In Conversation: Grub Authors Crystal King & Katrin Schumann
We always knew the GrubStreet community was bursting with talent, but with more book publications between 2018 and 2019 than we’ve ever seen before—from students, instructors, staff, and other community members—we're celebrating with a new author-to-author conversation series featuring just some of the Grubbies whose books are "pubbing" this year. Read on to find out what authors Katrin Schumann and Crystal King have to say about drafting, research, and those one-star Amazon reviews.
Katrin Schumann's debut novel, The Forgotten Hours, is out on February 1st from Lake Union Publishing: Katie Gregory's life falls apart during an idyllic summer at her family’s cabin on Eagle Lake when her best friend accuses her father of sexual assault. Throughout his trial and imprisonment, Katie insisted on his innocence, but now, ten years later, he's getting out, and as old memories collide with new realities, they call into question everything she thinks she knows about family, friends, and, ultimately, herself.
Crystal King's second novel, The Chef’s Secret, is out on February 12th from Atria Books: When Bartolomeo Scappi dies in 1577, he leaves his vast estate—properties, money, and his position—to his nephew and apprentice Giovanni. He also gives Giovanni the keys to two strongboxes and strict instructions to burn their contents. Despite Scappi’s dire warning that the information concealed in those boxes could put Giovanni’s life and others at risk, Giovanni is compelled to learn his uncle’s secrets. He undertakes the arduous task of decoding Scappi’s journals and uncovers a history of deception, betrayal, and murder—all to protect an illicit love affair.
Crystal King: I want to know if you’re a pantser or a plotter.
Katrin Schumann: This book has a dual timeline, as your book does, and it meant that I had to be more organized about what is happening when, because you have to make sure that each [timeline] feels relevant and that they speak to one another as well as to the whole story. I knew pretty early on how I wanted the timelines to play off one another, and what took a lot of organizing was [working out] what information I was ready to allow the reader to know. The story is told with a very limited perspective: in a way, the reader sometimes knows more than the main character, so that was tricky in terms of organizing and planning the plot. I used [the computer program] Scrivener, which was extremely helpful; it enabled me to move big chunks around without losing track of where they were.
Tell me about your book, because you’ve got a lot of different things going on at the same time.
CK: I have a bigger gap in mine: yours is nine years that you’re going back and forth between; mine spans fifty. Bartolomeo Scappi, a celebrated chef, is dead, you learn in the first paragraph, and his nephew Giovanni is reeling. From [that moment] everything starts to split, so you have a timeline where Giovanni is moving forward, but he’s discovering everything about his uncle’s life moving backward. I had to figure out where all that fit, so I had to plan a lot of it, and figuring out when you get to learn some of the things in the past was really tricky. Even down to the very last edit there was a crucial chapter that I [had placed early on] in the book because I thought some of the information should be revealed in a somewhat chronological way, and my agent and my editor were both saying, no, you’ve got to hold this chapter [back], so I ended up moving that whole chapter to the end because revealing it sooner took a little bit of the oomph out of the story.
But pantsing is the fun part, I think. With my first book, when I was writing parts of it [without a plan], I would step away from the computer thinking, oh my gosh I just killed a person!
KS: I loved the process of the final edit on this book, because I felt like I had sorted out the technical aspects of the plot—what you reveal and when—and then it was like entering this magical kingdom where I could elaborate, and cut things out, and I could tweak, and add a little detail. I could focus more on creating a strong sense of atmosphere; I could play with language; and so that was a great relief, having the plot elements behind me.
CK: I think editing is way more fun than sitting down and putting it out there.
KS: That brings me to a question: your book is clearly very heavily researched; I’ve often wondered, how much do you find that the research helps or hinders you? Do you do all the research before you start writing? How do you pick what you want to include?
CK: Even now I still find things I wish I could stick back into the book. My research is an ongoing process, but I try to do a core part of [it] before I start. Usually, I have one or two things that attract me to the story, and I know a little bit about the character, the main person I want to write about, and then I have to figure out what the story around that person is. I start by looking at the history and [thinking], okay, this person knew this person, and they worked for this guy, and he was living in this city at this time. Then I try to look at all the people that were in the wider social sphere, and the events that happened in that time. So, for example, in The Chef’s Secret there’s a comet that appears at the beginning of the book and at the end. This comet was real. In 1577, when my book is set, there was a comet that was visible by all of Europe for seventy-four days.
When I wrote Feast of Sorrow, my first novel, I really struggled with having too much [research]. My writing group was always saying, you want to tone this [information] back; it’s nice but it doesn’t lend to the story, so I was a lot better in the second book [at] figuring out, ok, how do I include details that are relevant to the story and not just interesting to me? I’m probably going to always need an editor who says, that scene just doesn’t do much for the book. That’s what it goes back to: does this help plot? Does it inform the reader about the character? Does it do something in particular?
KS: I did a lot of research, but I found that what was most helpful to me was putting myself in the situations [my characters are in], so I wasn’t researching facts as much as I was researching the experience. I looked up [court] transcripts, I went to a courthouse, I had that feeling of going up the stairs and into the big building, and putting your stuff through the metal detectors, feeling nervous even though you haven’t done anything wrong. And I also taught in prisons, to be able to feel what it’s like to be so far out of your comfort zone, and that really inform[ed] my writing. I also had to hit up a friend who’s a lawyer and another one who’s a judge, just make sure that I had my facts right, because if you’re writing something contemporary, and you’ve got some facts wrong, you’re definitely going to hear from your readers. Somebody will know that obscure thing that you got wrong and will point it out to you.
Julia Glass once said that she doesn’t do research before she writes; she writes first and then does research, and I thought that was interesting—to let your characters lead.
CK: Kate Quinn, who wrote books set in ancient Rome and in the Renaissance, has a page on her website for all of the things that the readers find incorrect. And I thought that was brilliant. If I start to get people finding all my inaccuracies I’m totally going to pull a Kate Quinn.
KS: One thing I thought was interesting about your book was the way you look at family and family’s different definitions: there’s blood family, and there’s family in terms of the relationship people have with each other, like the slave boy and Giovanni, and there’s this issue of lineage and patronage and what family means [in that context]. Tell me a bit about that as a theme.
CK: The idea of vendetta is very deeply built into [ancient Roman] culture, and I think even in modern Italian culture to some extent; we see this in all the mob movies, right? The idea of loyalty to your family, and in particular that blood relationship, is important, and it goes back centuries. In ancient Rome—and I demonstrate this in Feast of Sorrow—if you did something terribly wrong they would not only execute you, they would execute, potentially, your entire family, to eliminate your bloodline. They believed that the sins of the father were the sins of the son. So the idea of being honorable to your family, and honorable and truthful, is something deeply ingrained. And so that makes for interesting stories.
They also had this interesting cultural acceptance of bringing people into that family, bringing people into the fold. Caesar Augustus, when he didn’t have any heirs, adopted Tiberius. Adopting a family in to carry on the family name was really important. That name means so much; it almost means more than the blood. I explore that in The Chef’s Secret: how do you carry on the name if you don’t have someone to do it?
You’ve got a lot of really interesting family structures [in The Forgotten Hours] as well. Something terrible happens in the family at the center of your book, and [your characters] have to reconcile what their loyalty is to their family. You have almost the opposite [question]: how do you be loyal [to your family] when you don’t know if you should be?
KS: It was mind-bending [to explore], because what I wanted to look into was: if your own experience with a family member or somebody that you love is a good experience, [then] your memories are of somebody who has taken care of you, watched over you, been generous. Obviously, you’re going to have a certain perspective on that person. I wanted to push that to the limits, basically—to show that people are really complex; people can often be both good and bad. And even the people that we really love, like our best friends or our parents, can do things that shock and disappoint us while still being good parents, or close friends, or a wonderful, generous lover. That’s what I focused on: how disorienting it is when we have to redefine how we understand somebody we really love.
In my book, it’s not just a question of the main character Katie and her relationship with her father, but it’s her relationship with her mother, too. She comes to discover that the assumptions she made about her relationship with her mother are off-base, and her relationship with her best friend, the one who makes the accusation [of sexual assault] against her father—she has all sorts of assumptions about her best friend that are rooted in her being young and naïve, and not having a fully mature perspective. Equally, Katie has to reassess her relationship with her first love. She’s got a romanticized notion of this boy Jack that she had a crush on that summer, and she has to reassess that. I tried to look at it on multiple levels.
CK: As we grow into adulthood, we realize that the adults in our lives are not exactly what we thought they were when we were children, and you deal with that [in the book] in a really interesting way.
KS: I remember the moment when I realized that my parents were normal, fallible human beings, and it wasn’t until I was well into adulthood. When our parents are still alive, we are always still children, no matter how old we are. In this case Katie is twenty-four, she has been through college, she’s in a relationship, and she’s launched her career. But she is still her father’s daughter, and navigating that under the circumstances is tricky. I think a lot of people experience that it in different ways—not just in this kind of story where there is a heinous accusation, and we’re trying to figure out what actually happened.
CK: You’re a busy person; you’ve also been raising your own children, and you work beyond writing your books. How do you manage all of the projects that you’re working on while you’re writing?
KS: I find that with writing, sometimes it’s better not to have so much time. Personally, I can focus more if I know I only have a couple of hours. How does that work for you? When do you do your writing?
CK: Mostly on the weekends [but] my goal this year, actually, is to write 300 words a day. [When you write every day] you live in the story a little more clearly. On one of my most prolific days on the book I’m working on now, I got home from a concert at 11 o’clock at night, and I sat down [to write my 300 words] and in probably forty minutes I wrote 1,800 words. It just spilled out. So I think you’re right; sometimes when you have less time you find a way to make that time more valuable.
KS: One way of looking at writing is to touch the book once a day, whether that means you’re actually writing 300 words, or whether you’re just thinking about it, and drawing conclusions. Do you find that first draft the hardest?
CK: Definitely. Sitting your butt in a chair is hard. Doing that consistently, I find, is harder than anything else. I have such a love-hate relationship with writing. I really hate the act of sitting down to do it, but once I’m in it, I feel like, oh, this is good, and when I’m not in it, I feel like I need to be, and once I’m done with it, it’s just this incredible [feeling], like, oh my god, I can’t believe I just wrote that.
KS: I thought it was interesting that you wrote from a male perspective.
CK: The people I’m writing about are men. I have an idea of the next several books, actually, and they’re all historical figures, and it’s not that women weren’t involved in the lives of these people, it’s that the stories that eventually were told, or the things that were able to be accomplished, happened because they were men, and to tell the story from somebody else’s point of view—at least so far in the books that I’m writing—feels disingenuous.
It is unusual, in the world of historical fiction; there tend to be more stories being told from a woman’s point of view, because women tend to be the biggest readers of historical fiction. I don’t know if many men get asked about writing from a woman’s point of view, but women always get asked about it. Men have been writing from women’s points of view for centuries.
In my third novel, I knew that I wanted to have a stronger woman character in the book. She’s not a real person at all, but she figures very prominently in this book. It’s almost two stories—it’s almost her story, too—and that’s been fun because I just knew I needed a strong character in the book.
One thing I am so curious about is: why did you decide to write [The Forgotten Hours]? What compelled you to explore this story?
KS: [The issue of sexual assault] is such a big conversation nationally and internationally, now, we’re all thinking about this, but in the many years that I spent writing this book, I did sometimes wonder, why am I obsessed with this topic, and willing to spend so much time and effort trying to get it right? The answer, as I’ve come to understand myself, is that I write because it’s the way I wrestle with difficult issues, and usually, it’s because it’s something that I’ve experienced myself, even if second-hand. In this case, I went through a period in my life where I had two close friends who were both dealing with this type of situation on totally polar opposite ends of the spectrum, and in both cases, it elicited strong reactions from me. I was deeply involved in it all. I started to think about the “peripheral victim,” all those people who are somehow involved with a person who is accused of a crime, whether it’s husbands, or wives, or children, friends, coworkers. It really hit home to me when I saw Jerry Sandusky [a former football coach convicted of rape and child abuse]. Do you remember him?
KS: When his wife was interviewed on television, I caught a snippet where she looked at the camera, and she was totally confused and she said, you don’t understand, that’s not the man I know. That moment was really heartbreaking for me, because I thought to myself, she knows this man in a certain way, and that way doesn’t allow for these other stories that are also real. And we can’t really blame her for having such a narrow view, because her experience of it is real; I think that’s kind of mind-bending.
That’s another thing that I experienced viscerally: we are invested in believing that people are who we think they are, because it reflects on us; it reflects on how well we can judge others, whether we’ve got good instincts. Learning that we are fallible and being willing to accept that we’re not always right—that’s a hard lesson to learn, too, and I wanted to explore that. Katie, the main character in The Forgotten Hours, really has to wrestle with that; she has to come to terms with the fact that on many different levels, she, for perfectly good reasons, came to the wrong conclusions about a number of people.
CK: Your book is not quite out in the world yet. Well, it sort of is, actually—I saw that you’re an Amazon First Read this month! So you’re starting to get reviews. Do you read them or not?
KS: I swore that I wouldn’t, and then, of course, it’s absolutely impossible not to want to know what people think about your book. I have read some of them, but to be honest with you, I find it’s not helpful to me to read reviews from people who haven’t liked the book—while I understand on one level that not everybody can like a book, what can I learn from somebody who hasn’t enjoyed my book? I’ve already gone through the process of editing, and getting feedback, and almost every critique that a reader can come up with is something that I myself have already considered, and I made the choice[s] I made in the service of my story, hoping that I’m making the right choice. So, that’s the long way of saying that I like to read the good reviews, and I like to avoid the bad ones. [Laughs.] How about you?
CK: I can’t not read them; there’s just no way. It’s really shifted the way that I review books, too. Being an author myself, I suddenly realized that in so many book reviews that I gave over the years, I didn’t really consider that there’s probably somebody like me sitting there reading all of those reviews. I won’t review books anymore unless I can give at least four stars.
KS: It’s an intimate experience, reading a book, and I think that people feel cheated when they don’t like the book; it’s an emotional thing. Equally I’ve been amazed; it’s been so much fun to read the good reviews, and literally a thrill to receive these reviews that point to things I was trying to achieve. I can see what people have highlighted on their Kindles, and that’s totally thrilling, to see what people have appreciated sentence-by-sentence, word-by-word. The experience of connecting with readers on Facebook is very interesting, I think; I’m enjoying that. I’m really looking forward to this next stage, though, when I get to [go out to readings], and where they can ask me questions, and there can be a little bit more human-to-human [interaction]. I haven’t done that yet, so I’m looking forward to it.
CK: That first book launch; it’s kind of like a wedding: it’ll be such a blur for you, but it will be an awesome night, I’m absolutely sure of that.
KS: Well, I’m looking forward to it, and to yours, too. Our books are coming out right around the same time. My pub date is Feb 1st, and yours?
CK: Is the 12th. But I’m doing the launch on the 13th. One of our good friends, Grub Artistic Director Christopher Castellani has his book launch on the 12th. His book Leading Men comes out on the same day [as mine], so I’m launching on the 13th. We are so lucky to have all these friends that are publishing at the same time, which makes it both fun and tricky.
KS: What’s your plan this time? Are you making one of Bartolomeo’s recipes?
CK: I’m bringing some pumpkin cheesecake pie, maybe an apple pie. [Grub] author Louise Miller gave me a recipe for Apple Galette, so I might get creative with that. There is a recipe for strawberry pie and a cherry pie that I might embark upon, but it’s also going to be a really crazy busy couple of days, so we’ll see how ambitious I am with the pies.
KS: That sounds fun. I think, in my case, we’ll just have wine [laughs]. No, we’ll have food too.
I can’t wait for [your] next [book]; you are very industrious. Do you have a working title yet?
CK: I don’t have a title, but it’s about Vincenzo Cervio, who was a carver to Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, who was the wealthiest man in Italy.
KS: More good stuff from Crystal King! Well, great chatting to you, Crystal.
CK: Thank you so much, Katrin.
This conversation was edited for brevity and clarity.
Colwill is an instructor and manuscript consultant at GrubStreet, an associate editor at Bat City Review, and an MFA candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. After graduating a scholarship awardee of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program, Colwill found representation for her first novel, Before We Tear Our Selves Apart, with Robert Guinsler of Sterling Lord Literistic, which is currently on submission to publishing houses. She is the recipient of the Wellspring House Emerging Writer Fellowship, the Henry Blackwell Essay Prize, and a Crawley-Garwood Research Grant, and has received fellowships and support from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The University of Texas at Austin, Boston College, Kansas State University, the Anderson Center for Disciplinary Studies, and GrubStreet. She was a finalist for the 2019 Tennessee Williams Fiction Prize, the 2019 Reynolds Price Award, the 2019 Far Horizons Fiction Award, the 2019 Disquiet International Literary Prize, and the 2019 Lit Fest Emerging Writer Fellowship. Colwill’s fiction is forthcoming in Granta and is anthologized in Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet (Press 53). She has served on the editorial team for Post Road magazine, The Conium Review, Solstice Literary Magazine, and Pangyrus magazine. Colwill is a founding member of the Back Porch Collective, a Boston-based group of writers. With members connected to Cuba, India, Albania, Atlanta, Bosnia, Miami, Jamaica, and the UK, they bonded over a common passion for global narratives and literature’s potential to create empathy and understanding across all geographical, political, and cultural borders. Hailing from Yorkshire, in the north of England, Colwill is determined to introduce the word “sozzard” to the American vernacular. For a full list of publications, projects, and services, please visit colwillbrown.com.See other articles by Colwill Brown