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Karen Hunt is another brilliant writer I had the privilege to meet at Noepe Center for Literary Arts on Martha’s Vineyard.  Due to unfortunate circumstances, she arrived later than the rest of our group, but stayed on after we departed.  Although our time together was short, I feel like we truly connected as writers and friends.

And let me tell you, she is fascinating! 

You will know it for yourself after reading her biography and this interview.  Her experiences will amaze you and I can hardly wait for her memoir about her youth titled Into the World.  She’s giving us a taste of it right here, but be prepared.  You’ll be itching to get your hands on the story, too. 

Karen Hunt is a native of Los Angeles who has lived in England, Switzerland, France and Slovenia. She has written and/or illustrated nineteen children’s books, among them the best-selling The Rumpoles & The Barleys series, which has been translated into numerous languages. In 1995 Karen went into Central Juvenile Hall with a vision to teach creative writing to incarcerated youth. Out of that experience grew InsideOUT Writers, a nationally acclaimed nonprofit. Karen received many awards for her work including the Child Welfare League of America’s Award for Community Service to Children, Youth and Families. She is a Fellow at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Hambidge Center for Creative Arts & Sciences and Martha’s Vineyard and has used her time in these locales to work on her book Letters from Purgatory. Karen’s short stories and essays, such as FROM LA to BELFAST (The Adirondack Review) and THE DAY I LOST MY SKIN (short-listed in the Fish International Writing Competition) reflect her commitment to give a voice to the poor and disenfranchised youth within the juvenile justice system. She is especially proud to have had excerpts from her childhood memoir INTO THE WORLD published in Damazine in Syria, a magazine that has since been shut down due to the violence and oppression there. Her essays DRUGGING OUR CHILDREN TO DEATH and TROUBLE IN PARADISE (Burnside Writers Collective) draw extensively on her experiences with at-risk youth. A 2nd degree black belt in Tang Soo Do, a 1st degree brown belt in Filipino stick and knife fighting and a boxer and kick boxer, Karen is a trainer at a boxing gym called Tarzana Boxing. Always and forever her main inspirations are her three children, Katya, Harrison and Max.

The Rumpoles and The Barleys
The Rumpoles and The Barleys

RJ:  Karen, you write and illustrate – such an artist. Which comes first – the words or the images?

KH:  The story comes first. As I write the story I see images in my mind and once the story is finished I start on the illustrations. For picture books, I do a layout of the entire book, with the words and sketches.

Orgle the Terrible
Orgle the Terrible

RJ:  How old were you when you began writing and drawing?

KH:  As soon as I could pick up a pencil I started drawing. Art was my first love. Throughout my childhood I spent hours upon hours on my bedroom floor drawing. I was somewhat shy so I loved to go inside the worlds of my imagination and make them live on paper. My older sister was the writer. I learned a lot about story-telling from her. She could make me believe anything! It took until I was in my late twenties for me to believe I could also, just maybe, be a writer.

17th Century Castle Karen lived in as a child.
17th Century Castle Karen lived in as a child.

RJ:  You lived all over the world as a child, including in a castle. Wow. Can you tell the readers a bit about these early adventures?

KH:  I’ve actually been writing that story, called Into the World. Two excerpts from it have been published in a journal in Syria, which I’m very proud of since much of the purpose of this project is to build bridges between people of different faiths and cultures. When I was ten my dad heard the voice of God calling him to become a Christian writer. We got on a plane and began traveling the world for him to gain inspiration for his books. It was the turbulent 60s and not many people, especially not a family of six, was doing what we were doing. We had some wild adventures, such as escaping out of Egypt right before the 6 Day War, smuggling Bibles into communist countries and yes, living in a 17th century castle in Switzerland. It was a different world, no security when visiting the pyramids, just walked right up to them and inside, our guide was the all-time world champion fastest pyramid climber; staring up at the Sphinx, riding camels across the desert. I remember drinking mint tea with rug merchants in Fez and at night seeing the lights on the hills surrounding the city of the bonfires of the story-tellers and the people walking up to listen to them; watching the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow; my dad running out of a hospital in Kiev where they had tried to apply leeches to his infected toe (which is actually a good remedy!); and my dad praying before each border crossing in the communist block that God would blind the eyes of the guards so they wouldn’t find the Bibles we were carrying and every inch of our car being searched but the suitcase with the Bibles never being opened; a stormy night in the castle when we heard a scream and ran out to find the castle owner lying at the bottom of the winding tower in a pool of blood. So many magical and scary moments. What I got out of the experience was a realization that maybe, just maybe, not everybody who believed differently from my Christian family was wrong and going to hell and maybe, just maybe, the “American” way wasn’t perfect and God wasn’t actually “on our side.” So, I’m writing about all these adventures and some of the incredible people I met who influenced me to start asking questions about the meaning of faith.

Karen's parents on a camel in Egypt.
Karen’s parents on a camel in Egypt.

RJ:  In what way(s) do you suspect these experiences have inspired your writing?

KH:  Although I ended up not agreeing with many of my dad’s views, I always respected him for having the courage to follow his heart and turn his back on a successful business career in order to follow his dream to be a writer. Although it was difficult, he never gave up and eventually he became a highly renowned writer and public speaker. His dedication inspired me to follow my dream to be a writer. Traveling inspired my already over-active imagination and influenced the subject matter of many of my books, for example, my children’s book All the Children of the World, published with Thomas Nelson, and my Katie’s World series, published with Harvest House. I received countless letters from children in countries as diverse as Nairobi, Thailand, Australia, Norway, asking if they could be pen pals with Katie. Those books are out of print, but I still occasionally receive letters about them. While living in London, I illustrated four of the first multi-cultural books to be published in Great Britain, with a small East Indian publishing house called Mantra. That was a wonderful experience.

RJ:  “Letters from Purgatory” was the project you were working on at Noepe on Martha’s Vineyard in October. Can you discuss it?

KH:  It is a complex, 500-plus page work about the intersection between myself, private investigator Casey Cohen, and a series of fantastical letters that were sent to death row inmate Maureen McDermott. Casey was the foremost authority on the death penalty phase and worked for the defense on many of the most notorious cases. He was also my dearest friend. Shortly before his death, Casey gave me the letters and asked me to solve the mystery of who wrote them and why. This led me on a journey from death row to Istanbul, opening my eyes to how the powerful manipulate the masses through fear and how we all create stories to give meaning and justification to our lives.

RJ:  Is there another project currently in the works?

KH:  Well, I am working on a YA urban fantasy series called Night Angels, which is pretty intense and dark and vicious—and a lot of fun. And to balance that, I’m working on the illustrations to a picture book called Night Racer, which is about an inner city kid who has no interest in technological devices but rather, at night, flies out of his bedroom window in his amazing race car to compete against the greatest drivers in the universe in the Night Race.

Karen in Istanbul
Karen in Istanbul

RJ:  When we met, you had just returned from Istanbul, Turkey. What led to this visit and what was your favorite part of the trip?

KH:  I went there to finish my book, Letters from Purgatory. It was a very emotional journey because I had worked for five years towards this goal and I was finally accomplishing it. It would spoil the ending of the book if I told you what I had to accomplish while I was there, but I can say I did it! I loved everything about Istanbul and would go back tomorrow! My daughter and my niece were there for most of the time and we stayed near the Galata Tower and just immersed ourselves in the city. We had a penthouse apartment with a terrace overlooking the Bosporus. Writing in that apartment or in a nearby café was a dream come true for me. The Middle East is my favorite part of the world. I am enthralled by the culture, the history, the exotic richness and mystical beauty of the architecture, the towers and temples, the winding stone streets, the smells, the food, the art, I embrace all of it.

RJ:  Would you tell the readers about the writing project you started with youth in trouble?

KH:  Back in 1995 I had a desire to go into Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles and start a writing program for incarcerated youth. I had been conducting a writing program in public schools and I was curious to see what kids in more challenging circumstances had to say. Somehow, I got an interview with the principal of the school and he kindly let me do a few sessions at the girls’ school. I was deeply moved by how quickly their tough facades fell away and the honesty in their hearts came out. I certainly hadn’t found that in the public schools. I started going in as a volunteer on a regular basis and working with High Risk Offenders, those facing life sentences for serious offenses. I was appalled at the injustices that I saw. Other incredible writers followed and the program grew organically. We became a nonprofit and I was its President until 2006 when I stepped away to go back to my writing. It is an amazing organization and has helped thousands of youth over the years. I met Casey Cohen during that time and Letters from Purgatory touches on what happened during those years.

RJ:  This wasn’t your first residency at Noepe on Martha’s Vineyard. What is it about the island that brings you back and feeds your creativity?

KH:  I came to Noepe when I first started Letters from Purgatory and it seemed fitting that I should return at its completion. And I am working with an editor in New York, Angela Leroux-Lindsey, who has encouraged me all these years and published excerpts in The Adirondack Review. We had never met so this trip allowed me to also go to New York and finally meet her for the first time. I am completely in love with Martha’s Vineyard. It is a special place of beauty and atmosphere and no fast food, not even a Starbucks! From the first moment I saw the island from the ferry it felt right to me. And Noepe has been a haven; a place where Justen Ahren has created a wonderfully relaxed and inspiring working space.

Karen teaching a kickboxing class.
Karen teaching a kickboxing class.

RJ:  A personal trainer and kickboxing instructor, you are amazingly fit. How do you keep your energy so high when spending so much time drawing and writing?

KH:  I’ve always had a lot of energy! I probably have ADHD or something because it is hard for me to stay still for any length of time. I have trained in martial arts for almost 30 years, as well as Eskrima, boxing and kick-boxing and it is an integral part of my life. So I train every day and I teach and the teaching allows me to share my knowledge with others, especially to empower women and children to stand up to abuse.

RJ:  If you could spend one hour with someone – living or deceased – who would it be and why?

KH:  This is such a difficult question!!! How do I pick just one person? But I would say, from the perspective of a writer, I would love to meet Agatha Christie. I read all of her books multiple times. A mystery writer with her own mystery, I am so curious to find out what happened when she disappeared for those few days and showed up in a hotel, registered under the name of her husband’s mistress. There is a lot that remains unsaid in her autobiography and I would love to have a few drinks with her and find out what really went on beneath the surface. Besides that, I think her books are brilliant and filled with such fascinating characters. It is said that her books rank third in best-sellers of all time, just behind the Bible, for one. Runners up would be C. S. Lewis because his Narnia series had such a huge impact on me as a child and Orhan Pamuk.

RJ:  Your website is both beautiful and fun. Is it your own design and artwork?

KH:  My friend Adam Weston helped me with the design. It’s all my own artwork, from a few of the nineteen children’s books that I have had published and some of the projects that I would like to pursue. It needs updating, though!

Karen writing in a café in Kranj, Slovenia
Karen writing in a café in Kranj, Slovenia

RJ:  Where can the readers go to learn more about you and your work?

KH:  They can follow me at https://www.facebook.com/karen.hunt.355, at http://karenalainehunt.wordpress.com , although I don’t write on it enough, and my website, www.karenalainehunt.com. My latest published work, an excerpt from Letters from Purgatory titled Death Row Dance, can be found in the Fall issue of www.theadirondackreview.com.

Wow!  Thank you Karen for your generosity with both your words about your journey, and your fantastic pictures and artwork.  (For the record, the only picture I took of Karen was the first one.  All of the others are hers and supplied here for the purpose of this interview so that you may enjoy them!)

Renee Johnson is the author of Acquisition, and The Haunting of William Gray.  She is currently working on a Young Adult novel, while editing a suspense novel which has international flair–an homage to her love of travel and foreign food.  She lives on a farm in North Carolina with her husband, Tony Johnson, and one very spoiled German shepherd named Gretel.