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WORD: Interview with Karen Dionne, author of 'Freezing Point'

Karen Dionne established Backspace, a literary website and message board that has expanded to include one of the book scene’s most anticipated yearly conferences, in 2004. The Minnesota author shared her thoughts with WORD'N'BASS.com Editor BPM Smith about the environment, the nature of human faults, and thrillers as her debut novel "Freezing Point" launched this month with Penguin imprint Berkley.

WORD'N'BASS.com: Well Karen, we've known each other four years now and I always hoped we'd do an interview about your debut as a novelist. Congrats. Has it sunk in yet?

Dionne: Thanks for having me, Bryan, and thanks for the congrats. No, the reality hasn't sunk in yet, and in a way, I hope it never does. Having my first novel hit the shelves is an amazing experience. What began as an idea is now a physical object. You can see it, touch it, smell it - sleep with it under your pillow if you want to. It's magic.

WORD'N'BASS.com: Let's jump into the novel. Freezing Point has several contemporary issues at stake. A well-intentioned engineer Ben Maki is your protagonist. He wants to use solar energy to solve clean drinking water issues by melting icebergs. It doesn't go so well, does it?

Dionne: No, it doesn't. Of course, it's a given that things will go wrong in a thriller, but I've noticed a similar theme showing up in all of my writing: a well-intentioned but short-sighted protagonist ends up mucking things up worse than they were before they started.
WORD'N'BASS.com: Ben's own boss wants to sabotage it by blasting off a huge chunk of the iceberg. So we've got a potential Apocalypse driven by human faults. Is that pretty much like the real world?

Dionne: I think so. I believe people are basically good, but they're also flawed. And while ignorance is a factor, I do think greed is at the root of the current environmental problems.
WORD'N'BASS.com: It's an eerie premise if you're concerned with how we're jacking up the environment. It doesn't take much suspension of disbelief to see these types of things happening in real life.

Dionne: That's true. Of course, this has been going on for a long time - it's just that we're finally understanding how fragile the environment is, and how intricately it all works together. Unfortunately, knowing and doing are two different things. In the real world, selfishness can so easily trump altruism, and that's how events play out in my book.

WORD'N'BASS.com: I'm interested in how you came up with this idea for a novel. Are there any real-world events that acted as a catalyst for you?

Dionne: I got the idea for Freezing Point when I read an item in the newspaper about a 1,000 square-mile section of the Larson Ice Shelf that had broken off due to global warming. The image of that giant iceberg intrigued me. What if a researcher had been there when the ice shelf disintegrated? What if they were stranded on the newly formed berg? What if the disaster was their fault? (cue theme music) I added in a variation of the greatest April Fool's hoax in Discover Magazine's history, and ended up with a story about an environmental disaster in Antarctica and a grand philanthropic scheme that goes horribly wrong.

WORD'N'BASS.com: People around the iceberg start dying. Can readers expect panic and chaos to ensue? Are the characters going crazy on each other?

Dionne: There's definitely panic, but it's not anarchy; it's more of an inevitable and gradually building chaos that results from a series of bad decisions. Years ago, I read about a man who was using gasoline to clean his tools and started a fire in his garage. The fire got away from him, and so he ran into his house to warn his family - this was an attached, two-car garage - and they all ran out the back door. Unfortunately, his actions drew the fire INTO the house, and the family lost everything. Their tragedy really stuck with me. How many times have we done something just as thoughtless that could have turned out badly? So in my book, pretty much everyone does something wrong and ends up paying for it.

WORD'N'BASS.com: You chose Antarctica as a setting - is it true there's no law there and if so, what's to stop any of the characters from annihilating everyone?

Dionne: Yes, it's true, there is no law in Antarctica. Nations have made land claims, but because no one owns their particular piece of the continent, there's no government, and no authority - nothing to stop the characters from doing anything they want to except their own moral compass. And if that happens to be a little skewed...

WORD'N'BASS.com: What's that say about human nature, and how is this expressed in Freezing Point?

Dionne: I think in some respects, villains and heroes aren't all that different. We all have wants, and depending on the severity of our desires, are willing to go to extraordinary measures to get them. There's a scene near the end of Freezing Point where both the villain and the hero realize they could contrive an accident for the other, and no one would be the wiser. To me, that's a crucial moment. No one is completely good, and I think it's important to depict that, even in a novel.

WORD'N'BASS.com: Sidebar alert: when you and I first met you were launching Backspace back in '04. Did you expect then that four years later Backspace would have more than 850 members and you'd be launching a novel?

Dionne: You know, it might sound egotistical to say it, but the answer to both questions is yes. When my business partner Chris Graham and I started Backspace, we did expect it to become the best site for writers on the web, and I did intend to publish a novel. After all, there's not much point in striving for mediocrity. At the time, Chris and I were both aspiring writers, and we had this idea that if we surrounded ourselves with the people who could help our careers, not only would we benefit, so would everyone else.

The Backspace membership today is mainly writers, but we also have a dozen literary agent members, and we have regular guest speaker question and answer visits from editors, best-selling authors, publicists, and other industry players. We're all there because we want to help one another get published, and it's working - in 2007, members came out with 73 non-fiction books and novels, and four of those hit the New York Times list. That's an amazing success rate, but of course Chris and I don't take credit. We view ourselves as facilitators only. It's the members who make the organization what it is.

WORD'N'BASS.com: It's become quite a bit more than a literary message board, huh?

Dionne: Yes, it has. The online interaction has forged genuine friendships, and is the reason we began holding our annual writers conference in New York - members wanted to meet and hang out in person. They're also invested in each other's success, turning each other's books face out at bookstores, promoting them on their blogs, buying them for themselves and for their friends. If there's one thing Backspace has taught me about the writing community, it's that it's much less cutthroat than the stereotypes portray. Writers aren't in competition with each other. The more successful we are individually, the better the industry does as a whole.

WORD'N'BASS.com: Your Backspace project is pretty well known, but Ami Greko over at Folio this week told me you have a side project that I never heard about: The Book Promotion Network. What is this?

Dionne: A few months before Freezing Point's release, I decided I was going to use the Internet to promote my novel as much as possible. From talking to other writers, I knew there were plenty of promotional opportunities available - blog tours, online book clubs, book review sites, video sharing, and social network sites where people who might be interested in the topic of my book gathered. I heard words like "Authorbuzz" and "LibraryThing" and "Shelfari," but didn't know what they meant, or how these sites and services could help promote my book. I looked for a resource that would explain it all, and that had all of the Internet promotional opportunities listed in one place, and when I couldn't find one, Chris and I decided to make our own.

WORD'N'BASS.com: When did this launch and what are the plans for it going forward?

Dionne: Currently the Backspace Book Promotion Network has listings for 2,456 Internet book promotion services and opportunities, and 73 articles that explain how to use them. But really, we're just getting started. The Internet is a big place, and it's constantly evolving. Our goal is to catalog and organize all that promotional information in order to make it accessible.

WORD'N'BASS.com: And what about your writing, Karen? I know you're just now launching Freezing point but I always like to ask authors what novel is next.

Dionne: I'm working on a literate, clue-oriented thriller that my agent (Editor's note: Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary Management) and I both love. The story takes place over 4,000 years, and blends some really cool science with some fascinating history. All I can say about the plot is I hope my readers like spiders . . .

WORD'N'BASS.com: Are you going to continue writing eco-thrillers or do you see yourself branching out over the long term?

Dionne: I don't plan to write only eco-thrillers, but I'd like to stay under the science thriller umbrella. I love science, and I love taking a plausible, `what if' scientific scenario and pushing the story to its limits, so for me, science thrillers are a perfect fit.


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