Thursday, January 30, 2014

Q&A with guest author (and fellow Italian) Karen Malena

I want to welcome author Karen Malena to my blog today. Karen is the author of Shadow of my Father’s Secret (Concerning Life Publishing), a powerful story of pain, rejection, ultimate redemption, and reconciliation. 

Mark: I’d like to start the discussion with your main protagonist, Aaron. I identify with him in many ways. Everyone has insecurities. I know I have a lot. In Aaron’s case, much of his insecurity springs from stuttering. How important was it for you to shine a light on this speech disorder in your story?

Karen: My son had a slight stuttering problem as a very young child and certain family members made a big deal from it. My own insecurities at times, cause me to stammer when speaking, therefore I chose for my main character, Aaron, to have the issue of stuttering. I wanted to showcase a stumbling block, something he had to overcome, even if the affliction didn’t leave him as it did with my son.
Through sharing this story with the stuttering community, I found them to be extremely warm and welcoming. I’ve partnered with them in raising awareness in bullying due to stuttering in part by sharing pamphlets from The Stuttering Foundation at my speaking engagements and also by supporting them financially. There are many misconceptions people have about stuttering. For example, many people falsely believe telling a person to “slow down” while speaking will help, when in fact, it has quite the opposite effect.
We all have dealt with insecurities in our lives either due to a childhood bully, an inconsiderate parent, or even a spouse who may have belittled us at one time or another.
I’d like this story to be an encouragement to perhaps show the reasons some people mistreat us, that everyone does, indeed, have a story or some type of pain in their own lives. It is through the healing power of God that we can choose to forgive and become the person we’re meant to be.

Mark:  Much of your writing deals with relationships, father and son, mother and daughter, grandparents, etc. We both come from an Italian heritage where family is so important. How much do you draw from your own heritage and memories in creating your storyline and characters?       

Karen: Heritage plays a major role in my books. Being Italian is something I’m proud of, yet I’m able to laugh at some of the truly dysfunctional events from the interesting upbringing I had. Italians are extremely vocal people, very passionate in their beliefs and quite hilarious in their actions. I can’t make up better characters than drawing upon some of the people in my own family, the quirks and traits, good and bad.

Mark: (Laughing) Oh, how I can relate!

Karen: My own memories while creating stories are easy to draw upon: some difficult, others, downright humorous, and still others, quite inspirational. In my upcoming book, “Reflections From My Mother’s Kitchen, A Daughter’s Memoir and Journey Toward Healing,” I cover some true events from my life such as the scoliosis I had as a child, and subsequent bullying from cruel children, the frightening time spent in Children’s Hospital and recovery afterward. I speak of my mother’s childhood fears of an abusive father and her life changing near death experience later in life. In many ways it has been quite healing to write about issues I’ve kept bottled up for many years.

Mark: How do you incorporate faith into your writing? 

Karen: I like to layer my faith based writing a little at a time. I believe the reader doesn’t like to be preached at or lectured to. I gently incorporate stories of faith and goodness to hopefully inspire a person who may never have heard the good news before. My stories cannot entirely be categorized as Christian fiction, but as family encouraging material, instilling old-fashioned values back into our world. There are moments, however, in “Shadow of My Father’s Secret,” that I do believe the book should be considered PG13. In my third book, “The Adventures of Piggy, A Cat “Tail” For the Young at Heart,” readers will get to see a creative, humorous side of me, with a family friendly novel about friendship and morals.

You can see more of my true, inspirational stories on my blog at

I’d like to thank Mark Venturini for having me as a guest today. I am the proud owner of his amazing fantasy novel, “Whispers From Forbidden Earth,” and am looking forward to the sequel.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Middle grade books: to understand, escape, or both?

With the publication of my middle grade fantasy novel, Whispers from Forbidden Earth (Helping Hands Press, October 2013), I’ve actually thought quite a bit about what makes a good story for that special age group, children 8 years old and up. Yeah, you’d think I would have had this all worked out already as I wrote the novel.  I guess I’m always looking over my shoulder even as I charge ahead with the sequel and other projects, always hoping to improve my craft.

Authors are encouraged to write what they want to read. I found this great quote from Austin Kleon: “Draw the art you want to see, make the music you want to hear, write the books you want to read. That’s where the problem is for me. There’s the rub when it comes to middle grade books, my books. Am I writing what I want to read as an adult or am I writing what children want to read? Can there be room for both?

So, what make a good middle grade story? An interesting post on the Dystel & Goderich Literary Management website talked about this.

The authors of the post contend that, instead of asking what "middle grade" is, it’s easier to think about what the middle grade reader is looking for in a book. Broadly, a middle grade reader is reading for one of two reasons: to understand, or to escape. Many times, it is a combination of both.  

I surprised myself and found this was true as I considered my two favorite middle grade novels:

The Graveyard Book is a fun, imaginative romp as only Neil Gaiman can write. In The Giver, Lois Lowry paints a disturbing, thought-provoking glimpse into a dystopian future. Both novels are best sellers, both have a huge following of readers, young and older alike. Both are totally different. The Dystel & Goderich post mentions two big mistakes that authors make: “writing down” to the reader and writing message-driven novels (books written only to teach a lesson).

For me, Gaiman and Lowry present great ideas wrapped in interesting, well-written stories that both children AND adults can relate to. There is no preaching, no wagging of fingers, no talking down to the reader. There is only an interesting story told well, a story that stuck with me. I'll leave you with this quote from the Dystel & Goderich post:

"I think about middle grade being the time when a lot of readers discover “that book”—the one that turns them into a lifelong reader, or explodes their world open with new ideas, or shares exactly the right truth at exactly the right moment in a way they’ll never forget."

That, right there, is my heart. That's what I'm working towards. That's what I want for my books.     

Thursday, January 9, 2014

2014: Following the paths unseen . . .

During a pleasantly warm Saturday in early November, my wife Kathy and I decided we had enough cabin fever and decided on a day-hike on my favorite section of the Laurel Highlands Trail (LHT). Nothing much really, roughly two miles out to the Middle Fork overlook, eat some lunch, revel in the scenery a bit, and head back.

We hit the trail early afternoon with Bella, the wonder dog, leading the way without a leash, her tail happily beating the air . . .

Now, hikers will tell you that trails are marked with blazes, accompanied many times (but not always) with mileposts. In Pennsylvania, a blaze is typically a rectangle of paint on trees, posts, and rocks. While the Appalachian Trail uses white blazes to mark the main trail, the Laurel Highlands Trail uses yellow.

Bella amazed me immediately as she led the way. Remember, I didn’t have her on a leash. She had no concept of blazes yet she followed the trail instinctively. You have to understand that the LHT is not a crushed stone bike trail, but follows the ridge-line through thick forest and grassy fields. To my human eye, many parts of the trail are indistinguishable from the surrounding forest floor. I had to keep alert to make sure I found the next blaze. Not Bella, she followed the trail, left, right, up, and down without hesitation or a single pause in her wagging tail.   

With 2014 upon us, I find myself thinking back to Bella and our day-hike. As a professing Christian, I believe the Lord orders our steps. In this new year, I long to see the path before me as clearly as Bella did on the LHT. There are so many distractions in my life, so much going on. I need to step back before plunging ahead. I need to pray (not just lip service), but diligently pray to follow the path God has laid out for me. The thought of losing my way and ending up in some swampland is a yucky one.  :-)    
Bella, the wonder dog