Katey Schultz went to college to study philosophy and become a memoirist. Then one day, out of nowhere, one short sentence popped into her mind.
Jet was bull tired, hound dog tired.
And that sent her down a rabbit hole, one sentence, one story at a time, into the world of fiction.
“Nonfiction is always there for me. It’s how I make sense of the world, through journaling or writing personal essays that might never leave my own desk,” Schultz said. “But fiction was enthralling because I could ask questions and imagine answers with precision and heart, so sort of combine my imagination with research, and then find the middle ground of realist literary fiction where, in some ways, the truths I was writing in fiction were truer than real life.”
This self-dissection, analysis and takeaway come so naturally to Schultz, who soaks her writing in such detail that even the smallest narrative observations evoke emotional weight.
After hustling to win fans across the country with her debut collection of short stories, Schultz is giving life to her debut novel, called “Still Come Home.” She’s reading from “Still Come Home” 6pm Wednesday at Malaprop’s Books in Asheville.
Her published short story collection and novel turn on the backdrop of America’s perpetual war on terror to challenge readers’ assumptions about character and personal ethics while giving rise to universal desires.
“If you’re writing contemporary realist fiction today, in some sense, if you’re not giving a nod to the global war on terror, if you’re not giving a nod to climate change, the way technology is changing human culture and interaction, you’re not really writing realistic fiction,” Schultz said. “We have to evolve alongside if we’re going to write compelling work that holds a mirror up to the human predicament.”
Schultz grew up backpacking and playing soccer and rugby in Portland, Ore., and her parents were English majors who instilled in Schultz a respect for the discipline and deep work that goes into writing.
A teaching job at Arthur Morgan School in Burnsville brought Schultz to Western North Carolina. Two years later, her parents moved from Portland to join her on the Arthur Morgan staff. But a different calling compelled Schultz to leave her job.
She traveled the country for most of the next three years, from writing residency to writing residency, in a 1989 Volvo wagon. Through those residencies and nagging thoughts about the war on terror, Schultz wrote the stories that became the short story collection “Flashes of War.”
She lives in the unincorporated town of Celo with her husband and 2½-year-old son and does most of her writing from an Airstream trailer on blocks.
“The language we use as a country around the global war on terror is pretty intense, and it’s changing words like patriot, or it’s bringing a word like jihadist or phrases like IED into the everyday usage,” she said. “And that changes how we think. It changes culture. It changes how our brains develop. My cousins were coming of age during this and I thought what is that going to mean for them. How does that change how they see the world compared to how I saw it?”
Schultz informed and fortified the writing through deep research into the minutiae of military life and life in the Middle East. She financed her own nationwide book tour and, ultimately, won praise from readers with military backgrounds for her vivid, realistic portrayals.
“I’m really interested in what the truest or most authentic action for a person can be,” she said. “The philosophy major in me really believes if you put a person into a situation where they can do everything right and still be wrong, you force them into a new ethics. In fact, what a person does in that impossible situation is actually their most authentic action ever.”
Moving from short stories to writing a novel — writing long, as Schultz called it — presented new challenges. She revised her book five times and needed three more drafts to refine it. Even after that meticulous work, Schultz suffered through several years of rejection before selling her novel to a publishing house wholly run by university students.
[Q7] It was really just four or five years in the abyss of self-doubt and peak moments of believing in what I was doing, then self-doubt again and peak moments.
While building her own literary career, Schultz has built a following and clientele as a writing coach focusing on opening up one’s creative channels. She’s also working on another collection of short stories.
“I have absolutely no interest in being a literary activist in the publishing world,” she said. “But I can find my own way by making a model that’s sustainable and that pays me what I deserve and supports my family, too.”