Q&A: Local author Heather Mateus Sappenfield talks all things writing ahead of novel release and in-person Bookworm of Edwards event
Local author Heather Mateus Sappenfield’s latest novel, a collection of short stories for adults entitled “Lyrics for Rock Stars,” comes out Monday, Sept. 21. Sappenfield is breaking out of her traditional young adult genre — her previous titles include “Life at the Speed of Us” and “The View From Who I Was” — and is excited to share these short stories, some of which are 20 years in the making.
The Bookworm of Edwards is hosting her for its first in-person event since COVID-19. The free event starts at 5 p.m. in the Riverwalk Amphitheater behind the shopping center.
Ahead of her book launch and event, Sappenfield sat down with the Vail Daily to discuss writing, breaking free from genre constraints and what she hopes readers will take away from “Lyrics for Rock Stars.” Below are edited excerpts from that conversation.
VD: You’re the first in-person event at The Bookworm since the coronavirus pandemic. That must be super exciting.
Heather Mateus Sappenfield: Nicole [Magistro, former Bookworm owner] and I have been friends for a while, we just naturally ended up being friends. She’s a bookseller, I’m an author. She and I were having lunch and I was checking in with her post-sale of the store. We met at the amphitheater in Minturn. It’s so pretty there. We were talking about the event just generally, and all of a sudden, it occurred to me that we should have it outdoors. She said, “Well, there’s the amphitheater behind Riverwalk.” We looked into it, and it was open.
VD: That’s awesome, I feel like that space has gone a bit unused this summer.
HMS: Yeah, I’m so excited about it. KZYR was kind enough to step forward and volunteer to do the sound since it’s right there along the creek. They’re also helping with the event. It’s kind of a community event, coming together like in hope, I think too. This is the first event post-COVID for The Bookworm, the first event for Matt [Lee] as the new owner. Nicole is interviewing me, but she’s also in a threshold moving into a new phase of her life. And for me, even though these stories were published before my young adult novels came out, in journals and magazines, this is for me, as far as books go, stepping into the world of adult literary writing. This is also, for me, stepping through a threshold into a different phase of my writing career.
VD: I feel like sometimes YA can get boxed in to it’s genre boundaries a little bit. Like, if you’re a YA writer, that’s what you do, and it can be hard to break out of that barrier. Have you found that in your career?
HMS: Yes, and it’s not that there’s anything that’s bad necessarily about it.
VD: Of course.
HMS: I didn’t consider myself a YA writer, in fact, my first novel, I didn’t consider it a YA novel. I kind of thought it was, and I sent it to an agent who represented YA, and I got picked up right away. And of course, because she represented childrens’ and YA, she wanted more of the same. Readers want more of the same. Right now I’m gobbling up Louise Penny’s “Chief Inspector Armand Gamache” series, ’cause dang, it feels so good during COVID to have that structure of a mystery. But for me as a writer, that doesn’t really work very well. I needed to be able to write across all genres because that’s the type of writer I am. It might not work so great as far as marketing and always having a similar product, but that’s how I am as a writer. So yes, I am happy to be crossing the line. I will say this, however: If you write a really, really good adult book, and you’ve been a children’s writer or a young adult writer, someone’s going to snap it up. If you write a good enough product, someone’s going to want to publish it. It’s just developing a following that will stay with you.
VD: I know it’s super important to you to provide readers with a story that’s literary and well-crafted. In what ways did you manifest that motive in “Lyrics for Rock Stars?”
HMS: This short story collection, I started 20 years ago. The first story was “Coloring Beyond the Lines,” it had a completely different name at that point. I had just resigned from my [English and reading] teaching position at Battle Mountain [High School]. My daughter had just started talking with the accent of her Australian daycare lady. That was a paradigm shift for me, I decided to stay home. I wrote that story and I really decided to go for being a writer, which is what I had always wanted. I wrote for a few years, I had a bunch of mere misses with magazines and finally decided I needed to get my master’s degree. So I went to Pacific University and got my master’s in writing and fiction, and that changed the course of my career and my life. I graduated and I had about seven stories from my MFA, there’s 17 stories in the collection. I kept writing and then I realized, ‘whoa, I’ve got enough for a collection,’ and entered it in some of the big contests. It was a finalist in several of those, among them the Flannery O’Connor Award. But you can only be a bridesmaid for so long. I thought, “there must be something I’m missing.” So I put it in a drawer, and wrote the YA books, and got distracted by all that for a while. In the meantime, I really grew as a writer, but also as a person. There’s a quotation, “books are mirrors, you only see in them what you have inside you,” it’s Carlos Ruiz Zafón. I find that to be true for the reader, but very much also for the writer. A writer could miss a lot of potential for what could be in the story if they aren’t ready to write that story. So when I pulled the stories back out of the drawer, I saw them in a whole new way, and realized, especially in the title story, “Lyrics for Rock Stars,” that I was speaking through the songwriter in that story. Which led to the title, and then it also led to dividing the collection into two sections, “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Wisdom.” And how those two could play off each other, ironically, universally, literally, all of it. So then I went through and reworked all the stories and just crafted them towards that end. I hope that every sentence within the collection is working on three levels: one, to build the story; two, to advance that particular story’s theme; and three, to advance the message of the collection.
VD: It seems like the product that you’re putting out has a lot of finesse to it.
HMS: Yes. And some of the stories, like “Rescue,” I actually could not figure out the ending until a few months ago. Finally, it came to me. Some stories take so long to unfold into what they need to be.
VD: What do you hope that readers take away from “Lyrics for Rock Stars?”
HMS: As a Colorado native, I love my state. I love the history of this place. I am often fascinated by the history here that we don’t necessarily see, but that still exists around us. I hope that readers will learn some new things about Colorado. There’s one story that’s about the origins of ski racing, which I would guess nobody knows. There’s one about the history of women’s suffrage and how women fought for more freedoms via the bicycle. The other thing that I hope that people take from this, is that I’m fascinated by history in the pure historical sense, but I’m also really fascinated by the histories of society and our own personal histories. Every minute, even sitting here with you right now, we’re navigating that. It’s all working on different levels and different ways in those stories and I hope that when people read them, they get a sense of the region and the history, but also a sense of “Yeah, I go through this too. I move through all these layers.” And, I hope they just stinkin’ enjoy some of the stories.