Karen Nilsen - Fascinated by Psychic Phenomena
As a child, Karen suffered frequent bouts of insomnia. The only way she could settle into sleep many nights was to imagine stories that played out like movies on the dark ceiling over her bed. As our Author of the Day, Karen tells us all about her Landers Saga series, and gives more insights in The Witch Awakening - the first book in the series.
Please give us a short introduction to what The Witch Awakening is about
The odor of burning flesh and the screams of those condemned to the flames disturb the dreams of young Safire of Long Marsh. Safire struggles to keep the curse of her psychic abilities secret, lest she be burned at the stake as a witch in her native land Cormalen. Forced to keep her talents hidden instead of learning how to use them, Safire is ill-prepared to face the evil that awaits her. When she meets the rebellious Merius of Landers, a nobleman determined to escape his overbearing father's influence, she finally finds someone who accepts her. But their romance interferes with court plots and family duty and ultimately leads Safire to confront the dark secrets of the House of Landers alone. What she finds there proves to be a test of her unusual gifts, a test that could free the soul of a haunted man--or end in her death.
Tell us more about Safire. What makes her tick?
Safire is the most spiritual character in the Landers Saga, and her journey and evolution from girl to woman eventually change her world for the better. Her psychic abilities condemn her as a witch in her society, so her family has raised her to conceal this very important part of her being. She also is a sketch artist and later a painter, which is not an acceptable occupation for women. So she keeps her art secret as well as her witchy side. When The Witch Awakening opens, Safire is chafing against the restrictions placed on her. She's tired of hiding so much of herself from outsiders, and she longs for adventure and a place to display her art out in the open. It is at this juncture that she meets Merius of Landers, another passionate rebel . . .
What inspired you to write about a psychic artist against a Renaissance backdrop?
Psychic phenomena have always fascinated me. Both my parents were artists (their paintings appear on the covers for my Phoenix Realm series), and my mom sometimes dreamed about events before they happened. Also, the area where I was born and spent part of my childhood, the Minnesota wilderness near Lake Superior, has a stark, sometimes spooky beauty that touches the spirit in a way that few other places can. There were a lot of artists who visited the area where we lived because of the natural beauty, and when we moved to the mountains of North Carolina (another place known for its inspiring landscape, where I live today) we found a thriving community of artists.
As for the Renaissance backdrop, I majored in history as an undergrad and particularly enjoyed studying the Renaissance. The early modern period in Europe teems with energy--artistic, scientific, religious, and political. However, most women had confined roles and little power in society at the time. With Safire's unique abilities and strong spirit, I couldn't imagine a better setting for her to rebel against, a setting she ultimately transforms over the course of the series into a place more accepting of the unusual, the underdog, and feminine power.
Tell us more about Merius of Landers - what makes him such a good match for Safire?
The only surviving child of his parents' contentious marriage, Merius is a highly intelligent, high-strung rebel. He loves literature because it's a connection to his long-dead mother and later a connection to Safire as well. However, science interests him even more, and he longs to study it and perhaps build inventions like he did when he was a boy. However, his controlling, scheming father wants him to go into a political career at court. He has a complicated relationship with his father, and he sees Safire at first as the perfect reason to escape his father's control. Safire's psychic and artistic abilities intrigue Merius, and he feels protective of her because he knows that society may judge her harshly, perhaps even try to send her to the stake, for what he sees as her beauty, both inside and out. Safire's witchy understanding and warmth make Merius feel safe sharing his heart with someone for the first time since his mother's death. As the series progresses, their relationship evolves as they grow into their own. Safire's spirituality and intuition contrast with Merius's scientific focus, and the resultant energy fuels their continuing passion for each other.
Readers say that your characters are complex and very relatable. How did you pull this off?
Aside from history, I have also studied literature and psychology in depth. I actually considered becoming a therapist at one point until I decided that it would take too much emotional energy away from my writing. People and their motivations fascinate me to no end. When I started writing in earnest as a teenager, a character named Dominic just popped in my head one day and started telling me about his life and his family. All of my characters "talk" to me like this. I actually stopped doing outlines except a few post-it notes here and there because I realized at some point while writing the rough draft of Tapestry Lion that my outline was getting in my characters' way. I have learned to trust my intuition. In 2007, long before I published anything, one of my best first readers thought I could do without a particular scene in Witch Awakening. Although I usually went along with this reader's recommendations, this time I differed with her. I said, "I have to keep that scene, but I don't know why." Later on in 2011, after I had written the third book, Phoenix Ashes, I realized why I needed that scene--it was a crucial element that had a bearing on a book I hadn't even thought of writing in 2007. My subconscious knew years before my conscious mind did where the story was going. So I trust my characters because they access my subconscious in a way that I can't, and they know a lot more than I do about their stories. I'm just their scribe.
Besides writing, what other secret skills do you have?
I'm a cat magnet. As soon as I show up somewhere, cats appear, demanding attention. At one of my previous day jobs, three cats started hanging around, one of whom had two litters of kittens before I could trap her and get her fixed. I ended up with three of her kittens, fostered another one, and then rescued an unrelated kitten from a flood. I told my boss that she was paying me in cats apparently. I currently have eight cats, all rescues who picked me--their names are Motley, Krueger, Tweedle, Batgirl, Lord Laser, Spaghetti, O.B., and Harlequin (otherwise known as the baby).
The Witch Awakening is the first book in a series. Can it be read as a standalone? How does the next book in the series tie in with this one?
I think The Witch Awakening can be read as a standalone romance. It ends with some unanswered questions, but no huge cliffhangers. The next book in the series, Tapestry Lion, picks up Safire and Merius's story a few months after the close of Witch Awakening. They travel to a new country called Sarneth. Unlike Cormalen where they were both born and raised, Sarneth doesn't burn witches at the stake, so Safire feels a sense of freedom in Sarneth that she has never felt before. However, other problems lurk on the horizon in the form of King Rainier (loosely based on Louis XI, the so-called spider king) and his ambitious consort, Queen Jazmene.
Any amusing story that happened to you as an author?
My cat Tweedle is my first reader and often tries to "improve" the story with her own additions. She lays across my arms and washes my hands, then tries to type with her nose or her paws. Generally these missives are typed in cat-language, and being a limited human, I don't understand them. However, one night she did type the word "jigs," so I figured that meant she wanted me to add some dancing to the scene in question. She's washing my wrist right now actually and purring, which means she thinks I should add something about her and her sister Batgirl to every interview question.
Have changes in your own life affected any of your characters?
One of the things beginning writers hear again and again is "write what you know." Taken literally, no one would ever write fantasy with this advice. However, I think there's a lot of emotional truth in the best fantasy, some emotional truths that can't be written about any other way. So I interpret "write what you know" rather broadly. I certainly have woven a situations from my own life into my fiction, and without my own emotional truths, none of my work would have life. For instance, death and transformation are themes throughout the Landers Saga. Between 2005 and 2008, I lost both my parents and endured some other extremely difficult situations. When I emerged from these tough years, I was right in the middle of writing Tapestry Lion and rewriting Witch Awakening. Fiction became the magical alchemy to transform my raw grief into a story that I could share with others, a story that hopefully entertains if it does nothing else.
What are you working on right now?
A couple of different projects. One is a standalone follow-up to the Phoenix Realm books entitled Between the Bamboo Shadows, where I explore Safire and Merius's adventures with their adult children in the mysterious land of the phoenixes. However, my main focus right now is finishing a novel which retells the myth of Persephone and Hades--some elements from the Landers Saga and Phoenix Realm appear in this story, such as a phoenix egg, and a few characters make cameo appearances, but otherwise it's a separate venture from my other books. I'm tentatively entitling it Persephone's Tears, as I want to emphasize Persephone's story, particularly her descent into Hell and her subsequent emotional and spiritual growth. Historically, I feel that her part of the original myth has gotten short shrift at times with the emphasis on Hades and Demeter. Persephone's story deserves some attention--she goes from being maiden to crone in an instant, and I find her a fascinating character. Both Persephone and Hades have alternating first person points of view, and I'm debating adding a chapter from Hecate's perspective as well.
Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?
I have a website: www.karennilsen.com . A number of readers have friended me on Facebook and\/or liked my Facebook page devoted to my writing. I also have a page on Goodreads, and at the end of most of my books, I have a link if readers want to sign up for new release notifications. Also, readers can always drop me an e-mail at [email protected]