Posted On January 7, 2018 by Print This Post

What Lies at the Heart of a Novel by Katia Lief aka Karen Ellis


I’ve been a fan of Katia Lief‘s suspense books for several years, and I was excited to learn that her latest book is taking her into new territory – and with a new pseudonym, Karen Ellis. Please welcome Katia back to RU!

When I set out to write A Map of the Dark, my mother had just died three weeks after a cancer diagnosis and I was in shock.  I tend to give my protagonists whatever is most on my mind, and this time it was going to be a doozy.  Special Agent Elsa Myers would have to figure out why teenagers were vanishing under similar circumstances at the same time that she struggled personally with a loss that triggered painful memories.  Because I’m a cruel and ruthless mystery writer, the backstory I gave her would, of course, have to be much more ominous than my own.

Elsa’s memories aren’t just difficult, they’re agonizing; she doesn’t just feel the hurt of these memories, she hurts herself in response.  The turmoil of her dark past fuels her gifts as an investigator, and she solves the case, but at a terrible price as her psychological quicksand nearly devours her.  She yearns to love and be loved, but can’t allow herself any.  Though her situation is extreme on many levels, nearly everyone at some point in their life faces a dichotomy between their work and personal selves that threatens to undermine them, and in this way I sought to create a very human conflict for Elsa that almost anyone could relate to, if not in its particulars than in its destabilizing effect.

Once I had all that down on paper, my focus shifted to mustering the discipline to make sure that the machinery of the novel was working at its peak.  In other words, I had to take off my “writer’s hat” and put on my “editor’s hat.”  At this point in the process, assuming a more analytical distance tends to come as a relief.  For me, this generally means several in-depth rounds of revision before I arrive at a draft that’s fit to show my editor.  By then, the raw ideas and emotions that fed the story’s genesis have been wrested into proportion and begun their transfer from me to my characters.

It was during this later process of revision that A Map of the Dark became purely Elsa’s story, the stalks of which took seed in my own heart but then flourished into something all hers.  As a novelist, it has always been a comfort to give myself to my characters in this way, divesting myself of quandaries that become their fictional load to carry.  All fiction, of course, is filtered through the personal experience and perceptions of the writer; but for a novel to work on its own merits, it’s ultimately essential to separate your personal experiences from the story so that it can find it’s own balance.


How easy or difficult do you find it, as an author and/or a reader, to separate yourself from the story?  



Katia Lief is the author, pseudonymously as Karen Ellis, of the novel A Map of the Dark just published by Mulholland Books/Little, Brown.

Under her own name she is also the author of several crime novels including The Money Kill, the fourth installment of her Karin Schaeffer series, published by HarperCollins and nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award.  She teaches fiction writing at The New School and lives with her family in Brooklyn.

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4 Responses to “What Lies at the Heart of a Novel by Katia Lief aka Karen Ellis”

  1. Katia – Thanks so much for sharing this with us. I’m so sorry about your mom’s death. I’m amazed you were able to write at all after such an emotional blow. I’m looking forward to adding a new keeper shelf section for your Karen Ellis books.

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | January 7, 2018, 11:47 pm
  2. Katia – Did you have to put a lot of thought into creating a new pen-name/persona? Was there a concern Karen Ellis could draw fans from your Katia books? I’m curious what is involved in that kind of decision.

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | January 9, 2018, 10:27 am
  3. Great question, Becke. The decision to use a pen name was mostly driven by my agent and new publisher. The thought was that, since my work was starting to skew a bit more literary, a “”rebranding” was in order. Also, the new book would be published in hardcover whereas my previous books have been paperback originals. It’s a different market, and the hope is to find a broader readership than commercial paperbacks tend to attract. I chose the pseudonym by finding something that would feel personal to me and thus comfortable to live with. Karen Ellis is a conglomeration of my children’s names–Karenna and Eli.

    Posted by Katia Lief aka Karen Ellis | January 9, 2018, 1:33 pm

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