Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Katrin Schumann: Uncovers the Secret Power of the Middle Child Interview with Doug Holder

Interview with Doug Holder

 Katrin Schumann writes on her website:

frontgazesmallcroppedI was born in Germany, but grew up in Brooklyn and London. As a child, I loved listening to my family’s stories—of war and death and love gone wrong—and later I would rewrite them in my head, filling in the details, the motives, and making up new endings. Soon I started writing my stories down and I’ve never stopped.
At some level, family and community is what all my work is about. Everywhere I look there are stories to tell. In my professional life as a writer, editor, and teacher, I work with stories across various genres. My most recent book, The Secret Power of Middle Children (Hudson St/Penguin), is the first nonfiction exploration of the benefits of being stuck in the middle. My current works-in-progress include a book on parenting strategies that can make or break children born into wealth, and a novel about forbidden love and a family torn apart by the division of Germany at the end of WWII. To read an excerpt, click here.

My work has been featured multiple times on the TODAY show and in Woman’s DayThe Times (UK) and on NPR, as well as other national and international media. Early in my career, I was granted the Kogan Media Award for my work at National Public Radio, and as a student, I received academic scholarships to Oxford and Stanford Universities. More recently I’ve been awarded writing residencies at the VCCA, the Norman Mailer Writers Colony and Vermont Studio Center. I live near Boston with my husband and three teenagers, and frequently return to Europe to gather more family stories.

I had the pleasure to interview Katrin on my Somerville Public TV show Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer: 

Doug Holder: You grew up in Germany, London and Brooklyn, N.Y. These are quite disparate places. How do you feel this affected you as a writer, and in general?

Katrin Schumann: I think about that quite frequently. Because when we were living in Brooklyn, (it was entirely accidental that we landed there), it wasn’t the kind of place that it is now. And in fact we lived in Brooklyn Heights which was still pretty gritty. The class I was in at PS8—well, it turned out I was one of the only two white kids in the class. From that experience—and the exclusive girl school I went to in London—I have an eclectic background. In London there was only one Jewish kid in the school I went to—it was quite a change from Brooklyn. So as a result I am interested in everyone’s story. People made a lot of assumptions about me, particularly in London. This could be tough. In London I was the rich, private school girl with an American accent. I had to deal with the dumb American stereotype, and since I am German—the Nazi references. I was a quiet, reader type of girl. I learned from all  this not to jump to conclusions about people.

DH: I read in an interview of you in a Grub Street newsletter that the strangest place you have ever worked was a prison. Can you expand on this?

KS: What I found strange about it was my own reaction to it. I had to look at my assumptions and question them. I ran a writing workshop with women inmates at the correction facility at Framingham, Mass. The women are really energized there, ready to tell their stories, and work with the PEN volunteers. Storytelling is a very good way to express themselves and gain respect. The inmates have stories—we talk about the way they tell their story, not what they did to get themselves into prison. We never talk about why they are where they are—the reading and writing is what we talk about.

DH: You are working on a project exploring the challenges very privileged kids have in today’s society.

KS: I started a book project—the focus is what messages you should give to these children of the very wealthy so that they grow up with purpose, balance and success. I find they are either under parented or over parented. I came to realize these problems are experienced by kids in general. It affects the middle class and poor families.  Even poor families can’t say no to their kids. All families don’t want their kids to fail or suffer. If you never fail you will never know if you can pick yourself up. Failure can be a gift.

DH: You have a new book out The Secret Power of Middle Children. When I was born in the 1950s, and as a young boy, I never heard of this birth order controversy.

KS: Birth order has become very popular. It is true that middle children exhibit a lot of angst about being the middle child. They complain that no one pays attention to them because they don’t have that coveted position of the firstborn. And they don’t realize the negatives that come with that coveted position. They are expected to deal with things on their own. The middle child is considered the least popular. The adjectives used to describe them are: spoiled, quiet, etc… Firstborns are seen as more ambitious. I find when I am developing characters in my own work birth order can help me flesh them out better.

DH: You are an editor, and help folks with their manuscripts. You said in an interview that is hard to tell your clients that their characters are not “rich” enough. How do you make a stick figure into a fully realized creation?

KS: You have to create the full picture of the human being. Get the mannerisms, intonation, and dialogue down. You have the power of a writer to pick the right detail.

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