“If a subject is really good, it has a sticky factor,” says Karen Karbo, smacking her hands together and wrapping her ring-clad fingers together, making her red beaded bracelet clatter. “You think about it and you can’t stop thinking about it. If you’re really a writer, that’s what you do and who you are.”
The New York Times notable author untangles her fingers to reach for her frothy latte. Vero Espresso House is buzzing with the sounds of clinking mugs and tapping keyboards, but I can still her softly murmur “Mmmm,” with the first sip of steaming coffee.
The California-native first studied journalism at the University of Southern California—but only briefly. One piece of criticism showed her that the fact-based world of news was not well-suited to her writing style.
“I had written something where I described a lady as having a ‘really bad haircut.’ My professor said that was too much editorializing,” says Karbo. “I argued that it wasn’t editorializing and it really was just a bad haircut, but he didn’t go for it.”
After changing her major several more times, Karbo graduated with a double Bachelor’s in English and biology. Drawing heavily on her college years for inspiration, Karbo published her first book in 1990.
Trespassers Welcome Here was inspired by Karbo’s time working in the Russian department at USC. Her second book, The Diamond Lane, hints at personal details, such as her Master’s in film and cinema studies. Karbo’s third book and only memoir, The Stuff of Life, chronicles her relationship with her father during the last few months of his life.
“Reliving [his death] wasn’t a great time,” Karbo says. “If it’s emotionally resonant, our natural instinct is to push it away. But that’s the gold, the meat, the passion.”
Hearing the story of Karbo and her father, I remember something else Karbo had said earlier: Find where you intersect with the story. Abandoning my organized line of questioning and closing my notebook, I asked, “How did you deal with it?” And then I shared my own story.
My father died at the age of 60, killed suddenly by a small glitch in his otherwise healthy heart. Her father died at the age of 75 of lung cancer, brought on by years of chronic smoking. Our stories seemed similar in so many ways, and there in a small college town on an ordinary rainy day, we intersected.
“I wrote,” she says, answering my question.
And for the past eight years, Karbo has been writing up a storm, publishing six books and planning a seventh. The Minerva Clark three-part children’s series was written expressly for her daughter, Fiona. Most recently, Karbo has been writing a “Kick Ass Women” series, which includes biographies about Katherine Hepburn, Georgia O’Keefe, and Coco Chanel.
“I chose these women because of their complete faith in their own instincts,” Karbo says. “There was no self-doubt or second-guessing—not to say there weren’t mistakes. But they never betrayed themselves in hard times.”