Born in Freiburg, Germany Katrin Schumann moved to Brooklyn when she was two and attended PS 8. At age eleven, as the punk rock scene raged, her family moved to London where she went to an all-girls school and studied French and German Literature at Oxford. She got a graduate degree in Journalism from Stanford University and before settling in Boston she lived with her growing family in Chicago, Washington DC and San Francisco, and worked part time in various capacities at National Public Radio and was awarded the Kogan Media Award for her work as a producer.
In addition to “The Forgotten Hours”, she is the author of numerous nonfiction books. Her work has been featured on TODAY, Talk of the Nation and in The Times (London), as well as other national and international media outlets. For the past ten years she’s been teaching writing, most recently at GrubStreet and at local prisons through PEN New England. She has helped design and run Grub Street’s innovative program for debut authors, “The Launch Lab.” Each year she participates in The Muse and the Marketplace, voted the #1 Writing Conference in America by The Writer Magazine and is now the Program Coordinator of the Key West Literary Seminar and Workshops. She’s been granted fiction residencies at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, the Norman Mailer Writer’s Colony and the Vermont Studio Center and she writes a monthly column on GrubWrites and can be found at katrinschumann.com, and on Twitter and Instagram: @katrinschumann.
1) First, I want to thank you Katrin for taking the time to do this interview with me! When did you know that writing is what you were called to do? What is it about being a writer that you love the most?
I’ve always been writing–in fact, I wrote and created books when I was a little girl and then used my mother’s electric typewriter to bang out terrible stories as a teenager. I studied literature (I also loved reading–it kind of goes hand in hand!) and then trained to be a journalist. But news writing wasn’t where my strengths lie–I love to linger in mood, scene, character, to highlight nuances and tackle the tough topics. That’s something that fiction writing allows us to do: wrestle with a complicated world. I’m at my happiest when I’m immersed in the world I’ve created; it’s almost like virtual reality–I’m in a different place and time, living every moment of it through my computer strokes.
2) Can you tell us a little about your book(s) and where our readers can find out more about them and you? How different is it between writing non-fiction and fiction?
It’s a little easier to write and publish nonfiction because you know who your audience is and you usually have a pretty clear mandate. I loved writing my nonfiction books (you can find out more about my work at www.katrinschumann.com) because I had a clear purpose and got such a sense of achievement when they were published. Also, it was pretty cool being on the TODAY show and NPR!
Writing fiction is very different: we’re totally in charge of the world we’re creating. We make every choice about every aspect of the book, and that can actually be quite challenging. When we start a novel, we’re usually writing into a black hole–without an agent or a book deal. We have no idea whether the book will ever see the light of day. It requires this mixture of confidence in your abilities and vision, combined with a steely determination to finish.
3) Does your being born in Germany, and growing up in two places that couldn’t be more different, like London and Brooklyn, influence your writing in a substantial way? Do you think those experiences enhances the stories you are able to tell and the characters you create?
To be honest, I never fit in anywhere. I was always an outsider looking in and asking: why do people do what they do? What are people’s motivations? What makes me different, and what do we all have in common? I paid attention to details, noticing everything. I developed a deep sense of empathy early on because I was often misunderstood. To be a good novelist, I think you really need to love your characters without judgment, you need to try see into their hearts. For me, that’s what storytelling is all about: exploring human nature and trying to learn something valuable.
4) What does your writing routine look like? Do you have a schedule for when you write? Do you outline your novels? How long does it generally take you to finish a novel? What projects are you currently working on?
My routine has changed a lot over the years, but when I’m deep into a novel ALL I WANT TO DO IS WRITE and I can become very forgetful of my other responsibilities (haha). It’s a challenge to even get dressed. I love being immersed like that, but of course with day jobs and family and chores, it can be really hard to pull off. So my routine is simple: to write whenever I can.
I tend to figure out my books while I’m actually writing (not when I’m just thinking about the story). For both The Forgotten Hours and my new book coming out next year, I didn’t do a lot of outlining. For the next one I’m working on though, I’m trying a different approach. I want to know what the driving question is before I start, and I want to outline the major turning points. I think that will help me waste less time and throw away fewer pages.
5) What’s the first book you ever read that really touched you emotionally and moved you? Do you have a favorite author or a favorite book from your childhood? What book are you currently reading?
I adored reading as a child. I devoured the Judy Blume books, and as a teen I loved The Summer of My German Soldier about a Jewish girl who develops a friendship with a German soldier during WWII (“radical empathy” at play again). I read a lot of French literature in college which I loved. Now I’m reading Leading Men by Christopher Castellani–a gorgeous novel about Tennessee Williams.
6) What has been your most significant achievement as a writer thus far? Where do you see yourself within your career in the next five years?
For me, getting The Forgotten Hours into the hands of thousands of readers has been my biggest achievement by far. It was a tough book to write and took me almost five years, and to have it being so well received is amazing. I stuck to it; I didn’t give up! In five years, I hope I’ll be on novel #4, and maybe I’ll be wearing a beautiful dress at a movie premiere for one of my books…
7) How have you dealt with rejection within your writing career? What are your thoughts on how the publishing industry is changing drastically in terms of traditional and self-publishing?
I hate to say it, but rejection is incredibly hard for me. To have a clearly defined goal and to be told no, you can’t get what you want (the subtext being: you’re not good enough) is really tough. I think the only people who make it are the ones who have to write no matter what. They just keep trying because they literally can’t help it. In terms of the changing face of publishing, overall I think it’s good. People are reading fewer books nowadays, and it’s hard to make money as a writer–whether nonfiction or fiction. The more ways for writers to get good work out there, the better. Story telling is an important part of our culture; it helps us understand the world better and it connects us as human beings.
8) Do you believe that there is ever a point in life where it’s too late for an aspiring writer to become successful in this industry? Do you feel a late start would hinder their chances?
No, no, no, no. It’s never too late!
9) So many writers say that they hate reading their own work. Do you ever take the time to read your own work after it’s done or do you just let it go once you’ve sent it to the editors and to final printing?
Sometimes I’ll pick up my book and open it randomly and I’ll think, Woah, I wrote that?! I can barely even remember having written certain scenes. I’m psychologically in another world now, the world of my next book.
10) I feel like writing is a remarkable tool to help people not only express themselves, but also to cope emotionally and mentally. I know for me I write to be and feel more authentic. What unique quality is there about you, about your art, that you feel represents your authenticity? How does writing help you to be more empowered in your purpose?
What a beautiful question, though I’m not sure I can answer it. I know that I write to try to make sense of the world. It starts as a selfish impulse: I’m obsessed by an idea or problem and want to make it come to life through storytelling. Then there’s an element of reaching out and touching other people–helping them see something differently, for example, or learn something new and unexpected.