Karen White, the author of this summer's mainstream novel hit, On Folly Beach, caught our attention with her vibrant characters, detailed settings and "clear, sweet voice." So the author kindly agreed to by and answer our questions about her research process, the evolution of her writing and what a "Karen White" heroine is.
RT: On Folly Beach follows a multi-decade story. What techniques did you use to make history come alive?
Karen White: I'm a history nut, and I especially love the World War II era. I did a lot of reading about the period (including old Sears catalogs for the clothing), and even watched old movies to catch the way people spoke. I was also lucky enough to meet the City Clerk who'd lived in Folly since the early forties and she was a huge help with day-to-day living. I appreciated her help so much that I put her in the book! I also spent a week on Folly Beach last summer to get a better feel for the area. So much was lost in Hurricane Hugo and I found it poignant to compare the way it had been and how it is now. I think it gave me the insight to faithfully portray the same place sixty years apart.
RT: You have written about many heartbroken heroines, what made this novel, in which you juggle two women who are trying to overcome their troubled past, different from a novel that only focuses on one heroine?
KW: I loved it and will definitely do it again. Every generation has their loves and heartbreaks. I tried to show the similarities by using war as a backdrop, and to give both heroines a common ground. As for writing them, I enjoyed taking a "break" and delving into the other heroine's story. I think it keeps the story fresh and the plot moving, and I found myself wanting to write faster so I could find out what happened to both of them. It was definitely harder than a one-heroine book since I had to jump inside the head of two protagonists and make them both equally important for the reader.
RT: You say that you were drawn to Folly Beach, an actual Lowcountry location, by the area’s rich history. What was a fact you learned about the area which did not make it into your novel?
KW: Folly Beach has a very rich Civil War history. Union soldiers were encamped there for a long period of time and not too long ago somebody found the remains of three of them---but they were missing their heads! As a writer, I was intrigued to say the least but there was absolutely no way I could figure out how to put that in the book. Maybe for a sequel.
RT: The blog Buttery Books recently profiled On Folly Beach for a “Book Club Party” feature. Have you ever hosted a Book Club Party? (If so, can you tell us about it – If not, can you tell us what types of things you would like to see/do at the party).
KW: I have never hosted a book club party but I've been to many of them as a guest to discuss my book. All of them have been wonderful, the food and company great, but I must say that the ladies at Buttery Books outdid themselves. They are truly the Martha Stewarts of the Book Club world! The one thing that I have enjoyed at these various clubs where we've met to discuss On Folly Beach are the bottle trees [a sample bottle tree is to the left] they make to put in their gardens, yards, or coffee tables. I think I've started a home decor craze!
RT: This is your twelfth novel, what is something you’ve learned about your writing style since you wrote In The Shadow Of The Moon back in 2000?
KW: My characters seem to spend a lot more time doing rather than thinking. And I use a lot less words to get my point across. In The Shadow Of The Moon was well-received when it came out, but I don't think I could open the book now and read it without groaning at some of the melodrama that I (hopefully) am now using less of as well as the beating of dead horses (figuratively speaking, of course). I'm not really sure if this tightening is because I've become a better writer, or because with two books out every year, I don't have a lot of time for all those extra words!
RT: You recently returned from a trip to England with your family. Will we be seeing any of that European influence in your future novels?
KW: I'm hoping to! I've got a couple of ideas--but I've got a while to think about it. The book I'm working on now (out in May 2011) is set in New Orleans so that's all I can think about right now.
RT: Your novels are primarily set in the South and deal with the repercussion of family secrets. Where do you find inspiration for these serious family dramas?
KW:My own family. Both my parents were born and raised in Mississippi and I've got tons of cousins, aunts, and uncles still there. My beloved grandmother passed away this past February at the ripe old age of 95 and I went to her funeral in Indianola, Mississippi where she was born and lived all her life. That funeral alone, with all the dialogue between my relatives, could make its own suspense novel. Look for a book set in the Mississippi Delta in the not-so-far future!
RT: You’ve been keeping a busy schedule, writing two books while promoting two more. What is something that you would like to be doing more of if you had more free time?
KW: Reading. Reading has always been my favorite thing to do and is what got me started being a writer. Unfortunately, most of what I read now is research for whatever story I'm working on. I have discovered audio books, however, and always have a book to listen to in my car or on my iPhone. Still, there's nothing better I love than to curl up with a real book and read for hours. I also love scrapbooking, but I'm so far behind that I think I'll be in the nursing home before I can ever catch up!
RT: You recently moved back into the paranormal genre, with your series that kicked off with 2008’s The House On Tradd Street, what similarities (or differences) surprised you as you were writing these novels compared to your general mainstream fiction?
KW: What actually surprised me was how few differences there were. In all of my mainstream fiction books there is an element of mystery and in almost all of them there is a dash of paranormal. The Tradd Street books allowed me to take the mystery AND paranormal elements front and center. This also somehow morphed into me writing "funny." People have always told me that I'm funny in person but that isn't traditionally what I write. But the dialog between Melanie and Jack makes readers--and me!--actually laugh out loud.
The one element that definitely connects the Tradd Street books with my other books, and makes them "Karen White" books, is the heroines. Like my traditional heroines, Melanie is at a crossroads in her life and has to figure out how to get beyond it. She also has a lot of baggage to deal with (her mother abandoned her when Melanie was six, leaving Melanie to be raised by her alcoholic father). Melanie's flawed, making her relatable, and her quirks (she has many) are endearing which makes the reader root for her--even when the reader would also like to slap her!
RT: Can you share a detail from your upcoming release, the third Tradd Street novel which will be out in November?
KW: Actually, the book coming out this November is Falling Home, a revised edition of my 2002 novel. I absolutely love this book and am thrilled that I have the chance to make it a better book and to share it with more readers. The third Tradd book, tentatively entitled The Turrent On Montagu Street, will be out in November 2011. I've already started writing it and I have high hopes for this return to Charleston.
RT: Thanks so much for stopping by, Karen White!
Visit Karen White's website to learn more about the author, get her latest updates and find out where the author will be appearing next. And be sure to pick up your own copy of On Folly Beach, in stores now.