Buy it online
Books by Karen Robards
* Island Flame (1981)
* Sea Fire (1982)
* Forbidden Love (1983)
* Amanda Rose (1984)
* Dark Torment (1985)
* To Love a Man (1985)
* Wild Orchids (1986)
* Loving Julia (1986)
* Night Magic (1987)
* Dark of the Moon (1988)
* Desire in the Sun (1988)
* Tiger's Eye (1989)
* Morning Song (1990)
* Green Eyes (1991)
* This Side of Heaven (1991)
* Nobody's Angel (1992)
* One Summer (1993)
* Maggy's Child (1994)
* Walking After Midnight (1995)
* Hunter's Moon (1996)
* Heartbreaker (1997)
* The Senator's Wife (1998)
There are likely people in Washington wondering where Karen Robards got her crystal ball. In an eerie stroke of timing, Robards' The Senator's Wife was released in the same spring week that the name Monica Lewinsky flew into the public eye. It was, for Robards, a joyous bit of timing: one that hasn't hurt the book's sales any, either. Not only is the novel political in theme, but a wayward senatorial husband is said to be, doing a Clinton when fighting back from the bad press that would otherwise ruin his career.
Robards denies any connection -- even a fictitious one -- between Clinton and the philandering senator that's married to the star of The Senator's Wife. But Robards talent -- and her career -- sometimes work in mysterious ways.
Robards is full of surprises and pleasant contradictions. A native of Kentucky, her voice is full of the American South: pleasing, smoky tones in no hurry to get anyplace fast. Unlike her novels. Fast-paced romances with elements of mystery and intrigue, Robards plots move nearly as quickly as the books themselves leave the stores. Robards writes quickly, as well. Earlier in her career Robards wrote two books a year, and though now she is only contractually bound to do one, she feels as though she could do more.
Robards and Doug, her husband of 22 years, have three sons aged two, seven and 14. The family lives on a small acreage outside of Louisville where Robards does her writing in a carriage house behind the family home. A disciplined writer, she works from eight in the morning until two in the afternoon each day to produce the novels that millions of readers loves so well.
There have been a lot of readers. Enough, in fact, to make Robards one of the few writers in her genre whose titles consistently make The New York Times bestseller list. Millions of readers have come to love Robards' work since Island Flame was published in 1981.
Linda Richards: What's your genre?
Karen Robards: Romantic suspense. Contemporary women's fiction. It depends on who you ask. I call it a good book. When you start out in romance, you'd better do what everyone else is doing or you won't get published.
Why this genre?
I was in law school and had never read a romance novel because I thought I was too intellectual to read romance. And I wasn't gonna be caught dead carrying a book that said Sweet Savage Love on it. No way!
But I took a creative writing course when I was in law school. And the professor asked us to write 50 pages of something publishable. So I went to the book store and said 'What's publishable?' This was about 1979 when romances were really big, and they had shelf after shelf of romance novels. I thought, "Well, this is publishable. I mean they've got shelves and shelves of them.' So I picked up a couple of them and thought, 'Well, these are really good. But I can do this.'
I wrote the first 50 pages of what turned out to be my first book. I took it back to my class. What I didn't know was that he was going to ask us to read it aloud. It was all men and me. And they were all writing the great American novel and I had written The Pirate's Woman. I was about 22, and I'd wanted it to be really good so I'd crammed everything in there: sex and violence and everything I could fit in there because I had no idea I was going to have to read it aloud. And so he says, 'Okay Karen. Read.' So I stood up and I read, with my best dramatic inflection. It was really spicy. It was very embarrassing. I got the end of my 50 pages and I looked up and they were looking at me and they were silent. And I thought, 'Man, I've wowed 'em. I have knocked 'em dead.' And then they started to laugh. They laughed and laughed. Until my creative writing professor stood up and when he got done laughing he said, 'Karen, you're a really good writer. We just have to do something about your choice of reading material.' Which really made me mad. Hurt my feelings and I said to him 'Listen: you write what you write and I'll write what I write and let's get together in 15 years and see who's where.'
That was Ed McLanahan and he's published two books since then, and I've published 22 and we've been trading book stories for years.
This was a graduate level creative writing class. You know: everyone is writing their magnum opus. Well no one else got published because literature is hard to get published and there's this big stigma about romance novels. It's getting less now, but there used to be. I was a feminist when feminism wasn't cool and I don't worry about it. If I want to read it I'll read it. If I want to write it I'll write it.
[pointing to the jacket photo on The Senator's Wife] Are those your stables?
Yes they are. In fact, there's a horse right there.
The funny thing I was four months pregnant in that picture, with my two year old. And I was in the middle of contract negotiations. I couldn't tell anyone I was pregnant. See the puffy blouse there and everything? The photographer came and spent the whole day following me around. I spent the whole day holding my breath for that picture, or they wouldn't have paid me what they paid me for the book. They think you can't write when you're pregnant: that's the truth. Or when you have children. I wouldn't have believed it either, but it's the truth.
When I was pregnant with my first child I was negotiating my first big contract and my agent said to me, 'Don't tell them you're pregnant.' She was old and I just thought she didn't know what she was talking about, but I didn't tell them. Sure enough, after I signed the contract they found out I was pregnant and they didn't say a word. After I was finished with that book and my baby was born I wrote another book and I got a letter from my editor, 'You know I was so glad to find out you can still write after you had that baby. I wasn't sure you'd be able to.' So I learned a bit: I just don't tell them when I'm pregnant.
How long ago was this?
That book came out in January of 1984 and my son was born in August of 1983.
I think they think your brain melts down when you have children. Not many writers have young children and I have young children. I used to kind of try and hide my children and then I thought, 'This is ridiculous. I can walk and chew gum at the same time. And if they can't, I can't help it.'
My current publishers have kind of gotten over it. They can see I can function. But it's a real problem that someone needs to address because I know I can't be the only one to suffer from this problem.
In a way you're addressing it right now. I mean, it makes you more of a role model for your readers, because a lot of them probably have young children and work.
Yeah, I guess I am. I do hear about it from readers. And I can have children and write books at the same time, and I guess anybody else can do. I find it very sexist of publishers to assume that people can't do it. You can do both: I mean, men don't have any problem in that regard but there is a perception that you can't do both well.
I write at home in a carriage house behind my house. And I have a woman that comes in for four hours a day while I write, and I have a husband who is perfectly capable of watching my children when deadline looms. It's just not a problem.
You have a supportive husband?
Oh, he's very supportive. We've been married for 22 years.
There's a big age difference in your three children. Was that intentional?
I'll tell you what happened, my first one was born and I was not prepared. I was 28 years old and -- let me tell you how dumb I was about children. I had a book contract coming up and I had a baby due and I thought I'd spend the summer decorating the nursery and then when the baby came, I'd write the book. Well, the baby was born and he didn't sleep for four years. So I decided to wait a little while. I figured you shoot yourself in the foot once you're not going to do it twice. But the second one was really easy and the third one's been no trouble, it's just that my first one had ear problems and colic and he cried for four years, basically. He's a wonderful child.
Why is The Senator's Wife set in Mississippi?
I picked Mississippi because the southern ambiance kind of adds a certain element to this book. I find the south very romantic. It also has a kind of an old boy network which was very important to the book. And I know Mississippi. I've been there many times.
The timing of the book was just extraordinary.
The first day of my tour I was in Washington, D.C. and that was the first day that the Clinton-Lewinsky thing broke. I'm on my way to a TV interview and the publicist said to me, 'Did you read the paper about that intern?' I said I hadn't. I got to the studio and I still didn't know anything about it. And they look at me and said, 'What did you know?' So I couldn't have timed it better. Of course, I wrote that book a year ago, so who knew? It's one of those serendipity things.
I'll bet you had a lot of media because of that, too.
Oh I did. A lot of media. A lot of interest simply because it was so timely. It hit The New York Times in hardcover. Heartbreaker and The Senator's Wife both hit the list at the same time: Heartbreaker in paperback.
What's the next book?
I'm working on it right now. In fact, I have it with me. I'm trying to work on it while I travel, but so far without any success. It's called The Midnight Hour. It's going to be out in January.
Do you always feel that the most recent thing you've done is the best?
I've written 22 books. Once you've written quite a few books you find sometimes that people lose their edge. And the way I feel about it is I do my best every time. If I feel like I'm calling it in or something I'll just stop. I won't do it. Because I love what I do. This is what I do. I've been doing it since I was an adult. It gets my all. As I tell my editor, I will release no book before its time. You know, if it's not right it doesn't go in. That's just how it goes.
You were in law school. What happened with that?
I sold a book! I have two years of law school and I sold a book: thank you God. I hated law school. It wasn't fun. And I'm my parent's eldest child, so I couldn't just quit law school. They would have dropped dead of a heart attack.
But being an author and quitting law school is something entirely different.
But it's not like running off and joining the circus.
There's a certain respect that goes with being an author.
My father is a doctor. All my relatives are doctors or lawyers, there's no respect that goes with being an author. It's like saying I want to go jump off the Empire State Building, they think you're committing career suicide. But that was back when I was 24. They don't think that now.
No. I guess they wouldn't. What's the first run on a book like this?
Hard cover? About 75,000. Paperback it'll probably be around 800,000. Maybe a little more. Somewhere around that.
Did you ever write for the big formula-type romance publishers?
No. I never did. When I started out, as I said I wrote those 50 pages for a creative writing class. When they laughed I put it away because I was demoralized. I continued with law school and my husband got his MBA and we moved. I had one more year of law school to go and I had a whole summer where I didn't have a job. I didn't have anything to do and I thought, 'This is it. If I'm ever going to get away from law school, I have to do it now.'
I sent the 50 pages in to the first three publishers in Writer's Market, which is a list of all the publishers. And about two weeks later I got a letter back saying they loved the partial. I didn't know what it was called, but that's what they said. And they said they'd like to see the rest of the book. I didn't have the rest of the book, I just had the partial. So I went out and rented an IBM Selectric typewriter, and I went into the second bedroom of our two bedroom duplex and I wrote from like eight o'clock in the morning until 10 o'clock at night as fast as I could write, because I was sure that if I didn't get it in as fast as I could that I would miss this opportunity. So I wrote the whole rest of that book -- another 450 pages -- in six weeks. Fast as I could write. But I got it done, and I sent it in. About three weeks later -- just in August, thank God. Right at the end of summer -- I got a letter saying they wanted to buy the book. And I've been a published writer ever since.
It was okay. It wasn't a lot of money, but it was worth it!
People think there's some secret. And if you'll just tell them the secret, then they can do it too. But there's no secret. I bring my voice to my stories. I bring me. I mean, there are only so many plots out there. I mean, I've written 22.
My book Walking After Midnight is set in the Nashville music industry. And I made up this character... what was her name... Hallie Ketchum. Just because I thought it was a real country kind of name. And I gave her this background where she had married the head of music company and that's how she got her contract. Well, I got this really nasty letter from a songwriter's representative saying, 'You've ripped off the life of Hal Ketchum.' I had never heard of Hal Ketchum in my entire life. So I wrote back and told them I was sorry they thought that but I'd really never heard of Hal Ketchum. But I had just thought of the corniest country name I could think of, and it was so funny.
Do you ever get odd mail?
I got a death threat on tour once.
Really? But you write such happy books. Who would threaten your life?
A prisoner. We were in Indianapolis and my agent and the publicist were with me. I was on a podium getting ready to speak and there was a phone call for me. A collect call from somebody whose name I'd never heard. I walked to the phone and said, 'Well, I don't know this guy, so I'm not going to take it.' So the clerk took it. And the clerk said the person had threatened to kill me and come and shoot me and do horrible other things.
Well, we're in this bookstore with a big stage. I was getting ready to speak and the place was filling up. They had called the police and everything so they've got security guards all around. All these women were sitting there and I'm on the podium, talking. And this big guy comes in with bushy hair and this overcoat. And he was weird looking. So, of course, we all rivet our eyes towards him. We had told the audience there was a death threat, so they were all a little jumpy. And they see this guy come in and the police get all tense and the audience gets all tense. Me: everyone. We're getting ready to dive under the table. Now these are my fans, my die-hard fans and they part like the Red Sea to let this guy get to me.
He just sat down. He was a fan too.
It was really funny; but they found out that a prisoner had gotten hold of the itinerary and had called and made a death threat from whatever prison is there by Indianapolis.
So you do a book about every two years now?
Is that contractual or is that as fast as you go?
Well, I go faster. But that's contractual. I used to do two a year.
Wow, that's quite a pace.
It really isn't. If you get out there and you work five days a week from about eight to about two, it's not.
I guess you're not spending a lot of time on research?
Well, that depends. On Heartbreaker, there was an atomic bomb. I had to research where you could get one, how much they cost, how big they were, how mobile they were. My editor said, 'Where do you get this stuff.' And I showed her all my research and it's all perfectly true. If you have the money, you can go buy one. It's several million dollars, but you can sure go buy one. It's scary.
Veronica Honneker [the name of the heroine in The Senator's Wife] that's a bit of a handle.
I loved it. I think I've been reading too much and I've been reading too long, because they always have these cute little names, you know? So, yeah: I picked Veronica Honneker because it was a bit of a handle.
Hmmmm: Veronica Honneker/Monica Lewinsky. I don't know what's going on in your career. You've got that Ketchum guy, and this whole Veronica/Monica thing. You're getting signals from somewhere.
Well, fiction sort of mirrors real life. And real life mirrors fiction. I don't think my imagination is that good. I think there are weirder things out there than what I write about.
Do you write on a computer now?
Yes. Since my oldest son was born. I got my computer and my child at the same time. 14 years. It makes all the difference to productivity. I have a pencil and paper with me to finish writing this book, but I wouldn't want to do it all the time. Because it's a whole different process. But I love the process. I love it. I wouldn't do anything else. I really feel like it's what I was born to do. | October 1998
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine.