Sunday, January 23, 2022

Peter Mann

Peter Mann grew up in Kansas City. He teaches history and literature at Stanford and is a past recipient of the Whiting Fellowship. He is also a graphic artist & cartoonist and draws the online comic The Quixote Syndrome. The Torqued Man is his first novel.

My Q&A with the author:
How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

The Torqued Man might seem an enigmatic title at first blush, but readers soon discover it speaks to the predicament of both main characters in terms of their conflicted identities and convoluted allegiances.

German spy handler Adrian de Groot is a closeted gay man living in Hitler’s Germany as well as a literary translator and anti-Nazi who finds himself working for the Reich. For these reasons, his Irish charge Frank Pike refers to him as The Torqued Man: “pulled one way by inclination, and another by propriety... with merchant’s blood but literature in his heart, he had become a reluctant middleman for book-burners.”

Yet Irish spy Frank Pike is similarly torqued. An Irish socialist recruited to collaborate with the Nazis, he must untangle himself through a secret redemptive mission aimed at bringing down Hitler’s empire. To do this, he adopts the alter ego of the Celtic hero Finn McCool, who, when the battle frenzy is upon him, undergoes “a torqueing.”

What's in a name?

Names are important in this novel. Adrian de Groot is a somewhat odd name for a German, since “de Groot” (meaning big) is a common Dutch or Frisian name. But it signals Adrian’s liminal identity. As a German from the northern border town of Flensburg, his roots are more Dutch, Danish, Frisian, and the cosmopolitanism of Hanseatic ports. Yet, despite this marginal geographical or cultural status, he is still firmly within the Reich. Adrian’s first name is my nod to Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus: The Life of the Composer Adrian Leverkühn, Told by a Friend, whose narratorial perspective was an important model for me.

Frank Pike, the anglicized name of Proinnsias Pike, is both a nod to the real-life historical figure Frank Ryan who inspired my character, as well as an evocation of Pike’s sharp, thrusting, libidinous personality.

Because both characters are engaged in espionage, they also have several aliases. Pike’s official cover in Germany is Frank Finn, but he soon takes on the mythical alter ego of Finn McCool. And Adrian is first known to Pike in Spain as Johann Grotius, who in Berlin adopts the new alias of Emil Fluss, according to Pike, “sounds like something you pour down a clogged drain.”

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Openings have an energy of pure possibility that I like, but I definitely find endings tough. And by endings I mean third acts, not just the final pages or paragraph. Those final words I find easier and enjoyable, like putting a good button on a joke or scene where you’ve already done the important legwork of premise and payoff. But the challenge, at least for me, is earning my endings by building the right amount of dramatic tension that can then be satisfyingly resolved. I like to think I got it right in this book, but it took some wandering in the dark before I found my way.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

Parts of me are definitely there: Pike’s cheery cynicism, his penchant for the profane as well as pints of porter; Adrian’s contempt for mass modernity, his bookishness, his struggle between feelings of complicity and desire for justice, and, of course, both men’s love of Don Quixote.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Studying and wandering around Europe, particularly trips to Germany, Spain, and Ireland and long stints in Berlin, Madrid, Salamanca, Prague, and Copenhagen. I wonder if the annals of history count as “literary” in this question—if not, then certainly the abyss of the past is an endless source of inspiration.

Also, German Expressionist painting and woodcuts, Marx Brothers and Tarantino movies, Monty Python, and the historically- and literary-minded concept albums of musicians like John Cale, The Kinks, The Decemberists, Terry Allen, and Neutral Milk Hotel. Though the music I listened to most while writing the book included Paco de Lucía, Bach fugues, Ariel Ramirez’s “Misa Criolla,” and the incredible musical time travel offerings of radioooo.com.
Visit Peter Mann's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, January 21, 2022

Barbara Nickless

Barbara Nickless is the Wall Street Journal and Amazon Charts bestselling author of the Sydney Rose Parnell series, which includes Blood on the Tracks, a Suspense Magazine Best of 2016 selection and winner of the Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence; Dead Stop; Ambush; and Gone to Darkness. Blood on the Tracks and Dead Stop won the Colorado Book Award, and Dead Stop was nominated for the Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence.

Nickless's latest book is At First Light, the first novel in a new series starring Professor Evan Wilding.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

The short answer is … not much.

While pondering options for At First Light, I looked first at my protagonist, Dr. Evan Wilding, a forensic semiotician with a career as a police consultant interpreting the signs and symbols left behind by murderers. And since the first book in the series deals with a killer who leaves riddles for the investigators in his runic poems, I considered The Riddle Master or possibly The Runologist. Something to suggest what type of mystery—and what kind of hero—lay between the covers.

But because I’m writing a series, I need titles that can riff on each other, cluing readers in that each book is linked to the others. I also look for titles that offer a sense of menace.

As a backup for my publisher, I chose a theme related to time of day, with the intention of having the central murder in each book occur at the time of day reflected in the title. And that option is what my publisher decided to run with. Thus, in At First Light, the victim dies at the break of dawn, with other victims also chosen to die at first light. In the second book of the series (coming out later this year), the victims die at night, and so we have Dark of Night. It’s clear that my titles don’t do much heavy lifting in terms of telling the reader what to expect. Instead, my publisher relies on other techniques to let potential readers know these books are mystery-thrillers. And a sidebar: For my own fun, I always include the title somewhere in the body of the book.

What's in a name?

I wish I could explain how Dr. Evan Wilding’s name crawled out of the primordial soup of my subconscious brain and presented itself to me. But, alas, that answer lies twenty years in the past (if, in fact, it lies anywhere at all). I created the character of Evan at a writer’s boot camp as part of a writing exercise. The character appeared as a man in full in the middle of the night—his dwarfism, his interest in language, his intelligence, his police work. And his name.

The name given by the media to the serial killer in At First Light also popped up without much thought. What else do you call a murderer who, after torturing and slaying his victims, leaves them with poems styled after the Old English poets and written in futhorc—the Viking runes used in England during the Viking Age?

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

My teenage self would be astonished that I’d decided to write mystery/thriller novels. After a childhood love of Encyclopedia Brown followed by a youthful fascination with Sherlock Holmes, I went all in for medieval literature during my college days. And that is the part that would not astonish my teenage self—that At First Light is filled with references to Beowulf and the difficult meter of Norse poetry.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I am much more comfortable with beginnings, for that is when the entire fictional world unrolls at my feet, casting open doors and windows and daring me to take any number of intriguing paths. Maybe Evan and Addie will fall in love. Maybe the killer is driven by something other than revenge. But, as the story goes along, doors and windows must—out of narrative necessity—close. The ending becomes both a Holy Grail and a Dreaded Thing. It’s The Thing That Must Be Rewritten.

My former series starred a former Marine who knew her way around guns and hand-to-hand combat. Every book in that series ended with a literal or metaphorical bang. But with Evan, who tops out at four foot five and who spends much of his day behind a desk, I need endings that are very different. Endings that require brains over brawn. I’m learning a new skill set when it comes to writing The End.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

The Middle Ages and Viking Age history. The art of falconry (I worked for years rehabilitating injured birds of prey). Scholars who’ve deciphered the seemingly undecipherable—or spent years trying (think Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Rongorono writing of Rapa Nui, Mayan glyphs). There is also my time as a sword-fighting member of the Society for Creative Anachronism. And the fact that I’ve always wanted to learn how to throw an axe.
Visit Barbara Nickless's website.

The Page 69 Test: At First Light.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Jacquelyn Mitchard

Jacquelyn Mitchard is the New York Times bestselling author of 22 novels for adults and teenagers, and the recipient of Great Britain’s Talkabout prize, The Bram Stoker and Shirley Jackson awards, and named to the short list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Her first novel, The Deep End of the Ocean, was the inaugural selection of the Oprah Winfrey Book Club, with more than 3 million copies in print in 34 languages. It was later adapted into a major feature film starring Michelle Pfeiffer.

Mitchard's new novel is The Good Son.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

It should do a great deal of work but I don’t think that the title does that work, in this case, with The Good Son. That title is controversial, both for me and others, because it’s been “inhabited,” as they say, so many times, most famously for a movie with Macaulay Culkin as a child. It’s meant to be ironic or at least ambivalent for my book, but it was not the title I would have chosen as I tend to want more lyrical titles. Indeed, if the title of my first and best-known novel, The Deep End of the Ocean, had been as literal as this one is, it would have been something like Yikes, My Son was Kidnapped and Now Here He is! Or You Can’t Go Home Again, They Moved. In any case, I didn’t think the world needed another book called The Good Son (or The Good Daughter).

What's in a name?

I’m very, very picky about character names, and while I’m not like Dickens with Mrs. Gradgrind or Martin Chuzzlewit, I do want the name to comprise some essence of the character. In this story, the main character, Thea, even discusses with her best friend what her name means (it means “gift of God” in Greek). The name of the son is Stefan, which means “victorious,” or, in Greek, “garland,” and in the second meaning, referred to his love for plants and botany and also his eventual triumph. The name also has to “sound” like the character: For example, Stefan’s father is a football coach, and though his real name is John Paul, he’s called “Jep,” which I think of as a sporty name. One of the most important elements for me in naming characters is that the names sound very different from each other. They shouldn’t have the same number of syllables for start with the same letters, for example. I wouldn’t call two friends “Kathy” and “Kailey” or “Ramona” and “Rebecca.” And even further, I don’t like to have any names from previous books show up in a current book, so, if I keep this up, eventually people are going to be named “Sabina” and “Ignatz."

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

My teenage self would not be surprised at all by this story because she was as drawn to mayhem as I am, maybe more so.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I put a great deal of work into beginnings and endings, much more than “shows” in the book. Of course, the work that a writer puts in to a story shouldn’t be obvious or evident, which is why I can have trouble with elaborate, tricksy sentences such as the kind that Jonathan Franzen sometimes writes. In my mind, the ideal story sets forth almost everything the reader needs to know in the first pages and the rest of the book is letting the reader see why all those things are important so that there comes this huge shock of recognition at the end (“Oh! That’s why she always carried an umbrella …”) The beginning is the opening door, convincing the reader to take your hand and come with you on this adventure because reading a book is a substantial investment of time and patience. It’s not as cheesy as just being a “grabber,” but it has to be that as well. Whereas an ending is not just the end of the story, which is painful for the reader, but the beginning of the world after the book. The reader is going to think about that ending long after he or she is finished reading the story. I’m pretty appalled by the sort of post-modern technique of just having a book stop, without drawing together all the threads from the previous chapters.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I am every one of them and every one of them is I — at least some aspect of my character. At least emotionally, I have to be able to inhabit that character through empathy, experience, world view, speech. And yet each of them is different from each other. A friend, writing to me the other day about something I told her I believed, said, are you speaking for all your personalities?

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Storytelling, music, events in the news … and definitely my own relationships with other people. For example, one of the main characters in one of my best-known books, although it’s a woman, has my brother’s personality and way of speaking. I listen to the way other people speak and commit those patterns to memory, like song lyrics.
Visit Jacquelyn Mitchard's website.

My Book, the Movie: Two If by Sea.

The Page 69 Test: Two If by Sea.

The Page 69 Test: The Good Son.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, January 17, 2022

John Keyse-Walker

John Keyse-Walker practiced law for 30 years, representing business and individual clients, educational institutions and government entities. He is an avid salt- and freshwater angler, a tennis player, kayaker and an accomplished cook. He lives in Ohio and Florida with his wife. Sun, Sand, Murder, the first book in the Teddy Creque mystery series, won the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Award.

Keyse-Walker's latest Teddy Creque mystery is Palms, Paradise, Poison.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

In the most ground-level sense, Palms, Paradise, Poison gets the reader fully into the substance of the story. “Palms” establishes that the setting of the book is tropical. “Paradise” shows that the setting is not just warm but idyllic. “Poison” is a guaranty of injury or murder. Put together, the three words say it all: Murder in the idyllic tropics.

I must confess that I am bad with titles; none of my working titles has ever made it into print. My wife, Irene, has come up with the titles to all three of my published books, as well as the fourth slated for release sometime in mid-2022. She is a title whisperer.

What's in a name?

Does the name build the character or the character build the name? The latter, I think. I do not try to use character names that imply some quality of the character’s personality. I like to leave that part to the character development in the writing itself.

However, I do believe it is very important to make the names of characters appropriate to setting or ethnicity. Much of the action in Palms takes place in Cuba, so I researched the common surnames and given names for the island and use names that a local would recognize as a name that their neighbor might have.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I love writing both and find neither difficult. Something always inspires beginnings. In Palms, which opens with a hurricane striking the small island of Anegada, my real-life experience with Superstorm Sandy and Hurricanes Irma and Eta made the writing and the drama real. And endings almost write themselves.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

Good writing is based upon the writer’s experiences in the world. Those experiences are viewed through the lens of the writer’s personality, so I think there is much of me, both bad and good, in my series main character, Constable Teddy Creque.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

The natural world has been a significant inspiration to me. Every life is shaped by the natural environment in which one lives and I try to bring that to my books. My other influence is movies. While writing, and especially while writing dialogue, I visualize my characters as if they were acting in a movie.
Visit John Keyse-Walker's website.

My Book, The Movie: Sun, Sand, Murder.

My Book, The Movie: Beach, Breeze, Bloodshed.

The Page 69 Test: Palms, Paradise, Poison.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Sarah Rayne

Sarah Rayne is the author of many novels of psychological and supernatural suspense, including the Nell West & Michael Flint series. She lives in Staffordshire.

Rayne's The Murder Dance is the most recent novel in the Phineas Fox series.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

I find titles harder to think of than plots. There've been times when I've spent longer on trying to come up with a title than on writing a synopsis for the book itself. I've even made out charts with what I think are key words, and played put and take with them until something possible emerged. But with The Murder Dance the title simply presented itself, and I hope it tells the reader what the story is about - a dance that has, at its heart a murder first committed over four hundred years ago.

What's in a name?

A good deal is in a name, as many of the great writers of fiction have known. Names can indicate a considerable amount about a character. Would Ebenezer Scrooge have come across as the ultimate miser if he had been allotted a gentler, softer name? As it is, the harsh consonants strike a nicely disagreeable dissonance, and even the word Scrooge has passed into the English language as depicting a mean person. In Martin Chuzzlewit, the name of the dissolute midwife, Sairy Gamp for a time was synonymous with a colloquialism of the day for umbrella. Even now, I can remember my grandmother saying it looked like rain today, so she would take her gamp.

And Richard Brinsley Sheridan - no slouch when it came to bestowing colourful names - gave us Mrs Malaprop and the term malapropism for mispronunciations, and also the exuberant Sir Lucius O'Trigger, along with Sir Anthony Absolute, and Lydia Languish. They're names that instantly conjure up vivid mind pictures of the people in question.

I can't rival any of those in naming my characters, but the influence probably comes through here and there.

In The Murder Dance I created a parson called Humbert Marplot, a fruity Victorian actor called Sir Peregrine Pond, and the lively Elizabethan diarist, who unfolds much of the murder at the story's core, and who is only ever named as 'Greenberry'.

As well as this, I was able to make use of two genuine names - a pair who been servants and accompanists for Will Kempe - the Elizabethan clown-actor who is at the heart of the plot. Master Kempe's own account of his life refers to his two trusty servants - Slye and Bee. It was very good to use two such distinctive names and know I was writing about real people.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

In my teens I started at least three novels, which never got much beyond the first chapter, although I did write a play for the Lower Fourth to perform, with parts for everyone in the class.

Later, I toyed with the intriguing prospect of becoming a poet, and starving for my art in a garret - although the few lines of poetry I did manage had more in common with limericks than with lyric verse. But I think if I could have looked across the years and been able to see where I am now, my over-riding emotion would be absolute astonishment that not only did I manage to finish a novel at all, I finished almost thirty of them (to date), and they were all published.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Endings are usually what I've worked out at the start of a book, so there's an aim, a grand denoument to be worked towards. However, I nearly always hit a bogged-down state after about seven chapters - ie around page 70. Generally I decide the plot isn't moving fast enough and there isn't sufficient tension, so I often have to go back to the beginning and re-jig the whole thing. It's remarkable how later chapters can alter what happened earlier, so it's nearly always something that's worth doing.

It can feel as if no progress is being made during that re-writing, but hopefully it tightens the entire story, and snares the reader's attention more strongly.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

They're in a world apart - although it's a world I like entering. I may once have actually done so... I had written a scene describing a particular character - explaining that he was in his early thirties with soft dark hair, slightly too long, and wearing a green corduroy jacket and brown knitted tie.

That done, I went off to the supermarket, and there in the checkout, two customers ahead, was a man in his early thirties with soft dark hair a bit too long, a green corduroy jacket, brown knitted tie… I watched, fascinated, as he put items into a plastic bag – pasta, wine, cheese and fruit. (If he had been buying tinned spaghetti or baked beans, I would probably have had to re-think the seduction scene planned for Chapter Eight.)

I followed him out, (of course), but the carpark was awash with torrential rain and visibility was on a par with a Victorian London pea-souper. And by that time, whoever he was (whatever he was), my dark-haired, green-jacketed man had melted into the mist.

I do know that the sensible explanation is that I had seen him in the supermarket on a previous occasion, subliminally absorbed his appearance and used it. But I have never been able to rid myself of the sneaking suspicion – and the hope – that he had stepped, however briefly, from the pages of my own imagination, and that no one else in that supermarket saw him except me.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

There have been so many it's difficult to pick out individual ones. But one that stands out is seeing a particular film on TV. I was about eleven years old, and I thought, vaguely, that the film, which dated to the 1940s, would be utterly boring. But it was a rainy Saturday afternoon and those were the long-ago days when there was only one TV channel, so I curled up in a chair to watch. The film absolutely enchanted and mesmerised me. It was never televised again, but I never forgot it. It's usually known as The Dream of Olwen but also as While I Live. The plot centres on a young woman coming into a clifftop house, not knowing who or what she is, sitting down at the piano and playing an unpublished piece of music written twenty years earlier, by a girl long since dead. For me that film ticked all the boxes – eerie music, secrets from the past, and, of course, a faint whiff of the supernatural.

Note: The film has, in fact, since been released on DVD. I've watched it several times over the last few years, and it still works the magic for me.
Visit Sarah Rayne's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Murder Dance.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, January 10, 2022

Alafair Burke

Alafair Burke is a New York Times bestselling author whose most recent novels include The Better Sister, The Wife, optioned for a feature film by Amazon, and The Ex, which was nominated for the Edgar Award for best novel. She is also the co-author of the bestselling Under Suspicion series with Mary Higgins Clark. She currently serves as the President of Mystery Writers of America and is the first woman of color to be elected to that position. A former prosecutor, she now teaches criminal law and lives in Manhattan and East Hampton.

Burke's new novel is Find Me.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

I often have a working title without being committed to it. It would be crummy treatment of a human, but I’ve come to accept that you don’t owe a title any loyalty. Sometimes a title really sticks. I have a book called The Better Sister, for example. From early concept to publication, the title never shifted. But I usually mull a title over for months.

The working title of this new book was The Girl She Was for a very long time. In fact, it’s being published in the UK under that title. Readers might have girl-title fatigue, but in this instance, the word actually fits. Hope Miller cannot remember who she was or where she came from prior to her sudden appearance fifteen years earlier in a small town in New Jersey in an overturned SUV. The doctors assumed she’d eventually regain her memory, but she never did and had to make a new life for herself under an assumed name. When she vanishes fifteen years later, the search for Hope also means a search for the truth about who she used to be and what brought her to that town on her own. Find Me, in contrast, is filled with action and uncertainty. It also has a nice double meaning. Hope’s best friend, Lindsay Miller, is searching for Hope, but that also means finding the truth about what led to Hope’s sudden appearance fifteen years ago in a small town, with no memory of who she is or how she got there.

What's in a name?

I change character names so much that even I get confused sometimes about where I eventually landed! When I first started Find Me, it was based on the west coast, and the car accident occurred not in New Jersey, but in Yreka, California. Forced to choose a name for herself other than Jane Doe, the woman from the accident chose the name Rika as a little joke (“Why, Rika?). When I decided to move the story to the northeast, I moved the car accident to a small town called Hopewell. It made sense that the townspeople would start calling her Hope.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

Um….very? Or at least, teenaged me would be surprised to learn that she became a novelist at all. When I was a teenager, my father was a novelist without a publisher whose earlier books had gone out of print. As someone who wanted an actual steady income, I definitely didn’t want to be a writer. I ended up going to law school, and yet here I am, nearly two decades into a writing career. I’m clearly not very good at predicting the future.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

To me, beginnings are harder, because so much is still unknown. But I change a lot, beginning to end. I change it all. I think any writer had to be willing at least to revisit every choice. I spend at least a year getting to know these characters and their arcs. With Find Me, I knew the big part of the ending, which I obviously can’t describe. But I knew Hope’s backstory and how it led her to the east coast. I knew the big twists that connected Hope to some other characters that readers will get to know along the way. But the friendship between Lindsay and Hope caught me off guard. In fact, when I started the book, the woman who went looking for Hope was a different narrator altogether—a victim’s advocate with the police department who took Hope under her wing after the car accident. But when Hope’s friend Lindsay became such a devoted and loyal bestie, she also became the primary narrator.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I believe some small part of me is in every single character I create, even the so-called bad ones. Most importantly, I think to be a good writer, one needs to be exceptionally empathetic. It helps to be able to know how someone is feeling, even if that someone isn’t you. Like me, Lindsay is a lawyer by training and, in her case, by trade. She’s intensely logical and single-minded. That determination comes in handy when it feels like she’s the only person who cares that Hope is missing.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

The social issues I care about have a way of finding their place in my pages. Though my work certainly isn’t known for being squarely about class or race or the inequities of the criminal justice system, the observations are there for readers who want to see them.
Visit Alafair Burke's website.

The Page 69 Test: Dead Connection.

The Page 69 Test: Angel’s Tip.

The Page 69 Test: 212.

The Page 69 Test: All Day and a Night.

The Page 69 Test: The Ex.

The Page 69 Test: The Wife.

The Page 69 Test: The Better Sister.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, January 7, 2022

Tara Goedjen

Tara Goedjen never stays in one place for long. She has worked for a publishing house in Australia, as a tennis coach in Spain, and she wrote No Beauties or Monsters on the island of Guam and in the desert of New Mexico. Now she lives and writes in a rainy corner of the Pacific Northwest. Goedjen is also the author of The Breathless.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

The title, No Beauties or Monsters, alludes to the external threats in the novel, which is set in a remote desert town in California where an unusual number of people have gone missing. But the title also hints at the internal struggles that each character is facing: many of them are put into life-and-death situations that reveal whether they’re capable of doing monstrous things or beautiful ones.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

I grew up reading Stephen King, so I don’t think my teenaged self would be at all surprised by my mystery-thriller with speculative elements. No Beauties or Monsters is definitely a book that I would’ve loved as a teenager, because it’s atmospheric, and eerie, and even otherworldly in places.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

The beginning of No Beauties or Monsters starts off with seventeen-year-old Rylie being forced to move from San Diego to an isolated desert town in California, a place called Twentynine Palms. And Rylie is thinking of all the reasons why she doesn’t want to move; she’s actually been to Twentynine Palms before and she doesn’t have the best memories of the surrounding desert. It’s always seemed strange to her, and threatening. So it’s no surprise that on the drive to her new home, something terrifying happens. This opening scene introduces the hook of the book – but it also introduces who Rylie is and how she behaves in tense situations. I wanted to set up her character and set up the intrigue of the plot, as well as set up the overall atmosphere. For that reason, beginnings tend to take a lot of rounds for me, because they’re working on so many levels.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

My main character, seventeen-year-old Rylie, is obsessed with rock climbing, while I’m scared of heights, so in that respect we’re very different. But Rylie also loves national parks like Joshua Tree—one of the main locations in the book—and she is extremely protective of her younger brother, which reminds me of myself. When I was younger, my family moved around a lot, so I was constantly having to evaluate our surroundings and decide who was friend and who was foe. This is similar to Rylie’s experience in No Beauties or Monsters, because when the novel opens, her family is moving to California’s Mojave Desert, a destination that she’s hesitant about. And it turns out that Rylie’s instincts are right, because strange things start to happen once she arrives.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

The TV shows I watched when I was younger, like Unsolved Mysteries and The X-Files, and the shows I’ve loved more recently, like Netflix’s Stranger Things and The OA. In a way, No Beauties or Monsters is a homage to those early influences that I loved so much as a kid.
Visit Tara Goedjen's website.

My Book, The Movie: The Breathless.

The Page 69 Test: The Breathless.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Karen Odden

Karen Odden received her Ph.D. in English literature from New York University and subsequently taught at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her first novel, A Lady in the Smoke, was a USA Today bestseller, and A Dangerous Duet and A Trace of Deceit have won awards for historical mystery and historical fiction.

Odden's latest mystery is Down a Dark River.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

Unlike my first novel, A Lady in the Smoke, about a Victorian railway disaster, which went through so many titles that my agent started calling it “Choo Choo Go Boom,” Down a Dark River only ever had the one. It dropped into my mind early and stuck because it felt perfect. From the beginning, I knew the mystery would be set in Victorian London; and the powerful, filthy Thames River would be at the heart of both the setting and the story, for the murdered women are found in small boats, floating down it. From our present-day perspective, it’s hard to understand the power the Thames had to shape Victorian England, but by the 1870s, millions of tons of coal, food, mail, and goods from Europe and beyond were making their way up and down the Thames annually; the river was the lifeblood for the city. It was also the sewer, full of detritus and even dead bodies. For me (and some Victorian writers), the river serves as a metaphor for London’s progress and wealth but also for its overcrowding and poverty—dichotomies I explore in my novel. Furthermore, I knew my Scotland Yard inspector, Michael Corravan, would have to go down the “dark river” in his mind back to his past, when he was surviving by thieving and bare-knuckles boxing in seedy Whitechapel; he needs to recall the painful moments when he felt powerless and longed for revenge before he can empathize with the villain and solve this case.

What's in a name?

In a very early draft, I named my protagonist Michael Wren—but at the advice of a beta-reader who thought “Wren” too delicate, I changed it to Corravan. This name alludes to the bird genus “Corvin,” which include the ravens and crows—dark-feathered birds of prey, scrappy and fierce, like my protagonist. As I fleshed out Michael’s backstory, I wanted him to be Irish because in the 1870s, anti-Irish feeling was running high in London, in the aftermath of both the mass migration to the city (during the potato famines that killed 1 million Irish) and the Clerkenwell bombing by the Irish Republican Brotherhood that killed and injured dozens of Londoners in 1867. So, by virtue of his race, Michael Corravan is an outsider who will run up against prejudice as a policeman; but he has the inside track on crime in Whitechapel, the seedy part of London where he grew up. Also, “Corravan,” a common name in county Armagh, is a corruption of the Irish (Gaelic) name O Corra Ban. “O” means “grandson of”; "Corr" means “odd or singular,” while the addition of "Ban" means “white.” So Michael Corravan’s name suggests his Irish ancestry, that he is odd and unusual (an outsider), and that he’s the hero in the conventional “white” hat. Although flawed like we all are, Corravan has a strong moral code and is loyal to those he loves.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

I think my teenage self would be very surprised by it. Most of my most voracious, immersive (ie. escapist) reading was about young women protagonists; I devoured books by Daphne du Maurier, Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, L.M. Montgomery, Louisa May Alcott, and Elizabeth George Speare. I don’t think I would have been able to imagine writing a male character, although I did develop a passion for the Jason Bourne novels around age 17. Indeed, writing in Corravan’s voice, in first person, was a challenge because I didn’t want him to sound like a woman writer’s idea of how a man would sound. I spent hours reading Victorian police accounts (written by men, of course) out loud to train my ear to what I felt was a masculine cadence.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

With all my novels, the beginnings sing to me, and I can usually get them down quickly. But, as a writer friend said recently, inspiration only takes you to about chapter 2. After that I have to dig for my ending. As I work, I put plot points for both the character arc (in this case, Corravan’s emotional growth) and the mystery arc (the murdered women in boats) on index cards and lay them across the floor in my hallway so I can rearrange them, while also keeping my rescue beagle Rosy from pawing at them. Sometimes she moves cards around in ways I hadn’t considered. (Clever dog!) The ending usually emerges when I’m about halfway through the first draft, and then I write toward it.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I’d say I parcel myself out among the characters. Corravan is much more courageous than I am, but I did give him my desire to help people, as well as some “savior” complex: so long as he’s rescuing someone else, he doesn’t have to face his own vulnerabilities. The character I probably have most in common with is Belinda Gale, the novelist and Corravan’s love interest. (When my daughter Julia read an early draft she said, “Belinda Gale is your self-plant, Mom.”) Belinda provides the EQ to balance Corravan’s street smarts, and she challenges him. Belinda wants him to gain insight about himself; similarly, I cause him to learn over the course of the novel.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

For every one of my novels, I have found the germ of the idea in non-fiction, in the historical or real-world tidbits I find in my research or general reading. I found the germ for Down a Dark River several years ago, as I read a non-fiction article about race and the law in contemporary US. Within the article was a short account that chilled me. The incident involved a young Black woman in Alabama, who jaywalked across a quiet street. She was hit by a car, driven by an affluent white man, who was DUI but under the legal limit. She was put in a hospital for weeks with injuries, and when her family sued, the judge awarded her a very nominal $2,000. The injustice clawed at my heart, of course, but what struck me was the aftermath: the outraged father threatened not the judge but the judge’s daughter. This stuck with me for a long time because I realized that in some ways, the father’s action was not just simple “revenge” but a last-ditch, non-verbal demand for empathy. This father wanted the judge to understand what it was to almost lose a child.

In her work on intimacy and belonging, Brené Brown talks about how, as human beings, our deepest need is for connection, which involves being seen and heard and acknowledged by others. What if revenge is sometimes, at bottom, a desire for connection, for the acknowledgement of (and empathy for) our own painful experience from someone else? I don’t ever want to write a book that preaches a message, but for me, revenge is more complicated than the brief (glib) phrase, “an eye for an eye” suggests, and empathy is a powerful force. I wanted to explore the relationship between revenge and empathy in my book.
Visit Karen Odden's website.

Coffee with a Canine: Karen Odden and Rosy.

The Page 69 Test: A Lady in the Smoke.

My Book, The Movie: A Lady in the Smoke.

My Book, The Movie: A Dangerous Duet.

The Page 69 Test: A Dangerous Duet.

Writers Read: Karen Odden (January 2020).

--Marshal Zeringue