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Monday, June 27, 2011

Interview with Karen Cantwell

I first "met" Karen Cantwell back in 2009 when both of us had novel manuscripts entered in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards competition. Hers was the one excerpt I remembered because the writing was funny and because there were...monkeys. So when I saw "Take the Monkeys and Run" as a completed novel on Kindle, I thought "this has to be the same woman!" It was, and I was so excited when she agreed to be on A Writer's Jumble.

Welcome, Karen!

When I first saw your book "The Monkeys in My Trees", it was in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition, doing well as a semifinalist. Can you tell us what happened to the book between then and its release as Take the Monkeys and Run?

The ABNA was a very fun experience and I feel lucky to have made it to the semi-finals. After the contest ended, I did another re-write based on feedback from reviews, as well as from a professional editor. I also changed the title to reinforce the movie theme. I sent more queries to agents and small press publishers to no avail. Finally, I decided that my book could sit around in a drawer, or could actually have some readers, and that's when I published them myself on Kindle. Eventually, I followed with publishing to Nook and in paperback.

I love so many things about your book, but let’s start with the protagonist, Barbara Marr. (Great name, by the way). Even though crazy things are happening to Barbara, I found her refreshingly normal. Did you have to resist the urge to make her over-the-top?

No, I never did feel the need to make her over the top because I think that's what makes her and the book funny - she's this normal person (relatively so, anyway!) caught up in this wacky craziness going on in her neighborhood.

The quirky--I know it’s an overused word, but it really applies--supporting cast is where the crazy comes in. An Irish woman who adapt Italian lingo after marrying an Italian, an ex-hippie with a poodle named Puddles, an intimidating and successful mother who would make any daughter cringe. Did you come up with these characters from scratch, or are they based on people you know?

Yes, they are a quirky crew and I'm proud of that fact. (smile) Some of the characters seemed to just evolve before my eyes, while others are a mish-mash of people I've known or come into contact with sometime in my life. Barbara's mother, for instance, just wrote herself. I decided that she MUST not be anything like my own mother, or I'd be in BIG trouble, so I went the opposite, and before I knew it, she was this larger than life (literally) character that just appeared on the page. That was fun.

I loved that “no animals were harmed during the writing of this book”. I also loved that Barbara doesn’t succumb to the easy road after Howard leaves her. It’s so rare to find an author who takes the high road. Was this a conscious decision? (I’m trying not to give anything away.)

Yes, it was conscious. I started out writing this book, intending that the protagonist would not be a wimpy woman. I hate it in books, in movies, and on TV, when women are weak, and have to be "saved" by a man. Nope. Not Barb. She's afraid, but she's going to overcome. I'm really glad that came across in the story!

The plot was pure screwball comedy, right out of an old black-and-white movie. What authors, books or movies have influenced your writing style.

Screwball - I love it! I'm going to start using that in my promotion. It is screwball - like Lucille Ball. (smile) And I will say, that shows like Lucille Ball and The Carol Burnett Show definitely have influenced my writing. And when I was younger, I would watch, just like you said, the old black-and-white comedies. Dean and Lewis, Abbott and Costello, Marx Brothers. As a young girl, my favorite books were humorous - Are You There God it's Me Margaret and Harriet the Spy were two I read several times.

The Chronicles of Marr-nia is a short story collection of Barbara Marr stories. Did you find that this helped introduce readers to your character?

I'm not sure that Chronicles of Marr-nia introduces people to Barbara Marr or not. It sells well for a short story collection, but I have my suspicions that most people who buy Marr-nia have already read Take the Monkeys and Run and are looking for another dose of Barb and her friends. (smile) There's actually a short story in that collection that is a between-the-novels mystery short that occurs between Monkeys and Citizen Insane.

Citizen Insane, the second Barbara Marr novel, is now available on Kindle. Can you tell us a bit about the plot?

Yes, it's just released and doing nicely already! (sigh of relief) In this second mystery, Barb attends a rather spicy PTA meeting, and always one to get into trouble, learns the hard way that a yearbook scandal is part of a much larger, sinister plot involving some high-profile criminals.

Is it necessary to read Take the Monkey and Run before delving into Citizen Insane?

No - in fact my first review on Amazon is by someone who read Citizen Insane first and she didn't feel she'd missed anything. (another sigh of relief!)

You took the self-publishing route, which many authors, including JK Rowling, are doing. How difficult was it to establish a following of readers by taking this path?

That JK Rowling is one smart cookie, isn't she? And we were all buying that line that she didn't like ebooks . . .

I first published on Kindle with Amazon, and I have to say, that's the easiest place to find an audience if you are self-published. That's not to say that I didn't have to get myself out there and promote the book, but once I did, Kindle readers found it. If I had just published a paperback, I never would have been on a bestsellers list with Janet Evanovich and Charlaine Harris. That was like gold for promotion. But the promotion is definitely the hardest part of self-publishing. It's my own money, and my own blood, sweat, and tears. On the other hand, that's the beauty of it as well. On a good sales day, or when I get that WONDERFUL email from a new fan, I know I did it all by myself. Watch out, I think I'm going to start channeling Frank Sinatra here . . ..

What’s next for you?

I've already started book number three in the Barbara Marr series: Silenced by the Yams. After that will be the fourth book, tentatively titled, Lethal Wet One. Once I have four Barb books written and published, I want to delve into a thriller/mystery about an optometrist that "sees" the future. It won't be as funny as the Barbara Marr books, but my guess is there will be an element of humor, because I can't seem to write anything without throwing at least a chuckle or two.

Thank you so much for this opportunity, Jackie! It's been fun.

Visit Karen at her website and on her blogs, A Moose Walked Into A Bar . I highly recommend that you check out "Take the Monkeys and Run" and "Citizen Insane".  After reading the first book, I can't wait to find out what happens in the second!
I thought the book description from A Moose Walked Into a Bar summed the plot up well, and if it ain't broke, don't fix it! So read the description as well as reviews, including one from Publisher's Weekly. 


  1. Take the Monkeys and Run is a very funny book. I love the movie tie in and the main character is someone I can relate to—in a good way. I'm not quite as ditsy as Barbara Marr. I recently bought Citizen Insane and it's next up on my TBR list. Thanks Jackie and Karen for a great interview.

  2. I love the movie tie-ins. You have the most clever titles ... and some terribly funny one-liners. Screwball without being demented. Thanks for the fun reads!

  3. Thank you for having me on your blog, Jackie! That was a fun interview. :-)

    And LC and Barbara - I am so glad you enjoyed the book! If I've entertained, I feel I have done my job. :-)