Saturday, April 5, 2008

Interview with author, Karen Harrington

By Marta Stephens, author of SILENCED CRY

Karen Harrington was born and raised in Texas, where she still lives with her husband and children. She received a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies from the University of Texas at Dallas.

Karen's first writing gigs were in corporate America as an editor and speechwriter. Her fiction writing has been recognized by the Hemingway Short Story Competition and the Texas Film Institute.

She authored and published THERE'S A DOG IN THE DOORWAY, a children's book created expressly for the Dr. Laura Schlessinger Foundation's MY STUFF BAGS. MY STUFF BAGS go to children in need who must leave their homes due to abuse, neglect or abandonment.

* * *

MS: Karen, thanks so much for agreeing to be interviewed. Let me start by asking you to please share with us a little about when you made the decision to become a writer.

KH: It was a dark and stormy night. No? Okay, it was probably the first time I fell in love with a book, which had to be in my teens. I remember having a strong connection to Louisa May Alcott’s books and getting so absorbed in a story that I’d forget to do chores (yeah, kids, that’s what we used to call them). And in high school, I developed a love for plays, especially dialogue. The idea that I wanted to try and write something myself probably took root there.

MS: I can certainly see the connection between your experience in drama and writing dialogue. Could you describe your writing journey?

KH: I went to college on the ten-year, night school plan and worked nine-to-five jobs throughout. This left little room for personal writing. Fortunately, I was in several jobs that demanded writing skills, from editing to copy-writing. Eventually, I became a corporate speechwriter, which I learned calls upon just about every skill a writer has in her tool-box. You must be able to write for many different personalities, have a talent for research, have a sense of humor, oh, and be able to write a polished, perfect draft in a couple of hours while a CEO paces behind your back. No pressure! I’ll say this a bit tongue-in-cheek/a bit seriously, but speechwriting is the best training for fiction writers if you can get the gig. The best speeches combine conversational writing and provocative ideas pared down to their essence. Think of Elmore Leonard. Speechwriting will teach you not to wait for the time to write, too. So just about the time I graduated from college, I began writing in my spare time. I wrote loads of screenplays for years before writing a novel.

MS: JANEOLOGY is your debut novel. For those not familiar with your work, please tell us what genre you write in and what motivated you in that direction?

KH: JANEOLOGY is a psychological/legal thriller charting the story of a woman via her genealogy. I launched into this story out of my own personal curiosity about human nature and what makes each of us tick. And my favorite stories are usually in this genre.

MS: What would you say has been your greatest achievement as a writer?

KH: Certainly the publication of Janeology. It’s the culmination of years of work, thousands of prayers and countless money spent on postage. Like all writers, there are thousands of written words that precede the published book. Getting a book published means you didn’t quit, and I think that’s the biggest achievement for any writer. (And, of course, publication marks the point at which your family no longer calls what you do a hobby.)

MS: Who would you say has influenced you the most and why?

KH: My college writing professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. While I attended UTD, 25 percent of the students who attended his program went on to be published. Yeah, he’s that good. But he’s that tough, too. And he’d do the "Look to your right. Look to your left. Those people will not survive the semester because they don’t have the stamina to write every day," speech each semester. (I took five of his classes over the years.)

I remember the day all of us in the novel class got our first three chapters back from him – graded and marked-up. At least three red pens must have given their lives in this effort. Like most new writers, we were all too consumed by the remarks and comments throughout our masterpieces to concentrate on anything else in the class.

He picked up a few of our papers and read some of our work aloud. Of course, this was meant to be instructive, but it was also intimidating. Yup, I was one of the examples he used to illustrate what not to do. So I walked out of the class with the rest of my battered classmates. He called out my name in the hallway and told me, "Don’t interpret all those comments as if I’m telling you to stop writing. I’m not. I’m telling you to keep writing. And I don’t tell everyone that."

MS: Interesting. I had a writing professor who did the very same thing. It’s the tough ones we remember because they made us work at it. What would you say are your main concerns as a writer?

KH: If you asked me that question a year ago, before Kunati Books ever called with an offer, I would have had a different answer. It’s hard to articulate precisely now (and I’m a writer, so go figure), but having a first book out in the world changes your concerns and the way you look at your own work. Proofing a galley will beat up the new writer. It should. Because it’s at that moment you really SEE your writing from the perspective of a reader, not a writer. You have that feeling you’ve had when you read someone else’s work objectively and think, damn that’s good. And then you read some more and you think, I can do better. For me, this means I have to top myself.

MS: How do you deal with these concerns?

KH: Can I say, ask me next year? As my mother used to say, “This is where the wheat separates from the chaff.” I think this concern is what makes good writers great and fearful writers give up after the first book. Like the writers I admire, I hope to work harder and be among the former group.

MS: Have your beliefs influenced the direction of your writing?

KH: Absolutely. I haven’t met a writer, or creative person in any field, whose beliefs do not inform her work. Mine tend towards the problems I want to work out within relationships. Maintaining faith in the face of tragedy and evil; testing the basic good nature of people; the uncanny way each of us contradicts our stated values: these are the issues I like to wrestle with in the page because, like most of us, I’ve struggled with them in life.

MS: What challenges have you faced and which do you see ahead of you?

KH: Professionally, I find the book industry challenging right now, only because I am a novice and there is so much to learn. One realizes that this business isn’t all about art and pretty words, but has a financial bottom line like everything else. I suppose I knew that before, but it’s nice to be na├»ve and starry-eyed for a short time and just be in love with words. Today, you have to have a head for the business end of publishing, too. So from where I sit, I expect it’s harder to be a second or third-time novelist than a debut novelist. There’s a lot more at stake. The expectations are higher, as they should be. The second time around, someone has to weigh not only the merits of your novel, but also the merits of your brand – because, yes, you will now have a brand. You can only debut once.

MS: How will you deal with these challenges?

KH: Submit under a different name? No? Well, I guess there’s no way around it except keeping up the attitude of an unpublished writer, which includes hard work and continuous learning at every opportunity. You have to maintain the “I’ll show you” hunger, I think.

MS: When you begin a new project, how do you prepare for it?

KH: I’ve usually had the seed of an idea tumbling around in my head for a while before I write anything down. I’ve learned to let it keep cycling through my subconscious for a while before writing an outline. I find that after I write the outline, the idea sometimes gets “spent” and some of its momentum is lost. So I’ll let it brew for as long as possible before putting it on paper. Then, I write an outline for a screenplay. I find that a screenplay outline helps me jump-start all the necessary beats of conflict. Sometimes I stick to it. Sometimes I don’t. I have a lot of screenplays though.

MS: What writing schedule do you follow?

KH: I wish I had a schedule, but my time is largely dictated by Sippy-Cup wielding, Elmo-huggers at the moment. So I write mostly when they are sleeping or distracted by the many bunnies living in our front yard.

MS: What is your latest book about?

KH: JANEOLOGY is the story of Tom Nelson, a man struggling to understand why his wife Jane snapped and drowned their toddler son. While he’s still reeling from this tragedy, prosecutors charge him with failure to protect, claiming he knew his wife was spiraling down and should have protected his children from her. His attorney builds a dark biology theory, arguing that Jane’s gene pool gave her a predisposition to madness that no husband could have predicted.

MS: This sound like a sobering read. How much research into the realm of mental disorders/human behavior did you have to do for this book?

KH: It's important to note that this book is not based on any one case. Rather, it's a compilation of things I've read, interpreted and then illustrated with this fictional story. The modern writer has so much research available at her fingertips via the Internet. There is everything from court transcripts to full texts that the novelist can find easily. (Almost makes you wonder what writers of another era would think about our resources.) For me, talking to experts in the field of law and medicine contributed to my understanding and knowledge of filicide and the legal system's response to these acts. The book MOTHERS WHO KILL THEIR CHILDREN by Cheryl L. Meyer and Michelle Oberman is a profound, richly researched book highlighting the acts and events leading up to filicide, whether the issues were post-partum depression, socio-economic or other areas related to nature and nurture. And Suzanne O'Malley's provocative treatment on the Andrea Yates case, ARE YOU THERE ALONE? is a tough book to read, but vital to understanding the particular case that has transfixed so many of us in Texas. Following the Yates case, there have been four more high profile Texas moms who killed their children (Two of which occurred within a five-mile radius of my own home.) And eleven women are currently on death row in the U.S. for killing their kids. I wrote this book, in part, because it seems to me that this is a recurring issue in American society today. Thus, JANEOLOGY is a cautionary tale about one man achieving an understanding about his wife, despite it being too late to reverse her deeds.

MS: Which aspects of writing do you like the least and why? The most and why?

KH: I suppose I have a love/hate relationship with the editing process. It refines the piece and makes it better, which I like. But it’s also like starting a home improvement project – you start with repainting the walls, but then you find the molding has cracked, and then you notice the ceiling fan is out-dated. Pretty soon, you have to re-do the whole room. That’s how editing can be, which can make you crazy.

MS: Do you have a second book in mind? If so, can you tell us what it will be about?

KH: I do and I’m working on it right now. It’s a modern take on the prodigal son story of the Bible.

MS: It’s been such a pleasure for me to interview you and I want to wish you all the success with JANEOLOGY. Please feel free to share your thoughts about anything else you’d like to discuss.

KH: Thank you, Marta. I’d like to invite your readers to read an excerpt of JANEOLOGY if they wish on my website.


James Goodman said...

That was a great interview. I always enjoy learning how different writers get their start and how they approach their projects.

The book sounds fantastic, I'm off to read the excerpt now. :D

Unknown said...

Karen Harrington is a wonderful new talent. I have already purchased her book and am halfdway through it. Can't put it down. Best luck, Karen, on book 2.

Karen Harrington said...


Thanks so much for hosting me. That was a lot of fun. I hope you'll let me host YOU one day soon!


Marta Stephens said...

Karen, all the best with your release. Stop by and visit with us again!

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Karen - what a delightful interview! So lovely to have our MB4 readers "meet" you and get a bit of insight into your literary life. Janeology sounds fantastic - what a clever title and wonderful cover art! Thanks for stopping by, and come back often.

Beth Fehlbaum, Author said...

Thanks for a fascinating interview. Karen is a wonderful person and I am so happy for her success.
Beth Fehlbaum, author
Courage in Patience, a story of hope for those who have endured abuse
Chapter One is online!

Yombe said...

I cannot put this book down. Yes, it's a grisly subject, but tackled by Harrington with engaging dialog, mature writing, and a strange, yet effective element--retrocognition--which bridges Jane's past (her GENE/JANE-EOLOGY) with her present. Totally brilliant.