Community Spotlight: Karen Munro

Part of an ongoing series highlighting the amazing people in the Portland creative community.

Karen Munro is a writer and a librarian who tries to read 50 books a year. Her tweet from the Anna Telcs talk was, appropriately, about her bibliography.

See Ashley Courter’s photos in all their glory on Flickr and check the interview below.

You describe yourself as “a reader, a writer, and a librarian-about-town.” I’m interested in why you chose that order.

I think I have that phrase on my Twitter profile—and on Twitter you have to be describe yourself pretty selectively!  But I think the order just falls out that way.  You start out by reading.  If it clicks, if you’re a reader, you probably read everything you can get your hands on.  Then you start to think, I could do this.  I could make a story like this.  So you start writing.  And then you realize just how many stories there are in the world, and maybe your mind turns toward questions of collecting and organizing them…and then the next thing you know you’re making a life out of stacking stories on shelves.  (Digital shelves, maybe, but still.)

What are you reading these days?

I try to read fifty books a year, but I’m probably not going to make it this year.  I started reading submissions for a literary journal, which has cut into my general reading time.  I will say, there’s nothing like tracking your books to help you realize that you can only read so much, and that you have to find the books you love.  

This year has really been the year of the debut.  I’m stealing that from Lincoln Michel, the editor of Electric Literature—but it’s true.  There have been so many amazing first and almost-first books—books that broke out for their author in a big way after an earlier book had quieter success.

One of my favorites is Smith Henderson’s debut novel Fourth of July Creek.  It’s about a social worker in Montana in the 1980s, who gets wrapped up with trying to help an off-the-grid fundamentalist family.  It’s beautiful and rugged and tragic and just so deeply felt and written.  Everyone should go to Powell’s and get a copy.  It’s really great.

I also really loved Evie Wyld’s second novel, All the Birds, Singing.  It’s about an Australian woman working as a shepherd in Scotland, living a rough life and grappling with ghosts from her past. It’s Wyld’s second novel and it won a major Australian book award, the Miles Franklin, in an upset over much more established writers.  And the US edition has one of the best covers of the year.  

I’m currently in the middle of Rene Denfeld’s The Enchanted, which is an amazing first novel about a woman working to save a man on death row. It reads half like a fairy tale, and half like a horror story.  Both Denfeld and Henderson are Portland authors writing from experience in tough worlds—Henderson was a social worker and Denfeld is a death penalty investigator.  It’s great to see them getting national acclaim for their work. 

Is being a librarian connected to your other work, or does it feel separate?

I started out as a literature librarian, buying literature and criticism and working with the university’s literature departments.  Back then the ties between my day job and my writing life were a little more transparent.  I’ve since changed tracks, and now I work a lot with architecture and design students and faculty.  

I actually really like the lateral connections—working with creative, interesting people who are primarily visual and sometimes numeric, rather than wordy.  I learn a lot.  I think there are still plenty of connections between my job and my personal creative life, in terms of energy and drive—but they’re more submerged now, and I like that.

Why the fascination with scary stories?

Oh, great question! I love scary stories, and on a whim this year I started a “scary story service,” where I emailed a scary story to interested readers every day in October.  Not stories that I wrote, but stories by amazing writers like Angela Carter and Yoko Ogawa and Ambrose Bierce and Brian Evenson. Anyone who’s interested in the collection can see it here—and sign up for 2015 if you want to.   

It was so much fun to do—searching for great stories on the Internet, mixing older, classic stories with more modern ones, and just generally curating my own personal collection of what I appreciate about the genre.  I like artfully-told tales with a dark cast to them.  This may have to do with having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, which is dark so much of the year.  Or it may have to do with having cut my reading teeth on Stephen King, who really had his cultural heyday in the 1980s and 1990s.  

Or it might be because I’m secretly Canadian, and Margaret Atwood established a long time ago that Canadian culture is basically all about survival.  Canadians have, from one point of view, a very gothic, horror-genre cast of mind.  I grew up in a mild part of the country, but in school we still learned to recite The Cremation of Sam McGee, which is a wonderful poem about freezing to death in the Yukon.  Canadians are mild-mannered people, but we know where our chainsaws are.  

In terms of your own writing, what are you working on these days?

I write fiction, which is another way of saying that I roll a big stone up an endless hill.  After many years of work, I recently put some of my stories together into something resembling a collection, which I’m now nitpicking.  It was a great exercise, actually.  I sent a first draft to my wife and she read it and said it should be titled, “Wings, Water, Love, and Death.”  She was kidding…but then we went through it together, and I was amazed.  So many wings!  So much water!  I had no idea that I repeated those themes so much.  I kind of love that title, but she vetoed it.  Fortunately.

And then at the same time, I’m getting serious with the novel that I’ve been working on for a long time.  It involves water, but no wings.  So far.