WomensHistoryReads interview: Karen Karbo

Many of the authors I've interviewed for the #WomensHistoryReads series so far have been inspired by one particular individual from history per book, or have chosen to focus their books, fiction or nonfiction, on one woman's story. On the other end of the spectrum we have writers like today's interviewee, Karen Karbo, who uses her latest book In Praise of Difficult Women to familiarize readers with 29(!) stories of amazing women from the past and present.

I love her answer below on the difficulties of researching historical women and how context is essential -- to understand these women, we need to understand the times in which they were raised. And she's got great recommendations for present-day writers to read, too. Welcome, Karen! 

 Karen Karbo

Karen Karbo

Greer: How would you describe what you write?

Karen: I think it’s possible I’m the only practitioner of my genre: creative non-fiction narrative, with rich memoir filling, frosted with humor, sprinkled with self-help. 

Greer: If you could pick one woman from history to put in every high school history textbook, who would it be?

Karen: Josephine Baker. Born in 1906, her life spanned the first ¾ of the 20th century. She fled the poverty and racism of the United States, and became a star in Paris in the ‘20s, virtually overnight. She wasn’t just an entertainer, doing the Charleston in her banana skirt, but also a heroine of the French Resistance and a one of the earliest and most vocal proponents of civil rights in this country. She was complicated, generous, impulsive, and brave. A very complex woman.

Greer: What do you find most challenging or most exciting about researching historical women?

Karen: We are all the daughters of the times in which we were born and raised, and it's crucial to evaluate someone’s life in that context. Women, more so than men, are at the mercy of the cultural expectations of their era. The challenge is keeping this at the forefront of your mind during the research. What I find exciting is becoming familiar enough with a woman’s life and times to appreciate how ground-breaking, progressive, and modern she was. I’m thinking about women like Georgia O’Keeffe or Katharine Hepburn, both of whom I’ve written books about. Or even Helen Gurley Brown, who appears in my latest, In Praise of Difficult Women. Have you read Sex and the Single Girl? It was published 56 years ago, and some of it is practically avant garde, even by today’s standards.

Greer: Who are some of you favorite authors working today? 

Karen: The list is long! It depends what I’m in the mood for. From a history perspective, I deeply admire the work of Jill Lepore. Her Secret History of Wonder Woman was tremendous, and I’m looking forward to her one-volume history of the United States, These Truths, out in September. I adore Stacy Schiff, especially Vera, her classic biography of Nabokov’s wife. In terms of fiction, I read so widely it must qualify as psychiatric condition. I’m a devoted reader of Junot Diaz, Elizabeth Hardwick, Lydia Davis, Lydia Yuknavitch, and Meg Wolitzer. I also loved Girl in Disguise!

My question for you: How do you conduct your research? (Including the sub-questions: How long do you research a specific era? How do you keep yourself from falling into the rabbit hole of material? Do you write first, then research? Research, then write? A little of both?)

Greer: I'm finally hitting my stride on research now that I've finished the writing and revision process on my third published novel (hitting shelves in Spring 2019, but Advance Review Copies will be out much sooner.) I was a mess on my first historical novel, since I'd never written one before, and I had no idea how to balance research with writing. That was one of the reasons The Magician's Lie took five years to get right. Girl in Disguise was much faster, where I was limited by circumstances in a way that turned out to be a real boon -- my daughter had just been born and I could barely string together a sentence, but I could read and read at all hours of the day and night, so I did most of my research on Kate Warne and her times well before I actually began to craft her story. Then I wrote and rewrote and rewrote, and after I knew which scenes were going to survive the final cut, I did another round of research for the smallest details. Names of streets in 1856 Chicago, hotels in 1861 Richmond, flowers that would've been in season when I needed them to be. That rhythm seems to work for me now: the big-picture research, then most of the writing with occasional dips into the research well -- but not too many or it slows down the writing too much -- and then more nitty-gritty research at the end to really nail down the smells, tastes, sights and sounds of the era so my readers feel truly transported.

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