Interview: Former General Hospital Writer Karen Harris. (Part One)
“Like any fan, I was like hating it.”
Karen Harris announced late last year that she was leaving her position as scriptwriter for General Hospital, the show she had been writing for on and off since the early ’90s. In between stints on the ABC soap, she also wrote for “Port Charles,” All My Children and “General Hospital: Night Shift.” While she is officially done writing for “General Hospital,” the last episode she worked on won’t air until February 8. I recently met Karen for coffee in Los Angeles, where she shared her thoughts on all things “General Hospital,” as both a writer and a fan.
Soaps.com: To begin with, why did you leave “General Hospital?”
Karen Harris: Well, because of the changes – the budget changes, the production changes – they went from 260 episodes to 240 episodes. They needed to make changes. They didn’t have as many scripts to give out and they needed to cut a writer. It’s fine with me, but it was their decision. But it was time for me to go. It was really time for me to go. I’m really enjoying my time away without the deadlines, without the craziness. It had gotten very, um, Daytime is a really, really difficult work area. It’s so time sensitive and time consuming and we had been working for the last, over a year, on a five day turnaround, which means from the day we get our outlines we have five days to turn the script in and that’s 90 pages and it’s a lot of work. It doesn’t give you time to think. It doesn’t give you time to really concentrate and work through problems. Writers, you know, we’re not widget makers. Things aren’t automatic. Sometimes something’s not working and we need a few hours to sit back and let it germinate and see what you come up with. We didn’t have that time anymore and I feel like it affects the quality of the shows when you don’t have that kind of time. It’s not the writers’ faults and it’s not Bob Guza’s [head writer] fault. It’s the necessities of production, I guess. It started as a necessity of production and they liked having that schedule of knowing it’s coming in every five days and that way they could pre-tape stuff and post-tape stuff and rearrange their schedules. Basically, it just serves production, in my opinion, with not a lot of thought about the consequences on the scripts themselves. So, you know, we all do the best we can and we did pretty good work regardless, but it’s not conducive to creativity.
Soaps.com: What is your process for writing?
Karen Harris: On soaps you have to just kind of do stream of consciousness basically. The schedule I was just on on “General Hospital,” it was stream of consciousness. You look at what the scene is supposed to be, you do kind of a rough, down and dirty draft and hopefully you’ll have time to go back and clean it up and think about it and work some of the stuff through. Occasionally you’ll have moments, aha moments, where you go ‘That really works’ and sometimes you have to kind of close your eyes and fly through it. I mean we were told at one point if it’s a choice between getting it in on time and getting it in good, get it in on time. So, I think that’s indicative of what’s going on and some people do that better than others. Some people really do. It’s so work intensive. I think what happens is you get a burn out factor. I’ve been able to do that. I spent a lot of time doing that. Years ago, a decade ago, I was asked to write movies of the week because people knew I could write fast because I worked in Daytime. I did a couple of movies for the FOX network, but mostly that’s not sustainable. That kind of schedule is not sustainable. You burn through people. I had back surgery three years ago, so sitting for hours and hours and hours straight at the computer is always difficult, but what I can do is walk around and think in between that in other circumstances when it’s not due so quickly. People were getting tendentious and it’s just not healthy. It’s not a healthy way to work. And we don’t make widgets, we write scripts and you begin to feel like…I’d been doing it fourteen of the last seventeen years. I’ve been working at ABC Daytime. It’s been great and they’ve been very good to me and it was really time to move on. I love that show. I’ve always loved “General Hospital.” It’s where the characters I understand best are. It’s where the characters I helped create and the couples I helped create. So, I’m a little sad to be leaving now that Sonny [Maurice Benard] and Brenda [Vanessa Marcil] are getting together because I got to write the first Sonny and Brenda love story. I got to write the long story for the first Sonny and Brenda love story. They’re good people. I speak to Maurice outside of work.
Soaps.com: So you were excited to write for them again.
Karen Harris: I was excited. Yeah. I was excited to write for them again. The other thing that happens is we were writing so far ahead of schedule that when things changed we didn’t have time, the scripts were already turned in. We’d gotten to where we were six, eight weeks ahead of shooting. I turned in my last script December 4 and it’s airing in February. So that’s how far ahead they were and when things changed, the scripts were already in. We were already into three, four, five scripts later.
[We spoke off the record for a bit.]
Soaps.com: Aside from Sonny and Brenda who were some of your favorite characters and storylines?
Karen Harris: My first go around at “GH” was in 1993. I came from Primetime to Daytime and I got to be part of the BJ’s (Brighton Hertford) heart transplant storyline, which was amazing. So I thought this was what it was always going to be. There was BJ’s heart transplant, there was Sonny and Brenda, Robin [Kimberly McCullough] and Stone [Michael Sutton] and some of the AIDS summer, which was heartbreaking. My husband and I would sit and cry watching the shows, really.
Soaps.com: People tend to go back to those stories as being such a good time for “General Hospital.”
Karen Harris: It was really golden. It was really golden. And then Bob Guza’s first time on the show I was his co-head writer and we did Carly’s [then played by Sarah Brown] arrival, we did the return of the Cassadines with Nikolas [Tyler Christopher] and Stefan [Stephen Nichols], “Clink…Boom.” We had some really good storylines going on. We were clicking. That was really nice stuff. When Bob got “Sunset Beach” on the air he left and Richard Culliton came in and I was co-head writer. Richard wasn’t interested in co-head writer and I was offered a job as an associate head writer. I came from Primetime where you don’t work your way up and then work your way down again. I thought well, gosh, either you want me or you don’t. I thankfully moved on and did some other stuff, but I came back to ABC when they asked me to head write “Port Charles” after Lynn Latham left. Scott Hamner had worked with Lynn and he was there in the interim and then I came in. I brought in a co-head writer with me, someone from Primetime, but that didn’t work out so that’s when Barbara Bloom came down from the tower. Julie Caruthers and I encouraged her to give up the tower and come join us in the trenches. And then I left there when they started doing the 13-week cycles.
Soaps.com: So, before the vampires?
Karen Harris: Before the vampires. I did the nurses' strike and all of that. That was my period. Jamal [Kiko Ellsworth] and Alison [Erin Hershey] were characters that I brought in. I had nothing against vampires and witches and I would have loved to have done that, but I just couldn't seem to wrap my mind around having them in Port Charles because I was so connected to the "General Hospital" side. It was hard for me to accept that Kevin [Jon Lindstrom], who I had been writing since he was Ryan [laughs], that Kevin and Lucy [Lynn Herring] were suddenly fighting off vampires and time travelers and all that. It was like, wait a minute. It meant no crossovers, which I wanted to do crossovers more. So, I left and [Barbara Esensten and Jim Brown] were brought in. I had gone to work on a syndicated series. I went to work on "Highlander." I worked on "Highlander" and I worked on the spin-off "Highlander: The Raven" and I worked on a show called "Jack London's Tale of the South Seas." My other career was in basically syndicated action shows, once I left the network. They asked if I would come back and write scripts in between…I had a wonderful arrangement. ABC was very kind to me. I had a great arrangement where if I wasn't, and Julie made it work, if I wasn't writing on a series I could come back and write scripts for the show.
Soaps.com: How did the idea to bring in the supernatural element come into play?
Karen Harris: I think it came from [the powers that be]. I left the show and we were regularly getting 2.1 to 2.3 in the ratings. They said if we don't bring them up we're going to have to cancel the show, so they decided to try the 13-week cycles and they went to a 1.6 in about eight months, maybe a year. It didn't quite have the effect they were hoping for.
Soaps.com: Having been at the beginning for some of these characters, what do you think of the evolution of, for instance, Sonny and Brenda?
Karen Harris: Sonny and Brenda are fun because they are the same actors and that's awesome.
Soaps.com: It is great to be able to see the flashbacks.
Karen Harris: Yes, oh my God. It was wonderful and also a lot of those flashbacks were episodes I'd written. I was like, 'Oh my God. I remember writing this.' And that's when you have the time and you can take pride in your work. That's a really cool thing. I was remembering episodes I'd written thirteen years ago, but ask me what I wrote last week and I’m like [chuckles], 'I don't know. I think Dante [Dominic Zamprogna] was in it.' But seeing some of the old, seeing the Sonny and Brenda, I love them, but they changed over time, as we all have. I really like Dante. I really like Johnny [Brandon Barash]. I think the new guys are fabulous. I love Robin and Patrick. As everybody knows I’m a big Scrubbies person. I really understood their story. I really could grasp what it is about their whole relationship.
Soaps.com: What did you think about the introduction of Lisa [Brianna Brown] into their relationship then?
Karen Harris: Like any fan, I was like hating it. Except I thought she was really good and I think she pulls it off. I think she's really good at what she does. She makes her denial believable, so that's effective. While I feel the pain of the Scrubs fans, I also know you have to have conflict and you have to have all kinds of conflict. I would have had my own way of telling the cheating part. I had my own ideas about that, but that's not what I'm paid for. I was paid to execute Bob's ideas and do the best I could.
Soaps.com: So you had no say in what direction the storylines went?
Karen Harris: No…you try. Sometimes you'll send in suggestions and stuff, but it doesn't happen. The job of head writing, you are on a train. You basically jumped on the train and if you try to stop it you're all going to crash and die. So you just have to let the train keep going and there's only so much you can do and sometimes if you have your mind set on a destination, to start hearing ideas coming in is very difficult. It's very hard to kind of change course unless the people who are paying your check say, 'You have to change course.' But if they're not saying it, chances are, you just want to keep your eye on the prize. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. But scriptwriters, it's our job to execute the work that's given to us.
Soaps.com: Is it difficult to get your voice out there when there are so many other writers contributing to the same characters and storylines?
Karen Harris: Well, no, because mine are mine and I know who I embrace and you look for your opportunities in every script and recognize you are a team. This isn't about me or my ego or anybody else's. We'll email each other and say, 'What a great episode. Congratulations.' And we would keep in touch with each other even when we were trying to move so quickly. Somebody would send an email saying, 'Does anybody remember what happened when so and so met so and so. Does anybody remember if Dante's met Elizabeth [Rebecca Herbst] yet?' So we talk to each other and kind of help each other out. It's very conducive to teamwork. Certainly on the scriptwriter level. So that's important and that makes it, you know, we're all going to see each other in two weeks at the Writers Guild Awards because we're nominated and ironically I’m chair of the Writers Guild Awards. I'm a chair of the awards show. It'll be fun to see everybody.
Check out Part Two of Soaps.com's interview with Karen Harris, where she talks about violence in Port Charles, the Spencer family, Rebecca Herbst and more.
- Lori Wilson