Karen Harrington’s first adult novel, Janeology, came out in 2008. She has since won awards and praise for three novels from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. The latest of them, 2016’s Mayday, received starred reviews from both PW and Kirkus Reviews. A short-story writer too, she makes her EQMM debut in the issue that went on sale this week, January/February 2021. You won’t want to miss it: see “Boo Radley College Prep.” This post from the Texas author contains a good piece of writing advice. —Janet Hutchings
My mother was a belly dancer. Not a professional—that might have been cool. No, adding to my schoolgirl angst, she was an agoraphobic who decided to take belly dancing lessons. Sure, I’m a writer, but I’m not making this up. The house went from quiet afternoons to loud Egyptian music and the chime of finger cymbals. She’d usher us out the door, push back the furniture and dance.
Neighbor kids would ask, “What’s that weird music?”
“What? I don’t hear anything?”
“It’s coming from your house?”
“Nah, I think it’s the apartments over there.”
I still marvel at this. Every single time I’ve thought about spinning this particular life detail into a fictional yarn, I hesitate. It’s strange. It’s revealing. It’s a risk.
In other words, it’s the good stuff.
It took years for me to have faith in this truth. In fact, I still hesitate, marinate in doubt and overthink all the reasons not to write about certain subjects. What life has taught me, however, is to just get my overthinking done faster. How? I recall a touchstone experience that has informed my writing life ever since it happened.
The event took place several years ago. I was invited to be on an author panel at the Pulpwood Queen’s Book Club annual winter event in East Texas. I suspect this event is one of the hidden gems in the book world. Over the years, I was lucky enough to meet authors like John Berendt, Fannie Flagg, Jeannette Walls, and one of my literary heroes, Pat Conroy.
One of the great blessings of my life will always be the unexpected friendship I struck up with Pat. On the night before the author panels began, the host of the event invited all the book club attendees to a dinner. All of the attending authors served dinner to the guests. We dined earlier, family-style, in the kitchen space of the Excelsior Hotel in Jefferson, Texas. Pat entered the room and sat next to me. The fangirl inside me shouted, Oh my gosh, that’s Pat Conroy. Pat Conroy is sitting next to me. At our table.
I locked eyes with author Kathryn Casey, who was seated directly across from me.
“Hello all,” he said to our table. “Just want to say one thing. It never gets easier.”
We were in awe. Pat talked casually about writing and food, two of his great passions. When the evening was over, he inquired about buying our books. We all said, “No, no, have them as a gift.”
“Madame,” he said to me, grinning. “When someone offers to buy your book, you say Thank you.” He was as genuinely charming as you hope your literary hero will be.
Later, he said to call him anytime I wanted or needed a blurb. I learned that he extended this kindness to every single author at the event. When his first book was published, he couldn’t get anyone to blurb it. So, he vowed to be supportive of emerging writers. And he was.
Over the next year, he followed up on how I was doing. (I admit to photographing the Caller ID of his name on my phone in case I woke up the next day and thought I’d dreamed it all.) He critiqued one of my manuscripts. He even called with a suggestion for a story he thought I should write. Then, I got a contract for a new book. It came time to gather blurbs. I hesitated.
The previous manuscript I’d sent him was adult fiction about a preacher’s son. But this new work? It was a coming-of-age story about a young girl who writes letters to Atticus Finch. While I suspected Pat might enjoy the larger story about the influence of To Kill a Mockingbird, I shuddered to think about him reading the scenes in which the character got her period.
My mental ping-pong match went on for days. To send or not to send.
Pat Conroy was a real “mean what you say, say what you mean” human being. If he made a generous offer to read a work, he meant it. I sent in the galley and waited.
And I waited.
One day, the phone rang.
“Karen, Pat Conroy. It’s blurb time!” His familiar South Carolinian accent made me smile and sit up straight.
“But first I want to tell you about something in the book.”
From past experience, I prepared to hear a gentle critique.
“I want you to know that the book was special to me because it reminded me of a special day one summer with my young daughters. One of them said, Dad, I got my period.”
I took a deep breath as I reveled in the unexpected.
He went on to say they all went down to the local store, all deciding what to buy, what not to buy, for the occasion. He said they all still remembered that day, that summer. And my story had conjured those memories of a sweet time in his life. He thanked me.
The thing I’d feared most was the thing that resonated with Pat, briefly transporting him back in time.
That’s what we want fiction to do. We want it to invite the reader in and bring their own experiences to the story. Author Jacqueline Woodson says, “The more specific we are, the more universal something can become. Life is in the details. If you generalize, it doesn’t resonate. The specificity of it is what resonates.”
I’m grateful to the late, great Pat Conroy for myriad reasons. Not the least of which is how he shined as model of how to treat others in this formidable industry. To think I almost didn’t send the book for a blurb. What a missed opportunity that would have been!
I try to transfer that lesson to my writing choices, too. I try to be fearless. If I’m on the fence about putting a character in a situation, that’s a pretty good indication that I should do it.
After all, the great mystery of what’s on the other side of the door in your story—or someone’s response to the tale—may only be revealed by its opening. Don’t let fear cause you to miss out on the unexpected. Let the characters walk up the frightening path. Let them risk it all. For me, I find that’s where the good stuff happens in life, and on the page.
So, about that agoraphobic belly dancer . . .