Whether she uses a paintbrush or a pen, Karen Raney’s work is filled with contemplative layers.
That’s especially true for the Schenectady native’s debut novel, “All the Water in the World,” which will be released next month. It’s a poignant story, centered on a mother and daughter who is dealing with a serious illness. Through emotive prose, Raney examines their relationship and how the impacts of the illness ripple through the family.
“All the Water in the World” marks the first novel Raney has had published, though the artist-turned-author has been writing for herself for most of her life.
“Writing was a long-standing thing that I did ever since I was a child. I had never done it as a career … but I always wrote. It was always there in the background,” Raney said.
Growing up, Raney was drawn to the arts. However, after graduating from Niskayuna High School, she wasn’t quite sure what she wanted to do for a career. She attended Oberlin College for a year, then moved back to Schenectady to work as a nurse’s aid. Afterward, she attended Duke University to study nursing, eventually obtaining her bachelor’s degree there.
Not long after, Raney moved to California to work, caring for male felons at San Francisco County Jail. Around the same time, she ran a guesthouse for foreign travelers. Soon, she caught the travel bug herself.
“I traveled to England and I kind of got stuck here. I started studying art, painting, which had long been an interest of mine,” Raney said.
She has worked in London as a painter ever since. Her work has been featured in a variety of galleries across the city, including “Brecknock Road,” which is now on exhibit at the Guildhall Gallery. She’s also worked for several years as leader of the doctorate in fine arts program at the University of East London.
“Since I’ve been in London, I saw the writing and the painting as two very equal things. But I was doing the writing more secretly. [Painting was what] people knew me for. The writing was a side thing that I carried on. I was in writing groups and I went to classes, so I took it seriously in a way, enough to write a whole novel before this one that’s getting published,” Raney said.
About five years ago, she began working to get her master’s degree in creative writing with the idea of polishing the latter novel.
“Instead, I started something completely new, which is [“All the Water in the World”],” Raney said.
The story was inspired partially by a friend, and partially by being the mother of a teenage daughter, said Raney.
“It made me interested in mother-daughter relationships that are basically sound, because I feel that a lot of fictional mother-daughter relationships are dysfunctional ones, which are very interesting themselves, but I seem to be more interested in loving, sound relationships. What they have to do to negotiate privacy and closeness,” Raney said.
Navigating this relationship is even tougher for Eve and Maddy, the book’s central characters. Maddy is a clever and artistic 16-year-old who has cancer. Throughout the novel, she tries to find ways to live fully, through being an activist, finding love and finding family. She fluctuates between everyday worries about schoolwork and a boy she likes, and deeper concerns such as the idea of God and what happens to people after they die.
But the story — which moves through a few different locations, from a family lake house in Pennsylvania to their home in Washington, D.C., to London — is grounded by Eve, Maddy’s loving mother.
“I know that there are a lot of narratives out there now in [young adult] fiction about young people who are ill. One thing I wanted to do was show the point of view of the parent, to look at how that situation would resound through a family, how people’s relationships within the family would change as a consequence,” Raney said.
Thus, Eve and Maddy’s narratives are separated by chapters, allowing both characters space to develop.
Eve is by no means a stand-in for Raney, but there are echoes of her in the character who works at a museum and is very involved in the art world.
“I think in fiction, that’s always what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to find ‘the I that is not me’ — Zadie Smith coined that phrase and it’s absolutely true,” Raney said.
Also woven into the plot is Maddy’s search to find her father, Antonio. She begins the search without telling her mother, thinking Eve wouldn’t exactly approve of the idea.
“As the story developed, different strands came to the surface, and one of those things was secrets. I was thinking about this as a family that kept secrets from each other. This was one of the secrets. It emerged under that heading in my mind. I see it as one of the ways that Maddy had of distancing herself from her mother,” Raney said, adding, “What a tough thing to do, to separate from your mother when you’re becoming increasingly dependent on her. So I had to find ways that she might decide to carve out her own territory, away from her mother.”
Antonio becomes a character in the story first through his email correspondence with Maddy, then in a bigger way later on.
Another important, and timely, part of the plot is centered on climate change. Maddy is a climate-change activist, using her artwork to bolster a demonstration.
“[Her activism] was her doing something out in the world. She’s got this awful drama going on in her own life, which she has to come to terms with. But I wanted her to look outward, too, and to see herself as having some kind of reality in the world that she shares with everyone else,” Raney said.
The arts are often woven into these tensions and plot points. Both Eve and Maddy are involved with visual arts, and Raney also weaves classical music into the storyline.
“I tend to write with strong images. I’m drawn to shorter forms of fiction, and I relate that to being a painter because shorter forms of fiction are compressed, have a definite shape and all the parts are visible at once, which is harder to do in a novel. I find that [in] almost everything I write, art becomes a part of the subject matter. So I always find that art comes into the content of my writing just because I’m fascinated by it, how it works, by the uses of it,” Raney said.
While Raney has recently earned her master’s in creative writing from Goldsmiths, University of London, she has continued to paint and work in her position at the University of East London, another artistic job.
It can be a challenge to make time to write.
“I’ve had so little time to write I snatch it wherever I can. When I was writing this book, especially when I was doing the editing, I would write on the train, on the way to work and on the way back from work,” Raney said.
Though “All the Water in the World” hasn’t yet been released, she’s already working on short stories and mapping out another novel, attending writer’s residencies to jump-start the project.
“I was quite eager to continue because it’s such a wonderful state to be in when you’ve got something big on the go. It sort of takes you over. It’s always there, even when I have to attend to other things or work, I know that it’s there to return to. Things pop into my head about it and little unconscious editing is going on all the time. It’s a wonderful state to be in. So I’m relishing being in that state again,” Raney said.
“All the Water in the World,” published by Scribner, hits the shelves Tuesday, Aug. 6.