Katey: My love for writing actually began before I knew that's what I was falling for. Junior year of high school, a wonderful English teacher introduced me to Thoreau and, by extension, to the worlds of philosophy and nature. Ever since that moment, I understood that I could use writing to explore and make sense of the world around me--just as Thoreau wrote his way to new insight in Walden. In college, I read Joan Didion's The White Album and Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Didion showed me how this same kind of exploratory writing could be applied to contemporary society, utilizing the landscape of people rather than the natural world, to yield insight. Of course, this "exploratory writing" has a name, and that is the tried and true essay--still my go-to form of writing whenever I have something I really need to figure out.
It wasn't until after graduate school that fiction really took hold of my heart. Out there in "the real world," I encountered so many unanswered questions. I couldn't travel all over the globe investigating answers for myself, and I couldn't literally be inside the mind of another person...not in real life, at least. But I could in fiction, and once I realized that, I also realized that fiction yields just as much insight as nonfiction. The same kind of explorations I'd been enamored with through writing essays, suddenly became possible through fiction. Using research to make my stories realistic (my current collection involves military and civilian characters in and around the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, two countries I've never visited and two subcultures of a war zone I've never personally experienced), I tend to write my way into a story with enough facts to make something believable, but I always let my imagination take over in the end.
In fiction, I can still get that "ah-hah" moment that any good essay affords, only it's a lot more fun! Now, I write actively in both genres depending on whatever I'm exploring at the time. I've been delighted to find that there are deep insights to be discovered no matter which genre I'm writing in. Realizing how many "tools" I had at my disposal as a writer in both genres, it was easy to imagine myself dedicating my life to this art. Who wouldn't want to spend time exploring and understanding their surroundings--literally and figuratively--through art? It's a tough career to make a living at, though, so I'm grateful that I find it so rewarding.
OS: Could you share some thoughts about what you tend to look for in a work of fiction?
Katey: It's hard to beat a story that has a unique voice or perspective. But of course, voice doesn't always mean five syllable words and perspective doesn't always mean point of view. What I'm talking about here is a narrator or character's particular way of seeing the world. Do they notice the fingerprints on the window, or the majestic view on the other side? Do they hear the clock's incessant second hand, or laughter coming from across the street? I look for stories with that kind of attention to detail, because details after all, lead to insight.
I also look for stories of smart surprise. Smart surprise works best when a writer can create a world or character so thoroughly, that readers go along for the ride without question. The surprise comes into play when that thoroughness is disrupted or confirmed in a crafted manner that enhances story. I think this is done most successfully by tying up loose ends, presenting a convincing shift in mood, or (my personal favorite) a particularly fitting metaphor.
OS: What's next for you and your writing?
Katey: Over the next year, I'd like to finish my collection of war stories, tentatively titled Flashes of War. After that, I envision a collection of personal essays based on my current travels across the United States. That said, I'm obsessed with flash fiction--writing it, teaching it, reading it--and wouldn't mind a side project of an anthology or textbook of some sort. Did I just say that? Yeesh. I'd better stay focused. Back to the desk...