M.J. Kuhn, author of the internationally bestselling Among Thieves and its new sequel, Thick as Thieves, is a fantasy writer by night and a mild-mannered marketing employee by day. She lives in the metro Detroit area with her very spoiled cat, Thorin Oakenshield.
An hour-long interview with Gerald Brandt, bestselling author of the San Angeles science-fiction series and the new Quantum Empirica series that began with Threader Origins, all published by DAW Books.
Gerald Brandt is an internationally bestselling author of science fiction and fantasy. His current novel is Threader Origins, published by DAW Books, the first book in the Quantum Empirica trilogy that will continue with Threader War and Threader God.
His first novel, The Courier, Book 1 in the San Angeles series, was listed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as one of the ten Canadian science fiction books you need to read and was a finalist for the prestigious Aurora Award. Both The Courier and its sequel, The Operative, appeared on the Locus Bestsellers List.
By day, Gerald is an IT professional specializing in virtualization. In his limited spare time, he enjoys riding his motorcycle, rock climbing, camping, and spending time with his family. He lives in Winnipeg with his wife, Marnie, and their two sons, Jared and Ryan.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Hey, Ed. How are you?
I’m good. Now, we’ve known each other for quite some time now. Winnipeg and Regina are not that far apart. And we’ve showed up at the same conventions, and now we share a publisher, DAW Books.
We do. I think we first met, probably, at World Fantasy in Calgary, would have been the first time.
Yeah, that sounds about right. And I guess we share an editor, too, Sheila E. Gilbert at DAW Books.
Hugo Award-winning editor.
Oh, yes. Must mention that. Yes. And the other fun fact is that I was there in Washington, DC, at World Fantasy when you sold that first novel to DAW. And I think I was one of the first people to know about it, actually, outside of probably your family.
You may have been, actually. Yeah. That whole day is still a fog. I can’t remember all the finer details.
It was great. Well, let’s start by finding out how you got interested in writing science fiction and fantasy. Let’s take you back first to a little bit of biographical information. Did you grow up in Winnipeg? Have you always been a Winnipegger? Tell me your life story.
Yeah, I did grow up in Winnipeg, although I wasn’t born here. I was born in Berlin, Germany. So, I’m a first-generation immigrant to Canada. But I guess we moved when I was two years old. So, yeah. I don’t remember much of my first two years of my life, but so, yeah, Winnipeg has been my home for pretty much my entire life.
So, growing up in Winnipeg, when did you discover that you liked science fiction?
You know, this is going to sound cliché, and I’m sure that just about everybody you have spoken to has said the same thing, but I started out as an avid reader. Don’t we all?
Pretty much, yeah.
And the books that grabbed my attention, although I read pretty much everything, you know, if you handed me a ketchup bottle, I’d read the ingredients list just to read something . . .
And then do it again in French, since we live in Canada.
Well, no, I . . .no, no. I’m sadly a one language person.t I did not do well in school in French classes. But anyway, so yeah, the books that really seemed to draw me more than anything else were, well, mainly fantasy novels, and science fiction as well. So, yeah.
Do you remember any specific titles that had an impact on you?
Oh, my gosh. You know, the Foundation series, Asimov’s Foundation series, was a big one for me, going a ways back in my younger, younger years. Piers Anthony was a big one for me, but I find myself struggling to . . .I went back and read some of him recently, and I don’t think his books aged that well, unfortunately.
No, I loved them too. And I had kind of the same reaction when I looked back at them.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, what else? Wow. Yeah. You’re asking me to go way back. You know, I’m pretty old.
Oh, yeah, look who’s talking to me. I’m older than you are. So, you know, I can remember. I’m sure you can.
Well, I . . . you know, maybe . . . but I don’t even have many of those books on my shelf anymore. You know, I’ve gone past what really got me into the genre, I think.
Well, when did you start writing? I read in another interview, I think, that you did some in junior high?
Yeah, in junior high. I wrote . . . I started thinking that, you know, I’ve been reading all this stuff, I can start writing it. And it was much like the poetry I was writing at the time, rather angst-filled teenage garbage, but, you know, I guess we all start somewhere.
How much did you do? Like, were you writing long things or short stories or . . .?
Yeah, short stories. I didn’t even know they really existed back then. So, I was reading novels, you know, I was reading Stephen R. Donaldson and things like that. So, I was basically copying what I read. And, you know, I got well into some novels, but I never actually got anything finished back then. I think I actually still have a notebook here somewhere that has a really bad hundred pages of a handwritten fantasy novel in it, which I really should get rid of before I die because somebody will read it, and that would just be bad.
I have actually, right here on my desk, I have the handwritten manuscript of my first novel that I wrote when I was fourteen.
And it was typed up later. And you never know, I might put it online sometime under a pseudonym or something. And my worry is that it will sell better than my actual novels.
Well, you are a braver soul than I.
I don’t know. I haven’t done that yet. I’ve talked about it for a long time, but it hasn’t happened yet.
So, I also read in that interview, though, that you kind of . . . well, first before I do that, did you share your writing with people at the time? I always ask people that about their youthful writings. Were they brave enough to share it, or was it a thing you just kept to yourself?
Never. I did not share any of my writing until I got serious, quite serious, about it when I turned forty. And even then, I held off for a number of years before I thought I was good enough to have somebody else look at.
So, there was a gap in there between writing in junior high and getting serious about it.
What happened in there?
Well, in Grade 10, so, the first grade of high school, they offered a computer programming course. And on a whim, I took it. And that was the end of my world. I started, at that point, I started a career of computer programming. And I’m glad I did. It did very well for me. I’m actually not programming anymore, I’ve gone more to the IT side now, but it gave me a career that helped me, you know, let me raise a family and buy a house and do all those things that normal people do that you can’t do for, in most cases, you can’t do with a writing career.
I did programming briefly. I didn’t have a class in it, but I learned Basic, and I had a Commodore 64, and I wrote this extensive program using the Commodore 64 music chip that allowed me to input sheet music into it after a fashion. And I did that, and it took hours and hours, and it worked, after a fashion. And then when it was done, I thought, “You know, there are other people who are better at this than I am.” And I was never tempted to be a programmer after that. So I had a different reaction to you, I think.
Yeah, yeah. M first introduction in high school would have been punch cards and programming in COBOL before we moved on to the Commodore PET, which was the first microcomputer I touched. So, that was a long time ago.
I did take one programming class. I lied. I took an off-campus university programming class, and it used a Commodore PET, as well. So there something we have in common. But then you did something with it, and I never did. So, what brought you back to writing then? I mean, were you continuing to read science fiction through all those years?
Oh, absolutely. My reading has never . . . well, I’m not going to say never. My reading did not drop off at all during those years. That has changed since I’ve become a writer because I just don’t have as much time as I used to have. But yeah, I absolutely kept on writing or kept on reading, and yeah, I wouldn’t have stopped. Nothing would have stopped me from reading.
I kind of loved science fiction and fantasy together, but your writing is certainly, so far at least, more on the science fiction side. Were you more of a science fiction reader than a fantasy reader, or were you indiscriminate?
I was more of a fantasy reader than science fiction, and everything that I’ve ever written before my first sale has been fantasy, but I have never sold any of my fantasy. I’ve only sold my science fiction. So, go figure.
Hmmm. Well, how did the switch to writing seriously come about? What made you decide at the age of forty or whenever to take it seriously and really get into it?
Yeah. You know, it was always there. I mean, always the idea that, you know, I’m reading this stuff and I can do this. I want to do this. But at forty, a little bit before forty, I became a stay-at-home parent to my two boys. One was in Grade 1, and the other one hadn’t yet started preschool, I guess, so he was home all the time. And one of the parents of another kid in my son’s, in the Grade 1 class, she was a writer. And, you know, we started talking a little bit, and I just kind of woke up one morning and said, “This is it. It’s now or never. I’m forty years old. If I don’t start writing, then I probably won’t.” So, I gave myself a goal. I said, I will have something published. A novel was my goal. I will have a novel published in ten years. Or if I don’t, I’ll stop because it’s obsolete. Ten years to me was the perfect amount of time to hone whatever skills I might have had and churn out something that was publishable. And the end result was Sheila offering me a contract at roughly ten years and three months.
And at that point, you know, I wasn’t going to stop anyways because ten years of actually struggling and getting better and writing and being critiqued and critiquing, I wasn’t going to stop at fifty, at any rate. I was going to keep on going until I had something sold. But, you know, it’s interesting that it happened roughly in the time frame that I gave myself.
Well, did it just sell out of the gate, or was there some back and forth with Sheila on that particular novel?
Well, there’s a five-year story.
Yeah, I kind of knew it was there. That’s why I asked.
Yeah, I figured you did. Actually, Sheila came to the convention, KeyCon, here in Winnipeg.
Yeah, I remember. I was there too.
So, we did meet then before World Fantasy. I guess we never spoke.
Yeah. We probably didn’t notice each other.
Probably not. No. But anyway, as a big surprise to her, KeyCon had set up a pitch session, which she . . .
I remember that!
. . . . which she was not prepared for. So, I signed up for the pitch session, and it was my first pitch session ever. And it took me by surprise, probably almost as much as it took Sheila by surprise. They put thirty of us into a room with Sheila, and we all pitched to her in front of each other, which is not actually the way it works, really. But whatever, it happened.
I, unfortunately, followed somebody who had had a lot to drink the night before and showed up with bathroom-tile imprints still on the side of their face. And they tried to pitch to Sheila and finally just stood up and said, “I’m sorry, I can’t do this,” and walked out. And then they called me. So, I went up to the desk and, you know, did the brief introductions, and she said, “What do you have?” And I stuttered and stuttered. And I said, you know, “I’m really quite nervous. And I’m not sure that I can remember what I memorized anymore.” And she said, “Well, do you have it written down?” And I said, “Yeah, it’s right here.” And she looked me in the eye, and she said, “Oh, thank goodness.” And she took the paper, and she read it, and she requested a full.
And then, I guess, we met, that’s why I started going to World Fantasies, probably. We met at every World Fantasy after that and talked about the book. And, you know, she never actually had read it yet, but she asked me what I was working on, what was new, what was coming up to me. I guess she was kind of just pushing me to make sure that I was serious about the work. But writing this was what I wanted to do. You know, in the meantime, I pitched other books to her, and she kind of grimaced once or twice. Threader Origins was one of those. But I wrote it anyways, despite her grimace. And then, you know, we’d meet, and she said, “You know, I managed to read your synopsis on the airplane. So, we’re going to talk about your synopsis rather than The Courier.” And so, she critiqued and poked holes in that. And I kept saying, “Well, you know, this is what happens.” And, you know, so I answered all of her questions on that. In the next year, she actually read it and bought it. But it was a five-year process.
That’s an interesting initial sale. I remember . . . because I was at KeyCon, I was working on Magebaneat the time, which is by one of my pseudonyms, Lee Arthur Chane. And I remember, I actually remember after she had finished her editorial comments on that, saying to her on the elevator, “But I can write, can’t I?”
When she bought The Courier, I left our little meeting, and we arranged to meet later on in the day again. So, I went up to my room, and I phoned the wife, and she actually left a meeting to take my phone call. And she went back into the meeting, and she says, “My husband just sold his first novel.” And everybody in the meeting, including her boss, looked at her and said, “Well, you’re not quitting your job, are you?” So luckily, she said no, because the writing . . . but anyway, in that same convention, Sheila and I sat down in a quiet spot, and she gave me my first editorial on the novel at that convention. And I kind of felt like garbage because I didn’t know how things worked. But yes, the same as, you know, “I can still write? You think I can still write, right?” And then, about twenty minutes after she gave that first editorial pass, I went to my first DAW dinner.
Oh, yeah. It’s, I mean, I’ve said that to Sheila, it’s been well, you know, “I bought the book, so obviously I think you can write.”
Yeah. I think Julie Czerneda has asked her to at least say something good right at the beginning so that we actually start off thinking, “OK, maybe it’s not that bad.”
Well, we’re going to talk about the editorial process at the end of this next bit because that is part of the whole published-author thing that people are interested in. But let’s talk about now how . . . well we’ll focus on the new one, Threader Origins, which just came out as we’re recording this and will have been out for a month or so when this goes live, and use that as an example, tell me—the classic question—where do you get your ideas? Or, if you prefer, what was the seed for this particular novel? How did this particular one come along, and how does that tie into the way that ideas normally bubble up for you?
Well, this is my second series with DAW, and—although I have a bunch of trunk novels, so I guess I have experience there as well—but normally, as is the case for this one, I have a character . . .
Before we do that.
Very important. Give us a synopsis so that people know what we’re talking about.
The dreaded synopsis, how writers dislike that part. But Threader Origins is an alternate-Earth book. Darwin Lloyd is a university student. He’s going to become a physicist, and he loves quantum theories and all that stuff. And he’s following in his father’s footsteps. So, he gets an internship where his dad works, and together with, of course, the whole team, they build a machine that can basically generate unlimited electricity to power whatever you want, a whole city or whatever. And Darwin is there for the very first test where they go up to 100 percent, and things go wrong, and he gets pulled into an alternate earth by the machine. And then things go bad from there. In the world he gets pulled into, the same machine was turned on five years prior. So, they’ve had five years of this machine generating what the people call threads. And, you know, they can . . . it can not only, not quite alter reality, but it can kind of predict the future. And it can do various things. I won’t get into too much detail here. And he sees how much it’s destroyed the world he’s gone into. And his main goal is to get home and turn the machine off. And of course, nobody knows how to do that, get home or turn the machine off. So, it’s a struggle.
The overall story is called the Quantum Empirica, correct?
Yes. Now, go back to where did this one come from?
All right. We’ll go back to, again, Darwin Lloyd. He just kind of popped into my head one day as not quite a fully formed character, but pretty close. And I fleshed him out and figured out what his flaws were, what happened to him before the book started. And I figured I had a great character to build a novel around. So, it took me quite a while to figure out what kind of world to throw him in that would test him the most. And yeah, once I did that, I just started researching and writing.
Well, what does your planning and outlining process look like? I read a description of it, and it sounds quite . . . what’s the word . . . physical. Post-it notes and things like that. So how does that work for you?
All right. Yeah, I have . . . I bought a four-by-eight metal whiteboard at IKEA, and I have so many stacks of Post-it notes around here it’s ridiculous. But basically, what I do is . . . by the time I’m into the Post-it note stage, I already have my main character, and I have the majority of my world thought out, not necessarily detailed, but thought out. And I might have a couple of secondary characters. And I grab my Post-it notes and I write . . . sometimes it’s as little as one word, and sometimes it’s a sentence. And I take that, and I stick it on the board. And basically, that Post-it note becomes a scene, and sometimes the one word is an emotion, right? I know that at this point, there’s got to be a lot of pain and hurt. So that’s what I’ll put in there, because I don’t know what scene is going to bring that out yet, the details, but I know that I need it, so I’ll put it on there. And by the time I’m done, I have anywhere from 75 to 100 Post-it notes or more on my whiteboard. And it’s possible that they’re all different colors because I assign a color per point of view character. So, for example, on the San Angeles series, I probably had about six colors on my whiteboard. For Threader Origins, it’s just all Darwin Lloyd’s point of view. So, it’s all one color. In this case, it’s pink. I’m still staring at it now for book three.
And yeah, I take it, once I have all my Post-it notes written, I arrange them to make more sense. And so, I know where I have my highs, I have my lows. I don’t know chapter breaks or anything at that point yet, but I actually do my initial rough plot on that whiteboard. Once I’m sure that I have something that I like that is somewhat coherent, I take all of those notes and put them into a spreadsheet and, again, color-coded based on character point of view. And that’s where I start expanding things. You know, if for, like, for the San Angelesseries, every scene had a timestamp. So, I made sure that the timestamps matched for every point of view character, and all that stuff. For Threader Origins, I had separate color coding for the threads that Darwin was learning at a time because the colors of threads have specific meaning in the novel.
So, I fill all that in, and I take those one-word or those one-sentence scenes, and I put them into three or four sentences in the spreadsheet, and I just build it and rearrange it until, again, I’m happy with it. And then, I take the somewhat detailed description of three or four sentences, move those into a document and start writing from there. I usually end up with . . . by the time it’s all said and done, seventy-two to seventy-five scenes because I average thirteen to fourteen hundred words per scene, and that gets me a 100,000-word novel.
Wow. Not the way I work!
And you know, the thing is that none of what I’ve done up to this point is written in stone, which is good because, as you know, as you’re writing, these things just organically kind of grow. I don’t leave, at least for the first half, I don’t normally leave my plot. But there’s these little details that come in. This little, this character that you have to throw in there in order to show something becomes a little bit more important. So, you know that they’re going to be coming back in the book a bit more. So usually at the halfway point, I go through the process again for the second half of the book because things have changed enough that the second half of the plot, although it’s, the plot is probably OK, it’s the details of the interactions and the emotions that might have changed. So, I go back at the half unit, the halfway point, and rearrange that second part of the plot.
So, this Post-it approach, how did you decide to use that approach? Does that somehow relate to being a computer programmer and the way that you plan out when you’re reprogramming, or . . .?
No, not even . . . not at all, actually. You know, when you’re starting out, and again, during that time period when I wasn’t writing, but, you know, and I was doing all the computer stuff, I’d still buy all these books on how to plot and character development and all this kind of stuff. My bookshelf is filled with them. But the thing that made sense to me was . . . people were always using note cards, right? They’re saying you take your, take the note cards, and you write things down in the note cards, and that lets you rearrange things, and I tried it, and it didn’t work for me, but, you know, and then I moved to Post-it notes and just seeing it visually on the whiteboard all at once worked for me a lot better than having a stack of note cards that I would rearrange or have to lay down on the floor to look at the sequence of events. And then, at the end of that, I have to clean it up because, of course, I have kids in the family, and I can’t leave stuff like that on the floor. So, it just kind of a progression of the note cards just into Post-it notes.
“Your novel doesn’t make a lot of sense.” “Yeah, well, the cat ran through it at just the right moment.”
You know, it’s . . . you know, I read all that stuff, too, in the magazines, and yet it never, never took with me at all. So, I’m always interested in . . . you know, part of the point of this whole podcast is that everybody does it differently. So, it’s always interesting. So, once you start writing, it’s sequential because you figured it all out ahead of time. What’s your actual writing process? I know, for example, that you use rather different word processing software than most people do.
I do. I use . . . you know, I tell the world I use WordStar, which is a 1980s word processor. But, you know, having been a computer programmer for too many years to even consider, I wrote my own word processor, and I use that, and it’s WordStar compatible.
And what is your actual . . . well, first of all, what do you like about that? What were you looking for that made you do that?
Well, the first thing is that the muscle memory of just how to use WordStar, because I used it, like, in the ’80s and early ’90s, I used it for all of my other stuff, whether I was documenting or whatever, I was doing some code or whatever, I used WordStar. So, the muscle memory was certainly there. But it’s really a writer’s word processor. You know, I can . . . if you have Microsoft Word, if you highlight a block of text and you know you want to copy that somewhere, you want to do something with that text, but you’re not quite sure, and then you go and do something else, that block of text is not highlighted anymore. So, you kind of lose what you’ve highlighted with WordStar. I can highlight a block of text, and then I can write for six hours, and I could say, oh, that block of text belongs here, and boom, I can copy it. And it’s still highlighted. So, it remembers things like that. It also has bookmarks. It has ten bookmarks. So I can, say, remember this position in the document as bookmark one or whatever, and then if I’m writing and go, “OK, I have to remember,” I go back to bookmark one, and it’s one keypress, and I’m back at bookmark one, and I can go in, then I can go back to where I was writing. So, it’s easier to jump around. It’s almost like you have a printed document with your fingers in between pages, and you’re flipping between chunks of document to make sure things flow. It just seems to work better for me.
Well, when you’re writing, do you . . . where do you write? You just . . . and how do you find the time for it? You do have a full-time job. So how do you juggle all that?
I do. I had a full-time job up to the second book in the San Angeles series, and the schedule on that was so tight that things were not working out for me. So, I actually went down to three days a week on my job, and that helped a lot. But then, of course, with this whole Covid thing going on and me being the IT guy, my workload increased because nobody’s working in the office anymore. So, I have to support these people in their homes and stuff like that. So, I’m now back to four days a week, so close to full time, but not quite. So, I got into the habit of writing at five in the morning for The Courier because I was the stay-at-home dad at that point, and my kids woke up at seven. So that gave me gave a two-hour block when nobody was awake. I could just come into my office and sit down and write.
Over time that has kind of disappeared. And I started writing in the evenings, and . . . because the kids got older and whatever, I started writing in the evenings and on weekends. For the current book I’m writing, which is the third in the Quantum Empirica series, I tried dictating, which worked for a while. But I’ve now gone back to five in the morning writing because it just seems that I’m more creative at that time. I try to get up at five in the morning, try still being the keyword, and write for a couple of hours before the whole house wakes up.
Are you a fast writer or a slow writer?
Depends on what I’m writing. If I’m writing an action scene or something with a bunch of dialogue, I can turn that out pretty quick. If I’m writing something, you know, in between those two, where a character has to get from A to B and stuff like that, I struggle with those ones. And those, you know, if I get 200 words, 200 words, 600 words in those two hours, I’m happy. But if I’m, like, I’m doing action scenes, I can do 3,000 words in those two hours easily.
So, once you have a first draft, what does your revision process look like? But what things do you do on the and yeah, how many passes do you make and all that sort of stuff?
How many passes I make is, you know, anywhere from, well, double digits. Let’s just go double digits. Leave it at that.
It’s hard to tell when you’re working, it’s kind of an organic thing, really what you count as a pass.
It is, although I do have fixed passes in there as well. I do have a specific pass where I, I add description because when I do my first draft, I’m not a descriptive writer. My first draft could be anywhere from sixty-five to seventy-five thousand words, which is not the right size for a novel. It’s too small. And I will say one of the passes is adding the description so that you can actually get to know where you are in the book when you’re reading it. And another pass I add I use specifically for emotional content to make sure I’m hitting those points, you know, and then I have the technical passes as well, you know, don’t use passive voice and all that kind of stuff, so . . . But then there are the organic passes where you’re just kind of going through it, and it’s tough to keep track of. But I don’t revise as I’m doing that first draft. I don’t go back ever. I get the words out because I can’t fix what’s not on the paper. So, I’ve got to get that first draft out before I start any revision. So that first route, that first draft, is usually quite rough.
And how long does your revision process usually take you?
That all depends on when the contract says the book is due.
I guess I’m done revising! Yeah, I know that feeling.
Yeah, you know, that’s a tough call because it’s different for every book, really. It all depends on the details that I need to remember. For the first, the San Angeles series, every scene had a date and a time stamp. And I will never, ever, ever do that again because that is a headache. I end up using Gantt charts in order to keep track of who was where and when and what they knew, just to make sure that those timestamps were actually accurate. And, yeah, that was a struggle. So that took a lot of revision, right? So that took more time. And in this one, because it was a bit more of . . . it’s not as strict on its timelines, really, so the passes were. . . how long it takes is how long it takes, I can’t . . .I don’t think I can answer that.
Well, you did, kind of.
Well, kind of.
So what’s . . . once that deadline comes along and the book goes in, what do you find . . . well, why don’t you describe what Sheila’s editing process is for you?
All right. Before I go into that, I will say that Sheila is thankfully, thankfully happy to give you an extension if you need it. And I have used that twice now. I used it for the last book in the San Angeles series and it made me feel so bad that I swore I would never do it again. And so, I did it again on the last book in the Quantum Empirica series.
I may have taken advantage of that once or twice.
Yeah. And for this extension, I blame 2020. I take full responsibility for it, of course. But 2020 was quite hard on my creative process. So that’s why book three is late and being handed in, but it will still be, the books will still be released in a nice, timely fashion, simply because I’m ahead of the game already, right? With the first book being out and the third book being halfway done, right, I’m still, I still have time. So, things are, you know, the books will be released in good order.
But the process for dealing with Sheila, as you know . . . you read about how everybody goes, and they talk about the editorial letter and all that stuff. So, that’s what I was expecting. But that is not the way that Sheila works. As you well know, Sheila will call you up on the phone at a preplanned time, and you will be on that phone for however long it takes to for her to go through her notes. And she will go through and tell you what is wrong with your book. And it’s all verbal. It’s all done on the phone. And for my first two books, I was scribbling away so fast I might have missed half of what she said, at which point . . . because she always calls me on my cell phone, I have an app on there now that records our phone calls so that I can always go back and listen to what she’s saying again, because my notes miss things. You just can’t keep up. She’s a fast talker, and my handwriting’s not fast enough to keep up with her.
And what sorts of things are you generally, does she generally suggest you might need to expand upon or rewrite?
It’s different, I think, probably for every author, so, yeah, and I think it’s different for really every book I hand in. Right? It’s . . .I’ve never actually looked for a common thread, which is probably a weakness of mine because if there was a common thread, I should really fix it, shouldn’t I, or hand the book in?
I usually find it’s, like, you know, expanding on something that there’s just not enough information there for the reader to follow what’s going on or that sort of thing.
I would agree. It’s continuity comments or things where, yeah, there’s not enough detail to explain why the character’s going this way, or there is enough detail, and she doesn’t think that it really fits in with the character’s psyche of what she’s learned of that character and she doesn’t think it fits. I’ll take an example. The first version of Threader Origins that I handed in, the relationship between Darwin and his father was antagonistic. They did not like each other. They blamed each other for a lot of things, which I won’t get into detail with because that’s a bit spoilerish. But they butted heads a lot. They didn’t really like each other. And, you know, it created tension, and it created conflict, and it moved the book ahead, so it did its job. But when Sheila read it, she didn’t quite like it. She didn’t think that that was really what the book needed. So . . . and this is the nice thing about doing phone calls. We sat there, and we just hashed it out. We figured it out together. And she kind of tossed in ideas. And I said, you know, well, that won’t work because of and then I tossed in ideas, and she says, well, that might work. But what about, you know, we just came to something that we were both quite happy with, and that relationship changed. And because it changed, it added so much more depth to Darwin’s and the father’s character and increased the whole emotional line of the novel. It was just fantastic.
Before you were writing seriously or when you started writing seriously, did you have any fear of the editorial process? I know that some beginning writers, you know, “Well, the editor’s going to change everything, or they’re going to ruin my story.”
Way back when I didn’t even know there was an editorial process. So, no. My first experience with the editorial process would have been with Bundoran Press. When Virginia O’Dine ran Bundoran Press, Heyden Trenholm edited Blood and Water for her, and they bought a short story, my very first sale ever in 2012 maybe. So, Hayden was my first editorial process thing.
Another editor we’ve shared!
I loved working with Hayden. He was, you know . . . I expected the editorial process to be, at that point, anyways, this is wrong. This is how you can fix it. And that’s not really the way it works because the editor didn’t write the story, right? It’s my story. So, what the editor—and Hayden and Sheila will both do this—is they’ll say, “This isn’t working. What can you do to make it better? This feels a bit forced to me, or this spot feels weak, or I’m not getting the emotional hit I think I should here.” But they didn’t tell you how to fix it, right? They just tell you that it’s not working. And then you have to go back and fix it. And I think that was the biggest surprise for me. When, you know, when I first went with Hayden and when I first actually started thinking about the editorial process, is that they leave it up to you. They don’t do the changes for you, which I love.
But if you wish to consult with them about possibilities, they’re certainly willing to help out in that.
Absolutely. Absolutely. You can. And that’s what they’re there for as well, is to hash things out if you need them. As I mentioned about Sheila, she’s very, very good at that. With Hayden, I didn’t do that as much.
So, one thing I forgot to ask you about was at the point at which you have something that’s almost ready to submit, do you use beta readers of any sort, or do you have a writing group or anything like that?
I have a loose writing group. We actually used to be a critique group, but I had to bow out of that because my timelines were so tight I couldn’t read somebody else’s work and do a critique. So, I didn’t feel like I was giving in to the critique group as much as I was getting out. So, I had to pull away from that. But that group instead just became a general writing group. And we will talk and discuss ideas. You know, if I’m hitting a roadblock, you know, I’ll say, “My character’s been in this location for so bloody long, and I can’t get them out of there. What am I supposed to do?” And we’ll hash things out verbally as we meet. But it’s not a formal critique group. But I do have beta readers, for sure. I have a handful of beta readers that I trust and respect their opinion, and they get everything before I hand it in. And even then, you know, they’ll give their feedback, and one beta reader will absolutely hate a section. And every other beta reader . . . I mean, beta readers will never tell you they love a section, almost never, but they didn’t bring up the section at all, so I’ll kind of go, “OK, well, one person out of however many didn’t like it,” I’ll read it and I’ll say, “No, this is perfect for the book. I’m leaving it in as is,” or I’ll read it in context of their opinion and I’ll say, “No, he’s right. I could do this and this and this, and it would be a better scene or a better section.” But normally, if one person picks something up, it’s going, it’s not, you know, it’s not something that you’re going to change. If multiple beta readers pick up the same thing, then I don’t have a problem.
See, I’ve never, never had beta readers, still don’t have beta readers, so I always ask about them because it’s just, I’ve never been someplace where I felt I could find them. I probably could online now, of course. But when I started, I was in Weyburn, Saskatchewan. And, you know, as I’ve mentioned before on here, the writing group in Weyburn at the time consisted of elderly women who wrote stories about the Depression, and I didn’t really fit in there.
No. Yeah. I think, you know, just a couple of my beta readers are actually local. Most of them are spread far and wide. In fact, I don’t even know where two of them live. I just know they’re in the States. That’s all I know.
I was part of a writing, not online, but a by-mail critique group, for a while back in the Dark Ages, but, boy, that was a slow process.
Yeah, at the beginning, I did join an online critique group, and I think they’re actually still running because I still get some emails from them occasionally. But that was, also, I found a slow process. I can’t imagine doing it over mail. That would be a struggle.
Yeah, it was slow, but I did find a couple of really good . . . I ended up with a couple of really good people, and I guess we were sort of beta readers for each other at that point. We didn’t call it that back then. But yeah, I just never got in the habit of that. And I keep thinking . . . maybe my books would be better if I did. But, you know, I’m kind of set in my ways at this point.
You know, us old guys. We’re stubborn
Yeah. “I’ve never done it that way. I’m not going to start now.”
That’s right. Get off my lawn!
The other thing I wanted to ask you about, we talked a little bit about the characters. When you’re doing all this stuff, do you write down character sketches? Do you, you know, just sit and think about the character and try to build all the backstory and everything at that point? Or does a lot of it get discovered as you write or how does that work for you?
You know, although I do start with a fully fleshed character, I do not have a lot of their background. And I also have no idea how they look. If you read my novels, you’ll find that I almost never describe what my characters look like. I’d rather have the reader do that. And that might be because I don’t really know how they look like. I might have an image in my head, but it’s still kind of blurry. But yeah, the character, although I have a full-fleshed character when I start, I don’t know their backstory, and although I kind of know their emotional part going forward, I do that . . . yeah. I discover that as I go. It’s not part of my plotting process, not part of anything that the character develops as it goes. And then in the revision process is when I’ll go back and make sure that there’s consistency in all of that.
And the other thing I kind of forgot to ask you about, and especially this one, which is, you know, quantum, multiple universes and all that sort of stuff. What kind of research do you end up doing for most of your books?
Yeah, that . . . this is a question I really hate with the Quantum Empirica series specifically.
No, I also get asked that a lot because it is quantum strings and quantum theory. I ended up buying many, many books and doing a whole bunch of online research into quantum theory and quantum strings. And, yeah, and I realized, much to my chagrin, that I’m just not smart enough to know that stuff.
So, yeah, I did a bunch of research that really didn’t stick with me because I wasn’t smart enough, or intelligent enough, to keep all those details, you know, going. For the Quantum Empirica series, what really worked is, one of the books I bought was The Dancing Wu Li Masters, I don’t have the author’s name in my head right now. It’s quite an old book. But it kind of brought, you know, Eastern philosophies together with physics and kind of tried to meld them together into something that was explainable. And that really fed into Threader Origins. In fact, the title of the book was The Dancing Wu Li Masters, and I actually have dancers in Threader Origins based off of that. I had a friend, I was reading the book and going through it with a highlighter and marking pages, and a friend picked up the book and started reading my highlighted comments and threw it back on my desk in disgust. He says, “You haven’t highlighted any of the scientific stuff, just all the emotional content,” and I said, “Well, yeah, OK, that works.”
Yeah, research is, you know, because both of my series take place, you know, basically on Earth, I don’t have any extra, you know, planetary stuff. And, you know, and especially for Threader Origins, Google Maps was a big one, a big part of my research. And then I had the opportunity, actually, I went on holiday and drove through most of the areas that Threader Origins covers in the US, which also help me bring in a bunch of extra details on the scenes.
OK, well, we’re getting down to the last few minutes, so I’ll ask you the other question you’ve already said you’ll hate, which is the big philosophical questions.
Did I not mention that I’m not intelligent enough?
Before we started, you said you weren’t philosophical enough. So, we’ll see. But they’re really not difficult questions. I think the first one is, why do you write? The second one is, why do you think any of us write? Why do we tell stories? And the third one is, why do you write stories of fantastic specifically? So, in whatever order you like.
All right. Well, I will do them in the order you asked. I will ask you to rephrase those questions as well, because I will have forgotten what they were about to get them. OK, why do I write? is the first one. And a lot of people I know, a lot of authors I know, say they write because they have to. If they don’t write, they’re going to go crazy. They’re going to go insane. And that is not my answer. I write because I enjoy it. I love the creation and the development of characters and the world-building. And, you know, it’s a mental exercise that I love doing. And could I go without writing? Probably. Would I be happy about it? No, no. I enjoy the process. I really, really enjoy the process. That being said, I enjoy having written more than the actual writing as well. So, I’m a complex person. How’s that?
That’s a very common affliction of our writers.
There you go.
And the second question was, why do you think any of us write? Why do we tell stories? Why do we make stuff up? As human beings, we make. Why do we make stuff up?
I think I’ll couch that in our current times, when times get difficult and tough, you know, whether it’s Covid-19 or the politics south of our border or whatever is in the world or whatever is stressing you out or hurting you, people want and need—most people, not everybody, not everybody—but people want and need some sort of escape. And even if that escape can be as depressing or as painful as the real world, it’s an escape from where they are in their lives and where they’re at. It gives them the chance to, whether they live in your main character’s skin for a while or whatever, gives them a chance to escape from reality, you know, without the use of psychotics.
And the third question was . . . what was the third question . . .oh, why, if you’re going to tell stories for people to escape into, why make it stories of the fantastic, fantasy and science fiction?
Because it’s what I love to read, I actually . . . when I started out, I never even thought of writing a different type of book. It’s just what I love to read. It’s what I love to write. Although I also love to read thrillers. And although I’ve tossed around the idea of writing a thriller, I don’t . . . you know, by the time I’d be finished writing, the thriller would have too many fantastical things in it to be considered just a thriller.
Yeah, whenever I’ve tried to write something else, there’s always, “But if I put a ghost in here, this is really cool.”
I could put it a gryphon right here! Yeah.
So, you’ve mentioned that you are, I guess, writing the third book. The second one is in revisions, and the first one is out. So that’s what you’re working on now?
Yeah, I’m working on the third book, and again, the whole Covid year and some of the politics that have been happening have made it a struggle for me to be creative. But I am working my way through it, and I will hand this one in on its extended deadline.
And what are the titles of the second and third books?
OK, so it’s Threader Origins is the first, Threader War is the second and Threader God is the third.
And do you know roughly what the release schedule is?
I have no clue. I have not heard the release schedule on anything but the first book, which, as you said, just came out.
And do you have anything else in the works beyond that? Are you already looking beyond . . .?
I do I, I have an idea, and usually, I wake up with these ideas in the middle of the night and scribble them down on a piece of paper, and in the morning, it feels like I’m reading a doctor’s signature. So . . . and the idea is gone from my head. So what happened this time is the idea came during the day, but I was in the middle of doing writing on Threader God. So I emailed the idea to my agent, and now it’s up to her to remind me when it’s it’s time to work on it.
And you’ve got a little short fiction as well, I think, for an anthology that’s coming up?
I do. I have . . .What’s the title? It’s called Derelicts, by Zombies Need Brains. I’m one of their anchor authors. That doesn’t mean that they’ll actually buy my story if it’s garbage, but I’m hoping they enjoy it. I handed that in . . . probably December, January 1 or 2, I think, so a couple of days beyond the due date when it was due. But they will get to reading it, and I will get my editorial comments on those. And I think that book is . . .you know, I don’t have a release date on that either. But if they accept it, it’s my third short story sale.
I’m in another one that was Kickstarted at the same time. That’s why I asked. So, I turned mine in before the deadline.
Not too far from the . . .
Yeah. How’s that full-time job working for you? Sorry, that was harsh.
All right. Fair enough. Fair enough. And where can people find you online? I mentioned it off the top, but we’ll mention it again here at the end.
All right. Well, I’m geraldbrandt.com on the Web. I’m on Facebook as Gerald Brandt Author, and I’m on Twitter @GeraldBrandt.
And we should mention that’s Brandt with a D. B-R-A-N-D-T.
It is a silent D, so. Yes, yeah. If you’re not sure of the spelling, you can look at the transcript.
Exactly right. Well, thanks so much, Gerald. It’s been great chatting with you. You know, I thought about it for a long time. I have to limit the number of DAW authors I do, though. I have to space them out because I could easily do nothing but DAW authors because I’ve met so many of them at dinners and stuff.
Yeah. Yeah. Well, thank you so much for having me. This was a blast.
I had a great time, and best of luck with the trilogy, and I’m sure I’ll talk to you again soon. Or hopefully, we’ll see each other in person again soon.
That would be nice. I would . . . I can hardly wait to actually meet people again. This has dragged on long enough. But I think we’re looking at probably another six to nine months before something happens.
An hour-long interview with F. Paul Wilson, the award-winning, bestselling author of 60 books and nearly 100 short stories spanning science fiction, horror, adventure, medical thrillers, and virtually everything between.
F. Paul Wilson is the award-winning, bestselling author of 60 books and nearly 100 short stories spanning science fiction, horror, adventure, medical thrillers, and virtually everything between.
His novels The Keep, The Tomb, Harbingers, By the Sword, The Dark at the End, and Nightworld were New York Times Bestsellers. The Tomb received the 1984 Porgie Award from The West Coast Review of Books. Wheels Within Wheels won the first Prometheus Award, and Sims another; Healer and An Enemy of the State were elected to the Prometheus Hall of Fame. Dydeetown World was on the young adult recommended reading lists of the American Library Association and the New York Public Library, among others. His novella “Aftershock” won the Stoker Award. He was voted Grand Master by the World Horror Convention; he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Horror Writers of America, and the Thriller Lifetime Achievement Award from the editors of Romantic Times. He also received the prestigious San Diego ComiCon Inkpot Award and is listed in the 50th anniversary edition of Who’s Who in America.
His short fiction has been collected in Soft & Others, The Barrens & Others, and Aftershock & Others. He has edited two anthologies: Freak Show and Diagnosis: Terminal plus (with Pierce Watters) the only complete collection of Henry Kuttner’s Hogben stories, The Hogben Chronicles.
In 1983 Paramount rendered his novel The Keep into a visually striking but otherwise incomprehensible movie with screenplay and direction by Michael Mann.
The Tomb has spent 25 years in development hell at Beacon Films.
Dario Argento adapted his story “Pelts” for Masters of Horror.
Over nine million copies of his books are in print in the US, and his work has been translated into twenty-four languages. He also has written for the stage, screen, comics, and interactive media. He resides at the Jersey Shore
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, welcome to The Worldshapers, Paul.
Well, glad to be here.
You know, I like to give people who, you know, haven’t done much an opportunity to be on the show once in a while.
And maybe I can help out your career a little bit. Well, it’s nice to meet you. We’ve never met in person, but your name sort of popped up in something I was reading, and I thought, “That’d be a great guy to talk to.” And I have to say that I have a very strong memory of reading The Keep when it first came out, back in 1981, was it, I think?
Yeah, it was.
And I also remember seeing the movie, and I do remember thinking that it was rather incomprehensible but pretty to look at. So, yeah, I think that was an accurate description. So, we’re going to talk a little bit about your upcoming collection, which will come out about the same time as this goes live. But first, I want to do what I always do with my guests and take you back into the mists of time to find out how you got interested in this kind of stuff and how you started writing. How did that all come about for you? Where did you grow up, and when did you start reading this kind of thing, and when did you start writing it?
Well, I grew up in a classic middle-class family, mother, father, sister, brother, dog, cats. My father was an immigrant from England in, oh, I guess he was age eight in the ‘20s and I . . . .you know, he never encouraged me toward science fiction, but he never discouraged me. And but it was something I always gravitated to. I mean, when we had that little TV set with, maybe it had an eight-inch or a 12-inch screen, I remember King Kong coming on, the trailer for King Kong, when they re-released it in the ‘50s, and I was just was absolutely fascinated with that. And then came The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. And I was on the set. I would sit there and watch the TV, and we had three channels then, and I’d be switching back and forth, praying that somebody would show it again. And finally, you know . . . and I drove my parents crazy. At that time, polio was a threat. The vaccine hadn’t come out yet. And they didn’t want me to go to the movies. It was a summer movie, and summer with other kids was where you got polio. And they said, “You want to end up in an iron lung?” And I said, “I would take that risk to see this film.” And finally, I came up with the idea, hey, drive-in. I’ll be the only one, my family will be the only people I’ll be exposed to, so then they couldn’t object anymore. My father took me, and it was just a wonderful experience to see that on the big screen. And that sort of really cemented my love affair with monsters and science fiction. EC Comics were big at the time. It was before they were censored, and they used to have . . .
Tales of the Crypt, that was EC, wasn’t it?
Yeah, Tales of the Crypt, but they also had the science fiction ones where, you know, they’d have a dinosaur. Maybe drawn by Frazetta, sometimes it was drawn by Frazetta, and Williamson on the cover and on the side, they’d have a rocket ship taking off. I mean, those are my two triggers. I could not buy them. And so, the EC Comics and Uncle Scrooge comics were–because Uncle Scrooge stories were full of imagination—those were my reading staples as a grammar school kid. And then I started reading science fiction and finally got to the point where I said, “I’d like to try to write some of this.” And it took me years, years of rejection, before John Campbell finally bought my first story in 1970, so that’s 50 years ago this year, by the way, and by that time I was hooked. I couldn’t not write. And it’s become an obsessive-compulsive disorder. You know, if I’m not writing, I’m thinking about writing. I fall asleep at night working out plot twists or plot problems. It’s just an integral part of my life. There’s no thought or no possibility of not doing it anymore.
So, did you start writing when you were still in school and as a kid?
In college. Oh, I wrote stories, and I submitted them, you know, like werewolves and haunted house stories, and I submitted them to, like, the school paper, and stuff like that. And they always got rejected. But in college, I started very seriously. I just wanted to get published once. I figured, “If I can just get published once, I’ll be a published writer, and after that, I can do whatever I want.” And, you know, I was going to be, I planned on being a dilettante writer, but in the four or five years it took me to tell the first story, I just became hooked on it, on the process. And I was sure that my, you know, my stories were being rejected because nobody knew my name. You know, if I had Robert Silverberg or Harlan Ellison on the byline, they’d buy this story because it’s great. And after I finally did start selling, I went back to see if I could resell any of these things, or resubmit any of these things, and they were terrible. They were awful. And I just realized they got rejected for very good reason. I never had a writing course. I was just, you know, going by trying to write something I would like to read. Imitating Heinlein . . . I couldn’t imitate Ray Bradbury, that was beyond me, but I could imitate Poul Anderson, I could imitate Robert Heinlein. At least, feel that I was trying to imitate that. Bradbury was too verbose and too picturesque for me.
You mentioned you didn’t actually study writing. You actually were in medical school, weren’t you?
Yes, yes. When I sold my first story, I was a first-year medical student and got $375 or $365, something like that, you know, five cents a word, which they’re still paying nowadays.
Yes, they are.
So, at that time, I went online, and I did one of those inflation calculators and that’s worth almost $2,500 in buying power today. That’s amazing.
Yeah, there was a time when you could make a living just writing short fiction.
In the pulps and things like that. But I think that time is long gone, unfortunately.
Did you ever do anything . . . like, did you complete your medical degree and ever do anything in the medical field, or did the writing sort of take over?
I was in family practice for 44 years.
So after 20 years in there, around the mid-‘90s, like 1994, I was doing full-time medicine, and basically, I was putting out a novel a year. I’d learned how to do the two of them. But by the mid-‘90s, I had partnered with Matt Costello when we were riding interactive scripts, we were scripting the SciFi channel’s FTL Newsfeed, I was still writing books, and we were writing tie-in books together for the games we had sold, and I just couldn’t do it. I just had to cut back on medicine. I cut back to two days a week, and I stayed at that until I retired at the beginning of 2019. So, I’ve been retired for a year and a half, so . . .
Well, you have written some medical thrillers, but in general, has your medical experience fed into your writing? Do you think it was very beneficial for your writing to have that other side of things going on at the same time?
Yes, well, I’m a big believer in keeping the day job for writers because it keeps you in contact with people. Because I notice now since I’ve been retired . . . well, of course, with Covid. All your social contacts are cut way back, but I used to go to conventions all the time, I love being out with the readers. I love being out with other writers. And so, right now, I’m a shut-in and I . . . you know, that human contact, because basically, even if you have the greatest plot, plots happen to people, so, I mean, you’ve got to have good characters and you can’t create characters totally in a vacuum. You know, you have to know what real people are like and what they talk like and imitate that to some extent. So . . . but also, I mean, writing was also my golf game as a doctor. I couldn’t play golf. It was just, you know, I had golf attention deficit disorder, where after a few holes I’d be saying, what am I doing here? But I noticed that one thing that was recurring in my fiction was the miracle cure. It just pops up again and again, and I think that’s something subconscious, that being a doctor, and being a family practitioner, you know, you have patients you’ve had for a long time, and all of a sudden, they get terminally ill, and there’s nothing you can do. And you just wish there was something that you could do. But you’re helpless. You know, the sixteen-year-old girl with an acute leukemia, I mean . . . you know, she’s gone so quickly, and it just tears you up. So, I mean, you know, The Touch was about miracle cures, even my first novel was called Healer. So, it did influence me, but I did try to stay away from medical themes because that was too much like going back to work. As I said, this is my golf game.
Wait, you did venture and have ventured quite a bit into horror. What drew you to horror as opposed to more straightforward science fiction?
Horror was my first love. You know, I loved the rocketships and all that kind of stuff, but monsters, especially like Godzilla, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. I just loved the monster aspect of it. Then they released the Universal monsters films onto TV, and, you know, I was watching Dracula, watching Frankenstein, watching The Wolf Man, I mean, I just loved those things. I built the Aurora models.
Oh, I remember those.
Probably anybody who is in this, you know . . . that was one of the things, when I first read Salem’s Lot, I didn’t know who Stephen King was. I got it from the Literary Guild, my copy. And never once did it mention a vampire was going to be in the book, on the flap copy and the advertisements, never once mentioned vampires. And I’m reading along, and I’m saying, “Oh, you know, the only thing that can explain this is a vampire, but he’s going to cop out because everybody cops out. Nobody has vampires anymore. And then, that kid, I forget the name of the kid who was like, the main protagonist, it turns out that he had built the Aurora models, and I said, “Oh, this Stephen King, he’s one of us.” And all of a sudden, it turned out to be a real vampire. It was like, “Oh, yes!” And so, you know, that that was one of the highlights of the ‘70s, was coming across that novel and absolutely loving it. And then . . . King had made some inroads into horror, but unless you were, in the ‘70s, unless you were Blatty or you were Ira Levin, you really couldn’t get a horror novel published. So, that’s why I was writing science fiction, because there were all these science fiction magazines. There were no horror magazines. Stu Schiff was doing Whispers, and he could only take so many stories. So, as soon as the horror market opened up . . . I had written three science fiction novels and a novella, mostly for Doubleday and Dell. And then I decided, “It’s time to write my horror novel.” So that I sat down and I wrote The Keep. And that changed my life. I mean, that was a huge international bestseller. It’s never been out of print. I’m just getting the movie rights. In February, I filed for recapture of the movie rights; after 35 years, you can do that. And so, we’ve already got people bidding on it to remake it. So, you may see a movie that resembles my novel in more than the title.
Like I said, I really remember reading The Keep. I would have been 20 . . .
Oh, don’t say it, really.
. . . 21 or 22 at the time, I guess 22 probably, and I have a . . . yeah, it really stuck in my mind. And I kind of went through everything, like, I read science fiction, I read fantasy, I read horror. But I actually read more horror for a while after reading The Keep, looking for something else that I liked as much as I enjoyed The Keep. So, there you go. That was the influence on me. I think you mentioned Lovecraft as an influence as well when you encountered him as a young reader.
Yeah, I encountered him . . . the first time was in The Macabre Reader, edited by Donald Wollheim for Ace, and I had this really Emsh cover. And they were all old stories from weird tales. And there was this one called The Thing on the Doorstep, and it had to be the weirdest damn story I had ever read in my life, and I was sure, asking, “Where is Arkham, Massachusetts? Where is Miskatonic University? I’ve got to go there and get a look at some of these books. And actually, I actually got the college guide. I’m looking up Miskatonic, and it wasn’t in there. I mean, that’s how convincing he was and setting up his world. So, you know . . . I never admired his style, but the idea of cosmic horror really got under my skin, and I just thought, “You know, this is really unsettling.” And that has influenced horror work right from The Keep onward.
Well, let’s talk about how you go about crafting a novel. It’s a very old question, and yet it’s legitimate. Where do you get your ideas? What are the seeds for you, the something that will come to you and make you think, you know, I’ve got to write a book about this? Where do those things come to you from?
Different places. I have a notebook, which every writer should have, and I write down little snatches of whatever. Sometimes the first line, sometimes it’s an idea. Like, the Repairman Jack novel Crisscross, that came from an idea I’d written down that a guy is a recurrent killer, but no one can convict him of any of the murders he’s done, so why not convict him of a murder he didn’t do? And that was just the idea there, but, you know, it turns out that in the end, Jack frames him for the murder he didn’t commit, and that’s what gets him. All the murders he did commit still are unaccounted for. But I saw, I was reading the New York Times and I saw this article that talked about lightning survivors having a meeting, getting together in Clearwater, Florida, which is right on Lightning Alley, and where a lot of them had been struck. And it says some of the survivors have been struck two or three times. And how do you get hit by lightning more than once? Three times. I mean, you’ve got to be out there on the golf course holding a putter. And then I said, well, what if they want to get hit? Yeah, I think they kind of want to get hit, but why would they want to get hit? And then (unclear) had asked me for a ghost story, and I said I couldn’t do it, I had no ideas for ghost stories. And I saw this, and I thought, well, what if you can see a dead loved one, even for just a few minutes? And that became “Aftershock,” and that won me the Stoker Award. So from one little blurb in a newspaper . . . or another one, I saw a line that said chimpanzees, this was years and years ago, it said chimpanzees share 98.4 percent of their DNA with humans. And I’m saying, “What? Really? What if they shared 99.6? “That’s where the novel Sim came from. So those are like the epiphanies, the lightning strikes. But the more practiced approach is from the notebook, because I just, as time goes on, I go back and read through the notes and, you know, one from page six, a little blurb on page six will suddenly adhere to something on page eight. And so that’s something . . . sometimes the books grow by a process of accretion. And it’s got to get to the point where I want to write. I think I can make this worthy of somebody’s time to read it and also worthy of my time to write it. And I used to be a real outliner . . .
That was my next question.
I am a firm believer in an author knowing how to end the story before he begins it. I’ve read too many books, and I’m sure you have to, where you’re going along, and it’s great, it’s just sailing along, cooking, then three-quarters of the way through, it starts to fall apart. You see the little cracks form, and by the end, it’s all falling apart because the author didn’t know how he was going to end it. He’s said, “Oh, sure, I can end it. I’ll think of something when I get there ‘cause I don’t know how I’m going to get there.” Well, you know, sorry, you just disappointed me. I feel I’ve sort of wasted my time reading this. I mean, yeah, the journey’s part of it, but also the destination is really important. Especially for a thriller. I mean, I can see some literary novel where it’s a peripatetic type of wandering narrative, and if it’s really got a good voice, fine, you can be happy with it. But with a thriller, with a horror story, even with science fiction, I want that catharsis. You’re going to be building up emotion in me, you’re going to be building up anticipation, and you’ve got to pay off. I have to blow off that steam. Otherwise, I feel that you haven’t done your job.
I read, I don’t remember what it was, it was a long time ago, but it was kind of a post-apocalyptic thing, and the characters are trying to get to . . . I think it was to New Orleans, where they thought there was still some sort of civilization going on down there. And the whole book is about them trying to get there. But when you got to the end, they were heading down, and it was a standalone, they were heading down the Mississippi, and the book literally ended with, “And maybe they got there, and maybe they didn’t. It’s up to you to decide,” basically.
So that’s about the only book that I literally threw across the room when got to the end of it.
Yeah, that’s . . . why did you do that? You could have just come up with something. But I outline and plotless now. I do more, you know, story points. I know how I’m going to get there. I mean, I know where I’m going, I’m not always sure how I’m going to get there, but I have the story points and plot points that I can sort of hop to. But even when I had a big outline, I would always put in a drawer and write the book. Because the story was in my head by then. But every once in awhile, I’d come up against something and say, “How do I how do I solve this?” So that’s when I pull out the outline, I say, “Oh, I did, I figured it out in the outline. And there’s how I got around this.” And I put it back. But a lot of times, stuff that looks great in an outline doesn’t work great fleshed out, you know? So, then you’ve got to take a different path, you’ve got to make a left turn or a right turn there, so you wander off your outline, but at least you know where you’re going. This is where I’m going. And then you get there, and you get that catharsis that you promised.
Well, that’s pretty much the way . . . that’s very familiar to me, because these days, fortunately, writing for DAW, you know, I’m selling from a synopsis rather than writing the whole book. So, I have the whole thing figured out. But then I don’t look at it when I’m writing. It’s only if I get stuck somewhere that I might take another look at it and say, “What was I thinking originally? Maybe that actually is better than what it’s ended up being. And so, it’s very similar for me.
Yeah, you wander off the path, which is good, but then, you wonder why you had the path, and then you go and look and say, “Oh yeah, that’s why I had that there.”
What’s your actual writing process like you? Do you write a certain time every day? Do you work on a parchment with a quill pen, or how do you like to write?
Well, you know, I started off on the Olympia portable, and then I started making a little money out of it, I bought the IBM Selectric, and I think it was 1980, I was at the World SF Convention in Boston, I was talking to Joe Halderman, and he said, “Oh, I’m writing on a computer now.” I said, “What?” He said, “Yeah, I’m using a word processor on Apple II.” And I said, “Word processor, that sounds wonderful,” because I’m still a two-finger typer, millions and millions of words published, all done with two fingers. So the idea of moving a paragraph around or something like that, and not having to retype the page. I mean, this was . . . oh, how long has this been going on? Well, it hadn’t been going on very long. But I went out, and I blew a lot of money. It was like $3,500 to get an Apple II+ with two floppy drives and 48K of RAM.
All you’ll ever need!
Yeah, I could have had 64, but who needs 64? And I used Apple Writer, which was so crude. It didn’t even have word breaks, it was a total wrap-round on the screen. It did print out with word breaks, but on the screen, you couldn’t see the word breaks and an Epson dot-matrix printer. But I thought I was, you know, I was in hog heaven here. I could just fool around with this stuff. I didn’t have the retype stuff, or minimal retyping. It was mostly just fixing. And so now, I write at the computer completely. I’m a morning writer. I always start early in the morning. I’m a morning person. And the first draft, I like to do a thousand, 1500 words a day. And that way, I can keep up the narrative momentum. And I never look back, I never go back and rewrite until I’m done. I call it the vomit draft. I get everything out, get the story on paper, and then I go back and fix it. I forget who said it, but it’s a great saying about getting that vomit draft out. They said, “You can fix bad writing. You can’t fix no writing.”
You’re the second person I’ve interviewed that calls it the vomit draft. My very first interview on the podcast was Robert J. Sawyer, and that’s what he calls it.
And he said he’d gotten it from Edo van Belkom, who’s a Canadian horror writer.
I know that name.
So, I don’t know where it originated, but yeah. And I’ve been using it since, I’ve been telling people it’s like, “Yeah, you get it on paper, and it’s a huge mess, but you feel better, and then you just have to clean it up. So, it’s quite a good metaphor. So, once you do have that vomit draft, what does your rewriting process look like, then? Do you go back to the beginning? And what sorts of things are you finding and correcting? And how many passes will you do on your revisions?
Well, you know, I’m doing fewer and fewer revision passes because, after 50 years, I’ve gotten pretty good at the first draft.
Practice makes perfect!
Yeah. But, you know, often it’s going back because I’ve made notes as I’ve gone along, I say, “Oh, you got to fix this because, you know, you did this here and you didn’t set it up back there. So, we have to go back and set it up.” So that’s a lot of what my first rewrite or revision is, is consistency, and make sure I’ve set up things that happened later on that occurred to me that weren’t in my original plan. And that happens all the time. And that’s one of the things about writing, say, a trilogy or something like that, is you hand in the first book, it’s gone into production, or maybe even on the third book and the first one is in print. And you’re in the third book and go, “Holy crap, I just wish I had done this blah, blah, blah in book one, so I could do this here, you know. And so, it’s always a process with me, and I’m sure I’m not alone, is that you can’t, over the course of three books, you can’t totally plan for everything you want to do. So, I find that going in chapter by chapter in a standalone book, you’ve got to set everything up. It’s very important to avoid the deus ex feeling in your readers of “where did this come from?” So, that’s usually what my first revision is. Then I don’t play around with it too much before sending it out to my beta readers. And I have an understanding with them that they can say anything. They can’t hurt my feelings. We’re both on the same page that, “You guys like thrillers, I like to write thrillers, and you want to help me make my book better. So, no matter what you say, I’m not going to take it personally.”
How many beta readers do you have? And where did you find them?
I had four. I’m down to three. Most of, a lot of, times they are other writers, but there are a couple of people who were fans, and they actually asked me, you know, “I found these errors in the book. Yeah, you want me to take a look at something before it goes to press?” And it’s amazing. I work with Tor a lot, and I read it, and I reread it, then my four beta readers read it and make corrections. Then my editor reads it. Then they have a professional copy editor read it, then they typeset it, and then they send it back to me for another read-through of the page proofs, and there’s still, it goes to press, and it comes out, and somebody says, oh, you know, there’s this here and there. Jesus!
Usually when you’re doing a public reading, that’s when I tend to find those. I’m doing a reading at a bookstore or something, and there’s a typo.
Yes, you’ll be reading . . . you know, I always read my dialogue out loud, but I don’t read the whole book out loud. And probably I should, because even then, you know, your brain puts that word in. I just had . . . I did a Christmas children’s back around 2000. Alan Clarke did the illustrations. And we just republished it. And he was going through all the typesetting and everything, and he wrote to me and said, “You know, there’s a word missing in this sentence.” It’s an 8,000-word story. I’ve been through it so many times. And there it is. There’s the word “to.” “To” is missing in between two other words. And every time I read it, I put that word in, my brain put that word in, and for some reason, because he was typesetting it, it popped out to him. So, that’s very frustrating. I find that very frustrating. But that’s why . . . you know, I’ve had some very good beta readers. Someone would drop out because life gets in the way and stuff like that. And then after that, if the beta readers are somewhat consistent, if at least two of them find a problem, then I’ll fix it. If one of them has a problem and the other three don’t know, then it’s iffy if I’ll fix it, or whether I think it really needs to be fixed. But a lot of times, you know, they’ll spot some inconsistency, “Well, you said so and so said this here and then he said this over here,” And I’ll say, “Oh, you’re right.” One of the things that have changed my writing is . . . back, I think it was 2006, Tom Monteleone and Elizabeth Monteleone asked me to be an instructor at their writers’ boot camp. Now, I never had a writing course, never been to a workshop. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I said, “Sure, you know, just give me the manuscripts, I’ll line-edit them, and then we can go over them with the writers.” And, you know, I came back from that, you know, it’s just a very intense three days. I came back from that, and I had been correcting passive voice and doing all this type of stuff for them. And I looked at my own work in progress, and I’m saying, “Holy crap, I’m doing the same thing I was correcting them for. Look at this passive voice, all of these bad constructions.” So, it was an eye-opener for me, and it really improved my writing, really tightened it up, because I kept crossing stuff out of theirs, and I’m looking at my stuff saying, “Yeah, I can do without that. I can do without that.” And so, I think you can see a sort of a watershed in 2006 where all of a sudden my writing becomes leaner and cleaner because of that.
Yeah, I just finished a term as a writer in residence at the Saskatoon Public Library, and I did it a few years ago at the Regina Public Library. And I’ve done workshops and stuff like that. And writer-in-residencing is the same thing. People give me manuscripts, and I go over them and then we talk about them. And I would say very confidently, you know, “Here, you should be doing this.” And in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, “I have a feeling if they look at my own stuff, they’re going to see I did exactly the same thing.”
Don’t look at my stuff!
Do as I say, not as I do, is some of that.
So, once it gets to your editor, what kind of editorial feedback do you typically get?
I haven’t had much lately. I miss David Hartwell. He used to be my editor for the Repairman Jack books. You know, he was good for the big picture. Writing day after day after day, I’d get a little bit too involved in the leaves, and he would be able to step back and look at the shape of the tree, and said, “You need to fill this out over here and maybe trim this back over here,” or, “Jack’s reaction here, you know, he’s already been through an awful lot of stuff, he’s probably not going to react like this at this point in his career.” And I’m saying, “Yeah, you’re right. Let me just go fix that. So, I miss him because he was with almost all the Repairman Jack books, right up through Nightworld. And the big irony, he fell carrying a bookcase at home and hit his head and died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Carrying a bookcase. Well, I guess that’s a good way to go.
One thing that I meant to ask as we were talking about the writing process was about characters, and of course, Repairmen Jack is a famous character of yours, but how do you develop characters? Where do you find the people that inhabit your books? And how much work do you do on them before you start writing, and how much simply grows through the process of telling the stories?
I do almost no work on them before. I’m like Nabokov. I think characters are my galley slaves, that’s what he called them, and they’re there to perform a function. So, I mean, for Jack, I did, I made some conscious decisions before I wrote the first Repairman Jack novel that he was going to be not like the other typical thriller heroes. He was not going to be ex-CIA, he was not going to have a history of black ops, he was not an ex-cop, he was not anybody. He was a guy from New Jersey who happened to kill someone, who murdered somebody in New Jersey, the guy who killed his mother, and he murdered him in cold blood. And it sort of changed him. He just sort of divorced himself from human society and went to live in New York City under the radar. So I said, this guy, he’s not going to pay taxes, he’s going to be totally under the radar and off the grid, blah, blah, blah. And so, he’s going to have to set up his own network if he’s going to be doing these fixes and he can’t call on the police, he can’t call on an old buddy to run license plates or fingerprints, he’s got to do it on his own. So, he wound up being a blue-collar hero. And people just responded to that. I mean, when I finished the first book, it was supposed to be a standalone. And I knew when I finished, “People are going to want another one.” And I was determined not to do it. I did not want to get into a series and. So, I spent 14 years doing other things before I did the second Repairman Jack novel. But I let the characters develop as I’m writing. They have to serve the story. I don’t like to really define a character before I start writing because then they start thinking that they’re in charge, and this is my book. “You’re not in charge, I’m in charge, and you do what I tell you to do.” And so . . . unless you have, like, a series character, it changes things. Series characters are different because they have their own personality over the course of the books, and they’re going to do what they’re going to do. But everybody else, they’re going to do what I want them to do. And that’s another thing, when I go back and do my first revision. I don’t know that character when I start. By the end of the book, I know that character pretty well. So I go and rewrite him from the beginning, or her, to be the person I need them to be at the end, and so that way, it seems like I planned this all along. But I haven’t. I’ve just I’ve gone by, you know, I’ve winged it. But it sure doesn’t look like that because, as I said, I make it consistent all the way through.
Well, we’ve been talking about your novels. But, of course, what you have coming up, or probably is out as this goes live, is . . .
My next one is . . . oh, yeah, October.
Yeah, is this collection of shorter pieces. Pastiches, I believe you called them. So, tell me about that and what that is. It sounds interesting.
Well, Other Sandboxes is the title, and over the years. I’ve been asked to do . . . I’ve been asked to do a Lovecraft story, like for Lovecraft’s Legacy, Bob Weinberg and Marty Greenberg, they wanted a Lovecraft story. So, I wrote “The Barrens,” sort of a novella, you know, and it mentions Miskatonic University, it mentions Arkham, Massachusetts and the like, but it takes place in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, which I so twisted into a very Lovecraftian place. I didn’t have to do a lot of twisting. It is a weird place. And then you’re going along . . . and Marty Greenberg is responsible for a lot of it because of all the anthologies he did, all the theme anthologies. Like, he did a Batman anthology when the movie came out, The Further Adventures of Batman, and he didn’t ask me to be in it. And I caught him one day, and I said, “You know, you never asked me,” he said, “I didn’t think you would be interested in comic books,” and I said, “I just love comic books. I’ve written for comic books. I wrote for Creepy and Eerie during the ‘70s. And Batman is the one hero I like because he doesn’t have superpowers.” And he said, “We’re doing a Joker anthology next, do you want in?” and I said, “Oh, I definitely want in.” So that was, “Definitive Therapy,” and then he did a Dick Tracy anthology to go with the movie, and I did one for that, and so as time goes on . . . I mean, Joe Lansdale asked me for a story for his retro-pulp anthology, and I mixed in Fu Manchu. I even threw in Daddy Warbucks. So, there’s a whole bunch of these stories, plus there are other people that I have, you know, living writers like Blake Crouch. He did that Wayward Pines that became a TV series, but he did three books initially and Kindle Worlds, they did a Kindle World for him for his Wayward Pines stories. And he asked me to kick it off if I would, and I didn’t think I could, and all of a sudden, I came up with a really killer story. And so, I did that and . . . so oh, yeah, Leslie Klinger asked me for a Sherlock Holmes for one of his Sherlock Holmes anthologies. So, they all added up, and I had all these stories in other people’s sandboxes. And so, I said, “Gee, why don’t I just put them all together.” And I love the title, and Borderlands Press is putting it out . . .oh, and the coverage by a Canadian, Gerhard, he used to do the backgrounds for the Cerebrus comic book. He’s from Kitchener. And so, it’s a really handsome, handsome book, and it’s pretty fat, too, it’s like 160,000 words.
Yeah. A lot of stories I’ve done all those years, so I’m looking forward to that. You’re recycling stories, obviously, but . . .
It’s rare that anybody would have read them all, so they’ll be new to most people.
Exactly. You’re going to find some, you know, even if you’ve read some of the other ones, you’re going to find a passel of new ones you haven’t. And, you know, they’re all definitely the thriller type of short story.
We’re getting close to the end of the time here, end of the hour. Not that anybody’s really counting, it’s just me and the cat, and the cat doesn’t care. But I’d like to ask the big philosophical question, which is basically, why we do this. Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write? And why write stories of the fantastic specifically?
Oh, that’s always a tough one. Why do you do anything? I just . . . I don’t consider myself a writer. I’m a storyteller. I love to tell stories, and I love to suck you into a good story because then, for a while, I can own you, I can squeeze your adrenaline, squeeze your tear ducts, or whatever. But I find tremendous satisfaction in finishing a story and having it come out the way I wanted it to. And that’s tremendously satisfying for me. So, that’s what keeps me going. I think I started off doing it to see if I could do it. But that, you know, once I found out I could do it, there has to be something else that’s going to, you know, keep it going. And sometimes, you know, you think it’s a little bit of immortality, that after you’re gone, somebody is going to pick up one of these books and read it and in a way, you’re still alive. Woody Allen once said, he says, some people, writers, want to achieve immortality through their books. He said, “I’d much prefer to achieve immortality by not dying.” But anyway, I knew that, just for some reason, I get a tremendous satisfaction out of it. And I always tell a story that I would want to read. And I don’t want to read literary fiction. I don’t want to read a straight romance novel. I want something that’s going to . . . I don’t like mimetic fiction. I don’t want to read about something that could be happening down my block. I don’t want to read about a professor having an affair, an English professor having an affair at the college with a student, or something like that. Because that really happens. And that’s the promise of fiction to me, is to take you someplace where you can’t go. And this writer is going to take me someplace where I can’t go by myself, and I want to go along. And if I can walk down the street and find these people that some of these writers are writing about, what do I need them for? You know, I can find the people myself. But you’re going to take me someplace that doesn’t exist? Well, cool. I’m there. So that’s what I want to do.
And where are you taking readers next? What are you working on right now?
Right now, I’m working on another sort of a cosmic horror novel, but I do have a, next June, I have to call it a science fiction, weird science fiction, but science fiction novel, coming out from Tor. My title was (unclear), they always hate my title, so now it’s called Double Threat. And it’s really a rewrite of my first novel, Healer, transposed from the far future to the present time. I transgendered the hero from male to a millennial female, and . . . totally different take on the book. And those changes, you know, make it . . . you wouldn’t know it was the same book. So that was fun.
And that comes out next June?
That comes out in June.
And where can people find you online?
I’m at RepairmanJack.com. I’m also on Facebook, and I’m also on Twitter @FPaulWilson.
Well, that’s kind of the time. So, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed that chat. I hope you did, too.
I did. And that’s it for now. So, thanks so much, and bye for now.
An hour-long conversation with Kathrin Hutson, internationally bestselling author of dark fantasy, science fiction, and LGBTQ+ speculative fiction, ghostwriter, fiction co-editor of Mud Season Review, and director of interviews for TopShelf Magazine.
International bestselling author Kathrin Hutson has been writing dark fantasy, sci-fi, and LGBTQ speculative fiction since 2000. With her wildly messed-up heroes, excruciating circumstances, impossible decisions, and happily never-afters, she’s a firm believer in piling on the intense action, showing a little character skin, and never skimping on violent means to bloody ends.
In addition to writing her own dark and enchanting fiction, Kathryn spends the other half of her time as a fiction ghostwriter of almost every genre, as fiction co-editor for Burlington’s Mud Season Review, as director of Top Shelf interviews for TopShelf Magazine, and is an active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and the Horror Writers’ Association. Kathrin lives in Colorado with her husband, their young daughter, and their two dogs, Sadie and Bruce Willis.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, Kathrin, welcome to The Worldshapers.
Thank you so much for having me, Edward. I’m really glad to be here.
Well, I’m very glad to have you. We made the connection through Mickey Mikkelson, who’s my publicist and has been doing some publicity for you, too. I’ve got some really good interviews coming up, thanks to Mickey. So, I appreciate his help.
I’m going to start the same way I always start, which is kind of a cliche on here. I keep saying I’ll put reverb on it. I’m going to take you into the mists of time, which is, you know, considerably mistier for some of us than others. But anyway, I will go back to when you were growing up and how you got interested in writing. Most of us started as readers. Is that how it started for you? And where did you grow up, for that matter?
Yes, well, I did actually grow up here in Colorado. We have just recently returned after having lived, you know, in three other states across the country. But I yeah, I started reading at a very young age. I think I was probably almost three, or three same age as my daughter. And she’s reading now, too. So, it doesn’t surprise me. But yeah, I have always been an avid reader, and I always loved the escape of hopping into stories that had nothing to do with reality, my own personal life, hence, probably, my love for writing speculative fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, the whole bit. And I actually started writing when I was ten. I was having this recurring nightmare that, you know, it doesn’t seem scary at all now, but at the time it was terrifying and aggravating, that I was in my favorite movie, which when I was ten was FernGully, and I could not change the ending of that movie, which is the only thing that I didn’t like about it. So, I kept having this dream that I was in the movie and I should have been able to change it, but I could never change the ending, and it just really, really got me. I’d been having this dream for like two weeks, and I woke up, on my 10th birthday, actually, after having this dream again, and I was just so frustrated and so upset. And then it occurred to me, just suddenly out of nowhere, that I could write the end of the movie if I wanted, and maybe that would get the dreams to stop. I didn’t actually write the end, rewrite the ending, of FernGully, but I dove into my very first attempt at writing any kind of story at all, and over the next, oh, I think, two years, it turned into, oh, something like three hundred printed pages of a book about fairies that actually, you know, turned out to be very dark and depressing and, you know, it set me up for success. And that’s where it started.
Well, what were some of the books you were reading that had an impact on you, do you think?
Around that time, I know…the only thing that stands out in my mind a lot was The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, and I can’t even remember who the author is.
Thank you so much! It always slips my mind.
I read it too!
OK, good. I love that. I love that you have. A lot of people haven’t, or at least people I’ve spoken to have not read it. And I also think I’d also read all of The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis’s big giant collection. I’d already read those. And I may have at the time been diving into this His Dark Materials series…is it Philip Pullman?
Yes. Thank you. And so, you know, I was already reading things…oh, I also read Stephen King’s It when I was ten, as well. So that, like, probably had a lot to do with that. A little bit of an eclectic reading list for sure.
A lot of early readers…I mean, I didn’t start reading quite as early as you did, but I did learn to read in kindergarten. We had a teacher that wasn’t so much teaching us how to read but was setting us up for it and taught us the sounds of the letters. And I immediately made the connection and said, “Oh!” I started reading, and I actually skipped the first grade. They put me straight into grade two because I’d already learned how to read.
So yeah, I, I was always reading, you know, I’d be reading the kids’ stuff, and I liked reading stuff for kids my age in it, obviously, but then I was also reading stuff that was, you know, wildly inappropriate.
I remember reading…I think I read The Caine Mutiny when I was about 10, and I was asking my mom what some of the words were, and she was going, “What are you reading?”
That’s hilarious. My dad actually gave me his childhood copy of Robinson Crusoe when I turned 10, as well, and I started reading that too. It was just a crazy amount of words.
So, all these words and stories and things are going into your head. It’s no wonder you’re first…that’s a fairly lengthy thing for your first thing to write, 300 pages of fairy story.
Yeah, it was. I mean, it will never see the light of day, and it will never…nope! I still have it, but it’s not being taken back out. But it started me on the process.
So, what happened after that? You kept writing on through school and into high school?
I did. I kept writing…mostly, I’d work on random short stories here and there, just because it felt, obviously, you know, as they do, so much easier and faster to finish short stories. And then I started writing this dark fantasy, big, gigantic, enormous; it turned out to be altogether, when I finished the first chapters, 250,000 words. And I had finished at 11:57 on New Year’s Eve in 2007. I had told all of my friends that I wasn’t going out for New Year’s or going anywhere because I had to finish this book. And I did. I had to finish it before the New Year. And I had written that all through my first three years of high school at that point and during classes as well. Everyone thought I was such a wonderfully attentive student, taking so many notes, but I was writing a book instead. And then that later, once I sat on it for years and years and years and then had some extensive revisions, that giant first novel became my first two books, the Gyenona’s Children duology, Daughter of the Drackan and Mother of the Drackan, and that launched my author career, as well. So, I wrote them forever ago, but they stuck around.
When you were writing as a young person, were you sharing your writing with your friends? I always ask that because I get differing answers, but it’s always interesting to me because I did. And I wonder what other people did.
Oh, yeah. I tried as hard as I possibly could to share them. Unfortunately, I was the only one among my friends who was interested in writing and creative writing and sharing that process and, you know, getting and receiving feedback and probably even reading fantasy and sci-fi at all, in any way. So, a few friends would read it. And the only feedback I ever got was, “Oh, it’s good. I liked it.”
You don’t always get very useful feedback from your high school chums.
Yeah. And, you know, I’d definitely push for them to, like, tell me, like, what doesn’t work, what do you not like, which I want to hear. And no one could say anything, so…and I think eventually they stopped actually reading it, would probably just leave, you know, the manuscript on, I don’t know, a table somewhere and never actually read it. So, I got a little bit but not very much at all.
Did you study, formally, writing at any point during there? And then when you got to university level, did you do any formal study of writing?
And was it helpful? Yeah, there, that’s an even better question. I went to the University of Colorado at Boulder for a bachelor’s in creative writing fiction, and it was a great experience at first, immediately, because I was rejected. Like, my application for the creative writing fiction program was rejected the first time I applied, and I was like, you’ve got to be kidding me, because if I’m not going to college for this, I’m not going to college for anything. This is all I want to do. And so, that was my first little dose of, like, “OK, I’m not as great as I think I am. Excellent. I have room for growth.” And then, I applied again and was accepted, with a different short story, which was wonderful. And so, then I went through those undergraduate classes, and it was all writing short stories. And for our finals, we had to write and complete a full-length novel and then return with, it was either one acceptance letter of any of our short stories or if we caught an agent’s interest by querying or…I think it was something like 15 to 20 rejection letters. So it’s like, either you get one in, and that’s your final, or you at least make sure that you are applying and being rejected by people.
Yeah. But, you know, it had a lot to do with just preparing, I think, you know, budding writers for the process of what comes, ahead of time. And this is definitely before self-publishing was very much of an option at all. But I did find a lot of things particularly helpful in those classes and my formal creative writing education at the university level. And I think there was one workshop that sticks with me particularly, where I had turned in a short story. It was my week for my story to be workshopped. And then, when that arrived, I had written the story just as, like a…I had no inspiration, no motivation. I just kind of vomited words onto the page, and I knew it wasn’t good. And then, when it came time to workshop this story, my classmates just absolutely tore it apart, just ripped a new one in that thing, and I just remember sitting there and being like, “Yep, yep, I know, I know. It’s awful. Yeah. OK. So that didn’t work. All right.” And that was an important experience for me to have because I hadn’t had that, I guess, aggressive level of critique before. And then it also, you know…I got to kick myself back into gear after that, and then I have always been highly aware of the fact that I can’t lower my own expectations for myself and my own writing, and I’m not going to be able to fool anyone by writing something that I know is awful. And that was great. That was a wonderful learning experience. And I got a lot out of crafting character and natural dialogue and other things, of course, that just are always honed over time and with practice, right?
Where are you writing the kind of stuff you write now during those courses, and was there any pushback on that? Certainly, when I’ve talked to some writers, they encountered the, “Oh, you can’t write that crap. We’re literary here” kind of a pushback from some of their instructors.
Right. Yeah. It was very literary-centric, and so I didn’t write any speculative fiction for the short stories and the assignment. It wasn’t…I suppose it was more or less frowned upon. I think perhaps that magical realism may have been as far as toward the line, not even across it, as was accepted, but I did dive into humor, too, which was just really fun. But no, I wasn’t writing any fantasy or sci-fi at that time just because I didn’t have time to keep writing other things. I was writing all these pieces for my classes, which was great because I was still writing, and that was the point.
Yeah, well, just…you know, I was a newspaper reporter because I decided as I was heading into college that, well, nobody can make a living as a writer, so… not right off the bat, anyway. So I decided to do something that would involve writing, and what I found was that, you know, writing three features a week and news stories and columns and everything else, because I was working at a weekly where you write everything, just putting words down on paper, you know, hundreds and thousands of words, it’s the practice of putting words together is valuable no matter what kind of words they are, almost.
Yeah, right. As long as they make sense.
As long as they make sense. I think they usually did.
Yeah, that’s good. I would hope so.
So, you talked a little bit about, you know, some of your early books actually then became the ones that got you started on your professional career. And how did that come about? How did you break in?
Ah, yes. Well, so, I queried the heck out of the first book in that duology, Daughter of the Drakan, and did more revisions and more querying, and I racked up 115 rejection letters for this first book. And I had, you know, previously been seeing and hearing some stuff from other people about, you know, like indie publishing is becoming a thing, it’s an option, it’s something you can do. And I was like, all right, I promised myself that, if no one wanted to pick up this book traditionally and, you know, where I would find an agent and hopefully a publisher and I was going to exhaust all my other resources and options, like a query to literally everyone in the Writers’ Marketplace who accepted queries for fantasy.
And then, when no one picked it up, I was like, “OK, well, I just want to put this book out there. I just want to…you know, I wrote it, I want people to be able to read it. So, I went through the indie publishing process, and as a first-time indie author, first-time indie publisher, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, and I can 100-percent admit that because there was a huge learning curve. And so, you know, some things that I did in the very beginning were, you know…I release books a lot more professionally and with a lot more experience under my belt now. But that first book was really, really well received, and a lot of people loved it, and it’s still a favorite, I think, with some of my core readers who stick around and pick up everything that I put out these days, still, since Daughter of the Dracken came out. So, that has been very cool.
And yeah, it has just been a learning process the entire time along the way, and I’ve, you know, found mentors and guides and have read all the how-to’s I could find, and I’ve also learned so much through ghostwriting and seeing kind of behind the scenes, how things work in the industry with my quite big clients who I go straight for, and I get to take a peek at their little secret processes and their own formulas for things, and that’s been very helpful, too.,
How did the ghostwriting come about? You probably can’t say who you ghostwrite for…
No, I can’t.
…but how did that come about for you? It’s interesting. It’s not exactly ghostwriting, but I’ve done, like, a house-name sort of writing, and it’s always…it was an interesting process because I was handed the plot and the characters and it’s…
And yet, you still have to make it work for yourself as the writer.
So, anyway, how did that come about for you?
Well, I had…I was watching this company for a while who…I guess that they’re, like, a do-it-for-you kind of service for indie authors and handling ads and reader engagement and that publication process. And I didn’t actually do anything with this company, but they had forwarded a link to this webinar that was about ghostwriting and that, you know…and I know absolutely nothing about it in the beginning, so I was going in with an open mind. You know, they had a great pitch about like, “This is how you make six figures a year writing fiction,” if that’s what you want to do, and you don’t care about not doing it for yourself. And so I was like, “Wow, that sounds like…is that really true? I have to see.”
And so, I watched this webinar. And I found out more about ghostwriting was and I saw some of these numbers that were coming up for projects and I just felt this, like, huge pull into this, it was like, “Oh, my gosh, if I could get paid this much to just write all the time, doesn’t matter what it is, just fiction, just…and, like, have everything handed to me and all I have to do is write it, that sounds literally like the most phenomenal thing. You know, second, of course, to making tons and tons and tons of money on my own books and being able to write full time just for myself. And so, I applied for this mentorship after this webinar, and I didn’t…I got accepted after having sent in writing samples and stuff, but it was one of those, you know, it was a course and, of course, there’s a certain amount of investment coming from my part that had to be contributed beforehand. And it was more at the time than I could afford, and so I sent email after email after email. “I really want into this mentorship. I really want to know how to do this.” I’d try to haggle and barter and make deals. And that went on for like three weeks until finally, I was like, “All right, this probably isn’t going to happen. It’s probably not going to happen.” And then I got an email saying, “You know what, we’re willing to do this with you, for this and this and this, these terms. How does it sound?” And I was like, “Yes! Yes!” so, it paid off.
And then I dove into it with both feet. And at that time, my daughter was seven…no. No, no. She was…I’m so sorry, I sound like a ridiculous person. My daughter was just over one and a half years old at that time. So, I started this process of diving into the mentorship and then learning how to navigate freelancing as a ghostwriter. And actually, the person who was leading this mentorship turned out to act as sort of an agent for me for finding clients and projects directly through him after the program ended, which is wonderful because I didn’t have to, you know, do the freelancer hustle. And then, I just started landing, just kind of one big client right after the other. And I don’t think I’ve had a new client for the last 14, 15 months, which has been really great. This has been a consistent, repetitive thing, and the opportunities just keep opening up, just really great.
What have you learned from being a ghostwriter that you apply to your own writing?
Oh. That is a great question. I have learned that there’s a big difference between what I write for myself under my own name and the type of story that appeals to a much wider audience. I may be a little bit of a specialty writer, I suppose. And I’ve heard that, you know, some people have read my stuff and said, “Oh, this is too dark for me. I can’t do it. It’s not happy enough.” And I just…I can’t go there. And I’ve gotten a few poor reviews because of that as well, which I actually really appreciate because it tells me that what I am writing, I am writing for a very specific group of people. And so, I’ve been ghostwriting almost in every genre. I know I can’t write romance. I tried it once and failed, and that was that. But everything else, I’ve learned a lot about the kinds of tropes that consistently need to be filled, book after book, series after series, that the characters may change and the storylines change, obviously, that more people are willing to read and will enjoy, you know, kind of balancing the escapist reading with the reading that…for me personally, I always choose books that have a little more to offer underneath the surface, and I love dark stuff. So that’s, you know, that’s where I go automatically.
Ever since you were ten, apparently.
Yes. Quite. A lifelong love affair with evil! And so, I’m actually writing this new dark urban-fantasy series, which…under my own name, I will be publishing the first in that series fairly soon…and it’s actually been really interesting for me to take, you know, what I’ve learned with my ghostwriting work and, you know, writing in someone else’s voice and to the tropes that they…that are necessary in the books that this client publishes…and, hence, picking out those bits and pieces after two years of seeing what makes these books good and what makes people love them and crave more of them, and bringing that into my own little super-dark flavor. So, this new series is not nearly as dark as I truly love to go, but it does get there, and then it comes right back out again. And it uses a lot of the tricks and sort of…perhaps it’s not as angsty maybe as some of the things I’ve written or not as depressing, perhaps, but it’s…yeah, it’s been really, really fun to learn what works well for a much wider range of people who are reading to escape real life and, you know, instead of to dive deeper into real life or…relatable discoveries, I guess I could say. So, that’s been fun. That’s probably been the biggest thing, the biggest thing that I’ve learned is to not take myself so seriously. I can write a lot of things if I just let it happen and not try to make it so perfect.
Well, we’re going to talk specifically on this podcast about…well, I guess it’s two books…I keep wanting to say Sleepwalker, but it’s not Sleepwalker, it’s Sleepwater, Sleepwater Beat and Sleepwater Static.
So, without spoiling anything, tell us what they’re about.
Yes! This is…these are the first two books in the Blue Helix series, which is LGBTQ+ dystopian sci-fi and also…a total mash-up, including noir and horror elements, and I’ve had some readers even categorize it as urban fantasy, which was not really where I was going.
Well, it’s an urban setting, and it’s a fantastical story. So, there you go.
Yeah. Yeah, you know, there’s some supernatural elements to it that, you know. The series is like…at least, Sleepwater Beat, the first book was…I like to describe it as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo meets X-Men. That seems very fitting to me. The entire Blue Helix series revolves around a minority group of people in the world who have developed this supernatural ability to affect people around them physically by storytelling, basically verbal storytelling, so this visibility is called the beat. And so, it is kind of like X-Men in a way, where all these people have these abilities, no one really knows how they got them, and they’re different for everyone, but it’s all telling stories and speaking.
And so, the storyline through the whole series follows these people with the ability, and they are part of this organization called Sleepwater, and it explores how Sleepwater was born, and where they’re headed into the future and, you know, they are a minority group of people who are feared by the world and misunderstood and hated and hunted and discriminated against. And that was one of the major points that I wanted to touch on, even when I first started writing Sleepwater Beat and had no idea that this was going to be a series, but, surprise!, and I to touch on marginalized communities and kind of take a deeper look at discrimination and bigotry in the broad sense, by looking at it through the lens of, you know, a group of people that doesn’t exist in real life, that…
Well, that’s what they want you think.
Very true! They’re hiding. And, you know, so, Sleepwater Beat focused on Leo Tieffler. She was the main character in book one, and she had more of me poured into her than any other character I’ve written, just because it felt right to the story, which is odd, but I did it. And so I touched on homelessness and drug addiction and the LGBTQ community and broken homes and…oh, there’s all kinds of deep, dark places, survivors of drug addiction and family issues…I’ll leave it at that…and so, I wanted to bring all these things to light through this really awesome, fun, amazing story that follows this group, Sleepwater, who all have this ability and who are hunted down because of it.
And then, Sleepwater Static continues that story, but we have a new main character, Bernadette Manney, and she…she’s a minor supporting character in Sleepwater Beat, and then she got her own book for Sleepwater Static, book two. And I really…it was really important to me to dive deep into exploring discrimination when it came to racism and racial injustice, and that is what Sleepwater Static was kind of based around. And so, it’s set…pretty much all of it is set in the American South, and Bernadette is a white woman in her 70s, with arthritis, and she’s still super-incredible and strong and amazing and doesn’t take crap from anybody. And we get to see reflections of her past and her relationship with Darrell, who’s a black man. And they’re in South Carolina and, you know, the difficulties that they faced through growing up in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and having a child, and being together, and then also seeing them reconnect again, if you will, in their 70s, when Bernadette and this group of Sleepwater are being chased across the country and hunted and just looking for kind of a place to settle down for a second and catch a breath. There you have it.
So, it’s you obviously have some big themes you want to explore. Did you start with the themes, or did you start somewhere else? In other words, where do you get your ideas? It’s a bit of a cliché, but it’s a legitimate question. And, the way this story began, is that typical of the way that ideas, the seeds of ideas come to you?
Right. No! The beginning of Sleepwater Beat is completely atypical. One hundred percent. Absolutely. It started with me writing an experimental short story. I had, you know…one scene popped into my head of a, like, I don’t know, teenage girl punching a guy in the face and knocking him over the edge of a frozen waterfall. So I have, like, fairly violent daydreams, as well, and they get written into my books. So I wanted to…you know, I sat with it for a little while, when that scene popped into my head, and sort of thinking about it, and then decided that I wanted to try a sort of experimental short story where I wanted to see if I could create a coherent story with scenes that were completely out of chronological order from beginning to end. And it sort of worked. And I got the point across in the story, but it wasn’t finished. And I had actually workshopped it with the writers’ group I was a part of in Charleston, South Carolina, when I lived there with my husband. And they were so enthralled by what I had started in this short story that they asked so many questions and just opened up so many doors and told me that they wanted to see more and that it had to be a book. And I was like, “Wow. Wow, OK. I agree with you.” And then I took two years to rip apart that short story and decide what I wanted to keep and what I wanted to change and turn it into, you know, 105,000 words. So, that was rough. Not at all the way I normally do things, but it turned out very well. But most of my ideas do come from a dream or a random daydream of something that I think would be very cool.
So, you tend to start with an image, then?
I do. I do start with it with an image, and then I kind of let it hang out in my head for six months and see what happens. And then I start writing.
Well, what does your planning process look like? Do you do a detailed outline, or are you more of a let’s-start-writing-and-see-what happens? Again, with these Sleepwater books, but also, since they seem a little different more typically.
Mm-hmm. So, I don’t do detailed outlines at all. I’ve tried, hoping that that would solidify my writing process a little more, but I have realized that when I outline in detail, I get bored. It feels like I’ve already tried to figure out the whole story, and then I lose the excitement. The best part for me, where I have the most fun, is when I’m just writing, and I’m in the zone and I’m going, and all the pieces come together, just like…I don’t know, like machinery. It’s just so much fun to see the characters I thought would be one thing turn into something completely different and go down a path that I didn’t expect. I solve the mysteries that I create with the beginning as I’m writing them, so I never know what’s going to happen. But I…I probably right now, I’m somewhere in between, in the hybrid range. I will write beats for my books, and I definitely always do this for my ghostwriting work because it enables me to keep up my ridiculous speed with writing those projects. And that’s, you know, anywhere from four thousand to eight thousand words of just summary about the whole plot of the book, and it has all the big moments and big reveals in it. And then, I will just write from there, and I get to fill in all the extra space. And that is what works best for me, I’ve found.
Yeah, writing is weird because in a way it’s a very conscious act, you’re sitting there typing and putting words, and yet there’s this huge unconscious thing going on behind the words that are coming out, where your brain is…and you have no, you know, it’s inside your head, and yet somehow you’re not really part of the process, it feels like sometimes.
Yeah, it’s not…or it maybe is just not in my head at all. It’s just going through me. Yeah. And I, you know, a lot of the time I will go back and look at something I’ve written a week before and not recognize it. I think, “Wow, I don’t remember writing this part.”
Yeah. When I look back at all the stuff I’ve written, I sometimes have that…well, that’s not bad. I don’t actually remember doing it, but…
Right. It’s very strange. It’s very strange. I love it.
Well, I mentioned sitting and typing. Is that actually…I presume that’s how you work, and you’re not parchment under a tree with a quill pen.
Oh, no, no, no. I just got a brand-new desktop set-up in my office. We moved almost two months ago now from Vermont, so everything kind of had a major recall. But I sit and type. I do take breaks during the day, stand up, move around, get my body realigned after sitting.
Do you tend to just work at home, or do you ever go out for a change of scenery?
I just work at home. I used to be able…when I was in college, I could write anywhere as long as I had headphones in and…I don’t know if I’m entering more of that, like, writer’s stereotype, but I have gotten significantly more anxious and public as I’ve gotten older.
It’s not like people look over your shoulders and critique as you write…
I know. I know. I think maybe part of that is also because I type so fast. I had about 130 words a minute when I’m transcribing something or, you know, I don’t have to think. And so, I type faster than I think when I’m writing and that…I get weird about it when any of my family members say that they heard me typing. So, I stay home.
I think I was, at least I used to be, at about 110 words a minute, and it’s like…
…people look at you funny when you’re…
They do. They’re like, are you writing real words? Yes.
I wear out a lot of keyboards. My keyboards wear out really fast.
I also learned on a manual typewriter, so I think I hit the keys harder than is actually required on a computer.
Yeah, that would do it.
Do you write sequentially then when you start writing, or is there a lot of threading and going back and filling in scenes and…
I have to write sequentially. The only time I didn’t do that was when I wrote Sleepwater Beat because I was pulling in things from the short story…
The short story, yeah.
Yeah. It was major surgery, and it was bloody and awful, and it took me two years. And I don’t like that. No, I start at the beginning, and I just keep going, and I push through. And sometimes, I’ll come across something where I realize that, “Oh, this tiny little detail needs to be changed in a thread from the beginning,” and I’ll go back. And, you know, that happens more towards the end, or I’ll make a note as I’m writing to go back and do that, and then afterwards with my own revisions and edits before it sees my editor. Yeah, I don’t think I could write non-sequentially now after having done it this way for so long this much.
Yeah. I’ve always been, start at the beginning and go to the end and then go back and fix things up. And speaking of that, what does your revision process look like? And do you use…do you have beta readers or even alpha readers at some point that pitch in? Or how does that all work for you? And when you are revising, what’s the kind of things you find yourself having to revise?
Ah-ha! Oh, all good questions. I think I’ll start with…when I’m sitting down and writing any book, the most important thing for me is to, of course, you don’t have a book until it’s finished, so, to get to the end, right? To just sit down and write all the way straight through and get to the end. And so, when I am writing, and I get in that zone, I don’t want to break it up by having to do research for like very, very specific things. I don’t want to break it up by having to go back into other books or other notes and find names or places. So I will leave those to-be-found details in brackets, so you know, typing away, typing away, “I don’t remember this character’s name!” and I’ll just put in brackets, Girl 1, or whatever. And that enables me to just get the words down so much faster. And I’ll leave notes for myself, too, comment in margins, to go back and check if this is a thing.
And then when I, you know, write the last words, then I go back through, and I search for all of the instances of brackets that I placed and then I will do the necessary research, and I will either make up names that I needed or places that I needed or go back and find them. And I’ll fill in all of those details at the end. That’s the first step for me. And that just makes the writing process for me so much faster, and also doesn’t break up my flow, you know, like, you’re getting really into an intense scene, but you can’t I can’t remember the name of that kind of gun that he had. So, you know, I don’t want to go fall through the rabbit hole of Internet research.
Yeah, that’s very easy to do.
Yeah, right. Yeah.
You’re looking up a type of gun, and the next thing you know, it’s 17th-century silver mining in Asia, and you don’t remember how you got there.
Exactly. Those are how the conversations with my dad go, like, just by speaking to each other, so I don’t need to see that when I’m writing. And I’ll go back through that, and then, while I’m reading through and filling in the brackets as well, I’m also doing as much proofreading as I can. And before I was writing full-time, I was editing full-time, and I’ve been doing that for…oh, I stopped last November, so, like seven years, eight years, and so, I would like to think that I catch most typos and reading errors, but I know that I absolutely do not catch all of them, so I do have an editor as well, and she is amazing.
And I do have a few alpha readers, I’ve got about four or five, who are completely thrilled to read anything and everything I send them, and with previous books, that has helped me stay excited and inspired and on track with the story, when I, you know, I hear, I get feedback from these operators, and they’re telling me like, “Oh, I love this part. I can’t wait to see what happens next. Like, I think it’s this, la la la.” And so, I sit in my corner and, you know, have an evil grin, just like, “Well, you have no idea what’s coming next. And I’m so excited.” And then that helps me stay there.
And I don’t…I don’t know if I’ve ever used beta readers, and I think that is because I trust my editor quite a bit, and my alpha readers give me enough feedback during the process that…I don’t know, I guess I just haven’t felt the need to use beta readers. I have used sensitivity readers, though, which is super-important for me, especially with Sleepwater Static, because I was…the closest I could write to anyone who experiences racial injustice in this country and anywhere in the world was from a white woman’s perspective, and it’s important to…sensitivity readers are so, so important to make sure that we’re not perpetuating harmful stereotypes and just getting things plain wrong. And that was an incredible experience, as well. And…as far as I heard from her, I hadn’t done anything wrong, so…
That’s always nice to hear.
Yes, it is. And then…that’s about it. You know, I have advance readers, when I’m, you know, before a book’s publication. And that’s the process.
I’ve never used beta readers, mainly because I just never had any to speak of. So, the first person that sees it usually is my editor. Which brings us to the editing process. What sorts of things do editors…do you use the same editor all the time and…because I presume you’re hiring an editor, since this is independently published.
Yes, I am.
Have you always used the same editor or have you use different editors? What sorts of things do they come back with you?
Yeah. I have had a few different editors. The editor I have now, she’s so phenomenal and the best I’ve ever had, and she edits like I did when I was editing, so…
One would think you’d like that.
Yes, absolutely. I’m a bit full of myself! But I, you know, some…the most that I get back beyond proofreading is usually, you know, like, “This sentence is extremely convoluted, and I have no idea what you were trying to say,” and those pop up every once in a while and, I, you know…
So, it’s more line editing then? You’re not getting big structural changes suggested or anything like that?
Correct. I have been fortunate enough to not have received suggestions for huge structural edits and changes. And I like to give credit for that to the fact that I spent so many years editing other people’s manuscripts, as well. And that helped me develop…you know, of course, along with all the reading for fun that I do…editing helped me develop kind of an ingrained understanding of, you know, genre elements and the rhythm and pacing of writing these stories. And so, I’ve never really had to do overhauls like that beyond my first book that had a lot of work put it through.
Yeah, I’ve done quite a bit of editing and mentoring and writer-in-residence kind of work, and I find that it’s really very easy to see flaws in other people’s work.
Oh, of course!
And it does help you eventually to pull yourself out of your own and say, “Well, you know, I did the same thing here.” And actually one of the things of being, like, a writer in residence, I’ll tell people that you shouldn’t do this and you shouldn’t do that, and then I think, “You know, if they look back in that book I wrote, I’m pretty sure I did that.”
But it is very helpful, I find.
Well, we’re getting close to the end here, so it’s time for the…more reverb!…big philosophical questions, which is…I don’t know how big they are or how philosophical they are, but basically, it boils down to why. Why do you write this stuff? Why do you write at all? Why do you write this stuff, this kind of fantastical stuff? And why do you think anybody does? Why do we tell stories? So, kind of three questions, I guess.
Excellent. Yes. So, why do I write? It’s gotten to the point now where I write because I literally have to. If I go longer than, you know, thirty-six hours without writing any fiction at all, I get itchy and sweaty and irritable.
So, it’s an addiction.
It is, and, you know, I will openly admit it. It is the best addiction I’ve had. We’re good to go. But yeah, no, it is. My husband has had commented multiple times, if I’m having a rough day, he’ll ask me, “Have you written today?” And more often than not, the answer is no. So, I’ve learned just to accept the fact that I can’t take too much time away from writing. It’s just become so much of a part of me. I am so fortunate enough to be able to say that my greatest passion is now my full-time job. And that’s incredible.
So, why do I write what I write? And I’ll go ahead and say this, you know, what I write being dark fiction in general, just dark stuff. And, you know, I was asked, someone asked me a while ago if writing what I write is a way for me to process my own past pain or get a better understanding of certain concepts or ideas about the world. And I realized, it was a great realization to have, in trying to answer these questions, that I don’t…like, I do write for me physically, like I have to, it is an addiction, but the content that I write isn’t for me in regards to, you know, working through past pain or trauma or realizations. It’s cathartic, but it’s not therapeutic, I guess I could say. But I do write with the intention, every single time, of helping other people access their ability to work through their own stuff and to better understand concepts and ideas that they may be struggling with and to frame a lot of topics and subjects and issues, a lot of social issues, to frame them in a way that is more accessible to other people who may not otherwise have been open to discussing or reading or even thinking about these things, or who may have never even had the opportunity to consider these discussions from a different perspective or a different angle. So, I find that particularly easy to do in dark fiction because I can really take the characters and the story and the readers just down. And maybe that’s cruel of me, but I know that I like that to see that as a reader, and I know I’m not the only one.
Well, certainly not, because you have lots of readers, so…
Right. Yeah. So, that’s great. So, I write the way I enjoy, as well, and I write to go really, really into those deep, deep, dark places to then better illuminate, you know, the hope and the possibility and potential for more, and, you know, oh, one of my firm beliefs in my own life and in writing being that our mistakes and the poor decisions that we make in life don’t define who we are or what we’re capable of becoming after the fact. So that’s why I write these things and…yeah, why does anyone write?
Why do human beings do this?
Yeah. Because it’s so much fun. I mean, that’s just how we learn about the world, right? That’s how it’s always been for humans, learning about the world and teaching each other about the world through story and then, you know, connecting with each other. It’s…sometimes it feels a lot easier and even potentially a lot more fulfilling to connect with characters than with real people. And I think that’s probably the end of my answer. To learn about the world and each other and to connect and to form those bonds and understand one another. Story is completely universal. Maybe not the content or the characters, where it goes, but telling story. That applies to everyone.
Seems like a good answer to me. Well, we’ll just wrap up here with what are you working on now? You mentioned this, the new urban-fantasy, dark urban-fantasy series.
Yes. The Witching Vault is book one of Accessory to Magic. That’ll be out fairly soon. A couple of months, I think.
And anything else to mention?
Yeah, I’ll have another, first in at a super, very, very dark, darker than anything I’ve ever done, LGBTQ+ dark-fantasy theories. That’s Imlach Fractured. It’s the first book in Vessel Broken, and that is…oh, I’m working on two very different projects, but that one is dark and gruesome and just has a huge occult influence, and I’m so excited about it. That is slated to be out at the end of November this year.
And where can people find your online, so they can keep up with all of this stuff that you’re doing?
Yes, it is very different. That’s K-A-T-H-R-I-N H-U-T-S-O-N fiction, dot com. If there are E’s in there at all, it’s wrong. And I am probably the most active on Facebook, my author page on Facebook. My author page there is @KathrinHutsonFiction, and I’m also @KathrinHutsonFiction on Instagram and on Twitter as @ExquisitelyDark.
Seems appropriate. All right, well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers, Kathrin. I enjoyed that. I hope you did, too.
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?
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.
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.
And one thing I have found, being married to an engineer, is that engineers approach problems very analytically.
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.
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.
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.
Kim Harrison is best known as the author of the New York Times #1 best selling Hollows series, but she has written more than urban fantasy and has published more than two dozen books, spanning the gamut from young adult novels, accelerated-science thrillers, and several anthologies, to scripts for two original graphic novels set in the Hollows universe. Kim Harrison is a pen name; she has also published traditional fantasy under her real name, Dawn Cook.
Dawn was born and raised in the upper Midwest. After gaining her bachelor’s degree in the sciences, she moved to South Carolina, where she remained until relatively recently, moving back to Michigan because she missed the snow.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, Dawn, I always like to start by asking my guests to go back into the mists of time, which is…you know, those mists are deeper for some of us than others…and find out how you first got interested in…well, first of all, I presume, reading science fiction and fantasy, and then how you finally got around to writing it, which we’re all glad you did.
Yes, yes, it was reading. I was an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy back in the heyday of the ’70s and the early ’80s, and I read everything, just gobbled it up, and you can see that if you pick my work apart, because I try to pace everything like a good science fiction novel, ’cause I think that’s the way all stories should read.
But, yeah, it wasn’t until later that I thought I could actually make a go at writing. So, I did not take any classes for writing at all. I avoided it like the plague. I’ve got a science degree, actually, and I use it every day, and my dad says, “You’re kidding! You went to school for science and now you’re writing,” and I say, “But, Dad, I use my degree every single day. But when I did decide that writing was something I wanted to do, I had a big learning curve that I had to handle because, like I said, I didn’t take any classes and I still, you know, I talk to literary people and they start spouting things like “the fourth wall” and I star at them blankly because I have no clue, I have to go Google it find out what they’re talking about. But a good story is a good story and if you can get it down, you know, more power to you.
It wasn’t until I got to move down to South Carolina and I found a writers’ critique group that…oh, it was dedicated. It was my Camelot, actually, because we’d meet every single week and we’d all get a chance to share our work. And I made the connections there that allowed me to break into print and hone my work and toughen up my skin. If it wasn’t for them I don’t think it would have happened. But they’re really hard to find these days.
Yes, and of course,, when I teach writing and when people ask about writing groups, I always say that you have to be careful, because if you have writers in the group and you’re all at a kind of a beginner level, you don’t help each other as much. You need to have people who are at a higher level than you, perhaps, to help lift you up.
Yes, yes. And I was fortunate enough that there was somebody like that.
Now, what were some of the books that you read as a kid that kind of drew you into this?
Oh, Anne McCaffrey was a favorite early on. I read a lot of Isaac Asimov. I didn’t understand him at the time, but I read him. Ray Bradbury was my favorite, back then, because he was the first person who showed me that the worst monsters are the ones that live next door to people. People are monsters…well, they can be. So I read a lot of Ray Bradbury. Jack L. Chalker, loved his stuff, so probably a lot…I’ve got a lot of old names here that people are going to be scratching their heads over…Aspirin, Robert Aspirin. He actually went to school, college, near my hometown, so I got to meet him when he was thin and gawky and just starting out. That was a thrill.
Well, they don’t have me scratching my head because I think I’m a couple of years older than you are, so it’s right in my era as well. I’ve read many of those same books. Now, you mentioned that your degree was in science. What specific discipline?
Well, I’ve got a degree in science engineering and technology, but I basically ran the the…I worked in the labs and I ran the greenhouse as a work study program. But mostly biology, mostly botany, and I am an avid gardener. You know, it’s hard to find a job in the sciences. My first job was at Dow Chemical and I was chaperoning an experimental fiber. I like to tell people that’s where I learned how to type because I didn’t know how to type until then, but, you know, I’ve had really weird jobs. My favourite job was running live-animal traplines for two years, catching chipmunks and mice for a research project for one of my professors.
Where did you go to university?
Saginaw Valley State University. That’s in Michigan.
Is that where you grew up, in Michigan?
Yes, I did. I grew up just outside of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and went to school at Saginaw Valley State University and then moved down to South Carolina for about 13 years following my husband’s job. And we recently–I say recently but I think it’s been like 10 years now–we moved back to another small town outside of Ann Arbor and it just feels like home. It’s really nice to be back.
So, tell me a little bit about the the first book that you broke into with.
The first book! It was a traditional fantasy called The First Truth and it’s still in print, actually. Tt was the first one of a four-book series and it was…oh, I had everything in it. I had telepathic dragons that could shape shift all in a pre-industrial setting with dragons and wizards and that kind of thing…”and I know they’ll love it!” I went back recently to look something up, a reader had a question, and so I was thumbing through it and I got lost for an hour reading it and it was like, “Oh, yeah, I remember that, oh, yeah, it was so fun.” But yeah, that was the first thing actually that I ever wrote, to tell you the honest truth, because I didn’t write when I was growing up. This particular novel idea came to me when I was like 13 or 14 and I wrote it down when I was in my early 20s and I wrote and rewrote it and rewrote it for about four years and that’s what I honed my writing skills on. A lot of people, I’ve noticed, will write a lot of different manuscripts when they’re honing their skills and try out a lot of different ideas, but I just worked on the one manuscript trying out different things until I found what worked for me.
And that was the one you were working with the writers group?
Yes, it is.
What kind of feedback did you get from them that was helpful?
Well, the first one…one of the very first things that somebody said to me was, he leaned back, he put his hand on his hip, and he said, “This is what you’re going to use to break into print?” And I leaned forward, and I said, “Yes, it is absolutely.” I don’t want to make it sound like they were not supportive because they really, really were, it was just something very different from what what he was writing. And so, in another book that I wrote I killed him off. But it was all in fun. But, yeah.
I actually saw a T-shirt that said, “If you were in my novel I would have killed you off by now.”
That’s the one thing we get to do, legal.
So how did you go from that…how did you break in? How did that book come to the attention of publishers?
That one…well, I found an agent at a writer’s conference, and he took it on and said, “If you can do this, this, and this, I will see about, you know, I will take you as a client and I will see about getting it published,” and so I did this, this, and that, and about a year or two later it was. Now, the Truth books, they did OK, but it wasn’t until I wrote, I started writing an urban fantasy under the Kim Harrison name that I really broke into print, really in a big way. And that one was just a natural extension of taking what I like to write,,,what I like to read, which was the science fiction, and what I like to write, which was the fantasy, and merging the two. Which is kind of what urban fantasy is, you take your fantasy creatures and put them in a modern-day setting. And this was right about the time when Jim Butcher was just getting started, and Charlaine Harris, I think she only had, like, two books out, and Laurell K. Hamilton was really the front runner for the urban fantasy. So, I was getting in on the bottom row of the first tier of the big urban fantasy authors.
Yeah, it’s hard to think that, you know, say, in the ’90s, nobody ever heard of anything called urban fantasy, really, it’s all quite a new subgenre of the field.
He sounds a lot like me, only he has a southern accent and I don’t.
Oh, wicked, wicked.
Anyway, people always ask me, you know, why do you write under a pseudonym? And I have my answer but I’ve already done that in my interview, so, how did your pseudonym come about and why did you use it?
The Kim Harrison pseudonym came out because I switched publishers, and the easiest way to switch publishers is to take on a pen name. At the time, the Dawn Cook books were doing okay, but a publisher is kind of leery of starting up…a new publisher taking on an established author is carrying the weight of the numbers of the last book, unless they take a pen name. And sometimes they’ll take a pen name because book buyers will buy more books from an unknown author than they will one that already has an established track record. Like, if you’ve only sold 10,000 books under your old name, they’ll only buy 10,000 books if you keep that name. But if you change your name, they might take a chance on it and buy 20. So, there’s a numbers game, there’s a legality game because, you know, my original publisher only had the first-look rights to anything written under Dawn, so I was able to make a clean break and go forward as Kim with my second one.
Also, there was the issue that it was a new genre and my new publisher wanted to create a new persona to push these books. And so, I got a wig and I wore leather a couple of times and had a really good time stretching in my skin and becoming Kim, so to speak. Now it’s funny, because I’ll run into people who know me as both, and sometimes I’ll get called Kim and sometimes I’ll get called Dawn, and it might seem confusing, but people have different names–you know, there’s mom or sister or wife. It’s all the same to me, although I know some people are really fussy about their pen names and it’s like, “No, no, use this name,” but I go by anything.
Was it a secret for a while?
It was a really tight secret for a long time. I don’t know how it stayed…we’re talking years. It’s really hard to keep a secret in New York because most of the publishers know and it’s easy to let things slip, and how we managed to keep the Dawn name and the Kim name separate for so long is beyond me. But it’s out now, and it came out when I decided it should come out and the Kim Harrison career was doing well, and my publisher said that it wouldn’t be hurt by having it associated with the original Dawn books. So, it was just easier to come out at that point and not try to keep it a secret anymore. And I recently lost the wig. So, I’ll run into people again who have known me as Kim and they stare at me like, “That’s not Kim.” And we’ll go to conferences and, it’s funny, for the first couple of years when I had lost the wig, I could walk around and not get recognized unless somebody recognized my husband, who is always with me at conferences, and then it’s like, “That can’t be Kim. It’s gotta be Kim. Oh, yeah, it’s Kim!”
Did you ever do any acting when you were growing up?
Oh, I am terribly shy. I…well, yeah. I’m really, really shy and so acting was not ever on my horizon. So, no acting, no. But, you know, I daydreamed a lot, and obviously you use those same muscles when you write.
Yes. One reason I ask that question is because, you know, the pseudonym thing is a little bit like acting, but whenever I talk to–and I act, I’m an actor as well–whenever I talk to authors who’ve done acting, we all find that we are using basically the same mental muscles, because you’re pretending to be somebody else, basically.
Right, right. And, actually, it did help out quite a bit when Kim Harrison name, titles, and books got more popular and I had to do more presenting and I had to do more public appearances. It was nice to have that persona to fall into where I could be more confident and be more comfortable being confident. Now, I don’t need all the trappings that go along with it, which is really nice.
Now, you’ve got books published by more than one publisher, do you not?
Yes. Yeah. I have a couple of graphic novels out through Del Rey. I’ve got my fantasies, which are under Ace. I have the Hollows, which is under HarperCollins, and Perfection, which is under Subterranean Press.
We’re going to talk a little bit about the editing process later, so maybe I’ll save the next logical question for when we get to there. Well, we are going to focus on your brand-new book, um…Perfunctory Affection.
Yes. I call it just Perfection because it’s a mouthful, but yes.
Well, and of course the typography they use for the title highlights the Per and Fection so that you get that Perfection when you look at it. And that ties into the story, of course. I’m going to get you to do a synopsis of it, so I don’t give away something you don’t want to give away.
How would you describe the book?
Oh, well, that would depend on what kind of day I’m having. At its basis, it’s about Meg, who’s dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder from a couple of accidents in her life. And she is an artist and she’s poised to take the art world by storm if she can get over her debilitating anxiety. She teaches art at one of the local universities and she’s working with a psychiatrist, too, to get through this. And she’s getting better, but she meets a couple of people who seem, you know, perfect. And her psychiatrist puts her on a new medication that makes it easier to deal with the stresses in her life, and her life seems to be turning around, and then her boyfriend starts to appear to be controlling, and not in a good way. I mean, he’s kind and he’s nice, but he’s making it easier for her to not become the person that she wants to be. And the doctor herself, she starts to look a little gray, and the waters get muddier and muddier until you’re really not sure what happened when the book is finally over.
And that was my goal, to have the reader finish the book and close it and say, “Did that just happen, or did she just imagine it?” And so, I hope that’s the way people feel when they finish the book because that’s something new for me, and I am really glad I had the opportunity to try to write that.
Yeah, I did find that interesting, you know, I would decide that something was real and then I’d think, “Wait a minute, maybe it wasn’t,” all the way to the end, so, yes, I think you accomplished exactly what you set out to accomplish.
Oh, good, good.
What was…well, specifically, what was the genesis of this book, but more generally, where do book ideas come to you from?
This one…this one I think came from–a tiny little nugget came from my husband, who drives me around and makes my life very easy. He’s…I want to say he’s the perfect house-husband without him feeling bad about that, because he does make my life easier and so I’m able to avoid the things that I don’t like to do. So, there’s a tiny nugget of that in there, but most of my book ideas come from what I’m dealing with on a daily basis, where, you know, I’m not dealing with vampires and werewolves, you know, and I’m not trying to solve crimes, issues that she deals with on an emotional level and there’s a couple of other books…oh, my Drafter series! I forgot all about my accelerated-science thrillers, the Drafter books, where the main character, her ability when she uses it in her job, her magic ability, it takes chunks of her memory so it can be debilitating. And, you know, I’m dealing with a parent who’s losing chunks of their memory, so that impacted me and I wanted to write about and try to find a way to deal with it by working with it on a daily basis in my books.
And you know, I have another series, that’s not published, about a woman who is at the top of her game, and then a medical issue comes and takes everything that she’s, you know, sacrificed for away, and she has to find a way to get the job done without that ability and find a new meaning for life. And, you know, everybody loses things. And so, that comes into my work and I put it in there.
So, the kernels of the story, besides the saving the world, what’s going on with the character, that comes from things that are, they’re hitting my life and making my life challenging, and ways for me to overcome my own obstacles. So, it’s very much…maybe I’m a method writer, I guess maybe you’d call it, by taking in what what’s around me and internalizing it before I can, excuse me, word-vomit it all over the place. But that’s where my ideas come from. The saving the world is secondary, it’s always the character development and the characters that pull me to my desk every day.
So, once you had this initial germ of an idea, how did you go about developing it? What kind of an outline or planner are you?
Oh, I have a really good balance of plotting and pantser. I used to think that I was strictly a plotter because I do outlines, and I love my outlines, and I don’t like starting a book until I have it all sketched out. And it’ll take me a couple of weeks, and I’ll start with a real quick synopsis, which grows into a three-page, and then I break it down, and I have a page per chapter–but I never hold to it. Usually about page 100 I’ve made enough changes that I have to rewrite my outline, and right about page 300 I throw my outline out and I just pants it to the end, knowing I have the goals. The goals are still there, but how I’m getting there shifts. But it’s always…the actual, when I sit down and write, it’s always dialogue first, and I’ll spend the day writing out the dialogue for a chapter, and it kind of looks like what I imagine a script might, with a little minor directions of character movement and whatnot, but it’s mostly dialogue, and if I don’t have that dialogue I start wandering off track. So that keeps me on point and I get to where I’m going that way.
It does actually sound like you should try writing plays.
My dialogue chapters look a lot like a play, yeah.
Now, you’d said that it’s the characters for you that drive the story forward and bring you back to it. How do you find the characters that you are going to put into your story?
They…the main character usually grows out of the issue that I’m dealing with. The supplemental characters come from the story itself, to fill a need, whether it be a romantic interest or a platonic relationship or of something that just brings out the issue that the character is dealing with. I find that my antagonists are often more interesting and fun to watch than my protagonist. I really enjoy my antagonists. I have very few that are fully bad. I think I have a vampire who’s totally irredeemable but most of them are redeemable. Most of them don’t get redeemed. If you’re familiar at all with the Hollows series, Trent Kalamack was supposed to be my big, bad ugly through the whole series but about Book 6 Rachel began to understand where he was coming from and that his purpose was noble and at that point she either had to kill him or start to really understand him, and by the end of the series…well, it’s not ended, actually there’s another one in the works…but by the original ending he was a love interest, and it worked. I mean,, it took a long time to get there because I like my relationships to be believable, but I did make him go from an antagonist to a protagonist.
Did you know that was going to happen when you started the series or did that happen along the way?
No, I did not. I wanted my hero to be the poor, downtrodden, wickedly smart man and my villain to be the really wealthy, rich kind of snobby boy, which…and it turned out all wrong. The readers…I do not write romance but because I pay so much attention to relationships I have a really wide following in the romance area, and my romance readers, they told me first, they said, “She should be with Trent,” so I explored it my mind a little bit and I said, “Yeah, you know what? You might be right.” And it took several books to believably turn that around—but I’m glad I did!
Now, when you are initially designing characters, do you do detailed character sheets or is it more you have an idea and it comes out on the page as you write?
It’s a little of both. I do have character sheets. They’re very messy, they’re handwritten, and they’re only there so I don’t make a mistake and have somebody with eyes blue in book and brown in the other.
The perennial problem!
But it was a real problem when I went to do my world book that I didn’t have more details on my characters. But most of them develop like you get to know a person, you know, surface stuff and then a little deeper and when you see them at their worst point, you know, the really core of a person comes out, and that’s, I think, my favourite part.
This particular book, Perfunctory Affection, has a very tight point of view. You’re in Meg’s head for the entire time, which, of course, I think the kind of book it is that pretty much was the only way you could tell it. Is that typical or do you do different points of view over different books?
Well, my first book was third, and I wrote in third person for quite a while and I enjoyed it, but it was a fantasy and you kind of need that to manage the scope. The Hollows books were written in first person, which is what most urban fantasy is because the readers like the intimacy of it, and I found I had to almost re-learn how to tell a story from a first-person point of view because, like I said, I like my villains, and I wanted to see them and get to know them, and it’s harder when you’re in only one person’s point of view. However, it does give you a more intimate feel, which I really like. And the Hollows books were, they’re kind of detective, so it fits. You can do it, it works. I’m writing in third person right now, on the work I’m working on currently, but I think first person is my favorite just because of that intimacy.
Did you consider it for Perfunctory Affection?
You know, I did but, like you noticed, it really has to be from one person’s point of view in order to…it is, isn’t it? It’s been a while since I’ve worked on it…
Yes, it’s entirely very tightly in Meg’s point of view.
I didn’t think I had anything in there from third.
It’s as tight in as if it was first person, but it’s written in third.
And, yeah, what I found interesting, because of the and…as I said I think it almost…okay, if I had been writing it I wouldn’t have done it in first person, either. Therefore, I think you made the correct decision.
Okay. Seriously, it’s been so long I don’t remember actually what…but now that I think about it, it was third, wasn’t it?
But it was all her point of view pretty much.
And I think because of the not being sure what’s real and what’s not, I thought that that also…
Yeah, it really had to be like that.
Yeah. What’s your actual…well, one question before we get to that.
Meg, in this story, is an artist and you’ve mentioned you’ve done some art, and there’s some other…you know, what kind of research do you do going into a book?
Um…that’s tricky. I don’t do a whole lot of research. I don’t like falling into that research trap. If a place setting is important, I will do a lot of research on a place. The Hollows books take place in Cincinnati ,and I know Cincinnati better than my hometown, you know, I’ve been in the tunnels, I’ve been on Carew Tower, I’ve been on the streets, and I’ll spend a week there if I need to, but before anything else I prefer to spend, like, maybe an hour or two online to get an idea of how I need to tackle this or move forward in it, and then I just go.
And maybe research as you encounter things along the way?
Yeah. Most of my research, if you can call it that, is just done by living. You know, I’m constantly taking things in. I’m constantly weighing them in my mind. I’m constantly trying to figure out why this is that way. And I’ll come out to my husband and say the weirdest things, like, “I think she turned around and went the other way because of blah blah blah blah blah.” And that’s how I live my life. I’m always trying to figure out why people are doing things the way they are. And that’s pretty much most of my research. Like, I didn’t do a whole lot of research on anxiety…well, I looked it up to find out what the symptoms were, you know, that kind of thing, but no, not a whole lot, to tell you the honest truth.
The question went out of my head that I was about to ask…oh, yes. So, you were talking about the researching, you know, basically by living, and you have done, as you said, a lot of different and interesting kinds of jobs, and you have that science degree which which you say you apply. How does all that feed into your work?
Oh, a lot. I look very analytically at most problems that appear on the page. I use science quite a bit. I tap into DNA as being a reason for the way things are. When I’m designing creatures like vampires and witches and pixies and and stuff I will pull on my biology background and say, “Well, it’s a pixie, it’s small, that means it needs a high-energy source, so it’s probably feeding on nectar, which means it’s going to hibernate or migrate during the winter. It’s going to have a, you know, low cold tolerance.” So, you know, it just builds on itself like that. So, that’s how I use my biology degree mostly, but I do like the beauty behind genetics and, you know, I’ve recently looked back at my body of work and I’ve got genetics in that first fantasy series that I did and I touch on it in the Hollows books and it just keeps popping up here and there. You know, it must be on my mind.
What’s your actual writing process look like? Do you sit in an office and type, do you work in a coffee shop, do you hand write, how does it work for you?
Yeah, I do, I sit in the office. I am lucky enough now to have a office that is six steps away from my back door. It’s a stand-alone octagon. I’ve got windows on all eight sides of me, and I’m basically sitting in a glass box in the middle of my garden. And, it’s been a, you know, when I’m out of my office I’m landscaping the area that I’m looking at and when I’m inside my office I’m head down over the keyboard. When I’m working on plotting there’s a section that’s handwritten, but then I graduate to typing, fairly rapidly now, and then it’s all on the keyboard. I like to work at my office and then…so that when I leave my office I can separate the book world from my real world, and if I have a physical, you know, shut-the-door sensation I think it makes it easier. I think most writers are working all the time whether they know it or not. But being able to shut the door and walk away has helped me divorce myself from whatever issues my characters are working on–because it can spill over into your everyday life if you’re not careful.
I have tried working other places. I recently was in Tucson for two months and I developed the ability to sit outside in the sunshine and work on a laptop instead of in my office off a keyboard, so, you know, I can be flexible, but–I don’t want to say it’s a nine-to-five job now, but I do work almost every day and I try to keep to a schedule. And I think that’s about the only way that I can get anything done. I’m not a splurgeist, I am a a scheduled-time-to-write person.
You mentioned that you start with dialogues, so then you flesh it out from there in your first draft?
Yes. And my first draft is really ugly. I will be the first to admit it. I don’t show my first draft to anybody but my husband and…he’s my sounding board, actually, which is really nice, to have somebody who knows your work as much as you do, and the characters, so that you can talk things over. But I don’t show that to my my editor until I’m at least on my second or third draft because they are so ugly. My first drafts have holes in them and some logic issues. The whole point of a first draft for me is to find out where you’re going and what you end up at. And then you go back and you make it work.
It’s kind of like, going back to the art, it’s sort of like having the clay, you roughly shape it out the first time and then you go in and you put in the details.
Yeah, exactly, exactly.
You mentioned your husband being a sounding board. Do you, at some point, do you use beta readers or anything like that like some writers do?
No, I do not. And I don’t know if that’s…you know, a lot of people do. But I have just never been comfortable with it.
I don’t either, so I’m glad that somebody else doesn’t.
Yeah, my editor is usually the first professional who sees it and I’m…I don’t want to say I’m particular about my editors but I have to trust them implicitly, and so, if it’s a bad fit, it goes sour really fast because if I don’t trust their judgment, you know, it’s like, “Why should I make this change?” You know, I have a little bit of a stubborn streak. But if I trust their judgment it’s like, “I will do it even if I don’t understand why because I trust your judgment.” And if it’s a good fit and they know where I’m going and we’re coming from the same place, it works. You know, I really enjoy working with an editor that I trust.
And, since you have worked with a number of different publishers, you must have worked with a number of different editors over the years.
I have. Probably fewer than most, though. I find somebody I like and I don’t want to go anywhere. I enjoy working…I enjoy feeling like I’m a part of a team even though I’m not involved a lot in in many of the decisions abut how a book is marketed and published and placed. But I enjoy feeling like I’m a part of a team, and my job is to present a product that can be tailored to an editor’s…what an editor sees can be marketable. And, you know, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But, yeah, I do enjoy working with my editors.
What kind of feedback do you get from editors, as in, is there a recurring theme in the sorts of things that you find yourself working on in the editorial pass? I know, for me there’s certain things that…well, of course, have basically only worked with, on the big publisher side, DAW Books, it’s been Sheila Gilbert the entire time. And I already…and everybody that’s edited by Sheila says the same thing, it’s that you get to the point where you’re saying, “Sheila is going to say something about that.” And sure enough, Sheila says something about that.
I’ve never run into that before!
Do you find that there’s certain things that you’re always getting asked to work on in the editorial revision?
I get asked a lot to put in more physical characteristics, and I think that’s just because I see people by how they act rather than what they look like. So, I have really had to work hard at describing people more. You know, I can describe them well but then I don’t…if I don’t remind myself I don’t remind the reader of what they look like throughout the book. And I hear that a lot. Other than that, it’s mostly…mostly I get a lot of questions on, “Can you clarify how this magic system works?” or “Can you flesh out the world a little bit more?” or it might be, “This reaction doesn’t wash with me. You either need to fix it or change the reaction or go back and add some more stuff so I understand why it happened.” Stuff like that.
I think that’s…I think the thing that editors, and new writers will often…they’ll say, “Well, I don’t know if I want to be edited or not. The editor’s going to change things or tell me to change things.”
But good editors have seen a lot of stories and they know what works and they know what doesn’t and they know where you need to kick things up a bit.
Yes. I have run in…most of my editors have been really good but occasionally you might run into one who doesn’t read your work thoroughly enough, and they’ll…I had one editor wipe out the first three pages of almost every chapter and then say, “I need more detail on this this and this.” And it was…and that’s what was in the first three pages! But I had wedged it in so carefully that she skimmed right over it. But that’s rare. I think most of the time editors really care about what they’re doing and they buy your work because they like it and they want…and they see a way to make it better. And they see a place where it can be sold. So if…my advice is, if an editor tells you to change something, unless it’s something that, you know, clearly they missed, change it. Do it. See if…it might work better. You can always change it back.
I like what you said about being part of a team because although as writers we work very independently and on our own for much of the time, once it gets up to the publication level you are part of a team and it’s becomes more of a collaborative thing. That final book has gone through, you know, copyeditors and…the editors and the copyeditors and there’s cover art and there’s blurb writing and there’s all these things that come together to actually make the book when it actually hits the shelf.
And I think if an author feels like they’re part of the process, not just giving them a manuscript and doing a copyedit and page proofs but really part of the process of helping to design the cover, and…the worst covers I’ve ever done are the ones that I’ve tried to design. So, you know, the author is not the person to design the cover but input, a little input, makes you feel involved and the more involved the author is in those later stages of the book, I think the more they’re willing to help push it through their own…like Facebook and Twitter and their…their outreaches to the readers.
And speaking of readers, you’ve already mentioned that some of the feedback from readers had you take another look at the relationship in the Hollows books and you are a, you know, very widely read author, do you get a lot of feedback from your readers, and how does that impact what you do going forward?
I listen to them because sometimes they see things before I do. Sometimes they see things that…a more interesting path than I normally would. I’m in touch with my readers a lot. I’m pretty active on my Facebook and my Twitter, Instagram not so much but I’ve got an account, and it works for me. They often come to me with questions. Rarely do they come to me with suggestions but their questions lead me to think about, “Well, maybe what if?” And that’s that’s what an author always wants to be doing, is saying, “Well, what if?” And to me, the editing, the changing, you know, once you get that first draft done, that’s the hard part. The fun part is tweaking it and tailoring it and seeing what would happen if they go through this door instead of that or they pick up the stray dog, you know, that kind of thing.
And I…going back to the idea of teamwork, ultimately a book is collaborative not just with the people who produce it, but also also with the people who read it. It doesn’t exist, in a way, until somebody reads it and what they get out of it may be quite different from what you thought you were putting in there but clearly because they got it out of there it’s in there somewhere.
Yeah, it’s in there whether you meant it to be or not.
There’s a story about Isaac Asimov, whom you mentioned, I think it was in one of his biographical books, Opus 100 or Opus 200 or Opus 300, I think he went that far, where he mentioned to being in a classroom in a university where they were teaching his classic story “Nightfall,” and he listened to the professor talk about it and then afterwards he went up to him, and he said, “that was very interesting but I’m Isaac Asimov and I wrote that story and I didn’t put any of that stuff in there.” And the professor said, “Well, I’m very glad to meet you but what makes you think that, just because you wrote it, you know what’s in there?” I’ve kept that in the back of my head for thirty, forty years now.
Yeah, that works, that really…that’s right.
Well, let’s talk a bit about the big philosophical questions here. Why do you write, do you think, after all these years, and why do you keep doing it, and specifically why do you write this kind of stuff?
I write to keep from going insane.
I get that a lot from authors.
Yeah, yeah. I think we’re all different but we’re all of a type. It’s…writing is a way for me to get a grip on reality, of what’s going on around me. I don’t want to say that I have a bad life, because I have a wonderful life, but life is full of ups and downs and minor, you know, personal tragedies. And writing helps me work through it and find a way to deal with it. I like puzzles and exploring how things fit together, and that’s what writing is to me. A lot of it is seeing, you know, you start with all these pieces and this is what you want. Well, how do you put them together to get there? And it’s just…it’s a way for me to relax, if I may say so. This is…I’m an introvert, so I need a lot of personal time, and this is the way I can do that and pay the bills. Lucky me, lucky, lucky me! And it’s an escape. You know, people read to escape. Well, I write to escape, and it’s a healthy escape. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
And why science fiction and fantasy?
Why science fiction and fantasy. Yeah, I forgot that part, didn’t I? Probably because that’s what I read growing up, and it’s tied to emotions and good feelings and there’s probably some endorphins going on in there, too–the mind’s a wonderful thing. But that’s probably why. It’s what I like to read so it’s what I like to write. I think it’s that simple.
In the case of Perfunctory Affection, if you read it in one way, it’s not just science fiction or fantasy at all.
No, no it isn’t. It is not. And that is why I really enjoyed writing it. I had just finished…well, I thought I had just finished the Hollows series and I needed something to cleanse my palate, and Perfunctory Affection was an idea that I wanted to work on for a long time and hadn’t been able to. So, I just dived right into it. And it came out to be a weird length, it’s like 68,000 words, which is about half of what I usually write…well, actually, it’s maybe a third of what I usually write for a book. But I couldn’t bear the thought of padding it to make it a full novel because it needed to be slim and trim and the way it is. I don’t really want to think about what was going on in my head or my life at the time that I wrote it because this kind of scary, but, no, it is not fantasy. It is not science fiction. I think I’d call it a psychological thriller, maybe?
Yeah, I think that would fit. I mean, it has a science element to it.
So, in a way it’s science fiction because it has science in it and it’s fiction. But still, I don’t think I would call it that.
And then with Haley and Rory, I don’t know, that might be fantasy.
It is if you read it one way, yeah.
Yes, it is. Yeah. Yeah. So, if it can be read multiple ways I think I’ve done my job.
Sixty-eight thousand is kind of a young adult length. That’s the length of some young adult books that I wrote, and you have written young adult, haven’t you?
I have. Oh, I forgot about those. Yes. I wrote those under Kim Harrison. Again, I think they’re urban fantasy although they don’t deal with vampires. They deal with the grim reaper and angels and that might be urban fantasy-ish.
I think I’d still call it that.
What do you find different writing for young adults and adults?
Not a whole lot. My young adults tend to be, like, 16 to 20, maybe. And the biggest thing that I keep in mind when I sit down is that, aside from including a parent figure in there, that the odds are higher. I think most young adults feel like they don’t have any resources compared to an adult. And…when the truth of the matter is that they’ve got tons of resources, they’ve got friends, they’ve got, you know, they’ve got their own internal power, their strength, their courage, you know, they’ve got tons and tons of of resources, they just don’t realize it. And the fun part about young adult is being able to show a character who feels like they don’t have these resources in order to surmount whatever they need to, and then showing how, yes, you do, and how they grow into it, so to speak. But young adult is where I first started reading,and I love writing young adult, it’s just…I don’t know. The adult issues I guess come up more often, or more easier perhaps, in the adult stuff, and I think for me it’s harder for me to write a young adult and put those adult issues in it, like a lot of authors do. I kind of like to keep my young adult something that I wouldn’t mind my grandma reading, so to speak.
So, we’ve talked about readers and so I guess the other…this whole podcast is called The Worldshapers. Do you hope through your writing that you are shaping…I know, shaping the real world might be a bit grand…but ate least shaping readers in some way, reaching into them and changing them a little bit?
Yes. And I have. I have gotten the feeling that I have changed…I don’t want to say I’ve changed people’s lives…people have read my work and changed their lives in certain instances. I’ve toured for a while, and one of the fun things is, I had a couple come up to me at one of my events and they told me that they met in line two years ago or last year and now they’re a couple. I mean, that’s cool in itself! My favorite story is, a reader came up to me and told me a story that he was in a coffee shop and he saw somebody reading one of my books across the way. And he looked at the woman and he made a bunny-eared kiss-kiss, which is basically a peace sign where you crook your fingers twice in quick succession, and his friend said, “Do you know that woman?” And the woman, you know, across the way, crooked her fingers and did the same thing back, and the guy said, “No, it’s a book thing, it’s a Hollows thing.” And to be able to know that you have impacted the world enough that two people who don’t know each other and share a moment across the coffee shop, you know, that’s heady stuff.
We’re just about out of time here. So, tell me what you’re working on now. What comes next?
I am actually working on American Demon. It is the next Hollows book, with Rachel and Trent. It picks up after the last book but before the epilogue in the last book. So I’ve wedged it in. I hope the readers will be pleased with it. I’m also working on a something completely out of my wheelhouse. It’s more of a hero’s journey. And I don’t really want to say much more than that but it’s not in the Hollows, it’s something else. But I’ve been enjoying being able to write on a multitude of subjects, which is something that, once you get kind of name brand into a genre, that you don’t often get a chance to do, so I’ve just been enjoying writing whatever I feel like. But American Demon is the thing that’s on my plate right now.
And Perfunctory Affection just came out.
It will be out on the March 31.
Which will probably be before this airs, I think I can say…
Ok, yes, so it just came out.
And it’s from Subterranean Press, right?
Yes, it is. And this one is a little special. They are all signed and numbered, which is something new for me. Usually I have a small print run that’s signed and numbered. It is a small print run, but this is it. There is an audio version that will come out and I believe the e-book will come out at some point. But if you want to get a hold of this, it’s…you can get it through Amazon, but Subterranean Press is the publisher and they’re all signed and numbered.
Oh, I feel I feel fortunate to have had an advance reader copy.
There weren’t very many of them, no!
And where can people find you online?
They can find me at my Web site, kimharrison.net. I’m also on Facebook and Twitter @BurningBuddies.
Okay! Well, thank you so much for being on The Worldshapers!
Well, thank you! This has been a fabulous interview.