by Karen Schreck
"This is just something I have to do, okay?" I hear David say. "The right thing."
He cradles my face in his hands. He kisses me hard. Then he lets go of me. His eyes dart from me to whatever's next.
All she wants is for him to stay. She's been doing pretty well, pretending he doesn't have to go. But one day, after one last night to remember, she wakes up and there's no denying it anymore. He's gone.
When Penna Weaver's boyfriend goes off to Iraq, she's left facing life without him. As summer sets in, Penna tries to distract herself with work and her art, but the not knowing is slowly driving her crazy. Especially when David stops writing.
She knows in her heart he will come home. But will he be the same boy she fell in love with?
Without further ado, please give a warm welcome to Karen Schreck.
Cherie: Tell us about your novel, While He Was Away , in your own words.
Karen: While He Was Away is about a young woman, Penna Weaver, whose boyfriend David is deployed to Iraq. In the weeks immediately following his deployment, Penna is faced with the challenges of loving-at-a-distance, loving someone who’s at risk. Confronting her loneliness and her rising sense of concern for David, she works to understand who she is now that he is gone, connecting with a grandmother she’s never met, whose first husband was killed in WWII. Kirkus Reviews has called While He Was Away “a strong entry in the growing genre of literature about the Iraq War.” But this novel is also a love story for now that also holds a love story from the past. It’s about family connections, and how these bonds can be broken and forged anew. It’s about making art and making friendships, too.
Cherie: The novel sounds wonderful, and I like how you’ve bridged the two wars together through the grandmother. When will your book be available and where will readers be able to purchase it?
Karen: While He Was Away is available now in paperback or as an ebook . . . at Amazon, B & N, Indiebound, and Sourcebooks. And I bet your local independent bookstore would be delighted to order it for you, too!
Cherie: Where did you get the idea for your novel?
Karen: I grew up hearing war stories from my Dad, who served in multiple theaters of WWII, and right before she died my mom told me that she’d been married before, to her childhood sweetheart from Oklahoma, who died heroically in WWII. Their stories—what I knew and what I didn’t know—always lingered in my mind. When I started hearing and reading stories about the young men and women being deployed to Iraq, my parents’ stories rose to the surface of my consciousness again. I found myself thinking about the differences and similarities between that earlier war time and now. There are many differences that both intrigued and troubled me. But the similarity I kept coming back to is this: what is it like to love someone who goes to war? Especially when you’re so young—18, 19? What is it like to have your loyalty tested in this way, and to face the possibility of loss? I quickly realized I wanted to explore both my family history and this particular historical moment in a book. The character of Penna’s grandmother, Justine, came to me first, and Penna soon followed. And then there was no turning back.
Cherie: How wonderful that you had your parents’ story to draw from. What was your favorite and most difficult chapters to write?
Karen: I love writing details of time and place. And particularly, I loved any opportunity I got to write about Oklahoma. I grew up going to Oklahoma; in fact I’ve visited OK two times in this past year, touring for While He Was Away and happily seeing my family on my mother’s side. It is truly a place of my heart. Describing it was pure joy! In terms of challenging: I have to say the ending of this book was very hard for me to write. I don’t want to say why, because it will give it a way. Just know: I struggled. I guess that’s appropriate. Dealing with war, there should be no easy resolutions.
Cherie: I haven’t been to OK, yet. Maybe one day. And that is so true about war. Can you share with us a little about your current work-in-progress?
Karen: People have encouraged me to write a sequel to While He Was Away. I’m going to wait a little bit to do that, though. In the mean time, I’m working on another young adult novel that’s set today (in Sanibel Island, Florida, another of my favorite places), and a novel for adults that’s set in Chicago in the 1930s (one of my favorite eras).
Cherie: Sounds like you're quite busy! Because I like to sneak in a few fun questions, what’s your favorite color?
Karen: My favorite color is most definitely red. Or purple. Or blue. Or green. Or orange. Actually it’s not the color so much, as the quality and density of the hue. Like, you know those paintings by Mark Rothko? He captured color the way I love it. Dense, rich, spiritual, alive.
Cherie: If you could be any mythical creature, who would you be and why?
Karen: I would like to fully experience another element. So . . . I guess I’d either be a mermaid or a naiad. Or a winged creature that is not a harpy. An angel? A nice, fallen angel who wants to do right by people and build a bridge to heaven?
Cherie: Great choices! Do you believe in love at first sight?
Karen: Yes. Or more, I believe in recognition. That’s what happened with my husband and me. I opened the door to him, and thought, oh. I know you. You’re who I’ve been looking for. But I don’t consider myself a total romantic, where love is concerned. Because since I opened the door that first night, we’ve spent 21 years working hard, choosing day by day to say yes to love. Love is work. But of course it’s worth it. If it’s right.
Cherie: The “oh” moment of first meeting someone is something everyone should experience. How wonderful you did with your husband. What’s your favorite food?
Karen: I love really good fish tacos—the kind I’ve only had on the harbor in San Diego. Also delicate, crispy white corn tortillas chips and guacamole. (Sometimes I think I could live on guacamole.) I also really love Thai and Indian food. For years, chicken tikka masala was my comfort food. And there’s nothing like a honey crisp apple. Or an excellent orange.
Cherie: Do you have a favorite place to write?
Karen: If I’m able to write with a view of water—especially an ocean or a large lake—I am a very happy woman. A river or a stream or a pond are good too! But there’s something about that watery horizon, where the land on the other side is a mystery to be imagined, and the way the clouds hang in the sky above, that really (as they say) floats my creative boat.
Cherie: I would love love love to write near the ocean. OMG, I’d never come inside. (Pauses to picture that watery horizon.) Sigh, maybe one day. Are there any types of books you don’t read?
Karen: I read wildly and widely . . . but I am becoming more selective as time becomes (with every passing day) more precious. Use to be I felt compelled to finish every book I started. It felt like hanging up on a friend, or something, if I left a book unread. But now . . . not so much.
Cherie: I can understand that. There are so many great novels to choose from that it doesn't make sense to force yourself to finish one you're not particularly enjoying.
Thanks for being with us today!
Learn more about Karen Purchase While He Was Away