Karol Hoeffner is the author of Knee Deep and the Chair of Screenwriting at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. She has 14 film credits including Mary Kate and Ashley's Winning London, MTV's All You've Got, several Danielle Steel adaptations, a television mini-series Harem, movies-of-the-week based on true stories—The Making of a Hollywood Madam and Miss America: Behind the Crown.
Among her other credits are the original movies, Voices from Within and Burning Rage. She has penned two young adult novels, All You’ve Got and Surf Ed. Learn more at karolhoeffner.com.
In this post, Hoeffner shares what inspired her latest novel, what surprised her the most in writing it, her best piece of advice for other writers who may be feeling writer's block during the pandemic, and more!
If you love to write and have a story you want to tell, the only thing that can stand between you and the success you’re seeking isn’t craft, or a good agent, or enough Facebook friends and Twitter followers, but fear. Fear that you aren’t good enough, or fear the market is too crowded, or fear no one wants to hear from you. Fortunately, you can’t write while being in the flow and be afraid simultaneously. The question is whether you will write fearlessly!
Name: Karol Hoeffner
Publicist: Arden Izzo, Farrow Communications
Title: Knee Deep
Publisher: Regal House Publishing
Release date: September 25, 2020
Genre: Literary Fiction
Previous titles: All You've Got, Surfer Ed
Elevator pitch for the book: It's a Hurricane Katrina love story, sprinkled with voodoo magic, a coming of age memoir, that offers an uplifting message of hope—whether it's a pandemic or a hurricane, love can transcend any disaster.
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What prompted you to write this book?
I began work on the novel 15 years ago, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which I witnessed from afar, safely cocooned in Los Angeles. I watched the continual news coverage for five days, unable to take my eyes off the TV screen as the tragic aftermath unfolded. When the levee broke, I ,too, broke down. My grief was so strong that my own family began to worry about me.
I had fallen in love with New Orleans on my first visit when I was 16, the same age as Camille, the protagonist in my novel. As a teenager, I walked down the same streets that she walked, breathing in the culture of the Quarter. And as I watched the news footage in late August of people maneuvering through flooded streets in tiny boats, I sobbed for the ones who had been left behind.
Although I was not there for Katrina, I visited shortly after. I drove into the Ninth Ward where I had celebrated Twelfth Night in my 20s. All that remained of the shotgun house where I had danced until dawn were cracked concrete steps in the side yard. I spent my days in cafes, talking to the survivors, listening to their stories. I think of them often, especially now.
I spent my nights writing in my hotel on Royal Street. I imagined my 16-year-old self in the city with the hurricane brewing and what it would be like to be on the verge of becoming an adult and to have your whole life upended by a natural disaster. Camille came to me very quickly; she walked onto the page full-blown. I didn’t initially intend to write the novel in first person, but her voice was so strong that in a very short time, she just took over. Which is why I decided to craft the novel as a memoir.
How long did it take to go from idea to publication?
When I returned home from the trip to New Orleans after Katrina, I did more research, filling a Word document file with bits and pieces of ideas and conversations. I created a very elaborate timeline of events. Still unsure of where the story would take me, I woke up in the middle of the night and wrote what would later become the back cover blurb of the book in one fell swoop. At that point I had no idea how or why Camille would end up on the steps of St. Mary’s with someone else's blood on the hem of her pirate petticoat, but there it was. And I liked it. So, I returned to my own journals and taped interviews for answers. When I was satisfied with the basic outline, I dove into pages. Five chapters in, I stopped writing and put the manuscript away, because I decided that the first books about Katrina should come from those who had lived through it.
It was 11 years before I returned to Camille’s story and it took me three to write the novel. But the memories of what I felt first-hand and what I learned in the immediate aftermath were archived in files on my computer. I read them with fresh eyes and from that new perspective, I was ready to write.
In the time between my second novel and Knee Deep, the editors I worked with at Simon & Schuster had left the company and in some cases, the publishing business altogether. A respected colleague, friend, and award-winning novelist, Mary Kuryla suggested that instead of approaching the big publishing houses, I look into the smaller, independent presses because they supported their authors. I researched the presses, narrowed my list down to under 20 and submitted the manuscript with the understanding that it would take three to six months before I would hear back from any of them. Miraculously, in less than three weeks, I had two offers. I signed with Regal House Publishing in January 2019, and the book will be published in September 2020.
Were there any surprises in the publishing process for this title?
My only surprise was how simple the process was. My editor and publisher, Jaynie Royal, fosters a creative community of writers and with tireless energy promotes the books they choose to publish. I have been nothing but pleased.
Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?
The biggest surprise was the discovery that the novel should be written in first person as a memoir. I set out to write the book using a third person point of view, but Camille’s voice was so strong, she just took over. The original structure of the novel no longer worked. Telling the story from first person, changed the lens from which I viewed the narrative. Because she had to rely on other people’s accounts to piece together what had happened in the six months leading to Mardi Gras, the narrative began to unfold in a non-linear fashion and time became more fluid.
I threw out the original timeline of the story and puzzled out the structure of what Camille knew and who told her what when. As the narrative began to take shape, it reminded me of the Russian Matryoshka doll in my library. Like stacking a set of wooden dolls of decreasing size placed one inside another, Camille’s story became a series of stories nesting inside of her own.
What do you hope readers will get out of your book?
I hope they will have fun with the book because I had fun writing Camille, but I also hope they will identify with her story, and think about what it means to love someone who maybe cannot love you back in the same way. I hope they laugh a lot because Camille is funny, sometimes unintentionally so. But most of all, I hope that they tear up at least once. And if they cry, I hope the catharsis comes because they identify with Camille’s feeling of loss and recognize both the need and the difficulty of moving through the darkness of grief into the light of the future.
If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?
In conversations with several of my author friends and many of the screenwriting graduate students I teach, I hear a common complaint. Since the pandemic began, many of them are experiencing writer’s block, some for the first time. Originally, they believed that being sheltered in place would provide the perfect venue for writing. Because what else can you do?
Evidently, a million other things.
Adding to the pressure of completing work begun before COVID-19 are the nudges from well-meaning friends who ask if you are writing about the pandemic. Which makes writers (most of whom are insecure in the first place) wonder if that is what they should be writing about. After being waterboarded with news and catapulted from one zeitgeist into another in time-warp speed, the stories they once wanted to tell no longer seem relevant.
I would say to a writer struggling to return to a project begun before we sheltered in place, to hold close to your original intent but at the same time, let what is happening organically inform the story you want to tell now. My husband is a sailor and he taught me to keep a steady hand on the tiller that steers the sailboat while adjusting the sails to the changing wind and sea. Do the same with your stories.
I would tell young writers that as time goes on, you will be the generation of storytellers for whom the responsibility to re-tell the story of this pandemic will fall. I won’t be around in 40 or 50 years from now, but God willing, you will be. And you will be asked. And you must remember.
So, to that end, keep journaling. Save the emails you write to your friends and family and the ones they write to you. Start a file and catalog your observations and your feelings. What moved you. What scared you. What made you sad. What made you laugh. And what made you cry.
You don’t have to tell these stories now; you may wait a year or 10 or even 20 before you attack the story directly. But when you do, you will have a file full of catalogued memory to draw upon.
Last week, I stepped out into my front-yard garden, which is overgrown with rambling roses in a spectacular full-bloom. And I was reminded of another spring, back in Texas. After years of drought, the rains came in April. And by May, the dried, yellow country fields produced an abundance of wildflowers. My aunt and I walked through one of those fields, nestled on the edge of a lonely two-lane highway. She told me that wildflower seeds can remain dormant in the ground for 10 years, waiting for the right conditions to grow. So, we decided to catalogue the number of varieties we could find in that one small field. We spent the afternoon picking wildflowers together and only stopped when we had reached a total of one hundred different kinds.
Some of the story ideas that come to you now while sheltered at home will find their way to the page very quickly and some, like those Texas wildflowers, will lay dormant for years waiting for the right time to blossom. So be patient. And keep writing.