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Karen E. Olson

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Karen E. Olson
Gerald So

Gerald: How did you come up with Annie? How did you discover she was a character you could write novels about?

Karen: I tried two mysteries before Sacred Cows that had reporter characters. But they were rather weak in more ways than one. I took a break from writing while we went to China to adopt our daughter, and when I went back to work I started writing in the middle of the night (I was a nighttime copy editor). Annie's voice just came to me. She was what I'd wanted to write all along: a tough, kick ass woman who took no prisoners. I'd been reading a lot of Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky and others like them and I knew that was the kind of character I wanted to create.

Gerald: I've read some Muller and Paretsky, too. Great characters. Funny to think of them as pioneering protags, but they are.

Karen: Actually, Lillian O'Donnell started what I consider the contemporary woman detective novel in the early 1970s with her police officer Norah Mulcahaney. I read most of her books, too. Marcia Muller was next with Sharon McCone in the later '70s. It's interesting that they were so "new" then and now there are so many wonderful woman protagonists.

Gerald: Yes, I think someone has to kick the barriers down and that inspires others to write what they want.

Karen: I'm reading a super book now by Anna Blundy called The Bad News Bible. I found her name on some blog somewhere and discovered my library had one of her books. Her character, Faith Zanetti, is a war correspondent in Jerusalem. Lots of great stuff.

Gerald: Did you always intend to add a P.I. (Vinny) as a supporting character? That's another way of asking what differences you see between PI characters and reporter characters.

Karen: Vinny was in the second attempt at a mystery. I had no intention of reviving him after that failed attempt, but when I started with Annie and she was dating Tom, the police detective, I said to myself: that's so cliche. So I brought Vinny back to life. I see them as a good team. They're not like police, where they have to adhere to laws, and they're after different things: Vinny wants to resolve the problem, Annie wants a story.

Gerald: I see, yes.

Karen: There are way too many mysteries where the amateur sleuth is dating the police detective. In my new series, I am completely avoiding that cliche as well.

Gerald: And I don't think of Annie as an amateur with her job as a crime reporter.

Karen: That's true. She would come across crime as part of her work.

Gerald: An amateur to me is someone who isn't in the arena of crime as a matter of course, right.

Karen: It's been hard for me to write an amateur sleuth after Annie. It was so easy to stick Annie into these situations. How do I get a tattooist involved in solving a crime?

Gerald: My first attempt at a novel had a pizza chef involved in a murder investigation. I couldn't make that fly. :)

Karen: Oh, you could have a body found in the brick oven! :) Maybe slathered in cheese. With a tomato stuck down his throat.

Gerald: The chef was accused of poisoning a high school rival's food. I might reuse it if I can ever make it believable.

Karen: That's good. I think you could make it work. And with all the chef shows on TV now and their popularity, it might be the right time for it.

Gerald: I liked the way Shot Girl was structured, with Annie doing a lot of talking but not revealing very much at any point, even to readers. Has that always been part of her voice to you?

Karen: No. I tried something different with Shot Girl. I had just finished reading Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent and was very intrigued by his use of the unreliable narrator. Even though I had written three other Annie books in which she's very straightforward, I decided to see if I could do it with Shot Girl. It's an intensely personal story for Annie, which I felt would lend itself nicely to using that idea.

Gerald: It does. I totally got why she wouldn't exactly realize her role in events, still being somewhat in denial, etc.

Karen: I didn't want it to be sappy, either, when she finally tells Vinny that she loves him. She's struggled with her feelings for him for four books but I think I managed to pull it off so it's believable.

Gerald: That worked for me, too, though SHOT GIRL is the first of your books I've read.

Karen: I've tried to write each one so it can stand alone, with the only thread that progresses being the romance.

Gerald: That leads me to another question: If someone were reading you for the first time, would you want them to start with your most recent book or your first?

Karen: They could start with any of them. Honestly? I think Shot Girl is the best one, only because I feel like I've gotten to be a better writer at this point. Granted, in Sarah Weinman's review of Shot Girl she says she's eager to read what I've got next. My next book is the tattoo shop mystery, THE MISSING INK, and while I had great fun writing it, it's not as complex as any of the Annie books.

Gerald: I see. I ask because I can imagine some authors saying, "Don't start with that one. I'm much better in this one." :)

Karen: That's right. While I like Sacred Cows, I can see so many things with it now that I'd change if I could :)

Gerald: THE MISSING INK - great title by the way.

Karen: Ah, yes, my pun title. The second one is PRETTY IN INK.

Gerald: Is this series set in Connecticut, too?

Karen: No, it's set in Las Vegas. My editor wanted a place that's hot with palm trees, so I picked Vegas. I figure it changes there all the time so if I got a landmark wrong it wouldn't matter.

Gerald: Good point. Do you feel there's anything about Connecticut in particular that lends itself to crime novels?

Karen: New Haven is perfect for crime novels. It's a great city, with really diverse neighborhoods and a fascinating history. I have set each book in a different neighborhood, starting with Sacred Cows at Yale; Secondhand Smoke in Wooster Square, which is where the mob has its history; Fair Haven, which is known for its illegal immigrants and oystering; and Shot Girl at West Rock.

Gerald: Hmm.

Karen: I'm just sorry my publisher didn't think it was interesting enough to let me stay there :)

Gerald: I know what you mean. Tough to make that concession. Do you plan on going back to Annie if you get the chance?

Karen: But once I started writing the new book, it really was a lot of fun. It's completely against the "write what you know" rule since I don't have any tattoos and I have only been to Vegas once. and I'm not sure I would want to write about newsrooms right now. All my friends are getting laid off or taking buyouts, newspapers are in real flux right now. It's not funny anymore, and I'd have to either lay Annie off or give her a buyout and I have no idea what she'd do after that.

Gerald: I see.

Karen: Someone suggested sending Vinny and Annie to Vegas for a tattoo. So who knows? Maybe they'll make a cameo in one of the tattoo books!

Gerald: I think crime novels can be set anywhere, actually. The main task is to see a crime happening, become a bit paranoid, and you can do that anywhere. :)

Karen: This is true. I look at Harlan Coben's books. He sets them in suburban America and it totally works.

Gerald: Last question: How does your new protag differ from Annie personality-wise, and what about her do you find you like best?

Karen: Brett and Annie are completely different. Annie is a bit grumpy and worried about her job, a little too ethical sometimes, will do anything for the story, and she's really a loner. Brett was a joy to write in that she's not grumpy, she owns her own business so she's not afraid of losing her job, she's got some pretty cool friends. Brett, I have to say, is much more together than Annie is. But Annie will always be in my head in some way, and I'm not totally sure her story is over yet. We'll see.

Gerald: Glad to hear that. Good luck and thanks for chatting. :)

Karen: It's been fun, Gerald. I'm glad you liked the book!

Gerald: One of my best reads in a long time, really. I find I have a harder time connecting with protags the more I read. Gerald: Not sure why.

Karen: It depends on the book. I just picked up one that's been nominated for an Edgar and just couldn't get into the voice. But then I picked up this Anna Blundy book and it clicked. I find it depends on my mood at the moment. I also get on kicks where I read nothing but Henry VIII biographies (which is where I got Annie's name...)

Gerald: Aha! :)

Karen: Thanks, Gerald! We'll meet again in cyberspace I'm sure!


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