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Monday, May 10, 2010

MOVERS AND SHAKERS: Karen Karbo, Author

Karen Karbo was born in Detroit, Michigan but moved to Los Angeles when she was an infant.  She has no memory of Michigan and considers herself a Californian.  She comes from a family of designers.  Her grandmother was a Hollywood couturiere (Luna of California) and her dad was an industrial designer (he designed the hood ornament for the Lincoln Continental, still in use today.)   In the ‘60s he designed toys for Mattel and Karen was an unofficial toy tester and appeared in TV commercials for Barbie. Karen skipped first grade.  In second grade she wrote her first novel, entitled “What Next?” about five people who don’t like each other and get stuck in an elevator. It was ten pages long. She still thinks this is a great idea for a novel. 

Her childhood was blissful to the point of tragedy.  There’s nothing worse for a writer than being the issue of well-balanced people who love you, respect you, are reasonable in their expectations, and more or less stay out of the way.  Her mother taught her how to throw dinner parties, sew a button hole, and make conversation with difficult people.  Her father taught her how to draw a box in perfect perspective, build a table, and shoot a gun.  They owned a beach house in Laguna Beach, where they spent the last two weeks of August.

The greatest disaster of her life struck in the fall of her freshman year in college.  Without much warning her mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor and died three months later.  When she was a sophomore her father remarried the woman who had been his girlfriend before he’d met Karen’s mother.  Karen was on her own. 

On her high school aptitude test it was revealed that Karen’s perfect job was either a) test pilot or b) architect. She was deemed least suited for anything in the helping professions. Naturally, at USC she decided to become a physical therapist, then changed her mind at the last minute and went to film school instead.  In those days USC film school was so overwhelmingly male that she was often the only girl in the class.

After film school she spent several years writing an impressive number of screenplays destined to languish in development, then switched to novel writing out of sheer frustration.  Her first novel, Trespassers Welcome Here was nominated for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize.  In 1991 she published her second novel, The Diamond Lane, praised by The New York Times as a “wonderful comic novel.” Her novel Motherhood Made a Man Out of Me is a touching, hilarious tour de force. The Seattle Times noted that, "If Carrie Fisher wrote with depth as well as wit, she would probably turn out to be Karen Karbo."  All three novels were named New York Times notable books.

But novelists don’t live by good reviews alone.  In 1997 Karen ventured into non-fiction and co-wrote Big Girl in the Middle with volleyball superstar Gabriella Reece. In Generation Ex: Tales from the Second Wives’ Club, Karen took on the complications of divorce and remarriage.  She became a correspondent for Outside magazine and was a contributing editor at Conde Nast’s Women’s Sports and Fitness; at both magazines she specialized in what she calls The Professional Guinea Pig Story, where, as she says, “I put myself through terrifying and humiliating experiences for the enjoyment of smarter people everywhere.” Karen’s exploits included wreck-diving in Micronesia, attending an intensive hand-gun training camp, surf camp and boxing school.  She learned the art of trapeze flying, tested roller coasters and became a PADI certified shark handled in the Bahamas.  She is the proud owner of a shark tooth that came from a 12’ black-tip reef shark, which she caught as it fell from his mouth. 
In 2003, she went on to publish The Stuff of Life: A Daughter’s Memoir, about caring for her father during the last year of his life.  It was a People Magazine Critic’s Choice, a winner of the Oregon Book Award, and also a New York Times notable book.

Recently, Karen has pioneered a new form of biography – part life story, part philosophical treatise, part guidebook.  How to Hepburn: Life Lessons from Kate the Great (2007) and The Gospel According to Coco Chanel, looks at the lives of Katharine Hepburn and Coco Chanel, respectively. “We made these women icons, and continue to view them as iconic.  What is it about the way they lived their lives that continues to fascinate, and how can we emulate their individuality, grit and sheer courage?”  The Coco book was just published in Brazil, and it’s a best seller in Rio. We recommended it:

Of her astonishingly wide range of work Karen says, “These days writers are told they better find a platform and cling to it for dear life if they want to have a career.  My platform is no platform.  I write what I’m interested in.”  Her (embarrassingly stupendous number of) essays, reviews and articles have appeared in Outside, Elle, Vogue, Esquire, Redbook, More, Self, Sports Illustrated for Women, The New Republic, Psychology Today and The New York Times.

We are pleased to present Karen Karbo as our latest Mover and Shaker!  Peachy Deegan interviewed Karen Karbo for Whom You Know.

Peachy Deegan: At any point did you want to be a designer?
Karen Karbo: I want to be a designer now.  If a Brinks truck tossed a bag of money on my front porch I’d apply to my father’s alma mater, Art Center School of Design.  Growing up, however, I was less drawn to the profession.  Everyone in my family designed stuff and made stuff; even my mother, who wasn’t formally trained could sew a dress without a pattern.  It wasn’t very exotic or interesting.

What do you think makes a designer successful?
The obvious things: the ability to define a need and provide a solution in a way that’s pleasing, useful and – let’s be honest – cost effective.  My father was an adherent of the “form follows function” school, and I suppose I am too.  (And so was Chanel, it should be pointed out).   But more than that, a designer needs the ability to go back again and again and again and AGAIN when something isn’t working right.  Because the thing you’ve designed and created needs to work.  It needs to do what you intend it to do with grace and efficiency.  Chanel was known to tear out a sleeve 27 times if it wasn’t right.  A designer needs to possess that sort of tenacity.

What has been your keys to success as an author?
I wish I could say either profound genius or astonishing luck.  Alas, the answer’s not very exotic.  I just keep doing it – thinking of ideas, drafting proposals, pitching essay and story ideas, and always just writing.  If there is a “key” I suppose it’s my broad range of interests.  I’m able to get excited about a lot of different ideas.

Do you have future plans for What's Next?
Haha!  No plans at the moment, but every once in awhile I think about writing it as a one act.

What do you enjoy writing about the most?
I love poking fun at ridiculous stuff other people take seriously.  You can imagine how popular this makes me.

What is most difficult for people to write about?
Their own angst.

What is the easiest for people to write about?
The first time they tried golf. 

What writers do you admire and why?
Sebastian Junger;  because he writes with an unflinching eye about difficult, dangerous subjects without an ounce of melodrama.  Elizabeth Gilbert; I’m not a huge fan of “Eat Pray Love,” but I admire Gilbert’s ability to hold forth about her inner life.  Lorrie Moore; for her ability to completely nail life’s tragic hilarity, endlessly.  Vladimir Nabokov; duh.

Do you try to emulate any writers?
I live in a continuous state of trying to channel the spirit of Anthony Trollope who, if he finished a novel during one writing session would simply start on the next one.  I am in awe of that kind of work ethic and matter-of-factness.

What fascinates you about Chanel the most?
Her unerring confidence in herself and her own good taste.  Where did this confidence come from, given she was illegitimate, impoverished, and raised in an orphanage?

What fascinates you about Katharine Hepburn the most?
Her celebration of her own eccentricities (the pants!  The vinegar-only skin treatment! The ice cold morning swims in Long Island sound!) made her an icon.  

What or who has had the most influence on your pursuit of excellence?
My dad.  Throughout my childhood I learned about the process of creation by watching him design stuff.  He began with sketches, honed the sketches, turned them into drawings, then blue prints, then models, then prototypes.  Sometimes there were several prototypes.  He wasn’t afraid to trash it all and start over.  He was the embodiment of  Goethe’s admonition: “Never hurry, never rest.”

What are you proudest of and why?
It’s always a cliché to say your kids (or in this case, kid, singular), but I’m going to have to say my daughter, Fiona.  She’s a possessor of great empathy, insight and wit.  And a much better all-around human being than I am.

What would you like to do professionally that you have not yet had the opportunity to do?
“And the Oscar for best screenplay adapted from other material goes to Karen Karbo.”  (The novel is mine, as the producing credit.)

What honors and awards have you received in your profession?
The General Electric Younger Writer Award
National Endowment of the Arts Grant in Literature
Finalist -- Books for a Better Life Award
Winner -- Oregon Book Award for Nonfiction
Three novels and a memoir named to New York Time Notable Books of the Year list

What is your favorite place to be in Manhattan?
Swinging down Fifth Avenue on the way to meet my agent for lunch at the Bryant Park Grill.

What is your favorite shop in Manhattan?
Pearl River in Soho.  My daughter and I are the founders of a small, little known religion that worships the place.

What is your favorite drink?
Lagavulin on ice

What is your favorite restaurant in Manhattan?
I still love The Odeon and whenever we’re in town my daughter and I make a pilgrimage to Artisanal for cheese fondue

What is your favorite Manhattan book?
I’m a sucker for “Bonfire of the Vanities,” but I also love Patricia Highsmith’s “The Price of Salt” and of course there’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and…and…and…

If you could have anything in Manhattan named after you what would it be and why?
With the greatest respect, I’d like to have the landmark Scribner’s building on Fifth Avenue.  Actually, I just want the sign.  Everyone who passes by will look up from the stripped awnings of Sephora and wonder: who is Karen Karbo?

What has been your best Manhattan athletic experience?
Running after an empty a cab during a June thunderstorm.

What is your favorite thing to do in Manhattan that you can do nowhere else?
Commune with The Earth Room on Wooster

What has been your best Manhattan art or music experience?
Accepting a writing award at the Morgan Library.

What do you think is most underrated and overrated here?
Underrated: the New York joie de vivre.  Overrated: the shopping.  Blame the internet.

Other than Movers and Shakers of course, what is your favorite Whom You Know column and what do you like about it?
FASHION ALERT.  A girl can dream, can’t she?

What else should Whom You Know readers know about you?
I love fashion even though you’d never know it to look at my standard issue jeans and cowboy boots.

How would you like to be contacted by Whom You Know readers?

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