Girl at the Edge explores what it's like to be the daughter of a mass murderer | Pittsburgh City Paper

Girl at the Edge explores what it's like to be the daughter of a mass murderer

On Feb. 24, 2010 at SeaWorld in Orlando, 40-year-old trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed by an orca named Tilikum, the subject of the 2013 documentary Blackfish. As punishment, Tilikum was separated from the other orcas and confined to a small isolation tank.

Around the same time, Greensburg-based author Karen Dietrich was brainstorming ideas for her first novel, Girl at the Edge, which came out this March via Grand Central Publishing. Dietrich was interested in the idea of Tilikum as a father — he was used as a sperm donor for more than 20 calves — and the legacy of his story.

“The story of the orca and the whole situation reminded me of something I’ve always been fascinated by, which is nature versus nurture and how we try to make sense of who we are, based on legacies of our families,” says Dietrich. “It was one of those things where I became really fascinated like, ‘How would this child whale feel about their father being the infamous whale who killed a trainer?’ I had this whole thing that I imagined in my head.”

Dietrich liked the thought of writing a book from a daughter whale’s perspective, like the novel Watership Down, a survival and adventure story about and told through the eyes of a group of rabbits. But for her first work of fiction, it seemed a bit intimidating.

“Once I put myself into the shoes of a whale of all things, whose father had done a very violent act, I got to thinking, I want to explore this morale and decided to translate it into people,” says Dietrich.

Girl at the Edge is a coming-of-age story that follows a teenage girl named Evelyn as she struggles with a father who has been in prison, on death row, since before she was born. An infamous Florida killer, everyone in St. Augustine remembers the day when Michael Joshua Hayes, Evelyn’s father, let loose gunfire in a shopping mall, killing 11 people. Evelyn wants to know what drew her father to do such a horrible act, and if it’s a dark attribute that is sitting inside her as well. Like a memoir, Dietrich takes the reader inside of Evelyn’s head — she sees extremely graphic things that are not there, like watching someone slit their throat while sitting in a Starbucks.

“Getting into that headspace was really absorbing, I would get really engrossed in that character’s mind,” says Dietrich. “One of the reasons I really love fiction is that I love getting into the psyche where you're kind of mixing your own brain with the characters, in my case.

“At the same time, it allowed me to explore. I think we all have those dark thoughts, or we all have snatches of unsavory things we might think of that we don’t necessarily talk about, but it’s certainly there and I definitely wanted to portray Evelyn as someone who struggles with those inner demons so to speak. And what is that really like when you get up close?”

This writing process is much more controlled and focused for Dietrich than writing music, which she does as part of Pittsburgh-based band Essential Machine. The indie-rock group is made up of Dietrich, her husband RJ, and their son Robert.

“When I’m writing lyrics, I’m in a headspace sort of where anything goes,” says Dietrich. “And I can explore whatever topics come to mind. Sometimes I’m writing a song and I don’t really know what it’s going to be about until RJ looks at it and pulls something out of it and says, ‘This is cool,’ or ‘This is interesting.’”

Being a family band has its perks, as the whole band is together during the quarantine. So even though they had a bunch of regional touring dates scheduled for April and May that were canceled — the band was going to open for Against Me at Mr. Smalls Theater — they have had time to work on new music. So far, Essential Machine has four new songs they have demoed at home and are going to be working remotely to complete with Jake Hanner, who recorded, produced, mixed, and mastered the band’s April 2019 release, Wildfires.

“Hopefully, we have a new album out this year,” says Dietrich.

Whether working on stuff for Essential Machine, or simply listening to music while writing — Dietrich says she listened to Iron & Wine’s Our Endless Numbered Days on repeat while working on the novel — music is a driving force in Dietrich’s life, and those ties transferred to Girl at the Edge.

“It was really just me exposing all the things that I love in music, whoever I happen to be obsessed with at the time when writing,” says Dietrich. “I didn’t plan on having so many of those references, but they started coming out because when I’m writing, I really like to imagine the book as a movie, as a visual. And I’m thinking, 'What would be the soundtrack then if this is the scene?' It happened pretty organically. I didn’t really try to mention too many, but they are artists that I really love and their music has affected me enough that it got blended into my work.”

Listen to the playlist Dietrich made to accompany Girl at the Edge below.