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Life Arts    H2'ed 3/17/13

Novelist Karen McQuestion's "A Scattered Life"

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My guest today is author Karen McQuestion. Welcome to OpEdNews, Karen. I just finished reading A Scattered Life. It deals with love and loss and building bridges. And it all takes place in a small town in Wisconsin. You're a cheesehead, right?  Does this at all resemble where and how you grew up? 
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If by cheesehead you mean Wisconsin born and raised, then I'm guilty as charged! As far as A Scattered Life resembling where and how I grew up, I can't honestly say that's the case. Like most writers, my fiction is a result of things I've seen, experienced, heard about, and imagined. Mostly imagined.

A Scattered Life revolves around relationships, trust and letting people in. And the challenging dynamic of threesomes. Can you comment on that?

As a storyteller, the number three has always had a certain fascination for me. You see it in children's stories like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and in jokes (a priest, a rabbi, and a Lutheran minister walk into a bar...), and in mythology. Plays are often divided into three acts, and those acts are frequently comprised of three parts as well.

Now having said that, the combination of three females in a friendship can be a disaster. Someone always feels left out. To make matters worse, in this novel the third woman happens to be a meddling mother-in-law with issues of her own. As you can guess, nothing good can come of that.

I was fascinated by how very unlikeable Audrey, the mother-in-law, was. Was it fun to work through her character?

Poor Audrey. So misunderstood and unlikeable. She was my favorite character and she really seemed to come to life on her own. I think a lot of women can relate to doing so much for their family and getting so little appreciation in return.

I consider myself a giver too but she was so obnoxious and self-righteous about it. Did you set out to have her transform herself or did it just happen?  

Of course, Audrey didn't think of herself as obnoxious and self-righteous. She just thought she was right.

When I set out to write the novel, I had a much smaller role in mind for Audrey. I intended for her to be merely a thorn in daughter-in-law Skyla's side. As the story grew, Audrey wheedled her way into a bigger part and transformed herself and the outcome of the story.

There's also the triangle of Skyla and Roxanne and Thomas.  That was an interesting one because of how a husband can feel threatened by his wife's friendship.  I'm glad you explored that common but not often discussed dynamic.

Ah yes, Thomas. He was a hard one for me to figure out. He didn't seem to have any friends, but he was likeable enough. A shy guy, devoted to his family. I think he wanted to be his wife's everything, but of course, that wasn't enough for her.

Thomas also had a bit of Audrey in him - very controlling in a subtle, insidious kind of way. It was hard not to cheer for Skyla to break away from him.  A lot going on there.

Absolutely. And I don't think he would have changed if his wife hadn't stood up to him. His insecurities, which made him want to control everything, could have been his undoing. Who wants someone else dictating how towels should be folded, for instance?

What made it more difficult was that Skyla was so much younger and came from a pretty dysfunctional family. So, she lacked self-confidence and what attracted her to Thomas in the beginning - his age, experience, stable upbringing - began to grate on her as time went on. It took a special person like Roxanne to shake things up.  How lucky for Skyla tha Roxanne came into her life. She's a much more interesting and complex character at the end than she was at the beginning of the book.

There was definitely an evolution of character for Skyla. She came into the marriage sort of as unformed clay. There was a lot below the surface, but initially she was just trying to figure out her odd in-laws and how she could fit into the family. It took her friendship with Roxanne to make her stop and think about what she really wanted and needed out of life and marriage.

I understand that you have many books under your belt since you wrote A Scattered Life .  So, even though these characters are new to me, they're very old news for you. Is it hard to conjure them up again, Karen?

It's funny but when we started this interview I had a moment of panic, wondering if I'd actually remember the story and characters. It feels a bit like talking about something that happened in high school.

But as we're now discussing the story, it's all coming back to me, even the way I felt as I wrote the book. I had such affection for these characters, even the unlikeable ones. All of them were fully realized to me. I was so happy when the book came out and readers responded with such enthusiasm. I found it incredibly validating.

A Scattered Life explores how people who are radically different can still find commonalities and a way of living together, if not in harmony, at least without killing one another.  Would you care to comment on that?

It seems to me that the biggest conflicts in fiction and life center around control and communication. If we could just get past the power struggles and really listen to one another, it would go a long way toward achieving harmony.

Before we move on to talk about your other writing, I just remembered Madame Picard, the fortune teller in the back room. She was a stitch! I got quite a kick out of her.

I'm glad to hear that! The humor in the book is something that seems to startle and delight readers. They expect it to be this somber family drama, but there are funny moments throughout the story.

I loved the quirky but fully fleshed out cast (and we haven't even talked about Roxanne!) not to mention all the twists and turns. You're an interesting character yourself, Karen. Adult fiction isn't all you write. Please tell us how your dabbling in various genres came about.

This is the first time I ever remember being called an interesting character, Joan! I like it and will be quoting you.


To answer your question about the various genres, I didn't set out to break the publishing rule that says authors need to brand themselves for marketing purposes. I just like to read and write all different kinds of stories. And since I was having some difficulties getting published at the time, there was no one to tell me what to write.So I just followed my ideas wherever they led me.

As of now, I have nine books published--two for kids, four for teenagers, and three for adults. The adult titles are all women's fiction, but even they vary in tone and subject.

How did  you get started? Which genre did you tackle first? Is there any relationship between when you wrote what and when it got picked up and published?  And isn't that a crazy process altogether?

Not counting two appallingly bad books which I wrote in my twenties, A Scattered Life is my first book. I wrote novel after novel, and tried getting published for years. It was a long, disheartening process, which included having an agent for two different books, near-misses at publishing houses, and rave rejection letters.

Given that track record, it's all the more remarkable that you persevered in thinking that you could successfully adjust to very different audiences. Kids are so different from teens who are so different from adults. How did you know you could do it?

It's funny, but as much as I lacked self-confidence in other areas of my life, when it came to writing, I had an inner resolve that's hard even for me to understand. It never occurred to me that I couldn't tell any story that I wanted to. I write the stories that I'd like to read--that's always been my main objective.  

When did you first get bitten by the writing bug?

Third grade! My teacher had the class write stories and afterward she read mine aloud as a good example. After that, nothing else compared. Plus, I had no other discernible talents.

Good call by your third grade teacher! All of your fans are grateful.  What haven't we talked about yet?

I would like to mention what I'm currently working on--a paranormal series for young adults, which is going over well with all ages. It's the Edgewood series, the story of teenagers in a small town who acquire super powers. Two of the books are out and I'm writing the third one now. Everyday I wake up and can't wait to find out what happens next. That's the joy of writing for me.

Wonderful.  So, you really don't have everything mapped out before you get started? How does it work?

Although it seems like a sensible approach, I've never been able to outline a story from start to finish. I start with a beginning and a sense of how the story will progress, and I go from there. Some decisions are made ahead of time--the tone of the story, and which character will narrate, but even that's been known to change. Each day I make decisions about the scenes I'll be working on that day. I usually have at least one day of crisis where I hit a wall and don't know where the story is heading. Then I think the whole thing is a loss and get really depressed, but after a night's sleep I usually come up with something.

Overall, I really love writing and feel so privileged to be able to make my living writing fiction. I was made for it, I think.

Lucky, lucky you! You've written a lot of books, Karen. What happens to the characters once you're done? Do they recede into the ether or stay fresh in your mind? Are you sad to let them go or is it a painless leave-taking?

Once I'm done with a book, the characters tend to recede into the ether, as you so eloquently put it. When I do think of them, it's fondly. Too bad there's no Facebook for fictional characters. If there were, I'd love to friend them and see how their lives continued after the story ended.

I'm looking forward to reading more. It's been a pleasure talking with you, Karen. Thank you.

You're welcome, Joan! 
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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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