Books have always been a lifeline for me; a place I went to escape, to learn, to feel. My childhood was filled with glorious books: Little Women, Lad: A Dog, Black Beauty, Little House on the Prairie, Caddie Woodlawn. They were as real to me as the life around me, a lower-middle-class one in a small oil refinery town in Texas. I was the aftermath of a world war, the nation moving from its rural roots to the cities, and the GI Bill. My father was a merchant marine, and we settled near the Port of Houston. And I read, read when I was sad, read when I was glad, read when I didn’t understand my friends, read when I didn’t fit in.
“Karleen, get your head out of that book.” If I heard it once, I heard it a million times. But books fed my soul and my mind and my heart. When life around me was dull or incomprehensible, there was always a book, another place and time to wander in, adventures someone else had that I could share.
My grandfather, an invalid, was a huge fan of the writers Frank Slaughter, Frank Yerby, and Zane Grey. By the time I learned to read, I was sneaking Grandfather’s square, cheap (a dime, I think) paperbacks and reading them. Pirates. Passion. History. More interesting than the Dick and Jane readers assigned in school, though I gobbled those up, too. If it was printed, I was reading it.
I never imagined I’d be a writer, but all my life I’ve made my living that way not only in fiction, but by working for local magazines and specialty news periodicals. I’ve written brochures, poster copy, web zine copy, annual reports, press releases, you name it. And, of course, historical novels.
My first novel was written to deal with a heartbreak in my life (not the one in the novel), and I wrapped it around the South Sea Bubble, which was a Great Depression of its time. My second was written to see if I could write another novel and continued the story of the first, but branching off into Virginia and the ugliness of slavery. (I’m more interested in European history than American. American is so. . .well. . .male.) The third happened because I was (and still am) teaching a continuing education course at Rice University on the basics of the novel while I was working full-time for the University of Houston in their publications department. I decided I needed to work actively on a novel, rather than resting on past laurels, to better understand where students were in their process.
My fourth, Before Versailles, published by Crown in May 2011, is a lost but true story set in the court of Louis XIV, the lion of the seventeenth century. It’s a story I’ve been trying to frame for years. Louis XIV is one of those historical figures who intrigue me.
It has never occurred to me to write anything but historicals, though those who live with me through the process have suggested for their own sanity that I write something easier and shorter. I think I’ll have to blame it all on Granddad. I can just see him now in the open breezeway of the old house he lived in, cheap paperbook in hand, whiling away the time an invalid has on his hands
I never dreamed I’d be a writer, but my life has been blessed by them. Thank you Frank, thank you Zane, thank you Louisa, thank you Albert, thank you Anna, thank you Laura, thank you Carol and so many others who have given me such a full inner life.