WRITERS ON WRITING: KAREN LEE STREET - Edgar Allan Poe & the Jewel of Peru
EC interviews author, Karen Lee Street, on her book Edgar Allan Poe & the Jewel of Peru, her writing process and more...
* For the complete EC's spoiler-free interview including images click here:
Edgar Allan Poe and the Jewel of Peru
As violent tensions escalate between nativists and recent Irish immigrants, Edgar Allan Poe’s fears for the safety of his wife, Virginia, and mother-in-law, Muddy, are compounded when he receives a parcel of mummified bird parts. Has his nemesis returned to settle an old score? Just as odd is the arrival of Helena Loddiges, a young heiress who demands Poe’s help to discover why her lover died at the city’s docks on his return from an expedition to Peru.
Poe is skeptical of her claims of having received messages from birds—and visitations from her lover’s ghost—but when Miss Loddiges is kidnapped, he and his friend C. Auguste Dupin must unravel a mystery involving old enemies, lost soul-mates, ornithomancy, and the legendary jewel of Peru.
I recently finished reading, Edgar Allan Poe and the Jewel of Peru, and immediately knew I wanted to interview author, Karen Lee Street. This was a fantastic read for me. Although this is the second book in Karen's Poe and Dupin mystery series, it is a stand alone story. While I have not read the first book, Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster, yet, (mine's currently on order,) the Jewel of Peru swept me up in its own tale with delicious twists and turns, all set off with Poe receiving a parcel of mummified bird parts. I felt like I was Poe and Dupin's unseen partner with my own theories that I wanted to whisper in their ears, and I must confess, they were always well ahead of me. That's why I was so pleased when Karen agreed to an interview when I contacted her.
Hi, Karen. We're so happy you could join us today. Tell us a little about yourself as a writer.
It’s a pleasure, especially as I’m such a fan of Enchanted Conversation. I’ve been very lucky to have wonderful mentors who encouraged me to start writing and to stick to it, beginning with my grandmother who taught me to write poems when I was seven and my step-grandfather who was a pulp fiction crime writer. I carried on writing poetry through university, winning small prizes and being published in small mags, but the poems steadily evolved into short stories. I also fell in love with film and studied that with the very optimistic goal of writing my own novels and adapting them into screenplays. (I haven’t given up on that…!) My first book, Tattoos and Motorcycles, a collection of interconnected short stories, was published in the UK. I was also writing screenplays and left writing Book II for far too long, which I didn’t know was a ‘bad thing’, so really had to start over in finding a new agent when I wrote, Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster, which was part of the PhD in Writing I completed at the University of South Wales. At roughly the same time I wrote a ‘how to’ book on screenwriting, Writing and Selling Crime Film Screenplays, based on what I had learned working as a feature film script editor and teaching screenwriting. My wonderful agent took me on for London Monster and sold the Poe/ Dupin mystery trilogy, which includes, Edgar Allan Poe and the Jewel of Peru, and, Edgar Allan Poe and the Empire of the Dead.
Edgar Allan Poe is considered the inventor of the detective fiction genre, so the idea of weaving history and fiction together-- combining historical aspects of Poe's life and a fictional 19th century crime he must solve with a literary character he created, C. Auguste Dupin, who actually exists in Poe's world in this book-- was mind bending and brilliant to me. What inspired this idea for you?
When I came across the story of the London Monster, a criminal who caused mass hysteria in London from 1788-1790 by slashing the dresses of over fifty women, I knew I wanted to write something about that crime. And then I recalled that Poe’s grandparents had been actors in London around the time of the Monster’s escapades and thought, what if they were the real perpetrators? The idea to have Poe investigate his grandparents’ past made me think of Poe’s famous literary creation, the great ‘ratiocinator’ C. Auguste Dupin and the idea grew to have them work together as a team. Dupin is portrayed as an incredibly cerebral character, almost lacking in emotion. Poe, on the other hand, was a great intellectual, critic, and writer, but when reading his letters (many are available online) it’s clear he was very expressive of his feelings, easily took offense, cared deeply for his immediate family, and was very protective of his actress mother’s reputation. I felt that if Poe discovered that his maternal grandparents might be criminals, he would let his emotions get in the way of finding truth and would need a more objective partner to help him in his investigation, someone like Dupin. Additionally, I think it’s fair to say that characters in books who fascinate or move us in some way, come to life for us. And many writers talk about their sadness at ‘leaving’ their characters when completing a novel…but do they truly do that? Their adventures can seem as real as some memories.
You weave such rich historical detail throughout the book that adds so much texture to the story. How much time would you say you spend on research, and where do you go to find it?
Some historical fiction authors write about an era they already know a lot about, but I had to pretty much start from scratch and probably over-researched. It was fun, but very time consuming and I tend to go down a lot of rabbit holes. I’m not sure I want to work out how much time I actually spend on research as it would make me feel very inefficient! Mostly I found information online, and I bought quite a few non-fiction books about birds, Peru, and Poe. I also have a magnificent collection of Victorian clothing, jewellery, hairstyles, decor and obsessions on Pinterest, which proved very useful when describing the world. I did some field trips for the books: the Poe museum in Philadelphia (his former home); the cemetery where the real Helena Loddiges is buried; various museums; and Paris for the third book in the trilogy.
Sometimes detective characters can come across as a bit "cold" to me, but you brought a subtle touch of humor and warmth to the character of the "gentleman detective," Auguste Dupin, in the story. Was he a difficult character to write?
In Poe’s three short stories, Dupin is very much the emotionally unavailable intellectual. It was important to stay true to this, but he needed further development for three novels, which was challenging but fun. In some ways, Dupin was easier to write than Poe himself as Dupin is more of a blank canvas. It was fun to construct a history of the Dupin family, to create a nemesis for him, and to show the cool, collected ratiocinator become irrational when manipulated by his enemy. In my trilogy, Dupin lost his immediate family when very young (like Poe) and a need for revenge drives him. In joining Poe’s family in Philadelphia for the investigation in Jewel of Peru, Dupin witnesses Poe’s closeness to his wife Virginia and his mother-in-law Muddy and this has an enormous impact on him as he is such an isolated character. I’d say he changes more than Poe does through the three novels.
One of the things I enjoyed in the book was the incorporation of Poe's wife, Virginia (Sissy) as a third partner to Poe and Dupin in solving the mystery. Why did you decide to include her as a major player?
Edgar Allan Poe was highly intelligent, well-read, an accomplished critic, and did not suffer fools gladly. Virginia Poe is typically described as very beautiful and sweet-natured; acquaintances noted that Poe was besotted with her. But I’d like to think she was an intelligent woman and that was part of their connection. Letters from Poe to Virginia are available to read online, but few (if any) are available from her to him. There is, however, a rather lovely Valentine’s Day acrostic poem she wrote for him, and acrostics are not that easy to write well. In short, Virginia is usually in the background as ‘the love interest’ and I felt she deserved to be fully involved in the mystery and, on occasion, to show up both Poe and Dupin. I also wanted her friendship with Helena to make her determined to be involved in the investigation.
I am also obsessed with another great female character that kicks off the mystery, the fascinatingly eccentric Helena Loddiges (who I think needs a series of her own at some point...hint...hint Karen.) Did you base her on any specific person? And her clothes...where did you get the inspiration for her style (which I would like to steal.)
Helena Loddiges (1818 - 1871) was a real person, who is buried in St. John-at-Hackney cemetery in East London, down the street from where I lived for about twelve years. I was surprised to learn that Loddiges Plant Nursery in Hackney was the largest in Europe in the 19th century and its huge glass houses made it a tourist destination when it was run by George Loddiges, Helena’s father. Further, George Loddiges was an avid bird collector who employed Andrew Mathews to find birds and plants for him in Peru. Mathews did marry a Peruvian woman. I ‘gave’ them a son called Jeremiah and concocted the love story with Helena; to my knowledge she wasn’t a taxidermist and I have no idea how she dressed, but I wanted her to be very creative, individualistic, and rather eccentric, her vision of how to dress inspired by the birds she preserves and also the folkloric dress of Peruvian women in a kind of homage to Jeremiah. She has no interest in what is fashionable, but cares only for what she considers beautiful in clothing and adornment. Her skill as a taxidermist is also a way of connecting book I and book II: Helena comes to Poe in part because she stuffed Charles Dickens’s pet raven Grip, a bird Poe meets in Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster— the pet bird that inspired Dickens’s novel Barnaby Rudge and, apparently, Poe’s acclaimed poem “The Raven”.
With all the twists and turns in your book, did you work from an extremely detailed outline? Did different twists come to you as you were writing that weren't originally in the outline?
I think detailed outlines are very useful for mysteries as they require so many twists and turns and red herrings. A good outline is an incredibly useful reference when revising, something I learned when writing Book I. I did a much more detailed outline for Jewel of Peru, beginning with an eight sequence outline (as used in screenwriting) then breaking that down into possible chapter mini-summaries. Often I will have an idea for a scene or set piece and the plot evolves around it. I always know the ending when I start a book— don’t think that’s necessary for some books, but that’s just how I think. I’m a runner and many sticking points were pondered on foot away from the laptop.
Can you give our readers a sneak peek of the latest Poe/Dupin book you're working on, and when will it be available?
The final book in the Poe/ Dupin mystery trilogy is Edgar Allan Poe and the Empire of the Dead. This ties up some plot points introduced in book I, but works as a stand alone mystery. The book blurb is:
“And I prayed that I would find a way to tell my most honorable friend, the Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin, the truth about how I had finally been murdered and by whom.”
Summer, 1849. Edgar Allan Poe has come to Paris to help his friend C. Auguste Dupin hunt down the criminal who brought the Dupin family to ruin during the French Revolution, but the prefect of police engages the sleuthing duo to recover a letter stolen from an infamous Parisian salonnière. Is the thief one of the French literary greats who attend her salons or might it be Dupin’s own enemy, who is scheming to become the Emperor of France? Poe and Dupin are quickly embroiled in a deadly cat and mouse chase through the notorious streets of the Île de la Cité and into the treacherous tunnels of the city’s necropolis. Poe discovers he has enemies of his own in Paris - and that few who dare to venture into the Empire of the Dead ever return from the darkness...
The third in the author’s acclaimed Edgar Allan Poe series, Empire of the Dead is a thrilling historical mystery about alchemy, mesmerism and magic, the shadows of the past and the endurance of love.
It is scheduled to be released in October 2019.
Thanks for sharing with us today, Karen!
Interview by: Amanda Bergloff @AmandaBergloff