Beth Kander On Choosing Which Story to Write Next

Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.


Today's guest for the WHAT is Beth Kander who lives and writes in Chicago, where stories keep her warm. Her dystopian epic Original Syn debuted in September from Owl House Books. An award-winning playwright, Beth has an MFA in Creative Writing from Mississippi University for Women, and also holds degrees from Brandeis University and the University of Michigan.

Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book?

It’s rare that I have such a clear starting point for any writing project, but I really can pinpoint the exact moment when the whole Original Syn journey began. I was on an airplane in the spring of 2011, and a passenger had left their tattered copy of Time magazine behind. Half-stoned on all the Dramamine I have to take to keep motion sickness at bay, I read an article about the impending “Singularity,” the event horizon when man and machine merge.

I was struck by how casually the author’s article, Lev Grossman, approached the whole idea that, as he put it: “[Computers will be] writing books, making ethical decisions, appreciating fancy paintings, making witty observations at cocktail parties… we’ll merge with them and become super-intelligent cyborgs.” He estimated this happening in 2045, or sooner. In our lifetimes. I was terrified at the thought, and started wondering what the world would look like after this happened, especially if the tech was denied to those of us who aren’t mega-rich. Somehow I thought I could write an epic trilogy exploring the fallout of such a thing. I blame the Dramamine.

Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?

I think the most interesting stories explore different angles: X event happened; Character(s) A went one way, Character(s) B went another, and now as Y event approaches…. ugh, wait, that sounds a lot like math. Math is much cleaner than my writing process. Let me try again. How did I build a plot around the original concept? I came up with some main characters, and wrote out an arc for each of them, then started tangling them together, and then Frankenstein’ed a really weird first draft… and then did a hell of a lot of revising.

Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?

UM YES. You know that meme about how people think success looks like a straight line from Starting Point to Success, but what it really looks like is Starting Point, EXTREMELY TANGLED BALL OF YARN, Success? Writing is like that for me, except sometimes with like six thousand balls of multicolored extra-tangle-y yarn.

Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?

Constantly. Story ideas slam into me constantly. I have slips of paper and emailed notes and voicemails I left myself back in 2008. I have a running list of works-in-progress, and I have serious guilt about some of the languishing ones.

How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?

When there’s an external deadline—a big playwriting competition I want to enter, say, or the publisher has a hard-and-fast deadline for my next round of revisions—that’s helpful. Otherwise it’s usually this weird but wonderful pattern where one of the ideas rises up from my list of works-in-progress and yells louder than the rest. The squeakiest mental wheel then gets the grease, at least until I’m handed a new deadline or something else clamors more loudly. Once I was literally two chapters away from finishing a book project, then had an idea for a play that gripped me hard and wouldn’t let go, so I cranked out an entire first draft of the play over the course of a weekend, so it would quiet down and I could return to those last two chapters of the abruptly neglected novel.

I have six cats. There's usually at least one or two snuggling with me when I write. Do you have a writing buddy, or do you find it distracting?

Six! Cats! Six—?! I’d seen several pictures of your cats but assumed it was just two or three moving around a lot! 

I love the idea of writing buddies. I’ve been part of various writing groups over the years, but I’m not currently part of any regularly-assembling writer posse. I might join or start one again, someday; I do like the solidarity and peer pressure of other writers sitting nearby tapping away at their keyboards. Right now, what I do have includes two geriatric dogs who bark at imagined enemies (either that, or my house is haunted and they are very good about keeping the ghosts at bay), an engaging and exhaustingly extroverted husband (he really can talk to a stick), a bubbly almost-two-old-daughter (she overthinks like me and over-verbalizes like her father... it’s intense, y’all), and a day job. Does it make me sound awful to admit that when I can slip away and be alone with my computer and a massive mug of coffee, free of my loudly beautiful daily distractions, these days that’s often when I get my best writing done?