Talking with Karen White about hometowns, writing and her new novel, FALLING HOME—
Karen, many people spend their lives trying to get away from their hometowns. You’ve spent much of your life searching for one. Why? What does “hometown” mean to you?
A “hometown” is what all my cousins had—a place where they went to school with the same people from kindergarten through high school, where everybody knew their name—at school, at the grocery store, getting a traffic ticket. I’m sure the grass is always greener and all that, but I’ve always thought that to have a place like that to go home to had to be the best part of life.
You’ve lived in major cities and metropolitan areas—including in the UK and South America. Yet, you’ve coveted your grandmother’s town, Indianola, Mississippi, for much of your life. What do you find to be the best about each—the cities you’ve lived in and the towns you’ve coveted?
The places I’ve lived in have given me a wonderful global perspective—and made me appreciate what we have here in the States (and if you didn’t think you’d miss 24 hour stores, you’re in for a big surprise!). It also allowed me to do an almost anthropological study of my Southern relatives and their hometowns, enabling me to see them as an outsider would. If I’d grown up amongst them, I wouldn’t be able to appreciate their unique qualities, not to mention their accents.
Where did you get the inspiration for Walton, the fictional town at the center of FALLING HOME? Which came first—the plot and its conflict looking for a home? Or “Walton” followed by thoughts of what you could make happen there?
Nothing comes to me sequentially, but usually a setting and the main protagonist and her “problem” are the first things that settle in my mind when starting a book. I believe (to a point) in the adage of “write what you know.” I’d never lived in a small Southern town, but I’d visited them enough growing up to believe I could write about one as if I had. So I made up Walton—but it’s based on several real towns including Indianola, Mississippi and Monroe, Georgia.
You’ve explored family conflict in many of your novels, you deal with a range of family dynamics, and you cross gender and generations in your work. It seems mother and daughter, and sister-to-sister relationships have most frequently played a role in your books. Do you agree? And, if so, what pulls you in that direction?
I was raised with three brothers so of course I always wanted a sister. I spent a lifetime studying the sister relationships of my mother and my aunts, as well as those of my friends with sisters. I think it was inevitable that I people my stories with sisters.
As for the mother-daughter relationship, well, being a mother AND daughter I can definitely relate on a personal level. It is, I believe, the most complex of all relationships. It’s somewhat reassuring to know that there’s at least one thing in my books that I don’t have to go very far to research!
Can you imagine any situation in which you would cut off relationships with family members as Cassie did?
I’m a middle child, meaning I avoid conflict at all cost. If somebody slighted me, I would go to great lengths to get that person to like me. So, no, I can’t imagine what circumstances would compel me to do that. However, if I’d been in Cassie’s shoes, I don’t know if I’d behave any differently.
FALLING HOME is so compelling in its use of unrequited love—Cassie’s for Joe, Sam’s for Cassie, Harriet’s for Cassie, and the decades Miss Lena spent alone. What makes these emotions so powerful, and so difficult to diffuse?
I think it’s because we can all relate to a broken heart which is, at any level, unrequited love. It’s so painful to love someone or want something so badly, and knowing that the desire is not returned. It is the most elemental pain—and can start as early as not being picked for a kickball team on the school yard playground.
In FALLING HOME, you don’t seem to dwell on the negative, even as you tackle your characters’ conflict, pain, disappointments and challenges. Somehow you manage to maintain emotional and sometimes polarizing plot threads while still emphasizing positives such as loyalty, love, and triumph. Do you think this is true? And is this something you’re conscious of doing in this and other of your novels?
I don’t know if it’s a conscious thing; I do know that my characters tend to emulate the same kinds of characteristics I try to maintain in my real life. I don’t believe that a disappointment is the end of the road, or that loss negates any of life’s meaning. I’ve also learned—although usually kicking and screaming—that all of life’s challenges are learning experiences and that life isn’t fair. Deal with it and move on. It sure beats the alternative.
For readers who are first discovering you through FALLING HOME, please recommend which of your novels they should read next. And—for those of us who have been happily following Melanie and Jack from THE HOUSE ON TRADD STREET and THE GIRL ON LEGARE STREET—when will we see them again? Lastly, what is going to hit bookshelves next? And when?
Hopefully, the sequel to FALLING HOME, AFTER THE RAIN, will be rereleased in the near future. In the meantime, I’d suggest LEARNING TO BREATHE, another book set in a small Southern town, but this one in Louisiana.
As for the Tradd Street series, there will be two more books out in 2011 and 2013, respectively. I’ve already started writing number 3, and it is tentatively entitled THE TURRET ON MONTAGU STREET.
My next book, out in May 2011, will be THE BEACH TREES, set in pre-Camille New Orleans and post-Katrina Biloxi, Mississippi.
Thank you, Karen
There is a contest currently in progress for two copies of Falling Home. Contest ends Monday, October 18, so make sure you get your entry in right away! You can read my review and enter the contest here.