Saturday, August 6, 2011

Strong Women Through The Ages

 Karen Harper is a NYT bestselling author.  She writes both contemporary and historical novels.  I must admit, she is a new author to me.  However, as I prepared for this interview I was very impressed with her output (over 30 books since the mid-80s), her strong heroines, and with her intelligent and thoughtful approach to her stories. Karen's historical novels have been praised for her  attention to detail and for making the characters truly come to life. Her historical novels tend to be in the Tudor or Medieval periods of history.  The Romantic Times Book Club said of her contemporary Amish suspense novels:

“Multidimensional characterization, fascinating details about Amish culture and a twisting, complex plot make for the kind of rich reading experience readers have come to expect from Harper.” 

I must admit, when I learned that Karen had been a professor at The Ohio State University, I had an immediate affinity for her.  I began my academic career in Columbus, Ohio at Franklin University (known as the other university in Columbus).  Through RWA I have learned there are many academics who write wonderful romantic fiction, and every time I meet someone new I smile.
Please join me in welcoming Karen Harper as she talks about her career, and the two books released in the past two weeks. The Queen's Governess, her historical released in paperback, and Fall from Pride, a suspense novel set in Amish country.

You write both contemporary and historical fiction.  It seems what binds them together is a suspense or mystery element.  What is it about suspense that draws you to write these stories?

My contemporary books have much more suspense than my historicals, although the thrill of the heroine escaping disaster is prominent in both genres.  Above all, I love a story of a woman who conquers huge odds with the help of the man she comes to love.  My “amateur sleuths” in my romantic suspense novels don’t set out to be crime solvers.  Something terrible impacts their lives, and they have to find and stop the criminal. 

Another common element in my writing is a culture clash of some sort:  the hero and heroine come from different worlds.  This may mean one is a commoner and one nobility in my Tudor novels.  In my contemporaries, I’ve lately been fascinated by a mismatch of one Amish character and one ”worldly.”

Most often the woman is Amish and the hero an auslander or outsider.  That means, when they are thrown together to solve a crime, they learn a lot about each other’s worlds.  Besides, what is more interesting than forbidden love?  If an Amish person dares to fall in love with or marry a worldly person, the community of Plain People will shun them—a big price to pay.

In my current rom/sus, Fall From Pride, Amish Sarah Kauffman and worldly arson investigator Nate MacKenzie are forced to work together to solve a series of barn arsons.  As the barns blaze, their feelings for each other do too.

But as to your original question that does suspense draw me to write my stories, that is true also.  I love for each character to have a secret—to be hiding something.  Aren’t we all?  Suspense comes in many forms:  how members of the same family can be so different…how two opposites can fall in love…how a seemingly “good” person can commit a crime.  One of the best comments I get is, “I had no idea that person could be the killer until the very end!”

 In your most recent release, Fall From Pride, your heroine is Amish.  It seems rare to see an Amish novel that is not marketed as an inspirational.  What was the spark that led you to come up with this story, and how did that spark blossom through your characters?

It’s true that most Amish novels are inspirational fiction today.  Mine are suitable for those readers and a broader audience.  They are not faith-based per se—though with the Amish beliefs, that always comes in a bit.  I’m not writing to get on a current, popular “bandwagon,” as I began writing my Amish books ten years ago, including:  Down To The Bone, Dark Road Home, Dark Harvest and Dark Angel.  (The last three have been re-released twice more recently.)  My spark for these, as well as for my Aug. 2011 Amish novel, Fall From Pride, is simply my fascination with and familiarity with the Amish. 

I live two hours from their largest US settlement (Holmes County, Ohio, not Lancaster, Pennsylvania anymore!)  I’ve studied them, mingled with them and learned from them for years.  Because they live isolated, rural lives with no phones in the home, “slow” transportation, mistrust of police and lawyers, they make perfect subjects for suspense novels. 

After all, they often must solve their own problems.  They do call in outside help at times, but they can’t/won’t just “call the cops.”  Also, they’re pacifists and don’t fight back physically against evil; therefore, they must find other clever, careful ways to protect themselves.  And yes, I must admit, that sometimes means cooperating with an arson investigator, sheriff or FBI agent who is thrust upon them.

Your reputation is one of writing “proto feminist” heroines in your historicals which seems anathema to the historical genre (except in romantic fiction).  What is it about how you choose and form your characters that interests you in exploring power dynamics?

The heroines in all my historicals are real, dynamic women who actually lived, so I write historical novels with romance rather than historical romance.  I try to keep my main characters true to their times, but these are not weak women and I research their lives carefully.  My heroines pulled themselves out of difficult situations and triumphed in life.  Each of them has a great love story. 
Mary Boleyn, Anne’s sister, is one of these in my The Last Boleyn.  My Boleyn book was published about 20 years before Philippa Gregory wrote The Other Boleyn Girl, and our takes on her are completely different.  (Check out Alison Weir’s Oct. 2011 nonfiction book on Mary if you want to see which author came closest to the real person!)

Joan of Kent (The First Princess of Wales) rose from obscurity to marry the Black Prince; Kat Ashley (The Queen’s Governess) was the once impoverished woman who became Elizabeth Tudor’s governess and foster mother; Elizabeth Fitzgerald (The Irish Princess) was the Irish spitfire who dared to challenge the Tudors.  Each woman (at least eventually) wed the man she really loved—a bit of a novelty for those days—so that sounds a bit modern too.  In Mistress Shakespeare, the heroine stands up for herself against great odds.  My nine-book series the Queen Elizabeth I Mysteries focuses on the queen herself—her happy marriage was to her nation.

Most authors either purposefully or subconsciously use parts of their own lives in their novels.  Do you find yourself in these two novels?  If so, in what way?

 My books, of course, reflect my interests and world view.  The assured, take-charge heroes are my ideal kind of man.  And all my books are ultimately uplifting:  true grit and love conquers all, even deadly crimes.   There is always a triumphant, happy ending in a Harper novels.

 Is there a particular scene in each book that you really loved when you finished it?  Which ones and why?

I love reunions scenes, be they between lovers or families.  Also, I am an author who must write about the settings I know well and love.  Many authors start with character or plot, but I almost always begin with a place I relate to emotionally.  That helps the story and people in it to come alive for me and, hopefully, for my readers.  And how do I know when to stop researching and start the story?  When the characters start talking to each other and I have to scramble to write what they say.  

 What’s next for you?

I have already written Return To Grace, book 2 of the Home Valley Amish trilogy, which will be out in March.  Book 3, Finding Mercy, is almost through the planning stages and ready to come to life.  In the historicals, I have recently completed Mistress of Mourning, a book set in 1500 where the Medieval world clashed with the English Renaissance.  Mistress of Mourning is a historical mystery probing whether Prince Arthur Tudor (Henry VIII’s older brother) was murdered and what happened to the Princes in the Tower, a long-time debated historical mystery.  The book has two heroines, Queen Elizabeth of York, mother of Henry VIII, and Varina Westcott, a merchant-class candle-maker and death mask wax carver, who, with the hero, solves the murders of the queen’s brothers and son. 

My big author news of the year is that I now have a British publisher for my historicals and a recent review said they would never have guessed I was American and not English.  I hope all my books seem that real and “right on” in bringing people and places to exciting life.

Thank you for joining me at Behind the Book.  I can barely wait to begin reading Fall From Pride!

You can find all of Karen's Books at these fine retailers.

1 comment:

Maggie Jaimeson said...

I'm so happy to have Karen here. I hope ya'll will come by soon and chat with her. She is prepared to interact.