there have been numerous moments when I’ve stopped and asked myself, “What’s the point?” There are far easier, and more profitable, ways to spend your time than writing stories and hoping someone somewhere will want to read them.

Whenever I asked this question, though, I always came up with the same answer: The story is the point. Writing is such hard work. To stick with it, you’ve got to have something to say, something that you see as crucial and compelling. Sharing this with a reader is a way of contributing the best of myself with the world — or with whatever little faction is listening. It all matters.

And the really funny thing is that after my novel was accepted for publication (and this sounds corny, but it’s true nonetheless,) it really hit me that the struggle to write and publish, and all it taught me, mattered a lot more than the publication itself, in the end. The journey — not the arrival — was the real point.

What is “Homing Instincts” about and what inspired you to write it?

“Homing Instincts” follows one young man’s quest to make sense of his past and redirect his life after a series of painful losses leave him adrift. A touching eulogy at the funeral for a much-loved elderly man was the catalyst for this book, and a few years that my husband and I spent navigating tricky transitions in our own lives provided the grist.

You have a husband, a son, and a full-time career. How do you find time to write fiction?

That is the big question. And the answer, I’m afraid, is not very interesting.  I squeeze it in whenever I can. This means lunch breaks, weekend hours when it’s my husband’s turn to take my son to soccer practice, the dentist’s or doctor’s waiting room, and of course late nights when the house is quiet and all the sensible people are fast asleep.

Did you find your training as a journalist at the Hartford Courant and at the News & Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina) helpful in writing a novel?

I’ve found my journalistic training helpful in everything I do as a writer and as a professional. I was fortunate enough to work for two regional newspapers back when they were at the top of their game. I worked with exceptionally smart and generous editors. Practicing journalism at a good daily paper provides an education unlike any other. You’re on the frontlines of everything all the time, intersecting with people from all walks of life, struggling to make sense of the issues impacting all of us. Along the way, you learn how to think clearly, how to rise above partisanship, and how to write fast — pretty good skills for a novelist, too. I became a real, grownup adult in newsrooms. The benefits I reaped, the mentors and friendships I forged, continue to this day.

Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give your younger self as she sets out to write a novel?

It’s a cliché, but write what matters to you, what keeps you up at night. Don’t worry about what’s trendy or what other people are doing. If it doesn’t feel important to you, it won’t to anyone else either.

On your blog, “WriteDespite,” you stated that you committed to write for at least 20 minutes per day for a year. How did you do?

I mostly succeeded, as did my blogging partner, the terrific writer/editor Cathy Cruise. We came clean with our followers in the end, sharing our successes and our failures. That’s the point of Write Despite, and it grew into such a fun and supportive community, we decided to keep it going. Join us!

Writing fiction is a solitary activity. After your books were published, did you find it difficult to appear before groups of strangers to give readings and answer their questions?

If I hadn’t been a journalist, trained in listening to people, explaining myself and thinking on my feet, I never could have done it. I’m happiest observing on the sidelines. But my husband and son let me practice on them, and the fact that the audiences at my readings have all tended to be lovely and appreciative also helped a lot.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a new novel that is very different from “Homing Instincts.” Like “Homing Instincts,” it is also set in Connecticut. I’m in the exciting rush of the first draft, when the ideas are crackling and the characters and their struggles are emerging from the mist. This is my favorite part of the process.

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