Q&A: KAREN ELLIS AND ALISON GAYLIN

Gaylin: Elsa is such a fascinating and complicated character. How did you first come up with the idea for her?

Ellis: My mother had just died rather unexpectedly, and writing about someone grappling with unresolved issues with a dead parent felt like an imperative at the time. It was just so overwhelming and I had to write it out, so I gave it to Elsa. Poor Elsa—because as the drafts piled up her own conflicts became worlds more dire than mine ever were, in every way.

Gaylin: There are actually two powerful mysteries playing out within A Map of the Dark—that of the girls who go missing and that of Elsa’s dark past, yet neither one overshadows the other. Was it difficult to achieve this balance, and either way, how did you do it?

Ellis: It was something that evolved as I set out to write the book. I began to realize that there were distinct storylines that needed to resonate against each other as the novel developed: the plight of the missing girls and Special Agent Elsa Myers’s search for them in collaboration with Detective Lex Cole, and Elsa’s personal story in which her father’s terminal illness triggers devastating childhood memories that begin to inform the ongoing case. It was a tricky balancing act, and I ended up writing the storylines individually and then weaving them together. I’d never approached a novel that way before and wasn’t sure if it would work, but I found that it allowed me to fully inhabit each distinctive voice before moving on to the next one.

Gaylin: Was there a part of A Map of the Dark that was hardest for you to write? Which was it?

Ellis: Elsa’s memories were by far the hardest to write. They’re so dark and troubling, and I felt so bad for the childhood Elsa that I wished I could reach in and save her, but of course I couldn’t.

Gaylin: From one busy working mom to another, tell me about your writing schedule.

Ellis: A few months ago, my second and youngest child moved out, and so for the first time in twenty-three years my schedule is not determined by my children’s needs. These days I wake up when I’ve had enough sleep, generally some time between seven and nine in the morning, eat breakfast, read the paper, and then mosey on up to my office. I work in a light-filled room on the top of our house in Brooklyn, and in nice weather one wall opens onto a roof garden. It’s a blissful space in which to write. I’ll work for a few hours, break for a jaunt to the gym, errands, lunch, then return to my office until evening. This leisurely schedule is in direct contrast with my work habits when my kids were young, at which time I worked solidly from the moment I returned from dropping them at school until the moment I had to leave to pick them up. Back then, I would stop in the middle of a sentence if I had to. I used every minute with fierce efficiency, regardless of how exhausted I was, and I was almost always exhausted. I would literally run through the house to save time. I had book-a-year deadlines and, on top of being the main caretaker of our children, I also taught college part-time. Those were grueling years. Now, I sleep, I walk slowly through my house, I may even stop for a little chat with our cats Andy and Leo.

Gaylin: Much of A Map of the Dark involves girls/young women in perilous situations. (Some domestically, some at the hands of a killer). Did you find that being a mother helped or hindered you in writing these scenes?

Ellis: Helped, absolutely. As a mother, writing about girls in peril gives you a tremendous amount of empathy for the danger they’re in and the fear they’re experiencing. My daughter was still a teenager when I wrote this novel and I felt her in every ion of the story.

Gaylin: The police procedural elements in the book feel very real. What type of research did you do?

Ellis: Writing about police is challenging because I’ve never remotely worked in law enforcement and it’s a very particular kind of world. My research consisted of reading lots of memoirs of detectives and investigators, and also true crime. For the nitty gritty details of the case in this book, I interviewed a wonderfully generous investigator who works in the Child Abduction Rapid Deployment (CARD) unit that my character Elsa Myers is part of.

Gaylin: A Map of the Dark kicks off a brand new series for you. What do you see as the advantages in writing a series versus a standalone?

Ellis: They both have their strengths. A standalone gives you a tremendous amount of latitude in what you put your protagonist through because you know you’ll never see her again. That sounds horrible, I know, but it’s true. Whereas a series allows you to become deeply connected with your characters over time as their lives develop. Some series follow the same story from book to book, but my new series will delve into a unique story with each book while following an investigator the reader already knows from the previous book. Elsa Myers leads A Map of the Dark. The second book in the series, which I just finished writing, is led by Lex Cole, though Elsa makes a few appearances. A third book will follow Lex’s partner in book two, a quirky new character I had so much fun inventing.

Gaylin: You’ve chosen to write this book under a pseudonym. Why? And perhaps more importantly, where does the name Karen Ellis come from?

Ellis: The use of a pseudonym for this new book is a matter of rebranding in an age when branding is everything. With A Map of the Dark my career is taking a leap from paperback originals into hardcover. My agent and publisher felt strongly that an “open pseudonym” would allow me to both rebrand for a tough market and also bring my already established readership along. It was important to me to use a pen name that feels personal and meaningful, so I chose Karen Ellis, which is derived from my children’s names, Karenna and Eli.

Gaylin: Are there any books—fiction or non-fiction—that have been particularly inspiring to you as a writer?

Ellis: In recent years, the book that most affected me as a reader and writer is The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt; I was mesmerized by the depth of her characters, the wild lopes of story, and the sheer gorgeousness of her writing. But as for crime novels, Patricia Highsmith’s novels are at the top of the list; her razor sharp treatment of the sociopathic mind has greatly inspired me. I also learned a lot from John Fowles’s The Collector, a decades-old novel that still packs a serious punch in its depiction of a twisted mind. In terms of non-fiction, In Cold Bold by Truman Capote is a book that has stayed with me for its cool but ruthless storytelling. And there are a number of current authors writing crime whose work is just so good that it’s impossible to name them all, though I have to say that when Tana French appeared on the scene she knocked my socks off. I also have to say that your latest novel What Remains of Me is just so expertly crafted and beautifully written; it kept me up way past my bedtime trying to figure out just what Kelly Lund was up to.

Gaylin: What’s next for Elsa? And for you?

Ellis: After A Map of the Dark, Elsa gets to take a step back from center stage. She appears in the next book and readers will find out what’s happened in her life since they last saw her, but as she isn’t the lead she gets an easier time of it—and I’d say she deserves it. For me, I’m about to start revising book two of the series so that my publisher can usher it into the world.