By A.J. Colucci
Karen Ellis is the new pseudonym for Katia Leif, the USA Today and internationally bestselling author of crime novels, including the acclaimed book series featuring former detective Karin Schaeffer. In her latest novel, A MAP OF THE DARK, Ellis introduces Elsa Myers, an FBI agent whose unit specializes in child abduction cases.
In A MAP OF THE DARK, Elsa is pulled in two directions. Her father is dying in the hospital, stirring up emotions and a dark secret from her past. At the same time, she lands the case of a missing teenager named Ruby. It becomes a race against time for Elsa and her partner Lex Cole—who sometimes butt heads with each other—in their search for a man who may have been killing for years. As the hunt for Ruby intensifies, Elsa’s world collapses around her. Everything she has buried, from her self-destructive past to her mother’s death, threatens to resurface with devastating consequences.
As Ellis began writing the novel, she realized that A MAP OF THE DARK had three distinct storylines that needed to resonate against each other: the plight of the missing teens, Elsa’s search for the girls with Lex, and Elsa’s personal story in which her father’s terminal illness triggers devastating childhood memories. “It was a tricky balancing act,” Ellis says. So she tried something new—writing each storyline individually and then weaving them together. “I’d never approached a novel that way before and wasn’t sure if it would work, but I found that it allowed me to fully inhabit each distinctive voice before moving on to the next one.”
For Ellis, it’s finding those distinctive voices that make a story work. “Character is story,” she says, “in that no story can have weight or impact for a reader without characters you care about.” Although it was Elsa’s character that kickstarted A MAP OF THE DARK, Ellis says, “As soon as Lex appeared, he jumped off the page for me. This is really Elsa’s story, and I loved getting inside her head and heart, but she’s a pretty intense lady, and so Lex served as a point of relief and balance. I think they make a good pair because their temperaments are so different—she’s more hot and raw, and he’s cool and easygoing.”
The book explores events in Elsa’s traumatic childhood that lead to self-harming behavior, and Ellis handles the rarely talked-about issue of cutting in a compassionate way. But it wasn’t originally part of the plot. “In the early drafts of the novel, Elsa was not overtly self-destructive,” she says. “Her turmoil was inward; her pain and suffering were emotional.” Then an early reader suggested that Elsa’s pent-up rage would probably spill over into her behavior. “The more I thought about it, the more it made sense to find an external expression for her terrible inner conflict. I understood implicitly that she would never gratuitously hurt another person, but she would hurt herself. Cutting is a physical expression of her highly charged emotional state—she takes revenge, but against herself.”
Ellis, who teaches fiction writing at the acclaimed New School in Manhattan says her best piece of advice for aspiring authors is to first get something down on paper, or screen. “It’s surprising how intimidating the idea of writing can be, so I start by trying to disempower that fear. Second, learn to read your own work critically, and plan to revise extensively. In my classes, we spend a lot of time learning the tools of self-editing.”
On her long and winding journey through publishing, Ellis hasn’t always gone with convention, sometimes following her own instincts. “I’ve sometimes veered off in my own direction, but I’d been a published author for a long time before I took any real risks. For first timers, I think it’s always best to have a traditional publisher if that’s an option, but if it isn’t, sure, take some risks and find your own direction. There are so many avenues to publication out there right now, some fairly unexplored.” She recommends first seeking and following the advice of industry professionals because they’re well-versed on the inner workings of the business. “But this business can be inscrutable, there are so many uncontrollable forces at play.” She says the quickly-changing landscape of publishing at one point turned into the Wild West. “I decided to take a radical step against the advice of my former agent and become a hybrid author, although at the time there was no name for someone who published both traditionally and independently. The results were so successful that I learned to listen to my own judgment as carefully as I listen to that of my advisers. But, I have to say, I’m very much a team player. I’ve just learned to carefully select who I listen to, ask a lot of questions, and if I’m not happy, go my own way.”
A MAP OF THE DARK is Ellis’s first foray into a loosely connected series of crime novels. “In the second book, which I’ve just finished, Lex Cole is the lead investigator and his personal story is explored more extensively, but Elsa appears in his story so you’ll definitely get to see her again.”
Karen Ellis is a pseudonym of long time crime fiction author Katia Lief, whose 2013 novel THE MONEY KILL was nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark award. She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her family.
To learn more, please visit her website.