Dionne’s thriller debut, The Marsh King’s Daughter (Putnam, June), focuses on the child of a kidnapper and his captive.
Why did you decide to focus on a person with this unusual parentage?
I have always been fascinated by people who overcome a less-than-perfect upbringing, how someone can start out lacking the tools for life and then turn it around.
How did you come up with the character of Helena Pelletier, who’s the product of that union?
I was looking for a backstory for another novel, but nothing came to mind. Then, I woke up in the middle of the night with the first sentences fully formed—and they still looked good the next day. I started writing a few paragraphs to explore who this character was and I soon had the first pages of a novel.
Aside from the title, what was the influence of Hans Christian Andersen’s dark fairy tale?
I came across The Marsh King’s Daughter after I started writing. I love fairy tales and was astonished to read this story—it isn’t one of Andersen’s best known. It’s the tale of a child born to an innocent and a monster, and that’s Helena. I got to explore a character raised in such extreme circumstances, and the idea of nature or nurture.
Why choose Michigan’s Upper Peninsula as your setting?
During the summer of 1974, my husband and I bought 10 acres in the Upper Peninsula—the UP—with the intention of homesteading. We stayed for 30 years, built a cabin, carried water. This novel is my love letter to the UP. It is a very beautiful and unique place. The UP has only 3% of Michigan’s population but 29% of the land. There’s a real satisfaction living close to nature. When we were homesteading, we didn’t even keep a clock; we got up when it was light and went to bed when it was dark—just as the family in The Marsh King’s Daughter does.
You now live in Detroit. Did you do any additional research on the UP, which is 300 miles away?
My husband and I don’t fish or hunt, but Helena and her family depend on that, so I had to research that. I knew so many details about the area because I lived there—the plants, what the woods are like, how you can hear nature. I went back last summer to research for my next book and it’s crazy how it doesn’t change. It’s like a time capsule there.
Will we see more of Helena Pelletier?
No, her story stands as it is. But my next novel will also be set in the UP.