Friday, May 22, 2009

An Interview with Karen White author of "The Lost Hours"

by Nicki Salcedo

After playing hooky one day in the seventh grade to read Gone with the Wind, Karen White knew she wanted to be a writer—or become Scarlett O'Hara. In spite of these aspirations, Karen pursued a degree in business and graduated cum laude with a BS in Management from Tulane University. Ten years later, after leaving the business world, she fulfilled her dream of becoming a writer and wrote her first book. In the Shadow of the Moon was published in August, 2000. This book was nominated for the prestigious RITA award in 2001 in two separate categories. Her books have since been nominated for or won numerous national contests including another RITA , the Georgia Author of the Year Award and in 2008 won the National Readers’ Choice Award for Learning to Breathe.

Karen currently writes what she refers to as ‘grit lit’—southern women’s fiction—and has recently expanded her horizons into writing a mystery series set in
Charleston. Her tenth novel, The Lost Hours, will be released in trade paperback by New American Library, a division of Penguin Publishing Group, in April 2009.

Karen hails from a long line of Southerners but spent most of her growing up years in
London, England and is a graduate of the American School in London. She currently lives near Atlanta, Georgia with her husband and two teenaged children, and a spoiled Havanese dog (who appears in several of her books), Quincy. When not writing, she spends her time reading, singing, playing piano, chauffeuring children and avoiding cooking.

How did you get started in your writing career?

I entered the first three chapters of my first book, IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON, in a RWA chapter contest. I entered because the first round judges were published authors and I figured they'd know best whether or not I should quit my day job (which I didn't really have to begin with). The finalist judges were all top NY literary agents--but I never even thought I'd get that far. I ended up winning the contest and the finalist judge (who'd once been Nora Roberts' editor) offered to represent me. She sold that book and every book since and is still my agent.

Your stories are well-known for the depth of emotion, character, and setting. Do you plot? Do you know what will happen at the end of the book before you start writing?

I really want to lie and say, "yes, of course I plot," but instead I'm going to let everybody know what a fraud I am! I don't plot. I have a general idea of what's supposed to happen--but that always changes. Maybe that's why my editor has given up on asking for a synopsis because she knows it's not going to bear any resemblance to the finished book anyway. I do have to give a general outline to get the money and contract released, but that's usually the last time I see that outline as all bets are off once I start typing. I will admit that it makes writing a book AGONIZING, but I also think it makes my books better since I write like I'm a reader, dying to know what's going to happen next.

You've written historical, mystery, and women’s fiction, but you are wickedly funny in person. Do you have any other genres up your sleeve?

Thank you, dear. My teenagers don't think I'm funny at all. This is why I creep them on Facebook so their friends will know I’m funny. I usually tell people that I expect them to laugh and cry while reading my books, mostly because I laugh and cry while WRITING them. My new mystery series, set in Charleston, is the closest I've come to comedy. There are some really, really funny dialogue lines being bandied about in those four books between the main characters, Jack and Melanie. I didn't know I could write that, but when those two characters popped up on the pages and started speaking, it just happened. The stories still have emotional depth, and the characters have lots of baggage, but I'd like to add “funny” to my repertoire.

What’s the worse or best advice you've received about writing?

The worst advice: When I was first starting out, I took an online course where the instructor informed us that if we didn't outline each character and each scene of our works-in-progress, we had no hopes of ever publishing a book, much less finishing one. Ha! That class has made me wary ever since of taking further classes or even reading 'self-help' books.

The best advice: Own your work. That's from Susan Elizabeth Philips from a workshop she gave at RWA a few years back. Your name is the name on the cover of the book and therefore the book should reflect YOUR vision of it, and not anybody else's. I'm blessed to have an amazing editor who believes in letting me write the way the stories come to me. When I wanted to write THE MEMORY OF WATER in 4 points of view, all of them first person, she didn't even blink. And that book has become my biggest seller, with over 150,000 copies in print.

Tell us about your most recent release THE LOST HOURS?

This story came to me in a weird way. I literally heard the voice of a young girl telling me, "When I was 12 years old, I helped my grandfather bury a box in the backyard of our Savannah home." For months (I was working on another book at the time), I kept thinking, "Who's that girl?" and "What in the box?" And then it just went on from there. Here's a brief blurb:

When Piper Mills was twelve, she helped her grandfather bury a box that belonged to her grandmother in the backyard. For twelve years, it remained untouched.

Now a near fatal riding accident has shattered Piper’s dreams of Olympic glory. After her grandfather’s death, she inherits the house and all its secrets, including a key to a room that doesn’t exist—or does it? And after her grandmother is sent away to a nursing home, she remembers the box buried in the backyard. In it are torn pages from a scrapbook, a charm necklace—and a newspaper article from 1939 about the body of an infant found floating in the
Savannah River. The necklace’s charms tell the story of three friends during the 1930s— each charm added during the four months each friend had the necklace and recorded her life in the scrapbook. Piper always dismissed her grandmother as not having had a story to tell. And now, too late, Piper finds she might have been wrong.

Karen White gives back a great deal of her time speaking to readers and mentoring new writers. We really appreciate her spending the day with us, and she appreciates everyone who has stopped by today! As a thank you to those who leave comments, you will be entered in a random drawing for copy of Karen’s hard-to-find and out-of-print AFTER THE RAIN as well as a signed copy of her newest book, THE LOST HOURS.

You can learn more about Karen White at


Nicki Salcedo said...

Do you have time to read? Have you read any books recently that really amazed you?

I have to admit that I am reading the THE LOST HOURS very slowly. I was supposed to be finished today, but I'm treating it like my secret chocolate stash! I hope it never ends. :-)

Thanks again for stopping by PFHT!

Marilyn Baron said...

Thank you for blogging with us today.

You avoid cooking? Don't plot? Have kids who would rather not have their mother on Facebook? Apparently we have a lot in common.

I have your book, "The Lost Hours" and can't wait to start it.

I especially enjoyed reading about the book written in four points of view, all in first person, which goes to show you can do something nontraditional and still be successful.

Thank you for all you do for Georgia Romance Writers. We wish you continued success.

Marilyn Baron

Dianna Love said...

I've enjoyed recommending your books to everyone, Karen. Love that you followed your instincts and ignored what someone wrongly told you about outlining. You're obviously a pantser and good at it. One thing that bothered me when I started writing was the people who said you "had" to outline or you "had" to write without plotting. I believe you have to do whatever is natural for you.

Looking forward to reading the Lost Hours. Wonderful concept and an intriguing premise. Congratulations on your success.

Caren Crane said...

Karen, your books are all so rich and full of life and detail. I love the "grit lit" vibe and wish more people were writing really great Southern fiction like yours! I aspire to write the sort of stories you do, but find WAY too much comedy creeps in. Others find my books much funnier than I do, however. I think they are deep and emotional. Just goes to show what I know!

Thank you for coming out of the closet as a pantser. I tried, early on, to do outlines and character interviews and scene cards and even (gasp) color-coded note cards. I found them paralyzing! It's nice to hear others have pitched all that "you must" out the window. *g*

Thank you for your beautiful books and I will see you at M&M!

Debbie Kaufman said...

Hi Karen:
So happy you are with us today. I don't have The Lost Hours yet. My TBR list is a little behind. But, I recently purchased The House on Tradd Street and am saving it to take with me on a trip next week.

I can relate to the little girl's voice and what she said to you. Sometimes I hear that too. It's a good thing we're writers or people would have a whole different reaction to the "voices!" :))

Sandy Elzie said...


Thank you for joining us today. I love your books, so I was excited about you spending the day with us.

I start out with a plot, but allow my characters to roam where they want, so my end work doesn't always look exactly like my synopsis. I was okay with that process, but it's good to see that someone very successful works in a similiar way.

How much time do you spend writing each day and are you a morning writer, night writer or are you a little less structured and write when you have time?


Chicki said...

Great interview, Nicki!

Karen White is not only a phenomenal writer but a sweet, gracious woman.

Thanks for giving us a peek at her new book and a little insight into her writing process.

Karen White said...

Thanks, Nicki, for the extraordinary compliment--you're making me blush!

I still do love to read, just not as much as I used to. I'm just finishing up the last of three novels I had to read for cover blurbs--luckily they were all wonderful. I do a lot of listening to books on CD (on last CD of PILLARS OF THE EARTH by Ken Follett) and on my beside table is Emily Giffin's LOVE THE ONE YOU'RE WITH. My bookshelves are sagging with books I WILL read, even if I have to live to be 300...

Karen White said...

Thanks, Marilyn. Yes, I'm known as the 'Facebook Creeper' and my daughter has unfriended me on Facebook--the NERVE! She wants me to take her shopping this weekend.

Muahahahahaha (evil laughter). We'll see about that!

Karen White said...

Hi, Dianna! Glad you could slow down your whirlwind life to come chat today (smile).

Yes, the world is full of writers who listened to bad advice. I always try to remember to OWN my work. Like I said, I'm blessed to have an amazing editor who lets ME be the author. She is worth her weight in gold!

PJ said...

Terrific interview, Nicki!

Welcome, Karen! It was lovely meeting you at last year's M&M and I hope to see you there again this year. I adored The Lost Hours! Such a beautifully written story. I've already read it twice and I'm sure I'll be visiting again in the future. It's a permanent resident of my keeper shelf.

What are you working on now?

Karen White said...

Hi, Caren--

"Color-coded note cards"???? I just...can't even imagine the torture!!! :-)

And you CAN do funny 'grit lit'. I think I've crossed that line with THE HOUSE ON TRADD STREET. Have you read Mary Key Andrews? Or even Dorothea Benton Frank. They have southern settings and women with issues--but there's always humore which makes the books very readable.

I find that reading A LOT is the best way to find out how a successful author 'does it'. Better than any writing class!

Karen White said...

Hi, Debbie--

Thanks for buying my book! I hope you enjoy THE HOUSE ON TRADD STREET--it's been a real crowd pleaser which is why my publisher has asked me to expand the series to a total of four books.

As for people who live in our minds--I swear that when I'm not working on a book, I 'see' my characters sitting around a green room waiting for me to tell them what to do/say next!

Karen White said...

Hi, Sandy--

Hmmm.... a 'normal' day...

I did mention I have teenagers, right? :-)

I prefer to write in the morning when my brain is freshest and I'm too tired in the evenings--but all bets are off when I'm on deadline and it becomes a 24/7 thing. I can't sit and write for hours on end---and my children don't let me anyway. I usually just write when I can and carry my laptop with me everywhere. I think it's a joke to 'wait until the muse strikes.' Nothing would ever get written if I did that. I write when I can. Period.

Karen White said...

Thanks, Chicki, for the kind words. After having my eyelashes singed from greeting my daughter this morning, it's so lovely to have kind words said to me... :-)

Maxine Davis said...


Thank you for posting with PF&HT. I am going to get The Memory of Water - just the title got me.

Love how you write. I am making myself do a Synopsis (hate them). My English-teacher friend says everyone must do one to write. I disagree, but as you know, for all of us unpubs,submitting one is required, so I'll knuckle down and get with it.

I enjoyed your post very much.

Karen White said...

Hi, PJ--

Twice? You read my book twice? Wow, I'm humbled. That's such a compliment!!

I currently working on my May 2010 NAL/Accent 'grit lit' release, tentatively entitled THE BOTTLE TREES. It's set in Folly Beach, SC and I've rented a house there for a week this summer for research. Hey, it's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it!

Karen White said...

Hi, Maxine-

Yeah, I know about a synopsis. I'm trying to write enough of my new wip so that I have an idea of what should be on the synopsis (the acct. dept. needs to see SOMETHING).

My next four books were sold without them even being a twinkle in my eye much less on a synopsis which is very gratifying--but very scary, too. So tell your English-teacher writer friend that yes, people can and do exist without synopses. :-)

Carol Burnside said...

I'm also an organic writer who can't deal with too much structure in writing, such as outlines, long character sketches, scene sketches, etc. (shudders) I think Caren mentioned that it paralyzed her. That's exactly the way I feel, as if such activity makes me freeze up to the point that the story feels lifeless to me.

It's encouraging to know that I don't have to do such things to be a successful writer. :)

The Lost Hours has such a lovely cover, and the blurb/premise very appealing. (sigh) My TBR pile already resembles the Matterhorn, but I may have to break down and add TLH to it.

Thanks for being here!

Linsey Lanier said...


Thank you for being with us at PFHT. You are a real inspiration on many levels and a very generous artist. We appreciate your many contributions to GRW and RWA.

"Own your work." That's some powerful advice.

I didn't realize you grew up in London. Must be what accounts for your refined style that's so appealing.

I used to have a Beagle whose middle name was Quincy!

I listen to books on CD, too. Currently, "The House on Tradd Street." I was surprised by the humor in it. And very entertained. Will the others in the series also be available on CD?


Darcy Crowder said...


Let me add my thanks for visiting with us here at PF&HT. I think I've read all your books - even the elusive After the Rain - but The House on Tradd Street and The Lost Hours are my favorits so far. Every book is such a treasured reading experience...thank you.

I particularly enjoy how you entwine your subplots, theme, settings. I'm blown away each and every time.

"Own the work". Powerful words. I've been guilty of letting the so called rules paralyze me in the past. It's always good to be reminded just how many successful writers let the story unfold as they go.

Will you be at M&M this year? Looking foward to seeing you again soon.


Linsey Lanier said...

Oh. I almost forgot the question I've been dying to ask. Karen, do you love old houses? Or hate them?


Belinda Peterson said...

I love that you don't outline. There is hope for me!! Really, though, thanks for sharing that and other aspects of your life and writing.
I second what Chicki are a wonderful writer and a sweet, gracious lady.
Look forward to reading The Lost Hours.

Susan May said...

You made an impression on me at M&M a number of years ago. I, too have enjoyed your books. I think you are a class act. Thanks for being with us today.

Karen White said...

Hi, Linsey,

Refined, hm? I'll have to share that with my family. I'm the one who brings the Bubba teeth to all family gatherings... :-)

As for my books being available electronically (though downloads for e-readers and CD) I do know that at LEAST the Tradd sequel and the next two Accent books will be. And all of my books are also available in large print format--an important development for those of us of a certain age who have issues with tiny print. :-)

Karen White said...

Hi, Darcy--

You always make my day--thank for reading my books and saying such nice things!

Unfortunately, I'm going to miss M&M this year--I've been invited to Charleston for an event. Believe me, it was a VERY tough decision. Not to worry--I'm planning on being at the June meeting at least!

Karen White said...

Linsey--I ADORE old houses. It started when I was a young child and was reinforced by the beautiful 1880's building where we lived in London. I'm currently a card-carrying member of the National Trust, and my daughter wants to study historical preservation in college. (the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, does it??) It's also been pointed out to me that every single book I've written has an old house as a central character. Guess it's time to tell my husband that it's time to move to an old house, dontcha think? :-)

Karen White said...

Oh, Belinda and Susan--you are definitely my new BFF's!! :-) I've been feeling stressed and low, and you all have been exactly what I needed to get me back on track. So THANK YOU all for a great blogging experience!!!! I'm going to bed now and will wake up feeling refreshed and raring to work on the new wip. Now, if only the weather will cooperate and shine some sun... :-)

Karen White said...

Hi, Nicki--

I just realized I didn't answer part of your question about any books that amazed me and the answer is Yes!

I've spent a lot of time in bookstores recently and I always end up buying something on a bookseller's recommendation or just be staring at a cover while sitting at my signing table is enough to motivate me to purchase. I HIGHLY recommend: The House at Riverton, The Thirteenth Tale, The Kite Runner, The Glass Castle, My Sister's Keeper. ALL of these books blew me away and were EXCELLENT teachers and 'fillers of my well.' Beautiful writing, gripping plots, and richly developed characters--my kind of book!!

Nicki Salcedo said...

Thank you, Karen, for your interview, comments, encouragement.

Darcy Crowder has just posted her reviews THE LOST HOURS and THE HOUSE ON TRADD STREET. Both books got the elusive "5 Petit Four" rating!

Karen has lots of great information on her website ( including upcoming signings across the country. Karen will be speaking at GRW on November 21 (check for more) and again in early next year!

Thank you again, Karen, for being a friend of readers and writers everywhere. :-)

Tami Brothers said...

I know I'm late, but I wanted to let Karen know how much I LOVED the House on Tradd Street. I did a review of it on my blog back in December and when I read Linsey's review, I ran over to my bookcase and grabbed it again. I still love this story and can't wait until the next one.

THANK YOU, Karen for taking the time to visit with us here at PF&HT. You are a true treasure!!!

Karen White said...

You ladies are the best--thanks so much for having me and saying nice things about me and my books! And best of luck to all of you in whatever you aspire to.