Inky Inspiration – Karelia Stetz-Waters

As an author, inspiration can come from all things.  It could be the line in a song on the radio, a snippet of conversation on the bus, a dream at night but one of the most important sources of inspiration are other authors. Just like a budding sports star in the academy has that legend they look up to, I think it’s equally relevant to anyone who writes that they have heroes to look up to and learn from. In this segment, I am going to interview fellow authors who have inspired me, those I have learned from and those who have helped me on my writing journey so far.


Karelia Stetz-Waters

Karelia Stetz-Waters

Karelia Stetz-Waters 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 now lives with her wife, Fay, her pug dog, Lord Byron, and her cat, Cyrus the Disemboweler. 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 interests include large snakes, conjoined twins, corn mazes, lesbians, popular science books on neurology, and any roadside attraction that purports to have the world’s largest ball of twine.  She publishes with Sapphire BooksOoligan Press at Portland State University, and Grand Central Publishing part of the Hachette Book Group.


Hi there, Karelia. Thank you for popping in to chat. Let’s go for the linier approach and start at the beginning. What inspired you to start writing and have your experiences roaming woods and streets fed into your work at all?

Even before I could write, I loved to tell stories. My mother would set out a cassette recorder for me, and I would tell stories to the tape player. When I ran out of ideas, I would say, “And then there was a silence.”   I still use that trick occasionally in my thrillers : )

As you studied English at BA and MA levels, has that made novel writing a more challenging process or has that knowledge given you more confidence?

I have spent my whole adult life critiquing writing (either as a student or an English professor). This has been instrumental in making me the writer I am today. It takes at least two years for me to write a book. I care about craft. It is very important to me that everything I write be polished.

I’ll start with The Eastbank Killer – can you tell us a little bit about how you got involved with the project and just what is a serial novel?

Serial novels (novels that are published in segments in daily newspapers) used to be much more popular. The Brothers Karamozov was a serial novel, as was the more recent 44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith.

I tried my hand a writing a serial novella because I am such a perfectionist.  Writing in instalments with fixed due dates forced me to lighten up and just let the story flow.

First Time – Features your story A Gold Star Question, what compelled you to confess all and how difficult or easy was it to write your own experiences down?

 When I answered the submission call for First Time it asked for both fiction and nonfiction. I wrote my story over the course of a weekend getaway with friends. While they were out skiing, I made up a purely fictional story about two teenage girls who are best friends and secretly in love with each other and have sex.

 When the book came out, the blurb on the back read “four dozen writers explain the intimate details of how they lost their virginity.”  I guess “The Gold Star Question” has become my story : ) I don’t mind. At least I didn’t write anything freakishly kinky.


Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before is my life story had I had been cool..


Forgive Me If I Told You This Before tackles deep and difficult topics. How did the idea of this book come to you and why did you think it was important to write? Did you learn anything about yourself during the writing of this that you hadn’t expected? 

Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before is my life story had I had been cool.  The protagonist, Triinu Hoffman, is the daughter of an Estonian immigrant like me. Like me, she comes out during the Ballot Measure 9 era, a violently anti-gay period in Oregon’s history.  She grows up in the Lutheran Church, as I did, and loves the church but struggles with the anti-gay sentiment present in many Christian churches in the 1990s.  Unlike me, she speaks her mind, stands up for herself, and has awesome fashion sense.

 The novel deals with a difficult time in gay-rights history. It also highlights the bravery of ordinary people – mothers, fathers, friends, pastors – who refuse to buy into the homophobia around them.    

Here’s a Youtube video of her on Lizzie’s Bedtime Stories:

 We find you with Sapphire Books with The Admirer – What drew you to the publishing house and can you tell us a little about your path to publication?

My friend and colleague Linda Kay Silva spoke very highly of Sapphire Books and introduced me to the publisher at a party.  I later signed on with Sapphire Books at the 2013 Left Coast Lesbian Conference in Palm Springs.  I’m very honoured to work with this awesome press.

The Admirer sees us meet Helen Ivers, when and why did she come to you? I know that you’re a plotter, so how did you set about the process of planning this book?

 Helen Ivers is the first character I wrote who took on a life of her own.  The face she shows the world – the stern, professional, ambitious college president – is my creation. Her inner turmoil – her guilt over her sister’s death, her hallucinations, her self-destructive behaviour – are all her own.

As for plotting the book, I spent a year studying thrillers.  Then I spent a year drafting the novel and another year refining and perfecting the plot.    

You talk about leaving space in your editing process, do you think that is an essential thing for an author to do? What do you find are the benefits of the process?

I always let my manuscript sit for three to six months between drafts.  That is part of why I write so slowly. It is during that six month waiting period that I gain clarity on my work. This also helps me maximize my editors’ time. I catch all the problems I can possibly catch, and then I send my work to an editor.  I never want to look back on a project and say, “I let that one out of the door too early.”

 What did you learn during writing The Admirer that you took with you into The Purveyor?

was my first thriller, so it taught me a lot about plot and pacing.  An Amazon review of The Purveyor says “the book was paced perfectly! It didn’t drag on at all, but it also didn’t go through everything at lightning-fast speed.” I was delighted by that review because I worked really hard on unfolding the story at just the right speed.

Many people talk about a second book block, did that happen to you? Did having Helen as your character help or hinder starting The Purveyor?

While I didn’t struggle with second book block, I am struggling with fifth book block. I wrote seriously for ten years before being published. During that time, the dream of getting published motivated me. I kept trying different genres, hoping to find one book I could sell.  Then, almost simultaneously, I got four contracts with three different publishers in three different genres (romance, thriller, and YA).  Now that I feel less pressure to “make it,” I find it is harder to commit to a story idea. 


 In The Purveyor, Adair’s struggle to rescue the conjoined twins from human traffickers mirrors her own struggle to distinguish herself from her brothers and break free of the bonds her family has placed on her.


Did you find it easy or hard to keep her character evolving? Adair takes the front space in this book and tackles human trafficking, conjoined twins and legal brothels?

 I fell in love with Adair Wilson while writing The Purveyor. In The Admirer she is sexy and invincible. As the second book opens, we find her sick, lonely, and vulnerable.  Suddenly the reader gets a glimpse into the life behind her glamor and her wealth.  She has everything money can buy, but she is also trapped in a family that is almost pathologically cold, calculating, and ambitious. Her brothers have always seen Adair as property to be owned and protected, and their domineering “love” has made it difficult for Adair to live a normal life.  In The Purveyor, Adair’s struggle to rescue the conjoined twins from human traffickers mirrors her own struggle to distinguish herself from her brothers and break free of the bonds her family has placed on her.


While I want people to read The Admirer because it is an exciting, sexually-charged thriller, I hope my readers will also come away questioning how we identify the mentally ill and who gets to determine those labels. 


 You talk about neurology being an interest of yours, where does that feed into your work?

The Admirer is definitely born of my interest in neurology and psychology. The first victim in the story suffers from Body Identity Integrity Disorder, a real disorder that causes the sufferer to fervently desire the amputation of their limbs. Pittock College, in The Admirer, is also located near an abandoned Kirkbride mental asylum, just like my own alma mater, Smith College.

(I wrote about that in this freshly press blog.) 

 While I want people to read The Admirer because it is an exciting, sexually-charged thriller, I hope my readers will also come away questioning how we identify the mentally ill and who gets to determine those labels. 


Something True moves you into the genre of romance, how different was that to approach when you started writing? Did you find the process taught you different skills or ways of tackling a story? 

My wife and I live the perfect real-life romance. We saw each other across a crowded bar (no lie!) fifteen years ago, and we’ve been joyfully together ever since.  But this kind of real-life story does not provide enough plot for a romance novel. In romance, you have to introduce two people who are perfect for each other and yet will spend 300+ pages not living happily ever after. In Something True, Tate is trying to save her coffee shop from the real estate developer who wants to buy the building and shut it down. The only problem is that she has already spent one beautiful night with the developer, Laura, and she thinks she might be in love.


I am thrilled because I believe the publication of Something True represents a changing attitude toward lesbian literature in mainstream publishing… I also feel a lot of pressure to make Something True a success. If the book does well, it will open the door to more lesbians…

 Is it true that you weren’t quite expecting Something True to find its way into the mainstream? Can you tell us a little about how it happened?

I expected Something True would find a home in a lesbian press, but my agent placed it with Grand Central Publishing which is a part of the Hachette Book Group (one of the big five publishing companies worldwide). Something True is the first lesbian romance acquired by this particular imprint at Grand Central. I am thrilled because I believe the publication of Something True represents a changing attitude toward lesbian literature in mainstream publishing.

 I also feel a lot of pressure to make Something True a success. If the book does well, it will open the door to more lesbians in mainstream publishing.  

Forever Yours imprint of Grand Central Publication has Something True on their roster, when can we expect to see it?

January 13, 2015

Is the process any different between mainstream and genre fiction or do you find it works into a similar timescale.

I’ve worked with three presses: Sapphire Books (a small, very professional, indie press), Ooligan Press (run by Portland State University), and the Forever Yours imprint of Grand Central Publishing (a large, mainstream press).  I’ve had great experiences all around.  

At Grand Central, it took about ten months from contract to publication which is more time than it takes at Sapphire but less than it takes at Ooligan. My editor at Grand Central is very friendly and supportive, and he provided excellent editorial suggestions. Right from the beginning, I felt like he understood my book and really cared about making it the best it could be. I even got a say in the cover art which wasn’t something I expected at a large press.

As a teacher, how have your students reacted to your novels?

When I first published The Admirer, I was really worried about what my students would think. As it turns out, it hasn’t been a problem at all. A few students have read the book and liked it. Most are too busy ploughing through their textbooks and getting ready for the next exam.


It’s important to me to help aspiring writers. I love to teach, and I love to work with writers who are passionate about their projects. Plus, working with the GCLS gives me chance to scope out the newest talent on the lesfic scene. The students’ work is amazing.


You have taken a role in the GCLS Writing Academy this year. Can you tell us how that developed and how important is it for you to help new and rookie writers?

I really intended to say “no” to the GCLS because I had a lot on my plate and I wasn’t looking to take on a new project. But the GCLS Writing Academy is just such an awesome project, I had to say yes to teaching at least a couple of courses.  It’s important to me to help aspiring writers. I love to teach, and I love to work with writers who are passionate about their projects. Plus, working with the GCLS gives me chance to scope out the newest talent on the lesfic scene. The students’ work is amazing.


You talk about craft, do you favour any particular aspect? (such as character development, scene setting and, as you talked about, pacing.) Do you find any particular scenes easier to write?

The thing I pride myself on most is my ability to balance between opposites.  In The Admirer and The Purveyor this ability manifests itself in narratives that speed up and slow down at exactly the right moments and narratives that balance between the graphic and the subtle, the stated and the implied. 

In my latest novels, Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before and Something True, I am also proud of the way the narratives balance between humor and seriousness, sometimes alternating between the two poles in a single paragraph. 

Here’s a paragraph from Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before that illustrates this idea.  In this paragraph, seventeen-year-old Triinu Hoffman contemplates her lesbianism:

“In the back of my mind, I thought of the couples I had seen groping in the halls of my high school, their knees wedged between each other’s legs, their lips so fully enmeshed I was sure they could fondle each other’s epiglottises with their ordinary pink tongues. And I knew what I had always known: I would not trade my loneliness for the halogen glow of their certainty, their dissecting light, their public lust, so bright it scared God away…”

What advice would you give to a new or rookie writer?    

First, don’t give up! Getting published and developing a following takes years, and that is okay. Something this meaningful is worth the time. 

Second, don’t rush. Make everything you write the very best it can possibly be.  Everything you publish, from blog posts to third novels, is your business card. People who like what they see will read more.

Third, seek out meaningful criticism and take it seriously.  It takes a lot of self-confidence to face rejection and keep writing. It also takes a lot of strength (and some skill) to listen to criticism, figure out which criticism is valuable, and to apply it to your work.

Karelia’s advice to writers on rejection




Quick fire round

  1. What is your strength as a writer? Craft
  1. What is your ‘typical’ writing day? Write from 6:30 – 8:30 AM before getting ready for work as an English professor.
  1. When readers pick up your books, what would you most like to hear them say? That they could not put the book down.
  1. What would you least like them to do/say? Critique the book for political correctness.
  1. Who is your literary idol? why? I grew up in a very literary family. My father would often read poetry to us. I love those poets: Auden, Eliot, cummings, Yeats.
  1. If you could have written any book, which one would it have been? The Passion by Jeanette Winterson
  1. What is your ‘tic’ (Repeated) word when writing? As though
  1. Favourite word? Gray
  1. Least favourite word? Crotch
  1. What would you most like to develop in your writing? Plot

Thank you very much for joining me to chat, Karelia!


 Below are listed four of Karelia’s recommendations of her work and you can find her here:







The Purveyor

After theater professor Adair Wilson unwittingly assists in the abduction of two Pittock students, she sets out on a death-defying quest to rescue the twin girls whose rare anatomical quirk makes them a target for paparazzi and fetishists. When Adair’s wealthy family refuses to help and the girls’ family denies their existence, Adair must battle an underground prostitution ring protected by corrupt police.

With only her lover, Helen Ivers, at her side, Adair turns a handful of clues into a plan of action that pits her against the world’s most ruthless human trafficker, a woman known only as the Purveyor. Set in the hidden world of modern slavery where over twenty-five million people are sacrificed to fuel the world’s lust for rare minerals and human flesh, The Purveyor offers a gripping insider portrait of human trafficking from suburban Boston to the legal brothels of Nevada




The Admirer

Helen Ivers is still reeling from her sister’s suicide, takes a position as the president of Pittock College. The isolated campus seems like a good place to recover, but shortly after she arrives, two severed human legs are found bound to the train tracks.  The local police explain away the gruesome occurrence, but Helen becomes convinced the police chief, and maybe the whole town, is covering for a killer.





Forgive Me If I've Told You This Before Cover smallForgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before

The shy daughter of an Estonian immigrant, Triinu Hoffman has one hope for high school: that the bullies who tormented her in junior high won’t find her in the crowded hallways of her new school. When she accidentally stabs a lecherous youth minister with a Bic pen and gets branded a lezzie Satanist, she realizes there is no way she is going to escape their torment. Moreover, Triinu has started noticing a beautiful girl dressed in all black, and she begins to think there may be something to the accusations of lesbianism.

Set against the backdrop of Ballot Measure 9, the most violent anti-gay political campaign of the 1990s, Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before explores the intersection of faith, politics, and young love.




Something True

Tate Grafton has a tough exterior, but underneath she’s kind, caring, and fiercely loyal. That’s why she first started working at Out in Portland Coffee-it was her way of repaying the shop’s owner for taking her in as a homeless teenager. Nine years later, the coffee shop is floundering and Tate feels like she’s letting life pass her by . . . until she shares an unforgettable night with a beautiful stranger. When the mysterious woman disappears the next morning, Tate doesn’t even know her name.

Laura Enfield was supposed to be in Portland for only a few days-just long enough to oversee a simple business deal before joining her conservative father on his political
campaign. But when the closeted Laura romances an employee of the coffee shop her company is shutting down, things get suddenly complicated. Now, the lies she’s told for years
are beginning to unravel, and her biggest secret is about to be exposed. Laura can’t stop thinking about the barista with the soulful eyes, but after a lifetime of deception,
can she finally embrace something true?


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