The inspiration for Karen English's historical novel, Francie (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), came, ironically, from a rejection letter. English had originally written it as a picture book about an African-American girl helping her mother with the laundry in a boarding house in the pre-Civil Rights South. But a thoughtful rejection letter from an editor suggested that the story read more like the beginning of a novel.
"To make Francie a novel," English recalls, "I made the main character, Francie, older, and added the layers and layers of plot." She says that for her, "Characters always come first. I begin to know them and to hear how they speak in my head. But the plot is harder. I knew Francie was a reader and a lover of books. That came from me, because I have always been a bookaholic. And it was my research into the period that created her absent father, the Pullman porter. I knew these porters were away from their families and that the novel would be about Francie, her mother and brother saving and waiting to leave Alabama and join him in Chicago."
Since English grew up in the diverse Los Angeles of the 1950s, and attended a school that was one-third white, one-third Japanese and one-third black, she lacked experience with the oppressive racism of Francie's small town. So English plumbed her mother's stories. "My mother was the daughter of a North Carolina sharecropper. She lived in a world where everyone knew his or her place."
English, who does not have an agent but sent her unsolicited manuscript to publishing houses, trusted her editor's instincts. "There was a scene I loved, based on a story of my mother's about being provoked into a fight with a bully. My mother was so terrified that she picked up a stick and hit him without waiting for the first punch. But my editor, Robbie Mays, thought it was too violent. I hated to lose it, but I had faith in his sensibilities.
Although English has always written, composing countless "Miss Flouncy" stories as a child and attempting her first novel at age 11, she did not seriously consider writing for publication until, in 1993, Newsweek accepted her "My Turn" column about the Los Angeles riots after the Rodney King verdict. English lived in L.A. at the time and describes the King decision day as "one of the lowest in my life." But she objected to the ensuing media mayhem, which she thought characterized all African-Americans as recklessly rioting and looting. "In my neighborhood, decent people were caring for their homes, watering their lawns, going to work and raising their families." Newsweek's call was life-changing. "When Newsweek printed my piece," English says, "I thought, 'maybe I can write and get published.' "
Children's books seemed a natural for English, a full-time elementary school teacher who raised four children. She joined the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, and one of her contest submissions caught the eye of writer and SCBWI board member Sue Alexander, who "saw I had a voice and generously worked with me once a week in 1994-1995." English succeeded in placing several picture books with publishers, but Francie is her first critical success. "The attention has been amazing," she says. "Although it's also rather terrifying--I think I'm more used to struggle. When I saw Francie on the shelf at Cody's, a legendary Bay Area independent bookstore, then I felt like a writer.
English recently moved to the Bay Area to be closer to her family. Although she says the morning is her best writing time, her teaching day now begins at 6:30 a.m. and allows little extra time. So, every night she climbs into bed with her laptop to make revisions on her next novel, Strawberry Moon, which is based on her own childhood in Los Angeles, to be published by FSG in 2001.
Ideally, English keeps three manuscripts in submission at any given time. "A woman in my writing group complimented me on my success. I asked what she had in the mail. When she replied, 'nothing,' I told her she had to keep sending things out. And I urged her to toughen her skin. You have to remember publishing is a business, and not to take it personally. I count every personal response from an editor as a success. Even if your book d sn't fit their list, it means you caught their eye."