Telling Secrets

Karen Quinones Miler was supposed to be working on the second novel in the six-figure, two-book deal she'd signed earlier in 2000 with Simon & Schuster-a murder mystery set in Harlem. But she was too distracted to write. She hadn't heard from her twin sister, Kathleen, or “Kitty,” as the family called her, since just after Thanksgiving. Kitty had vanished before, but she hadn't been gone this long in a while, not without calling.

Since the holiday, the novelist had traveled from her home in Philadelphia to New York City, making the familiar rounds of Harlem shelters, crackhouses and morgues. Usually, Karen looked a decade younger than her 42 years, with freckled cheeks and braid extensions falling past her shoulders. But now she was haggard. The stress had made so much of her hair fall out that the back of her head was bald. She couldn't help but think the worst, that Kitty was dead.

Even on New Year's Eve, Karen didn't feel like celebrating. She sent her 14-year-old daughter to a cousin's house and holed up in her Mt. Airy apartment with a two-liter of Coke and a bottle of rum. As she sat on her couch and drank, she began to feel more and more guilty. How had the lives of two sisters, born one minute apart and raised in the same house, turned out so differently? Karen got up from the couch, booted up her
computer, and began to write-not the book, but an e-mail to both her agent and her editor at Simon & Schuster. “I can't write this book,” she wrote. “The only thing I can think of is my sister and how I let her down. … It's my fault she ended up where she is today, because I didn't tell. I should have told before, and now I'm telling.” For 20 minutes, she continued to clack away at the keyboard.

The next day, Karen woke up with a hangover. She had no recollection of writing the e-mail until two days later, when she checked her in-box and read a message from her agent, Delin Cormeny, asking, “Karen, are you okay?”

Karen scrolled down and read the e-mail she'd sent. “Oh my God,” she realized. “I just let all my family business out into the street.”

Her whole life, karen miller has been bulldozing a path for herself, one that leads away from the circumstances of her childhood in Harlem. After dropping out of school in eighth grade and putting herself through college at age 32, Karen now has enough money in the bank to pay for her daughter, Camille, to go to college. And she's found her focus: writing fiction. Her two-book contract from Simon & Schuster was based on the success of Satin Doll, a book she wrote on a whim two years ago and then self-published, selling more than 24,000 copies on her own. She's currently negotiating a new three-book contract with S&S

But Karen hasn't left Harlem completely behind. She holds the place close in her heart and goes back every chance she gets. The streets and smells and faces are still vivid in her mind-all of her books are set there. But they're fiction, she says. She has always been careful to keep her life separate from her work.

Yet when she tried to continue working on her mystery novel, she kept going back to the e-mail she'd written about herself and her twin. It finally dawned on her: “This is it. I should write this book.” And she started from there. The new novel, which comes out this month, follows Faith, a successful literary agent with a loving fiancé, and her twin sister, Hope, who can't seem to get off the streets.

Karen grew up in a series of apartments in Harlem and the South Bronx-on and off of welfare, her family would pack up and move whenever the landlord figured out they weren't going to make the rent. Her mother, Marjorie, was active in the Black Power movement in the '60s, and the police and the fbi kept close tabs on her. From time to time, cops would charge into the apartment building, kick in the family's door, and scour the place for criminals.

Karen's Puerto Rican father, a Castro communist who dressed in drab workman's clothes, left for good by the time she was 10. Marjorie tried to keep the family together. She and her four kids would pile onto her bed and watch the Ed Sullivan show. But she focused a lot of energy on her religion, a Nigerian faith called Yoruba, and held services in the apartment. “My mother spent a lot of time with her congregation and not so much time with her family,” says Joe, Karen's younger brother. “She was very eccentric. She thought she had these highly evolved children who could raise themselves.”

None of the Quinones kids-Joe, older brother David, and Karen and Kitty-went to high school. In grade school and junior high, Karen and Kitty-fraternal twins who looked enough alike that people had trouble telling them apart-behaved very differently. Karen was a goody-goody; she was dubbed “the black nun” by the neighborhood kids. She didn't curse; she didn't do drugs. And she was always reading. Kitty was more outgoing, more dramatic. “Kitty used to torture me with her hoochie-mama shorts,” says Joe. But when the twins dropped out of school in eighth grade, Karen started hanging out on the streets first. Her brother, David, had already gotten “caught up,” and had been hooked on heroin at age 12. Karen didn't even drink, but the streets were fun and at times glamorous. As time passed, Kitty started spending more time on the streets, trying to emulate her twin. Their mother blamed Karen.

When Karen turned 16, she moved out, lying about her age to rent a studio on the Upper West Side, pass the ged, and find work-as an answering-service operator, then as a police attendant at the Midtown North precinct. She kept in touch with her family, but the move affected her relationship with Kitty. “Our closeness, a lot of it ended when I moved out on my own,” Karen says. “For the first time, we were living separate lives.” Then Kitty started running away. Once, in her late teens, she vanished for almost a year.

After Karen moved back uptown to an apartment in Harlem, she got into trouble serious enough that she came close to being arrested. (There are some secrets she's not telling-she refuses to disclose specifics.) But because the cops she worked with at Midtown North liked her, they gave her an ultimatum: Join the Marines, or we'll put you in jail. “We compromised with the Navy,” Karen says. Three months later, at age 22, she sailed off to Iceland.

In the service, Karen met a guy; five years later, they married. When he became abusive, she left him. By the time the divorce was final, she'd given birth to a daughter, Camille. Mother and daughter came to Philadelphia, where brother Joe, who'd also joined the Navy, was stationed. Karen worked as a secretary, temping for eight dollars an hour until she got a permanent job in the circulation department at the Daily News.

Then Kitty called. “She said she wanted to clean up her act, wanted to move in with me,” Karen says. Their parents had passed away and David was still on the streets, so Kitty had nowhere else to go. Karen drove to Harlem and brought her twin back to Philly. By then, in their late 20s, the two no longer looked much alike. Drugs had emaciated Kitty, and her skin was sallow. She seemed serious about getting straight, but within two months she was back in New York, taking Karen's paycheck and the money from Camille's piggy bank. Karen shrugged it off. Joe had advised her not to take Kitty in, but she would never give up on her twin.

Karen continued to forge ahead in her career. It didn't take long for her to form opinions about what the Daily News was covering-and what it wasn't. She wrote a letter to the editor complaining that the paper wasn't aggressively reporting on events involving black people. When editor Zach Stalberg read the letter, he called Karen up to his office.

“You're right,” Karen remembers Stalberg telling her. (Stalberg says he doesn't recall the meeting.) She says he explained that the Daily News staff was largely made up of white males, and because reporters write from their own perspectives, issues that mattered to people of color were sometimes overlooked. With that, she says, he looked at his watch. Karen thought he was trying to signal that the meeting was over.

“Mr. Stalberg,” she said, “this discussion was a waste of my time.” Stalberg, annoyed, told Karen that she had no place criticizing the paper because she didn't understand what went into writing an article. This time, Karen thought, Stalberg was right.

She went back to her desk, gave her notice, and applied to Temple. There she studied journalism, supporting herself and Camille by freelancing, interning at the Inquirer and writing obits, and becoming a correspondent at the African-American weekly New Observer. She graduated magna cum laude and landed a job with the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Virginia. Less than a year later, she became a staffer at the Inquirer, covering Montgomery County and then West Philly. She wrote about Kwanzaa; about Walter Annenberg's personal-property-tax lawsuit; about Phile Chionesu, the welfare mom who started the Million Woman March. “Karen does not give up,” says Annette John-Hall, an Inquirer reporter. “And she's not afraid to step out into the unknown, the unsafe.” By 1998, Karen had become the kind of reporter Zach Stalberg had described, who wrote from her own experience-in her case, from the perspective of someone who had lived under the poverty line and hadn't forgotten what it felt like. “I wasn't afraid to interview the folks lounging around on stoops,” she says. “No one was below approach-not junkies or prostitutes or the Mayor.”

Karen's first novel, satin doll, was conceived in December 1998, when Camille, who was then 11, wouldn't go to bed. Karen and her daughter were sitting on the couch in their apartment in Mt. Airy and had just finished watching Set It Off, a movie starring Jada Pinkett Smith. Camille was completely obsessed with Jada.

“Mom,” she said, “why aren't Jada and Will [Smith, her husband] in a movie together?”

“Because no one's written a movie they want to be in,” Karen replied.

“You're a writer,” Camille said. “Why don't you write the movie?”

“Okay,” Karen said, in the interest of getting her daughter to sleep.

The next morning at breakfast, when Camille asked if she'd started writing, Karen decided she'd have to deliver on her promise. She began Satin Doll that night, and wrote until three in the morning. She worked on it the next night. And the next. By February, the book was finished. When Joe read the manuscript, he initially thought it was an autobiography.

Satin Doll begins, literally, with a bang. A bullet knocks Regina's cocaine-dealing boyfriend to the ground; the next bullet hits her in the shoulder. She watches as the gunman finishes off her boyfriend with a close-range shot to his head. In the hospital, Regina, 20, decides to find another way to earn money besides shoplifting, or “boosting,” and being a Pretty Young Thing for drug dealers. She leaves Harlem, puts herself through Temple, and works long hours to build a career in journalism. Though her writing takes off, a marriage ends badly.

When Karen sent the book to agents and publishers in New York, she got nothing back but rejection letters. One editor suggested she give the book a happier ending. Another advised her to make the characters older. Convinced it would sell as she'd written it, she decided to publish the book herself. She bought every how-to book she could find on self-publishing, then borrowed $10,000 from Joe, who was doing well working for at&t. She comparison-shopped different printing companies and decided on one in Florida. With Joe's loan plus her own life savings, she ordered 3,300 paperback copies of Satin Doll. Once they were delivered, she packed her '95 Toyota Camry full of boxes and drove around the city trying to sell the book. “The University of Pennsylvania bookstore treated me like I was Little Orphan Annie coming in with a tin cup,” she says. But Robin's Bookstore on Sansom Street took 48 copies. Basic Black Books in the Gallery and Borders in Chestnut Hill agreed to sell Satin Doll, too.

With help from Camille and Joe, Karen hit the streets with fliers and packing tape, postering the city, armed with know-how from her days as the child of political activists. “I knew to put them where the people are-in beauty salons, laundromats,” she says. “Anywhere you have to sit for half a minute, there was a poster.” She gave a stack of fliers to a barbecue truck on North Broad to hand out with every order of ribs.

Remarkably, the first printing sold out in six weeks. With the money she made-from $8 per copy to $12.95, depending on where a book was sold and who got a cut-Karen ran a second printing of 8,200, then a third of 13,000, all of which she sold within eight months, a major feat in the self-publishing world where an author who sells 10,000 copies in a year is considered wildly successful. In July and August 2000, Satin Doll made the Blackboard List, a best-seller list for African-American books.

Suddenly, publishers who'd sent rejection letters started calling. Random House was first, offering $10,000 for the rights to republish Satin Doll in paperback. Kensington topped that by $5,000. It was a self-published author's dream. But Karen laughed off the paltry sums: “I was making much more money than they were offering, so what's the point?” HarperCollins called. Simon & Schuster called. “I got famous for saying, 'I'm really busy right now; I'll call you back,'” Karen says.

But when Simon & Schuster made an offer to put out a hardcover version for $57,000, Karen got interested-she couldn't afford to put out a hardcover herself. At the same time, Delin Cormeny, then of New York-based pma Literary and Film Management, had been hearing about Karen from editors she ran into at industry parties. Cormeny, one of the agents who had initially rejected Satin Doll, got back in touch. Karen hired her, and Cormeny quickly set up a Satin Doll auction so that all the interested parties could bid.

On the day of the auction, Karen was driving up Walnut Street on her way to Thriftway when her cell phone rang. It was Cormeny. “We got the first round of offers in,” she said. “We started at $100,000.”

Karen screamed. Then she started to hyperventilate, and pulled off to the side of the road. “Karen?” Cormeny asked. “Are you okay? Do you want me to call somebody?” Then the agent hit her with another whammy: “The $100,000 was just the first offer. It's now up to $125,000.” Karen started shaking.

After that, bidders began to drop out. One editor cursed because her house wouldn't let her bid any higher. After three rounds, Cormeny took the highest bid-around $143,500-to the editor at Simon & Schuster, who topped it, offering $165,000 for the rights to publish Satin Doll in hardcover as well as Karen's next book, Timing the Moon, the Harlem murder mystery, about a New York Daily News reporter accused of killing her husband. Karen Quinones Miller's life had changed for good.

By July 2001, when the hardcover came out, Karen had done quite a few interviews for Satin Doll, and had a pat answer to the inevitable question: How much of this book is based on your life? “There are parts that are drawn from real life,” she'd reply. “But there are other parts that simply came out of my head.” While she was visiting a book club in Brooklyn as part of her author tour, the women in the group asked the same thing. Karen answered coyly: “Well, I was a journalist. I grew up in Harlem and went to Temple.” But she didn't extend the parallels. In an interview with a Chicago paper, she explained, “Everyone has several good stories. You just have to have the talent to pull them out. I am not only a woman, but a black woman, an ex-wife, a single woman, a journalist, a twin … and there's a story in every facet of me.”

Every once in a while, as Karen's star was rising, she'd hear from Kitty, who'd claim, again, that she was ready to get clean. But now, Karen was in a position to give her more money. “I always fall for it,” she says. “Because you know what? One time she's going to be serious, and I don't want to have turned her down that one time.”

Karen never expected the story of her and Kitty to come pouring out, certainly not in the guise of a drunken New Year's rant. But once she started writing the truth about her family, about why her life and Kitty's had been so different, she couldn't stop. After her editor read the first few chapters, she agreed to replace the murder mystery with the new book, I'm Telling.

Nearly a year later, in april 2002, Karen sits on one of the couches in her living room in the West Philly apartment where she and Camille now live. Her legs are tucked up underneath her; the advance proof of I'm Telling sits on the coffee table. The cover shows two young women-one is looking into a handheld mirror, and the other is gazing off to one side. The book's prologue was pulled directly from the e-mail Karen wrote to her editor and her agent two years ago, on New Year's Eve:

“I squeezed my eyes real tight, but I couldn't get what I had just seen out of my mind. My stepfather's face in between my twin sister's legs. Even with my eyes closed I could still see them. And I could smell them, too. A funny smell. Kind of like sweat and something else. And I could hear them whispering and scrambling around like they were trying to grab their clothes. I kept my eyes shut and squatted down in the corner of the bathroom, covering my ears and clenching my teeth so hard they hurt.”

Gearing up for the author tour, Karen is preparing once again to face that inevitable question: How much of this book is based on reality? This time around, she falters a bit, and says that not everything that happened in the book happened in real life. “Let me just say that there was an incestuous relationship in my family,” she says gingerly. “And I'm trying to be careful, you know, because if there's a secret, whose secret is it to tell? I feel like I've told my part.” Kitty turned up about a month after Karen started I'm Telling, calling her sister from a pay phone in Harlem. She's read most of the manuscript, Karen says, and it's been an impetus for her to start thinking about their family's secrets and how they've influenced her life. Karen is looking forward to handing her the finished book when it comes out this month.

At the end of I'm Telling, Hope has been clean for six months and is putting on weight. An early draft had her committing suicide, until Karen thought through the real-life repercussions. She didn't want the people involved, those in her own family who are still searching for answers, to read that and think it was the solution. “So often in situations like that, there aren't any happy endings,” she says. “What was keeping the family back was not so much the incest but the secret.” It becomes clear that Karen is no longer talking about the fictional family in her book: “Just getting it out there, you know, just discussing it amongst themselves-there's so much freedom in that.”