Interview with Kristen J. Tsetsi – CONTEST CLOSED

The following interview was conducted by Backword Books member and Threshold author Bonnie Kozek. At the end of the interview you’ll find out how you can enter to win a signed copy of Homefront and a PDF of Tsetsi’s short fiction collection Carol’s Aquarium.

Kristen J. Tsetsi’s debut novel Homefront was published in 2007. Critics have said that the prose is exquisite, the mood heartbreaking.  They have said that it reads like a long-form haiku written by Charles Bukowski in collaboration with Ann Beattie, and that every paragraph is a stand-alone gem of insight and observation.  In itself, this was enough to arouse my curiosity.  But, when I read in her bio that it annoyed her dad that she was reading Archie comics so much that he asked, “What could you possibly learn from comic books?” and she answered, “I learned the word disgruntled,” well, I just couldn’t resist asking her a few questions.

kris-in-grassBonnie Kozek:  You’ve created an interesting cast of characters.  Without upsetting any of them, do you have particular favorites?

Kristen J. Tsetsi: Donny Donaldson, the Vietnam vet, is a favorite for two reasons: he’s funny by accident, and he’s one of those characters who says things you’re not supposed to say in polite society (back when there was a “polite society,” I mean). And he’s unpredictable – he’ll go from gentle to nasty in half a second – which makes him appealing, too.

Another favorite is Denise, even though she’s not an obvious favorite. (People tend to take issue with her choices.)  I really enjoy her bluntness and her fearless ability to face and accept – and, sure, insensitively point out to others – reality as it is.

BK: The subject of military separation lends itself to gravity and heartache.  Yet, you’re funny.  And the book is darkly humorous. I think you need to explain yourself!

KJT:  Military separation is so supremely dark and heavy by itself –  it really needs no help – that to write about that, and only that, would have sent me to the bottom of a bottle of something, both out of depression and sheer boredom. It would have done the same to readers.

There’s more happening in Homefront than the deployment itself, just like in movies and books about soldiers. In those movies, we don’t only see things exploding and people fighting—we get to know the characters and their lives and stories as they exist in that war environment. Homefront is the same way. There’s a whole story, a series of lives, affected by this big, huge, powerful, antagonist that is WAR. It hangs around in the background and influences the way Mia and the other characters behave in, and respond to, the world and each other…but they still have their real-life moments of fun and/or funny mistakes. The characters – Mia (protagonist, and Jake’s cab-driving girlfriend), Jake (deployed soldier), Olivia (Jake’s overbearing and morbid mother), erratic Vietnam vet Donny Donaldson, “seasoned” Army wife Denise, the hippie downstairs neighbors who urge Mia to attend a war protest, and anti-war soldier Brian – have their own personal conflicts with one another, and with themselves internally, under this war canopy.

While some of the humor in Homefront comes as a result of awkwardness between characters (Mia very inappropriately smiles at someone else’s extraordinarily bad news, for example) or the simple lightness of a moment, Donny Donaldson is probably the most entertaining as a character.

BK:   Does a person have to be in the military or waiting for someone to come home from war to enjoy readingPrint the book?  I mean, do you think someone like Dick Cheney, for instance, would relate?

KJT:  You absolutely don’t have to have any connection to the military to relate to, or enjoy, Homefront. Many of the situations at their core contain universal themes we’ve all seen before, but that are approached in Homefront (as they are in any novel) in a way that is unique to the book and its characters.

Love: Mia and Jake are the primary lovers, but they’re in conflict before Jake leaves for Iraq, and that conflict doesn’t disappear when he goes. Being in conflict while knowing any word said could be the last makes for an awkward, confusing, and torturous separation. You know how you feel when you want to take back something you said to someone? When your stomach twists and you get sweaty and it doesn’t go away until you call to explain what you really meant? Well, you can’t just call someone when they’re deployed. You just get to sit on that feeling for a while, but that feeling is multiplied by “he could die before I get a chance to explain and make things right.”

Hate: There’s plenty to go around. Donny hates that he never came “home” from Vietnam, and consequently, he hates most people. Mia hates people who are happy, hates soldiers who didn’t have to deploy, and hates Denise for being Denise.

Uncomfortable truth:  Denise is best at pointing out the way things are, even if the way things are isn’t the way we think they should be (or like to fool ourselves into thinking they are).

Guilt: Having the person you love in what you perceive to be constant imminent mortal danger allows plenty of opportunity for guilt. While looking for longer than one second at an attractive person, say. Or after sending an email that should have been deleted. Or after realizing you stopped thinking, for a few seconds, about the person in imminent mortal danger because you were really hungry for the fried chicken at the drive-through.

Friendship: The friendships in Homefront are not friendships that would have occurred outside of the deployment—they’re based on things like desperation, mutual need, and convenience. As such, they’re both stronger and more fragile than friendships made in regular, everyday life. They’re also more unexpected.

Envy: Mia envies Denise for reasons best read, and while hippie Safia isn’t shy when it comes to sharing her feelings about the war, she isn’t personally affected by it and is able to float and sway (obnoxiously) through life in a way Mia wishes she could.

Lust: I’m not telling.

Growth: There is growth, but not in the expected directions or from the expected characters.

There is a lot going on that has absolutely nothing to do with war except for the fact that the characters are all connected and affected by it. The psychological and emotional experience that isn’t so universal is the one specific to having a loved one at war, but that part is written in such a way that readers will feel like they’re experiencing it, themselves. It’ll become familiar real quick-like.

BK:  Are those billiard balls on the cover?  They appear to be smiling. But there’s one that looks, well, different.  Can you explain?

KJT: I think they’re candies. Like M&Ms, maybe. I’m not sure, though. And yes, they’re all smiling. The bullet-hole smile represents Mia, or anyone who, on the surface, looks like they’re “normal” but who’s not quite like the others. That bullet-hole smile is every person waiting right now for the person they love to make it home. They may be smiling, but somewhere in them is this deep, gaping hole of constant dread and anxiety and confusion and frustration making their world sit at a kind of tilt.

BK:  I think it’s safe to say that the majority of those waiting for a loved one to return home from war are women.  And your main character is a woman.  What has the response been from male readers?

KJT: Men have had an incredibly strong reaction to Homefront. Women enjoy it, but men are affected by it. I don’t know if it’s because they can relate to Donny, or if it’s because they’re introduced to women in a new way, or if it’s because they feel like they’ve known these people or the individual experiences they have. I can’t say. But men are really, really affected by it. And I love that.

BK:  I also need to ask about the response from female readers.  What feedback have you received?

KJT: Women who have someone in the military have said Homefront captures the experience (the emotions, the thoughts they don’t want to tell anyone they have, the surreal and numb quality that comes with being in a state of torturous limbo) perfectly. Those without someone in the military are drawn to the relationships and the characters, their dialogue with one another, the tension, the touching and funny and angering moments, and to the real-ness of Mia. I think they like that she’s not one of those typical women you read about – the ones who do the things you think they should do, like take showers, practice self-control, or act like whatever a “lady” is. Mia is, without going overboard, someone who represents who we are when we’re just in a damn bad mood. (And, to be honest, I should say that some people who like the book don’t always necessarily like Mia as a person.)

BK:  Is there a particular scene or sentence in the book that gives potential readers the essence of what’s in store for them?

KJT: There’s a passage with Mia that’s probably a good example of the story’s tone. (To set the scene a little bit – Mia is a cab driver, and Shellie is the cab dispatcher. Lenny is a night driver who hates Mia. In this scene, Mia is sitting in her cab getting high under a tree when she should be driving to pick up her next fare).

Shellie calls for me over the radio and I take another hit from the joint I bought from Lenny during this morning’s shift change.  “At least this time you’re payin’ for it,” he said.

“Miss Mia.  Where you at, girl?”

I pick up the radio and push the button and say, “Pshhchk,” and set it back on its base.

BK:  Homefront has received tremendous critical acclaim.  Has it gone to your head?

KJT:  Absolutely. I’m not even sure why I’m talking to you.

BK:  You describe Homefront as being semi-autographical.  I’m trying to figure out the “semi” part of that word.  So, which one of the following haven’t you been:  English professor, cab driver, unpredictable alcoholic Vietnam Vet, anti-war soldier, or morbid mother-in-law?

KJT: I haven’t been a veteran, an anti-war soldier, or a morbid mother in-law. There are a lot of things Mia does (or doesn’t do) that I’ve never done (or did do…?). I’m not Mia (hear that, Dad and [uncle] Larry?), but I did write Homefront after Ian, my husband, came home from Iraq, and I drew from every emotional experience I had while he was gone to make it as real and relatable as it is in Homefront. Ninety-seven percent of the details in Homefront (minus the war timeline) are fictional, but the story – the heart, what readers feel and come away with – is absolutely true.

BK:  How many ideas for books are going on in your head right now? And, what’s next?

KJT: Three ideas: 1. a collection of tied-together short stories 2. maybe another Mia book, and 3. the novel I’m working on now, The Year of Dan Palace (which also answers “What’s next?”).

BK: As a writer, are there things you won’t talk about? Is there a question that’s too private to answer? If so, what’s that question?

KJT: Things I won’t talk about as a writer…probably disease or serious mental illness. They’re just not interesting to me as story subjects. (However, I really do love the movie Terms of Endearment…but that’s because the characters are so rich, and because there’s a lot more going on than just the cancer. It makes me think of Homefront, in that way – in ToE, the cancer is clearly there just as Homefront’s war is, but the cancer, like the war, is not the whole story even if it affects everything about the story.)

And, is there a question too private to answer? I don’t think so. There hasn’t been a question yet that I’ve been afraid to answer. In fact, I usually feel like no question is private enough. Any time someone says, “Can I ask you something personal?” I get excited because I think, “Oooh, this is going to be juicy,” and I usually end up being disappointed.

BK: As it turns out, KJT is even more precocious — and charming — than I suspected.  Find out for yourself by reading Homefront and following Kristen’s blog at http://kristentsetsi.wordpress.com.

And now…the win-a-signed-copy-of-Homefront and PDF of Carol’s Aquarium rules:

1. In the comments section, ask your own interview question that has something to do with Homefront.  Don’t be afraid to get personal. (You don’t have to get personal, however. If you’re curious about something fairly impersonal, you can ask that, too.)

2. In Homefront, Mia lives in a small apartment readers come to know fairly well. After asking your question, name a room you’d find in a house (not a closet – a room), and if you guess the correct one, you’ll win a signed copy of Homefront and Kristen will email you a PDF of Carol’s Aquarium. NOTE: Be sure to read other responses to avoid double-guessing. (A house was chosen instead of an apartment because there are too few rooms in an apartment for the contest to go beyond four guesses.)

FINAL DAY OF THE CONTEST IS THURSDAY, OCT. 29.

Good luck, and have fun!

[Friday: Andrew Kent, author of the Johnny Denovo mysteries, interviews Waiting for Spring author R. J. Keller.]

About Kristen

http://kristenjtsetsi.com
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28 Responses to Interview with Kristen J. Tsetsi – CONTEST CLOSED

  1. Lorraine says:

    1)Do your characters still live in your head after you have written a book, how do you move on to the next book and start fresh after living with these characters for so long?

    2)Bathroom

  2. Kristen says:

    Lorraine –

    They still live in my head. They’re like people I knew once – very well – but haven’t seen in a long time.

    However, when I start something new they’re easy to let go of creatively. I think this is because they can only exist in the world they inhabit, and once I leave that world to create a new one, they just don’t fit in the new one. They just don’t make sense there.

    Once the story ends, it ends. (For me.)

    Thanks for the interesting question!

  3. Shannon Kinney says:

    I looked at your book on Amazon.com and read the review from Red Adept. Not having read it myself yet, I’m wondering how you answer the statement that the ending is “abrupt and unsatisfying.”

    Dining room

  4. Kristen says:

    Shannon – I’m so (very) happy you asked that. Thank you.

    I answer it by agreeing that it’s abrupt, but not that it’s unsatisfying.

    Red Adept and other readers are, of course, perfectly welcome to use the word “unsatisfying,” but I’ve found that those who perceive it that way are readers of a different kind of fiction.

    The style of “Homefront” is one that, throughout, reflects the mood and experience of the character. If she’s drunk, the writing reflects it. (Not with bad spelling, but with the rhythm and speed and word choice.) If she’s bored, the writing reflects it. Any time the energy changes, so does the pace and the tone of the writing.

    Something happens at the end that warrants abruptness in the writing. It’s very possible that someone looking for a clearer or more drawn out ending would find that unsatisfying.

    (As with most endings of novels, some will be unsatisfied, and some will love it. I didn’t like the end of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” for example, but many others were happy with it. I’ve received both reactions to “Homefront” – a few readers didn’t get it, a few enjoyed it, and one said it was one of the more satisfying endings he’s read in a while. It’s a matter of personal style preference, I think.)

  5. No need to enter me, ladies. This was a great interview.

    Kristen, thanks for the e-mail. I’ve got this posted at Win a Book for you.

  6. Pam R. says:

    How do you come up with names for your characters? Is there meaning behind their names?

    Hmmmm…laundry room (one of my least favourite!)

  7. Kristen says:

    Pam –

    Fun question.

    Sometimes there’s meaning in the names I pick. I have a book of baby names I’ll look through, at times, when I either very much want the name to have a specific – but not obvious – meaning, or when I want to know what the meaning is in case the name I pick is nothing like my character.

    More often than not, though, what’s most important to me is choosing names that don’t sound fictional. Sometimes I’ll read a book whose characters have names that take my attention away from the story because something about them just SOUNDS fictional, and I want to be sure the names I pick don’t do that.

    (Funny – I was just looking up a name to try to remember whether I chose it on purpose for its meaning, and I didn’t. But the meaning fits once you reach a scene in “Homefront.” Denise is the female version of Dennis, and Dennis means “god of wine.”)

  8. Shauna Walz says:

    Is it harder to start a new story or to end a story?

    Attic.

  9. Ian says:

    The most interesting thing about a book is obviously the writer. Could you tell me what interests you about yourself? (And I understand the most interesting thing about any writer is the fact that they write, so that answer is acceptable.)

  10. Kristen says:

    Shauna – this’ll sound insincere because I keep saying it to people, but I love your question! I love all these questions.

    For me, the start and the finish have always been the easiest parts. It’s the middle bit that trips me up. The slogging through how-to-get-from-here-to-there. It can be daunting, filling that many pages with words. I used to write short stories almost exclusively (stepping aside now and then to write a play or a screenplay), and because short stories are kind of like excerpted climaxes of a larger story, a lot less filler is (obviously) required.

    Books are probably 70% filler. Good filler, important filler, but still filler taking you from the beginning to the end. Lots of words. Lots and lots of words. Scary, pressure-filled words…

    (Is it obvious I’m afraid of the book I’m writing now?)

  11. Kristen says:

    Ian –

    Clearly you don’t know how to follow rules. That, or you’re not interested in receiving yet another copy of the book you already have on your shelf downstairs. I couldn’t help but notice you didn’t include a room in a house as part of the contest.

    I can only assume from your question, then, that you are (as you should be) genuinely fascinated by writers. But you did answer your own question – the most most interesting thing about myself is, yes, that I’m a writer.

    By the way – thanks for deploying & giving me a story. ;)

    (P.S. To people who aren’t Ian – Jake, while loosely based on Ian in some parts, is quite different from Ian, mine dashing husband upon whose deployment the story of “Homefront” is based.)

  12. Jennifer Eddy says:

    I know you’re thinking of maybe writing another Mia book. Not necessarily elaborating on Jake or Donny’s character, have you thought about writing entirely from a soldier’s point of view, either male or female, and the issues they have before or especially after they come back from a deployment?

    Kitchen

  13. Kristen says:

    Hi, Jennifer -

    I actually hadn’t thought about that. There are some subjects that are so emotionally and psychologically complex and important that they should be reserved for those who have been through the experience personally and have the authority to write about it.

    There are, however, a number of books out there about soldiers in various stages of their careers if you’d like to read one. I very, very, very highly recommend Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.”

  14. My first response was “It’s pretty hard to ask an interview question about a book I haven’t read,” but then I realized every time I’ve thought about this book, I’ve had the same question in my mind.

    I’ve never been a spouse left at home when someone went off to war, but four of my six children are in the US military, and among the bunch of them, they’ve done five tours in war zones.

    Does your book address, directly or indirectly, anything about the plight of parents who are maintaining their own homefronts?

    Thank you.

  15. Sorry, I forgot the room-guessing part. Well, my house only has three rooms: the kitchen, the office, and “the other room.” It’s like today, yesterday, and “the other day.” So, uh, office.

  16. Kristen says:

    Levi – actually, yes. It’s not the primary focus, but Olivia, the mother of Jake (the deployed soldier), is one of the main characters. And although we see her through Mia’s eyes (and so, not always in the best light because Mia finds her difficult to deal with), we also get a glimpse into how hard the experience is for her, and how challenging it can be to try to balance caring and worrying with trying not to intrude on the life of the romantic partners.

    (Did you want to enter the contest for the book? If so, don’t forget to pick a room. :) )

  17. Kristen says:

    Ha! you beat me to it. Sorry – I didn’t see that.

  18. John McCormick says:

    Hmm, having such an involvement with deconstructing the story as I did, it’s difficult to come up with a question that I haven’t already found the answer to. However, one question remains. Living the military lifestyle, there are certain things one goes through, putting up barriers and defense mechanisms to make the trials and tribulations easier to deal with as you’re dealing with them. Seeing that the book was even slightly auto-biographical, was there anything you addressed in Homefront that made you readdress trying times that you had less defense for when writing than when you experienced it?

    Den

  19. Kristen says:

    John – the whole “not knowing” thing is difficult to build up defenses for. I only know this because of a family member’s stay in ICU last year and the difficulty processing the idea that he might actually die. In truth, I felt through that experience much the same way I felt during Ian’s deployment: numb, breakable, and strangely old. (Hard to explain.)

    If anything, what was readdressed during that trying time was how to handle being in a state of powerless limbo. As much as there is to fear, you never know until you know. And knowing that helped me hold onto the feelings of positivity, the “I know he’ll be okay” thoughts that would break through every now and then.

    I hope this answers the question…

  20. karen k says:

    What are you working on currently?

    I’ll choose for my room: the library.

    Would love to read this book…thanks for the opportunity.

  21. Kristen says:

    Hi, Karen!

    I’m working on another novel, “The Year of Dan Palace.” In fact, starting Nov.1 I’m disappearing from the internet for a month to finish it during NaNoWriNo. (I know the point is to start and finish a complete novel, but I figure I’ll just use it to finish the one I already started.)

    Thanks for entering. :)

  22. Jennifer McLeod says:

    How do you think your book does or does not relate to families with children or special needs family members. Sometimes spouses are left behind to care for family members of those deployed…clearly that would change the experience. Do you think your book relates to everyone in some way? Would you consider writing a book based on the experiences of those who have extenuating circumstances beyond “just a deployment”

    I guess I pick the laundry room…where I spend most of my time!

  23. 1. As a writer I know the writing process is full of ups and downs and you sometimes feel like you’re on a roller coaster during the creation of the work. There are those moments of extreme triumph when you feel like you should be taking a victory lap fist pumping the whole way ’round and those moments of despair when you doubt the words on the page, and in the really bad moments, your ability as a writer. During the creation of Homefront, what was the best moment of triumph and the worst moment of despair for you?

    2. Mud room

  24. Kristen says:

    Jennifer – First, I need to say that it can be difficult to pay adequate attention to too many complex subjects at once, and when I wrote “Homefront,” I intended to focus on the experience of having the love of your life deploy. I think many underestimate the power and pain of this experience, and I wanted to share it.

    I also don’t have the background that would enable me to write about what it’s like to care for special needs children (or any children) in the way it deserves. Something like that should be written about by someone who has lived it and can properly empathize with others in that situation.

    Even so, I do think “Homefront” relates to everyone in some way. If you’re in a romantic relationship and your partner deploys, whether or not you’re left caring for someone else you still have that connection with the person outside of those you’re caring for. It’s unique to you two, and it’s separate – it’s a romantic love only you two share.

    There are many different things people go through during a deployment, and each is unique to the family situation. But I don’t think there’s ever such a thing as “just a deployment.”

  25. Kristen says:

    LK – ooh…

    Best moment of triumph: I really, really enjoyed a scene between Denise and Mia that I can’t go into here. It’s a series of very brief moments that did exactly what I wanted it to do, and without my having to revise much of it at all. I was proud of that.

    Worst moment of despair: There were several scenes between Mia and Donny that would leave me stuck. They needed to be there, but I would sometimes have a hard time getting around to the point of them. There were a few times I wondered if I knew what I was doing if I was sticking in all these pointless scenes, but then, when I wasn’t consciously thinking about it, it would come to me. “This happens because of that, and that is supremely important to this other thing!”

    And then I’d have another moment of triumph. ;)

    Followed, inevitably, by another moment of despair when the next scene just wouldn’t come…

  26. Jill Uyehara says:

    Does your book address PTSD in any way?

    Bedroom

  27. Kristen says:

    Jill – It doesn’t, no. I know how important a topic that is, though. If you visit the following link, you’ll see a list of the top ten PTSD books (as listed on Amazon.com).

    http://www.amazon.com/Top-10-PTSD-books/lm/V2D4HC79V3V1

  28. Kristen says:

    WINNER: Shannon Kinney.

    Please send your contact info to kjt AT kristentsetsi DOT com and I’ll send you your book. Congratulations!

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