Next Chapters: Karen Wilfrid

Next Chapters is a biweekly feature spotlighting graduates of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program, which has been running since 2010.

Novel Incubator Year: 10

Current Project: forthcoming middle grade novel Just Lizzie about a teenage girl discovering her asexual identity

credit: John Pelletier

Tell us about a book you can’t stop talking or thinking about.

I love the book Lizard Radio by Pat Schmatz, and I am always on the lookout for students who would enjoy it. I think it was ahead of its time (2015) in featuring a nonbinary character in a dystopian world where young people are tested to make sure they score as clearly one gender or the other, and those who don’t are sent to rural camps which are their last chance to learn to perform one gendered role or the other. Kivali, the main character, finds themself at one of these camps, falls in love, questions authority, and comes to realize that none of us is entirely one thing or the other.

When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I always wanted to be a writer! For as long as I can remember, I enjoyed telling stories, and I was dictating books for my parents to write down before I could write myself. The highlight of first grade for me was “story time” when my teacher, Mrs. Jones, would let me sit in her comfy chair and read my stories aloud to the class.

At various times, I contemplated the following side gigs: artist, illustrator, ice skater, clarinetist, firefighter, inventor, car designer, and brain surgeon.

Share a time when something you wrote embarrassed you or caused you regret. How about when something you wrote brought you or others joy?

In fifth grade, my class went on a camping trip. The first night, the teachers stayed up late talking and laughing down the hall and kept the girls in my bunk awake. The next morning, I wrote and circulated a petition asking the adults to quiet down. I deliberately avoided cursive so my teacher wouldn’t know who had written it, but almost immediately I heard him say, “I know this handwriting… WHERE’S KAREN?!?!” I ran and hid until some of the other girls assured me he wasn’t actually mad. (And the adults were quieter that night!)

As for joy: One of the handy things about being a writer is that you can give your writing as a gift! Over the years, I have enjoyed writing poems and speeches for staff leaving my school, and back when I was still a student, I used to write stories at the end of the school year featuring all my classmates on a wacky adventure. It’s a rewarding and gratifying way to share with people what you love about them!

How do you overcome imposter syndrome?

I definitely deal with my fair share of impostor syndrome, and the people who most help me overcome it are in my writing group developed out of a GrubStreet Novel in Progress class with Ursula DeYoung. We’ve been together for almost seven years now. Whenever I come to workshop thinking I am the worst, or I’ve fallen behind, or my writing is a mess, they buoy me and give me the confidence and the inspiration to continue.

What surprised you most about the publishing process?

After working on my novel for years, I didn’t anticipate the “this is really it” pressure of the final stages of revision, editing, and copyediting. It’s amazing and humbling to know that (hopefully) thousands of people will be reading my words—but it’s also terrifying to realize that those thousands of people will also be seeing whichever photograph I choose as my author photo and whatever three sentences I choose as my bio. And sending off your final manuscript is a different kind of pressure than revising and awaiting feedback for what you will have to change again. I experienced more paralysis than I expected when I realized the edits I was making were the final, final edits, and if there was a detail or a sentence I wasn’t perfectly happy with, there was no more falling back on “It’s fine for now” or “I’ll go back and think of something later.” It’s a different mindset.

What is your favorite punctuation mark? Why?

Definitely the em-dash. My mom wrote her college admissions essay on the value of the em-dash, and I think I inherited that love from her. I think it beautifully captures the natural rhythm of speech and thought, and it has the subtlety and complexity to mean so many different things. I might rely on it too much, but I’ve made my peace with that!

Karen Wilfrid is a writer and seventh-grade English teacher based in Newton, Massachusetts. After receiving her B.A. in Creative Writing and Spanish from Oberlin College, she spent two years on a Fulbright teaching fellowship in Cantabria, Spain. She is a graduate of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator Program and her first novel, Just Lizzie, is coming out in November 2023 with HarperCollins-Clarion.

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