by Latoya Burnham
To say Karen Lord is an impressive woman would be an understatement. There are not many local authors of science fiction and fantasy who can claim to have a Bachelor’s degree in science, a Masters in science and technology policy, a diploma in theology and to top it all off, to have earned a certificate in diplomatic studies as a Chevening Scholar at Oxford University.
It’s almost too much to take in, and with a resumé of skills that would impress most, it is not hard to understand why she is really too busy to physically sit down for an interview.
As a result, we spend a couple days firing questions and answers back and forth over email, even as I take some time to sit and listen to one of her two interviews with Karen Burnham (not sure if any relation) on the Locus Roundtable podcast.
Her voice is mellow and the studio photo she shoots quickly through the email and which you will find on her book jackets shows a face that encourages warmth, especially the eyes, and intelligence – so much intelligence.
Once she reveals her philosophies on writing, it is easy to see how this woman could be a consultant in socioeconomic research and still have time to turn out two multi-award winning pieces – the first, Redemption In Indigo published in 2010; the next, The Best of All Possible Worlds, to be published next year.
“I’ve always loved reading,” Lord admitted, when asked what drew her to writing.
In fact, she added: “[I] think that when you love reading, at some point you want to try making up your own stories.”
And that was exactly what she did when she wrote the fantasy piece Redemption In Indigo. This debut novel won the 2008 Frank Collymore Literary Prize and is a story of “adventure, magic and the power of the human spirit”. In brief, it is a tale of Paama, who attracts the attention of the djombi, also called the undying ones, who present her with the Chaos Stick, which enables her to “manipulate the subtle forces of the world”. Like any story where there is power, there is greed and trouble – and such is the tale of Redemption in Indigo.
The book was so moving that it also won the 2010 Carl Brandon Parallax Award, the 2011 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature and the 2011 William L. Crawford Award, along with a number of other honorary mentions and nominations.
Her manuscript for the soon to be published science fiction, The Best of All Possible Worlds, has already won the 2009 Frank Collymore Literary Prize. This is a story of an alien race and their survival and that of those in the new home they will now inhabit.
For Karen, writing was something she found fun since the age of 11, but even then she expected a lot of herself.
“I don’t know if I can call it a burning desire, nor would I say I fell into it. I enjoyed it, even though my early efforts frustrated me because they fell so far short of my expectations. I believe I realised fairly quickly that doing other things besides writing would help me become a better writer.”
She has always liked fantasy, science fiction and folk tales because she believed it to be a genre that could contain many levels and layers, if done well.
“For example, Gulliver’s Travels can be both a whimsical children’s story and a sharp, cynical satire. My first novel is fantasy, the second is science fiction.”
Her own tastes in authors also run to the eclectic, or more accurately those almost a century remove. Late 19th century born authors like fiction writer, C. S. Lewis, whose last novel Till We Have Faces is her favourite, and crime novelist, poet and playwright Dorothy L. Sayers are prominently mentioned. She also likes Scottish novelist Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and the somewhat more contemporary fantasy, science fiction, mystery writings of Ray Bradbury, whom she favoured for his “attention and care paid to every character, major or minor”.
A woman who believes in turning life’s experiences into learning ones, Karen remarked: “From their example I’ve learned the following: always strive to improve, don’t be bound by genre conventions when you find a deeper story to tell, less can definitely be more and usually requires a lot more skill, and compelling characters can carry even the most bizarre plot.”
She added as well: “[I]n addition to the Lewis I mentioned earlier, I recently discovered two works of Caribbean speculative fiction that impressed and inspired me: The Rainmaker’s Mistake by Erna Brodber and Ghosts by Curdella Forbes.”
Asked about her own books, Karen explained that the process of bringing both to this point was somewhat of a long journey.
“It’s both easy and hard. You forget how hard it was when you have a finished product. It’s only when you sit down to begin another manuscript that you remember the times you struggled with previous work.
“It could take anywhere from a month to a decade to produce a first draft. It depends on how much time I have available, and whether the story flows easily. I did the first draft of Redemption in Indigo in a month, but it was a year before I had a final draft, and I did some small rewrites over the next four years.
“I completed the first draft of The Best of All Possible Worlds in about three months, did a drastic rewrite in a month, and then tweaked it for about a year before adding another 5,000 words over a month.”
And she likes to finish a full draft before even thinking about starting a rewrite or edit. She explained that she liked to see a story take shape, unfold, before adding any enhancements; which probably makes the fact that she seldom does any single thing at one time just that little bit more amazing.
While some authors have been known to lock themselves away to help the creative juices flow without interruption, Karen all but scoffed at the idea. For one thing – she’s way too busy to indulge in such, because as she put it: “There are too many distractions and obligations in life for that!”
“I like to have more than one thing happening at once. For example, if I’m writing fiction, it helps if I’m also writing non-fiction. If I’m creating a first draft of one manuscript, I want to be also editing a fifth draft of another.”
True to form, when she is not off “consulting”, she is working on two novels – a sequel to The Best Of All Possible Worlds, along with tweaks and rewrites on the sequel to Redemption in Indigo.
For one who did not expect so many accolades and this level of acclaim to follow her two first samples of fiction, Karen remarked on how much it has meant to her.
“It’s very affirming. I don’t have a degree in English, so when people whose job it is to know literature tell me that I’m doing something right, it feels very good indeed.”
As much as a dream as this has been for her, she advised other writers to only do it if it was a passion.
“You should only write if you like it so much that you can’t stop… and don’t quit your day job,” she joked, ever so delicately.