Karen Harrington has described her books as “coming-of-age survival stories,” and she’s certainly on a roll. On the heels of two award-winning novels, Sure Signs of Crazy and Courage for Beginners, her third, Mayday, begins with a bang. Specifically, a plane crash.
Harrington’s latest inspiration struck while watching an episode of “Air Disasters” about a plane crash over France, during which a coffin, of all things, fell into a farmer’s field. “Imagine finding this really odd thing in the middle of a field,” she says. “That really caught my attention.”
Speaking from her Texas home, Harrington is excited about her new book, though she jokes, “My husband says now I’ve written a book that’s guaranteed not to be in airport bookstores.”
That said, she doesn’t believe her book will increase readers’ fears of flying. After conducting research that included interviews with several pilots, she concludes that survival rates are “actually pretty positive.” One vital piece of information she learned about accidents and disasters is crucial to Mayday’s plot: “If you just get moving in those first 90 seconds, your odds of survival increase tenfold,” Harrington says.
“My husband says now I’ve written a book that’s guaranteed not to be in airport bookstores.”
The novel’s central character, seventh-grader Wayne Kovok, does just that, guiding himself and his mother to safety after a commercial plane crash. However, his world is dramatically changed when he emerges with bruised vocal cords that leave him unable to speak for several months. His recovery involves not only physically regaining his voice, but also learning to confront the adults who seek to guide his life, including his difficult, divorced father and his military-minded grandfather, who moves in after the crash.
Wayne had been on Harrington’s mind for quite some time, after appearing as a minor character in Courage for Beginners. In both books, he’s known for sharing his love of trivia and intriguing facts. “He never fully emerged there,” Harrington says of his role in the earlier book, “and I was just so curious about him. It made sense to me that he might come from a family of very strong people, and that’s why he was trying to stand out in his own way.”
As a result, Harrington decided that one side of Wayne’s family would have strong military roots, as is the case with her own family, whose involvement dates back to the Revolutionary War. In middle school, her father gave her a copy of Howard Fast’s April Morning, a fictional account of the Battle of Lexington. “There are, like, 14 Harringtons in it,” she says. “I remember that making a big impression on me, connecting me to history, and my family being in it.”
To help connect her own two daughters (ages 11 and 12) with their storied past, she and her husband hung a gallery of family photos in their home to honor the many hard-working people who came before them. The photos include a grandmother who was a gifted seamstress and model and a grandfather who painted sets for RKO Studios and brought home gifts from Cary Grant. These photographs inspired “The Wall of Honor” in Wayne’s house: a hallway photo collage of deceased military ancestors. That wall takes on new meaning early in the book when Wayne’s beloved Uncle Reed dies while serving his country.
On their way home from Uncle Reed’s burial in Arlington National Cemetery, Wayne and his mother end up in the plane crash, and during the terrifying descent, Wayne lets go of his uncle’s burial flag, which he remains determined to find.
“At the time, I was feeling patriotic and having a lot of discussions with my father, and I thought I would love to link those,” Harrington says. She even modeled Wayne’s grandpa after her father. “My dad is extremely patriotic, and I get 100 percent of my patriotism from him.”
This isn’t the first time that a family member has given rise to one of Harrington’s characters. The mother in Courage for Beginners was inspired by Harrington’s late mother, who suffered from agoraphobia.
After writing two novels that featured mothers with mental illness—the family situation in Sure Signs of Crazy is loosely based on the horrifying Andrea Yates case, in which the Texas mother drowned five of her children in the bathtub—Harrington made sure that Wayne’s mother was “awesome.” Nonetheless, Mayday does indeed feature another largely absent parent: Wayne’s father.
While she says such recurring themes are “accidental,” Harrington muses, “Who knows? My favorite writing professor in college said that you will find your ‘country,’ and you continue to return to those themes. So if you think of someone like Pat Conroy, he stayed with his themes of his family and the Lowcountry. So perhaps that’s part of my country.”
Harrington had an important early influence on her writing career: Her middle school English teacher was a prolific historical novelist, the late G. Clifton Wisler, know for books such as Mr. Lincoln’s Drummer and Caleb’s Choice.
“There’s something about meeting somebody who is doing the thing that you are dreaming of doing that makes it seems possible,” Harrington says. “They no longer seem like they’re off in this magical writing place, wherever that might be. They’re right there; they’re in the lunchroom. That just made a huge impact on me.”
Many years and a lot of hard work ensued before Harrington’s literary dream became a reality, including years of night school and working as a speechwriter for Greyhound Bus Lines and Electronic Data Systems. “I remember really bad days when I would get binders thrown at me by speakers,” Harrington recalls. “I remember thinking that they don’t even know that a future novelist lurks in their midst.”
Just like Wayne, Karen Harrington has indeed found her voice.