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Interview: April 4, 2008

April 4, 2008

In this interview with's Shannon McKenna Schmidt, Karen Robards --- bestselling author of over 30 works of fiction --- discusses what sparked the idea for her latest romantic thriller, GUILTY, and sheds light on how her protagonist's checkered past affects present-day actions, creating the backbone of the story. She also explains why the novel revolves around the legal field, describes how her own children inspired one of the book's characters and reveals the biggest challenge of her writing process. In GUILTY, your new romantic suspense novel, Kate White is a prosecutor in the Philadelphia D.A.’s office and a single mother with a disturbing secret in her past. What sparked the idea for this book? Did it begin with something in particular like a character or a plot element?

Karen Robards: I love the idea that people are malleable, that they can and do remake themselves. This story explores the premise that almost anyone is capable of a single bad act, but does that make them an irredeemably bad person? In GUILTY, Kate has a difficult childhood, makes some wrong choices that end up with her being caught up in a terrible crime --- then decides she doesn’t like the person she’s becoming and does something about it. I enjoyed creating the complex, flawed but struggling person that she is. As I wrote her, she became very real to me. Actually, she’s one of my favorite characters.

BRC: One of the novel’s first scenes is a shooting in a courtroom. Do you draw on events or stories in the media for your books? How about for GUILTY in particular?

KR: A courtroom shooting in Atlanta originally inspired that scene. As I did more research, I discovered that courtrooms are uniquely vulnerable to violence. Unless and until they are convicted, defendants are presumed innocent and almost always appear in court unrestrained. Some of these defendants are --- in fact --- guilty, are aware that they are probably going to be convicted, and are desperate to escape punishment by whatever means they need to use. It’s a credit to all the very effective security measures in place that there is not more violence in courtrooms across the country.

BRC: The main characters in GUILTY are a district attorney and a homicide detective, and details about law enforcement personnel and procedures are integral to the storyline. How did you conduct research on the legal aspects to ensure that they’re accurate? Have you ever worked in the legal field?

KR: When I was a little girl, if you had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said a lawyer. That was the career I planned for. I was actually in law school when I wrote my first book, and, lo and behold, the thing sold and the plan changed. Now, of course, I realize I was meant to be a writer all along, but I’ve always loved the law and all things legal. I read law books and law journals, and follow certain interesting cases for fun, and occasionally something will find its way into my books. Among my many relatives are lawyers and police officers, and I can always check with them if I have questions. It’s a family joke that they take credit for the stuff I get right. With the stuff I get wrong, I’m on my own.

BRC: The story begins with two dramatic scenes, both involving Kate --- one that takes place when she is a teenager and another that happens in the present. How do these two incidents impact Kate, and what do they reveal about her character? What appealed to you about creating a storyline where the past comes full circle to impact the present?

KR: The past ALWAYS has an impact on the present. Every significant event that people experience leaves its own mark. What people perceive is shaded by their view of the world, which in turn is shaded by the things that have happened to them. Kate never experienced any kind of security as a child, so as an adult, security is important to her. She never experienced familial love, so creating a loving family life is a priority. Violence was an everyday part of the world she grew up in, and in the first dramatic scene, when violence explodes around her, she faces a choice: she can embrace it or not. The decision she makes sets her up to become the respected prosecutor and loving, caring parent she is as an adult. When violence blasts into her life again, she is faced with another choice that is even more agonizing because it involves her son. What she chooses to do is, of course, the backbone of the story.

BRC: As a mother, was it challenging to write about a child in jeopardy? Did you draw on any characteristics or behaviors of your three sons for the character of Ben, Kate’s nine-year-old son?

KR: I loved Ben. My boys are very protective of me, and I drew on that characteristic for Ben. They’re also very smart and resourceful, like Ben. And yes, as a mother I do find it challenging to write about children in jeopardy. But what I have learned as a mother is that children, even very young ones, are real people with personalities and quirks and foibles just like adults, and that knowledge enables me to use the fictional children that I create as characters just like all the others that populate my novels.

BRC: This novel has a one-word title, as do many of your other books like OBSESSION and VANISHED. Did you come up with the title GUILTY? What is it about one-word titles that are effective?

KR: I actually did come up with the title GUILTY, although many times my editor and a host of others inside the publishing company brainstorm with me until we hit on something suitable. A one-word title is easy to fit on the jacket --- it’s memorable, and it can be read at a glance. What’s not to love?

BRC: Did you travel to Philadelphia, the city in which GUILTY is set, to conduct research, or did you decide to set a novel there after visiting? Do you have personal ties to the city?

KR: I owe the Philadelphia setting to my middle son, who will soon be graduating from high school. As part of our college search, we checked out the University of Pennsylvania, which is located in Philadelphia, and I (careful mother that I am) did a lot of research into the area. It soon became apparent that it was a great city --- and a great setting for a novel. Thus, I was able to kill two birds with one stone, which is always a good thing.

BRC: GUILTY is your 33rd novel. How do you keep coming up with fresh plot and character ideas? Does it become harder with each book?

KR: Usually I’ll start with a character. Just as every person has a story, every character has a story. That story is the basic thread that determines the plot. Setting, secondary characters, even the love interest --- those are determined by the primary character and are the flavorings that make the whole thing come alive. At any one time, I’ll always have a dozen or so story ideas floating around in my head --- or on little scraps of paper in my office. If I could only find all those scraps when I need them, I’d have enough to keep me going for another 30 years without having to think up another thing! Unfortunately, I’m not that organized, which means I’m always having to come up with something fresh. As for whether or not it gets harder --- no. Like the truth, stories are out there.

BRC: How do you make certain to strike the right balance between the romance and suspense elements of a storyline? What do you find to be the biggest challenge about the novel-writing process?

KR: I’m going to answer the last part of this question first, because it’s the easiest: what I find most challenging about the novel-writing process is simply planting fanny in chair and getting down to writing. Instead of checking my e-mail. Or answering the phone. Or doing a little more research --- let’s see, where’s a spot near the Philly DA’s office where Kate and Tom could go for privacy? Head for Google Earth.... As to striking the right balance between the romance and suspense, I never think about it. I just write the story. So far it seems to have worked out pretty well.

BRC: You write in the novel about Ben, “He loved to read, and one of the reasons his backpack was always so heavy was that he always had a couple of books --- the one he was reading at the moment and the one he meant to read next, in case he should finish the first one unexpectedly and be caught unprepared.” Do you share Ben’s compulsion to carry a spare book? Have you ever been caught unprepared for reading material?

KR: I always carry spare books --- usually several spares --- plus magazines, tabloids, you name it, so I am rarely caught without reading material. Having nothing to read drives me nuts. Of course, when that happens I can usually scrounge up a paper and pencil or pen, so I’ll end up writing, either on the book I’m working on at the time or a new story idea or a dumb joke I want to try out on my sons (who groan at every one I come up with) or something.

BRC: You say on your website ( that you’re an avid reader. Do you enjoy reading romantic suspense? What other genres do you favor?

KR: I read everything. I like all genres: romance, mystery, horror, fantasy, thriller, paranormal, young adult --- you name it, I’ll read it. I also read a lot of nonfiction. I like history and biographies, and just finished a great book on Abraham Lincoln’s ongoing depression and how it shaped his life and presidency. (The title, of course, escapes me just at present.)

BRC: Can you tell us a bit about what you are working on now?

KR: My newest romantic thriller. It doesn’t have a title yet, but it will be out next April.