Only an Initial Spark

An Interview with Dime Novelist Kathleen Glassburn on Inspiration, Writing and Horses

by Laura Madeline Wiseman

Laura Madeline Wiseman: I just finished reading your flash novel A New Plateau from Red Dashboard’s dime novel series. This is part one of the trilogy, with the next two in the series forthcoming in 2015. Talk about the inspiration to write a trilogy and the art of publishing sequentially.

Kathleen Glassburn: I didn’t plan to have this story be part of the dime novel series, but rather submitted the stand-alone story for publication in a literary journal. Red Dashboard offered me this opportunity, and it sounded like a fun experiment. I’ve never written a trilogy, so one of my questions was: How much information from the previous story do I need to insert in order to place the reader? Eventually, I figured out what felt right, assuming that anyone reading the second story would have read the first one. Many of my stories end in such a way that there is room for continuation. I’ve finished the second story except for a bit of polishing, so I knew where it is going. In “A New Plateau,” the first story, Janice is excited about resuming an old passion for horses, as well as making a change of scenery to Santa Fe. Since the death of her husband, the life she loved has altered significantly. The second story, as yet untitled, opens several months later, with her missing the comforts and luxuries of life in Seattle. For her, bunkhouse living has proven to be pretty miserable at times, especially during the icy, winter days and nights. But home, which she returns to during the holidays, continues to evoke grief and sad memories. How this conflict — Seattle or Santa Fe? — is resolved makes up the story. Since the series is called The Santa Fe Trilogy, a reader knows that Janice stays. But, how and why does she stay? The third story is in my “thinking-about-it stage.” I’m looking forward to starting to write and seeing what happens to Janice McKenna. My stories always surprise me. In the beginning, I don’t have an outline or a clear idea of what they are about, only an initial spark that starts them. When I get to the end of what I call my “Discovery Draft,” an idea and term I took from a long-ago writing instructor of mine, Jack Remick, I have a clear idea of the story’s shape and what it is about. During subsequent drafts I make many changes, subtractions, additions, and I may alter the shape. That first draft, which is very difficult for me to wrap up, acts as my roadmap.

LMW: The Writer’s Chronicle September 2014 issue features Debra Spark’s meditation on research and writing fiction. She writes, “When it comes to fiction, information is only interesting because it is part of the story, because it has an emotional or narrative reason for being there” (96). What methods do use to select what research serves the story your flash novel is trying to tell? What research did you pursue in writing the first two dime novels in your trilogy?

KG: I always keep a journal when traveling, so I used my notes from a visit to Santa Fe for placing myself. Much of my Discovery Draft grew out of these notes. In addition to images from the town — the many shops and galleries, the hotel I stayed at, the restaurants and cuisine (which come into the second story), the feel of the place, I had photographs to consider. I’ve been on innumerable trail rides, as well as the one that inspired this story. There were four people, including the leader that participated in my ride. The leader’s horse did rear up, and she landed on her back, which resulted in a hospital stay — that initial spark for my story. I had only recently returned to consistent riding after several years away from it. In the interim, every trail ride I’d been on had been predictable — walking and the noses-to-behinds-type of journey. On this ride, we did trot as well as gallop, which was exciting. Having the leader take a fall was scary. I re-lived this experience over and over again while developing my Janice character, and through asking myself the question: What if? began to fictionalize her circumstances. With any story I am writing, after I have my Discovery Draft, I figure out how to describe it in a few sentences. What is the story about? In the case of the first story, A New Plateau, I would say: Janice McKenna has recently lost her husband, and with this loss she has also lost a sense of satisfaction with her life. On a trip to Santa Fe with her best friend, she receives an opportunity to return to a long-forgotten passion. From these sentences I see that loss is a major part of this story, and the idea that when one door closes another opens is a theme. First, I allow the details to rise up organically. It’s not until the final drafts that I add, subtract, alter details to fit with my meaning. While I have ridden horses on and off for years, I ride English. I’ve never participated in a barrel race. This is part of Janice’s experience that I had to read about, and I watched videos. I have quite a collection of horse-related books, so I went to these for ideas. I asked questions of other horse lovers. I read quite a bit about Santa Fe and the surrounding area, looking for details unique to New Mexico that fit into my story. In the second story I researched abandoned mines, which is a clue to the resolution. I turned to the Internet at times, but not to the exclusion of my other resources.

LMW: I recently attended the Indiana Writers’ Consortium Conference and Book Fair and caught the end of Kate Collins’ talk about creating good dialogue. She also spoke about starting and ending her books. She noted writers should start a story with action and that she always knows her book’s ending as she writes toward it. Can you talk about your strategies for opening and closing a dime novel?

KG: I seldom know the ending of anything I write. When I complete my Discovery Draft I know how the story will end, and usually don’t change it. This is why Discovery Drafts are fun and magical, as well as a challenge. When I begin to write, I ask myself something like: Why is this particular person, situation, place (my stories come from various types of impressions) nagging at me? I’m sure that a story is lurking in my mind, and I have to trust the impulse to start working on it. I write my Discovery Draft to figure out what the impression means. After I have the answer contained in that first draft, I start to form my material into a story. I, too, believe that it is important to begin a story with action. In the case of a dime novel trilogy, with the horseback riding theme, action is even more important. I happen to be an “explainer,” so the advice to toss the first few pages often applies to my writing. With my short story writing, in general, even though I have an initial spark that starts me writing, I need to write several pages of backstory leading up to that spark. In re-writing, I look at those beginning cut pages and figure out what is pertinent for a reader to know. Then, I find places that resonate with the pertinent piece of backstory, and slip it in. This fits with the above idea of the trilogy, and: What do I need to include from the first story in order to place the reader? Because I’ve written two of the three stories, I think it will be a lot easier not to over-explain in my Discovery Draft for the third. I love to write dialogue. I hear the characters speaking in my head, and I try to listen as closely as possible to them. In final drafts if a word or phrase of dialogue tugs at me, I figure I’ve meddled with what the character is saying. I listen again and change it to sound like him or her, instead of me. I also like to create the place through sensory details. I want my readers to experience settings the way I imagine them to be. I’m not always that good with distinctive character details, and this is somewhere I put extra time. So, I’ve learned to search for my beginnings; my endings usually surprise me; and, I’m trying not to explain so much. I am really wondering how the third story in my dime novel trilogy will start as well as end.

LMW: How do you define flash novel?

KG: It is no more than about 7,000 words. It has quite a bit of action, but it also can cover quite a bit of time. And, it can go into motivation and some backstory material. It’s a mini-novel.

LMW: What else is inspiring you these days?

KG: Horses and horseback riding situations. This is something new for me. Most of my stories have to do with unique human situations and/or attitudes. I don’t have any problem getting inspired. I have more ideas than I’ll ever be able to complete. Barely a day goes by that something doesn’t make me think: That’d make a good story. I keep notes on these ideas in case I ever am looking for something to write about. So far, I’ve never had to look back on these notes for ideas, but some of my observations do land in stories I’m already working on.

LMW: How are you trying to get better as a writer? What’s next for you?

KG: I have my MFA and I go to conferences occasionally. Even though I seldom write poetry, I do read a poem every day to tweak my language. They may be by a new poet or an established one. My favorite poets are Emily Dickinson and Mary Oliver. I have shelves full of writing books, and I usually am reading one of these. Jerome Stern’s Making Shapely Fiction is my favorite. I study Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories each year, as well as lots of journals. I listen to courses on cd. The Teaching Company puts out some excellent courses. As managing editor of The Writer’s Workshop Review I have learned from our submissions. As with all journals, most of them are rejected, but I study each one, noting why it works or doesn’t work for me and the other readers. I’m committed to polishing my second dime novel story, and to writing the third. Each month I like to re-write an existing, unpublished story for re-submitting. Plus, I have two novels I’m working on. I’m hoping that one, Making It Work, will be ready to send out before too much longer. It is currently in the seventh major re-write.

LMW: I’ve very much enjoyed this interview! I have three quick last questions: What are the ways you promote and serve other authors and poets? What makes a good flash novel? What is your flash novel wish?

KG: I always buy published works by authors I know (in addition to a lot of others). The dime novel is a new experience for me. I’m starting to purchase all the titles put out by Red Dashboard Publishing. A good flash novel always has an engaging, accessible story. Readers want to be entertained as well as learning something — experiencing something unfamiliar. I hope dime novels become a popular item and that Red Dashboard is successful with this effort — is able to keep it going for a long time…

Kathleen Glassburn lives near Seattle with her husband, three dogs, a cat, and a 45-year-old turtle. For fun she plays the piano and rides her horse. She has been published, or will be soon, in many journals, including Amarillo Bay, Blue Lake Review, Cactus Heart Press, Cadillac Cicatrix, Cairn, Crucible, Epiphany Magazine, Lullwater Review, Marco Polo Quarterly, Rio Grande Review, RiverSedge, SLAB, The Talon Mag, Wild Violet, The Writer’s Workshop Review. Her story, “Picnics,” was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s Best Start contest. She is managing editor of The Writer’s Workshop Review.

Laura Madeline Wiseman is the author of more than a dozen books and chapbooks and the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). Her recent books are American Galactic (Martian Lit Books, 2014), Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience (Lavender Ink, 2014), Queen of the Platform (Anaphora Literary Press, 2013), Sprung (San Francisco Bay Press, 2012), and the collaborative book Intimates and Fools (Les Femmes Folles Books, 2014) with artist Sally Deskins. She holds a doctorate from the University of Nebraska and has received an Academy of American Poets Award, a Mari Sandoz/Prairie Schooner Award, and the Wurlitzer Foundation Fellowship. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Margie, Mid-American Review, and Feminist Studies.

Journal, Volume 3 Issue 1