Karen Dionne is the queen of keeping readers on the edge of their seats. She is also another long time friend of Rally. She will be with us again this year, sharing wisdom from her very successful and prolific writing career. She agreed to sit down and answer some questions about her books and her work. www.karen-dionne.com (Photo credit: John Andresen/Juritzen Publishing)
Your books take us to places we don’t often (never) get to go. When it’s time to jump into a new book, where does that first gem of inspiration come from?
For me, each book is different. My early novels began with an idea for the plot–usually from something I read in the news–and then from there, I populated the novels with interesting characters faced with challenging situations. But for my newest novel, THE MARSH KING’S DAUGHTER, I actually woke up in the middle of the night with the first sentences of the novel fully formed in my head: “If I told you my mother’s name, you’d recognize it right away. My mother was famous, though she never wanted to be. Hers wasn’t the kind of fame anyone would wish for–Jaycee Dugard, Amanda Berry, Elizabeth Smart–that kind of thing, though my mother was none of them.” I wasn’t dreaming about the character, she was just there, talking to me. In the morning, I wrote up a few paragraphs in her voice which was essentially her telling me who she was, and those paragraphs are now the first page of the novel. So in this case, the story truly was inspired!
How common is it for you to start a book that you don’t finish? Do you have some books from the early days sitting in a desk drawer?
I have two drawer novels. The first novel I wrote got me my agent, but after three rewrites under his tutelage, it ultimately didn’t find a publisher. The other drawer novel came about because I was foolishly writing to a trend. By the time I finished the novel, publishers were swamped with similar stories and the trend had evaporated, so my agent never submitted the book. Counting these two drawer novels along with my published four makes THE MARSH KING’S DAUGHTER the sixth novel I’ve written. And yes, I always finish what I start!
How much research goes into a Karen Dionne book?
For my early science-based thrillers, I did a lot of research online — not only to get the science right, but because they were set in places where I had never been. Again, THE MARSH KING’S DAUGHTER was entirely different. You could say I researched this novel 45 years ago, since the book features a family living off the grid in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula not far from where my husband and I homesteaded as a young married couple. During the early 1970s, we lived in a tent with our six-week-old daughter while we built a tiny cabin, carried water from a stream, and sampled wild foods, and I drew heavily on these experiences when I wrote the book. As I was writing THE MARSH KING’S DAUGHTER, there were many, many times when I realized I never would have found the particular detail if I hadn’t lived it. Interestingly, The New York Times review singled out “the authenticity of the setting” as one of the novel’s strong points, adding “When Dionne describes the swamp maples that make a cabin invisible from the air, or the way one digs chicory taproots, then washes, dries and grinds them to make a coffee substitute, it seems effortless, plain that her fluency has a deeper source than Wikipedia.” Little did he know!
The Marsh King’s Daughter had me on the edge of my seat. What have you learned about layering in suspense over the last few books?
Thanks for your kind words! One of the key things I’ve learned over the past few books is that suspense goes so much deeper than *what* happens. There’s also an emotional component to creating suspense, and really, the characters’ reactions to what happens, along with their fears, wants, and desires are what really ramp up suspense. I sometimes think writers are a bit Machiavellian in this regard. First, we figure out what our characters want, and then we make sure they don’t get it!
Who do you read for inspiration? For fun?
I read Booker, Pulitzer, and National Book Award-winning novels such as Colson Whitehead’s THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD or Jesmyn Ward’s SALVAGE THE BONES and SING UNBURIED SING for inspiration. While my current work is commercial, I think all writers can learn from reading such excellent works. For fun, I love psychological suspense, though recently I read and loved Alma Katsu’s THE HUNGER, a historical re-imagining of the Donner Party tragedy with a supernatural twist.
What is the biggest change you’ve seen in publishing since you’ve started?
I’ve been involved with publishing for 19 years, both with my own writing, and as co-founder of Backspace and a conference organizer, so I’ve seen a lot of changes, the opportunities afforded writers by self-publishing being one of the biggest. I also think the ever-changing social media landscape presents writers with both advantages and challenges. Our connectedness makes it possible for an author to create a core group of readers and fans, but at the same time, keeping up with the demands of social media can be a real drain on the creative process. I still think one of the best ways for writers to connect is face-to-face at events such as A Rally of Writers.
People think you can’t find success in writing unless you are living and working in New York or LA. But you have found terrific success right where you are. What advice would you give folks who live off the beaten path?
My best advice for folks who live off the beaten path is to make sure they have a good Internet connection. Seriously! Even literary agents have found that it’s possible to do their job remotely as long as they visit New York a few times a year. Thanks to electronic communication and submissions, where writers do their work really doesn’t matter. And sometimes, as turned out to be the case with my “wilderness” psychological suspense, a writer who lives far from New York or L.A. is able to bring a fresh perspective to their work that gets it noticed!