My newest author interview is with Kathleen Wheeler. She penned "Changing Shape," a lesfic novel that has proved a good seller. She's also become a friend of mine, and over a few days, we had an e-mail interview about her writing and such. Below are the highlights! (And, yeah, that's Kat in the pic.)
Hey Kathleen! When I was reading your author bio on Amazon, this part struck me: "She also thinks 'normal' is an insult and 'weirdo' can definitely be a compliment." I gotta say I agree! Side note: I tell my wife all the time that she is weird, and she goes "Thaaank you!" Anyway, let's jump off this line--why do you think normal is an insult, and are you a weirdo? How so?
Am I a weirdo - Gosh I hope so! If you're defining 'weirdo' as an odd or eccentric person then, absolutely! Not so much on the psychopath definition, but eccentric- yep that's me. According to sociologists, I'm already considered somewhat 'deviant' because of my homosexuality- that's certainly not something 'normal' people are. But I'm more than just a 'lesbian' too. If being a 'weirdo' means that you do things that most other people don't or can't or wouldn't do then I'm fairly certain I fit that category- I mean, most people in general don't know how to do or wouldn’t do most of the things I grew up calling 'normal' let alone a lot of the things I've grown into.
Even though 'weirdo' does have its negative connotations in 'normal' society, it certainly doesn't discount the things that make me unique or at least one in only a few (relatively speaking). I think we should make 'weirdo' the new 'normal' and celebrate each other rather than diminishing ourselves with something so mundane and dismissive as 'normal.' Of course, that's the danger with labels, isn't it? Everything can be twisted into something less positive and if everyone was considered a weirdo it would become less special too...
I knew there was a reason we got along so well! :D You have a book out ("Changing Shape"). What makes this book "weirdo" (or different)? Tell us a little about it (or a lot about it!).
Also, it's about a woman's struggle with cancer and the emotional and psychological ups and downs that surround that; that's mostly from her daughter Elizabeth's perspective but the reader (I hope) also gets a sense of Patty as well. And of course, I also get Hailey's perspective in there too. It's a really heavy thing [cancer] and it's not something you read about very often. It's something that's incredibly painful and very very real for too many people- but it's not really all that talked about, and certainly not with a lot of detail. Even with all of the advancements modern medicine has made it's still one of the biggest real life 'monsters' to fear. It's something I find incredibly important not to simply sweep under the rug and ignore.
I think that it's also weirdo in a sense that not all the endings are happy. I find that most (not all) lesbian books (at least the few hundred I've read anyway) are all flowers and rainbows and smiles and joy, with a little glancing struggle tossed in to make the happiness seem a little sweeter or harder won. In 'Changing Shape', it's not all daisies and serenades, and very little is truly easy. There's certainly catharsis that happens, and all of the main characters morph into their 'butterfly' forms (if you will), but it's definitely not all happy. But that's life, right? Life is hard and ugly and wonderful all at the same time. We don't get to pick and choose our moments, it's happening real time and there's no do-overs. But then, that's the point, isn't it? We don't always get it right the first time and if we're lucky we learn and do better next time? And honor those we love when we can because we do and not simply because we should...I realize that most people read to escape the harsh reality of life, but sometimes it's good to read something a little more real that's going to be uplifting in a different and maybe more thought provoking way. I think I accomplished that with this book; I hope I did anyway.
How did you do the research for the cancer? Did it come from personal experience? I ask because I was going to write a story once with a main character who had cancer. In the end, however, I felt that even with all the book research in the world, I couldn't do the little nitty-gritty things justice without having had some sort of personal experience.
Ok - that's a big question! Did this come from personal experience - thankfully, no. BUT- and this is a BIG but- some people very dear to me went through something very similar. (You can read about that in the book's dedication.) I wasn't able to be there for them the way I wanted to (I lived far away) and writing 'Changing Shape' was a way for me to process it all and honor them.
I picked this cancer specifically because it's one of the worst and actually more common blood cancers there is (20 to 40% chance of survival for 5 years, etc), it has one of the most aggressive treatments, and it's not something you ever hear about, unlike breast cancer (for example). Also, my [ex]partner was an active participant in the LLS Team in Training and I got to meet some wonderful people through my support of her efforts there, both family members and survivors. You wanna talk about some wonderful people embracing life! It was inspiring, truly.
So research- oh gosh, well I spent pretty much every available waking moment for a solid 2 weeks gathering and absorbing all the information I could on AML (Acute Myelogenous Leukemia). I know that doesn't sound like a lot of time for something so serious, but I'm a weirdo like that...I went online to the various resources there and gathered all the AML specific info I could, read a LOT of the forums and Q and A about it to get patient perspectives and doctor input as well as family perspectives, reached out to LLS.org and the Cancer Society (which unfortunately wasn't as helpful as I'd hoped it would be). It was really eye opening and depressing, but I did it. Luckily, I have a friend who's a doctor and she was able to fill in a lot of the blanks for me and helped keep me in reality as far as the medical stuff was concerned, and believe me, I had a LOT of questions.
The one thing that I saw across the board was how cancer affects those around the patient. Don't get me wrong, it's hell for the patient, and I think I got to the heart of that with Patty without getting too 'jargony' or grotesque, but the friends and family go through something too and it's really heartbreaking at times. This was something that I already knew, but to see it there in black and white was just....well...awful.
I tried to keep too many medical specifics out of my book, simply because there's so much involved and I didn't want the cancer to be the only thing I talked about, while maintaining the fact that it's very much present- that was especially difficult, actually. For me 'Changing Shape' is way more about what they all go through both individually and together in the various moments. I tried to put myself in their shoes and see things from their points of view and express that over the arc of the disease. So while cancer is sort of the spine of my story, I didn't want to ignore the rest of the body. I have (and I hope that other people have this too) the ability to empathize pretty deeply with people and that is a skill that came in very handy for this. The feedback that I've gotten on it (aside from a few people who didn't like 'the scene') has all been very positive. It's made more than a few people cry...and more still felt the need to 'approach' me and talk with me about it and tell me how touched they were and things like that- which makes me feel very good. So far (fingers crossed) no one has felt upset or angry about it - at least not that I know of- at least not about that part of it.
As for authenticity, I believe I accomplished that - I mean, everyone's experience with any given thing is different and subjective...I put as much heart into it as I could and I think I succeeded in what I set out to do. It was absolutely imperative to me, especially not having first hand experience, to get the emotions in this story right, while keeping everyone true to themselves on a fundamental level. I lamented and cried and laughed and struggled right along with them.
OK, enough of the depressing stuff! What's the fun stuff in this book?
Nice- Yea, there's definitely some good, happy, feel good stuff going on in this book as well- and some laugh out loud moments (I laugh anyway). Like I said - I didn't want the cancer to be the whole focus- and it wasn't at all. So without (hopefully) giving too much away:
First and foremost on the 'fun' side of things, there's the romance between Elizabeth and Hailey. Here are two women, both really successful in their respective careers, but maybe not so much in their personal lives and they're thrown together in this 'situation' with Patty. Over the course of the weeks and months that pass they grow close and fall in love, but they're both protective of their hearts (for different reasons) and with everything else that's going on...See, there's a spark in the moment they meet, but what happens between them builds slowly- so that when things do finally happen it's a "YES!! FINALLY!! WOOT WOOT!" kind of moment. That was really fun to write- although I'm sure there are some readers out there who want it to have happened sooner in the story so there could be more juicy lady sex (despite the graphic nature of the sex scenes I'm not an erotica writer, sorry). It didn't feel right to me to rush it, so it happens slowly. I think when things start to really climb for them it's sweet and endearing and believable. It's something that neither just jump into; but rather, it becomes something they can no longer deny, something more enduring.
There's also a whole gallery of other characters that add moments that are sexy, funny, poignant, enlightening, fun and so forth. One of my favorite supporting characters is actually Charlie. He's the one Elizabeth has sex with in 'the scene.' He's a great guy, supportive, smart, generally happy and he helps Elizabeth the most out of all the supporting cast. I also really like Peter - Hailey's 'brother from a better mother.' He's like the older brother I never had and he adds some sparkle to the scenes he's in. I'm not one of those lesbians who hates men- I love men, actually- I just don't want to procreate/recreate with them. Some of my best friends are guys and I think Charlie and Peter definitely exemplify what a good man can be. That makes me feel good, anyway. I tried to have all the male characters be good examples of men. There are a lot more good guys out there than bad guys I think and I've been through some shit and still think that...Maybe that says something for the good guys I know. I also have a son, and I'm pretty sure he's going to become a good man. I'm working at it anyway...the world is full of men and the women who don't mind them- even when you're labeled a lesbian. In addition to the guys, there's Zoe and Shelly and Bobbi, as well as a few others that have more minor roles. They all serve to make their small town somewhere I'd like to live.
And Patty- even though she's going through hell with the cancer, she's able to see humor and take things with a grain of salt, turning her very real pain into a sarcastic quip or funny remark that lightens the mood and lets you know she's still in there even if she is becoming a shell.
I'm with you on guy friends. They go light on the drama. One of my closest friends is a guy -- the biggest weirdo freak (yeah, even more so than me) out there. I love him to death. Back to writing: what's next on the writing horizon for you?
Well I'm working on my second book - the current working title is 'Blindsided.' I may end up completely gutting and revamping it, but I'm still intrigued enough with it as is that it may remain...The premise in a super nutshell is 'a woman recovering from a car crash in which her partner was killed meets and falls in love with a woman who is reconciling her true self with the expectations of her family. I still have some serious research to do and I'm getting to the point in the story where that's needed, so the writing of it will go on hold until I can wrap my head around the things I need to. I think it'll be good if I can just get it done. At least in this one everyone we get to know and love will live through the end...I think <evil laughter> Regardless all that, 'Changing Shape' taught me a LOT about writing (stuff I'm still learning, too) and I'm sure that once it's ready to publish this new one will be something I'm even more proud of.
What did "Changing Shape" teach you about writing?
Mostly that it's really very hard work! And that readers are an interesting lot. It takes a lot of thought and preparation and dedication and attention to detail to write a good solid and satisfying book. There are a lot of nuances that one needs to be aware of and things that need to be worked out in order for it to work: dynamic and interesting characters who are well developed, an interesting location, a solid timeline, plots and subplots and the interplay between the players, the catalyst, the defining moments, etc- all coalesce into something that is [hopefully] going to accomplish the goal that was set for it. On top of that, you have to be a good writer and an even better editor.
That's something else that I learned. I mean, I already knew that of course, but it's especially true when you publish fiction. When you write fiction you are presenting something of yourself to the world. In essence, you are saying, 'Here I am, buy me.' In order to remain successful, [I think] you have to present something that is not only entertaining, moving and well thought out, but also polished to a certain degree. That's why I took some of the early feedback about editing and used it to fix my book- even though it was pretty damned polished already; I don't want to present something less than excellent to the world. Of course, I'm only one person and editing yourself is insanely difficult. And I admit that I don't remember all the grammar rules, even if I do know most of them and pride myself on that fact. Of course I've much to learn and I am- believe me the same mistakes won't be made in the next one. But that's how we grow as writers or as craftspeople. Because that's what it is, really- a craft. And if you can craft something that moves people, then you've made art.
The hardest thing I've learned, I think, is that there comes a point when you just have to let it fly. You can't edit it to death or you'd never publish. You can't catch all the mistakes and if there are 2 or 3 left in there, it's okay. That was actually a hard lesson for me, because believe it or not, I'm a perfectionist at heart. I'm fully aware that perfection is impossible, but that doesn't stop me from pursuing it. Even if my handbook [brain] is faulty.
You're in what I call "camp three" as far as indies go. Camp one consists of people like me (who have been published with publishers and rejected contracts because the terms were unfavorable), camp two consists of people who submitted to publishers and got rejected (and who have never been with a publisher). Camp three is...you know what? I'll shut up here and let you explain camp three and why you went indie!
There are a few reasons I went indie rather than trying to get published. I mean, I joke that I didn't want to face all the rejection, but the truth is that I wanted to retain complete control over my content. I wanted to, at the end of the day, be able to say, 'I did that.' ME. I'm a weirdo like that, I guess. I'm fiercely independent and I don't want a bunch of people 'massaging' my content to suit their own purposes, and then taking a portion of my profit when it's all said and done. Of course there are very real benefits to getting published and working with a larger entity- brand recognition and a 'built in' audience being the main things.
I also didn't want to HAVE to write another one. Reader expectation for a second novel is enough pressure for me; I don't need a potential lawsuit and all the trappings of that horsepuckey to deal with too. I honestly believe that in the end, I'll be successful and the people who love my work will continue to buy it and that my audience will grow. I understand that that will take time and that that timeframe will be stretched out because I'm just one person and not a marketing machine with a recognizable brand- but it allows me the freedom to write what I want, how I want to write it and to me that's worth something.
I think one of the big challenges indie authors face is the audience and their perceptions of being indie. There’s this stigma to being indie- that it should be cheap or that it isn’t really all that good and I want more people to recognize the merit of our work rather than simply disregarding indie as a group who couldn't hack it in the 'real publishing world.' In many cases, that's simply not what happened at all. I'm indie because I wanted to be. Plain and simple.
What steps are you taking to improve as an author?
Well as a start I'm brushing up on my grammar. I don't want to go into details, but let's just say I'm revisiting some schoolin' on that front. It's all good stuff to know and refresh. I'm also looking for a good manual on self editing. I've had a couple good recommendations on that front- now I just need to buy one! I'm human; I forget things I should know (school was a really long time ago). Sometimes a reminder is good.
I'm also trying to improve my typing skills...I sometimes miss longhand - even though it starts to hurt and takes longer and then you have to go back and type it all up anyway. Anyone who chats with me knows I have a problem with capitalization, for example - it's really just the 'shift' key I have a hard time with I think. My hands also just automatically add apostrophes where my brain knows there aren't any or periods where there should be commas because those buttons are close together- then I'll end up with capitalization where there shouldn't be because of autocorrect and I might not see it because I've been looking at it too long...that type of thing. It's a pain to go back and fix all that type of stuff- stupid stuff that I KNOW. So I'm trying to be more conscientious about that...although I'm still a miserable failure in chats. I am trying though- at least with my writing. Eventually, I'll have myself trained better.
One thing about the process that I will say I've changed- and perhaps the pendulum of my behavior will finally settle somewhere in between- is HOW I write...I used to edit as I go (literally every line was meticulously crafted) and I realized that that was stifling my creativity; it's little wonder why I didn't finish much when I was doing it that way! It became frustrating. Now I try to just get the story told and THEN go back and refine it and polish it and change it if need be. Just get the thing out there first. That's been my biggest change.
Your book is in KDP Select right now. Any plans to distribute it through other channels soon?
Absolutely - I need to go back over my contract with KDP just to make sure I do everything correctly, but as soon as I'm 'allowed' to I definitely plan to distribute to all the other major outlets in the various eBook formats. The paperback is already out there in a few different places, but I think the eBook is really where it's at in this day and age. As much market share as the Kindle has in the ereader arena, it's not the only one out there and they don't really play nice with each other as far as the formats go- I want everyone who wants to to be able to buy and read my book in the format that they prefer. Of course, that's going to take some time to accomplish, but I'll be posting those announcements on my blog as they happen and also through my other social media outlets (Facebook and Twitter, etc). When I know, you'll know.
Find Kat online!
Blog – www.katwheelerbooks.blogspot.com
Facebook- www.facebook.com/katwheelerbooks www.facebook.com/changingshapenovel
Twitter - @katwheelerbooks
Changing Shape’s Amazon page - http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009BBGT86
Kat’s Amazon Page – www.amazon.com/author/katwheelerbooks