Tamara Linse didn’t do anything the easy way. She spent her youth steeped in the patriarchy of a Wyoming ranch (as a result, she calls herself a “recovering ranch girl”) before attending the University of Wyoming, where, after taking a women’s studies course, her thoughts on what it means to be a woman in America changed considerably.
Many of these conflicts inform Linse’s collection of self-published short stories, How To Be A Man, which was written over a period of 15 years. And just getting that out was a scrap. It took Linse 11 years and nearly 200 queries to find an agent, who fired out her completed novels to traditional publishing houses.
“I had two novels [Earth’s Imagined Corners, set in Iowa in the 1880s, and Deep Down Things, set in contemporary Colorado] I wrote and revised and wrote and revised and sent out and sent out,” she recalled. “I think there were like 160 rejections from the first one and 36 on the second.”
Though encouraging notes often accompanied the rejections, their volume took a toll and she suffered a near complete creative collapse. “For the first time in my life I couldn’t even read, I was so depressed,” she said. “I had so much where I just didn’t feel like it was moving forward. So I thought: “You know what? I have these short stories, I can make a collection and I am going to do it for fun.”
The collection debuted to raves from Kirkus, PW Select, and IndieReader. And in July, Linse will self-publish the second novel she wrote, Deep Down Things.
Linse is currently writing a young adult novel, which she describes as Pride and Prejudice on a contemporary Wyoming Ranch. “It’s so much fun,” she said. “You can’t believe how adaptable that is, down to the dialog. What they say in dialog in Pride and Prejudice is so translatable into what’s going on now. It’s set in Jackson, which is all about class and money.”
Was it a hard call when you decided to self-publish your collection?
I have a background ideally suited for it. I’m a writer and en editor. I’ve done document design, I have an art background. I have a background in computers. I was in computer engineering for a while, so all of my skill-sets came together for this project. And it’s so much fun. I tend to be a bit obsessive, so I can put my head down and accomplish what I need to accomplish.
And in this day and age, there are so many services out there it really isn’t a barrier. You still need outside help. These stories were written over 15 years. You need an editor, someone on the outside to look at your book cover and say this works, this doesn’t. You need to call on help when you need it. Once I made the decision, I availed myself of everything that’s out there.
Would you do anything differently if you were to do it again?
I don’t think I’d do anything differently. I didn’t have the timing down on a big book release. You’re supposed to start the marketing three or six months in advance so you have a big push. Also it’s a short story collection, so I had really low expectations. I’m learning and setting myself up because I’m coming out with [Deep Down Things] in July. This was a great experience and a trial run for a novel.
Are you still interested in traditional publishing?
I have to admit that I crave the legitimization that comes from traditional publishing, and that’s why I resisted self-publishing for so long. I hope to be a hybrid author. I’m looking to move forward however it works. I’m interested in both continuing to self-publish and pursuing traditional publishing. Bette Midler had a long career because she kept making things happen. She didn’t wait for other people to make things happen.
The title story in your collection is written in the second person. What went into that decision?
That story is based on Junot Diaz’s "How To Date a Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl, or Halfie)." That is such a great story. Early on in my writing, I thought I wouldn’t write a second person story. Literary writers when they start out write a second-person story and I though, Gah, I’d never do that. But I was listening to the New Yorker podcast of "How To Date a Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl, or Halfie" and it was like the 10th or 20th time I’d heard or read it. It was such a great story and it got my mind going on about what I could do with that. That’s why [How to Be A Man] is in second person.
In a 2010 blog post, you wrote about the different ways one can interpret “literary writer.” How do you categorize yourself?
I definitely consider myself to be a literary writer in the sense that it’s a genre like anything else. It’s trying to do something very specific. Genre [fiction] is often trying to entertain you. But it’s often not trying to challenge your assumptions. In my mind, “literary” tries to show you something different. It’s trying to challenge you and make you a little uncomfortable.
As far as my different listings on what literary means, it depends on context based on who’s saying it. If you’re submitting to agents, a new writer wants to think of themselves as a good writer, so they put literary in their cover letter. For the agent who’s getting it, it’s a sign this person is inexperienced because they’re trying to claim quality. I was trying to put out how the term “literary” means many different things to many different people.
In one of your interviews, you said that women, where you grew up, tended to think of themselves as genderless, which is destructive to the psyche. How did you get over that?
They were such deeply held assumptions, it was difficult. But when I came to the [University of Wyoming] I took a women’s studies class. It was a wonderful class because I was really all of these things. But it was also a horrible class because I was realizing all of these things. It was very eye-opening because I had to challenge assumptions I never had before.
What was the impetus for you taking that class?
I’d always been fascinated with gender. When you’re growing up in that situation, it’s almost as if you’re in an enemy camp. That sounds rougher than I mean it to sound, but you’re always studying the people around you. You’re a female surrounded by men. You’re trying to figure out how they do things. You’re trying to figure out how to be them. You’re studying them, as if you were a spy in a camp. And I was reading books by men. I didn’t read many books about young girls on ranches or women in general until I got older.
You mentioned some assumptions that the women’s studies class challenged. What were some of the strongest assumptions you had, and what was it like getting rid of them?
Women assume, and not just them, but the culture as a whole assumes that men are legitimate. That men have respect. That just by who they are, they’re favored. And women are silly, unintelligent, not as capable, they’re sex objects. They don’t have the inherent worth. The value system is we value strength, capability, pragmatism, courage, and in that cosmology, those are not characteristics inherent to women.
Now, we know those are characteristics inherent in all human beings, but as a girl you look at that system and you think, “How can I have self-respect? I can’t have self-respect because I’m a woman.”
If you were to go back in time and talk to a younger version of yourself, what would you advise her?
First of all, that it’ll be all right. But second of all, and I don’t know if she’d believe me, but that being a woman is a good thing. Just being herself is enough. That she has strength that she does not yet know.
How to Be a Man by Tamara Linse. Willow Words, $14.95 ISBN 978-0-9913867-0-3