I am so happy to speak with Karen Cox today! I’ve only recently discovered her work and it excites me to know that the future of JAFF is in the hands of such amazing authors like Karen.
Evie – Thanks so much for inviting me here to the Lavender Lady today. It’s wonderful to have a place where people can congregate to discuss Jane Austen and Austen-inspired literature.
I am currently reading 'Find Wonder in All Things' and I can't help but notice such vivid descriptions of Kentucky. You write with such authority about the carefree summers that your characters had on a lake in KY. Kentucky was also the setting for your book '1932'. I am going to climb out on a limb here and
assume that you are from Kentucky, is that right? Can you tell me a little about growing up there? Any quirky stories that you would like to share?
Actually, I didn't live in Kentucky until I was almost twelve years old. I was born near Seattle, and lived in a variety of places like North Dakota, Tennessee, and spent a large chunk of my childhood in New York State. I had family ties in Kentucky, however, and made many trips to my parents’ home state to visit during those years we lived away. Eventually, we moved back to Kentucky, and I've been here ever since. It took me a while to acclimate to the South, but all in all, it was a good place to grow up. I hail from a small town, and when everyone knows your mama, you tend to stay out of trouble, or at least I
I’m sometimes asked if I write about things that really happened. I don’t write about real people or use real events to turn the story’s plot, but settings are fair game, and that trip to an abandoned railway tunnel in the first chapter of Find Wonder in All Things is something I did once as a teenager. I went with a couple of friends out on a runabout to one of those old tunnels. I remember it being muddy and kind of nasty in there, so I tweaked the adventure a bit and made it more exciting for my characters than it
was for me.
Was there a particular story or book from your childhood (or later in life) that influenced you to become a writer?
I think the thing that influenced me most to become a writer was that I was a voracious reader in my childhood. Later on, when I had to read more for school, and then had the demands of caring for a family, I didn't read as much for fun. But that childhood tendency to bury my nose in a book was formative. It made me love books and stories enough to tackle writing one.
I don’t know if any one book influenced me to become a writer. An obvious answer would be Jane Austen, but honestly, although I love her novels, they didn't light a writing fire in my belly. The book I read right before I started writing in earnest was Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon. I loved the character development in that book, and I think it influenced me in that my stories to date have been character driven.
What did you study in college? Were you a good student? Did you go into the field that you studied?
My major was psychology, with a minor in linguistics. When I went to college, I wanted to learn several different languages and become a translator at the UN. But some of those youthful plans have a way of changing, don’t they? I met my very own Captain Wentworth, and unlike Anne Eliot, I stuck with mine. I married rather young, before I finished college, but I stayed in school, not quite sure what field I wanted to go into. I received graduate degrees in cognitive and developmental psychology and speech-language pathology. Currently, I work as a school speech-language pathologist.
What are your intellectual passions? How do you use these passions to influence the creative process?
My top interests would probably include history (what happened and why? How did those events shape the present and the future?), human behavior (why do we do the things we do?), and what James Michener called ‘the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions.’ I like learning vocabulary, planning story structure, doing what a friend of mine once said was ‘painting with words.’ I’m also interested in art – paintings, sculpture, architecture. And music – I have sort of an eclectic taste that includes classical, jazz, rock, alternative, country. As I look over this list, I have to chuckle. Do you
think Caroline Bingley would consider me an accomplished lady? No? Oh, well.
My interests have influenced my writing in some ways that are straightforward. For example, several of my characters have shared my interests: In Find Wonder in All Things Laurel Elliot is a potter, and James Marshall is a musician. I wrote a fan-fiction story where Darcy was an architect and Elizabeth was a painter. 1932 takes place in a historical period I find fascinating, the Great Depression.
Do you have children? How does having children affect your writing?
Yes I have two children, a college-aged son and a daughter who’s still in high school. So, I definitely feel the pull of trying to write while caring for a family and working. It’s no accident that I didn't write consistently until my kids were older and didn't need the same kind of constant, physical care and attention as when they were young.
Having kids also changed my worldview in that it shifted my priorities. I wanted the world to be better for them. It made me work harder, and when I wrote, it made me want to put something out there that was uplifting rather than pessimistic. Having children also taught me some skills that have served me well in writing, such as patience and perseverance, and the delicate art of slowly letting go - recognizing when you have control over a creation and when you don’t.
How many books have you written and what are they? Is there one in particular that resembles your 'own darling child'?
I have published two novels inspired by Jane Austen’s work.
The first is 1932, a Pride and Prejudice variation that takes place in the rural South during the Great Depression. Elizabeth Bennet’s father loses his position as a professor in the Midwest, and the Bennet family has to return to Mrs. Bennet’s hometown to eke out a living on the family farm. Darcy is a wealthy land-owner in the same area, with a proud and aloof manner, and a few secrets as well. From the time they first meet, their signals are crossed, but their lives become permanently intertwined early in the story, and they have to deal with their misconceptions and with each other.
The story grew out of my idea that Elizabeth Bennet as Jane Austen created her was a bit of a hothead when she refused Darcy’s first proposal. She’d never truly known poverty, and was so sure of her first impressions and her own judgment. Her discovery of her own faults and errors is the major story arc of Pride and Prejudice. However, I wondered how Lizzy might act differently if her circumstances were altered. I was also curious how a widespread societal and economic change might have affected the
Darcy siblings, particularly the personality of Mr. Darcy.
My sophomore effort, Find Wonder in All Things, is a modern story based on Persuasion. Laurel Elliot and James Marshall (my Wentworth character) knew each other from the time they were in grade school, but the summer after Laurel graduates high school, they fall hard and fast for each other. When James’s life takes an unexpected turn, he’s convinced he should leave everything behind, except for Laurel. He wants her to go with him, but – given that this is a Persuasion-inspired story – there are problems with that scenario. When they meet up again years later, they've each moved on with their
lives. But then again, maybe they haven’t. And maybe, just maybe, they can re-kindle what they once had.
For Find Wonder in All Things, I had to try and bring Anne Eliot into the late 20th Century, and that certainly wasn't easy! The Anne character seemed much too passive to be a modern heroine, so I had to create a woman who would isolate her heart the way Anne did in Persuasion. And I had to find a believable way James would seem ‘unsuitable’ and ‘dangerous’ to Laurel’s family.
Do I have a ‘darling child?’ Hmm…that’s like asking a parent to choose a favorite. I love them both, but appreciate different things about them. The story and the time frame of 1932 really calls to me. It’s nostalgic and romantic, but there is some drama and realism inherent to that period in American history too. Find Wonder in All Things is a story full of warmth and the power of love to transcend time. To me, it’s a tightly woven story too, efficient and more clearly structured.
Tell me about your writing process, from having an idea to the end result. Do you have a method or maybe a favorite place to sit and write? Perhaps you lock yourself in a cabin in the woods Walden style?
Characters are developed first for me. In the case of Laurel Elliot, I saw her physical form coalesce in my mind’s eye – her height, her eyes, her red hair – but all of my characters don’t have that dramatic a start. I almost always write character sketches – physical descriptions, personality traits (strengths and weaknesses), favorites in food, music, hobbies, etc. and a myriad of other details such as family life, education, birthdays, pets, etc. Once I have a decent handle on the characters, I walk them through the plot events, pausing to visualize their reactions to the story. Typically, I write dialog first, then go back and fill in setting, smooth transitions. For me, the first draft stage is continual angst and frustration – trying to get it all down before it fades away. I have to fight myself to keep from editing during this stage, because too much revision destroys that flow of ideas. After I get a chapter or scene written, I might take an editing pass through it. I don’t write my stories in sequence, which some people find odd – but then I don’t always read in sequence either, so I guess it’s not too surprising that I write that way. Another quirk is that I typically write love scenes last; I want to make sure they fit in with the flow of the
Once I allow myself to begin editing, I’m compulsive about it. I usually take about three or four passes through a chapter or scene before I’m ready to let anyone read it. Because my published work was originally fan-fiction, I had some trusted betas read and provide input before I let the stories loose on readers. The published novels were submitted to an additional editorial process of course, and then copy-editing for any lingering errors.
I've written both my novels on a laptop, sitting either in my living room or in a recliner in my room. I need quiet to write first draft, and that’s rare and precious at my house. I've been known to lock myself in my room and say, “Just give me two hours, will ya?”
Tell me about what drew you to Jane Austen's work.
Like many, I came to Jane Austen through a movie – the Sense and Sensibility adaptation with Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet. What a beautifully filmed movie that was! That drew me into reading Sense and Sensibility, and then Pride and Prejudice, and then I was hooked on Austen for keeps. I loved immersing myself in the Regency era. For me, part of the appeal was how hard I had to work to parse out the 18th Century prose. Once I did that, I saw this whole other level of meaning. I saw stories that have psychological truth to them, even today. That’s what made me want to write more modern adaptations.
Before I ask you my next question, I have to make a confession. That version of Sense and Sensibility is my all time favorite movie. Ever. In the history of film making, that was the best one to be created in my lifetime. OK, so maybe I am exaggerating just a little bit, but I will be honest and tell you that as a teenager, I ruined two VHS copies of this movie because I watched them too many times. There were a few years where I can truthfully say that I watched that movie several times each week. I can quote it, word for word, from beginning to end. I even memorized and sang the opera in the soundtrack. I also bought a tiny leather bound copy of Shakespeare's sonnets and carried it “with me always”.
Now back to you... What is one thing that you want fans to know about you?
How I treasure telling them a story –making them smile, surprising them, inviting them to imagine.
Well, I must tell you that you have done all of those things for me.
Before we go, let’s have four books that you highly recommend right now.
Now that’s a toughie – do you mean I’d recommend them now? Or that they’re popular now? If the former, I’d say…
1. Historical fiction: Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon. The later books I haven’t enjoyed as much, and I haven’t even read the last couple, but this first one is amazing.
2. Nonfiction: The Fourth Turning, by William Strauss and Neil Howe. An interesting book on the cycles of history and generations.
3. Writing: Plot and Structure, by James Scott Bell. A good basic book on the structure of the novel.
4. Modern fiction: The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I know it’s on everyone’s mind right now because of the upcoming movie, but in my opinion, this is The Great American Novel – engaging, beautifully and concisely written. It’s so good, it just leaps off the page.
That’s even harder – I often don’t get to read books until they’ve been out for a while. I’m no book trendsetter, that’s for sure! But here’s a list…
1. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham
2. In Death series by JD Robb
3. The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (again)
4. Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (not exactly a new release – but I love Gladwell’s books)
Karen, thank you again to coming here this evening and speaking with me. I have really enjoyed getting to know you a little bit better!
You can keep up with Karen at her blog http://karenmcox.merytonpress.
To read any of my previous interviews, please click the links below!
Mary Lydon Simonsen