Kristen has taught (expressive writing, play writing, and screen writing at Trollwood Performing Arts School in Fargo, ND; adjunct English professor at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee) and had a number of other jobs, including, but not limited to, freelance writer, job coach, hotel front desk clerk, janitor, and cab driver.
Currently she is a feature writer for the Living Section of the Journal Inquirer newspaper in Connecticut.
Kristen Tsetsi: It's the kind of story that's almost entirely character-driven and therefore hard to condense into an exciting pitch. (I won't tell you how many different versions of a single query letter sitting in a file folder. I don't think it's a normal amount.)
So, I will say this: Pretty Much True..., with the early days of the Iraq conflict as the background, drops readers into the grit of war that I don't think a lot of people are aware exists. War grit usually makes people think of soldiers, sweat, and nights awake, but there's a healthy amount of grit for those with a soul mate (for lack of a better phrase) at war. There's the personal experience - emotional and psychological - of hoping the person you love doesn't die right now (or right now...or right now...), but also present during those early days were politicians with their conveniently-safe-at-home opinions, the news media and their spin, and what I think was (or what I perceived to be, right or wrong) a three-part, commonly held belief about those with a lover at war:
1. We were somehow different from other people (that is, we were all part of some closed-off clique)
2. The experience, because we weren't the ones at the bullet-war, was pretty tame by comparison. You know, your basic missing and worry.
3. We were publicly stoic, probably had a yellow ribbon somewhere, and were almost certainly republicans who supported the president no matter what.
It's a caricature. Pretty Much True... delivers a more realistic portrait, using a cast of characters who are all, in one way or another, reacting to the conflict in Iraq in deeply personal - and therefore, often unpredictable - ways.
TG: It’s a writer’s dream when they self-publish to get picked up by a publisher. How did this happen with you?
KT: Craig Lancaster, author of the wonderful 600 Hours of Edward (and others), read Pretty Much True... when it was still Homefront and liked it so much that he was confused about why it hadn't been picked up by a publisher. At the time, he didn't have his own press, but a few years later, he started Missouri Breaks Press. Not long after that, Pretty Much True...., in limbo at the time because a publishing deal had just fallen through, was available, and I'm thrilled to say that he wanted it.
TG: Did you tweak the manuscript in any way before this incarnation?
KT: A little bit. It had gone through so much cut-throat editing and so many revisions before I even started sending queries to agents (prior to self-publishing) that it was in pretty tight shape already, but some little corrections were made, here and there, and I included a foreword, of sorts, in the form of a letter I wrote to my oldest friend while her husband was deployed. She's actually the inspiration for the character of Denise. Personality-wise only - not behaviorally (that distinction needed to be made).
TG: Your husband was sent overseas to Iraq just as Mia’s husband was in the book, so I have to ask, Is “Pretty Much True” pretty much true?
KT: I couldn't have written about something like a deployment without having experienced it. I really don't think anyone could. Not in a way that would do it justice or reveal some of the lesser-known, more subtle, and maybe even not-talked-about truths. For example, I couldn't have imagined the tilt in reality that occurs. The emotional experience of the book is very true. And even a few small details were yanked from my experience. So, yes. In a way I think matters the most, it's pretty much true.
TG: Something so close to home that you wrote about as fiction must have been difficult. Can you tell me about the process of separation?
KT: Everything I've written as fiction has been close to home. I tend to get very personal with most of what I write, Pretty Much True... included. Separation took place in the creation of the fiction surrounding the core, but to be able to write it, I actually had to get back in there, sit with my eyes closed, and feel it. Although I didn't start writing it (never mind thinking about writing it) until about a year after he'd come back, much of it was still close enough to bring forward easily.
TG: Mia spends a lot of time in a vodka haze. Was that you?
KT: Minus a weekend here or there, no (and it was probably wine instead of vodka, because it's inexpensive and tasty). No, I couldn't have finished grad school or held my teaching job at the university where I was working if I'd been either drunk or hungover as often as she is. And grading essays would have been a nightmare. (However, had I been drunk, some of them may have received better grades, and my RateMyProfessor rating would have been much kinder.)
TG: Name something Mia did in the book, that you would have never done?
KT: 99% of it. Her behavior is a vehicle to communicate the feelings, but she's nothing like me. While Ian was gone, I was Mia's polar opposite, behaviorally. I enjoyed writing Ian (every day), and I certainly never wrote in an email to him about his mother, "You secretly want to fuck her, don't you?" That's all a fictional scenario, and I really like his mother. But, for many people and in many cases, you can see how that sentiment might be easy to relate to.
TG: Did people who knew you and your own life gain insight into your life?
KT: They definitely gained insight into part of it. But they also gained insight into the war experiences of the other characters, whose story lines were inspired by real conflicts and situations I was acquainted with through others. All of their perspectives, whether delivered with humor, sarcasm, sincerity, or in a sputtering rage, offer what I think is unusual insight into the lives of those touched by war (and not just our generation's wars, but wars of the past).
TG: Would [people having insight] make you uncomfortable?
KT: As much time as I spend online - on FB, on forums, on a blog, and anywhere else - it would probably not seem likely that I'm really very private, but I am. If I think too much about it, I'll probably be uncomfortable with how much of myself I've revealed in fiction, because a lot of it isn't flattering. And, flattering or not, it's my insides, and no one likes to reveal their insides.
But ever since reading Kate Chopin's "Story of an Hour," I knew honesty at the core was what made the most interesting reading. So, honesty it was. And, you know, none of my feelings are unique to me. I'm not special. Most other people have probably had the same thoughts or moments, so there's really nothing to be ashamed of.
TG: I’ve heard you say that “Pretty Much True” was the best thing you’d ever written because the story was important to you. Explain a little about the importance and urgency?
KT: I've seen a lot of war movies and war TV shows. It's one of those human stories we're interested in, in part because of the drama, in part because we want to have some kind of access to something only a few experience, and in part because it's so endlessly fascinating due to its distance. It's a complex thing that involves so many different kinds of people who are affected in a myriad of ways.
Most war stories are about the soldier, but after getting to know war, myself, it seemed just as important and every bit as valid to tell my version with the same kind of unfiltered honesty that's made movies like "Platoon" and "Full Metal Jacket" so popular. (I don't think it's the war action that appeals to people as much as the truth represented in each particular film.)
TG: Seems like everyone today has an opinion about politics and defense of our country. Has any of that led to overstepping boundaries pertaining to differences of opinion in any interactions with a reader?
KT: Not at all. I made a point of including politics (and being, I think, very obvious about the things that drove me crazy, politicians included) without taking a political position with the book. Characters discuss the war, a protest takes an unexpected turn... But the last thing I wanted to write was something that could be perceived as either partisan or pro- or anti-war. I don't care about positions and labels. I didn't set out to write a manifesto, but a story.
TG: I’m going to take some of the themes one at a time and play word association with you. Give me the first word that pops into your head
TG: abject fear.
TG: Well that was fun... When friends know your husband was deployed, how did they react?
KT: When we spoke, they would ask how I was and how he was. It's hard to know what to say, hard to know what someone needs, hard to know whether to talk about it and what to talk about. I don't even know what to say to my friend whose husband, as I write this, is still in Afghanistan. That's what drove the letter I wrote her, and that became Pretty Much True...'s foreword.
TG: Did you get propositioned by men?
KT: I don't think so. A student asked me to lunch, once. Does that count? (I didn't go.)
TG: Each character responds to the war in his or her own unique way. Which character was the most difficult to write?
KT: The downstairs hippie neighbor, Safia. It was difficult to get inside the mind of such an idealist.
TG: Tell us about how you felt when you knew you had something “going on” during the writing process?
KT: It first happened sometime during a twelve-hour cab-driving shift, I'm sure. I started driving about six months after Ian came home, and spent twelve hours a day sitting, driving people who had little to say or little they wanted to say. There was a lot of time to think. Sometime in the fourth month, the story started forming, and just before Christmas, I knew I had to quit so I could write it. All I knew was that there was definitely something there.
The second time I felt it was about 45,000 words in. I couldn't figure out why it was so hard to move forward until I discovered the protagonist was at too much of a distance for such an intimate story. It had to be first-person. I deleted the first 80 pages, gave her a new name, and started over completely. There were still the typical novel-writing woes, but the forcing, the struggle, was gone.
The third time was when I decided she'd drive a cab and have a fare like Donny Donaldson. He was the last big "got it" moment and was probably the book's version of Lebowski's rug.
TG: What were some of the frustrations that you found while getting the book out there?
KT: While first trying, I pitched a couple of agents who were genuinely interested, but who said they wouldn't be able to sell it because it was literary fiction, and a tough market for it (particularly because I was unknown). That was partly frustrating, but also very encouraging. That they liked it helped give me the confidence to release it myself, initially.
Releasing it myself, however, meant being self-published. There are a lot of people who won't look at a self-published book, no matter what. That still frustrates me. There are quite a few authors I know whose work has been vetted by trustworthy publications or individuals, but because it wasn't released in the approved way, it's not worth the time of some reviewers or public entities. And I think it's a shame. A different logo on the spine doesn't change the quality of the writing, and if its received a certain level of acclaim, I think it's earned the right to have the stigma wiped off by the gatekeepers of even the most exclusive clubs.
TG: Who are your writing influences?
KT: In no particular order and for a number of different reasons, Kate Chopin, Dorothy Parker, John Irving, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and Margaret Atwood.
TG: What’s next? Will there be something new on this theme, a “Pretty Much True Too”?
KT: No, no "too." I really hate doing anything twice (even if I tend to gravitate toward a certain set of themes). I'm working on something new, finally, but I'm not far enough into it to say I've started with any real commitment. It's hard to write for fun at the end of a writing day job, so I'm still trying to figure out how to get past page five.