ON THE RECORD: An interview with author Kristen Tsetsi

Updated: Apr 23

WHAT PROMPTED YOU TO BECOME A WRITER? First it was the challenge. As an early teen, I used to look at the pictures in an entertainment magazine that had a short romance on its final page. It was a conflict-to-kisses story with, of course, a tall, handsome man and a woman who likely had thick, wavy (or, perfect) hair. At the bottom of the story was a mailing address for submissions. I thought—and I don’t know why I thought this, since my “library” at the time was an impressive collection of Archie comic books—“This doesn’t look so hard. I bet I could write something like this.” I wrote a story and sent it in, but I never heard back. It didn’t matter. All I cared about was how much fun it had been to try (the writing, not the submitting). At 18 or 19 I was writing vignettes inspired by or directly copied from exchanges my friends had. It was a fun exercise to capture a moment, but it was also a challenge to isolate just the right moment, to accurately convey in text not only my friends’ voices but their unique dynamic. Writing wasn’t a conscious choice I made, I think is the short answer. I wouldn’t say it chose me, but I would say there was something about it that appealed to me from the beginning, and my love for it and an inexplicable desire to improve at it simply never left. WHAT IS YOUR SCHEDULE LIKE WHEN YOU'RE WRITING? When I’m committed to writing a book, I’ll try to write three to four hours in the morning five days a week. It’s not for the sake of work discipline as much as it is a need to stay immersed in the story. If there’s too much time between visits, I lose touch, in a way. Descriptions feel, and probably are, surface-level, like a postcard note about weekend to a new place (“Lovely streets! Flower baskets in every window, and a bakery at each corner. I recommend the blueberry tart!”). Living there is the only way for me to do it well, because living there is the only way to know, for example, that the smells in the alley are different on Wednesdays, and that the woman on the third floor has recently started looking out her window every night at six o’clock. WHAT IS YOUR BIGGEST SOURCE OF INSPIRATION? Truth. And I know that probably sounds ridiculous, but there’s truth (“Yes, I took the hammer.”) and there’s Truth (“I love you, too,” she said, her thumb caressing the copper pendant someone else had given her years before.). While I always loved writing, I had no idea what I wanted to do with it until my freshman year in college when I read Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour.” [Spoilers follow.] It wasn’t a story with a happy ending—or, well, I guess it was for Mrs. Mallard’s husband, but not for Mrs. Mallard, and that’s what did it. It was shocking to me, after all the fiction I’d been reading that ended neatly and happily and unrealistically, that this story ended with a woman who was devastated to learn her husband—a man she loved, even—had not, in fact, died. It was a revelation. Here was something that, for this particular character (Mrs. Mallard), was unapologetically, intimately, and uncomfortably honest. I loved it for that, and I loved that it made me feel something complicated. The effect was so powerful that what Chopin did became what I wanted to do: tell the uncomfortable truth, whether in the form of the story or novel as a whole, or in the briefest of moments between characters. CAN YOU TELL US WHAT YOUR BOOK IS ABOUT? The Age of the Child is socially inquisitive and frequently irreverent speculative fiction evocative of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. (If that sounds sales-pitchy, it’s because I stole it from one of my query letters.) It’s about two generations of a family living through two successive levels of reproductive legislation: first, a ban on all forms of birth control (miscarriages are investigated, herbs and citrus believed to induce miscarriage are rationed, and abortions earn a life sentence); second, hormonal birth control is mandatory and all hopeful parents, adoptive or biological, must first pass an evaluation and obtain a parenting license. In the first generation, Katherine, who’s never wanted a child, is pregnant after a careless, poorly timed moment with her devastatingly beautiful husband, Graham. Her struggle is how to avoid being a mother in this environment, a problem that escalates when Graham, who was previously happy with the no-children life they were living, decides he might like to be a father, after all. In the second generation, Millie, who has never especially wanted children but has always been in desperate need of approval, craves the attention given to licensed parents and is determined to become one. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have the qualities that would earn her a license—but she doesn’t intend to let that stop her, even if the punishment for going around the licensing board is worse than life in prison. WHAT PROMPTED YOU TO WRITE ABOUT THIS SUBJECT? Well, there’s plenty of fiction in which it’s taken for granted that a woman has, wants, or will want a child, but not every woman does. And not every woman will fall in love with motherhood simply because she’s pregnant or has a child, contrary to what much of our popular media would have us believe. Because fiction has the capacity to engender empathy toward people different from ourselves, I wanted to present characters who don’t want children alongside those who do. And I wanted to give one of those childfree characters a child. What a situation—how would that go? Additionally, as someone who’s seen the casual way in which some try to deny or limit access to birth control for women—as if it’s a minor inconvenience for someone who doesn’t want a child to end up pregnant—it occurred to me that we’ve never really considered the flip side of reproductive rights restrictions, have we? In the interest of protecting the children, which is the goal of those who oppose many forms of birth control, what if, rather than limiting access to the ability to not have a child, the government made it more difficult to have a child? What would that be like? WHAT WAS THE MOST SURPRISING THING YOU LEARNED WHEN WRITING YOUR BOOK? I think the most surprising things I learned came later. Much of the story, because it opens 50 or so years in the future, was imagined. I did have to do some research, but the things I learned—statistics, mostly—were educational and not really surprising. But recently, things have been happening that I never anticipated and that strangely mirror what I wrote. A number of states have all but criminalized abortion; there have been threats to investigate miscarriages; and state governments are threatening to issue life sentences in prison to abortion providers. (In my novel, the mothers go to prison, too—after all, if someone hires a hit man, both the hit man and the person who hired him are guilty of murder and/or conspiracy to commit murder.) The abhorrent conditions of government shelters for children, which I manufactured only because it seemed likely, sadly, have turned out to be shockingly real. And in imagining one of the potential pitfalls of denying people birth control, it only made sense that there would be an abundance of children parents couldn’t afford or didn’t want and who therefore ended up in these shelters. (I didn’t research this; I went into this story wanting it to be utter fantasy and stayed away from discovering things that could inhibit my creative freedom.) But recently, I came across an article about Romania’s post-WWII pro-family policy: “An estimated 100,000 Romanian children were in orphanages at the end of 1989, when communism ended. The high number is linked to the pro-family policies pursued by former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.” The important difference between Ceausescu and the government in my book is that the government in The Age of the Child is the government we have now (maybe a little better). It isn’t an administration motivated by population growth, the economy, or control; they’re simply and genuinely concerned with doing what’s in the best interests of the children. But there’s a saying about good intentions... WHAT OBSTACLES DID YOU ENCOUNTER WHEN WRITING YOUR BOOK? Time was a problem. I felt, every day while writing it, that I couldn’t take a single break. There was no time, I thought; I had to beat other writers to this particular market. I didn’t know for a fact that they were out there, but I was desperately afraid of coming in too late with a story like this. And I did, in a way. While The Age of the Child is nothing like the women’s dystopian fiction that released around the same time—much of it focused on reproductive rights control leading to the oppression of women, which wasn’t my interest—there is enough of a surface-level or catalyst similarity to make it unappealing to literary agents, who had very recently been inundated with women’s dystopian fiction by the time I started sending queries. WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR ASPIRING WRITERS?

A writer I know wrote the following on his blog a while back: “Stephen King… believes that a writer should never know what the story is going to be and instead should sit down and let the story go wherever it wants.”

Another writer offering writing advice quoted John Dufresne: “You must want to write so badly that it hurts not to. If you don’t write today, you ought to feel guilty. If you don’t feel guilty, you aren’t meant to write.”

I think Stephen King’s advice is wonderful—for Stephen King. And that John Dufresne is wrong.

Advice really depends on the question, but for general writing advice, I’d say: 1. When to write: when you want to. 2. How often to write: as often as you want to. 3. How much to write: until you feel like stopping. 4. How often and how much to write: see #2 and #3. 5. How much, how often, and when to write: see #1 – #4. 6. Where and what your writing space should be: wherever and whatever appeals to you. 7. Who to write like/who to look to for routine/who to emulate: you.

And: be fearless. Your characters have to be true, which means they can’t be written so as not to offend anyone. Just as every bad character should have at least one redeeming trait (to save her from being one-dimensional), even the loveliest person has the occasional unlovely thought.

ED NOTE: Many thanks to Kristen for generously sharing her time and insight, and to Creative Writing Intern Hannah Smelter for compiling and facilitating this interview.

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