Rachel King is the author of the novel “People Along the Sand,” the linked short story collection “Bratwurst Haven” and two poetry chapbooks. After residing in the eastern United States for several years, she lived in Colorado from 2012 to 2016. She currently lives in her hometown of Portland, Oregon.
SunLit: What inspired you to write this book? Where did the story/theme originate?
Rachel King: I’m from Portland, Oregon, and attended the University of Oregon, but after college, I moved to the eastern United States for several years. In 2012, when I moved to Colorado, the culture seemed closer to western Oregon than the places back East I’d lived, but I didn’t know why.
When I began to write these stories, I went with characters and situations that interested me, but as I revised them, I realized I was exploring what, if anything, it means to be a Western American, someone from the Western United States. The stories also explore how exile affects adults, how low-wage workers support one another, and the long-term impact of short-term connections.
SunLit: Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?
King: “Strangers,” the ninth of 12 stories in the collection, is about a man driving around after work who meets a woman squatting in an abandoned mining shack while she’s on a waitlist for low-income housing in Boulder. I chose it because it more or less explores all four themes I mentioned above: What are examples of Western Americans? How does exile affect adults? How do low-wage workers support one another? What kind of short-term connection might lead to a long-term impact?
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I also like the straightforward nature of the story, how it takes place in a few hours on one afternoon/evening. It took me 15 years of writing dozens of other, often convoluted stories to finally create the simple but complex and impactful stories in this collection.
SunLit: Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you sat down to write? And once you did begin to write, did the work take you in any unexpected directions?
King: Many aspects of my life informed “Bratwurst Haven”: the people I’ve known, the jobs I’ve had, the emotions I’ve experienced. Regarding “Strangers,” for example, I’d gone on a hike that ended up among abandoned mining shacks and I’d also worked with people on a waitlist for low-income housing, both experiences utilized in the story. But I usually notice the connections to my life in retrospect: usually an idea for a certain character in a certain situation comes to mind, and I build the story from there.
As far as unexpected directions, when I began writing these stories, I didn’t know I was writing a collection, and even once I thought I might be writing a collection, I thought it would focus only on the factory workers, but the stories eventually expanded out toward the lives of other locals as well. And the middle and ending of every single story is unexpected to me—that’s half the fun of writing it!
SunLit: Are there lessons you take away from each experience of writing a book? And if so, what did the process of writing this book add to your knowledge and understanding of your craft and/or the subject matter?
King: For each book or short story, I write myself into different technical problems that I haven’t experienced before but that only finishing that book or that story can solve. I do think that after writing fiction for so many years, I’ve begun to solve these problems faster.
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I’ve also started to notice my patterns, which I then try to subvert to make the narratives more interesting. For example, I used to write a lot of scenes of backstory, so for “A Deal” and “Strangers” I challenged myself to write stories that take place in only one day, and both experiments ended up being entertaining and strong stories.
SunLit: What were the biggest challenges you faced in writing this book?
King: The largest challenge in this project was knowing when the book was finished because each story had to stand alone but also connect enough with the others. There were eleven stories in the linked collection that I submitted to West Virginia University Press, but a peer reviewer identified some gaps, so I removed one story, then wrote two others to round out the collection. I was happy with the final version.
SunLit: If you could pick just one thing—a theme, lesson, emotion or realization—that readers would take from this book, what would that be?
King: My favorite insight into the book so far comes from Keith M. on Powells.com who states: “‘Bratwurst Haven’ offers moving glimpses of the many costs of underpaid labor and the profound and sustained difficulty of moving on from misfortunes, mistakes, or unforced errors.”
SunLit: In a highly politicized atmosphere where books, and people’s access to them, has become increasingly contentious, what would you add to the conversation about books, libraries and generally the availability of literature in the public sphere?
King: I grew up in a conservative Christian environment, and reading a huge variety of books, often found in libraries, gave me the freedom to imagine different and more open ways of living in and of viewing the world, and ultimately allowed me to differentiate myself from both peers and authority figures, to choose who I wanted to be and what I wanted to think.
I realize that this kind of knowledge and self-discovery is exactly what proponents of book bans are trying to hinder, but nonetheless, I wish for every person in the United States to have that kind of opportunity, to have access to all books—and I’m very grateful for the librarians who continually and fearlessly champion both intellectual freedom and privacy for all readers.
SunLit: Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
King: I often daydream ideas for stories and novels and poems while walking around the city or in parks and natural areas, but I actually write most Saturday and Sunday mornings on an old desktop that isn’t connected to the internet. I set myself word count or revision goals, which I often adjust, but they give me a kind of schedule and something to strive for.
SunLit: What do you like to do creatively besides writing? How does it enhance your writing?
King: I recently returned to acting after a 20-year hiatus, and it has given me a lot of joy. I was in a community theater performance last summer, and this year, I’ve been taking an acting class. Creating a character on the stage for an audience has reminded me how much I like creating characters on the page for the reader. I hope to continue in this hobby.
SunLit: Tell us about your next project.
King: Right now I’m expanding and revising a draft of “The Red Heads,” a novel that fictionalizes a women’s basketball team that traveled around the United States playing men’s teams in the 1930s. The story focuses on Nora, an orphan who decides to play on the team in 1936, leaving her little sister, Carrie, alone.
Nora has never been outside of the Portland area, and feels joy in her traveling and new friendships as well as guilt at leaving Carrie. When Carrie has an accident, Nora must decide whether to return home to help her sister or to continue in her new life as an adventurer.
Quick hits: A quirky collection of questions
SunLit: Do you look forward to the actual work of writing or is it a chore that you dread but must do to achieve good things?
King: I enjoy writing. In my first writing class, a peer wrote: “You love to write and you love to spend time writing. Don’t lose that”—and I haven’t! It’s such a pleasure to create something beautiful and share that creation with others.
SunLit: What’s the first piece of writing – at any age – that you remember being proud of?
King: I wrote a small book of poems that I liked in fourth grade. I don’t remember much about it except that I was proud of it, and also that I drew dogs on the cover.
SunLit: When you look back at your early professional writing, how do you feel about it? Impressed? Embarrassed? Satisfied? Wish you could have a do-over?
King: I still feel good about my first published short story, “Elevator Girl,” featured in the hard-copy Farallon Review in 2012, about a girl in the 1950s who takes a job as an elevator operator at a hotel to avoid dealing with her sister’s sickness.
SunLit: What three writers, from any era, can you imagine having over for a great discussion about literature and writing? And why?
King: Today I’ll pick Colm Tóibín, James Baldwin, and Virginia Woolf. It would be a deep and wide-ranging discussion: I imagine we’d talk about everything from the Russian novelists to current politics to the rhythms in a writing practice.
SunLit: Do you have a favorite quote about writing?
King: Currently it’s one by Leo Bersani: “Literature is not a riddle to be solved but an enigma to be admired and enjoyed, if never grasped.”
SunLit: What does the current collection of books on your home shelves tell visitors about you?
King: That I prefer reading poetry, plays, and realistic fiction. That I like books in translation. That I love checking out books at libraries—usually I have library books sitting on my bookshelves too, waiting to be read or returned.
SunLit: Soundtrack or silence? What’s the audio background that helps you write?
King: Silence. And I like a ray of sun with the silence, if I can get it.
SunLit: What event, and at what age, convinced you that you wanted to be a writer?
King: Reading the Emily of New Moon books by L.M. Montgomery in elementary school allowed me to imagine that being a writer was a possibility. I wrote fiction and poetry between the ages of 10-14, then stopped writing creatively through adolescence, then returned to it with a greater commitment as a young adult.
SunLit: As an author, what do you most fear?
King: Because I’ve published with small presses who don’t have large marketing/publicity budgets like some NYC publishing companies, I fear my books will become lost among all the books out there and not be found by readers who might enjoy them.
SunLit: Also as an author, what brings you the greatest satisfaction?
King: I love it when readers share the meanings they’ve gleaned from my book with me, meanings that may be different from the ones I imagined.