Novelist and PDXXer Karelia Stetz-Waters is having a remarkable year. Her first book, a thriller called The Admirer, was published in December of 2013, and August saw the publication of a second thriller, The Purveyor. A young adult novel, Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before, comes out October 31st, and in January, Grand Central Publishing will release a romance, Something True. As a publishing student at Ooligan Press, I’ve had the privilege of working closely with Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before—a book whose YA designation nearly scared me off, but whose honesty and lyricism quickly won me over. (This interview, then, is something of a shameless plug for a book I adore.) Though I’ve yet to meet Karelia in person, I was grateful for the opportunity to speak with her about Forgive Me, the importance of strong lesbian protagonists, and all that writing (four books in three genres and counting!): “Ten years of work,” she says, “all came to fruition during an eighteen-month period.”
Karelia: I’ve liked storytelling since I was a little kid, but I got into writing seriously—with the aim to make it part of my career—when I finished my graduate degree and had to decide if I was going to end with a master’s or go on to a PhD. I realized that if I went on to a PhD, I would have to dedicate my life to scholarly research and academic writing, and I didn’t see a real possibility for a career in creative writing and a career as a university professor. I chose creative writing—and had my first book published about ten years later.
EP: You’ve worked across a number of genres. What sort of stuff do you tend to read?
Karelia: I read mostly nonfiction. I love popular science books, and I’m always researching something for my writing, which is taking me a lot of different directions right now. I’ve been reading on container shipping, which might be for a future book, a thriller that I’ve got on the back burner. Right now I’m also reading Carry the Sky by Kate Gray. It’s got a really beautiful, literary, poetic quality to it. That’s the other thing—I’m an English teacher at a community college, and I have my education in English, so I’m a fairly critical reader. I wish I could turn it off but I can’t always, so it’s really fun to find something like Kate Gray’s book, where she’ll turn a phrase or craft a sentence and I’ll be like, Damn, I don’t know if I could’ve done that.
EP: How did you go from writing thrillers to YA?
Karelia: Well, with Forgive Me if I’ve Told You This Before, I didn’t initially think of it being YA; I thought of it as a coming-of-age novel with a young protagonist. But one of my editors at Ooligan thought that it would sell better if we marketed it as YA, and of course I was all about that! Then when I started thinking about it more carefully, I really liked the idea of having it be YA, because if there’s one audience that I’d like to reach more than any other, it would be the young, queer teenager who is struggling with their identity, their place in the world.
EP: Do you find that you’re particularly drawn to writing one or another genre?
Karelia: The thing that really appeals to me is writing strong lesbian protagonists—and strong lesbian protagonists who get to have a happy ending. It’s not that it has to be easy or it has to be a pat ending, but that is what I look for. I grew up with some lesbian novels, which were a big influence on me as a teenager, but for pleasure reading, I read straight characters all throughout my adolescence. At some point, I think it was somewhere in my early thirties, I just got frustrated with how few novels there were with lesbian protagonists. So that’s always been the thing I wanted to write. And I know that it put my career off to a slower start. I think that if I had written heterosexual thrillers I probably could have gotten published sooner.
EP: Forgive Me is based in part on your own growing-up experience, right?
Karelia: It’s loosely based on my own life, but there are definitely events in the story that didn’t happen to me. In some ways Triinu, the main character, is me had I been cool. All those things I thought to say two weeks after the fact, she says in the moment. All the things I wish I had done, she does. So it’s kind of like me with the cool filter put on my life. I would just love it if people came to believe that that was actually me.
EP: I love all the references to music throughout the book—it rings so true to my own adolescence, this very intense relationship with song lyrics and bands…
Karelia: I love that age, when music means so much… when who you listen to defines you. I remember we had this system of having pen pals where you had these little friendship books, and you would write your address and what you liked, but what you liked was music. You’d send the books around and look for people who liked the same music, and you would know you wanted to be their pen pal because they also liked Morrissey.
I grew up in a lovely family with two parents who, while they don’t listen to pop music, love to quote literature—so I grew up quoting and gathering phrases and lyrics and lines and poems. I wrote them down and memorized them; it was almost like a language, a way of speaking. So when I wrote Forgive Me, it was natural to pour in all these song lyrics and quotations that I remembered from that time.
EP: A sort of crucial moment in Forgive Me takes place at the City Nightclub in Portland. Can you tell me more about the place?
Karelia: The City Nightclub was in what is now the Pearl District, but back then it was just warehouses, a couple breweries… You’d go there at night and it was like the end of the world, just like in the book. There was a lot of controversy around it at the time, because supposedly there were drugs and prostitution going on. On the flipside, the guy who ran it said that his mission was to give gay street kids a place where they could be safe until it got light in the morning. They could come at ten o’clock at night, and stay until five am. I never saw any violence there, never saw any fights. I’m sure there were drugs, and there might have been prostitution, but inside the City Nightclub felt like a safe place.
EP: Safe from violence, safe from the outside world?
Karelia: Absolutely. Both. It was pretty amazing to go from Oregon in the early 1990s, with the Ballot Measure 9 stuff—this world where I was the only lesbian I knew of, except for maybe a couple of people my parents age, who I liked but who seemed so different—going from a pretty isolated experience to being at a club where there was a sign on the front door that said, You are not allowed to display heterosexual behavior. You could be heterosexual, but no overt heterosexual behavior. We had some conversations among friends about whether that was prejudiced or whether it was fair, but at the time I felt like it was more than fair—that I should be able to have one place in the whole world where I got to be in the majority.
EP: I’m on your side there. You mentioned Ballot Measure 9, which I hadn’t actually heard of until I read Forgive Me. I remember looking it up to find out if it was a real thing, and of course it was. It’s hard to imagine growing up gay in such an overtly toxic atmosphere.
Karelia: When I initially wrote the book… I’m not a terrifically political person, and I always try to look on the bright side. And also, Ballot Measure 9, I felt like everyone knew about it. It was kind of like, Everyone knows it was awful; let’s not look at it right now. That was my attitude. But my editor said I should put that history in, because a queer kid who is 16 or 17 right now is not going to know about it, and they’re going to think that the battle is over gay marriage, and this would help show them where we come from. And I’m so glad for that. Now the book really talks about an important part of history that might otherwise get lost, or forgotten.