A Between the Lines Interview with Karen Dionne

by Andrew Peterson

If the soul of a volunteer is golden, then Karen Dionne is worth millions.  Simply stated, you’d have to look hard to find a more dedicated and hardworking author who is more generous with her time.

dionne-karen.jpgNot everyone featured in ITW’s Between the Lines interview needs to be a megastar.  Karen doesn’t have millions of books in print and her work has been translated into just two, and not dozens of languages.  She’s a charter ITW Debut Author–class of 2008-2009.  But her debut status is about to change.  Her second environmental thriller from Berkley, BOILING POINT, will publish in January 2011.

I met Karen in person at the first annual ITW Debut Author’s party held during ThrillerFest at Pershing Square Restaurant across from Grand Central Station.  Being the kindhearted volunteer she is, Karen helped set up the event.  We pulled a bunch of tables together and formed a long gauntlet of hungry, lighthearted, and  green authors who shared a truly memorable moment in time.  Rip Gerber played the ukulele while we all sang a tribute to then Debut Author leader C.J. Lyons to the tune of “YMCA.”  “C-J-Ly-ons…” And yes, our singing was pretty hard on the ears, but I’m happy to say no heads of cabbage were thrown at us.

During our first year of the Debut Author’s program, we’d all been sharing our experiences–the good, bad, and the ugly–inside the online forum, but seeing Karen meeting everyone in person brought a smile.  Hugs were exchanged and the gathering soon had the feel of a family reunion.  In many ways, we are family.  Lifelong friendships were forged that night.

Karen is now managing editor of The Big Thrill, and because of that, she was reluctant to be featured in a Between the Lines interview. But I have a different take on it.  She’s more than earned it!  As you read her interview, you’ll see the depth of her commitment to the ITW organization.   So thank you, Karen! You don’t hear those words enough.

Early in their careers, novelists feel a tremendous amount of pressure to succeed based on countless hours of speculative hard work. Do you see writing as a risk vs. reward career?

andy, rip, karen2-website.jpgFirst off, what a generous introduction, Andy. And yes, those informal Debut Author gatherings during ThrillerFest are a blast. If anyone reading this thinks they qualify for ITW’s Debut Author program, but hasn’t yet gotten involved, I urge you to apply right away! Or, as soon as you finish reading this interview, that is. It’s a great way to meet new people and make lasting friends, and we do have a lot of fun – even if the rest of the patrons at Pershing Square don’t necessarily appreciate our singing!

Now on to your questions . . .

Pursuing publication with no guarantee of success is definitely an act of faith.  I do believe that novelists have to pay their dues.  For some, that means years of writing novel after novel without hitting a major marker, like getting an agent, or winning a contest and catching the eye of an editor – some sort of outside validation from an industry professional that tells them they’re on the right track.

Family members and other non-writers don’t always understand what drives writers to keep going in the face of such daunting odds, which is one of the reasons writers join organizations like ITW and seek out other writers on the Internet.  If you rant about the latest rejection to your non-writing spouse, you’re likely to hear, “Then don’t do it if it makes you that upset.” Rant to another writer, and they understand exactly where you’re coming from and what you’re up against.

It might sound cheeky to say this, but I knew from the day I began writing novels that one day, I’d place a book with a major publisher.  I didn’t know how long it would take (which in hindsight was probably just as well), but I was absolutely convinced that if I stuck with it and constantly improved my storytelling and my craft, I’d get there.

Why are you so driven?

Now there’s a loaded question – why indeed? Since I don’t have a shrink, I guess I’ll have to figure this one out myself.  Looking deep into my psyche, I see two things that drive me.  The first is that I’m a praise junkie.  I realize an excessive need for praise might seem counterintuitive for a novelist because the road to publication can be so difficult, even brutal. But the strokes I get from my own successes and from helping others must feed some intrinsic need within me, because I can never get enough.   (Was that a good answer?)

The other thing that drives me is I love the feeling I get when something I’ve said or done has helped someone else reach their publishing goals.  I’m definitely the kind of person who wants to be the star of her own show, but I also get a great deal of satisfaction from helping others.

You volunteer for many ITW projects and for other writers conferences as well.  Why do you feel that’s so important?

Volunteering is incredibly important because ITW is an organization of volunteers.  Without them, we wouldn’t exist.  Everything – the website, The Big Thrill newsletter, our anthologies and other publications which support our no-dues-for-author-members policy, our annual convention, our Debut Authors program, the USO Tour – all of these cool and amazing things happen because a vast number of members – members who are at the same time deeply involved with their own writing careers – have seen something worthwhile in the organization and have stepped up to the plate.

For myself, I’ve wanted to be in the thick middle of ITW ever since I first heard about the organization.  I have many ideas, and by getting involved, I’m able to see some of them become a reality.  For instance, as Website Chair, I’m tremendously excited to be working on a major redesign of the ITW website that will split our current website into three: a stand-alone website for ThrillerFest which is already up and running, and two others which will be unveiled in the near future: an official organization website, and a new website for our online ezine, The Big Thrill.

What I think is extraordinary about ITW is that you don’t have to be a brand name to get involved.  When I first expressed an interest in serving on the Board of Directors, I didn’t yet have a contract for my second novel.  I mentioned that to then co-president Steve Berry as a factor that might disqualify me, and he said, “Doesn’t matter.  You’re a member.” As a board nominee, I was invited to sit in on the board meeting at ThrillerFest last July – a pinch-me moment if ever there was one.  Picture me, a new author with one book published in mass market paperback, sitting at a table with Douglas Preston, David Morrell, Gayle Lynds, Steve Berry, Peter James, David Hewson and others, listening to these thriller luminaries discuss the organization’s needs and goals and tossing in my occasional two cents.  Amazing.

Can you tell us about your own conference, Backspace?  What inspired you to start it?  And where you see it in ten years?

Christopher Graham and I started the Backspace writers organization in the spring of 2004.  ITW’s first official organizational meeting took place at Bouchercon that fall, so Backspace and ITW have grown up side by side.  The two share many of the same objectives, and David Morrell, Gayle Lynds, and Lee Child were early Backspace supporters because they understood that Chris and I were trying to create an online environment in which aspiring and published writers could help one another succeed. All three have been guest speakers at the Backspace discussion forums and served on the faculty of our Backspace conferences not just once, but multiple times.  I can’t overstate how indebted Backspace is to them for their help and support.

Backspace has now grown to 1,400 members in a dozen countries.  A third of our members are agented and/or published, and around two dozen are New York Timesbestselling authors.  Of the original 110 members, 53 have sold their projects to major publishers, and 6 have become New York Times bestsellers – a “extraordinary hit rate,” as Lee puts it, that would be the envy of any MFA program in the country!

Backspace’s mission statement is “writers helping writers,” which is why, in addition to the online forums, we began sponsoring real-world writers conferences.  Now we hold two events in New York City every year: the Backspace Writers Conference at the end of May with literary agents, editors, bestselling authors, and other publishing professionals on the program, and an Agent-Author Seminar in November for aspiring authors with only literary agents on the faculty.   Attendance at the November seminar is limited to 150, and with 25 literary agents on the program, the ratio is definitely author-friendly.  We also offer small-group workshops at the November event in addition to agent panels so authors can get feedback from agents on their query letters and opening pages to find out what’s working, and what isn’t.

As for where I see Backspace in ten years, let’s just say that Chris and I both believe that if you’re going to do something, you should aim high.

How long were you writing before you sold FREEZING POINT?  Was there a time where you felt it was hopeless and you’d never be published?  Did your family support your crazy idea to become an author?

freezing-point.jpgI started writing with a view to publication in the spring of 1998. FREEZING POINT sold to Berkley 9 years later.  As you might imagine, over that span, there were many times when I felt like giving up.

I give my family, and particularly my husband, a lot of credit for sticking it out with me.  Because writing happens inside the author’s head, there’s no way for a spouse or other family member to know if we have a snowball’s chance of success or not.  It’s difficult enough for writers to keep the faith; I can only imagine what it’s like for those who care about us to stand back and watch and wait.

You must be a master at managing your time.  You’re a mother of 4 children.  An author, a Backspace Writers Conference director, you oversee the Backspace Writers forums, oversee the entire ITW website and manage the Big Thrill newsletter, and now you’ve just joined ITW’s Board of Directors as Vice President, Technology.  How do you do all these things and maintain any sense of sanity?

I think only a crazy person would take all of that on.  Who is this woman? Someone should have her committed.

Seriously, no one’s holding a gun to my head.  I love talking to writers, and I love helping them succeed, so whatever I do to that end rarely feels like work.  Like any busy person, I just keep juggling and praying that the balls won’t fall.

As a pioneer with ITW’s Debut Authors program, what do you see for its future?  We’re both charter members, but do you feel the newer arrivals should take a more active role in keeping the program going?  Carla Buckley is a gem, don’t you wish you had 5 more of her?

You don’t really want to get me going about volunteering again, do you?

I love the Debut Authors program.  It’s where you and I and a bunch of other new authors met and became lasting friends.  It’s also one of the stars in the ITW crown.  Not only does the program nurture first-time authors by helping them get through that critical first year, ultimately, the whole organization benefits.  Because they get involved with ITW from the beginning, many of the debut authors continue to be active throughout the organization, serving as contributing editors to The Big Thrill, as ThrillerFest volunteers, and on our various committees.  One debut author was the managing editor for the ITW short story anthology FIRST THRILLS.  Another is the coordinator for the Thriller awards this year. Another debut author, Andy Harp, conceived and organized the upcoming USO Tour.  Another (you) writes the monthly Between the Lines feature articles for The Big Thrill. And on October 15, one debut author (me) will begin serving on the board of directors . . .

As for Carla, she’s fabulous.  I’m still working on that cloning thing.

BOILING POINT is finished and will soon be released.  Can you give us a snapshot?

boiling-point.jpgBOILING POINT is my second environmental thriller, and will publish from Berkley in January 2011.  The novel brings back two characters from FREEZING POINT, and features an erupting volcano, a missing researcher, and a radical scheme to end global warming.

The novel was a lot of fun to write – the book has a 40-page climax that takes place in the caldera of an erupting volcano – and even more fun to research, since I traveled to Chaitén Volcano in Northern Patagonia, Chile in order to write the book.  I stayed in Chaitén town at the base of the volcano, even though the town was ruined by a mud and ash flow during the eruption and remains evacuated and is without electricity and running water. I also hiked to within one mile of the new lava dome, where I saw steam vents, heard explosions coming from the caldera, and felt a small earthquake.  It was an amazing and inspiring trip that definitely informed the novel.

Are you going to continue with the “point” brand?  I think it’s a terrific word for book titles.  Do have a title for your third book?

I’d love to continue to write Point books.  Other possibilities: Pressure Point, Breaking Point, Tipping Point, Melting Point, Sticking Point, Point of No Return, Point/Counterpoint, and my personal favorites: What’s the Point? and Pointless. (Karen gave me a good laugh here!)

If you could only use three words to describe your hero from FREEZING POINT, Ben Maki, what would they be?

Committed.  Altruistic.  Misguided.

Same question for your style of writing?

Spare.  Tense.  Fun.

We were both released in mass-market paperback format.  It seems like the vast majority of aspiring authors want a hardcover release.  What are your thoughts on that?

I think an initial release in mass market paperback is a great place for a new writer.  It’s true that mass market paperbacks don’t get as much review attention as hardcovers, but thanks to the mass market format, my first novel was everywhere – bookstores, grocery stores, drugstores, airports, bus stations, train stations, and even a few of the big box stores.  That kind of exposure goes a long way toward creating a following for a new author, and would never have happened if I had published in hardcover.

Who or what is the most influential force working in your writing life?

Without a doubt, it’s my agent, Jeff Kleinman, of Folio Literary Management.  Jeff and I have been together for a dozen years, and for a lot of reasons (which you can read about in detail in my personal essay about my road to publication in Writer’s Digest Books’2011 Guide to Literary Agents) my journey from aspiring novelist to internationally published thriller author wouldn’t have happened if not for him.  Jeff has always been my first editor and career counselor, and over the years, he’s also become a good friend.  His standards are incredibly high, and by striving to exceed them and impress him, I’ve grown immeasurably as a writer.

When did you know for certain you wanted to be a novelist?

I won creative writing awards when I was in high school, but it wasn’t until my son was in high school and I was encouraging him to enter some of the same contests I had that I thought, “What about me? I used to be a pretty good writer.” A classic midlife crisis, but here I am!

What piece of advice do you give to aspiring authors who have yet to find an agent and break into this incredibly difficult and often exclusive world?

I have two.  First, it’s important that writers who are still struggling to break in understand that writers are not in competition with one another.  The more books that are sold, the stronger the industry becomes, and we all reap the benefits.  Every time a reader buys a book by a bestselling thriller author, they’re also helping me, because they’re helping to create a market for the kind of books I write. So don’t ever be jealous of another author’s success. There’s room at the table for both of you.

The second is: Write the right book.  It takes a year or more to write a novel.  Don’t settle for a good story idea, or an excellent story idea, or even a great one.  Write an AMAZING novel – the kind that generates multiple agent offers, and has publishers falling all over themselves in their rush to purchase.  It’s not as impossible as it sounds; at the Backspace forums, I see first-time authors hit this sweet spot over and over again.  If none of your novel ideas have that blow-’em-out-of-the-water wow factor, don’t write one until it does.  Stretch.  Reach.  Don’t settle.

Can I just add that I’m absolutely thrilled and delighted to be featured?  A Between the Lines interview with ME?  Amazing.  Thanks, Andy!

As you might’ve surmised, Karen has a good sense of humor.  It goes without saying that a debut author needs one.  One of our discussions inside the Debut Authors’ online forum dealt with the various horrible reviews we’d received.  Some of them were downright nasty. Karen had the honor of taking 5th place for the Worst Amazon Review Award at ThrillerFest this past year.  Needless to say, there were many laughs from the audience over her bad review.  If she didn’t have such a well-developed sense of humor, she wouldn’t have submitted the review for consideration.  Karen’s in good company; some really big names have been recipients over the years, including Lee Child.  His winning review went something like this:  “This was so awful, I wish I could unread this book.”  Lee took it in stride, like a true gentleman.

Although this feature doesn’t focus on marketing and promotion, it’s fair to say that when it comes to trying new ideas, Karen’s at the forefront.  In a writerunboxed.com interview from October 2008, Karen had this to say about marketing: “Don’t be afraid to try something new. Don’t just step outside the box, destroy it.”

Her online launch party for FREEZING POINT was a huge success–thanks to some help from special friends who happen to be some of the biggest names in the thriller industry:

launch-party-screenshot.jpgLee Child
Douglas Preston
David Morrell
John Lescroart
Gayle Lynds
James Rollins

That’s quite a New York Times bestseller lineup.  Preston, Morrell, Lynds, and Rollins recorded special video welcomes for Karen’s launch.  Her party website received more than 2,700 visitors in 3 days, with over 400 people leaving comments in the guest book.

So what is an environmental thriller?  The simplest answer is a story with a global environmental issue at the root of the problem.  In FREEZING POINT, the story is crafted around an issue concerning drinkable water.  I read this book when it first launched and reread it just prior to writing this feature.  It’s a great read, even the second time through!  Without ruining the story, I can say it’s got an imaginative scientific solution for turning iceberg ice into drinking water using the Earth’s most abundant energy source: the sun.

Sounds simple, right?  Use the sun to melt Antarctic ice into potable water.  It’s pure, there’s lots of it, and it’s just a supertanker ride away.  Ah, but when is anything ever that easy?  FREEZING POINT is packed full of twists and turns that keep you guessing until the last page.  It’s a Michael Crichton type of story, which Karen likes to describe as “Jurassic Park on Ice.”

Because Karen held Crichton in such high esteem (and because David Morrell, after reading FREEZING POINT, christened Karen “the new Michael Crichton”), upon Crichton’s passing, Writers Digest Magazine asked her to share what she’d learned from the literary giant as a tribute.  You can read her comments here.

Karen believes in the classic “what if?” question.  Those two words can be the building blocks of great fiction.  There are no limits to stretching the imagination.  None of us pick up a thriller expecting to read something ho-hum or dull.  We want action, high drama, and suspense.

So if you’re looking for a new voice in the thriller genre, Karen Dionne delivers the goods.  BOILING POINT centers on geoengineering, or “geohacking” – deliberately altering Earth’s atmosphere to counteract the effects of global warming.  A megalomanical villain who takes it upon himself to permanently reshape the planet? I can’t wait to read it!
* * *

Detroit native Karen Dionne attended the University of Michigan in the 1970s before moving to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula wilderness with her husband and infant daughter as part of the back-to-the-land movement.  During the next thirty winters, her indoor creative pursuits included stained glass, weaving, constructing N-scale model train layouts, and three more children.  Eventually, her creative interests turned to writing.  Karen and her husband now live in Detroit’s northern suburbs.  When she isn’t writing, she’s thinking about writing. Visit her website at www.karendionne.net

Andrew Peterson

Andrew Peterson is the author of First To Kill, the debut in a series featuring Nathan McBride, a former marine sniper and CIA operations officer.The next McBride novel, Forced To Kill, will be available early next year in exclusive audiobook format from Audible.com.Andrew works as a volunteer firefighter, enjoys scuba diving, target shooting, flying helicopters, hiking and camping, and an occasional sad round of golf.

Visit Andy at: www.andrewpeterson.com.
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