On my blog today, I’m talking to the lovely Kerri Schlottman, whose novel Tell Me One Thing will be released by Regal House Publishing on January 31.
Kerri Schlottman is the author of Tell Me One Thing (Regal House Publishing, January 31, 2023). Her writing has placed second in the Dillydoun International Fiction Prize, been longlisted for the Dzanc Books Prize for Fiction, and was a 2021 University of New Orleans Press Lab Prize semifinalist. For the past 20 years, Kerri has worked to support artists, performers, and writers in creating new projects, most recently at Creative Capital where she helped fund projects by authors Paul Beatty, Maggie Nelson, Percival Everett, and Jesse Ball. Kerri is a Detroit native who has lived in the New York City area since 2005. Previously, she’s been a massage therapist, a factory worker, and taught art to incarcerated youth. She holds a Creative Master’s degree in English from Wayne State University in Detroit.
- Who are your literary influences or inspiration?
There are many authors who I’m in awe of and who inspire me. From a craft standpoint, I think Rebecca Makkai is one of the most talented novel writers right now. Her boldness is something I continually aspire to. I love Jenny Offill’s fantastically sparse and yet deep writing. Kiran Millwood Hargrave, Daisy Johnson, and Helen Oyeyemi blow me away with their abilities to sustain a high level of poetic writing alongside strong plot. I also just read two novels by Annie Hartnett and was so inspired by her playfulness in her writing and her ability to tell incredibly serious stories with a light touch.
- Why do you write?
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a writer. Even as a very young child, I wrote weird little stories and made small books out of them. I haven’t always been good at speaking up, so I think writing became an outlet for me to “discuss” things I needed to talk about or think about or process. It’s the way I feel most connected to myself and what I enjoy doing most in the world. When I’m not writing, I’m a fairly miserable person.
- Where do your characters come from?
My characters are usually natural extensions of what the story needs in order to be told. Sometimes I start a story with the type of characters as the inspiration, which is how I approached my forthcoming novel Tell Me One Thing. My work is mostly character driven, so writing realistic characters is very important to successfully telling the story. I draw from people I know well, people I’ve briefly met, people I overhear talking at the table next to me, that person on the subway who did something I’ll never forget. Character inspiration is everywhere if you’re genuinely curious about people, which I am. I’m one of those types who talks to strangers and who will know everything about my cab driver by the time I get home. People absolutely fascinate me.
- How do you start a novel/story?
I start a novel by thinking for a long time about what I want to write, why I want to write it, and what kind of characters and setting it needs to have. Then I just sort of jump right in. My process is to organically write until I get what feels like the bones of the story in place. I like the way the characters and settings and ideas initially get to take on a life of their own and direct me vs. me directing them. Once I have the bones of the story, I generally make a Chapter Map – this is what I call an outline because I dislike the word outline – and that lays out the main events in each chapter so I have an easy snapshot to return to. From there, I see where I have holes in the Chapter Map and that directs what needs further work. Then I go into my favorite part of writing which is revisions. I do several rounds of revisions, adding more character development, scene setting, and strengthening plot points.
- Where do your ideas come from for stories/books?
Many of my stories have been inspired by art, music, or something interesting I hear about. My novel, Tell Me One Thing, was inspired by a Mary Ellen Mark photograph from 1990 titled Amanda and Her Cousin Amy and an NRP news segment about its subject Amanda. It’s an incredibly provocative photograph of a nine-year-old Amanda standing in a kiddie pool, smoking a cigarette. On the occasion of Mark’s death in 2015, NPR found Amanda who was then in her late 30’s and asked her why she allowed herself to be photographed. She said she thought someone would see it and come and help her. She had a very challenging life. As someone who has worked with artists as my career, I wanted to write a story about artists and that was the perfect inspiration.
I’ve also recently written a novel that’s set near the Salton Sea in the Southern California desert. The Salton Sea is a massive accidental body of water that formed from a diversion of the Colorado River. Back in the 50’s it was a vacation destination spot, but run off from the local farms plus the fact that it had no ongoing water source caused the lake to become toxic, which killed the birds and fish. The shoreline is all crushed white bones. The water and air is sulfuric. The area is flanked with renegade towns and off-the-grid artist communities. It’s an incredible place. I saw a documentary on it many years ago and knew there was a story there. I also recently finished a novel set in my hometown in Michigan where some of the armed protestors who stormed the Michigan State Capitol came from – one of them was the youth pastor at my mom’s church.
- What’s the hardest part of writing or publishing?
I think the hardest part of writing and publishing is that it’s an industry with a lot of gatekeeping at each step. That impacts writing because it can feel challenging to keep writing if you’re having trouble publishing. It impacts publishing because so much excellent work and so many talented writers get lost in the process, which ultimately is bad for literature in general. In so many ways, traditional publishing is a machine and decisions are made based on marketability and sales potential. But when capitalism is the driving force of anything, it ultimately ruins the quality of it. This is maybe most profoundly true when it comes to culture and creativity.
- What’s the underlying message of your writing? The non-fiction description.
Most of my stories explore concepts of inequality and privilege, some more overtly than others. I think economic inequality is the largest problem we face as a country and that fighting against it has the power to unite us across all of the current divides. I truly believe that the majority of people are just trying to make it day to day, but that our struggles are capitalized on and used as tools to separate us. I really hope that my stories help people empathize with one another.
- How would you like your books to change the world?
I write very character-driven work because I hope it helps readers deepen their understanding of people who are not like them. I grew up in a working class suburb of Detroit in the 80’s with a single mother. We struggled financially for most of my at-home life. I understand the psychology of desperation that’s fueling many of our issues in this country right now, even if I don’t condone the way it manifests in behavior. When we turn away from each other, when we won’t have challenging conversations, when we reinforce an us vs. them mentality, we ultimately prolong our own suffering. I hope my books contribute to greater understanding of how people think and why they chose to do the things they do.
- When did you first write a story? What was it about?
I wrote many short stories when I was younger, but at age nineteen I wrote my first novel-length work called The Tunnel. It’s a story about a group of runaway youth in Detroit who live in the Detroit-Windsor tunnel – that’s the tunnel that connects Michigan with Canada – and was inspired by a friend mentioning to me as we drove through that tunnel that there is a ton of space above what appears to be the ceiling of it. I immediately imagined this other world there which is fully hidden from view but so close by. My story is pretty grim. The teenagers in it come from challenging backgrounds – abuse, neglect, etc. – and running away is their last option. The teens go out and steal food and clothing at night but otherwise rarely leave the tunnel. It impacts their vision, their hearing, their mentality. But they form a very strong bond with one another that keeps them pushing to survive. I never tried to publish that work, and I sometimes think about picking it back up these decades later and seeing if there’s enough substance to it.
- What would you tell your younger self?
I would tell young me to not be afraid to succeed, and to boldly write and share my work without being overly concerned about how it’ll be received. I think many creative people are also sensitive people, which is what makes us good at what we do, but can also be a double-edged sword in this world where everyone can easily share their opinions on things without considering how that impacts the person who created it. As I get older, I get less afraid of what people think of me or my work, but young me was very scared of that, and of most things in general, and that held me back for many years.