Earlier this year, the Flagstaff City-Coconino County Public Library introduced its first ever writer-in-residence program. At the helm of the program, which was funded through an Arizona Library Association grant, was local author Stacy Murison whose residency ended in May. Later that month, the library welcomed its second writer-in-residence: Karen J. Renner.
Renner is an associate professor at Northern Arizona University where she teaches classes in American literature and popular culture. She holds a Ph.D. in English with a specialization in 19th century American literature. Her academic work, however, has been focused on the horror genre, writing articles on themes and motifs such as the appeal of the apocalypse, evil children in film and literature, serial killers and more.
Such haunting topics illicit visions of a brooding figure with a dark personality, but when we meet up at Mother Road Brewery on Butler, she looks strangely normal in her faded blue jeans and green T-shirt as she drinks a cool, dark beer.
“It’s summer, but I’m never really on break,” Renner said.
Along with running the writer-in-residence program, Renner is working on new articles and a new book, and she’s using The Written World workshop, which happens every first and third Thursday at the brewery, to focus on new works of creative short fiction, something she’s hoping to do more of instead of academic work.
In this interview Renner talks about her background in horror, the library’s writer-in-residence program and how to stay motivated as a writer.
Gabriel Granillo, Arizona Daily Sun: I went to your website and the first thing I noticed was a big, scary picture. Why are you trying to scare me, Karen?
Karen Renner: (Laughs) I guess that’s based on the academic interest I have in horror, which kind of goes across genres. Photography is my primary hobby. My mom said I needed a hobby that didn’t have words (laughs). I said, “Photography sounds great.” So I started taking classes at NAU and I got interested in horror photography. Although, when I say horror, I really don’t like violent stuff. I like just the creepy and the supernatural.
So I guess because my research and scholarship is really focused on horror, and that’s sort of the field that I want to expand into, it felt appropriate for the website to have that feel (laughs).
So that photo is something you took?
Yeah. That’s me. It’s a self-portrait (laughs).
Where did that interest in horror for you begin to develop?
I think probably pretty young. My mom is really interested in the paranormal and things like that. I always make the joke that she knows more about serial killers than anyone’s mom should.
My brother was kind of a big influence, too. He really liked horror. He was the one who turned me on to Stephen King, so it started really early and I was just kind of fascinated with it.
It’s not so much that I believe in this stuff. It’s more I’m interested in why certain things scare us. Like, in horror movies, it’s some of the more subtle stuff. Like, why is that doll scary, or why is that toy scary? So I’m really interested in those questions.
Why do you think horror is something that’s appealing to us?
I think there are a lot of different reasons. Scholars have talked about this a lot. Some say it’s sort of like why you would ride a roller coaster. It’s a safe scare, a safe thrill. Other people have talked about, especially people who are interested in torture porn or some of the more violent stuff, have said there’s maybe a sadistic element to them. So there can be disturbing reasons why people like [horror]. I think we’re really fascinated by what scares us.
I also—I don’t want to speak for other women—but for me, I think I was pretty scared of real-world threats. And I think horror movies give you a way to deal with or to think about how you would deal with that or experiment with those feelings… There’s something vicarious about it.
I think it’s fun. I think there’s a fan element to it. It’s really fun to watch horror together, so I think there’s a community aspect to it as well.
Let’s talk about the writer-in-residence program. How did that come into your radar, and why did you want to participate in it?
Jamie [Paul], Stacy [Murison] and I kind of worked with it. Jamie, to apply for the grant money, she needed two writers, and she just sort of asked if we were interested and we worked on the application together. I know Jamie, she went through [NAU’s] MFA program and I’ve worked with her in many capacities, so we just had a background together.
I just thought it would be great opportunity. I wasn’t really closely affiliated with the public library and it’s something I think is really important to a community, so I was really happy to have that opportunity.
You mentioned Stacy. She was the writer-in-residence before you, and now you’ve taken this program in your own direction. When taking over the program, what was important to you to bring to the table?
I think I work better on giving feedback on specific writing, so part of what I do, when there are writing groups it’s very focused on what that person needs. There aren’t tasks. Some people have novels and they just would like to get a workshop or critique, so I’ve been doing that.
The other thing is, there was a summer reading challenge going when I took [the program over], and I really wanted to do a summer writing challenge. I really liked the way the summer reading challenge was based on hours spent doing it and I thought that was good for writers, too, to just commit to it.
I think the most important thing I want to do is make sure the writers in our community have other writers that they can work with, so kind of facilitating relationships. There are so many things going on for writers in Flagstaff and I think I’d like to see that be more united. So it’s really been focused on just getting people at all different stages writing all different things, getting them together regularly.
You’re an associate professor at NAU, so I imagine you have some experience work-shopping and editing and so forth. During this residency have there been any new experiences for you?
I think the whole idea of a public library, how it works and who it serves and its purpose, has been really different, because it has such a public and humanitarian cause. That has really shifted my understanding of the town.
When hosting or participating in workshops like The Written World or Inspiration on Tap, what is something that you want people to take away?
I think mostly just to write, you know. My biggest problem is—not really writer’s block because as an academic I write a lot—but when I get to creative stuff I have a lot of insecurity or anxiety about it. Really I’m just happy when people are there. Sometimes I do prompts, just to get people thinking. I think when someone says to me they got something written that they didn’t expect to, that’s really exciting to me.
I just gave someone comments on a novel chapter, and they said to me, “That made such a difference and I changed things around.” That’s really inspiring to know that you helped improve someone’s work and hopefully got them a step closer to publishing. That’s probably what’s most important to me, that people keep going with it. And if they are stuck, to help them find other resources.
For someone who is lacking in inspiration or needs motivation, what’s something to help them get started?
That’s such a hard question because part of me doesn’t believe in inspiration. I think that’s part of the problem. I think one of the things I got discouraged by was I had in my mind this very romantic idea of the writer who’s up all night because they love it so much and all these ideas are pouring out of them, and I don’t think it works like that.
I guess the thing I would say is you show up and you write and you trust that things will kind of come to you as well. It’s one of the things I noticed most. If I just show up, my brain knows more than I think it does and things come out that I didn’t expect or I make connections that I didn’t expect. Don’t be discouraged if it feels hard (laughs), because it is hard.
I think I’d tell people to shift the way they see accomplishments or success. The summer writing challenge is to write an hour every day for seven weeks. If I actually could do that for creative stuff that would be a huge accomplishment for me. If you shift away from “I wrote a best seller” or “I got this amount of money” and turn to “I wrote something new and finished something,” I think those are big accomplishments to focus on. I don’t think people give themselves enough credit.