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Author Katharine Beutner takes a trip down memory lane with Laura to discuss their shared experience as editors of their high school literary magazine (!) before turning to a discussion of craft and crime. Beutner discusses the inspiration for her new novel, Killingly; the art of historical fiction; writing novels vs. poetry; research; revision; women’s colleges in the late 1800s; evolving attitudes surrounding queerness at the turn of the twentieth century; the ethics of fictionalizing an actual missing-person case; cat fanciers of yore; and more.
Killingly, a New England Gothic novel surrounding the aftermath of a student’s disappearance from Mt. Holyoke College in 1897, was published by Soho Press in June 2023. Beutner is also the author of Alcestis, a queer retelling of the Greek myth, originally published in 2010 and re-released by Soho Press in September 2023. This interview was conducted in May 2023.
To see images of Whispering Minds, the high school literary magazine discussed in this episode, follow Ohio Center for the Book’s new Instagram account! Finally, for the chance to have your writing or publishing inquiry answered by Laura and a guest on a future episode, submit your questions via this online form.
In this episode:
- Smith College
- Mount Holyoke College
- Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts (RIP)
- Mercyhurst College
- Jack Gilbert
- Bertha Mellish
- Harry Ransom Center
- The New Life by Tom Crewe
- Hilary Mantel
- Susquehanna University Writing Workshop
- Lake Erie Ink
- Cherry Tree Young Writers’ Conference
- John Carroll Young Writers
- Mac’s Backs
- Boswell Books
Katharine Beutner: You can sit down for 20 minutes and have something approaching part of a draft of a poem. You cannot sit down in 20 minutes and have a draft of a novel . . . Damn it <laugh>. Laura Maylene Walter: Welcome to Page Count, presented by the Ohio Center for the book at Cleveland Public Library. This podcast celebrates authors, illustrators, librarians, book sellers, literary advocates, and readers in and from the state of Ohio. I'm your host, Laura Maylene Walter, the Ohio Center for the Book Fellow and author of the Novel BODY OF STARS. Today we're speaking with Katherine Beutner, author of KILLINGLY, a New England gothic novel surrounding the aftermath of a student's disappearance from Mount Holyoke College in 1897. She's also the author of the novel ALCESTIS, a retelling of the Greek myth, which won the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award. We'll discuss re-imagining and fictionalizing, real life missing persons, publishing a second novel, and horrifyingly, our own high school creative writing efforts. Kate, welcome to the podcast. Katharine Beutner: Thank you. I'm so excited to be here and slightly terrified about the whole high school creative writing efforts part. Laura Maylene Walter: I think we're both in the same boat. It is terrifying, but we're going to get into it. So this is usually where I ask my guest about their Ohio connection, but I think we have kind of a fun story here, which is while we are both in Cleveland right now in separate locations recording this, we actually attended the same high school together in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. At the time, we were both really interested in writing. We were both on the editorial staff of our high school literary magazine as well. So, catch us up between high school and Lancaster and now. Tell us about your career path. Tell us where you went, where you ended up, and how is it that now today you are on an Ohio-centric podcast with me. Katharine Beutner: Fabulous question. Yeah, so our literary magazine days were predictive in some ways. I think that we both were like very excited about poetic language and storytelling. And when I graduated from high school, went to college, you know, ended up getting my first not very exciting post-college job out in Oregon. That was the moment when I really dug into deciding that I wanted to try to write novels. And I think it was an impulse that a lot of people have, which is to measure their dead end office job against the potentiality of telling stories. So that was when I wrote one novel, which will absolutely never be published and thankfully never dug up for a podcast either. And then also started ALCESTIS and applied to grad school, etcetera. So after having gone to grad school and stayed long enough to do a PhD in literature as well, my first job right out of graduate school was in Ohio at the College of Wooster as a visiting assistant professor. And then I taught in Hawaii for a time at the University of Hawaii and ended up coming back to Wooster. And that was my long and circuitous journey to being a Cleveland resident for the last six, seven years, which is kind of a long time at this point. Yeah. So it was delightful to find that you had also ended up here. Laura Maylene Walter: So you've been in Cleveland here for seven years, but unfortunately, you're going to leave us. Katharine Beutner: Yeah. Laura Maylene Walter: Can you tell us about your next venture? Katharine Beutner: I am going to be starting in the fall at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as an associate professor there. And it is sad. I have many mixed feelings. I loved being at the College of Wooster and I have great colleagues and students and friends there. But I'm really excited about working with grad students. Again, there's a great MFA and PhD program at Milwaukee and with all love to Cleveland, being in a city that is a little more embracing of its Lake <laugh>. Laura Maylene Walter: Definitely. Yeah. Well, congrats on that. We will miss you, and your new novel KILLINGLY is coming out while you're still here in Ohio. So we're going to claim that, I think. Katharine Beutner: Fabulous. Laura Maylene Walter: So we will definitely talk about KILLINGLY. I have a lot of questions about the novel, but you're the only person in the world I can think of that I would ever interview for this podcast who shares the same experiences with the high school lit mag. Katharine Beutner: <Laugh> Laura Maylene Walter: Our words are in some of those same pages. So can you, can you introduce the literary magazine to our listeners? First of all, what was its name and can you, as much as you remember, can you describe the process of how we worked on the magazine? Katharine Beutner: Yeah. Okay. So starting with its name, I think we have to go back to that cover from 1998. That was one of the issues that you scanned kindly or parts of it and sent to me because it's pretty dramatic. The name of the magazine was Whispering Minds <laugh> and the 1998 cover is this extremely dramatic, honestly, kind of eighties looking. I don't, it's strange. But: "I have seen their art strewn together, thoughts as varied as the worlds they..." Well, actually "world," okay, error, "the worlds they inhabit. I have witnessed what they produced, and I marveled over their...Whispering Minds." It's amazing. Laura Maylene Walter: Perfect. No notes on that. Katharine Beutner: No, no notes. There's some kind of like clip art thing going on behind the... Laura Maylene Walter: I will have to post pictures, images... Katharine Beutner: Please do. Laura Maylene Walter: ...Of These covers somewhere, because it's, it's a lot. Yeah. Katharine Beutner: Is this the part where you say link in the show notes? Laura Maylene Walter: Exactly, exactly. Check the show notes. Yeah. So it wasn't light on the drama. Whispering Minds. What a title for something. And I don't remember at the time having enough taste to think that was a terrible name for anything. Do you? Katharine Beutner: No. And you know, I was thinking about that. Cause I think, like as we were talking about this briefly before recording, I was struck by your level of horror at the title. And I think it was because that was just what it was called. Right? Like... Laura Maylene Walter: Right. We just accepted it. Katharine Beutner: Right. Like someone else had named it in the distant past and we just were like, of course it's called Whispering Minds. What else would you call your amazing literary journal that you publish? You know? Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah. Exactly. It was completely fine and normal. And it wasn't until maybe I was older and started to think about it, like, wow, that was, that was a lot. And I know that by the time you came on board, I think this publication was already gone. But just for the listeners, when I was a freshman, the first year I worked on Whispering Minds, the upperclassmen put out a secret underground publication as a companion that they just stapled together called Screaming Minds. And that was the very explicit kind of sexy version of Whispering Minds, which I don't know why we didn't keep that up. But again, amazing: Screaming Minds and Whispering Minds. That's like all the high school angst wrapped up right there. Katharine Beutner: I'm sorry to have missed the dirty zine version of <laugh>. Seriously. Laura Maylene Walter: I mean, the artwork, it was great. It was really great. Katharine Beutner: Wow. I'm surprised. I feel like if that happened today it would be a scandal. Laura Maylene Walter: I think so too. Especially, I mean, our past high school, I don't want to bring it up too much for people to go digging, but there have been scandals recently. I don't know if you followed any of that. Katharine Beutner: I not, I have not. We'll talk, we'll talk, yeah, Laura Maylene Walter: We'll talk about that. That might be for another conversation. But I do remember, it was kind of cute, the upperclassmen were like passing them around. I think they used the school's photocopier, but it was very kind of under the radar. And the teacher, she saw it and said, I'm going to pretend I didn't see it, wink, wink. You know what I mean? So we had some tacit support. Katharine Beutner: This was our same advisor who... Laura Maylene Walter: I believe so. Katharine Beutner: That sounds like her. Yeah. Laura Maylene Walter: It sounds like her. Yeah. My memory... Katharine Beutner: I don't want to blow her up on this podcast either, butshe was amazing. Laura Maylene Walter: Definitely. Katharine Beutner: That's mostly what I remember. You asked about what I remember of the process. And I mostly remember being in her classroom after school hours. Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah. Katharine Beutner: All of us kind of sitting around. I think sometimes maybe there was pizza. I have vague memories... Laura Maylene Walter: I feel like I have a vague memory of pizza, too. Katharine Beutner: ...Of Getting pizza occasionally and just, yeah, a lot of, a lot of very serious debates about layout and how things should be organized. I had flashbacks looking through some of the pages that you had sent me that had some of the poems that I included in them where I thought, oh, I remember how we decided that, you know, this poem should go with this piece of art. There were a couple art pieces that I, there's one that I actually quite liked, the weird little drawing...the "Prom Time" drawing? Laura Maylene Walter: There's some good artwork in there. Katharine Beutner: Yeah. There were a few moments where I was like, okay, alright, good job high school art people. I can't even, I mean, it's somebody under a pseudonym, so I'm not, not even sure who did it. Laura Maylene Walter: Yes. Katharine Beutner: But yeah. Laura Maylene Walter: And yeah, so the way it worked is students from the school and our school was fairly large. We had what, maybe 400 to 500 kids per grade in the school? Is that right? Something like that. Katharine Beutner: Our graduating class was actually closer to 600. Laura Maylene Walter: Was it really? Okay. Katharine Beutner: Yeah, I think the school as a total was around 2000 or 2500. Laura Maylene Walter: Okay. So, yeah, so I mean, a fairly large school and anyone in the school could submit to Whispering Minds, but it was a submission process where we received their work and we, I think we voted. So we, you know, we didn't accept everything that came our way. We had standards <laugh>. Katharine Beutner: We were discerning. Laura Maylene Walter: We definitely were. And I think we reviewed everything anonymously, if I'm not wrong, but students could choose to publish under their real name or publish under a pseudonym. And when I was going through the issues, I was thinking the ones who published under a pseudonym were the smart ones. Like that is wise because now how many years later they can't be brought up on a podcast. You know what I mean? Katharine Beutner: Exactly. Laura Maylene Walter: Although, it's funny how I could still remember who some of the pseudonyms were. Laura Maylene Walter: Whether they were my close friends or not my close friends, but I just happened to know who it was. So that was kind of fun that all these years later, I remember who Phoebe is, for example. Katharine Beutner: Gone. Completely gone. Laura Maylene Walter: I'll tell you after we record. Katharine Beutner: Excellent. <laugh>. Laura Maylene Walter: Alright. So I scanned some of the issues. I had them up in my attic, by the way. I have all these boxes full of things from the past, and I found all four of my issues of Whispering Minds. So I scanned some of the pages that had your poems, because you and I were both in there a lot. We were kind of serious about writing. So I knew you then as a poet, you wrote mostly poetry, but you wrote prose too. And I considered myself more of a prose writer, and I wrote really bad poetry. Like it actually shocked me how terrible it was. But I want to hear from you. When I sent those pages, how did you feel about it? What was that experience like being confronted with your work as a teenager? Katharine Beutner: Oh, <laugh>. Some of those poems I remember more than others, I guess. And that again gets back to you. And I also attended the same much beloved and much missed Pennsylvania state program, the Governor's School for the Arts. That used to be a five week...I'm trying to think how best to describe it. I mean, it was basically like five weeks of like fame high school, kind of... Laura Maylene Walter: And it was completely state funded. Katharine Beutner: Yes. Laura Maylene Walter: So students from all over the state were selected to attend for five weeks for free. Katharine Beutner: Yeah. Laura Maylene Walter: Where we got to live on a college campus and just be immersed in the art world and our own work for those five weeks. It was magical. Katharine Beutner: And I remember that as sort of being like the closest thing I've ever experienced to like, I don't know, auditioning for Julliard or whatever. Right. You know, where you, it was a really intensive application process for a high school student anyway, so because I was in the poetry workshop there for five weeks, some of these poems are poems that I spent a lot of time with. The ones that are in the last issue that you sent me. So those, I guess I wasn't quite so stunned and horrified. Laura Maylene Walter: No, they were good. Honestly, I think they stand up. Katharine Beutner: I appreciate that. But I mean, there were certainly things in here that I had completely forgotten. Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah. Katharine Beutner: And made a lot of cringe faces at. I mean, some stuff that is perhaps not surprising in terms of through lines, like an embarrassing attempt at, you know, Greek mythology retelling and things like that. That demonstrate that in ways that I think will not be surprising to any writer that the stuff that you're thinking about when you're young is often still the stuff that you're thinking about when you're an older and professional writer as well. So yeah, it was less horrifying than I was afraid it was going to be, but I think just because of familiarity with some of the pieces. Yeah. Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah. It was fun when I was scanning things and I saw your story, that involved a Greek myth, and I was like, oh my God, we really never change. And even in my story from the last year, there were certain subtle things that I could recognize my own writing. And I had a lot of really overwrought metaphors involving stars and things. And it actually took me until this morning, I was like, oh yeah, my novel was called BODY OF STARS <laugh>. Katharine Beutner: Right. Yeah. Tell me more about what it was like when you, I mean, how, what was the balance of what you published in Whispering Minds between poetry and fiction? Laura Maylene Walter: I always published one short story every year from freshman to senior year. Short stories were always, I considered my most important thing. So I always published one full story and then a scattering of poems. And the poems for me were, I kind of had fun with them. I enjoyed it. Looking back, I think especially the younger years, I looked at my like sophomore and and junior years of poetry maybe in my mind I never thought they were good, but I would've thought they were a little better. I don't know, it's not that I care about the quality all these years later, but it is like looking at a past version of yourself on the page. Which can be sometimes uncomfortable, you know? Katharine Beutner: Absolutely. The one poem of yours that was included that was like, to the graduating class or whatever, that struck me.... It made me think about, not to make big, grandiose comparisons, but just like Amanda Gorman's poem for the inauguration in the sense of like poetry has social purposes too. Laura Maylene Walter: <Laugh> Right. Yeah. Katharine Beutner: You know? And like they're marking changes that a group of people are going through. That's also an important purpose of poetry that I think we kind of. Laura Maylene Walter: Eah. Katharine Beutner: Think that's less prominent today culturally maybe than it used to be, but I think that's also important. You shouldn't feel bad about the fact that you were doing things with poetry that like gave you and friends pleasure. Laura Maylene Walter: Right, exactly. And speaking of friends, I mean, it was like a little time capsule to read through, just skim through the issues and see poems by my other friends. Some people I still keep in touch with. There's a piece of artwork by a friend I am still in touch with. I'm going to text her an image of it later today actually. And I looked at it and I was like, oh, that's her. Like the style of it all these years later I still recognize kind of her essence in the drawing, which was really great. Katharine Beutner: Yeah. Laura Maylene Walter: And you know, and then the people with the pseudonyms, like kind of knowing why they might be wanting to hide behind a pseudonym, these literary magazines from high school, especially from that time, it's just a repository of like teenage angst and fear and lust and you know, like all these things are rolled in. So it was interesting, you know. Katharine Beutner: Yeah, no, I think I mentioned to you, you know, that there's like the one poem about "I'm so over this crush" who I then ended up dating for two years because I remember, this is so goofy, but there's a page where one of his silly little poems and one of my poems are on the same page. And at the time I was like, I'm so happy about this, you know, <laugh> as a 16 year old, that was incredibly important to me. Like our poems are sharing space, you know. Laura Maylene Walter: I'm thinking now to our layout discussions. I wonder how that came about, the layout of, you know, the drama. Katharine Beutner: That I don't remember <laugh>. I may well have influenced it. I can't recall. Yeah. Laura Maylene Walter: That's so funny. Do you have anything from those pages you're willing to share with us to give people an example of our high school writing? Katharine Beutner: Oh gosh, yes. I can do that. I was trying to decide which one, and I think, I think I'll read the one about my dad. Laura Maylene Walter: Okay. Katharine Beutner: This is a Governor's School poem. I remember spending time on I workshop there, and as I think I said to you in email, like also some evidence that I had some feelings about my dad's rational personality <laugh>. Okay. So I'll go ahead and read it. It's called "This Yellowy Blue-green." And it's one of those poems where the title runs into the first line. Katharine Beutner: "This Yellowy Blue-green / is the color the ice turned in my father's / golden eyes, 1944, when his five-year-old friends jostled / him (they sworn not on purpose) over a tiny ledge into Lake / Michigan. It was either the coldest or hottest thing he'd / ever felt, water around him and in his clothes like fire, opaque / frightening field of ice above him rocking and almost / growing. The blue green. He fought, smothering in a frigid / vacuum. I do not think he was ever tempted to open his mouth. He / at five was older, stronger, than 30-year-old men who fell / drunken from boats into the water; or perhaps he was just small enough / to turn to ice without dying. And he did. The cold trap of his brain / directed him. He felt the slope of the soft lake floor with ice / feet and slowly walked out, wriggling through the fragmented hole / frozen and natural as a seal dripping with the yellowy blue-green, / monstrous enough to scare the boys who had already run / away, calm enough to melt the ice or absorb it as he chose." Katharine Beutner: Thank you for reading that. I think that's really beautiful. How do you feel about that poem now all these years later? Katharine Beutner: There are things I would change, but overall I think I feel fairly okay about it. I also, it's strange, after I was reading these, I talked with my mom a little bit about them and she said, "You know, it surprised me when you stopped writing poetry." And she's an artist, she does abstract painting. And what we came to talking about it a little bit is that, I don't know if this is true for you as well, Laura, but pieces of writing come to me with their form. And for whatever reason, as I got into college and beyond, I took a poetry class, actually I took an amazing poetry workshop with Jack Gilbert at Smith, which was extremely fortunate. He was already quite elderly at the time and just like an amazing poetry teacher. But it was the only workshop I took in college. I wasn't an English major. I was going down that Classics path already. And for whatever reason things stopped coming to me in poems and they started coming to me more in narrative form. There are certainly times, and I'm guessing you might sympathize with this too, there are certainly times where I wish that I still had more creative impulses. I don't want to say inspiration exactly, but things that came in poem form. Because you can sit down for 20 minutes <laugh> Laura Maylene Walter: Yep. Katharine Beutner: You know, and have something approaching part of a draft of a poem. You cannot sit down in 20 minutes and have a draft of a novel . . Damn it. Laura Maylene Walter: If only. Katharine Beutner: So, there is something I remember pleasantly about having those times, you know, sitting in the the weird hallways of Mercyhurst College in Erie or whatever for Gov School and sitting down for an hour or two and having a draft of a new poem. Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah. Katharine Beutner: And it's not that you can't have those exciting moments where you're drafting a scene and it's working, but there is just, as someone, I really primarily write novels and not short fiction. And so it's just different. I mean if we want to transition to KILLINGLY at all, like I first read about Bertha Mellish in 2009 and it is 2023. Laura Maylene Walter: <Laugh> So this novel KILLINGLY is a re-imagining of a real life young woman who went missing from Mount Holyoke College in the late 1800s. Tell us how you first came upon her story and where the research led you as you created this novel. Katharine Beutner: Sure. This is during my grad school years. I was working as a research intern at the Harry Ransom Center, which is a big archives in rare books collection at the University of Texas. And we research interns would do an hour of research for a patron for free. I'm sure that's probably still true. If anyone has any amazing queries they want to ask folks at the Ransom Center. Many of those were very scholarly. But we also, because it was a librarywe also got like genealogy queries. And that's what I was working on, was somebody had written in with this vastly unhelpful query about something along the lines of like, my ancestor was in the Spanish American War, can you please look through this parentheses, non indexed microfilm... Katharine Beutner: Oh my god. Katharine Beutner: Of this newspaper archive. So I was just sitting there scrolling through the microfilm in an increasingly seasick way. I sort of described this in the author's note. And I found, I just found this headline about Bertha, which was very dramatic and strange. It was, "Led to Death By Her Child of Fancy". And it was an interview with Hammond, the family doctor who three years later was still giving interviews about what he thought might have happened to Bertha. She had not been found, etcetera. Because I went to Smith, which is just right down the road from Mount Holyoke, the fact that she was a Mount Holyoke student caught my attention immediately. And I ended up going, you know, that summer I went to Mount Holyoke Special Collections. They have a small amount of material about Bertha, but they also have a lot of just contemporary material from other students, which was pretty amazing. Yeah. So there, I mean there is some sort of publicly available, there are news articles that you can still find about birth's disappearance. Katharine Beutner: The broadside missing poster is available online. Actually there's a Mount Holyoke alum who runs the Queer Alums Network who owns that broadside. And so she gave permission for us to reproduce it in the book, thankfully. So yeah, it was a really fascinating process comparing some of the things that were different about the two colleges. In some ways I think people assume that all women's colleges that existed at the same time were identical and they really weren't. They had some sort of different class dynamics happening and different levels of religiosity, I think at the time. So learning about that sort of thing. And then also just becoming aware of the depth of some of the extremely queer looking to us from our perspective, cultural practices of women's colleges at the time. I mean, not that thankfully women's colleges and historically women's colleges are still extremely queer places in my experience. Katharine Beutner: But it looked very different. And gender identity and sexual identity looked really different. So there were so many amazing things that I stumbled across in my research that I would never have thought to create myself. Things like Bertha was, before she disappeared, she was supposed to argue the positive in a debate that vivisection for scientific purposes is justifiable. And simultaneously, the zoology classes at Mount Holyoke were dissecting cats. And simultaneously the family doctor who I just mentioned was a cat breeder. So there were just all these weird strands about thematic things that the history actually just kind of delivered to me. Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah, there's a lot there that I want to talk about and get into. It's so fascinating. So the real Bertha, the mystery of what happened to her is unknown. We don't actually know what became of her and how your novel is of course a fictionalized account you're imagining of what could have happened to her perhaps. Can you talk a bit about that? About a real life person taking sort of the seed of their life and something that happened as in her disappearance and turning it into a novel. What kind of responsibilities did you think you have? What was your thought process as you were creating her as a fictional character on the page? Katharine Beutner: Yeah, I thought about that a lot, especially, especially when I was in Hawaii and was in a research group with some other junior faculty. And I had a few members of the group who were either Native Hawaiian and another member of the group who was Maori. And we were all talking about our current projects. And I was working on this novel at the time and my Maori colleague Alice said to me, so you're writing about other people's ancestors. And I was like, Ooh, true <laugh>. I mean, with that said, if we're thinking about sort of legal responsibility, one thing that I have talked about in other contexts with folks working on historical fiction is nobody in the book actually has any living descendants. So I will say, I mean that was something that I thought about. I am fictionalizing from the word go here. Katharine Beutner: One of the main characters in the book is fictional...Agnes, Bertha's best friend. And there's absolutely no way that what I describe in the book is what happened because Agnes does not exist. Katharine Beutner: Right. Katharine Beutner: And so I think to me that was a little bit of an escape hatch I guess to think that like I'm in no way claiming that the plot line that I lay out in the book matches what might have happened to Bertha. In fact, I actually doubt that it does. If we were not avoiding spoilers, I'd be happy to talk more about what I think might actually have happened to her. But I think that it was clear to me, I guess, that there were certain dynamics, like for example, Agnes, the fictional character is Catholic and Mount Holyoke did not admit Catholic students at the time. So that enabled me to create a secret for her, a reason that she was cagey and strange among other personality traits. Katharine Beutner: And that it enabled me to just explore various strands of the culture at the time that I was interested in how women, the sort of new woman figure and the ways that men at the time felt very threatened by women kind of entering the public sphere more, getting more educated, all of that. So yeah, I guess to me, I mean I certainly did think a lot about what responsibilities exist and, and the other strand of that is thinking about representation and race. Because it's just like a vastly white, segregated environment. And that's reflected in the sources that I was drawing from. I think there are risks in reproducing that segregation and whiteness. And then there are also risks, very different risks that would come about if I were to sort of tokenize black characters or other characters of color to kind of be like, look, it's diverse. So yeah, I think I really wanted to navigate that really carefully. Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah, you had a really interesting discussion about race in your author's note in terms of being historical fiction author. Can you maybe talk about that a bit? Maybe in terms of advice for other writers trying to work on historical fiction that maybe is about at the time very white spaces. You know, you talked a bit about uncovering in letters or documents from Mount Holyoke at that time in our modern day lens. Very disturbing, extremely racist things. Katharine Beutner: Yeah. Katharine Beutner: Can you talk a bit about what that is like when you're a writer of historical fiction and how you make those decisions? Katharine Beutner: Absolutely. So just an example for folks who haven't yet read the book or the author's note yet in the Mount Holyoke Special Collections among these beautiful lighthearted collections of pictures and documents and scrapbooks that were produced by the students, I found a hand drawn, hand cut out invitation to a cakewalk party that was colored in to look like a watermelon. Laura Maylene Walter: Yikes. Katharine Beutner: Yeah. Very yikes. And for those who don't know, a cakewalk party involved the girls donning blackface and competing with dances. Yeah. It was very gross. It was extremely gross. And I guess to me, I mean the kinds of things that I think about with that and thinking about what might be applicable for historical fiction authors more broadly is that I certainly don't want to erase that. I don't want to allied it. I think the limitation that I'm not sure that I have fully figured out, but I am continuing to think about going forward is that as well, when you have white POV characters in an extremely segregated time, you're also stuck with the question of what would they actually think about and what would they actually notice? What would not even be within their realm of understanding? So I think that I was always thinking a lot about not wanting to allow their blinkered view to gloss over the sort of real atrocity of the time. Katharine Beutner: I mean, I always come back to that Hilary Mantel quote about the obscenity of the past being the thing that would actually be most striking about historical fiction. But at the same time, not wanting to shoehorn contemporary sensibility in in ways. I mean, one of the things that pesters me the most about some types of historical fiction approaches are the very like, well, she's a 2023 feminist, but she just happens to be in 1923. And I just, I find that really difficult. It can be really satisfying and delightful as like a comfort read. But I find it frustrating because I think it allows us as contemporary readers to feelI don't know how to put that exactly, I guess to feel reassured that like if we had been people in that time period, we still would've made the good and moral choice or the thing that we now regard as the good and moral choice. Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah. Not realistic. Yeah. Katharine Beutner: Yeah. So I don't know, that's lots of thoughts, but there are lots of thoughts to think about this. Laura Maylene Walter: Well, so speaking of that time, so 1897, you mentioned Agnes, who's a main character in the book, Bertha's friend Agnes is very studious, she wants to become a doctor and she is very driven and serious about this. Can you talk more broadly about what it was like for a lot of women in the late 1800s going to college? What was available to them, what wasn't? I know, as you mentioned, not all women's colleges were the same, they all had different cultures or different aspects. But can you take us back and, and let us know what that time was like for women? Katharine Beutner: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, Mount Holyoke had only been officially a college and not a seminary school for about two or three years at that point. So I think that the, the really dominant goal of Mount Holyoke when it was formed, as I understand it, was to create minister's wives basically. And that was still, I mean, the number of, I actually stripped some of this out of the book because my editors were like, okay, we get it. But the number of like prayer meetings and things that they went to in the course of their education just on a regular day, it's sort of like, well first you have, you know, YWCA meeting and then you have a prayer meeting and then you have bible study. And I mean, it was an extremely religiously inflected environment in which the, you know, students were also super serious about their academics I think. Katharine Beutner: But there was a real sense that they were in training to be wives largely. And I think, I mean the weird sidebar of that for me is that a lot, that was also oddly sort of the rationale for a lot of the kind of queer feeling, role playing that sort of happened that it was like, Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah... Katharine Beutner: Yeah. I mean I don't, I don't even exactly know how to understand that, but it was sort of like, well through, you know, our intimacy with other women we're sort of training ourselves to be good wives. And I was like, okay, <laugh>. Laura Maylene Walter: "Sure." Katharine Beutner: Right. Yeah. Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah, I was so struck by that the relationships in the book of the young women who are studying at times, it did feel very romantic. It even sounded as if two were just girlfriends. And so tell us about that, about the time and how, what we would think of as queer relationships. How did people think of that back then? I know you uncovered things in your research and how girls would write letters to each other for example, let us know what that was like. Katharine Beutner: Yeah. Oh, so many directions. So part of it I would say, I mean just thinking about the time period, so this is sort of the tail end of, I think a cultural moment where romantic friendship among women is just completely valorized. Like not seen as suspicious at all, just held up as proof, honestly, that women are just, women have gentle natures and they're just so affectionate. And that's just how women are. So of course they bond with each other that way. And I think the thing that starts to change that is the creation and introduction of sexological ideas. You know, so things like Havelock Ellis and other writers who are writing around that time. Tom Crewe. Okay. So C-R-E-W-E, Tom Crewe, his book, you can't just say Tom Cruise's novel, right? Laura Maylene Walter: No <laugh>. Katharine Beutner: I mean I would find Tom Cruise interesting if he actually wrotea novel about sexologists. But there's this fabulous book calledTHE NEW LIFE, a historical novel that came out recently by Tom Crewe that I, I love. That's about some of the figures who were producing this research at the time. And I think, and I mean this also kind of goes along with like early Freudian stuff and all of that, that there started to be the idea of the invert and the idea of a sort of recognizable queer type, both among men, which was, you know, quite different. But also the idea, I mean there's a really famous legal case that's discussed in a lot of studies about women's history, the Woods- Pirie case. This was in Scotland. Where two women...it's the basis of the play, THE CHILDREN'S HOUR as well. Katharine Beutner: Anyway, I can get all off on this, but like the fascinating thing about it is these two women who ran a boarding school were accused by a student of having had a clandestine lesbian relationship. And the decision that the court came to was that's simply not possible. They're good English women. They're like, what could they possibly be doing? And I think that is basically like that's right before this period. And we're just starting to get into a moment where culturally like in thinking about England and the US at least people are going, oh, <laugh>, you know. Laura Maylene Walter: Right. Katharine Beutner: There are things that women do together. So yeah, I think that that moment is fascinating to me this 1897, 1900, early 1900s moment because I mean, there's so much more I could say about gender and sexual identity, but just that it's a time when I think the culture's sort of self-imposed naivety about female sexuality is shifting a little bit. And so things that were seen as completely innocent by the culture broadly or by men maybe no longer are a little bit. Katharine Beutner: Yeah. That's so fascinating. Well, we have to be really careful not to give any spoilers away because this book is full of, you know, mystery and a lot of unknowns and things start coming out as you read the book. But from a craft perspective, I'm really curious how you made the decisions of when to conceal information, when to start revealing information. It's a multi-point of view book. Can you talk a bit about that? I know it's hard without spoiling anything but your thought process and how that affects the pacing and everything else in the book of how to start revealing things to the reader. Katharine Beutner: I guess a lot of it, yeah. It is hard to talk about this without spoiling. Katharine Beutner: I know. We'll just do our best. Katharine Beutner: No, it's fine. It's fine. We'll, we'll do what we can. Katharine Beutner: There are two main character-based ways that I thought about that for one related to Agnes and one related to Florence, Bertha's sister. And in Florence's case, I think some of the information that we learn about her eventually, is she knows it on such a deep level. Some of it is traumatic. It colors everything she thinks, but it's the kind of thing that she tries not to sit down and think about very often. So like my hope is that as the reader, reader goes through the novel, they will realize that everything Florence has been thinking the whole way through has been shaped and affected by these truths about her life, but that it's also a truth or a set of truths that she tries not to touch as much as possible. And so I think that was what I was trying to navigate, was balancing, wanting the reader to recognize that there are things that they're slowly coming to learn about how their family works, but also the way that trauma affects how those memories are actually present in her mind from day to day. Katharine Beutner: And then Agnes, I just think Agnes is a weird compartmentalized, seashell of a person who just is, I think for her it's certainly she has traumatic elements to her backstory as well. Honestly, I mean now that I'm thinking about it, this is maybe a little applicable to the poem that I read about my dad. Like, you know, I grew up, my mom and I are very similar, we're both very emotional people who just talk about our feelings all the time. And my dad would say things like, oh, you're worrying about that. We'll just stop thinking about it. Laura Maylene Walter: Oh, okay, sure. <laugh>. Katharine Beutner: And I was like, uh... And I guess Agnes maybe was partly a way for me to explore the idea of a character who can just stop thinking about it and, and that she has to in order to function in the world and to achieve what she wants to achieve, which is to become a doctor and therefore be able to support her mother and sister. Laura Maylene Walter: And one thing I didn't expect when I started reading this book was that Hammond would be showing cats and cat shows. So is there anything fun you learned about cat shows at that time that you would like to share? Katharine Beutner: Oh gosh. I actually had like a whole cat. I mean, all the stuff that's gotten cut out of this book over the years, I can't even tell you. There were cat show scenes. Yes. I was trying to figure out what like cat ladies would've been like in the, like what would the fashion choices have been at the time that would've been reflective of cat ladies? And I say, that as someone whose cat is sitting right next to me. Yeah. I, I'm trying to remember if there were, I mean I did have to try to figure out what did people actually feed their cats at that time, right? Because it's not like you could just go to the store and buy your fancy grain free cat food. So I did actually look into like contemporary cat fancier material about like what kinds of fancy diets. I think the random factoid that I learned that might even have made it into the book is that that was a time when Maine Coons became really popular. Laura Maylene Walter: Oh, interesting. Yeah. Katharine Beutner: So Hammond is like mad at one moment because like the Maine Coons are winning all the awards. Laura Maylene Walter: <laugh> Yeah. Katharine Beutner: And he's like a Siamese cat breeder. So. Laura Maylene Walter: You've talked about some things that you've taken out of the book as you've worked on it. Can you talk about the process of the book? How long did you work on it? And I mean, especially with the work of historical fiction, I mean all the research, it's got to take a long time. So give us a little sneak behind the curtain for your process for this book. Katharine Beutner: Argh. Yes, it did take a long time. So again, it's my second novel, well it's my third drafted novel. My second published novel ALCESTIS, my first first novel I wrote while I was in grad school. And that was what I was there to do in my master's program. And so there was a lot of structure. What I learned in writing that first novel was that if I had infinite time, I could have made it an entirely different novel as well. You know what I mean? Like I think as I said, I discovered the story about Bertha in 2009. I think I had basically drafted an early version of the novel by about 2011/2012 that I was pretty happy with. And it has gone through eight or nine really thorough revisions since then. And partly that was I think a reflection of the span of life that it covered for me. Katharine Beutner: You know, I think, I mean I hope that I have continued to learn and improve a lot as a writer. And also I think my interests in relation to the story shifted the extent to which I understood the writing that I do as political shifted, I think. A lot over that time, specifically while I was in Hawaii, I actually put the book down for a number of years because I didn't feel that I was doing enough in historical fiction. I was very engaged in environmental activism. And I just thought, you know, why am I writing this book about 1897 Massachusetts when climate change? And so I think it was partly about finding a path into the novel where I really felt like I was able to explore the connections between our moment and Bertha's moment in a way that felt active and engaged enough. And also of course to keep figuring out how to tighten the pacing and other sort of craft questions. For example, when I signed with my current agent who's wonderful, who I love, I knew that the last third of the book needed to be fixed in some fashion and I just wasn't sure how to do it. I had been working on it for so long, it had gone through so many different forms. And so I was really fortunate to have an agent who actually edits. Katharine Beutner: Yes, that's a, A real lifeline. Katharine Beutner: Absolutely. And got some great feedback from her. And then, you know, once the book sold to Soho from my fabulous editor Juliet. And so yeah, I think it was partly a very extended craft process but also a process of sort of me getting my head right in relation to the book. Katharine Beutner: And I think this is so important for our listeners who are also writers, that it is now 2023 that I'm speaking to you, that your book came out and you said you drafted it in 2011/2012, the first draft and those years and that time. But how that time wasn't wasted, including the years you put it down right as your thoughts about it deepened, your interest turns you developed it. I just think that's so important because I know a lot of writers are in a hurry and I understand that impulse but in a hurry to get something done, get it published. And I think with a novel, I know every writer works differently etcetera, but I really think sometimes it takes that long for it to come to life as it should be. So yeah, I think that's really great. So this is your second novel and sometime has passed between the two. Is there anything you'd like to share about, about how the experience feels different? Anything you might have noticed about the publishing industry that seems a little different to you? Tell us about the experience of putting your second novel out into the world. Katharine Beutner: I mean it feels very different I think especially 'cause I was really a baby when my first novel came out. And the publishing industry and particularly the role of online promotion and social media is so different. I just was thinking the other day like skills that I did not realize I would need include like making Instagram posts on Canva <laugh>. Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah, yeah. Katharine Beutner: And when ALCESTIS came out in 2010, it was sort of, oh, maybe you'll do some blog tours. You know, like it was, I remember a lot more email. Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah. Katharine Beutner: And, and not much else honestly because it was a small book. Soho was a much smaller press at the time. Although I had already completed my MFA and certainly thought of myself as very aware about the publishing world. I think I just was less saturated at the time in awareness of some of the functioning of it and also of how many books come out every day. And I do think that like for all that, you know, I finally, I bit the bullet and joined Instagram for this. And I think in some ways it's been delightful and in other ways I think you are really faced with just everybody else's book birthday happening. And I think it's really important for writers to figure out how to, and I don't say this as someone who has the answer, but like how to find the wonderful and delightful positives of that and how to not feel kind of swamped and overwhelmed by just the sheer numbers of what happens in publishing. It's been great. I mean, I'm just about to set off on some initial events for the book tour. One thing that's really exciting is that Penguin Random House gave us permission to go do some events at Mount Holyoke for their alumni weekends. Laura Maylene Walter: Oh that's perfect. Katharine Beutner: So I'm going to get to talk to a bunch of Mount Holyoke alums about the book. So there are just things like that. There was nothing comparable for my first novel and I'm, I'm really excited about it. Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah, that sounds amazing. So KILLINGLY is out with Soho again, Soho published ALCESTIS as well. You are with Soho Crime and you know, as writers we know that the genre of a book is often it's a marketing tool. It's sort of just as how the publishing industry works. But is there anything you'd like to say about genre, either the genre of this novel or what writers should think or not think about? Because I hear from writers all the time who are kind of worried like, is this novel I'm writing the genre I think it is or that I want it to be? So what do you have to say about that aspect of the process? Katharine Beutner: That's a great question. I think I am definitely not a strategic thinker when it comes to genre, perhaps to my detriment. And that was certainly true with ALCESTIS, which Soho is also re-releasing this September, which is very exciting. Now there is a recognizable genre that ALCESTIS fits into, which is queer mythology retellings that did not exist really in 2010 when the book came out. I mean, and so I think people were just sort of like, this is a strange literary novel. And with KILLINGLY and with it being Soho Crime, we actually had a conversation, Juliet and I, about whether it ought to be Soho Crime or whether it should be Soho Literary. I mean basically I think the answer to that was Juliet edits Soho Crime and she really wanted it. But I think it does raise the question of I teach about crime and procedural novels, I love crime novels. I'm really obsessed with the forms and conventions in the genre. I would call it a crime novel, although there aren't really a lot of crimes committed in it. And I guess to me that has to do more with the orientation, kind of the orientation toward the world of the book, if that makes sense. Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah Katharine Beutner: That its exploring motivation and exploring secrets and I don't know like that protagonists and antagonists in crime novels are often sort of opposed to the world in some way, whether you're thinking about like the noir detective or whatever. And for me that's what feels relevant about KILLINGLY, that it is sort of about examining the relationship between these characters and their culture and also of course about, you know, surprises and mystery and suspense and sort of detonating secrets at various times. But I don't think, I mean it's not a who done it exactly. Laura Maylene Walter: Right. No. Katharine Beutner: So yeah, I think that it's great for writers to be aware. I think you certainly need to read widely in whatever genre you're interested in to be aware of what the boundaries and limitations and things that excite you about that genre are. But I also think that, and we'll see how this is born out with sales numbers, but I also think that you should write around the edges of that genre as much as you want to. Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah, absolutely. I think that's really well said. And for our listeners, I do want to stress, there are a lot of secrets in KILLINGLY, a lot of mysteries, a lot of things we can't talk about frankly. Because we will spoil the book for you, including one big topic that we are not getting to because it would result in a spoiler. So that is my little plug or if you want to know what secrets we could be referring to, you need to read KILLINGLY. Alright, well we are going over our time and I don't want to keep you too long. So I thought for our last question we could return to the concept of young writing and you know, we have our high school literary days, you are now a college professor, so you're teaching a lot of young people. Can you share any thoughts with us about the importance of, you know, not everyone comes to writing when they're young. Not everyone is like us where they're nerds at their high school lit mag. But in terms of if young people are interested in writing in literature, what kind of impact do you think things like literary magazines or youth writing programs can have on a budding writer? And what advice would you have for any young listeners who might be tuning in today? Katharine Beutner: That's such a great question. I don't know about you, but I think I, as a young writer, the biggest thing I was desperate for was to talk about writing with other people who were excited about it. And then secondarily, I think to be like, or sort of implied in that is to be taken seriously as somebody who wanted to think and talk about writing. Not just as a writer, like in terms of talent, but to have people invite me into spaces or create spaces where I could think about writing, ask questions about writing, say things about writing, hear what other people were saying about writing, and feel that I was a member of that conversation. So I think what I would say for young writers is like the fabulous thing about online spaces is that even if you don't have access to something like Gov School because of funding cuts or whatever there are I think a lot of spaces like that online as well that people can find. Katharine Beutner: And even things like Booktok, you know, and spaces where people are talking enthusiastically and seriously about books, those can be places to find some inspiration and excitement as a writer. And so yeah, I think with my students I see something really similar I think, and that this is true regardless of whether they come into a class thinking of themselves as writers. It's even more exciting I think when they don't and then they, by the end of the class perhaps they get to a place where they are thinking like, I can do this or even maybe I'm not going to do this as a professional path or even a primary path in my life, but I've found that I can ask questions and say things about my writing or other people's writing and there is this conversation kind of waiting for me to join. So yeah, I mean Laura, does that echo your experience too? Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah, I think so. I remember the first time I attended a writing type of camp was Susquehanna University had a young writer's week long summer program. This was before Governor's School. And I remember my first day sitting there in workshop at this high school writing program and thinking, oh I could sit here and do this all day. I could talk about this all day, I could workshop all day. And that was really the moment when I knew this is going to be a part of my life in some capacity for a very long time. So that was really important. So along the line of writing programs here in Cleveland, we actually have a lot, there's Lake Erie Ink does youth writing programs. I'm actually about to present at a conference they're having, which will be over by the time this airs. But John Carroll has a young writing summer program. I taught at the Cherry Tree Young Writers Conference in Maryland at Washington College. Laura Maylene Walter: And a lot of these programs do have some scholarships available and I always tell people it's worth it to apply, you know, try to get that scholarship if funding is a problem. And as you mentioned, online spaces, if people live in more rural areas, you know, check your library to see if they have free online programs. There's a lot out there. I feel like there's more. I think when we were teenagers the internet wasn't so much of a thing. So there's so much out there for people to find. So speaking of the internet, can you tell everyone where to find you online and that Instagram handle that you had mentioned <laugh>, and if you have any preferred indie bookstores for your book or anything else you'd like to share? Katharine Beutner: Oh, wonderful. Yes. So online, I mean my website is KatharineBeutner.com and my Instagram is just boring old Katharine Beutner, @KatharineBeutner. Andindie bookstore wise, I mean, right now in my Cleveland Heights home, I'm very partial to both Mac's Backs and Loganberry. And then my understanding when I move to Milwaukee is that Boswell Books is going to be the place to be. So I'm excited to get to know the folks there too. Katharine Beutner: Okay, great. And I'll link to all of that in the show notes. So Kate, thank you so much for being here. It was fun to go down memory lane with you and congratulations on KILLINGLY. Katharine Beutner: Thank you so much for the great questions. This was really a delight. Katharine Beutner: Page Count is presented by the Ohio Center for the Book at Cleveland Public Library. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe, rate, and leave a review for Page Count wherever you get your podcasts. Learn more online or find a transcript of this episode at OhioCenterfortheBook.org. Follow us on Twitter @cplocfb or find us on Facebook. If you'd like to get in touch, email firstname.lastname@example.org and put "podcast" in the subject line. Finally, follow me on Twitter and Instagram @LauraMaylene. Thanks for listening, and we'll be back in two weeks for another chapter of Page Count.
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