Born and raised in a small town in Ontario, Canada, Karen Quevillon grew up running through the woods and escaping into the book worlds created by authors like L.M. Montgomery, Monica Hughes, and Richard Adams. She wrote short stories at a young age, but the joy of fiction did not seem a “serious” enough career to pursue.
Instead, she wrote lots of essays, eventually earning a PhD in Philosophy from Northwestern University in Chicago. While researching her dissertation in Paris she binge-read English novels to counteract her feelings of isolation. There, she awoke to the idea that the problems she was analyzing in her academic work—problems of power, agency, and identity—might be more richly explored and encountered through narratives. Mental note: write a novel. (Read the rest of Karen’s bio here.)
Along my own writing journey, I took an extreme editing course held weekly in Oakville, Ontario and it was there I met Karen Quevillon. Brilliant, unique and extremely talented, Karen always held my attention as she commented on others’ work from around the table.
Several months ago, Karen asked me to read her book with a view to having my words on her cover. What a thrill! Today I am excited and gratified to welcome her to my weblog with her new book, The Parasol Flower.
Elaine’s Interview with Karen:
Elaine: When did you first realize that you wanted to be a writer/a storyteller?
Karen: I’ve always loved reading. As a kid, I often took a book into my bedroom and read for whole days at a time. Back then I wrote a few stories and some angsty teenage poetry. But I didn’t take writing seriously until much later, in my late twenties.
What inspires you to write?
I’m inspired by many different kinds of things. There could be something I’m going through in my life, or something someone I know is going through. Or I might hear a snippet of conversation in a coffee shop or a store that makes me want to create. I’m inspired by songs that I enjoy. Sometimes it’s a strange item in the news that I come across that piques my interest. I went hiking the other day and passed by the gated entrance of an enormous wooded estate that was so well barricaded that I began to imagine a novel about what crimes could be going on in that perfectly hidden-from-the-world mansion. I have a little notebook in which I jot down any of these “sparks” and keep them handy for when I might have time to do something with them. I am often moved by ideas, by reading about or learning about something and then when I start to truly absorb it in my consciousness I began to imagine how to depict it and do it justice as scenes and a narrative, dialogue, interpersonal relationships. The current book I’m finalizing was inspired by an actual dream I had as a teen. The one I’m beginning to research is inspired by an investigation into the civilization that invented writing.
How did you come up with the idea for The Parasol Flower?
The Parasol Flower changed quite a lot from one draft to the next, but the original idea for the book was something that occurred to me while I was researching for my dissertation. I was reading about colonial Java and considering how the inter-racial intimacy worked amongst Javanese servants who were working for Dutch colonist families. I thought, this stuff is quite interesting to lay out in a scholarly analysis, but when it comes to intimacy there really should be a story, characters, emotions, an experience. So, mental note: when you’re done your dissertation, write a novel! I wound up transposing the context to Malaysia and its British colonial era as I felt a bit more comfortable dealing with British history.
Did you write this book all at once or spread over years? Why?
Over many, many years. So many I dare not say. 😉 This was firstly because with The Parasol Flower, my first novel, I was also learning at the same time how to write a novel. In my case, that involved to a certain extent unlearning argumentative essay writing, which is what had become ingrained to me and which is a totally different mindset and kind of writing. It was also because when I finished one of the middle drafts of the manuscript, I decided to leave it in a drawer for a number of years. I couldn’t face overhauling yet another draft, but I knew that even though that version was complete, it was not truly “me” and not what I wanted from the project.
What else have you published?
I’ve published short fiction, flash fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, essays, literary reviews, book reviews, scholarly articles, a dissertation. I’ve also worked as a freelance copywriter and blogger so I’ve published content related to those roles. You can find my work in various magazines. My website, theartofwriting.com, has a page that list links to different projects I’ve had published.
What is your favourite genre to write and to read?
As you can see from the above answer, I enjoy many different kinds of writing, and reading as well. I read more nonfiction than fiction, probably. When it comes to fiction I enjoy novels that are literary on a prose level, very well crafted, but also have good movement and read in a compelling way. I like a good mystery. I enjoy writing and reading poetry as well, which is a completely different experience.
What is your writing process?
It involves coffee or tea and snatching as much time as a can from any given day to work on a project. I always begin with pen and paper, with research and notetaking. There is a phase of that with any project. Then I switch to my laptop. I usually create a semblance of an outline at some point. However the outline will change, and I also begin drafting before the outline is formed. For example, I will begin writing a few chapters and then sort of regroup to take stock and see what is happening. From there I move back and forth from draft to outline, making changes. I might write additional backstory or sidestory scenes if I want to get to know the characters better or I’m trying to figure out where to go with plot or something. If possible, I try to arrange an unbroken period of a few days to work on stretches of the drafting. I find it takes me some time to “travel” mentally to the storyworld and if I can stay there for longer, there will be greater success and momentum for creating. Editing and certainly proofreading are tasks that I can jump in and out of much more easily and so I can schedule shorter periods of work time when it comes to the later phases of a project. I try to draft the entire manuscript before starting on a second draft, but realistically I end up overwriting patches along the way.
Optimally, I work at home in the middle of the day for a few hours, but life is never optimal. I’ve written whenever the babies were (finally!) napping, or at 5:30 am before toddler kids woke up; I’ve written while riding the bus to a class, I’ve written in the car in the parking lot at my son’s sports practices; I’ve written a lot in coffee shops or restaurants while “killing time” between work and kids’ school functions or at dental appointments or whatnot; I’ve written while I’m attending (very boring) meetings. I used to put a timer on and hide in the library and write as much as possible over my lunch hour break from the office, for example. You just have to make do, and write whenever you can. I’ve also been fortunate enough to have made a few individual writing retreats at various times and written in near total isolation in idyllic rural spots, away from the demands of work, family commitments, and the temptation of surfing the Internet.
What is your favourite scene in the book? Why?
My gosh, that is such a tough question! Hmmm….I honestly like so many of them! 😉 I suppose I would say the last scene we are with Hannah, the heroine in the 1896 storyline, is my favourite one. I can’t really explain why, as it would spoil the ending for readers. You’ll have to read the book, as they say!
Did any of your characters inherit some of your own quirks?
Sure, yes. Nancy, the contemporary narrator of the book, inherited my love of research and my dry sense of humour.
What is your most interesting writing quirk?
I don’t think I have writing quirks, let alone interesting ones! I like to put square brackets around any words in drafts if I am not settled on a phrase or a word or how best to describe or name something. It’s sort of pointless because any words on the page can be revised during re-writing, they are all merely provisional. But it makes me feel a bit better to flag to myself that I’m obviously not happy with the current formulation and I’m only using those words in a pinch so that I can keep going; I’m not standing behind them as my best possible product.
Do you read? Who are your favourite authors and how have they influenced your writing style?
I read fairly widely. I read less now than have done in my life up to now, and it’s really irritating me. At any rate, my favourite contemporary authors would be J.M. Coetzee, Kazuo Ishiguro, Edward St. Aubyn, Sarah Waters, so many others. Historically speaking, I love Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Orwell. I suppose their influence on me in terms of style is that I too aim for prose that is truly well crafted. By which I don’t mean that it’s flowery, far from it, but that at the level of the sentence every word is optimal and apt and simply packs a lovely punch. I need dialogue to ring absolutely true. I grew up with wonderful storyworlds from writers like L.M. Montgomery, Monica Hughes, Richard Adams, and it’s also very important to me that I immerse a reader in a fully furnished place, where setting includes not just the physical surroundings but a rich landscape of the characters’ emotional lives and their expectations and hopes for themselves and each other.
What is the best piece of advice you have received, as a writer, to date?
Oh my god there is so much advice out there to writers, it’s truly difficult to know what to do with it. Do this, don’t do that, blah blah blah. I’ve taken workshops and courses and been involved with lots of groups. Perhaps the best piece of advice I’ve had comes from my writing coach, Sherry Coman, and that is to always stay connected to the sacred source of your project. Ask: why are you writing this in the first place? What is the spark or the throb or the image that you can return to when you are feeling things have gone astray and how can you stay true to that as you keep going? Writing a novel is a very long process and finishing what you start out to accomplish is not something you can ever take for granted. At least if you can honour the moment or the reason why you are doing it in the first place, you’re more able to sustain yourself over the long haul.
What is the best piece of advice you would give to someone that wants to get into writing?
Do this because you enjoy the process, because you feel called to the practice. Do not do this because you want a book published with your name on the cover.
What would be the Dream Cast for your book if it was to be turned into a movie?
Ooh, this is fun! I mean, truly, unknown actors are probably preferable so people can sink themselves fully into the performance, but let’s say Kiera Knightley to play Hannah, Dev Patel for sergeant Darshan Singh, and George could be played by Ray Winstone. Eva needs to be a frumpy-fied Gina McKee or someone like that. In the contemporary storyline, maybe Shailene Woodley for Nancy and Bill Nighy playing Barnaby Munk. Barnaby needs a bit of a comedic air.
If you were to be stranded on the famous deserted island, what three things would you carry?
Oh, I might carry a hammock, a massive notebook with pen attached (ha! So that I can count that as one item!), and a never-ending supply of lentil soup. I feel like I should have put more thought into this question…
How do you spend your free time? Do you have a favourite place to go and unwind?
Writing! Right now, I’m fitting writing into the margins of my time. (My day job is a college professor.) My favourite places to go and unwind are local hiking trails and paths. I love nature, I love gardens.
Can you share with us something off your bucket list?
Sorry, no, I don’t want to jinx myself! Let’s just say I would like to travel internationally.
Tell us three fun facts about yourself.
I can do cartwheels and juggle.
I once accidentally took my kids on a 6 hour hike. (But the scenery on the southern shore of Lake Superior was truly stunning.)
I’m into online art auctions.
What do you have in store next for your readers?
I’m finishing off a middle grade novel, Spirit Rock, which is a departure from The Parasol Flower. It’s a fantasy novel that’s rooted in indigenous cultures. I’m also in the very early stages of another work of historical (adult) fiction that may be set in Babylon or ancient Sumeria, the “cradle of civilization.”
Is there anything else you’d like to share with your readers?
In case any readers out there are interested in getting some help in their own writing life: I do work as a writing coach and developmental editor on a freelance basis. Please get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to schedule some help to complete your novel or work of nonfiction.
And let me know what you think of The Parasol Flower!
Praise for The Parasol Flower
“The Parasol Flower is an engrossing tale of two impassioned women, separated by a century, both hunting for treasure: one is an artist trekking through a pulsing Malaysian jungle, seeking a singular, exquisite flower; the other, a scholar trekking through the tangles of time-past, seeking a singular, exquisite woman. Beautifully written, utterly engaging and sparkling with wisdom, Karen Quevillon’s outstanding debut novel vividly explores the essential urgency of heeding the persevering yearnings of one’s creativity and destiny.”
– Janet Turpin Myers, author of Nightswimming and The Last Year of Confusion
“The Parasol Flower is a visceral, captivating novel about charisma, commitment, and the need for connection—an elegant and wistful portrayal of two women from different eras searching for each other.”
– Monica Carter, Foreword Reviews [read the full review]
“[Karen] Quevillon shows an intimate knowledge of the problems women face today as well as those faced a couple of hundred years ago. The juxtaposition of these two timelines is more and more striking as the story progresses and leads the reader’s thoughts along the unique paths of everywoman. This is a novel for the thinking person who delights in identifying and solving society’s problems. I loved it.”
– Elaine Cougler, author of the Loyalist trilogy
“With The Parasol Flower, Karen Quevillon offers an intricate bud of a story that gradually unfurls to reveal, petal by delicate petal, a rare and brilliant bloom.”
– Sherry C. Isaac, author of Storyteller
Order The Parasol Flower from Amazon, Indigo/Chapters, Barnes & Noble, Foyles, Waterstones, The Book Depository, BookTopia, Kobo, Ebooks.com and other booksellers around the world.