ALU Book Club: Interview with Karen Hofmann

Week three of ALU Book Club has us in the lucky position to ask author Karen Hofmann all our burning readerly questions about her short story collection Echolocation (NeWest Press).


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All Lit Up: In Echolocation many of the women protagonists find inner strength in difficult circumstances. Can you tell us where you find inspiration for these types of characters and how you flesh them out?Karen Hofmann: I’m interested in the kind of inner conflict that comes from not seeing a way to change or escape difficult circumstances, and so I pay attention to stories that I hear about people who find themselves perplexed or desperate. My telling of the stories starts with imagining characters in a setting that can reflect or manifest their conflict. A lot of the fleshing out is unconscious, in that the characters seem to take on physical attributes on their own, and to speak in their own voices. I think my role is to select the kind of thoughts and actions that this particular character, in her setting, might realistically experience, but that are also surprising and unique. ALU: Your descriptions are vivid and intimate, which really brings characters to life in the limited space of the short story format. As a novelist and short fiction writer, do you have different approaches for writing in each format? If so, can you tell us about them?   KH: In my short stories, I have to create characters through a few images, or segments of thought processes, or pieces of dialogue. I’m always searching for the really resonant phrase or image, and the character grows out of those. The characters and their shifts in perspective or understanding have to be created out of the few details that I have room for on the page, and there’s a certain amount of work required of the reader in assembling those strokes into a whole – like looking at an impressionist painting, maybe. In my novels, there is so much more space, and I can let the characters develop more slowly, and change more. I think the novels are about the way the characters shift in their perspectives and approaches as they move through the problems that confront them. In my novels, I can create character not only through images and word associations, but also through movement – the patterns and cumulation of what the character does and decides, the cause and effect rhythms. I’ve just finished writing a sequel to What is Going to Happen Next, and plan a third book to create a trilogy, so that we can follow the characters through two decades of their adult lives. This process is providing a lot of space for layered, and I hope nuanced, development. I love series that follow characters for many years, and I hope that readers will feel this connection: Wow, I remember when this character was at this stage of her life, and what she was doing, and I don’t think she’s going to be happy trying this new thing, but I can see why she would be drawn into it. ALU: When writing each of the stories in Echolocation, did you consider them to be in conversation with one another or isolated stories? Do you have a favourite story in the collection?KH: Most of the stories in Echolocation are about being trapped or stuck – in habitual ways of thinking, in destructive relationships, in restrictive roles. There’s a conundrum: someone is in an impossible situation; there seems no way out.  Characters are trying to figure out their paths or the connections with others that might save them or help them to change their circumstances, but this is very difficult for them, because change is hard; it costs. I think each story works out this theme a little differently. They were written separately, over a couple of decades, and not with the thought that they would end up in a collection. I selected these ones because they all seemed to have this thread of trying to find one’s way, trying to read signals. I don’t really have a favourite, but some, like “Virtue Prudence Courage,” were more fun to write, and some of the longer, more complicated ones, like “Flowers of the Dry Interior,” gave me a stronger sense of accomplishment.ALU: What does the title Echolocation mean to you?KH: I was interested in the idea of sending out and receiving back signals – the way animals such as dolphins or bats use sonar waves to detect where they are and find objects, when they can’t rely on vision. My characters are all in situations in which they need to navigate their environment more effectively, find a different way of being, and connect with others more authentically than they have been doing, and their perceptions are all clouded by various beliefs and emotions. They send out their sonar – their actions and conversations – but these aren’t always well chosen or effective, and don’t always come back with clear information. They keep trying, and they have to adjust both their ways of being and their ways of understanding, to be able to receive the information that they need.ALU: Do you have any writing tips to share with aspiring short story writers? KH: Travel with a notebook, and do a lot of observing and eavesdropping! I think writers usually write because they are fired up, or at least bothered, by images and language and weird connections between things, and the writing down and refining of these creates a release. It takes practice to listen, and to get the language just right, and then more practice to learn structure – to find the parts of the story that are most important, and put them into the best order. Short stories are very much about what you leave out. They’re about compression, about using the minimum amount of language for the maximum impact.And I learned a lot about writing short stories by reading short stories. Some of my favourite short story writers are Anton Chekhov, James Joyce, Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munro. Literary magazines are a great place to find new short stories, and learn technique. * * *
Karen Hofmann grew up in the Okanagan Valley and is an Associate Professor at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, British Columbia. A first collection of poetry, Water Strider, was published by Frontenac House in 2008 and shortlisted for the Dorothy Livesay prize. Her first novel, After Alice, was published by NeWest Press in 2014, and a second novel, What is Going to Happen Next, in 2017. Her short fiction has won the Okanagan Fiction Contest three times, and “The Burgess Shale” was shortlisted at the 2012 CBC Short Fiction Contest. Karen Hofmann is an avid walker, and her writing explores the landscapes, both rural and urban, of British Columbia as well as the personalities and social dynamics of the inhabitants.Photo credit: Andrew Snucins* * *Stayed tuned next Wednesday for our follow-up reads post-Echolocation. In the meantime, you can pick up a copy of the book for 15% off if you haven’t yet! Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and Twitter for further, impromptu discussion. Hop on the hashtag #ALUbookclub to send us comments and questions!