Q&A with Author & Instructor Karleen Koen

This week’s Q&A spotlights Karleen Koen, bestselling author of Through a Glass Darkly and two other novels. Crown Publishing will release her fourth novel, Before Versailles, in June. Karleen’s upcoming Writers’ League class, How to Create Strong Characters, promises to be fantastic! Click here to register by February 3.

What book are you reading right now?

I’m always reading a number of books at the same time: Walking This World, Scattered, London Rising, Psychological Commentaries on the Teachings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. But I do have reading gulps of fiction, like eating a sandwich when I’m really hungry, which I finish quickly. I just finished Infamous Army for the nth time. I find I can’t read fiction the way I used to. I am no longer as generous with authors, and that makes me sad, because as a writer, I must depend upon the generosity of readers…..which means giving a writer time to set up what he or she needs to so that the story is meaningful……I’m not a snob about fiction, though. It doesn’t have to be “literary,” whatever that means. It just has to be good on whatever level it’s working at.

When you’re not reading or writing, what do you like to do with your time?

I do meditation on a somewhat regular basis. I do movement, Nia and dancemeditation, to get me out of mind and into body and life and spirit. I love going to plays and musicals. I love to garden. I love going to my various women’s circles. I love being with my grandchildren. I love teaching the few classes I do around writing (novel) basics.

What’s your favorite opening line of a book?

“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.”

What life lesson did your last book or project teach you?

To persevere. Unfortunately, this is a lesson I must relearn with each novel.

What word do you love? What word do you detest?

I love too many words to pick one. I am enamored with The Comprehensive Word Guide. I detest the word critique.

What is a little known fact about yourself?

I’ve sky dived. Once was enough.

How do you deal with ups and downs of the publishing business?

I don’t. I stay hidden away in Houston. By the time I know about something, it’s already changing. I don’t pay attention to trends. My aim is to be my own trend. It’s too nerve-wracking and unproductive for me to deal with the publishing business; that’s why I have an agent. Also worrying about the market is a great way to keep from writing.

How do you balance writing with work and family?

When I had young children I never felt balanced. I just lurched around doing the best I could. Now, I don’t have young children, and I’m still lurching. I do a lot with my grandchildren. I want something normal, something demanding and grounding, something loving, young, and fresh in my week. It helps balance all the internal worry I carry in writing a novel. It helps me feel normal, as in, look, I’m like everybody else, not this loon building castles of air in other centuries.

What is your writing routine and where do you write?

I write in the mornings. I try to commit at least an hour, particularly when I’m in a stage when it feels so hard and flimsy. I try to commit daily. I can do anything for an hour. I also do morning pages when I’m in-between or beginning a new novel. At least I’m writing something. But those drop once I’m more secure in my story.

When I’m really cooking, feeling a firmness to a plot and characters, I write longer, but usually no more than 3 or 4 hours because writing is so mentally exhausting. When I’m near the end, I’m compulsive, drag myself away to eat or sleep. I just want to be DONE. But I hate the feeling I have in that stage, which is driven and neurotic and completely unconnected to the world around me.

I’m also committed to my once a week blog. It’s a short vignette of something in my week that has taken my eye. It’s a great writing exercise and discipline and practice. I enjoy it, though I never want to do it when the time comes to sit down and produce. But I do.

I write in my home office, where I have a large library I’ve collected of books about time periods I’m interested in and stacks of get-to material, which give me some illusion of I’m-not-quite-sure-what to hold onto, but when I’m feeling stuck or blue, I like to go to a local coffee shop. The blur of noise around me somehow drowns out my worried voices.  If I’m really down, I allow anywhere from a day to a week off. I have to be careful with that one though. The bottom line is: I don’t know what I’m doing, ever. My continual task is learning to be comfortable with that.

Do you outline or just start writing?

Vaguest of story lines….I start writing toward something. Usually I know the situation and/or climax. For example, in my first novel, I was trying to capture a giving-your-all-toward-something-and-not-succeeding-and-what-then. So I knew the general situation but no specifics…..In my third novel, I knew what the climax was, what I was writing toward, but little else. Basically, I flounder around until a flimsy frame starts shaping. Then I flounder some more.

Do you have trusted readers you turn to as you write, and if so, who and what stage?

Until a draft is in a shape I like, I show it to no one. I will bring questions about how I might frame some situation or questions about what a certain experience was like, but no one sees what I write until I can show it without apologizing. I feel nothing but apology and wonder that I think I can write all through the first draft, sometimes into the second. I had a little writing group that in its time was very supportive for me. But I had very firm boundaries about how I would present writing to the group. My daughter is becoming a wonderful trusted reader.

When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?

I never wanted to be a writer. I was a reader with a capital “R”. I devoured books; they were life. But I do have some innate talent. I try to be worthy of it, which means I work hard at writing.

Cyndi’s Fast Five

1. What are three things in your office/writing space that would surprise someone who popped in?

My air totems; my collage wall; the mess my office remains……

2. What book first influenced you as a child?
I used to sneak read my grandfather’s historicals by Frank Yerby and Frank Slaughter. That had an enormous impact on what I would write. I also adored Little Women, Lad A Dog and Black Beauty. It’s because Little Women is the story of all women and Lad A Dog and Black Beauty have the great “other” as main characters.

3. What time of day do you write?

4. If you could have a beer or coffee with a writer living or dead, who would it be and why?
Daphne DuMaurier. I adore two of her historicals, Frenchman’s Creek and King’s General. I often reread them. I’d like to hear how they shaped themselves for her. And Georgette Heyer, because I read her dear regencies whenever I’m blue; no one touches her in that genre. I’d like to chat with her about not taking myself too seriously and having more fun in writing.

5. Beer or coffee?
With those two, it would likely be tea.

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