AUTHOR KAREN ODDEN
Karen Odden's interest in the Victorian era goes back to her New York University PhD dissertation. In it, she examined how descriptions of injuries from nineteenth-century railway disasters in popular novels, medical literature, and legal documents helped to create a discourse out of which Freud and other psychologists drew their ideas of “trauma.”
By its very nature, a traumatic injury, with its long, belated trail of symptoms, calls us to look backward, to examine the past. Karen loves writing mysteries partly because the narrative always drives backwards as well as forward. That is, if there is a dead body on page 5, the rest of the book is the story of figuring out how it got there in the first place. In Karen’s books, childhood events shape the characters' beliefs and assumptions, which they bring to later experiences, often at their peril. Karen loves family secrets and marginal voices, the smelly Thames and the costermongers of 1870s London, medical puzzles and odd facts about poison, anything Scotland Yard, the true weird stories that surround musicians and artists, and good old-fashioned romantic suspense.
Some of her favorite books as a child were the Anne of Green Gables series, Julie of the Wolves, all of the Louisa May Alcott books, Caddie Woodlawn, and The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Karen grew up with the works of Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt, which she found in her grandmother’s library among the bodice-rippers and historical fiction, and with their amateur sleuths and character-driven plots, they still influence her writing.
Karen served as an Associate Lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and taught classes in English literature at New York University and the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. She has contributed essays to books and journals, including Studies in the Novel, Journal of Victorian Culture, and Victorian Crime, Madness, and Sensation; she has written introductions for Barnes and Noble’s Classics Series; and she served as an Assistant Editor for the academic journal Victorian Literature and Culture (Cambridge UP). Prior to receiving her Ph.D. in English, she worked in publishing at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich and McGraw-Hill, as a Media Buyer for Christie’s auction house in New York, and as a bartender at the airport in Rochester, where she honed her listening skills. She is a member of Sisters in Crime (National), Desert Sleuths (SinC Arizona) and Mystery Writers of America. Her first book, A Lady in the Smoke, was a USA Today Bestseller and won the 2017 New Mexico-Arizona award for eBook Fiction. Her second book, from William Morrow/Harper Collins, A Dangerous Duet, won the New Mexico-Arizona book award for Historical Fiction in 2019; and her third Victorian mystery, A Trace of Deceit, was published in December 2019.
She is currently at work on her fourth Victorian mystery, also set in 1870s London. In it, her heroine Gwendolyn Manning has a friend Lewis Ainsley, a political economist and journalist, who has just returned to London from Africa with Henry Morton Stanley (of “Dr. Livingston, I presume” fame). Lewis plans to write a book exposing the horrors of the ivory and slave trade that he witnessed, but there are many powerful men who do not want that story told, and Lewis is murdered. When his wife Charlotte is suspected, Gwendolyn seeks to prove her innocence—but then Gwendolyn herself becomes the police’s prime suspect.
Karen currently resides in Scottsdale, Arizona with her husband, her two children, and her ridiculously cute rescue beagle, Rosy.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS WITH KAREN
1. How do you deal with writer's block?
Hm. I don't usually get writer's block. Elizabeth Gilbert gave a brilliant TED talk in which she said, "I love writing more than I hate failing at writing." And while our writing is different (I think hers is marvelous, by the way) what she said is true for me, too. The only time I feel a sort of paralysis at my desk is if I start wondering, "What will my agent think of this? What will readers think?" But those are the wrong questions. So I head back to the right ones: "Lady Elizabeth just woke up in a strange bed with the smell of lye on the sheets and loud banging noises outside her door, and she has no idea where she is. How does she feel? What does she do next?"
2. What is the best thing about being a writer?
The best thing about being a writer is getting lost in the writing. There are days when I have a scene playing in my head so clearly it's as if I'm watching real people moving and speaking; I'm merely recording it. For example, the day I was writing the first confrontation between Lady Elizabeth and Mr. Flynn--when he thinks she's an earl's daughter, flirting with Mr. Wilcox out of boredom, and she assumes he's an unethical newspaperman intent on digging up dirt to sell papers--I could see her hands tugging on her shawl and the changing shape of his mouth; I could hear their words and the tones in their voices. They did everything themselves; I just wrote it down.
3. Where did you get the idea for A LADY IN THE SMOKE?
The idea came out of my doctoral dissertation at NYU, about Victorian railway disasters, of all things. Railway crashes were something like a national obsession in the mid-1800s in England, partly because they were the first enormous, violent accidents that cut across all the social boundaries. The victims ranged from titled aristocrats to writers (Charles Dickens crawled out of one in 1865) to railway engine drivers and laborers. As a result, all kinds of people—doctors, members of parliament, newspapermen, novelists, and so on—wrote about them, trying to figure out why they happened, what could be done to prevent another one, and how to cope with all the injuries and death that came out of them. Eventually, I decided I wanted to write a novel that started with a Victorian train wreck—partly because I knew a lot about the complicated historical context and partly because extraordinary events can call forth extraordinary aspects of character.
4. What scene in A LADY IN THE SMOKE was your favorite to write?
I’d say it’s the second day of Paul’s trial, when Lady Elizabeth takes the stand, telling her story to a jury of men who have been cynical and unsympathetic so far. She finally articulates the horror of the railway crash and, for the first time, feels it with all her heart. I’ve probably read it 50 times, and I still cry with her.
5. What or who inspired you to become an author?
I was the geeky, lonely kid who read in the corner all the time, so I’d say I was first inspired to write by other authors. (I grew up on Mary Stewart, who could mix suspense and romance like no one else; A Lady in the Smoke certainly owes something to her!) Now, I have some books that draw me back to them again and again, inspiring me by the way they use language, and by the honesty with which they plumb the human heart. Lit by Mary Karr, The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney, Faithful Place by Tana French, Too Late the Phalarope by Alan Paton, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, A Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks, Up a Road Slowly by Irene Hunt, and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell are some of them. (Yes, I’m all over the map.)
6. Who is your favorite fictional character from literature?
Probably Anne of Green Gables. I’m a red-head, too, and her utter fearlessness—her willingness to be exactly who she is, to love passionately, to crack a slate over someone’s head if he’s making fun of her, to laugh at herself—is something I admire hugely!
7. What is a typical day like for you?
With my daughter in college and my son doing high school from home because of COVID, I no longer have to wrangle them to the bus like I used to, back when I first started writing books. Now, so long as it isn't brutally hot (and summers are like ovens in Arizona), I either walk my aging beagle or hike with friends till 9ish, and then I put my butt in my office chair. I usually write for three or four hours, on days I’m drafting or revising. (A friend asked me once if I ever took a day off of writing. I replied, Well, it’s kind of like taking a day off from brushing my teeth. I can do it; it just doesn’t feel very good!) Other days I research, reading around online or in books about Victorian country homes or London gangs or African expeditions of the 1870s or whatever I'm writing about. Then I put together dinner, spend some time with my son and husband, and fall into bed by 10 p.m. after reading for three minutes.
8. BAM. You're a superhero. What's your superpower?
Am I allowed to pick time travel? If not, I think I’d like to be invisible. I’ll own it: I’m terribly curious about what happens when people think no one is watching.
9. What are you currently working on?
My next book is "Down a Dark River." I absolutely love it, though it's darker than my others. It's about a detective inspector at Scotland Yard in 1878, which is a year after a wildly public scandal rocked the Yard and sent three Inspectors to prison for fraud and taking bribes. My protagonist Michael Corravan grew up in Whitechapel, working on the docks and bare-knuckles boxing, before joining the police. One morning, there's a dead girl floating down the Thames in a boat. She's beautifully dressed and clearly wealthy--in other words, a nightmare for the Yard's new superintendent if the newspapers get hold of the sensational story before the case is solved, seeing as the public is still disgusted by what they imagine to be widespread corruption and ineptitude in the plain-clothes division. Corravan begins to follow clues that seem to lead in one direction. But then another girl floats down the river, and everything he thinks he's discovered makes no sense. And then comes a third girl--and the newspapers take up the story, blaming Corravan, who must plumb his own dark past to understand the murderer, prevent another girl's death, and save his career.
10. Do you have a motto, quote or philosophy you live by?
I try to live by the words often attributed to Henry James: “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” The other piece of advice is this, courtesy of a friend: “As you drive around every day, at each red light, think of something you’re grateful for. It might sound a little strange, but it’s a good practice for today’s world.” Now, all that about kindness and gratitude being said, I believe to write a good book you have to be willing to grapple with the ugliest the human heart has to offer. My next book is about an embittered man, a driven murderer, and the London underworld.
ESSAYS AND OTHER WORKS BY KAREN ODDEN
A Dangerous Duet. New York: Random House, 2018. --Read the first chapter!
A Lady in the Smoke. New York: Random House, 2016. --Read the first chapter!
"My Young Adult Novel Year: Craft, from Scratch,” CLAS Magazine, Arizona State UP 3.2 (Fall 2014): 24-25.
“Re-visioning the ‘Vision from a Fairer World Than His’: Women, Creativity, and Work in East Lynne and Mrs. Doubtfire. Women’s Literary Creativity and the Female Body." Ed. Diane Long Hoeveler and Donna Decker Schuster. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. 121-44.
“Introduction” to The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope. Barnes and Noble Classics Series. New York: Barnes and Noble, 2005.
“‘Reading Coolly’ in John Marchmont’s Legacy: Reconsidering M. E. Braddon’s Legacy.” Studies in the Novel (U of North Texas P) 36.1 (Spring 2004): 21-40.
“Puffed Papers and Broken Promises: White-Collar Crime and Literary Justice in The Way We Live Now.” Victorian Crime, Madness and Sensation. Ed. Andrew Maunder and Grace Moore. Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing, 2004. 135-145.
“Introduction” to Hard Times by Charles Dickens. Barnes and Noble Classics Series. New York: Barnes and Noble, 2004.
“‘Able and intelligent medical men meeting together’: The Victorian Railway Crash, Medical Jurisprudence, and the Rise of Medical Authority.” Journal of Victorian Culture (Edinburgh UP) 8.1 (Spring 2003): 33-54.
“November 11, 1572.” Second place, poetry. Maricopa Community Colleges Creative Writing Competition, 2003-2004.
“Retrieving Childhood Fantasies: A Psychoanalytic Look at Why We (Re)read Popular Literature.” Second Thoughts: A Focus on Rereading. Ed. David Galef. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1998. 126-151.
Represented by Josh Getzler
37 West 28th Street, Floor 8
New York, NY 10001
Follow Karen Odden's journey on her blog, Facebook, and Pinterest. Email Karen.Odden@gmail.com.