By Barbara DeMarco-Barrett | From the October 2013 Issue
Novelist, journalist, and witty, no-nonsense social commentator, Karen Karbo is the author of the bestselling The Gospel According to Coco Chanel, How Georgia Became O’Keeffe, and How to Hepburn, volumes in what she calls her Kick Ass Women’s Series. Her three novels were all named New York Times notable books, and The Stuff of Life, her memoir about her father, was a People Magazine Critic’s Pick and winner of the Oregon Book Award for Creative Nonfiction. Her short stories, essays, articles, and reviews have appeared in Elle, Vogue, Esquire, Outside, The New York Times, Salon.com, and other magazines. She is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction, and a winner of the General Electric Younger Writer Award. Karen grew up in Los Angeles and currently lives in Portland, Oregon. Her latest release in the Kick Ass Women’s Series is Julia Child Rules: Lessons on Savoring Life (Globe Pequot Press), published 10/1/2013.
Talk about the Kick Ass Women Series, which began with How to Hepburn. Why did you choose to begin it with her?
Like pretty much all of my creative choices, I have to follow the trail back into the forest to reconstruct why I did what I did. Here as always, I follow what interests me. In this case, I’d just written and published The Stuff of Life, the memoir about taking care of my father during the last year of his life, and was feeling glum and wrung out. I was talking to my agent one day and said, “I just want to do something fun” (or something equally as sophisticated and erudite), and she asked me what that might be. I had no idea, but I needed to be working on something. For most writers, and I’m no exception, it’s not time that heals all, but words. We started talking about a book I loved and had re-read recently, Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life, and she wondered who had been influential in my life, the way Proust had been in the life of Alain de Botton, and I thought about Katharine Hepburn. I thought about the joy of researching the book, which would mean re-watching all of Hepburn’s movies, and immersing myself in 20th-century Hollywood. I’d gone to film school at USC, and in a class on screwball comedies had discovered that Hepburn wasn’t always an old lady starring in movies my mother and I had watched together when I was in grade school, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and The Lion in Winter, but young and gorgeous and hilarious.It had been a complete revelation. Added to which, people used to tell my mother she looked like Hepburn. So, for all those disparate but emotional reasons, she seemed like someone with whom I wanted to spend a few years.
I was also eager to emulate de Botton’s modern mash-up of biography, philosophy, and self-help.
Then there’s Georgia O’Keeffe and Coco Chanel….
Other great iconoclasts who changed 20th-century culture, and lived life on their own terms; after Hepburn, these became requirements for my subjects. Also, they all needed to kick ass until their deep old age.
And now your latest book, Julia Child Rules. Talk about why you chose Julia.
After Hepburn, I wanted to do Julia, but it’s not as if I have free rein. I still have to present my idea to my editor, and she has to take it to her editorial board. I’ve always loved Julia, but for idiosyncratic reasons.She grew up in Pasadena, about 15 miles from where I grew up in Whittier, and I’m smitten with the idea of this “California hayseed,” as she liked to describe herself, moving to Paris and charming the French. Also, by all reports, when she moved there at the ripe old age of 36, her French was as lousy as mine is, and she became fluent nevertheless. But this was in 2008 or so, and Julie and Julia, starring Meryl Streep, directed by the late great Nora Ephron, was in production, so my publisher felt the time simply wasn’t right.Coco Chanel was my second choice. After The Gospel According to Coco Chanel published in 2009, I circled around with Julia yet again, and they said no again. Georgia O’Keeffe was my second choice. Finally, after How Georgia Became O’Keeffe published in 2011, I circled around yet again—by then I felt like a waitress presenting the dessert tray yet again to a table full of dieters—and they said yes.
What’s a surprise that came to you through doing the book on Julia Child?
That she loved the hot dogs at Costco.
Because this is the fourth book in the Kick Ass series, I’m curious if you proposed the series of books, or did it start with one?
There was never a master plan. I think I’m at the end of the line, but you never know. I’ve been reading a lot about Lucille Ball lately.
I became familiar with your work with your first novel, Trespassers Welcome Here.Since then you’ve written more novels and nonfiction. Do you consider yourself primarily a nonfiction writer who writes fiction or a fiction writer who writes nonfiction?
My interest in both genres goes back to grade school. I wrote my first novel in second grade. It was called “What Next” about five people who got stuck in an elevator (it was ten pages long). I wanted a change of pace after that and wrote a piece of non-fiction, a natural history of the praying mantis, complete with colored pencil illustrations.Trespassers Welcome Here was a novel in linked stories, and I followed that up with The Diamond Lane and Motherhood Made a Man Out of Me. By that time I’d been doing a lot of magazine writing and when Gabrielle Reece asked me to co-write a book with her about what it was like to be a successful female athlete (Big Girl in the Middle), I was thrilled to take a vacation from my own head. As much as I love fiction, I can’t get past my urge to have the dust of the world on my feet, which always leads to researching and writing nonfiction.
And you’ve written children books, as well.
The Minerva Clark series for middle grade readers. I wrote those specifically for my daughter. It concerns a 7th grade girl detective who solves mysteries with the help of her pet ferret. They were pure joy to write.
On your website, under Karbohemia, you talk about writing a novel and taking a lesson from Julia who knew that happiness was in the doing.
Absolutely. The moment I start thinking “This novel is going to be so great!” is the moment I stop having fun writing it.Conversely, when I let it all go and write simply to amuse myself, the fun returns. Hoping for greatness is attaching too much to the outcome, and it always trips me up.
Do you put yourself through hell when you write nonfiction, or is it a different type of hell?
Not so much—perhaps because other concerns are more important.I’m humbled by the necessity of trying to get things right. I ask myself:Is what I’m writing as close to the truth as possible? Am I representing this event accurately? Am I doing justice to my subject? I always hope a nonfiction book will be great, obviously, but I think these other concerns mask that yearning.
Do you write a proposal each time?
Yes, indeed. I need to make sure that each woman I’m considering meets the requirements for the kick ass woman seal of approval.
You teach writing, yes? How do you teach writing?
You can find me at the occasional summer writers’ conference or doing an intensive weekend in an MFA program, but mostly I support myself writing.When I do teach, my focus is on helping my students learn their strengths and weaknesses, and how their writing process works. With those tools in hand, they can go write anything.
Regarding promotion … do you enjoy it?
It depends on the day. As I said earlier, I like getting out into the world. I like meeting people.If I just give myself over to the roller coast ride of promoting a book, it’s usually great. The problem arises when I’m in the middle of another project, especially a piece of fiction, and I want to get back to it. Then I’m miserably conflicted and raid the mini-bar back at the hotel.
Social media … do you enjoy it, or is it a necessary evil? Do your agent and editor want you to be active?
Social media is amazing and annoying in equal measure. I love it. I hate it. Love it. Hate it. Love hate love hate love hate. Just like everyone else. My agent and editor never say anything about my social media presence. I do think it’s something writers should do only if they feel it enriches their lives. Because there’s no hard evidence that it helps sells books.
Is the variety of work you do dictated by the marketplace and assignments, or do you get bored easily?
Nothing I choose to do is dictated by the marketplace, because unless you’re a brand name author—I’m thinking on the order of Dan Brown—no editor will automatically green light your proposal for a book about dogs, sex, and knitting. We are operating in a tough market, but the editors I deal with are still exacting. They need to know how a book is going to be executed, what the voice and structure is going to be like, and how my approach is a different take on the subject. Also, you have to write the thing; if it’s not something you believe in with all your heart, those hours at the desk can feel like doing time in a minimum security prison.