Writer’s Block: Karin Martel

Karin Martel, a former 911 call-centre operator and currently the SPS ViCLAS Coordinator documenting sexual assaults in Saskatoon, wrote of her own experience of assault in her memoir, Shop Class Hall Pass (Signature Editions). Today, Karin answers our Proust questionnaire on writing rituals, her favourite book to recommend, and what a perfect writing day would be like.


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All Lit Up: Which writers have influenced you or had the most impact on your own writing?

For fiction I would say O. Henry. My mom had a collection of his short stories that opened with The Gift of the Magi. I remember the whoosh of excitement that shot through me when I read the ending. It was the first time a book had that effect on me. I raced to find my mom and tell her all about it. I devoured the rest of the book that same day and reread it throughout my childhood and teens. I haven’t read those stories since but I find in my own fiction writing I gravitate towards attempting to emulate O. Henry’s style of storytelling: exploring human nature with a smattering of wit and a twist at the end.

For non-fiction, Andy Rooney was an early influencer and introduced me to the essay. My mom had many of his books scattered around the house. I can’t remember any of the topics he covered, but I remember being fascinated by the way he wrote about them; his style of weaving an argument together and ability to button it up at the end. I remember reading the essays, not so much for what they were about, but for how he put it all together. Without being able to articulate his sense of structure, I believe repeatedly reading his books along with watching him on 60 Minutes every Sunday shaped my ability to put my own thoughts on the page.

ALU: Do you have a book that you’ve gone back and read several times?

KM: I have many but my top four are Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility, Emma and Pride and Prejudice. I’ve been rereading them at least once a year for about 20 years. There’s nothing so pleasurable as sitting down with one of her books and spending time with her characters while her clever narrative voice entertains me with observations about all of them.

Karin’s writing advice.

ALU: What’s one book you always recommend?

KM: The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. It is a spectacular work of speculative fiction. Willis is a master of character, plot, structure and imagination and The Doomsday Book exemplifies her talent and craft. I’m always floored when someone tells me they haven’t read it. I can’t imagine a production company hasn’t bought the rights to it and whoever has, I have some very harsh thoughts about them for not producing it. If you decide to read The Doomsday Book (and I highly recommend you do), please keep in mind it was published in 1992 so be prepared to extend some latitude and grace for some of the sci-fi components that may seem outdated. However, if you are like me, you will be so enthralled by the momentum of the story, you will happily suspend a little disbelief.

ALU: Do you have any rituals that you abide by when you’re writing?

KM: I don’t have a ritual per se unless puttering around the house or the internet until I screw up the courage to open up what I’ve been working on and see if the writing nerve pathway between my brain and my fingers still works counts as a ritual. That being said, at some point during my impromptu procrastination activity du jour, a small voice pops up into my head to remind me that all I have to do is sit down and spend time with my story. It’s just writing. It’s not a big deal. I don’t have to be productive or reach a certain word count. What I write doesn’t have to be good and in fact, on the first go round most likely won’t be. Telling myself that releases whatever self-imposed pressure I put on myself. Because at the end of the day, regardless of the outcome, I’m really writing for my own pleasure. I only have myself to please.

ALU: What was your most rewarding moment as a writer?

KM: When I received feedback from Glenda MacFarlane, the first editor to have a look at Shop Class Hall Pass. I’ve never taken a writing class or been a part of a writing group so I really questioned my instinct and ability to weave a story with a structure that holds. I thought I had pulled it off with my manuscript but because I was so close to the project, I couldn’t be sure. Glenda gave me lots of valuable feedback about the interstitial parts of my story but when it came to the overall structure, her opinion was that it was sound. It was very gratifying to hear that my instinct for structure, at least on that manuscript, was on the right track.

ALU: What are you working on now?

KM: I’m working on a general fiction novel about a fifteen-year-old girl who plans to murder her aunt on the same day the aunt plans to suicide. My husband Jeff, who is also a writer and has had me beat the storyline out for him, thinks I’ve chosen a tricky plot for my first go at long fiction. I suspect he’s right. I don’t know if I’ll be able to pull it off, but so far, I’m enjoying the process of puzzling it out.

Karin’s writing space.

ALU: Describe your perfect writing day.

KM: The dead of winter on a day off during a snowstorm. I’m home alone. The internet is down. My house is perfectly clean and decluttered. The cupboards are stocked with food and meals for the day have been prepped. I’m on a rest day from exercise and have just donated all my jigsaw puzzles to the Salvation Army. All that is left to do is write. That day hasn’t happened yet, but when it does, I’m betting I’ll surprise myself with all the ways I will still put off writing.

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A Canadian transplant from the American Midwest, Karin Martel makes her home in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan with her partner, Jeff. While homeschooling their children, Maddie and Max she worked part time writing for the documentary series Legend Hunters, Injustice and 100 Saskatchewan Stories. Her non-fiction has been published in Spring Magazine. After being fired from her teaching position by her children, Karin changed gears and became a Special Constable with the Saskatoon Police Service where she worked for thirteen years as a 911 operator, police call taker and police dispatcher. She is currently serving as the SPS ViCLAS Coordinator, a position which requires her to read and document every sexual assault reported to the Saskatoon Police. Karin currently writes non-fiction related to her memoir Shop Class Hall Pass. When she runs out of things to say about that, she’ll move on to fiction.

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