Living Archives Transcript
Women Writers Panel:
Karleen Koen, Gail Donohue Storey, Margie Walker
interviewed by Claudette Simms
Menil Collection, Houston, Texas
April 8, 1997
Kegel-Flom: Good evening. I was asked to make a special announcement before beginning my real announcements, and that is the ladies’ is on that side and the men’s is on this side. I think you know what I’m talking about. Good evening to all of you. I’m Penelope Kegel-Flom. I’m the interim director of the University of Houston’s Women’s Studies program. We want to welcome you to our fourth program in this year’s living archive series sponsored by our community outreach association. The living archive series aims to present a sense of a complex history of women’s lives in Houston and of the struggle and changes that characterize that history. This series also serves to introduce you, the community, to the women’s archive and research center work at the University of Houston. The archive, which opened just this past fall, serves students, scholars and people of the community like yourselves. Its very first collection was recently completed and it archives the twenty-year history of the Houston Area Women’s Center, and it’s a fascinating collection I hope you’ll get to see one day. The Archive and Research Center will continue to focus on the papers of Houston area women’s organizations and on the oral histories of Texas women. Tonight we are fortunate we will hear about the literary lives of three Houston women writers. Our panel moderator on my far right is Claudette Sims, former talk show host for Channel 13's program, Crossroads. Claudette is herself a poet and writer currently working on her fourth book, a novel. Following the interviews this evening, there will be an opportunity for you to ask questions. I ask that you write your questions on a card, three by five card, which will be circulating through the audience, and give them to one of our volunteers for the panel to answer. After the program, we invite everyone to stay for the authors reception planned by the Houston Women in the Visual and Literary Arts. The River Oaks Bookstore has a table towards the back. We’ll have books for purchase and the authors are going to circulate and sign books for you. And, as you can probably already sniff, you will enjoy a very fine array of foods from one of, eleven of your favorite restaurants in Houston. Also don’t forget we’re going to have a drawing for some door prizes. So if you don’t have your card or name in the jug on the table, please don’t forget. And now for our panelists. Karleen Koen. Her first novel, Through a Glass Darkly, held a place on the New York Times Bestseller List and she has recently signed a movie option for it. Her recently released sequel, Now Face To Face, is a Book of the Month Club selection. Miss Koen was instrumental in establishing Houston’s Women in the Visual and Literary Arts, an organization that seeks to support the development and marketing of women’s creative work. Gail Donohue Story is a multitalented, nationally published author of fiction, poetry, and essays. She is the author of The Lord’s Motel, favorably reviewed by the New York Times Book Review. Her latest novel is God’s Country Club. It reached the book stores just this past fall. In addition to her own writing, Gail teaches in the Writers in the Schools program in Houston. Margie Walker, in the center, with the lovely flower, is former managing editor of the Houston Defender. She began her career as a romance novelist with stories featuring African-American heroes and heroines. She has published six novels with such intriguing titles as Love Signals, Indiscretion, and Conspiracy, not necessarily in that order. She also contributes her writing talents to Writers in the Schools. So, Claudette, take it away.
Claudette Sims: Thank you very much, Penelope, and thank you, ladies and gentlemen. I’m really excited about being a part of this program as a ribute to women writers, and as I was doing research and doing some background research and pulling together questions for this evening, I looked at the diverse backgrounds and experiences of our guests, and they didn’t really have a lot in common, except they had one really, really big thing in common, and that is the fact that all of them, with their full-time jobs, to write full time. And so I want to begin with a question to all three of you, and that is what was the turning point for you? What made you decide to choose your art and your passion of writing over that job security. And let’s start right here with you, Karleen.
Karleen Koen: Well at the time I had other security, which was husband. Who was working. So that made a difference in quitting. But what happened for me when I really committed to the book, I was pregnant with a child which, which I lost and, but I was pregnant and I thought I can’t write a novel and be pregnant, and I started putting everything away--I was about half way into the book--because both novels had taken me a long time to write. And as I put it away, I just, I stopped. It was like, no, I don’t want to do this. I’m going to write this. And so I pulled everything back out. And then after I lost the baby it was a way, I think it was a way to help me get through that grief. So again I, I had job security, like I say, I was married to it.
Sims: Margie, same experience or different?
Margie: At five o’clock I answered all of your questions and I was brilliant and witty and charming. That was at five o’clock. No, I was at The Defender, the Houston Defender newspaper and editor of the, of Tempo, which is the lifestyle entertainment section. And I was interviewing people who were, who had already accomplished their professional objectives and were going back to their childhood dreams. And I went, Uh, you’re going to quit a job. You’re a full professor. And you left, you quit football to do this? Everybody was like, I’m going back to what I wanted to do as a kid. And of course I’d always wanted to be a writer. And the opportunity presented itself and I figured it was my time. So I quit the Defender and started writing and thought I could go back to work after a year, but I only learned that I had a whole lot much more to learn and my husband was supportive, so I too had the security.
Sims: * husband * [inaudible]
Sims: Gail, what about you?
Gail: I was single at the time, and I was the administrative director of the creative writing program at the University of Houston, and in my spare time, such as it was, I wrote an article called “the Houston Man” for Houston City magazine to research the myth of whether or not there were any good men for all the good women out there. And another summer I spent three months of my spare time talking with homeless people and shelter and service providers for the homeless about what, why people were homeless. And in the course of researching those two magazine articles, I thought there’s so many fascinating stories but I wish that I just had the time to turn them into novels. So I decided to take a year off * from my job at the creative writing program at the University of Houston. And the first thing I did was I went to a Buddhist monastery in Massachusetts for three months of total silence, seventeen hours a day of meditation, and from there I went to Yaddo, the writers colony in Saratoga Springs, New York, where I started working on what became The Lord Motel, and the Houston man article, that was the beginning of the fictionalization of that article.
Sims: Even though all of you chose to leave your job as adults, I’m sure early on in your lives, especially, you mentioned, that you had dreamed of writing. Can any of you think of the early influences in your life? I know that I’d read something in your background about your grandfather, who just encouraged you early on. He believed that you could write a book. Were you a ch-- How old were you then? You were just a child?
Karleen: Uhm, well I had-- thinking back, now that you mention it, I really hadn’t thought about this. In a sense both my grandfathers encouraged me in different ways. On my mother’s side, oh I’d write little stories and everything and my grandfather would read them and say, These are good. On my father’s side, my grandfather had all the novels, the historical novels of like the 1940s and 50s--Frank Yerby and Frank Slaughter--and as soon as I could read more than three or four words, I started reading those things, you know, and I, I refer to that, to those two, to those two authors sort of as my writing grandfathers in a way. So, one through the novels that he had and then the other just through encouragement.
Sims: Early influences or mentors either of you?
Margie: It was my next door neighbor for me. You know my folk were not educated, so really didn’t know how to support me. I guess you could say I was the weird child of all of the other children. I wanted to just stay in my room and, and read and write. But a next door neighbor, Miss Lila Burroughs, who was a teacher, would entertain me. She would sit and listen, and I would just read poetry, at least I thought it was poetry at the time. And she would just listen, and, and, and it was the encouragement of having somebody pay attention. That was, that was Miss Burroughs.
Sims: Right. Pay attention, I mean the support and encouragement can come from so many different areas, not just from the family. What about you?
Gail: My mother was, I think, the, the more striking influence for me in that we were always read to as children and my mother was a children’s librarian for most of her career. So we had tons of books at home, and when my brother and I were s-- were kids, we would go to the library where my mother would work in the evening and hang out there and read for the eve-- for the whole evening. So I would say that, that I started with a love of reading, and even as a child I used to enter those contests. In Boston where I grew up they called it the Good Sport page, but it’s a, it’s kind of a young people’s page in the Sunday newspaper where you can enter some kind of writing contest. And I think that’s-- I started doing that in grade school.
Sims: You know I think that if you talk to a lot of authors they’ll tell you that it began with a love of reading, and so we read because hopefully that there are good stories. And I think the highest compliment you can pay an author is that you’re a good story teller. So what’s your definition of a good story? Either something you’ve read or something you’ve written. What’s your defi-- what makes a good story? Anybody. Think about it for one second.
Karleen: Well I like, I like a story, I like a story that moves along, has some movement in the plot, but also has character. There’s something about the character that’s interesting or different or when I’m finished with it I’ve, I’ve learned something or I’ve gotten in somebody’s mind in a way that I-- It’s not an experience I would have. I have only my experience. So that makes a good story to me.
Margie: I, too, like a moving plot but I also want to be able to root for my characters even if I don’t particularly like them. I mean you know even if they’re bad, you know like kind of electric you want to--
Gail: I like stories that are both linear and nonlinear. So I don’t think of story in terms of plot, as a sequence of events, and to me, I’m very interested in the Jungian notion of the shadow and how that we have all of these parts of ourselves that, that some of which were not socialized to live out. So to me whether a linear or nonlinear story, I like to experience something that I wouldn’t have access to otherwise.
Sims: Even if you’re writing a contemporary story or historical piece, do you ever find the characters in your books paralleling with your own life or actual people? How important is that? Or do they just come out of you?
Margie: What I would say about that is my world is divided into two kinds of people: the people who are dying to get into my books and the people who are very determined to stay out of them. So that I want to go on record as saying my husband, Porter, is in the latter category.
Sims: So those fictional characters, you have to make sure they’re not based on some real person that we know, right? Margie, I-- Go ahead, I'm sorry.
Margie: Mine are a conglomerate of, of, of people that I’ve met over the years. They all of course want to be in my books.
Sims: Writing styles and the genres, that you, that you each have individually selected. Does the topic and the characters and the plot and all of that, does that come based on your writing style or do you base your writing style on the, the topics that you want to write, the issues that you want to address. Which is constant or is there a constant in this at all? Karleen?
Karleen: The one constant for me is that I want to tell a good story. However that’s going to come out. So far it’s come out as two historical novels. And when I began to write a novel I didn’t think, Oh, what kind of novel should I write? I just without thinking started a historical. So I think I just let instinct or whatever my interest was or something like that. Around writing style, a historical is tricky because you can’t write-- for example, I write about the 1720s. Well if I tried to write the Daniel Defoe or Alexander Pope or somebody like that wrote, nobody now, nobody would read it nowadays. We’re not-- You know, everything is different. We used to-- We move faster, we read faster, you just-- no more than if you have to study for a course. You know you’re not necessarily going to pick those books up. So what I have to do, what I try to do is get some kind of essence of beauty of language and a little bit of the style but make it modern enough that somebody will read it. I go for essence. And I don’t, you know I don’t know that I’ll always write historicals, but for me there’s just something about-- I like, I like, I like stories in the past.
Sims: Your, your first book, the nine hundred page historical novel, it was startling, nine hundred pages and a lot of-- you had to do, I’m sure this is an understatement, a lot of research for this book. A lot of people hate research. I understand that you love research.
Karleen: I like doing it.
Sims: I understand you love it. Would you share with us why you like it and how long did it basically take you to complete the book?
Karleen: Well, five years.
Sims: Five years.
Karleen: But I have to say in looking back over that I’ve always felt really-- I’ve always felt ashamed and embarrassed about how long it takes me to write. But then, but when I look back at, at, at my, at the time that I’ve written a few novels, I had a really full life. I had younger children, and I did, you know I did a lot of things with them. So I wasn’t, I wasn’t a workaholic around it. Now I don’t’ have that excuse, so now I don’t know what I’ll, I’ll do, but around research, I guess it’s just curiosity. Again, again it’s like following an instinct or following your nose. Just-- Particularly in the, I've used the stacks at Ross Library because that’s always been the library closest to where I live, and you get back in there and it’s amazing these books and their topics and what they’re about. I also think that I use research to hide from beginning to write. Because beginning to sit down and start that story is just such a leap of faith, you know. Without a parachute. You know, you’re out there, so. So that I think there’s, there’s a shadow side to the research and a golden side. So...
Sims: You mentioned starting. Are there rituals that you perform before you sit down to write everyday?
Sims: And how many hours, by the way, do you write every day? But are there rituals, things you go through that say, I’ve got to get ready. Take a deep breath, you close the door, you turn it. What do you do?
Sims: Let's start with you.
Sims: Coffee first. Coffee first. Lots of need for caffeine.
Margie: [inaudible]*. And we review last night’s or yesterday’s notes. The object of course is to always to finish yesterday at a point so tomorrow you’re not facing a blank sheet of paper.
Sims: And how, how, how long do you write each day, how long do you try to write each day?
Margie: From drop off kid time at school about-- it’s about eight thirty or nine or until it’s time to pick up kid, till about two thirty. Generally every day except for those days I have to go to my WITS school.
Sims: Writers in School.
Margie: Writers in the School.
Sims: Writers in the School. Should mention that Margie-- In fact I think-- Is everybody up here part of Writers in the School?
Sims: And one of the founders I understand. Right. Exactly. Rituals. Do you have a ritual to get you started, to get those words on that paper.
Gail: Yes, what I do every morning is my husband and I meditate together and I start off with some prahnayama Yogic breathing exercises and then I, we, I and meditate and then I make breakfast and we sit and have breakfast together and then my husband goes off for work and at about eight fifteen I have a few chores, load the dishwasher and that kind of thing, and then I try to get settled down by about nine and I try to write-- If I’m really going I can go and I forget about lunch and have lunch about three. My husband’s always saying, What time did you have lunch today? Four o’clock? But I have-- I write most of the morning into the early afternoon and then I have another ritual right after lunch. I have to have a pint of Haagen Daz coffee frozen yogurt. Every day. I’ve tried, I say I’ve tried, I tried just a half a pint. Regrettably I’m up to a pint.
Sims: Whatever start that fire. I think that’s very important. You mentioned a family and marriage, children, trying to balance a full-time writing career with a husband and children. Do you get the encouragement that, and if your husband’s in here and you can’t speak the truth, but do you get the encouragement, of course, that you need on a regular basis or do sometimes you have to prompt them to understand that mommy’s in here trying to get this thing done so she can get that to her editor or what?
[inaudible, not sure who is talking?] * teenager *
Sims: Teenager here. We have a teenager here.
Margie: . Well then you know what it’s like [overtalk]
Margie: -- they want, they want to, you know, interrupt. But generally, no my family’s been very good for the most part. They understand this deadline is coming up and once I get it clearly understood that if I don’t write this book and get it in then I don’t get money and you don’t get those Jordans. You can’t to * this summer. Then I get cooperation. But sometimes you know you just have to stop and do that. But for the most part my family’s pretty good.
Karleen: Well I’m no longer married to mine so I could be honest, but the truth, the truth is that, that he wa--, he was very supportive. He re--, you know, he t--, he took it seriously when I, when I did and I think that’s the hardest thing. Well I can only speak for myself, but particularly the first time, the first novel was just like to take myself seriously, you know, to go in there and do it everyday like this is real. But, and I don't think my children, I can’t really speak for them, but in looking back I don’t think they gave it much thought. It was just sort of something I was doing, but I was Mom, and you know, and I, I like that. I liked being Mom and it got me away from the writing too. It gave me a whole other aspect to my life and something to fret about other than the novel. So, and I don’t have that now. In some ways I miss that. I miss the diversion.
Sims: Is it, is it because you are working in * most of the time as a writer. When you do get out of it, in, in front, in front of that computer, you try to find time to, to have some time with your friends and family and whatever to kind of rejuvenate you? If you’re writing eight to ten hours a day or whatever?
Gail: Since I write contemporary literary fiction, what’s going on in contemporary culture is of the utmost importance to me, and actually it’s central to the way that I write, which is by the Post It note method. So I, I, I have a very active social life and some wonderful women friends and my husband is a hospice physician, so we have friends in a variety of different circles, the medical circle and the art circle, etcetera. And so I, I find that, that I’m fueled, I’m inspired if somebody says something particularly insightful or penetrating or funny, I write it down on my Post It note and then I go back and at some point I start to assign my Post It note lines, my one liners to one character or another, and that’s how I create my characters, and the characters create the scenes and the chapters in the book. So, yes, to answer your question, I do feel that being very involved in the life of the community is how it works.
Sims: Would one of you just take us briefly through the book process. Just briefly. From the moment you get the idea until when we see it in a bookstore. This some people might be interested in that. Who wants to do it? Anybody can do it. Come on.
Margie: I'll jump in.
Sims: Okay jump in then.
Margie: Generally first I need a character name and/or situation, and I’ll always research my character’s name, and once I decide what their professions are, and sometimes it comes with the name, then I can feel the taxonomy, and I, you know, based upon their profession, and then their histories, and I like complete histories. You know, do they like the color pink? When is their birthday? The astrological sign. I mean it’s very, very detailed in terms of character development and of course plot: what happens first and how does the next action motivate the next theme. I’ve got to have a theme that’s going to thread everyody together. How does my villain fit in. Am I boring you?
Margie: Okay. Motivation, generally of the villain, because sometimes the the characters are pretty much, pretty much easy except for the romantic conflict which has to be worked out, which as you guys know doesn’t always go with the sus[ense element. So I have to tie that, that part in because I write the romantic suspense so I need both of those.
Sims: Do you wait till you have your complete manuscript before you submit it to your agent? Or do you submit them the idea, or what?
Margie: Generally a one-page synopsis if I feel very confident about the book. Sometimes I like to do the first six chapters to make sure that this is, this is the story I want to tell. And I only do that if I have time to do that.
Sims: In the next step, we’ve done that, we’ve finished it, maybe we’ve moved it now to the agent, the next step.
Gail: And once you’ve submitted to the agent, then the agent, at least in my case, the agent-- well b-- in my both, in the case of both of my books have had the same publisher and I first had an offer from this publisher before I had an agent, so I was able to go with the offer in hand from a publisher * to find an agent, as you all know, and it’s very difficult to find an agent. People say it’s, it’s more important who your agent is than who you’re married to. But then the agent negotiates the contract, and then these days contracts are so complicated with the implications for electronic rights and rights that we haven’t even thought of yet that I think everyone needs an agent, if, if you have a book. So my agent takes it from there, then will call me several times over the course of the negotiations, and tell me what’s been offered, how she’s countered, should she.. there’s this dance that they go through.
Sims: You may or may not know that I, mid-eighties, eighty-five, eighty-six, that Karleen was offered probably at that time I understand, the largest book advance in the history of publishing--at that time. Three hundred and fifty thousand dollars for her first book, and it was really incredible for a first-time novelist. I mean what kind of pressure did that put on you when you heard your agent say they’ve offered you over a quarter of a million dollars.
Karleen: Well, you know, the whole thing, th--, looking back on that time that was such an unreal time. I was so excited that the book had sold and then, yeah, that, you know, that was a nice, a nice amount of money. I mean that was great. But what happened that really threw me for a loop was there was a media frenzy. I got my fifteen minutes of fame. And, and to me a media frenzy is like you’re a piece of meat and the sharks go at you. And that was hard. That was really hard. I just-- the attention, and, and I, and I found more often than not that it was like I had to justify, you know, that. And what had happened, what my agent had done is she submitted it to five to six publishers and they had gotten in a bidding war. And in that that’s how the, the price got high. And then it was just, you know it was a Cinderella story, which, which people love. I know, let, you know, wins the lottery. And so it was, it was wonderful but it was very disconcerting too. I mean I really felt-- I am a, I, I’m a watcher, I’m, I’m a quiet person, and to have all that attention focused on me was really, really difficult. And Un--, I, unlike Gail I don’t-- I was thinking aobut, you were talking about characters earlier. I, I really don’t-- I base my characters on-- It’s like if I meet somebody and there’s some little something about them that I might be taken with, it’s like I go with that little fragment of the person, something I like or something I don’t like, but then I just sort of make up a whole-- I don’t know I just sort of start fleshing around it. You just sort of start fleshing around it and it, it depends on how-- You know so much of it depends on what scale of a novel are you writing. You know, you can flesh more if you’re, if you’re writing a larger novel. You’re going to have to be lean and mean if you’re, if you’re writing a smaller novel. But, I, it’s, I, and I really believe too, I really believe that -- I just don’t believe there’s a right or a wrong way to do-- But I do need coffee. Except I’ve gone to decaf, and the Haagen Daz is like, I’m taking that one. That’s a great, that’s a great ritual.
Sims: You know, I know that we had mentioned your cash advance. I know that the advances range from a low of you know lowest of the lowest to the highest of the highest. And so both when you talk to artists they will tell you that they, they don’t usually write for the money. They write because they have to write. But in the end, is it as important for that, for that critical acclaim that comes in writing a piece of literature or is it just as important to have those over-the-top book sales. You know, everyone’s talking, everyone’s picking it up, because sometimes they don’t mesh. Sometimes the critics they pan it but the people love it and the books are just selling like mad. What’s so important? Or is, or is, can you even compare the two?
Gail: What’s most important to me is to know that I, I articulated something for somebody, and I get the most wonderful notes. And that, and often it happens, you know, and I think well I wish I had gotten this prize or that prize and I’ll get a note from someone I never even heard of and it’ll just be a short, very touching note about what a difference that, my, the book made for them or what experience it touched on in their lives. And I’ve been very surprised since, since I, since my heroine, a Houston librarian, unmarried, you know the whole struggle to find an intimate relationship in both of the books. I thought that I would, that that's who would really be my audience. But I’ve been very surprised that people of all age ranges and men and women and people married and unmarried have been affected by it. So that’s really what matters to me is that it makes a difference to an individual reader.
Margie: It used to be the money but now that I know better. But this is a profession. We study hard--at least I do. I go to the conferences, the workshops, and, and review my, my technique, you know, fiction writing technique constantly and I’m like, well just like any other profession.
[several talking at once]
Sims: Exactly, I understand. And see you’re such a prolific writer. And see as a romance novelist, and we were talking about this before the program, where it may take you five years to research, we’re talking about Karleen, Margie has deadlines for every-- what? Every nine months--
MargieL Every nine months.
Sims: --is that you told me?
Sims: Every nine months she has to, to, to turn out a book. So that’s a lot of work in a short period of time.
Sims: I should mention that Margie has-- well is it? Six books in the last seven years? Is that right?
Sims: Six books in the last seven years. An interesting story and I just-- Margie and I happen to have known each other for many years-- that when she first started reading romance novels, when she was really, just got seduced by all the excitement and the fun and the romance and so forth, and then she starts searching books, bookstores looking for more romance novels, she was surprised to find out what? Margie.
Margie: There was none in color. It was, there was a big drought. I think about, from the time I started reading romances there were maybe two romance books that had been published by the major houses, which you guys already know are Silhouette, Harlequin, which Harlequin owns Silhouette. * at the time was doing a few. But there were only two books with, with characters of, of color. And of course in all of my arrogance I figured I could do this. Little did I know that there were lots of women around the country who, who felt as I did. We had been reading these books like you’d sit down and eat a bag of Scittles, you know, constantly consuming these books. And it just like clicked one day, and I think the one book that really did it--I can’t remember the title-- but it was something where the heroine went to Greece to study something and they were giving a description and talking about-- this was to be the cradle of civilization. And I went, but wait a minute. That’s not me. Where am I in these books. Where do I fit? But of course initially the publishers, as you well know, did not believe that there was romance in, in the lives of African Americans after all. How could there be when everybody was predicting the extinction of the black male around that time.
Sims: Margie I’ll just wrap this up for you. Margie just certainly did her part in making sure that the word about African-American heroines and heroes was brought to mainstream publishing and also probably coined the phrase that "love comes in all colors". I like that. I think that’s, that’s from one of your bios. When you’re looking at-- Whether you’re, whether you’re writing every nine months, if you’re writing every five years, I mean it is a real, real commitment to it, to writing. And I’ve got a scenario for you. You’re up against a deadline and there’s a family crisis or there’s an illness or there’s a death in your family. I understand that you lost a sister when you were writing one of your books. How do you look-- how do you balance getting past that family crisis and still trying to meet that deadline? Do y-- Does the... Does the book just take a back seat completely even with the publisher breathing down your back. How, how do you cope with that?
[unsure who speaks] Because life continues on.
Karleen: Well in my experience, the people that I’ve worked with in New York, for example, I didn’t have a deadline on the first book because I didn’t have a contract, and so it was like finish when it was finished. But I had a deadline on the second, which I had never missed a deadline before in my life but then I’d never had a deadline to around a book. I had been around journalism, things I’d done. And so I mean I just got sick when I had to call up. I wasn’t any where near ready with the story or anything, and, and what my publisher said to me was, No one meets their deadlines. Don’t worry about it. Which was like, God, that’s great. But, but, but when I ca-- Later on there were some family things that came up and the people that I dealt with were, were incredibly supportive. That’s not al-- That’s, that’s, that’s certainly not always the case. I mean I can’t, I certainly can’t speak for Margie or Gail, but just in my case, I’ve always met with a lot of-- And I can’t, I’ve got to have everything. I’m not able, I wouldn’t be able to, to just do the book and ignore the family, or just do the family and ignore the book. I think like any working parent or any working spouse, I mean you are always split. You really are always split.
Margie: I haven’t had that a real serious crises. The worst thing that happened was when I was working on Indiscretions and got into Chapter 13 and realized there was no romance in this book. I had written a mystery. And I, I called my editor and said, You’re not going to believe it. I said, This is not a romance but it’s a damned good mystery. She said, Let me see it. She thought I was exaggerating, and, and I sent it to her, and she called me back in, in a week and said, You’re right. You have to fix it. And I was hoping she would say, Well I’ll try this and this. No, I have to fix it.
Sims: Didn’t work, huh?
Margie: No, it didn’t work the way I wanted it to.
Sims: Do you have a story to share with us as well?
Gail: Yeah, well I, I haven’t had to write with a deadline, fortunately, and it’s a good thing because I really feel I need a lot of mental and a lot of psychic and emotional space in order to work out my-- the stories, because my central preoccupation in both of the novels is the, the sexual versus the spiritual. I mean it’s not even versus but how we integrate them. Because I feel that our culture is so polarized into the sexual and the spiritual, the sacred and the profane, that to me what I’m trying to do by using a relationship story in a social context, in, in the case of each of the books, is to, to somehow develop some kind of emotional logic, some kind of emotional coherence. So I h-- I feel that if each of the books is a journey for me, I’m trying to work that out. I start with a question. For example, that, and, for example, for the first one, The Lord's Motel, the question was, and it became the first line of the The Lord's Motel hotel, Is it better to have fun with a kinky man or to be gloomy with a good one?
[laughter and talk]
Margie: We have to compare notes.
Gail: Well in the, in the second. You know in the first one she’s w--, she’s with the kinky man, *, the cruise director and gets into all kinds of trouble, sexual and otherwise. And so by the end of the book she’s trying to get away from him and she’s met this Houston emergency room doctor, Gabriel Benedict. So at the beginning of the second book she moves in with Mr. Right, Dr. Right, the, the, Gabriel Benedict. But there are all kinds of class differences. He’s from a very wealthy Texas family. She grew up in a Boston housing project. She’s a Yankee, he’s a Texan. And so the, that book is about how, once your with the right person then how do you work through your own intimacy issues. So I, I, I think I myself-- and it’s emotionally complex even though I consider myself a comic writer, I’m a comic writer about emotionally serious dilemmas.
Sims: I think, I think I saw it in some of the material that was sent that you think humor and wit are very, very important even in the middle of serious topics.
Gail: Yes. Especially where the social topics I deal with--domestic violence in the first book, The Lord's Motel, where Coleen is an outreach librarian. She’s trying to deliver library services to prisoners and, and befriends an inmate librarian. And then The Second Homelessness is the social issue and Coleen’s own father is homeless in Boston, so I don’t see * of them split by an means. The characters are involved in a personal relationship and it’s a highly social context. And, and my sense is that cultural problems will be solved on the personal level. That if each one of us opens to love in our personal relationships then we’ll be better equipped to show love in a more global sense. And so that’s why I use humor, because these subjects are so hard for us to deal with--homelessness and domestic violence. And we’re all suffering so much from compassion fatigue that my hope is that with humor we can open our hearts.
Sims: You mentioned some of the, some of the social concerns, and I know that we think of our wonderful great country as a melting pot. I prefer to think of it as a tossed salad in a way. But I just was wondering whether or not either of you have felt that you have experienced any sexism or even racism as you’ve tried to get your work out. Even with writers or agents or editors or anything and not to whine about it of course but to acknowledge that if it exists and maybe we all get together and try to do something about it. Because it’s still one of our social ills. All the isms, you know, ageism, sexism, racism, whatever. Any--
Margie: I remember when I, I attended a conference with a group and we were meeting with, with the big editors from all over the place. And one editor told us, Well why don’t you write like Sherry McMillan and Toni Morrison. And we’re like, but this is a romance writers conference. We don’t want to write like Sherry McMillan and Toni Morrison. So, you-- and we knew. I mean, you know, you know what the deal is. Of course it’s all done for money and marketing, but that, that was the initial obstacle at the door. And of course you people don’t read.
Right, oh, absolutely, you don’t read. What about sexism? Any, any--
Karleen: Yeah, I would say it, it’s-- publishing is still in many ways male. And the novels-- if you look at the novels that are reviewed, if you look at the novels, males dominate. And f--, and for me something that’s really important to me and something I’m really interested in, I’m interested in women’s stories. What are our stories? And they can’t all end at the altar. And life doesn’t end at the altar. You know, I mean, it, it-- and that sort of, that sort of the key story that’s always out there for us, you know. So, so I, I, I, I just want to, you know, I use of course my own feelings, what I’ve, what I’ve gone through as a feeling person. And I put it, you know, I put it in a, in a--at this point in my life I put it in a historical setting. And I’m real interested in a, in a woman’s story. And, and it involves a lot of things. At least in my experience it involves a lot of things. And I don’t think that-- I look a lot at the stories that are out there, and of course the biggest story teller that’s out there are movies. We go to the movies. And I look. I, I’m always really interested in the female characters. And it makes me sad because so often we’re an attachment. We’re, you know, or we have a few set roles--understanding wife or nagging wife or you know poor mother, whatever. But there’s no the point of view. I guess that’s what I’m trying to say. The point of view is very seldom from a female’s point of view. So f--, so in my writing, the female point of view is very important, but also what’s happened, interestingly enough, the male characters that have come alive in my novels, to me they’re as fully fleshed and as real as the female. And so that, that was interesting. I mean I wasn’t try to write like a, a female, but, but again the females are strong and, and it's what do they feel. And it’s things I’ve gone through or I’ve heard friends go through. I really want to get women’s stories across. And they’re gr-- There’s some great stories in history. Things that, that women, people of color have done that nobody knows about. So that’s fascinating when you can come across that way. And I was trying to put those things in.
Sims: Which is I think people, we coined the phrase her story as well as history, history as well as just getting the message out about, about the whole story.
Gail: What I’ve run into is more subtle even than that, and that’s on this whole notion of political correctness. And I feel that political kind of superficial, in the superficial sense, political correctness has blinded us to deeper issues that would be more truly, more authentically politically correct. So I have dealt with, with that in both of the books by a very irreverent, almost wicked sense of humor, and as my husband says, I’m an equal opportunity offender. So I, I see and I’ve dealt with this, with racial issues and with gender issues and class issues, particularly in God’s Country Club, the third, the second novel. And for example, I mean it’s really hard to deal with and people of-- writers I think are very tempted to avoid these sensitive subjects. So for example, one, one thought that I had was since I had had my homeless character, the guide to the streets for Colleen, the outreach librarian, is an African-American man by the name of Chance with a substance abuse problem. And so I thought, this-- people of color aren’t going to like this. But on the other hand, Coleen’s boss, the director of the library, is, is Vanessa who is a very bright, well educated, powerful African-American woman. So it’s-- and then Colleen’s own father in Boston is homeless. So I sort of tried to cross all of these lives and see if I can get away with it.
Sims: I mean and I think that’s really what-- If you’ll talk to people they’re going to tell you that’s really what it’s about. It’s about the balancing act here. In fact I know people criticize television a lot, some of the really weird situation comedies that are on. And it’s not that they’re so bad, it’s just that there’s nothing else to compare it with that shows the positive role models. And so, I mean that’s what you’re trying to do with-- But Margie *.
Margie: Basically * of course you know the black woman has, has worn so many hats in the media from, from Sapphire to, to the gun-toter, to you-name-it negative, that in, in the, in romance the idea is to show someone who is strong yet sensitive, to give, to round out the black heroine as somebody worth emulating and admiring and looking up to. All to often, Gail of course is exception, even when we are addressed in other books, generally of course it’s as a secondary character and the picture is, is, is painted of maybe what you have s-- you know, reality as defined by what you see in the newspaper and on, and on television on rogue’s gallery. But all too often that class of, of, of African-Americans who are positive in, in every way from the profession to parenting, etcetera, are left out of the books because that’s kind of boring, you know.
Sims: And it doesn't sell as many books--
Margie: That’s right it doesn’t sell as many books, right.
Sims: The television programs and so forth. So I think it is really trying to find a balance in there. You all seem to be just, you know, brimming with ideas. Are you working on anything now that we should be looking forward to very, very soon? Do you have any projects in the works? I’m sorry.
Karleen: Well after I finished my second novel I said I would never write again. However, I’ve changed my mind.
Karleen: Some will be pleased and some won’t but nonetheless I’ve changed by mind and yeah and as a matter of fact I’ve, I’ve focused in on, on three, three women who actually existed in, in the time of Louis the fourteenth, and I’ve just, I, I, I’m very interested in, I’m very interested in there, there are a number of themes that I’m interested in: innocence and integrity and friendship and love. And I want to, I want to see if I can write a novel around these woman’s, these women’s friendships. So in a way that’s sort of, and I say this, I’m saying this because if I say this I have all of these witnesses who will say, you said you have to go to work, * to the universe. But that’s, that’s the seed right now that’s going on for me.
Sims: We’ll hold you to it.
Margie: Oh God willing April 19 ninety-eight, my next book right now is called Public Affair. It’s a political intrigue set in Dalton, Texas. I have to make up, I have to go out of town every once in a while to do some of these issues. But yeah I’m looking for--
Sims: --too close to home.
Margie: Yeah too close to home, too close to home. That’ll be out in April again I’m working on the next.
Gail: Well I'm in a very peculiar place with my writing right now in that I have that don’t know what’s coming next feeling. And it, it’s very frightening but also very freeing. So what I’m doing is I’m allowing myself to become the person who will write the next book, whatever that entails, and I’m following other pursuits that are related to things that have just come my way that, that I feel I'm being asked to do and mostly what I’m doing right now teaching life story and memoir workshops. I taught one to older adults at the Jewish Community Center, many of whom were survivors of the Holocaust and who had been through the depression. And I’m about to do an all-day one for the nurses and their life stories and I’m having a chance to make the writing workshop also a meditation workshop, linking the meditation to the writing exercises. So I sort a-- I feel that way down deep there there’s going to be some kind of blending of, of my central preoccupations in, in a new way.
Sims: I, I remember when I quit my job to write full time. Everybody thought I’d lost my mind. And I probably had at that time. But right now if you were to think about some of the, the traits, some of the qualities that you believe have been the secret to your successes so far, because we’re looking at three very successful authors that we’re all so very proud of here in Houston. If you could think of some personality traits that a good writer who wants to be successful must have, what would they be. And I think, the first one I can think is discipline, but what I want to do is just give me some one word responses. I’m gonna maybe go down a couple of three times until we run out of things to say. Something that you think you might possess which might be the reason why you got all th-- as they say, show me the money, as you got all that money. Something that you could pass along to people and really when you think about success traits, we’re not even just talking about writing. We’re talking about being successful in whatever it is that we do. I thought of discipline, which I have none but I work at it every day.
Gail: Speak for oneself as well as for people in general.
Sims: Go around again.
Margie: My family would also add * to that.
Margie: Three words. A tad of fear.
Sims: A tad of fear.
Karleen: Yeah, that’s good.
Sims: Keeps you on the edge. That’s very good.
Sims: Alright. Go around one more time. Come on.
Sim: Perseverance. Absolutely.
Karleen: Which is the same thing as tenacity.
Sims: That’s okay. It works for us.
Sims: Desire. Absolutely, absolutely.
Gail: A sense of play.
Sims: Yes, yes.
Sims: Yes, and a vision. I think a vision of where we want to see our lives and where we want to do our lives in the lives of our characters as, as, as we go on. With that I have been told that it is time for us to take questions from the audience. And first of all, can we give all of our extraordinary guests a round of applause. And we’ve decided to try to keep this under sort of control by passing questions to me, so I hope I can read your writing. Aw this is a great question. This was one of the questions on my list but I didn’t get a chance to ask it. What do you do to get past writer’s block? That’s the question. And I also want to add, whenever you have been in writer’s block have you thought about quitting? Writer’s block. Who’s had it and who’s gotten through it and how did you get through it?
Gail: What I do is have more Haagen Daz frozen yogurt.
Siims: Let’s hear it for Haagen Daz.
Karleen: Well I don’t think that can be taught. One of the things that I did that I wanted to mention to anybody out there who might be working on something, to sort of get myself going is very much what, what Margie mentioned, but I would, I would-- this was back when I had a-- It’s easier to do with an electric typewriter than it is with a computer. But I would take the last scene that I was working on the night before, maybe the last few pages of it, and I would, I would just literally retype it. And I would find that in doing that it would-- the next day it would sort of get me in to the flow. And I have had writer’s block, and gosh I tried potato chips and you know-- I mean I dont’ know. I just sort of got through it through grit, you know, just-- but it’s a horrible, it’s just a horrible, for me anyway, it’s a horrible--
Margie: I deny it.
Karleen: You deny it.
Margie: I deny it.
Sims: She denies it.
Margie: I go fishing...
Karleen: You go fishing...that’s good.
Sims: How do you get started again, though. Once you get past it what do you do to get started again? Do you take a break? Do you leave the house? What do you, what do you do?
Gail: I go for a run.
Margie: I go fishing.
Sims: She goes fishing; she goes for a run.
Gail: I write while I run. I carry on the waistband of my running shorts I have a piece of paper held down with a pen, and I can be seen pulling out my paper and my pen and writing down a line of dialog and gets me going again.
Sims: Great diversion, great diversion. How-- This is a great one. How does your family and friend handle your stormy sex scenes?
Karleen: When I wrote my first novel, I put sex scenes in it because when I-- a lot of times when I read fiction I like to read sex scenes. And I didn’t think anything about it, in fact, in fact it was very, it was more like, oh this would be a good place for a sex scene. So I took more ribbing for those afterwards. I mean just duh, how could I be so stupid, but it never occurred to me-- I don’t know, it just never occurred to me that somebody might come up to me and address that. And anyway I took a great deal of ribbing around that, and it, and it, and it really, it really embarrased me. And I found that after the second novel I found it very diff-- I mean in fact * Gale’s doing a workshop that I need to take on this, on you know how to write them. But I found myself much more aware that somebody I knew was going to read that and you know go, Karleen. So I’m not resolved on this. I’m in conflict and denial in this and I’m going to have to take this workshop that Gale’s going to be giving on doing this.
Sims: I’ve got a lot of questions. If you all three don’t want to answer, you don’t all three have to. Would you like to, either of you like to respond to this?
Gail: Well I’ll just say about the sex scene question, when-- it’s in two parts with each book. With the first book, The Lord's Motel, when that came out, a friend who I had known for years and years and years called me up and said, Gale, were you really arrested for prostitution? And for the second book, my husband’s brother called him from Dallas and said, I didn’t know my brother was such a great lover.
Sims: Everybody *. To Gale. When you took your year off and went to the Buddhist monastery, did you already have money saved? Did you get loans? How did you pay your bills? Did you minimize them. You know, how did you get over?
Gail: Well I was very poor. I had to give up my apartment. I put all of my stuff in a mini warehouse in Houston. I-- The Buddhist M-- I saved enough for the Buddhist monastery. And fortunately it’s not very expensive. And I did get a fellowship to Yaddo, the writers colony, and my plan was to just bounce from writers colony to writers colony and eat there that way. But fortunately I didn’t have to do that because I-- Within four days of leaving Yaddo and not knowing where I was going next, my husband to be invited me to come back to Houston and move in with me and ever since then he and I have been a marriage of the arts and funding for the arts.
Sims: Do either of you or any of you or all of you journal or use diaries as a part of your preparation for being a writer. A lot of people talk about writing in the journal *. Anybody? Margie doesn's.
Gail: I keep notes in terms, in terms of dialog, my one liners, but-- Although I would like to try a journal because I think people have a lot of success with that.
Karleen: And I want to say something. There’s a, there’s a book out there and a course that a lot of people are doing called The Artist’s Way, and in that you’re asked to do a journal. And because I wrote for a living for me it was like I don’t want to journal too. But I did it for this and it was real interesting. I was taking a creativity course and in the course we were asked during a period of very, of, of, of a very quiet time to go back through and highlight emotions and things that came up. And I did that. And out of that came poems around my sister. I have a sister who died, a younger sister. It was, it was very emotional and very traumatic for me, and these, these poems just-- I’ve never had that experience. Just they surfaced up, much more gently than an iceberg, but really, really came up very fast. So I’m, I, I, you know, I don’t think there’s a right or a wrong, but I know you can, you know, you could certainly capture impressions. When I went to England and France for some research on the first book, I journaled-- There were particular places I wanted to go to because of the period that I write. There’s not al-- Believe it or not there’s not a whole lot left. And I didn’t have a lot of money too so I could only really only go like one or two places. So I tried to find these places specific to the time period. And I remember journaling about what it felt like, you know, to be in the house or just see it like that. And, and that came in handy, so I don’t know that there’s a right or a wrong, but I know there can be a lot of meat in them.
Sims: Margie, are you interested in expanding to market your romances or books to all women of color. Asian, Hispanic, Native American. Do you have any interest in providing a vehicle for them?
Margie: Interest in providing a vehicle? I’m not sure I understand.
Sims: Well, books, books. As in books.
Margie: I think everybody could read my books now, regardless of their ethnicity.
Sims: Well expanding of characters. I think the question was about expanding characters.
Margie: Oh yes, I am. But I’m very, I’m, I’m, I’m very cautious. Until or unless I’m comfortable with someone else’s culture, I’m not too crazy about stepping up and, and, and I know some of that is because, you know, of my studies in, in ethnography. I just like to be careful. I’ve been able to use names of people and, and some kinds of things that may be germane to, to their particular culture. But in terms of, of having a, a protagonist now, I just don’t have the information in order to do that.
Sims: Do all of you earn, actually earn a living writing, and would you...[cut off]?
[a minute or so of blank tape]
Gail: . . . with the IRS. * but I *
Sims: You can write off that office in the home now *. This is a good thing. This is a good thing. Margie?
Margie: Oh, I would say don't just throw away the peanut butter and jelly just yet.
Sims: Okay. Okay. What about you, Karleen?
Well, I, I, I support myself off, off what I, what I make. But I, I want to put out there for anybody you know who, who is, who doesn’t yet have something published or who has a dream about it. You know you have to, you have to be realistic. It’s, it’s a tough market. I mean sometimes I feel like what happened to me was, I was just in the right place at the right time and fairy dust fell on me and you know there it was. I know so many people so gifted and so talented and you know they’re, they’re working full time jobs and doing the other on the side. I mean-- How much do you want it, too? Are you ready to take a leap of faith? I mean I don’t, I don’t, I don’t really have an answer about whether or not to do it. If you want it badly enough go for it. See how long you can live, you know. And then see there’s-- because there’s so many grants, there’s so many scholarships. There really, there really are means of support out there if you’ll look for it, like Gale was talking about, there really I-- really is a lot if you’ll, you’ll work and go for it. I would hate, I would hate to say don’t follow a dream because you’re worried about money, but then I don’t want you to be homeless either. So.
Sims: Right, right. I, I, I got my first, my first advance last summer, and I’ve been living off it for the last nine months and it’s running out and I haven’t written another book. So I’m ready to find a job. I’m ready to do something different and continue writing part time. I mean but-- I mean it, it’s really all a matter of, as you said, how badly you want to do that. I, I was doing my personal *, doing my, trying to get my taxes ready and my accountant looked and saw how much I made this year compared to what I was making at Channel 13 five years ago, and he felt sorry for me and did them for free this year. That’s a statement. Trust me. That’s really a statement. But I wouldn’t trade the freedom and the flexibility for the world. I just-- I wouldn’t trade it, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. But one of the questions was, Should one start with journalism or just a great desire? And I think it’s so interesting because I-- looking at all their backgrounds, let’s see if I remember correctly. We’re talking like library science, speech communication. What else did I read there? I mean all kinds of different things up here. Education. Someone had a liberal education degree. So did anyone have a journalism degree?
Karleen: I had a journalism degree.
Sims: You have a journalism one. So we do have a journalism degree. So does it really matter, whoever asked this question, where the educational background is.
Karleen: Actually, actually I think journalism prepares you more for nonfiction than fiction. I thinks it’s very hard to take the leap if you’re a journalist. I think it’s really hard to, to actually to make the leap to fiction. I think your, your-- I mean it can be done, it’s done, but --
Margie: It's hard*
Margie: Everything is so detailed and exact that you know you, you lose character, you, your style is a little stagnated. It’s almost like you can put it on a, you know, little column.
Gail: And here in Houston we have one of the top creative writing programs in the country at the University of Houston creative writing program. So we’re really lucky to have it here. So I would encourage those of you who are interested in that. And we have a fine faculty and wonderful, wonderful university resources for that.
Sims: Last few questions and we have to go and enjoy the wonderful food donated. Margie, are you-- are your love interest characters very different from each other, i.e. class, cultural background, race, education, or do they tend to fall into similar categories?
Margie: No, they’re very different.
Sims: And you do that on paper. Just quickly. [overtalk]
Margie: Of course. You know, opposites attract. Or so they say. In, in the latest book, Conspiracy, I had a very upper middle class African-American male who was co-owner of an aerospace design company in NASA set against a black woman who had been abandoned as a child, who felt-- who had no sense of history. And, and because of her, her-- the fact that other people raised her and her parents had dumped her in the trash, her self-esteem was, was torn to shreds. So when she meets this man who wants her, she has a hard time accepting that she’s made something positive of her life and has something to offer to someone else. And, and that pretty much is the, the, the belly of, of the sexual conflict in, in that particular story.
Sims: And I think, I think a lot of time the difference is at the conflict that you need to keep the story kind of keep people guessing about the story. Are, are any of you members of the National Organization for Women?
Margie: No, I’m a member of RWA.
Sims: She-- Margie’s a member of the Romance Writers of America. And are there other organizations you’d like to mention.
Margie: I’m sorry--
Sims: Are there other organizations you’d like to mention now that you’re a member of.
Margie: Oh, once you join RWA, we have a slue of sub genre organizations.
Margie: That, that help developing writing, depending upon, again, your genre. Boy this genre stuff is awesome, you--
Sims: Are either of you members of, of organizations that have anything to do with women?
Gail: Karleen and I are both members of the Women in the Visual Literary Arts which is a fine organization. If you’re interested I encourage you to join that. It’s very supportive, wonderful, creative women.
Karleen: And there’s a, I'm a member of an organization called Houston Area Women’s Caucus. That’s one I’ve just recently joined. Planned Parenthood. That around women.
Sims: And the last question is, great question here, what do you think about the Oprah book club concept and would you want your book chosen? Oh wow! Noooo!
Sims: Of course. What do you think about the concept *? She’s gotten people reading. I mean she really has gotten the country reading.
Margie: It’s a good thing. I mean she really has people reading. Of course she doesn’t do romance.
Sims: Oh, okay, maybe she’s going to get to that.
Margie: Maybe, yeah, maybe she’ll get to that. You know that’s a good thing. You know. I don’t think you could, could blend that in, in any form or fashion. Even old writers are experiencing a rebirth.
Sims: Well it’s a good thing. So whoever asked that question, they all think it’s great and yes we all want our books to be chosen. And with that we say thank you.
Moderator: [most inaudible] We want to thank you for sharing with us. We're fascinated with women writers. I think it’s * authors already *. We have other * drawings for our door prizes.
Women Writers -