Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

The Literary Life: A Talk With Kristen J. Tsetsi

By Levi Asher on Thursday, May 12, 2011 09:46 am

"It's about persevering." These words appear in a funny short video about the life of a writer starring Kristen J. Tsetsi, who proudly lives up to that spirit. Her novel Pretty Much True ..., scheduled for publication in September, tells the story of a young couple separated by a military deployment to Iraq. This is the story she is most eager to tell, and I first wrote about Pretty Much True ... in 2007 when it was a self-published book called Homefront. Kristen has also published a Kindle collection called Carol's Aquarium, and edited the anthology American Fiction, Volume 11: The Best Previously Unpublished Short Stories by Emerging Authors. I got a chance to ask Kristen a few questions about the life she has chosen and the work she devotes herself to.

Levi: Your novel Pretty Much True ..., previously published as "Homefront", is about soul mates separated by military deployment: the narrator is at home while her lover fights in Iraq. According to your author bio, your husband went to Iraq with the 101st Airborne. How did you handle the boundaries between fiction and autobiography when you wrote about this obviously personal subject?

Kristen: Everything I've ever written creatively (not counting a couple of essays) has been fiction, but -- and this is probably true for most writers -- based on personal experience in one way or another. Non-fiction storytelling has always been a problem for me. I get too hung up on the details, and I forget the feeling.

I handled the boundaries between fiction and autobiography when writing Pretty Much True ... the same way I did when writing short fiction, and that was to stay true to the feeling(s) I experienced at one time or another and in one way or another, and make up stuff around it that would, if I'd done it successfully, whirlpool readers into the core.

Tim O'Brien writes in The Things They Carried that "Story-truth is sometimes truer than happening truth." First, I think story-truth is truer than happening truth a lot more often than "sometimes," and second, as a reader, I've always found it easier to immerse myself in fiction. Non-fiction seems to exclude me, to say, "This is MY story, not yours." So, for as long as I've been writing fiction, I've been very consciously building those boundaries between fiction and autobiography so I could write the truth a) without getting sidetracked by the details, and b) in a way readers would feel it as if it were their own. When writing Pretty Much True..., working with those boundaries firmly in place was natural.

Levi: Many debut novelists struggle to find a story to write that others will relate to, but your novel will obviously appeal to other military spouses. Have you been focusing your marketing efforts on readers in the military community, or are you more interested in reaching readers who may know nothing about the military lifestyle?

Kristen: It's a popular assumption that Pretty Much True... will appeal to other military spouses, but the unsaid part I hear when when people express that is, "...and only military spouses." It might appeal to them, but they weren't the audience I had in mind when writing it any more than authors of war novels or screenplays have soldiers in mind as their core audience when they're writing.

Even if we haven't personally been to war, we enjoy or appreciate the stories because there's always more to them than just the war. Imagine a soldier-war story that gives you nothing but the minutest details of Basic Training in preparation for the deployment. Hair clipping, pushups, bed-making, dinner in the chow hall, etc., and nothing else. No one-on-one relationships, no outside conflicts, nothing else anyone but someone in the military could relate to. Who'd want to read that? People who just got out of Basic Training, maybe. But it wouldn't be very interesting, and there'd be nothing to hold onto that would make the experience real for anyone but those who have already lived it.

If my audience for Pretty Much True ... were military spouses, I could have written "Deployments suck. The end," because they already know why it sucks. They know there's a hell of a lot more to it than most people imagine. They already know what the action of their war story is.

I didn't write Pretty Much True ... for military spouses, but for everyone else. Most readers will be able to relate to it in one way or another, because they will have felt jealousy, ugly selfishness, a desire to weasel out of an obligation, passionate love, unlikely -- and even unwanted -- bonds, separation from a loved one, or the overwhelming urge to throw a heavy object at a politician's face on TV.

If they've never before had someone go to war, or if they've never otherwise had a loved one balancing on the line between life and death, they'll be introduced -- from at least one perspective -- to what that's like, too.

Levi: You've been an independent writer for a while. What drives you to work so hard at this? Have you been satisfied with the results you've gotten so far? What advice do you have for other young up-and-coming writers?

Kristen: I think if anything drives me to work hard at it, it's the reluctance to accept that a business -- whose nature is to try to make money -- is an authority on what people want to read, or on what stories should be told. (Business in this case = Traditional Publishing House).

I became independent after being rejected by literary agents who praised the work and then added, "...but it's really hard to sell literary fiction by new authors right now," or "...but publishers are looking for genre fiction right now."

I think stories are written to be read more than they're written to be published, so I did my best to get the story (as Homefront) read. The results were great, I think, for a first-timer in the self-publishing world with no marketing experience. I managed to get reviewed by publications I'd only dreamed of, and secured interviews with people I was sure would say, "Are you crazy? You're self-published." And recently, it's been picked up by a small publisher in New England, which will lead to the kind of distribution I simply couldn't arrange on my own.

Advice for other young, up-and-coming authors: Do not expect to write a novel and be published immediately, no matter how many times you've seen that happen in movies or in books by John Irving. It happens, but rarely. Whether going the traditional or indie route, it's a lot of work, and success -- whether you view success as an Amazon.com ranking, amount of money made, reader adoration, or respect from other writers -- takes time. And a lot of uncomfortable (read: nausea-inducing) self-promotion.

The most important piece of advice I can give anyone in terms of self-promotion: Never be afraid to ask, whether it's for a review, an interview, a blurb, or a feature in the newspaper. Always ask (humbly, politely, and respectfully - no one owes you anything). You never know who'll say yes.

Levi: Have you found it challenging to write about such personal matters -- love, marriage, sex, separation anxiety -- while also keeping your privacy? Did it put your husband in an unusual position to be "novelized" about while he was deployed?

Kristen: I've been writing about Ian since he and I were eighteen, in one way or another. His actual self rarely shows up, but where there's love, he's the object of the love. It was strange for him to read the first story he inspired, but he's grown used to it over the last nineteen-plus years. As the one whose deployment inspired the novel, Ian knows he's on every page, but because the Jake character in Pretty Much True... is almost nothing like him, he doesn't feel uncomfortable with it, or as if he or his deployment experience has been novelized.

As for writing about such personal matters while maintaining privacy (I'm including my short fiction in this answer, too), no, I've not found it to be a challenge. I don't know when, but at some point I decided it was ludicrous to feel ashamed of any thought or emotion, no matter how unattractive, no matter how "personal." How "personal" is anger, really? Or love, or jealousy, or taking a moment of pleasure in someone else's less-than-ideal circumstances ("Visiting Hour")?

Levi: Finally, the question I always ask last, and my favorite one: who are the writers who have most inspired you to write, and why?

Kristen:I love this question! I'll just list my top three:

Kate Chopin. Her "Story of an Hour," which I read for the first time as a freshman in college, decided it for me: I would write fiction, because I wanted to write about the things we're not supposed to talk about -- especially not without shame -- the way she did. I wanted to make people sit back and say, "Oh. Well. I didn't know we could talk about that," the way she did with Mrs. Mallard's feelings of freedom the "Story of an Hour" and Edna's regret-free affair in The Awakening.

Ernest Hemingway. "If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them."

I learned about Hemingway's Iceberg Theory in my Intro to Creative Writing class, taught by So Bravely Vegetative author Alan Davis, and I thought, "I want to do that."

From then on, when writing any piece of fiction, I had Hemingway's technique in mind. It was the top skill I wanted to acquire, whether writing narrative or dialogue. Hemingway, more than any other author, greatly influenced how I write dialogue and made me fall in love with it.

John Irving. Irving's protagonists have always struck me as bumbling idiots who hurt everyone around them, but who somehow remain loveable. They're sweet, if misguided; selfish, but invariably with good reason; clueless about the world around them, but very in touch with what motivates them. He taught me to love the unlovable, and to want to make readers love the unlovable, too.


This article is part of the The Literary Life series. The next post in the series is The Literary Life: Michael Stutz, Net Generation Seeker. The previous post in the series is The Literary Life: Goodloe Byron Gives It Away.


3 Responses to "The Literary Life: A Talk With Kristen J. Tsetsi"

Hemingway's Iceberg Theory. That's a good one to hold onto.

by Shelley on

Written to be read, yes. Good for her for self-publishing.

by Casimir on

Great read, I'm loving these interviews, keep em coming good sir!

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