To read one of Karen Rose’s romantic suspense novels is to enter an expansive, photo-realistic world. Each of her books is populated by a sprawling cast of law enforcement officials, their friends and family, and some truly twisted serial killers. Throughout series set in Chicago, Baltimore and Cincinnati (along with stops in Philadelphia, Atlanta and other major American cities), there are no stock side characters—everyone has a story to tell. With Say You’re Sorry, Rose kicks off a new series set in Sacramento, where an attack on radio personality Daisy Dawson reveals a killer that’s been operating for years, unnoticed by the police until now. We talked to Rose about creating her two complicated leads, why film noir inspires how she depicts violence and why she writes while listening to Barry Manilow.
What came first while you were plotting this novel? The cult or the serial killer?
The serial killer definitely came first. I got the idea for him at least five years ago while I was on a flight from Tampa to NYC. Sitting next to me was this man from Scandinavia. We got to chatting (as I do) and he shared he’d been an electrical engineer, but one day he stopped by the store after working very late and envied the woman behind the cash register because she didn’t take her work home. He changed his career, training to become a pilot. He flew for a service that was a mix between a charter and an airplane timeshare. He might be in Barcelona in the morning, Paris in the afternoon and New York the next day. He’d just delivered a plane to Tampa and was on his way home.
I stared at him and said, “If you were a serial killer, you’d never get caught. There would be no pattern.” He stared back, looking very concerned until I told him I was a thriller writer, LOL. I’ve been waiting for the right book to write this serial killer!
The cult came later, once I’d traveled several times to Northern California and realized how remote it is. Which is why so many cults have formed there.
Your previous series have been based in Baltimore and Cincinnati. What led you to pick Sacramento as the setting for your new series?
I have friends in Sacramento and have been able to visit them more often on my way to Northern California to meet with my writing group for plotting retreats. I’d set Taylor Dawson’s (heroine of Monster in the Closet) backstory in Northern California and decided to continue the Dawsons’ story in Sacramento with Daisy. My friends have been very helpful in showing me the city!
You’re known for writing series with a large cast of characters. How did you balance the central couple's love story, along with introducing the rest of the cast and developing the mystery in Say You’re Sorry?
I never know how to answer this. It just . . . happens. I see the story like I’m in a 360-degree movie theater. It’s happening all around me, parallel stories simultaneously, and I write what I see.
Speaking of the central couple, both Gideon and Daisy have complicated, emotionally fraught backstories. Why did you decide to give both of them such difficult pasts, and what was the most enjoyable aspect of writing two powerful, yet damaged protagonists?
My characters always have complicated, emotionally fraught backstories! I’m really mean that way ☺.
Seriously, to me the damaged characters are more interesting and catch my heart. The most enjoyable part is watching them grow and blossom and find their happily-ever-after. It’s so much more gratifying because they’ve earned it!
I found Daisy’s character to be quite layered, because I’d already told the Dawson family’s backstory in Monster in the Closet. But Daisy’s perspective of the same events is so different. I’m fascinated at how two people can grow up in the same home and be impacted so very differently.
Gideon, despite his harsh upbringing, was still kind and capable of tenderness. He’s not as alpha as some of my other heroes, but he’s still strong. He reminded me of Gregory Peck’s character in The Big Country—quietly solid. They’re different people, Daisy and Gideon, yet they have a mutual respect for each other and I loved that.
Say You’re Sorry does an admirable job depicting violence in a sensitive and non-gratuitous way, as well as portraying its serial killer in a three-dimensional light while never losing sight of the horror of his crimes. Has your approach to depicting violence and the perpetrators of it in your novels changed over the course of your career?
Thank you! I don’t think it’s changed that much. I learned a lot from watching the old film noir movies. You don’t see a lot of blood or gore in these films. What you do see is the reactions of the witnesses and victims to what’s happened. That is often scarier because it puts the viewer—or reader in the case of my books—in the place of the victim. We feel their terror, desperation and loss. Adding the POV of the killer increases the terror because we as the reader know what he’s planning—and what he’s capable of doing.
Violence happens every day and doesn’t need to be gratuitous on the page. We see enough of that in the real-world news. Reading about it in detail degrades the victims. Allowing the reader to emotionally connect with the victim is far more powerful.
How do you decompress from writing the darker material in your novels?
I read voraciously, but I don’t read thrillers as a rule. My decompression diet is contemporary romance of all kinds and comedy films. I have very lowbrow taste in movies. Talladega Nights is my go-to decompression flick ☺.
What are your pet peeves as a reader of mystery & suspense?
I hate, hate, hate when the story just ends. The author’s got a great setup and has me all worked up and then, the book just . . . ends. It’s all wrapped up in a few paragraphs of explanation way too soon. Like they ran out of time or pages. I feel cheated.
I also hate when the bad guy is the most obvious suspect, but nobody suspects him. And when the story doesn’t make sense or requires I take a leap of faith across the Grand Canyon. I clearly have feelings on this subject. LOL.
You love Barry Manilow, but many of your villains have murdered people to his music—does this ruin it a bit for you?
Well, to be fair, only one villain heard the music as he murdered. The rest don’t realize that I’m hearing Manilow’s music while they’re busy being villainous. I love Manilow because his voice is so smooth. It allows me to capture a mood and nothing rips me out of it. Which is why I had to remove “Copacabana” from my playlist—I kept getting ripped from the story and dancing in my chair. And maybe having “I Can’t Smile Without You” playing in the background keeps me from getting sucked too deep into the darkness. Or maybe it simply means I’m twisted ☺. So, nope, it doesn’t bother me at all!
What’s next for you?
I’m currently writing book five in my Cincinnati series, with Diesel and Dani as the central couple. Folks have been waiting for their story for some time, so it has to be good. No pressure, right?
After that book is finished, I’ll be returning to Sacramento for book two—Rafe and Mercy’s story. And I have a few books planned after that, so I’ll be busy!
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Say You’re Sorry.
Author photo by Brian Friedman Photography.