I’m honored this week to host journalist and author, Karen Karbo, for a Q&A. Karen has had eleven books published including the novel, “Motherhood Made a Man Out of Me,” three books in the Minerva Clark teen detective series, and three works of non-fiction, including the most recent, “How to Hepburn: Lessons on Living from Kate the Great.” Karen’s adult novels have all been named New York Times Notable Books and “The Stuff of Life: A Daughter’s Memoir,” was a selection of the Satellite Sisters Radio Book Club and won the Oregon Book Award for Creative Nonfiction. A past winner of the General Electric Foundation Award for Younger Writers, Karen is in addition the recipient of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her essays, reviews, and articles have appeared in the New York Times, Redbook, Elle, Vogue, Esquire, Outside, and More.
DYU: You have not one, but two books out in 2007. Can you tell us about them?
KK: Landing two book contracts in a single year should come with a warning. Not “don’t try this at home” – because writing two books at once means you never leave your office chair, much less the house – but something about how the feat can only be executed by a professional driver on a closed course. It was brutal.
The first book was “How to Hepburn: Lessons on Living from Kate the Great,” and is an homage to my all time favorite actress. It flies under the self-help banner, but it’s really her biography organized by lessons. (Actually, I think people didn’t quite know what to make of it.) Hepburn was hugely opinionated. She had very firm ideas about how we should live, ideas that were way ahead of her time, and I thought it would be fun to detail them. Plus, I actually have my MFA in film, and it was blissful to have an excuse to watch all of her great old black & white movies. The deadline time crunch occurred when my publisher, Bloomsbury, realized that Hepburn’s 100th birthday was May 12 of this year. Of course I knew this when I wrote the proposal, but because I am marketing-and-publicity-impaired, it didn’t even occur to me to mention it. They thought it would be grand for the book to be released on her birthday, and so it was.
My second book this year is the third in a series of YA mysteries(technically, ages 10-14)called “Minerva Clark Gives Up the Ghost.” Minerva Clark is a 7th grader in Portland, Oregon (where I live), who solves mysteries with the help of her pet ferret, Jupiter.
DYU: You’ve written a huge range of books from memoir to adult fiction to YA. Why have you chosen to work on such a diverse range of projects? How have you managed to juggle them? And how do you decide what to do next?
KK: The “diverse range” of projects has been completely unplanned. In fact, I have no plans, ever. When I was in kindergarten I was diagnosed with what is now ADHD, and I suspect my uncontrollable urge to skip around the genres confirms this, although I have not a shred of medical evidence. I’ve always fantasized about being one of those novelists with a neat column of titles that all sound akin to one another (imagine having Amy Tan or John Updike’s “Also by. . .” page!) but I get too excited about new terrain. In order to finish a book, I have to be consumed by the idea, to feel that rip-roaring, insomnia-producing passion, and what seems to do that is finding new subjects, forms and genres. I just follow my nose. For example, I came up with Minerva Clark because my then-fifth grade daughter tried to read the classic Nancy Drew books, but was distracted by things like Nancy’s car (Mom, what’s a roadster?) She wanted to read about a modern girl who solved mysteries, so I came up with Minerva just to entertain her. I came up with the Hepburn book because the book before that was my memoir, “The Stuff of Life,” about caring for my Dad during the last year of his life. It was so difficult and sad to write, I wanted to do something that was pure fun, and purely affirmative.
DYU: There’s a distinct difference in “voice” between your Minerva Clark books and, for example, “How to Hepburn.” Does that shift happen instinctively or do you have to work to shift gears?
KK: It helps that the voice in “How to Hepburn” is more or less my own voice. So I was sort of switching gears between myself and a character, Minerva Clark whose voice had already established. I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. It also helped that when I wrote the first mystery in the series, “Minerva Clark Gets a Clue,” my daughter was the same age as Minerva. My favorite form of research into Minerva’s voice was chauffeuring my daughter and her girlfriends around to their various practices and dances. They’d all squeeze into the backseat and yak on and on and on. One time I showed my daughter a transcription of one of these conversations and she howled. She’s a great sport and is also thrilled to read my Minerva books and tell me when something sounds either too adult, or too lame.
DYU: How does your creative process differ from working in non-fiction to fiction?
KK: Although I love writing non-fiction I find it taxing. I’m not an organized researcher, and I’m always worried that I’m either misquoting some fact, or slightly misstating it, or else copying something from my notes that was in fact a quote I read somewhere. I’m scrupulous about notating my sources in my notes, and sometimes that scrupulosity (if that’s not a word, it should be) feels burdensome. Writing non-fiction is a slower process, a more heavily idea-oriented process; since you cannot change the facts, your obligation is to think more deeply about them and their implications. Sometimes when I’m working on a non-fiction piece, I feel as if I do homework for a living.
When I’m working on a piece of fiction I’m a lot looser. I channel my inner bullshit artist. I find a way into the piece and I gooooo. I grew up surfing in Southern California, and writing fiction feels a lot like that to me. It just occurred to me that my novels have all been name to the New York Times Notable Book list, but my non-fiction has been pretty much ignored by them. Maybe I should take a hint!
DYU: What do you do when you’re stuck?
KK: I developed the habit over the years of refusing to even allow the ‘s’ word into my head. I’m never “stuck” per se, I just need to go for a walk, or go to a movie, or go ride my horse, or try putting the scene into dialogue, or take the dialogue and put it into a scene of narrative summary, or cut the scene completely. Whatever it is, I change it up. I guess I don’t believe in being stuck. That sounds a little pompous and pious though, doesn’t it? People who don’t believe in being stuck are also the ones who write their bestsellers in ten days. That’s not me!
DYU: What are you working on now?
KK: I’m working on a novel, about which the less said the better, of course.
DYU: We are debutante authors here and we’d love any advice you’d care to pass along about writing, the publishing industry or life in general.
KK: The best advice I have is not something I follow as often as I should, but that’s always true of the best advice, isn’t it? It’s this: don’t wait. This has a number of applications. If you have a fantastic idea for a novel, start today (well, okay, tomorrow). Don’t wait until you hear from your agent about your book (we are always waiting to hear something); don’t wait until the kids go back to school, or you’re able to take some vacation time. Inside of that novel, don’t wait with any ideas you have for terrific scenes. Don’t save things for the end, or for another novel (the “big” novel, the novel about your relationship with your mother, the coming-of-age novel where you get back at all the people you knew in high school), use them now. Whatever you got, at any given time, use it now and do it now.
DYU: And, (this is just for fun,) what advice do you think Kate, in all her brashness, would give us?
KK: Kate would actually approve of the advice given above. She was the queen of acting first, and sorting it all out later. She lived in the moment, and didn’t hold back. She would also insist that you all get a sufficient amount of exercise and ate plenty of fruit with dinner.
DYU: And finally, since our topic of the week is “keeping secrets” do you have anything to say about keeping secrets and writing?
KK: I’m not the first to say this, but the only way to tell any secrets of any consequence is to write fiction. It’s the lie that tells the truth.