Q&A with Author Karen Heuler (& W*n Choice of Book)

Today, help me welcome author Karen Heuler, who is here to talk about her recent  release with ChiZine Publications, The Inner City, a collection of what sounds like really interesting short stories. I’ve been trying to read more shorts lately, studying the form, because it’s a length I have trouble with. I’d rather write a 90,000-word novel than a short story! Karen Heuler‘s stories have appeared in over sixty literary and speculative journals and anthologies, including several “Best of” collections. She’s published a short story collection and three novels, and won an O. Henry award in 1998. She lives in New York with her dog, Philip K. Dick, and her cats, Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte. You can learn more about Karen and her books at her website. 
ABOUT THE INNER CITY:  A collection of short stories that dart out at what the world is doing and center on how the individual copes with it. Anything is possible: people breed dogs with humans to create a servant class; beneath one great city lies another city, running it surreptitiously; an employee finds that her hair has been stolen by someone intent on getting her job; strange fish fall from trees and birds talk too much; a boy tries to figure out what he can get when the Rapture leaves good stuff behind. Everything is familiar; everything is different. Behind it all, is there some strange kind of design or merely just the chance to adapt? Characters cope with the strange without thinking it’s strange, sometimes invested in what’s going on, sometimes trapped by it, but always finding their own way in.
Give us the “elevator pitch” for your book.
“The Inner City” is an insidious bunch of stories, with dog-human hybrids bred for a new servant class; with a sneaky under-city that’s controlling traffic and parking spots and a whole lot more; with people growing out of the soil; with things that are certainly surprising and very often alarming. It deals with change, with evolution in the course of a lifetime, with the need to adapt, with the impossibility of knowing what the right change is.

Describe your favorite scene from the new book–and why is it your favorite?
There are two stories in particular that visually appeal to me. One is “Down on the Farm,” where a hybrid girl-dog runs around the farm and we get to see some of the other animals there. There are pigs that are growing human ears on their backs, and other pigs that are growing eyes–for human transplants. I can always see those ears twitching and those eyes watching.

The other one is “The Large People,” where a retired worker sees hats, then heads, then people growing out of the ground. I don’t recall where the idea for this came from, but I’d bet there was something in the soil that looked like a head or a hat. So many things come out of the ground–it’s not too much of a stretch to think people could as well, is it? There’s already a precedent for it, the Greek story about Jason sowing dragon’s teeth, which turned into an army.

Ah, but I do love the fish falling out of trees in “Landscape, with Fish.” I guess this is particularly visual collection, and therefore it’s filled with scenes I like to visualize.

What was the hardest scene to write?
The hardest scene is always the one that doesn’t work.  I had that in spades with “The Hair,” which I wrote in 1999. I really liked this story; I kept sending it out and it kept not finding a home.

Not every story works; I know that. And sometimes I acknowledge that the thing is never going to work and I give it up. But with “Hair,” I was determined to get this one published. I lost my hair through chemo when I wrote the first draft of this story, and in it a woman finds that her hair has been stolen by a coworker, and that her own job is threatened as well. The story used the metaphor of a job to look at meaning and how to find it.

I kept rewriting the ending, year after year. I sent it out, waiting, got rejected, and thought about the ending again. I had started with literary journals (the story nods at Gogol’s “The Nose”) and then tried some fantasy publications.

In 2010, Michigan Quarterly Review finally accepted it for publication. I have no idea how many revisions it took to get to that point. If you feel strongly about a story, you should never let it die.

What’s on your nightstand or top of your TBR pile?
I just finished “Alif the Unseen.” I don’t remember where I got the recommendation–Facebook? Whoever it was, thank you. It’s one of the few Arabic fantasy novels I’ve read (I’m being generous in assuming I’ve read others). It was vivid and showed a different society with different elements–a terrific read.

I’m switching to my virtual nightstand now–on the Kindle, I’ve got Karen Tidbeck, Helen Marshall, John Joseph Adams’ latest anthology, one of Ellen Datlow’s antho–I’m afraid my index finger has gotten a little button-happy; I’m afraid to see how many others I’ve bought.

And about a year’s worth of New Yorkers!

Book you’ve faked reading (Moby Dick is leading the votes on this question!): 
I haven’t really faked it, but I’ve never managed to get through Joyce’s “Ulysses.” And I haven’t read “Neuromancer,” either. I tried a few pages. There I’ve said it. My head is hanging down in shame. I await punishment.

Book you’re an evangelist for: 
There are so many! I belong to a couple of book groups, and I have learned that my selections don’t go over very well, usually. I like SF, Fantasy, and the offbeat, as well as literary. I think I’m able to sneak in something like “The Chess Garden” to a very literary group, and I get burned. I try Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles” (believing that everybody will like Bradbury) and get mute stares from a very conservative bunch of readers I belong to. So I’ve started thinking I’m the kiss of death. However, lately, two books I loved actually got affection. One was “Q” by Evan Mandery, about a man who keeps meeting versions of himself from the future; this went over well in a very literary group. And the other (not speculative) was “Three Weeks in December” by Audrey Schulman.

I fell in love with Connie Wilis’ “Passage” and then the time-travel books. Nancy Kress’ Probability series. There’s just so much wonderful stuff out there! I could go on for quite a while.

Book that changed your life:
This will probably be more than you wanted to know. I was young. Maybe 17. And the book was “Steppenwolf” by Herman Hesse. I can’t remember why, but this book made me decide it was time to lose my virginity. This may be why books get banned–they can be unexpectedly motivational. On the other hand, maybe any book would have done at the time. But I’m afraid to re-read it. (Suzanne: Makes note to re-read Steppenwolf–LOL.)

Favorite line from a book:
I memorized the first paragraph from “The Haunting of Hill House” when I was a teenager. I came across someone else who had memorized it. Is there a secret cult of people who know this paragraph? If we all recite it at once, will it break bridges?

Actually, the other person who memorized that paragraph was a student of mine. I was walking him to the subway after class and asked where he was going.

“The East Village.”
“I used to live in the East Village. What street?”
“East 7th street.”
“I used to live on East 7th street. What number?”
He told me.
“I used to live in that building! What apartment?”
He told me.
“For god’s sake, that’s MY apartment!”

It turns out he was living in the first apartment I had in New York.

I’ve been thinking ever since, that I should go to all my previous apartments and see who’s there now. I may know them.

Most horrifying moment while reading a book:
I love jungles, I’ve been to the Amazon and I’d love to go to some others. One of my novels, “Journey to Bom Goody,” takes place in the Amazon, where a retired store owner brings videos of American society to natives to see how the natives would view us; a kind of PBS program in reverse. Anyway, I got hooked on books about traveling to jungles. There was one that I won’t even remember the title of which very early on had a horrible scene about the way these natives treated the food it was about to eat while it was still alive. That was it. I can’t tolerate cruelty. By the same token, I had to put down “The Orphan Master’s Son” rather quickly; I couldn’t stand the cruelty there either.

And I’m too scared to read Stephen King. I read “Pet Sematary” while I was out alone in the woods for a weekend. It didn’t go well.

I was reading it when all of a sudden, the lights went out. This was in the old days, when we had analog phones, not cell towers, so the phone still worked. I called the operator and said (supply quaver): “I’m all alone out in the woods and my power’s gone out. Can you tell me if everyone’s power has gone out, or only me?”

And then the phone went out.
LOL. Stephen King will do that to you! Thanks, Karen!
The giveaway: commenters get an entry to win your choice of any book in the ChiZine Publications catalog.   Now…go!

10 thoughts on “Q&A with Author Karen Heuler (& W*n Choice of Book)

  1. Congrats to Karen on the release! Thanks for a very fun interview! That’s so weird that in such a big city you’d find the person living in your old apartment 🙂

  2. Just read the book’s summary, and wow, I am now fascinated! Really, I’ve never heard of any book quite like this! I love short stories too, so this one’s definitely being added on my TBR pile!