In Memory of Karen E. M. Johnston

“Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Some people move our souls to dance. They awaken us to new understanding with the passing whisper of their wisdom. Some people make the sky more beautiful to gaze upon. They stay in our lives for awhile, leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never ever the same.”
— Flavia Weedn

“Don’t cry,” Karen said to me, after she told me her doctor had given her two months to live. “I’m not afraid. I want to see my dad again.”

Funny that in this scenario, she should be the one comforting me. But it shouldn’t surprise me. Throughout the duration of her illness, this has been her refrain. “Don’t cry.” “Don’t cry.” “Don’t cry.”

And so I didn’t. For Karen’s sake, I swallowed my tears and I talked of my writing, about which she never failed to ask. I told her (and Stephanie and Sharon, with whom I often visited) how my kids were doing, and we reminisced about old times.

I saved my crying for later, when I was in the privacy of my own home. Because it’s one thing to be strong for someone with as much grace and dignity as Karen, even in the face of her own passing. It’s another, nearly impossible, task not to shed tears over the loss of someone so special.

Why is Karen E. M. Johnston so special? This is where my powers of writing fail me. I’m afraid, deep down to my bones terrified, I will never be able to do her justice. And so a big part of me doesn’t even want to try. That part wants to shut myself away and grieve in private, where my feelings and memories can’t be judged unworthy.

But I won’t. Because Karen would want me to try. She believed in my writing from the very first time she read it. Her faith in my abilities exceeded what I dared hope for myself. I think Karen would tell me not to be scared. To do my best, and that it would be enough.

More than anything else, Karen ¬†deserves to be remembered. For whatever small memories I or anyone else can contribute. And so, for one of the kindest and most beautiful individuals I’ve ever known, here goes:

I met Karen when we both volunteered as time-keepers for the pitch appointments at the WRW retreat. She had the shift after mine, and I was free to go after she arrived. After exchanging a few words with her, however, I was entranced. By her smile, her earrings, her scarves, her charm. Instead of leaving, I sat with her for the next hour, and we talked about everything from writing to family to life.

A few months later, I came across Karen’s contact information on an SCBWI database and emailed her to see if she would be interested in critiquing together. Now, you have to understand Karen had plenty of CPs. ¬†She was already meeting two other critique groups on a regular basis. All she had to do was explain the situation to me, and I would’ve understood. Instead, she offered to form a third critique group, just so I could be in it. When I protested she was already overextended, she laughed. “I love writers,” she said. “Who couldn’t use more writer friends?”

As a writer and CP, Karen was unparalleled. In addition to her published middle grade novels, she had wide-ranging interests, from YA to women’s fiction. She went to Wegman’s every single day, where she sat from 8am to 2pm, and dedicated herself to her craft. Her words made me laugh out loud, marvel at her wit, and choke back deeply-felt emotion.

When I was on the agent search, she dictated to me word-for-word what I should write in my correspondence. When I was in revision mode, she would be “on-call” for days at a time, where she would respond within five minutes to the ten or so scenes I would shoot her throughout the day.

The writer in Karen never left, even when she got sick. After she was diagnosed, she immediately came up with four new story ideas inspired by her brain tumor — one picture book, two women’s fiction, and one erotica. During the last two years, she wrote and queried a picture book, as well as continued to revise and resubmit one of her women’s fiction manuscripts. What’s more, even when she lost the use of her hands and could only read large-print material, she continued to serve as my critique partner, offering her wisdom on pitch paragraphs and story ideas and first chapters.

In the end, though, all these memories are just facts, and Karen is so much more than that. I think my daughter summed it up best.

Last summer, I took my kids to have lunch with Karen. Before we arrived, I said to my six-year-old: “Now, I don’t want you to be surprised. Karen’s been sick, so she might not look the same as a healthy person.”

But my warning proved unnecessary. Maybe it was because kids understand so much more than we give them credit for; maybe it was because, even at her young age, my daughter sensed something in Karen we all knew and loved. Maybe, like her mother, she was simply entranced. For whatever reason, over the course of the next two hours, she stood next to Karen’s wheelchair for long minutes at a time. Neither of them spoke. Neither engaged in busy work with their hands. They were just being together.

Afterwards, my daughter said to me, “Mommy, I don’t know what you’re talking about. Karen didn’t look sick; she was nice.”

I think, in one simple statement, my daughter captured Karen’s essence more thoroughly than I ever could. Because she wasn’t talking about Karen’s pleasant demeanor or her exceeding generosity — to which anyone who ever knew her can attest.

My daughter was getting at something else entirely. The intangible quality that is so hard to define. The spirit that made Karen who she was. The something so unique and powerful and beautiful in Karen E. M. Johnston even a six-year-old could pick up on it.

Karen, I will be forever grateful you have entered my life, however briefly. You move my soul to dance. You make the sky more beautiful to gaze upon. You have left a footprint on my heart.

And I will never, ever be the same.


What footprints has Karen left in your heart? If you would like, please share.


32 thoughts on “In Memory of Karen E. M. Johnston

  1. Thank you for your beautiful tribute. I remember meeting Karen, but did not have an opportunity to get to know her. From your words, I realize I missed out. My condolences to her family and friends.

  2. Oh, Pintip. What a wonderful, wonderful post about Karen. I only talked with her a few times, but every single time she was fun and nice and just plain ENGAGING. She had a way of talking that drew you in and encouraged you to engage. The first time I met her was at that same WRW retreat. It was my first one, and I didn’t know one person there. She was kind and welcoming. And when she was in our group for Romance Jeopardy, she was fun and entertaining. Like Sharon said yesterday, it was funny how she, being from England, didn’t know the British Literature answers. Lol. She knew how to say “Waterworld” though, which was our running joke of the night. Then at the WRW holiday party (right before her diagnosis), she talked with me for almost an hour in the kitchen about relationships, writing and life.
    I would say that she left footprints in all three areas for many, many people.
    Thank you for writing such a beautiful, heartfelt tribute.

  3. Thank you. I only knew her from the stories I heard from you. Beautiful tribute to your friend.

  4. Pintip, thank you so much for your beautiful words and recollections. Karen was indeed nice in every way. I never knew her speak a harsh word about anything or anyone. But it is her bravery in the face of such a horrendous disease that has me awed. I can only hope that her family benefits still from that strength in their difficult journey ahead. Thank you for writing such a beautiful tribute.

  5. I bet wherever Karen is now, she is reading this and smiling. What a beautiful tribute, Pintip! My thoughts and prayers to all of her family and friends!

  6. Pintip: Thank you so much for such a wonderful tribute to a woman for whom “wonderful” isn’t a strong enough word. She brought light into every room she entered and she will be missed.

  7. What a beautiful tribute and that photo perfectly captures Karen’s warmth and amazing smile that makes you feel welcome and special. Years ago, I sat in front of her during Michael Hauge’s workshop. She was so charming and easy to talk with. We had a few group exercises and she was one of my partners. I remember telling her about A Surefire Way, the book I’d eventually self-publish. I knew it wasn’t a typical paranormal romance, and I was afraid it sounded silly the way I described it to her. But she just beamed at me with her beautiful smile and told me how wonderful and interesting she thought the story was and that I should pursue writing it. I credit her for being one of my encouraging heroes along the way. I’ll never forget you, Karen! Thank you for your positivity and joy you brought to anyone lucky to have known you.

  8. Yes to all of this. Warm. Kind. Generous. Karen was a woman who I feel lucky to have met. My thoughts go out to her family both by blood and by choice.

  9. Pintip, your tribute helped to show the spirit of this special woman for those who didn’t know her. Every day that you think of her and every word that you write will continue that special link that you have with her. I’m glad that your children also shared in the beauty of her life.

  10. This tribute brought tears to my eyes, Pintip. I knew Karen only a little, from brief conversations at meetings and the Retreat. She was one of those people one instantly likes and I looked forward to getting to know her better, a chance now lost.

    I remember Karen best laughing and being silly at Jeopardy during the Retreat. And answering every question with “Waterworld.” It’s the image of her I’ll carry with me.

    My condolences to her good friends and family. It is heartbreaking to lose her.

  11. Pintip, that was such a lovely memorial to Karen. Thank you for sharing your special memories of Karen. I’m sitting here at my desk blinking back tears. I’ve thought of Karen often over the last couple years, and hoped for the best as long as possible. She lived her life well and left behind many friends who will remember her and, I believe, live better lives because she touched them while she was here.

  12. What a beautiful tribute! I didn’t have the honor of knowing her like you did, Pintip, but something tells me she finds the tribute to be wonderful because it undoubtedly comes from your heart. Bless her and her family.

  13. Thank you for sharing this! Your words are wonderful. I know what she meant to me but it’s amazing to see all of the posts written by SO many people, who felt the same way. Wow. If only we can live like she did. Maybe that’s the ultimately lesson here. Live life like Karen did.

  14. This is such a beautiful post, Pintip. I didn’t know Karen, but she sounds like an amazing person. My thoughts are with you and her friends and family.

  15. Pintip, your beautiful post has left tears in my eyes. I only know Karen through you speaking so highly of her. I’m so sorry you have lost a friend. I’m sorry everyone who loved her is hurting right how. May we all strive to leave as bright a mark on the world as this lady has.

  16. Pintip, I’m so sorry for your loss. I wish I’d known Karen personally, though I feel like I did because you’ve often spoken so highly of her. Thank you for showing us all what a remarkable person Karen was. All my best to her family.

  17. Lovely tribute for a lovely woman. As Karen would say. It was “Brilliant!” Thank you for putting into words what we all feel. I was one of Karen’s first critique partners and every time I see the name Funkenhauser, which was the last name of her character in Big Boys Don’t Spy, before it became that title, I smile and think of her.

    I will miss her and her “brilliance!”

  18. Truly beautiful tribute and you are so right…it is hard to sum up what made her so special – it is boundless and vast what she brought to our lives – my condolences to her family and all her friends

  19. Mutual friends introduced me to Karen because they knew I was trying to write a book. Within two hours, she had told about WRW and offered to drive me to the meeting that Saturday. That day she opened my writing world. It wasn’t long after that she received her diagnosis. She was a gem.

  20. Pintip, this was so beautiful. It made me think how every day I’m surrounded by miracles. Karen was one. All of you Mermaids are. We’re privileged to share our hearts with each person in our lives–and what gifts those hearts are. It humbles me so to read your words, to recognize in them how great YOUR spirit is and how lucky I am to know you. I’m just glad I still have time to tell you: Pintip, you’re a treasure.

  21. What a lovely tribute, Pintip. I only talked with Karen at any length once but, like your daughter, I instantly knew what a beautiful person she was. I’m sorry for all who are grieving at her passing. But I’m hoping her dad is happy to see her again

  22. A wonderful, heartfelt In Memoriam. Thank you. I only met and hung out with Karen at one Poconos SCBWI conference 5 years ago. We’d been assigned to the same critique group, which, for a while afterward, we all maintained – yes, yet another one! Though it petered out, the impression Karen made on me is still so strong: kind, friendly, funny, vivacious, indomitable. And as others have said, breaking the rules of the biz, which my inner rule-keeper found wickedly inspiring. A bright beacon.

  23. This was indeed an emotional and lovely tribute, Pintip. My greatest memory of Karen was sitting with her during a WRW Retreat luncheon. My second book had just been released, and it was set in 18th century England. She leaned over to tell me that she had sent my first book to her mother back in the UK, and could she please purchase my second one so she could also mail that one to her mother. She was so sweet and unbelievably encouraging about my writing. I got the impression that she made an effort to purchase WRW members’ books to give away to others. It was thoughtful, touching, and very generous, and I’ve never, ever forgotten how kind she was to me. Her dad must be very happy to have her with him in eternity.

  24. I met Karen at an SCBWI conference in the Pocono Mountains many, many moons ago. Your tribute to her is beautiful and comforting.
    I will always remember her as a genuine, fun-filled, beautiful lady. You had to love her!

  25. Pintip, I love you.

    Karen was one of the first people I met at the Washington Romance Writers meetings. I was instantly struck by 1.) how brightly she shone 2.) how much she looked like she had just walked off the cover of “Children’s Author Magazine” and 3.) how I could have EASILY believed she was the younger sister of Emma Thompson.

    I will always remember her fun earrings, her bright-red sneakers, and her smile. Like a beacon, that smile. Contagious as anything. I wanted to be just like her. I still do.

    May memories of her optimism lift us all up in these dark days.
    Peace, love, and blessings to her family, and all who knew her.

  26. A lovely tribute. Like many of you, I met Karen at an SCBWI conference. I loved and admired her enthusiasm, her laugh, and her kindness. I will miss her and I will continue to read her books and to remember her.

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