Cabin Tales Author Interview #28: Karen Bass

An interview with Karen Bass, award-winning author of 8 young adult novels including Graffiti Knight, The Hill, and Blood Donor. Hear about her favourite fictional monster, her preference for third-person point of view, and her memory of growing up on a farm telling herself stories. 25 minutes.

Read the full transcript:

Show Notes

[0:00] Intro

[1:15] Interview with Karen Bass

CA: Are you a planner? Do you know the ending of your story when you begin?

KB: No and yes. I almost always know the ending but I don’t always know how I’m going to get there. So I will sort of free-flow through the middle quite often…

[2:35] CA: Do you tend to have the voice that you want to write this book in when you begin to draft? Or does that develop as you go?

donor cover

KB: My agent has made me rewrite a couple whole books into first person. …. Usually I have to fiddle around and find it. You know, do the usual character interviews, get to know the character…

[3:10] CA: So you do that sort of character exercise yourself?

KB: I do sometimes…. With a contemporary story, for example, you should know what their favorite pizza is and sort of what their typical day looks like you know how much time they spend on the Internet or whatever. All those little things really come through even if they’re not relevant in the story.

[4:00] CA: And is there a place where you get your best ideas?

KN: No. Actually, I get ideas from all over the place. … Although I guess if there is any one thing that sets my imagination off, it’s traveling…. When you are in a new environment, you are more aware and paying better attention than your everyday environment and so you see that story potential more….

[4:35] CA: Do you work on one project at a time?

graffiti cover

KB: Mostly, yeah. Although you know, you always have that thing when you’re working on a project and then the shiny new idea comes along …

[5:00] CA: Do you write at certain times of the day? …

KB: …. I often find that my best writing time starts early afternoon… normally I’ll just put in a solid couple hours in the afternoon. My brain is too unfocused in the mornings…

[5:35] CA: Are you part of a critique group or a writers’ support group… ?

KB: There’s a group of writers in Hamilton and Burlington and I’m part of that, and we are all traditionally published. … I would highly recommend it to writers. And I would recommend that, if you’re in a writing group, it’s really good if you’re not by far the best writer there. …It really helps you grow by leaps and bounds when you have someone who knows a little bit more about the craft than you do. …

[6:40] CA: Yeah. So you must have been good at receiving constructive advice? …

KB: Yeah. At that level I could. It was a whole different thing when I first started publishing. …The editorial letters really just sort of ripped me apart. …Learning that editors are on your side, and aren’t trying to rip you to pieces, was a process for me at the professional level. …. Now I’m much better with it.

[7:30] CA: What is the process like for you in terms of drafting and revising? …

Hill cover

KB: I probably spend more time revising because the first draft will come out fast. And I think that’s the difference between the sort of pantser versus the plotter. I think we spend the same amount of time on every book; it’s just where the time is spent. …

[8:15] CA: Right. And do you have any advice for young writers who maybe are pantsers and they write themselves into a corner or they get stuck?…

KB: … There are times when I’ve had to go back a couple of chapters and change things because, you know, there’s no realistic way my characters could escape that situation or whatever it is. … You really have to be more open to revision and to letting it sit for a while and then looking at it with fresh eyes, so that maybe you can see those holes. And don’t be afraid to get other people’s point of views.

[9:00] CA: And do you have a favorite POV to write from? 

KB: I really almost always write from third-person past-tense, simple past, which of course is a problem in YA because then my agent always wants me to change it to first person. Even when I write in first person, I still prefer to write past tense. … First person…is actually one of the harder ones to write because, if you don’t have a unique voice, it can sound very flat. …

[9:50] CA: And have you ever done an unreliable narrator?

Jager cover

KB: … I don’t know if I have, but it’s an intriguing idea, right? …. Make the challenge, right? We need to all try to write it at least one unreliable narrator story….

[10:30] CA: … Did you tell stories around a campfire as a kid or have an off-the-cuff storytelling experience? 

KB: … I was always telling myself stories. … We didn’t go camping. My dad was a farmer and that’s what he did in the summer; he farmed. So the camping thing wasn’t really part of my wheelhouse until I was an adult…and took our kids camping. You know, I don’t even know if we told them stories. And now I feel like I’m missing something.

[11:05] CA: And you have written a spooky story. Did you incorporate any of your own fears into that?

KB: A little bit. Growing up on a farm in northern Alberta, the one fear I always had was bears, and there was a bear in the story… Being out in the forest and the unknowns and ‘What was that sound?’ I incorporated that part of it for sure. …My incorporating is more the physical and mental reactions that my characters have to fear or to anger or to that emotion.

[11:55] CA: And are some of your stories based on your own childhood and growing up? 

Fire cover

KB: Part of my story Summer of Fire had some family dynamic resonance for me, but mostly my characters are pulled from composites…

[12:15] CA: And do you have any favourite plot twists…?

KB: … One of the more successful ones that I could think of off the top of my head was Scorpion Rules with Erin Bow. I don’t know if I want to give that away for anyone who hasn’t read it. …

[12:45] CA: Can you recommend any techniques for young writers for building tension …?

KB: …Make sure that the reader is right there with what the character is feeling. … you have to have the character emotion coming through on the page. And then from a technical point of view, when you’re getting to a really tense part, do not have long meandering sentences. …

[13:40] CA: What are some of your favorite books or styles, even? 

KB: I love stories that have tension in them. Like I love reading action and adventure. A little bit of a thriller edge to it, but not generally horror. … My favourites are all over the place. One of my all-time favorites is The Book Thief …. a beautifully written book will grab my attention…. But character and plot for sure.

[15:30] CA: And do you have any favorite characters from fiction…?

traitor cover

KB: …This is a book that is really obscure. It’s an American author, Janny Lee Simner, …and it’s called Tiernay West: Professional Adventurer. And its middle grade. And her voice was so unique that it still, you know 10 years later, sticks in my head. …

[16:30] CA: And then what about settings? Do you have favorite settings from fiction? …

KB: I have to say Berlin, but mostly because I love the city so much. Part of my first novel, Run like Jaeger, was set in Berlin. And then I have an unpublished — yet to be published, hopefully yet to be published — book set in Berlin. … I think a well done setting in a book, it really does become like another character for you. …

[17:20] CA:  And do you have any exercises that you would recommend to young writers for building a setting? …

KB: … walk the streets on Google Street View if you can’t go to it. … As exercises go, one setting exercise that I really like, it’s describing the character’s bedroom. And have one thing in the bedroom that is maybe a bit of a surprise or out of place. … And it’s just amazing how much character reveal you can put into that. …

[18:45] CA: And what about a favorite monster?

soldier cover

KB: I go for the classic vampire. …I love Dracula and read it I don’t know how many times. And then again I read Salem’s Lot by Stephen King years ago, and another book that scared me half to death. And I thought, ‘That is what vampires are supposed to be like.’ I’m sorry. I don’t care for other ways that they’re written. They are not nice and they should scare you. …

CA: Okay yes. …monstrosity should have a cost. …

KB: I even think with magic, there needs to be a cost … There has to be something, some way that you pay the price, whether it’s a monster or whatever it is….

[21:40] CA: And do you have any favorite scary stories? 

KB: You know, I actually don’t read horror anymore. I used to, and Stephen King was my favourite when I was in high school, which was a long time ago. And The Shining always stood out …I was actually afraid of walking into bathrooms with the shower curtain closed for years because of that book. …One of my favourite in recent years ,of just sort of the creepy factor, was The Night Gardener by Jonathon Auxier. …

[22:20] CA: Great… Thanks again Karen. Bye.

KB: Bye

[22:40] Find out more about Karen Bass

You can hear more creative writing advice from Karen Bass on Cabin Tales Episode 6, “Begin in the Darkness,” on Episode 7.5: “Author Interviews about Endings,” and on Episode 8, “The Never-ending Story,” about revision. And you can find out all about Karen Bass, her books, and her latest news from her website at

[23:20] Thanks and coming up on the podcast

I’ll be back next week with leftovers from my interview with the picture book author Frieda Wishinsky. …. Thanks for listening.


Music on the podcast is from “Stories of the Old Mansion” by Akashic Records, provided by Jamendo (Standard license for online use).

Host: Catherine Austen writes books for children, short stories for adults, and reports for corporate clients. Visit her at

Visit the Cabin Tales home page.


Guest Author:

Karen Bass loves writing action and adventure, and she likes to slide in some history when she can. She has twice won the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction. Karen lived most of her life in rural Alberta but now lives in southern Ontario. Karen loves having a whole new part of Canada to explore and use as inspiration for new stories. Find her online at


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