Pinning down Karen Karbo's career is like getting lost in an underground maze of whipped cream and chocolate mousse: You may not know exactly where it's going, but damn if it all don't taste good. The USC film school graduate moved to Portland nearly 20 years ago; after she'd written a boatload of screenplays, a creative writing class she took in Portland turned into her prize-winning first novel, Trespassers Welcome Here.
Since then, she's written op-eds for The New York Times, three novels and The Stuff of Life: A Daughter's Memoir, winner of the 2004 Oregon Book Award for Creative Nonfiction. Now she's on a kids kick with her second young-adult book, Minerva Clark Goes to the Dogs. While writing about Chuck Taylor high-tops and G-rated crushes after crafting heartfelt sentences about her father's death seems an unusual trajectory, change itself is Karbo's forte.
"My whole career's been this way—something floats by, it grabs my attention and I cling onto it. It's difficult to categorize," smiles the author, pomegranate martini in hand.
While the quintessential Karbo piece defies categorization, writing about her abundant and varied passions has translated into a body of exuberantly written prose oozing with humor and intelligence. Her young-adult trilogy Minerva Clark started in 2005 after her daughter, then in fifth grade, grew tired of Harry Potter.
"I gave her Nancy Drew...she went into her room, closed the door and emerged five hours later," Karbo remembers. "She said, 'I do have a question: What's a roadster?'"
Karbo wanted to give her a smart and equally exciting reading experience, but without the anachronisms. "So I thought: What would be cool? Maybe you need a seventh-grade detective who has technology at her disposal, who has an older brother who's a computer genius. And a sidekick—a ferret. The whole thing just kind of organically grew that way."
In the series, 13-year-old Minerva Clark survives an electrocution accident, leaving her sans self-consciousness, resulting in a fearlessness perfect for crime-solving. "I actually get stuck a lot, because I try to think what it would be like to be a 13-year-old girl thinking you were good just the way you are," she says. "In my mind, that creature doesn't exist—it's like a unicorn."
As a setting for a young-adult novel, Portland is surprisingly ideal: just think of the bridges, skating parks, the Humane Society (13-year-olds love animals!), the MAX (but can't drive) and its quirky-but-not-really-scary personalities. It's all lively, lovely and quintessentially Karbo. Currently, she's working on How to Hepburn—a cross between How Proust Can Change Your Life and Why Sinatra Matters: "an appreciation with lessons"—and the final Minerva Clark mystery.
"I try not to think too hard about the fact that I make my living just shooting my mouth off, which is what I got in trouble for in second grade," she laughs. "Now, I just know how to use a semicolon."
Karen Karbo reads from
, and Christine Fletcher reads from
at Broadway Books, 1714 NE Broadway, 284-1726. 7:30 pm. Monday, Oct. 30. Free. Dogs welcome.