By Daniel Ford
For the record, this is the kind of official bio that gets you on Writer’s Bone’s holiday card list:
“Kat Spears has worked as a bartender, museum director, housekeeper, park ranger, business manager, and painter (not the artistic kind). She holds an M.A. in anthropology, which has helped to advance her bartending career. She lives in Richmond, Va. with her husband and three freeloading kids. Sway is her debut novel.”
Spears took time from slinging drinks and writing stuff down to talk about her writing process, how she developed her hit debut novel, and why the stories that ended up on the cutting room floor are longer than the finished book.
Daniel Ford: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
Kat Spears: Hmm, well, I was always a writer. And before I could write I was a storyteller. A couple of years ago I just decided that if I was going to spend all of my free time writing anyway, and I really enjoyed it, I might as well try to make it my career. I have always worked very hard, have had two jobs since I was 20 years old, and I thought, if I invested this much energy in my writing and trying to get published then there is no reason I couldn’t find moderate success in it. So, I just made the decision to work really hard and, hey, guess what happened?
DF: Who were some of your early influences?
KS: Richard Peck. Absolutely, hands down. I have loved his writing since I was a kid and still love to reread his work. Also, E.L. Konigsberg, who is brilliant, and Katherine Paterson. Jacob Have I Loved is still one of my all-time favorite books. I also started reading Agatha Christie at a fairly young age. She was so deft in her characterizations and settings. I was struck, even at a young age, by her ability to make humor so subtle and a story really come to life in my head.
DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?
KS: No outlines. Sometimes I write lists of the major scenes, which I guess sounds like an outline. But it is more like a grocery list or a stream of consciousness. To get started, I write out the major scenes—dialogue and everything—then go back and write the in-between parts to knit the major scenes together. I think that process helps with pacing and story arc, to know the major scenes that move the plot forward and then work to space them appropriately.
And I always listen to music. Always. I have playlists for every character and book and listen to them over and over again while working. Sometimes I replay the same song 10 times in a row because it is setting the right mood.
I write at strange times. At 3:00 a.m., or for 30 minutes on my way home from work. I stop at the coffee shop just to bang out a few pages. I bartend on the weekends, so when it’s slow at the bar, I will sit down and write for a bit. But I’m always writing in my head.
DF: How long did it take you to complete your first novel Sway? Did you know you had something good when you finished?
KS: It took about a year to write and edit Sway. Then I put it away for a few months and came back to it for another round or two of edits before I started querying for an agent. Then I spent another six months working with my editor at St. Martin’s before it was complete.
Honestly, I didn’t know that I had a book that would sell or was marketable. I knew Jesse had a unique voice and I really liked him and the other characters. I also knew that I had read it 200 times and wasn’t tired of reading it and still liked it, so maybe someone else would too.
DF: Take us back to the moment you got the idea for Sway. Did it hit you like a bolt of lightning, or was it an idea that had to germinate over a long period of time?
KS: The idea for Sway came to me very suddenly, probably while I was driving or in the shower. The original idea was to write a book about the friendship between Jesse and Pete—two people who were broken, but broken in different ways. The rest germinated with time. The original version of the book was very different. Jesse’s dad changed quite a bit, as did the situations Jesse created through his manipulations. In fact, the early version is barely recognizable as Sway. I save everything I delete from my books and the document of deleted bits from Sway is actually longer than the finished book. I wrote and threw out more than 300 pages. Isn’t that nuts? It’s a painful thing for a writer to do because 300 pages represent a lot of work, but it is really necessary to “kill the little darlings,” as Oscar Wilde said.
DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters?
KS: There is probably more to my main characters that I take from myself than I could ever comfortably admit to anyone. The characters in my books are sometimes completely made up, and sometimes they are an amalgamation of real people. Digger, for example, is an amalgamation of two people I knew when I was in my late teens and early 20s. His personality is borrowed from one, his background and profession borrowed from another. Carter is based on a real person who is now deceased. The conversation he and Jesse have about Simon & Garfunkel was a real conversation, one that I quoted almost verbatim for Sway. Carter’s inspiration would have been horrified for anyone to know that he liked Simon & Garfunkel since it would have ruined his OG reputation, but whenever he came to my house he always requested that “Cecilia” song.
Then there are the strangers I pass on the street every day. Someone I see on the subway or sitting in a coffee shop. I can easily imagine a back story and personality for them based on just an overheard conversation or their clothing. That’s one of a writer’s favorite hobbies. Those people populate my books as well as minor characters.
DF: Your use of dialogue is often praised in the reviews of your book. How did you develop your style of dialogue?
KS: I have been a bartender at the same bar in Washington, D.C.—Lucky Bar— for many years. Many. Years. Always doing it as a second job. I spend a lot of time talking to all different kinds of people. The people I work with who have passed through over the years, the regulars at the bar, (some of whom I have known longer than some of my closest friends) and, of course, hundreds of random strangers each week. I spend so much time talking to people that I think I just developed a good ear for speech patterns and the different ways that people talk.
Most people, when they are on the listening end of a conversation, are actually just waiting for their own turn to speak, they don’t really listen. I think I’m a good listener because I genuinely want to hear the stories of other people…so I can use them later in my books. Ha ha! Actually, that’s not entirely true, though I do love to borrow material from real life and the stories people tell to bartenders are the best out there. But I’m just endlessly fascinated by people—their motivations, hopes, dreams, fears, stories. And so I spend a lot of time listening. And I always try to craft my dialogue to match real speech patterns while at the same time advancing the plot. No meaningless dialogue in my books.
DF: You’ve had a variety of jobs throughout your life and have a Master’s Degree in anthropology. How have all these different jobs and experiences shaped you as a writer and how did that manifest while you were writing Sway?
KS: I answered this a bit in the previous question, how being a bartender impacts my work. It’s funny, though, that I find it almost impossible to set a book in a bar. I can’t mimic the types of conversations and relationships I have had with my coworkers there over the years. The owners are almost too outrageous as personalities to be believed as fiction. Sway definitely borrows from my training in anthropology as Pete and Jesse have some deep conversations about cultural ideals of beauty and similar things. Really all of my varied jobs and career tracks have just exposed me to a lot of very interesting people who make great character studies.
DF: What’s next for Kat Spears following the success of Sway?
KS: My second book, Flat Back Four, will be released from St. Martin’s in 2015. I should be working on the edits even as I type this. And I quit my day job. Decided to just bartend and write. I feel really good about that decision. How many people get to say they do what they love every day? I’m extraordinarily lucky.
DF: You’re an up-and-coming writer yourself, but what advice would you give writers just starting out?
KS: Writing is a passion and it is probably the only thing that keeps me entirely sane. That being said, there’s a difference between writing as a passion or a hobby and writing as a profession. If you want to be a published author, treat writing, querying an agent, working with an editor, whatever task you are completing, as a profession, and a highly competitive one at that. There is no room to feel sentimental about your writing, and you must be able to accept and be fueled by criticism. No matter that writing is a passion, publishing is a business. My last job was working for a state library where I managed retail operations and organizing author events. I learned an incredible amount about the retail and promotional side of the publishing business. That experience was invaluable and still serves me as I am learning to navigate my new profession.
DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?
KS: I read in the shower.