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 J. Kasper Kramer, author of The Story That Cannot Be Told. She is an author and English professor in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She has a master’s degree in creative writing and once upon a time lived in Japan, where she taught at an international school.
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?
I can pinpoint the exact night The Story That Cannot Be Told took root! So for about five years, I lived in Japan, where I taught at an international school. Some of my coworkers (and very best friends) were Romanian women, and since I was working on another novel with influences from Romania, one of them came over to help with research. The plan was that she would tell me some fairytales and folklore, but after we’d been talking for a while, she started telling me other stories, too—stories about growing up under Ceausescu and Communist reign. Sitting there listening, taking notes as fast as I could, I realized I had a very different book to write.
Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?
Well, I knew from the start I wanted to write this strange little book with retold folklore and fairytales somehow mixed into a serious, real-world story about a girl growing up in Communist Romania. In the end, I did what all academics do—I dove headfirst into research. It wasn’t long before I realized that the book had to be set during the year of the Romanian Revolution, and that it had to have something to do with the danger of telling stories in a country where speaking the wrong words could literally get you killed. Historical events, along with true family histories told to me by my friends, really helped pull the plot together.
Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?
Most of the time, I expect this to happen! I often spend a good year or so “thinking” about a book before I even start research, much less any drafting. This means that usually, when I finally sit down to write, I have a pretty solid mental outline of events. However, those events rarely all make it to the page. One scene leads to another, and then suddenly I’m traveling in a different direction. And that’s ok! I earnestly believe that nothing good can come from forcing a story to follow a script. If characters or obstacles seem to be leading the plot elsewhere, I always let the story evolve. I just like to make myself feel better by pretending I know where I’m headed.
Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?
I guess I’m pretty lucky, because I always have more stories in my head than I have time to write. Besides my current work-in-progress—another folklore-inspired novel, this time set in 1800s Poland—I’m in the “thinking” stage for two other books and the research stage for a third. Most of my free time—time spent not writing, editing, or teaching—is spent consuming art. My husband is a producer and film collector, so we watch tons of movies. I’m always reading a dozen or more books at once. And I play lots of video games and tabletop RPGs—all of which are, unquestionably, art. With so many stories coming in all the time, it’s no surprise to me that I have so many needing to come out.
How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?
In the past, I always just worked on what seemed like the most fun. Now, though, I run ideas past my agent before really barreling into a project. At the moment, I’m actually working on some loose outlines just for that purpose—even though outlining on paper wasn’t part of my process in the past.
I have 5 cats (seriously, check my Instagram feed) and I usually have at least one or two snuggling with me when I write. Do you have a writing buddy, or do you find it distracting?
I have three cats and a big dumb dog, and that is not nearly enough pets for me. The cats are lovely writing companions, meaning mostly they just leave me alone or sit nearby waiting for occasional chin scratches. But Indy—who’s technically still a puppy—is in a “demand barking” phase...so currently he’s not the best writing buddy. We’re working on it, though.