Monthly Archives: December 2014

Karen Abbott


Curiouser & Curiouser: You go by Abbott instead of Karen. Tell me aaaaaallll about that…

Abbott: A few months ago, a reader sent me an email saying, “Do you know that, according to Google, you died in 2010?” (see attached screenshot). Although I certainly had some memorably bad days in 2010, none of them—as far as I knew—had proven fatal. Google also included in my bibliography a number of books I hadn’t written: A Father for Daisy; Take Hold of Tomorrow; The Farrington Fortune. Clearly there is a romance author named Karen Abbott, and I don’t think she died in 2010, either (although Google yields surprisingly little information about her). Given that I’m contemplating writing a novel, I thought it might be a good idea to come up with a nom de plume. In the meantime, just to facilitate a smooth transition, I’ve been going by “Abbott.” A lot of my old friends call me “Abbott” anyway, and I’ve always preferred it, and I’m actually in the midst of filing the paperwork to make it my legal first name. So, for the nom de plume, I’m thinking Abbott Karlen, perhaps? (“Karlen” would be a combination of Karen and my husband’s last name, Kahler, which no one can pronounce!). But I’m open to suggestions. And I haven’t Googled myself since…

C&C: Who was your first crush?

A: Sandra Denton, aka “Pepa” of Salt-n-Pepa. I was 13 when “Hot, Cool, & Vicious” came out and I loved her immediately and fiercely. Still do. But she faced some stiff competition in 1987, when the Beastie Boys released “Licensed to Ill.” Adam Yauch (MCA) was a god. I went to their concert at Philly’s now-demolished Spectrum wearing a homemade “I ❤ MCA” t-shirt. Public Enemy was the opening act and they pointed Uzis at the crowd; everything about it was fantastic. I brought along my juvenile delinquent boyfriend, and I felt incredibly cool even though my dad had to drive us there.

C&C: There’s an air of extra-awesome about you, as a woman, because you don’t choose to throw away the lipstick because you’re a Serious Female who does Serious Research, and often there’s pressure to conform to certain images. Was that a conscious decision, to not put on a blazer with elbow patches, or just what felt natural to you so you went with the flow?

A: Well, first, thanks for this… and I don’t even think I could pull off a blazer with elbow patches; that requires its own brand of extra-awesomeness. I also love your (astute) observation that publishing is one of few industries in which women—specifically authors of nonfiction—are encouraged to neutralize their appearance. Obviously it’s something that my male author friends never have to debate, either internally or externally; their appearance will never be a factor in how their work is received. This is something I’ve struggled with for years, and I’ve learned the hard way that doing “serious research” doesn’t guarantee being taken seriously.

But with the publication of my latest book, I think I’ve finally stopped worrying about what image I think I should “present” and just present myself as I am at the time. I can’t control people’s reactions to my clothing or appearance, or my shade of lipstick, or—to give you a glimpse of something else I’ve struggled with—the fact that I’m not an academic; I’m a journalist by training and a historian by default. And obviously I can’t control people’s reactions to my work, either, as much as I wish I could. The only thing you can really control in publishing is what you put on the page. After that, it’s a complete shit show and you just hope for the best.

I should send the above paragraph to my therapist just to prove she’s not entirely wasting her time…

C&C: Coffee or tea? Or both?

A: Both! Coffee to wake me up, and green tea for the health benefits. I’m a lifelong insomniac, so I should probably scale back on the caffeine.

C&C: Do you have siblings, and if so, are you close to any of them?

A: I have an older brother and we are close, although I don’t see him as often as I’d like. He has young twin boys and the onus, understandably, is on me to go to him. It was such a surreal moment when I learned his wife was expecting fraternal twins. Both of our parents are twins; mom is identical and dad is fraternal. Twins—and the way their lives can either dovetail perfectly or diverge completely—have always fascinated me. My mother and her twin were “mirror” twins, which only occurs in identical twins, and only in about 23 percent of the identical twin population. They had opposite features: my mom is right-handed and my aunt was left; my mom parts her hair on the left and my aunt parted hers on the right; my mom has a birthmark on her right shoulder, and my aunt had the same precise birthmark on her left. They both became nurses, entered poker tournaments, and chain-smoked since their 18th birthday. My aunt died of cancer in 1998, and I don’t think anyone who’s not an identical twin could understand the magnitude of that loss, and the survivor’s guilt my mother must live with every day. My brother and I always joked about that old wives’ tale that twins skip a generation. Even though it doesn’t have any basis in fact, and his own twins resulted from a fluke of genetics on their mother’s side, it was one of (many) reasons I decided not to have children. I was too superstitious to test it.

C&C: Did you make up fake names for yourself when you were little? I know a lot of girls do – I did. What were some of yours? If you didn’t, what name would you choose for yourself if you could make up a fake name?

A: All the time! I’ve loved Poe ever since I learned to read, and used to pretend I was Annabel Lee or Lenore or, if I was in tomboy mode, Roderick Usher. I was also obsessed with British crime writer Ruth Rendell, and would sometimes call myself Ruth Rendell. And, like every woman who came of age in the 1980s, I devoured everything by Judy Blume; “Deenie” was the coolest name ever. Considering my recent name change, it seems I’ve come full circle.

C&C: What CD/record/playlist/music are you listening to right now?

A: I tend to tailor my playlist according to my research; I don’t want to admit how often I listened to “Dixie” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” during the past five years. The novel I’m tinkering with is set in New York, from the Gilded Age to the early 1920s, so I’m listening to much of the same music I listened to for my first book, SIN IN THE SECOND CITY: Scott Joplin, Joseph Lamb, James Scott, Jelly Roll Morton. As I get further into my research and writing, I’ll move on to Sophie Tucker and Al Jolson and Marion Harris. At some point, my protagonists will be in a situation where they won’t have access to music, and I’ll abandon my playlist out of sympathy.

C&C: Do you collect anything? Did you ever, as a child?

A: I’m currently obsessed with Victorian mourning jewelry, especially the intricate pieces made of plaited human hair, which were very common during the Civil War. Whenever I wanted to procrastinate during my research/writing of LIAR, TEMPTRESS, SOLDIER, SPY, I’d look up hair jewelry on ebay. It was such a morbidly elegant custom. If I had a bigger apartment I’d buy a curio case and stuff it full of hair brooches and pins and watch chains. When I was a kid, I didn’t really collect objects, but I memorized large quantities of completely useless information: the Greek alphabet, the state capitals, the “Hail Mary” and the “Our Father” in Spanish; all of the presidents. I can still recite all of the presidents, and in ten seconds! It’s my stupid party trick.

C&C: A wunderkammer! Cabinet of curiosities! That’s one of my favorite words and ideas. Mermaid skeletons and peacock feathers and trinkets. In the spirit of updating customs, I also love the idea of chatelaines (def: a set of short chains attached to a woman’s belt, used for carrying keys or other items). If you had a modern-day chatelaine, as opposed to a purse or wallet, what would be dangling from it?

A: Oh, I LOVE chatelaines, too–I’m buying myself one for Xmas to wear as a necklace. A modern-day one is a very interesting idea. I’d include a miniature flask, a wine bottle opener, a miniature Nook, a tube of lipgloss (I cannot abide dry lips), and, to include one vintage item, a hatpin (I wrote an article for the Smithsonian about how Victorian women used hatpins to protect themselves from unwanted advances): The Hatpin Peril



Karen Abbott

Gayle Towell


Curiouser & Curiouser: When did you start playing drums? Tell me some things about that hobby/your drumming adventures.

Gayle: I started playing drums probably about five years ago. It was one of those things that I had always wanted to do, secretly, but felt like for some reason it wasn’t an option (because drums are loud and I’m supposed to be quiet and inconspicuous). But after marrying my husband I started to feel secure and liberated in my adulthood and realized there was no reason why I couldn’t do whatever the heck I wanted. So I started taking drum lessons from someone at the college where I teach, and then got a set of drums over Christmas that year. Then I took more rigorous lessons from another dude for a while, and after several months of that he suggested I look into joining a band. So I perused craigslist and landed upon a post by Adam Loewen looking for someone to join his band, Stein. He mentioned he was also a writer and he sounded intelligent and interesting, so we emailed back and forth, then got together and made music. Other members came along, and soon I was playing gigs. Which was super awesome. I got to be a rock star. But about a year ago I gave up the band because I had taken on so many things my life was becoming impossibly busy. I still keep in touch with my band friends and hope to drum again sometime when those 50 hour days start happening.

C&C: Kids. Minecraft. Mine loves it, too. What do you think about this video Legoland Minecraft stuff?

G: I think it’s great. It encourages creativity, spatial reasoning, collaboration, and so on. And any time kids can play with a “toy” that doesn’t leave a mess is always a plus. I’ve never played it myself (that whole number of hours in the day thing again), but I love seeing what the kids do with it. My husband is a computer nerd and has this array of computers in the basement and the kids all have their own and can play together. My almost-four-year-old has developed scary coordination with the mouse and keyboard. It’s one of those things where, you didn’t watch your kid pick up the skill, and then you see it in action and it looks like a magic trick. See this video here:

C&C: Did you celebrate Christmas as a kid? What’s your most memorable holiday, either way?

G: Christmas, it just so happens, is my birthday. I come from a Catholic background, though my parents were never super religious and seemed to abandon religion altogether at some point during my childhood. But we always celebrated Christmas, just not really as a religious event. The standard Santa visit, presents, and eating lots of food with relatives, which is the same thing I do with my kids. I’ve always had mixed feelings about my Christmas birthday. You want your birthday to be about you, but on that day pretty much everyone is celebrating something else. That said, if I had a nickel for every time someone saw my license and said the words “Christmas baby,” I could retire.

C&C: What do you have in your pockets?

G: At this very moment, absolutely nothing. But any other time there might be keys, cellphone, hairclips, garbage handed to me by a child, candy I’m secretly eating while trying to not let the kids see, or wadded up pieces of paper with either math or writing on them.

C&C: Do you have any tattoos?

G: No tattoos, and no piercings. I begged to get my ears pierced as a kid. My parents made me wait until I was twelve. Got it done. Decided I didn’t care for it shortly thereafter. I’m not the least bit opposed to body modifications, but just don’t feel the drive to do anything to my skin. Part of it is because I can’t imagine coming up with something I would feel represented me in some permanent way that I’d want it on my body for my entire life. I like to leave room for myself to change completely as a person.

C&C: Do you wear shoes and socks inside the house? Why?

G: Shoes, no. Socks, only if my feet are cold. As a general rule I’m barefoot whenever it is appropriate. Though I did get in the habit of wearing socks and non-sandal-like shoes on a more regular basis when I tore a ligament tripping over one of my kid’s toys, and the doctor suggested keeping my feet super warm to promote healing. Because apparently ligaments take a million years to heal. This is very true, I learned.

C&C: Do you dream regularly, and do you have any recurring or especially vivid ones?

G: I do dream regularly. I can’t think of any recurring dreams off the top of my head, but I do recall it seeming like I visit similar places in some of my dreams. My dreams are really all over the place, often super epic adventures, or post-apocalyptic scenarios. Or they’re about having to pee and never finding a private place to do so. But here is a summary of a recent epic adventure dream:

I was suddenly thrust into this post-apocalyptic world when visiting a nearby town with my daughters. I had separated from the older one because, being 11, I was allowing her new independence, and I was riding a bike with the little one when everything started getting weird. I couldn’t find my way back and suddenly realized I had no way to reunite with my older daughter. As night fell we were warned to get inside somewhere/anywhere. Mutant buffalo and apes apparently roamed free at night, savagely killing people. I somehow ended up in a meadow inside some makeshift houses with some other people, and we only had tarps for doors which wasn’t great protection from the mutant buffalo. There was a lot of running in terror and making sure you were always in a crowd because other people around you created a buffer—the buffalo would eat them and not get to you. Right when a herd was about to trample our makeshift house, a band of warrior people came charging at them with weapons. They killed the animals by skinning them alive. Why that was the method of choice, I have no idea, but the animals would scream horribly during the process and there was always blood everywhere. So I’m roaming around in this world trying to protect my youngest child, all the while not know what might be going on where my husband and son are, and feeling like the world’s worst mother for separating from my oldest child who was very likely dead by now. Right before I woke up, I was attempting to take refuge in the side of a building with a passageway too narrow for me to fit while the band of warriors were skinning a giant mutant ape alive.

C&C: For awhile you entertained using a pen name, but ultimately decided to go with your own – was there significance behind that decision, or did it just prove easier/more logical to be one person in regards to being connected to your work?

G: A little of both. There were several reasons I was looking into a pen name. One was that it would separate my everyday life from my writing work. I have a lot of conservative extended family, and have often felt unsure if I really want any of them aware of what I write. Another was that I noticed when I wrote that I naturally gravitated towards writing male POV. I thought having a male pen name would be more true to the identity I often felt while writing. I’m not sure when I made the decision not to bother with a pen name. Part of it was because I decided I didn’t need to be influenced by my fear of the opinions of others. No more crouching in fear of judgment. After all, writing for me had become about NOT caring about what other people think and just going all in with reckless abandon. Part of it was a result of coming to a clear picture in my head of what gender identity meant to me internally and externally after a long and awesome conversation with my husband about it on an anniversary weekend getaway. (That sort of boiled down to him completely understanding and recognizing where I am in my head and me feeling validated enough that I didn’t care that I have a female encasing. Now I pretty much consider my gender identity to be a mix of everything. There are ways I can express different parts at different times. But the fact that my brain happens to be in a female body is sort of arbitrary. I go with it out of convenience and ultimately don’t care a whole lot either way, most particularly, I think, because I feel valid as a person in ways I didn’t used to.)

C&C: Do you like to color, or doodle? If so, what?

G: Not really. There was a time when I was younger that I was interested in generating visual art and I took a drawing class as an undergrad to explore that a little. But it’s just not something I invest any time or effort into, nor do I feel any particular drive to at the moment. This may change some day. But at present I don’t feel the tug of it as a needed outlet. That, and my hands and wrists tend to cramp up from holding writing utensils and using them for more than five minutes.

C&C: You read with Chuck Palahniuk. He’s a legit celebrity. Did it awaken any celebrity aspirations in you, or the opposite, or anything in between?

As I like to tell people, the reading was utterly terrifying, but I think it went well. I definitely felt awkward and unsure of how to interact with Mr. Palahniuk, but I brought my A game to my reading and people clapped and said happy things afterward. As for celebrity aspirations, I fully intend on being famous. It’s a work in progress. I feel like I’m sitting on a balloon full of brilliance and am about to explode all over the world. This is the delusion that keeps me pursuing my goals.

C&C: You’re sort of an example of “There’s no excuse” when it comes to getting a freakish amount of things done….

G: I frequently get asked “How do you find time to do it all?” like I’m some magic superhuman. So to address that, as well as how I’m destined for greatness:

This is what I’ve got going on: I’m married, I have three kids and I teach physics full time at a local community college (though with an awesome schedule that only requires me to actually go to campus 2 days a week). My son is on the gymnastics team, which practices 6 hours a week, my youngest takes a gymnastics class once a week, and my oldest is in choir. I write novels and short stories—I can produce a novel in a span of 3 months to a year depending. I edit a weekly Microfiction magazine, I recently cofounded Blue Skirt Productions, which is an artists’ collective that has regular website content, local shows/readings, offers editing and writing services and (soon)classes, and most recently has ventured into indie publishing, which has led me to learning all about book formatting, cover design, and marketing and publicity. I consider life to be an elaborate game of Tetris and multitasking is the only way I survive. Laundry is never really done—just sort of exists in a clean pile and a dirty pile and when the clean pile gets low, we send some dirty pile through the machines. But I clean the kitchen enough that we rarely have an ant problem. I have to watch myself because when I’m in the right mood I seem to get the idea that I can take on more projects and it won’t be a problem. There are so many things I want to do, so I just do as many as I can all the time. Every once in a while I burn out for a few days, and then I’m right back in the thick of it. I’d say it’s all by choice, but a big part of it is obsession. Writing is much less a past time, or a hobby—it’s a complete and utter obsession. I’m addicted. I can’t help it. I can’t make it stop. I have far more ideas for novels than I have time to pen them all. One day when all of the kids grow up, I’m going to be crapping out like a novel a month, because it’s all backed up and pressing on the flood gates. But someday very soon the world is going to recognize my brilliance and the 7 figure book deals will come raining down. My husband will be able to retire and play minecraft with the kids all day every day, and I can write to my heart’s content because we’ll be hiring a maid, who will totally fold the clothes and put them away. It will be amazing.



Microfiction Monday Magazine

Blue Skirt Productions