The Evolution from Engineer to Mystery Writer: Interview with Author Karen Pullen
Karen Pullen knows much about harnessing the power of both right and left brain thinking. In college she majored in math, but also took many courses in creative writing. After teaching math for a few years (calling it one of the “hardest jobs ever”), and raising a family, Karen decided to pursue a PhD in operations research (at a time when few women did). She spent many years working for a systems engineering consulting firm before coming to a crossroads in life. Over a decade ago, she left her job, moved from the Boston area to North Carolina and began a bed and breakfast. This move helped her connect back to the love of writing.
Karen still owns the B&B, and is an accomplished writer, and teacher. I know her as a kind and generous nurturer of talent and one of the visionaries who helped to create the Creative Writing Program at Central Carolina Community College (CCCC) in Pittsboro, NC. This program offers a creative writing certificate, a unique feature for a community college and continues to attract outstanding faculty. She’s recently harnessed her extraordinary gifts to write her debut novel, Cold Feet, one that is already garnering high praise.
I recently caught up with Karen to find out more about her novel.
1) Tell us about your first novel, Cold Feet. What’s in store for readers?
Stella Lavender is a young woman meeting unique challenges of life, love, and work. In Cold Feet she tries to manage her incorrigible grandmother, finds a dead bride, meets some wedding guests with surprising histories, intervenes between feuding innkeepers, risks her life buying drugs undercover from paranoid dealers, is nearly shot by a stalker, and unearths a money laundering scam. There’s a dog, a kidnapping, and even a car chase. Good times for Stella. She gets through them with a sense of humor and a strong survival instinct.
2) What was the most interesting tidbit that you came across while researching what a State Bureau of Investigation agent does?
About six years ago, to prove that serendipity is truly a force in the universe, I saw a short article in the Raleigh newspaper about a woman who’d just retired after 30 years in the SBI as an undercover drug agent. She’d been Miss Winston-Salem when she joined the agency, and that made her retirement news-worthy. I looked up her phone number and called her. She told me how the SBI works with local agencies and how people are assigned to different divisions. She told me some stories from her own experiences. She’s been available to answer questions, to save Stella from behaving idiotically.
But I don’t want to imply that Stella goes by the book. I had to bend the reality of the SBI to fit the story. I expect to hear from SBI agents who will want to set me straight.
3) In the novel there’s an implicit critique of romanticized notions of marriage and the traditional nuclear family. Did you intentionally want to explore these topics or did they emerge as you went along?
Michele, you’re right, but they emerged from my subconscious! Perhaps the fiction writer in me sees marriage as fertile territory for conflict.
Fern (Stella’s grandmother) rejects the institution, Stella’s just been dumped by her cheating fiancé, the murder takes place at a wedding. The groom’s mother is unhappily married, for the second time.
But other characters manage to stay together despite some real challenges. And the book ends happily. . . I won’t reveal more!
4) An important character in Cold Feet is transsexual. What prompted you to create her?
Michele, as a women’s studies professor you know that gender is a continuum. But from the instant of birth we put a baby into one of two gender boxes, male or female. Sometimes it’s the wrong box. Some children are aware from a very young age – around three – that they have been assigned the wrong gender. Can you imagine the confusion and loneliness of that boy or girl? The pressure to be different? Cold Feet’s transsexual character is flawed, but I tried to convey the desperation that motivated her to alter her sex. And I hope that she is appreciated as a whole person, not defined solely by her gender change.
5) Will we see more of your main characters, Stella and her grandmother Fern? What’s your next writing project?
Yes, I’m planning at least two more Stella Lavender books. Fern is such a favorite character that she’ll play a major role in both. I also have a short story collection that I’m polishing.
6) What’s on your bookshelf, next to your bed? What are you reading right now?
I just finished Unbroken by Laura Hillebrand, and I’m half-way through a biography of Isak Dinesen. I like to read biographies of writers. My favorite is Norman Sherry’s The Life of Graham Greene, in three fat volumes. Does that sound pretentious? I confess that I love Ruth Rendell’s mysteries. I own at least 20!
7) What’s your best writing tip that you’d like to share?
I’m working on short stories now, and one lesson I’m learning is how vastly a story can be improved when I do not hesitate to delete. Cut the word count, kill the darlings, minimize explanation, and you’ll increase intensity. An intelligent reader will connect the dots.
Karen Pullen left a perfectly good job at an engineering consulting firm to make her fortune (uh, maybe not) as
an innkeeper and a fiction writer. Her B&B has been open for 12 years, and her first novel, a mystery called
/Cold Feet/, was released by Five Star Cengage in January 2013.