When novelist Karen Dionne learned her 2017 best-selling psychological thriller, “The Marsh King’s Daughter,” was being adapted into a movie, she had to pinch herself.
“I’m pretty much black and blue from pinching myself and you can quote me on that!” said the former Shelby Township resident, laughing. “I have a fair number of writer friends whose books have been optioned. It’s not as rare as you think, but of those whose materials have been optioned and have been made (into a movie) – whether it’s in the theaters or went straight to streaming – is small. The number who have had it made (into a movie) for a theatrical release is smaller yet. I have no idea what the numbers are, but it’s definitely pinchworthy.”
In “The Marsh King’s Daughter,” Helena Pelletier is happily married with a loving husband and two beautiful daughters. But she has a dark past she hoped would stay buried. Her father, Jacob Holbrook, alias the Marsh King, abducted her mother and she was born two years later. Helena was raised in captivity in the marshlands of the Upper Peninsula. Eventually, Helena escaped her father’s thrall and Jacob went to prison.
More than 20 years pass and Jacob escapes from prison. After murdering two guards, he’s disappeared into the marshlands. The police launch a manhunt, but Helena knows they haven’t a prayer since that is his domain. The only person who can bring down Jacob is the one person trained by him: Helena.
“Every once in a while you read a book that’s so good, you can’t look up until you finish. It’s so clear and specific and moving that you know it’s the book the author was meant to write. (The book), set in the U.P., is indelible in every way: setting, story, and character,” said Robin Agnew, former owner of Aunt Agatha’s bookstore in Ann Arbor.
Opening Friday, Nov. 3, “The Marsh King’s Daughter” stars Daisy Ridley (Rey in the 2015-19 “Star Wars” sequel trilogy) and Ben Mendelsohn (“Captain Marvel”). Adapted for the screen by Mark L. Smith (“The Revenant”), “Daughter” is directed by Neil Burger (“Divergent”).
Dionne’s involvement in the movie has been “pretty close to zero,” in her own words.
“When my literary agent sent (the ‘Daughter’) manuscript around to editors to see if anyone wanted to publish the book, he sent me an email, ‘By the way, you also have a film agent.’ Honestly, my first thought was, ‘I guess it could be a movie.’ I did not think movie for one second when I was writing the book because I was writing the book!” she explained.
Dionne praised Ridley, Mendelsohn, and Smith.
“I have zero screenwriting experience and didn’t even picture my book as a movie, whereas (Smith) is super-talented. I was more than happy to hand off the adaptation to him,” she said. “I’ve seen an early version of the movie and (Ridley) is fantastic. I had no idea she could deliver such a nuanced performance and I really think she captures Helena’s push-pull relationship with father. I’m very impressed. … (Mendelsohn) is so creepy. He’s fantastic. He epitomizes Jacob.”
A Grosse Pointe North High School alumna, Dionne attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She wrote three novels – 2008’s “Freezing Point,” 2011’s “Boiling Point,” and 2014’s “The Killing: Uncommon Denominator” – before breaking out with “The Marsh King’s Daughter” six years ago.
The book has earned many awards and accolades. It won the Barry Award for Best Novel. It’s been translated into 27 languages. Not only was it a best-seller in the United States, but also in Germany, Sweden, and Iceland. The New York Times and People Magazine gave it rave reviews.
“My first three books had modest success. (Regarding the book’s reception), I often say that you’d have to take all of my previous publishing experience, combine it, and then supersize it to equal what’s happened to me with ‘The Marsh King’s Daughter,’” Dionne said. “On my website, if you go to the ‘about’ page and click on my ‘awards’ tab, it’s crazy how many booksellers, newspapers, bloggers and authors chose it as one of their best books of the year the year it came out. There’s a long list there. Those are just some of the highlights that distinguish (‘Daughter’) from my early novels.”
Her first two novels were science-based thrillers and the third was based on the 2011-14 AMC series “The Killing.”
“What I discovered after ‘The Marsh King’s Daughter’ is psychological suspense is my forte and this is what I should’ve been writing all along,” Dionne said. “Just because an author begins their career writing a certain kind of book, it doesn’t mean that’s where their strengths lie. I’m fortunate to discover the kind of fiction I happen to be very good at. … By pushing myself to do something different, I discovered I was a better writer than I realized.”
To date, Dionne has penned five novels. “The Wicked Sister,” which also occurs in Michigan, came out in 2020. She is in the finishing stages of her sixth novel, which is set primarily in Grand Marais and has a climatic fight scene on Lake Superior in a fishing boat during a storm.
“‘The Marsh King’s Daughter’ uses the marshland as its main setting. ‘Wicked Sister’ takes place in the forest. The Great Lakes are such a huge part of Michigan, particularly in the U.P., so I wanted to use that as the main setting of the third book,” she explained.
“‘The Marsh King’s Daughter’ could be set nowhere else but the U.P., and Dionne is an amazingly evocative and vivid writer describing her setting,” Agnew said. “While I grew up in Michigan and spent my summers ‘up north,’ entering the U.P. always felt like I was going to a different country, and Dionne is (an) expert in portraying that feeling.”
Alongside New York Times best-selling author Hank Phillippi Ryan, Dionne co-hosts The Back Room, an online conversation from 7-9 p.m. Sundays. Started in 2020, it features four authors who discuss their books. Ryan and Dionne do a brief interview with the authors, who are then divided into four breakout rooms for 15 minutes, giving the audience the opportunity to have a discussion with their favorite authors.
Dionne and Ryan have hosted best-selling authors Linwood Barclay, Jeff Abbott, May Cobb, Don Bentley, Kathy Reichs, Samantha Downing, Michael Koryta, Mark Greaney, Yasmin Angoe, Brian Freeman, Gregg Hurwitz, Paula Munier and more. The Nov. 5 event will feature Tess Gerritsen. The Nov. 12 event – the last for the fall – will feature Jacquelyn Mitchard and Farmington Hills author Stephen Mack Jones.
“Karen is a treasure,” Ryan said. “She is brilliantly, amazingly, consistently generous and thoughtful, and absolutely one of the most humble and respectful people I have ever met. Karen somehow manages to be completely confident while being supremely grateful. Her joy and love for life and family is unmatched – and so is her talent for her beloved writing craft. Diligent, hard-working, and the authentic real deal. I am so thrilled with all the amazing buzz about the movie.”
Dionne has a message for those who’ve read the book and plan to see the movie.
“When fans see the movie, I hope they realize it’s (an) adaptation of my book, not a recreation,” she said. “I’d like them and sit back and enjoy (the) movie for what it is. They can go back later and compare the movie to the book.”
Visit Dionne at karen-dionne.com. For more information about The Back Room, visit the-back-room.org.