Interview: Characters in Karen Strong’s Spooky New Mystery Sparked By Real People

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I was shocked to hear that Just South of Home was Karen Strong’s first novel because the book was really good. I love how she created characters that you wish were your best friend, and her plot was so mysterious and suspenseful that I did not want to put the book down. I got to read it early, but the book arrived in bookstores on Tuesday!

Want to know more about the author of this one-day-old book? Read her answers to my questions below:

Question: What drew you to writing?

Answer: I’ve always been drawn to stories. As an only child, I entertained myself with stories. I also heard a lot of stories from my relatives. Spooky stories, funny stories, and heart stories. I loved how these stories made me feel – like there was a tiny sun in my chest warming me up from the inside. One of my dreams as a little girl was to one day write a book so that readers could feel that same magic.

Q: Why did you add a “dash of spooky” to your story?

A: I’m a big fan of ghost stories. I grew up around tales of haints, curses and secrets. I think I’ll always put Black Southern Gothic and spooky elements in my work since it’s a part of my heritage and upbringing.

Q: Did anyone you know spark the imagination for any of the characters?

A: Yes! A lot of my characters are sparked by real people. Mrs. Greene is inspired by my great-grandmother Nettie. She was strict but also very lovable. A lot of the other characters are composites of people that I know too. Sarah and Janie are parts of my own personality. I think all writers bring themselves into their work even though the characters are still a work of our imagination.

Q: I read that you have a passion for writing stories that feature black girls. Besides your book, what are some books that you love that feature black girls?

A: Right now, there are some books publishing this year that I’m very excited about including A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramee, Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams, For Black Girls Like Me by Mariama J. Lockington, and The Forgotten Girl  by India Hill Brown.

Q: Would you trade anything for your book to be a bestseller?

A: Ha! I think a lot of authors would LOVE to have a bestseller but I’m not sure what I would trade for it though. You did say anything though! Hmmm…maybe I would trade all of the hateful people in the world. They’re basically the ones causing all the problems right now. It could be a win-win for everyone! All the hateful people would be gone and I would have a bestselling novel.

Q: What advice would you give a budding author?

A: The one thing I always tell aspiring authors is to read a lot of books. You would be surprised how many writers don’t read. I’m a self-taught writer and that’s how I learned to write. I think reading all types of books and reading widely helps determine what kind of writer you want to be and it’s a good way to learn story structure. As an author, although you may work with an editor, you still need to have the skills to determine if a story is working and how to fix it.

Q: Besides writing, what do you like to do for fun?

A: One of my favorite things to do is star gaze and keep track of all of the moon phases, planets, comets and meteor showers. Another thing I want to get back into is swimming. I won’t be like gold medalist Simone Manuel, but I would love to be able to do a couple of laps in the pool without dying!

Q: How would you describe your first visit to the library and how it blossomed your love of reading?

A: I went to library every Saturday. Because of my accelerated reading level, I remember when I got promoted from the pink kids card to the green general card, which meant I could check out any book from the library. I checked out books on computer science, engineering and astronomy. They were probably a little over my head, but it opened up the whole world of STEM for me. With the green library card, I could also check out thick books of fantasy and horror which also formed my love of fiction.

Q: When you were younger, did you read books similar to the ones you write for children? Or did you wish there were mysteries with black girl characters?

A: I remember reading a lot of mysteries as a kid but I don’t remember any of them having black girls as the stars of those stories. It was one of the major reasons why I started to read non-fiction. I’m glad that we have more today but we still have a way to go. I would love to see more black girls having adventures, practicing magic, fighting evil and saving the day.

Q: Do you believe in haints?

A: Yes! Even though I haven’t seen on yet. Maybe one day!

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