“The best advice I can give is to write your heart and guts out.” In conversation with Karen Karbo
Like the movies it had a tendency to honor, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was housed in a solid but unimaginative building of toffee-colored concrete, dark-tinted glass. Getting into the fourth-floor library made getting into the Pentagon look like going to a neighbor’s garage sale. Just inside, there was a squinty-eyed guard with a gun who made Mouse sign in, then directed her to the elevators. On the fourth floor, past a set of bulletproof glass doors, she had to sign in again. What company was she with? Self, she wrote. What was there to research? How to (A) Get out of the wedding; and (B) Get back to Nairobi without ruining or ending anyone’s life, including my own, she thought.
Trends in American Documentary, she wrote. She noticed that everyone else who had signed in above her was also with Self. Odd, she thought. Not at all, Mimi could have told her.
No one ever came to the Academy Library in an official capacity. Desperate people came here, people twitching with ambition. They hunkered over books on breaking into acting, directing, writing, even casting. Or else a biography of someone who had, against mega odds, broken into acting, directing, writing, and casting. People who actually worked in the movies had no need for libraries. The more successful you were in Hollywood, the less you had any need for books of any kind. It was true when Mouse came here so many years ago with Ivan. It was true now.
–Excerpt from The Diamond Lane (Hawthorne Books)
ANNE RASMUSSEN: First of all, congratulations on the re-issue of The Diamond Lane, originally published in 1991! It’s truly heartening to see worthy titles come back into print. What was your initial reaction when you learned that Hawthorne Books had selected The Diamond Lane for their Rediscovery Series?
KAREN KARBO: I’ve been a huge fan of Hawthorne Books and Rhonda Hughes for years. Without question, I think Hawthorne consistently produces some of the most exquisite books in contemporary publishing. I’d be hard-pressed to think of a single title that wasn’t elegant, stylish and beautifully designed. So it felt like Christmas in that regard, to know that The Diamond Lane was going to get the Hawthorne treatment. The original edition from G.P. Putnam’s Sons had a wretched hot pink cover with a gorilla on it. I adored my editor there (Stacy Creamer, now with Hachette), but was slightly embarrassed by that cover. I can’t imagine what we all were thinking. Aside from these aesthetics, I felt touched that Rhonda thought the book still had relevance. Don’t forget, it was published in the time when the most sophisticated phone technology was being able to retrieve your messages from your home answering machine remotely!
AR: Your portrait of Los Angeles is so unsparingly, hilariously unforgiving that I found myself laughing out loud every time I came to a new scenic description. You show great compassion and fondness for your characters but not so their city and environs. Even the seasons in this place seem calibrated to mirror the mental state of its citizens. Autumn leaves drop “miserably” from trees “like scabs,” smog “sealed sweat into people’s pores, then laid on a coat of grit for good measure,” and “it seemed as if the earth had abandoned its orbit, leaving Los Angeles stranded under its own, foul, toast-tinted sky.” Even Tony, Mouse’s British fiancé and the only character who’s glad to be there, observes the dull repetition of the strip mall landscape as akin to “the backgrounds in cheap cartoons, where the cat chases the mouse past the same tree, the same house over and over again.” Many of the characters have an almost Stockholm syndrome-like relationship to LA– they can’t imagine living elsewhere. Your protagonist Mouse is the exception, the one that “got away”–to Africa, where she became a documentary filmmaker. But as soon as she returns she is sucked back into the insular, closed circle of the place. LA is personified in her mind by the “Pink Fiend,” a hyper-feminized, catastrophizing inner voice bent on undermining her self-esteem. Can you talk about your experience as an LA native writing about your hometown, and what kind of response this characterization of the place has elicited from readers?
KK: LA, like New York, is a hard city to live in if you’re not rich. And by rich, I pretty much mean seven figures. You have to live in one of the canyons, or on the beach, or like one friend, in the mountains above Malibu, to truly appreciate the sub-tropical beauty of the place. And it IS beautiful, a beloved landscape. To this day, whenever I smell orange blossoms or night-blooming jasmine I get homesick. (And I’ve lived in Portland for twenty-five years.) But if you’re like the characters in The Diamond Lane, you’re living in the flats in the Wilshire District, in an apartment without air-conditioning, stuck in traffic for most of your waking hours. (I once read that the average speed limit on the LA Freeways was 17 m.p.h.) So for them, their main experience of the place was heat and smog and exhaust fumes. That said, as you’ve noted, clever you, the place is also calibrated to mirror their mental state: the weather is tough to take and unchanging, as is their collective sense of their careers. Try as they might, they can’t effect change, can’t do a rain dance, can’t create a lightning storm. As far as my readers, no one has ever said “wow, you got LA wrong.”
AR: I loved the scene at Bibliothèques, Mimi’s book group, where everyone feels compelled to rank the relative successes or misfortunes of “film people” vs. “people in film.” This resonated with me as I imagine it will with anyone who’s held a job in a creative field where rewards are promised but elusive. For “people in film” there’s the cold but useful comfort of cash and that magical phrase “working in the field,” which masks the drudgery of the work itself. And “film people,” their creative principles intact and untested, are forced to wonder: at what point does the “day job” they’ve taken as a means to a creative end become the end itself? Everyone is hustling so hard with so little to show for it. No one seems remotely happy. And you pull off two pretty amazing feats here: we still care about them, AND you make it all very, very funny. As someone with firsthand experience in the industry, at what point did you realize that you had the makings of a Hollywood novel– and what details of this world did you most want to convey to readers?
KK:Thank you! I’m not sure there was ever a Eureka moment when it became clear I had a so-called Hollywood novel. Although none of my characters have been lifted directly from life, many of my friends and acquaintances were laboring in the same way these characters do as we all rounded the bend to 30. But what really attracted me to them — and to many of my characters — is that they’re pretty respectable and hardworking, they know there’s a game to be played and they’re doing their best to play it. They’re neither fantastic, eccentric Hollywood stars like Howard Hughes nor the tragic losers you find in “Day of the Locust.” There’s something romantic about the extremes, the big star and the pathetic, delusional aspirant. But there are hundreds of thousands of these middle people, and you don’t hear a lot about their struggles. I also was intent on conveying the absolute lunacy of the Hollywood mindset, which hasn’t changed. To this very moment, there’s no rhyme or reason why one picture gets the green light and another one doesn’t, why one screenplay is purchased over another.
AR: As someone from a theater background myself, I really appreciated your desire to tell these stories! So much unseen work goes into a film or stage production, and so few of the players are ever visible to the audience– in fact their job is NOT to be, which can feel dehumanizing at times. And the tasks themselves—like recreating the sounds of a family eating dinner in post-production—might seem bizarre but are all part of making a film work. I read that you originally began writing fiction with the idea that it would raise your visibility as a screenwriter. Can you talk a little bit about that shift, both in terms of your writing process and which world you felt better suited to over time?
KK: I’m thrilled to hear that you appreciate the details of filmmaking and filmmakers. A lot of people “below the line” with a lot of highly technical skills work long hours to make the magic, as they say. I’m interested to hear that you read I began writing fiction to raise my visibility as a screenwriter! It’s absolutely untrue. First, nothing raises your visibility as a screenwriter, pretty much ever. Selling a script for an ungodly amount of money helps, but the old joke about screenwriters in Hollywood still pertains. Here’s the joke, in its entirety: “Did you hear about the Polish actress who slept with a screenwriter to get ahead?” (I’m half Polish, so I can tell that joke.) At any rate, no, that had nothing to do with my turning to fiction. I had written 8 screenplays (7 with a writing partner) and was growing completely frustrated with the whole process. Even so-called successful screenwriters rarely see their scripts made into movies, and nothing was happening with mine AT ALL. I loved movies, but I’m also a writer. I began to feel that maybe fiction would just be more satisfying. So no, I switched to fiction because I’d given up on Hollywood.
Making the switch was a challenge, but over the years I’ve come to appreciate my training in film and screenwriting. It’s helped me to ground my fiction in time and place, and also pay attention to visual correlatives (like the LA weather you mentioned in an earlier question).
AR: What sort of writing routine do you adhere to? As someone who writes in multiple genres, does your writing and revision process vary significantly from project to project?
KK: I like to be writing as much as possible on any given day. That’s my routine. I start first thing in the morning, write for 2-3 hours, exercise, come home and deal with email and such, then try to work until I can’t do it anymore, which is about 4 or 5 o’clock. I love nonfiction, because I adore research and just turning my attention to something in the world.
I’m currently working on a novel, which I’ve tried to resist writing for several years, and now I’ve just given in. A novel can kill you. It demands everything you’ve got to give, and you’ve got to sustain the narrative in your head, day in, day out. Or at least I do.
AR: The Diamond Lane seems to pit two types of storytelling against each other, though we realize early on that truth and fiction are relative terms at best. Mouse, a documentarian, prides herself on stories that deliver both literal and emotional truths. But she keeps her own emotions squarely at arms length–only when she realizes she can make a documentary of her own wedding does she accept Tony’s marriage proposal. Meanwhile Tony is shopping a fictionalized screenplay of their African romance, but the rewrites his potential funders demand drive it so far from its origin as to render it unrecognizable. It feels perversely fitting that emotions in The Diamond Lane follow the rules of an entertainment culture where nothing, not even love, has a recognized value until someone else wants to fund it (or click “Like”). What might have seemed farfetched to the reader in 1991 now feels eerily prescient of today’s reign of the Instagram selfie, the Tweet, and reality shows. So I’m tempted to ask, and I’m only kind of kidding here– what are your predictions for 2035? Does the oversharing trend show any sign of abating? More seriously, how has the explosion of available media changed (for better or worse) how you make and share and perceive art?
KK: Oh Anne! I’m so glad you asked! (And also, so thrilled you saw what I also noted when I reread the book — that everything that read as satire in 1991 has come to pass.) In 1991, I’m sure no one imagined you could build an entire empire of shows built around high-strung brides-to-be shopping for their wedding dresses (Say Yes to the Dress). In any case, as regards 2035, here’s my prediction: people will burn out on all the posting required by the current social media platforms and also realize it’s the Tower of Babble, with everyone frantically tweeting and sharing, but no one listening or absorbing. Around the same time, the iChip will come on the market. It will have a genius marketing campaign, and people will start having chips implanted in their heads, so they don’t have to post, but merely THINK. Today’s kids will say to their kids: when I was your age I had to type my thoughts into a tiny keyboard with my thumbs. But people who read, will still want to read books. It will be a blessed relief.
AR: I’ll be one of those fogeys still clamoring for books, so I’m quite pleased by your predictions!
In your introduction you acknowledge all the changes that have come about since The Diamond Lane was originally published: “the leviathan distractions for those of us who make our livings sitting at our desks of e-mail and the Internet were then glimmers in the farsighted eyes of a handful of brainy geeks.” Still, since 1991 you’ve published 12 more books, including three YA novels, an award-winning memoir, and four bios of kick-ass women (among others). And you teach writing. What’s your strategy for staying focused and what advice do you have for writers about cutting through the noise and making the present media glut work for them?
KK: It’s true, I’ve kept on writing, but part of that is simply because it’s what I’m trained to do. A writer writes. It’s how we process the world. I struggle with all our modern day distractions just like everyone else. I will say that the allure of the Internet, including social media and cute dog videos, wanes when I’m deep into writing something, and my best solution is to try to always be in that place, deep into the writing of something. As for cutting through the noise — I have absolutely no clue. I do feel as if we’re all just shouting at each other and no one’s really listening. The best advice I can give is to write your heart and guts out, the better to put something out there that demands the attention of the world. Don’t hold back. Now is the hour.
AR: If you had the power to green-light 2-3 other worthy books for re-release, what titles would make your personal shortlist, and why?
KK: This is a tough one. There are so many worthy books that fall out of print for one reason or another. Two books that I think got short shrift at the time they appeared, and are of the same vintage as The Diamond Lane are Carolyn See’s Rhine Maidens, about an impossible mother and a well-meaning daughter, that takes place in L.A., and in the much-maligned central valley. Carolyn See can be very dry and acerbic, and the book captures not only this tricky relationship, but also a specific and very recognizable (at least to me) Californian frame of mind. The last edition was a mass market paperback published in 1989. The other would be Whitney Otto’s Now You See Her, which published in 1994. It was her second novel, after How To Make An American Quilt, about a woman who turns 40 and starts to literally disappear. It’s a very sly, very forward looking novel about the male gaze and female aging, and I think it was too sophisticated for its time. It may still be in print, but it surely deserves a new edition.
AR: And finally, congratulations on being one of the 24 writers recently selected for Amtrak’s new Residency program! Can you tell us a little more about what the Amtrak Residency entails? Do you have a specific project in mind for your train-writing adventure?
KK: THANK YOU! It was a wonderful surprise. I don’t have a lot of details yet. I will be going to Chicago on the Empire Builder, but the date hasn’t been set yet. We’re looking at spring. And I DO have a project in mind — the novel I mentioned!
Find a copy of The Diamond Lane on IndieBound
Karen Karbo’s first novel, Trespassers Welcome Here, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and a Village Voice Top Ten Book of the Year. Her other two adult novels, The Diamond Lane and Motherhood Made a Man Out of Me, were also named New York Times Notable Books.
Karbo’s 2004 memoir, The Stuff of Life, about the last year she spent with her father before his death, was an NYT Notable Book, a People Magazine Critics’ Choice, a Books for a Better Life Award finalist, and a winner of the Oregon Book Award for Creative Non-fiction.
Her short stories, essays, articles and reviews have appeared in Elle, Vogue, Esquire, Outside, O, More, The New Republic, The New York Times, salon.com and other magazines. She is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction, and a winner of the General Electric Younger Writer Award.
Karbo is most well known for her best-selling Kick Ass Women series, the most recent of which is How Georgia Became O’Keeffe, published in 2011. How to Hepburn, published in 2007, was hailed by the Philadelphia Inquirer as “an exuberant celebration of a great original”; #1 ebook best-seller The Gospel According to Coco Chanel appeared in 2009. Currently Karen co-authored, with Gabrielle Reece, the recent New York Times bestseller, My Foot is Too Big for the Glass Slipper, and out October 2013 is Julia Child Rules.
In addition, Karbo penned three books in the Minerva Clark mystery series for children: Minerva Clark Gets A Clue, Minerva Clark Goes to the Dogs, and Minerva Clark Gives Up the Ghost.
Karen grew up in Los Angeles, California and lives in Portland, Oregon where she continues to kick ass.