My Brilliant Friend

Remembering an indomitable author/librarian gone too soon.

My Brilliant Friend

There’s a series about a time-traveling librarian I haven’t watched, but I knew one: my friend Karen Newton. Marian the Librarian, the Music Man’s reluctant sweetheart, was the famous librarian when we were kids. That’s not the kind Karen grew up to be — though she was a sweetheart.

Always creative, Karen taught art briefly until, realizing it wasn’t a fit, she pivoted and went to library school. She became a think-outside-the-box project manager, supporting writers and editors at a national legal-publishing organization. She was nimble and needed to be. Her more than 30-year career coincided with tremendous innovation and transformation in the field of procuring, publishing, and providing information. Marketplace demand accelerated for current, comprehensive, accurate content to be accessible immediately, if not sooner.

Karen was a world-class early adapter with an instinct for what was coming down the information-technology highway. That instinct served her well in her day job and in her moonlighting as Carmen Webster Buxton, author of science fiction and fantasy. Like Marian the Librarian, she wore glasses, but Karen’s uncorrected imaginative vision was 20/20 for seeing into the future — so much so that she sometimes wrote predictive fiction rather than speculative. For example, about 20 years ago, she conjured a talking refrigerator issuing grocery lists and instructions to its human owner. Quite a plausible appliance now, in this day of talking mirrors giving beauty tips (surely a fairytale-turned-nightmare, perfect story fodder for Karen).

First, I knew her as a generous friend. My husband, Harry, worked and carpooled with Karen and her husband, Charlie, for years. Not long after our caboose baby was born, Karen brought Harry home with hand-me-downs from her daughter.

Later, Karen became a generous mentor. I began writing fiction while still working full time at my day job. Our writing is different — hers speculative, mine anchored in the here and now — but she encouraged me, read me, and showed up at my readings. Most of all, she inspired me by keeping all the plates of work and family life spinning, making it look deceptively easy and fun. Karen was very good at fun (like attending sci-fi conventions in costume with Charlie).

Always a pioneer, Karen was already publishing online while most writers were still glued to hard-copy print journals. The first person I knew to use an e-reader, she quickly became the Kindle Queen. When my aunt could no longer read large-print traditional books, Karen introduced us to the giant font available on e-readers.

And naturally, Karen was an early, avid, and adept user of social media. She time-traveled to the past at least once a week on Facebook, creating brief memoirs on Throwback Thursdays illustrated with vintage snapshots. Her posts about happenings in her family sometimes approached serialized flash fiction, such as the saga-in-miniature when their beagle, Cosmo, ran away. At last, he came home. A happy ending.

Last month, Karen’s own story came to an end too soon. She’d known for a time that her cancer was unbeatable. Clearsighted and realistic, looking ahead into her own foreshortened future, she endeavored to prepare her family for her absence. No longer having the “mental energy” to write, she began re-reading some of her own novels, a writer reminiscing with herself. Funny and honest, loving and grateful, she continued to chronicle and celebrate her family on social media.

Karen’s last post, a glorious photograph of the Northern Lights, appeared March 16th. She was signing off with an unspoken but obvious farewell. Even so, I checked every morning, hoping she would somehow manage a postscript. She died March 31st.

A week and a day later, I looked through flimsy paper eclipse glasses as the black shadow of the moon slipped across the yolk-gold sun. For a brief spell, afternoon became twilight. The day died, confusing the birds, filling me with awe.

Now, 10 days since my friend died, two days since the eclipse, I’m still a bit untethered by these encounters with mystery. I wonder. I speculate.

Perhaps, in some galaxy far, far, away in time and space, a transformational, inspirational alien has just arrived. An undercover librarian.

Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s collection of love stories is Known By Heart. Her story collection Contents Under Pressure was nominated for the National Book Award, and her debut novel, The Bowl with Gold Seams, won the Indy Excellence Award for Historical Fiction. Her novel Frieda’s Song was a finalist for the Next Generation Indie Book Award, Historical Fiction. Her column, “Girl Writing,” appears in the Independent bi-monthly. For many years, Campbell practiced psychotherapy. She lives in Washington, DC, and is at work on another novel.

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