Interview with Karen Robards
By Cindy Ellis
"The assignment for the class was to write fifty pages of something publishable," she said. She is author Karen Robards, and I had just asked her how she'd gotten started along the path to becoming a published author. She credited a graduate-level creative writing class taken at the University of Kentucky. "I thought, o-kay, what's publishable, exactly? I didn't know, so after class I went to my local bookstore to check out what was currently being published. What I saw were racks and racks of historical romances. I had never read a historical romance, because at the time many of them had titles like Evangeline's Ecstasy with lots of heaving bosoms on the covers and there was no way I was going to be seen in public carrying around something like that. But I bought some and read them, and was absolutely blown away by how good they were, covers notwithstanding.
Then I thought, I can do this. So I tried. Over the course of that fall semester I wrote fifty pages of a historical romance I called The Pirate's Woman. I wanted a good grade in the course, so I crammed those fifty pages full of everything that, in my opinion, had made the historical romances I had read so entertaining: there was action, adventure, and, yes, sex. Actually, lots of sex. (Hey, I was twenty-one years old and this was the late seventies!)
I finished the assignment up right after Thanksgiving, and was sitting in class feeling pretty smug when the professor said something like, "Oh, by the way, we're going to be reading these aloud in class." I nearly died! Believe me, if I'd known we'd be reading what we'd written aloud in class, I would have written something entirely different. But there was no help for it. It was too late to write anything else. As I listened to my classmates reading their magnum opuses, I realized that everyone else had been trying for the Great American Novel. They had subtext, images, meaning.
And I -- I had Sex and the Pirate Ship. Finally it was my turn. I got up in front of the class and, with my best dramatic inflection, read my work aloud while my face turned tomato red and my eyes stayed glued to the pages. At last I was finished. I dared to look up -- and found my classmates staring at me. Google-eyed. Open-mouthed. Absolutely silent. For one wondrous moment I thought, I've wowed them. Then they started to laugh. They laughed so hard they practically fell out of their seats while I stood up there in front of them taking the color red to a whole new level. Finally my professor - oh, yes, he laughed too - stopped laughing long enough to say, 'Karen, you're a really good writer, but we're going to have to do something about your choice of reading material.'
Do I have to tell you that I slunk out of that class? But two years later, those fifty pages were the beginning chapters of the first book I ever had published. The Pirate's Woman became Island Flame, and was published by Leisure Books in 1981."
Robards, who grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, went on to become the New York Times bestselling author of thirty-three books, with more on the way. But, she said, the course of writing that many books never did run smooth.
"When Island Fame came out, I expected to get rich and famous overnight. I mean, I was a published author now, right? Wasn't that how it was supposed to work? But Island Flame was a paperback historical romance, and what I didn't know was that paperback historical romances had a shelf life of about three weeks. All that build-up, all that excitement, and three weeks after it was published the book was nowhere to be found. To make matters worse, the publisher didn't want to buy another book from me. They wanted to wait and see the sales figures, they said. So I had to get a job.
Although I'd been in law school, and had planned to become a lawyer before the writing bug bit, the only job I could find was in an orthodontic clinic. (My father is an orthodontist, and I spent my teenage years putting braces on teeth. I can do it to this day.) I worked five and a half days a week, and by the time I got home I was too tired to write. I started thinking, that's it. My dream of being a writer is over. Then I told myself no, I'm not going to let that happen.
So I started writing on my lunch hour. Every day I would take a yellow legal pad and pen and go into the ladies' restroom at that orthodontic clinic. I locked the door, sat on the closed toilet, and wrote a book. I didn't tell anyone what I was doing -- it sounds pretty stupid to say you're writing a book in the restroom -- so everyone thought I had major gastrointestinal problems. But at the end of three months, I had a book!
I typed it up (this was way pre-computer) and sent it in to an agent. She accepted it, and immediately sold it to Warner Books. That book was To Love A Man, and it was the real start of my writing career. When it was published, it won all kinds of awards and even today is one my fans mention as one of their favorites. It was my first contemporary romantic suspense, and if anyone cares to check it out they'll see that I was inspired by the surroundings in which it was written: the opening scene takes place in an outhouse."
During the two years after she sold that book, everything happened at once, Robards said. The publisher of Island Flame brought out its sequel, Sea Fire, and then a third historical romance, Forbidden Love. Warner Books, who had bought To Love a Man, wanted to publish a historical romance of hers first, because she was by then considered a historical romance author. So they brought out Amanda Rose before To Love a Man finally hit the shelves in 1984.
"Good thing I write fast," Robards observes dryly. "Or I never would have gotten through all that. I was expecting my first child during that time, too. Peter was born in August, 1983 -- the same month Forbidden Love came out. And I had terrible, terrible morning sickness. My routine went like this: write five pages, run to the bathroom and throw up. Write five pages, run and throw up. It was awful. But somehow everything got done. And today my oldest is a twenty-one year college junior and an absolutely fantastic young man."
Asked how she combines family with writing, Robards smiles and shrugs. "I think it was lucky that I was a published writer before I ever had children. When first Peter, then Chris and Jack came along, I just wrote around them. When they were little, I wrote while they slept. Now they're in school, so I try to work from eight to three -- which works in theory, but goes out the window when I'm getting close to deadline! My husband (Doug) and I have been together since I was a freshman in college, and he's great with the children, so that helps, too. And I grew up in Louisville. My extended family is here. My parents, my three brothers and my sister all live nearby. My closest friend now is the same best friend I had when I was thirteen years old. It makes for a very stable life."
So does she have any advice for aspiring writers?
"Never give up," she says. "Read everything, and figure out what kind of books you love. Then write them. But having said that, you also need to be aware of what's being published. There are trends in writing just like there are trends in everything. Try to tailor your writing to fit with what is currently selling, and you'll up your chances considerably."
And to what does she attribute her own success?
"Luck," she says with a smile. "And talent too, of course. Coupled with a lot of hard work. When I was a young girl, being a successful writer was something I could only dream about. I never thought it would actually happen. I mean, what are the chances? Even today, sometimes when I'm in a bookstore I'll see my books on the shelf and go, wow, that's me. I've never lost the wonder of it, and I don't think I ever will."