Karen Novak


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     Our July author of the month

               is Karen Novak

Author of INNOCENCE with previous novels including FIVE MILE HOUSE and ORDINARY MONSTERS

Review of Innocence:

Innocence by Karen Novak (click on link for Amazon buying info)

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA  ISBN: 158234356X 

Leslie Stone, a private investigator who specializes in missing children, has now somewhat recovered from the tragic events found in Five Mile House, and is now hired by her own daughter to find a friend whose been missing.  Five boys stand accused of molesting her after a night of teenage drunken revelry, and might just have something to do with her disappearance.  The deeper Leslie digs, the more she is reminded of the string of young girls who were also molested when she was young, a case in which her own father was in charge of and failed to solve.   

This intelligent thriller rises above the usual with its emotionally flawed characters and assortment of secrets that drive them to act in ways not always understood.  Leslie herself, who actually sees the ghosts of the girls in her past, is wonderfully drawn and we’re never sure what’s really behind these apparitions.  We only know that they have to do with her own terrible secret that she’s been hiding for several years.  This multi-layered story will take you in many directions and through many emotions, and its tragic beauty may have you seeing ghosts yourself by the time you’re done.  This extraordinary and wonderful novel comes highly recommended to those who seek substance with their mystery.       


Interview with Karen:

1.        Leslie is such a finely drawn character, where did she come from?

That’s a good way to phrase the question because for most fiction writers, there is a sense of the character emerging.  First and most important: Leslie is not me.  I think Leslie would find me dull and wimpy.  Not to mention I’m a writer—and it did come as a surprise to learn how she felt about we scribes.  Like a serpent’s tooth, the ungrateful child.  Sigh.  For me, Leslie is the embodiment of all the darker elements of motherhood; she came into my consciousness directly after the Susan Smith incident.  As horrifying as Smith’s killing of her sons was, to me it was equally horrifying how readily local mothers wished death upon Smith.  Leslie is primarily that protective instinct realized: she has seen how far she can go to keep her daughters safe; she also knows there is no such thing as perfect safety, and that she herself can be a threat.  How can you protect people by hurting people?  The paradox is eroding her sanity as quickly as she can shore it up.


2.        What do you think her biggest fault is?   

Probably her sense of personal responsibility for saving everyone.  Les is a control fiend of the highest magnitude; she finds trust impossible and therefore forgiveness forever out of reach.  I imagine her as one of those individuals who walk around with their fists clenched shut all the time.  Rage or the inability to let go?  One and the same, in Leslie’s case.


3.        Her finest strength?  

Her kick-ass loyalty.  She maybe unfaithful to her husband and a storm cloud over her kids’ lives, but they know absolutely that she will drain oceans and build mountains for them if necessary.  She is also unrelentingly, brutally honest with herself; through admitting to being untrustworthy, she becomes worthy of trust.  She is who she says she is.  You may not like Leslie, but you want her on your side in fight.


4.        Her sightings of hurt children long gone are a very interesting aspect of her character, how did you come up with this? 

Um, Leslie came up with that?  In Leslie’s first book, Five Mile House—the one that was my attempt to deal (for myself) with the Susan Smith tragedy—the story is told by a ghost.  Or maybe it’s all in Leslie’s head.  It wasn’t until the very end of Innocence that Leslie decided to tell me which.  Yes, I know how strange that sounds—but that’s writing fiction, alas.  What is interesting to me is that Leslie seems so at peace with her hallucinations, which she gauges as useful to her investigations.  If it were I who was seeing long-lost children all over the place, you couldn’t get me on enough meds fast enough.  Personally, I think Leslie likes being different.


5.        Your book touched on many interesting points regarding adolescent tragedies and maladies, what scares you the most about what kids have to face today?

 The sex and violence in the media are meaningless targets.  Life is sexual and violent.  Always has been; always will be.  Really, what scares me most is that our children have yet to see any one—and I mean any one—in a position of authority stand up and take responsibility for an incident of bad judgment.  Whatever happens, it’s always the other guy’s fault.  How can we expect our kids to accept and manage the reins of their own lives when they never see the grownups acting like grownups?  We teach our kids how to deal with the consequences of their choices.  Right now, I fear they are learning that there are no consequences of consequence outside money, fame, and winning.  Life has become a game with prizes to be garnered.  “Loser” is one of the most damning insults they use.  The gamesmanship is the source of what troubles us about today’s media.  It renders the sex is soulless, the violence casual because it’s all being used to win ratings, make stars, earn money.  The “it’s all a game” logic is what frightens me for the kids today; that’s a lot of what I was trying to say in Innocence.


6.        When you’re writing such an in depth character such as Leslie, do you ever find yourself somewhat overtaken by her forceful personality at times during the creating process? 

Talk to my family.  Then again, maybe not.  Fiction is very much like a multiple personality disorder.  How to explain to the person ahead of me in the cashier line at the grocery store that no, I am not talking to him; I’m not even talking to myself; that’s Leslie practicing how she’s going to tell Greg she wants a divorce.  Writing a 300 page book is its own form of insanity—on many levels.


7.        Who/what inspires you to create these heartbreaking yet hopeful stories? 

I very glad you read Innocence as hopeful.  Friends have occasionally inquired when I’m going to write something “happy.”  Frankly, happiness doesn’t interest me as a subject or as a conclusion to a story.  No one I’ve met needs help with being happy; it is the lonely and the frightening aspects of life that seem to require the company and comfort of a fellow traveler.  I guess you could say I’m inspired by the bleaker events within our society because I am truly awestruck by what some folks must endure.  My characters are all my full invention, but I do stitch together situations for them from the broadloom of those “real life” events that have me wondering how I might handle a similar set of stresses.  The everyday courage of everyday people is extraordinary.


8.        What kind of books do you have on your bookshelf?

 Mostly the unread kind.  I am a book junkie and am so far ahead of myself in terms of acquisitions versus what I have time to read that in my next life, I’d better come back as myself.  I love anything that’s well written.  When in the middle of my own writing, I tend to stay with science and poetry.  Science for the precision and persuasiveness of the language; poetry for the well, poetry.  As for mystery, isn’t a mystery at the heart of any good book, fiction or non?


9.        Do your characters ever take over your writings and go their own way? 

I sit here laughing.  Short answer: yes.  Generally, this happens for all novel writers around page 75.  I’m serious.  Around page 75 in the first draft, you have your premise and your major characters well established; the story is cruising along, and then the character you did not consciously invent shows up.  The family is sitting around the table eating dinner when a knock comes at the door.  They look up at me.  Who’s that?  And really I don’t know until one of them goes to answer the door.  That’s the miracle moment when the story begins to write itself and my created characters become real people in my head.  Should I try to make them act in a fashion that contradicts their true natures; the whole book shuts down.  I might be able to put words on paper, but it feels flat, lifeless; the writing starts feeling like work.  Books tend to read the way it felt to write them.  When I start to sense I’m pushing the characters forward instead of being pulled into their lives, I know I’ve made a wrong turn at some juncture.  Nine times out of ten?  Tried to make one of them do something they just would not do.


10.     And finally, can we expect future adventures with this wonderfully imperfect lady? 

Right now, I’m working on another Leslie Stone novel titled The Wilderness.  The whole gang from Innocence returns; the story concerns an old crime to which the solution may have been coded in the text of an obscure children’s book by its guilt-plagued author.  While Leslie becomes increasingly involved in what she insists is not a ‘case,’ she tries to reconcile her need for this work with her fragile reconciliation with her family.  Leslie’s beleaguered husband Greg finally explains what he sees in her, and we meet the hardest working man in America, Leslie’s shrink.  Whereas Innocence is about coming into knowledge, this next one is about the grief that rides in the wake of lost innocence.  The novels are meant to stand alone and yet comment on one another in a way that enriches the experience no matter what order you read them in.  And my favorite?  Always the one I’m currently working on.


Karen Novak lives with her husband and daughters in Mason, Ohio, where she proudly holds the official position of “that weird writer lady” (overheard among neighborhood kids).  She is the daughter of a Dallas debutante and a kid from the streets of Joliet, Illinois.  Her mother would want you to know that she’s a niece of Samuel Johnson; her father would say “who?”  Childhood was interesting. 

Her writing has taken her through jobs in advertising, translation, and technical fields.  She has an degree in Writing and Film from Union Institute and University, an independent program that allowed her to tie together her studies of Literature at Whitman College, Psychology at Loyola in Montreal, and Critical Theory through the SUNY system.  Along with the duties of Weird Writer Lady, Karen is currently teaching at Union where she also runs a writers’ workshop.  She teaches at the Chenago Valley Writers Conference held annually at Colgate University and takes on the occasional private student.

She is the author of three novels, all published by Bloomsbury USA: Five Mile House (2000); Ordinary Monsters (2002); Innocence (June 2003).  Other publications include the supplemental interviews and questions for the Ballantine Readers’ Circle editions of three Frederick Busch books.  Karen is working on a new novel, The Wilderness.