Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Interview with Karen Frisch

Quick math problem: what are the odds that three writers from the smallest state in the union would all have books published by Avalon (who publish 36 titles a year) in back-to-back cycles?  Pretty infinitesimal, I would imagine.  But it has happened.  I had the pleasure of sharing in Karen Frisch’s triumphs at our local romance writers meeting, so when her name came up on the interview schedule, I jumped at the chance.  (Don’t worry that I’m picking favorites, though.  I’ll be interviewing the other member of our little triumvirate later in the month.) So without further ado, let’s get to know Rhode Island’s own Karen Frisch. <<pause while the crowd applauds wildly>>
First off, Jayne, thank you so much for taking the time to interview me. I received such a warm welcome when I was first introduced on the Avalon loop. I’m honored to belong to such a warm, knowledgeable group of writers. 
I agree.  A more welcoming and supportive group you will never find.  And in the spirit of support, let’s get talking about your book, an Avalon Historical Romance titled What’s in a Name.  According to my Internet research, the basic premise has a professor’s daughter and a fish market owner overcoming their differences to give two young runaway relatives a home–but first they must find the children, who appear to have run away with the traveling circus.  And that’s the easy part!  They must also survive a steamboat grounding, a carriage accident and a train wreck.  This has all the elements of a historical romantic adventure.  What kind of research did you have to do for these scenes?  Not personal experience, I hope!
The Victorian era is my favorite, though I don’t think I’d want to experience it firsthand. My first novel (Murder Most Civil, a cozy historical mystery published by Mainly Murder Press) is set in Boston in 1860. I also learned a great deal from researching my ancestors and from having been a Victorian lit major.  The biggest research challenge for What’s in a Name was the logistics of travel! I spent hours studying schedules of ships that traveled from Boston to Maine in 1871. I needed accurate details to describe the grounding of a steamboat off Maine’s rocky coast along with the wreck of a train and events immediately afterward. I’m intrigued by those kinds of questions and love finding breakthroughs to the answers. When my family and I visited Bar Harbor two summers ago, we were able to make a spontaneous detour to Stockton Springs where my heroine lived. Despite its modern touches, it was a real thrill. I could still envision Juliet’s hometown from research I’d done.  
What can you tell us about your heroine, Juliet Halliday? 
Juliet is torn between loyalty to her strict father, a Shakespeare professor who is suspicious of immigrants, and her older sister Cordelia, who ran off with an Irishman. The story takes place after Cordelia’s death, when Juliet travels to Boston to collect her orphaned nine-year-old nephew. She discovers Cordelia had exaggerated their financial situation and that Marcus was forced to work in a fish market to survive. Juliet’s attitude undergoes a transformation during the journey to find the children, ending with her discovery that her father protected her from the truth about her own past. With each layer I added, Juliet developed more depth as a character until I had her right where I wanted her—miserably unhappy and conflicted between her father and Antonio, a man she initially despises but comes to love.  
What is it about the hero, Antonio Santilli, that makes her heart beat faster?   
Antonio is Juliet’s exact opposite. He is self-educated, illiterate for much of his life, and exposed to the harshness of poverty and loss in his younger years. He sacrifices until the family is able to emigrate to America from Italy and works his way up to owning the biggest fish market in Boston’s North End. Yet his life is still ruled by his mother and his family. He possesses a moral integrity, steady determination, and loyalty that Juliet has never experienced with any man. 
 The title, What’s in a Name, piqued my curiosity.  Which came first, the title or the premise? And how does it tie in to the story? 
The title was originally Star-Crossed until we discovered Avalon had already used it. Lia (the Avalon editor) and I spent two hilarious, hectic weeks struggling with dozens of alternatives. We chose phrases from Romeo and Juliet that included everything from Till It Be Morrow (my husband’s suggestion) to The Inconstant Moon (Lia’s idea), which was our next proposal. We were, however, the only two at Avalon who liked the new title. In desperation I threw out What’s in a Name, and it stuck. It’s a story with a lot of irony, and the title refers to the suspicion with which Victorian America viewed its immigrants.  
What is your favorite scene in the book? 
That’s a tough question. One of my favorites is the bittersweet scene where Antonio has to put a ring on Juliet’s finger even though they both know it’s intended for another woman. (They have to pretend they’re married when they’re forced to seek shelter overnight with strangers, even though they’re traveling in the company of Juliet’s housekeeper Clara Crabtree—must be historically accurate here!) I love the scene in which Antonio meets Juliet’s father, and both are disappointed in each other. And the scene in which Marcus and Maria are finally found; the humorous scene at Aunt Muriel’s house while they’re traveling and Juliet is trying to keep up appearances; and the scene with Juliet’s father at the end in which he forgives her and then asks her forgiveness (don’t want to give too much away there!). I really love it all. This story was a joy to write. Now I just have to hope people read it!  
Writing historical fiction seems especially challenging, because so many things are different than contemporary times, from clothing to methods of shopping to types of foods eaten to challenges with rather primitive living conditions, etc.  How do you go about getting your mind set in that time period in order to write about it realistically?  
My mind is usually in the past! I like to think I’m only visiting this century. Except for my first few months, I’ve never lived in a house built after 1880. The walls of old homes have life in them, with stories you can feel. Two of my favorite jobs have been working as a historic interpreter and tour guide at Rhode Island’s Eleazer Arnold House, a post-medieval stone-ender built in 1693, and at Slater Mill, America’s oldest cotton-spinning mill built in 1793. I still have one of those jobs. 
What is your favorite part of the writing process?  Getting excited with a kernel of an idea? Fleshing out the characters and/or plot?  Typing THE END?  Or the dreaded (at least in my opinion) editing process? 
I especially love the breakthroughs that come after spending endless hours on challenging scenes. I love asking “What if” and “Why” and probing until I reach the real depth behind the question. It’s the triumphant satisfaction all writers feel when they finally reach the saturation point. I also enjoy the early stages of constructing a story and figuring out what needs to happen. Talk about an understatement. I love stories with depth and lots of layers, with things we’ve learned from the past. I try to write stories that matter, that mean something.  
While this is your first book for Avalon, it is not your first success in the fiction arena.  Your other published works include: a novella, “A Delicate Footing” in A Regency Yuletide anthology by ImaJinn Books; Lady Delphinia’s Deception, also from ImaJinn Books; and a mystery, Murder Most Civil by Mainly Murder Press.  What is your next project?  Or projects (plural)? 
My next project is a contemporary cozy mystery set in Providence’s historic district (I don’t want to stray too far from my roots!). The last time I wrote a contemporary there were no cell phones or Internet, so I’m taking baby steps moving forward!  
You also have two non-fiction books on ancestry.  Is that a passion of yours?  
I got hooked on genealogy after my grandfather died, when an old photograph album came to light that contained a dozen perfectly preserved photographs with subjects too old for anyone to remember. On them I found one date, one location, and one name that was handwritten, but the most revealing thing was the strong family resemblance. It was a mystery waiting to be solved. The research that followed led to the publication of my first two books. Unlocking the Secrets in Old Photographs explains how to use clues within the photos themselves to help identify the subjects. Creating Junior Genealogists contains ways to pass on your interest to the next  generation. Both are still in print from Turner Publishing.  
If you don’t mind me getting a little personal, you are also an accomplished artist.  (You can see some of Karen’s illustrations on her website, http:/ / and click on the illustrations tab.)  Do you find the two creative geniuses work well together or fight each other for your time and attention? 
A handful of sketches are currently up on my website, although it’s still a work in progress. There are more that aren’t appearing for some reason. (Web design is a newfangled concept for those of us who are more comfortable in an earlier age!) Art and writing definitely compete for attention. So far writing has won out. My goal is to find more time for illustration in 2012, but I’m still fighting my old enemy Lack of Time. 
I also read on a recent guest blog post of yours about your new writing companion.  Do you want to tell us a little about her?   
Dogs are my passion. After we lost our beloved elderly Sheltie/Australian shepherd mix Merlin last spring, we grieved for a time. Eventually we visited local animal shelters, where all of our dogs have come from, and adopted our new dog, a Yorkie/Scottish terrier mix we named Fergie. At two years old, she’s the youngest dog we’ve had in a long time. It’s fun to have a real pup again. Mixed breed dogs are the greatest companions. They have a special place in my heart.
That’s another thing we have in common then!  I, too, am a pound puppy parent!
I hate to say that our space is up for today, and it sounds as if you have other things to keep you busy so we’ll sign off for now.  But thanks for taking the time to chat with us. 
For those of you wanting to learn more about Karen, you can check out her website  or send a friend request to Karen Frisch on facebook. 


Sandy Cody said...

What an interesting interview. Good to get to know you, Karen - and it's always good to hear from you,Jayne.

Karen, I love the way you describe building your story by layering your characters and I laughed out loud when I read about your struggles with the title. I had a similar experience.

Good luck with "What's in a Name".

Loretta C. Rogers said...

The part about coming up with a title for your book was interesting and humorous. "What's in a Name". piques my interest. Great interview, Karen.

Jayne Ormerod... said...

I find it incredibly intersting how authors come up with titles but I agree with Sandy and Loretta, the story of What's in a Name's birth is truly unique. And I'm definately adding it to my TBR pile!

Karen Frisch said...

Sandy, Loretta, and Jayne, thank you for taking the time to read and comment. Sometimes the title is the most challenging part! As for layering characters, Sandy, it does give them depth. I wish each of those layers would make themselves apparent before the first draft is finished, but the writing process always seems to be more complicated than that!

Sheila Claydon said...

I loved this interview. As someone who is also very interested in genealogy, I have toyed with the idea of writing a fictional story based loosely on the snippets of information that I have gathered about my own family's past, but have not been able to get it started. Your description about how you put your story together, particularly your 'what if' attitude, has sparked my interest again Karen, so thank you for sharing.

Good luck with your book.