KAREN LEE STREET
Mystery People Interview
Karen Lee Street talks to Radmila May
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Radmila: Karen, I am so pleased to have this chance to discuss your books with you and to have this opportunity to learn more about you.
Karen: Thank you for the invitation, Radmila. It’s a pleasure to chat with you.
Radmila: You have joint U.S. and British citizenship and now live in Australia. That’s quite a journey. How did that come to happen?
Karen: I was born in Philadelphia — where Edgar Allan Poe wrote some of his most famous tales— and after completing my first degree which was done in part at Lancaster University, I moved to London and lived for a number of years in Hackney, very near where Poe went to school as a child in Stoke Newington. But that coincidental Poe connection finished with my move to Newcastle, Australia, which is my husband’s hometown. Poe was fond of tall tales regarding his personal life and pretended to have had adventures in St. Petersburg, Russia, but I’m not aware of any apocryphal stories he told of making his way to Australia.
Radmila: I read on the internet that, as a child, you lived in a farmhouse in Pennsylvania (U.S.) full of creaking stairs and things that went bump in the night. Did that lead you to an interest in ghost stories and the like? And an interest in Edgar Allan Poe in particular?
Karen: Oh, yes. Living in that house, which was quite old by American standards (late 1700s), further stimulated my over-active imagination and inspired nightmares. Not only was the house given to unexplained creaks that sounded like ghostly footsteps in the dark, my parents made the mistake of giving me the bedroom with the entrance to the attic. Worse still, the attic door was in the wall right next to my bed and each night I dreaded the sound of the latch clicking open. On the other hand, I desperately hoped to find secret passageways or treasure hidden somewhere in the house, but sadly that never came about.
I learned to read while living there and was very keen on fairy tales, which are typically wondrous with dark elements such as murder. Poe came later, when I was about ten years old and we had to memorise poetry for school—points for the most lines memorised. “The Raven” was one of the options and I had a crack at it. Trying to learn the poem got me reading Poe’s short stories, which fascinated me, particularly the unreliable narrators in stories like “The Tell-tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado”. Unfortunately, they gave me nightmares (there seems to be a pattern!) and my mother confiscated Poe and returned him to the library.
Radmila: I understand that Poe the writer is of great importance in the American literary canon, probably more so than in the UK. Could you say briefly what it is that makes him such a literary icon – apart, of course, from the creation of his famous detective, the Chevalier Auguste Dupin, ratiocinator and precursor of Sherlock Holmes?
Karen: Overall, I would say he was a great literary innovator and because of this was admired by many renowned authors including Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Fyodor Doestevsky, Charles Baudelaire, George Bernard Shaw, H.P. Lovecraft, Luis Borges, Umberto Eco. Not only is Poe credited with inventing the detective story, he also wrote early science fiction and horror.
As you mention, Poe’s creation of ur-detective C. Auguste Dupin was groundbreaking for the crime genre; further, he also established many tropes still used in detective fiction, such as Dupin’s methodology of examining evidence, using deductive reasoning to solve a crime, then concluding the tale by the detective explaining in detail how the crime was executed and by whom. What I think he particularly excelled at is exploring the perpetrator’s point of view, especially when viewing tales that are often labelled psychological horror (such as “The Black Cat”, “The Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Cask of Amontillado) as crime stories. Poe writes about obsession and paranoia brilliantly.
And of course it was Poe’s poetry that made him an icon first— “The Raven” gave him celebrity status if not wealth. His technical expertise and the musicality of his poetry are greatly admired as well as the emotional content, particularly his poems that deal with love and loss of the beloved. Poe was also considered an excellent literary magazine editor, critic, and essayist on topics such theatre, interior decorating, and composing stories.
Radmila: I was particularly struck in your first Edgar Allan Poe (Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster) novel by the way in which you combined the real-life character of Poe with the character of Dupin created by Poe and then drew into the narrative the true story of the late eighteenth century bottom-slasher the press of the day called the “London Monster”. And the way in which the narrative voice of each story was convincingly of its period: the bottom-slashing story being recounted in letters (a favourite eighteenth century fictional device as in Richardson’s Pamela) in the then fashionable flowery style which pales, however, compared to Poe’s hectic prose. How difficult was it to create these two literary styles? And do you think Poe’s own style was deliberately Gothic and how much affected by his addiction to drink and drugs?
Karen: My goal in writing the trilogy was to create an approximation of Poe’s ‘voice’, using the Dupin tales in particular as a reference, but trying to make the writing rather more accessible— Poe’s vocabulary was enviable and I must have skipped over a lot of words when reading him as a child or made heavy use of the dictionary!
For the voice of the (imaginary) eighteenth century letters written by Poe’s grandparents in Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster I was inspired by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, an epistolary novel I greatly admire for its depiction of the social mores of a particular time, place, and society, but also for how a rather cruel game has emotional repercussions for its instigators. Characters might believe they have better control of what they convey when explaining themselves in letter form, but letters that fall into the wrong hands can be very troublesome.
To write Poe in the first person, I re-read his stories as a reference for his voice along with many letters he wrote that are available to read at www.EAPoe.org . These range from charming letters to his family to business enquiries to poignant letters begging for money (as Poe was broke for much of his adult life.) His missives are very different in tone to his stories. I think Poe’s own style was deliberately Gothic in his tales of the uncanny and of murders committed by rather unhinged characters. His essay “The Philosophy of Composition” (1846) stresses the importance of using various elements to create an overall effect and a deliberately Gothic voice would be part of that.
On a separate note, Poe is commonly perceived as an alcoholic and drug addict, thanks in part to the notorious efforts of Rufus Wilmot Griswold to discredit Poe in an unpleasant obituary and to some critics and readers who presumed that Poe’s more unusual tales were opium-induced, which is untrue. (See: https://www.eapoe.org/geninfo/poealchl.htm) By more reliable accounts of Poe’s contemporaries, it only took a couple of drinks to make him very tipsy and he suffered badly for it the next day. He also spent long periods not drinking at all. He did drink to excess after his beloved wife’s death and suffered from hallucinations in Philadelphia from 1 - 13 July 1849 when he stayed with his friend John Sartain who cared for him during this period. Poe claimed he had not been drinking during this time and feared he was being followed by would-be murderers. There are theories now that the hallucinations were due to a health issue (such as a brain tumour) and were linked to his mysterious death a few months later on 7 October 1849, but this is just conjecture with no hard evidence. I mention this episode as this is the time frame in which Edgar Allan Poe & the Empire of the Dead takes place.
Radmila: You also bring into all three novels real life characters such as Helena Loddiges, daughter of a famous plant nursery owner in Hackney, London who was also a bird collector. In Edgar Allan Poe and the Jewel of Peru, Helena Loddiges makes the journey from London to Philadelphia to establish whether the man she loves was murdered. Similarly, in Edgar Allan Poe and the Empire of the Dead, real-life characters such as Georges Sand, Baudelaire, and Eugene Sue, are interspersed with the story of Poe and Dupin’s ventures into Paris’s underground necropolis – but is it/was it ever as dramatically Gothic as in your story? And do other characters from Poe’s stories find their way into your stories?
Karen: My depictions of the Paris quarry tunnels and catacombs are loosely based on historical events and true stories that no doubt took on a more Gothic ambience as recounted through the years. For example, when the bones from several Paris cemeteries were moved to their current positions in the catacombs and arranged in such a beautiful and macabre fashion, every effort was made to do this in a respectful fashion, but witnessing it would have been very unnerving. The bones of the dead were transported late at night in funerary carts draped in black sheets during a torchlit procession with priests chanting the Office of the Dead - a pretty Gothic scene. There are also tales of people losing their way in the tunnels. In 1793, Philibert Aspairt, doorkeeper of the Val-de-Grâce hospital, entered the catacombs by a staircase in the hospital courtyard and never found his way out. His bones were found over a decade later, tantalisingly near the entrance. His ghost is meant to haunt the area. The quarries were allegedly used for smuggling, as hide-outs, and many Victorian illustrations of visits to the catacombs stressed the spookiness of the place and how precarious exploring by candle or lantern might be…
Besides Dupin, a few other characters from Poe’s tales are mentioned in my trilogy, not least Ernest Valdemar whose name is borrowed from “The Strange Case of M. Ernest Valdemar”. He is quite a different character, however, but there are echoes of Poe’s tale within Empire of the Dead. Some other fictional characters created by the authors you mention join Dupin in his adventures with Poe, but it’s not necessary to know which ones in order to follow the story. I was delighted to discover when doing some research about George Sand, the pen-name of French author Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dudevant (1804-1876), that her birth surname was ‘Dupin’, so that coincidence had to go in. (Did Poe know her surname and did that influence his choice of names for his ratiocinator?) These and other elements such as particular locations mentioned are additional elements designed to create an extra playful mystery for the reader to solve. Or not.
Radmila: In addition to your recent fictional Poe/Dupin trio and also a volume of short stories (Tattoos and Motorcycles) you have been working in films for some time. Could you tell us how you came to be doing that and have the techniques of film-making influenced your writing?
Karen: I started out writing poetry and short stories, then discovered European cinema and fell in love with it. My parents were both artists, which probably added to my interest in visual storytelling. I helped out on some documentary films during a summer job in Alaska, then after film school in London I had three job interviews within two weeks: one as an assistant film editor; one as a music video director; one in a European feature film script development agency. That was the job I got and story-telling on paper was the path I followed. Understanding how films are put together through the juxtaposition of images and the subtext of dialogue has, I think, filtered into my prose writing. Learning to write story outlines and to structure scripts was a big help when writing mysteries. While some writers can ‘feel’ their way through a novel, and in many ways I did that when writing the linked short stories Tattoos and Motorcycles, I personally find an outline necessary when writing something in the crime genre. Oh, and I do think the three novels would make a great television series - there’s plenty of plot, visual set pieces, red herrings, and cliffhangers for at least eight episodes per novel!
Radmila: I’m looking forward very much to your next project. Can you tell us a little about it?
Karen: It’s tricky to say much about it now as I really don’t want to reveal the ‘high concept’ at this point, but it’s a contemporary crime story set primarily in a neighbourhood in Queens, New York City that I briefly lived in years ago. A series of murders sets a neighbourhood on edge and three women whose lives were connected in the past are brought back together by the killings, one to clear her name; one to protect her daughters; and one to escape her fate. To paraphrase Friedrich Nietzsche (and Robert Ressler), it centres on the idea that he who fights monsters should see to it that he does not become a monster too for when you look too long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you. So contemporary crime, but with a touch of Gothic too.