Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Q&A with Karen Odden




Karen Odden is the author of the new historical novel Under a Veiled Moon, a sequel to her novel Down a Dark River. She lives in Scottsdale, Arizona.


Q: This is your second novel featuring Scotland Yard Inspector Michael Corravan--do you think he's changed from one book to the next?


A: Character change is my catnip – it’s really the whole point of my books, exploring the ways characters slowly (often grudgingly) change their worldview and behaviors.


Two-thirds of the way through the first book in the series, Down a Dark River, Corravan is struggling to find a connection among three murdered women who are laid out in boats and sent floating down the Thames — yet he refuses to change his approach.


One night, Corravan’s love interest Belinda Gale points out that he came out of Whitechapel with certain skills and beliefs — for example, he’s quick and decisive, and he believes it’s important to be strong and to rescue people. There’s nothing wrong with any of that in a policeman. But Corravan also must admit that he gets some psychological payoff from always being the rescuer – namely, he never has to admit his own weakness or vulnerability.


The problem is, from that invulnerable position, it’s hard to have empathy for those who feel powerless, and – as Belinda suggests – this murderer may be killing the daughters of powerful men because he feels powerless. At first Corravan pooh-poohs the notion that he must make this psychological pivot – but eventually, he realizes she’s right.


When he finally relinquishes his strong rescuer role, when he listens and empathizes with a woman who is profoundly vulnerable – that’s when he gets his breakthrough, and this experience changes him.


However, I believe we humans all tend to cling to our core beliefs; we often need to have a lesson repeated before it really takes hold. So Corravan will run into this core issue again. In the new book, Under a Veiled Moon, his adoptive brother Colin is in trouble; and Corravan wants desperately to rescue him. The problem is, of course, that some people don’t want rescuing.


Q: Much of the action in the book deals with a real-life event, a collision between two ships on the Thames River in 1878. Why did you choose to center the novel around this incident, and how did you research the book?


A: The Thames is both the lifeblood of London and (particularly in the 1800s) the dumping ground for the city’s detritus, so it’s a wonderful setting for books that explore both the benefits and costs of modern, industrialized life.


Also, the river is tidal; twice a day, it reverses current, and the waters rise and fall 24 feet in some places. Thus, it’s changeful and steady all at once, which feels very evocative to me.


When I was researching DADR, I came across a mention of “the worst maritime disaster in London, ever” – the Princess Alice disaster of 1878 – and I began googling. The Princess Alice was one of a small fleet of wooden pleasure steamers, akin to our hop-on-hop-off tour buses. You could pick it up at London Bridge, and for 2 shillings, ride all day out to the North Sea and then back.

On September 3, under moonlight, as the Princess Alice rounded Tripcock Point on the south shore, she was rammed by the Bywell Castle, an iron-hulled 900-ton collier. Within minutes, the steamer had sunk, throwing 650 people into the cold river. Over 530 drowned — and with no passenger manifest, no one knew who was on the boat. The ensuing panic and desperate search through corpses led to an overhaul in the rules governing river traffic.


For me, this disaster evoked the clash between old (wooden) technologies and new (iron) industrial ones and between individual people and faceless anonymity.


I researched the event partly online but also through books such as Joan Lock’s The Princess Alice Disaster, Peter Ackroyd’s masterful history Thames, and other histories of the period. I also went to the Museum of the Docklands in London, which was a wealth of information about the ships, docks, and Thames River traffic generally.


Q: The Publishers Weekly starred review of the book says, in part, “Odden never strikes a false note, and she combines a sympathetic lead with a twisty plot grounded in the British politics of the day and peopled with fully fleshed-out characters.” What do you think of that description?


A: First off, that’s one of the loveliest compliments I’ve ever received, and I was so grateful for the starred review. I work hard to get my historical details right; I love Corravan, and I expect my sympathy for him comes across. I also take especial care with my secondary characters because I don’t want them to come across as merely serving the protagonist’s needs, or the needs of the plot.


I have a process for developing my secondary characters. In some cases, history gives me something to work with: for example, Sir Howard Vincent, the new director at Scotland Yard and Corravan’s supervisor, was a real person, the well-heeled, well-educated second son of a baronet. And Belinda Gale is a composite of four Victorian women authors.


But as I begin developing a plot and my characters, I have a separate page, often longhand on a legal pad, where I draft a character’s story in his or her own voice.


For example, the page for Gordon Stiles, Corravan’s young partner, begins this way: “My name is Gordon Stiles; I’m 22 years old and a new inspector at the Yard. I grew up in a village north of London with three sisters…”


As I write the book, the backstory evolves, of course, but this page helps me track motives, desires, and how characters’ past experiences shape their present awareness, so they feel like real people inside my head.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?


A: I believe that when the world inside a book (e.g., 1870s London) and the world of the reader (present day) are different enough, the distance between them provides a creative space where we can rethink and reframe contemporary issues.


For example, one issue I discovered when researching 1870s London was the systemic and vitriolic anti-Irish racism.


Benjamin Disraeli, who became prime minister, wrote a letter to the London Times in which he stated, “The Irish hate our order, our civilization, our enterprising industry, our pure religion. This wild, reckless, indolent, uncertain, and superstitious race have no sympathy with the English character. Their ideal of human felicity is an alternation of clannish broils and coarse idolatry. Their history describes an unbroken circle of bigotry and blood.”


That gives you an idea of what an Irish policeman would face in 1878, but it also reflects the tropes and false claims commonly employed in racist discourse.


Another issue is the role of newspapers and how repetition of a particular version of events among papers produces the effect of “truth,” even if the details are false. I think these cultural assumptions are essential to keep talking about, so we can find ways to be mindful and counter them.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’ve started research for the third Corravan mystery, involving a gang of clever women con artists and thieves (somewhat akin to the Forty Elephants, an all-women’s thieving gang from south London).


The historical element in this book has to do with the London banking world and the financial schemes surrounding the Suez Canal in the 1870s. The French built the canal in the 1860s, but by 1878, the British government was the largest stockholder. Hm. It was an issue.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’d love to let people know that I visit book clubs and libraries. It’s something I started doing as Zoom use rose during Covid, and it’s a lot of fun. I share images of Victorian London scenery, streets, scandals, and mayhem and can answer questions from readers. Please visit my website at www.karenodden.com and hit the CONTACT KAREN button.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Karen Odden.

No comments:

Post a Comment