Interview: March 2, 2007
March 2, 2007
In this interview with Bookreporter.com's Alexis Burling, Karen Harter --- author of WHERE MERCY FLOWS --- describes the events in her life that inspired her to write her second novel, AUTUMN BLUE, and explains how the story grew and evolved from its initial conception. She also discusses the significance of religion in the lives of her characters and addresses issues that are prevalent today regarding children with special needs.
Bookreporter.com: Where did you come up with the idea for AUTUMN BLUE? What is the significance of the title?
Karen Harter: The story idea came from my favorite character, that old curmudgeon Millard Bradbury, who popped into my head while I was trying to take a nap. He was a man who felt his life was spent and he had nothing more to do than work the daily crossword and maintain his perfect lawn. I wondered what it would take to catapult him out of that easy chair and back into life. Then it came to me. At the age of 15, one of our sons became an angry, rebellious, chronic runaway. No matter what we tried, my husband and I could not reach him. We prayed desperately that God would bring someone into his life who could. And that's what happened. The young man who took our son under his wing and guided him back is a hero. Hence, Millard got Tyson, a troubled teenage boy, to rock his perfectly ordered world and bring the hero out in him.
I originally had a different title that my editor wasn't crazy about. I made a huge list of potential titles, none of which my agent, editor and I could agree on. My editor suggested "Autumn Blue," which sounded lyrical but didn't make sense to me, though the story does take place in autumn. I've grown to love the title, especially on that stunning book cover with blazing leaves against pure blue sky!
BRC: Your debut novel, WHERE MERCY FLOWS, was so well-received. Had you already written AUTUMN BLUE before WHERE MERCY FLOWS was published? Were there differences between writing your first and second books? If so, what were they?
KH: I started AUTUMN BLUE during the process of final editing and promotion of WHERE MERCY FLOWS. By that time, I had learned so many things the hard way. For instance, I made an outline this time. What a concept, huh? I found it saves a LOT of editing if you know what goes on in the middle of your story before you begin. WHERE MERCY FLOWS took eight years to write, largely due to the fact that I was working full time and raising boys, but also because I was learning as I plodded along. I think AUTUMN BLUE from concept to completion took about nine months to write.
BRC: Sidney and her one-time beau, Jack, share a conversation about Tyson in which they discuss his psychological state and the fact that he might have ADD. Sidney responds by saying, "He's not sick; he's unique… because he doesn't sit still and learn like other kids, he's been pegged as a bad kid. He's been treated like a bad kid, and maybe that's the one thing he has learned at school. He's bad." These days, many kids are (mis)diagnosed and slapped with some sort of disorder, possibly leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy-type situation. For example, because they are labeled one way and perceived that way, they begin to act that way and believe they are inherently that way. What are your feelings on this?
KH: I absolutely believe that. The son I previously mentioned was a happy, enthusiastic child in kindergarten and first grade (where he had a teacher that encouraged bringing frogs to school and dancing to impromptu songs). But from second grade on, it became a blur of parent-teacher conferences and nagging by both the teachers and his clueless parents to perform according to the intelligence we all knew he had. Looking back on it all, I'm horrified by what we put the poor kid through. He was not designed to learn that way. And yes, by our constant pressure and obvious disappointment, I believe we taught him that he was bad. No wonder he rebelled. When we finally got this revelation we set him free, first by apologizing and then by building him up and believing in his ability to succeed. In our case, the right thing was to allow our son to drop out of high school and go to work full time. We're proud and thrilled with the happy, successful man that he has become!
BRC: The second time Ty runs away, he faces a "turning point moment" and almost throws away his future. Instead, Millard steps in and risks his life to save him from a life on the run. What is the significance of this moment in your eyes? Did you ever toy with having it turn out differently?
KH: Oh, Millard; my hero! This scene signifies the salvation of my own son. Ty was so close to being forever lost. I knew that this moment was the turning point, not just for Ty but for Millard too. It had to be this way. It's the moment in which they began to save each other.
BRC: Sidney seems incredibly driven to find a husband who is suitable to fill the "father" role for her children. Jack fits the bill, but Sidney doesn't seem to be attracted to him --- only to the "idea" of him and what he symbolizes. What are your thoughts on this theory? Do you think women (and men) put pressure on themselves to be "settled" for security reasons? If so, where do you think this pressure comes from? Is there a double-standard?
KH: For Sidney, it was more about her kids than it was her. She wanted a stable family life for their sake first. Perhaps because her first husband had been so tawdry it was easier for her to talk herself into a safe relationship, even if it was without passion --- which she had learned the hard way to mistrust. People have a need for security; to know that they don't have to face this life alone. Some find strength in God or in a life partner. Unfortunately though, many seek and cling to relationships in an unhealthy way, thinking that another person can actually meet all their needs. It isn't so. Double standard? I don't think so. Men and women have basically the same needs but go about filling them in different ways.
BRC: What do you think Alex represents for Sidney at the beginning of the book? At the end? How does their relationship change throughout the book?
KH: Alex, the deputy sheriff, comes on the scene as a threat. He has a vendetta against her son and mama bear doesn't like that one bit. He also brings back shameful memories from her past. Eventually, she sees him through Amilia's eyes (his substitute mother) and begins to understand the wounded and vulnerable boy beneath the hard exterior. Of course when the big tough sheriff humbles himself to her son --- well, what woman could resist that?
BRC: The characters' search for redemption is a constant theme throughout the book (especially at the end), along with a yearning to move beyond the past. Alex wants to forgive his brother's betrayal but finds it nearly impossible. Millard still feels guilty about the way he treated his son before he died. Ty can't get past his hatred (and repressed love) for his absent, deadbeat father. Is this the tie that bonds these characters together? Explain.
KH: Yes, they share a common yearning for redemption that also, on a subliminal level, eventually gives them a certain grace and understanding for one another.
BRC: Rita is an interesting character. She is fairly negative throughout the book, always lecturing Millard (her dad) on the fact that he's getting older and that he should no longer do certain things. On the one hand, she is concerned for his health and wants to make sure that he stays well and doesn't exert himself. On the other hand, she has already resigned him to an early grave. What are your thoughts on this dichotomy? Is she justified in her opinions?
KH: Rita doesn't know her own mind. She cares about her father but is flighty, fearful and greedy. She's also influenced by her husband, who confuses Millard's worth with the value of his real estate.
BRC: Millard's character changes significantly throughout the story. What, in your eyes, are the key factors responsible for this change? Do you think this type of change is possible in most people? Does it just "happen" or must they work at it/want it?
KH: Millard, though he was too proud to admit it, had bought into the same lie that his daughter did. His career was over, his kids raised and wife dead. These were the things that had made his life valid. Yet he was haunted by the man he used to be, the man he really still was. He felt it was time to let go of that identity and yet it made him grumpy. It was this fragment of pride that hurled him reluctantly out of his comfort zone and into involvement with the Walker family. I've seen too many people play out someone else's script of old age, effectually dying long before the actual event. Then there are people, like my parents, who are too busy staying positively involved in other people's lives to realize they're in their eighties. For them, it is a daily choice. Give in to the aches and pains or do a few stretches, play some pool, give to a good cause and invite someone over for dinner.
BRC: Along the same lines, you write, "It's a shame that so many kids don't have adults in their lives that they can respect." Respect is an interesting word choice. Might you elaborate on this quote?
KH: Children desperately need adults in their lives who model strong, positive character. Not perfect people, but people with wisdom (which is not the same as knowledge). They don't need or want us to walk and talk like them. Both Millard and Alex eventually gained Ty's respect by being honest about their failures and taking steps toward change.
BRC: Did the story change at all from when you first started writing it to its final draft?
KH: My stories always change during the process. When I began, I didn't even know Amilia. I thought she was just the neighbor lady in Alex's old neighborhood, the victim of a robbery. But as it turned out, her role was essential, adding wonderful depth to the discovery process between Alex and Sidney. I always know what I want to accomplish in a story, which is the theme that keeps me on track, but the fun part of writing is watching where your characters go and hearing the surprising things they say.
BRC: Religion and God seem to play an important role in many of the characters' lives. Why did you decide to introduce this into the story?
KH: I believe God is a part of every story, every character. Some are marked by his very absence or perceived absence. God is represented by love, peace, wisdom, etc. The conflict in a story, whether you're reading a thriller or character-driven fiction like I write, is that age-old pull between good and evil, darkness and light. Even "good" characters experience this pull. If we were all like Jesus, where would the story be? There would be no conflict.
BRC: What would you like your readers to take away from their experience with AUTUMN BLUE?
KH: First of all, a good read. I hope my readers will love (and despise) these characters as much as I do; that they will laugh and cry and be inspired in some way.
Also, I want to give hope to anyone going through heartache. This story was influenced by my own desperate battle to save our son. At first, like Sidney, I felt that life was spinning out of control. Amilia surprised Sidney by agreeing. "Are you going to go by your feelings? If so, then you're right. Your life is spinning out of control." To paraphrase, I learned to either worry or trust God; you can't do both, and only one gets results.
BRC: Do you prefer to read a specific genre of books? What are some of your favorite books that you'd recommend to your readers?
KH: I almost fall apart in libraries. So many books: fiction, biographies, history, literary classics, big ones, little ones, red ones, blue ones…I wish I could open up the top of my head and pour them in. Instead, I try to choose wisely, aware that what goes in is what comes out. I prefer literary fiction. Works I keep on my shelf include anything by Barbara Kingsolver, THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES by Sue Monk Kidd, I WENT TO THE ANIMAL FAIR by Heather Harpham and, of course, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Oh, and THE KITE RUNNER, which opened my eyes to the people and culture of Afghanistan.
BRC: What are you working on now and when can readers expect to see it?
KH: My current project is A TRAIN TO SOMEWHERE. McKenzie Lane, a perky, impulsive art major, meets the cool, sarcastic Maggie Pascoal from Brazil in a "friendly" college poker game, and they soon become enemies. The plot thickens when they are thrust together as roommates in the dorm. Later, the spontaneous act of hopping a train has dire effects on the unlikely friends as well as on others. This becomes the theme: how a single thoughtless choice can change the course of your life, taking you somewhere you never wanted to go. It's a story of an evolving friendship, misadventures (like kidnapping a bride), and digging up family pain. Beautiful but lonely, Maggie's hard shell is cracked open when she falls in love with McKenzie's brother, but like everyone else, even Griffin goes away. It takes a tragedy to pull them all back together again.
This book is not yet under contract, but stay tuned!