Interview with Karen Odden, Author of A Lady in the Smoke

01 Apr 2016
Tell us a little bit about your new release, A Lady in the Smoke.

It’s a first novel that came out of my doctoral dissertation at NYU, about Victorian railway disasters, of all things. Railway crashes were something like a national obsession in the mid-1800s in England, partly because they were the first enormous, violent accidents that cut across all the social boundaries. The victims ranged from titled aristocrats to writers (Charles Dickens crawled out of one in 1865) to railway engine drivers and laborers. As a result, all kinds of people—doctors, members of parliament, newspapermen, novelists, and so on—wrote about them, trying to figure out why they happened, what could be done to prevent another one, and how to cope with all the injuries and death that came out of them. Eventually, I decided I wanted to write a novel that started with a Victorian train wreck—partly because I knew a lot about the complicated historical context and partly because extraordinary events can call forth extraordinary aspects of character.

What or who inspired you to become an author?

I was the geeky, lonely kid who read in the corner all the time, so I’d say I was first inspired to write by other authors. (I grew up on Mary Stewart, who could mix suspense and romance like no one else; A Lady in the Smoke certainly owes something to her!) Now, I have some books that draw me back to them again and again, inspiring me by the way they use language, and by the honesty with which they plumb the human heart. Lit by Mary Karr, The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney, Into the Woods by Tana French, Too Late the Phalarope by Alan Paton, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, March by Geraldine Brooks, Up a Road Slowly by Irene Hunt, and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell are some of them. (Yes, I’m all over the map.)

Who is your favorite fictional character from literature?

Probably Anne of Green Gables. I’m a red-head, too, and her utter fearlessness—her willingness to be exactly who she is, to love passionately, to crack a slate over someone’s head if he’s making fun of her, to laugh at herself—is something I admire hugely!

What is a typical day like for you?

I get my two kids off to school on the bus at 7 a.m. (a process that is a bit like herding cats sometimes), hike with friends till 9 or so, and then put my butt in my office chair. I usually write for three or four hours, on days I’m drafting or revising. (A friend asked me once if I ever took a day off of writing. I replied, Well, it’s kind of like taking a day off from brushing my teeth. I can do it; it just doesn’t feel very good!) Other days I google “Victorian crime” and just read and read. Then I pick up the kids at 3:30, take them to their various activities, walk my sweet aging beagle Rosy, put together dinner (sometimes eaten in shifts, as kids and husband come home different times), and fall into bed by 10 p.m. after reading for three minutes.

BAM. You’re a superhero. What’s your superpower?

Am I allowed to pick time travel? If not, I think I’d like to be invisible. I’ll own it: I’m terribly curious about what happens when people think no one is watching.

What’s your favorite thing about writing?

Getting lost in it. There are days when I have a scene playing in my head so clearly, it’s as if I’m watching real people and simply recording what they do. For example, the day I was writing the first confrontation between Lady Elizabeth and Mr. Flynn—when he thinks she’s an earl’s daughter, flirting with Mr. Wilcox out of boredom, and she assumes he’s an unethical newspaperman intent on digging up dirt to sell papers—I could see her hands tugging on her shawl and the changing shape of his mouth; I could hear their words and the tones in their voices. They did everything; I just wrote it down.

What’s your favorite quote or scene from A Lady in the Smoke?

I’d say it’s the second day of Paul’s trial, when Lady Elizabeth takes the stand, telling her story to a jury of men who have been cynical and unsympathetic so far. She finally articulates the horror of the railway crash and, for the first time, feels it with all her heart. I’ve probably read it 50 times, and I still cry with her.

Do you have a motto, quote or philosophy you live by?

I try to live by the words of Henry James: “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” The other piece of advice is this, courtesy of a friend: “As you drive around every day, at each red light, think of something you’re grateful for. It might sound a little strange, but it’s a good practice for today’s world.” Now, all that about kindness and gratitude being said, I believe to write a good book you have to be willing to grapple with the ugliest the human heart has to offer. My next book, Down a Dark River, is about a terrible crime, a cruel disavowal, and the most brutal kind of revenge.

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Karen Odden is the author of the new book A Lady in the Smoke.

Connect with Karen
Author Website

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