Monday, May 11, 2020

Q&A with Karen Odden

Karen Odden is the author of the novel A Trace of Deceit. She also has written the novels A Dangerous Duet and A Lady in the Smoke. She has taught at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Michigan, and she lives in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Q: Did you know when you were writing your previous novel, A Dangerous Duet, that you'd be bringing some of your characters back in your new book, A Trace of Deceit?

A: I didn’t! My books and characters often surprise me that way. When I decided I wanted to write a book about a young woman artist, studying at the Slade School, Annabel began to appear.

I spent weeks writing her backstory—about her relationship with Edwin, her father and mother, and her own early attempts at painting. So before I began writing the book in earnest, I knew her. I also knew she’d need a detective to help her, so I brought in Matthew, who was alive in my head from Duet.

This is where the magic happens. When I know my characters well, I can simply put them together in a room and let them be who they are.

For example, in chapter 5, Matthew and Annabel go to a tea shop to discuss what has just happened at the auction house. I sat them at the table, gave them some tea and scones, and then, as they began talking and eating, I transcribed what they said and how they moved. The scene runs like a movie in my head; I just write it down.

The only character who appears in all of my books, beginning with A Lady in the Smoke, is Tom Flynn, my shrewd, straight-talking newspaperman at the Falcon. He is based on my high school English teacher who was the first person who told me I could write.

I suppose it’s ridiculously sentimental, but Tom Flynn belongs wherever I go in 1870s London. It’s my small way of paying my teacher back for his confidence in me.

Q: You write that you worked at Christie's auction house in the mid-1990s. How much did your experiences there inform your writing of this novel, and what kind of additional research did you need to do?

A: Christie’s was an amazing place to work for me because unlike many employees and interns there, I had no training in art. I was a media buyer, purchasing ad space in The New York Times, Architectural Digest, Magazine Antiques, and so on.

But to advertise the art sales in appropriate publications, I did need to learn about art, so I gave myself a crash course, reading everything I could get my hands on. (You don’t advertise American silver the same places you advertise photographs or English paintings, for example.)

What I came to realize is that I like art, but I like the wacky, disturbing, scandalous stories that surround art even better. So that feeling is at the core of A Trace of Deceit.

When it came to research, there are wonderful books about art and auctions.

Two that were especially useful were Sotheby’s: The Inside Story by Peter Watson and The Art of the Steal: Inside the Sotheby’s-Christie’s Auction House Scandal by Christopher Mason. Also books such as Looking at European Frames by D. Gene Karraker provide those little-known authentic details that I love to include.

Honestly, I’m like one of those Roombas, scavenging. When I decided to write about the art world, I read everything and anything I could find about art, in The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, People … I don’t discriminate, and I’d say every article I read about art found its way into Trace somewhere. 

Q: You note that your character Annabel was partly inspired by an artist named Evelyn De Morgan. How did her life story result in your creation of Annabel?

A: Annabel is actually a composite of two different Victorian artists—Kate Greenaway and Evelyn de Morgan (born Mary Evelyn Pickering). They both struggled desperately as young women to be taken seriously as artists.

Kate was born into a working-class family; her father was an engraver and illustrator. At age 12, Kate attended the Finsbury School, but women were only allowed to take the night classes (like the NASA engineer Mary Jackson in Hidden Figures, who had to attend night classes at the white high school).

At Finsbury, the curriculum leaned toward the training of artisans in materials such as wallpaper and tile, rather than the creative “serious” arts of painting and sculpture.

Next Kate moved to the Royal Female School of Art, but she could only practice anatomical drawing from plaster casts and costumed figures. At last she arrived at the Slade in 1872, where she could pursue her craft on the same footing as men.

Unlike Kate, Evelyn de Morgan was born into an upper-class family, and like my heroine Annabel, Evelyn had a brother at home who was educated in languages, history, literature and science. Unlike Annabel, Evelyn was allowed to study with him.

However, when it came to her desire to pursue art, her mother explained that she wanted “a daughter, not an artist” and she paid the drawing tutor to tell Evelyn she was no good, to discourage her. Evelyn studied at the South Kensington National Art Training School, but the curriculum was mostly designed to turn out “accomplished” young women.

Like Kate Greenaway, Evelyn found her place at the Slade in the 1870s and was at last able to paint and draw the human form from nudes and to win one of the prestigious scholarships.

These are only two of the Victorian women artists, but the discouragement and adversity they faced was replicated hundreds of times over. The Slade really was like a life raft for these women.

Q: What do you think Annabel's experiences say about the role of women in 1870s England?

A: First off, I prefer historical novels that reflect realistic possibilities for women. No matter how “spunky” a heroine, constraints based on gender inequality in 1870s London were real. And as in any culture, changes were happening unevenly, and in a two-steps-forward, one-step-back fashion.

As an institution, the Slade broke with the patriarchy of the era, but Annabel still has to contend with chauvinism from men like Geoffrey, in chapter 1.

This unevenness is only emblematic of what was happening in England generally. Women’s rights were coming, but slowly and in fragments.

For example, in the 1800s, under the legal practice of coverture, a woman was “covered” by her husband. She could not vote, or go to court, or own property, or inherit property.

Then, in 1870, the Married Women’s Property Act allowed working-class wives, for the first time, to keep wages they had earned, say, working in the mills, and a wife could keep an inheritance up to £200. However, this act was not retroactive, so if you were a woman already married in 1870, you were out of luck!

Still it was a small wedge into the stubborn patriarchy that widened over decades. Think of it: although women’s suffrage was being discussed in the 1870s, it wasn’t until 1928—60 years later!—that all women over 21 could vote.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My fourth novel is set a few years before the others—1872—just after the Great Explorer Henry Morton Stanley returned from his first trip to Africa.

My heroine Gwendolyn is Celia Jesper’s younger sister—a novelist who (as I mentioned in A Trace of Deceit) likes to tell stories about chess pieces instead of playing the game.

Gwendolyn’s cousin Charlotte is married to Lewis Ainsley, a childhood friend of Gwendolyn’s and a political economist who has just returned from a journey to Africa with Mr. Stanley. Upon returning, Lewis plans to write a tell-all about the economics of the ivory, spice, and slave trades.

But there are a lot of people who don’t want that book published—and Lewis dies of poisoning not long after his return to London.

The first suspect is Lewis’s wife, Charlotte—for her first husband died in India under Suspicious Circumstances, and servants have heard Charlotte and Lewis arguing late into the night.

Gwendolyn knows her cousin is incapable of murder and is determined to clear her cousin’s name—until suspicion turns upon Gwendolyn and she must clear her own, while finding Lewis’s missing manuscript that people are willing to kill for.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Some people say that authors can really only write one story. Perhaps it’s true, for in my books, there is always a young woman who must face some traumatic aspect of her past in order to move forward in her present.

I’m always interested in families of origin, the assumptions and beliefs we form as children, the ways they shape our interactions with the world, and the ways we alter them as adults.

The other element that all of my books have in common is a core story that claws at me.

Six years ago, I was reading King Leopold’s Ghost, the non-fictional account of how King Leopold II of Belgium brutally exploited Africa in the late 1800s. (Think Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. He wasn’t exaggerating the depraved villain Mr. Kurtz.)

To harvest rubber, the king’s agents would take a man’s wife and child and put them in a cage. Then he would tell the man, Go bring me 70 pounds of rubber. Your wife and child stay here, with no food or water, until you come back.

That story has held its place in my head for six years, waiting for the book where it belongs in the backstory. I believe the best books come out of stories we cannot forget, stories of injustice and pain that stir in us both compassion and a longing to set something right, even if only on the page.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Karen Odden. 
BOOK GIVEAWAY: Go to Karen's website,, click on "Stay in Touch," and send an email with "Deborah Giveaway" in the subject line. U.S. entries only. Entries accepted up to a week from today (today being 5/11/20). Thanks!

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