We think of nature as beautiful, life affirming, and inspiring. However, Karen Dionne, author of the No. 1 international bestseller, The Marsh King’s Daughter, has shown us that nature itself can be a breeding ground for evil. The psychological suspense novel, which has been translated into 25 languages, about a notorious child abductor is now in development to be a major motion picture. In Dionne’s new novel, The Wicked Sister, she takes us on a journey back into the beautiful, haunting darkness awaiting in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula wilderness. In The Wicked Sister, she also reminds us that home truly can be the most dangerous place.
Dionne has won multiple awards and has long been active in the writing community. She’s been a board member and vice president for technology for International Thriller Writers, and was managing editor for its online publication, The Big Thrill. She’s also the author of three other novels, Freezing Point, Boiling Point, and The Killing, an original novel based on the AMC television series.
Currents: Suspense writers must create conflict for their protagonist. The choices and challenges you created for Helena Pelletier in The Marsh King’s Daughter are both heartbreaking and terrifying. Please tell me about some of the toughest situations you set up for her.
Karen: I think Helena’s biggest challenge comes when she leaves the marsh when she is twelve years old. Helena grew up living with her mother and father in complete isolation in a cabin on a ridge surrounded by swamp in the Tahquamenon River basin in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and during all that time, she never saw another person other than her parents. While such a life might sound grim, Helena loves hunting and fishing and foraging, and she loves her father—until she finds out that her father kidnapped her mother when her mother was a teenager, and she is the product of that crime. Helena is convinced that her father is a very bad man, but can she willingly leave the only life she’s ever known?
Another challenge comes when Helena is an adult and her father escapes from the maximum-security prison near her home and disappears into the surrounding marshland. Jacob Holbrook is a master tracker, and Helena knows that she is the only person who can hunt him down to return him to prison because she is the only person who was trained by him. But can she find the moral courage to do what her head tells her that she must, or will she succumb to the pull of the love that she still has for father?
Currents: What were the most significant ways that living in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula wilderness with your husband and infant child prepared you to write this story?
Karen: My husband and I moved to the Upper Peninsula during the 1970s with our infant daughter because we wanted to live close to nature. We lived in a tent while we built our tiny cabin, carried water from a stream, and sampled wild foods such as cattail roots and milkweed pods. These homesteading experiences deeply influenced my novel. In fact, there were many times as I was writing The Marsh King’s Daughter when it almost felt as though I were writing a memoir.
For example, early in the novel, Helena relates how every spring, her father would go out into the marsh and dig up a marsh marigold and put it in a galvanized tub and leave it on their front porch, where “it glowed like he’d brought us the sun.” My husband did the same thing. And when Helena imagines how difficult it must have been for her mother to take care of an infant in such primitive conditions including washing Helena’s diapers by hand in a bucket, well, let’s just say that I didn’t have to use my imagination! (And I promise it’s every bit as disgusting as it sounds.)
Currents: The Marsh King’s Daughter is in development as a major motion picture. What was getting that call like, and are there any particulars you can share about the movie?
Karen: The day my agent sent my novel to editors to see if anyone wanted to publish it, he told me, “Oh, and by the way, you now have a film agent.” My first reaction was, “Huh. I guess it could be a movie . . .”
To this day, I’m still gob smacked that The Marsh King’s Daughter has been optioned for film because I was writing the book, I never once thought my story might one day be a movie. That so many successful writers and producers and actors have chosen to use their talents to bring my story to the screen is beyond amazing.
And while the Covid-19 pandemic has put all of Hollywood temporarily on hold, we do have a producer, a script, a director, and an A-list actress attached to play the adult Helena (whom I can’t name because it hasn’t yet officially been announced), so a lot of the pieces are in place. Fingers crossed that the project continues to come together!
Currents: In your new novel, The Wicked Sister, you’ve returned to that familiar, yet unpredictable, wilderness that was the setting of your first book. In your novel, the setting is a character in its own right. How is its role different in The Wicked Sister from The Marsh King’s Daughter?
Karen: In many ways, the setting and Rachel’s character in The Wicked Sister are the opposite of Helena’s in The Marsh King’s Daughter. While both stories take place in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula wilderness, and both feature a protagonist who grows up in a very insular environment, outwardly, their circumstances couldn’t be more different.
In The Marsh King’s Daughter, Helena spends her early years squatting with her parents in a ramshackle cabin in the middle of a swamp. In The Wicked Sister, Rachel grows up in a luxurious hunting lodge on a pristine tract of 4,000 acres of wilderness that has been in her family for generations. Rachel’s parents are wildlife biologists, and as she accompanies her mother in her research, Rachel feels such a strong connection to the black bears her mother studies that even as an adult, she believes she can communicate with them on an instinctive, almost spiritual level. As for Helena, because hunting and fishing are how her family sustain themselves, to her, a bear is nothing but a game animal to be shot and eaten!
Currents: Your protagonist in The Wicked Sister, Rachel Cunningham, has chosen to lock herself away in a psychiatric facility, tortured by gaps in her memory. What were the most difficult or surprising things you learned while researching this novel?
Karen: Many years ago, I knew a couple who adopted three siblings. While the younger two flourished in their new environment, in time, the oldest became more and more difficult, and after some years, was diagnosed as bipolar. My friends loved all three children and didn’t want to split them up, but eventually they had to face what to me even now seems like an impossible choice: institutionalize the oldest to protect the physical and mental safety of the younger two.
I wanted to explore this heartbreaking situation more fully in The Wicked Sister, though the circumstances Rachel’s parents are forced to deal with are even more extreme because their daughter is a psychopath. Some of the things I read about that psychopathic children have done are truly chilling.
The more I researched psychopathy in children, the more I came to appreciate the impossible challenge the parents of children who are incapable of feeling empathy and emotions face. These parents are true heroes as they navigate the path between doing what is best for their psychopathic child and what is best for their family at great personal and emotional cost.
Currents: When an author has a breakout novel, they’re often described as an “overnight success.” How hard do you laugh at that analogy and what is your response to being called that?
Karen: Well, considering that in my case, “overnight success” came after I’d had three novels published over twenty years, if this phrase applies to me, we’re talking about a very long night!
In all seriousness though, I hope that my experience encourages other writers to take heart. A person can break out at any time. I know many authors whose third or fourth novels hit it big. Others found success by changing genres.
In order to tell Helena’s story, I had to try many writing techniques that were new to me, such as a dual timeline, multiple flashbacks, incorporating a fairy tale into the story, and writing imaginary characters. Thus, my best advice to writers is “don’t quit,” followed closely by “don’t be afraid to try something new.” If you push yourself to stretch and grow, you just might find out that you’re a better writer than you knew!
Currents: What are you working on now, and what’s in store next for your fans?
Karen: I’m currently working on a third psychological suspense that takes place in a small town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula on the shore of Lake Superior. I wanted to incorporate Lake Superior in this book because Michigan is bordered by four of the five Great Lakes, and thus the lakes are a big part of residents’ lives.
Lake Superior is a lake of extremes: it’s the coldest and deepest of the five Great Lakes and is also the third-largest freshwater lake in the world. When you stand on the shore and look out over all that water, it’s easy to imagine that you are looking at an ocean.
Plus, the winter storms on Lake Superior are legendary. The area where my novel takes place is known as the “Graveyard of the Great Lakes,” because more ships have been lost there than in any other part of Lake Superior, including the Edmund Fitzgerald—which may give a hint as to some of the novel’s events!
To learn more about Karen Dionne and her new thriller The Wicked Sister, go to www.karen-dionne.com