The Night the Lights Went Out, an Enthralling Story
An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview with Karen White
THE NIGHT THE LIGHTS WENT OUT (Berkley, 11 April 2017)
Columnist Anna Roins
From the New York Times bestselling author of more than twenty novels, including the Tradd Street series, comes a rich new novel about a young single mother who discovers that the nature of friendship is never what it seems…
“When I first started writing this novel, I really had it in my head that this would be a straight contemporary story told solely from Merilee’s point of view.”
AUTHORLINK: Ms White, thank you for sharing your time with us today given your busy schedule. We enjoyed The Night the Lights Went Out; it was enthralling from start to finish. We loved how you mixed up the structure with flashbacks to WWII, (stand-alone stories unto themselves) and contrasted them with three present-day perspectives; Sugar’s, Merilee’s and the mysterious blogger’s. It added texture to the narrative. What made you decide to set up the novel this way? Did you first get the main story down then go back and splice in the different points of view and time-line?
WHITE: When I first started writing this novel, I really had it in my head that this would be a straight contemporary story told solely from Merilee’s point of view, with an anonymous blogger’s perspective thrown in to spice it up. But then Sugar sort of burst on the page and took over, and I knew I couldn’t be content just having her tell a bit of her past – we (the reader and I) – needed to go back in time and experience it with her. And I wrote the book in the order in which it is printed. I don’t like to know ahead of the characters what’s going to happen next!
AUTHORLINK: That’s remarkable! The cover of The Night the Lights Went Out is a work of art. Who designed it? Why do you feel it appeals to so many of us? Do you think that the cover plays an important role in the buying process?
WHITE: Whether we want to think it’s true or not, we all judge books by the cover. It’s what attracts a potential reader to a particular book and is what I consider the number one marketing tool at a publisher’s disposal. This cover is by far my favorite cover of all of my covers – not just because it’s so beautiful and eye-catching (those colors! my huge name in the middle!) but because it tells its own story. I give all credit to the geniuses at the Penguin Random House art department for coming up with this one. The only big thing we changed was the background. It was originally a beach but, as anybody who knows Atlanta will realize, we don’t have beaches. So I took a photo of a farm less than a mile from my house and that’s the background photo used on the cover. Also, the field glasses on the cover weren’t originally part of the story, but after seeing the cover I added them in and they became a huge and integral part of the novel.
“My goal is always to tell a story, but of course I would be ignorant if I didn’t – intentionally or not – explore subjects close to my heart . . .
AUTHORLINK: You have a great sense of humour! There are several themes running concurrently in this book. A few of them are; the reasons for unlikely friendships; how intimidation can happen in adulthood (as well as the schoolyard); personal responsibility in marriage and divorce; how some friendships can be golden, others can be toxic; and the lengths a daughter will go to gain her mother’s approval. Did you want to explore these subjects in The Night the Lights Went Out because they’re close to your heart? Or did they evolve organically in the telling of your story?
WHITE: I never set out to intentionally explore a theme, but they end up in the book anyway! My goal is always to tell a story, but of course I would be ignorant if I didn’t – intentionally or not – explore subjects close to my heart, and perhaps give a happy ending to personal circumstances that didn’t end well. This happens very organically and it’s during the writing that I make the decision if something will fit or not. I truly do allow my characters to lead the way.
AUTHORLINK: The blog sections, written by a mysterious ‘neighbour’, are fun to read because the observations (gripes) are surely felt by all of us at one time or another. They include things like; the lack of road etiquette; the quandary of children raised by caregivers; the millennials sense of entitlement without responsibility. Was it liberating to write these parts?
WHITE: This was the best part of the book to write! It truly was an expression of all of my grievances and annoyances about living in suburbia. I had a lot of fun with it as they are truly my voice in the book. I loved doing it so much that I’m considering a sequel just so I can write more of it – there’s just so much more I wish I could have included that I’m sure there’s another book in there somewhere.
“I never took a writing course except those classes that were required in high school and college (where I was a business major). I have always been a voracious reader . . . “
AUTHORLINK: That’s great. While you were completely transported when you read Gone with the Wind as a child, you never really dreamed of becoming a writer. Instead, you sort of ‘fell’ into it and yet the standard of your writing is very high with little exposition and adjectives, and a strong sense of place and character. Your perception of human nature makes the experience of reading your books a real pleasure, like these gems; “It was just like our mama’s, which was why she probably pretended he didn’t exist. Nobody wanted a mirror image of themselves that was less than perfect”. And, “Her voice sounded funny, but she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of swallowing first”. How did you end up becoming a writer and be so good at it? Other than reading a lot, did you ever do a writing course? What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?
WHITE: Thank you! And no, I never took a writing course except those classes that were required in high school and college (where I was a business major). I have always been a voracious reader and I credit all those books (especially the fabulous family sagas of the 70’s and 80’s a la Susan Howatch, John Jakes, Taylor Caldwell, and Jeffrey Archer) for teaching me how to write about complex relationships – especially family relationships. And I owe my parents for giving me extended Southern families – and the tight-knit communities they lived in – to study and explore.
The most surprising thing I’ve discovered while creating my books is that if I’m not laughing or not crying while reading, then my readers won’t either. My goal is to create emotion in my writing, and if it’s not working for me then it’s not working and I need to go back and try again.
AUTHORLINK: Interesting. What advice would you give to your younger self? Are there any lessons learnt along the way that you wish someone had told you about before?
WHITE: I would have told myself to learn how to type earlier on! It was my horrible handwriting and difficulty in keeping up with the stories in my head that made me hate to write well into high school. And I wish someone had told me to trust the process. Nobody expects a first-year med student to do brain surgery on the first day – we all have to start somewhere.
AUTHORLINK: You enjoy writing in the Southern Women’s Fiction genre – or as it’s sometimes known, ‘Grit-Lit’. The subject matter of your books usually contains history, romance and mystery, from the point of view of a woman trying to find her-place-in-the-world. You once said that you could (figuratively) hear your mother and your sisters doing the ‘Southern sister girl-talk’ when you create these strong characters. Listening to the stories and ideas exchanged between the older generation of women in one’s family is a great past time, especially when it involves drinking a cool beverage on warm summer nights. Was this what compelled you to write your books; to hear an echo of their voices in each of the stories you create?
WHITE: Absolutely. My father’s job as an executive with an international oil company meant we moved around a lot and lived in a lot of places. I was always jealous of my cousins who lived in the same small town in Mississippi where they were born and where my grandmother and extended family all lived. All I ever wanted was a hometown, a place to call home. Instead, I became an author where I could create the world I wish I’d known growing up – including a world peopled by sisters. I grew up with three brothers and all I ever wanted was a sister!
AUTHORLINK: How poignant; yes, understandable. We understand your first book, In the Shadow of the Moon (Love Spell, 14 August 2000) took four years to write. Nowadays, you are writing two books a year with the aim of about 1,250 words per day. Do you let your first draft stew in the drawer for a month before you review it again with fresh eyes? How many times do you edit your work before you send it to your critique partners, authors Susan Crandall and Wendy Wax? Were they your first readers from the beginning and if so, how did you find them?
WHITE: I don’t write in drafts. I write straight through, editing as I go until I reach the end. I send each chapter to Wendy and Susie when I think it’s done, then review their critiques and make any changes before moving on to the next chapter. We’ve been doing this since we met at the Orlando RWA (Romance Writers of America) conference back in 1998. Despite being prolific, I’m the slowest writer in the universe because I rewrite everything as I go along which means I write every day and pretty much whenever I’m not doing something else. It took me four years to write the first book because I didn’t have a deadline and only wrote when I felt like it. Oh, the good old days!
“I’m constantly going back and editing to make a new idea work!”
AUTHORLINK: You’re amazing. We understand you’re a ‘pantser’ as opposed to a planner, writing your books by the seat of your pants. When you start out, you only know the absolute basics about your novel. You begin with your protagonist, her internal conflict, the setting, and then the plot evolves from there. You feel that way you will discover the ‘what’s next’ moments as your readers will. When did you know what was going to happen to Merilee in The Night the Lights Went Out? Did you have to go back to the beginning and re-weave any red herrings?
WHITE: I’m constantly going back and editing to make a new idea work! I didn’t know Merilee’s backstory (which is integral to the plot as it turns out) until I was halfway through and so of course had to go add quite a bit to make it all weave together. It’s harder to write this way, but it’s the only way that works for me. I’ve never been a reader who wants to know how a book ends, which is probably why I write the same way. Once I know how a story ends, I lose interest.
AUTHORLINK: Obviously, it’s a winning formula! Old fashioned romance as a concept has changed a lot in the last few years and as such we see less and less of it depicted in TV shows and movies. This could be for several reasons, one being applications like Tinder. You’re a genius at building romantic tension between a couple. In The Night the Lights Went Out, it’s between Merilee and Wade. Like the scene when Wade doesn’t bother to explain who he was and why he was coming from the direction of the bedroom when first meeting Michael, Merilee’s ex-husband. There’s also the line, “Merilee? Don’t assume that I haven’t considered you and me as a couple kind of thing.” Do you have to be a natural-born romantic, do you think, or experience romance in your life, to be able to write romance?
WHITE: I truly think so! And I do draw heavily on my own “romance” with my husband. I was his little sister’s annoying best friend who had a terrible crush on him. And he was so sarcastic and funny and not always very nice (like I said, I was very annoying). I actually once told him that I hoped his balls would fall off on his wedding night! (For the record, they didn’t and we have two children as proof.) But there’s something so wonderful about the romance that’s not the physical part – but what people say to each other when they mean something else. Or their sense of humour. The best sex scenes I’ve read (like in Outlander) are because of the dialogue between the two partners. In other words, romance isn’t sex – it’s a big part, sure, but it’s not the thing that necessarily gets hearts pumping. That’s the romantic part of romance.
“. . .There has been the occasional interest in a TV series.”
AUTHORLINK: How hilarious. Yes, you’re totally right. Has there been any offers for any of your books to be optioned for film? Who could you see playing Merilee, Sugar, Wade and Heather? We like the idea of Sandra Bullock or Leslie Mann playing Merilee; Sugar being played by Ellen Burstyn or Blythe Danner and Michael Fassbender as Wade. What do you think?
WHITE: As I mentioned, I spend a lot of time writing so I don’t know a lot of the Hollywood players these days so I’m at a loss with some of those names. However, I do know and love Ellen or Blythe as Sugar (or even Maggie Smith), although I think Sandra might be too old to play Merilee. I can see Reece Witherspoon perhaps (since she has an authentic Southern accent). As for Wade – I can see someone like Ryan Reynolds – especially if I got to meet him in person. Heather – Scarlett Johansson for sure. There has been the occasional interest in a TV series for the Tradd Street books and for various other movies from other books – but nothing has ever stuck. It’s still a dream for me, though, to see my characters and stories on the big or little screen.
AUTHORLINK: And for a favourite last question: – Which famous person, living or dead would you invite to dinner and why?
WHITE: Mozart (assuming he could speak English). I’m a musician and have played the piano since I was five. His music is beyond genius. And of course, the movie Amadeus didn’t hurt my obsession.
AUTHORLINK: Ms White, thank you so much for your time today – it’s been so wonderful to talk to you about The Night the Lights Went Out. We wish you the very best for your continued success!
WHITE: Thank you.
About the Author:
Karen White is the New York Times bestselling author of more than twenty novels, including the Tradd Street series, The Night the Lights Went Out, Flight Patterns, The Sound of Glass, A Long Time Gone, and The Time Between.
She is the co-author of The Forgotten Room with New York Times bestselling authors Beatriz Williams and Lauren Willig.
She grew up in London, but now lives with her husband and two children near Atlanta, Georgia.
About Anna Roins:
Anna Roins is a lawyer, previously of the Australian Government Solicitor, as well as a freelance journalist who writes about social and community issues and has edited dissertations, websites, and books.
In addition to law, she has studied creative literature with The University of Oxford (Continuing Education) and the Faber Academy, London. Anna is currently writing her first novel and is a regular contributor to AUTHORLINK assigned to conduct interviews with best-selling authors.