One of the most exciting things about Words to Go is introducing a new author. Karen Harrington and I met at Girlfriend’s Weekend. She struck me first as a very reticent, but beautiful young redhead. But after she dragged me against my will out onto the dance floor at the Big Hair Ball, I realized I was quite wrong about Karen. But, hey, what happens at Girlfriend’s Weekend, stays at Girlfriend’s Weekend. Karen has written a compelling story called Janeology. It is part family saga, part legal thriller or what some folks call a hybrid or even, if may go so far as to say, spec fic. Karen is very warm and authentic and loved the idea about sharing her coming-of-age years with us. So I’m very excited to introduce you all to novelist Karen Harrington!
KAREN: Thank you for inviting me, Patty!
PATTY: Karen, I think that you, like so many novelists, can still revisit your formative years and easily revisit the emotional landscape that would eventually inform your writing.
KAREN: I have a theory about sensitive twelve-year old girls that I formed from, well, once having been a sensitive twelve year-old girl. I think they have a kind of wanderlust around this age. She senses there’s a big, interesting world beyond her common neighborhood and she wants to see it.
PATTY: I think that it’s why I repeatedly dreamed of flying at that age.
KAREN: She believes it’s not only different, but better, than her world. Problem is, she’s limited by what others around her can do for her, where and when they can take her. So she vacillates between falling back into a young girl’s thoughts and trying to stretch toward what? That nameless pulling forward toward a time when she’ll be independent. And since she can’t grow up any faster and get on with her life and experience all the world at once, she finds it useful to rev up her imagination.
PATTY: What do you see when you look back into that raw imagination of adolescence?
KAREN: Picture a girl standing on a dead, four feet tall tree stump in her front yard, looking out over the rooftops in her own blue-collar neighborhood. That’s me, around age twelve. I climbed this stump at night and looked at the houses and what I thought was a busy road just beyond our neighborhood. I stood up there until the stump finally gave out one night as I leapt off. But before that, it was my pedestal for a full summer. Spying on the neighborhood and the roads, I had all kinds of ideas about where everyone was driving. For example, maybe they were driving all the way to faraway
PATTY: Ah, Coraline! Now, our readers can see how these transcendent threads are generated. Novelists never disconnect from the past but use the flotsam to float right into our story worlds. So your mom must have cooked like mine.
KAREN: No Hamburger Helper over there. I heard arguments and screeching car tires coming from the nearby apartments and instead of being afraid, I romanticized a lovers’ quarrel. Of course it was, I reasoned, because the very next sound coming from the apartments was someone playing a piano.
PATTY: Sights, sounds and emotions.
KAREN: My siblings thought I was a big dork for standing out there like a flagpole. They threatened to pelt me with basketballs. (This threat was carried out on more than one occasion.) And I can’t imagine what my single-dad father must have thought. Did he look out the window and shake his head and tell himself that it could have been worse? Did he rationalize that it was better than worrying about drugs or that boy down the street (who I dated for ten years against my Dad’s advice. Sorry Dad. He had a blue Camaro that matched his eyes.) At least Dad had the good sense to leave me there, because I might have found my way up to the roof if he’d prohibited me from the stump.
PATTY: Have you ever imagined being able to go back and see that little girl in you so that you could tell her that her yearnings were going to work out for her good?
KAREN: Wouldn’t I love to go back in time and talk to my younger self? Yes, I think I know all the reasons she wanted to stand there. I was beginning to understand there was more than one way to look at the world – one that you could make up, that you could make better with the right adjectives and dialogue. Maybe I was beginning to understand that if you have an unexplainable yearning to see something different, you could start by viewing the world from a different perspective. And if all you have is four feet of dead tree to prop you up and everyone thinks you’re a big dork, well, do it anyway.
PATTY: I think at that age it’s impossible to explain your yearnings except in sort of ambiguous summary that gets lost in the translation—so family members treat you like you’re one brick shy a load.
KAREN: All these years later, I’ve found that sitting in my front-yard and letting my imagination go is good for the soul. (Just don’t expect the blue-eyed boy to actually SAY the dialogue you’ve made up for him. You’ll be disappointed when he screws it up and just burps.)
PATTY: I’ve thought that before! A perfectly great conversation goes south just when you think you’ll use it. But even that is funny, Karen. How have you disciplined all of this emotional memory and placed it within the constructs of a story that caught the attention of a publisher?
KAREN: A long time ago, a writing professor said this to his class of delusional, over-confident novel writing students who just KNEW they were better than Stephen King and John Irving combined because it took them a whole YEAR to write their masterpieces: “Many writers have talent, but few have the temperament to make a career of it. This is why there are so many one-book published writers.”
Well, way to take all the fun out of writing, huh?
PATTY: If I had a dime for every person who has told me they have a novel inside them, I could help the whole country with this financial crisis. It’s so true, that while most people seem to delight in their own stories, they don’t have the discipline to navigate around their agendas, their time constraints, their wrong ideas about crafting a novel to actually do it. But you did it, Karen. How are you assimilating what that professor taught you?
KAREN: Honestly. Flash-forward eight years to that wonderful day when this author received her first publishing contract. I had a book. An ISBN. A page on Amazon! My career was launched. Now, I could just go back to writing the next great American novel, right?
There is just as much work to come following the publication of a book. As you might imagine, it takes one kind of temperament to be a sensitive, solitary, disciplined person who can sit down for months and create a novel. But then there is the temperament that can also have a realistic, professional view on the publishing business – a business that sort of cares about your sensitive artistic feelings, but not as much as one would like.
PATTY: But it’s very unusual for someone as new as you are to the business to have your feet on the ground so early on. It was all those years of business writing that helped you build that sensitivity, I’m sure.
KAREN: I am so thankful that my professor gifted me with that reality. It continues to serve as a guidepost, like a sign that warns “slow down, curvy road ahead.” (i.e. – Are you going to be THAT kind of person and be a one-book wonder or do you have the temperament to make a career of it?)
PATTY: Emerging writers, take heed.
KAREN: After my book debuted last year, I was faced with any number of challenges that had nothing to do with the excitement of achieving my dream. Those challenges fell under the heading of wanting to vigorously defend myself against criticism, stretching the limits self-promotion, balancing work and life, or even the strange headiness of standing in a bookstore, being all puffed up with my authorly self, thinking it was a waste of time to sell three books in two hours.
PATTY: Yes, it’s not a life of laying on the sofa having grapes fed to you.
KAREN: My professor’s statement would bring me back to center like a slap to the forehead. Did I want to make this my career? Yes. Okay. That means being nice to everyone. Shrugging off criticism. Having a show-up-early-stay-up-late work ethic like any other profession. And, of course, getting back into that solitary space of being a writer that feeds my soul.
PATTY: And that feeds your books.
KAREN: And if you want to know, I went back to my Alma Mater, published book in hand, and told said professor in person how grateful I was for this advice. A proud day, that was.
PATTY: Congratulations on being able to do that. I was in a writing group led by a pubbed novelist. Two members had just announced that they had gotten contracts for multiple books.
I was feeling a little anxious. And then it happened—an editor called and wanted to offer me a multiple book deal. I was so excited. But I waited until everyone in the group had shared about their writing week, the usual preliminary stuff and then shared that I too had gotten a contract.
Those are very heady seasons. But as you say, Karen, so wisely, short-lived as we return to the solitary life of writing.
Thank you, Karen, for sharing today. Kathy Patrick is giving away her Pulpwood Queens Guide and Melody Carlson is giving away The Other Side of Darkness. Please leave your feedback and it will be entered in Saturdays book give-away!
Next week popular novelists Roxanne Henke, Stephanie Grace Whitson, Patti Hill, Amy Wallace, and Rene Gutteridge will chat with us about a very deep and emotional subject—that of the suffering we all face from time-to-time and how we grow through it. Join us next week for THE GREENING OF THE SOUL.