Today we’re featuring a conversation between our own Marybeth Whalen and bestselling and (beloved) author Karen White in which they discuss Karen’s new novel, THE NIGHT THE LIGHTS WENT OUT, Marybeth’s recent novel THE THINGS WE WISH WERE TRUE, and what it’s like to draw from your own life and surroundings when writing. Be sure to come back on Wednesday to hear the other half of the conversation!
Marybeth Whalen: With prior books you’ve dealt with secrets buried in the past. In your new novel you’re delving into secrets buried in suburbia. Though a bit of a shift for you, did you find any similarities in the writing process?
Karen White: I actually planned this book to take place strictly in the present. And then I met one of my main characters, 93-year-old Sugar Prescott, and I felt the pull to discover her past which meant that I needed to bring the reader with me. So, technically, this book does delve into secrets of the past…AND the present. Writing a contemporary mystery was challenging (so much to learn!) but a great experience for stretching my writing muscles. I really loved tying the two stories together and finding what the common elements were. In this case, it was ultimately about friendships, past and present.
Marybeth Whalen: Is Sweet Apple based on a real place? If so, where?
Karen White It is! It’s based on the Atlanta suburb of Milton, Georgia where I have lived for almost 25 years. Our historic downtown area is called “Crabapple” so I thought Sweet Apple was a good substitute.
Marybeth Whalen: What was enjoyable about writing a more contemporary/”closer to home” novel? What was harder?
Karen White Writing a story set where I live and in a contemporary time period sounds easy–but in many ways it made it harder. I needed to make sure that anyone living in a suburban setting could relate to the story and characters–not just Atlantans. And I also had to make sure that any of the characters that may or may not have been inspired by real people were fictionalized enough to make them unrecognizable.
What really was enjoyable was being able to sit out on my back porch and describe what the seasons looked and felt like–the best kind of research!
Marybeth Whalen: How did a near collision inspire this novel?
Karen White I was in the middle of fishing about in my head for my next book, looking everywhere for inspiration to add to what else had already been brewing in my head. Around this time my daughter was doing some work with the local historical society and was eagerly telling me about the rich history of the area going back since before the Cherokees. I’d never really thought my hometown had an interesting past and, as a lover of history, I was fascinated.
Then one day, while going through one of our new and numerous roundabouts, I nearly rear-ended a giant white SUV with a ton of stickers covering the rear window. Within a couple of seconds I knew everything about the family who owned the vehicle–including the driver as her license plate read YERSERV. Yes, tennis is a big thing in the Atlanta ‘burbs.
That’s when it occurred to me that if I ever wanted to write a book set where I live, I had the bookends for the story. All I needed to do was fill in the middle parts. And that’s how THE NIGHT THE LGHTS WENT OUT was born.