Looking for a connection between the novels of Karelia Stetz-Waters and her gig Friday as the emcee of The Magic Barrel, the annual literary event that benefits Linn Benton Food Share?
Here it is: They're all about hope.
And so it is that Stetz-Waters, the head of the English department at Linn-Benton Community College, a writer of contemporary lesbian romance novels and an unabashed supporter of happy endings, finds herself in the spotlight at the annual event, which features nine mid-valley writers reading from their work.
Stetz-Waters was one of the readers featured two years ago at The Magic Barrel, and and was delighted to be invited to serve as this year's emcee. "It's such a great cause."
And it's an event that has raised thousands of dollars for Food Share over the last quarter-century. (This year's event is the 24th.)
In an interview this week in her office at LBCC's Albany campus, Stetz-Waters talked about her preparations for the event, which included a volunteer stint alongside gleaners at Food Share, repackaging nutritious food for distribution.
That got her thinking about the importance of nutrition, which led in turn to one of her fundraising schemes for Friday night: "To have a little fun at my own expense," she said, she plans to curate a display of "all the really horrible food items" that she might have consumed at some point in her past — and will call upon audience members to donate a little extra cash in the hope that the mid-valley's needy might be able to get access to higher quality food.
There's that word "hope" again: It's also a quality she sees in the students that she's taught at LBCC for the last 15 years.
"I love the diversity of students" she sees at LBCC, she said, "from 15-year-olds who are home schooled to 40-year-olds coming back to school. ... I learn something new every term. I'm always learning from students' experiences."
"I like being part of the first steps that my students take. I like that starting-out point, the idea that I can give them useful skills they can use their whole life."
There's an added bonus to teaching at a community college, she noted: "Whatever I want to know, there's someone on campus I can learn from."
For example, when she working on a thriller, she was worried by a certain lack of experience: "I had never even held a gun, let along fired one," she said. But a quick call to a criminology teacher at LBCC resulted in a session where she learned about weapons.
Stetz-Waters, 41, didn't start her writing career with the intent of writing genre books such as thrillers or romances. Instead, her first book was a memoir that traced her experiences growing up and coming out in Benton County, at the same time that Oregon voters were pondering 1992's Ballot Measure 9, which would have prevented state governments from promoting, encouraging or facilitating homosexuality. The measure, which failed, also included language to the effect that homosexual behavior was "abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse."
It was a difficult time to come out. But, the focus in the memoir was generally positive: "It's about all the people who supported me," she said.
It also didn't get published, in large part because Stetz-Waters wasn't famous: "I hadn't cut my hand off after a rock-climbing accident nor was I was Barack Obama," she joked.
Some of the memoir was recycled into a novel that eventually was published, "Forgive Me If I've Told You This Before."
She's always been attracted to the power of storytelling; even as a child, she said, her mother would switch on a tape recorder and let her daughter spin stories. "When I ran out of things to say," Stetz-Waters said, "I would say 'And then there was a silence.'"
That's a good technique to use in thrillers, and Stetz-Waters tried her hand at writing those, hoping to attract attention from a big publishing house. But nobody bit. (The books, "The Purveyor" and "The Admirer," eventually were published by a small specialty house.)
So then she thought: "I'm just going to write a silly romance novel, almost just for me."
Naturally, that book ("Something True") was the one that landed a deal with a big publishing house, the Hachette Book Group. Hachette also published a second Stetz-Waters romance, "For Good," and is awaiting her next manuscript, tentatively titled "Love Remodeled."
Stetz-Waters was breaking new ground for the genre: "In the world of mainstream publishing, the lesbian romance wasn't a thing yet."
But she doesn't write the romances for a specific audience: "I'm hoping I can reach both a lesbian and heterosexual audience," she said. But her lesbian romances do offer a counterpoint to a long-running stereotype of gays being depicted as evil in romance novels.
Some traits of romance novels, however, continue in her works: They are lighthearted and have happy endings.
Stetz-Waters isn't offering any apologies for those happy endings: "There's so much trouble in the world," she said. Readers need "a place to rest their hearts."
"Also, we have to see a picture of hope to believe in it. It's also important to visualize hope and happiness and carry that in your heart."
And if Friday's attendees at The Magic Barrel reach deep into their pockets to contribute to Food Share? That would be another happy ending.