Interview: April 13, 2007
April 13, 2007
In this interview conducted by Bookreporter.com's Jen Krieger, Karen Robards --- whose 34th book is OBSESSION --- discusses various aspects of her writing process, such as mapping out finer details within the grander scale of her work and how she plans the plots of her novels around her characters instead of vice versa. She also explains why she likes to inject humor into all of her stories and shares a memorable encounter with one of her many fans.
Bookreporter.com: Themes of identity, memory, reality and perception are pervasive in OBSESSION. The idea that our memories, our realities and our very selves are fluid and malleable is fascinating, and you tackle those potentially tricky concepts without ever coming off as heavy-handed or having this information detract from the book's rapid-fire pace. Are you consciously aware of the balancing act you're performing in writing about such cerebral ideas so readers breathlessly keep turning pages?
Karen Robards: The thing that I found fascinating as I was writing OBSESSION was the concept that the core of a person's identity --- who he or she is inside --- never really changes. Katherine's physical appearance changes drastically. The environment in which she finds herself feels strange and alien. Her relationships don't ring true to her, and her memory is spotty at best. Yet the inner core of her personality --- her strength, her resourcefulness, her intelligence --- remains intact, and she is able to call upon it to keep herself alive. Coupling that kind of intense situation with a breakneck pace makes the writing fun for me and, I hope, the story fun for readers.
BRC: There are so many little details, like the sizes of the tiles on Katherine's floor and Dan's glasses --- both of which seem mere mentions at first, but become crucial plot points as the story unfolds. Had you mapped out these details and their place in the grander scheme of the book before you started, or do they evolve as things go along?
KR: The tiles occurred to me as soon as I started writing the book. Dan's glasses came later --- just about the time I needed them. As I write, the story unfolds for me just as it does for the reader. I always start with a grand plan, but it invariably changes as I go along. The thing about details is, they only have as much importance in a story as a character places on them. At first, Katherine made a fleeting mental note about the filthy state of her kitchen tiles. Later on in the story, the tiles became more important because they began to assume increasing significance in Katherine's eyes.
BRC: Katherine is perpetually on the run, fleeing one shadowy assailant after another, and the pacing of the book is breathless. You have obviously mastered the art of keeping the tension high and the readers completely absorbed --- not an easy task for a writer. Would you say this is something you've always had a knack for, or is it a skill you developed over time?
KR: First of all, thanks for the kind words. I love having my pacing described as breathless! But to answer your question, storytellers are born, not made, in my opinion, so this is something I've always had a knack for. For me, the key to writing a good tale is getting inside the head of my characters. When I am writing from Katherine's point of view, I try to see through her eyes. Katherine was in a dire, life-or-death situation, and the rapid-fire pace was a natural consequence of that.
BRC: Katherine is such a distinctive and unconventional character; from the reader's first encounter with her we know immediately she is no damsel in distress. What was your inspiration for her?
KR: I always try to get inside a character's skin, then ask myself what I would do in that situation. Katherine is a strong and determined woman who is desperately trying to survive, despite daunting odds. Her reactions are instinctive and visceral.
BRC: Despite the violent and twisted plot of the book, there is a lot of humor and wit --- much of it the result of Katherine's observations and narrative tone. Consequently, there was never a time when I wanted to put the book down because it was just too dark. Do you think injecting humor into a sinister plot is necessary to keep the reader involved? Do you think romantic suspense, as a genre, lends itself better to intermittent levity, or do you think most suspense/thrillers and mysteries --- regardless of their target audience --- benefit from the balance of the humorous and the ominous?
KR: I personally am a big fan of humor. I think it adds a little something extra to the story, whether it's romantic suspense or straight suspense or whatever. And Katherine had a naturally funny voice, which helped.
BRC: There are two major turning points in the plot of the book --- when Katherine looks in the mirror at the hospital, and, much later, when she and her mysterious "protector" arrive at a certain destination. As a reader, I saw neither one coming and was shocked by both --- as well as impressed by your pacing and plotting. Did you have these two pivotal twists mapped out when you started the book, or did they develop as you wrote?
KR: I knew that the first plot twist, the mirror, was coming in advance. The second developed as the story developed. It shocked me too --- which is always nice. There are always surprises along the way as the book unfolds, and that's one reason I keep writing.
BRC: One of the things that made the book so enjoyable were your characters, like the aforementioned Katherine and Dr. Dan. Typically, do you see characters or plot first?
KR:I tend to see characters first. Usually the heroine, because I have to identify with her and get inside her skin before the story can begin to unfold. As I said before, I see through her eyes.
BRC: All of your recent books have had one-word titles. Do you come up with the title before you start writing, or is that something that happens later?
KR: Usually the title and the story idea evolve about the same time. Sometimes, though, my editor and I do some brainstorming to get just the right title. Marketing gets involved in there, too.
BRC: Do you keep an idea file? How do you keep coming up with new ideas?
KR: I do keep an idea file, and if I could just find it --- my office tends toward the chaotic --- I would be thrilled. I've never had any trouble coming up with ideas. Like the truth, they're out there.
BRC: This is your 34th book and your fan base just keeps growing. What do you hear from readers? And can you share a favorite encounter with a reader with us?
KR:I get a lot of wonderful feedback from my readers, and I appreciate every nice thing they say about my books. Writing is such a solitary pursuit --- at least it is for this writer --- that getting feedback from fans is really important. It's good to know that people read and enjoy what I do. I've had so many memorable encounters with fans, it's hard to pick one! But this one does stand out. In February, I was attending a conference in Salt Lake City when a woman came up to me and said she wanted to thank me for the many hours of reading pleasure I had given her and her mother. She told me that her mother had recently passed away, and that her last weeks, which were spent in and out of a hospital, were made more bearable because of my books, which the daughter read aloud to her right up until the end.
BRC: What would you say has been the most important lesson you have learned since you started writing?
KR: That books have a life quite apart from the writer. Every book I have ever written --- since the first in 1981 --- is still in print. They're out there on their own, sometimes for years and years. That's why I want every single book I write to be wonderful, and why I always do my best to make sure they are. I want readers to pick up my newest book, or a book I wrote 10 or 15 years ago, or whenever, and love it.
BRC: What can readers expect to see from you next?
KR: I'm just beginning work on my newest romantic suspense, which should be out next April.