Get your slice of writing pie

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Pies made Karen’s stories a household name

I once heard that writing is like a pie eating contest where the prize is more pie. Long ago, Karen Stolz was a mentor to me in the earliest days of my fiction career. She evaluated my submission pieces for my unsuccessful application to Texas State’s MFA program, for example. She even wrote me a recommendation letter, calling me “ardent.” I’d taken her Advanced Fiction course in the springtime before that application. Lucky me.

Karen also published a very successful novel in stories, The World of Pies. Hyperion published it (yeah, the imprint that Disney owns). It sold more than 65,000 copies, which you’d think might be enough to propel anything further in an author’s career. She got a second deal out of the success, a two-book contract with an option on the second book.

In the springtime after World of Pies made its splash, Karen worked with the Writer’s League of Texas to mount a weekend conference, Fiction Matters. She had great authors for speakers and it was a lively time at the old Red Lion Inn alongside I-35 in Austin. Ann Patchett was the keynoter, so there was that.

There was also the moment of the keynote when Ann was holding forth on the state of fiction’s various forms, as one does. While Karen was standing in the room with her novel in stories success in hand, Patchett said, “and then there’s the novel in stories, a loathsome form if there ever was one.”

Grace under fire

In the wake of that, Karen was gracious and said nothing — but those of us who knew her book better than Ann did looked toward Karen. Implacable, as the classy lady she was, she only smiled. It’s not difficult to say that Karen’s book may have already outsold Ann’s seminal novel Bel Canto at the time. After all, World of Pies had pie recipes in every chapter. It was also as honest, forthright, and touching a debut as anybody could create after raising a son on her own, working from the Iowa MFA that you surely need for good parenthood.

More than twenty years earlier, Karen had a short story published in Playgirl, a credit she made a part of her clippings file. That’s a pro, working, getting bylines anywhere she can.

Bel Canto won the Orange Prize and the Pen/Faulkner and is as far from a novel in stories as anything you could imagine. Of course, another 15 years later Olive Kitteridge won the Pulitzer for its novel in stories — so maybe it’s not the form that is loathsome after all. Usually, like pies, it’s a matter of taste.

I say, tell those stories. It’s not the form, is it? It’s the storytelling. I lift a glass to Karen around this time of year. She died of heart failure at age 54. Publish now — you can never be sure how long or short your life story will be.

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