“I wanted to provide a road map to hope.” In conversation with Karelia Stetz-Waters
Her black eyes flew upward and caught mine. Her face remained expressionless. She took my hand in hers, and we danced to those hard, angry songs. We barely touched. Only the outline of our movements intersected. She leaned back, and I leaned forward. She drew an arc in the air, and I followed her motion with my hand. She whirled to my right, and I circled to her left, interlacing the circles of our movement. We were like fire dancers, tracing the air around each other’s bodies. I felt so finely tuned to the world, I thought I could feel the heat her hands left in the air. I knew if she actually caressed me, I would die.
–Excerpt from Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before, (Ooligan Press)
KATE SCHWAB: Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before has some elements that match up pretty closely with your bio, including your sexuality, a shared rural Oregon upbringing, and an Estonian mother who fled her home country. Do you consider the book autobiographical? When using elements from your own lived experience, how do you choose what to share and how do you strike a balance between revelation and privacy?
KARELIA STETZ-WATERS: I like to joke that Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before is my life had I actually been cool. All the major themes line up with my own experience, but the events of the story are fictional. This is because Triinu is much more outspoken and self-confident than I was.
I remember reading a piece by Jeanette Winterson in which she lamented that everyone assumed her first novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was autobiographical. (This is not a completely unfounded assumption since the protagonist’s name is Jeanette.) While Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before is not autobiographical, I don’t mind if people assume that it is. Triinu is just about the coolest teenager you will find in literature, and I’d love it if people thought that was me.
KS: The homophobic political climate in Oregon in the early 90s is an important element of the story, both as Triinu realizes she’s a lesbian and starts to come to terms with that in the face of very open hatred, and also because the people around her are engaged in the anti-gay Measure 9 campaign, on both sides of the issue. You grew up in rural Oregon. How vivid was the campaign in your life at the time?
KSW: During the battle over anti-gay Ballot Measure 9 the news was full of anti-gay rhetoric and horrifying stories about gays and lesbians being stalked, harassed, shot, beaten, tortured, and even fire bombed. I was an out lesbian in high school at the time, and this made a huge impression on me. There weren’t any support groups for queer kids. I didn’t know any lesbians my age. There wasn’t a ready supply of lesbian-themed movies. Heck, we didn’t even have the internet!
I felt very, very lonely, but I also had this exhilarating feeling that I was fighting a battle. Just by getting out of bed and going to school and being out and ignoring the kids who bullied me, I was fighting and I was winning. I don’t think that feeling is unique to gay teenagers. A lot of young people –then and now – have battles they fight alone, just by surviving. That is why Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before resonates with so many people.
KS: I agree that we are all fighting our own battles. Those battles are so all-consuming as a teenager, but that sense of needing to wage war to be heard tends to wane as we get older. At least we employ our strategies with more finesse as adults. Do you still have that sense of needing to fight with the world that you had as a teenager? If it’s mellowed, how did you get back in touch with that fire?
KSW: I am very easy-going these days. I am quick to see the good in people and situations and slow to see the bad. But once you’ve felt that kind of rage, that fire, I don’t think it ever leaves you entirely.
KS: In Triinu’s Oregon, just being out as gay was dangerous. In today’s Oregon, gay marriage is legal and discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation is illegal. And yet, in some states and towns, identifying as LGBTQ is still stigmatized and coming out can land some teens on the streets, kicked out by their parents. The hatred illustrated in this book, though historical, is still so prevalent in many parts of this country that it could be set today with a different soundtrack, despite how much things have changed elsewhere. But so much of your book is about acceptance. Triinu accepting herself, her parents accepting her sexuality, finding a way to keep her faith that will also keep her. What brought you to tell Triinu’s story, as opposed to the story of a kid rejected by her family?
KSW: In writing Forgive Me if I’ve Told You This Before, I wanted to provide a road map to hope. Many LBGT narratives are tragic. It is important that we share those stories. But I know, as a teacher, that people learn as much from success as they do from suffering and failure. I want to provide queers an uplifting narrative and a guide to making the most of bad situations. I also want to empower parents to love and accept their children, no matter what other people say. I think that is what parents ultimately want to do. This book gives them permission.
KS: Triinu struggles with her Lutheran faith, as many teens do. In the first scene, she actually stabs her youth pastor with a pen when she’s trying to get away from him. Sure, it’s an accident, but it’s also not the last time she confronts a religious man. Triinu wants to hold on to her faith, she appreciates the ritual and the language of her church, but she is confronted with so much hate from people who claim they are speaking for God. Why did you feel her internal struggle was important to dramatize for your readers?
KSW: Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before presents two different faces of Christianity. On the one hand, there is the youth pastor who condemns homosexuality based on a very limited reading of the Bible. On the other hand, there is Triinu’s mother who believes God is large enough to encompass all people, all religions, and all creatures. For Triinu’s mother, Christianity is just one of the many languages used to describe God.
Triinu’s struggle to find a spiritual home is important because it is a struggle many people face today. Gays and lesbians are slowly returning to churches that had previously excluded them. Conservative Christians are letting go of anti-gay sentiment in favor of an open-hearted reading of the Bible. If there is one message I would like readers to take away from Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before it is the idea that God has room for everyone.
KS: In addition to your creative writing work, you also teach writing and serve as the English Department Chair at a community college. In most community colleges, students may not fit the idea of a traditional college student. They may be older, less wealthy, be career changers, or may not have a family background of higher education. Do you share your experience as a novelist to inspire a diverse group of students to see themselves as writers? Do you take anything from your experience as an educator back into your creative writing?
KSW: My students are an inspiration, both because they are so motivated, and because they live such interesting lives.
In my thriller The Purveyor, Adair Wilson, the protagonist, suffers from a debilitating autoimmune disorder. That illness is based on a real illness suffered by one of my students. My desire to heal the character came from my fervent hope that my student would somehow miraculously recover.
Community college is also a great place for a writer because there is always a friendly colleague to help me with my research, whether it is shooting guns with the criminal justice professor or trying my hand at welding in our welding lab.
KS: You have two thrillers for an adult audience out–the second in a series just published in August–and a separate novel for adults coming out next year. I read in another interview that you usually have multiple writing projects going at once. Did you approach writing for a teen audience differently than for adults?
KSW: I have published two thrillers, The Admirer and The Purveyor. I also have a contemporary romance novel, Something True, coming out in January 2015. (Incidentally, Something True is the first lesbian romance novel acquired by the Forever Yours imprint at Grand Central Publishing making it a big win for lesbians in mainstream publishing.) While the subject matter in these novels is different from Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before, my approach to writing is similar.
Today’s teenagers have unprecedented access to information, and they have to contend with a lot of social issues and concerns about the future. Because of this, I believe teenage readers appreciate books, like Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before, that speak to them honestly and take them seriously as readers and as people.
With that said, I did make one important change to accommodate my young readers. My editors at Ooligan Press encouraged me to provide more historical details for teen readers who might not be familiar with the history of gay rights in Oregon. I am very glad I followed their advice because the historical context is important. It was just so familiar to me, I forgot to write it into the first draft of the book.
KS: Triinu has a lot of freedom. She has a car, she doesn’t seem to have a curfew, she sneaks out but it doesn’t feel like she’d get in serious trouble with her parents if she got caught. That experience of freedom is so valuable for teens to learn to find their own way in the world, but it feels like the era of trusting, permissive parenting is over. In Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before, Triinu’s conflict isn’t with her parents, who are supportive and loving, which allows her to tackle the very real conflicts in the world around her. Did you have the same experience of freedom that Triinu has? Did you ever try to imagine her story with today’s stereotypical helicopter parents?
KSW: Forgive Me if I’ve Told You This Before isn’t just about queer youth. It is also a love song — literally in some places — to the 1990s. I had a lot of freedom as a teenager. All my friends did. It was a different time, and that freedom made us into the independent, self-sufficient people we are today.
Then my generation, Gen X, had children, and they coddled and protected and helicoptered. Now I teach those children. They are charming, sweet, obedient, polite (way nicer than I was) and also anxious. I want them to know that there was a time when we did not have cell phones; we did not wear helmets; we did not use antibacterial soap; and you did not ask your parents for help unless you crashed the car. It was great fun!
KS: I’m a librarian, and one of the most important things I do is bring together a reader with the book they need at that exact time, and I believe in the power of literature to transform lives. The importance of words and poetry in Triinu’s life is a thread woven throughout the book. Have you had that experience of finding the exact right book at the right time? Were you writing this book hoping to connect with an ideal reader?
KSW: When I was a junior in high school, I was desperately in love with a girl who did not love me back. One day, my parents took me up to Powell’s bookstore in Portland. I stumbled across Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body, which is all about tragic, unrequited love. Winterson’s book gave me a context in which my love was not pathetic and lame but beautiful and noble. Her book taught me that my experience had value regardless of what other people thought.
I hope something I write touches another person the way Written on the Body touched me. I hope there is a gay kid or a transgendered kid or just a lonely person out there who reads Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before and finds the courage to go out and make a good life for themselves.
Find a copy of Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before on IndieBound
Karelia Stetz-Waters (photo by Paul Hawkwood) is an English professor by day and writer by night (and early morning). She has a BA from Smith College in Comparative Literature and an MA in English from the University of Oregon. Other formative experiences include a childhood spent roaming the Oregon woods and several years spent exploring Portland as a broke 20-something, which is the only way to experience Oregon’s coolest, weirdest city. She lives with her wife of fifteen years, Fay. She teaches at a rural community college which provides ample inspiration for writing, as the college attracts all walks of life, from Sudanese refugees to fresh-out-of-the-closet drag queens. Her work includes two thrillers, The Admirer and The Purveyor (Sapphire Books), one YA novel, Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before (Ooligan Press), and one romance, Something True (Grand Central Publishing, coming winter 2015).
Kate Schwab questions having to describe herself differently for different contexts, even as she acknowledges that identity is fluid. She is a librarian in Portland, Oregon, a feminist, a comics lover, and she will talk to you about books for as long as you can take it. She’s been known to teach people to download library ebooks at parties. After nearly four decades on earth, she finally discovered that gardening is the best thing ever.