Interview: Karen Dionne, part 1

PhotobucketKaren Dionne isn’t just the co-founder of one of the Internet’s most valuable resource sites for writers, Backspace, she’s also a debut novelist. Her book, Freezing Point, offers readers something new–a gripping blend of suspense and horror, with a scientific edge. Intrigued? Here’s a potent teaser swiped from Karen’s website:

As he faces the frozen behemoth of a giant iceberg, environmental activist Ben Maki sees Earth’s future. Clean drinking water for millions, waiting to be tapped from the polar ice. The Soldyne Corporation backs Ben’s grand philanthropic vision for a better today—while making its own plans for a very profitable tomorrow.

Rebecca Sweet lives for the cause—an eco-terrorist who will do whatever she must to protect the earth. And Ben Maki’s ideas have set her on the path to war…

All of them will be drawn into a battle between hope and helplessness, power and pride. But they are about to discover that deep within the ice waits an enemy more deadly than any could imagine—an apocalyptic horror mankind may not survive.

We’re thrilled Karen took some time out to talk about her novel and her process with us. Enjoy!

Part 1: Interview with Karen Dionne

Q: Tell us a little about your journey. Was writing a novel something you always wanted to do? What was it about writing environmental thrillers that attracted you?

KD: I came to novel writing relatively late in life. I was never the kind of person who felt compelled to tell stories, though I was always involved in creative pursuits of one sort or another – gardening, weaving, N-scale model train layouts. But ten years ago when my son was a teenager and I was encouraging him to enter the same writing contest in which I’d won awards when I was in high school, I started thinking, “What about me? I used to be a pretty good writer.” I’ve always loved science, and at the time, I was reading science thrillers by Michael Crichton and Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, so naturally, that’s what came out. I didn’t deliberately set out to write an environmental thriller, but writers tend to write their passion, and I’ve always had strong feelings about the way man is ruining the earth.

Q: Your debut novel, Freezing Point, is about a man who hopes to tap into a new water source by melting polar ice caps via satellite-delivered microwaves, unearthing a deadly force in the process. The book is part thriller, part horror, and propelled by all things science. You’ve written, though, that you’re not a scientist. What prompted the idea for Freezing Point, and how did you go about researching and writing it?

KD: I got the idea for FREEZING POINT in 1998 when I read a feature item in the newspaper about a 1,000 square-mile section of the Larson Ice Shelf that had broken off due to global warming. The image of that giant iceberg intrigued me. What if a researcher had been there when the ice shelf disintegrated? What if they were stranded on the newly formed berg? What if the disaster was somehow their fault? I combined those thoughts with the greatest April Fool’s hoax in Discover Magazine’s history, and ended up with a story about an environmental disaster in Antarctica and a grand philanthropic scheme that goes horribly wrong.

Q: You use a scientist to fact check your work. Can you tell us about that process? Has he—or have any of the experts you’ve consulted—ever thrown a wrench into a storyline? Can you share an example and how you coped with the critique?

KD: Because I’m not a scientist, I consulted with microwave experts, explosives experts, and medical experts in the fields that are touched on in my book. I also read the online journals of people who spent time in Antarctica – though I lived for several decades in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, so I know snow and cold. My most trusted reader is Jeff Anderson, who is a scientist and a medical doctor and a thriller author, and he helps me get my science right. I research carefully before I run a scene past him, and I always love it when he gives the science a thumbs up — particularly when the scenes involve medical personnel. And of course I’m deeply grateful for his corrections. That said, I don’t always listen to him, so any errors in the text are most definitely my own.

Rather than Jeff’s input throwing a wrench into my story plans, what happened was actually the opposite. Back when Freezing Point was still just an idea, I knew the medical aspect on which the whole plot hangs was scientifically impossible. This wasn’t an area I could fudge, either, because the truth regarding this is commonly known. I consulted with a number of experts, and one professor even put his grad students to work on the problem, but no one was able to come up with a way to make my storyline plausible.

Then I met Jeff at an online writers’ discussion board. He read my outline and immediately sent me an incredible four-page email detailing exactly how I could contrive my science in such a way that an expert in the field might raise an eyebrow and say “Not bloody likely,” but wouldn’t be able to put a finger on why things couldn’t happen as I say.

When I asked Jeff why the solution came so easily to him when the others I consulted were stymied, he said it was because the others were thinking like scientists, and not like writers. They were too locked into the scientific reality to see any other possibility. Jeff’s email made the whole book possible, and I owe him an enormous debt. It’s no exaggeration to say that Freezing Point wouldn’t exist if not for him.

Q: You have a real passion for water conservation and for fighting against the abuse of resources. Did you set out to make a statement—and an impact? How did your passion for the subject of environmental responsibility help to fuel your passion for writing, and vice versa?

KD: I once heard a bestselling thriller author claim that the best novels are created when authors write their passion. I didn’t set out to make a statement with Freezing Point — it’s a novel, after all, and meant to entertain — but if people come away from the book with a greater awareness of the seriousness of the world’s water crisis, I’ll be grateful.

Q: Please tell us about the WaterLife Foundation: how it plays a role in your novel, and out of it.

KD: Contaminated drinking water is the issue at the heart of my novel. Every day, more than a billion people have no choice but to consume contaminated water. A child dies every 15 seconds because of it. 2.7 billion people live in areas with inadequate sanitation, with 40-60 million deaths per year the result. My story features a concerned environmentalist who thinks he can alleviate the world’s fresh water crisis by melting Antarctic icebergs into drinking water. Instead, his lack of understanding of the polar environment coupled with corporate greed creates an even bigger problem that ultimately threatens the entire planet.

At the end of the story, he abandons the corporate world and goes to work for the WaterLife Foundation, a non-profit organization that focuses on providing clean water and sanitation for underserved communities around the world. The novel, of course, is fiction, but the WaterLife Foundation is real, and in my author’s notes, I direct readers toward this worthy non-profit. I discovered the organization while researching the novel, and was particularly taken with the way WaterLife targets villages and peri-urban communities with chronic water and sanitation issues – areas that are overlooked by emergency aid organizations because they’re not experiencing a catastrophic situation, yet which actually represent the greatest need.

A typical WaterLife project is the one in Bapa, Camaroon, which includes a rehabilitated well, pump, and water reservoir for a health center serving 3,500 people. 3,500 might seem a drop in the bucket compared to the suffering billions. But these aren’t just statistics, these are people: 3,500 very real people with hopes and dreams of long life and health and happiness – and the right to basic human services most of us take for granted.

Earth’s fresh water situation is critical. Uneven distribution, pollution, abuse of the aquifer – serious scientists around the globe are sounding the warning. By incorporating their concerns into the storyline, I hope my novel shines a small spotlight on a very big problem.

Q: You’ve had many short stories published throughout the years. How did writing short stories help prepare you for writing a novel? Do you think more aspiring novelists should try their hand at writing short stories?

KD: Short stories are great training for writing a novel. Beginning novelists have a tendency to overwrite because they lack confidence, and the short story form doesn’t allow for that — every word has to convey exactly what the author wants to say, no more, and no less, and ideally, should even do double duty. When a new author begins writing in the longer format, it’s too easy to develop bad habits. If a scene isn’t quite working, or the author’s instincts tell them the scene isn’t even necessary, often, they’ll let it stand, since it’s such a small part of the whole. With short stories, there’s no room for lazy writing.

Q: Your work has been called visually engaging. Did you “see” the scenes play out in your mind before writing them? What tricks did you use to capture story in such a well-paced, cinematic way?

KD: If I’m struggling with a scene, I’ve learned it’s usually because I don’t know where it’s going — I don’t yet see it. When that happens, I’ll stop writing, close my eyes, and play the scene out in my mind. I also think it’s extremely important to become the viewpoint character for as long as I’m in their head. When I am them — when I know their history, what makes them tick, their wants and hopes and desires, then the scenes become real. It’s acting, only through words on a screen.

Q: Sounds like “method writing,” when you treat writing like acting and sort of become the POV character you’re writing. How many POV characters do you use in Freezing Point, and did you find them equally easy to embody using method-writing style?

KD: Freezing Point has a fairly large cast. The action shifts between Los Angeles, a research station on the Antarctic Peninsula, and an iceberg on the Weddell Sea, and so there are four main point of view characters (three men and one woman), with occasional chapters written from the points of view of five or six secondary characters. It was actually very easy for me to move from one to the other. When I’m inside one of my character’s heads, I don’t have to stop and think, “What would this character do or say in this situation?” because I’m not standing outside of them looking in; for that period of time, I am Gillette, or Zo, or Ben. That might sound strange to a non-writer, but I’m willing to bet the writers who are reading this know what I mean.

Come back next week, when Karen and I chat more about her work, unboxed promotion and about her other baby, Backspace!


About Therese Walsh

Therese Walsh co-founded Writer Unboxed in 2006. Her second novel, The Moon Sisters, was named a Best Book of 2014 by Library Journal and BookRiot. Her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, sold to Random House in a two-book deal in 2008, was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books, and was a Target Breakout Book. She's never been published with a lit magazine, but LOST's Carlton Cuse liked her Twitter haiku best and that made her pretty happy.


  1. says

    *waves at Karen*

    Great interview! I’m biased – Karen is my aunt – but I have to say Freezing Point is really loaded with scientific information. You can tell she put a lot of time and effort into her research and it makes the book wholly believable.