Author Interview: Karen Halvorsen Schreck on Dream Journal

Karen Halvorsen Schreck is the author of a young adult novel, Dream Journal (Hyperion, 2006) and an award-winning children’s book, Lucy’s Family Tree, illustrated by Stephen Gassler (Tilbury House, 2000). Her short stories have appeared in various literary journals and have received a number of awards, including a Pushcart Prize and an Illinois State Arts Council Grant. Karen lives with her husband and children in Wheaton, Illinois.

Karen Halvorsen Schreck on Karen Halvorsen Schreck: “I was the only child of two older parents who were passionate about their work as musicians and college professors. They shared their love of art and learning with me, which was a great gift with one string attached: from the get-go I had to rise to the most adult of occasions. I didn’t always succeed. For example: I saw my first opera at the Chicago Lyric when I was five years old, but when all was sung and done, of course I couldn’t remember anything but the seat upholstery–how it itched. I traveled to Europe several times with my dad’s singing group–I even spent a surreal afternoon with the queen of Holland–but what really fascinated me during those tours were the many variations on the chocolate bar.

“Mostly I wandered around the seemingly interchangeable hotels and cathedrals and pretended something truly dramatic was happening: the stories in my head. On the surface I was a reasonably well-adjusted, if middle-aged kid–terribly, horribly good for a terribly, horribly long time. I acted out only in my imagination. Real play–crazy fun–I experienced this only when I had my own children.

“Ultimately I joined the family business, getting my MA and PhD in Creative Writing and English. Since then I’ve mostly taught, worked in advertising (I’ve waxed poetic on everything from Christian Dior gowns to Godiva truffles to designer furniture–in other words, things I could never afford and wouldn’t buy if I could), written fiction as much as possible, married the photographer and all-around-good-man Gregory Halvorsen Schreck, and built a family.”

Dream Journal by Karen Halvorsen Schreck (Hyperion, 2006). From the ARC promo copy: “‘Will she die?’ Sixteen-year-old Livy Moore has finally summoned the courage to ask about her mother’s illness. But she already knows the answer: for two years, Livy has watched her mother grow weaker. And until now, Livy has survived the pain of losing her mother by shuttering herself off from the rest of the world. She has alienated herself from her best friend, and barely speaks to her father, never sharing with him the grief that is tearing them both apart. But as Livy gets swept up in a strong but ill-fated crush and her mother’s condition worsens, she must learn to trust not only those around her, but herself.”

How did writing first call to you?

I think I first called to it. As in: Help! I’m lonely and bored! I’ve got to escape! Or: Help! I’m confused and scared! I need an answer, or at least a distraction!

As I said, I made up stories all the time–and not just in hotels in cathedrals. I felt a real urgency about the whole enterprise, actually, and I did a pretty good job of straddling my imaginary and real worlds. Luckily, my parents encouraged this–or at least, they ignored me when I was whooping it up in the living room on a black stallion only I could see. And they kept me well stocked in books, bless them. Oz, Wonderland, Avonlea, and Narnia provided great alternatives to suburbia.

I started writing my stories when I was about ten, and I never really stopped–or, more truthfully, I never really stopped wanting to write. I remember seeing Madeleine L’Engle and Marguerite Henry give readings when I was in grade school, and vowing: I’m going to do that someday. They both signed my copies of their books, and I studied their signatures, wondering if it was something about the loop and swirl of their letters that helped these women make what they made out of words.

Could you tell us about your path to publication, any sprints or stumbles along the way?

I’d call the whole experience more of a marathon than anything else. I’ve certainly had to pace myself for the long haul. I hunkered down into fiction writing when I was in college–twenty-some years ago now–and proceeded to doggedly write my way through the decades. I published some stories and articles, won a few nice prizes and grants along the way. But mostly I tucked the work in when I could.

In my darker moments, I felt like a sham. For heaven’s sake! I’d stew. Will ya just stick with some legitimate, consistent, and (at the very least) slightly lucrative career! Greg kept the faith during these times, thankfully. And thankfully, too, my stewing always cooled to a simmer, and then I’d snap out of it.

Then Greg and I adopted our first child, our daughter Magdalena, and life transformed. In fact (and I’m just realizing this right now as I write), having a child reinvigorated me with the kind of urgency I felt as a child about making up stories. Hm. I wonder if this also has anything to do with the fact that I no longer wanted to write for adults. I wanted to write for Magdalena. So I did, during her naps. Suddenly I was punching the clock: she was down for the count in her crib, and I was at my desk. I loved this time–the discipline and regularity of my work and her breathing in the next room. She taught me to turn on a dime and to appreciate and use (nearly) every spare minute I had, and I’ll be forever grateful.

Actually the summer after Magdalena came home qualifies as my single experience of “sprinting.” When I realized that I wanted to write a book for her–one she might want or need to read when she was older–I cranked out Lucy’s Family Tree. This took me a little over a month. A few months after this, Tilbury House accepted LFT for publication. Ah, those halcyon days. Then the publication process slowed to stumbles. LFT’s release date was delayed by a year because of an office flood. Then the date was postponed again because the original illustrator tore her rotator cuff. Magdalena was going on four when the book finally came out. But there was a pay-off: she immediately understood that I’d dedicated LFT to her and she was proud. She strutted around readings like she was responsible for the book, and, really, she was.

Congratulations on the publication of Dream Journal (Hyperion, 2006). What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

My mother’s death from cancer when I was thirteen. I’m reading a nonfiction book right now called Never the Same–Coming to Terms with the Death of a Parent by Donna Schuurman (St. Martin’s Press, 2003). Never the same? I’ll say. My feelings about my mother surge up at the weirdest times, and at the most predictable ones. I missed her a lot right after I became a mom, so I guess it’s no coincidence that I started writing Dream Journal soon after I finished Lucy’s Family Tree.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

In my early twenties, I wrote a number of stories where the mother/father/aunt/fill-in-the-significant-other-blank dies. But I never wanted to crack one of those stories open and try to find a novel.

Then caring for Magdalena pretty much cracked me open; it was like I got to know myself all over again–the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful, too. So this is love, I kept thinking. So this is anger, frustration, patience, grace. We are so vulnerable to each other, she and I! Which led to: What would it be like to lose my daughter? What would it be like for my daughter to lose me? And: Did my mom feel all this?

There was so much I wanted to ask my mom–more than ever before. So the immediate inspiration for Dream Journal was becoming a mother and finding that I needed to talk to a mother (albeit a fictional one) in the most profound way possible. The more long-term inspiration was, of course, my old friend and enemy, Loss. Ultimately I just wanted to write the book I wished I could have read when I was a teen, and that I still needed to read as an adult.

I plunged in and stuck with it, draft after draft after doggone draft. I didn’t want death to be the subplot, kind of lurking in the background, something the characters had already endured. I wanted them to go through the illness; I wanted to get the last days and the funeral and the aftermath right. And damn it, I wanted the chance to go through it all again, too, the way I wish I could have the first time. I wanted to be bad instead of so terribly, horribly good.

Dream Journal took me nearly four years to write and revise; what started as four hundred-some pages wound up being about one hundred and seventy. I finally felt like I’d done as much as I could with the manuscript, and that’s when I sent it to my agent Sara Crowe, who agreed to represent it. Some time passed, and then Hyperion agreed to publish it. This felt like a miracle. And since then, it’s been a pretty blissful year and a half, working through final revisions with my editor Jennifer Besser.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

First and foremost I wanted to make sure that I didn’t recreate my actual family; I didn’t want to write a memoir. I’m happy to say Dream Journal is fiction. It’s rooted in emotional reality, of course, but my friends and my father have said: What’s true here? It feels real, but we don’t remember this happening! And to that I always say: Whew. Got that right.

And I’d never crafted anything this long before, only to rewrite it again and again when this twist or that turn led only to a dead end. So I learned a lot about revision and plotting, as well.

What do you love about your writing life?

I love losing myself and finding myself in any mind, body, voice, place, detail that I want. Making a mess and cleaning it up, or not. And how small things can hold so much meaning–that cosmos-in-a-hazelnut kind of a thing. Then there’s the way a sentence can unfold crazily, snagging the right words as it winds its way toward sense. And those words–how they feel on my tongue and sing in my ears. And the quiet, of course. The candles on my homely desk. The way I feel when everything is going right: focused, and contained by the computer screen in front of me, and poised for whatever’s next. The surprises. I love the surprises. The healing that comes when I least expect it.

After a few good hours of work, I sometimes feel buoyant, a little high. Not too mention happy, sane, and ready to meet the world. You probably can see it on my face when I’ve had a good writing day. I certainly can feel it in my body. I’ve got energy to burn; I don’t even have a problem keeping up with Teo, my four-year old son.

What are its tougher aspects?

Finding the hours to achieve the above. Unfortunately I need consistent blocks of uninterrupted time to get something done. I’m juggling a lot right now, and that’s been taking its toll, most specifically on the YA novel I’m trying to write, but more generally on my faith in my work.

I hate it when I stop believing in the story I’m telling. When that happens I can start avoiding work altogether, or undermining it. Oh, it can get ugly, and I can get ugly, until one day I’m able to fling myself at my computer for a few hours and then I’m usually a believer again.

On top of the time-factor, I’m also feeling rather exposed having my first novel out in the world. Stark naked, in fact. I’m trying to do more yoga, take some lessons from the kids on immediacy, eat good food, pray.

I mean, Come on, Ego. Give me a break. I did the best I could!

But this is a hard challenge for me, releasing this book into the world. I’m working hard not to run and duck for cover. I launched a website, for instance. I’m scheduling readings.

I never knew self-promotion could be so blamed difficult and time-consuming! But ultimately I hope that I’ll be able to make contact with some readers who appreciate the book, and this might act as an anecdote for the other tough challenge of this kind of work: the isolation that can set in. Assuming you’ve had consistent blocks of uninterrupted time to get something done.

What advice do you have for beginning authors?

Write the story you want and need to read.

And here is a message that is also to myself: Appreciate the work of others. Learn from the work of others. But do not compare your work to theirs.

How about novelists specifically?

In my experience, it’s all about revision, so pace yourself for the journey. If you’re a perfectionist, give yourself a break because it’s bound to get chaotic. Why not enjoy the chaos, or at least accept it? It might reveal something if you leave it sprawled across the page for a while. When the writing feels a little more like play, you can always go back and shake out some cosmos.

What do you do when you’re not reading or writing?

I love to go to plays, movies, concerts, restaurants, museums, galleries, etc. I really love to travel. I like hiking, camping, and cross-country skiing. Once in a while I get to do these things, and it’s great.

But at this stage in my life, I find myself at home a lot, hanging out with my family and friends. I put in a garden this spring, and it went wild on me. I was expecting this decorous Victorian knot/Zen kitchen “space” and it turned into something out of “Little Shop of Horrors.” The sunflowers are taller than our house. I’m considering investing in a machete to hack through the vines. But I’ve grown a lot of delicious vegetables, and Greg and I have been having fun figuring out what to do with them.

What can your fans look forward to next?

My fans? Um…well, the season is changing, so I’ll probably be wrapping up their extension cords and storing them down in the basement.

(Pause for a beat. In case anyone decides to laugh.)

I’m working on a YA novel set in the late 1930s. It draws on a story of mine that won a Pushcart Prize a few years back. That story was based on some of my father’s boyhood experiences, most of which were informed by his younger sister, who had cerebral palsy. For me this book is also about money and class–the aspirations of an immigrant family devastated by the Depression. And it’s about a kid who wants to be an artist, in spite of everything.