Author Interview: Karen Nilsen on "The Witch Awakening"

Ana: Karen, last year I was pleased to receive from you the first two books in your Landers Saga: “The Witch Awakening” and “Tapestry Lion”. I was stunned at how taken I was with the books, as they struck me as very romance-oriented (while still having a nice cornucopia of fantasy, action, and gothic elements), and I generally tend to shy away from novels with a strong romance focus. “The Witch Awakening”, however, quite literally kept me awake until I gave in and stayed up all night to read it, and its sequel “Tapestry Lion” followed strongly in its wake.

The books follow the fascinating life and experiences of the fictional Landers family: Merius is a headstrong and independent young man looking for a way to lash out against his politically savvy father Mordric. Into this powder keg waltzes the magically talented and potentially ruinous Safire - suddenly turning the entire Landers family upside-down with her vital presence and sheer force of will. Can you tell us more about your series and what prompted you to write it? What sorts of themes do you explore and what do you hope the reader will take away from the experience?

Karen: I'm a firm believer that all fiction is autobiographical at its core, even fantasy. There are parts of The Landers Saga that I took directly from my life experience--for instance, Safire being a sketch artist and painter . . . both my mother and father were artists. My earliest memories are playing with my toddler train set on the floor of Mom and Dad's basement studio while she painted still lifes and he carved animals from wood. My parents' example inspired me to create, and I can't thank them enough for that. Like a lot of people, I had a difficult childhood in some respects and very early on, I started telling myself stories to explain and process my experiences with my family and the other kids at school. This habit of channeling my emotions into storytelling was both therapeutic and entertaining for me, to the point that now I get cranky if I can't write on a consistent basis.

As for the particular stories--the fantasy elements, the alternating first-person points of view, the characters and relationships I choose to focus on--I didn't really understand why I told these particular stories until a few years ago. I just wrote from a very intuitive, emotional place and took whatever came out on the page and fashioned it into The Landers Saga without really trying to understand it. I just enjoyed it.

Then I read Clarissa Pinkola Estes's Women Who Run with the Wolves and joined a dream group around the same time. The dream group (which I joined as a lark) coupled with Estes's book turned into one of the most powerful experiences of my life. I've always had vivid dreams, had strong emotional reactions to my dreams, but rarely understood why. In the dream group we processed everyone's dreams, and I began to make the connections among these seemingly irrational symbols from my subconscious, my emotions, and my conscious life experiences, including my writing. In Women Who Run with the Wolves, Estes analyzes in depth the archetypes from fairy tales and myths and how these relate to women's lives in the modern world. So many of the archetypes resonated with me; I had already met them in my life, my dreams--and my writing--without even realizing it. As a result of these experiences, I've coined the term "archetypal memoir" for my writing. It sounds a bit odd to most people, as The Landers Saga is classified as fantasy romance, but archetypal memoir sums up to me what I'm trying to accomplish with my writing: characters who are in a constant state of transformation in their emotional, intellectual, and creative development and in their relationships, characters who influence each other in unexpected yet true ways, and an organic storyline that grows directly from character development and interaction.

My primary goal for my readers is to entertain them. If they take away any more than entertainment from the experience, that's great.

Ana: What was your inspiration when writing your novel? Were you influenced by a specific author or work that inspired you to add your voice to this genre?

Karen: Ah, inspiration . . . when I was in the sixth grade, I had this awesome history teacher named Mr. Wilson. He made his history lessons into stories--I'll never forget the day he summoned six of us girls to the front of the class and gave us placards reading "Katherine of Aragon", "Anne Boleyn", etc., and gave a boy a placard with "King Henry VIII." Mr. Wilson then proceeded to tell us about King Henry and his six wives. The tragic story fascinated me, and from that experience grew my love of history, particularly the northern Renaissance. I later on became a history major and had some wonderful professors in college. I've woven little bits of historical fact into the stories--for instance, King Rainier in Tapestry Lion is very loosely based on Louis XI of France (the so-called Spider King), though I don't think Louis was married to anyone remotely like Queen Jazmene. :)

As for authors and books that have inspired me, there are far too many to list all of them. I started writing about the Landers when I was fourteen, and at that time, I had just read or was in the midst of The Lord of the Rings, The Three Musketeers, and Susan Howatch's historical family sagas Cashelmara, Penmaric, and The Wheel of Fortune. I have the feeling these books probably had the most influence while I was building the foundation of what my stories would later become.

Ana: I was deeply impressed by the broadness and movement within your saga. A lot of romance novels - particularly ones with a very ‘historical’ flavor like this one - seem to take place entirely in the same small castle or possible a single small country. In the Landers saga, by contrast, you have Merius and Safire travel regularly to faraway places, and it always feels terribly realistic - the world-building leaves you with the feel of a genuinely large and varied world. If you could compare your novel to any other existing work, which one would it be and why?

Karen: Thanks for the compliment about the world building--I drew a map when I started writing about the Landers and made this really complicated seven-generation family tree (which has since changed a great deal!) Otherwise, I don't plan out the world much ahead of time but let the characters tell me where they are and what it's like. If I tried to plan it too much (and this goes for the plot too), I'd lose focus on the characters and get major writer's block.

As for comparing my novels to existing works, that's a good (meaning tough :) question. Hmmm . . . probably a combination of George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire (the multiple viewpoints and focus on character development to spur plot), Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Dart (historical fantasy setting with a Renaissance feel), and Robin McKinley's fairy tale retellings, particularly Deerskin and Beauty (using archetype and myth to reveal psychological depth of character.)

Ana: I can see the resemblance - I really like McKinley's fairy tale works. Are these your first or only finished works, or have you written other novels? If you have written other novels, how do they compare to this one? Do you have any more novels planned, either as part of this saga, or as a completely different novel or genre?

Karen: I've been writing novels about the Landers since I was fourteen, most of them terrible. I keep running across boxes of manuscript hidden in the bottom of closets or tucked away under beds or piled up in the basement . . . I even burned a whole novel manuscript one time. I was seventeen or so--when I wrote it, I thought it was brilliant. Then I read it six months later and thought it was awful. I invited some friends over, and we made a bonfire with it and roasted marshmallows.

The Witch Awakening, which was a rewrite of an earlier novel I wrote in college, was the first book I realized I could sell--it had a plot that wrapped in a satisfactory conclusion, yet still left the door open for sequels. I finished Tapestry Lion, the second book in the series, last year. I lack just a couple chapters of the third book Phoenix Ashes--I plan to release it sometime this summer. There is a final and fourth book in this particular series about the Landers (tentatively titled The Curious Fear of High and Lonely Places) which I hope to have done in 2012.

Ana: Where can readers obtain copies of your novels to enjoy? If you have another novel planned, how can readers “sign up” to be notified when it becomes available?

Karen: The Witch Awakening and Tapestry Lion are both available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble on-line (print and e-book versions). Additionally, The Witch Awakening is on Smashwords as well. Readers are welcome to e-mail me at to sign up for a notification when I release Phoenix Ashes.

Ana: Definitely remember to add me to that notification list - I'll be your first buyer! Karen, thank you so very much for being willing to participate in this guest blog interview. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Karen: Thank you so much for your thought-provoking questions and for interviewing me on your blog! Your enthusiasm for The Landers Saga has been so encouraging--I appreciate your support of new authors like me far more than I can express.


Margaret Abruzzi said...

 Put me on your list for Phoenix Ashes.  Ana asked some very interesting questions which give a further Jungian dynamic to the Landers saga.  I also couldn't put The Tapestry Lion down and can't wait for the next book. 

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