Karen Abbott

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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…
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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

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Karen Abbott

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