Interview: Karen Keskinen, author of Black Current

BLACK CURRENT, Karen Keskinen’s followup to BLOOD ORANGE, just came out this month, and she was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the new book, and more! Please welcome her to the blog!


Karen-KeskinenBLACK CURRENT, the 2nd book in your series featuring P.I. Jaymie Zarlin, just hit the shelves this month! Will you tell us a bit about it?
Several months have passed since Jaymie Zarlin solved the Solstice Murders, as the residents of Santa Barbara now call them. Certain people, especially members of the local PD, would prefer to think Jaymie’s success was a fluke – but she pays them no mind. Jaymie and her office manager, Gabi Gutierrez, have settled back into their usual line of work, which mainly consists of locating missing people.

Then, in the early hours of an August morning, Jaymie gets a call from her old friend (and occasionally more than friend) Zave Carbonel. Zave has a job for her: if Jaymie will jump on her bike straight away and pedal down to the wharf, she’ll earn a grand just for snapping some pictures inside the Santa Barbara Aquarium. Coffers are low and the office rent looms at the end of the month, so Jaymie accepts. How hard can this be?

Twenty minutes later Jaymie finds herself gazing into a massive cylindrical tank, where a single blue box jellyfish, suspended in the salt water, sways from side to side. Wrapped in its eight-foot long tentacles is the body of a handsome young man. The victim’s face, now a death mask, is twisted in a grimace of excruciating pain.

Jaymie manages to snap the required photos, then quickly departs. This is one case she has no desire to be part of. But fate – and the dead boy’s family – have other plans in store.

blackcurrentWhat do you enjoy most about writing this series, and why do you think readers will root for Jaymie?
I love writing this series because of the way it braids into my own life. I live near Jaymie’s home, and walk the same beaches, trails and city streets she navigates. I hear the same sea lions barking off shore, feel the same sun, fog, and wind on my skin, the same gritty yellow sand between my toes. Jaymie’s experiences give me a way to examine my own.

I think I know why readers root for Jaymie. It’s because she’s tough on the outside, but vulnerable within. I think most of us are like that. Though we live behind a shield, inside we are sensitive to so much of what swirls around us. Maybe this is what literature is all about: breaching walls to access the garden within.

Have you always wanted to be a writer? Will you tell us a little more about yourself and your background?
For most of my life I tried hard NOT to be a writer. I wanted to be an active part of life, not a person translating life. All along, I should have been paying more attention to myself: after all, as a kid I couldn’t wash the dishes without a book propped open on the taps. From the beginning I was a insatiable reader, and loved words and what I could do with them. But becoming a writer seemed to me like becoming a nun, or a giant sand worm in Dune: something apart, other, separate from this world.

Now I can see that for all that denial, I was never anything but a writer. And the day I accepted who I was – that was the day all the pieces tumbled into place.

Why mystery? What do you love most about reading, and writing, in the genre?
Yes, love isn’t too strong a word for what I feel for the mystery form. It isn’t the genre I love, but the form itself: robust, flexible, it is limitless in its manifestations. The mystery form doesn’t constrain me in any way, doesn’t reshape my thoughts or my words. Rather, it gives me a way to express what I need to say. I’m not entirely sure why this is, but I suspect it has something to do with the way I see the world. What’s most interesting to me is usually what lies beneath the surface.

What you see is so seldom what you get. Often, it’s what’s hidden that possesses the real power, don’t you think? And power – along with its inevitable corruption – lies at the heart of how things work, how the world turns.

What’s really going on here? That’s what I always want to know. The mystery form is a brilliantly conceived method for getting at that knowledge.

bloodorangeWhat is your writing process like? Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Oh, at heart I’m a seat-of-the-pantser. But I’ve learned through experience to let my head have something to say in the matter. I plot more now, to stop myself from having to spin in circles further down the line. It’s especially important for me as a writer to do some plotting, because I’m drawn to complexity, to twists and turns.

Even so, at the end of the day I’m always ready to toss the map out the window, if I happen to spot a more interesting route.

What are some of your biggest literary influences?
Sometimes I think I’m one of the last writers alive to have been influenced by the cadences of the King James Bible. All those long drawn-out Sunday mornings! As I kid I was a classics reader. Later, I read poetry nearly every day for twelve years. I’m grateful to the Salinas Public Library for giving me the opportunity to absorb all that wonderful writing.

Of course, John Steinbeck had an influence on me. He’d grown up on my block in Salinas, and his settings were deeply familiar. I think Katherine Mansfield influenced me too, though I can’t tell you exactly how. I do greatly admire her skillful, spare, beautiful prose. I love elegance in writing, and am not much drawn to the verbose or overblown. Nowadays I still get crushes on writers, but I doubt I’m easily influenced. I’m working too hard just to try and tell my own story.

If you could experience one book again for the first time, which one would it be?
There is only one writer I read over and over again, only one: Isaac Bashevis Singer. I’ve read each of Singer’s works more than once. For some reason, each re-reading is like coming to that story or novel for the very first time. Singer’s work, rather than merely portraying life, is alive. That means it’s mutable, open to endless interpretation. The flexibility, nimbleness, and depth of Singer’s work insure it will be read by the human race for a very long time.

The Santa Barbara setting is a big part of the Jaymie Zarlin series, and it’s obvious that you love living there yourself! What do you enjoy most about the area, and where would you take someone visiting you there for the first time?
When someone comes to visit me here in Santa Barbara, I often ask them to choose: would they like to go to the beaches, the mountains, or down to State Street? If the visitor lives inland, they might choose the beach. Then, of course, I’ll have to decide which beach it will be. That decision involves consulting the tide table: many of our beaches lie under sandstone cliffs, and high tide makes them inaccessible – or can leave you stranded! Also, in summer the city beaches can be crowded. On the other hand, if the visitor has arrived in winter, or if she lives on the coast, she may prefer a hike up in the front country. The ocean views from the mountains behind Santa Barbara are glorious. Under a hot summer sun, however, those front country hikes can be sweaty work.

If the visitor is in her teens or twenties, however, she’ll most likely choose the city over nature. State Street can be quite a scene, and the closer to the water you descend, the more interesting the scene becomes.

What I love most about Santa Barbara is the accessibility of it all. Nature is at your toe tips – from anywhere in the city, just a short walk away. Stand on the corner of State and Canon Perdido, and you’ll simultaneously rub shoulders with rich and poor, young and old, saintly and depraved. If you’ve inherited the novelty-seeking personality gene, this is the town for you!

What’s next for you?
Jaymie Zarlin will continue to lead me forward by the nose, and I’ll continue to willingly follow! I’m currently working on the third book in the series, and am fascinated by the road she’s taking me down. I can’t imagine a better way for me to examine this city – this California life.

Keep up with Karen: Website | Twitter

About BLACK CURRENT:
How far would you go to avenge someone you love?

It’s August, and Santa Barbara, California hasn’t tasted a drop of rain for months when P.I. Jaymie Zarlin learns a popular high school athlete has drowned in a tank at the city aquarium. The police are calling Skye Rasmussen’s death an accident, but his distraught parents, unconvinced, hire Jaymie to find out the truth.

Eager to prove she’s up to the challenge of solving the case, Jaymie investigates and uncovers an array of suspects. But when information begins to surface about her own brother, who died three years ago in the downtown jail, Jaymie is torn between doing right by her clients and exposing the truth about a mystery that lies much closer to home.

Set in a seaside city splashed in sunshine and laced with poisonous secrets, Karen Keskinen’s Black Current is a riveting story about the treacherous secrets we keep and the costly sacrifices we make – all to hold on to the people we love.

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