Karen Kondazian has starred in the Fountain productions of Master Class (2004) and the Tennessee Williams classics The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore (2007), The Night of the Iguana (2001) and Orpheus Descending (1996). She’s now written her first novel, The Whip.
What is your novel about?
The Whip is inspired by the true story of Charlotte “Charley” Parkhurst (1812 – 1879). Charlotte lived 30 years of her extraordinary life as a man. She became a renowned stagecoach driver for Wells Fargo during the California gold rush. One of her many exploits was the killing of the famous outlaw Sugarfoot, when he tried to rob her stagecoach one too many times.
As a young woman, she fell in love and eventually lived with a black man and had his child. He was hung, her baby killed and she was raped by one of the killers. The destruction of her family drove her out west to California during the gold rush, dressed as a man, to track the murderer. She had many adventures and a secret love affair. She also lived with a housekeeper, who fell in love with her, not realizing she was a woman. Charlotte Parkhurst was the first woman to vote in America (as a man!). Her grave lies in Watsonville, California.
Well, I now realize that to write a novel, perhaps you have to have that special quality of being an obsessive masochist. The endless research…(even to the point of having to ascertain if a certain word was used in that particular time period)… going to bed at 4 am, living on carbs and caffeine, gaining 10 pounds in the process… and finally, 17 drafts later I was still wondering if I should do another draft.
Actually, my curiosity drove me to write the book. I mean, by all accounts, no one figured out her ‘secret’ until her death. That she was able to keep and maintain that secret fascinated me and was the main reason I was inspired to write the story in the first place… to try and figure out the answers to all those weird questions I had. Like how did she go to the bathroom with all those macho stagecoach drivers constantly around her? What happened when she would have her period? How did she handle the isolated loneliness and lack of human intimacy? Why did she put on men’s clothes in the first place? Why did she go out to California on the grueling journey around Cape Horn from Rhode Island?
I had so many questions it drove me crazy… so I put pen to yellow legal pad and started to write.
That eventually led me to fictionalize the rest of her life around the facts that are known. The Whip is simply my account of how I imagined this extraordinary woman took to men’s clothes and went out west on her own… eventually to find great fame as a stagecoach driver, in a time when women had very few options. The choices were… to be a wife, a prostitute, maybe run a boarding house or teach, if you had the money or education. That was it… to be a free spirited woman meant you took up the oldest profession or you starved.
Who is your dream actor and director if The Whip were to ever be made into a film?
Cate Blanchett to play Charley. Kathryn Bigelow to direct. Clint Eastwood to produce. Screenplay by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana. Well it’s called a dream, yes?
Does being an actor in any way assist in the writing of a novel?
Part of being an actor is being a great storyteller. Good actors understand unconsciously the rhythms of language. What is being hidden beneath the words, the subtext, what drives a character? And their imaginations are always conjuring back-story for their characters… the motivations of why we do the strange and unpredictable things we do.
And a good actor is trained in logic. My great acting teacher Lee Strasberg used to harp about “logic, darling, logic.” As a result, the actor is able to follow the twists and turns of the characters, the story and the history. It can be frustrating… I’m sure it’s why I gained 10 pounds writing the book. Which way did I have the door open in chapter 9, when he is now firing his gun through the same damn door in chapter 23, only from another room and from another angle. Or the road is muddy so that must mean it has been raining but I just wrote that it’s hot and dusty somewhere in another chapter, a ‘beautiful’ dissertation on the way the stagecoach is surrounded by dust, but the muddy road is important because of the accident! And I believe a good actor / writer needs a wild, almost unhinged kind of imagination… a childlike freedom and abandonment of self, that can sweep the artist and audience/reader along with you into a world that can sometimes, if we are very, very lucky, actually inspire and transform another.
How did you get the novel published?
You know, I should really take a trip to Las Vegas. I was extremely lucky and fortunate to have found a publisher on the first try. A photographer friend of mine, from Transylvania, was having a photo of his published in a Tennessee Williams book. I happened to be in the photograph with Tennessee and the publisher contacted me to get my permission to use it. I was chatting with him, told him about my novel which I had just finished, and he asked to read a couple of chapters. And then he asked to read the whole novel.
My final words on the subject of luck and art is to thank the dazzling light that is the Fountain Theatre, and the Fountain Family. Starting with Stephen, Simon, Deborah … the three musketeers who nurture, encourage, inspire and transform us all who are lucky enough to be a part of their world. In the dark we all, artists and audience, make magic together because of them.