Tag Archives: Karen Long

Guest Post: Karen Long

It was only last week that we reviewed Karen Long’s revolting serial killer novel, The Vault. How time flies — a lot has happened since then. The Vault is a book that makes the corners of your mouth turn down in distaste at the antics of its creepy antag. But anchoring the story, as she did with thriller predecessor The Safe Word, is the complex and ambiguous character of DI Eleanor Raven.

_DSC7158I’m glad to say that Karen’s here now to talk about the genesis of Raven and, interestingly, how a character evolves from one book to the next. In your own time, Karen…

Let Dante be your guide…

It had always been my intention to create a character that I could develop over a series of five books and in order to achieve that she had to be complex, psychologically robust and insightful, though not necessarily about herself. She, like us all, would be moulded and defined by the events of her childhood, in her case the discovery of the decomposing body of her murdered friend.

But Eleanor Raven, unlike the majority of us, cannot forgive herself for not recognising the signs that could have prevented Caleb’s death at the hands of his sexually abusive stepfather. Eleanor manifested this inner conflict in The Safe Word by seeking out sado-masochistic encounters with strangers. The sex scenes were not particularly easy to write but were a great way of placing Eleanor in jeopardy and having a character motivated by the unconscious desire to seek and find redemption.

The VaultHowever, when I started writing the second book in the series, The Vault, I felt the premise to be intrusive and artificial, as I tried to build the plot around it. I was at a loss, I had a story I was dying to tell and a character whose traits were bouncing me out of the story. I turned, as one does, to Dante, whose ‘Inferno’ is tucked between the ‘Next’ catalogue and a vegetarian cookbook next to the loo.

In Purgatory sinners seek redemption, even though tormented hideously with creative ‘contrapasso’ punishments. That is to say that the means of punishment mirrors their sin. Eleanor’s contrapasso is that she is stimulated by the sexual abuse that destroyed Caleb.

This flaw was no longer a narrative intrusion I’d burdened myself with, it was a way into Eleanor’s thoughts, reactions and motivations. I stopped feeling the creeping unease that accompanied the writing of a difficult sex scene and embraced it as a means of examining and exposing my character’s inner conflicts.

And now to book three…

Thanks, Karen. Of course, who doesn’t keep a copy of Dante’s Inferno in the toilet?

A long time ago, when this blog was young and naive and still inexplicably full of the joys of life, Karen took part in The Intel. Go take a look see at that.

The Vault – Karen Long

The VaultIf it’s serial killer thrills you’re after, then Karen Long’s The Vault heaps the Old Skool Grand Guignol up around your ears.

The blurb isn’t going to bathe in that:

In the unrelenting heat of the Toronto summer, a fire at a land-fill site uncovers the remains of a local prostitute. But the post-mortem reveals disturbing details –the body has been preserved and is not who or what it seems.

DI Eleanor Raven is back on duty six months after barely surviving being kidnapped and tortured by a depraved serial killer. Work is her sanctuary but she’s carrying deep scars – mental as well as physical. Where do you go when the place you feel safest is also the place where you are most at risk?

As Eleanor battles her own demons, it looks as though a killer in the city is making a gruesome human collection. And Eleanor’s fight to save the last victim of the Collector becomes a battle to save herself.

The Vault begins on a massive rubbish dump in the heat of summer and the subsequent smell that lifts off the story, of acrid, acid chemicals and evil, goes downhill from there.

Long’s thriller features one of those skin-crawling antags who seems to bumble around the edge of everybody’s consciousness, but who is actually getting up to some pretty unpleasant things. Embalming people, making them human mannequins so that they can join his ‘family.’ Some of the details about his process will, I’m afraid to say, make a little bit of sick come up in your throat.

Actually, if you’re thinking of turning one of your loved ones into an Auton, then The Vault is a pretty good primer. The author takes us painstakingly through the process, lavishing us with all the gory details.

The killer comes from that school of deranged murderers who has travelled far beyond evil into a kind of twisted place that makes even cockroaches give him the cold-shoulder. Actually, the author delights in gleefully piling up the perversion. I don’t think there’s any kind of sexual deviancy, illegal or otherwise, that doesn’t get an honourable mention along the way.

Her protag, Eleanor Raven, returns from the first novel in the series, The Safe Word. Scarred and solitary, Raven lives in a twilight world and seems to be something of a trouble-magnet, which is very bad for her and very good for us.

She’s as unhappy and troubled as that grim and much-maligned bird who provides her surname. Raven is a complex character, brooding and self-harming, who carries around a heavy guilt that sucks any kind of happiness from her life. She may be a difficult so-and-so — you may not even take to her overmuch — but she’s a hard character to ignore, and hopefully The Vault gives her some kind of resolution to the more extreme demons that drive her. If Raven’s tribulations pile up, there’s also an empathetic cast of cops and law-enforcement personnel to provide banter and a bit of warmth.

It’s interesting that The Vault is set in Toronto, but I would have liked to have got a better sense of time and place – and of Canadians. At the moment the city is Made-for-TV bland, a generic place which is not quite realized as a character in itself.

But there’s a lot to enjoy in this macabre and chilling tale. Long is terrific at piling on The Creep, and you’ll probably want to take a bath after putting the book down. Just make sure nobody’s got there first and *just happened* to fill the tub with 250 litres of seventy per cent acetone.

Thanks to Karen Long for the review copy. Karen’s going to be doing a Guest Post right here in this little corner of the internet, and that’s coming up soon!

The Intel: Karen Long

K.D. LongYou know we love the kind of writers who really throw themselves into their work. Karen Long began her working life as a secondary school teacher but took up full time writing ten years ago. She has written numerous screenplays and is currently working on the second novel in the DI Eleanor Raven series. Her first novel, The Safe Word, was published on kindle and in paperback last month, and was inspired by several stays in Toronto, Canada.

Karen lives in rural Shropshire with her filmmaker husband, three children, three dogs and a small disabled crow.

Tell us about Eleanor Raven.

Eleanor is a complex creature. She is contained, independent and confident in her abilities but the opposite is also true. She carries a burden of guilt from her childhood, which manifests itself in her masochistic sexual practices. She lives by the mantra that she never ‘judges’ yet she has judged and condemned herself for not recognising the ‘signs’ that could have saved her school friend Caleb. I believe that this is essentially the human condition and why every central character’s struggle should essential be with him/herself. Her journey is, and hopefully will be in future novels, to come to terms with her guilt and forgive the child’s mistake. Essentially Eleanor is a modern woman. She is sexually liberated and proactive, physically aggressive and defines herself through her career and not through family.

How would you describe The Safe Word to a potential reader?

It’s modern crime fiction set in Toronto featuring a strong but flawed female lead, whose personal life becomes dangerously entwined in the unfolding action.

Would you describe The Safe Word as a ‘whodunnit’?

The Safe Word’isn’t about the sudden revelation of the killer from a pool of potentials or misdirects. Don’t get me wrong that can be very exciting. My favourite example of a sublime ‘whodunnit’ is Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Club, which I’ve read three times now. What I am more interested in is the gradual uncovering of the motivation of the ‘who’, which is inexorably linked to the ‘why’. My killer has a very clear vision of why he does what he does and I want to learn why his thought processes are so different to mine.

However, that’s not to say that one of the most important aspects to writing crime fiction is to supply frisson at regular points in the narrative. Characters should be imperiled; there shouldn’t be a formula as to who can die and who can’t or as to what can happen or when. Crime fiction should be a roller-coaster ride; don’t allow your reader to become complacent because that’s one stop away from bored. The ‘what if’ you asked yourself before you started typing the first sentence should be asked after every scene.

What’s your writing process? What comes first – plot or character?

It’s a close run thing for me.  I was browsing the Toronto Sun newspaper and chugging coffee when I read an article about police being called to save a woman who appeared to have been kidnapped off a Toronto street and bundled into a van. When police swooped in to arrest and save her they were stunned to discover that the woman had arranged to have herself kidnapped as a sexy treat. There was the material for a ‘what if’! Eleanor Raven followed on pretty closely and I started to outline the plot.

Take us through a typical writing day

As I only have one daughter left at home now and my husband works abroad for most of the year the day starts when the front door slams shut, the dogs/crow/ferret have been fed and watered and the biohazard that is the kitchen is tidy. I have to be very determined to keep myself on track, as there are so many domestic distractions that break my concentration. I also have to write in total silence (no music or radio) and without anyone else being in the house. If I know someone is popping in for a coffee it can make it impossible to write for the whole day. There’s no sitting in coffee shops and putting out a couple of thousand words for me, sadly!

The Safe Word - Kindle CoverI see the story I’m writing as a film that can only be played linearly. I can rewind a couple of chapters but invariably I read from start to finish once a week.  I really envy writers like Stephen King who have such an organised, methodical and productive approach to writing. My husband, a writer himself, frequently sends me links to pages on ‘The rigours of writing’ but I guess there’s just the way that works for you.

 Who are the authors you love and why?

 I love the Scandinavian writers, in particular Karin Fossum, Arnaldur Indridason and Yrsa Sigurdardottir. Their intellectual, complex lead characters set against a dour, unforgiving backdrop and intricate plots have me hooked. I particularly love Denis Lehane, who conjures up period and texture that finds a life in my mind as I read. Perhaps the most influential novelists for me are Graham Greene, William Golding and Joseph Conrad. They write about redemption and the human condition, which is for me the most interesting and important theme literature can tackle. Please don’t think I am comparing myself to the great writer’s mentioned above, but sub genres such as crime fiction should be open to incorporating layers of meaning and texture into less august subject matter. Never assume that your reader will be satisfied with a series of events culminating in a twist. Every novel should be satisfying on many levels.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

That it always takes longer that you thought to complete. That your choice of language, character and event is frequently not as entertaining or clear as you thought it was. That when people pay money to read what you have written they are entitled to an opinion. The most valuable lesson was given to me by a wise bird who said, ‘Show Don’t Tell’ and that is a mantra I run with every time I write. Don’t tell a reader how they should interpret an action or judge a character. That’s their job not yours so butt out! 

How do you deal with the feedback?

Not always with good grace, sadly. But I have always held to Oscar Wilde’s belief that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. So provoking a reaction that merits comment and opinion is, in itself, rather flattering. I have also found that after shrugging off my initial outrage most people make very valid comments about my writing. I do believe that you have to be honest with yourself. If a comment reminds you that you had considered that question before then go back and deal with it but by the same token just because someone has a thought on a plot point or character or line of dialogue it doesn’t mean that they are right. Be flexible but believe in what you wrote. Eventually the sales will tell you if you were right. 

How have your own experiences shaped your writing?

My husband is a movie director and I have spent the last ten years lurking around film sets and edit suites. I love to watch hours and hours of film being trimmed, compressed, enhanced and structured so that the story is exciting and satisfying. I want a reader to ‘see’ the story, as a film playing out in front of them and that means no flab!

I believe that every biological event that appears in your novel should be researched and accurately presented. I’ve spent many blissful hours consuming textbooks on forensics, toxicology, epidemiology and post mortem practice because if you don’t present forensics truthfully then you’re writing science fiction not crime fiction. I arranged several years ago to complete a work experience in a hospital morgue. It was an incredible experience. I was able to watch as a human body was dissected and reduced to plastic bag of organs, tissues and viscera. Perhaps the most seminal moment was when the face of the elderly woman was pulled away from the skull and left hanging, bag-like while the calvarium was opened and the brain removed. All the time the pathologist tutted empathically at the injuries sustained during her final moments in a road traffic accident.

What kind of research are you doing for the series?

 In my second book in the Eleanor Raven’series I need to have a good working knowledge of embalming techniques, including plastination. Luckily the Internet provides loads of written material and Dr. Gunther Von Hagens has been no slouch when it comes to explaining his life work in documentary form. I’ve been to view the Body Worlds Exhibition twice now but I need a more proactive experience. I’ve spoken to embalmers and read the course work and now I’m going to watch an embalming procedure take place. Then the smells, the process the weights and texture will come through in my writing, hopefully enriching it.

Give me some advice for an author looking to get into the marketplace…

Self-publishing is now a real possibility for every writer that wants to get his/her novel out there. The process, though complicated is manageable even for a  ‘non-techie’ (idiot according to my daughter) like myself. What this doesn’t give you is the experienced voice that an agent brings. I’m particularly lucky with mine; they like my writing, aren’t afraid to nag me to change elements and work alongside me to make my book a commercially viable enterprise.

A marketplace demands that you publicise your work effectively, keep abreast with all of the websites that could bring you an audience and that’s time consuming and not everyone is suited to it. I surprised myself by actually enjoying the whole social media/publicity process. It’s all about winning hearts and minds, generally one at a time! However, this is just the way I wanted to do it. Some writers are out there self publishing, self promoting and making thousands of pounds as a result. Judge yourself wisely and if you need an agent then it’s time to get yourself a copy of The Writers And Artists Yearbook, several spare cartridges for your printer and a bumper book of stamps!

What’s next for you?

 I’m a good third of the way into my second novel in the Eleanor Raven series. It’s called The Collection, and follows Eleanor’s challenging return to the crime scene six months after the end of The Safe Word.