Karen Krossing writes fantasy and realistic fiction for teens. Her characters face compelling issues with integrity. Karen is the author of Pure, Take the Stairs, and The Castle Key. Today she talks with us about her books, her writing life, and more.
Interview by Cheryl Rainfield
You write both fantasy and realistic fiction. Do you enjoy one more than the other? Why? Is one easier for you to write?
I love writing fantasy and realistic fiction equally, although I find it easier to write realistic stories. Fantasy and science fiction require a deeper imaginative process to create the “other” world, down to the smallest detail. I find myself wondering things like: What kind of clothes do my characters wear? Where do they get the raw materials to make those clothes? How do their spiritual beliefs, daily tasks, and status within their community affect clothing choice? It takes a great deal of creative energy to ponder the details of an imagined world. In contrast, realistic fiction is set in a concrete world during a specific time period. I can research or use my senses to observe the world I want to capture in a story.
Can you tell us what Pure is about?
Set in a future where genetic engineering of humans is forbidden, Pure tells the story of Lenni — a misfit artist who discovers she has a surprising gift for healing. When her powers become obvious to the predatory Genetic Purity Council, Lenni must prove she has pure, unaltered DNA or be labeled “skidge” — an illegal genetic experiment gone wrong. As Lenni searches out a way to belong in a world that demands perfection, the relentless Purity is determined to uncover secrets that even Lenni can’t imagine.
I love Pure — it’s entertaining while at the same time thoughtful. How did you come up with the idea for the book?
The idea for Pure came when I heard an interview with Maureen McTeer on CBC radio. She’d published a book about the ethical and legal implications of genetic technologies. The interviewer asked something like, “How would a teen feel to have been genetically ‘arranged’ by his/her parents?” With that one question, I knew this was an ideal topic for a teen novel. Teens are breaking away from their parents to define themselves, and to find out that your parents had decided your genetic makeup would be so invasive.
That’s so interesting! Thank you.
Can you tell us what Take the Stairs is about? What kinds of issues do the characters in this book deal with?
Take the Stairs is about the limitations that press in on a community of inner-city teens – limits placed on them by others and those they impose on themselves. Set in a run-down apartment building where all the teens live, each of the thirteen characters in the book has an obstacle that he or she is trying to overcome.
Some of the characters are dealing with tough issues like abuse, theft, racial prejudice, suicide, AIDS, homosexuality, abortion. There is Petra, who has learned how to escape her abusive father by hiding from him; and Flynn, who thinks nothing of stealing. Asim deals with hatred directed against his Muslim family, while Allie spends the night on suicide watch for her depressed mother. David tries to talk to his dead father’s ghost, and Jennifer flirts with men she does not want instead of approaching the girl she does want. Madga resents her boyfriend when he won’t mourn the loss of the baby they aborted.
I think that reading Take the Stairs is like walking down the hall of the Building where the characters live. It’s human nature to peer into any open apartments as we pass, and, as we do, we get a taste of the hopes and dreams of each character.
Did you draw from your own experience for any of your books? If so, what are a few things you drew on?
I believe that every book a fiction author writes is autobiographical at least in some small way. Each of my characters has pieces of my emotional history as well as actual experiences blended with imagination. However, the most autobiographical book I’ve written is Take the Stairs. It’s based on real situations and people from my teen years and into my twenties. For example, my mother had suicidal moments, which we found out later was because of abuse as a child. I’ve had friends who struggled to admit they were gay, and I’ve known women who’ve had to tackle the agonizing decisions that come with an unwanted pregnancy. My husband grew up in several different inner-city buildings, which left him with the stigma that he was somehow not good enough. With Take the Stairs, I wanted to openly communicate about difficult situations that real people face.
I think you do.
What do you like about being a writer?
I love the moment when a story or a scene comes together — when I get a “eureka.” It could be as small as finding the right word to describe how a character feels, or as big as the arrival of a new story idea. I’ve spend many satisfying hours playing with words, polishing them bit by bit until they become as close as possible to that internal vision of what they should be. I also love connecting with readers, either by email or at a school visit or reading. I teach a lot of writing workshops, and I’m thrilled when a child or teen connects to writing.
What don’t you like about being a writer?
The hardest part is when I’ve laboured away on a piece of writing and it just doesn’t work. It can be so frustrating. Also, I hate how I can’t always judge my own writing. Sometimes I’m too close to a work-in-progress to be able to see where it doesn’t yet work. Then I rely on fellow authors for constructive feedback, but I wish I could see my writing more clearly.
I hear you. I think that’s something most of us writers struggle with–not always being able to see our writing clearly.
What are some of your favorite children’s books?
I have always loved Winnie the Pooh books. I read and re-read those books even into my teen years. I grew up adoring Dr. Suess, although the Cat in the Hat still scares me because he brings such chaos. I preferred books like The Lorax and Horton Hears a Who, which have strong messages in an entertaining package. I think that’s what I’m trying to do in my books, too. Some of my current favourite novels for teens are The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Mistik Lake by Martha Brooks, The Game by Teresa Toten, Dust by Arthur Slade, The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, and Awake and Dreaming by Kit Pearson.
What would you hope readers will get from your books?
First, I hope my readers will enjoy a good story. I hope they lose themselves in the characters and their dilemmas. I hope they read late into the night because they just have to know what happens next. When they finish one of my books, I hope they’re crushed that it’s over — sad to leave those character behind. Only then will I have done my job.
Second, I hope my books get readers thinking about this world we share. I hope their opinions, values, and morals are challenged somewhat — that they’re willing to think a little deeper and question a little more.
Why do you write?
I write to understand the world. It’s that simple. I love how a gorgeous string of words can alter my perceptions, widen my view of the world. Words have incredible power. They can inspire us to do great things. They can make us laugh or cry. I’m continually fascinated by the power of words to move me, and others.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing a novel for teens tentatively titled The Yoyo Prophet, which is about fifteen-year-old Calvin Layne’s attempts to gain control over his life by performing yoyo tricks on the street.
I’m also writing a YA fantasy about one character’s journey from hatred to tolerance. In the novel, Bog is a cave troll with a grudge against humans, until he discovers that he is half-human. On a quest into human territory, Bog is forced to confront his own hatred and prejudice.
I’ll look forward to reading them.
Thank you, Karen, for your thoughtful, honest, and interesting answers!