KAREN SIMPSON was born in Detroit, Michigan and spent most of her life in Ann Arbor, Michigan, an area she calls a “great place for artists of all kinds to live and work.” Karen is the oldest of four children (two brothers and a sister), and she describes her childhood as wonderful:
My parents were very devoted to our education and encouraged all of us to become the best at whatever we chose to become. My father in particular was excited that I wanted to be an artist and writer. He gave me my first typewriter when I was about five, because he knew I was writing stories…My mother introduced me to the art of cooling, sewing and theater. She was also the one who cultivated my love of all different varieties of music.
Karen received her bachelor’s degree in Animal Husbandry, M.A. in Foreign Language and International Trade and M.S. in Historic Preservation from Eastern Michigan University, and she has worked for the University of Michigan for over 30 years in Student Financial Services, but she considers her career to be outside of that area. “Writing, fabric art, and history are my passions. I’m a quilter and have exhibited quilts and taught African-American quilting for over twenty years.”
As a historic preservationist trained in heritage interpretation and administration, Karen has also designed exhibits for museums and historial institutions that deal with issues of cultural diversity and racial reconciliation, and presented and published papers on various aspects of African-American culinary and agricultural history. Aside from writing, her dream job is to become a director of programs for a living history museum, though she confesses that her biggest dream as a child was to become a writer.
On Act of Grace
It took Karen ten years to write Act of Grace, which was loosely based on an event that happened during a Klan rally in her hometown in 1996.
When a supposedly nonviolent anti-Klan protester began to beat on a white man for wearing a confederate flag T-shirt, a young, African-American woman used her body to protect him. When asked why she came to his aid when she believed him to be a white supremacist, she replied, “He’s still somebody’s child. You don’t beat a man up because he doesn’t believe the same things you do.” For weeks after the event people argued about whether she was a guardian angel or crazy. My opinion was that she was a compassionate and brave person, worthy of admiration and respect for living up to her values.
This incident also fit in with Karen’s interst in how some people are able to forgive what would seem to be unforgivable deeds and acts, and the subject of altruism. But five years after the incident at rally, she had a dream:
I heard a young female voice shout out what is now the first line of Act of Grace. From that sentence grew my story of a young African-American woman named Grace, who must learn to use her shamanic gifts to bear witness to her town’s violent racial history so that all involved might transcend it.
Some of the scenes in this novel were extremely hard to write because of the brutal nature of the events I had to portray. Sometimes I found myself crying. However, it was when I made others in my writing group cry that I knew I had gotten to the heart of what I was trying to convey.
Sources of Inspiration & The Drive To Write
Karen draws her writing inspiration from several key sources. “I grew up reading science fiction and fantasy by Ray Bradbury because I fell in love with his lush language. I was horse crazy as a girl (I still am) so of course I read Black Beauty and the series of Black Stallion books by the great children writer Walter Farley.
“Later, when I was about twelve, my dad bought me a copy of the Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, and I fell in love with great writing and how words and stories could be use to change the world. Now my favorite authors are a mix of speculative fiction, literary and mystery authors, such as Octavia Butler, Tananrive Due, Percival Everett, Charles Johnson, Edward P. Jones, Water Mosley, Gloria Naylor and Colson Whitehead.”
Karen’s a morning writer, and she gets up at 4 a.m. to write until she leaves for work around 6:30. She also actively participates in writing groups. “The first readers of each individual chapter or set of pages are my two weekly writing group who tell me what’s working and what’s not working.”
Karen still lives in Ann Arbor, and she’s hard at work on her next novel.