Interview with Karen Dionne

It is my great privilege and honor to interview fellow Michigander and author Karen Dionne just two days before her new book, Boiling Point, is released. Karen, along with Chris Graham, founded the writers forum Backspace in 2004, which I managed to find, to my eternal gratitude, shortly after its inception. Her first novel, Freezing Point, is a first rate, fast paced, environmental thriller in the style of Michael Crichton.

So, without further ado …

Could you please give us a rundown of your new novel, Boiling Point.

Boiling Point is an environmental thriller about an erupting volcano, a missing researcher, and a radical scheme to end global warming using geoengineering. While it’s definitely a thriller (the book has a 40-page climax that takes place IN the caldera of an erupting volcano), the novel also explores the deep divisions in the political, environmental, and scientific communities regarding what should be done about global warming, highlighting the scope of the problem while raising the question: Can anyone know what’s best for the earth?

Boiling Point publishes on December 28, and I’m happy to say that the early reviews are positive. RT Book Reviews calls the book “explosive,” and Publishers Weekly says, “Fans of the late Michael Crichton will enjoy this exciting ecothriller.” That last is particularly gratifying because I was inspired to begin writing because of Crichton’s work.

Your first novel was Freezing Point, your second Boiling Point. Opposite ends of the extreme. What led you from the polar to the solar?

“Polar to solar” – that’s good!

I wrote Freezing Point as a standalone after I read a news item about a huge section of the Antarctic ice shelf that had broken off. Later, when I decided to write a followup environmental thriller and bring back several of Freezing Point’s characters, I began looking for story ideas by Googling “worst environmental problems.” I found an article, “10 Wacky Ways to Save the Planet,” which included the solution I ended up using in my novel: mimicking the natural cooling effects of volcanoes by seeding the atmosphere with sulfur dioxide particles in order to block the amount of sunlight reaching the earth.

I’d recently seen an incredible photo of the Chaiten volcano eruption: billowing red and purple clouds shot through with lightning against a black sky that was so amazing, the photograph won National Geographic’s “Photo of the Year” award, so I chose that as the setting for the book.

As for the title, when my son found out I was planning to write a novel about global warming that would take place at an erupting volcano, he said, “You have to call it ‘Boiling Point.’” He meant it as a joke, but after we had a good laugh, I realized Boiling Point was the perfect title for the book. And thus the Point series began!

The settings of your two novels couldn’t be more different. What was your research process like?

I’ve never been to Antarctica, but I lived in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for 30 years, so I know snow and cold. Between that, and researching Antarctica on the Internet, including reading the online journals of people who’d actually spent time there, I feel like I was able to do a reasonable job of recreating the setting.

The situation was different for Boiling Point. My publisher bought the novel before it was written, so I was able to travel to Chaitén volcano in Northern Patagonia, Chile, for onsite research. I stayed in Chaiten town at the base of the volcano, even though the town was ruined during the eruption and remains without electricity and running water, and hiked to within one mile of the 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 informs the novel. If anyone is interested, I have some pictures and video from the trip on my website.

And what is your writing process like? How much time do you spend in one sitting?

I wish I could say my writing process is efficient and neat and tidy, but the truth is, it’s messy. A little bit here, a little bit there, with an occasional burst of inspiration that lets me leap forward. I’m both a perfectionist and a compulsive editor – neither of which are necessarily good qualities for a genre fiction writer. It’s very difficult for me to leave a sentence or a scene until I feel it’s perfect. Then once I like the way it sounds, I read it over and over and over again enjoying its perfection. Until I decide it wasn’t quite as perfect as I thought it was, at which point I start tinkering with the sentence or scene again. If anything, my writing process is an example of what NOT to do.

You, along with Chris Graham, founded the writers forum Backspace. How has being part of a writer’s group like Backspace been helpful to you?

Everything I know about writing and the publishing industry, I learned from Backspace members, and that’s not an exaggeration. I’m convinced I wouldn’t be published today if not for them. I’m also convinced you won’t find a smarter, more generous group of writers on the planet. Chris and I may have gotten the Backspace ball rolling, but it’s the members who make Backspace work.

What made you want to get into writing, and what advice would you give to those wanting to do the same?

I’ve always loved reading, and 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!

As for advice for writers, I have two pieces. 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.

Who are some of your favorite authors?

This is always such a difficult question! I know I’ll leave someone out, but some of my favorites in no particular order are Tana French, Joseph Finder, Jeffery Deaver, Lee Child, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, David L. Robbins, and Michael Crichton.

That list makes it look like I read only thrillers, and while that’s mainly true, I also read a few Booker and Pulitzer winners every year in an effort to keep the quality of my writing high. I loved The Life of Pi, Olive Kitteridge, and Homer and Langley.

Who are some of the authors you simply cannot read?

I’m a pretty forgiving reader, so once I start a book, I generally finish it. If I have any unfavorites, it’s more along the lines of genre. I’m an action girl, and so I have a hard time getting into fiction that deals heavily with relationships – especially if the story includes weak, whiney women.

If you could only recommend one book to another person, what book would that be?

And the questions just keep getting harder . . . I guess if you were to make me choose just one, I’d pick Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain. Truly masterful plotting and storytelling.

What can we look forward to next from you?

I have a proposal for a third Point book with my editor, and I’m also finishing up the first book in a science thriller trilogy for young adults that my agent and I are very excited about, and hope to begin shopping to editors shortly.

Thanks so much for spending a little time with us. Is there anything else you want us to know about you?

Just that I’m ranked #10 in the world at the expert level at Minesweeper. Seriously – it’s pretty much me and the Russians in the top ten spots. Do you have any idea how many hours of play it took to achieve that?

Seriously, thanks for the great questions, and thanks for having me!

This concludes my interview with author Karen Dionne. Her book, Boiling Point, will be released in two days, 12/28, to be exact and believe me, I can hardly wait to read it. Please, if you can, buy it at an Independent Bookstore. We need to keep our Indy bookstores alive and well. To find Karen Dionne’s book at an Indy bookstore in your area, click HERE. Barring that, you can purchase Boiling Point at Amazon or B&N as well. You can also check out her website HERE.

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