Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Interview with author Kaaren Christopherson

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author Kaaren Christopherson to Flashlight Commentary.

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Kaaren. It’s great to have you with us. To start things off, I’d like to know a little bit about you. Where are you from? What is your background?
Thanks so much for having me. I’m a native Michigander, but I’ve lived for many years in the Washington, DC, area. Like many people who come to the DC area, I came for a job. Currently I’m a senior writer and editor for a large international development non-profit. I’ve been writing and editing as some aspect of my “day job” for 30 years. I’ve been writing fiction for my own pleasure ever since I was in school. I’m an artist as well as a writer. My degrees are in history, art, and education. I enjoy travel, museums, galleries, historical sites, theater, music, and spending time with friends and family—including my two cats.

How would you characterize your writing style? What sort of themes are you drawn to? 
I don’t think of myself as having a particular style as an author, but I do try to have my writing “voice” reflect the historical period that I’m writing about. In other words, since Decorum is a story about deception, betrayal, bigamy, and murder in Gilded Age New York, one of my goals was to achieve a narrative that “sounds” like it was published in 1890 rather than in 2015. As I think about all my early attempts to write historical fiction, I think this goal holds true. In terms of themes, the theme that interests me most is how women in different social circumstances live out their lives within the boundaries that society has set up in the particular period I’m writing about. So, for example, does wealth make it any easier to be a woman in the 1890s, or does she share many of the same social restrictions as a poor woman? If a woman is poor and her choices for employment are few, how does she survive in 1890? 

Historic fiction is obviously a favorite genre of mine, but why do you think it holds so much appeal for modern readers? 
If anyone has ever asked a parent or grandparent what it was like to live in the “olden days” then that person would probably enjoy historical fiction. We have such an abundance of technology and conveniences that we are fascinated by how people got along without—without mobile phones, without computers or tablets, without television, or cars or airplanes or microwave ovens and frozen food (or refrigerators, for that matter). Can you imagine life before plastic—plastic in our luggage, phones, furniture, eyeglasses, dishes, and many small parts of items that aren’t plastic on the whole? Historical fiction is a way for us to see how people functioned successfully in times very different from our own. Like Decorum, historical fiction doesn’t even have to center around a particular historical event; the story can come out of the author’s imagination but be steeped in a historical period. 

How would you describe your writing process? Where do you start and how do you get into the right mindset?
Decorum is very character driven; I let the characters have a lot of latitude in growing the story. Connor O’Casey and Blanche Wilson de Alvarado were the first characters to pop into my imagination, quickly followed by Francesca Lund. The scenes that came to me first actually occur midway through the story, so I had to let them lead me out from those points so I could discover who these people were and what their relationship was to each other. I probably had close to one hundred pages of manuscript written before I could start putting a book together.

In terms of getting into the mindset, that’s where the research comes in. I began with several survey books about the period—mostly social history about how people lived (what they wore and ate, how they were educated, what work they performed), what technology was like, what discoveries had just been made, what political or economic forces affected ordinary people, how people traveled. I didn’t try to know everything, but have a good grasp of what life was like and the limitations and opportunities of the period so that the characters would act with credibility. Then I let the writing dictate the next phase of research, which is largely the details—what to call items of clothing, what kind of carriage might be used for a particular event, how a dinner table is set. Researching the 1890s was very interesting because of the variety of material available, not just history books, but biographies and memoirs, photographs, engravings, paintings, novels from the period, all sorts of resources that helped me get closer to the characters and their surroundings. I also took advantage of historic home shows and what the museums and historic homes in New York and Washington, DC, have to offer for steeping myself in the period. One of my favorite resources was my great-grandmother’s etiquette book called Decorum, published in 1881. It not only gave me a wealth of information on the expected behavior of the period, but also gave me the novel’s title and organizing theme.

Do you struggle with dialogue, research, plotting, character development, etc.? If so, how do you overcome it? 
Honestly, I think the most challenging part of writing is simply getting out of the way and letting the characters speak to each other and live out the plot. Usually when I’m struggling it’s because I’m trying to make the characters say something or act in a certain way rather than let them show me or tell me. Sure, I set up the situation, but they take the lead. One of the most satisfying aspects of writing is dialogue. I love writing dialogue. I don’t think of it as writing or “devising” dialogue as much as it is taking dictation from the characters as they speak to each other. I’m listening in on the conversation they are having in my imagination and filling in the description with what they and I see around them. Probably the other big challenge is to be able to wield a lot of material and turn it into a single story.

Many people, myself included, dream of publishing their stories. How and when did you know it was time to start writing professionally?
Interesting that you should put it that way—that it was time to seek publication for my novel. I’ve wanted to have a novel published for most of my adult life. Decorum went through many drafts, which I asked a number of discerning friends to read before I thought it was far enough along to begin to look for an agent. Then I joined a year-long writing workshop that really helped to knock the story into a draft that I felt confident about having an agent see. It was my workshop leader who finally pushed me to look for an agent and pointed me to resources and coached me along in the process.

Navigating the ins and outs of the industry can be confusing for many. What was the most difficult hurdle for you as far as getting your work on the market? 
I think for most writers finding an agent who believes in and respects their work is the most difficult part of the process. I have been so fortunate to have Victoria Skurnick as my agent and to be guided by her wisdom and experience. Then, of course, it’s up to the agent to find a publisher. I was tremendously lucky to work with Kensington Publishing on Decorum, my first novel. Kensington has many wonderful people who have guided me through, not only the editing and publishing process, but also helped me with advice on social media and how I can help get the word out about Decorum.

Midnight in Paris is one of my favorite movies, I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it centers on a writer who falls through time and meets many of his favorite authors. If you could do the same, who would you want to meet and why? 
I would love to have a conversation with Edith Wharton, whose novels were a great help to me as I searched for a voice and tone that reflected the Gilded Age; John Galsworthy for the same reason. I’d also like to meet authors whose work is completely different from mine—different pacing, sparser language, yet beautiful storytelling—like Willa Cather or Alan Paton. I’d love to meet Jane Austen just because.

In looking ahead to possible future projects, what subjects or historic characters interest you the most? 
I have several ideas for stories in different time periods, but right now I’m working on a story that takes place in the pre-Revolutionary War period. I’m probably about 15,000 words into the writing (Decorum was 140,000 words, for comparison), and I’m in the midst of doing the general background research.

What advice, if any, do you have for aspiring authors?
Read, read, and read some more. Write, write, and write some more—and write what you love. I know there is a lot of advice out there about what a first novel should be like, but I believe that if you write what excites you and what’s in your heart you’re more likely to make it than if you write to a formula that doesn’t capture your imagination.

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“A story of discovery, entitlement and love.” – Northern Virginia Magazine

“Remarkable in its similarities to the work of Edith Wharton. The reader feels drawn into a world of glamour, glitz, and supreme hypocrisy. Everything is permissible as long as one does not get caught. It is a drama of manners and the stakes are high—one misstep could mean social oblivion…[Decorum] will appeal to a wide range of readers, particularly those who enjoy period novels such as Age of Innocence and The Portrait of a Lady.” – The Historical Novel Society

“Beautiful heiress Francesca Lund must figure out how to assert her ideas within the confines of 1890’s New York high society.” – Library Journal

“Reminiscent of Washington Square but with a more modern heroine, Decorum illuminates the dark world beneath New York society. Christopherson incorporates a clever mystery and populates the novel with a large cast of characters.” – RT Book Reviews, 4 Stars

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Kaaren Christopherson is the author of Decorum—a novel about Gilded Age New York—that began taking form in 1999 during a course on writing historical fiction. From that moment, Connor O’Casey (who had been rattling around in her brain for months) finally appeared one night and said, “All right, woman. Here I am. What are you going to do about my story?” So she began to put his words on paper, and he hasn’t kept quiet since. Soon Francesca, Blanche, Tracey, Vinnie, and the rest of the characters began arguing, gossiping, loving, and forming themselves into Kaaren’s first novel.

Kaaren has had a professional career writing and editing for over 30 years and is a senior editor for an international development nonprofit organization in Washington, DC. A Michigan native, Kaaren received her BA in history and art and her MA in educational administration from Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan.

She has written fiction since her school days, story poems, children’s books, historical fiction, and time travel, and continues to be active in writer’s groups and writing workshops. In addition to her career as a writer, Kaaren was the owner of a decorative painting business. She loves to travel and prowl through historical sites, galleries, and museums. She is active in several churches in DC and in her local Northern Virginia community, where she shares her home with feline brothers, Archie and Sammy.

Website ❧  Facebook ❧  Twitter ❧  Goodreads

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