This month’s interview is with Karen Engelmann, author of The Stockholm Octavo and classmate of mine in the Goddard College MFA program. Karen was one of the first of my classmates to find success in publishing, and I think you’ll enjoy meeting her! Without further ado, I’ll let her introduce herself:
AN INTRODUCTION: I was born and raised in Davenport, Iowa to a large Catholic family. This was the good news and the bad news. The good news: wonderful parents, great siblings (really, all seven of them) and a solid foundation. The bad news: it was an upbringing steeped in tribal thinking, which was not conducive to a artistic sensibility requiring solitude and singular vision. Artists were weird!
But having a strong aptitude for visual arts, I studied design and illustration in college — this was more practical than other disciplines and required taking directions, a skill at which I excelled. I worked many years in those fields, first in Sweden for nine years, then in New York. But from early adolescence, I had a desire to write — a practice that I kept mostly secret. Writing was a treasure I wanted to keep for myself, lest it be taken or altered by whichever authority figure claimed it — teachers, employers, readers. Overcoming this tendency to abdicate power (while learning that help and guidance are crucial) proved to be a long struggle.
After many years of dabbling with classes and a few workshops, I entered an MFA Creative Writing program at Goddard College in Vermont with the intention of learning what being a writer/artist meant. There was no goal of pleasing anyone but myself, no preconceived notion of product (much less sales) and no idea what I was actually signing on for: two years of seriously intense work. It was wonderful. The result of that two years was a mature notion of what it means to be a working artist, an MFA and a thesis project, The Stockholm Octavo, that was picked up by Harper Collins three months after graduation — an unexpected bonus. The novel was published in 2012 and has been sold in sixteen translations. The draft of my second novel is finished and out for reading. What happens next? Who knows? There are no guarantees for the artist, ever. We can only do the work.
How did you discover your [interest in your] creative dream/passion?
At the age of six, I received a copy of A. A. Milne’s poetry collection When We were Very Young. I loved the stories, the language and the illustrations (by E. H. Shepard.) I still have the book; it is an inspiration to this day.
Tell me about an important teacher/mentor, and how s/he helped you.
Nicola Morris was my first graduate school advisor. I arrived at school terrified and feeling completely under-qualified and she talked me out of quitting the program. When my novel began to take shape, and I expressed my fears that it would just be a “bodice-ripper” (something no MFA program could abide) Nicola said: “Then make it a really good bodice ripper.” So I did.
What’s been the biggest surprise in your work so far?
That I actually sold a novel. Pinch me!
What are your favorite ways to defeat procrastination/overwhelm?
Writing is my job. I sit at my desk whether I feel it or not. I dress for work.
Are there any other creative dreams you hope to get to someday?
I would love to combine my illustration/design skills in a project someday, although I would have to spend some serious time reviving my drawing skills.
What’s the best side benefit that’s come out of your creative process/creations?
Feeling authentically me.
Any tips for others not getting to their creative projects?
Start with 15 minutes a day. Set a timer. Work without any interruption. Increase to a half hour after a week, then an hour, then two. Soon you will be working four, six and eight. I had to use this discipline after spending nine months doing publicity.
Is the creative process a spiritual connection for you?
There is no doubt. It is a sacred process, fraught with cursing!
I hear that! Thanks for sharing your process with us, Karen!
You can find Karen online at:
Karen Engelmann Writer/Designer
www.karenengelmann.com | Facebook: Karen Engelmann Writer
Cards from The Stockholm Octavo