Episode 59: Marie Brennan

An hour-long conversation with Marie Brennan, author of the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series, The Memoirs of Lady Trent, the Onyx Court series, and, as half of M.A. Carrick with Alyc Helms, the upcoming Rook and Rose trilogy.

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www.swantower.com

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The Introduction

Photo by Perry Reichanadter

Marie Brennan holds an undergraduate degree in archaeology and folklore from Harvard University and pursued graduate studies in cultural anthropology and folklore at Indiana University before leaving to write full-time. Her academic background fed naturally into her work, providing her with the tools to build fantastical worlds.s a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for material.

Her first series, the Doppelganger duology of Warrior and Witch, came out in 2006. From there she moved to historical fantasy, first with the Onyx Court series (Midnight Never Come (2008), In Ashes Lie (2009), A Star Shall Fall(2010), With Fate Conspire (2011)), spanning three hundred years of London’s history, and then with the acclaimed pseudo-Victorian Memoirs of Lady Trent. The first book of that series, A Natural History of Dragons (2013), was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award, and won the Prix Imaginales in France for Best Translated Novel; the final book, Within the Sanctuary of Wings (2017), won the RT Reviewers’ Choice Award for Best Fantasy Novel. The series as a whole was a finalist for both the Hugo Award and the Grand Prix l’Imaginaire.

Brennan is a member of the Book View Café authors’ cooperative, where she has published the Wilders urban fantasies Lies and Prophecy (2012) and Chains and Memory (2016) as well as several short story collections and nonfiction works, including Writing Fight Scenes and the Patreon-supported New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides. Her fondness for role-playing games has led her to write both fiction and setting material for several game lines, including Legend of the Five Rings and Tiny d6. Together with fellow author Alyc Helms, she is the author of the upcoming Rook and Rose epic fantasy trilogy, which will come out under the joint name of M.A. Carrick.

She has taught creative writing to both college students and twelve-year-olds, and run several convention workshops on the art of fight scenes. When not writing or playing RPGs, she practices photography and shōrin-ryū karate. She lives with her husband in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Welcome to The Worldshapers. Marie.

Thank you for having me.

I said Marie, should you say Marie and not Mary?

Yes, Marie. Yeah, I do run into that in Britain. I run into more people there who pronounce it Mary, which always throws me for a loop.

Well, of course, I’m in Canada, so we have a certain amount of British influence, so I have run into that as well. That’s why I thought, maybe I should just ask. Well, I don’t think we’ve ever actually met in person, although I suspect we’ve been at conventions together, like World Fantasy and WorldCon, I get to once in a while, I was at (World Fantasy) in Los Angeles last fall, but we never met. But I’m happy to have you on the show.

I’m very glad to be here.

We’re going to start the way I always start, and it’s kind of a cliché on here. I’m going to take you back into the mists of time, which, you know, has a nice science-fictional and fantasy ring to it right there, and find out, well, first of all, where you grew up, and how you got interested in writing, and particularly in writing this kind of stuff. It probably started with reading, as it does with most of us…?

Yeah, well, so, I grew up in Dallas. I actually lived in Texas for the first eight years of my life, all in one house, which is sort of remarkable. My parents still live in the house that they moved into about six months or so before I was born. So, I definitely have a feeling of deep roots there, which is sort of funny for people in other parts of the world, where deep roots mean something on the order of centuries. Yeah, six months before I was born! But that counts as deep.

It does in Texas.

Yeah, well, and, you know, it’s interesting to me because, at this point, the period of time that I lived in Texas is now less than half my life. I’ve been living in…I went to college in Massachusetts and then graduate school in Indiana. Now I live in California. But don’t try to tell me I’m not a Texan, which is probably how I prove I am a Texan, by contesting any claims to the contrary.

As I mentioned before we started, I wasn’t born in Texas, but I started school and everything in Texas and moved up here to Canada from Texas. And I clung to being Texan all the way through school up here.

Yeah, yeah.

I still self-identified as a Texan more than anything else.

Yeah. I wonder if there’s a point where that will go away, but I haven’t found it yet. As for how I got started with writing, I mean, yeah, like, I read a lot as a kid, but for me, what happened was, you know, most kids make up stories, it’s just a really common thing for children to do. But specifically, when I was about nine or ten years old, I read a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, who was a British young adult and children’s author, really a children’s author, because the YA category kind of didn’t exist for a lot of her career, not as we think of it now. She’s got a novel called Fire and Hemlock, and in that there are two characters who are making up a story together and they’re, like, sending chunks of story back and forth from one to the other. And I remember putting that book down and thinking, I want to tell a story. And it wasn’t the first time I had, like, told stories. I’d made things up prior to then. But it was the first time that I really thought about telling a story for other people, for an audience. So, I pretty much decided at that age that I wanted to be a writer and kind of didn’t let go of that.

Well, did you share what you were writing? I mean, did you start writing to share it with your friends, or how did that work for you?

Remarkably little, all things considered, because, yeah, I did start writing things and, you know, some of them were for class because we had, like, creative-writing exercises. But I did this weirdly for somebody who had decided, “OK, clearly, I want to write stories for other people to read.” I then proceeded to turn inward and show virtually nothing of what I was doing to anybody.

Actually, for a good deal of time, I was really fairly self-taught with writing, I think in part because I was doing it in a way where my critical eye for what I was doing and my skill kind of developed in tandem, which was nice in some ways because…like, I’ve talked to a friend of mine who’s a professional artist about how the problem I have with trying to draw things is, at this stage of my life my critical eye is vastly better than my skill. So, I draw something, and I look at it and go, “That’s terrible!” And I don’t want to put in the work to go through all the terrible things before I get to the stuff that’s not terrible. But with writing, I basically…there’s the proverbial, “You have to write a million words of crap before you start writing anything good.” I wrote my million words of crap where I could only see, like, ten percent of the crappiness of it, and the other ninety percent, I was like, “That’s pretty good!” So, you know, I was able to kind of get through that stage at a period of time where I could see enough that I was improving, but not so much that I despaired that what I was writing was terrible, and I should just stop.

But yeah, during that time, I could probably count on the fingers of, definitely both hands, probably just one, the number of people I really showed my writing to, until I got to college. And then, my science fiction and fantasy group there had a writers’ group that would meet on a, like, weekly or every-other-week basis. And that was the first time that I kind of had, like, accountability for, “All right. I promised I was going to finish something for the next meeting, so I guess I’d better finish that.” And that was very good for my productivity. So, that actually led to me finishing my first novel—rather than my previous length, which had been an unfinished novel. That was all I ever wrote. I finished my first novel. I wrote the bulk of it the summer after my freshman year of college and finished it early my sophomore year. And that really got the ball rolling because that was the point at which I got serious about writing, and it stopped being a, “Oh yeah, theoretically someday I’d like to be a writer,” and started being, “OK, I have a finished novel. How do you submit those things?”

What was it that specifically drew you to science fiction and fantasy?

I mean, I was always interested in that kind of thing. And with regards to college, I tell people that I didn’t actually pick my major by saying what would be useful to me as a fantasy writer, but that’s kind of the effect that it wound up having. My studies, both in undergrad and graduate, I did archaeology and anthropology and folklore, which is all great stuff for a fantasy writer. And those were always just the things that interested me. I liked reading about the past. I liked reading about other parts of the world. I liked reading about mythology. It was all just…that’s what I liked from the start.

There was a brief period of time as a kid where I would have called myself a mystery reader because I imprinted hard on Nancy Drew for a while in elementary school and read truly stupendous quantities of the…like, I read the old hardcovers and then the paperbacks that they did for a while. And then they started doing the Case Files, which were those little, like, white-covered books, and I think I had over a hundred of them. It was, like, it was something absurd.

She’s been rebooted so many times, Nancy Drew.

Oh yeah. Yeah. Well, and actually I recently watched part of the CW series for Nancy Drew, which…it’s really sort of bizarre because it’s like somebody said, “You know what Nancy Drew needs? She needs to be cross-bred with Supernatural.” Like, there’s straight-up ghosts going on all over the place. I’m a little confused by it. But I watched the movie that was made a couple of years ago, and that was a lot of fun. It actually kind of reminded me of what I loved about Nancy Drew as a kid. But as I was starting to peter out on the mystery stuff, I hit a point where…I’ve got a brother who’s three years older than I am and I kind of ransacked his bookshelves and he had some, like, you know, adult fantasy novels there. And that’s kind of when I made the jump into reading fantasy, through Terry Brooks, actually,

I was going to say, were there any specific books that you credit with some of this.

Yeah, the first one that I read in adult fantasy was Magic Kingdom for Sale—Sold!, which was his kind of like humorous, portal-fantasy thing.

I remember that one.

Yeah. And then I went from that to Sword of Shannara, which was something of a jarring awakening because that’s not the same kind of book. But the kind of absurd thing is that I’d read The Hobbit as a little kid, and I think I’d made like an attempt or two to read Lord of the Rings, but I hadn’t really gotten into it. But I did read Sword of Shannara, which, if anybody’s read that, you know, it’s basically a one-volume redo of Lord of the Rings with the names changed. And then, some years later, when I was in high school, I picked up the beginning of The Wheel of Time. And I’m probably the only person on the planet who read The Eye of the World and thought, “This reminds me of Terry Brooks,” rather than Tolkien, because I still hadn’t read Lord of the Rings at that point.

Yes, I remember when Sword of Shannara came out and reading it, and I had read Lord of the Rings, and thinking, “Wow, that’s really close.”

Yeah, it is basically a point-by-point retelling. But this is actually something that’s interesting to me because I mentioned that I studied folklore. There’s a concept in folklore studies called a tale type where, you know, you’ll have a tale type that is basically like Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella or something like that, where there’s kind of a skeleton of the plot and certain motifs that show up. And then there’s many different variants that you will find of that story in different parts of the world and different time periods and so on. So, like, with Cinderella, you’ve got Cenerentola, you’ve got Aschenputtel, you’ve got different versions in Italy, Germany, and so on. And actually, The Lord of the Rings is essentially a tale type that people like Terry Brooks and David Eddings and, to a lesser extent, Robert Jordan have kind of retold, in exactly the way that you see in folklore. So, it’s kind of neat to look at it from that direction because then it’s not, “Oh, my God, this is so derivative,” it’s, “What’s different in this variation? And what does that difference tell us? Like, what’s interesting about that?”

And of course, Tolkien’s whole idea was to create a kind of a mythology, a Northern Europe mythology.

Exactly.

And he was drawing on all the stuff that he knew. And he knew a lot, so…

Right. Yeah. You can, you know, certainly trace things to what were his inspirations for his bits. But in a way, it’s very appropriate that people then, you know, went and did a bunch of remixes of Lord of the Rings because that’s exactly what we do with mythology.

Now, you studied, as you mentioned, archaeology and folklore and all of that, and you went on to graduate studies. But somewhere in there, you decided writing was the thing instead of what you’d been studying all that time. What brought that about? Why did you make that choice?

So, it happened while I was in graduate school. Just as I finished up…like, I continued writing novels all through college or grad school, and just as I finished up my coursework in grad school, I actually sold my first novel, which meant that basically writing moved from being a hobby to being an actual paying job right at the point when I lost to that, like, daily engagement with academia. So, a couple of years went by in which I didn’t really make the progress I should have towards, like, doing my qualifying exams and putting together a dissertation committee. And I had actually started writing the Onyx Court series, which were…I’d written Midnight Never Come, and I was about to do In Ashes Lie, with then the intent of doing two others. And I had possibly deluded myself, who knows, that I was going to be able to write novels while also writing a dissertation. But writing research-intensive novels while also writing a dissertation seemed more difficult.

And honestly, at that point, you know, it’s a time-honored thing to be a professor and a writer at the same time but I could kind of tell that, like, the dissertation and then the job hunt for your kind of, like, entry-level academic positions, that was going to eat a lot of time and energy in a way that I was worried was going to be detrimental to the writing career; that, you know, here I have this thing that is ongoing and making me money, not huge amounts of it, but money, and I didn’t want to, like, hamstring my writing career in order to do that. But if I wasn’t going to get an academic job, then was there any reason other than stubborn pride—which, let’s not discount the power of stubborn pride—but was there any reason to finish the PhD? And I was kind of going back and forth and wondering.

And then while I was asking myself that question, my husband, the company that he was working for, went bankrupt, and so, he didn’t have a job anymore. He works in IT. And so, southern Indiana, not a lot of IT jobs to be had, whereas if we moved to California, he could have a job basically tomorrow. So, we talked it over and basically decided, yeah, you know, if I’m questioning whether I should finish my PhD in the first place, let’s just go ahead and bail out of that and go to California. He got a job here, and since then, I’ve been writing full time.

That very first novel. How did the selling and that come about? How did you break in? That’s the question.

In a little bit of a roundabout way, because at the time—and mind you, I started submitting things back when submission involved print it out and stick it in an envelope and go to the post office.

Tell me about it.

Yeah. Yeah. So, the way I usually phrase it to people is, like, it wasn’t quite the Cretaceous, but I’m not sure anatomically modern Homo sapiens had appeared on the scene yet. So, I had been sending it to publishers because at that point, a number of them did still accept, like, over-the-transom subs from authors without agents, and not only accepted them but would respond in something less than a geological epoch. And so, I was submitting novels, and I was also querying agents. And the second novel that I had written, which at the time was titled Doppelganger, it’s now Warrior, I had basically run out of publishers that took unagented subs to send it to. But I’d heard from somebody that you could sometimes kind of, like, sneak in the back door by sending them just a query letter, saying, “I’ve got this book, would you like me to send you the manuscript?” And at that point, it was no longer an unsolicited submission, they had said yes.

So, I sent off, like, two or three of those letters. I think it was Del Rey wrote back saying, “When we say we don’t look at unsolicited submissions, we mean it.” I think maybe one of them never responded, and the other one happened to land on the desk of Devi Pillai, who was an editor that I had met in passing at a convention. And she said, “Sure, go ahead and send it to me.” So I sent her the manuscript and, like a month later or so, I came home and found a message on my answering machine from Devi saying, “So, I read this, and I found it really interesting, and I showed it to my senior editor, and she reminded me that we don’t take submissions from people without agents, so go get an agent.” So I did. And this is something that will still happen occasionally now. Like I mean, unsolicited submissions are less of a thing, but if you get an editor saying, “Yeah, I’m interested in this thing,” you then go to the agents and say, “So, I’ve got, like, a provisional offer pending, basically.” And that helps get the agents to…not necessarily, they don’t all, like, offer, they still are looking at your body of work and whether you’re, like, a good match for them. But it means that they will respond more rapidly and say, “Oh, OK, there’s a thing that might be happening here.” So, I queried a couple of agents that I was particularly interested in, and one of them offered me representation. So, she then ended up negotiating that deal for me.

Yeah, that’s…in my case, I actually got the offer, and then I said to an agent, “Look, I have a contract. Would you like 15 percent of it?” And boy, that was easy to get an agent that way.

Yeah, but I would say, like, actually one of the agents I queried, said, “You know, I read through this and like, you know, I wish you the best of luck, but I just I don’t think I’m a good match for you.” And I think actually, you know, good agents will still pay attention to that rather than saying, “Oh, well, you know, it’s easy money,” but then they’re stuck with a client that maybe they’re not actually a good agent for them. And that’s not great for them in the long run. So…

Yeah, there are lots of pitfalls, that’s for sure, you can run into. And if you started in the Cretaceous or whatever it was, I started when it was still single-cellular life forms. So, I did a lot of that mailing into the great unknown and waiting, you know, a year or two for them to get back to you with rejection.

Yeah.

Well, let’s move on. You’ve written a lot of books since then…

Yeah.

And there’s been awards and…have you been surprised by the response you’ve had?

I mean, it’s sort of a weird question because, like, yes and no. On the one hand, I have healthy self-esteem. I actually have much less imposter syndrome, I think, than, especially, a lot of women tend to. And I don’t know why I managed to dodge a fair bit of that bullet. But in, like, specific instances, every time I’ve been told, like, “Oh, you’ve been nominated for this award,” it has completely blindsided me. It’s not that I’ve been like, “Ah, yes, that is my due, and of course, it is coming to me.” No, every single time, I’ve just kind of stared and said, “Really?” So, I kind of hope I never start to take that for granted because, at that point, somebody should slap me. But The Memoirs of Lady Trent, I will say, it did actually surprise me—because that’s the series that has gotten the most attention.

I love the covers.

Oh, the covers are fantastic. And that’s a chunk of why they’ve done so well, I fully believe. They’ve just had such amazing covers. But the previous series, The Onyx Court, like, that, to me, was an ambitious series. Like, it was my dive into historical fantasy, I was doing all of this research, I was, like, you know, grappling with some kind of big questions about, like, change over time and all these things. And, like, I was super ambitious with those and the books did fine, but there was no award attention or anything like that for them. And the Memoirs of Lady Trent, when I started writing them, I was, like, “OK, well, this is going to be this kind of, like, fluffy pulp adventure, like, Victorian kind of memoir thing.” I did not actually think of them as being all that deep when I started out. And the depth that they have, they very much kind of developed organically over time, as I found myself ultimately dealing with a lot of interesting questions in them. But I still sort of thought of them as being like, “Yeah, that fluffy adventure series that is kind of like lightweight compared to what I was doing before.” But I do think, yeah, they developed a lot more depth and complexity than I expected when I started. And so, yeah, those are the ones that have, you know, gotten the most, like, award nominations and some wins and such.

You’ve touched on the fact that you draw on your academic training and archaeology and folklore. And it’s interesting. I think you’re the, uh, you’re well…I’ve talked to more than fifty authors, so it’s hard to remember, but certainly Seanan McGuire comes to mind as somebody who has plumbed her knowledge of folklore.

And also of medicine. Jesus, the things that she talks about.

Yeah, she has those two sides, for sure.

Yeah.

So, you’re still drawing heavily on that. Do you find you’ve found that that’s been a really helpful thing to have in your background?

Oh, absolutely. I mean, that is honestly the wellspring from which my stories are coming. I think it was in, like, the last year I found myself calling myself an anthropological compost heap from which stories occasionally sprout up. It might not be the most dignified image, but I think it might be the most accurate.

I’ll remember it!

Yeah! I do a lot of reading about, like, different parts of the world, different time periods, and just kind of chucking all of that into the mental hopper. And so, you know, one of the questions writers will sometimes get asked is, “Do your story ideas start with a character or with a plot?” And I have the knee-jerk tendency to any such question to say, “I reject your false dichotomy.” But the smartass answer I’ll often give to that one is I start with a world. Which isn’t exactly true, but for me, the character and the problems that they’re dealing with and the world all of that is taking place in are so intertwined that in some instances I can, like, pull it apart and say, “OK, I can tell that I started with this bit over here.” Like, The Memoirs of Lady Trent, the idea for that one actually sprang partly out of a Dungeons and Dragons book and partly out of the Dragonology…I know there’s a book, but actually, for me, it was the wall calendars that I had, which are just like a field guide to dragons around the world. And D&D had a book called The Draconomicon, which was all about dragons, including things about, like, their life cycle and so forth. And it gave me the idea of, “What if I ran a D&D game where instead of, like, killing dragons and taking their stuff, the goal was to study them instead?” And I very rapidly realized that D&D’s mechanics are miserably suited to doing anything other than killing monsters and taking their stuff, so it turned into novels instead in my head. And so, with that one, it was kind of a character, of, OK, somebody who’s going to be studying dragons.

But it was about half a second later that that immediately became this kind of Victorian setting in my mind, because it’s a time period where there’s a huge amount of scientific inquiry, but it’s also so new that it’s possible to just kind of like leap in and make huge discoveries, whereas a lot of the science we have now, you’ve got to spend years studying it and learning all of the basic stuff before you can go and then make new discoveries, kind of on the edges of what’s known. So, I wanted that earlier period, where it was really easy to make the big exciting discoveries, and then that ended up shaping a lot of stuff about the character and so forth, because I can’t really think of characters not as part of their world. It’s why there’re whole genres of fan fiction out there that I just can’t get into, because to me, if you take characters out of the setting that they were in and make them, like, coffee-shop baristas or something, they’re not the same people. And it doesn’t work for me at all.

Yeah, my daughter was telling me about some of that kind of thing. She’s nineteen, so she’s much more plugged into kind of the fanfiction and things like that. And I thought, “Really? People do that?” Apparently, they do.

Well, but I mean, fanfiction as a whole is not remotely a new thing. And honestly, a lot of it goes back to what I was saying about mythology, that, yeah, we take these stories and we retell them. We’ve been doing that for as long as we’ve been human.

I suppose that’s true.

Yeah.

I wanted to mention on the Dragon studying side, years ago for a magazine called…what was it called? InQuest, I think? I think it was a Magic: The Gathering-focused magazine. And I wrote a few articles for them, and I wrote one, which was a fictionalized account of the last draconologist, whom I called Vladimir Kapusianyk, he was like one hundred and some years old, and he was living in a nursing home in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. And I had all this, you know, these theories about how dragons breathe fire and all that was really the core of it. And much to my surprise, I actually got letters that had been sent to the magazine, mostly from kids, saying, “Oh, I read the story about Vladimir Kapusianyk, and I really want to take up the mantle of being the next draconologist. And I had to send a note back saying, “I’m sorry, I made it all up.”

Yeah.

But it showed up on the Internet for years. I would find this as if it was… somebody had taken it seriously. And it was very strange. Well, speaking of worlds, that brings us very nicely to Driftwood, because that seems to be something that’s very much based around a very interesting world. Or fragments of a once-existing world, I guess.

Yeah, many, many fragments. I don’t even remember how I got the idea for Driftwood. It just came to me at one point when I was in graduate school. Yeah. Driftwood, the sort of bleak tagline for it is, “where worlds go to die.” The idea behind it is that worlds have some kind of apocalypse like, you know, Ragnarok or whatever equivalent, but maybe not all of the world gets destroyed. And the fragment that is left drifts through what they refer to as the mist and eventually kind of runs into this mass of world fragments that’s called Driftwood. And they continue kind of decaying while they’re there because the…there’s sort of more of a high-level idea behind Driftwood than I normally have with my settings, which is that it is fundamentally a place that is about entropy and liminality, because it’s all of these fragments pushed together, and you’re constantly crossing borders within there in two different worlds where things operate a little bit differently, and then entropy, because they do keep decaying, they start out kind of large usually when they hit the edge, but then they sort of move inward toward a place that inhabitants of Driftwood call The Crush, which is the centre where the last few fragments basically get ground out of existence. And so, like, it’s odd because in some ways it’s a very bleak and nihilistic setting, and yet the stories that I’ve been telling there have all been about how do people adapt to that and how do they decide to hold on to the things that still matter to them and keep moving forward.

So, the Publishers Weekly review for the book Driftwood talked about it as being “hope in the face of apocalypse,” which was a much more timely phrase than I really expected when I was writing the book. This is an interesting year for that to be coming out here.

Well, it’s a collection of short stories. Some of them had been previously published. And then you wrote some new material for the book, is that right?

Yeah, it’s kind of a thing that used to be called a fix-up novel, which is to say, yeah, the bulk of the stuff in it is made up of short stories that I had published before. But then, I wrote a framed story to give context to why these stories are being told and, like, build a plot around them. And then there’s a new large piece, it’s a novelette, actually, longer than a short story, that I wrote to give, like, kind of a big centerpiece to it all. So, yeah, it’s not quite a short story collection. It’s a little bit like a mosaic novel because the different stories are told from different perspectives, which actually is very fitting, obviously, for Driftwood.

From the moment that I began publishing Driftwood short stories, I had people asking me…they thought the setting was great, and they’re like, “Will you ever do a novel there?” And my answer was always no, because it felt like a novel was the wrong thing for Driftwood. It’s about fragments. It’s about incomplete, like, bits and pieces, and a novel is a big, coherent, singular thing. But then when the idea came of doing it as this kind of mosaic fix-up novel sort of thing, that’s really appropriate for Driftwood, that it is something which is made out of smaller pieces brought together. And so, the form of what I’m putting out reflects the thing that it is describing in an interesting way.

Form follows function.

Yeah.

Well, this is the point at which I ask how you go about planning things, but it sounds like this one’s a little different. So, maybe let’s talk about what your planning process looked like for making this fix-up, but also what more typical for you and one of your novels.

So, I’ve had some changes happen with that over time. Like, I definitely am naturally more on the end of being kind of a discovery writer, or “pantser,” as sometimes is what people will say, which is that I’ll start off with, “OK, here’s a character in a situation with a problem. Let’s see what they do.” And I just kind of write my way through it. And that is more or less how I have written most of my novels. I’ll usually, at least by the time I’m partway through, have some ideas of things that I know I want to have happen later on. And then the metaphor that I’ll usually use is, there’s this big field in front of me, and I need to get to the other side of it. And I’ll go out there, and I’ll hammer a couple of pegs into the ground at various points and say, “OK, like, halfway across the field, I need to be over here.” And then I’ll kind of figure out an interesting path toward that peg on my way there.

So, a lot of the in-between stuff is very much make-it-up-as-I-go-along. But it does vary, because obviously with Driftwood, that was something where I didn’t so much have pegs as entire chunks of field that were already mapped. The interesting challenge there was figuring out how to sequence them, because the stories had nothing in them saying what was the order in which they had happened. They’ve all got a unifying thread, which is there’s this guy that everybody just calls Last, because he is the only survivor of the world that he comes from. His world is long gone. He should be dead. He’s still around. He appears to be immortal. And so, all of the stories have people interacting with Last for one reason or another, and so he actually also becomes the unifying thread for the novel, or for the book. But it meant I had to go through those stories and figure out, more kind of on a thematic level than a plot one, what was the effective order to put them in with the different kinds of moods that the stories had, and what was the reason those stories were being told at that moment. So, there was a lot of…I printed stuff out, very, very tiny, so that I could kind of arrange them all on my floor and move the stories around, looking at them and trying to get a feel for what was the best flow between them.

And then, at the far end of the spectrum, there’s this trilogy that I’ve been writing with my friend Alyc Helms, where, because we’re collaborating, I can’t rely on my usual thing of, I’ve got this vague cloud in my head that sort of evolves as I go along and I solidify bits of it as I go. Like, until we have telepathy, that doesn’t work. There’s another human being whose head also needs to hold what we’re doing. And so, for that one, it’s actually been much more rigorously planned than either of us ever does on our own, down to, there’s like a color-coded spreadsheet of the scenes with the color-coding showing whose point of view we’re using in each thing. It’s much more rigorously plotted than we tend to do. So, mostly I figure it out as I go along, except when I completely and totally don’t.

Well, how does that work in with all the research you’ve done for some of your stories? With the deep research, it would seem to me, would kind of, I don’t know, need a certain amount of planning along the way to know what you needed to research.

Yeah. I mean. It actually, in some ways, goes the other direction, which is that those pegs that I’m hammering into the ground, some of them come from the research. I’ll discover something and say, “Oh, that’s awesome. That needs to go into the book. Now, let me come up with a reason for it.” That actually happened, not even really a research thing, but the second of the memoirs, The Tropic of Serpents, I saw a photo of a portion of Iguazu Falls in South America where…it’s this huge extended, like, arc of waterfalls, basically, and there’s a spot in it where there’s kind of this, like, island of cliff jutting out in the middle of the waterfall. And I looked at that and thought, “That’s amazing. I am putting that in this book.” Why? “I don’t know. I’ll figure it out later.” So, like, there’s a whole chunk of plot in The Tropic of Serpents that happened because I wanted this island in the middle of a waterfall.

So, that was true a lot with the Onyx Court stuff, where I was…I could say very clearly, “OK, I need to read up on this time period.” And I would read books about daily life in that time period. And I did have slight amounts of outline for those just because…I mentioned that I play roleplaying games, and I ran a game, for people who know this one, Changeling: The Dreaming, I did a game where I wanted to make use of the fact that changelings reincarnate in that setting, that it’s the, you know, basically are born into a human host, and then when that host dies, they get reborn. And so, I wanted to do something that made use of that. So, I ran a game where the characters were reincarnating from lifetime to lifetime, doing this thing over a long period of time. Only they don’t always remember their previous lives. So, I was like, “I don’t want to make everybody buy high levels of the remembrance background to justify why they know…well, what if I did it backward?” And so, if you know the movie Memento, I called the game Memento, because it was all run in reverse. It started off in the present day with them finding out that apparently, they’d been doing something for hundreds of years that they didn’t remember, and then they drank from this magical well to remember. And the rest of the campaign, up until the very end, proceeded through flashbacks, where they were going back to their previous lives, remembering what they had already done that they didn’t remember. And I set this in London because I wanted an area that had been sort of continuously occupied for hundreds of years, which is hard to find in the United States. And London, you know, has a really nice, interesting, deep history. It also is an English-language country, which made research much easier. 

And I didn’t do nearly the levels of research for the game that I did for the novels, but actually, the Onyx Courtseries ended up spinning out of some of the material from the game in kind of relatively loose ways in most of the books. But it meant that I knew things like, “OK, I’m going to a book that is set in the 17th century where the big climactic thing is going to be the great fire. OK, I’m going to go read about the Great Fire. Oh, there was that plague the year before. I guess I need to read about the Great Plague as well.” And then it ended up being, I wanted to do the warfare stuff that led up to that, so I had to go read about the English Civil War, which, wow, that was not something you should try to research in three months flat. But I would just, like, read about stuff in that time period and then build my plot out of the pieces that I found was actually the way that a lot of it worked rather than, “I know that I need to know this thing for my plot.”

Well, once you have whatever level of planning and outlining you’re doing on the specific project, what does your actual writing process look like? Do you, you know, take a quill pen out under the trees, or…?

No. I started writing on a computer when I was nine, and I never looked back. I have very occasionally written things longhand. Actually, there’s a prequel story for my Wilders series called The Bottle Tree, which I wrote as a reward to my Kickstarter backers for the second book, that I did write the entirety of that longhand while I was traveling. And that was bizarre. I’m not sure why I did that, but I did. Mostly it is on the computer, and…I’m strangely a solar-powered night owl. Like, I really need sunshine. If I don’t get sunshine, my batteries run down and I don’t function well. But I operate at my best, usually, from about 10 p.m. until two or three a.m. So, that’s actually when I do the bulk of my writing, is late at night.

So, that would be writing at home, not writing in a coffee shop then, probably.

Yes, I am lucky in that I’ve basically always had kind of a home office. You know, we’ve been able to have apartments or now a house where there’s a room that can just be my office. Though in college I had the ability to stick on headphones and work on a novel while my roommates were sitting like three feet away watching TV, I’ve lost that level of focus, I think.

Are you a fast writer or a slow writer?

Um, really, the answer to that question depends on who I’m being compared to, so, I guess, middle of the pack in the grand scheme of things. The math that I’ll do for, “How long is it going to take me to write this novel?” is that I average about a thousand words a day, which some people think is fast, some people think is slow. For me, that ties in partly with being more on the figure-it-out-as-I-go along kind of writing. I’ve found by trial and error that most of the time a thousand words a day is the pace at which I can figure out my plot. Like, I’m laying track right ahead of the train, and at that pace, I don’t run out of track. Usually, if I try to go faster, I’ll basically write myself into a corner, though I will go faster if I hit a stretch where I’m like, “Oh, yeah, I know the next several things that are going to happen. It’s just a matter of getting through them.” Then I will speed up.

It’s like the difference between laying truck on the prairie and laying track north of Lake Superior as the CPR did.

Yeah, I was about to say, the Rocky Mountains were what came to mind for me. Like, yeah, there are some Rocky Mountains stretches where it is slower. But then, when Alyc and I were drafting the first of the Rook and Rose books, we basically did NaNoWriMo for four months straight. We wrote a 200,000-word novel in four months, and that was in part because swapping off between us made the work feel lighter. It wasn’t like we were each doing half the work, but we helped keep each other’s enthusiasm up and, like, one of us might have ideas when the other was stuck, but also because we had to plan it so much that when we had a plan, it was like, “Well, is there any reason we shouldn’t write two chapters this week? No? Let’s go.”

Once you have whatever your first draft looks like, what does that first draft look like? Is it something that takes a lot of polishing and revision? What’s your revision process like?

No, I started off, and still am mostly, on the end of relatively clean first drafts. Now, I will say in the early days the relatively clean first drafts were in part because my revision skills weren’t as well developed. I say, not even really jokingly, that of the basic skills you need to be just, like, a competent writer who can be submitting your work somewhere, the last one I acquired was finishing what I started. So, on the level of, like, prose and characterization and so forth, like, I had those down before I had down the ability to have a complete story. But I definitely got a lot better at revision, at being able to see where it was possible to change things rather than feeling like it was kind of this fixed text in my mind. I’ve gotten better at being able to pull things apart and rework them for, you know, overall benefit. So, I do more revision now than I used to, but I’m also somewhat prone to doing chunks of that revision while I’m still drafting. So, I still frequently will wind up with a pretty solid first draft by the time that I’m done, as opposed to people I know where the first draft is, like, that’s where they figure out what story they’re actually writing, and once that’s done, they go back and write the real book. So, I’m not on that level of changing things.

My first guest on here was Robert J. Sawyer, whom I’ve known for a long time, and he was quoting Edo van Belkom, I think, another Canadian writer, who calls it “the vomit draft,” their first draft, because you kind of get everything out there, and it makes a huge mess, but you feel better, and then you just have to clean it up.

Yeah, yeah. I’m not quite that level of things. So, the first draft often pretty closely resembles the finished one.

What sorts of things do you find yourself revising as you go along, the things you have to watch for, and then catch in your own writing? Because we all have little things that we’re prone to. At least, I do.

Yeah. If it’s not a massive change, a lot of it is stuff like, “OK, I want to make a mention of this strand sooner so that it doesn’t kind of come out of nowhere later on when it becomes important,” or, “Oh, I tossed in that idea thinking I was going to do something with it and then it never went anywhere, so let me go back and remove that.” Then a lot of it is just going to be things of, kind of smaller-scale alterations just for pacing and such. Like, “OK, let’s get to the action here a little bit sooner,” or “Oh, I didn’t set that up well enough, so let me add in some more detail to give it context.” It is relatively rare most of the time for me to cut a whole scene or add in a whole scene, though that does happen, and that’s been happening more lately. That has definitely happened with the Rook and Rose stuff, because, in part, the plot there is so complex. And actually, the novel that I most recently finished, which is a book for the game Legend of the Five Rings, I was, like, super-excited to finish the book, in part because I had gotten behind and really needed to finish by deadline. And so, I kind of mushed through one night and, like, wrote the whole end of the book, and then stopped and looked at the last couple of chapters and went, “Those are crap.” Like, I just need to completely redo them. I should not have tried to finish the book that fast. So, I did actually have to do a rewrite, not in an “I’ve changed my idea about the plot” kind of way, but just in an “I did a bad job of that” way.

You’ve worked with a number of different editors, I would presume, with the number of books and different publishers. What sorts of feedback do you usually get from editors? Do they find your drafts as clean as you think they are?

It has varied. I will say that editors these days, they’re so overworked that a lot of them just don’t have the time for editing that, you know, they might have had, like, fory years ago in the days that you hear stories about. But it has varied a lot, also, depending on the editor’s personality. It’s ranged from, you know, fairly hands-off, like, Midnight Never Come, the first of the Onyx Court books, I think my edit letter from Devi was, like, half a page, Like, it was really brief. She did not want a lot of changes made, whereas Priyanka Krishnan, who’s the one we’re working with for Rook and Rose, is very much more hands-on and, you know, really getting into the text. She asked for us to add in a couple of scenes to flesh out certain things with the relationships in the story.

And I also wound up writing some new material for Turning Darkness into Light, the sequel to the memoirs, not because Miriam Weinberg, the editor for that one, specifically asked for it, but because she had concerns about this one flashback that was in the story, which her suggested fix for dealing with that flashback, I was like, “Oh, that doesn’t work for me for X, Y, Z reasons,” but the underlying reason she’d suggested that was that the flashback felt jarring, that it was like this one moment where it stops being kind of the present-day of the story and goes to something that happened five years ago. And so, when I talked with her, I said, “You know, I could flesh out some other things in the story if I gave a couple of the other characters similar kinds of flashbacks. What do you think of that?” And she said, “Yes, that works fantastically.” So, we were able to solve that problem by basically making that be not the only time the narrative jumped out of order like that. And it ended up assisting a bunch of other things that could use some, like complexity.

Well, I kind of jumped straight to the editor, but there are many authors who will take an intermediate step of beta readers or people like that. Is that something you’ve ever done? I never think of it because I’ve never done it. But I know it’s done!

I mostly haven’t. The sort of stepping-stone exception is Alyc Helms, the writer I mentioned, whom I’m working on Rook and Rose with, has been essentially my best writing buddy since the year 2000 when we met, because we think enough alike when it comes to writing and how we approach stories that…usually it’s not a finished draft, it’s, like, I’m halfway or three-quarters of the way through a book and I’m stuck, and I would fling the manuscript in Alix, going, “Help me!”, and they would read through what I had, and we would talk it over, and they would help me figure out how to proceed with the rest of it, which then ended up being part of how we wrote the Rook and Rose stuff together, because we said, “You know, we think a lot alike about this kind of stuff, like, hey, what if we tried writing something together?” And for that book, at Alyc’s suggestion, we did actually have a couple of beta readers, you know, people that we sent a finished draft to, but not the polished, fully ready-to-go one, and made some revisions based on the feedback that we got from that.

I guess the benefit of both beta readers and eventually the editor, of course, is just getting that fresh set of eyes on something that maybe you’re a little too close to.

Very much so. And that was why we were really eager for it with Rook and Rose, because that is a book with a lot of intrigue and a lot of stuff around, like, mysteries and misdirection and things involving…the Rook, actually, of the series title is this, like, you know, mysterious vigilante, et cetera. And so, we’re doing a lot of stuff around, “Who is the Rook?”, and it’s really difficult to judge that in your own work because you know all the answers to the mysteries and all the twists of the intrigue and who the Rook is, and so you can’t really judge very accurately whether you are providing enough information, but not too much information. Is the information in the right spot? You’ve got to get some outside eyes on that to tell you whether or not that makes sense. And those outside eyes have to be from somebody who doesn’t know the story already. Because we also had, my sister was serving as kind of our alpha reader in the, “We’re super excited about this thing we’re writing, and we want somebody to squee! at us about it. So, hey, you need to read the chapters as we finish them and tell us how clever we are.” She’s been very tolerant and patient with us, but she already knew the ideas behind the story, so she couldn’t tell us that stuff. We had to then get the beta readers once there was a finished draft.

I can remember who said it, but some writer said all that writers really want in a review is twelve single-spaced pages of closely recent praise.

Yeah. I mean, I will say I have gotten some reviews that had critical feedback in them that I did actually find useful. The one that particularly stuck with me, because it was such a simple thing, there was a review of Doppelganger when it was first published, when it was under that title, where the reviewer commented on me overusing italics for emphasis and things, and I looked at the text and was like, “You know, you’re right.” And so, I have since very much dialed back my italics.

I’m a little prone to…ellipses. Dot-dot-dot.

Oh, ellipses, semicolons, em-dashes, even colons, which are really not much in fashion in 21t-century fiction, but spending about five years writing like a Victorian lady had some bad influences on my prose. I want to use all the punctuation, thank you very much.

Just because you mentioned Rook and the Rook and Rose, I realized I kind of skipped over one step, which is characters. How do you find the characters for your story, and how do you develop them?

That is very much an organic back of the brain process for me. I’m not the sort of person who sits down and consciously constructs like, “OK, let me figure out, like, go through a questionnaire and create the character.” The part of the process that does get a little more conscious is, I will try to prod myself out of certain defaults about like gender, sexuality, ethnicity, et cetera, and say, “Well, like, whatever I default to, maybe I should try to do something different,” just to be, like, aware of that and make sure I’m not doing the same thing over and over again. But characters are kind of a subconscious gestalt thing for me. I don’t get emotionally invested in them if I construct them in a very logical sort of way. And I need them to…in a way, I need them to be able to surprise me, because some of the best moments in my stories tend to be the ones where, “I didn’t plan that!” It was just the moment where I’m in the middle of writing the scene and the thing that I intended for the character to do, there’s just kind of this feeling of, “No, that’s not the right thing. The thing that they would do in this moment is this other thing.” And that invariably is actually the more interesting thing to have happen rather than what I had planned.

And this does mean that I wind up with random things sometimes where I’m, like, “Why do I know this about that character? Like, this isn’t even relevant to the story,” but just, I am sure of that fact. There’s an incredibly minor character who shows up in, I think, one scene in the third Onyx Court book where, he’s gay, I know that he’s gay. Why do I know this? I don’t know. It just, it’s not relevant to the story, and I’m not looking for anybody to pat me on the back for a thing that you completely cannot tell by reading the book, but it’s just a fact about him that my brain has provided to me.

Well, and that is one of the fascinating things about the whole writing process, is the way that, you know, what are our brains doing in there while we’re writing?

Yeah.

Because every writer has similar stories.

Yeah. It’s a neurologically weird thing, because we are wired to kind of model human behavior in our minds and to, like, imagine what people might do in certain situations. And so, creating characters is kind of a process of, you know, leveraging that for fictional purposes. And if you do it well, then it does start to feel like there’s…or it can, because, I mean, obviously not every writer works the same way. But for me, if I have done a good job of creating the character in a believable fashion, then it does feel a little bit like there’s this real thing and I need to figure it out as opposed to I need to make the decisions. And that’s just kind of how I approach it.

Well, I guess I kind of brings me to the other cliché on here: the big philosophical questions of why? Why do you write, why do you write this kind of stuff, and why do you think any of us write?

Because we’re too dumb not to? I don’t know. Like, it is just something where, this is what my brain has always done. And over the years since I was nine and decided I wanted to be a writer, I have encouraged my brain to do more of this. You know, we kind of respond to rewards, and so if I enjoy doing the writing, which I do, then I have this feeling of, “Oh, I want more of that enjoyment, let’s do more of that.” And so, my brain generates more ideas for me. I’m not the sort of person…I think it was Vonnegut who said, you know, “I hate writing, I love having written.” I love writing when it’s going well. There are days where it’s like pulling teeth, but when it’s going well, I’m discovering things. That’s part of why I write the way that I do, with less planning, usually, because I want that feeling of, “Oh, I didn’t see that coming. And now I get to enjoy it kind of in the way that the reader does.”

And there is a dark side to that reward cycle of, “OK, I have trained my brain to understand that I will be happy if I do these things,” which is that it will continue to offer up ideas, sometimes is the most inappropriate ways. The one that really sticks with me—and this was, again, during the I stuff, when I was writing A Star Shall Fall—you know, like, you wake up in the morning, and there’s that period of time where you’re awake, but you don’t quite have clear thoughts going through your head yet, and so, I’m lying there in bed, and I stretch, and the first clear thought that emerges in my head is “Vivisection!” And I’m just lying there going, “OK. Yes, that is a really good idea for the plot because that works very well with X, Y, and Z. Could you not have waited like ten minutes? Let me get vertical first?” No, first thought of the morning, “Vivisection!” Because clearly, I’d been thinking about the story in my sleep and that was what popped out of. So yeah. Every so often…and I recognize it’s weird to talk about my brain like it’s somehow separate from me, but it’s like I’m standing there looking at my brain going, “Really? Really? That’s what you give me?”

Yeah. I can identify. Well, as someone whose studied folklore, you know that, you know, humans have always told stories. Where do you think that comes from?

It’s part and parcel, I think, of us being social creatures, that some of the storytelling is ways for us to understand the behavior of the other people around us and to prepare ourselves for, “If other people do this then I can do that, and this will produce good results.” But it is interesting to me that to the best of our knowledge, to the best of my knowledge, anyway, we are the only creatures that do tell stories. Because it’s been fascinating watching studies in animal cognition, kind of taking the things that we thought were uniquely human and sort of one by one saying, “Well, we might do that more than other animals do, but we’re not the only ones who do it,” like, you know, language and such. No other creatures have, that we know of, languages the way that we do, but they communicate in some incredibly complex ways. Like, there are cetaceans, like whales and dolphins and such, that have names, like, there are specific sounds that are used to identify specific creatures within a pod, and so, that’s names. And, like, killer whales have culture, in the sense that different pods have different ways of playing that get passed down between the generations, and as an anthropologist, I don’t know of any definition of culture that would not include pod-specific methods of playing passed down between generations.

But storytelling, we don’t, that I know of, have any evidence that other creatures do this. And so, that’s kind of a unique thing about humans. And I think it’s an evolutionary advantage. It’s something where we can imagine what might happen in the future and teach ourselves to be ready for that. Even if what we’re doing it with is stuff that’s not realistic, we’re still learning useful brain lessons from that.

Well, the name of the podcast is The Worldshapers. Do you hope that you’re writing in some way…I mean, shaping the whole world is a bit grand, very little fiction has ever done that, but perhaps shaping other people or, you know, shaping it in some small way?

Yeah, I mean, I try not to think about that too directly while I’m writing because I know me, and I know that tends to lead me in very kind of didactic, preachy directions. I can’t have that at the forefront of my mind, or it winds up resulting in bad stories. But I do have that as a general…like, I hope that my stories do some good in the world. The memoirs, in particular, have gotten a lot of responses from, you know, women working in different fields of science who tell me how much it means to them to see this kind of character, like, “Who’s this lady doing science?”

My wife’s an engineer, so…

Yeah, yeah. And like, there’s a character in the memoirs who is…the term asexual doesn’t get used for her, but she is, she kind of talks about it in ways that make that apparent if you’re looking for that kind of thing. And so, I’ve gotten messages from some ace readers who are just like, “Oh, my God, it makes me so happy to see a character like this in a story,” because it’s really important to us to see people like us being reflected in fictional worlds rather than being written out of them. And so, that is part of why I do this, like prodding the default thing of saying, “OK, well, you know, I haven’t really talked about people who are like X, Y, Z. How can I fit that in here?” Because I do want people to have that feeling of recognition and feeling like they’ve been seen and that they’re a part of the world. But I try to kind of, like, think about that at the moments when it will be a good inspiration rather than, “Now I will do the very special episode of…,” because that’s just…nobody wants to read that. 

“A very special episode…” Well, you’ve talked a little bit about what you’re working on, but just want to reiterate that you have the collaboration coming up, The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rosetrilogy with…who was your co-writer?

Alyc Helms, but it’s coming out under the joint name of M. A. Carrick.

Is this the first time you’ve written as M.A. Carrick together?

Yeah. We knew that editors might ask for a joint pen name, so we had one picked out just in case.

And what are you working on yourself?

So, The Night Parade of Demons is the Legend of the Five Rings novel I mentioned, that’s going to be coming out in February of next year, not too long after The Mask of Mirrors, and obviously, Driftwood is coming out in August. Other than that, short fiction, stuff for the Patreon. I figure having three novel projects kind of at various stages of production is enough for the moment.

And you wanted to make a mention of your Patreon?

Oh, yes, because Worldshapers! The Patreon is called New Worlds, and it is all about worldbuilding. The genesis of it is, basically, I love worldbuilding, I love talking about anthropology and such, and for a long time I felt like I wanted to write a book about that, but I couldn’t figure out how to wrangle a topic that large into book shape. And then eventually it came to me that, well, if I did it as a Patreon, then, rather than trying to tackle the whole thing at once, I could just do weekly essays on different aspects of culture and worldbuilding. And then, maybe after I had written those, I could shuffle them into book shape. So, I started that up. It’s now over three years and counting that I have been writing weekly essays about different aspects of worldbuilding, and I’m not done yet. So, that feeling of, “It’s a ittle difficult to put this in book shape!” was not wrong. What I’ve been doing is, at the end of each year, I put out an e-book that collects the essays from that year, organized into the best shape possible, with the topics that my patrons have voted for. And I think probably when I do finish, whenever that happens, I’ll probably go back and reorganize them into some larger volumes that will be a little bit more kind of thematically organized around different spheres of human culture. But that is some way off, because I’ll need to finish going through all the bits and pieces before I can put together the whole thing. So, yes, it’s proven really, really useful for me, because it means I don’t have to figure out the organization ahead of time. I can just kind of dive into all the interesting little corners and then organize them afterward.

And where can people find you online? You use Swan Tower rather than your name for most of your things, it looks like.

Yeah, that actually dates back to when I thought I was going to be in academia as well, and I wanted a like kind of website and general branding that could cover my academic studies, because I was studying science fiction and fantasy stuff, as well as my fiction work. That ended up not being necessary, but I like Swan Tower. So, SwanTower.com, as one word, is the website, and that has links to the Patreon, which is New Worlds, and that’s also, Swan_Tower is my username there. I am Swan_Tower on Twitter. That’s pretty much it for me on social media. I’m not on Facebook or anything like that.

Ok, well, thanks so much for being a guest of The Worldshapers today. I enjoyed that. I hope you did too.

I did, too. Yeah. Thank you very much for doing this.

And this should come out…well, of course, whoever’s listening to this will know when it’s out. It should come out about the same time as Driftwood, in August. So perfect timing.

Sounds good.

Thanks again for being on.

Well, thank you.

Episode 58: Faith Hunter

An hour-long conversation with award-winning New York Times– and USA Today-bestselling author Faith Hunter, author of the Jane Yellowrock and Soulwood series, the Junkyard Cats novella series, and the Rogue Mage series, as well as thrillers under the pen names Gary Hunter and Gwen Hunter.

Website
www.faithhunter.net

Facebook
@Official.Faith.Hunter

Twitter
@HunterFaith

Faith Hunter’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Photo by Kim Hunter.

Faith Hunter is the award-winning New York Times– and USA Today-bestselling author of the Jane Yellowrock series and the Soulwood series. She also wrote and sold the first of the Junkyard Cats novella series as an Audible Original. Junkyard Cats was the number-one selling book at Audible when released. She also has written three Rogue Mage series novels, two anthologies in that series, and coauthored a role-playing game.

She is the coauthor and author of sixteen thrillers under pen names Gary Hunter and Gwen Hunter. Altogether, she has forty-plus books and dozens of short stories in print ,and is juggling multiple projects. She sold her first book in 1989 and hasn’t stopped writing since.

Faith collects orchids and animal skulls, loves thunderstorms, and writes. She likes to cook soup, bake bread, garden, and kayak Class III whitewater rivers. She edits the occasional anthology and drinks a lot of tea.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you for having me. This is so much fun.

Thanks so much for being on. We made the connection because we’re both with Penguin Random House, and I mentioned to my publicist that, you know, I had this podcast and I could talk to authors, and next thing I knew, there you were. So . . . 

I am just absolutely thrilled to be here. This is wonderful.

So, we’ll start with my usual sort of taking you back into the mists of time–someday I’m going to put reverb on that, THE MISTS OF TIME, and also at the end when I do the big philosophical questions.

Well, you’ve got a big voice. You can pull it off without the reverb. It’s very impressive.

Yeah, I echo in my own head. But, going back into the mists of time, how did you get interested in . . . most of us, it starts with books . . . reading and writing and particularly the kind of, you know, fantastical stuff that you write. How did that all come about for you?

First book in the Dragonriders
of Pern, original cover.

I started out as, like a lot of writers, as the weird kid in school who didn’t fit in anywhere, who fell between all of the cracks and just had a reputation of being strange. So, when you’re strange, you start reading, and you read strange things, and I read Pern and I read all of the old masters of science fiction, as they’re called, and I read fantasy and mystery and began to work my way through thrillers and just simply found a place where my head and my heart could be at peace, and that was in somebody else’s world, So, when I hit 10th grade, and my 10th-grade teacher told me that I had writing talent and I should make writing my career, I believed her, for better or worse. And thank you, Carol Koller (sp?), for telling me that that little gem of poetry, horrible poetry that I wrote, had merit. And she set my life, my 10th-grade teacher set my life on its course.

I’m glad you mentioned that because I often ask if there were, you know, teachers or mentors or something early on. And I think many of us, if we’re lucky, we encounter somebody like that. So, that was in the 10th grade.

Yes.

Did you do a lot of writing in high school, and did you share your writing with other people?

I did. And we had a literary magazine, which all of the literary pieces were turned in anonymously and I turned in about, I don’t know, forty. And when the literary magazine–and no one knew. Different people picked everything. And when the literary magazine came out, of about sixty pieces, something like twenty were mine, which cemented my teacher’s recognition of my work. And so, that was my first moment to really think that I might be a writer, to really believe that it was possible. And being my father’s daughter, he was an engineer, I started working to discover how writers lived, how they did their job. So, I spent hours at the local library talking with the librarians and letting them give me magazines to sit and study and asking permission, “May I please tear out this form here so I can get this magazine at my house?” And being given the opportunity to learn the hard things about writing, as it was at the time, which is you have to have a finished project to be paid, and you have to go through a process to be paid by New York. And I worked for three solid years through 10th, 11th, and 12th grade to educate myself on the business of writing as it was way back in the Dark Ages, and to teach myself as much about the tools of writing, the methods of writing, as I possibly could.

It’s interesting that you mentioned your father was an engineer. I’m married to an engineer. My wife is an engineer and a past president of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Saskatchewan, in fact.

Wow.

And one thing I have found, being married to an engineer, is that engineers approach problems very analytically.

Yes.

More so that perhaps comes naturally to me. So sometimes, when she’s approaching something, I think, “Oh, I never thought of that question.”

I tend to, because of my father’s deliberate training in debate, I tend to think of worst-case scenarios, which is really, really helpful when you’re writing fiction because you want your character to face the worst thing possible short of death and come out some sort of a hero. That’s your goal as a writer, to make that transition from flawed character to successful character take place amidst the conflict that the characters are facing. So, because of Dad demanding that I debate him constantly, I think in two different ways when I’m writing. Part of me is deeply involved in the methodologies and the toolbox things. “How do you phrase this? How many times? What is the meter of my prose? Where’s the last time I used a gerund? Oh, this sentence runs on too long.” Versus the worst-case scenario, which is, “This isn’t bad enough. I have to make this worse for my reader to really get into this scene.” So, those two parts of my brain are always working together now, my mother’s creative self and my father’s engineering lessons in the reality of logic.

Where did you grow up?

All over the South. Dad worked for a paper company. And back in the day, big international paper companies would, because everybody was, I mean, they were everywhere because everyone was reading newspapers. And so, he was in the newspaper-making arm, and he was an electrical engineer. So we moved to different . . . we never spent more than four years in any one place. And usually, it was closer to two years. It was two years in Mississippi and two years in Louisiana and two–I mean, it was just all over the southeast. And then Dad took a job in a little town called Rock Hill, South Carolina, with a different paper company, and we stayed there for many, many years, and that’s where I went to school.

Now, when you went to university, did you study writing? Because you initially started in, what, biomedical laboratory work?

Yes. No, I went to tech school. This was long enough ago that you could go to a two-year tech school and the post-World War Two scholastic situation was still in place. So, you could go to school for two years in a science-based or an engineering-based job. And in a lot of them, you could then take the four-year test, and you could get credit for four years of school. So that’s what I did. Dad, in all of his debating, never told me that I was going to have to pay for my own schooling because he wasn’t going to do that, and so I had to go to school the cheapest way it was possible to do it. And that meant the local tech school and study really, really, really hard so I could pass that test, which I did. And I had a good job with benefits for 40 years before I felt brave enough and strong enough in my writing career to quit.

Yeah, I . . . when I was looking into writing, when I was in high school, I made the decision that you can’t actually make a living at it right off the front. And so I went into journalism so at least I was doing something with words.

I thought about journalism. And there was a local college I could have gone to. It would have taken me about six years to pay my way through or maybe eight. But the idea of working in hospitals and being helpful to people was another part of my personality, and clearly, I liked it enough to stay with it. So that was . . . and learning the sciences and having a science background gave me an opportunity to learn a different type of writing, because report writing is very much like journalistic writing in the sense that you have a different timeline and you have different verbiage and you have different methodologies of reaching a point. So that was helpful in its own odd, unique way.

Were there other helpful things about working in that job for all those years. Does that fit into your writing in any other way?

Well, let’s see. Yes. I worked for, spent many years at small hospitals, and in small hospitals, there’s an awful lot of job crossover. So, I took part with . . . I was the assistant for lots of autopsies, and I was the person who went to the morgue and drew vitreous fluid or did a suprapubic stick to get urine or did a heart stick to get blood from the accident victims or murder victims or whatever was down there. And I was a part of the in-house first-response team for all codes, which means if someone stopped breathing or crashed in surgery or whatever, I was right there and then took the samples back to the lab and actually did the processing. So, in a small hospital, you very often get to do and see more, a lot more, than the average person does today. I don’t know if that’s the answer you really wanted, but, yes, I’ve put all of that, all of that learning together. So, when I describe a dead body, at any point, I can do it at least a modicum of success because I’ve seen it, and when I need an injury that doesn’t kill someone, I’ve also got that. I’ve seen everything. So, yeah, it was very handy to my writing.

I usually say that no matter what you do, you’ll find elements of it useful in your fiction writing, it’s like you have to have something in the tank before you can, you know, have anything to write about.

Absolutely. People who sit in an ivory tower don’t know how to write about real-life problems. They have to get out there in some kind of a trench. Now, it could be politics. It could be . . . it can be anything. But sitting in your basement or your living room or anywhere on your heinie and not being involved in the world does not prepare you for the writing life. You have to have a background or a knowledge, not just of the English language, but of the world.

And I would think, working in that kind of environment, you also saw a wide range of people.

Yes. And a wide range of victims and a wide range of perpetrators and a wide range of everything that . . . to start out with I didn’t have the life skills to deal with because I started my on-the-job training at 18. And that was difficult,

I would imagine. Were you writing, then, all through this time as you got your two-year . . . and then into the workforce?

I gave myself two years off from writing. I did no writing during those two years except what I had to do for school, which was report writing, essays, the usual college stuff you still have to do even if you’re at a tech school. You still have to take writing courses and English courses and your basic math and that sort of thing. But I gave myself time off because my job was to get a four-year education in two years. So, the day I got out of school, I walked across the stage, and the day after that I went to work researching for my next book, which had been percolating–my first book, I should say–which had been percolating in the back of my mind for two years.

Did you take any formal writing training at any time? I always ask that because some writers do, and then they say, but it wasn’t very useful.

I did. I took, uh, three options in the tech school. One was actually a . . . oh, gosh, that’s been a long time ago . . . it was a creative writing course of some sort, I don’t remember what now, and then when I was trying to write my first book, I took a poetry course from a two-time Gutenberg winner at the local college and I took a short-story course from a writer who was a critically acclaimed writer and also taught on the side. I learned a lot from those two classes, and the poetry class taught me to cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, action words, all the things that you need to make your prose really strong. And the short story course taught me things about plot and conflict and story arc that I needed. So, those two courses did come in handy. I don’t think I needed much else at that point, and I was ready to go because, as I said before, I studied hard for three years. I read every book I could find on writing. I read every magazine. Every possible writing magazine came to my house, and I studied them and marked them up and dog-eared pages and–not of the books because I got those from the library–but of my magazines, I made it a point to study. And if you really work hard at it, you can teach yourself a lot of things in life.

What was that first look, and how long did it take you then to complete it and presumably submit it? And did it get published?

It actually was finished, and I had about two inches tall of rejection letters–because back then there were probably 150 publishers out there. And I put it aside when I met a cop in the emergency room one night, and I heard him talking about wanting to write a book when he retired. We got chatting and started working together, our first lines were . . . I wish I could remember that first line that we came up with together . . . something about a warehouse with the stink of winter and rats that only a good raising could cure. And at the time, it sounded very poetic to me. But that first book–that second book for me, our first book together–took five years for us to write and the first editor who looked at it bought it.

What was its title?

Either Death Sentence or Death Warrant, I’m not sure which came first, but it was a two-book series, it was a police procedural. Long, long ago.

And you’ve written a great many since then, forty-plus, I believe your bio said.

Yes, I only count up when I think I might have hit another ten. So, I don’t know where I am right now. I do know that I have one book coming out in July, the end of July, which is Spells for the Dead. And I have a . . . I’m in the middle of rewrites for the Junkyard Cats number two, which doesn’t have a real title yet, but I’m calling it Junkyard Bargain. Just for funsies. So I know I’ve got those still coming, and then I have turned and book fourteen in the Jane Yellowrock series, which is my most popular series at this point, and it is in the hands of the editor waiting for that lovely thing writers call a rewrite letter but is really the letter of devastation and misery.

Well, we’re going to talk about that because we’re going to talk about your process. So, first of all, then, maybe we should have a synopsis of Spells for the Dead.  And I want to talk about the Junkyard Cat series, too, because I want to ask you about the difference between writing direct for audio and writing for print.

Oh, dear, you want to know about . . . and of course, my brain is not on Spells for the Dead. Wait a minute.

I know, something that you did a long time ago because you’re working on the next thing. I know how that goes.

Right. I just…wait a minute. Let me see. Let me pull it up so I can look at it. Wait a minute. It’s horrible when you have to . . . sometimes I can’t even remember my own titles. That really happens a lot. Okay, well, Nell Ingram is the main character in the Soulwood series. And that series is a paranormal police procedural slash with . . . well, fantasy, with a little tiny bit of romance woven through it, not enough to turn off my male readers, but, you know, enough to to make my female readers happy, Nell works in Tennessee, out of Knoxville, and she’s called to the Tennessee mansion of a country music star and finds a disturbing scene–which takes you back to something we said just a few minutes ago–she sees dead bodies rapidly decaying before everyone’s eyes. And the witch on her team has never seen magic that can steal life forces like this. So Nell and the team have to go in and solve this mystery and prevent these new dark magics from spiraling out of control.

Okay. And what’s Junkyard Cats about?

Junkyard Cats is science fiction. And it is fabulous. I am having the most fun with it. The series is about post-World War Three, post-alien invasion, and forced peace on the Earth by the aliens because we were destroying ourselves and our planet, and my character is in hiding because she was accidentally contaminated by two different kinds of nanobots and they’ve done something to her. So, Shining Smith is her name, she’s a former biker with the Outlaws, and she runs Smith’s Junk and Scrap Yard in the middle of West Virginia, in the middle of the West Virginian desert. And the Cats part is because she has cats, which you discover at some point in book one are actually sentient thanks to her.

Hmm. Those both sound very interesting. What were . . . okay, this is a cliché question. “Where do you get your ideas?” But it’s a valid question. How do ideas come to you? How do you get the seeds of stories? These ones specifically, but in general, how is that process work for you?

Well, of course, when you’re writing a series, you don’t have to worry about worldbuilding or character creation or character relationships, all of those are already in place. So, when I’m working on the Soulwood series or the Jane Yellowrock series, what I’m planning is mostly plot-related and character-development related. That process is very different because you start out in the middle of a well-designed, hopefully, world, and you bring in the little bits of the world that you need for this particular book. But you have to also be smart and know that maybe your readers haven’t read all of the other books, and so you have to be very clear and concise about the necessary history for your character that you present in this new book. So, you start out in a different place from a stand-alone book or the beginning of a new series.

So, when I start with a Jane Yellowrock or Soulwood book, it’s usually with plot. Who’s died, who’s in trouble? What conflict are they facing? Is it natural or is it mundane? Is it magical? Is it, in the case of the science fiction, is it technological? Is it related to the damage that was done to the Earth in the war? What problem is this now-established character facing that will do two things, number one, challenge the new and the remaining weaknesses in that character, that’s number one, and number two, take that character through a journey where that character has to change and become better or worse in order to accomplish the end. So, if I’m just looking at an established character and all I’m doing is the plot planning, that’s one type of book to start. And I do that with an extremely heavily detailed seven- to thirty-five-page single-spaced outline.

That was my next question.

Now, when I’m doing something brand-new, for instance, Junkyard Cats, all I knew was the beginning and the end. My proposal to myself was about two pages, and it was as much worldbuilding as anything else. And then I realized, of course, I have to have help. So, I got two physicists to help me set up the changes in technology in the world. And they were extremely helpful. And I got some readers handy who would be able to help me with some genetic changes. So, then I just, for the first time in literally well, since 2006, I pantsed something. I flew by the seat of my pants, and I actually wrote the outline so I would have a way to keep track of what had happened as I wrote each day’s writing. So, I would write what I wanted to that day and I would transfer it to the outline. Then I would go back and write the next day’s work, and I would transfer the necessary information to the outline. And then about halfway through, I realized I needed to start my bible because I was loving this. And the bible is all of the things that are going to happen in a series. And in this case, it was technology and characters. So, I have about a twenty-five page single-spaced bible now, and I’ve only got one novella published.

So, the process is different. I was . . . when I started Junkyard Cats, it was all about the creation of this character, the creation of the world, and how much did I need and how much was just fluff and how much do I put away and how much satisfies me as a writer. Because sometimes, as a writer, I need to be satisfied with the craft of writing. I need to have that good poetic feel to things, to my work, that makes me happy and may not do anything for my reader. So, it’s a juggling aspect when I’m pantsing it. It’s very different. It’s . . . Okay, it’s more fun. Let me just say this right up front. Pantsing a novella is WAY more fun than writing from an outline.

When you started working on that, were you thinking direct to audio, or did that come along later, or how did that work?

I finished it, and I sent it to my agent, and I said . . . let’s see, how did that work? Oh, I remember. Audible had asked me if I had anything that they could use as an Audible original. This was some time ago. And I said, “Nope, not a thing. Everything is under contract. But I’ve kind of got an idea in the back of my head, if I ever get time to write it, I’ll let my agent know.” So, I finished all of this, and I sent it to her, and I said, “I doubt that this is anything that Audible would be interested in, but if you think they would be, here.” And she read it and made some significant suggestions, because she’s the excellent, wonderful agent she is. Am I permitted to say her name?

Yes, of course.

Okay, Lucianne Diver of the Night Agency is fabulous, and she made lots of suggestions, which I incorporated into a rewrite. And then she took it to Audible, and they bought it as an Audible original. So it is still under . . . they had a six-month exclusive on it, where it can’t be in print anywhere, and the six months will be out at the end of July, so sometime in August, the end of August, I think, it will come out as an e-book from a small press.

I’m sure you’ve had . . . most of your books have been audiobooks. Do you ever listen to them?

Really, I don’t. I hate to say that because my fans adore my narrator. They think she’s the cat’s meow. Khristine Hvam can do all of the voices, and she’s really good about keeping them in place between book and book and from the beginning to the end, and the characters always sound like they’re supposed to. But if I listen to the way she speaks my characters’ voices, it won’t be what I hear inside my head. So, no, I don’t, and that’s embarrassing, but–love you, Khristine!–but no, have not ever, ever listened to a book.

That seems to be fairly common in authors I’ve talked to. And I haven’t listened to . . . Except for the ones that I commissioned myself and I had to do the proof-listening, and I liked them, fortunately . . . but yeah, the ones that I’ve had that have been done by some other company, I’ve never actually listened to the whole thing. And it’s kind of the same thing. It’s like, well, that’s not quite the way it sounded in my head, so.

Right. I mean . . . and then when you go back to starting the next book, do you . . . I would have to go back and reread a whole bunch in a previous book to find that voice again, because my characters . . . My books don’t sound alike. The authorial voice is totally different in every book, I mean, in every series, so . . . The way I write, the syntax, the punctuation, every little thing is different in the Jane Yellowrock books from the books that I wrote as Gwen, which are much more purple. Those have a lot more flavor to them, in a sense, because the characters are not warriors, and Jane is a warrior, so my authorial voice is so different. If I listen to anything, I would have to go back and reread, and that would annoy me, I guess, some.

What’s your actual writing process? I think I read that you aim for a certain number of pages a day.

I do.

Are you a fast writer or a slow writer?

Well, COVID has changed the answer to that. Normally, I . . . when I was writing and trying to get a book out every six months and working full-time, I wrote for 12 hours a day, five days a week, and then worked to 16- to 17-hour days at the hospital. And while I was fast, I was doing two books a year, so I was always behind, and a good week was 10,000 words. Then I quit the job and realized I was killing myself, so I switched from a book every six months to a book every eight months. And that was much more doable. I was not killing myself anymore. And so, if I could do, let’s see, how much would that be, if I could do 8,000 words a week to 10,000 words a week over seven days, that was a lot easier on me.

And then COVID hit, and I can’t go anywhere, so I’m back up writing way faster, and I’m getting caught up on all of my deadlines, and I’m not sitting at the desk but about six to eight hours a day. And it’s pretty wonderful. So, I hate to say that COVID has been beneficial in any way, but it makes me concentrate on my writing so I don’t have to think about the world. And I think . . . I know that a lot of my writing friends have had the opposite effect where they can’t think about their writing because the only thing they can think about is the world. And it’s horrible, and everything’s on fire. But for me, I’m hiding from that when I’m writing, I’m not watching the news, I’m not checking Facebook or Twitter, I’m not going anywhere but into this world and I can sit and write, and it’s pouring out of me, and it’s wonderful. Now, I don’t know if that will continue. What has it done to you? I mean, I’m really curious about how other people have reacted to this.

Hasn’t really changed much for me. I’m . . . you know, I work at home. I was writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library, which is a two-and-a-half-hour drive north of here. So, I would go up on Tuesday morning, and I stayed overnight, and I was in the library for two days meeting with writers and going . . . you know, stuff like that. And all that changed was that I no longer made the trip to Saskatoon and I just sat here and did it all virtually, and it actually benefited me because I wasn’t spending money on that hotel room one night a week up in Saskatoon so that that all went by, and, you know, I always sit in my house and type, so it hasn’t really changed much from my point of view. But yeah, I’ve heard that, you know, different things for different people. I assume from what you said that you mostly write at home anyway, you’re not a go out into the coffee shops or scribble under a tree with a pen or something.

Absolutely not. I want my computer system set up exactly as it’s set up. When we go somewhere to paddle, I still have to write, and I take all my computer system with me. So we travel in an RV, and it has a big, deep dash. So, when we are stopped, and I am working, I still have my two great big screens and my laptop to the side, and so that gives me two keyboards. So, I have two full systems to write with because, especially now that when I’m writing a series, I have to have so many different files open. I’ve got to have the bible open. I’ve got to have maybe the previous book open. I might have to have the writing order and the time schedule open. I might have to have the editor’s notes open. So, when I’m writing, I always have at least four files open at a time. And all of them are related to this project that I’m working on. So, I have to . . . I just . . . when I go somewhere else, I replicate my office.

What . . . once you have that first draft, what does your revision process look like? Do you have a very clean draft? When you get to the end you’re done, you don’t have to go through it again? How does that work for you?

Well. I’ve been writing for a long time. When my father was passing away, I had about three years there where I did not turn in very clean drafts, and I felt very sorry for my editor. And they kindly, at Penguin Random House, kept working with me through those three years. But normally, except for those three years, I start out the day revising everything I wrote the day before and then putting in another X number of words to get to where I need to be for that day to meet a deadline for the week. So, for instance, if I know I’ve got a 40,000-word document due on Monday, and I’ve got seven days to do it, then each day I’ve got to . . . each week I’ve got to do 10,000 words. So I just divide it up, and normally I’m able to make it. Lately, though, I’ve given . . . I’ve had some health issues myself, so I’ve given myself a little bit longer. I’m not pushing myself. I’m just letting my COVID brain write all the time, and I’m not watching word count as much as I did before. So . . . everything changes. It just . . . life changes, people get sick, people die, your dog dies, you, I mean . . . you and your husband get to go on vacation to Ireland, and you don’t write the whole time you’re there, and then you come home with all these ideas and you have a brand-new concept, and you sit down, and you write like crazy. So, life is just odd, and the process is . . . the writing processes always have to change based on the reality of the world.

As they say, life is just one darn thing after another.

Yes, it is.

Do you . . . it doesn’t sound like you have beta readers or anybody like that. Or do you?

I used to not, but I do now. I have one beta reader who keeps up with the timeline and the bible and makes sure that all of the characters are where they should be at the start of one book, based on where they were, where they last appeared in the series, So if I’ve killed off the character, the character is not back in this book. So, I have her, and she is in . . . 

Well, in your book, couldn’t that happen? In your series?

Yes, well, it did three times by accident. And that forced me to reintroduce to . . . not to reintroduce but to introduce . . . an accidental time-loop situation. So, that gave the book, gave the Jane Yellowrock series five more books, because I made that accident, so no one’s complaining except the poor person who has to keep up with what I’ve done. And she was . . . the timeline editor has also been a non-fiction editor, so she’s really good about, um, the broad strokes in the editing process. So she’s a beta reader, but I also now . . . she started out as a beta reader. I now pay her to be my timeline editor. And I have a genetics person who does plants and people genetics. And she’s also my, one of my PR people. I have personal PR people as well as the wonderful people at Penguin. So, yes, I have two really regular beta readers that I use, and then this last time, I have two people who are . . . three, excuse me, three new people who are beta readers for mindset and weapons from so that a new character, I’ve never written in his brain before, so that he thinks properly when he’s faced with danger. My character, Eli Younger, is a former Ranger, active duty in the Middle East. And when he comes home, he’s injured. Now I’m writing a story where he has to face a bad guy, that he doesn’t have any of the weapons needed to fight. So, part of this new novella I’m working on is through his point of view. And I needed to make sure that the weapons he would choose, the number of shots fired at this creature, the way he would, his body mechanics would, work during a fight and the way his brain would work, because those are all parts of one whole. And so, I have three brand-new beta readers who were very helpful in this new novella.

Once you get the book submitted–and you mentioned the letter of devastation from the editor–what says what sorts of things do you usually find yourself having to do in the editorial pass?

Really, really good stuff. I have the best editor at Penguin ever. I’ve already told her if she ever retires, I’m quitting, and she laughs, and I go, “I might be serious here!”, but she catches things like plot holes like, “This makes no sense. You said this here, then you said this here forty pages later, and they have no connectivity. So you need to address this, and you need to bring this. You need to create a connectivity between these two events, and your character needs to work through this.” And she’ll say things like, “Your character sounds mean.” Or, “Your character sounds like you,” or, “Why would your character know this? This character does not have any backstory that gives him or her a knowledge base in this area. And you sound like an expert.” Because, you know, I did my research, but off the fly, a character wouldn’t have time to. So, it’s not just the nit-picky things, it’s the big, broad strokes of the novel. It usually starts out with, “This was so much fun. I always loved getting back into this. Here’s five single-spaced paragraphs of what’s wrong with it. And then here’s all the nit-picky things,” the next five pages, single-spaced.

And who is your wonderful editor?

My wonderful editor is Jessica Wade at Ace at Penguin Random House. And I cannot recommend her enough if you can get in with her. She’s fabulous.

Well, my editor is the only editor . . . well, I’ve worked with multiple editors . . . but the only one in my major publisher is Sheila Gilbert at DAW, just down the hall from Ace, actually, in the Penguin building.

Very good. Well, but they’re all working at home now, so . . . 

Yeah, yeah. She’s actually is in New Jersey.

Is she? 

Yeah. But what’s interesting about Sheila is that . . . because I talk to authors, and everybody gets these written letters and Sheila doesn’t give you a written letter. We have very long phone conversations, which is, you know, just different. But it’s the same thing, you know, “This character can’t do that, or never set that up,” or, you know, it’s the same sort of thing. And when I work with new writers, as I did as writer-in-residence, there’s occasionally, people are concerned about working with editors. They think they’re going to somehow damage their deathless prose or something. And I explain that editors actually make things better. That seems to be your experience.

Yes. I would not work without an editor. I just I wouldn’t do it. And when I say an editor, let me back up. In case someone is out there who doesn’t know about editors, there’s multiple kinds. There’s a developmental editor, which is what Jessica is, and there’s copy editors, and those are the people who do the timeline, nit-picky, but very important stuff like, you killed this character on page 12, and they’re back doing a fight scene over here. Or, you change this character’s gender midway through the scene, or you started out in a truck and now they’re in an airplane, that kind of thing. And then there’s the line editors who do the even more nit-picky things like fixing quotations and that sort of thing and making sure there’s no duplicated words. Jessica can do all of those, but her primary importance to my work is as a developmental editor. And she rips the plot to shreds, which is what I asked her to do when we first met.

Now, you’ve been writing a long time, have you been surprised by how people have embraced your words over all these years? Or pleased, at least?

I don’t know if happy or pleased fit exactly what I feel, I think embarrassed and humbled and sort of tongue-tied when people gush? I just . . . I don’t know what to say when people like what I’ve written, I’ve learned to say “thank you” with some sort of regularity in the appropriate–most of the time–in the appropriate spot. But I will admit, it’s difficult to believe that people like my work.

They seem to. Well, we’re towards the end here, and so now it’s time for the big philosophical questions, which is not that big. Well, maybe it’s a big question. I don’t know if it’s particularly philosophical. But the question is, why do you do this? Why do you write? And on a bigger scope, why do any of us write and then, being more specific, why this kind of stuff, this kind of science fiction and fantasy stuff?

Uh, well, I’ve written . . . let me answer the last one first. The last part first. I’ve written science fiction/fantasy because I got bored with the format required from thrillers and mystery. I know that sounds dreadful to all of my mystery fans, but they were always current-world driven, and that put limitations on.the writing methodology that I just got tired of. And I had always loved, back when I was even more strange than I am now, that strange young girl, that odd young girl who buried her nose in books, I had always liked other worlds and flying dragons and knights in shining armor and more importantly, women who could fight their own battles. So, I got tired of writing in the real world, which to me, mystery is, and I wanted to write other things, and that’s where I am now.

And it’s so much more fulfilling to me as a creator because it takes a lot more effort. When you’re writing mystery or even just . . . anything . . . that is real-world based you are kept in these constraints, and. They’re known, and they’re easy. When you create a new world, a new world system, you have to have the checks and balances in place before you start, and you have to know how they differ from reality and how they make your world harder to live in for your characters. And that’s something that a lot of real-world writers don’t realize. They actually will make fun of people who write fantasy and sci-fi, and you go, “Wait a minute, I have to do everything you’re doing, in a world with entirely different rules and many more pitfalls, so stop and think what you’re saying, you’re actually taking the easy way out. And I know that because I used to write that way.” And they tend to get very quiet.

And why, in general, tell stories of any sort?

Because I’m still that strange little girl with a beast living inside me. I need to write. I write for my mental health, I write because when I wake up in the morning, I want the day to go well, and I can make sure it does in my writing. I can bring it to a point of fabulous conclusion if I choose at the end of each day, where something great happens, or something horrible happens that I know is going to be solved tomorrow or the day after that. And there is a blessing in living that way that I don’t have when I don’t write. And I have thought many times over the years of giving up and when I would retire and if I would retire. And now I’m having so much fun writing again, now that I’m pantsing this new series, this new novella series, I don’t want to quit anymore. I’m back to, “Oh, this is fun. Yay!” And I’m looking forward to the new projects.

This podcast is called The Worldshapers, and we’ve talked about the worldbuilding side of that. But the other side of that is, do you hope that your fiction . . . I know, I don’t think very many stories have actually shaped the world, a few classics, maybe. But what do you hope that your readers . . . are they shaped in some way by your fiction? Even if it’s just be entertained.

I . . . yeah. I think what I get right now is, ‘I’m so glad I have your books to read. I just discovered them, and I’m hiding from the world in your books. And I’m so glad you have a female character who doesn’t sit on the train tracks and scream, ‘Help me, help me!'” Like Dudley Doolittle’s characters, female characters, always did. They’re very happy that my characters are take-charge women and take-charge fighters and go after the bad guys who are hurting the underdogs, and that makes them happy. When I was writing as Gwen, it was a different thematic thing, although my characters did take charge and kill their own snakes, as we say in the South. They lived in a world that was different, and they had more back-up. They had people they could depend on most of the time to help. So, it was different . . . it was a different world. And what people got from that was, “Thank you for addressing this issue in this wonderful story you told,” about polygamy or about some trigger element that this person needed to see in print at the time and it would help them through some problem that is ongoing in their past and now in their present. So there’s . . . it’s different things for different people, and I’m just happy people are reading my books, it makes me weep with . . . mm, I said that word, and I almost wanted to. It makes me weep with happiness, I guess, I’m going to go back to your word. It doesn’t feel real. But then, I write fiction! So, there you go.

And you have mentioned what you’re working on, but maybe just reiterate what you’re working on now.

I am working on novella number two in the Junkyard Cat series right now, it’s being rewritten to go back to the editor, hopefully soon. I have Spells for the Dead, which is Nell Ingram, and the series of Soulwood. It is number five in that series. It’s coming out in July.

I think I called it Souls of the Dead when I mentioned it.

Spells for the Dead and Soulwood, so . . . and I do that too, and I have to stop and think . . . that’s why I had to go look it up when you ask me what the title was, because I couldn’t remember. And then I have turned in True Dead, which is Jane Yellowrock fourteen, to the lovely and brutal and fabulous Jessica Wade. And so, I’m waiting for that rewrite letter, and I hope that letter of devastation stays at least another couple of weeks away and I’ll be all caught up. Yay!

And where can people find you online?

I am on Facebook. You can just hunt for Faith Hunter Author on Facebook. I have FaithHunter.net, where I have a website, I don’t do a whole lot on it. And then I have two fan pages, or three, on Facebook, which you can find if you look for Faith Hunter Discussion Group and Faith Hunter Spoiler Group, you can do a search for tha, and it should pull both of them up…all of them up.

Okay. That’s kind of the end of our time. So, thanks so much for being on. I really enjoyed the conversation.

Thank you for letting me ramble on. It was incoherent much of the time, but you’re very good at pulling me back on track. Thank you.

Thank you.

Episode 57: Edward Savio

An hour-long conversation with successful screenwriter and novelist Edward Savio, author of Alexander X, Book 1 in the Battle for Forever series, the audiobook version of which, narrated by Wil Wheaton, was a number-one overall bestseller on Audible.

Website
edwardsavio.com

Twitter
@EdwardSavio

Instagram
@EdwardSavio

Edward Savio’s Amazon page

The Introduction

Edward Savio grew up in the bucolic bedroom community of Berlin, Connecticut. After Howard University, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue screenwriting, where he became a ten-year overnight success, selling the first of a half-dozen scripts a decade after arriving in Hollywood.

Savio’s first long-form novel, Idiots in the Machine, was his anti-screenplay, giving him the freedom to explore and develop deeper characters, multiple narratives, and play with language. He wrote Idiots with the certain belief that no one could make it into a movie, not even him, and then Sony Pictures optioned Idiots for the Academy Award-winning producers of Forrest Gump for seven figures.

After three more six-figure deals with Sony and Disney, Savio moved to San Francisco to start a family. And after years of commuting between homes in SF and LA, he chose to shift the focus of his writing towards novels so he could spend more time with his children. He lives and writes in the home where Danielle Steel wrote her first two breakout novels.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Edward, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Hey, how are you? Good to have this time with you today.

I like your first name. You’re the first Edward. I’ve done it on the podcast.

So are you…see, I’m an Edward. Are you an Ed or an Edward?

I write under Edward. That’s my byline. But people that know me call me Ed. Unless they knew me in high school. Then I’m Eddie. So it’s one easy way to tell when somebody knew me, is by what they call me.

See, I used to be Ed in high school, but then when I got to college, people, you know, across the campus would be yelling, “Ehh!”, like, any noise, and I just kept turning around. So finally, I was like, “Okay, can we just be Edward?” And it just worked out that way. But yeah, I mean, I know. And of course, my mother, when she’s upset with me, would call me Eddie. So I have those three personalities as well.

Yeah, I was always Eddie right up until I started working for a newspaper. And then I decided my byline as Eddie Willett…I was only twenty when I graduated from university and started working as a newspaper reporter, and I decided I needed to seem older than I was. So I went from Eddie to Edward at that point. And it’s been my proper byline ever since.

Smart.

So, we’re gonna talk about your series, which started with Alexander X, but before we get to that–and, of course, the real focus of this podcast is on your creative process. We’ll use that as an example of your creative process–but before we do that, there’s a…it’s kind of a cliché on The Worldshapers, and someday I’m going to put reverb on it…I’m going to take you back into the mists of time and find out how you got started at all this. I know you grew up in Connecticut. Were you a big reader? When did you get interested in words?

You know, it’s funny. I am a student of words. I love words. I didn’t start out that way. You know, I think, like, how did I get interested in writing or writing sci-fi or writing worldbuilding? Like, there are so many different questions there. Which one do you want to start with?

Which came first?

Writing. You know, I think with writing, I have to say that I was a…most writers start out as readers. Right? I was not a reader first. I really wanted to become a director when I was a kid. I loved movies.

All you really wanted to do was direct.

All I really wanted to do was direct. And I knew that from the time I was in seventh grade. And I knew that the two most common ways to become a director were through the visual side, cinematography, cameraperson. And the other was writing. Actors, of course, have become directors, but most directors come from either cinematography or writing. And since I didn’t have a camera and I couldn’t develop my own film, you know? I wrote–a lot. I wrote dialogue-heavy plays and then screenplays, and I wrote a musical in order to graduate high school, because in between my sophomore and junior year in high school, I went to France and French girls just kind of got in my head and I needed one more credit to graduate, and so I had to do an independent study at the end of, or during, my senior year, when everyone else was loafing. And a lot of it was comedy and action, but when I wrote prose, it was always short stories, and almost exclusively science fiction. The screenplays I wrote, they might have a magic element to them, but almost all of them were mainstream comedies and actions.

So, after selling screenplays to the studios and making a good living and writing mainstream novels, I wanted to go back to my roots, and I think writing sci-fi and building a world is a way to do that. And, you know, there are so many ways into science fiction. As a kid, I–because I was this visual person because I wanted to do movies. You know, I loved watching Lost in Space before school or, you know, of course, the Star Trek reruns. That’s how I got into sci-fi. And I didn’t begin reading the classic science fiction until I was in my 20s. And I have this inverted life, right? Like I said, most writers, a lot of writers are big readers.

I think you’re the first one I’ve talked who said they didn’t start as a reader.

So, yeah, I mean, most people do that. And I was always a big writer. I wrote my way out of everything, feelings, and all of that. And so, I made a lot of mistakes that probably would have been fixed if I had read more. But I made my own mistakes. But that’s how I got into the idea of writing and specifically sci-fi.

When you were writing whatever you were writing as a kid, were you sharing it with other people and letting them see what you were doing and getting feedback that way?

Yes. So, you know, I wrote a lot. I wrote poetry. I would read it. It would be, you know, like I would read it in front of a class or do it in front of an assembly. I did stand-up comedy in front of assemblies when I was a kid. I did this musical that needed to be performed in order for me to, you know, get the grade. So, yeah, I was not shy about showing my work, but it was funny, when I went and talked to my English teachers, my English teachers looked at my work and went, “You’re writing in present tense all the time. And you should be writing…this sounds like a script.” And I was like, “Yeah.” So, even my prose, in the beginning, was in present tense, which helped me a lot. You know, I go through and use a lot of different tenses, even in the same book, because, you know, with Alexander X, there’s the past, but sometimes in the past, I’ll use the present tense. But I use tense to either make the action more visceral or to show a difference between when someone is talking and when someone is talking about the past, even if it’s reversing the present tense versus the past tense. But yeah, I didn’t have a problem with showing my work to other people. And I know that’s a big problem for a lot of writers. They just never show anyone that first work. And I’m so glad I did it early on because, you know, I’m proud of everything I’ve written. But the stuff I’ve written when I was younger, it’s still pretty good, but it wouldn’t have gotten better if I didn’t have some feedback.

And that’s why I always ask. Because it does vary from writer to writer. But…I was someone who wrote my first short story when I was 11, and it was called “Kastra Glass: Hypership Test Pilot,” so you could see where my mind was right away.

Exactly.

But I was always sharing it. And it was…if I hadn’t shared that story with a teacher who gave me some critiquing on it, I might have not had that little spark that made go, “I want to keep doing this because readers actually enjoy what I’m doing for them.”

Yeah, I mean, I always made people laugh in school, you know, or I was the person that, whenever we had a big assembly, I would be, like, the M.C. or the person that would gather…you know, would be up at the mike. I was not shy about that.

You know, you mentioned something about the musical. Did you perform in that? Did you do some acting as well?

I did. I’m an average-to-poor actor, you know. I was just watching Hamilton this weekend…

So were we!

…and, you know, I’d seen the play earlier this year in person in San Francisco, and it was amazing. And I think they did a great job in what they showed in the film. But it was interesting because, you know, as much as it is…I wanted to see Lin-Manuel do this because he is amazing at it, but he’s the writer and the creator. And in many ways, most of those other people are better, quote-unquote, actors than he is better singers than he is. He brought something no one else could bring to that part. But that’s how I would feel if I was doing something. I don’t even know if I’d be that good at all, but I’m saying that when I did my own stuff, when I was acting in my own stuff, I was the weakest link of it. But the writing is what gets you. And then also, understanding playing things is important.

One of the things that people have talked to me about is, in the Alexander X series, Wil Wheaton is the narrator. And people have said, “You know, is it weird when he does something different?” I said, “Well, a lot of novelists get weird about when someone makes a choice about their words. That’s all I started out with. I was never going to be the one that was in your head. When I wrote a screenplay, it was never going to be me telling you this story. It was going to be someone else. It was through someone else’s filter.” So, for me, it was actually a lot easier. I think it’s a lot harder for some writers to make that jump from book to audiobook. When they hear it, they go, “Oh, God, I didn’t mean that.” And it’s like, “Well, yeah, you didn’t, but a performance was built and was born out of your words.”

Well, I’m a stage actor, and I’ve talked to other authors who have some sort of theatrical experience. And I do find that it gives people a different idea on their regular writing. One thing that I often say is that, you know, you’re talking about, “Does it sound weird when somebody makes a different choice with the words than you did?” But that’s exactly what happens in every reader’s head. You don’t know how they’re hearing those words in their head. They’re essentially acting them out in their head the way that they would interpret them if they were an actor on stage. So really, everything that we write is being interpreted differently than we perhaps have it in our heads as soon as it crosses over into somebody else’s head.

I agree. I mean, I remember driving home from this girl’s house at like 2:00 in the morning. I was, like, seventeen years old or something. And I remember we had just, like, been, we were making out, it was like this my whole mind is like, “Oh, my God, this is amazing.” And I’m driving home, and it’s late, and this…I don’t know who it was, it was a late-night deejay or something…and he gets on, and he says this sentence and I will never forget it. And it’s absolutely influenced my writing ever since. And he said, “I can say the words ‘I never said he stole my coat.’ And if I inflect each word differently, it changes the meaning. I never said he stole my coat. I never said he stole my coat. I never said he stole my coat. I never said he stole my coat. I never said he stole my coat. I never said he stole my coat. I never said he stole my coat.”

I’m going to remember that now.

Yeah. Each one of those means something different. And I will never forget that I’m gonna write this sentence and someone can read it, as many different words as are in there, they can put an inflection on there differently. And so, in writing, you know, I do use italics at points where I really feel like something is necessary and has to be there. I let the reader have their own mind for a lot of it. But I learned because of writing screenplays that I needed to be very specific in how I wanted something to be said. An actor and a director are gonna do what they’re going to do. But at least you have to give them your intent, so they can go, “I don’t want to do that.” Or, “Oh, I get what you’re saying here and I’m going to bring something different to it.” But you at least have to give them the intent. And it’s a wonderful thing.

One of the things that I find most interesting about writing is when you get criticism. People, you know, people tend to be only either lovers or haters when they write a critique. There aren’t a lot of “meh” in-between critiques. And what’s funny is when someone is negative, when someone doesn’t like something, it is usually not liking the very thing that either I as the author or the majority of people who love the piece enjoy. It, you know, someone’s like, “Oh, you write too much about history,” or “You do this or X or that.” And it’s like, and then other people are like, “I love when you go into the deep dives into history.” And so, you know, he can’t make everyone happy. But, you know, you’re at least trying to find your audience so that…it’s interesting, like, the first book, Alexander X, has a very good rating. But the second book has a much better rating. Now, is it because I wrote so much better? I think it is a better…I mean, I’ve developed the story, it grows…but I think it’s because I’m starting to find the audience and the people that aren’t going to like that first book aren’t going to go to the second book.

I think it’s Robert J. Sawyer, whom I interviewed, that said that you’re not trying to be…it’s impossible to be the favourite author of everybody, but you want to be the favourite author of a nice, solid chunk of people, is how most people find success. It’s not by being the most popular author of everybody, because you can’t please everybody.

No, you can’t. You really can’t. And you can’t even try. And, you know, you can’t even try. It’s just something that that doesn’t work. So, you know, I think one of the most interesting things about building a world, and that’s what you love to talk to people about, and I think in your own work, you love to build worlds, is that, you know, we get to create something. I’m not a believer in simplistic worldbuilding because, you know, when you have everyone, you know…there’s movies, television, there’s books, where you have a conceit, and you break people into five different groups, or you have certain different factions and those factions are very, very cut and dried. Well, if it’s a metaphor, I get it. But in the world, most things would never happen like that. But it is interesting to be able to create a world that is both familiar and shines a light on who we are, yet brings us into something completely different. Alexander X is very realistic science fiction, and so the worldbuilding is about the people themselves. I’m coming out with something, it’ll probably be next year, called Flux Capacity, and it is a very different concept, very much where I can go and play in this playground.

You spoke about, you know, Idiots in the Machine being the anti-screenplay, my first novel. I didn’t start writing sci-fi in terms of long-form until my kids were a little bit older, and I wanted to write something that they might be interested in. And that’s how, you know, I came about to write Alexander X. But with Idiots in the Machine, you know, I had this idea that I was going to just do the opposite of a screenplay. I was going to…I was tired of, you know, before I sold my first screenplay to a studio, I had written fifteen, maybe eighteen screenplays? I had made money, a little bit of money, from about the eighth or ninth? I was a starving writer living at about eight to ten thousand dollars a year, you know, living with roommates, living my life, not working other than writing. And then I started to write this novel, and nobody cared at all. No one gave me any money. And so, I had to start working. And so, I worked at this talent agency, and I got to see how the product was handled. And I learned a lot of things about the business. Those people never helped me at all. But I did meet someone who was an assistant, who became my agent, who helped change my life. She introduced me to the woman who became my wife and the mother of my children, and also, I learned about lit agents, and she was a talent agent, and I worked with her and developed how we could talk to people about the scripts. But, building a world is something that starts…it starts with a kernel of an idea.

Well, just before you get there, because that’s the main focus of what we’re gonna get you in a minute, I did just want to back you up to the university level. Did you study writing formally at some point?

So, again, I was very much a film person, you know, and I went for screenwriting and for film making. And I ended up just writing and writing and writing and writing and writing while I was doing that and it became the thing that I realized…again, learning how to get behind the camera was okay, but if I was going to do anything I had to be writing, I couldn’t be…it couldn’t be someone else’s…I couldn’t take someone else’s vision. I had to take my own vision if I wanted to be out there. That was the risk I took. And so, there were plenty of people that made more money in the beginning because they went and worked in the industry and moved their way up through things. But what I did was I took a gamble and, you know, I paid a lot of…you know, cheap food when I was in my twenties, but I put…I invested in what I felt was my best chance, which was to create my own things.

So now we’ll go back to the kernel idea. Because I want to go through your creative process. And the very first thing is, of course, that kernel of an idea. So, where do those kernels come from for you and specifically for the Alexander X books?

So, Battle for Forever

Oh, one more thing before we say that. We should have a synopsis, so people know what we’re talking about who haven’t read the book. 

So, yeah. So, okay. So, Alexander X. So, here’s the kernel, the start, right? So, the idea is…I had this idea as a screenplay idea, that there was this guy who was very good at everything. Mid-thirties. And what we find out is he’s a couple of hundred years old. And so he’s able to be really good at everything he does. And I put that idea away in a drawer. And then later on, when I was thinking about writing for my kids, I wrote this book called, you know, it was called The Stuperheroes vs. Dr. Earwax. And I did the illustrations that were just horrible, but they loved it. And my kids read up. They read above their weight class. And so, I started thinking about teenagers and young adults. And what if this character wasn’t 200 years old? What if he was a hundred times that, or a hundred times as old as a normal person? And what if it wasn’t one character, but maybe a few hundred? And they’ve been kings and queens and generals and some of the most famous people in history. But they’re not immortal, right? They step in front of a train. They die. Except, they have this genetic defect–what we now know is a genetic defect–that kills most people born with it. But the ones who survive have lived many lives, pretended to die, disappeared, started again as someone else. But for the last hundred years or so, they’ve been mostly living in the shadows because fingerprints, surveillance, DNA, biometrics, make it too risky. If they become great or even well-known, people are going to figure it out, and even if they pretend to age and die, their secret is going to be revealed the next time they show up, the next time they want to be great again. And they want to be great again. And the older ones, they’ve never gone this long without that kind of power and adulation. So, what would they do?

Mm-hmm.

So, that’s the world. That’s before we even start the idea. That’s the backdrop for meeting our hero, Alexander X, who is a junior at a small high school in the Berkshires. And he’s known as Alexander Grant at the moment. And he’s never been famous or great, but he’s lived a lot, and he’s seen a lot, fifteen hundred years of it. But his mind, his body, and his emotions are that of a fifteen-to-seventeen-year-old. With all the good and bad that comes with that, right? So, everything’s going along fine and maybe a little boring, but fine, until someone tries to kidnap him and use him to get to his father, who is one of the most powerful of their kind. So that’s the jumping-off point. And Alexander is basically trying to figure out what the hell is going on. And so, that’s both the synopsis and the kernel of where the idea came from.

Spreading it out a little wider, how do how do story ideas typically come to you? Not just this one, but of all the things that you’ve written?

You know, I mean, so for me, you know, I have a lot of different ways. I have three different ways of putting information down. And I have hundreds of snippets of stories and thoughts and ideas. Things have come in many different ways. You know, one of my original…originally, screenplays, sometimes we would take an idea that was a classic. And so, the first thing sold to Disney was Swiss Family Rubinstein, which was, you know, it’s Swiss Family Robinson, but written for if Bette Midler and her family are rich in New York and they get lost on an island because of all of this reason, what would that be? So, it’s like taking a kernel of something old and making it new again.

Or, it’s a snippet of something. I read–for Idiots in the Machine. I read the front or the back cover and saw the cover, the book cover’ and read the first few paragraphs of a book called The Confederacy of Dunces. It was just a brilliant book that won the Pulitzer Prize. And I thought it was gonna be a certain book. It ended up being this other book. But a couple of years later, I was thinking about my first thoughts, about the ideas I’d put down when I first picked up that book in the bookstore before I ever read it. I had driven home thinking about what this book was gonna be. And I wrote that book. I wrote the book that I was thinking about, you know? So there’s…so, I am still…I am…like, about half of what I write is something I thought of 15 years ago, and the other half is something…like Flux Capacity is a new idea. Alexander X, I had that idea ten years before I wrote the book. So, they come from different places. And that’s why you just have to…honestly, the greatest advice I can ever give to anybody is–and I’m only about seventy percent of the way there–is have the best, most searchable database of ideas that you can so that you can go find them and look things up when you need them.

Once you have the idea, I’m looking at the novels here, what does your planning process look like? Do you do a detailed outline? Or do you just start writing?

So, when I was writing screenplays, I was, oh my God, I was completely so very anal. I’m not an anal person at all. But in writing, I have to pretend to be one. And I would go through and use index cards and later use programs that mimicked index cards and write out everything, you know, everything, including indirect dialogue, including the major type of scenes. And then, by the time I went to go write the screenplay, I was going boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, and I’m there. When I wrote Idiots in the Machine, again, because it was this anti-screenplay, I did exactly the opposite. I had an idea–that, because, it was this thought in my head, through this idea that I had with the book–and I might have had an ending in mind. I had this vision, this one shot. It’s one image. Like I was filming a movie. I had one image. And then from everything else, I went and just went off. And so it’s all of these…imagine you take your fingers, your ten fingers, and they’re all spread out, and they’re just completely separate, and then all of a sudden they start interlocking like a zipper till the end. And that’s how it went and how it came together like that. My anal side kind of came in about halfway through the process, but it started out freeform.

Now, my writing process is a little bit more of both. I have three different ways that I write. I have tablets and digitized paper where I make some longhand notes. Obviously, I do most of my writing on a computer, typing. But I also make notes using voice-recognition software. I have a large space where I work, with screens on either side of this room, and I have a headset like those that the pop stars or the performers in Hamilton use. And I will walk around and act out action scenes. So, I may peek my head around the corner, pretending that I have a gun in my hand or I might block out how I’m going to do a fight scene. Now, I have large windows in my place, and it may be possible for my neighbours to see me from some angles and I can only imagine what they think of me when I’m doing this. I must look like a complete crazy person because I am literally fighting with myself and acting all of this out. And so, I put those things down on…you know, the biggest problem as a writer, my most time-consuming thing is to then reorganize those stream of consciousness ideas, which are well-formed in their little packets, I can write a whole scene or a section of a scene, but it’s reorganizing them in a coherent way to make them into a book because that…you know, they’re just ideas until you put them together.

Once you start doing that, do you work sequentially, then?

I tend to work sequentially, mostly. I will write big scenes. I may write a rough draft of an ending, you know, somewhere around halfway through the process. I already know something of the ending, usually. As a screenwriter, I’ve always started with two things. I know the first shot. I know what’s going to, what I’m gonna see, and so I know the first words or the first image in a book, and I’m going to know the last image I want people to know. And…but I tend to work sequentially. I tend to write and rewrite a lot of the first part of a book, you know, getting through till I’m comfortable, at least with usually about a third of it, about maybe 40 percent. And then I start moving onward.

And one of the reasons why I really develop the beginning is because spending time there at the beginning really makes the last part go a little bit faster, where I have a voice, I have a style, I have a thing that I know what I’m doing here, and I can go through and move further. I tend to do a lot of rewriting. Rewriting is, you know, I think…I mean, I think many people talk about this, right? But rewriting is the most important thing. And I do this one process where I write on a piece of paper or a digital version of it–usually, I use a PDF and an iPod–and it’s non-destructive editing, and I can make all the changes that I want, put funny lines in or ideas that I have, and nothing has changed in the original document. Because going into a computer is destructive editing, and a lot of writers have…they clench up, they get constipated, they literally clench up, and they can’t move forward because they’re like, “Ugh, I don’t know where I’m going.” But when you do it in a non-destructive way, you can do anything you want. And then later on, when you come back and put it into the computer and put it together, “Yeah, I guess it’s not that great of an idea,” or, “That other idea that I had later is completely contrary to this idea.” So, let me work those two out before I’ve done all this work.

I think you’re the first one who has told me of a process quite like that. People revise as they go, but most of us tend to just do it on the computer and not have a separate, non-destructive way to make those suggestions to ourselves and then come back to it.

It’s really the most freeing thing. It really is. I mean, it is the most freeing thing. And when I figured out how to do this–because I used to do it on paper and have these thick, just reams of things that I would always lose or, like, I couldn’t find them when I needed them. And on a PDF, I can at least search for the words near where I’m looking for or something, and I can just put it right there, and it’s on my iPad and then, “Oh, it’s on my computer right next to my what I’m working on.” It is the most freeing thing I’ve ever found.

I know it’s happened to me once or twice where I have rewritten something and then think, “You know, the original maybe was better,” but I don’t have the original anymore.

Right.

So, yeah, I can certainly see to see the benefit of that. Do you…it sounds like, with the process you’re working, I’ll bet you work almost entirely in your dedicated writing space, and you’re not somebody that goes out and works in a coffee shop or something like that.

I don’t work in a coffee shop, but I don’t work necessarily in a dedicated space. I actually have a few spaces where I write. So, I’m…right now, I’m in the booth where I do audio work. So, this is a creative space. But in terms of writing, I have three other creative spaces for the actual writing. I have a stand-up desk where I do a lot of this walking back and forth with this monitor on the other side of the room. I will go out on my balcony, and I will take my computer out and write looking out at the bay. You know, this house, this place has a lot of Chi, writing Chi, you know, Danielle Steele wrote two of her books here, so it really does have a good feel. And I use her bookcase. She built this one bookcase in here, this big, giant bookcase, which is my quote, hallway library. But I also can go and walk and talk, and I may go out and ride or walk and make notes to myself out in different places, because sometimes that is the most amazing…like, you get stimulated by whatever you’re seeing.

You know, I was, I got to go to Rome last October and some of the scenes in the third book in the Battle for Forever series, take place in Rome. And I already had an idea of what I was going to do. I already knew–I didn’t know if I was gonna go there. I was going there for… A friend was having a birthday party and I got invited, and it was this eye-opening experience. I’d never…my family is five generations on one side and four generations on the other of Italians. But we’re not, like…because we’ve so been here so long, we’re not like the new Italians coming over. So, you know, we have this, a little bit of our culture, but I had never gone to Italy. And I’ve been to Paris, I’ve been to Europe, I had all of these things, and I put them in my writing. But when I went to Rome, I was like, man, I could not have imagined what I’m looking at. The pictures don’t do it justice. The feelings that I’m feeling don’t do it justice. And I just started to walk around and mostly…like, the first couple days I just experienced. I didn’t try to intrude on my experience. But there were moments, you know, where I would pull out my phone and make notes to myself, audio notes, or think about what I was doing or where I would put this, and almost kind of do a live version of that thing I do in my house where I’m blocking out something. I might be in a place and go, “How would I run up these stairs if I was going to do something illegal here? How am I gonna get to that roof if I’m gonna use that great piece of architecture, you know?”

And so,. I think it’s important…a lot of writers create…you know, when I was younger, I had a small little room, nine by ten, and I used to sit in it, and I loved writing like that. And a lot of people love that little cozy writing space. But I also think it’s important for writers to get out and create in an open space. Take your computer, take your iPod, take your…whatever you’re doing, and go completely off-grid or in the middle of a city and start writing something. And maybe later on, it is going to turn out to be nothing, but it might be the kernel that you need for a scene or a whole story.

Yeah, I think the most productive I ever was, was getting out of my office and going to the Banff Centre for a week, for a self-directed residency, and I wrote 50,000 words in a week. You had this magnificent mountain scenery all around you. And it…although the odd thing was, the book I was writing was set on the prairies, but it was still…it was, you know, just the change of scenery alone stimulates, I think. So, once you get the first draft…well, first of all, are you a fast writer, would you say, or how does this process work?

I’m a bit…I’m about…I would say that I’m a fast writer, with a ponderous amount of pondering. So, when I’m writing, writing, I can do a lot of work, but when I’m thinking, it’s a long time, and when I’m editing, I can go through and agonize over a sentence or, you know, a group of phrasings here and there. So, it’s a little bit of a mix. I would say that overall, I’m not a fast writer. I’m not a slow writer. But I’m very fast and prolific at certain times.

When you get to the end, with all the revision that you do as you go along, is there then still a complete revision process for you where you go back to the beginning and work your way through? What does that look like?

I am, you know. Yeah. I mean, I am literally just…I am constantly rewriting. You know, I have…it’s very funny. So, I wrote the Idiots in the Machine years ago. And finally, you know, now that sort of had this second boost through Alexander X and everything…you know, I had a successful career as a screenwriter, and then, you know, I had this book that did something and then, you know, I raised kids and didn’t do much because I wanted to raise my kids, and I changed my life. I would fly back and forth, but it became too much if I wanted to be…and have a life. And so, it was a difficult choice, but I didn’t…you know, I kind of got rid of my apartment in Los Angeles, even though I kept it for years, and I just started writing.

But so, with that said, this book came back into the realm after Alexander X hit number one on Audible, and the opportunity to do an audiobook version of Idiots in the Machine became real, and I could get the type of people that I wanted to get. I rewrote some of it. I rewrote some of it because I looked back at it as I was going through and I was like, well, you know, I mean, most of it was just things that didn’t play well to me or just didn’t, you know, didn’t seem to age well? A joke here and there where you’re just like, “Okay, that doesn’t work.” And I’m always reminded of this thing that Tennessee Williams said, you know, someone was interviewing him, he was in his 80s, and they came into his office, and he had Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on his desk with pencilled notes on it. And they’re like, “What are you doing?” He’s like, “It’s not finished yet.” It’s been a movie. It’s been a play on Broadway. No one’s going to redo his thing. But to him, it wasn’t finished yet.

So, yeah, I go through, and I rewrite a lot and, you know, I use that, like I say, that non-destructive editing. I go in and I write. I have people read and give me some notes. I don’t very much listen to notes directly. And I learned this in screenwriting where I almost got fired off of a job because I actually listened to the studio executives. I came back with this version based on every single one of their notes. I had gone down, point by point by point, and done everything they wanted, and they’re like, “This is horrible.” And I’m like, “This is all, these are all your ideas.” I mean, that’s what I wanted to say. So, two things happened after that. From then on, I walked into meetings and I would put a recording device in the middle of our meeting, and the red light would stare at them, and they became seventy-five-percent smarter, knowing that their voices and their ideas would be saved for all eternity. And the second thing I learned was, don’t do what they say, do what they mean. And if someone or a few someones tell you something’s wrong, their answer is not right. But they do, they are coming up against a speed bump or a pothole in your story. And you need to figure out how to fix that.

How do you find the people who do this reading for you? Are they just friends, or…?

It could be. Yeah. I mean, so, I have a group of maybe about a couple of hundred people who have grown to love this so much that they’ve kind of, you know, the first two books, I’m giving them pieces of things. In general, you know, my kids were really important in reading this. They are really tough critics. They do not pull any punches. I have a few adult friends who have read things. My manager or agent will look at stuff, you know, but it’s mostly been people that are that I know or that love something already.

You know, here’s the thing. It’s always tough because when you give something to people that are fans of your work, they tend to, you know, either they’re really helpful, but they want to love it, and they also feel like, well, you know, you’re the writer, and they’re going to say nice things to you. So, I usually have people that I say to them, “Hey, I know it’s really good. You don’t need to tell me it’s really good. You need to tell me what you have a problem with. Again, I may not listen to anything you say, and I’m probably not going to listen to any of the ideas that you have. But I’m going to listen to what you mean and why you’re saying that. And I may ask you some questions about that. But don’t be afraid to be critical.”

Now, it’s published by Babelfish Press...

Yes.

Do you bring in editors or an editor that works on it at some point?

You know, so yeah, I mean, we did this…Babelfish is a very small thing that I started with a couple of writers and literally, the people…we are now getting interest from bigger publishers, which is one of the reasons why I’m sorry, readers, that things are taking a little bit longer because the process is a bit…is a bit more lengthy, but we’re working through that. So, you know, I’ve had editors work with me, but really, the most important thing is that you have people that know how to write. You have people that know how to read. And they tell you what’s wrong. And, you know, my job is to try to figure out a way to fix it. And one of the things…if I’ve gotten any good compliments in my life, there’s one thing I’ve heard, over and over, which is, “I will take your criticism. I will not get mad at you, I will not do that, and I will try to find a solution that not only makes, you know, not only answers your problem but also tries to take it to the next level because you’re challenging me to do something better. And if I’m going to waste…not waste, but if I’m gonna take time to address something better, I better well address it, you know, as best I can.

Now, we mentioned the audiobook, obviously, with Wil Wheaton. How did that come about? That’s a pretty top of the line, narrator you got there?

Yeah, so. So, well, a couple of things. You’ve interviewed John Scalzi, and I’m a big fan of Scalzi’s, and I’m also a fan of Ernie Clines’s Ready Player One. And so…you know, when I was writing this, I didn’t have a voice in my head. I had my own voice. But I was…I had been reading…so my kids, again, read above their weight class and to keep ahead of them when they were younger, I would read and also listen to audiobooks because I’m out walking around or doing something or working out, and I would listen, because my kids could just read much faster than I could. And they had more time to deal with that. And so, I started listening…one of my sons got Ready  Player One as a gift. The book. And I got the audiobook and the book, and I was reading the book, and I also was listening to the audiobook, and I was like, “Wil Wheaton. I like Wil Wheaton. This is great.”

And then, I also had read John Scalzi’s earlier work, Old Man’s War, which was not done by Wil Wheaton. But then I started getting into his later work, and I was again, I’m an adult, I don’t have as much time to read, I listened to some of them, and a lot of his later work, most of it now, is done by Will. And so, when we were sitting down to come up with narrators, I had a first, a second, and a third choice. And every single one of them was Wil. And I just…I just fought for the ability to do this. And luckily, the people…Wil goes through and will read what he’s…obviously takes a look at what he’s going to look at, and he has, he’s very picky and only chooses certain things. But before you can even get to Wil, you have to get through sort of a gauntlet of a few people that know what he likes and know his wheelhouse. And Wil started out as…I mean, you know, this child actor…

We just watched Stand By Me with my daughter not too long ago.

Wil Wheaton

It’s great. Right? Amazing. And he’s this child actor who then grew up. And so, in some ways, he’s really perfect for this because this is a teenager, this character, who is really an old soul. Right? So, a lot of people have, you know, until he went on to other things, you know, his voice work and Big Bang Theory appearances and things like that, they always thought of him as this teenager. And he was kind of locked into that and battled with that personally, about how that affected him in his business. And if you read his blog or his writings, he talks about that, and he’s come to terms with it. And it was so…and he brings that to every sentence in this book. He brings that lifetime struggle that he dealt with to this struggle that this lead character deals with. You know, he is a fifteen-to-seventeen-year-old biologically. He has all of the hormones, the brain, the brain development, everything of that. But he’s lived so long, and he’s got so much information, but he doesn’t have the maturity. And he struggles with what that means and how other people see him because he’s smarter, knows a lot more than someone who is going to look at him and go, “Oh, you’re just a teenager.” So, it was a really great thing. And when I heard him, when I heard the first version, I was blown away. And what’s funny is, I’ve done voice work, and I recorded a new book that’s coming out of mine that’s an adult, you know, mainstream fiction. And it’s called Velvet Sledgehammer and very personal, so I really had to be the one that did it. And the amount of time and effort and strength and, you know, exhaustion that you feel working to get this done. You know, he did a 10-hour, 45-minute recording in, I don’t know, you know, four days or something. Five, four, you know, four and a half days. And it’s insane how someone could do that.

Yeah, I’ve done some myself. And it is…it’s the time commitment and everything else that goes into it. It was way more work than I anticipated when I thought, “I should do some audiobook recording.”

Yeah. Everyone’s like, “Hey, how hard can it be.” Yeah. And you know, it really…and what I love also, Wil opened up a whole different audience for me. And also, he…you know, everybody’s like, “Do you think about what he’s going to say, how he’s gonna sound?” And I’m like, “I don’t think about how he’s gonna sound.” But I was really thankful that…before I ever did this, I always had a problem with the he-said-she-said nightmare that happens in books, you know, where…when we read he said, and she said, we don’t see them.

Yeah. They’re pretty much transparent.

They’re transparent. They’re like names on a script, you know, the character names, or in a play. We don’t read them, we just know who’s speaking. But when you hear them, they become very annoying. And so, I was glad that I had figured out a lot of ways to avoid a lot of that repetition before, because if…because, I just felt that way about even reading them. And I was grateful when he read, and it didn’t sound like some books.

Well, we’re getting close to the end of our time. So I have to ask you–this is where I need more reverb again, the big philosophical questions, which are basically why? Why? Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write? And specifically, why write science fiction? You’ve sort of talked about this earlier on, but now you get to sum it all up.

So, yeah, the big question. Why do we write? Why do I write? Why does anyone write? For me, the answer’s pretty simple. I have to write. There’s no choice for me. You know, like, it’s like asking like, whether I want to breathe or not. You know, we have to eat well, we have to exercise our bodies, but we also have to exercise our minds and whatever that means, right? Not everybody can do this or wants to do this, but human beings are human beings because we think. One of the things I talk about in the Battle for Forever series, one of the themes, is that you can do anything you want. You can become great at anything if you focus on it. Now, we don’t have hundreds of years to learn how to play the piano or study martial arts, but it’s a metaphor. And writing for me is something that I’m constantly striving to be better at. And in some ways, it’s this interesting balance of the, almost the opposite of what our English teachers taught us in high school, because as kids, we write very simple ideas, very simple sentence structures. And in school, we start to learn how to complicate our ideas, you know, with flowery language and big dictionary words. Right? And storytelling needs words. But we have to find the balance between how we tell a story and how we phrase it. You know, I’m a firm believer in the em dash and long, complicated sentences.

Me, too.

And I feel that in creative writing, the semicolon is like an intersection where everyone has a yield sign, and no one knows what to do with it. Right? In fiction, I think we should get rid of semicolons. But, you know, there are also these moments when you need to just write like you’re Hemingway, where it’s he did this, dun-dun-dun dun-dun-dun dun-dun. Right? It’s changing the different cadences. So, I have to write, right? It’s what keeps me sane.

You know, when I was writing comedy more exclusively, I didn’t think I was crazy enough to be a comedy writer. And in my thirties, I found out I was crazy enough. But I also found out that writing is like a daily meditation and therapy. And I think most writers, whether they are famous, not yet famous, or maybe never will be famous, that’s why they write, because they have to write. And I tell people I work with, people who have either interned with me or, you know, come to me for advice, that if I say anything to you, any criticism that I give you, because I’m going to give you tough, tough criticism, if any of it can stop you from writing, discourage you from writing, then you probably aren’t in the right business. Because there is nothing anyone can say to me about writing, no criticism, no negative comment, nothing that would stop me from what I’m doing. You know, because I have to do it. You know, and I just have to say one last thing about this, which is, I’m so grateful that others want to hear or read what I have written, what I have to say. It gives me pleasure, and it drives me farther, and it makes me try harder. But it is only the turbocharging. It’s the nitrous oxide booster, right? It makes it easier. It makes it faster. But it’s not the main fuel.

Yes, because most of us wrote an awful lot before anybody read any of it. And yet we still did it.

I would write if no one saw it.

Yeah, me, too. So what are you working on now? Obviously, there’s the next book in the…Battle for Forever, I guess, is the name of the entire series.

Yeah, Battle for Forever is interesting because there’s going to be four books and I’m writing the third, and the last book is going to be called Battle for Forever, which will really screw everybody up when they come to the series and they sit down and try to read the first book with the title of the series and they go, “Wait, hold on. This is…I’m in the middle of something here.”

So, I’m writing League of Auld right now, I’m about 90,000 words into what will be 110,000 words, but I’ll probably write another thirty or forty thousand before I start cutting back down. I’ve already…you know, I’ve probably already written about a hundred, a hundred and twenty thousand, and gotten down to my ninety, so… And I’m working on Flux Capacity, which is this cool, fun story that I’m working on as well. And I have this very inappropriate, totally not safe for work Velvet Sledgehammer story that is about basically the coming…a person who is reaching adulthood…well, their mid-30s, real adulthood…and is starting to face the fact that children are coming. And in the middle of creating what turns out to be the World Trade Organization, because he’s the trade representative for the United States, and it takes place in 1993, that he…his girlfriend decides that they should get married and have children, and he thinks he’s the last person in the world that should have kids. And so it’s this coming-of-age story for an adult and how we have to deal with all of the things in our past and our present and find those things in us to pass them on to the next generation and screw them up just right.

And do you have any dates for when these things will be appearing?

So, most of the things are in a little bit of a nebulous space because of dealing with the larger publishers. And…like, Velvet Sledgehammer is ready to go. And if anybody contacts me and they want to read an advance copy or they want to give me some feedback on both the audiobook and the book themselves, they can look at that. But they want to hold it back because it’s so different than my sci-fi stuff that they don’t know where to put it yet. But League of Auld by the end of 2020. And I will take a break and not finish the fourth book for maybe a year, year and a half. And in the meantime, I will finish Flux Capacity for next year.

And if anyone wants to find you online, where can they do so?

They can basically find me, Edward Savio, @EdwardSavio, Twitter, Instagram, dot com. Those are the best ways to get me. I will respond on Twitter and Instagram as well. I’m not on there as much because words a little bit more than visual are my thing. But that’s where they can reach me. And if they want to check out Battle for Forever, but don’t necessarily want to yet get into that, they can go to battleforforever.com, and they can get a free novella that is told from a different character, a female character who I just love, she’s great, who’s about 2,000 years old, and it will give you an idea both of the story and some things that might be coming in the future, but it will not ruin anything in the books themselves. You can read it before you read them or in the middle or after. It will just give you a greater understanding of what’s going on.

Okay. And when I do the transcript and everything, I’ll put links on the website, The Worldshapers website for the stuff.

Thank you.

So, thank you so much for being on The Worldshapers. That was that was a fun conversation. At least, I thought it was fun. I hope you did.

Yeah, that was good.

All right. Well, thank you so much.

Thanks!

Episode 56: Kelley Armstrong

An hour-long conversation with New York Times-bestselling author Kelley Armstrong, author of numerous fantasy, mystery, and thriller novels in multiple series for adults, including the thirteen-book Otherworld series, which began with her first novel, Bitten, and other series and standalone novels for young adults and middle-grade readers.

Website
kelleyarmstrong.com

Twitter
@KelleyArmstrong

Facebook
@KelleyArmstrongAuthor

Kelley Armstrong’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Photo of Kelley Armstrong
Photo by Kathryn Hollinrake

Kelley Armstrong is the bestselling author of numerous fantasy novels, mysteries, and thrillers, for adults, young adults, and middle-grade readers, both standalones and in multiple series.

Born in Sudbury, Ontario, she grew up in London, Ontario. She went to the University of Western Ontario to study psychology, with plans to become a clinical psychologist, but on the brink of grad school, realizing such a career would limit her writing time for many years, switched paths and went to Fanshawe College in London, studying computer programming.

While getting her education, she married and had first child, a daughter, then took a full-time job programming for a bank while continuing writing. She sold her first novel, Bitten, in 1999, and had two more children, sons, before it was released in 2001, at which point she quit her job to write full-time, which she’s been doing ever since.

Among her series: OtherworldCainsville, Rockton, Darkest Powers and Darkness Rising, Age of Legends, and the Nadia Stafford crime trilogy. She has also written several serial novellas and short stories for the Otherworld series. Starting in 2014, a Canadian television series based on Otherworld, called Bitten, aired for three seasons on Space and SyFy. Kelley lives in rural Ontario.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Kelly, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you.

Now we’re both authors in Canada, but I don’t know that we’ve ever actually met each other in person anywhere at any conventions or anything like that. I can’t think of a time.

I don’t think so. We’ve probably passed somewhere at some convention because it’s a, you know, relatively restricted literary landscape. But, yeah, I don’t know. I don’t recall.

Yeah, it’s a small literary landscape, but it’s a very, very large physical landscape. And Saskatchewan and…you’re in Ontario?

I am.

Yeah, they’re actually a long way away from each other.

They are.

When we moved up here from Texas when I was eight years old, it was the year of Expo ’67. And I was excited as we were leaving Texas because I thought, we’re going to Canada, and I’d get to go to Expo 67, and my parents had to point out to me that…

It’s a long way.

…we would be closer–we’d be just as far away from Montreal in Saskatchewan as we were in Texas; basically, it was pretty much the same distance. In my defense, I was only eight, so.

Exactly.

Well, so this…you have two books coming out this week–month–which we are going to talk about a little bit. But first, I’ll do what I always do with this, which is take you back into the mists of time–I’m going to put reverb on that one of these days, the mists of time–and find out, well, first of all, where you grew up and then how you got interested in writing. And probably you started as a reader, because we all do, and the sorts of things that drew you into this field and, you know, all of that stuff. So, how did that all happen for you?

Yeah. So I grew up in London, Ontario, and it is that typical thing where you start off by reading. I was a very young reader. I was the oldest child, and my parents were very keen on teaching me how to read. Neither of them was a huge reader themselves, but they understood literacy was important, and so, their first kid, they were doing everything right, making sure that I was learning to read. So, every night, after dinner, while Mom cleaned up, Dad would be reading these books. And I very quickly learned to read that way. And for me, it turned into, “I want to do that.” I would take those stories and do what we would now call fanfiction, where I would take what I had heard and maybe create a new story for those characters or a story with different characters in that world as some way of working on what the author had created and building my own stories on it and then, getting older, was moving into creating entirely my own stories.

Well, what were some of the books that influenced you back then?

So, certainly back when I was very young, I can’t really recall. We have sort of gone through trying to work that out. It was a whole lot of really simple Golden Book readers. So, none of them stuck. So, the ones that stuck came later. There was one series about Irish setters, and they were adventure series where each…one was Big Red…and each one had a different Irish setter.

I remember reading Big Red.

Yeah, exactly. So all those…Hardy Boys, too. Read so many Hardy Boys. They always had much more interesting adventures than Nancy Drew, so I devoured Hardy Boys. And some of the classics, but really I was looking at the adventure stories, the mystery stories, and the stories with the animals.

So when did the fantasy side of things start to creep in?

So yeah, people always ask, where did that come from? And I always jokingly blame too many early Saturday mornings watching Scooby-Doo. That supernatural-combined-with-the-mystery was perfect. But I think it was more, when it comes to stories, mythology has them, so I very quickly got into mythology. I knew the Dewey Decimal System number for the myth and folklore section. So I would be there pulling down those books when I sort of ran out of stories in my own area to read.

When you started writing as a young person, well, did you share your writing with other people? I always ask that because I did, and I found it was like, oh, people actually like the stories that I tell.

Exactly. Yeah. Because I was so young and I was telling stories before I could write them down, so, at that age, you don’t have any of that…when people get older, and they start thinking, do I want to share this or not? As a kid, no, of course you share it because you have created this thing. So certainly, early on, sharing everything with parents, siblings, etc., friends and so on. It’s only when you get older that you start double-guessing, do I want to actually share this?

Did you have any teachers that sort of encouraged your writing along the way in high school or around that time?

I did. I certainly did, certainly in both elementary and high school. I was doing a lot of writing and getting a lot of really good feedback on my writing. So I often joke that, you know, they really tried to steer me away from the fantasy, the supernatural, etc. “You could write normal things,” but the normal things were what interested me. So it’s good that they still encouraged me despite the fact that I was not necessarily writing the kinds of stories that they were hoping for.

I always tell a story that when I was about eleven, I wrote my first complete short story that I remember actually finishing, and it was called “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot.” So you could tell where my mind was early on. And there was a teacher who, you know, he was my junior high English teacher, and I showed it to him and he took it seriously, and he critiqued it and said, you know, “I don’t understand why your aliens to this and why does your character do that?” And I still credit that with taking it seriously, taking the writing seriously, with having helped set my mind on, “Well, I’m going to keep writing, and I’m going to write better things going forward.”

It is, and it’s very important because, yes, even if it’s not necessarily what they’re hoping you would write, or it’s not a genre that they read, just that overall encouragement means a lot. Without that, I wouldn’t have gone on.

But you didn’t actually go immediately into writing. You studied psychology to begin with, I believe, is that right?

Yeah. I went to Western for psychology undergrad. I was planning on going on to masters and doctorate and becoming a psychologist. I was heading into grad school and realized I was heading into that kind of a career where there’d be a lot more schooling, and I would not be writing, because university was the one time where I didn’t have time to actually write fiction. So I thought, I’ve got this long time where I’m probably not going to be writing, do I want to wait that long before I try to at least…? My sort of goal was, maybe someday I’ll be able to be a part-time writer and part-time at some other career. So I switched gears there and went to college for computer programming. I had been doing that way back from the Commodore 64. It was a big interest of mine. So I did that. Got your typical corporate cubicle job that let me write and study the craft of writing.

Do you find…I mean, psychology would tend to tie into writing in some way. Did you find that what you studied in that field has been beneficial in your writing career? And the computer programming? I mean, I always say, nothing you do is wasted when you’re a writer. Have you found that?

It’s true. Because people always sort of look back and they say, you know, was that a waste, or when I see young people heading into college, university, and their ultimate career is writing, and they just want to totally focus on that. And I say, anything that you take is going to help. Psychology for characters, absolutely. Because it helps with my character backgrounds to know if I want a character who is like this at 35, what type of background did they probably have to get them there or what life experiences could they have had that get them where I want them to be at that age? And of course, programming meant that I did not have to hire anyone to, you know, code those early websites.

I had a Commodore 64 for years, and I did a lot of programming at the time, too, in BASIC, and I did some quite complicated things. You know, I created a whole music entry system to use that synthesizer chip that it had. And you had to put in like three different values for each note. And yet I did all that, and it worked. And then I thought, “But, you know, other people do it better than I do.” And I was never tempted to stick with programming because, again, it was more like, well, that takes a lot of time. I could be writing.

Commodore 64 with disk drive, monitor, and joystick.

It did. Yeah. I was doing the old text-based adventure game, so I was writing text-based adventure games, which of course took a whole lot of work just for a very short, short and simple one.

Well, your first novel was Bitten, which came out in 1999 or was sold in 1999. It came out in 2001. How did that come about? That’s kind of your breaking-in moment. Or had you had some short stories before that, or how did that work for you?

Yeah, I had had a couple of short stories published, but nothing significant. And I had been writing novels. So, when I made that choice to go into programming instead of going on to graduate school, that meant that I then knew that I had to get serious about writing. And it meant writing novels, joining writers’ groups, taking writing courses. So I was doing that. I was writing novels. I was writing novels that were to market. So whatever was…I had one that was, for example, a female private eye, in the time period when we were seeing a lot of that. When I got to…so, I finished three novels, no interest, no interest from publishers or agents. And then, I decided I was going to work on this one idea that I had for a book about female werewolves. And I figured nobody’s going to ever want this, so this is just totally for me. And it was all freeing that way, too, like not be saying, “I’m writing this in hopes of getting it published,” But just I’m tired of trying to get stuff published. I’m just going to write something for myself. Got it done, and of course, started thinking, “Well, is there any chance?” So I had a writing instructor take a look at it, and he thought that it had promise, so he offered to recommend me to an agent, and she took it on, and it took off from there.

And there’s been quite a few since then.

There has been, yeah.

So is it a fairly straightforward, you know, once that one came out, it was successful, and you’ve been doing it ever since?

Yeah. Not…certainly now people look back and say, well, clearly Bitten was successful, and I’m like, not actually, no. The publisher, my American publisher, bought the first two and then was not interested in a third book because they just weren’t selling. They started selling more with the third book. But yeah, you certainly get that where…they were successful enough that I was able to keep publishing, and from where I stand now, 20 years later, that’s the big measure of success, is not how much you make or how many copies you sell, but just can you keep finding a publisher to want more books?

Yeah, that sounds familiar.

Yeah.

Now, I’m going to ask you this, even though as somebody who’s worked in Canada as well. I think I know the answer. But have you ever…has being a Canadian author but published in the US market, has it been a good thing or a bad thing, or has it made any difference at all, do you think?

It’s been a good thing for me because certainly I make more. I mean, having that extra market…I mean, a Canadian bestseller is, what, 5,000 copies? I mean, that’s not going to give you an annual income even if you’re doing one per year. I mean, being able to have that US market, that’s where sort of the much bigger incomes coming from. And then that drives getting a UK publisher, getting the foreign publishers, and it’s all of that. I mean, Canada is great, but actually being able to make a living off of strictly being published in Canada would be tough.

Yeah. Well, let’s talk about what you have coming out this month. You know, two books in a month is not bad.

It’s weird, yeah,

And another one coming in October, I think.

Yeah. And it was kind of an odd thing because, yes, so what is my second middle grade came out early this month. There was supposed to be a standalone thriller coming out in August, because they usually obviously don’t keep them quite so close, but the standalone thriller got bumped up to the end of June. So I end up…because it’s the same publisher in Canada for them, Random House, and they didn’t see any crossover t you’ve got. You’ve got, like, your fantasy middle-grade book and your standalone adult thriller, they’re like, “There is no crossover.” So it’s not like I’m going to be competing with myself. It just makes it tougher for me promoting to be making sure to mention that I have two books coming out.

Well, and I did want to ask you, even before we start talking about The Gryphon’s Lair, which is the middle grade, um….when did you make the step into the. Both middle grade and young adult markets, I guess?

Yeah. So for a young adult, that came back…so, the first one came out 2008. Would have meant I was writing it in 2005. And that was back when you were seeing a little bit more interest in young adult books. I had a daughter who was hitting that age, she was twelve, thirteen, and she wanted to read Bitten. And I was like, “Absolutely not.” So I said, how would I write something that is that type of book in that world, but with teenage characters. So that became The Summoning. And then after it was written, you were seeing publishers wanting that, because that’s when Twilight started taking off. So, they were looking for more paranormal YA, and I happened to have some. So then that one sold. Middle grade took a little longer. I have sons, too, so when they got to be the middle-grade age, I was writing with a friend (Melissa Marr), she also has a son that age, and we decided that we would co-write middle grade for our son. So that was the first trilogy, the Blackwell Pages, based on Norse mythology. And then I kind of took a break from middle grade there and then went back. Last year was the first in this new series.

OK. I have to ask you, does your daughter read your books? Did she read that? Because I have a daughter who’s nineteen now and the only one of mine she’s read are ones I’ve actually read out loud to her, and she really seems to be reluctant to read my stuff. And I think it’s because if she doesn’t like it, she wouldn’t know how to tell me.

I know. And that’s really tough. Now, my daughter reads everything, and she’s obviously, she’s like twenty-eight now, so if she read everything…

She’s probably read Bitten by now.

Yeah, exactly. She reads early…she reads sort of drafts when they’re at the point where I want her to take a look at it. She helps with that. Now, my sons are a different thing. Yes. They read the trilogy that I wrote them, but let’s just say that they are not exactly saying, “Hey, Mom, what else do you have?”

So I had, I still have, a niece, when she was a teenager–this is a long time ago now, probably my first book–and she said she didn’t want to read it because she didn’t want to know what was going on in her uncle’s head. Which I thought was funny.

Exactly. I mean, that is the weird thing, too, if you write. Yeah. Bitten has some sex scenes in it, and it was like, yeah, do you really want to know what your mom’s going to write for that scene? No, the answer is no.

Yeah, that’s certainly part of it. Well, we’re gonna talk primarily about The Gryphon’s Lair book, but we’ll also mention Every Step She Takes, which is the standalone that’s coming out, because we’re going to talk about your creative process and it will be interesting for me to hear the difference between your planning and writing for an adult novel, and your planning and writing for the younger age group. But first of all, how about a synopsis about The Gryphon’s Lair?

So, The Gryphon’s Lair is book two in a series. The basic concept is that we’ve got this set in a fantasy world, completely fantasy world, with monsters. This world has monsters, but they’re based on science. So, there’s no magic in this world. If you’re going to have a, say, a basilisk that can turn people into a stone, it can’t really do that, but it can shoot a neurotoxin that can paralyze someone. So you’re doing things that are science-based rather than magic-based. The main character is a princess. I mean, there are a lot of princess books out there. I wanted to take my try at going ahead and doing that in a slightly different way. And she is a twin. She’s supposed to become queen, and her brother is supposed to become the Royal Monster Hunter. That’s how this always works. And she would much rather be the Royal Monster Hunter. He would make a better king.

So, an accident happens and they’re able to switch places. So, in the book one, we saw her first sort of forays as the Royal Monster Hunter, book two, we’ve got, she is in charge of a young gryphon, because while it’s called A Royal Guide to Monster Slaying, the slaying part is pretty light. It’s really more like being a monster conservator or a monster ranger, where you’re trying to help people live with, you know, monsters being in that land. And sort of moving the monsters out when they get in, killing them if you have to, but it’s more about a conservationist idea. So, she is raising a young orphan gryphon, and it becomes a little big and dangerous. So in book two, she has to take it into the mountains where the gryphons live and try to take it back home.

Sounds like a great setup for a story.

It’s a lot of fun.

Maybe just a brief bit about Every Step She Takes, too. When I say they’re coming this month, I should explain to listeners that we’re recording this in June. I guess Gyphon’s Lair is already out, right?

Yes. And then, yeah, every step she takes comes out on the 30th.

So it’ll be out when this airs, which goes live, which will probably be…it might be August. So if you’re hearing this, you can get these books.

Exactly.

So, Every Step She Takes, maybe a little bit about that.

Yeah. Every Step She Takes, standalone thriller. It’s about a woman, Genevieve, who is living in Rome, and she’s living a very ordinary life. She’s a music teacher, has a boyfriend. She’s very happy with this life. She’s a former American. And she gets this package addressed to Lucy Calahan, which is a name she hasn’t used in 10 years. Turns out that she was the victim of a scandal when she was 18. It was a celebrity scandal, and in trying to get out of that, she ended up finally just leaving and coming…and going abroad, and ended up in Rome. Now she’s getting a call from somebody who was involved, who wants to make peace with it, who wants, who has come to understand that her role in it was not what she thought and called Genevieve back to make peace. And she goes back to make peace, and the woman ends up dead. So, that’s kind of a problem, because she is dead and Genevieve is being framed for it.

So these are two very different books…

Very different books, exactly.

So let’s talk about how these things come about. I mean, it’s a cliche to ask, where do your ideas come from, and yet, it’s a valid question. Maybe if you don’t like it that way, I often say, what was the seed from which this novel grew?

Exactly. Exactly. And for the Royal Guide series, that was actually…it comes from two things. So it comes from video games. Witcher. I was playing Witcher years ago, playing probably the second or third one, and thinking, “You know, I really like the monster hunter concept. I really it. I feel like I’d love to do something with it in fiction. Not that idea obviously, but just that very basic monster-hunting concept. And I played around with it as a young adult book. So the book was pretty much the concept was the same in that it was a princess who had a twin brother, they really wanted to switch roles. I wrote about 5,000 words of it, and it wasn’t really gelling. Just something wasn’t working. And I put it away, and every now and then I would come back to it and say, “I really like this concept. What’s not working?” And one day just had this epiphany of, “What if it was middle grade? What if, instead of being seventeen, she’s twelve.” So that, of course, meant a total rewrite, but when I rewrote, I could see, yes, that absolutely works with…it had that level of fun and lightness that it needed. The original version with the teens made it much darker, and it just wasn’t quite gelling. But in the middle-grade version, it just popped.

And that one came from sort of…not exactly random, but, you know, just something else that you were doing. Is that kind of typical of where ideas come from? They can come from anywhere, in other words?

Yeah, it certainly can be, where it’ll come from something that sort of sparks an idea, and then I run with it, and by the time you get to the final product, it doesn’t necessarily bear any resemblance to the original concept, or the original where I sort of took that from. I mean, nobody’s going to read Royal Guide and think, “Aha, she was clearly influenced by Witcher,” which is a very adult and very different story. But yes, I can sort of say that that’s where it started, and then my brain keeps on spinning on that concept until I make it my own.

On the mystery side, is it any different?

No, it’s very similar. Certainly with the, sort of grain for Every Step She Takes, we see a lot of things now, particularly when we see #MeToo coming out, where we see these stories of young women who made mistakes in some way and the way they were demonized for them. I feel like, I hope we would not necessarily do at this point, where we can look, where, at the time, it was very clearly the young woman had seduced the guy who was in power, etc. But I was fascinated by the way that we presumed that she was guilty, even when you can look back now and she would have been like, you know, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, early twenties, and the guy’s like forty or something, and yet we still somehow see that Lolita complex, where clearly she was the instigator, and she’s the one who got all of the fallout. That’s where that idea started from, but of course, once I took it and ran with it, it does not bear any resemblance to any actual case.

Now, what does your planning process look like? Do you do a detailed outline? You know, are you a pantser a plotter? There’s another cliche question for you, but what does it look like to you?

Yeah, I think like a lot of writers, I’m somewhere in the middle, and I’ve developed my own sort of process by now, where, when I go into a book, I have a very good idea of that Act 1. I know what the setup is going to be. So if we were to take something like Royal Guide, for the first book, I know exactly what the setup is: these two twins, and they’re in the wrong positions, and we’re going to have…a gryphon is attacking, and we’re going to have, the brother goes off after it, sister is left behind, and she’s going to sneak off after them. Things are going to go horribly bad, and we’re going to lose our current Royal Monster Hunter, which then means that that position is now open for someone who’s way too young. So that’s Act 1. And I know that going in. I know my characters. I know my setting. Once you get past that, I know the major points. So I would know, how do these two add up switching rules? What is she going to have to do to prove herself? What is her voyage going to be? What do I want? I mean, often in a story like that, you get this very elongated training session, where a character is going to be the Royal Monster Hunter, so now let’s spend half the book showing her in training. And I knew I did not want that. So, how do I work around that? So, I would know all the major parts, and the final act, what she’s going to face down, she’s obviously going to face down that, you know, gryphon that killed her aunt in the early part of the book. She’s going to have to come full circle and face down that gryphon. So I know that’s what’s going to have to happen. I have no clue when I start writing where this is going to happen or how it’s going to happen. Because, if I was to go and decide exactly how that happens, by the time I reach that point in the book, it would no longer fit.

On the mystery side, you often…they’re often quite intricate, and you have to be careful about what information you provide and when. Do you do more detailed planning for mysteries than you would for a straight-ahead kind of fantasy story?

You would think that I would, but I actually don’t, and it’s because a lot of the mystery is shaped through editing. So I will go into it certainly knowing who I think is the killer, etc., that could change. And mystery fans hate hearing that you get like partway through the book and change who the killer is, but it’s not like you’re being cheated because then you continue writing that, and then you finish that book and go back and you craft and edit and you put in the correct clues, you get rid of the clues that pointed in the wrong direction. It’s not as if you sort of go off on a 90-degree angle and cheat halfway through. A lot of it really is formed through that editing process of saying, OK, now that I am done, where did I put in clues that led nowhere? I mean, yes, you want some red herrings, you don’t want too many of them, or where am I missing clues that would have pointed towards this, and going back and filling all of that in.

What does your actual writing process look like? Are you like, know, a quill pen under the tree on a piece of parchment writer or…?

Computer. Yeah, because I grew up on computers. Now, I did write…my earliest stories were on a typewriter, and so, having done the longhand and done typewriters in my past, I’m still that generation that remembers what a glorious thing word processors were. Like, you did not…you could edit to your heart’s content. You didn’t have to be, you know, getting it right the first time. You could go in and edit and change things. So, yes, totally computer-based.

Do you work at home or do you go out…I mean, right now, we’re all working at home, basically, but…

Exactly. Yeah. No, I’ve got a writing cabin in the back field. So I live rural. We live on 10 acres or so, and so I’ve got a little cabin in the way, far back. It’s off-grid. No Internet. No, you know, everything. So I just go back there and work.

Sounds nice.

It is!

I was going to mention, on the word-processor side, since you are familiar with the Commodore 64, you probably remember a program called PaperClip?

Yeah, yep.

That was my first word processor, and for a long time, in my early books, they all had 10-page chapters, because you got 499 lines of text in a PaperClip file, and that was as far as you could go.

Right, yeah, exactly.

And that works out to about ten pages of manuscript format. So for a while, all my books had the same length of chapters because of PaperClip.

I think mine, still, if you were to look at my chapters, they’d probably all be between eight and 12 pages.

Yeah. I think I still fall into that kind of a zone as well. So, you talked a little bit about working on the mystery side, on revision, and so forth, but in general, once you have a first draft, what does your revision process look like?

So, I write a first draft right through. I don’t stop. If I decide that I’m going to make a change in plot, I mean, something as drastic even as getting halfway through a book and saying, “OK, I’ve decided that this character’s father is now dead,” even though he’s been alive until this point, I’m going to decide that he died, like, ten years ago, I don’t actually stop and go back and fix it up. I just keep on going as if he’s been dead for ten years and making lots of notes on things that I want to change. So, once it’s done, put it aside for a couple of months, come back to it. Do usually once sort of go-through on the computer, which is more of a revision one, where I’m moving stuff around, adding stuff in, you know, killing off father, you know, ten years ago, etc., going and fixing all of that. And then, if I have time, doing a round of paper edits, because even though I’m so computer-based for my writing, I still find that I edit best on paper, paper and pen, so I can see it, and it looks like an actual book story. And then it goes off to the editor after that.

Yeah, it’s…I’m a little bit older than you, but I also started on a typewriter and then switched to the computer, and the way that you write sounds very much like the way that I do, too, and I was…who was it I talked to? I guess it was John Scalzi I talked to…one of my very first interviews on here, and he talked about how he does a rolling revision, but he’s always written on a computer. And he never went back to that time when you pretty much had to do a single draft all the way through before you did your revisions. And he thought that there is a connection between having once worked on a typewriter and doing it that way. I don’t know about that.

I don’t know, because, yes, certainly in my early word-processing days, even with Bitten and my early novels, I did that, where I would write, and I would go back and edit and I would write and go back and edit. But I got so caught in that endless editing, and I would be editing things that I would later just cut right out because I’m pretty ruthless in the revision and I will cut out entire chapters. I will lift out 20,000 words and put in 20,000 words of stuff. It’s much harder to do that if I’ve spent time perfecting this, you know, chapter. It’s easier to pull out a first draft chapter than a chapter that I have polished, you know, five times, so…

And the working on paper resonates with me too. I am currently doing page proofs for my next book from DAW, The Moonlit World, which, by the way, is werewolves and vampires. But yeah, you know, once you get to page proofs, there’s stuff that you can’t believe that you left in the original file that you sent because it just somehow comes out differently when you see it in print than when you see it on the screen.

It does, yeah.

Now, once you’ve got a draft, you mentioned that your daughter reads stuff, do you have other beta readers? Do you do that, or are you self-contained more?

Yeah. It completely depends on what the project is. If I’m gonna be working on a series, if I’m partway through a series, there’s fewer early editors at that point. But if it’s a brand-new standalone or if it’s a new first novel or if it’s a new novella, I’m more likely to send it to my daughter, or I’ve got critique partners, and they will see it before my editor does. Now, if it’s, you know, say book three in a series, book four in a series, it’s going to go to my editor first, because by that point, I kind of know what I’m doing, and there’s not as much of that, “Is this working?” The editor knows what to expect, and I can go there. And then a critique partner or my daughter may come in at a later point if they just say, “I’d just like to read it.”

What sorts of things do you get…you mentioned, “Is this working?” Is that kind of the focus of that level of reading?

Yes, certainly for that first–if it’s standalone, if it’s first in a series–I’m really sending it to somebody to say, just generally, “Is this working? Is this flowing? Do you see any major issues with it? Do you see that it’s too close to anything that you may have read?,” even, because you never know, you can send it to somebody, and they’re like, “I just read something that’s very similar to this recently.” So, it helps to have that totally trustworthy critique partner who, before the editorial process, can help me get it cleaned up, because, by the time the editor sees it, I don’t want to be embarrassed.

One thing I forgot to ask was, are you a fast writer or a slow writer?

I am fast, and I do a fast first draft. I think it’s because of that mow right through it, not stopping to edit. I want to stay in the voice. I want to stay in the mood, and I want to keep that going. So I’m going to…now I’m not nearly as fast as some people I have met. I am relatively fast in getting that first draft done.

It’s always relative. There’s…no matter how fast you are, there’s somebody else…

Yeah, exactly.

…who says, “Oh, I did a hundred and fifty thousand words in a week.” When you get to the editorial stage, what sorts of things do you generally find the editor commenting on? What kind of changes are requested, if any?

There are always…it’s always interesting to go back and see because there are always those things that, in the back of my mind, I knew was a problem. But even after 30-odd books, I’m still at the stage where, “Yeah. OK, that’s probably a problem,” but I’m hoping it’s just me because fixing it is a lot of work. And then they come back and say, “Yes, that is a problem,” OK, thanks. And then they say it independently, where I don’t say, “Is this a problem?” I do, sometimes, if I’m concerned. But that independent verification of, maybe a plot point that I feel like, eh, that’s not quite gelling for me. Or they might come back…certainly in a series, especially, coming back with, like, “We need more of a reminder of who these characters are, we need less of a reminder of, you know, plot points from previous books because we don’t want to…if someone hasn’t read previous books, we don’t want them to be not willing to go back. If they already know who the killer is in the past two books, they’re not going to want to go back and read them, right?

You’ve worked with a lot of different publishers, which means you’ve worked with a lot of different editors. How has that been?

It’s been good. Ninety percent of the time it’s such a good experience. They bring up the things…I always say that, you know, most of my editors, there’s about 80 percent of what they say I dead-on know, “Yes, you’re totally right. Either I already knew it or, as soon as they say it, I see it. Then it’s about 15 percent where I’m not sure, and I have to think more about it. And it’s only about five percent where I can say, “I understand what you mean, but that’s not right for my book.” So, 90 percent of my editors have fallen into that group. There’s always the occasional one that you’re just not going to gel with. Whatever I’m working on, they are looking for something different. They very clearly are looking for a different kind of story than the type of story that I tell. And I can’t sort of twist myself to give them the type of story they want, because that’s not what my vision is for that book.

You were talking about the editors saying things that you kind of knew in the back of your head. My main editor, of course, is Sheila Gilbert at DAW Books. And all of us who work for DAW, like Tanya Huff and Julie Czerneda, and all those people. We all have this thing in the back of the head, “What would Sheila say?” And even though, you know…I do exactly the same thing. I will know that there’s something there that, you know, “I bet she says something,” but I’ll think, “Maybe not.” And sure enough, she always comes back and says, “You know, I didn’t…this needs…whatever,” you know. So…

Yeah, this needs to work. This little area here, this motivation or this plot point just needs a bit of work.

And that’s what editors are for. When I work with new writers, you know, sometimes, I’ll run into people who are concerned about what editors will do to their work. And I say they will generally make it better. That is really what they’re about.

Exactly. There’s a lot of fear, I think, with new writers, they get some kind of feeling, or they’ve heard stories where the editor is going to demand bizarre changes, like demand that you change your werewolves into vampires or your female main character into a male main character. That doesn’t happen. What they’re in there doing is just helping you shape that story, because it’s hard to tell when you’re that close to your story, whether or not it’s actually working.

And speaking of characters, one thing I kind of forgot to ask along the way was how you go about developing characters. I mean, you know who you need in the story, from the big picture. But then how do you flesh them out? Do you do a lot of character sketches or writing in their voice or any of these various tricks that some people use, or how does that work for you?

Yeah…I’ve sort of learned to do this combination where I certainly do dive in at the beginning, and I want to know who they are, what’s their biggest fear, what’s their main goal, what do they want most from life, and what do they want most from this situation? And, you know, what are some of their hobbies? What are some of their interests? What are some of their dislikes, their past experiences, all that psychology stuff? But I still have to get into the writing because I can certainly say that if it’s the first book in a series or it’s a standalone novel, when I start writing, I can say the character is like this, and by the time I’ve hit, you know, ten, twenty thousand words, that character has shifted. And then I have to go back and adjust that early part.

Yeah, that’s often a revision step for me is to make sure that the character’s consistent.

Yeah.

Do you ever find, as some do, that minor characters become major characters without your knowing it was going to happen?

It definitely happens, where, yes, you come up with what you expect to be a minor character…I always use one example from my first book, Bitten. So, there was this renegade werewolf, he was one of the bad guys, and in the first draft, I killed him off at the end of chapter three. But then was like, “I really like him. I feel like he has more to him.” So I thought, OK, fine, I’ll keep him alive till the end of the book. I kept him alive till the end of the book, and I killed him, and then I still was like, I still feel like he had more. So then, I let him live. He eventually ended up becoming part of the pack and becoming a major character. And in the last book of the series, he appears to have died, and it was kind of an in-joke for everybody who knows how hard I try to kill this character early on.

Well, I did want to ask you about series writing. I’ve been on a panel–at CanCon, I think it was–talking about writing series–the most I’ve ever done as a five-book series–what the struggles of writing a series? The challenges and the rewards, I guess.

Yeah. I guess…the rewards are easy because that readership growth and that readership loyalty, that, if the series takes off, if it finds its audience, they are right there hungry for the next book. And that’s a whole lot easier than standalones, where you’re reinventing the wheel every single time and looking for a fresh audience. So, the series has that built-in audience if it works. The drawbacks are obviously, especially when you go into a long series, running out of ideas, running out of originality. Certainly, with the Otherworld, the only reason that it got to 13 books was because I changed narrators. So, every few books, one of the minor, one of the secondary, characters would become the narrator, and the other characters would fall into the background. So, it would instead be a story about this character’s corner of the world, so you’d start with werewolves for two books, and then spin-off to a witch and get her corner of the world for two books. And then, you spun off to a ghost and get her corner of the world for a book. That kept it going through 13. Nowadays, I don’t think I would ever get that long because even by 13, by changing characters, by the time I finished the series and went on to something else, I realized how tired I really getting. I didn’t see it until I went on and did something new.

I often wonder about the challenges of continuity…I mean, even in a trilogy, continuity could be a problem. Did you do something to try to keep track of all those little details that just pile your pile up?

Yeah, yeah. There’s the series bibles. And now what I do is my daughter is in charge of those and she…when she’s doing her reading, she’ll usually read one of my books for just that, you know, for fun and for general feedback, but then later on, after it’s completely done, past proofs, everything, she’ll take it and enter it into the bible. So if there’s new information, it goes in there. And then, on the next book, when she goes and does that first read-through, she can first read through the bible, and she will in that read through notice, “OK, Mom, you said this here, and it seems to contradict something.” You know, something like, you get a minor character’s age wrong, you know, you said they were twenty-eight here, and they’re twenty-seven now in book two. Unless they regressed, that does not happen.

Yeah. There’s that and, the other one that that’s happened to me, is that because I’m writing…you know, sort of like you, I have a kind of a general idea, but then I’m making up a lot of stuff as I go..and this was in the five-book young adult series. And I made up something in the first book. And by the time I got to the third book, I really wished I had not made up that particular aspect of how the magic worked, is what it was, because I wanted them to be able to do something, and I had shut that door in my face without even knowing I was doing it, three books before.

Yeah. And it really is that you kind of learn to try to not give absolutes. You try to, you know, learn with that first series, to try to, in future series, instead of saying, “It’s not possible to do this,” you will say, “It’s usually done this way,” or “As far as we know, it’s not possible to do this..

“It’s never been done.” That’s a good one.

Exactly!

 Well, let’s move on to–this is where the reverb should come in again–the big philosophical questions. Why do you write? And why do you think any of us write? And in particular, why do you write the kind of stuff that you choose to write?

Exactly. And for me, I think it still is…I’m still that reader. I’m still the kid who was the reader who wanted to tell stories. And it still is for me. You know, I love reading other people’s work because I don’t know what’s going to happen. You know, you can read someone else’s story, and it’s entertaining in a way that is original to me and fresh. However, writing my own story, it’s exactly what I want to write. It’s exactly the type of story that I most want to tell. So, all my favorite themes, my favorite tropes, my favorite character types, archetypes, are going to be in there because that’s what I’m doing. I always, still, because I started as a reader who was trying to write to entertain herself, I’ve kept that where, I still have to be my own first reader. And if I’m bored with a story, I need to stop and look at it and say, “Where did I lose interest?” Because for now, it still is, I love writing, and I always tell a story of…I think I had about three or four books out, and I was on a panel, and somebody said, “Now that you’re doing this for a living, do you still love writing?” And so they went down the panel, and when it got to me, I was, “I absolutely still love this. I can’t believe that I can make a living doing this.” And after the panel, one of the panelists said, “Oh, honey, you just wait until you’re at Book 10, that that will change.” And I’m at 35, whatever it is. And no, that has not changed. And I think that’s really important for me, that I still love what I’m doing and I still can’t believe that they actually pay me for this.

Well, on a bigger scale, what do you think is the impetus for telling stories for all of us who do this?

Yeah, and I don’t even…it’s really hard to say. I mean, certainly, the reader feedback is lovely. I mean, that sort of moment when somebody tells you how much a book of yours meant to them. And it can be that it meant something because it came at a difficult time in their life and it provided escape, etc., or it can just be, “I love these books, and I’ve read them to death.” And that’s a really important thing, and it’s a wonderful ego boost, and it feels like you’ve shared something of yourself with them. But I’m not even sure whether that’s the main thing. I mean, that’s obviously important, and the feedback is wonderful. But if I was to say that I could never get feedback again, would I keep on writing? I would. It probably wouldn’t be as enjoyable because I would be constantly worrying, are people out there actually liking what I am writing? That feedback helps to reassure me, but I just feel like, for me, it’s that storytelling. I feel like for a lot of us–I mean, when people say they want to become a writer and you tell–and once they really realize what that means, I think they figure they’re going to write a book and make a lot of money, or…I always figured, as a kid, if I could finish a book, like finishing a 100,000-word book would be so huge that very clearly it would get published. Ha-ha-ha, no. And I think once they realize…I’ve had so many people have said to me, “I wanted to be a writer, but then I got to know you and saw you, like, on a personal level how hard you work,” and said, “I don’t actually want it that badly.” And I’m like, that’s OK because I do.

I mean, I’m twenty…well, more than 60 books with all the nonfiction and everything…and I still love writing. And the thing is, you know, the whole thing of would I do it even I wasn’t knowing that people were reading it, well, I did, you know, a good nine or ten novels before I published anything. So I guess…and I was still enjoying the mere fact of writing the stories, even though I wasn’t finding a readership.

It is, because certainly with those early books, the unpublished ones, I would finish it and it wouldn’t sell. And there’s that moment of, “I shouldn’t even bother continuing,” but I couldn’t do that because every time I would go back and say, “I’ll right this next one for me,” because I couldn’t not write even when it wasn’t working out.

Well, and what are you working on now?

What I’m working on now is a young-adult thriller. I’ve taken a couple of years off of doing young adult while I got my middle grade going, and I wanted to come up with an idea, I felt like I wasn’t coming up with the right concept for next one. So I am working on that.

And where can people find you online?

You can find me at KelleyArmstrong.com. And on Twitter, I’m relatively active on Twitter and Facebook (@KelleyArmstrongAuthor). Not so much on Instagram, but I occasionally remember to host mostly pet pictures.

Yeah. I always struggle with Instagram. I would like to be more active on it, but I keep forgetting about that one somehow.

Exactly. I do, too.

And perhaps should mention everybody should know that it’s Kelley with an e, K-e-l-l-e-y.

It is. Yes. Although I also have the domain without the extra E, so if you type it in wrong, it should redirect you.

I should do that with Willett because that second T is constantly dropped off. Even if they put it in right–like, the Saskatchewan Book Awards judges put out their comments from this year’s, and I had a book nominated, and in the first part of it they put two Ts on it, by the time they got to the end of it, they dropped that second.

Yes, it does. It is not…I mean, I get so much that doesn’t have the E, that was one of the first things I did was snag that domain that didn’t have the second E.

I should look and see if it’s available. That would be a good thing.

Yeah.

All right. Well, thank you so much for being on The Worldshapers.

Thank you!

That was a fun conversation. I hope you enjoyed it.

I did. Thank you very much.

Well, bye for now.

OK, bye-bye.

Episode 54: Lisa Foiles

An hour-long chat with actress, singer-songwriter, dancer, voice-over artist and writer Lisa Foiles, former cast member of Nickelodeon’s All That, author of the new middle-grade novel Ash Ridley and the Phoenix.

Website
lisafoiles.com

Twitter
@LisaFoiles

Instagram
@LisaFoiles

Facebook
@LisaFoilesOfficial

Lisa Foile’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Lisa Foiles

Lisa Foiles is best known as a four-year series regular on the Nickelodeon sketch comedy show All That. Other TV appearances include Fox’s Malcolm in the Middle, Disney’s Even Steven, TNT’s Leverage and Nickelodeon’s Game Shakers. Lisa is the host of UFC.com’s UFC Minute and Screw Attack’s Desk of Death Battle. Her voiceover credits include multiple national radio campaigns, as well as the lead voice in the X Box One videogame Lococycle.

Lisa is also an accomplished singer, as well as tap, jazz, and ballet dancer, with more than twenty years of professional training, and now she is the author of the middle-grade fantasy novel Ash Ridley and the Phoenix (Permuted Press).

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Welcome to The Worldshapers, Lisa.

Hi, Edward. Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.

It’s my pleasure. I was watching the video about your book, and it just looks like a lot of fun. So I’m really happy that your publicist got in touch and asked if I wanted to talk to you, because it looks like this should be a fun conversation.

Yeah, it’s…you know, it’s kind of a new venture for me. I definitely didn’t start out as an author. I’ve gone in many different career paths, and somehow I’ve ended up here and I’m having a great time.

Well, let’s talk about that a little bit. I always start by taking my guests…it’s become a cliché on here, “back into the mists of time”—I wish I had reverb I could add in at that point—to find out…well, first of all, I know from your video that you have on your Web site talking about the book, that you were a big reader as a kid, even if you weren’t thinking of writing at the time. So, is that kind of where this writing all started, was reading as a kid? And when did the acting come into it?

Yes, a big reader, but very specific reader. I pretty much only picked up books that were fantasy, that were middle-grade works of fantasy about kids with dragons and going on grand adventures in vast countries and, you know, fictional worlds. That’s really what I loved. You know, I was good at school, but I didn’t really enjoy it, and reading any other type of book was really a chore. And even to this day, I’m the longest reader of all time. It takes me so long to read anything. So, I like really have to pick and choose what I’m going to read. “All right. This is what I’m going to be writing for the next year.” But, yeah, when I was a kid, I would just sit in the bookstore, and they say don’t judge a book by its cover, but 14-year-olds don’t understand that, you know, 12-year-olds don’t care. And I was very young, and I would just pick out books based on the cover. Does it have a unicorn? Does it have a dragon? Does it have a, you know, whatever mythical creature or a princess or a fairy? That’s what I gravitated toward. And yeah, I mean, I just could not get enough of these types of books and kind of pulling inspiration from each one, the ones that really stuck with me. Just through the years, I kind of started crafting my own story, never intending on releasing it. It was just kind of a fun daydream for me to escape into, you know, during school, you know, during the day.

And so…I mean, were you kind of starting to craft a story way back then? Did you do any— 

Yes. Yes.

So it did start very early then.

Yes. This story, in particular, it really was inspired by all of these different works of fiction. So, the first book and movie that kind of went along with it was The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle.

Oh, I love that one, yeah.

And there was something about that book…I mean, that was really my introduction into fiction. And it’s so stuck with me, and it so affected me, just greatly, that I just couldn’t get enough. I mean, I remember we used to go to Blockbuster and rent that movie over and over and over. My parents were always like, “Do you want to rent something else?” And I’m like, “No, I do not, I want this one, again and again and again and again.” And especially the beginning. And I’ve had…I think I’ve only had three people figure out the comparison between my book and The Last Unicorn. But the whole….say first, maybe two chapters…is kind of like a love story to The Last Unicorn. It’s like a love letter to The Last Unicorn, because I was so inspired by Mommy Fortuna and her Carnival of Beasts. And in the book, they really don’t dive into it, it’s just kind of like, it happens, then they kind of move on. But I’m like, wait, wait. Like, go back to that. That is so fascinating, that you have this travelling circus of creatures. And that’s exactly how my book starts. I imagined, as a kid myself, working as a stablehand in this travelling circus of mythical, magical creatures. And that’s where Ash, my main character, starts. And obviously, the journey from that has nothing to do with The Last Unicorn, it’s, you know, really completely different. But that is kind of my homage to that piece of work that changed my life.

And I remember the movie very well. I think I have it RCA videodisc, which was the video that actually played like a record. It’s a movie on a vinyl disc inside a sleeve, and you stick it in there. That was quickly superseded once laserdiscs came along. But it was really cool there for a while. And I think I have The Last Unicorn. That was one of the ones I made a point of buying.

I don’t even remember what year it came out.

Yeah. ‘70s, I would think.

Yeah, that sounds right.

Yeah. So, going back to childhood days, where did you grow up, anyway?

I grew up in a town called Spokane, Washington. Everybody knows Seattle, Washington, but this is on the other side of the state, kind of near Idaho.

Well, actually, the World Science Fiction Convention was there two, three years ago.

Oh. In Spokane?

Yeah. So I was in Spokane.

Oh, that’s awesome. Yeah, so that’s kind of where…all my family’s from the Pacific Northwest. I was born in Portland but quickly went to Spokane, and that was where my whole childhood was. And, yeah, my parents just kind of saw this creative streak in me really early and put me in dance, singing, and theatre, and I just couldn’t get enough of it. I was very quickly homeschooled because all of my time was taken up with dance, singing, and acting and…you just kind of…at a very, very young age, I’m so thankful that I figured out what I want to do with my life, ‘cause I know, you know, so many people struggle. They get into their 20s and 30s and 40s, and they’re still just like, “What am I meant to do with my life?” Well, I knew when I was three. So, that’s been very helpful, to like, know exactly what path I need to go down. And after a while, my parents were like, “OK, she’s too talented to live in Spokane, Washington.” In fact, I was pressured by some of the judges of dance competitions. I was just winning first place every year, every competition, I was sweeping, every single time. And there were a couple of judges that went up to my parents, they were like, “Why do you guys live in Spokane, Washington?” “Just…our family…” And they’re like, “No. You need to take her to Los Angeles. Like, go put her in the entertainment industry.” And thank God they did. We literally packed up everything and just headed for California.

Oh, that’s a huge leap of faith!

Bryan Hearne, Kyle Sullivan, Chelsea Brummet, Lisa Foiles, Giovonnie Samuels, Jack De Sena and Shane Lyons in All That (1994)

Oh, yeah. Oh yeah, I’m so grateful for my parents that they took that risk. And, I mean, it definitely paid off, because a year after living there is when I booked the Nickelodeon series, All That, and that kind of boosted my entire life and career.

Were you still thinking about this story during that time? Was it always kind in the back of your head?

Yeah. In fact, that’s kind of how I…I kind of link them together.  I remember…I truly believe that these fantasy books that I read when I was little are the reason I became an actor, because they sparked that creativity inside of me, that imaginative playfulness that you need to be an actor. And so, you know, I would read these fantasy books and pretend I was these characters and watch the Disney movies and pretend I was the princess, you know, everything, but it really goes back to those fiction stories. And I even, I vividly remember sketching scenes from this book in my head, this story in my head, while sitting in the dressing room at Nickelodeon. So, you know, I’m telling you, through all these years, I’ve just had this story kind of buzzing around in my brain, and I’ve developed different portions of it as I’ve gotten older. And kind of…you know, when you’re a kid, it’s just kind of this fantasy world you can escape into, but as I got older, I’m like, “I can actually create a hero’s journey out of this mess in my head,” and create a story that, you know, “Hey, if this is what I dreamed about when I was a little girl, I want to share this with other little girls. I have to share this. I have to get this out of me, so it doesn’t drive me crazy.”

Now, looking at your website, you know, you’re continuing to do acting, and you’re a singer and you’re a dancer and all those good things. I think I mentioned to you off the top that that always intrigues me because I do some stage acting—mostly just for fun, but I’ve done professional…mostly musicals, actually. Not that I can dance. No, I can’t dance. I can barely manage stage choreography if given enough time, if the choreographer yells at me enough. But my daughter started dance at age three and sings and went into…we have a company, a youth company here called Do with Class Young People’s Theatre, whose most famous alumni…alumnus…alumna, actually…is Tatiana Maslany of Orphan Black fame.

Wow.

And I always like to mention that because it gives me a chance to do my showbiz joke, which is that…see, I actually directed Tatiana in a production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves when she was eleven years old.

Wow. Lucky you!

All the dwarves were paid by little girls with beards. And my joke ever since Orphan Black has been that, if I’d only known then what I know now, she could have played all seven dwarves! I didn’t need all those other dwarves.

Hahahahaha.

Anyway, so that side of things, on a much lesser scale than what you’ve done, is something that’s very familiar to me. And I like to ask: it seems to me that acting and creating characters when you’re writing are very closely linked, because acting is, of course, putting yourself into the mind of somebody you are not, and making that person seem real, and that’s exactly what we do when we create characters. Do you find that they feed together like that for you?

No, absolutely. I’ve performed every scene of dialogue in my book out loud. And I did it many times. And, in fact, when I was first thinking about putting this story on paper, I’m like, “Is this a screenplay? That’s certainly what I’m most familiar with.” You know, I’ve been…I went to school for writing, and screenwriting was a big part of that. And obviously, I’ve been…I’ve read more scripts in my life than I have books. I’ve read so many. I understand the format. It takes me…you know, I could write a scene in five minutes. Definitely not as familiar with writing a novel. I mean, my joke is that I honestly went to Google, and I went, “How to write a novel,” like, “How to write a book. How to write book.” And just, you know, that’s how I started.

But yeah, no, back to your question, I completely believe they’re related. And, you know, I developed all of these characters so much more than I probably needed to, because as an actor, I’m like, everybody needs this crazy backstory of these scenes that previously happened. Like, I need to dream up lives for every single one of these characters, even the small ones. And, I mean, I’m happy with how it turned out. I feel close to these characters. In fact, I got to narrate the audiobook for Ash Ridley, which is so cool. So I really did end up getting to perform my book. I did it right here in my studio, in my home studio, and I was sweating by the end of these chapters because my arms were flailing, and I was doing voices and accents and just going over the top and redoing lines that I thought I could do better. And, in fact, at the very end, there is a scene that I genuinely started crying while I was recording it because I got so into the character and how she was feeling, and, you know, everything is going dark and being sad and scary, and I genuinely started crying. So, there you go. Acting and writing. It’s all the same. Come on.

And if you do your own audiobook, you really cannot complain about the narrator. Actually, you probably can, because you listen to yourself and go, “Oh, maybe I could’ve done that better.”

I do not want to listen to it back. I’m happy with how I performed it, and my husband, who worked in radio, and he’s an editor and producer and everything, he did all the producing for it. He didn’t end up editing it. We sent that to Recorded Books, and they took care of that, but he was there to tell me, you know, like, “Oh, redo that line,” like, redo that. So I’m happy with my performance, but I do not want to listen to it back because I’m sure that I will just pick it apart and be like, “Oh, I need to do that line differently. I would have said it differently…” So, I really don’t want to hear it again.

Are you like that with your film and TV performances?

Crazy perfectionist. Yeah. I mean, I put my all into it when I’m on set, when I’m in front of the camera, and then I just dread watching it, you know, because then it’s in the hands of somebody else. When you’re performing and your in front of the camera, it’s like, you have that control of what you say and what you do, but the director is still, you know, has his hand in it. But then, once it’s all filmed, I mean, that’s all post-production, that’s in the hands of other people. So, I get so nervous about the ending product, you know, watching it on TV, I just…you know, I get butterflies in my stomach when my scene’s about to pop up. I’m like, all right, here we go.

Yeah, that’s the big difference between doing stage and doing…I’ve done a modicum of film and video work, just little things. But it is a very different process and a very different feeling as a performer. I was in a music video with somebody (Ed. – Here’s the YouTube link), and she’d only done film and I’d only done stage to that point, and she said she didn’t like doing stage work because the audience threw her off. She wasn’t used to getting the laughter and the applause and everything.

Oh, that’s interesting. Just on that note, I was actually very blessed that the show that I was on, All That, it was sketch comedy, and much of it was filmed in front of a live audience. And so, it was this perfect marriage of theatre and TV acting and film acting because, you know, if we messed up, we could do it again, but at the same time, we had that instant feedback from the audience. I mean, it was an audience full of kids, which does not give pity laughter. I mean, if your joke does not land, that place is silent. You don’t have adults going, you know, pretending. So that was such a great experience. And I’m so happy that you are allowing your daughter to go into that world of dance and being on stage. And it’s so cool that you do that and you’ve done that in your life. I think that’s so important. I’ve said it for years, that anybody that can dance and compete on stage or do theatre on stage in front of a crowd, can pretty much do anything, because that feeling of going on stage, you know, seconds before you go out there and you have to nail it, you get one shot…I mean, there’s not a lot of moments in life that are equal to that. And if you can handle that and get through it and nail it and be happy with your performance. I mean, you can do anything. Life’s easy after that.

Well, going back to…you said that you studied writing at university…well, first of all, where was that? And was that just screenwriting, or was there some other forms of writing?

So my college experience is a little…interesting. So, I had just gotten done with All That. I was on the show for four years, and then I spent a couple more years, I think, like, one or two, in LA, doing some other roles and continuing to act. And I just needed a break. I was seeing a lot of young child actors around me that were kind of falling into that horrible LA lifestyle. And…I mean, you know, there’s a million of those child actors, you know, downfall stories out there. And that was happening around me. Like, there’s people I knew that were going into that world of, like, partying and drugs and alcohol and all of that. And I so just did not want that to be part of me at all. And I was in LA working…I mean, this was around the time of being 17, 18. And that’s when you are…you’re already as a person just trying to figure out who you are, and being in the public eye while I was trying to figure that out was really difficult. And my parents supported that I wanted to step away for a little bit. And my…my parents’ college and my parents’ parents’ college, my whole family, cousins, aunts, uncles, everybody went to the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho. I had been going there my whole life to go to football games. You know, the whole thing. I mean, it’s just that family college.

And I actually got a scholarship to the U of I for acting, like musical theatre acting, or whatever it was. But I started going to the classes, and I was so unhappy with how quickly they were progressing because I had just stepped off a national TV show in LA and then suddenly I felt like I was in Acting 101, with all these people who…God bless them, like, I know that they’re going to college to learn these things, but they’ve never done anything, like never done, you know, film acting or anything. And that’s fine. That’s totally fine. That’s why you go to college, is to learn. But in my selfish little 18-year-old brain, I’m just like, I can’t do this. I can’t spend four years at this college. Like, I was looking at the curriculum to come and what they wanted me to do, and I was like, I’m past it, like, I already know all this. So I was just very frustrated with that. And looking back, I probably should have just done it anyway. I’m sure there’s so much I could have learned, and the teachers could have showed me so many different aspects of acting that I was not familiar with. You know, for example, like, I’ve never really done Shakespeare. I don’t really know that much about that world, and I’ve always kind of wanted to.

So I left that college almost immediately, like, I honestly only went to U of I for like, maybe a month, maybe less? And I’m like, “I gotta get out of here, this is not what I wanted to.” And I found an amazing online college called Taylor University, and they had an entire writing program. It was like a writing certification program, kind of like an associate’s degree, like a two-year program. And it was just as much writing as you could do, everything from screenwriting to technical writing, expository writing, fiction writing, nonfiction writing. I mean, you name it. I mean, they actually had me, like, writing articles and submitting them and pitching them to newspapers and magazines during this course. So, it was very real-life. And that’s what I loved. And, yeah, so that was kind of where I kind of got that bug of, like, “I need to write more. Like, I really have a passion for this.” I remember my favourite lesson…I really wish I remember the teacher’s name…because I never met them, you know, everything was online, so I don’t really have a face with the name, so I can’t remember his name…but my favourite exercise he ever had me do was, he’d have me write…he’d give me, like, a topic and then have me write an entire paragraph about it. And then I’d, you know, I’d read it, and I’d edit it, and I’d be like, “Oh, man, this is awesome.” And I’d submit it. And then he’d be like, “Cool, cut it in half, but have it say the same message, same everything.” And I’m like, “Oh, OK.” And I go back, and I’d try to edit it down and say what I had to say, but you know, shorter but still with the same pizzazz. And I’d submit and be like, “OK, there you go.” And he’d be, like, “Cool, cut it in half again.” And I’m like, are you kidding me? And just that…

I like this guy!

It was amazing! But that taught me editing, you know, to like, say what you need to say shorter, to the point, like, get the listener’s, the reader’s attention, and be done. I’ll never forget that lesson, and I still practice what he taught to this day.

Now, we’ve talked a little bit about the book, obviously, already, but let’s so go in and focus on that now as an example of your creative process when it comes to writing. First of all, you have sort of talked a little bit about it, but let’s have a synopsis. Without giving away, you know, whatever you don’t want to give away.

Yes, of course. So, my main character is Ash Ridley, and she’s this…it’s all set in a fantasy world called Cascadia. And I actually named it that… there are so many little Easter eggs in this book that if you know me, you know where it came from. And there is this beautiful place in Oregon where there were these, like, these waterfalls and this lake, and it was like the most magic place I could escape to, and it was called Cascadia. And I always thought that was the most beautiful word ever. And that just described this magical place I got to visit. And I’m like, you know what? It would be so cool if I named my fantasy world after someplace like that that, like, you could actually go visit, like, I could go visit and be like, “Oh, this is my fantasy room.” But back to synopsis, sorr.

So, Ash Ridley is this peasant girl living in Cascadia, and she is a stable hand to this horrible woman in a travelling circus of mythical beasts. And they go from town to town, and they put on little shows, and they try to earn money and, you know, Ash does this away from her father for months and months at a time because her father is very poor and it’s what she can do to help him with money. You know, obviously, he hates having his daughter going out there and working but, you know, they’ve got to make ends meet some way, and she’s happy to do it for her father because she loves him so much. And, yeah, they just go from town to town putting on these shows. And one of the creatures in the circus is a very elderly Phoenix. And she just, she loves this bird so much. She loves all the animals, whereas the, you know, the woman running the show, they’re just money to her. And one night, this elderly Phoenix, which she names Flynn, starts coughing and wheezing and moulting and losing, you know, just the sparkle in his eyes, and he eventually, as the Phoenix does, bursts into flames and just becomes this pile of dust.

And, you know, many adults know the story of the Phoenix, but I don’t know if a lot of kids do. And that was exciting to me, that maybe this story was the first introduction to the legend of the Phoenix that little kids would ever have. And Ash, of course, doesn’t know the legend. I mean, nobody in Cascadia has seen a Phoenix in however many hundreds of years, I think I said, like, five hundred years or something like that. And so, she thinks that he’s dead. You know, he is trapped in this circus as all the other animals, and just like she is, and they’re all just shells of their former self and, you know…but a couple of minutes later, you know, a little foot pops out of the pile of ashes and this baby bird, this baby Phoenix bird, emerges. And that’s the start of our buddy comedy right there. Ash and Flynn become best friends, and she has to, you know, navigate this new life, being bonded to this magical creature.

What did your…you know, you’ve talked about your thinking about it for a long time, but when it came down to time to write it, what did your outlining or synopsizing…how did you approach it? Did you do an outline? Did you just start writing? How did that work for you?

Yes, I took six months to plan out the book, I believe. Could have been longer. This…my story is really this melting pot of every magical creature that you’ve ever heard of. And I know that a lot of fantasy authors are good at coming up with their own fantasy creatures. You know, J.K. Rowling’s obviously amazing at that. But I had so many of them in my book that I wanted them to all come from actual folklore and legends from all over the world. So, it took me a very long time to research all of these creatures, you know, the Manticore and the Hydra and, you know, all these different creatures. I wanted them…I wanted kids to be able to read the name of a fictional…of a magical creature in my book and be able to Google it and see what it looked like. That was important to me. Part of my book is that Ash and Flynn are then swept away to a school, an academy that trains kids who are bonded to magical animals. So, it’s a little bit like Pokémon, where every kid has their animal, and they train them, and they teach, you know, they…as time goes by, they get a little bit of the magic themselves, you know, kind of transferred to them, and you create this amazing bond with your animal. But obviously, they’re scary, crazy, dangerous creatures that the school’s like, “We’re gonna teach you how to not die,” you know? So, you know, obviously, like, every kid has a different animal, and I wanted them to all be from actual folklore from all over the world, you know, everything from Irish folklore, Scottish, to Norse. You name it, I borrow a little bit from everything. And, yeah, so that took many months to learn about all of those creatures, put them all together and outline it. Yeah, it took a long time. Goodness.

How detailed an outline did you do?

Very detailed. In fact, the one document that saved my life was…I think it ended up being like a seven-page, single-spaced document that was just descriptions of every character, biographies for every character and descriptions of what everybody looked like, everybody’s backstory was, and what all the creatures looked like, what their powers were, what their strengths were, and how they would fight against other creatures…again, that Pokémon aspect of like, you know, water type versus fire type versus earth type…and trying to figure out how all of them would work together. And that’s the document that helped me more than anything. I mean, I just had that document up on my computer the whole time I was writing. I could refer to it, but yeah, I would say that…I don’t know if everybody outlines—again, like, this is my first novel, I don’t—I just did it the way I thought was going to be the easiest for me. And, yeah, I think outlining is absolutely crucial. I mean, it’s such a great roadmap. Once you start writing, you don’t have that scary feeling of, “Oh my gosh, what’s going to come next?” You just have to get from point A to point B, not from A to Z.

Well, one of the reasons I do this podcast is to find out how everybody does it. And you find it’s all over the map. There are the extreme outliners. There’s a fellow named Peter V. Brett, who wrote a bestselling series called The Demon Cycle, and he writes 150-page outlines before he writes an actual story.

Oh, my goodness. Wow.

I mean, longer books than yours, obviously. That’s at the one extreme. And then there’s Kendare Blake, who’s a bestselling YA author, and she just kind of has the general idea and she just starts writing.

That’s terrifying.

I fall somewhere in the middle myself. So, with the outline in hand, what did your actual physical writing process look like. How did you write? Did you take a quill pen and sit under a pine tree somewhere?

I should email you a picture of the laptop that I wrote this thing because it is the most broken, busted old Macbook you can imagine. The screen is cracked…in fact, the whole screen had fallen off at one point, so the screen is like taped on, the camera doesn’t work, some of the keys stick….I mean, it’s so horrible. But that was my little writing machine, you know? It’s like…I sat on the couch, and I’m one of those people that, like, once I get in the creative mode, I can sit for six or more hours and just write. Like, I don’t even need a break. I will just go and go and go and go. And that’s why a lot of people keep asking me, “Are you going to write a sequel?” And I’m like, “Well, I wrote this book before I had two little kids, so I had the luxury of sitting and having creative time to myself all day, every day. And now that I have these two kids, I barely have time to write one email every day because I’m staying at home watching them.” So, I have no idea how I’m going to write the sequel. I’m going to have to seriously, like, buy a plane ticket to like some foreign country. It’ll be like, “Don’t bother me for two months, I’m writing.”

Kids do get older, and eventually, they get a little easier…

That’s true, throw them in school…

Speaking from experience.

Yeah. Hey, don’t tell me that, I don’t want them to get bigger.

Mine’s 19, or about to turn 19.

Mine are one and three.

Oh, yeah.

So I’m still in the, you know, teething mode right now.

Yeah, and you’ve got two of them. I only have the one to worry about.

Oh, yeah.

So, how long did it take you to write that first draft?

I want to say the whole process took about a year and a half, I think. I think it took me a year from start to finish to, like, really get it to a place that I was ready to submit it. So, I don’t know how long it took me to write the first draft. I just know that I got to a place where I thought it was clean, and, you know, I wasn’t terrified to let somebody else read it. After about a year and a half, I think so.

So how did you work? Did you write a complete first draft and then go back to the beginning and revise or did you kind of do a rolling revision as you went along or how did that work for you?

I wrote the first draft, just anything that came to my mind. I didn’t really worry about editing. I’m just, you know…I always worry about, you know, too much dialogue, Because as an actor, like, I cared more about the dialogue than I did the, you know, describing things which…that was a huge note with my editor, once I got to, you know, once I got my book deal. She was like, “You need to describe things more. Describe there’s more. Go more into that.” But my dialogue was always awesome. Like, as an actor, it’s like, I know how people talk. I know the back and forth and, you know, one-upmanship between two characters—is that the word? One-upsmanship? But yeah, it took me a while because I wasn’t in a rush. I was doing other things. I was, you know, acting and hosting, and, you know, I was focused on that side of my career. This was kind of just like when I have time, I’m gonna I’m going to work on this.

How long is it? I’ve only seen the ebooks. How many pages did it end up being…? It’s a middle-grade book. So it’s…

Yes. It’s… OK, so I planned it to be the exact length as the first Harry Potter book, if that helps anybody out there?

Well, it helps me, I have that, so I know what it looks like.

I think it ended up being maybe, like, one chapter longer than the first Harry Potter book? But that’s that was my roadmap, because I’m like, if I’m gonna write a book similar to the first Harry Potter book, I’m, you know, a book like that, I want to reference the best one out there. And I mean, that’s…people might debate whether it’s the best middle-grade book ever, whatever. I mean, that’s what people like. It’s the most famous one. So I’m like, hey, I’m going to use that as, like, my roadmap. I remember I would…I counted out all the chapter lengths, and, you know, I kind of use, “OK. So her chapters are about this long, so I want my chapters to be that long. And so, I like, really kind of used that to help me write it. So I’m sure it sounds very amateur. Like, again, this is my first novel. You’re, like, a total pro, I’m sure you’re just like, “You’ll learn, newbie.”

No, I mean, it’s the same…I mean, I’m very old, but back when I started writing, and I got my first computer…it was a Commodore 64, and the word processor was called Paperclip, and you could only put 499 lines of text into one file on the Commodore 64, which made chapters about ten pages long. And I’ve kind of been writing the same length chapters ever since just because that was my first computer.

Well, that’s what you know, yeah.

I’ve only recently kind of broken out of that, but for a long time, it was almost like clockwork. OK, I’m getting close, and here’s a chapter break. So, yeah, everybody…

Oh, that’s funny.

We all start in different places. But you’ve done a ton of writing. And one thing I always tell people who…I teach some writing, and I’ve just finished a gig as writer in residence at the Saskatoon Public Library for the last nine months, working with new writers. And that’s what I say, is that the way you learn to write is to write. So it sounds like that writing course you took was ideal for getting you up to speed.

It was. I mean, I was yeah, I was writing way before that. I wrote my first screenplay when I was 13 years old, and I showed it to a director friend of mine who had directed a pilot, my very first pilot that I ever booked. And God bless him, I’m so happy he did this…I was so mad at the time because I was 13, and I had it in my brain that I was this prodigy because I was 13, and I wrote a screenplay, and here it is and let’s go to the Disney Channel, we’re making this right now. And my director friend tore it up, and I’m so glad he did. He sat there with me, and he went line by line, and he’s like, “Typo, typo. Can’t say that, blah blah blah.  Don’t give camera direction, blah blah blah. And I just sat there just like, “Oh, my gosh. Like, why is he just not praising me for being this amazing child actor who can do anything?” And I will never forget the things he said, not taking it easy on me, about my first screenplay, which is buried somewhere in my files, somewhere in my garage that no one will ever see. Like, no one will ever see this screenplay. But those lessons he gave me were so, so valuable. And his name is Greg Atkins. If somehow this, if ever you know, if he ever stumbles upon this, Greg Atkins, “Thank you so much for not take it easy on me.”

And then after that, I wrote, you know, a couple of other TV shows. I wrote…I mean, nothing that made it because I was, you know, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. And I just kept anything that entered my head. I would just write it. And then, I wrote my first novel that I never did anything with when I was around 14 or 15. And yeah, just a ton of half-written books are on my computer throughout the years, which I’m sure a lot of writers have that. But yeah, I just never stopped writing. And I kept a diary every single day as well. I thought it was really important at the end of the day, to just write what was never on my mind.

So, you’re friendly with words, in other words.

Yes.

And I think that having somebody like that who takes it, I mean, takes it seriously. When you’re 13…my story is similar that I when I was 11 years old, I wrote my first complete short story, it was a rainy day activity with a friend. It was called Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot, because you could see where my mind was. And my grade…I was 11, but I was in grade eight because I skipped a grade. And anyway, my grade eight English teacher, Toni Tunbridge took it, and he didn’t just say, “Oh, you wrote a short story. That’s really good.” He went through it line by line and said, “OK, well, I don’t understand why your characters do this and all this stuff.” And ever since I’ve credited that because it was that taking it seriously enough to properly critique it.

Yes.

That made me think, OK, the next thing I write is going to be better than that.

For sure, absolutely.

.That’s kind of the attitude you have to have going forward as a writer is you’re always the next thing is going to be even better than the last thing.

Yeah, I was one of those people that everything, like everything I wrote…I mean, I’m sure, I say one of those people, but I’m sure that’s just all creatives. But like, the thing that I was working on at the time, I was like, this is it. This is the thing. I’m going to put my whole life into this one thing. Chips in, like, I’m all in. This is the one I’m gonna make. This is the movie I’m going to make. This is the TV show that’s going to get picked up. And obviously, none of them ever were. But to this day, almost every project that I write has references, like all of them, you know, you remember old characters, you remember old scenes. I was just thinking the other day how funny it would be to just, like, sit at a dinner table with all of my past main characters and just have a conversation. Like, you know, this one over here in the half-written books. You know who did such and such?

They might not be very happy with you.

Oh, totally. And, you know, I think, like, the end of that little fun story would be like, you know, the one character that does get picked up, does get published. You know, it’s just like a silly thing. But, you know, all the failures just helped me so much. And that’s why it’s just like, keep writing. Just write, write, write, write, write. Whatever it is, just keep writing. Because, you know, there were times when I would get that writer’s block in the middle of writing this novel, and I’d be like, “Oh, my God, I’ve got that scene from that book I wrote, like, ten years ago. That would be perfect in this scenario.” And I could borrow that. And then, all of a sudden, it was…it had already been played out in my mind years ago. I was very familiar with it. And boom. So, yeah.

Going back to this book, I also wanted to ask you about the characters. You talked about how you did backstory for all of them. My daughter’s big anime fan. So backstory is something we always talk about in anime, but…how did you decide what characters you needed? I mean, how did you develop these characters in your head?

Yeah, I mean, Ash was always there, she was always…

And before you say that, is Ash a deliberate choice because of the Phoenix rising from the ashes?

Well, her name is Ashton, which is a name I always liked. And yeah, I did like that it was, you know, that you could compare that kind of, you know, the ash and ash. Yeah, I did. I did really like that. And I’ve always thought Ashton was like a beautiful girl’s name. And the one thing that was very important to me about Ashton Ridley was that she was not special. That always kind of was something I thought about growing up is, many of the books that I was reading, you know, the main character, the kid, was always, like, the Chosen One. Or, like, their mom happened to be the queen of this planet, and so they were the prince or princess, you know, like, you know, Harry Potter had that crazy stuff happened, and then, like, Percy Jackson, like, you know, his dad, like every character I felt like had something already going for him before they were born, that then, you know, they fulfilled their destiny. It was very important to me that Ash did not have a destiny, that she was not special, that her mom had passed away, that her dad was poor. She had no friends, she was working for this horrible woman, you know, nothing, nothing going for her. I mean, this was like, this was going to be her life until Flynn came along. And still, as the book goes on, one of the big themes is that Flynn is the special one, not her. And so, she’s, you know, she’s going to this school full of rich children who are all very privileged, and she’s not, she’s the only poor child among all of these rich, privileged kids. And everybody’s so fascinated with Ash and Flynn’s presence at the school, but they’re fascinated with Flynn. So, she still feels like she has to prove herself during this whole journey. So while it. Yeah.

So while Flynn is this special, amazing, rare, powerful creature, you know, Ash is just a normal girl and she’s got to, like any normal, got to, you know, pick herself up and make something out of her life and fulfill this journey she’s on.

There’s a very good book by Patrick Ness called The Rest of Us Just Live Here, which is a young adult novel, told from the point of view of the ordinary kids who are in a high school where you’ve got the Buffy types and all these other things going on. And there’s like there’s some sort of apocalypse going on, but they’re just trying to get through algebra class.

That’s so brilliant. See, I love stuff like that. I absolutely love stuff like that. In fact, there is…one of my half-written books, years ago, was sort of a comedy about people who had X-Men powers, but like bad powers, you know what I mean? Like, the X-Men, obviously, I mean, it was a totally different thing, it wasn’t related to the X-Men, but like a similar concept about, like, you had all these superheroes with all these amazing powers, but then, like, you had this misfit group that, like, “Oh, my power’s that I can, you know, I can make bananas mushy just by looking at them.” You know, like a really terrible power.” And like, how do they, you know, save the world or whatever.

One of the special kids in that book is The King of Cats (Ed. – Actually, the god!). So, everywhere he goes, cats congregate around him and look at him adoringly.

That’s amazing. Yeah, I mean it was just so important to me that that Ash was really relatable because, you know, it’s like, if I’m reading, you know, Percy Jackson, it’d be like, “OK, well, I’m, you know, I feel like I’m like Percy, but I didn’t…my father isn’t, you know…who is his father? The guy from the, you know…everybody listening, “yeah, yeah, yeah.”

Yeah, no, I can’t get the word out of my mouth either.

The god of…well, whatever, you know.

Yeah…Neptune is the Roman version…Poseidon. There we go.

Yeah. Yeah, yeah. There you go. Thank you. Thank you. That would have really driven records for the rest of the day. Yeah. This is like, OK, well, you know, I want to accomplish cool things, but my dad isn’t Poseidon, so what do I do? So it’s very important to me that Ash was really relatable for just girls who were like me growing up.

Now, once you did have it ready to submit, and you obviously found a publisher, you had the editing process, and you mentioned one thing that the editor came back and said was, “You need more description.” Were there some other things that you had to work on that maybe surprised you?

Yes. So, worldbuilding was my biggest one. I mean, there were things that I…I do really enjoy describing things, so sometimes I would go into, like, too much detail, like describing like what this flower looked, it was like, too much. But worldbuilding was a big thing. My editor is Natasha Simons, and she’s brilliant and she’s funny and I love her, and you should follow her on Twitter because she is one of the best Twitter accounts. But, yeah, she was so kind with me and so patient and gave me such wonderful notes about how to build out this world and make it really feel like a real place. And she really didn’t do too much to it, honestly, like we didn’t have any crazy big edits to the story, just…all the suggestions that she had for me to add things were wonderful. I mean, I didn’t…there’s a flashback chapter with Ash and her father that wasn’t originally in the book, and now it’s maybe my favourite chapter. So, I’m really glad that she suggested to add that in there. And yeah, thankfully, she understood a lot of my quirky comedy. Because I come from the comedy world, it was important to me to have the book be really funny. And I was always worried about that, like how I hope my editor has a sense of humour because a lot of things in here are super silly. And she went along right with me. So, yeah.

So any challenge…when you’re riding for young people and doing humour it’s easy to do humour that you don’t actually get. I’ve been guilty about a few times, I think. Do you feel comfortable with that?

Yeah. I mean, I came from a kids’ show. I was on a kid show for four years.

Oh, good point, yeah.

Yeah. I was very familiar with, like, what jokes resonate and what don’t. And that’s kind of why I always wanted to write kids’ TV, because I really did feel like I had, you know, I was just good at picking up on what was going to land and what wasn’t. And maybe one or two jokes in the book are like jokes that only adults would get. I think at one point before a battle, like a, you know, they’re having the two kids, like, do a little, like, practice battle or something, but she says, like, “Protect yourself at all times.” Obviously, that’s a reference to UFC, which I worked at for the longest time. Like, no kid is going to know, like that’s what, you know, protect yourself at all.

But, you know, there’s a couple of little things in there, like, you know, the book was dedicated to my late father, and one of our favourite movies that we sat and watched was Napoleon Dynamite. Like, we were obsessed with that movie, and we’d quote it all the time. And that’s literally the only reason why I added a liger to the book. At the very beginning, a liger is referenced a couple of times, and I think one of the teachers, maybe the teacher has…yeah, the teacher has a liger, I think. But the only reason that the liger is even in the book is because in Napoleon Dynamite, he’s like, “It’s a liger, known for its skills in magic.” So, that’s the reason…you know, that’s the only reason that’s in there. Yeah.

No, I didn’t have a problem with writing jokes that I think kids will get, you know, that…I think that so far that the best part of this whole process is getting kid feedback. I so appreciate all the adult feedback I’ve been getting from my friends and fans and everybody, like, I so appreciate it. I can’t even understand why someone would read something I wrote. I’m so humbled by all of it. But it’s the feedback I’m getting from the young readers that makes me genuinely emotional because I wrote it for them, and the fact that it’s resonating and they feel inspired by it, and they’re enjoying it, just…it completely warms my heart.

Have you had an opportunity to do a school reading or anything like that?

I had a whole bunch lined up, and then good old coronavirus came along and cancelled all my appearances.

A few of mine, too.

It’s so frustrating, right? I mean, it’s so funny, it’s my first novel, and I was getting advice from a couple of other people who had published. And I’m like, OK, so like what? Like, what do I do? How do I do this thing? And they’re like, you know, “The number one thing that helped us is appearances signings, like, do as many appearances as you can, that’s going to make or break your book launch.” And I’m like, “OK, cool.” So I had a whole bunch lined up, and they all got cancelled. So I’m like, oh my God. Like, my book is going to debut in the middle of this pandemic. I can’t go out and promote it. I literally only have social media. So I…I just tried to utilize Twitter and Facebook and YouTube and Instagram as much as I could, and thankfully it’s been great. Everybody’s been so supportive.

One other thing I wanted to ask you about the acting and writing side of things. As I said, I’ve done stage work, and I’ve also directed a few stage plays. And I always feel when I read some people’s stuff that they don’t keep a clear picture in their mind of where people are in relationship to each other. And it seems to me that the acting side of things, you always kind of have that mental image of,” OK, so-and-so’s over here, so-and-so is over there.” The kind of blocking of the scene, I guess. Do you find that some of your background has helped you in that sort of thing, as if you’re almost, like, you’re directing?

Absolutely, I don’t have a problem with that, with losing track of that or, you know, I play out every scene in my mind like a movie, and I even sometimes stand up and I act out the scene. It’s so dorky. I’m telling you, thank God I got to actually do it for the audiobook. So, you know, I had a reason to be silly and act up these scenes, but when I was writing it, I would straight up just stand up and like act out the scene and walk over here and talk to a lamp, and that was the other character, just to get a feel for the room. And yeah, absolutely. I credit that to my acting, but yeah, I didn’t have any notes about that kind of stuff from the editor, so I must have been good at that, I don’t know.

Well, we’re getting kind of closer to the end here, so we’ll as, you probably touched on it a little bit, but this is the other cliché part of the podcast, where I say, “and now the big philosophical questions,” which is basically why? Why write? Why tell stories? Why tell this particular kind of story? Why do you do it, and why do you think any of us do this whole storytelling thing?

Well, the coolest experiences for me over the course of my whole life are when I’ve gotten to tell stories so many different ways and see how they all affect people. I mean, even sketches on All That are stories. They’re just short little stories. They’re funny and they’re silly and they’re over the top and there’s usually slime, but at the end of the day, it’s a story, and we’re telling it to the kids. And I get to see their reaction, you know, as they watch me do it. And I’m also a singer and a songwriter, and a lot of the songs that I’ve written are based on literature, and they tell a story from beginning to end. So that’s a completely different way of telling a story. And I get to see the, you know, the reaction to people who listen to my songs and how that affects them.

And like I said, I write screenplays and I write TV shows, their pilots, and that’s also a story, I mean, in a different way. And then this book has been a completely different way of telling a story. So, I mean, so many creatives, that’s really what motivates us is that we just have these stories that we need to get out there. We are these bards of the world that, you know, we have all of these collective experiences in our brains that we want to share in either a comedic way or a dramatic way. You know, everybody’s experiences are so different as they navigate life. And, you know, that’s where all of our stories come from, are just things we’ve experienced. You know, it’s like every character in my book, I know where they came from. I know what inspired them. You know, there’s a character inspired by Star Trek, there’s a character inspired by the Sherlock TV show, like there’s, you know, just every little thing, even if it’s a side character on some show nobody’s ever heard of, it affected me enough to put it in this book.

And that’s everybody’s screenplay, everybody’s novel, it comes from their experience and what affected them deeply. And so, everyone’s going to have a different story to tell because of their life experiences. And sharing that with each other, I think, is just so important to life, and just, you know, seeing what other people have experienced and being inspired by other people and inspiring other people. You know, like I said before, the only reason I became an actor is because my creativity was sparked by these young adult fiction novels. So, it’s only right that I take that creativity that it sparked and turn it into a fiction novel to then inspire other kids who are just like me. I can’t think of any better way to pay it forward.

Maybe in 20 years, it’ll be somebody writing a novel that was inspired by reading this one.

That is absolutely the dream, honestly. Like, you know, my whole career of acting has been just so much fun and so fulfilling, and I can’t imagine doing anything else. And I’m so glad that I discovered my talents and goals because of these types of books. So, I’m so thankful for these authors. You know, like Anne McCaffrey was a really big one. And, you know, thank goodness that they decided to sit down and write these books because that’s the reason for my career. So, yeah, I mean, I can’t think of anything better than helping other people discover that passion, you know, their passions. Maybe it’s acting, maybe it’s singing, whatever it is. You know, if I have even the smallest ability to inspire somebody, it’s…I mean, I got to do it.

And what creative things are you working on right now besides raising two small children?

Yeah, I have a big one I can’t talk about right now, but it’s definitely related to acting and writing, which is super cool. I have another…I have a TV show project that I’ve been kind of working on with another former cast member of All That.

Her name is Alyssa Rayas, and she and I kind of collaborated and came up with a really fun pilot idea. So, we’ve been fleshing that out and getting some writers on board to help us kind of develop that. And I really hope that goes forward because it’d be so hilarious. But aside from those two projects, obviously I’m still, you know, pushing the book. The audiobook is out there, and I’m just trying to…oh, and I now sell autographed copies through Premier Collectibles. And that’s…they just got a whole new shipment of those. So, those are now available. They all sold out day one, but now there’s more available. So, selling autographed copies and selling the audiobook and just trying to get the word out there in a world where I can’t go outside. If I could take a megaphone and just walk around everybody and shout in their face that I have a book available, then I would, but I can’t leave my house right now, so I’m just gonna do my best with the Internet.

And speaking of the Internet, where can people find you online?

Yeah. My website is lisafoiles.com. And I’m pretty easy to find on every social channel, everything is, you know, Twitter.com’s actually Lisa Foiles, Instagram is Lisa Foiles. The only one that’s different is Facebook.com/LisaFoilesOfficial. So, I’m everywhere, and whichever one that you frequent the most, you know, hit me up on there I’d love to hear from you. I love chatting with fans. I really try to make a point to respond to people.

All right. Well, thank you so much for this. It’s been a great conversation. I hope you enjoyed it half as much as I did.

I did. Thank you, Edward, so much for having me. I very much appreciate it.

And I’m looking forward to finishing reading the book. I do have it. And it’s on my finish this up because it sounds great list, so…

I got to tell you, I’m already shocked that people have finished my book because, like I said, I’m the slowest reader on the planet. It would take me months and months to read my own book. So I have no judgment for anyone who’s taken a long time. I’m the same way.

I just haven’t gotten to it yet out of everything else. But I’m looking forward to it, especially after talking to you today, so, thanks so much.

You too. Thank you.

Episode 51: Barbara Hambly

An hour-long chat with Barbara Hambly, New York Times-bestselling author of fantasy and science fiction, as well as historical novels set in the nineteenth century, about her creative process.

Website
www.barbarahambly.com

Facebook
@BarbaraHamblyWriter

Barbara Hambly’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Since her first published fantasy in 1982, The Time of the Dark, Barbara Hambly has touched most bases in genre fiction: her most recent vampire novel is Prisoner of Midnight (Severn House, 2019) and her most recent historical whodunnit, Lady of Perdition, continues the well-reviewed Benjamin January series.

In times past, she has written Star Trek (TOS) and Star Wars tie-in novels (Ishamel, Crossroad, Children of the Jedi), and did scripts for Saturday morning cartoons.  In addition – when she can – she writes short fiction about the further adventures of characters from her fantasy novels of the ‘80s and ‘90s, which can be purchased on Amazon (Gil and Ingold from the Darwath series, Antryg and Joanna from The Silent Tower, John and Jenny from Dragonsbane, plus a couple of Sherlock Holmes tales “for the hell of it”).

She teaches history at a local community college, and practices iaido, costuming, and painting. Now a widow, she shares a house in Los Angeles with several small carnivores.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, welcome to The Worldshapers, Barb.

Well, thank you. Thank you. Thank you for asking me to be on.

Well, it was…I ran into you, I guess, at World Fantasy, I was sort of, you know, keeping my eye out for people I wanted to talk to. And I thought, hey, there’s somebody. So I’m glad you said yes.

Very nice.

I think that’s the only time we’ve met, actually. And we didn’t really meet, just sort of chatted there at World Fantasy, but I’ve been familiar with your work for a long time and currently reading, I haven’t quite finished it, but Stranger at the Wedding is the one we’re gonna talk about today as an example of your creative process. So we’ll get to that in a little bit.

But I always start by taking my guests back into the mists of time and finding out how you got started, became interested in writing, how you got started writing, and also just a little bit of your biography, which is kind of an interesting one. So, where did you grow up and all that sort of stuff? And how did you get interested in writing? Was it through reading books like most of us?

I suppose it must have been. But I remember, even before I learned to read, I was storyboarding stories. I would, like, draw the characters in a storyboard form. And I remember doing that when I was about four. So actually, I think my desire to tell stories predated learning to read. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a household where my father was a great reader. He always had fiction. He loved the Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars series, he was a great fan of Zane Grey. He liked adventure stories. He liked biographies. He liked history and when we were small children…my mother is not a great reader, but she was a very conscientious mom. And I think she looked up lists of books that had won the Newbery Award or had won children’s book awards, and she made sure that she read these to us. So we were always surrounded by an atmosphere of storytelling.

And in your, we mentioned Stranger at the Wedding, you have some pictures at the back of that of your family from when you were little, as well. So, I think I can picture your mom and dad because I have a picture of them right in front of me.

Oh, my gosh.

And a picture of you as a very little girl.

Oh, dear.

So you were growing up on a Marine base, it says.

Yes. Well, my dad was in the Marines when he met my mom. He met my mom immediately after World War Two ended, and they got married, and he was stationed in San Diego, which is where all three of us kids were born. And then he was transferred out to a Marine base in the middle of the desert in a place called China Lake. And my earliest memories are of being in…and of course, at that time, housing of any kind was very much at a premium because the war was just over, and you were in the first wave of the baby boom. And so, on the Marine base out in the middle of the Mojave Desert, the married officers’ housing was a trailer park. And my poor mother got to keep house in a 30-foot single wide with three children under the age of six. And my earliest recollections are of living in the trailer, and you’d step out of the trailer, and because it was all brand new, there was nothing. There was a little concrete path around the outskirts of the trailers, and beyond that, it was desert. It was, you know, if you watch any of the 1950s science fiction films like Them or…all of those 1950s science fiction films, they’re all in, like black and white and they’re out in the middle of the desert, that’s where I grew up.

That was immediately what I thought of when you were describing it.

They were all filmed out in the Mojave Desert because it is within a couple of hours’ driving distance of Los Angeles.

And then, when did you actually start writing your own stories?

Well, as I said, I started storyboarding stories. I would storyboard stories about my toys. When I was four, I started writing stories as soon as I learned the alphabet. I would write…one of my favorite series was the Oz books, and, I’m sure everyone knows, in addition to The Wizard of Oz, there were about 25 or 30 other books about characters in Oz. And for me, it was like fan fiction. I would then write my own Oz stories. When I became enamored of Sherlock Holmes in the third grade, I would write my own Sherlock Holmes stories. And writing was just something I did. It was always completely natural to me. Storytelling was always the thing that I did. It was the thing that shaped my life.

Did you share your early writing, like with your friends or schoolmates or parents?

In seventh grade, I mentioned to some of the other students in my class that I…at that time, I was writing Edgar Rice Burroughs takeoffs…and I got teased so badly that that was the last time I told anybody that I wrote until I got published.

I always ask that because I get such different responses to it…the people who never shared, and people who were like me, and I was handing out copies of it to my classmates in high school. “Here read this. Read this!” So that’s why I always ask.

Actually I did write…starting in high school, I would write Man from U.N.C.L.E. stories. I would write…I wrote this unbelievably long—it was like a hundred-part—story about the Beatles. And those I did share with two of my classmates. And then when Star Trek came along…I was kind of a weird kid and I did not have many friends and I had been teased and bullied to the point where I was not…I didn’t tell most people what was going on with me. But in high school, I had a couple of very close friends and we were the only people in the high school who were tremendous Star Trek fans. It was the first season, the first time, the original series, it was 1966, Star Trek came on and it hit the three of us like a ton of bricks. And so, we all started writing Star Trek stories and I wrote simply for the audience of my two friends. One of them would write stories for me, for our little group, and these were the only people who knew that I wrote because I pretty much didn’t talk to anybody else in high school.

Were there any teachers who were, you know, helping out or supporting you along the way, or did you kind of keep it from them, too?

Oh, God, no. There were teachers that made a tremendous impression on me, but I certainly would not share with any of them or with anybody else the fact that I wrote.

Well, when you got to university, you didn’t study writing, you studied medieval history and went so far as to get a master’s in. What drew you into that?

Well, I,,,when I originally…because I always knew I wanted to be a writer, and when I got into UC Riverside, it was 1969 and I thought, If I want to be a writer, I should be an English major. And I went to my first creative writing class, I was like eighteen years old, sitting in the front row with the class. And there was this woman up in the front of the class, the instructor, with a size eleven mouth and an ego to match. And here am I, sitting in the front row, thinking, You tell me what you’ve published and then I’ll listen to you. As far as I could tell, the class was supposed to be in creative writing and it actually seemed to be a class in how to write bad Flannery O’Connor knockoffs. And that was the last creative writing class I ever took.

Now, when, many years later, for purposes of the plot, I needed to find a teaching job, I went to the local community college and applied for a teaching job in creative writing. And at this point in time, I had published about sixty novels. So I applied. I said, you know, I’m a professional writer. I’ve published about sixty novels. And they said, oh, we can’t hire you because you don’t have an MFA—because after that creative writing class that I took way back in 1969, I’d switched over to being a history major. So, when I’m applying for a job teaching creative writing, they said, “We can’t hire you to teach creative writing because you don’t have an MFA. And even if you did have an MFA, if the English department hired you, they would hire you to teach remedial English because all of the creative writing classes are taught by the tenured full-time English professors because it’s more fun for them.”

And I thought, Oh, good. You have people who want to learn to be a professional writer, and instead of hiring a professional writer to teach them, you have them taught by an academic who has never published any fiction in his or her life because it’s more fun for them. And then they said, “You want to teach history?” And I said, “Absolutely.”

When I…back in 1969, as I said, when I finished my first and last creative writing class, I switched over to getting a BA and then an MA in history, which served me very well, it got me a nice job teaching history, which I still have.

And has it fed into your writing, as well?

History?

Yes.

Oh, God, yes. I…well, I’ve always been interested in history. My dad was a history buff. I had some excellent history teachers in high school and in university. My best friend in high school was a history buff. She is still my best friend and she is still a history buff, and history always felt very natural to me. I always wanted to write in historical settings or fantasy settings, but it’s the same thing, you’re world building in both in both genres. And I think that’s one reason why I’ve written in both genres, is it’s about worldbuilding. It’s about going to another world, going to a world that is not my own.

You know, in creative writing classes, they would always say, “Well, write what you know.” And…for one thing, nobody would be interested in the adventures of a fat pimply virgin in Southern California in the 1960s. I wasn’t even interested in them. So I wanted to be somewhere else. I wanted to go somewhere else. J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings hit me like a ton of bricks. I read the first unauthorized copy of The Two Towers. And it’s like, “This is what I want. This is the world I want to be in. This is what I want to do.”

And you got there. But you did a few other things along the way before that first novel came out, didn’t you?

Yes, yes. Well, from the time I was…actually, junior high and in high school, I—going back to “write what you know”—always in the back of my head was, I knew I wanted to write adventure fiction. And I knew that if I was going to do this, I was going to…there were certain things I would need to know. When I was fifteen, I joined a fencing class. I was always interested in historical costuming and that got me among the historical costumers, for things like, you know, stuff your characters need to know. What is it like to wear a corset and a bustle? What is it like to be in a physical fight with someone? I started taking karate in 1974 partly so that I would know what it is like to be in a physical fight with someone, which is not something that girls generally do, unless they go to a high school and are bullied by the Mexican girls.

And of course, once I got into karate, that was a whole new world. The martial arts has been a constant in my life since 1974. But it blends in with this. I do it because I love it. I also do it because if I’m going to have a hero who is wielding a sword, I want to know how to wield a sword. We would go horseback riding, and partly in the back of my mind is, If I’m going to write stories about people who get from place to place on horses, I better learn how to ride a horse.

So, there’s always this moving back and forth between real life and the fictional world inside the books, and the fact that I am going to need this information if I am going to produce these stories effectively. That’s one of the reasons that I’m drawn to history, partly because I just love history, partly because I need to know how non-industrial societies work. I need to look at stuff that has happened in history and go, I can use that. There will be times I’ll be in conversations with my friends and someone will be talking about the behavioral enormities being practiced by their sister or their brother or whomever, and I’ll be sitting there thinking, I can use that!

So tell me about the first novel and how that came about, Time of the Dark, which kind of launched your career.

Well, when I started taking karate, I quit writing for about two years. And I had a dream. And the dream was…one sequence at the beginning of Time of the Dark where the young screw-up hero first sees the dark ones, sees this creature, and because they can change their size it’s slithering in through, like, a crack in the wall, and he is shocked and horrified. And he goes to the old wizard who’s in the next room. And the wizard said, “Oh, did you think they’d be human?” And from that dream, then I extrapolated how did this situation come about and extrapolated what came from that situation.

I originally wrote it up as a single volume. I sent it to…I went to the library and got a list of publishers who were taking fantasy. I sent it to Lester Del Rey, who was the editor at Del Rey Books at the time, and he sent me back this long letter, basically telling me that I had enough material there for a trilogy, extrapolating from this, extrapolating from that. “Can you pursue this? Can you pursue that?” And I sat down for the next almost a year. Again, I didn’t tell anybody I was working on this. And I sat down and expanded it into a trilogy, sent it back to Lester, and, you know, everybody has told me it’s really hard to break into the field. But I guess in that year, they were really looking for trilogies, because I sent this manuscript back to Lester and I got a reply in two weeks saying, “We’ll take it.” And then I went, “Oh, dang, I don’t have an agent. I’d better get an agent.” And immediately had to hunt around for an agent who is…she’s still my agent.

It’s always easy to get an agent when you’ve already sold the book.

Oh, absolutely. And she immediately got me a better deal on the contract. But I didn’t…my experience with writing the book and getting accepted was…I don’t think it’s typical.

As far as I can tell from talking to authors, nobody has a typical story. It’s different for everybody. Mine was very different as well.

Well, we’re gonna talk about Stranger at the Wedding as an example of your creative process. But before we get to that, I did just want to ask you about some of the other writing you’ve done, the Saturday-morning cartoons and the Star Wars and Star Trek books. How is that different from writing your own material?

Well…

And did you enjoy it?

Oh, tremendously. Tremendously. Of course, as a tremendous Star Trek fan, when they started coming out with the Star Trek novels, my agent got in touch with me and said, “They are looking for Star Trek novels, and they were looking for Trek novels, of course, because everybody was writing fan fiction for Trek. And at that time, my agent told me, “They’re looking for Star Trek novels written by authors who have already been published.” Because at that time they didn’t want to have to teach somebody how to write. They wanted a manuscript by somebody who knew how to write a manuscript. And so the editor at that time was looking for…”Hey, do you have something? Do you have a Star Trek novel in your drawer? We know you’ve got a Star Trek novel in your drawer.” And as it happened, I did. And that was Ishmael, which was infamous for other reasons. And then I wrote another two Star Trek novels.

And the thing about the Star Trek novels was, they kept changing the approvals loop. Part of the problems I had with Ishmael, the first of the of my Star Trek novels, was that book went through about five editors. And the editors at the beginning of the process were telling me things that later turned out were not true, were not correct. And the mess had to be cleared up by an editor, you know, five editors down the line. But this was a problem with the Star Trek novels: they kept changing the approvals loop. So, something would get approved, and then by the time I turned in the manuscript, they said, “Oh, no, we don’t want that.”

Ghost Walker, which was the second one, I’d turned in the outline saying, you know, the plot involved Captain Kirk being in a serious romantic relationship with the guest star. And by the time I turned the manuscript in, they said, “Oh, we don’t…we can’t have Captain Kirk being in a serious romantic relationship. “And I said, “That’s fine. You don’t have to publish the book, but you have to pay me for it, because that’s the first line on the outline, saying Captain Kirk is in a serious romantic relationship with X, Y, Z.”

And, you know, when I turned in the outline for Crossroad, which was the third of my Trek novels, they said, “Mr. Roddenberry doesn’t want Trek novels on that subject.” And I said, “OK.” And eighteen months later, when Mr. Roddenberry was no longer in the approvals loop, I got a phone call from the editor saying, “You still want to write Crossroad?” And I said, “Oh, yeah.” But of course, it was eighteen months later, so I had written this outline and I’d kind of forgotten how things happened. So at one point, the outline said, “And then these five aliens take over the entire Enterprise.” And as I’m typing along and I reach that point of the outline, I went, “God, how they do that?”

Well, it’s just like a writing exercise you set for yourself.

Oh, yeah. Yeah. The Star Wars…I was friends with Kevin Anderson, Kevin J. Anderson, who was doing the first two of the Star Wars anthologies of short stories, Tales from the Star Wars Cantina and Tales from Jabba’s Palace. And he introduced me to Betsy Mitchell, who was in charge of that first bunch of Star Wars novels that were being done by Bantam. And then she asked me, you know, would you do a Star Wars novel? And I was so delighted. I loved Star Wars. I loved the original Star Wars. I love the original Star Wars.

In the early days of my writing, I was…you don’t make a lot when you’re starting out. In fact, you make almost as little as you make now. So at the time, I had a part-time job at the library. And friends of mine in Los Angeles…one of my friends in Los Angeles was a fellow named Michael Reeves, who was the…he was sort of the center of a group of people who were writing Saturday-morning cartoons. And this was in the late ’80s, when you had just gotten…Transformers had just come on and you had all of these, what the writers called “poster shows,” which means that the toy company would put out a line of vehicles, and then they would hire an animation company, to…at that time, seasons were very long. A season would be, like, forty-eight episodes. And they would say, “We’re going to do a season of, essentially, yes, it’s the adventures involving these vehicles that you can buy down in the store as a toy.” And the vehicles would always transform into something else.

The first of these, the animation company that was doing them was called DIC.

And so they decided—because, of course, there was no Writers Guild that dealt with animation. This was all cheap non-union—they called us together for a…called all of the sort of bush-league science fiction writers in the Los Angeles area, called us together, and they explained that they needed scripts and they were paying…I think it was a thousand bucks a script, which to me was phenomenal. It would mean I could quit my job in the library.

And the fellow explained to us that the show was called Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors. And it was about…it involved giant metal vines growing between planets. And these metal creatures would grow out of metal flowers on the vines, and the vines would go between planets, they would go between galaxies, they would go between solar systems. And these evil vehicles would trundle along these metal vines through outer space and strip mine every world in the cosmos for resources. And our brave little band of adventurers were fighting against these guys, in the vehicles that are being sold in your local toy store.

And somebody in the group of science fiction writers said, “Planets turn on their axis, and planets orbit different stars, and all the stars in the galaxy are moving away from one another, and you cannot have giant vines growing between planets.” And the story editor said, “I have explained this to the producers of the show. I have explained this to the toy company. I have explained this to the administration of DIC. Now write the scripts.” One fellow got up and walked out. But I thought, It’s basically the cast of Star Wars meets the Daleks. I can write Star Wars dialogue. I can write Dalek dialogue. No problem. So I worked on a number of shows for DIC. And it meant basically that I had more time to do my actual writing.

Well, and turning to the actual writing, let’s talk about Stranger at the Wedding, which is the one you’d suggested. I guess, quickly give a synopsis of it that doesn’t spoil anything for people like me who haven’t gotten to the end of it yet, although I’ve read quite a bit of it.

Oh, and, of course, I haven’t been able to reread as much of it as I would have liked to, due to circumstances beyond my control. But the way the story came about in my mind, is that…in the story, the young heroine, she is at Wizards’ College and she’s the daughter of a wealthy merchant family back in the big city. And her younger sister is going to have an arranged marriage with the business partner, a business associate, of their father’s. And Kyra, the heroine, has been essentially disowned by her family because she is in training to be a wizard. And Kyra starts getting omens and prophetic dreams, saying that her younger sister is going to die on her wedding night. And Kyra returns to her family, who are horrified that she’s shown up, and she has to stop the wedding until she can find out what’s happening. And so she’s basically in a position of throwing all kinds of Murphy hexes, everything that could possibly go wrong with the ceremony goes wrong. Mice infest the church and, you know, the bishop breaks his ankle and all this horrible stuff takes place. And then she falls in love with the groom. Her younger sister, it turns out, is in love with one of the kitchen help. And Kyra falls in love with the groom while still trying to ascertain who has put a curse on the wedding, who is attempting to kill her lovely eighteen-year-old sister, and why? What’s going on?

I’m enjoying it very much, as far as I’ve gotten into it. I think the main character’s very appealing. What was the, kind of the seed for this story? And is that typical of the way the story ideas come to you?

There are basically two seeds. The first of the seeds is the fact that…I’m trying to think of a tactful way of saying this. My mother tended, tends, to drag me over to total strangers and say, “This is my daughter, the author.” Or say to people at church, you know, the people at church say, “Oh, you know, my daughter wants to write books.” And Mom will say, “Oh, she can come and talk to Barbara.” And it’s like, Barbara is…Barbara has other things to do. And I’ve always found this being touted very…it makes me very uncomfortable. I know it makes my mother very happy, but it makes me very uncomfortable. So part of the seed for that, is, you know, all of those times when I would go home for Christmas and Mom would say, “Why don’t you talk to the next-door neighbor’s daughter who wants to write books?”

And the other seed was, I was invited many years ago to a workshop on neurolinguistics, and they asked me, the fellow who was facilitating the workshop, said, “What is your process of putting together a story?” And I said, “I’ll usually start with the characters.” And he said, “Well, why don’t you explain how you put together a story?” And he said, “Characters…let’s take Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.” And I closed my eyes for a second and tried to think of a fantasy that ,if you made it into a movie, it would with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. And then, I produced the entire plot in, like, one paragraph, just sitting there. I had never had this idea before, and I came up with, oh, “The older sister is in Wizard College and the younger sister and she finds out that she has a curse and she’s gonna die on her wedding night and she comes home and falls in love with the groom.” And everybody in the workshop, including the facilitator, just sat there, because there was no process. It’s like, “You give me the characters and  I’ll give you a fully formed plot.” That’s…you know, that’s a trick like swatting a fly out of the air. You can do it once by chance. And everyone goes, “How’d you do that? I have no idea.”

So what’s more typical?

What’s more typical? Generally, it does start with characters. The vampire series…I wanted to put together a story of…no, I was waiting for my sweetheart to arrive because he and I were gonna go someplace and I was lying on the couch in his house and just started thinking about a vampire and a living person having to go into partnership because someone is killing the vampires of London. And the vampires, they can’t go out in the daytime to be detectives, so they have to hire a detective. And I thought, that’s really good. And this was the start of Those Who Hunt the Night, which turned into the vampire series, because I really liked the characters. But it started out with, “What do vampires do when somebody is…when there’s a vampire hunter on their trail?” And so, they have to hire a living guy, and he knows they’re gonna kill him when he solves the case. And then from there, just going, “OK, how do you get into this situation, how do you get out of this situation?” It was exactly the same with Time of the Dark. I had this single scene in my mind. “How did we get into this scene? Where do we go from this scene?”

So it is very much like a seed that grows.

Yes.

What’s your actual planning process look like as you get started to write. Do you do a detailed outline? Do you just start? How does that work for you?

Oh, no, I’m an outline girl. My outlines are usually…four or five pages, single spaced? And they’re very…they’re sort of loose. It’s…details get changed, scenes get changed, but I always have to know, if we’re starting from here, we’re going to end up here. I don’t write very well not having a goal. I have to know where we’re going. I can’t just set sail because I’ve read too many books that quite clearly did not have an outline, and that type of structure does not appeal to me.

Do you find yourself diverting from the outline as the story takes on its own pathway sometimes?

Somewhat, yes, but never, never galloping off into another direction. Mostly because I know the character well enough to know where we’re going, where his or her personal development is going. The only exception to that was Dragonsbane, where up until I was close to the end of the book, I did not know whether…at one point the wizard, the heroine, transforms herself into a dragon. Basically, she falls…she is…the man that she loves is a dragonslayer. And when they go to slay this dragon, she ends up falling in love with the dragon. And at the end of the story, she transforms herself into a dragon. And then she realizes, “I need to go back to the man that I love.” And up until the end of the story, I didn’t know whether she was going to just continue to live on as a dragon or whether she was going to step down from that and return to the man she loves. Basically, she’s choosing between becoming and being a dragon or remaining human and experiencing the depths of human love. And once I had done that, I realized the story is not a story about dragon slaying. The story is a story about love. And then, of course, I…actually through the whole process of writing the book, I needed to come up with a hero who would be emotional competition for a dragon. And I have continued to write the further adventures of this couple, John and Jenny. Occasionally the dragon reappears, but it’s…I’ve continued to write novelettes about them for sale on Amazon as downloads.

What does your actual writing process look like? Do you write longhand? On a typewriter? On a computer at home? In a coffee shop? How do you like to work?

I must…there cannot be anyone else under the same roof. And I have set up my entire life to be solitary. I’ve always liked solitude. I cannot write if there was someone else in the house,

Definitely not a coffee-shop writer.

I am not a coffee-shop writer. I write at a desk. I have a desktop computer. I…when I’m writing first draft, I can usually only work a couple of hours a day because it is just so exhausting. At the moment, it’s difficult to forge out the time to write because I teach at a community college. I only teach one class a semester, but we were informed at the beginning of this month that we had two weeks to switch all of our classes over to online classes, and that takes a tremendous amount of time and I have been waking up very, very early in the morning to buy myself enough time. I’m working on first draft of a project and I’m tired most of the time.

Under normal circumstances, would you consider yourself a fast writer or slow writer or just-right writer?

I…sometimes I think I’m fast, sometimes I think I’m slow, I have no idea.

That sounds familiar. And do you…you’ve talked about a first draft. So, do you do a complete draft and then go back and revise from the beginning? What’s the revision process?

Yes. I do a complete draft and then go back and revise from the beginning.

What sorts of things do you find yourself working on in revision?

Sometimes, as I’m getting close to the end of the story, I realize, “Oh, that is a more efficient way to solve the problem, so we’re gonna have to go back and rewrite whole chapters.” Other times it’s just word choices or sentence structure. Other times I will look at it and go, “This person’s motivation is not clearly conveyed, this person…I need a scene between these people to clarify, either a plot point or some motivation.” The first revision is always the hardest and the most challenging and the most tiring because that’s where the heavy work gets done. Then there will be a second, not quite so heavy revision. And from there, it’s usually just progressive polishing.

There was one of the Benjamín Januarys, the historical murder mysteries, which, of course, take place in the American south in the 1830s, 1840s. And one of these involved…it’s like, my hero is black, of course he’s involved with the Underground Railroad. And I wanted to do a murder mystery that took place against the background of the Underground Railroad. And about halfway through, I reread what I had written and…the plot, the themes in the book, were very, very dark. Basically, the book was heavily based on slavery and rape. And I went, “Nobody’s gonna be able to read this. How do I lighten it? How do I make it readable?” And I thought, OK, we’ve got this going on one side. But my hero is dealing with… and I had to put in a lighter element simply to to balance out that darkness. And I thought, OK, my hero is working out of a circus. So we’re going to deal with circuses in the 19th century. And we’re also going to deal, because the circus is in town, there’s also a revival meeting in town. So that lets me cut away from this horrible stuff that is happening connected with the murder. And, yeah, we’re going hunting for clues, but we’re doing it against the background of the circus, we’re doing it against the background of this fake preacher who is basically trying to bilk the congregation out of their money. And that lightened the weight of the book. In my opinion, it made it readable.

I’m going to guess that you’re not somebody who uses beta readers, but then it goes on to your editor directly from you. Is that correct?

Yes.

What kind of editorial feedback you usually get?

I have published close to seventy novels. So I’m…I don’t get much editorial feedback because I’m good at my craft. The times when I do get more editorial feedback is if ,for whatever reason, I did not have time to smooth the differences between two drafts and they’re catching things that I would have caught if I had had the time to do one more draft. And this is something that I have developed as time goes along. 

 remember there was one book where they got someone as a copyeditor and she came back saying things that were completely against, that ran completely contrary to the point that the book was making. “Well, she shouldn’t say this. She should say that.” And I. emailed the acquisitions editor and said, “Do I have to change things according to what this person said?”, and they made sure I never got that copyeditor again. Beta reading has to be by somebody that you really trust.

Yeah, it’s not something I’ve ever had because I’ve just never lived…I was always off kind of away for many other writers and…I had a couple of people by mail that I used to share manuscripts with way back before email. But I’ve never used beta readers. And I’ve talked to many people who do, and sometimes I think maybe I should, but I think I’m too set in my ways to change to that now.

Yeah.

And I don’t really know who it would be anyway. Well, I want to move on to our closing question, because we’re getting up here on the time, and that’s the big philosophical question, which is why do you do this? And why do any of us do it, why do any of us write, but why do you write and why do you write the stuff you write?

And the reply is, because I can’t not do it.

A good friend of mine once said there’s two basically two kinds of writers. And he said type A, the first kind of writer, is the writer for whom writing is the safe place—you go down into the dark of your mind and you see all of these things, and that’s where your safe. And he said this type of writer usually starts as a child.

He said the other type of writer is the one for whom writing is the dangerous place. And you go down into the dark of your mind and you see all of these things and it scares the bejesus out of you. He said this type of writer usually starts later in life, and it was his personal opinion that this is why you sometimes find writers who have substance abuse problems.

Because if you are a writer, you have to write. There really is no question about why do you do this. You do this because you do this. Because you can’t not. It is indeed a calling. And nobody in their right mind would be trying to do this, trying to make a living in this fashion, if there was any other way to be.

Fortunately, I was the first kind of writer. I started as a child. It is the safe place. It is the wonderful place. It is the place where I am happiest. I was married to a man who was the other kind of writer, where it was the dangerous place, it was the terrifying place. But he couldn’t not do it. Because he just…we are what we are and we can’t change what we are, and if we try, it hurts us.

And on that note…I’m the childhood, it’s a safe place writer myself…

Yeah. Yeah.

…what are you working on now? Aside from putting your courses online.

My publishers in Britain asked me to conclude the vampire series, to finish off the vampire series, and asked me to start another historical murder mystery series. I am working on that, but I would rather not talk about that until I’m a little bit further on with it. I realize this is not a good thing to say, but I, I just, I would rather…I’m working on another historical murder mystery series, and I would rather not talk about that until I get a little bit of a better feeling of what I’m doing.

Still, lots to look forward to.

Oh, yeah. Yeah.

And where can people find you or find out about you online?

I have a Facebook site, Barbara Hambly, writer. I have not posted on my Livejournal site in a long time, simply from lack of time. Those are the two best places.

If you want to…if you were a fan of the fantasy series that I wrote back in the ’80s and ‘90s, the Darwathseries, the Dragonsbane series, the Sun Wolf and Starhawk series, if you’re a fan of those series, I continue those series in the form of novelettes. I’ll write novelettes about those characters. They’re available on Amazon for five bucks a throw. And a lot of people, they…you know, with a with a series, you like to know what the people are doing. You’d like to know where those characters are now. And I will be continuing the vampire series as novelettes on Amazon. So in addition to transferring all of my history class on to online and working on this new historical novel series, I’m also trying to fit in enough time to work on these, what I call the further adventures. So it’s busy times.

Well, thanks so much for taking time to talk to me in the midst of all that. I enjoyed that. I hope you do, too.

Thank you so much. And I’m sorry if I talked too much.

There’s no such thing.

But thank you so much. And we will meet again.

Episode 50: S. M. Stirling

An hour-long conversation with S.M. Stirling, author of numerous science fiction and fantasy novels, including the novels of the Change and the Shadowspawn series, and most recently Shadows of Annihilation, Book 3 of the Tales from the Black Chamber series, about an alternate First World War.

Website
smstirling.com

Facebook
@worldsofwhatif

S.M. Stirling’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Photo by Anton Brkic

S.M. Stirling was born in France in 1953, to Canadian parents—although his mother was born in England and grew up in Peru.  After that, he lived in Europe, Canada, Africa, and the US and visited several other continents.  He graduated from law school in Canada but “had his dorsal fin surgically removed,” and published his first novel (Snowbrother) in 1984, going full-time as a writer in 1988, the year of his marriage to Janet Moore of Milford, Massachusetts, who he met, wooed and proposed to at successive World Fantasy Conventions. In 1995 he suddenly realized that they could live anywhere and they decamped from Toronto, “that large, cold, gray city on Lake Ontario,” and moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico.  He became an American citizen in 2004. 

His latest books are Shadows of Annihilation, Theater of Spies, and Black Chamber (Roc/Penguin Random House), a trilogy of related alternate-history novels set in the 1910s and involving Teddy Roosevelt, dirigibles, and spies. His hobbies mostly involve reading—history, anthropology, archaeology, and travel, besides fiction—but he also cooks and bakes for fun and food.  For twenty years he also pursued the martial arts, until hyperextension injuries convinced him he was in danger of becoming “the most deadly cripple in human history.”  Currently, he lives with Janet and the compulsory authorial cats.

The Lightly Edited Transcript

Coming soon(ish)…

Episode 49: Ira Nayman

An hour-long chat with Ira Nayman, editor of Amazing Stories magazine, proprietor of the Alternate Reality News Service (11 books so far), and author of six novels in the Multiverse series published by Elsewhen Press.

Website
Les Pages aux Folles

Twitter
@ARNSProprietor

Ira Nayman’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Iray Nayman is the proprietor of the Alternate Reality News Service, which sends reporters into other universes and has them report on what they find there. There are 11 books in the series, the most recent of which is the omnibus volume Idiotocracy for Dummies. He is also the author of six novels in the Multiverse series published by Elsewhen Press; the latest is Good Intentions: The Multiverse Refugees Trilogy: First Pie in the Face. He won the 2010 Jonathan Swift Satire Writing Contest, and his novel Both Sides: Now! was longlisted for the Guernica Prize.

In his spare time, Ira is the editor of Amazing Stories magazine, and co-host of The Gernsback Machine: An Amazing Podcast. He has also been a writer/performer in radio sketch comedy groups and created several (as yet unproduced) television series. He has a Ph.D. in Communications from McGill University and taught part-time for five years in the New Media program at Ryerson University. 

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Coming soon(ish)…

Episode 48: Tim Powers

An hour-long conversation with three-time World Fantasy Award (and two-time Philip K. Dick Award)-winning fantasy author Tim Powers, whose sixteen novels include The Anubis Gates, Forced Perspectives, and On Stranger Tides.

Website
www.theworksoftimpowers.com

Facebook
@AuthorTimPowers

Tim Powers Amazon Page

The Introduction

Photo by Serena Powers

An hour-long conversation with three-time World Fantasy Award (and two-time Philip K. Dick Award)-winning fantasy author , whose sixteen novels include The Anubis Gates, Forced Perspectives, and On Stranger Tides. Tim Powers is the author of sixteen novels, including The Anubis Gates , Forced Perspectives, and On Stranger Tides, which was the basis of the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie. He has twice won the Philip K. Dick Award and three times won the World Fantasy Award, and his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

Powers lives with his wife, Serena, in San Bernardino, California.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Coming (relatively) soon…

Episode 47: Carrie Vaughn

An hour-long chat with Carrie Vaughn, author of the Philip K. Dick Award-winning novel Bannerless, the New York Times-bestselling Kitty Norville urban fantasy series: more than twenty novels and upwards of 100 short stories, two of which have been finalists for the Hugo Award.

Website
www.carrievaughn.com

Facebook
@carrie.vaughn

Carrie Vaughn’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Carrie Vaughn‘s work includes the Philip K. Dick Award-winning novel Bannerless, the New York Times bestselling Kitty Norville urban fantasy series: more than twenty novels and upwards of 100 short stories, two of which have been finalists for the Hugo Award. Her most recent work includes a Kitty spin-off collection, The Immortal Conquistador, and a pair of novellas about Robin Hood’s children, The Ghosts of Sherwood and The Heirs of Locksley. She’s a contributor to the Wild Cards series of shared world superhero books edited by George R. R. Martin and a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop.

A bona fide Air Force brat (her father served on a B-52 flight crew during the Vietnam War), Carrie grew up all over the U.S. but managed to put down roots in Colorado, in the Boulder area, where she pursues an endlessly growing list of hobbies and enjoys the outdoors as much as she can. She is fiercely guarded by a miniature American Eskimo dog named Lily.

The (LIghtly Edited) Transcript

Coming (relatively) soon…