Karen Mann, author of The Woman of La Mancha and The Saved Man, kindly agreed to an interview. Here is what Karen has to say about her writing process.
What is your first memory of writing?
In third grade, my best friend got in trouble with the teacher, and I thought my friend was treated unfairly. I wrote a play, like a court-room scene, that explained the incident as I thought it really happened. I can’t remember now if I had the courage to even show the teacher, but I do remember writing made me feel as if I had some power and had control over the situation, even though that situation didn’t have anything to do with me.
When and why did you begin writing?
I loved to read as a child, and I believed I could create stories, just as the authors I read did. But I had a feeling I wasn’t any good at it, and I didn’t know how to get better. I don’t think I even realized there were classes for creative writing when I went to college. I was in my late thirties when I decided that I had to find a class that would teach me how to write because I wanted to write.
Do you have a specific writing style?
All of my ideas for my manuscripts come to me in connection with some experience I have. My mind leaps from the experience to an idea for a novel. When I begin writing, I hear the characters talking and I see scenes and events in the novel. I have ideas that seem unrelated to anything I have written before, so I think my writing style changes from manuscript to manuscript.
How did you come up with the title?
The Woman of La Mancha is a companion book to Don Quixote, which has been brought to stage and screen under the title of The Man of La Mancha. My title seemed a natural for the woman’s story of Don Quixote.
Are your characters or scenes based on someone you know or events in your own life?
All of my characters have parts of me or parts of someone I know. Sometimes I take physical characteristics from someone I know but the character’s personality might be completely different or pieces of other people I know or characters I’ve met in other books. What has been interesting to me is that the tiniest experience in real life might find its way in a book and that’s helpful because you can flesh out characters or scenes based on your experiences but the story comes from your imagination. Using your own experiences is time-saving because you don’t have to make up everything about the book. The experiences get woven in.
If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
Sena Jeter Naslund, award-winning author of the modern classic Ahab’s Wife and eight other books, is my mentor and colleague. My first creative writing class was taught by Sena. She challenged me from the beginning to improve my writing. Even after I was no longer her student, she would give me writing assignments that I took very seriously. I’ve been to dozens of her talks about her books and every time I hear something new about how to be writer or how to be a good friend to writers. Dozens, maybe hundreds of people, would say Sena was their mentor because she has taught hundreds of students. She is warm, intelligent, and generous, and there is much to learn from her and from her writing.
Do you have anything specific you want to say to your readers?
If you like historical fiction, I think you’ll like The Woman of La Mancha, which is set solidly in sixteenth-century Spain, the time of the end of chivalry, Cervantes and Shakespeare, and the settling of the New World. There is a knight who quests after his maiden. And a maiden who is lost and needs to be reunited with her family and her knight. It explores the contemporary questions of how we treat one another and how we take ownership of our own lives. The book is tongue-in-cheek and serious at the same time. There is romance and sadness. The story is mysterious and true-to-life.
Do you suffer from writers block?
I don’t really believe in writer’s block. If I sit down to write, I can write. It might not be very good, but I can write until it gets better or I can go back and revise. Although I make this statement, and I have to say, I’m stuck on a manuscript that I am writing right now, but it doesn’t feel the same as writer’s block. I can’t write on it because I haven’t figured out the story all the way through and I’m not sure how to proceed. This has never happened to me. With all my other manuscripts the story came to me as I wrote it. The story is a dystopian sci-fi set 70 years in the future. There has to be a world war or something; maybe I just can’t write about that.
What was your favourite chapter to write?
Chapter 24 “in which Guido is challenged by Honor” was my favorite chapter to write in The Woman of La Mancha. One of the scenes came to me totally unplanned and unexpected. It wrote itself as smooth as butter (much of it coming in iambic pentameter which has mostly been edited out). When you are writing like that it’s the best high in the world. The chapter expresses the core of several themes of the book: the roles of the sexes, equality of women, and honor. It a chapter that I love but cannot read from at a reading because it gives away too much of the plot and needs a lot of set up for it to make sense.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given by another writer?
There is a difference between true to life and true to fiction. The funniest, saddest, most outrageous things—the things we think will be the most interesting in our novels—that happen in real life often do not work in fiction. We have to be able to let go of the intersection of our life and our story in order to write the best fiction.
Is there any advice you’d like to share?
Do not shy away from revision. Take advice from your readers if they say something is confusing or doesn’t make sense, fix it. Be willing to delete your most favorite scenes for the sake of your writing. Avoid didacticism and sentimentality, which is easy to do if you avoid abstractions and write scenes, dialogue, and characters that are fresh and evoke honest emotions and vivid scenes.
Karen Mann is the author of The Woman of La Mancha and The Saved Man. She is the co-founder and Administrative Director of the low-residency Master of Fine Arts in Writing Program at Spalding University (www.spalding.edu/mfa). She is also the managing editor of The Louisville Review, a national literary magazine since 1976 (www.louisvillereview.org). Having lived in Indiana most of her life, she now lives in San Jose, California. See more about her books at www.karenmannwrites.com.
It’s 1583. An eleven-year-old girl wakes in the back of a cart. She has lost her memory and is taken in by a kindly farm family in La Mancha. She adopts the name Aldonza. She doesn’t speak for quite some time. Once she speaks, there is a family member who is jealous of her and causes a good deal of trouble, even causing her to be forced to leave La Mancha in tragic circumstances. Having to create a new life in a new location and still unaware of her birth family, she adopts the name Dulcinea and moves in the circles of nobility. While seeking her identity, she becomes the consort of wealthy men, finds reason to disguise herself as a man, and learns herbal healing to help others.
There is a parallel story of a young man, Don Christopher, a knight of King Philip and the betrothed of the girl, who sets off on with a young squire, Sancho, to find the girl. Christopher’s adventures take them across Spain and force him to grow up. Does he continue the quest to find his betrothed or marry another and break the contract with the king?
Both young people have many experiences and grow up before the readers’ eyes. Floating in and out of each other’s paths as they travel around Spain, will they eventually find each other and be together?