Karen White: The author next door
Milton Mom writes bestselling “Grit Lit” novels about Southern women
By KATIE VANBRACKLE
Karen White takes my phone call via portable headset while emptying the dryer and folding clothes. Her daughter arrived home from college the night before bearing huge loads of laundry. Her son is graduating from high school later in the week. Some work is being done on the house and construction crews come and go at all hours. The dog is digging in the trash can. Again.
Welcome to a typical day in the life of this busy Milton, Ga., mom who also happens to be a New York Times bestselling author.
White discovered a natural talent for writing after leaving her corporate job to become a stay-at-home mom. Her first book was published in 2000. Since then, she has written fourteen novels, including “The Beach Trees” and “The Strangers on Montagu Street” both of which debuted at number fourteen on the New York Times bestseller list.
White calls her fictional tales about southern women “grit lit.”
“The Strangers on Montagu Street” is part of White’s popular Tradd Street mystery series which she describes as “’Moonlighting’ meets ‘National Treasure’ meets ‘Sixth Sense’.” Set in Charleston, South Carolina, the lead character in the series discovers an unsettling ability to communicate with ghosts inhabiting stately homes on Tradd, Legare and Montague Streets.
White writes about the South because “it’s what I know.” She needs to feel an emotional connection to an area and its people before forming a story there. When preparing to write a novel, she likes to immerse herself in the book’s setting which means long working vacations to spots like Folly Beach, South Carolina and Biloxi, Mississippi.
“It’s difficult, but I manage. We all must suffer for our work,” she says with a wink.
White recently spent time on St. Simons Island, Georgia, the setting for her latest novel, “Sea Change” which draws upon some of her favorite themes—multiple generations of a single family, hidden secrets and the quest to find a place to call home. She describes “Sea Change” as a contemporary Southern gothic tale. View More about “Sea Change” in the video, right.
“My characters are always southern protagonists with a crisis,” she said. “They usually don’t know where to go and need a good kick in the pants to get started. I write about people who are flawed and try to overcome obstacles. After all, we read to be entertained, but also to learn.”
“I want to make you laugh and cry, but when you finish the book you shouldn’t want to stick your head in an oven. I will drag your emotions over the coals and I don’t always tie things up with a neat bow, but I promise my characters will always be in a better place at the end.”
White may be an acclaimed author, but at home she is simply “Mom.”
“My family is only vaguely aware that I do something outside of the home,” she said with a laugh.
“They interrupt me regularly when I am working. Honey, do you know where that Costco receipt is? Mom, do I have any clean socks? They don’t understand that writers need to be in ‘the zone’ and when you are distracted, it can take an hour or more to regain your focus.”
White spends about three hours a day in her office taking care of the business end of things, answering emails and posting to her blog and Facebook page. Then she grabs her laptop, whistles for Quincy, her Havanese lap dog, and escapes to a lounge chair on her screened porch. “I can’t write while sitting upright at a desk,” she said. “I have to be reclined and comfortable. Writing is a very draining process mentally.”
Loyal Quincy, whom White calls “Velcro Dog” for his insistence on being attached to her side every moment of the day, enjoys his own fan following after being included as a character in the Tradd Street series.
“He tries to take full credit for those stories, but he never succeeds,” she said. “People know he can’t type without opposable thumbs.”
Inspiration for White’s novels comes at unexpected moments and almost never when she is actually writing.
“The best ideas usually come when I’m folding laundry or doing other trivial every day stuff. That’s when the subconscious kicks in. My most recent story idea came from a quote of the day in my email. It read ‘All shut-eye ain’t sleep; all goodbye ain’t gone’ from the Gullah culture in South Carolina’s lowcountry. Suddenly I heard the first line of a book and saw the first scene. People started talking to me and images started flashing.
Sometimes writing can be tortuous, staring at the computer screen sticking knitting needles in your eyes. At other times it flows freely, almost uninvited.”
Until the Tradd Street series is complete—the final book comes out in January, 2014– White will continue writing two books per year which means a major balancing act between the many demands on her time.
After a whirlwind tour of appearances this summer for “Sea Change,” she plans to escape to the family’s new beach house in Florida to spend the entire month of October writing.
Such extended creative retreats are possible now that White’s youngest child is preparing to leave the nest. She recently posted thoughts regarding this latest family milestone on her personal blog.
“Yesterday, my youngest child (my “baby”), graduated from high school. There were many instructions for the seniors, but what about for their parents who would find themselves minus one child come fall? Is our work done? Time to retire? To curl up in a ball and gather dust?
I’ve had fifteen novels published in the last eleven years, and I think that sort of longevity in the publishing world might tell you that I’m not the type to roll over or go away just because the game rules have suddenly changed. Success is about seeing opportunity in change—something I’ve learned the hard way in my writing career. Facing this fall with no kids at home is like starting a new book. It’s a little scary, a little thrilling, completely new, but wonderfully and wholly overwhelming at its endless well of opportunity.
A blank page can be a glorious thing.”
• Read more about “Sea Change” and the opportunity to meet Karen here.
• To learn more about Karen White, visit karen-white.com.