Kathleen Karr - Author
Kathleen Karr, who lives in Washington, DC, began writing fiction on a dare from her husband. She got into children's literature after her kids asked her to write a book for them. The result, It Ain't Always Easy, was an award-winner, and began Karr writing historical fiction for children. Her latest book, Exiled: Memoirs of a Camel, follows Ali the camel as he's shipped from his home in Egypt to America.
RIF: Your books all revolve around history. What's your favorite historical time period?
Kathleen Karr: My favorite is 19th century, early 20th-century Americana. I feel very comfortable in that period. I like it because I don’t have to deal with sex, drugs and rock and roll, even though the period has a whole different set of problems.
A number of my heroes/heroines are orphans. Look at the statistics or the 19th century. In 1880s New York City, for example, at one point there were a ¼ million street children.
RIF: Where do you get your ideas from?
KK: Generally, I start with an overall idea, not with a character. For The Great Turkey Walk, I had this idea about walking turkeys for 3-4 years before I grabbed on to the right character for it. When Simon hit me, the whole story came alive. With “The Boxer,” I had started boxing as an adult and fell in love with the sport. When I went to the Library of Congress to research the history of boxing, I found it was the most popular sport in the world in the 1880s, but it was illegal in New York City and other cities. But that didn’t mean that people didn’t box. They boxed to get off the streets. You could get off the streets with either your brains or your fists. Johnny, the main character, ultimately used both.
RIF: How did you become a children's book author?
KK: My kids, when they were younger, asked me to write a book for them. I wrote It’s Ain’t Always Easy in 1990. I realized instantly that children’s literature was where I belonged and I never looked back.
Both my kids [her son is in college and her daughter is in graduate school] still critique my manuscripts. Gilbert and Sullivan Set Me Free was dedicated to my daughter Suzanne. She sent the idea to me as a Mother’s Day present. She was doing some research and she sent me this article from 1914 about music being used for rehabilitation in a women’s prison for the first time. The prisoners actually put on the Pirates of Penzance. So I researched prison history in America and wrote the book.
RIF: When you wrote Exiled, what made you want to write from the point of view of a camel?
KK: I wanted to tell the story of the US Camel Corps [an experiment of the US Army in the 1850s – the Army tried to use camels to carrying supplies and soldiers across the Southwest instead of horses and mules]. It’s such a cool story, but it would be boring to tell it like non-fiction. That’s how I came up with the idea of a camel. All the characters are historically accurate. They’re fictionalized, but they’re people my camel would have really dealt with.
RIF: Did you get to know any camels for the book? What are they like?
KK: I studied the camels at the National Zoo. I studied camel physiology and their love life. I went to Egypt and Morocco, and I rode camels in the dunes of the Sahara so I knew what it felt like to ride on a camel in real camel country. If my character Ali is yearning for them, I know what he’s yearning for.
Camels have always fascinated me. They’re so ornery, but there’s an extraordinary intelligence about them. The funniest thing is trying to ride a camel. You mount the camel when they’re on the ground with all four legs folded under them. When they get up, it’s like you’re riding an earthquake. You’re hanging on for dear life.
RIF: You also wrote about turkeys for The Great Turkey Walk. Did you do turkey research?
KK: I had grown up on a chicken farm and spent 10 years of my life with birds, laying hens. Granted, they’re brighter than turkeys, but I got a feeling for the birds. I don’t think I could have written that book if I hadn’t had that experience, which at the time I thought was the worst thing in the world. I couldn’t get away from it fast enough. You never know what events in your life are going to be useful. Everything is an experience. Gobble it up.
RIF: How do you research for your other books?
KK: I get fairly involved. There are several kinds of research that I do. When I get the concept, I go to the Library of Congress or the National Archives and I look at every piece of material that’s available on the subject. I let that float around in my head for a while. The second part is the traveling so I can have accurate descriptions. The third kind of research is just living. I couldn’t have written “The Boxer” if I hadn’t been a boxer myself. I know exactly what it feels like when Johnny gets out in the ring. When at all possible, I try to experience what it is that my characters are experiencing so that it can totally come alive.
RIF: What is your next book about?
KK: My next book, Worlds Apart, (spring 2005, Marshall Cavendish) is sent in 1670 and is the story of the first English colonist who arrived on the shores of the Carolinas and met the Indians. It’s a clash of cultures. The hero, Christopher, makes friends with an Indian boy. Christopher has just left cramped, stinky England and now he has this paradise, which he loves. He wants to go completely native. But his Indian friend is coming fascinated with English culture and what they have – iron, guns, and tools.
To research, I had to find a list of the people who actually arrived on these first boats. The characters were real people, although I fictionalized them by necessity.
Get in touch with Kathleen!mailto:Kathleenfirstname.lastname@example.org