Sunday, 15 November 2015

An Unkindness of Ravens - author interview with Karen Long

I have been privileged to have had some exceptional authors guest on my blog since I became an author, but this lady is someone special. I have been a huge fan ever since I read her bestselling debut novel 'The Safe Word' and to have her agree to take time out of her busy life to answer some of my questions is a true honour (and ticks a box for the fanboy in me!!).

So, to kick us off I will simply say hi Karen and thank you for taking the time to guest on my blog. As one of my favourite authors, and as I mentioned above, I’m a little star struck and honoured to have you here. 

And to begin with, ‘The Safe Word’ introduced the world to Eleanor Raven. Tell us a little about her conception and how she came to be?

Thank you for that glowing introduction.
My husband was filming in Toronto several years ago and I took the opportunity to stay over. I love the city. It’s liberated, calm and full of life and felt the right environment to develop story ideas in. I’d been writing for a long time and had wanted to move into crime fiction but up to that point didn’t have an environment I felt confident about using as the backdrop.
What was the initial inspiration behind ‘The Safe Word’?

A coffee and a newspaper browse. There was a small article about a woman who had been reported by eyewitnesses as having been kidnapped and flung into the back of a van. The police had apprehended the vehicle and in the process of rescuing the ‘victim’, were somewhat disconcerted by her less than appreciative response. Apparently she’d been saving up for a ‘red letter’ sexy kidnap day for some time and was less than pleased to have her day spoiled by meddling police. It wasn’t too much of a stretch to imagine how that sort of high-risk behaviour could end in murder.

How helpful was your background in medicine and forensic psychology in crafting the story?

I think the wider your knowledge base is, the easier it is to avoid the pitfalls of modern crime detection. I am an avid reader of all things forensic but there are considerable gaps in my knowledge, which frequently trip me up. I’m not a Torontan, a weapons expert, or detective and have a limited grasp on how data and surveillance works. So, I am aware that I often skirt around aspects of real life detection that I’m unsure of, or don’t feel I have covered sufficiently. Where I am most confident is in describing mind and body: it’s also what I most like to read about. You should write what you want to read.

Eleanor is quite a complex protagonist with particularly interesting strengths and vulnerabilities (not to mention an excellent name!). What were the challenges in imbuing her character with those traits whilst maintaining her role as a detective?

If you are going to spend any amount of time with a fictional character, then you, as reader, need to be in possession of their secrets. I am intrigued by people whose public face is the polarised opposite of how they are in their private world. Her private fears, insecurities and indulgences are in constant friction with her role as an investigator, which gives the plotting an extra layer of conflict to play around with.

Making her into BDSM was a brave move, and I felt made her more human and relatable (I’m not giving away spoilers to the story, dear readers…Eleanor’s sexual proclivities are discussed in the first chapter!). It certainly sets her apart from the usual, more conventional detectives. A deliberate move?

I love the phrase, ‘Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone.’ and felt it was a mantra that could accompany Eleanor as she searches for the killer. She doesn’t judge the actions or motivations of others; neither does she empathise with them. I also like the idea that my central character should understand, on many levels, the world she is sent to police. It really appealed to me that her journey to apprehend the killer, should parallel growing insights into her own character.

One reviewer called her an onion in so much as you feel you are only scratching the surface with her. Was she always so multi-layered?

I think the complexity of a character emerges as you try to work how they will react to each event. As I piled on the pressures, it became apparent to me that Eleanor wouldn’t always understand why she reacted or behaved in a particular manner, though insight is what she would ultimately seek. So, when I first conceived Eleanor’s personality, she was determined mainly by her secret. As each novel has progressed she has become more fractured, more self-aware and then eventually healed.

‘The Safe Word’ has a certain voyeuristic feel to it. Was that the intention?

Absolutely. Reading about murder and mayhem is a way or indulging our darker thoughts and fears. If it is to work, then the reader should be uncomfortable. An easy read does just that. You lap it up and go put on the kettle. Murder is an obscenity: our greatest fear, so we shouldn’t be at ease. A thriller, for me, should make you squirm.

And ‘Monster’ (readers will know to whom or rather what I refer!)…based upon your love of animals?

I originally included a dog because it was an easy way of developing characters and relationships within the novel. I love animals, in particular the crow family but pairing Laurence up with a literal Raven was going to test incredulity. I didn’t want Laurence’s character to always just be bouncing off Eleanor’s, so I gave him a little story of his own (and the loan of my german shepherd).

We find Eleanor dealing with her own demons for a verity of reasons in the second novel ‘The Vault’. Was the idea for it always there or did that come later following the release of ‘The Safe Word’?

It wasn’t satisfying dramatically just to repeat the same scenarios because that would mean Eleanor hadn’t progressed from The Safe Word. I am currently writing book three, which sees her in another light, again having learned from The Vault. I understand that each book has to be singular story in its own right but I have written/am writing them as a trilogy, so she has to have an overriding arc.

The antagonist in ‘The Vault’ is fascinating. How did you come up with the concept for that character?

I watched a documentary on a strange little man called Carl Tanzier, who became obsessed with a dying TB patient, called Elena. Following her death, he created a mausoleum and stole her body, preserving it (albeit badly) using his own recipe and turning her into his ‘bride’.
We are all wired up to want, or need similar things such as love, acceptance and family bonds, unfortunately these needs are not always realised in a conventional way. He was, according to people who knew him and worked with him, overly confident in his own intellectual powers, single-minded and secretive. If you combine those traits with those associated with psychopathy, then coming up with the ‘Collector’ wasn’t too hard.
I love writing characters that are guided by their own moral compass. They have no empathy, or sense of how other people view the world. They are terrifying.

It reminded me a little of the Autons from Doctor Who in regards to what happens to the victims being embalmed. It goes to some pretty dark places. 

Exactly. I love the idea of the ‘Uncanny valley’. There’s an emotional peak and trough associated with robots and the recreation of ‘humans’. As a robot is made to look more human, we begin to increase our levels of empathy towards it. But there’s a point, where we begin to become suspicious that the creature in front of us isn’t quite human, despite appearances and behaviour. This creates a sense of ‘uncanniness’ and makes us feel revulsion. It’s a very narrow margin though and with a bit of tweaking, you can elicit an empathic response from people again. I liked the idea of an individual, whose response to this phenomenon was identical in terms of empathy and revulsion to that of a healthy person but just didn’t hit the same markers. For him the lack of movement, skin tone, warmth and vitality didn’t engender a negative emotional response. It’s only when his victims begin to decompose that the response is triggered.

I liked how little details about many of the supporting characters were drip fed throughout the novels, possibly relating to bigger mysteries for some of them. How do you go about building your supporting characters?

All of my characters have to ‘live’ for me. They have their own approaches to conflict, back-stories and complexity. It’s very liberating on the plot front and adds a dimension to events. I also have to spend a great deal of time with these guys and need them to be more than just a means of enabling Eleanor to move through the plot seamlessly.

The books have been praised for their attention to police procedure, crime scene re-enactment and forensic details? How do you go about the research for those elements? Is it Internet based, real-life discussions with experts or a mixture of both?

It’s a definite mixture of both. Without the internet I’d be lost. Every single idea can be researched instantly and checked for veracity but there’s nothing quite like the visceral experience of watching a post mortem or handling a Glock. I’ve been extremely fortunate in having had opportunities to meet people in a great many professions and learn from them. It was unfortunate that I couldn’t watch an actual embalming take place, due to very strict guidelines concerning privacy. However, I have spent time in a morgue, spoken to detectives, seen the ‘Body Worlds’ exhibition and travelled to the places I write about. I’m a big fan of maps and ‘Google maps’, which allow me to sit in my office in rural Shropshire and ‘walk’ through the streets of Toronto. 

Do you have a special time to write or how is your day structured?

I really try to be regular and prescriptive in work time but write from home, which means that I’m ‘on call’ for my daughters. When they are out at work and college I fight my way through the dogs, who need to accompany my every move, and settle down to a couple of hours. Unfortunately, my writing is glacially slow and if I get two pages written in a day I’m my own hero.

Do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer just see where an idea takes you?

Both. I am a very linear writer and can’t dip in and out of scenes, or time. It’s page one to the end. I always have a sense of what the first and last few chapters are but the plot always evolves as I go. I know the story beats but not always how I’ll get there.

How do you think you’ve evolved creatively between ‘The Safe Word’ and ‘The Vault’?

I think my spelling and punctuation have improved and I’m beginning to understand a little more about how to put a plot together.
Which part (if any and of either) was the hardest part to write?
Oh the middle for sure!

I am in blood
Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er.   ‘Macbeth’

And the easiest?

Chapter One. It trips lightly off the fingers and gives me a sense that it’ll be finished in a month. Funny!

Who are your favorite authors/books?

I love Dennis Lehane and Karin Fossum just for sheer fabulous plotting and economy of style. I don’t think you can beat Graham Greene, William Golding and A.S. Byatt for characterisation and resonance

If you could have dinner with one person, dead or alive, who would it be and why?

Ooh it would have to be someone who liked a few too many glasses of wine, like myself. I’d love to spend an evening with Sir David Attenborough, as the stories would never dry or tire.

If you could meet any of your own characters, who would it be?

Ah, there’s a thought. I should say Eleanor Raven, as my protagonist but I think it would have to be Dr Mira Hounslow, the chief ME. She’s efficient, intellectual and has a dry sense of humour. I think she’d be fabulous.

And do you have a favourite character in ’The Safe Word’ of ‘The Vault’?

I love Timms. He’s a rough diamond but is based on several very good friends.

If you were going to go out of your comfort zone, what genre would you like to try?

The most unlikely genre for me to write would be romance. I don’t think I have the right personality. If I was to swing for’ improbable but why the hell not’ I’d have a bash at science fiction.

Do you have any advice for other writers who may be starting out?

My advice would be: don’t over-write. Describe it only if there’s merit in you doing so and move on.

And after ‘The Vault’, what’s next for Karen Long and Eleanor Raven?

The Cold Room is book three in the series and should be completed and out there in the spring. After that I’d like to write a ‘stand alone’ crime fiction.

Do you have any special message you would like to say to your readers?

Thank you for reading and supporting me. To have someone buy your book and finish it is fabulous. I raise a glass to you all. (My husband says I raise way too many glasses!).

And to finish off…

  1. Favourite movie?  ‘Seven’ 
  2. Favourite colour? Blue
  3. Favourite song? ‘Jerusalem’
  4. Favourite food? Avocado
  5. Favourite Superhero? Batman
  6. Favourite Doctor (as in Doctor Who though you can go all House if you wish!)? Tom Baker
  7. Favourite drink? Marguerita
  8. Favourite TV show? Peaky Blinders’
  9. Favourite place? Kruger National Park. South Africa
  10. Favourite word (swear or otherwise!)? Asshole’  (It’s my ‘go to’ word)

A huge thank you to Karen for her time and fantastic interview. I cannot recommend The Safe Word and The Vault enough, both of which are available on and and by clicking on the links.

Karen Long was born and raised in the English midlands, educated at Bangor University and taught English and Drama for fifteen years. During her teaching years she studied biology and neurology with the Open University and this interest in medicine, forensics and forensic psychology is reflected in her writing. She is an enthusiastic traveller and has spent time in Toronto, which became the backdrop and inspiration for The Safe Word.

She is a keen amateur naturalist with a deep and abiding love for the crow family. She has dedicated time, love and several fingers in an effort to rehabilitate crows, magpies, rooks and ravens. 

Karen is happy to correspond with readers and can be contacted through her website KarenLongWriter, where she posts regular blogs.

The Safe Word is Karen's first novel and was an Amazon bestseller. It was joined by the second in the Eleanor Raven series, The Vault, in December 2014

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