Answering Why: An Interview with Karen Harrington


With her debut novel Janeology (Kunati, 2008), Karen Harrington invites readers to explore the questions, Why would a mother take her child’s life? and How does the past influence a person’s present?

Combining a legal thriller with family history, Janeology takes up the story of Tom and Jane Nelson after Jane has murdered her toddler son, and has been committed to a mental hospital for her crime. Prosecutors then argue Tom Nelson failed to protect his son because he was aware of Jane’s emotional breakdown that led to the boy’s murder. In Tom’s defense is attorney Dave Frontella, who proposes Jane’s emotional breakdown and latent violence is linked to her family history. Using multiple narratives, Harrington gives voice to the past in order to answer the present’s “Why?”.

Central to Janeology is Jane Nelson’s crime, the murder of her infant son. The murder evokes similarities to recent cases such as Andrea Yates and Susan Smith. Were such cases the germs seeding this novel or was it something else?

In many ways, the answer to that question is yes. Like most people, I heard these stories and couldn’t stop wondering how a mother could harm her children. That was the question that kept me up at night and made me want to explore the idea further. I think for most writers, they choose a novel

Karen Harrington

Karen Harrington

subject based on a question they would like the answer to. This was certainly my experience after reading about Yates and other mothers like her.

You were a speechwriter and worked in corporate communications. Were you working on Janeology then, or did the book come later?

As strange as it might sound, I didn’t start working on Janeology until I was a stay-at-home mom, having left my corporate career behind. Around the same time I became a mother for the first time, my own mother died. I think this circle-of-life connection pushed me to explore many of the genetic inheritance ideas in the novel. You can’t help but look at your kids and wonder how much of your own mother is within them.

Did speechwriting and corporate communications influence your fiction writing in any way?

It did in the sense that writing for a living and on deadline is a great discipline. Also, when you write speeches or straight news stories, as I did for an employee newsletter, your writing must be lean and to the point. I’d like to think I learned a lean style on the job.

Had you written fiction before Janeology?

Yes, I had written more than 20 screenplays, a novel and countless short stories. In other words, many a tree died in the name of learning this skill.

Had you always wanted to write a novel?

Yes. I always wanted to see if I could actually do it, even if no one read it. I think it was John Irving who said that the first novel is the test of whether or not you have the stamina to do it.

You chose multiple points of view to tell the story. What led you to decide to use multiple points of view?

When I first conceived of Janeology, I knew it would be a series of linked short stories that formed a picture of one family tree. I wanted the reader to imagine that each of the ancestors was unique and believable. So, each of the stories had to have a unique point of view. This was actually one of the most enjoyable parts of developing the novel.

Did you work from an outline?

Yes. First I created a time line to get a picture of the dates and places of all of Jane’s ancestors. This served as the outline.

How much research was involved?

A great deal, both on the subject of infanticide and how the Texas courts treat this crime. And of course, I did quite a bit of research into the different time periods in which my characters lived. Since I grew up in New England and Texas, getting to know more about these places for the novel was a pleasure.

What was the most difficult part of writing the novel?

I think it was imagining how to piece together all the stories and bring the whole of the piece together. Many of the original short stories were left behind. I had so many doubts if what I was attempting would even stand together as a whole. I wondered if I had taken on a project that was too ambitious for my ideas. Since then, I’ve discovered these are the growing pains of most writers.

What was your writing schedule like?

When I was writing Janeology, my girls were just babies so I wrote during their naptimes and every night from 9-10. Now that they are in school, I can write during the day or in other spare moments.

You’ve mentioned that once you completed the manuscript you worked with an editing service. What did you learn from working with an editing service?

Hiring a professional editor was the smartest career move I’ve ever done. The value of a good editor is having someone point out your strengths and weaknesses. In my experience, my editor pointed out all the areas where I had overwritten, underwritten, needed additional internal commentary from my protagonist and whole sections that needed to be simplified to keep the pace going. I think it takes an objective third party to identify these flaws in any project.

What writers have influenced you?

Hemingway was a big influence early on because all my writing professors loved him and wanted to be a minimalist writer like him. Today, I’ve realized I still like a minimalist style, but with a little bit more meat on the bones. Michael Ondaatje and Tim O’Brien are contemporary writers I think are masters of the kind of style I love to read. I won’t even say I want to write like them because it seems impossible. Elizabeth Berg is also a writer whose style I am growing to love. I love how her stories just begin and keep going as if you are actually living them with the characters. I don’t know how she does it. And Stephen King is a writer whose perseverance continues to inspire me. He’s a true example that even an artist needs a solid work ethic.

What are you reading?

Right now, I’m reading The Glass of Time by Michael Cox. It’s the follow-up book to The Meaning of Night, which is a great period mystery set in England. Next up is a non-fiction book called Blue Genes by Christopher Lukas. It’s a memoir about the ways in which depression ran throughout the genes of one family. I’ll say it for you: I’m weird. I can’t seem to stay away from family history stories.

What projects are you working on now?

I’m working on the edits for my next novel, Prodigal Son. I’m also putting together notes on changes to the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) novel I wrote in November, which is the follow-up to Janeology, featuring Jane’s daughter during the summer she turns twelve.

What insights about writing have you gained from writing the novel?

There’s a great deal of satisfaction in just completing a novel, much less publishing one. I think anyone who has once said they wanted to do it should go for it. I think the biggest insight I have now is that I’m capable of finishing a larger project. I’ve also learned that my favorite part of the process is the beginning. Editing a piece is meaningful, but it’s hard, analytic work and isn’t as much fun as creating the story world and discovering characters and ideas for the first time.

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Karen Harrington was born and raised in Texas, where she still lives with her husband and children. She received a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies from the University of Texas at Dallas. Her first writing gigs were in corporate America as an editor and speechwriter. Her fiction writing has been recognized by the Hemingway Short Story Competition and the Texas Film Institute. She wrote and published There’s A Dog In The Doorway, a children’s book created expressly for the Dr. Laura Schlessinger Foundation’s MyStuff Bags.  My Stuff bags go to children in need who must leave their homes due to abuse, neglect or abandonment

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3 thoughts on “Answering Why: An Interview with Karen Harrington

  1. With the other high-profile cases in the news, most of your readers will probably be aware of the use of psychologists in a courtroom for showing the probable state of mind of the mother when the crime happened, then for showing how her past may have contributed toward that state of mind.

    How did you prepare for the idea of using ancestors as viable contributing factor that an actual court would accept, especially if the evidence is also psychic and not empirical? Or is there any precedent here for vases where the accused has no knowledge of the so-called crimes of the fathers?

    Malcolm

  2. Hmm, sorry about the typos. In the previous comment, the intended word is “cases,” not “vases.” And, I also meant to say “all psychic” and not “also psychic.”

    Yikes, this is why I need a proofreader here 24/7.

    Malcolm

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