I’ve read every book by historical fiction author Karen Essex and never thought I’d have the opportunity to connect with her. As it turns out, Karen travels all over the world and relies on Boingo Wireless to keep her online! So thanks to Boingo, I had the chance to chat with the bestselling author about two favorite topics, books and travel. As Karen explains, traveling is an important part of her book writing process:
“As an historical novelist, nothing informs my work like travel. I love to walk in my characters’ footsteps, breathing in the air that they breathed, literally sharing molecules with them.”
I had just finished reading Karen’s latest masterpiece, Dracula in Love, and was fascinatedby the fact that Karen had visited the novel’s various settings, places that had lived vividly in my imagination during an all-consuming three-day read. Luckily, Karen obliged me with an interview.
- What inspired you to write the literary thriller Dracula in Love?
I’d first read Bram Stoker’s Dracula when I was fifteen years old, and even at that young age, I just knew that the character Mina Harker was dissatisfied with her role as the passive, cooperative Victorian virgin. I knew that there had to be more to her! That said, I had had my “vampire epiphany” even earlier. I used to race home from grade school on my bike to catch the gothic soap opera, “Dark Shadows,” on TV. I grew up in New Orleans, which is a haunted city. I adored Anne Rice’s books, and then later, as a screenwriter, adapted Rice’s The Mummy or Ramses the Damned for James Cameron and 20th Century Fox (sadly, the film remains unmade!). Because my other novels retell the stories of women in history in an empowering way, the idea of empowering the vampire’s “victim” was irresistible to me.
- A good portion of Dracula in Love takes place in Victorian England.
Which sites did you visit to transport you back to that period?
When I say that I am a fanatical researcher I am not exaggerating. Iliterally moved to England to research the book, settling in a London neighborhood that was developed in 1890, not far from where Bram Stoker resided. Some of my favorite Victorian sites include the various collections at the Victoria & Albert Museum, the pre-Raphaelite room at the Tate, Highgate Cemetery (where one of my favorite sequences in the novel takes place), Fleet Street (where Mina’s friend, Kate Reid, the “lady journalist,” lives and works) and of course all of London’s historic pubs and restaurants. In London, the late Victorian era is still very much alive in virtually every neighborhood!
I also traveled to Whitby on the Yorkshire coast, taking the same route Mina takes, by train and then over the moors. Whitby is amazing—windswept cliffs, haunted churches and cemeteries, and a red-roofed Victorian skyline. Stoker fans and all-around Goths make a pilgrimage to Whitby twice a year to celebrate Goth Weekend, when this sleepy seaside town really comes alive.
- You didn’t take us to Bram Stoker’s Transylvania in Dracula in Love. Instead, the heroine Mina Murray travels to the Ireland coast and Austria. Why did you choose those locations?
I wanted to give Mina a depth and a history missing in the original story, so I set the place of her birth as Sligo on the west coast of Ireland. I then discovered that Bram Stoker’s mother was born there and had filled her son with its ghost stories and folklore, including the ways of the fairies and the concept of the immortal lover—all present in my book. I had also toyed with changing the vampire’s birthplace from Transylvania to a different location, and then found in Stoker’s handwritten notes that his original choice for Dracula’s home was Styria, in southern Austria. Another happy coincidence! I decided to follow that line of thinking, and I must say it was great fun to play out one of Stoker’s choices! I had a phenomenal time visiting Styria and discovering its rich (and spooky) folklore. The city of Graz is perfectly preserved because it was not bombed in WWII, and the surrounding countryside is some of the prettiest I have seen. The Gothic architecture, especially foreboding Riegersborg Castle, did give me some great ideas!
- You have now written five fantastic historically-based novels, all of which included travel as part of the research process. Which project yielded the most memorable travel experiences?
When research takes you to Italy, Egypt, Greece, Turkey, England, Ireland, Austria, and places like that, it’s hard to play favorites! I love the academic research I do for my novels, but my true joy is to travel to the places where my characters lived and walk in their footsteps. Readers tell me that they like to take my novels with them on trips as travel and historical guides, so I think that my love of travel and my devotion to making a place and an era come alive are evident in my work.
- What’s next? Which historical figures are you intrigued by? Where will that take you in the world?
I am planning another novel set in the Italian Renaissance like Leonardo’s Swans, so I am off to some of my favorite places in Italy. I love the smaller towns of Verona, Mantua, and Ferrara, which have so much history. Many people know Verona because of the opera festival there, which I will attend this summer, and also because it’s the setting of Romeo & Juliet. Ferrara and Mantua, on the other hand, are exquisite hidden jewels!
I also hope to soon write a sequel to Dracula in Love. Don’t be surprised to see Mina and the Count traipsing around both France and the New World!
Have in mind a place or historical figure you wish Karen to consider for a future project? Or need travel recommendations from Karen? Fire away in the comments section below! The first twenty-five people to chat it up with Karen will receive a free copy of Dracula in Love. Want a chance to win a Barnes and Noble Nook Color eReader with an eBook version of Dracula in Love? Register to win here.