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Karen Dionne on Modern Signed Books!
Bestselling author Karen Dionne discusses the Marsh King's Daughter on the Modern Signed Books podcast.


Episode transcript (also available as a PDF):
Introduction: Welcome to Modern Signed Books. If you're interested in what makes your favorite authors tick, then you'll love hearing what they have to say in our interviews. Learn how they got started writing, books and authors that inspired them, and much more. Meet today's hottest authors as they discuss their lives and writing with our book specialist Rodger Nichols. And, don't forget to pick up a copy of your favorite books at vjbooks.com. Here's Rodger.

Rodger Nichols: Welcome to Blog Talk Radio. Karen Dionne is the internationally published author of science thrillers Freezing Point and Boiling Point. She is co-founder of the online writers community Backspace and organizes what sounds like a whole lot of fun the Salt Clay Writers Retreat held every other year in a private island in the Bahamas.

She is a member of the Mystery Writers of America and the International Thriller Writers where she served on the board of directors as vice president for technology. Her short fiction has appeared in a number of periodicals as well as a wonderful anthology called First Thrills: High Octane Stories of the Hottest Thriller Authors which was edited by this [inaudible 00:01:36] guy name Lee Child.

And, she is written about the publishing industry from an author's perspective for AOL's Daily Finance and blogs at the Huffington Post. Now, all that would be fantastic but her latest work, The Marsh King's Daughter, is absolutely stunning. This is the brief precis of it, when the notorious child abductor known as the Marsh King escapes from a nearby maximum security prison, Helena Pelletier realized she's in grave danger for the Marsh King was the man who kept her and her mother captive until she was 12 years old and also was her beloved father. So, now she must protect herself and her own two children, a terrifying thought perhaps. But, what nobody knows is that her father raised her to be a killer as well. So, we're very delighted to welcome Karen Dionne. Good morning.

Karen Dionne: Hi, thanks so much for having me Rodger.

Rodger Nichols: This is an extraordinary piece of writing and I'm going to try not to drown you in superlatives here but it has an authenticity and an emotional involvement that you just don't often find. My understanding is that you have actually experienced some of this [inaudible 00:02:40] because you and your husband actually did live in the wilderness of the Upper Peninsula for a while.

Karen Dionne: I did. My husband and I moved to the Upper Peninsula during the 1970's with our six week old daughter as part of the Back-To-The-Land movement. There were a lot of young people at that time who were searching for a more natural way of life. So, we were city kids. We didn't have any experience with the various skills that we would need to build a cabin. But, we lived in a tent on our property and carried water from a stream and sampled wild foods.

And, I had always wanted to write a novel that was set in the Upper Peninsula because it's such a wild and beautiful place but it had to be the right story. Well, it turns out this one is the right story. So, I drew heavily on the detailed knowledge that an author doesn't really have access to unless they've lived it themselves. I'd done a lot of research for my science thrillers but that was from distance. This was up close and personal.

Rodger Nichols: Just one of the sentences as I was reading just jumped out at me that feels like it's part of that. It says, "I loved exploring the marsh in winter. It was as if the land had magically expanded and I could walk wherever I wanted. Here and there frozen cattail heads poked out of the snow to remind me I was walking on water." That's got to be personal.

Karen Dionne: Yes, it is. We did ... we hiked, we explored. When you live in a wilderness area and I should add that we raised our family there and we lived in the Upper Peninsula for 30 years. You don't let winters stop you. So, you go for winter picnics. You go for hikes in the woods. And, that's true. I used to think how cool it was to be able to walk across a swampy area in the winter where in the summer there's no way you could walk into it. So, yeah that's one of those details.

Rodger Nichols: It's also educational for those of us on the West Coast [inaudible 00:04:40] here. You write in there that with more than 3,000 miles of coastline, Michigan has more lighthouses than any other state which is something that just bowled me over. I stared looking and you're absolutely right there.

Karen Dionne: Yeah, it's really astonishing and the Upper Peninsula, as I mentioned in the book, has 29% of the land area of the state of Michigan but only 3% of the population. So, it's mile after mile of state forest and national forest and campgrounds and lakes and wild animals and no many roads. A lot of the roads aren't paved. So, it's just a very unique place. A lot of people in the rest of the United States aren't necessarily aware of how life is in the Upper Peninsula.

Rodger Nichols: Yeah, there was another line that jumped out at me. It says, "Imagine cold as a malignant fog" which is a nice piece of anthropomorphism there.

Karen Dionne: Well, I can tell you where that came from. One winter my husband and I decided that we were going to go camping with our daughter. I think she was about three or four at the time. We just wanted to try it out. What would it be like to stay in a tent in the winter. So, we went to a campground, pitched our tent. There was maybe about six or eight inches of snow on the ground, not a lot. And, we had air mattresses. We had a kerosene heater for the tent.

Well, what we discovered was the topside of us was warm. The air in the tent was warm but the cold coming up from the ground and then through our air mattresses ... you just couldn't compete against that. We were freezing. We gave it up. So, that's where that thought came from. The cold, it does, it just seeps in through every crack and every crevice and takes over.

Rodger Nichols: There's so many wonderful images in here but I want to talk a little bit about the story because it's unique as far as I know. The fact that our protagonist Helena Pelletier had been born of this union where her father kidnapped her mother as a 15 year old and dragged her off into the wilderness and a year later here comes young Helena and she's raised ... one of the things you point out is that ... you say that children don't understand whatever the situation is is natural to them. And so, she does not, for a long time, realize her situation.

Karen Dionne: That's true. And, I've always been fascinated by stories of people who overcome a less than perfect childhood lets put it that way. I remember many years ago, I was probably just a child myself, reading an experience in a Readers Digest magazine about a person who had grown up in an abusive home but he and his wife adopted maybe 30 foster children with special needs and so forth. I always ... that stuck with me. And so, Helena's certainly applies to that. We know, of course, in real life some of the girls who have been kidnapped and held for a long time have had children with their captors. And, I think to myself, "What would it be like to be that child?" Because, you're growing up in this completely abnormal situation but it's all you know so it's your normal.

Rodger Nichols: Yeah, and there's so much about it that's really conflicting because she absolutely loves her father who treats her in this really odd situation where sometimes he just absolutely dotes on her and teachers her everything about living in the marsh, other times he punishes her fairly harshly by dropping her in a party dug well and making her stay there inside the Earth for some time, sometimes a day or so. That's bound to set up some really interesting psychological problems in somebody.

Karen Dionne: Yeah, and then of course the larger picture because in the story her upbringing is half of it and the other half of the story she's a young mother. So, the larger question I wanted to raise for readers is based on her experience as a child and what she learned or accepted as being normal, what kind of mother would she be you know? How much does she have to overcome as far as her natural thinking. This is a side point but I grew up in a family of three kids and I have four children. So, when my fourth child was born, it just felt wrong because it was like too many children. Sorry, [Deanna 00:09:18], I love you to pieces. But, that's sort of what I'm getting at here. We're so ingrained with the way we grow up and thinking that it's the right way or the only way. So, I wanted to address larger question for the reader. What kind of mother would a person like Helena ultimately be.

Rodger Nichols: And, she's a pretty good mother as near as I can tell from all the way through the book. She dotes on her daughters who she has named after flowers, Marigold and Iris.

Karen Dionne: Yeah.

Rodger Nichols: Which I like, nice touch. And then, there's one ... she talks about Marigold and she describes her as "Mari is sparkling water, golden sunshine, the chatter of wood ducks overhead." That's a wonderful image.

Karen Dionne: Thanks, thanks. Yeah, what sunny little girls.

Rodger Nichols: Yes. And then, she describes "If Mari is fire, then Iris is water, Iris the Largehearted." This often, those of us who are parents, know that you can have children who are totally different in every respect from one another in their personality and their likes and dislikes and what they are like and yet they're all part of the family.

Karen Dionne: That's true. And, I contrived Helena's situation to where she would be an only child because I wanted the focus to be strictly on her and her upbringing. And so, you have to wonder and perhaps she does to when her two girls are so different, what would a brother or sister for her have been like? Possibly very different than what she was.

Rodger Nichols: The interesting relationship that she has with her husband [Steven 00:10:55], she says at one point that "He's the only one that ever really loves her for herself. The only person on the face of the Earth who chose me, who loves me not because he has to, because he wants to." She also adds this, "My gift from the universe for surviving the past."

Karen Dionne: Yes. You know, I have to confess here, that thought was expressed by my editor. And, I'd like to deviate for just a second and say what a unique experience it was working with my editor because he saw nuances and layers in a novel that I had no necessarily seen myself or articulated. And so, it's such an interesting experience as a writer to work with someone who helps you to get the best out of your novel.

Another thing that my editor pointed out, I created a distance between Helena and her mother, again, because I wanted so clearly for her to adore her father and not ... she's actually quite cruel to her mother when she's a little girl in that she has no regard for her. And so, again, my editor pointed out something that I thought was really cool which was how hard would it have been for Helena's mother to nurture a child who was a carbon copy of the man who had kidnapped her.

So yeah, those two particular points, they really strike me. An author lays the groundwork for things but sometimes they need help articulating them or someone else to pull them out of the story. So, I just wanted to insert that, that working with an editor on this book to elevate it, to be the best it could be was a very cool experience for me.

Rodger Nichols: Obviously it turned out fantastically. And, I understand. I want to get into a lot of that stuff but that when it came time to market the book, there were 19 places competing at an auction for it which does not surprise me in the least having read the advance on it.

Karen Dionne: Well, it surprised me. It was pretty astonishing.

Rodger Nichols: That's got to be a fabulous feeling though to realize you've created something that's going to be hugely in demand.

Karen Dionne: It was. And, I won't say which editor, but my agent told me that, just recently, he had dinner with one of the editors who had been on the book and didn't get it. And, this editor said that it was the best book they read last year which I thought was kind of astonishing because obviously they have their own authors you know?

Rodger Nichols: Right.

Karen Dionne: In their publishing house. So yeah, I think the reason that the book resonates so deeply with people is because at heart it's a father, daughter story. You've read the book so you know the progression and I'm not really giving anything away either to future readers. But, when for her first 12 years Helena loved her father unconditionally and then when she finds out the truth about him and leaves the marsh and has such a hard time adjusting, she hates him completely. And, of course she's a teenager so that [crosstalk 00:13:55] all the more.

Rodger Nichols: Yeah, that's part of it.

Karen Dionne: And then, as a young woman she denies who she is. And so, of course ultimately by the end of the book she has to come to terms with who she is. And, I think that's why so many editors love the book. And also, it's sold in a lot of countries around the world which is also astonishing to me because it's hard to picture, for me at least, in Russia and Turkey and China, reading this story set in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. But, one day they will.

Rodger Nichols: There's some universality to it. As a matter of fact, my understanding is that the title comes from Hans Christian Andersen's story that echos throughout the book.

Karen Dionne: Correct, correct. And, how I got the idea for the story ties into that. I actually woke up in the middle of the night with the first sentences of the novel in my head. "If I told you my mother's name, you'd recognize it right away" and so forth. About three sentences, four sentences and they sounded good but you know how it is in the middle of the night.

Rodger Nichols: Yeah, yeah. We'll check [crosstalk 00:15:01] in the morning.

Karen Dionne: Sometimes they sound good ... yeah, exactly. So, in the morning it still sounded good. So, I wrote up a few paragraphs in her voice which was just basically her telling me who she was. And, none of the first page is a novel. And, as I was writing that, I almost gave the book an urban setting because I was thinking of the girls in Cleveland who were hidden in plain sight.

Rodger Nichols: Yes.

Karen Dionne: That's so intriguing. But, at the last minute I changed it to a cabin on a ridge surrounded by marshland in Michigan's Upper Peninsula just for something a little different. Well, in the subsequent days, this character kept talking to me. She didn't have a name yet. And, I kept writing snippets in her voice and finally I decided I need a story for this character. And, I always loved fairytales since I was a little girl. The darker, the better.

And, I like books such as Eowyn Ivey's Snow Child that offered a modern take on fairytale. So, I pulled my childhood fairytale books off the shelf and started paging through them. That's when I found the Marsh King's Daughter. And, I was so astounded. Not only is it the marsh and book is set in the marsh, but in the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, the Marsh King's Daughter is the offspring of a beautiful Egyptian princess the evil Marsh King. And, by day she's beautiful like her mother but has a wicked, wild temper like her father, whereas at night she takes on her mother's gentle nature but turns into a hideous frog.

Of course, that fits my character astonishingly well who is equally the offspring of an innocent girl and an evil man. So, I then used the story the Marsh King, the rough trajectory, to structure the book. So, that's how that all came about. So yeah, it's completely tied to the fairytale but it's also Helena's own story.

Rodger Nichols: And again, that gives it, I think, a larger resonance beyond simply what happened to her particularly because it also speaks to themes about how we react and deal with nature as well. I mean, we're civilized, city folks, most of us, who get our meats shrink wrapped at the butcher rather than go out and carve it ourselves out of ...

Karen Dionne: That's right.

Rodger Nichols: Killing animals. So, there's a certain, I don't want to say romance, but a certain resonance with our historic past if not our personal past.

Karen Dionne: That's a great point.

Rodger Nichols: And, the thing that ... it is, again, it's a page turner that kept me ... I'll put it this way, up very late one night cause I had to finish the thing. And, I think ...

Karen Dionne: I am so happy to hear that.

Rodger Nichols: Yeah.

Karen Dionne: Authors love hearing that.

Rodger Nichols: It is ... there's a comparison I think of the story teller in the marketplace who sits there with his little begging bowl. Every so often, at the end of a chapter, he pauses and a cliffhanger, and the rattles his little bowl suggestively for people and they peel in their pockets and thrown money in cause they have to know what happens next. The equivalent of that here and really good storytelling where you've got to know what happens next. And, that's ... again, very well done in this.

Karen Dionne: Well, in intertwining the two stories of Helena's growing up and of her as a young mother having to hunt down her father before he can hurt her family. That intertwined the two stories and then the two climaxes come at the same time at the end of the book. But, that also helps to create that cliffhanger effect that you're talking about because I switch back and forth between the two stories so the reader has to wait a chapter before they find out what happens next in the previous story.

Rodger Nichols: Yeah, it is a nice ... it's something that's used a lot but when it's done well, there's nothing that will touch it as far as I'm concerned in terms of style of writing. Speaking of style, she has, Helena has an amazing voice. How much of that is you?

Karen Dionne: I would say a lot of it is me. When I hear Helena's ... when I read her words, I hear myself saying these things but it's myself if I were her, if that makes sense.

Rodger Nichols: Yeah.

Karen Dionne: So, for any author I think there's always a little bit of, you could call it method acting, but yeah. It's a lot of myself. I was a casual mother I would say about our kids. We didn't bind them very tightly with restrictions and Helena is that way too. Early on she leaves her three year old in the car while she makes her deliveries of jams and jellies. And, I know that ... while I wouldn't do that now, not in the city, but that's what we did. We didn't think anything of it. My children walked home from school when they were kindergartners alone. It was just a different lifestyle I guess. And so, a lot of her attitudes towards things are also shared by me. So, it was a lot of fun creating her I have to say. She started talking to me in the middle of the night and she just never stopped. So, I had to tell her story.

Rodger Nichols: There's an interesting aspect to it. Once she realizes and turns in ... the police come and they take ... she gets rescued and back into society. She meets her grandparents, her mother's parents. And, they're not very nice people as it turns out.

Karen Dionne: No, they're not. And, I think a lot of people, again, that goes back to the idea of a person overcoming adversity. The world is not a nice place for an awful lot of people. And, the people who should be maybe supporting us don't. And so, Helena is very much a loner. She was raised that way. The one person that she truly trusted and relied on, her father, fell from his pedestal. And so, she's so alone in those middle years. I really feel sorry for her. I feel sorry for her mother too. Her mother is also a very tragic figure.

Rodger Nichols: Yeah, and that's why when she gets married and Steven is so understanding about many things. At some points in there, you can't quite follow why she needs to do what she needs to do but he trusts her and that is amazing for her.

Karen Dionne: Yeah, he truly is the only person that could have handled her because she has no standard to go by. She has no idea what a normal marriage is supposed to be. So, it takes an awful lot of give on his part to love her and have her in his life.

Rodger Nichols: As I read through this thing and I'm thinking somebody, somewhere will be buying the movie rights to this very soon. So, do you see that happening and if so, have you cast the people yet?

Karen Dionne: You know, it's funny, a lot of authors think about that or they have a visual as they're writing. I didn't even think of a movie until my agent sent the novel on [inaudible 00:22:09] and he's like, "Oh by the way, you have a film agent now." I was like, "Oh okay, yeah, right. It could be a movie." So, I didn't get a lot of thought to that. I will say I picture, and you know Jacob, Helena's father in the story, he's part Native American, he's not an imposing man. He intimidates by force of personality not by his stature. So, it could be anyone, any actor that can be nice but really nasty at the same time. Maybe you have an idea, I don't know.

Rodger Nichols: I haven't yet but I keep seeing people playing against type like, for goodness sake, Tom Cruise playing Jack Reacher which is so far from the physical type but yet he seemed to have done fairly well in the two movies in terms of projecting that psychological edge that it has. So, you never know.

Karen Dionne: Right. This is considered psychological suspense. So, while there's action in the story, it's definitely Helena's father manipulating her and pulling mind tricks on her. So, how that comes across in a movie, I'm not sure. I would leave that to the experts.

Rodger Nichols: Yeah, there you go. Is there a chance you could go back to the marsh at some point?

Karen Dionne: You know, I took a two book deal from Putnam, and with no idea what the second book might be. So, when I had ... yeah, I liked to live dangerously.

Rodger Nichols: Yeah.

Karen Dionne: And so, when I sat down with my agent and my editor to discuss book two, I was really happy that both my editor and I agreed that Helena's full story was told in this book. I had explored possible sequels with my agent and the best that I could come up with still seemed like a pale repeat of what was in The Marsh King's Daughter. And, I didn't want to diminish the character in any way. So, we won't see any more of Helena.

The second book, however, does still take place in the Upper Peninsula and it's also a psychological or a domestic suspense. It also has a fairytale element and hopefully also intricate structure. So, those are the four criteria that my editor set out because we want the same but different for readers. That way book readers can read either book in any order. And so, similar but still a different story all together.

Rodger Nichols: Stand alone's basically.

Karen Dionne: As you can probably tell ... yeah, I'm working on it. I'm in the middle of it now.

Rodger Nichols: And, that's one thing that a lot of readers don't understand is how the time lag between the time that the book is created and the time it actually hits the shelves can be years or two years anyway. So ...

Karen Dionne: Yes.

Rodger Nichols: Yeah. You're always working ahead.

Karen Dionne: [crosstalk 00:24:58] because The Marsh King's Daughter sold last May and it's going to publish June 13th this year. So, that's very fast. I don't want to make any promises but I recently found out my publisher would like to bring out book two in June of 2018. So, one year after The Marsh King's Daughter. I know, [inaudible 00:25:23]. I have to write this book first.

Rodger Nichols: One of the things, in looking at your photos on the website and whatnot, you seem like such a nice lady to be able to imagine some of the stuff in this book. You're darker than you look, lets put it that way.

Karen Dionne: You know, my middle daughter read the book and she said she really liked it but she was kind of creeped out that her mother thought of these things. Yeah.

Rodger Nichols: Obviously, if you had a good time in doing this and the response has been amazing. Tons of people have already endorsed it including Lee Child and Karen Slaughter and some other very well known names. And I just think you're going to have a good, fun ride with this one.

Karen Dionne: Thank you. I don't think I've stopped smiling since the book sold. I knew when I got the idea for the story that it could be big, it could be very commercial. A writer has an instinct for this. And, The Marsh King's Daughter was actually the sixth book that I'd written. It will be my fourth publishing novel. So, you kind of get a sense for story. And, I knew there was something special in this. But, everything has been so beyond what I dreamed could happen for the novel that every day is another surprise. It's been pretty cool.

Rodger Nichols: Cool, indeed. Well, and if people who are listening to this blog want to get an autographed first edition, VJ Books would be the place to do it.

Karen Dionne: Absolutely. It's such a nice service that they offer because people have already asked me, "How can I get the book signed?" My publisher is sending me on a national tour but that's only certain cities. So, what VJ does is very cool.

Rodger Nichols: They are. They're pretty nice people too. I speak from personal experience. So, I want to thank you so much for spending ... you've been very generous with your time this morning. Our guest is Karen Dionne, the book is superb, it's called The Marsh King's Daughter. It comes out in June. I hope you enjoy it as much as we did. Thanks so much for being with us this morning.

Karen Dionne: Oh, thank you. I had a great time.