On Braided Timelines and Long Projects: A Members’-Only Interview w/ Katie Gutierrez

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[Rumpus Members ONLY content for Aug. 11, 2022. Ignore post date above. This is our temporary workaround for private content. We’ll likely have passwords protected posts in the future.]

 

Katie Gutierrez’s much-buzzed about, major book deal, widely acclaimed debut novel is quiet and subtle along with being propulsive and fast paced – a true feat. In MORE THAN YOU’LL EVER KNOW, we are pulled along by a desire to know “the truth” of a true crime pulled from the news – the story of a bigamist whose unconventional choice is tinged with tragedy. But we’re also captivated by the metaphor: the idea that our parents, in particular, hold worlds that contain “more than we’ll ever know”; that our spouses, however beloved, could remain mysteries to us throughout our lives. You’ll enjoy this lovely, intelligent thriller for its genre and commercial fiction merits even as you admire and appreciate the deft and compelling characterization, particularly of the two women characters from whose perspective the story is narrated using alternating time lines. Lore (pronounced Lo-rrey, r rolled please) and Cassie face each other in an unexpectedly honest and tender dialogue that is as much at the center of this book as the “how” of bigamy – its secrets, lies, evasions and ultimately, damage.

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The Rumpus: Tell us about your journey as a writer and in particular, the journey you took to publishing this exciting book.

Katie Gutierrez: I’m one of those people who’s “always written.” I would fill notebooks in class, or over the summer, with stories I’d invented. I was always writing stories, and always knew I wanted to be a writer.

Then in college, along with majoring in English and Philosophy, I landed an internship with People magazine that after graduation, blossomed into a full time job. Though the station folded about six months later, and somewhat abruptly, in that time I had my first in-depth exposure to nonfiction and journalism. At first I’d been nervous calling people or pitching, but then I worked my way into freelancing, then did proofreading, editorial, some ghostwriting. I got really busy with a lot of work!

I wrote a lot professionally but realized eventually that I wasn’t spending time on my own stories, my own writing. So then I did an MFA to create the time to write. There I really focused on writing, with occasional freelancing, but no time out, not even to teach. It was wonderful and now I realize how lucky I was to get into an MFA program near where I was already living. Also, in the first 18 or 20 years of my life, I’d read, like one book by a Latinx author. The MFA changed all that and for the first time, I started writing about the people and places I’d grown up with, in southwest Texas.

That was where I developed my own voice, and found myself writing Mexican characters for the first time. This made a huge impact on my writing.

Right after the MFA, I worked full time as an editor for a nonfiction publishing company; I’d freelanced for them and was offered the job after that, and felt proud that I created a real place for myself as the head of many editorial projects. I loved that job. But like intensive freelancing had, the job took all my time from my work, and I realized I wasn’t working on my own book. My father suggested stepping back from what I was doing, back in 2014, to finish that book. Luckily, my husband was also supportive.

I felt scared at first, but also felt aware of what it was like not to work on my own fiction for the 4 years of my editorial job. There was a sense of “if not now, then when?” which now seems silly given how young I was! (Ed. note: KG is now 37).

I wrote a book between 2015 and 2017 that attracted a lot of exciting attention from agents and chose among several to go with Hillary Jacobson. Although that book did not sell, it was great to start a new project, the novel that became MORE THAN YOU’LL EVER KNOW, while on submission. I’d had a seed of the story of a man who lived a double life for 20 years, using separate names to set up separate households where the 2 sets of children even attended the same exclusive private school! And never knew about each other until one of the 2 wives passed away and the man then legally married his “second” wife.

I was compelled by the idea of how someone could tempt fate in that way by leading a double life. I wondered: what would it take to compartmentalize to that extent? And then I was gripped by the question: Would a woman, a mother, ever possibly do that?

When I had this idea during my MFA program I put it aside, but once it was clear after a few months that my first book hadn’t found a publisher, my agent wanted to know what else I had, and the idea became a first draft.

Rumpus: Can you talk about how you developed the intricate structure of the two alternating time lines that keep us gripped by the story, and feel like they resonate but don’t repeat, or maybe – repeat but only small details, amplifying and casting different light on these story details?

KG: That’s a lovely way to put it.  I definitely had to revise to figure out exactly how the timelines would be braided. But I knew I liked having a reporter, a journalist, framing the story.

Rumpus: I loved the Cassie character, who actually reminds me of a friend I met at MacDowell—Rachel Munroe. Did you have some of her work in mind as you thought about Cassie’s motivations?

KG: It’s funny you mention that book because I love SAVAGE APPETITES and definitely was informed by the archetypes that Munroe describes there. Cassie for example being a female detective archetype as well as the journalist. I would say though that Cassie is at an earlier stage of career than Rachel Munroe! Her journey gave me a chance to give a lot of thought, and have the characters themselves explore and debate how true crime stories are constructed.

I have loved true crime fiction for years – starting with Nancy Drew mysteries and Patricia Cornwell’s fiction. Eventually I moved to nonfiction as well, along with reading more literary fiction during my 3-year MFA. I am interested in fiction that can use crime to explore other issues.  I also became obsessed with “Serial”, the podcast that brought true crime to us in a new way along with subsequent podcasts on these themes.

Once I got so into true crime stories, though, I had to examine the reasons “why”. I started interrogating some of the assumptions of “true crime” – including its focus on the murders of white women, even though that doesn’t match the reality of much higher numbers of violent crimes perpetrated against, for example, Native American, Black and trans women. I wanted to play with the tropes of true crime – and also look at its blindspots.

Rumpus: For readers of The Rumpus who are also writers working on long projects, can you give us a sense of how you moved from beginning to end?

KG: So, I started working on this book while the first sub was still out. It definitely eased the anxiety of waiting to hear back! I was pregnant with my first child when I was starting the first draft. I felt a real sense of urgency about finishing and admittedly, at the time, bought into the mythmaking and fear mongering that exists, about making art at all “after baby.” I did have to adjust my physical expectations about pregnancy as I went through it and returned to work on it about 4 months after giving birth. (Ed note: not a long time! Not at all!).

I sent what I had at that point to my agent, who encouraged me to keep going. She knew what I needed to hear and had useful feedback even then. I wrote during naptimes and having others care for my baby – my husband has been a really equal partner in all of this.

The main change was that unlike during my MFA, when I could just write all day, after my baby, I had to be open to however long I had.It could be twenty minutes or two hours—I sat at my table with the baby monitor to the side of me, ready to move.

In about six months I had the rest of the first draft—600 pp! My first revision was to just cut it down. This is what I sent to dear friends and mentors—like Amanda Eyre Ward (THE JETSETTERS) and May Cobb (THE HUNTING WIVES) for example. They and my agent felt I really had something strong. My agent wrote a long editorial email and did a call with me. I took another 2 months to revise, then we did the same for the next draft! We revised back and forth – I feel like my agent did that with me 12-15 times! My agent invested so much editorial time into this book.

We finished editing it mid pandemic, right before the delivery of my second baby! The delivery was on September 4th, we went out on submission on September 11, and days later we had our first responses, escalating to an offer from the UK followed by a pre-empt from my US editor at William Morrow. Then of course there were edits with them.

Rumpus: As you moved through this demanding and multi-step process, including keeping the confidence to write this current book after not selling the first one, what resources if any helped you? Was there a writers group that was helpful, or other support?

KG: I have connected with so many other writers through Twitter, especially connecting with other writers who are also parents. I really appreciate the examples provided by other writer-mothers who also talked about “writing during naptime” and other ways they just kept the writing going. I realized from that that I could do it. Whether they were writer friends who actually read drafts of MORE THAN YOU’LL EVER KNOW, or writers who just shared support and commiseration, it has been great being connected. I didn’t have a core group of writer friends during my MFA, I think because I was married then (to a different partner) and just participated less in that social group. But now it’s really great having that core group of writer friends!

Rumpus: Speaking of close friendships, the relationship between your two main characters, Cassie and Lore, is so rich and satisfying. It really deepens this book. Can you talk about how you developed these two characters and their dynamic?

KG: I started with readers having “lots of love” for Lore for sure, including my agent and friends. Throughout the process, everyone fell in love with her, and I did give her, at least superficially, some of the “con woman” characteristics associated with stories of bigamy – a sense of entitlement, a lot of charm.

In a lot of ways, the book is about Lore working her magic on Cassie, and even filling in Cassie’s maternal absence.

Cassie’s story on the other hand was more common, and more subtle. I.e. it wasn’t hard to be engrossed, moment by moment, in Lore’s story given everything she went through. But I didn’t want Cassie by comparison to just be a framing device either. I felt that the book had to represent choices having a rippling and devastating impact on the characters for both women, not just Lore.

I wanted depth and nuance, and for the reader to sympathize with each woman in moments of her decision making, even if overall, that same reader would have trouble accepting the consequence for Lore’s children of what she did.  I always conceived of the book as being between the two women, that it would center these two women, and while I was writing the back and forth timelines, 80s to the present day, I was so excited for them to meet in the present!

Rumpus: It is exciting! And one of the other features of this book I want to emphasize to readers – the very vivid cross cultural and border cultural aspects. Was this something you thought about as a writer intending to appeal to a diverse audience including readers really unfamiliar with southwest Texas and Latinx history (including a history of Latinx cultures preceding the United States, in that region)?

KG: I know I shouldn’t look at Goodreads…but I did!  And one of the things a reader complained about was “the Spanish.” And I just think – if you can’t tolerate or deal with a few words of Spanish here and there, in a story about a part of the country where that is absolutely the setting, then you weren’t the audience for this book anyway. ‘

I was interested in challenging the notion of “accessibility” as something that I feel writers of color should no longer be pressured to provide. There are no direct translations of these few Spanish words. But at the same time, it was important to me that Cassie be a proxy for an outsider’s perspective on an insider’s perspective (on Lore’s perspective).  But at the same time, to let Lore be, and not “translate” her.

Rumpus: It is important that you say this, I feel, especially to the many writers of color whom I know have had this pressure, of “accessibility” placed on them, when in fact I think it’s the vivid details and reality you create on the page, from that southwest Texas setting and what it’s like to live on the border and cross back and forth and fluidly inhabit two related worlds, that makes these characters so alive!

KG: Thank you!

Rumpus: So give us a sense of what’s next for you.

KG: I’m on book tour for MORE THAN YOU’LL EVER KNOW   I’ve also been writing and publishing many essays, including recently in TIME, and another on the city of Loredo, coming soon, and still another forthcoming in Town and Country on con artists and bigamists.

After all that, I am looking forward to sitting down to work on the second book in my two-book deal, which I can’t say too much about yet! Except that it’s on motherhood, southwest Texas, three women, and centers on a kidnapping!