Karen demonstrates her sword fighting skills at a Viking festival.
KJ~~ Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
Karen~~ I’m a Viking re-enactor and do era correct sword-fighting. My bird, Xanadu, a Peach-faced African Lovebird, is my oldest animal at 15 1/2. She detests my cats and is happiest if she can get them in trouble. I have two Pugs, Jera and her brother, Lahi, three cats, Li Po, my oldest boy at nine and the “kittens” Isaz and her brother, Wunjo. I also have three horses, the mares Misty (Queen of the Universe!) who is a registered Spotted Saddle Horse (a gaited breed) plus my APHA registered Paints, Denver, my big dressage horse, as well as my filly, Fehu. I used to be a horse breeder and trainer. Sometimes I give riding lessons in dressage. I’m a musician and although I play a variety of instruments: Irish Bouzouki, Mountain Dulcimer, Ukulele, NAF (Native American Flute) and Bodhran (the Celtic frame drum) I have studied the recorder for the past 2 1/2 years so I can play Renaissance & Baroque music as well as Celtic music on that instrument. Water is my element and I love to swim–almost as much as I love horseback riding. I was a high adventure sports specialist, taught rock-climbing and cross-country skiing and worked as a whitewater raft guide all summer. I’m a veteran and was in the Army for 9 1/2 years.
KJ~~ I understand that you are a Beowulf Scholar. Would you tell us more about this?
Karen~~ I present on Beowulf at academic conferences. I always show up in period garb and often with a collection of weapons. One year I did a sword-fighting demonstration as part of my talk which is not something most academics do I suppose, so I’ve attracted a bit of a following.
KJ~~ You are presently working on a series of books. What are they about?
Karen~~ They are all a look at Beowulf’s world which was early 6th century Scandinavia. We know that Beowulf’s uncle, King Hygelac was killed in 521 CE during an act of piracy against his neighbors the Frisians. Due to that documentation we can date the other events that happen during the Beowulf saga. The poem that we are all familiar with was written down by a couple of monks over in England more than 200 years after the events occurred. The stories had to get past the church censors, so the writers layered on a heavy Christian gloss that would not have existed in Scandinavian society during the saga’s time. I have removed that Christian gloss and re-situated the story back into the proper culture. Although Beowulf himself is an important character in my books, the thrust of the narrative focuses upon women of his world. Norse women had a lot of power until the Scandinavian lands were Christianized at the end of the much later Viking era and their professions were quite diverse. They were traders, farmers, healers, ship captains, warriors and leaders, among other things.
KJ~~ Where did you get your inspiration?
Karen~~ When I was going to college over in Germany–my last duty station while in the Army–I wound up being an English major by default. At the time I wanted to be an Ethologist (animal behavior scientist) but the University of Maryland, European Division, Frankfurt, didn’t have much of a program in natural science, although of course I took all the classes they did offer as electives. As I finished up my course work for my degree we had a “drive by class” that covered both “Beowulf” and “Gilgamesh” in one evening. Something like, “These are both heroic epics. The End.” I studied “Beowulf” on my own. Instead of anything Germanic in university, we spent loads of time–entire courses in fact–on the Greeks. I asked one of my professors if anyone had ever written a novel based upon “Beowulf” that was empowering to women & she said not as far as she knew. Years later I decided to present on Grendel’s mother at an academic conference. As I did my research, I was amazed by what I learned–several key words in the original manuscript had been mistranslated because of the Christian attitude toward women in the late 19th century. Rather than a monster, I learned that Grendel’s mother was a noblewoman and a mighty warrior. I read about the graves of Norse women warriors who were mislabeled “men” because of the warrior artifacts buried with the remains until scientists were able to extract DNA to prove otherwise just recently. Approximately 10% of the warriors were women. My novels follow the life of one of them, a woman who starts life as a wife, mother and simple farmer until catastrophe strikes her farmstead. As she travels in her quest of retribution, she meets many characters from the “Beowulf” saga.
KJ~~ What does a typical writing day look like for you?
Karen~~ The last thing I do every night before I go drain my brain into the idiot box and cuddle with my pets is write. I write absolutely every single night, no excuses.
KJ~~ Do you have strategies for getting past those days that are hard to write?
Karen~~ My rule is that I write every night–even if it’s only one line. Some nights I have indeed, only written one line. Other nights I write pages. It’s all a matter of discipline.
KJ~~ Is there a lesson you have learned in your writing that you would like to share with us?
Karen~~ Force yourself to write. No excuses, no blaming “the muse” or whining about writers block. If you plan to write something long, you must write every day regardless of what is going on in your life or you will never ever finish.
KJ~~ What books or authors have influenced you the most and why?
Karen~~ I’ve read many translations of “Beowulf” and although the late Seamus Heaney’s version is the most celebrated, I enjoy the beauty of the language in the Howell D, Chickering, Jr’s version the most. Tolkien is a huge hero of mine and I can’t wait to get my hands on his “Beowulf” translation and hope the book includes his essays. He was a famous Oxford professor and his scholarship is admirable. His LOTR series of books was his way of giving the English people back their own mythology–instead of all the Greeks and Romans. All Germanic mythology is related, so it’s relevant to me. Plus, he was the first serious “Beowulf” scholar. When I went to England with the university to finish up my thesis in graduate school, I walked to Tolkien’s favorite hang-out, “The Eagle & Child” to enjoy a pint, soak up his energy and write. That night and the day I visited Stonehenge were the only times it rained–and it poured both times. I love what Diana Galbaldon has done with Scottish history. Any time an author does his or her research and is accurate without winding up with a novel that reads like a history text book and tells a good story, it makes me happy. I plan to be to Beowulf’s time/place what Phillipa Gregory is to her era of British history. Although I don’t find JK Rowling’s writing style to be especially “clean” I absolutely adore her Harry Potter books. I believe that being a great storyteller is more important than anything else when one writes novels.
KJ~~ If you took a two-week vacation in any book or story, where would you go and who would you be?
Karen~~ I often dream about what it might have felt like to have a good childhood, so I think it would be awesome to be someone like Fern in “Charlotte’s Web.” When I was a kid, authors didn’t tend to write books with interesting female protagonists. I wanted to be Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn in Twain’s books–the female characters were a bore to me. Of course most of the books I read were about horses or dogs. I read all of Walter Farley’s “Black Stallion” novels and all of Marguerite Henry’s books. She was a Wisconsinite like me, so I really admired her when I was a kid. But again, both of these favorite authors had boys as the protagonists. Girls were dull.
Coming September 1st: Award winning author Donnell Bell.