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, BrenĂ© 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