Today best-selling and award-winning author Karen White visits the Lair for the first time. Karen's new novel, the sequel to her popular The House on Tradd Street, shares the beautiful South Carolina setting and just a bit of ghostly intrigue. Welcome, Karen! We love call stories in the Lair. Would you like to share yours?
Mine was pretty low key. I'd entered my first manuscript in a contest where the first round judges were published authors and the final round judges were top NY literary agents. I entered to get a critique from a published author and ended up winning both the contest and a contract with an agent! She used to be Nora Roberts' editor so I figured she knew what she was doing. :)
Yes, one would think! So a contest led to your success. We hear about that but seldom meet people who've experienced it. You moved into women's fiction after writing historical romance. What drew you onto this path?
To be honest, I've always written the same kind of book, my publishers have just packaged them differently. I write the kind of book I like to write--a little bit of romance, a little bit of mystery, and a strong protagonist at a crossroads in her life.
What would say are the parameters of women's fiction?
The Million Dollar Question! I think it's really a matter of focus. Romances focus on the the relationship between the hero and heroine; in women's fiction the main focus is on the woman's journey and the romance is only a subplot--if there's a romance at all.
Tell us about Melanie Middleton. What's her problem in The Girl on Legare Street?
In The House on Tradd Street, we learned that Melanie's mother abandoned her when she was six, leaving her to be raised by an alcoholic father. Melanie compensated by becoming overly-controlling and self-contained. In The Girl on Legare Street, Melanie's mother unexpectantly returns, reminding Melanie that they have nothing in common except for their ability to see ghosts.
Ooh, ghosts! We like ghosts around here. Can we have a look inside the book?
This is a scene from the beginning of the book when Melanie realizes that her grandmother, from beyond the grave, is trying to warn her of impending disaster.
I parked my car on Church Street about a block down from St. Phillip's cemetery where my grandmother was buried. Even though I didn't remember exactly where she'd been interred, and the yellow police tape notwithstanding, I would have known approximately where to find her as only those who were born in Charleston were allowed to be buried on the same side of the street as the church. Even famed statesman John C. Calhoun was buried across the street since he'd been born in Clemson, South Carolina. I remembered my mother gleefully mentioning that his wife, a true Charlestonian, was buried in a separate grave, across the street nearer the church as if even in death being a Charlestonian was more important than being Mr. Calhoun's wife.
I heard the babble of voices as I neared the cemetery gates, experienced enough by now to know not to look around to see who was talking. Taking a deep breath, I focused on the sidewalk in front of me, singing the words to ABBA's Dancing Queen under my breath to keep me from hearing my name called over and over. I knew that if I kept walking, and kept ignoring them, they would eventually stop. My mother once told me that we were beacons of light. It wasn't until after she left that I figured out to whom, but by then I'd only ever seen myself as a moving target, eager not to get hit.
My grandmother's grave was toward the back, near the fence. I remembered now standing here with my mother and father feeling the scratchy starchiness of my new black cotton dress, the high humidity of summer and the oppressive scent of too many flowers making me sigh in the heat. My father had taken me up in his arms and that's when I'd seen all of the people crowding around the empty grave, not all of them breathing. Most disconcerting of all was that they all were looking at me.
I stopped outside the yellow police tape that surrounded the gravesite, my breath blowing fat puffs of smoke into the chilly air, and noted the neatly trimmed grass and the white marble tombstone that looked like it had been gently pulled from the sucking earth and laid to rest on the cool grass. There was no disturbance of the nearby grass or nearby graves, and the hole where it had sat lay a foot in front of it as if to clarify that the stone hadn't just toppled over but had been deliberately placed.
After first glancing around to make sure nobody was watching, I stepped over the yellow tape and walked closer to the stone so I could get a better look. In carved lettering, I read my grandmother's birth and death dates as well as her complete name, Sarah Manigault Prioleau. Then my eyes widened as I read the inscription beneath:
When bricks crumble, the fireplace falls; When children cry, the mothers call. When lies are told, the sins are built, Within the waves, hide all our guilt.
I read the words two more times, trying to make sense of them. Then my gaze shifted back to the woman's name to make sure that I was at the right grave. Within the waves, hide all our guilt. I recalled the scent of salt water wafting through my house and drops of ice slipped down my back.
"I don't know what it means, either, if that's any consolation."
I jerked my head around to see my mother standing behind me wearing a black mink coat with matching hat, her gloved hands clutching the neck closed against the bitter cold. Always the gloves.
The House on Tradd Street drew a big following among book clubs. Why do think that is, and how was that experience?
Another Million Dollar question! If I knew the answer, I'd spend my life writing books that books club would love! I don't know---maybe it's Melanie, who's so damaged but such a trooper when it comes to learning the lessons she needs to. Or maybe it's Jack Trenholm, who has his own baggage but is the perfect foil for Melanie. These books are what I call "Sixth Sense meets Moonlighting meets National Treasure" : spooky, funny, and chock full of historical mysteries--something to appeal to all readers.
You did a book tour for The House on Tradd Street. What was that like?
No laundry! It was fabulous! Seriously, spending my days with booksellers and readers, then returning to a hotel room where I have sole possession of the remote control is just this side of heaven.
What inspired you to set your books in South Carolina?
The sights and smells of the marshes and ocean really inspire me. I discovered that on our first trip to Hilton Head Island about twelve years ago and I keep going back.
What's next for you?
My next book, On Folly Beach, will be out in May 2010 and is set on an island near Charleston. Half of it is set in 1942 and the other half in 2009 which is making it much harder to write, but so much for fun since I love the research.
For more about Karen and her work, visit her website. She's giving a signed copy of The House on Tradd Street to one commenter today.
What regional settings call to you or make you think "spooky?" What family dynamics draw you into a story? Do you have a question for Karen?