Friday, October 11, 2019

#87 Inside The Emotion of Fiction: "A TRACE OF DECEIT" by Karen Odden

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****Karen Odden’s A TRACE OF DECEIT is #87 in the never-ending series called INSIDE THE EMOTION OF FICTION where the Chris Rice Cooper Blog (CRC) focuses on one specific excerpt from a fiction genre and how that fiction writer wrote that specific excerpt.  All INSIDE THE EMOTION OF FICTION links are at the end of this piece. 

Name of fiction work? And were there other names you considered that you would like to share with us? A TRACE OF DECEIT. But believe me, I have an awful time with titles! When I have 400 pages worth of book in my head, it is hard to come up with four words to suggest even a part of it.
Various titles that were suggested for my most recent one included A Picture of Death, A Forged Fate, The Art of Murder, A Sinister Silhouette, and A Stain of Deceit. My friend Anne Morgan talked through all of them with me and together we came up with A Trace of Deceit, which everyone agreed felt right. But titles are my bugaboo.
Has this been published? And it is totally fine if the answer is no. If yes, what publisher and what publication date? Yes, I’ve been lucky to find a wonderful publisher.  A TRACE OF DECEIT is forthcoming from Harper Collins/Wm 
Morrow, with a publication date of December 17, 2019.

What is the date you began writing this piece of fiction and the date when you completely finished the piece of fiction? I worked at Christie’s Auction House in New York years ago, and that began my fascination with the bizarre and often touching stories that surround particular pieces of art. Since then, I’ve drafted or begun stories about missing or stolen artwork.

But I began TRACE OF DECEIT in earnest in June 2017 after I read an article about the infamous London fire of 1874 that destroyed the Pantechnicon—an enormous warehouse filled with priceless art and antiques, right in the heart of Mayfair. I sent the first draft to my editor and agent around August 2018. But it’s been reworked and reworked since then. 

Where did you do most of your writing for this fiction work? And please describe in detail. And can you please include a photo? I do most of my writing in my home office. I have an entire wall of books, a writing table I’ve had for thirty years that I love, a comfortable tapestry-ish armchair where my 15-year-old beagle Rosy usually sleeps, a large canvas with a photo of a sunlit street in Crete, and a large map of 1870 London tacked to my wall. 

What were your writing habits while writing this work- did you drink something as you wrote, listen to music, write in pen and paper, directly on laptop; specific time of day? I live in the Arizona desert, so I usually hike first thing in the morning when it’s cool, come home and shower, do a bit of housework, make a cup of coffee, and then sit down at my desk by 9:30 or 10. Years ago, I used to become very anxious if I didn’t stick to a strict schedule; but my life with two young kids simply didn’t work that way, and over time, as I wrote every day, I’ve gained faith in my steadiness, as it were. I don’t write to a word limit or even to a time limit; I write for as long as I’m focused and emotionally present, which is usually about three hours a day. Sometimes I go down the research rabbit hole for an hour or two afterwards, and that’s a fun break, a way to both get outside my story and find the bits of true history that help shape it. When I’m beginning a book, I put pen or pencil to paper, and I do a lot of scribbling; as the character is taking shape in my head, I feel closer to her (or him) with a pen in my hand. But once I have a few chapters drafted and some back-stories written longhand, I start writing on my laptop. My son arrives home from school around 3pm, and I don’t work after that. I’m too busy running him around! 

What is the summary of this specific fiction work? In 1875 London, a young painter named Annabel Rowe is studying at the Slade School of Art. Her older brother Edwin is a gifted artist himself, but also a ne’er-do-well gambler and opium user who was arrested for forgery and sentenced to prison for a year. Recently released, he swears to Annabel that he’s reformed, and she longs to believe him—although he has made her promises before and broken them. One day, she goes to his room where she finds two Scotland Yard inspectors searching his things. Her heart sinking, she asks them what Edwin has done this time. But unexpectedly, they tell her that Edwin has been murdered. At first she thinks it’s merely his dissolute, selfish past catching up with him. However, then she discovers that a priceless French painting has gone missing from his studio the same night—a portrait of Madame de Pompadour, slated to be auctioned at Bettridge’s the following week.
As Edwin’s closest relative and as an artist knowledgeable about the art and auction world, Annabel convinces Inspector Matthew Hallam (introduced to readers in my previous novel A DANGEROUS DUET) that she is crucial to the investigation. Together, they work to discover the truth behind her brother’s murder.
Can you give the reader just enough information for them to understand what is going on in the excerpt? The day of Edwin’s funeral, a priest tells Annabel that one of Edwin’s first acts upon being released from prison was to write a will that would ensure she would receive the family house. She realizes that her brother truly had changed in prison—but now he’s dead and she cannot tell him so.

Please include just one excerpt and include page numbers as reference. This one excerpt can be as short or as long as you prefer.

And then, at last, I was alone by the grave. I looked down into the hole and saw the coffin, several shades paler than the nut-brown earth around it. The white flowers I placed on top had rolled off, or been blown to the side, dropping into the crevasse between the wood and the dirt, leaving only the oblong box, devoid of ornament and polished to a dull sheen.
God, what a fool I’d been.
The feeling of self-loathing struck me as fiercely as a bitter wind on naked skin. There was no getting away from the consequences of my stubbornness and my stupidity, keeping myself at a distance from him. Of course I knew that people could die swiftly. My parents had taken ill and were gone in a matter of days. But Edwin was only twenty-five! I had counted on there being time—time enough for me to be angry with him; to hold myself aloof so that he might learn what it had felt like to be abandoned; to inscribe my uncertainty and fear indelibly upon his heart, so that he would never, ever do it to me again. And then, at last, I would let him see I’d forgiven him. That, really, I’d forgive him anything, so long as he came back for good.
I thought there would be time for all of that.
Now there wasn’t time for any of it.
And while I had been tending my resentment and distrust, Edwin had made sure I’d be taken care of, if anything happened to him.
The wind stirred the trees, shifting the shadows of the limbs across the ground and tumbling detritus into the grave. The dampness of the late afternoon air knifed its way into my insides, and I shivered. Yet again, Edwin’s death took on a fresh, startling clarity. Perhaps it was because everything seemed to be moving, while the coffin remained so still.
Inspector Hallam came to my side and took my elbow, nudging me gently away from the grave, through the trees, and onto the gravel path, the small stones rough through the thin soles of my shoes. He asked if he should come and fetch me the next day, prior to going to the Sibleys’ house to speak with Mr. Pagett. I told him there was no need. I would come to the Yard. 
Felix appeared beside us and said something to the effect that whatever Inspector Hallam had to say could wait until tomorrow. I heard the coldness in his voice, and I sensed Mr. Hallam’s resentment, but I was in no state to conciliate either of them.
I let Felix lead me away. He helped me into a cab, settled me in my flat with a cup of hot tea, and asked several times if there was anything else he might do. Each time I replied in the negative, and at last he left me. I held the cup until the tea had gone cold and then I set it aside undrunk and fell into bed, feeling as weary and worn as if I’d been marched from one side of London to the other.
(Page 108)

Why is this excerpt so emotional for you as a writer to write? And can you describe your own emotional experience of writing this specific excerpt? I still feel something twist inside my chest when I read this section. This book is to some extent about what it means to long for and to be disappointed by the people we love. One of the things Annabel comes to realize during the course of the book is that she has particular memories of her brother—many of them painful and even traumatizing. But after his death, both her brother’s sketchbooks and certain events recall some happier memories as well, and she realizes, as Matthew Hallam says, that there is a trace of deceit in what we remember.

     Before Edwin dies, Annabel desperately wants to believe Edwin had reformed, yet she has the very human need to keep herself at a distance, partly out of self-preservation (who wants to be disappointed for the umpteenth time?) and partly out of a desire to make him understand how much pain he has caused her. This is a delicate moment, for it might seem as though she wants to punish him; but the deeper feeling is that she longs for him to understand the pain he caused, so he will never ever betray her trust again. As many of us have, I’ve loved people who behave in ways that are dangerous or self-destructive for them and incredibly distressing to me, and it’s a heartbreaking situation. 

Were there any deletions from this excerpt that you can share with us?  There aren’t really any deletions. My first drafts tend to be a bit spare, so in later versions I expanded this scene because I was trying to portray the full range of Annabel’s feelings—the regret, the self-loathing, the longing, and the pain as she acknowledges her deepest wish with respect to Edwin—that he’d return to stay.

Other works you have published? A LADY IN THE SMOKE (Random House, 2016) and A DANGEROUS DUET (Harper Collins, 2018)

Anything you would like to add? I spend a lot of time getting the historical information right, and I have some blogs on historical elements in my books on my website. I love to hear from readers, so please contact me through the STAY IN TOUCH tab!

     Karen Odden received her Ph.D. in English literature from New York University and has taught at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. She formerly served as an assistant editor for the academic journal Victorian Literature and Culture. Her debut novel, A Lady in the Smoke, was a USA Today bestseller.


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