Writing as the best therapy: novelist and educator Kari Sayers

Kari Sayers. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

Rescued by her own writing

How Kari Sayers kept the real world at bay

by Bondo Wyszpolski
Kari Sayers has written three novels. The third one has been adapted for the screen and actors are being auditioned. In 2018, the Rancho Palos Verdes resident retired from teaching at Marymount University after 32 years and that’s when she embarked on her literary career. Prior to that, she had written for several local publications, including the Daily Breeze, Easy Reader, and the magazine you’re now reading. Of course, going back even further, Sayers was writing for international publications while living in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. In addition, the Norwegian native is the mother of three children, each one born in a different country: Norway, Germany, and Lebanon. But let’s shuffle the file cards a little, shall we, and begin with her most recent career as a writer of mystery novels—books infused with intrigue, romance, heartbreak, and second chances.

Writing as therapy

Prior to his death in 2019, Sayers’ husband, Harry, had been gravely ill for five years. He had Parkinson’s disease, and then dementia. Or, as his wife phrases it, “Harry being sicker and sicker, and then worse and worse.” Even so, he was able to remain at home until the very end largely because the Sayers’ son, Thomas, who’d retired from his own teaching job, was able to move back into the family home and serve as a part-time caretaker for his father. It was an ordeal for everyone, nonetheless.

In addition to gradually losing Harry, Kari Sayers began losing her eyesight.

Sayers’ first novel, “Roses Where Thorns Grow,” “just appeared in my head one morning when I woke up. The whole story.

“I wrote it and sent it out, and that was what saved me in many ways when Harry was sick. Virginia Woolf said, ‘I don’t like the world I’m living in, so I’m making up my own.’ And that’s what I did: I escaped into this other world.

“It was so enjoyable,” she continues, “to go into this world of love and sex and”—Sayers adds with a laugh—“everything that I lacked. So the first [novel] saved me from depression. That was very good therapy, writing to deal with depression. Not only his dying, but my vision, which is a little better now.”

The second novel didn’t spring into being like the first one, but “Under the Linden Tree” also focuses on the mystery writer (and former college teacher) Megan Viets. “She’s certainly not me,” Sayers is quick to point out; “she’s tall and she’s attractive and she’s young. But of course it has situations that I have been witness to. I don’t know if you can avoid that. Can you avoid that?”

Maybe not completely, but anyone who reads the novels and who knows Kari Sayers is going to be able to draw a lot of parallels. This includes character background and physical locations, specifically Lake Arrowhead where both Sayers and Viets have cabins overlooking the lake. I’m not sure we can chalk that up to simple coincidence.

In the third novel, tentatively titled “What Happened to Lizzie Khazin?” we again find Megan Viets sleuthing on her own as well as with her sheriff husband, Ed, and the FBI. This book had its impetus in the death of a close friend whose husband insisted on prescribing pills for her. Then she died. “Which made me very suspicious,” Sayers concludes.

The three novels are part of a series, and if that’s so then you must have ideas for other books?

“Could be,” Sayers replies, rather enigmatically. “It’s possible.”

In between, she’s penned a memoir, unpublished at the moment. “And there’s a story about you, how I got my first job at the Easy Reader.” Ah, yes, the wild years. Where have they gone?

Cairo to Kansas, Saudi Arabia to L.A.

Distantly related to the painter Edvard Munch, Kari Haugsten grew up on a dairy farm in Norway. After high school she traveled to London, and then to Hamburg, to bone up on other European languages. “Then I went on a study trip to Egypt, where I met my husband. That’s a story in itself. After one week he proposed because he was working in Saudi Arabia, and he said, ‘Would you like to come with me?’—because we’d had many adventures; we went to the pyramids, we went to the Valley of the Kings and the tombs and all of that; and he could see that I was adventurous, as he was. I hadn’t even heard of Jeddah. This was in the 1960s. And so, you know, we were crazy.

Kari Sayers. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

“So, when he proposed,” Sayers continues, “I said yeah, that would be fun.” But she wasn’t then envisioning the many decades they’d end up sharing. “We met on the 1st of October and married on the 29th of October, the same year.” From Norway, where the wedding took place, they took the train to Paris, and from Paris flew to New York first class on a Boeing 707. “That was one of the very first jets that flew across the Atlantic.”

Harry Sayers grew up on a farm in Kansas. What would his parents think of this young woman their son was bringing back?

“It could have been a disaster,” Sayers recalls. “They could have rejected me because Harry [was bringing home] a young girl, barely over 20, that he had picked up in Cairo four weeks earlier. But they welcomed me with open arms.”

The newlyweds then returned to Jeddah,” and I started writing for the Norwegian papers because [Saudi Arabia] was so completely foreign: The people lived in mud houses then; it was 1966 to 1967. Harry was on the royal flight crew (as a flight engineer) and he traveled with King Faisal, so I was left alone quite a bit. I had a houseboy who took care of me, because women couldn’t drive. Then the Norwegian television crew came and hired me as a consultant because they wanted to get rid of the minder,” which inhibited what they were allowed to film. “But,” Sayers notes with a chuckle, “I took them other places that they weren’t supposed to see.”

A woman she had met in the States, the wife of an editor at the Kansas City Star, encouraged Sayers in her journalism. In English? she asked. Yes, the woman replied: “Anyone with a college degree can write in English. The problem is, they don’t have anything to write about—and obviously you have something to write about.”

So Sayers began freelancing for the English language newspaper (whose editor was in Riyadh), along with several other publications. The editor in Riyadh wasn’t keen on her writing for papers and magazines other than his, but Sayers told him, well, then you’ll have to hire me full time. Which he did. “And that was a lucrative job, oh yes,” she says, laughing. “That was the most money I’ve made in my lifetime.”

In 1975, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia was assassinated. “So that was the end of Harry’s gig.”

The family of five came to L.A. and bought a house in Rancho Palos Verdes right below the high school. However, “Harry went back to Saudi Arabia in 1980. We joined him later and finally returned home to Palos Verdes in 1986.”

Sayers began writing for the local papers, beginning with Peninsula News, and eventually Easy Reader and Peninsula People until Daily Breeze arts writer Jim Farber stole her away from me (as Sayers colorfully puts it), which turned out for the better because she then had a very good editor in Leo Smith. Sayers wrote theater and concert reviews for the Breeze for several years.

The writer as educator

As mentioned, Kari Sayers spent over 30 years as a teacher at Marymount, which sits atop the Peninsula, but she began her teaching career at a lower level, figuratively and literally.

She started in teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) at Cal State Long Beach, and then during the evenings—two nights at each school—she began working at Long Beach City College and at one of the Torrance adult schools. None of these places were far away, but they weren’t close by, either. Finally, Harry said, Why don’t you try Marymount?

Sayers began teaching there part-time in 1986, and a couple of years later became a full time instructor. In those days, Marymount was a college, but in recent years acquired university status. Sayers doesn’t think that was necessarily a good thing, however prestigious it may sound. “They were biting off more than they could chew,” she feels.

Be that as it may, Sayers explains that previously there were more opportunities for the teaching staff, which for her included a summer abroad at Regent’s College in London. She’d also been recommended and then invited to spend a summer in Oxford for a seminar called Oxford Roundtable. Best of all, it seems, was the diversity of the student body, coming from around the world to study at Marymount. Sayers mentions Mongolia, Africa, China. “And even Scandinavia: It was almost like teaching my own cousins.”

And there were awards and recognitions as well. “In 2009, Nancy Sanders, the Chair of the English Department at Marymount, nominated me—and the rest of the faculty voted me in—as Marymount’s Palos Verdes Rotary Educator of the Year.”

Now, with her teaching days behind her, and perhaps with more time on her hands than she’d like, Sayers’ focus is on her novels, the ones that have been published available in print (and Kindle) at amazon.com and all major online booksellers. “All proceeds are going to the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Los Angeles Harbor, an organization I’ve had the privilege to work with when we did service learning projects at Marymount.”

“Roses Where Thorns Grow” and “Under the Linden Tree” are published by Satin Romance, an imprint of Melange Books out of Minnesota. Presumably they will also acquire “What Happened to Lizzie Khazin?” The film version of the latter is already underway, to be produced and directed by Bruce Schwartz, a former colleague of Sayers who taught film and writing.

“Bruce has written the script and is now in the process of finding actors for the parts,” Sayers says. “Although most of the actors are professionals, Greg Levonian, a Palos Verdes Estates resident and the current theater director at Marymount, has been cast as a San Bernardino sheriff’s deputy who helps solve the Lizzie Khazin case.”

As for how the case is solved, we’ll just have to wait and see.

The novels are easy to read, brisk and straightforward. Megan Viets, Sayers’ central character, sits on the deck of her mountain cabin overlooking Lake Arrowhead and pens her mysteries. And Sayers is right there with her in spirit, both of them—the author and her creation—outlining their books and writing them amidst peaceful, tranquil surroundings.

On the opposite coast there is another Kari Sayers, also a published author, so bear this in mind. The link to (our) Kari Sayers is www.amazon.com/Kari-H.-Sayers. PEN/ER

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Written by: Bondo Wyszpolski

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