Explain your fascination with these long-dead 20th century icons.  Frankly, it’s a little weird.

It’s a good question. Which doesn’t mean I have a good answer, or even a mediocre one.  I don’t know. Writers tend not to know.  This is true for pretty much all artists, if they’re being honest.  We do our work  in order to find out what we think, what we feel.  Our work is a form of inquiry.  A book is not a remodel.  A painting is not a retirement plan.  A song is not an itinerary.


That’s deep, and evasive.

I do one thing, then the next thing.  I have no master plan.  In 2004 I wrote a memoir about taking care of my dad during the last year of his life.  You can imagine what a cheery undertaking that was.  The writing of some books kill you.  Writing that book was like a bad break-up. After writing it, I wanted to date around. I wanted a rebound book. So, How to Hepburn was born. Katharine Hepburn was my mother’s favorite actress. When I was growing up, people would stop her in the produce aisle and tell her she looked like Hepburn. Then I went to film school, and I fell in love with her all over again. To do a book about Hepburn would mean a year of reading wonderful biographies and watching wonderful old movies and immersing myself in a time when cinema was new. Plus, I knew I wouldn’t be writing a standard biography. I have neither the interest in writing a comprehensive biography, nor the scholarly chops, nor the necessary OCD component to my personality.  It would be a cross between How Proust Can Change Your Life (by Alain de Botton) and U and I (by Nicholson Baker).  It would be my own thing. Even though Hepburn probably would not have approved of the book, she would have approved of the spirit with which it was undertaken.


Whatever you did seems to have worked.  After Hepburn came Coco Chanel, and now Georgia O’Keeffe.  

I’m calling it my Kick Ass Women trilogy.


Is that you, or the publicity department talking?

They called it my iconic women series, which I thought lacked a little cha cha cha and ooh la la.


Define “kick ass,” please.

The thing I love about them all was their unerring belief in themselves, their opinions, their style and their creative vision.  Chanel and O’Keeffe were contemporaries, and Hepburn was twenty years younger. All of them were born before women had the vote, when the goal of most women was to marry whomever would have them, the richer the better. They were stubborn.  They were not very nice. I love that they were not nice. Most women I know, even in this day and age, worry they are not nice enough. My kick ass women couldn’t give a shit. Seriously.


With the greatest respect, who cares what you think? I mean, these women are world famous, and you’re just some fan girl.

Fan girl and proud of it. I’m no different than every other person out there who’s bewitched by these women and their astounding achievements. I even have a Georgia O’Keeffe kitchen calendar, that’s how middle-brow I am.  I’ve delved into these women’s lives to see what it is that continues to attract us to them, even though they’re long dead. I write these books not only to figure out how I should live, but also, I hope, so that some of their luster might rub off on me, and by extension, you.


None of these women are mothers.  Are you saying that at the end of the day you have to forego kids to have an interesting life? That’s pretty retro.

The current thinking flies in the face of what people thought only ten years ago, which is that kids take up a lot of space in your life. I have friends who are having three and four kids, and still think they can start a company while going to medical school. But this is neither here nor there. I don’t think Hepburn wanted children, but Chanel did and so did O’Keeffe. But it didn’t happen for them, and so they threw themselves into their work. This is an old cure-all, throwing oneself into one’s work.


Did you ever imagine you’d be the inventor of this weird mash-up genre, or is it the natural outcome of having written your way through everything else.  Short stories, novels, creative non-fiction, YA mysteries, screenplays, essays, articles and reviews.  Is there anything you haven’t written?

I’m something of a poetry moron, although I did win a prize for a poem in college, so who knows what’s ahead.


In case you’re feeling a little smug about all this work, may I remind you that a Writer Without a Platform is a Writer Without a Career.

Don’t I know it. I’ve flown under the radar for twenty years, in part because I can’t settle on a specific subject or genre.  To be known for writing only about birds, or marriage, or thermonuclear reactors would be the end of me. I’d get bored. Writing would feel like homework, or doing my taxes. I cannot move forward in a piece of writing without passion, curiosity, and a sense of venturing out into the unknown. And yet, I haven’t had to make good on my promise to become a dental hygienist if stuff doesn’t work out.


Tell me something about Georgia O’Keeffe I might not already know.

She had a fabulous sense of humor. Also, she sewed her own underwear.


What’s the best piece of wisdom you’ve found in examining O’Keeffe’s life?

O’Keeffe was not immune to what other people thought about her work, but she made a habit of ignoring what other people said. “Flattery and criticism go down the same drain, and I am quite free,” she once said.


Does this mean you don’t read reviews of your work?

I stay as far away from reviews as humanly possible.  But given that in these modern times we authors are expected to leverage the hell out of every review we’re lucky enough to garner—good, bad or ugly—ignoring one’s reviews is not as easy as it once was, but I’m fighting the good fight.


Is print dead?

It’s on life support, but until the day comes when we can upload books onto chips implanted in our heads, there will still be books. Recently I was on a long flight, and the woman next to me was fussing with her iPad. Some file or app wasn’t opening for her, then her battery died.  She was forced to read Sky Mall for the next four hours. I had a paperback stuffed in my purse.  Need I say more?


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KAREN KARBO's first novel, Trespassers Welcome Here, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and a Village Voice Top Ten Book of the Year. Her other two adult novels, The Diamond Lane and Motherhood Made a Man Out of Me, were also named New York Times Notable Books. Her 2004 memoir, The Stuff of Life, about the last year she spent with her father before his death, was an NYT Notable Book, a People Magazine Critics' Choice, a Books for a Better Life Award finalist, and a winner of the Oregon Book Award for Creative Non-fiction. Her short stories, essays, articles and reviews have appeared in Elle, Vogue, Esquire, Outside, the New York Times, salon.com and other magazines. She is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction, and a winner of the General Electric Younger Writer Award.

How Georgia Became O'Keeffe is the third and final installment in what she calls her kick ass women trilogy. How to Hepburn, published in 2007, was hailed by the Philadelphia Inquirer as "an exuberant celebration of a great original"; and the best-selling The Gospel According to Coco Chanel was published in 2009. Karen grew up in Los Angeles, California and lives in Portland, Oregon where she continues to kick ass.

One response to “Karen Karbo: The TNB Self-Interview”

  1. Cila Warncke says:


    What a fabulous read. Thank you. I especially love: “Writers tend not to know. This is true for pretty much all artists, if they’re being honest. We do our work in order to find out what we think, what we feel. Our work is a form of inquiry.”

    You express, more eloquently, what I was bumbling towards in a recent blog post on the values of kick-ass (or kick-arse) feminism.

    I’m itching to hit Powell’s and pick up your work!

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