It Beats the Alternative

My children have just returned to college after their month-long holiday breaks.  It was good having them home again, but it’s also nice to have my clean and quiet house back.  And not have to dodge two extra cars when pulling my car out of the garage.  Now that I’m back into my routine, I’m hoping to also rebuild a little of my self-esteem.  There’s something about living with teenagers and twenty-somethings that make me feel as old and creaky as the houses I write about.

Just a few things that were pointed out to me this past month:  despite having the latest and new-fangled smart phones, nobody actually calls anybody on them except for old people (ie. my husband and me)—they’re just for texting and submitting photos to Instagram; nobody sends real (ie. paper) invitations to anything anymore except (maybe) a wedding; the word “taping” (as in “I’m taping Downton Abbey so I can watch it on Monday) is taboo because it makes people think you still have a VCR; and, lastly, three of my texts have apparently been submitted to whenparentstext.com.  It’s a long and steep road, but I’m hoping I’ll have my self-esteem back in a few months.  Just in time for them to be back home for spring break.

I’m sure I did the same thing to my parents.  But my parents have always seemed so old.  I didn’t think they had anything to teach me until I was in my twenties and had my own children.  It’s amazing how much smarter your parents become when you become one yourself.  As a teenager, however, I thought my parents weren’t much smarter than a third grader and was convinced there was nothing I could ever learn from them.  But I did—and in the most unexpected and unusual ways.

Because of my father’s job with a major oil corporation, we lived all over the world when I was growing up so I never had a home town.  Both of my parents were born and raised in Mississippi and I looked forward to my summer breaks when I could spend time with my beloved maternal grandmother along with about 100 cousins and my mother’s four sisters.  I’d listen to my mother and aunts and grandmother talking for hours, seeing a new side of my mother I didn’t get to see any other time.  Her accent would deepen, making it seem more like those of my aunts who’d never left Mississippi. It is these visits to the South that made me fall in love with the region, to make me want to recreate those Halcyon summer days of my childhood in my grandmother’s kitchen.  And when I write about my strong Southern heroines, it is those women’s voices I attempt to recreate within the pages of my novels.

My mother wasn’t a big reader, except for her ladies’ magazines like Good Housekeeping (which I still subscribe to!).  My dad was a voracious reader, but only of nonfiction.  I remember him reading Winston Churhill’s memoirs to my three brothers and me at bedtime.  I was enthralled (I guess that’s where I get my love of history from) but my brothers fell asleep.  My father was also in love with true ghosts stories and unsolved mysteries.  He also read those to us at bedtime (a severe lapse of judgment).  I spent many sleepless nights wondering what was going to come out of the darkened closet, or be standing behind me when I looked in a mirror.

I suppose it’s no surprise that after writing four Southern women’s fiction books (mostly about sisters or only children), I came up with my Tradd Street series idea.  I called them my Sixth Sense meets National Treasure meets Moonlighting (or Castle, depending on the age of the person I’m speaking to).  They’re Southern women’s fiction with a twist—the heroine sees dead people.  There’s even a scene in one of the books where the heroine looks in a mirror and somebody’s standing behind her.  I never thought I’d thank my dad for all those sleepless nights.

My parents are in their eighties now, old age by anybody’s definition.  My dad still likes to read, and his favorite books are my Tradd Street series.  He’s been my most impatient reader, begging me to let him read the unfinished manuscript as I wrote it.  They’re in a retirement village and when we visited in December many of the people there commented on how much I look like my mother.  I cringed for old time’s sake—just as my daughter does when people say that to her about looking like me.  Maybe that’s genetic, too.  My mother has Alzheimer’s and it’s too late for me to thank her for giving me her sisters, for putting these inspirational women into my life.  For nurturing a budding writer.

The events planner at the retirement community has invited me to come speak to the residents about writing and my dad is so excited.  Maybe I’ll read some of the true ghosts stories to the group for old times sake, but I know my dad has a hard enough time sleeping already.  Maybe it’s time I apologize for making him feel old long before he actually was.  And to thank him for giving me the love of stories and mysteries and, yes, even ghosts.  It’s amazing what we can learn from our parents even while we’re too busy telling ourselves that they don’t know anything.

Right now, I’m having trouble syncing my data on my desktop computer with my new iPad.  I’m wondering if I should spend three weeks trying to figure it out myself, or call my son and ask him to explain how it works.  Yeah.  I think I’ll wait.

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Breaking Up is Hard to Do

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BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO

I’m a middle child.  This means avoiding conflict has been a skill I’ve spent decades honing.  I was always the child selected to sit in the middle of the backseat between my two brothers on those long summer vacation car rides.  Because my father was one of those people who believed that using air conditioning was bad for his gas mileage, the temperature in the car usually hovered just above spontaneous combustion.  Heat fueled my brothers’ tempers, and eventually they’d start punching each other.  I still have the scars to prove it.

More recently, I had a house cleaning crew that was so bad I had to spend hours re-cleaning what I’d just paid them to do.  My husband told me I was ridiculous and that I should fire them.  Gulp.  After three years of this (yes, three), I finally devised a diabolical plan to divest myself of these incompetent cleaners without any conflict.  I wrote to them in Portuguese (this was their native language), courtesy of an online translation site, and left the note on my kitchen counter before leaving for the day.  In the note I explained to them that my mother-in-law (deceased) would be moving in with us and taking care of all the cleaning.  They never showed up again so either the Portuguese translation was accurate, or they believed that the ghost of my mother-in-law would haunt them if they crossed my threshold again.

If only all such break-ups could be so easy.  My son’s girlfriend of three years broke up with him via text, leaving emotional scars that have taken nearly a year to fade.  So when it became clear to me that it was time to part ways with the literary agent I’ve had for fourteen years, I was torn between sticking my head in the sand and continuing with the status quo, or pulling up my big-girl pants and doing what needed to be done.

What made this decision so hard was that my agent hadn’t really done anything wrong.  My restlessness had to do with those two words I myself fall victim to whenever I think about conflict:  status quo.  My career was moving along in the right direction, and things were finally happening for me.  Since the beginning, my career has been more tortoise than hare, and I’m okay with this.  Slow and steady wins the race, right?  But things had been moving so slow and steady that I’d begun to feel as if I’d never get to the “next level” because both my agent and I were so comfortable being where I was.   Not one to make a hasty decision, I’d been contemplating a move for over a year.  Okay, almost two years.  It was only when I realized that I’d be up for a new contract in the near future that I knew it was now or never.

An author friend of mine told me that at one point she’d been in my shoes, and her agent (an elderly woman) died peacefully in her sleep right before my friend could contact her with the news she was letting her go.  Not that I wanted this to happen to my agent, of course, but I couldn’t help but have thoughts of her sudden retirement or even joining a commune somewhere where she’d be unable to agent anymore.  Hey, I’m an author.  I’m allowed to have an active imagination.

Like the uber-organized and methodical Melanie Middleton in my Tradd Street series (okay—let’s call her anal-retentive), I did my research on all the writing websites about the most professional way to end an agent-author relationship.  I took notes.  Contacted author friends who’d done it before and strategized with them about the best way to do it.  I read endless blogs online (written by authors and agents) about how to diffuse a potentially volatile discussion—a PVD.  Something which, as a middle child, I’ve been successfully avoiding for decades.

What I learned:  Be respectful.  Be appreciative.  Be thankful.  Don’t pass blame.  Make it quick.  So I did—in an email.  I thanked my agent for getting me to where I am today (she’s been my agent for my first 18 novels, including 8 New York Times bestsellers), but that I felt that it was time in my career to make a change.  Everybody agreed that email was the best way as nobody wants to be blindsided by a phone call from out of the blue.  I offered to call her later, but she declined.  And that was that.

I won’t lie and tell you that at a recent conference where we were both in attendance I wasn’t looking at every potted plant as a place to duck behind if I saw her.  I’m a middle child, remember?  I’m sure in time I will be able to walk up to her and say hello and even sit down for a cup of tea.  And I have never doubted that I did the right thing.

My new agent is an agent I never thought I’d have the moxy to speak to, much less be represented by.  In the short time we’ve been together, she has made things happen that I couldn’t have imagined even a year ago.  I’m heading to the “next level” and I’m glad she’s by my side, navigating for me while I do what I’m supposed to be doing—writing.  The experience has left me empowered, and maybe even ready to leave my middle child syndrome behind me.

The other night my husband and I went out to dinner and my chicken was over- cooked.  But I ate it anyway because I didn’t want to be a bother or offend the cook.  I guess not every situation calls for big-girl pants, and that some things never change.

Gone With the Deadline

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I’m on deadline.  Besides meaning that I’ve got about 400 more pages to write in a two and a half months, it also means that I haven’t showered since yesterday, I’m dressing like a homeless woman, and if I don’t wash my hair soon my dog will start complaining.  Welcome to the glamorous life of an author.

How did this happen?  Well, I was on book tour this summer for 6 weeks to promote my first hardcover, THE TIME BETWEEN.  Fun and glamorous (for the most part) sure, but exhausting enough that my writing during that period was as fast and elegant as a herd of turtles racing through molasses.   I would have started writing this book earlier, but I had another book to write (RETURN TO TRADD STREET—due out in January 2014) AND a short story for an anthology that I finished in April and June, respectively.  THE TIME BETWEEN came out on June 2nd and then I went on tour.  THEN I had to come up with a brand spanking new story idea and write the whole book by <drum roll> November 1st.  I’m ecstatic that readers are clamoring for my books and reading them and telling me how much they’re enjoying them.  It really is a dream come true.  I’m also very, very tired.

My daily routine consists of wake up, feed dog, caffeinate self, then write at least three pages before I allow myself to eat.  Then I spend about an hour answering email and dealing with the business side of my writing career.  Then I write a few more pages before I get to eat lunch.  Then I take dog for walk (hoping I won’t run into any neighbors because I’m still wearing the homeless person outfit I threw on—or slept in—when I heaved myself out of bed) take 20 minute nap and write more pages before husband comes home for work.

We’ve been married 25 years so he’s learned diplomacy.  He knows better than to say, “Hey, Karen, weren’t you wearing that same thing last night when you went to bed?” or “Do you think you might shower today?  The dog’s starting to complain.”  And he especially knows not to ask, “Aren’t you done yet?”  Instead, he just quickly walks past me with a brief greeting, not wanting to see my head start spinning in a 360.  Kinda like in The Exorcist.  Thank goodness my kids are about to head back to college—because that would mean two more people who have to tiptoe around me in my Deadline Dementia state.  My husband says he’s going to enroll in college in time for the next deadline so he can live elsewhere for a while, too.

After a dinner that my husband has graciously prepared (and after my evening workout—either Pilates of Zumba), I write a few more pages before heading back to my computer for more business-related emails, blogging, Facebook, etc.  I normally collapse into bed around 11:30 at night, nearly comatose, but need a fix of Jay Leno before I can go to sleep.  It’s the only time during the day where I’m not compelled to do anything for anybody, and nobody expects me to email or call them at that hour, either.  I sleep like a dead person and am up with the sun the next morning to do it all over again.

I am very, very fried.  I hope I can survive to celebrate the completion and publication of this book—and not from the inside of an asylum.

In October, I’m going to the beach for the entire month.  I imagine my routine will be similar to the one I have here at home, but I’m hoping that the change in scenery will give me the necessary mental boost I need to power through until I reach the end.  According to my friends, I’m the only person they know who gets paler when she spends a month at the beach.

I’ve got to end this blog now.  I’ve got at least two more pages to write before I can go to sleep.  I love to write, I really do, but deadlines are different. Staring at my laptop each morning is a bit like staring at the freezing cold water of a pool. You know it’s going to hurt when you dive in, and be horribly uncomfortable for a long stretch, but after a while you’ll warm up and remember why you love to swim. 

Eating the Elephant

I recently read an article about a woman who’d climbed Mt. Everest.  Her mantra before and during this amazing feat:  “Eat the elephant one bite at a time.”  I didn’t really pay much attention to it at first, at least not until later in the morning when I sat down in front of a blinking cursor on a blank page and contemplated writing my next book—all four hundred and fifty manuscript pages of it.  And that’s when I understood exactly what that mountain climber had meant.

People assume that I have always loved to write and as a girl dreamed of being a writer. They would be wrong.  I hated to write.  I’m the least patient person I know.  When assigned a five-page paper, I was the student who’d write with huge letters so that I’d have a single paragraph contained in those five pages.  I simply wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible.

Maybe it comes with growing older, or having children, or just experiencing more of life, but I no longer think that way.  It started with my very first book, which I wrote just to see if I could.  I set no goals, no deadlines, and had no aspirations for success (don’t tell my kids I said that!).  I simply sat down one day and wrote a sentence.  Just one.  And then that sentence was soon joined by another, and then another.  Then I had a paragraph, then two paragraphs, and then a page.  All those pages became a chapter, and all those chapters eventually became a book.

It’s like the old Chinese proverb about the longest journey starting with the first step.  It’s so easy to talk ourselves out of things that scare us by telling ourselves that it’s too hard, too big, too all-encompassing to contemplate.  But as I sat down and started writing that very first book, I understood that if I just did a little bit at a time, eventually all those little bits would be a book.

I began to see how this new way of thinking could be applied to the rest of my life, too.  Instead of the mind-numbing thought of, “I need to clean the house today,” I’d think, “I’m going to clean the bathrooms and the kitchen floor today.  Tomorrow I’ll dust and vacuum.”  I realized that the impatience of my youth was simply my reaction from looking at projects in the wrong way.  At least that’s how I explain my procrastination tendencies, but that’s a subject for another blog.

When I started writing my June release, THE TIME BETWEEN, I had less than six months until my deadline.  The book has two intertwining plots—one in 1944 Hungary and one in modern day Edisto Island, South Carolina—and three points-of-view characters who are all very different.  I had so much research to do about the story and the settings, and so much actual writing, that I felt simply overwhelmed.

I thought back to my first book, and how I simply started with that first sentence.  So I sat down at my laptop and wrote my first sentence:  “The first time I died was the summer I turned seventeen.”  I wasn’t sure who was speaking or what she meant, or even what the rest of the story would be about, but I’d made a start.  And soon I had another sentence, and then another and then a paragraph.   Two days before my deadline, I typed the happiest words in the English language:  THE END.

Since my first book was published in 2000, I’ve written sixteen more novels, all around one 150,000 words.  If you’d asked me when I was younger if that’s how I’d be spending my adulthood I would have laughed.  I suppose that we really do get wiser as we get older, learning patience, and perseverance, and new ways to approach life.  And, most importantly, how to eat an elephant, one bite at a time.

The Long and Winding Road

When seen from space, the road of my writing journey closely resembles the curvy shoreline of the Gulf Coast—starting as far south as a person can go, heading north for a ways, sidetracked by an abrupt left turn, a bumpy stretch, then a dip south again, before—bam!—out to sea with a full sail.

The funny thing is, I never wanted to be a writer.  I’ve been a voracious reader since I discovered Nancy Drew, but I never wanted to actually write.  My brain was always on page three while my pencil seemed stuck on the second sentence.  I was the student who, when instructed to write a four-page story, I’d write so big that by the time I’d run out of paper, I’d written a single paragraph.

Through the years, my teachers told me I was a great storyteller (my mother had another word for it) and that I should be a writer.   When I was twelve, my family moved to London, England and our flat was across the street from the location of Charles Dickens’ house where he’d lived while writing David Copperfield.

Friends and relatives naturally assumed that I was meant to be a writer.  For every birthday and Christmas, I was showered with journals and diaries in the hopes that I’d be inspired.   Instead, I used up the pages recording what I wore each day so I’d never repeat an outfit.

Then in tenth grade, something miraculous occurred.  I had to take a typing class, using a manual typewriter (for those of you under thirty, Google it).   I was soon typing eighty-eight words per minute.   Suddenly, my writing could keep up with my thoughts, and I could get the words down on paper before they were forgotten.

However, I continued to profess a dislike of writing.  I still loved to read, but when assigned a fifty-page research paper I wanted to curl up into a ball.  All of those words I was expected to create.

Through my years of college, working in the business world, and raising small children, I didn’t have a lot of time for reading.  At least not until I discovered Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, and I was once again pulled into the world of story.  The book affected me enough to make myself sit down in front of my computer and start to write.

I wasn’t thinking about words, or word count, or how many hours I’d been sitting in front of the computer.  I was thinking about the story, and the characters and wondering what would happen next.  It was like discovering a new kind of food that was so delicious but had no calories (or, for the guys, like discovering a new power tool that was lightweight yet did everything you needed).  It was like falling in love all over again.  Suddenly, I finally knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.  I wanted to be a writer.

It took me almost three years to write, rewrite, and then rewrite again, but by the time I typed “The End”, I had a book I was proud of.  I entered it into a writing contest, and won first place.  The finalist judge was a New York literary agent and she offered me representation.  That first book was published in 2000.

This is usually the part in these tales where an author gets to type, “And they lived happily ever after.”  But the winding path of my career has never been about the long, straight highway.  My first book had a tiny print run and was out of print shortly after its first publication.  Same for the next three books, followed by me being unceremoniously dropped by my second publisher. 

This place on my career roadmap is illustrated by a large brick wall.  I almost stopped writing.  Unbeknownst to me at the time, this was also one of those “a-ha” moments in life that we don’t quite appreciate until much, much later.

A few years ago, my high-school aged son told us that he wanted to stop playing football.  When we asked why, he explained that all the stuff he loved about being on the football team didn’t outweigh the stuff he didn’t.  I’d like to think that my career skirmishes had taught him this clarity of thinking.  Because back when I almost quit, I realized that all the stuff I loved about writing far outweighed the stuff that made me want to run screaming into the night.  So I soldiered on and kept writing.

About a year after being dropped by my publisher, I sold a book to Penguin Publishing Group.  However, being the proverbial tortoise, I didn’t win any land-speed records racing toward bestsellerdom.  It took eight books before I cracked the New York Times bestseller list, and two more before I hit the top twenty.  I pinch myself daily to remind myself that I used to be the girl who hated to write.

A few weeks ago, I had one of the best days of my life.  I typed “The End” on my seventeenth novel, and I also got an email from a reader.  It was a thank you note of sorts telling me how during the last two years of her husband’s life when she’d been nursing him through illness, my books had become a life-preserver for her.  They were her escape from a difficult situation, a place she could go to laugh, and even to cry over somebody else’s life.

I think there are very few occupations where one has the ability to touch a stranger’s life in such a personal way, and I’m humbled and so grateful that I managed to stumble into this profession.

Granted, on the day when I received that email, it was late in the afternoon and I was still in the sweats I’d worn for three days, but still.  It just doesn’t get any better than that.

Laughter: It Beats the Alternative

(Reprint from She Reads Blog–6/27/13)Image

One of my favorite movies of all time is Steel Magnolias.  Not just because of the excellent title or the Louisiana setting, or even because of the terrific female actors or even the beautiful story of the connection we have with friends and family.  I love it because of its mix of humor and grief, of good things and bad things; because I laughed as much as I cried while watching it (and continue to do so even after having watched it about fifty times).

I’m all for heart-tugging stories in books and movies.  It is what I write, after all.  But life isn’t all about tears.  Sometimes you have to look really hard to find the humor in a situation, but it’s there.  You just have to convince yourself that you can find it.  Because sometimes things are so awful that you’re this close to climbing to the top of the nearest roof and screaming.  But finding something to smile about is what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom.  It’s what makes us human.

My eighty-one year old father is the sole caretaker on my 78-year-old mother who is suffering from Alzheimer’s.  My dad is from the generation of kids raised during the Great Depression where you learned to rely only on yourself and your family for survival.  To this day, he will not accept help from any source.  Which is why he fell off a 12-foot ladder (while holding a chainsaw) while trying to trim off a branch of a tree that was blocking his view from his recliner.  He required about forty-five stitches despite insisting to his neighbor (who happened to witness the fall) that he only needed a Band-Aid.

After he was all patched up and we knew he would be okay, my three brothers and I were soon joking about the whole horrible incident—comparing our dad to the Monty Python character who, after having both arms severed and is profusely spurting blood, insists on calling his injuries “only flesh wounds.”   We even went so far as to mention getting a custom t-shirt with the Superman logo emblazoned in the front.  We managed to laugh, while at the same time removed both ladder and chainsaw from our father’s garage.

My husband and I recently visited my parents, helping them to prepare for the big move from their home to a retirement community where there would be help for my father (and no more trees he’d feel compelled to trim).  My mother’s long-term memory is still as clear as ever, but her short-term memory has been reduced to less than a minute.

While sitting with my parents one evening after dinner, my mother would constantly ask the same question.  “So, what are the kids up to?”  Sometimes she seems to remember that they’re both in college, but not always.  She does remember their names, and ours, which is comforting.  After answering her question with the same answer about ten times, I was looking over at my husband, hoping he had some sort of escape plan. No such luck.

When my mom asked the same question again, I answered it with dialogue from one of my husband’s and my favorite movies Christmas Vacation.  In particular it’s the scene where Cousin Eddy (wearing a blue leisure suit and white dickie) is talking to Clark Griswold (played by Chevy Chase) and drinking eggnog out of enormous moose (Wally World) glasses.  And, because my husband has the dialogue memorized, too, it went something like this as I answered my mother’s question for the eleventh time:

Me: “Meghan’s in the clinic, getting cured off the Wild Turkey. And, Connor, bless his soul, is preparing for his career.”

Husband: “College?”

Me: “Carnival.”

Husband: “You got to be proud.”

Me: “Oh, yeah. Yeah, last season he was a pixie-dust spreader on the Tilt-O-Whirl. He thinks that maybe next year, he’ll be guessing people’s weight or barking for the Yak woman. You ever see her?”

Husband: “No.”

Me: “She’s got these big horns growing right out above her ears. Yeah, she’s ugly as sin, but a sweet gal. And, a heck of a good cook.”

My mother laughed, enjoying listening to our tall tale.  At least until thirty seconds later.  “So, what are the kids up to?”

Alzheimer’s is a horrible beast, and if I couldn’t find something to laugh about, my heart would break a little bit more every time she repeated the same question.  Humor is what gets us through the day.

In my June 2013 release, THE TIME BETWEEN, I have two sets of sisters—Hungarian refugees from 1944, and modern day sisters who have grown up on Edisto Island, South Carolina.  Tragedy links the two sets of sisters, as does music, as their tales of heartache, loss, and eventual redemption are explored throughout the book.

But it’s the frequent glimpses into the lighter side of life as seen through the eyes of ten-year-old Gigi Beaufain, that lifts the reader to a realistic portrayal of life.  It’s a life that is an equal mixture of good and evil, light and darkness, joy and sadness.  It’s real life.

Three years ago, at the funeral of my beloved grandmother, several of my cousins and I were standing at the open casket, reminiscing on the life of this wonderful woman who’d been such a special part of our lives.  Several of us were disconcerted to notice that Momo wasn’t wearing her trademark earbobs.  I was not alone in the belief that Momo would not want to meet Jesus without her earbobs (clip-on, of course).

Apparently, my Aunt Lulu had thought they looked too big on her and had removed them, but we convinced her to go get them from her purse and allow Cousin Sharon to clip them back on Momo’s ears while she lay in repose at the front of the church.

All through the gathering that followed the service, we talked and laughed about it, knowing that Momo would be right there with us, laughing her sweet laugh.  The laughter was a celebration of this amazing woman and her life that was filled with much sorrow, but never stopped her from laughing or delighting in something as insignificant as a snow-flurry falling in her yard in the Mississippi Delta.

Maybe that’s why I enjoy Christmas Vacation so much.  It’s about a guy who really loves his family and wants to give them the best Christmas ever—yet fails miserably.  It’s something we can all relate to.  And if we can laugh at him and his attempts, then we can laugh at ourselves, too.  And that, dear readers, is what life is all about.

My Other Life

To most people, I’m Karen White, the writer.  To my family, I’m Mom, errand-girl, organizer of all things family-related, and repository of all teenaged angst.  To my dog, I’m everything.  Seen through his sweet eyes, I hung the sun and the moon.  Which is why I allow him to stay despite such habits as shredding tissues from the garbage can and distributing the tiny pieces throughout the house.  But I digress.

I’m also a musician.  My grandmother played the piano, and my mother was a music major in college (for piano and—believe it or not—the alto sax!).  I suppose it was a natural assumption that when I was old enough to reach the pedals, I would start taking piano lessons.

So, at the tender age of five, I began taking lessons.  I actually loved to play.  Or, I should say, I loved the music but not so much the practicing.  Still, I kept at it.  I played in recitals, and in competitions, and even accompanied my high school choir.  But it wasn’t until I was in college that I got really serious about it.

I was a business major, but I had to take several fine arts electives to graduate so I signed up for piano lessons thinking they’d be an easy “A.”  All prospective students had to audition in front of the department head, Faina Lushtak—a Russian émigré who’d once played in Carnegie Hall—to be placed with the various instructors.  She told me my technique was terrible, but that I was very musical with my expression.  I was completely surprised when she chose to be my instructor, her only non-music major pupil.

I did get an “A” in the class—but only through much sweat and tears, and many, many hours of practice (gave me a head start with the experience of toiling for long hours that I would need when I started my writing career).  Despite my grumblings, my playing (and technique!) improved drastically, and even though I would get sick to my stomach every time I had to play in a recital with all of those music majors, Mrs. Lushtak was always proud of my performances.

When I got married, I informed my husband that we wouldn’t have a living room but a music room, complete with agrand piano.  My mother had always wanted one, but because we moved all over the world every few years it wasn’t practical.  I figured it would make sense, then, for me to have one.  Unfortunately, my husband—who played the trumpet in the high school marching band—didn’t agree.  All he could see was the dollar signs, or, as I referred to it, as the “investment” to get a quality grand piano.

We were at an impasse for ten years.  In that time we had four homes, all with an empty living room because I stubbornly refused to buy furniture to put in what I insisted on calling the music room.  When we had parties, I’d borrow chairs and occasional tables and lamps from my neighbors.

And then my daughter turned five and we set up an electronic keyboard in the music room for her to practice on.  As fate would have it, my husband was home early one day when her piano teacher was there and they started talking.  The teacher told us that our daughter was very gifted but that he was afraid she wasn’t developing the muscles in her fingers enough because of the lightweight electronic keyboard keys.

The next day my husband called me from the office.  He’d apparently been doing a lot of research into the best pianos to buy (apparently made in America between 1900 and WWII), and where to buy them in the Atlanta area.  I was dumbstruck.  Within two days, we had traveled to every piano store in the Atlanta metro area so I could play all pianos that met his criteria of a good investment, and my own—amazing sound quality.

We ended up with a 1926 Mason & Hamlin (made in Boston) full-size black satin wood grand.  When I played a Chopin Nocturne on it in the store, the resonance of the bass and sweetness of the upper register made me weep.  I knew I’d found my piano.

My daughter played that piano until her senior year in high school and became quite good.  She only continued with lessons through her freshman year in college before quitting completely.  It broke my heart.  But without a Faina Lushtak to push and encourage her, I knew that the pressures of her schoolwork would be too much to continue with piano.

My beautiful piano (my daughter calls it hers, but it’s in my house, right?) sits alone and quiet in the music room.  Every once in a while, my husband suggests selling it, but I clutch at my heart and begin to cry so hopefully he’ll stop asking.  Now that I’m an empty nester, I have plans to begin taking lessons again.  A piano like that is meant to be played, and I long for the joy and solace that my piano music always brought to my life before life got too busy.

In The Time Between, my June release, you might recognize the piano that sits in the middle of the story—a 1926 Mason & Hamlin grand.  It is through this piano that the two protagonists of the story, 34-year old Edisto Island native Eleanor Murray and 96-year-old Hungarian WWII refugee Helena Szarka, bond.  Although from completely different backgrounds, they are united by their love of music, and the feelings and memories it evokes.  It is through their music that they both find truth, peace, and healing.

It was such a joy to pull out all of my old piano music and take a trip down memory lane, much as Helena and Eleanor do in the book.   This is one of the few times that I’ve pulled something out of my own life to write about—and I think it gives the story an emotional advantage.  It is my hope that my readers will hear the music through my words.

Besides being a pianist and writer, I’m also a singer.  I’ve sung in weddings, and also sang in a professional choir for five years before I had to give it up to devote my time to writing.  But if you ask my children, they’ll just roll their eyes and profess no knowledge whatsoever that their mother can keep a tune.  They will never admit that when they were small I’d teach them the words and harmonies to every ABBA song and we’d sing them together in the car.  It was adorable—but don’t tell them I said that.

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I LOVE THE INTERNET. REALLY. I DO.

     ImageWhen I was a little girl, my father’s job has us moving all over the world about every two years.  I loved the experience of meeting new people and making a new house a home. I actually thrived on it.  But what I didn’t like was leaving behind the friends I’d made.  Luckily, back then things called “hand-written letters”, “postage stamps,” and “mailboxes” existed, which allowed me to keep in constant contact with a growing number of friends.  Sort of an old-fashioned Facebook, but more personal.

I remember fighting with my brothers over who got to run out to the mailbox after the mail truck left (twice a day—remember that?) and then getting the warm and fuzzies as I recognized the soft pink stationary of my friend Suzy Dorf who lived in New Jersey, or the one with kitten stickers all over the envelope from my friend Monica who lived in Venezuela.

Fast-forward mumble-mumble years and here we are in the age of the Internet.  Where anonymity and in-your-face coexist hand-in-hand.  For a writer, it’s wonderful that I have all this instant access (and visa versa) with my readers.  On the other hand, all that access can sometimes seem, well, daunting.

A while back, I received an email from a reader that started out like most of the ones I receive and that gives me a warm squeeze around the heart.  “Dear Karen, I just started reading your book and I it was so wonderful that I couldn’t put it down.  Until the fairies came and started plucking at my sleeves.”  The letter ended with my book in a plastic bag surrounded by rocks and candles.  No, I am not making that up.

Last month I received an email from an irate reader berating me for making my readers wait so long for the fourth book in my Tradd Street series (as if I had any say in the matter, and as if it took as long to write one of my books as it did for her to read one—which, for the record, isn’t true).  She was so upset about being made to wait for the next book that, she informed me, she wasn’t going to buy that fourth book when it came out.

Huh?  But wouldn’t that mean…?  Oh, never mind.  My attention was quickly diverted to the reviewer on Amazon who gave me one star for one of my books—despite a really glowing review—because several of the pages in her book were crumpled.

I spend a lot of time on my Facebook fan page because it’s a great way to connect to my readers and they’re all very nice there.  I love to post pictures of my dog, and my dreadful manicure when I’m on deadline, and pictures of the layers of pollen on my screened porch.  We talk about books, too, but it’s all these other things that help my readers and me see that we have a lot in common besides books.

When I was bemoaning the fact that my poor dog had horrible seasonal allergies, I had about thirty comments from readers about their own tried-and-true remedies.  It was like having a direct link to WebMD and Dear Abbey!

My next book (June 2013), The Time Between is set in Edisto Island, Charleston, and Hungary.  Even though I had the opportunity to travel to all three places while writing the novel, the Internet was like my personal travel agent, showing me pictures and travel routes, and neighborhoods where my characters should live.  I even found a website where I could listen to recordings of Hungarians speaking their native tongue so I could get an ear for the accent to give to Helena, one of my protagonists.

For my characters’ names, I searched the web for burial records in each setting, looking for recurring names that would be indicative of the families that had once lived in those areas.  I ended up with the surnames of Beaufain, Murray, and Szarka—but the first names are all my own:  Finn, Eleanor, and Helena.

I try to schedule my Internet time to two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon—but sometimes the draw of checking email or my Facebook page pulls too strongly during the middle of the day, especially when I see I have a new email from a reader (I really need to turn off my email notifications on my iPhone!).

Last week, I received an email from a woman thanking me for my books.  Her husband had recently passed and she said it was by reading my books during her husband’s long illness that she was able to get through a very difficult period in her life.  What a blessing to me, as a writer, to know that my words had offered comfort to a complete stranger.  And what a wonderful thing the Internet is that allowed her to communicate with me.

On the flip side, I have a folder in a filing cabinet in my home office.  It’s filled with printed out emails from people who, let’s just say, aren’t necessarily readers or fans, but maybe lonely people with lots of cats at home who don’t get out much but love to express their opinions—however misguided they might be.  I keep them so that if I ever disappear, my husband knows where to direct the police as they being their search.  We’ve all seen Stephen King’s Misery after all!

And then there’s this blog.  I’m sitting here in Florida listening to the rain while typing this, knowing that people around the country will happen upon it and read it, and perhaps smile, or skim over it before hitting the next button, or they might be compelled to visit my website (www.karen-white.com).  They might even check out my Facebook (facebook.com/karenwhiteauthor) page where they’ll find photo albums of bottle trees sent by readers after reading my book On Folly Beach, and of course lots of photos of my dog. 

The world is a very big place—sometimes bigger than I’d like it to be—but in the World Wide Web, it’s a wonderful place where readers and writers connect.

Book tour dates for my June release, THE TIME BETWEEN!

Tuesday, June 4th, 6:30PM

Book Exchange

2956 Canton Road

Marietta, GA  30066

 

Wednesday, June 5th, 6:30PM

Foxtale Book Shoppe

105 E. Main Street

#138

Woodstock, GA  30188

 

Thursday, June 6th, 7:00PM

Bookmiser

4651 Sandy Plains Rd.

Suite 106

Roswell, GA  30075

 

Friday, June 7th, 1:00PM

Atlanta International Airport

2600 Maynard H. Jackson Jr Blvd

Atlanta, GA  30354

 

Friday, June 7th, 7:00PM

B&N

Mansell Crossings Shopping Center

Alpharetta, GA  30022

http://store-locator.barnesandnoble.com/event/79746

 

Saturday, June 8th, 4:00PM

Irmo Branch Library

6251 St. Andrews Road

Columbia, SC  29212

 

Sunday, June 9th, 2:00PM

McIntrye’s Books

220 Market Street

Fearrington Village

Pittsboro, NC  27312

http://www.fearrington.com/event/karen-white-a-time-between/

 

Monday, June 10th, 12:00 noon

Fiction Addiction

Book Your Lunch *ticketed event

Twigs Tempietto

1100 Woods Crossing Rd.

Greenville, SC 29607

http://bookyourlunch.com/book-your-lunch-with-karen-white/

 

 

Monday, June 10th, 7:00PM

Fountainhead Bookstore

408 N Main St.

Hendersonville, NC  28792

http://www.fountainheadbookstore.com/events.php

 

Tuesday, June 11th, 7:00PM

Park Road Books

4139 Park Road

Charlotte, NC  28209

 

Wednesday, June 12th, 12:00 noon

Country Bookshop

140 NW Broad St

Southern Pines, NC  28387

Luncheon *ticketed event

http://www.thecountrybookshop.biz/event/karen-white-lunch-event

 

Thursday, June 13th, 4:00PM

Edisto Island Bookstore

547 Highway 174

The Edisto Center

Edisto Island, SC  29438

 

Friday, June 14th, 11:00AM

Litchfield Books

Moveable Feast

The Litchfield Golf & Beach Resort/Tara Ballroom

14276 Ocean Hwy

http://litchfieldbooks.com/category/events/

 

Monday, June 17th, 4:00PM

Blue Bicycle

420 King St.

Charleston, SC  29403

 

Tuesday, June 18th, 10:30AM

Literary Guild of St. Simons Island

The St. Simons Island Casino

503 Beachview Drive, Room 108

St. Simons Island, GA  31522

http://www.litguildssi.org/apps/calendar/

 

Wednesday, June 19th, 12:00 noon

Hattie’s Books

Luncheon

1531 Newcastle St.

Brunswick, GA  31520

http://www.hattiesbooks.com/news.html

 

 

Wednesday, June 19th, 5:00PM

Books Plus

107 Centre Street

Amelia Island, FL  32034

 

Thursday, June 20th, 6:00PM

Vero Beach Book Center

2145 Indian River Blvd

Vero Beach, FL  32960

 

Friday, June 21st, 7:00PM

The Bookmark

220 First Street

Neptune Beach, FL  32266

 

Monday, June 24th, 7:00PM

Bookshelf & Gallery

126 S. Broad St.

Thomasville, GA  31792

 

Tuesday, June 25th, 10:00AM

The Blue Giraffe

1777 E. County Hwy 30A

Suite 102B

Santa Rosa Beach, FL  32459

 

Wednesday, June 26th, 12:00 noon

Page & Pallet

32 South Section St.

Fairhope, AL  36532

 

Monday, July 1st, 7:00PM

Chester Country Books

975 Pauli Pike

Westchester, PA  19380

 

Tuesday, July 2n3, 6:00PM

Bethany Beach Books

99 Garfield Pkwy

Bethany Beach, DE  19930

 

Saturday, July 13th, Time TBD

Parnassus Books

3900 Hillsboro Pike

Nashville, TN  37215

Rejection (Or: The Ignorance of Others)

At the tender age of thirteen, a story I’d written and submitted for my school’s esteemed literary magazine was rejected.  Not sent back for revision, or deferred for a later edition.  Rejected.  Having (erroneously so, apparently) imagined myself to be quite the little miss wordsmith, it was humiliating.  Especially when Diana B., the girl who loved to torment me, smugly told me that her story had been accepted.  Doubly humiliating.

As I write this, I’m in the car traveling a couple of hours to spend the weekend with our son whose heart has just been trampled on and shattered into a million pieces by his girlfriend of three years.  Rejection, in all its forms, is hurtful, mortifying, debilitating, and humbling.  It can also be the best thing that could ever happen to you.

Of course, it’s a lot easier for an older adult to appreciate experience—even bad ones—than it is for a nineteen year old.  I’ve already told my son how in my senior year in college my own boyfriend of two years—somebody I’d expected to marry—broke up with me for another medical student with whom he had apparently been studying anatomy.  I thought my life was over.  Until a few months later when my two sorority sisters set me up for a “Find-A-Date” function with my best friend’s older brother with whom I’d had a crush on since I was sixteen.  The date went well, as did subsequent dates, and he and I have been married now for twenty-five years.

Writers are notoriously thin-skinned.  Every less-than-stellar review kills me.  I’ve been known to focus on the one negative review out of one-hundred.  Even obsess over it to the point where I consider cyber-stalking.  But that’s another blog and I’m getting help.

I was not an overnight success.  My first four books were barely a blip on the radar of publishing.  My pitiful advances were indicative of the miniscule print runs and publisher non-support. I was dropped by my second publisher—kicked to the curb.  I was like Snoopy receiving a rejection from a publisher along with another rejection letter for anything else he might be thinking of sending to them in the future.

It wasn’t until my fifth book (with a new publisher) that I was given a cover I could actually show to my parents and wasn’t embarrassed to sit behind at a booksigning.  It took twelve books before I hit the New York Times extended list, and it wasn’t until I published book number fourteen that I made it into the top twenty.  Every time one of my earlier books failed to reach the list was like a little rejection.  It hurt.  It stung.  Many gallons of ice cream were consumed.

Looking back (and hindsight is always 20/20), I now realize that every rejection has made me a better person, and a better writer.  I’ve learned a lot about perseverance and patience—qualities I didn’t have when I was younger.   And I still might not have unless my heart and my dreams hadn’t spent time crushed beneath the wheels of unrequited love and an industry that can sometimes be indifferent at best.   I’ve learned that bumps in the road of life and career are only insurmountable walls if you allow them to be.  There is always a way around or over—you just need to be willing to work hard enough to find it.   Or you can quit.  And my daddy didn’t raise me to be a quitter.

I’m sure my son thinks that all my experiences are moot because I’m old (ancient, really, in his eyes), and that it doesn’t work that way.  As much as it pains me I know that I can’t tell him these things, that I can’t be the buffer between him and hurt.  I need to step back and allow him to learn from his hurt, be better for it, and be stronger for the road ahead.

That doesn’t mean that we can completely forgive and forget.  I’ve long held firm to the belief that the best revenge is success.  So is putting people in my novels.  If I need a person in one of my books to do a terrible thing or die in an unfortunate way, I have a long list of names I can use.  At the top of the list is Diana B. whose smug smile all those years ago forced me to try harder to prove to myself that I could write.  So thank you, Diana B.  I hope I can find you so I can send you a copy of my latest bestseller.  <g>