Karen Sandler’s writing career started age nine, with a four-line poem about a pony. Luckily for us, she didn’t stop there. Based in Southern Californian, the mother of two has published 17 successful romance novels, and two books in a YA trilogy. She recently turned her hand to crime fiction with Clean Burn, published by new imprint Exhibit A Books. If you read our review, or indeed have read the book, you’ll know it’s a five-star offering. The book is set in San Francisco, and the main character is a damaged but likeable private investigator called Janelle Watkins, who is sensitively portrayed by the author. We are delighted that she has joined us for a chat.
What do you think crime fiction lovers will enjoy about Clean Burn?
I think readers will enjoy a story featuring a strong but complicated female protagonist like Janelle Watkins. She’s had a difficult childhood – putting it mildly. She’s come through it with some deep wounds to her psyche, but has managed to hold onto her humanity. Her view of the world may be dark, but she’s got compassion, and a near-compulsion for rescuing children in peril.
The book is your first thriller, and that you have a background in romance and young adult novels. Why did you switch to crime and what was the experience like for you?
I don’t know that I’ve switched so much as I’ve added some more variety to my writing repertoire. On my website, I call myself ‘genre-conflicted’ because I enjoy writing across story genres. It is true, however, that after writing those 17 romances, I was eager to try something new. I had written a movie script called Clean Burn and had gotten nowhere with it, and so I decided to re-write it as a novel.
What I like about crime fiction versus romance is that I can create a rather damaged heroine/protagonist. Romance – at least in the area I was writing – has more strictures on characterisation. Also, I could get into some darker behaviours, both of the protagonist and of my villain. The story focus is on the crime as opposed to the relationship between the hero/heroine. After writing 17 romances, it’s hard to write a fresh story about falling in love.
As far as comparing crime fiction to my sci-fi young adult work, it’s again just a different focus. The world-building in SF is quite complex, and although one does build a ‘world’ of sorts in any novel, particularly if there’s a fictional setting as in Clean Burn, a setting based in reality is much easier to write. A less intricate setting made it easier to focus on the characters in Clean Burn, which is my favorite part.
What was your inspiration for your protagonist Janelle Watkins? Her physical injury and mental health problems give her some barriers to overcome.
I think we all have dark moments, all have a dark side to our personalities. I did not experience the abuse that Janelle did – I had loving parents – but I’ve had enough dark nights of the soul to understand how someone like Janelle might tick. I have a lot of compassion for those who have been through tragedy and still pull themselves up, or who struggle with negative impulses, but still strive to resist them.
Her self-harming behaviour and self-image were convincingly portrayed. I wondered how you produced such a convincing portrayal.
I’ve known people who I at least suspected self-abuse and have read widely, at least in the lay literature, about the subject. I also consulted a friend with a background in family counselling as I was conceiving Janelle’s character. Ultimately Janelle is pulled out of my own imagination, which I confess sometimes goes to some very bleak places.
What can we expect next for Janelle Watkins?
She will be returning to Greenville, and all its attendant complications including her sometime-lover Ken, his often surly teenaged niece, Cassie, and various other Greenvillians, new, old, and odd.
Read our review of Clean Burn here.