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A Novelist's Tale: The awakening of Katie Kacvinsky

By Jennie Bartlemay on February 1st, 2012 •

katie_008.jpgA young woman sits in a small office, a cup of coffee on the desk beside her computer. The title on the screen says Middle Ground. This first round of edits on her third book is mind-numbing, but Katie Kacvinsky takes every opportunity to make her stories better. The hardest part comes later, when she finally, reluctantly has to click "send" and fire off the manuscript back to the publisher.

When she's not on baby duty, Katie lives in her head. That doesn't mean she spends time in la-la land. She actually gets so deeply entrenched that she snaps out of daydreams in the shower with fingers like raisins, wondering what her water bill will be this month. So after showers or long walks or even just sitting on her couch absent-mindedly petting the dog, she goes to work.

Katie counts herself lucky. Not many writers are able to write full-time, but Katie makes it work somehow. She's always busy. Last year, her spring and summer were spent promoting her first book, Awaken -- a job she has taken very seriously.

"Your book is your child!" she exclaims. "They're your family. Maddy and Justin [the main characters in Awaken] are my brother and sister, so of course I love them and I want everyone to love them." Katie spent every spare hour emailing booksellers, setting up signings, and researching websites that might be interested in interviewing her.

During the fall and especially the winter, it's a little different. "My thoughts are so heavy in the winter that they would break me if I couldn't release them in some way, so I kind of do that through writing."

Katie lives in Oregon's Willamette Valley, where the winters are beaten out for "most days under cloud cover" only by Forks, WA and a small town in Alaska. Her transition from snowed-in Wisconsin to cloudy, damp Oregon was easy, but the remarkable specter of the Oregon spring and summer was the catalyst for Awaken.

"When I lived in Wisconsin, you're snowed in eight months of the year. I was never used to being outside so much and here it's like one big playground."

If not for that move, Katie might have been stuck in a frustrating rut that most writers experience at one point or another. But as a high school English teacher during the boom of Facebooking and texting, she saw her students embrace the new digital reality. It didn't take long for everyone to realize that it wasn't a fad like Pogs or Silly Bandz. The drastic difference between the digital life and her new Oregon playground brought her to her epiphany.

"It just made me realize how much there is to experience, especially in nature, and how much we miss when we're texting. It's like we don't even notice where we are half the time," Katie says. "Awaken was kind of a question: 'What would happen to our world if we really became this techno culture that we already are? Where will it take us?'"

Awaken isn't exactly a manifesto for returning to Mother Nature. At its heart, it's a romance. According to Katie, love is the most powerful and important force in the world. She's been inventing love stories, if not writing them, since she played with Barbies on a stage in her imagination. Her first flirtation with writing as a way of life didn't come until high school. Just when she started getting serious about her writing, she was kicked in the stomach.

"When I was in high school, I was in an honors writing class," Katie tells the story. "I actually got kicked out of it. My teacher, Mrs. Terwilliger, pulled me aside one day and said, 'Your writing is [crap]. You do not deserve to be in this class, so I'm going to drop you down to remedial writing.' That killed me because I loved that class. That was my favorite class in all of high school."

Someone else might put down her pen and move on to the next new hobby, especially as an impressionable teen. For Katie, it had the opposite effect.

"Ever since that class, I've used [Mrs. Terwilliger] as fuel. Don't tell me my potential, and don't put down my potential. Ever since then I've used criticism to fire me up. I almost feed off it now," she says. "I like being the underdog, because I like proving people wrong."

That need to fight to thekatie_003.jpg top drew her to Los Angeles at 19. She went by herself, without a friend in the entire city, purposefully putting herself on the corner of Underdog and Lonely. In L.A. she held jobs as a waitress, at a comedy club, as a script supervisor, and even at a production company.

"I read so many scripts when I was out there," Katie says. "You can read a script in an hour and a half. They're like a hundred pages of dialogue, but they're really amazing storylines. So I really understood the concept of a story by just reading through all these scripts day after day."

So Katie kept writing. She wrote through her time in L.A., through college in Arizona and Wisconsin, and during every free moment she had as a high school English teacher. Unfortunately, no matter how much she wrote, she wasn't getting published.

"I was getting rejected and rejected and I kept thinking, 'I'm not going to do it anymore. It's not my calling. It's too much work.' But I couldn't stop [writing]… When it's your passion, you do it without really thinking about it."

The move to Oregon and a subsequent boring office job gave her the time (no more after-hours papers to grade or lesson plans to write) to spend nights and weekends writing Awaken. Once the euphoric feeling of finishing a 300-page project passed, she got down to the business of shopping for an agent.

"Looking for a literary agent is a lot like applying for a job… It took me more time to research literary agents and query agents than it took me to write my novel," Katie admits. "Part of Awaken's success is that I took a ton of time looking at these literary websites, looking online, and only querying agents that met my requirements… so right away I had more agents interested in me and I had less rejections because I was smarter about who I was querying."

When she finally landed an agent, it was validation. Yes, she was good enough. People liked her work. She could make a career out of it. But not right away.

"[To] anyone else looking to be published, don't quit your day job until you literally see a check in the mail."

Her advice comes from lessons learned the hard way. When Katie signed with her agent, she gleefully left behind her office job to eventually find that the publishing industry didn't work quite like she had imagined.

"I think I was a little bit naïve. Getting an agent is your foot in the door," she says, but it's a long way from getting your first royalty check. "I thought, 'I'm going to be rich in six months.' Well not rich, but... I'd be financially OK. I think it took six more months after that to get a book deal. And then it takes about two years after that for your book to come out." Now, three years later, she's received modest advances, and if she earns any royalties, they will come soon.

"It's like an uphill adventure," Katie says. "It's a dream come true, but there's also realistic things that I didn't realize would happen."