In the seventh grade, New York Times bestselling author Karen White played hooky from school one time only, and that was because she was deeply entranced in reading “Gone With the Wind.”
“I hid on the rooftop of our building and just read and read. But I never had any dream of being a writer, not then and not ever,” says White. In fact, she remembers “hating” writing fiction “because my thoughts were always 10 pages ahead of my handwriting, and I’d get so frustrated.”
Her sentiment changed in 1996. She was 32 and living in Alpharetta with husband Tim White, a banker, and their children, Meghan and Connor, then 4 and 2, respectively. She had just finished reading the first three titles in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, a romantic-fantasy-adventure saga about a 20th-century British nurse who time travels to 18th-century Scotland.
“(They) completely transported me to another place and time so that after reading for a while, I would look up and be surprised to find myself in my suburban Atlanta home,” says White, who now lives in Milton. “They were the kind of books we all long for because the luscious writing and characters completely absorb the reader. I had a very bad book hangover after those books. Nothing else would do, so I decided to try and write my own. I wanted to see if I could create that kind of a book hangover.”
Four years later, she published her debut novel, “In the Shadow of the Moon,” a time-traveling romantic fantasy set in Civil War Georgia.
“I found books as a reader, but the writing found me.”
And how. White has published 26 romance novels in 19 years. Her latest, published last month, is “The Christmas Spirits on Tradd Street,” the sixth title in her popular Tradd Street series set in Charleston, South Carolina. A romantic-mystery series with paranormal elements, it features Melanie Middleton, a Charleston real estate agent who specializes in historic homes. About halfway through the series, Melanie becomes a Trenholm when she marries dashing, bestselling author Jack Trenholm.
Launched in 2008, the Tradd Street series involves ongoing ghostly encounters and various mysteries involving stately old homes and Charleston of yesteryear. In the latest Tradd Street book, Jack’s career has taken a nose dive, triggering Melanie’s need to fix everything while she grapples with the emotional wounds of her past. Plans for an important holiday fundraiser involving the Tradd house have everyone in a tizzy. Meanwhile, the Colonial-era cistern in the backyard is being excavated amid rumors of a long-lost treasure.
White is a wildly prolific writer, but year upon year, her novels have become less heart-fluttery lightsome and more multi-layered, as she’s beefed up the historical research.
“I’m endlessly fascinated by how the past influences the present,” she says.
White calls her style “grit lit.” it often drips with descriptions of Spanish moss and Southern ways and witticisms. There are plenty of “bless her hearts” and myriad descriptions of sticky heat. But she also creates believable characters that contend with everyday problems, like Melanie, the keeper of secrets on Tradd Street.
“(Readers) relate to her,” says White. “She’s juggling a lot. She’s trying to come through for everyone. She’s got all the typical insecurities, and she doesn’t always make the right choices.”
Of all her characters, White is most like Melanie, she says.
“She tends to think like me. She’s flawed, but flawed is interesting. Perfect is boring.”
Like Melanie, who’s an over-the-top control freak, White loves her label gun. And they both have a weakness for donuts.
And while White doesn’t see ghosts like Melanie does, she believes in “the aura of ghosts” and houses that have souls.
“I don’t think it’s out of the realm of reality to think that a house can’t be witness to its own history. To some extent, I think that houses can absorb some of the human emotions their walls have held.”
Born Karen Elizabeth Sconiers in Tulsa, Oklahoma, White moved often as a child and sometimes lived abroad, thanks to her father’s job as an executive with Exxon. But every summer she spent time with relatives in Indianola, Mississippi, which helped inform her fiction. She describes fond memories of “sitting around my grandmother’s table with my mother and her sisters and cousins and just all that they would talk about, and how they talked and how they moved.”
After earning a business degree from Tulane University, White worked as a media buyer for an advertising agency, then as an operations manager for a software development company. Karen and Tim met at Wimbledon. After they married, they moved to Georgia in 1992.
White describes herself as “a seat-of-your-pants writer. I’m not a plotter. I start with my main character and what her conflicts are, and then I just go.”
She says she approaches each book as a reader.
“Do I want to read a book if I know how it ends? Who does? It’s scary as hell, just to start going, but that’s what works for me,” she says.
White writes seven days a week. Her favorite place to work is on her screened-in back porch, but she says she can write anywhere. She’s composed in emergency rooms while waiting on loved ones. When Tim’s in the driver’s seat en route to their new beach house in Florida, she taps away.
The South Carolina Carolina Lowcountry has provided endless inspiration. White has set many of her books around there, including “On Folly Beach” (2010) and “The Time Between” (2013).
“I love its ambience, architecture, its lore and secrets, its grace and gentility — and yes, it’s ghosts,” White says.
“The Night the Lights Went Out” (2017) is her only novel set in the Atlanta area. A crafty blend of heartache, humor and intrigue, it follows newly divorced mom Merilee Dunlap and her eccentric 94-year-old landlord, Sugar Prescott. The Star News in Wilmington, North Carolina, called it a “chick-lit thriller” with shades of “Steel Magnolias” and “Gone Girl.”
White’s output also includes two meaty yarns co-written with fellow bestselling scribes Beatriz Williams and Lauren Willig: “The Forgotten Room” (2016) and “The Glass Ocean” (2018). In January, this same “Team W” trio will release a third collaboration, “All the Ways We Said Goodbye,” that jumps from between the two World Wars to the 1960s, with Paris’ legendary Ritz hotel as a common setting.
White relished the chance to collaborate again with Williams and Willig, who live in Connecticut and Manhattan, respectively.
Their collaborative writing process is quite different from White’s solo process, in which “you just hear crickets in response to the questions you’re asking yourself,” she says.
The three authors go on a spa vacation together and between facials and such, they decide the plot twists and turns and figure out which one of them will create which characters. Then they return to their homes and begin writing chapters round robin-style. Publicists boast that readers can’t tell which author has written which chapter. And just like Melanie of Tradd Street, White plans to keep that a secret.
‘The Christmas Spirits on Tradd Street’
by Karen White
374 pages, $26
Karen White. Booking signing. 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 14. Free; reservations recommended. Book Exchange, 2932 Canton Road, Marietta. 770-427-4848, www.bookexchangemarietta.com
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