Hi, this is Jo. I hope you like my picture of Billie and his guardian dragon. 🙂
I’m delighted to be interviewing my friend and fellow Dragon Lover, Karen Harbaugh.
Jo: Welcome, Karen. I’m always interested in a writer’s origins. When did you first realize you were a writer?
My mother says it was when I was a year old. She actually has a picture of me as a todder, looking very glamorous in a bathing suit and sunglasses, shaded against the sunlight by an umbrella, with an open pad of paper and a pencil in hand. She said she asked me what I was doing, and I said I was writing a book. However, it didn’t occur to me that I was a REAL writer until after I finished–and started to send out to publishers–a manuscript. That was at the age of 34. Yes, I can be slow that way.
Jo: I was pretty much the same. Perhaps all writers are. What’s the earliest writing you remember doing, Karen?
I remember writing comic strips at the age of about 6 or 7, usually fairy tales, usually in five panes. Which, curiously enough, corresponds to the five sections in which I usually structure my stories. Hmm. I also remember writing an essay about the book “Johnny Maple Leaf” in first grade, with which I struggled mightily. I remember crying about it, sure that I couldn’t do it. However, I got through it, and my first grade teacher, Mrs. Potter, gave me a good grade, which went a long way to making me reconciled to writing essays.
Strangely, this bears some resemblance to my writing process even today.
Jo: Yes, sometimes it seems that this time it’ll never work. What was you first sale?
Jo: It’s a shame that the tradidional regency lines have died. Do you have a lot of manuscripts gathering dust, or have you sold most of what you’ve written?
All but one, so that will be…let’s see…eleven novels and three novellas. I have one novel, a fantasy historical romance, completed, but not sold, and another in progress.
My upbringing, with my mom being Japanese, plus my fondness for fairy tales and ghost stories as a child. And then my dad introduced me to the Greek and Norse myths when I was about 9 years old, and then my Sunday School’s exposing me to the Bible stories. I realized at that time there was a thin line between myth and the metaphors in people’s lives, although I didn’t articulate it as such back then.
Myths, legends, fairy tales, and Bible stories had relevance to me as a child. My mother–raised Buddhist and Shinto–really believed there were such things as the kami, the nature spirits of her homeland. She told me about seeing the fox kami, when she was a child. So of course, I believed that these were, or could be, real.
For me as a child, there was a thin line for me between real life and “things that might be.” Shinto is a religion, after all, and people in Japan believe in it as much as many Americans believe in their religion.
Both my mom and dad were great storytellers, although my dad’s storytelling was based more in real life and history. And he was a great “book pusher.”
Jo: Your mother is Japanese, and I gather she comes from the Samurai line. Can you tell us more about what that means?
The Samurai are the warrior caste, or warrior class, in Japan, akin to the medieval European knights. Being a samurai meant that you lived by a certain code of honor–Bushido–and it also meant that you belonged to a certain class of “gentry” as the English would say, or landed aristocracy.
My mother’s family was Samurai, and owned a great deal of land, although they had in the late 1800’s fallen on hard times, and had to marry into a rich merchant class family. Merchants were considered…not that good a class of people, but the aristocracy resorted to consorting with and marrying them if they needed the money to shore up their estates.
My mother’s line also had connections to the scholar caste, which was well esteemed. Her family was well considered enough that her cousin was given the post of Imperial Guard, and my grandmother–though she did not have a title herself–was considered well born enough to marry a baron.
Jo: No wonder you were drawn to Regency!
My mother’s family even has a family crest. By the end of World War II, however, her family had fallen on hard times indeed, and let’s just say that poverty is a great equalizer, enough so that her uncle considered an honorable foreign American sailor acceptable as a husband for her.
Jo: Do you think this heritage has affected the way you write?
Not so much the way I write, but what I chose to write. My family is really big on history, for example, and combined with my mother’s…aristocratic sensibilities made the Regency era seem very natural, and Regency romances were the first novels I wrote. The concepts of the different classes of society seemed very familiar to me, as well as the codes of honor, especially with respect to the military and duels, and one’s obligation to family, land, and servants.
My mother’s era was very Regency/medieval in feel, even though she was born in the 20th century. Even so, my grandmother was quite a rebel, and did things that were very unconventional even for a western woman in the 1920’s and 30’s. Though I’m very much an American, raised in a relatively classless society, and don’t care about who owns what, I’m also aware of, well, the difference between such things as “new” and “old” money. And, civil discourse and politeness mean more to me than most, I guess. So, all of that would push me toward writing the “long ago and far away” sorts of stories.
Jo: You wrote a contemporary novella about a Japanese American woman. Tell us more about that.
I was invited to write for that anthology (Playing with Matches) by Katherine Greyle (aka Jade Lee), because at the time there were very few romances featuring Asian American protagonists, and chick lit—especially ethnic chick lit–hadn’t quite become the phenomenon it is now. The anthology included Katherine, Cathy Yardley, Sabeeha Johnson, and I. We’re all Asian or part Asian.
I welcomed the chance to write something different: a contemporary romance, and with Asian protagonists. The fun thing about it was that I patterned the heroine’s mother after my own. I think I probably did a good job of it, since my mother’s Clothing and Textile Advisor friends recognized her as soon as they read the story. She’s this tiny 4’11” woman, and yet it’s remarkable how people end up doing what she says, one way or another. A real force of nature.
Jo: What about your vampire/French Revolution books? How did you come up with that idea and how did you prepare to write them? What was the most interesting research you did?
The first vampire book I wrote was The Vampire Viscount, and that was a “book of the heart”–the kind that grab you and won’t let you go even if reason tells you it’s totally idiotic to write it and that it won’t sell.
Keep in mind that it was published in 1995, and it was published in the traditional Regency form, not a “big” book. So far as I know, nobody had put much if any fantasy or paranormal elements in a Regency, and I don’t think anyone had put in a vampire as a Regency hero before. It started out as a sort of a joke, actually. I had just sold The Devil’s Bargain to NAL, and my agent asked me if I had another book idea to sell to make it a two-book contract. I couldn’t think of anything, but I flippantly wrote back something to the effect that wouldn’t it be cool to have a vampire hero in a Regency?
I didn’t think she’d take me seriously. Before I knew it, she wrote back and said I had sold two books, and I thought, two? Where did that come from? And I realized that it was that vampire remark I had made. But I think my flippant remark probably was the nudging of those “girls in the basement” that Barbara Samuel talks about–the Muse, because that idea seized me like a vise and wouldn’t let go after that.
Not too much research for that–I had already had over 20 years of Regency “fannish” research under my belt by that time (I was a fan since high school), and all I needed was to do a bit of world-building for the vampire bit. However, I did find that a vampire was a perfect fit for the Regency era, especially since the suave, sexy vampire we know and love today had its start during the Regency era, and was patterned off the “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” Lord Byron.
NIGHT FIRES, however…well, that was in a different country and a different time–France, and in the French Revolution. God, talk about a rabid book of the heart. What the hell was I thinking? I was at the point in my Regency writing that getting a contract was easy. Writing a vampire book set during the French Revolution had two strikes against it from the start (in 1998, when nobody wanted anything set during the French Revolution, and only a couple of people were writing vampire romances). It meant starting from scratch. However, I am a slave to the Muse, so I went with it, especially since the Muse pretty much blocked me from writing Regencies at the time.
As for the research, it turned out easier than I had thought. I have pretty good memory for research, and I happened to have a paper I did in a college history class about the Terror during the French Revolution. I had also saved the back-up documentation. Lesson to historical writers: never throw away your college history class notes or papers. As a result, I had a solid starting point and knew what to look up to get the flavor and conditions of the times. I wrote the book in 2000 (publisher postponed publication until 2003); I found that it was during the French Revolution that the word “terrorist” was first coined. Lots of paranoia at the time, and contrary to popular notion, it was a mostly middle-class urban revolution, rather than a rural peasantry one. The peasants were too poor to have the energy to do anything but keep from starving.
Jo: True enough. I loved what you did with that unusual setting. And perfect for vampires and evil forces. What’s your writing routine, Karen? Where, when, how?
I try to write every day, but now that I’m working full time (gotta put the kid through college), I probably get an hour here and there in the evening, depending on how much overtime I’ve had to do. I’m tired by the end of the work day, and getting enough brain power to be creative after that is hard. On the weekends, though, I make writing an extra treat by taking my Alphasmart or laptop to a café and writing there.
Have to have my iPod: I listen to the High Focus from Brain Sync to begin with, then switch to period music appropriate to the era in which I’m writing, or soundtrack music that suits the mood of the story. For editing, I’ll also use High Focus, and then switch to some rock music, maybe Stevie Ray Vaughan, and other music with a definite bluesy bent.
Jo: Interesting about the rock music and blues. Okay, now a tricky question. If you gave up writing fiction completely, Karen, what would be your dream job?
Oh, my God. There are so many things I think I could turn my hand to. In the last few years, I’ve found a passion for digging up research on rural poverty and the relationship between that, the rise of evangelical Christianity, and political misperceptions of the two groups. Heck, I’ve found a passion for discerning socioeconomic trends in general. I love finding the connections, but I don’t know if I’d persist in doing it for too long, because I don’t see rural poverty disappearing any time soon, regardless of who’s in power. Also I seem to have a talent as a systems administrator in our household. My hubby’s a software engineer, but I’m the one who ends up configuring our computers and the network, plus doing the troubleshooting on them. I rather like doing that.
Jo: About your dragon story — Anna and the King of Dragons. Great title! Can you give us a brief synopsis. (I know. All writers hate the dreaded synopsis.*G*)
Yuck, indeed. Well, here’s a short description: Orphaned Dutch girl tries to survive alone in Edo-era Japan (think James Clavell’s Shogun–1600’s) and meets a noble samurai and a dragon who comes to her aid. The idea of a young woman alone in an Asian country and having to make her way in it reminded me of “Anna and the King of Siam,” so that’s how I came up with the title.
I think this is your first fiction set in Japan, isn’t it? That must have been interesting. What does your mother think about this story? (I inserted a picture of what I think is a Japanese dragon. 🙂 )
Yes it is. I had to draw on all my childhood memories, do some research, and then what I remembered of the Japanese language. Luckily, my mom was helpful that way. Also, when I mentioned the project to her, she said that she had once visited a dragon’s cave, and knew of a dragon’s pond on her native island of Kyushu, not far from Arita, in Saga Province.
This was perfect, because the Arita and Imari areas were about the only areas aside from Nagasaki that foreigners–particularly the Dutch–were allowed to travel. The blue and white porcelain from Arita was exported heavily to the Netherlands, and eventually became the famous Dutch Delftware. My mother is thrilled that I’m wrote about her area in Japan, and she was happy to help me with the research. I
haven’t spoken Japanese since I was a child, and though I seemed to be surprisingly able to come up with sentences, I was never sure they were right. She helped me a lot that way. I think I was right more than wrong, thank goodness. I loved writing that novella. It was very refreshing to write something different–different era, different setting, getting into a semi-foreign mind-set. However, love is love, regardless of time and place.
Also, I noticed that Sony Publishers in Japan mentioned Dragon Lovers–particularly “Anna and the King of Dragons” in the forward of their recent translation of my book Night Fires. So I think there is interest there. I don’t know if there are that many romances set in historical Japan, so that’s probably why it piqued their interest.
Jo: How fascinating. Do you have a book or story you truly, madly, deeply want to write, Karen, but never get time for? What about a Japanese-set historical novel?
Oh yes. More than a few. For years I’ve had the idea of writing a series of loosely connected books having to do with a family line of people who have special powers. The first of those was Night Fires, the second was Dark Enchantment. I wrote a third–finished it, in fact–but that was rejected. I’m writing a fourth–well, revising it heavily now–and hoping that readers will see the connection.
What I’d like to do is have a whole series going from ancient Roman times to the future, where the latent or small special talent suddenly becomes strong in times of trouble. I’ve had this concept for…well, since I began writing Night Fires in 1999. I really thought that the concept of people with special powers coming to the fore at historical crisis points would be the coming thing. Well, guess what happened after years after that? The 4400 on TV, as well as Heroes. A reader as well as an agent once asked me what it was like being ahead of the trend–yeah, people have noticed. I said it’s like trying to open a locked door by banging your head against it. It can be done given a lot of time, patience, and aspirin.
I don’t know that any publisher will want to go with the whole concept, though. So I’m trying to sell it book by book, hoping each one will work. That’s really hard to do, because what’s wanted is a book like the last one. I have a fun idea for a book involving a psychic Irish lass, garden fairies, a werewolf, and the Irish Rebellion of 1798. Well, okay, the Irish Rebellion was horrendous, but the rest is fairly light-hearted, trust me on this. Something has to balance the grimness.
A Japanese-set historical novel? That’s an intriguing idea, but if I did, then it’d have to have fantasy elements to keep me happy. I’d probably work Japanese religion/mythology into it. As for selling it…yeah, right. But that’s what everyone said about The Vampire Viscount and Night Fires, so who knows?
Jo: What’s the title of the book you’re doing massive revisions on?
Midnight Surrender. Massive revisions. Massive. Nearly done, but I have no idea whether
it makes sense or not. Pray for me, people. On the other hand, I often think this when I have to do massive revisions. Although, this is pretty huge.
Jo: I hope it goes splendidly and sells, so we can have more of your wonderful and wonderfully different novels, Karen. Thank you so much for a fascinating interview.
Also, Karen spins yarns in more than fiction. She spins wool. Check out
her page on that.
I’m sure you all have questions and comments for Karen, but as usual, especially to encourage our shy
lurkers, Karen is offering any one of her books as a prize. The draw will be made from the names of people who post a comment before midnight pacific time on Saturday, March 3rd.
(By the way, if you click on the Dragon Lovers cover to enlarge it, you’ll see a shadow of a dragon on the front that’s disappeared from the final version. I don’t know why, but the publisher seemed to be nervous of too much dragon on the front, fearing the books would all be shelved in fantasy. It’s on the back, however. The strange twists of publishing.
This is a trade paperback, so the best place to find it is on line or in a book store. Supermarkets and chain stores that mainly stock mass market sized books (which are appropriately sometimes called “rack sized”) may not carry it.)
After that diversion, let’s all get talking!