Episode 68: James Morrow

An hour-plus interview with James Morrow, World Fantasy Award, Nebula Award, Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award and Grand prix de l’Imaginaire-winning author of eleven novels and many shorter works.

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The Introduction

Born in 1947, James Morrow has been writing fiction ever since. As a seven-year-old living in the Philadelphia suburbs, he dictated the story of the duck family to his mother, who dutifully typed it up and bound the pages with yarn. Upon reaching adulthood, Jim channeled his storytelling urge toward the production of speculative literature.

The majority of his eleven novels are written in satiric theological mode, including the critically acclaimed Godhead trilogy. He has won the World Fantasy Award twice, for Only Begotten Daughter and Towing Jehovah, the Nebula Award twice, for his story “The Deluge” and the novella City of Truth, and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award once for the novella Shambling Towards Hiroshima.

In recent years, he’s produced historical fiction informed by a fantastical sensibility, including The Last Witchfinder, about the birth of the Enlightenment, and Galapagos Regained, about the coming of the evolutionary worldview, and his novel-in-progress sardonically reimagines the 325 AD Council of Nicaea. The French translation of his Darwin extravaganza recently received the Grand prix de l’Imaginaire. His most recent work to see print is The Purloined Republic, one of the three novellas that constitute And the Last Trump Shall Sound.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Jim, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you very much, Ed.  Happy to be here.

Happy to make the connection. I don’t believe we’ve ever crossed paths at a convention or anything in person, but it was through Mickey Mickkelson, who’s my publicist and is doing some work as well with Arc Manor. I guess we made the connection because of And the Last Trump Shall Sound, which is out or about to come out. Is it out or about to come out? As we talk, because it will be out by the time this goes live.

September 22 is the pub date. I see you’re about to appear on The Coleman Show, which I’m also booked on. You’re doing that tomorrow, right?

Yeah. As we talk. By the time this comes out, this will all be a few weeks in the past. I sometimes forget that when I’m doing these things, that this is not a live broadcast, but it does not live, it is recorded. And at the time it comes out, all of this stuff will be out. Well, let’s that start, as I do, by taking you, as I like to say, I’m totally going to put reverb on it someday, back into the mists of time, where, as I also like to say, it is mistier for some of us than others. How did you become interested in, you know, you mentioned writing your first story when you were seven years old, so obviously, that came along early, but not just writing, but also science fiction fantasies specifically. How did that come about for you, and where did you grow up and go to school and all that good stuff?

Okay. I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, a little town called Roslyn. I guess there are two different tributaries feeding the river of my imagination. One comes from low culture, sort of popular culture, the other from a more literary zone, high, high culture. I’d say, unlike the majority of guests you have on The Worldshapers, I was not a voracious reader as a kid. My introduction to genre was through the more tawdry venue of Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine. I still have the first, Forrey Ackerman’s sort of love letter to the history of horror films, and so was watching movies on television that had that fantastic sensibility that ultimately, I would argue, led to my producing prose fiction in that genre. My friends and I in high school subscribed to Famous Monsters and would go to each other’s houses to watch these movies. And we started our own filmmaking club.

Growing up in Roslyn, Pennsylvania, I was very near a large cemetery, and this became the setting for about half the movies that we made. But we did, these were 8mm home movies, but we thought of them as feature films, and we were in them, but we thought of ourselves as adult actors. But we did adaptations of “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” and Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and the other films we did had titles like Cagliostro, The Sorcerer, and The Futurians. But let me then jump to the other tributary of more literary or high culture. In my 10th-grade world literature class taught by the amazing Mr. Giordano (sp?), I came to understand for the first time that a novel was not simply about following the vicarious adventures of non-existent people, that a novel could be a matrix of ideas, and novelists were people who had something to say. And the syllabus was just extraordinary. We read Voltaire’s Candide, we read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the plays of Ibsen, Kafka’s The TrialMadame Bovary by Flaubert. And I just was so entranced by the sensibility of those authors. They were people who did not settle for the received wisdom of their day. They stood outside of their cultures. They were at odds with conventional thought, and they tended to be very much religious skeptics, doubters. And not just . . . it was kind of like my inverse road to Damascus. You know, I wanted to sign up for the sort of honest atheism of Albert Camus and I, you know, and I thought maybe I could do it myself someday, that I could write a novel of ideas.

Science fiction, of course, demands that you play with ideas. It’s often called the literature ideas of ideas. You get this wonderful toolkit when you join that club of robots and time travel and rocketships, all of which become techniques for getting perspective on the world, for holding reality up to a kind of funhouse mirror and, you know, and then maybe telling people a thing or two, arguing for a way of seeing the world.  And one day, I found myself possessed by an idea for my first novel.

When you were doing the film work, were you doing some of the scripting for those films where you’re writing for that?

Yeah, they were my . . . I guess there were like four of us who were in this, who had created this club, and I was sort of recognized me as the one who did pretty well with dialogue and was the writer of the group. But we all took turns behind the camera, we all took turns in front of the camera. I usually did the editing as well. I love the editing process. And I would say to this day, my fiction-making for me is filmmaking by other means, that when I cut into a manuscript, when I leap into the rough draft of a chapter as it comes pouring out of my printer and I sit down with a pencil and a cup of coffee, to me, trimming and reshaping the prose is analogous to what I did for many years editing films, trimming the frames, rearranging the images.

I have to ask if you still have the story of the dog family bound in yarn by your mother, you still have a copy of that.

I do! That managed to survive. I have it in a file upstairs. And I still have most of the 8mm movies that we made. Although I haven’t played them recently. I have a feeling the splices would fall apart, and the soundtracks may have, the tape may have degenerated. I’m afraid to find out.

Were you writing prose during that time as well, your teen years, and so forth? And were you sharing those stories with people? Or was it pretty much you were in that film making side of things?

Yeah, I mean, I had an urge to tell stories. I had, I think, a feeling for narrative, but I expressed myself in other media, the filmmaking . . . we put on some plays, I used to draw my own comic strips and comic books and, you know, didn’t turn to prose fiction until, you know, my first novel, really, though I always, I loved the medium of the novel from a very young age. I thought there was just something magical and luminous about those books in my parents’ modest library that I knew were fiction. And even before I was very adept at reading and way before I would imagine composing stories myself, I would take volumes off the shelf in my parents’ living room, and then I would impose on them my own novel. I would sort of be telling a story to myself as I was turning the pages of the novel, pretending that it was something that I had written.

I have to ask because so much of your work is, as you said in your bio, theologically inspired, did you have a religious upbringing, were you learning theological material during your youth?

No. My parents took me to Presbyterian Sunday School, but I think they were not really serious Christians themselves. I think they had a kind of inoculation theory: give the kid a little bit of religion, you know, lest he someday show up announcing that he’s decided to become a monk, and you deprived me of God, and how dare you not tell me about the divine! And, you know, I honestly believe that was their theory. So, I had . . .it was a very low-level experience. I mean, even though I did have that inverse road to Damascus I mentioned earlier, thanks to Voltaire and Camus, etc., there just wasn’t that much, there’s not that much to lapse from when you’re a sort of white-bread, you know, middle-class suburban Christian. So, the impulse to critique Christianity does not come out of any kind of trauma. I was not in rebellion against a religious upbringing. I’d never been assaulted by a nun holding a ruler or anything like that. It was much more, these voices spoke to me, these doubters like Camus and Dostoyevsky and Ibsen. And I just wanted to try that myself.

Well, you mentioned that you didn’t really tackle prose until you had the idea for your first novel. When did that come along? And also, what did you study in university?

I majored in English, and my speciality was creative writing, but I still wasn’t doing a lot of prose fiction. My main project was a screenplay, and I actually had Joseph Heller as a teacher, which was a wonderful experience.

Not bad!

And he was very interested in what I was doing. It was a course in playwriting, and he himself had a play running on Broadway at the time called We Bombed in New Haven. And he was taken with the comedy, the three-act comedy that I was producing in his class. But I did not come out of the program at the University of Pennsylvania with a belief in myself as a novelist or as someone who was going to get into this wonderful universe of science fiction. I became an educator for a while, and I had used my filmmaking experience to become a media educator and was hired by several public school systems to, like, teach animation to junior-high-age kids or teach students how to make slide tapes. But at that time, in my circle of media educators, there was a lot of discussion about the effect that mass media was having on children. And most of that conversation was about the deleterious effects of television and movies on kids. There were books like The Plug-in Drug getting a lot of attention, very anti-television. And I said to myself, “Well, I can understand why people are worried that that TV is turning kids into lemmings, but what about the contrary argument, that television has a kind of cathartic effect, and that television maybe drains off impulses that one otherwise might be inclined to act out in the real world, anti-social impulses.” And I said, “You know, there’s kind of science-fiction novel in there. What if there was a society that was totally pacifistic, where there’d never been a robbery or a rape or a killing? And if initially this is a mystery, how in the world did they achieve this, this blessed state?” And then it turns out that they have a technology that lets them sort of hook themselves up to their television sets, except they control the content. If they’ve had some bad experience that day, an argument with the boss, or maybe even getting fired from their job, you could go home and shoot the boss on television, and nobody would get hurt and would drain off your desire you might have to commit that sort of crime in the real world. And then the plot became, what if on this utopian planet an astronaut arrives, falls in love with one of these, they’re human migrants, falls in love with them and decides that she needs just a little bit of an aggressive instinct to be fully human, that maybe, you know, you’ve got to have a dark side, you’ve got to have that dark side for real, not just in your fantasies. And so, he injects her with a little bit of the violence that these people drain off into a rive, a moat that encircles their city. And of course, this is a recipe for disaster. She has no immunity and becomes a maniac. And then he’s faced with this terrible dilemma: is he going to kill the woman he loves to save a civilization he hates? 

So, the whole thing arrived full-blown, all three acts. I found an agent, and we discussed whether this was, in fact, a science fiction novel or just a novel of ideas. And we ultimately decided it should be marketed as science fiction. She took it to . . . Holt Rinehart and Winston at the time had a line of SF they were publishing, Larry Niven and Robert Checkley, and they did Heinlein. This was Donald Hunter, the late lamented Donald Hunter at Holt. And I was off and running. I never looked back. The book didn’t become a bestseller, but it got quite a bit of review attention. The Science Fiction Book Club picked it up, it came out in paperback, and I said, “Okay, I’ve sort of kept the commitment I made with myself way back in tenth grade to see if I could write a novel of ideas.”

I want to go back to the university and studying creative writing/ I often ask authors who have done that formally if it turned out to be helpful. It sounds like, in your case, maybe it actually was. Not every author tells me that it was. So, what was your experience?

Certainly, having Joseph Heller and his sensibility was a big influence on me. He was very self-effacing. I would say that, you know, Catch-22, as far as he was concerned, its unbelievable success was kind of a fluke. Every year many worthy novels come out and disappear and die a dog’s death. Now, that said, it was just, you know, Catch-22 is, as you might imagine, a touchstone for me, James Morrow the satirist. That said, the other creative writing classes I had were happening at a time . . . this is, what, circa 1968, ’69, before it was thought that you could teach the crafting of prose fiction systematically. And so, the only thing that went on in these classrooms was workshopping, because reacting to each other’s manuscripts, as opposed to, you know, the sort of, I wouldn’t call formulas, but the sort of incredibly good advice you get, you would get from, let’s say, a John Gardner in his book—On Writing Fiction, as I recall, is the title. And, you know, there was no discussion of how to negotiate the marketplace, what it meant to get a literary agent, how important that could be, you know, nor was there a whole lot of explicit teaching about how do you create a character? How do you structure a plot? You know, what are the techniques you can use to engage a reader? What is the difference between suspense and surprise, et cetera, et cetera? And so, yeah, I can’t praise the other aspects of the University of Pennsylvania’s writing program at the time. I suspect it’s rather different now, maybe much more influenced by institutions like Iowa’s writers’ workshops.

The playwrighting interests me, as well. I’m an actor. I’ve done quite a bit of stage work and have written a couple of plays and directed them and all that sort of thing, and I always feel that that’s helpful in writing my fiction in a way and that I always have a very clear image of where everybody is in relationship to each other in my head, in the scene. And I think some of that comes from writing plays. And then I also think, of course, the dialogue side of things. Do you feel that that background in playwriting and scriptwriting has benefited your fiction?

Yes, very much so. I sometimes think of myself as a playwright manque, though, of course, it’s even harder to convince money people to put on a play of yours than to publish your novel.

Yeah, that’s for sure.

To say nothing of filmmaking. But yeah, I do see my work, as it may be, both playwriting and filmmaking by other means, and I’m told that my novels are visual and vivid, and I do think in terms of scenes. Not all prose fiction makers do, they’re maybe a little more free form. They don’t break into discrete acts or scenes or sequences or the three-act structure. But that’s where I am. These epics of mine are not only patterned on the structure of films, but I actually draw inspiration a great deal from the Hollywood product. At least, it’s always, whenever I’m working on it, it becomes an excuse to look at a bunch of movies and see how I’m going to get energy.

When you, I mean, you mentioned doing it in high school, but have you done acting yourself since then?

Very, very little. No, I’ve fallen away from that.

Well, you know, if the writing doesn’t work out, you can always try acting. There’s a good, solid career choice.

I think of the criticism from Peter Ustinov, who, as you probably know, was a man of many talents, a Renaissance man, and his whole family was into the arts. I mean, they were all musicians or writers or painters.

I think I read his autobiography, yeah.

Someone brought to the Bronx, brought to the family dinner, a guy she was dating. And they asked, “Well, what does he do for a living?” And he said he was a stockbroker. And they said, “You’re a stockbroker. Can you make a living from that? Why don’t you go into something safe, like poetry?” Because they were all successful. Not the norm.

No. My favorite actor joke, which I’ve heard a few times, is, “What’s the difference between an actor and a pizza?” And it’s, “A pizza can feed a family of four.”

I’ve heard that joke as being the difference between a science-fiction writer and a pizza.

Yeah, it’s the same joke.

So, let’s talk about your creative process. We’re going to talk about The Last Witchfinder, which I’ve read a chunk of. I haven’t gotten to the end, but I certainly intend to. This came out a few years ago, but I’ll let you give a synopsis of it and explain what it is.

I had an amazing encounter, this would be 35 years ago, with a book by a physicist at the University of Massachusetts named Edward Harrison. The book is called Masks of the Universe. And the essential argument of the book is that we, the human species, will probably never know the Universe with a capital U. It will be, that kind of knowledge, absolute knowledge, will be denied to us. What we have are a succession, throughout human history, of universes, each with lowercase u, and this book, Masks of the Universe, is a kind of history of the evolution of human intellectual thought and scientific thought, vis a vis all these masks. So, Harrison takes us on a tour, from the magic universe of Paleolithic people to the mythic universe of the Sumerians, the Egyptians, and other early civilizations, the geometric universe of the Greeks, the divine universe of medieval Christian Europe, the mechanistic universe of Newton, the Age of Reason, and then our contemporaneous relativistic universe of modernity, of scientific modernity. Harrison is particularly, was particularly, obsessed with what he calls the witch universe, that time when everybody understood that demons were what made things happen, that the world was not so much enchanted as haunted.

It was called the Renaissance ex post facto. But I encountered this amazing sentence, and I just Xeroxed it, and I want to read it. This is from page 214 in Masks of the Universe. Harrison says, quote, “The supposed Renaissance was a disordered interlude between sane universes,” that is between the medieval and the Age of Reason, quote, “a bedlam of distraught world pictures terrorized by a witch universe, created by leaders with fear-crazed minds, an age in thrall to a mad universe on the rampage, which would have destroyed European society but for the intervention of science.” So, I read that sentence, and I said, “Oh, my God, there’s an idea for a novel, an entire society nearly destroyed by its own theology. I mean, I have to work with that someday. I have to be able to turn that into an epic, even if Harrison is overstating the case,” and I think perhaps it was. “But for the intervention of science, Europe would have destroyed itself. I’ve got to work with that theme!” But I couldn’t come up with an entree, year in, year out. How in the world could one traumatize an event so large and momentous?

And after a gestation of 15 years, I had a breakthrough, and I said, “You know, a character,” in this case, I intuitively knew she must be a woman, “a woman born in about 1678, would have lived through this amazing transition, this rotation from the witch universe to what we call retrospectively the Age of Reason or the Enlightenment.” And so, The Last Witchfinder was born and became the story of Jennet Stearne, who makes it her lifetime mission to try to bring down the parliamentary witchcraft statute of 1604. She has many adventures in the course of trying to fulfill this mission. It’s really, it’s both a mission and a pledge to her Aunt Isobel, a kind of deathbed promise. Isobel is herself mistaken for a witch and executed by the powers that be in the England of early modern Europe. Eventually, eventually, Jennet engages in a very creative act. She masquerades as a witch and in a sense then puts herself on trial for consorting with demons, and because she’s become good friends with the young Benjamin Franklin, she actually becomes a lover of Benjamin Franklin, this is circa 1731, she knows she will get publicity in Franklin’s periodical, the Pennsylvania Gazette. So, this sort of media circus trial occurs in Philadelphia, and Parliament takes note of it in England. And so, this is the kind of science fiction, I guess, that would be called secret history or hidden history. This is the real story that you’ve not known until now of why that statute was finally taken off the books.

So, once you had this idea, what did your planning process and research process . . . because clearly, you put a lot of research into this. I noticed in your foreword you were talking about a great deal of this is reality, with a few tweaks of what we . . . well, what we think is the real history . . . here and there to tell the story. So, what did your research and planning process look like? And is this typical of your work?

I always do a lot of research, and it’s mysterious to me. And I don’t want to become too conscious about it, self-conscious about it. How does one know when to stop the research and write the damn novel? I mean, my facetious answer to your question would be, first I write the novel, and then I do the research, you know, sort of retrofitting. But it’s more of a dance. It’s very complicated. As I did the research, a lot of actual history kind of played into my hand. I felt very fortunate that, for example, when Jennet is abducted by Indians around 1695, she’s now living, she starts out living in England, but then she goes to the colonies because that’s where her family has moved. She ends up in Haverhill, Massachusetts, and it turns out that, in fact, Haverhill, Massachusetts, was attacked by the Abenaki in 1695.

A big breakthrough for me was, I always knew that I wanted to use not only Benjamin Franklin but also Isaac Newton as sort of personification of the two universes, the universes that are in play at this point in history. Franklin, sort of the avatar of the Enlightenment, cheeky and contrarian, as opposed to Newton, one of the most pious men who ever lived. Very much of a piece with the Renaissance. And it turns out that they actually almost met in 1725. Franklin is in London. He has a commission from the royal governor of Pennsylvania to buy printing equipment. And he has a letter of introduction to Newton from someone in Newton circle, I think it was the physician Pemberton, who edited the second edition of Principia Mathematica. Newton does not want to meet this cheeky kid from Philadelphia, so the meeting never occurred. But in my novel, it occurs. I have Franklin and Newton in the same carriage together, but they just talk past each other. Franklin wants to discuss electricity; Newton is preoccupied with counterfeiters at that time and with biblical prophecy. And so, it’s not simply that they are from two different generations, this is the old Newton and the young Franklin, not just two different generations, two different continents, they’re really from two different universes: Franklin of the Enlightenment and Newton of the Renaissance. So I said, well, this is playing into my hands. This is a lot of fun. It’s going to work.

And then other facts, like the Baron de Montesquieu, who ends up defending Jennet at the trial she arranges for herself, really could have ended up in Philadelphia in 1731. He was a young aristocrat taking the grand tour that European aristocrats always took at that time. There was even, according to Franklin, on a witch trial in Mount Holly, New Jersey, at this time, and I simply moved it across the Delaware to Philadelphia. Franklin’s account of the witch trial makes it clear that it never really happened, it’s simply a hoax that he put into the Pennsylvania Gazette. But I decided to take Franklin at his word. So, I guess for me, Ed, the process was like walking through a field with all of these sort of pottery shards lying around, you know, and I would pick them up and examine them and try to fit them to each other and end up with an urn of my own design.

From what I know of Franklin, I suspect he’d like this story.

He comes off very, very well. Yeah.

Did your outlining . . . do you do, like, a detailed outline or just hit some high points and then go for it? What’s that process like?

I do. It’s a kind of freeform outline. You know, I wasn’t really sure how the book was going to end, though. And that’s true of almost all of my novels. I have to kind of feel my way to the climax. But I would never plunge into a project this ambitious, or any sort of a novel, without a rough sense of what the three acts were going to be. You can hear my playwriting heritage coming out here. But that said, I always appreciate a remark that the film director John Huston once made. He said, there comes a time when every film project when you throw away the script and make the movie, by which he means, you know, don’t let the script become your master. You must allow for improvisation, things the actors are going to bring to it, camera setups you never imagined until you were actually on the set, and so forth. And I think for me, at least with prose fiction, there comes a time when you throw away the outline and write the damn novel.

Talking about the three-act structure, you know, it just now occurred to me, but almost every play I see these days is actually two acts. People always talk about the three-act structure, but they’re generally presented as two acts.

It certainly was the classic structure of musicals, right? It was almost like an unwritten but inviolable law that every musical must have two acts with an intermission.

What’s your actual writing process like? Are you a fast writer, a slow writer? Do you write with parchment, quill pen, and parchment out under a tree where an apple could fall on your head, or . . .?

I guess I wrote my first novel, The Wine of Violence, in longhand, you know, Bic pens on legal pads, and I’ve never been able to compose on a typewriter. I envy writers who could do that. So, I’d always have to . . . sometimes I would type it up myself, and then then I would often have to hire a professional typist to try to cope with all the notes I would put on my first typed draft. Now, of course, I use word processing. I’m working very hard on not being so distracted by the Internet that I stop because I just have to look up a fact, sometimes even because I know I spelled the word wrong, I have to stop to correct the spelling. These are terrible habits. And if any embryonic writers are listening, try to never acquire these bad habits that James Morrow has. I’m slow, methodical. It seems to take forever. In theory, every novel I write should be a year. I remember a remark that Stephen King makes in his quasi-autobiography, his book called Danse Macabre, “Any writer who can’t produce a novel in a year is merely dicking off,” and I agree with Stephen King, but somehow, it always takes two, three, four years. It’s been a lot of time on rewriting, workshopping, showing it to friends and colleagues. And also, I have to say, because I love the medium so much and regard it as such a privilege to work within the medium of the novel, I don’t want to surrender a given book. I want to live inside it.

And perhaps because my premises are so often ridiculous, preposterous, like Towing Jehovah, schlepping the corpse of God to its final resting place in the Arctic on a commission from an angel. Oh, come on. That’s so bold and bold and absurd that I didn’t believe it at first. But I’m living inside and retrofitting a whole lot of facts about life aboard a supertanker onto the story and talking to people who had actually lived on supertankers and then visiting, you know, visiting a lot of death-of-God theology, month in, month out, I started to believe that Towing Jehovah could be the case, but it took a while.

Well, your prose is very rich, and especially in The Last Witchfinder, you’re going for a bit of that archaic diction, I guess. Is that . . . what does your revision process look like? Does that kind of language flow out of you naturally, or do you go back and tweak it a lot to get to that level of . . . erudition, I guess.?

Yeah, Witchfinder was a difficult struggle in particular, because I was trying to . . . I was trying to hit the archaic qualities that we encounter in Restoration drama. And I read a lot of Restoration plays to try to get that voice right, and I read contemporaneous documents. And I have to say it’s the aspect of The Last Witchfinder that I’m least satisfied with. I’m not sure I got it right, but I was determined to try to not settle for modern English, where it becomes the reader’s job to imagine they’re speaking in idioms of the day. I was very influenced by John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, which is set in exactly the same time zone as The Last Witchfinder, Restoration England and Colonial America. I stole a lot of locutions from him that he had gotten from somewhere else.

But The Last Witchfinder was almost seven years in creation, and much of it was just, yes, endlessly revising the dialect to try to get it to sound right. You know, the language is in transition. They’re sort of shedding Elizabethanisms, sort of the language of Shakespeare, but a lot of that still stayed around. And so, with the novel I did subsequently . . . well, there was a modern novel in between, which was set in Victorian England. That was rather easier to do because we have a pretty good idea from Dickens how the Victorians spoke. But it’s less clear in the case of Witchfinder.

And I guess you still have to also make sure that your language is comprehensible to a modern reader.

That was the challenge, you know, and some of the positive reviews of Witchfinder complimented me on how you adjust to it fairly quickly. It seems very strange, all of this archaic diction. But you kind of figure it out, and you flow with it. I think the book is easier to negotiate than Shakespeare. For example, when you read Shakespeare, it’s a self-conscious experience. You’re constantly making little almost subconscious translations in your mind.

One reason he works better on stage, where you can kind of understand what’s going on from the action, even if you don’t know exactly. Of course, we should make the point that, at least according to the beginning of the book, you didn’t actually write it. It was written by Isaac Newton’s book, which I thought was hilarious, with all these old books that were, you know, they were actually writing these new books, and the authors weren’t really involved.

I guess that’s the other dimension of Witchfinder that owes something to my genre background. There’s a sense in which The Last Witchfinder is taking place in a universe that isn’t quite ours, a universe in which books are alive. They’re sentient creatures who have thoughts and agendas and who can nevertheless fall in love with humans, just as we fall in love with books, right? And they write other books. And what I was up to there and was, I knew the book was going to be, at one level, a celebration of the Enlightenment. I would argue that Harrison is really on to something, the Age of Reason, the scientific understanding of nature came along just when it was needed because the witch universe was a nightmare, a bedlam, as he puts it. At the same time, I said, you know, I don’t want to become an unqualified cheerleader for the Enlightenment because there is a case to be made against reason and the deification of reason, of the sort of church of reason that emerges during the French Revolution. That’s a dead end, too. And the critics of the Enlightenment always point to the French Revolution, that’s always exhibit A in any indictment of that period, which for me was, I guess I am a child of it, I’m a child of Voltaire and Candide, but this conceit of the Principia Mathematica and its somewhat sardonic understanding of the worl, enabled me to make the case against the Enlightenment through the voice of the Principia, which is privilege, which has perspective on all this. I wanted to avoid what I think is a pitfall of a lot of historical fiction, of the characters being acutely aware of how their descendants interpret their actions, which I think it is simply not given to us to know. I had an initial way of getting this perspective on history by having Jeanette’s Aunt Isobel, the woman whose death sends her on her great commission, having Isabelle writing an epic poem that she’s channeled from the ether that recounts, that narrates what’s going to happen in the next generations and the rise of experimental science. And then I said to myself, “Oh, no, that’s a kind of mystical idea, that’s one that’s at odds with the rationalism that I’m defending in this book.” So, I did something that was even more irrational than the epic poem. I did this crazy, this crazy, contemplative narrator. And I’m glad that you’re fond of it.

I guess it is Prin(k)ipia, isn’t it? I tend to give it more of a, like an Italian pronunciation, Prin(ch)ipia.

I think both are acceptable.

What’s the editing process like for you? What do editors come back to you suggesting you do at the editing level?

Well, when it comes to professional editors whose job it is, whose job description is to be an editor, that’s what it says on their door, Editor . . . the days of Maxwell Perkins, I think, are over; the days when somebody could take a manuscript that was kind of raw and rough and say, “Well, here’s how we can, here’s how I can work with this. And I’ll enter into a conversation with the author, and we’ll reimagine this book so that it’s really going to work for the reader.” That’s not what editors are paid to do anymore. They’re expected to acquire ready-to-run books on the whole. And so, I have rarely gotten suggestions that went very deep into the book. They tended . . . you know, the editor will send you a two-page letter with suggestions. And I respect the industry because the author has final cut. Rarely will an editor ever say, “If you don’t go along with this, we’re not going to publish your book”. So, I guess what I’ve said could be boiled down to the notion that you have to be your own editor. And that’s another thing that protracts the composition process for me because I don’t want to . . . sending a book out prematurely, that, I feel, is one of the worst mistakes you can make. You can’t count on an editor seeing its potential. The potential better be there upfront.

We’re getting close to the end of the hour, just a few minutes left, so I want to get to the big philosophical questions, and clearly, you have fun with those. And there’s three of them, I guess. Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write? And why literature of the fantastic in particular?

Well, why do I write? I write to change the world, to make it a better place now.

We’ve been talking about The Last Witchfinder, and I write because I feel so privileged to be part of what I would call the great post-Enlightenment conversation. The situation we find ourselves in, in modernity, where everything can be put on the table and where you can’t say, “Well, because I’ve had a revelation, we don’t need to continue this discussion any further,” that argument doesn’t work anymore. So, I just feel that I’m making my little, my small contribution to the, you know, to the fight against nihilism, really a fight against a kind of theocracy that pretends that mere human beings have ultimate answers. And they don’t. They don’t.

Why does anybody write? I can’t speak to my colleagues. Some of them would say they do it because it’s so much fun and I make money from it.

On the human scale, then, why do humans tell stories?

We are storytelling animals, Homo narratives, I think. But with science fiction in particular, I think you have an opportunity to enrich the vocabulary with which we address the big mysteries of existence, these questions of meaning, and how then shall we live? I mean, if you’re lucky, your book even ends up in the dictionary, a la Frankenstein and 1984. Frankenstein, you know, enlarged our vocabulary, it gave us . . the very name means, or has become synonymous with, the idea that with the power of science must come responsibility. And the tragedy of Victor Frankenstein is not that he was curious, I would argue, or not that he did this borderline blasphemous experiment, but that once he brought the creature into the world, he abandoned it. 1984, of course, the first and last time an author actually owned a year, expanded our vocabulary with terms like Newspeak and Doublethink and Big Brother. We have a way to talk about things that previously we couldn’t talk about. I think of Wells and The Island of Dr. Moreau, you know, a kind of metaphor for this brave new world of genetic engineering and the power we’re developing to manipulate the human genome. Certainly, Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale just gave us the concept of the handmaid, this woman who’s under the thumb of a patriarchy. And these are all science fiction titles.

Even in the case of fantasy, it’s important to remember that it also stands against nihilism. The fantasy does not in any way argue the world is up for grabs, the way the nihilist would do and say, well, therefore, my authority is the last word, because we all know reality is up for grabs, there is nothing that’s grounded anymore, which would be sort of nihilism in a nutshell. Tolkien made the point that in a fantasy saga, the trees are real trees, and the grass is real grass, and the rocks are actual rocks. It’s not a fantasy world in the sense of everything being surreal or absurdist. There is an external reality up there, out there, and the very title, Lord of the Rings, I’ve always been fascinated that it points to the villain of the story, to Sauron. Why is that? And I think it’s because the main, the big idea that Tolkien is playing with is the nature of evil, not in some dopey Manichaean sense, but just the, you know, those who think that there is no external reality and therefore they can set the terms, they can set the terms of reality themselves. The line that Gandalf has, “Let folly be our cloak,” it would never occur to Sauron that the Fellowship is going to give up this power. Evil has far less imagination than people of goodwill possess, and I think that’s a very affirming idea, and I think that’s why the book, that novel, has the title it does.

And we’ll. . . what are you working on now? But first, we should mention that you do have something out, a brand-new novella in And the Last Trump Shall Sound with Cat Rambo, whom I’ve had on the show, and Harry Turtledove. So, maybe just briefly, what is that? I have a pretty good idea, but I’ll let you describe it.

And the Last Trump Shall Sound is a set of novellas that speculate on a near-future USA in which Donald Trump won a second term, and this was followed by the election of Pence, who also got a second term, whereupon the states of Oregon, Washington, and California come together under one flag, call themselves the nation of Pacifica, and secede from the Union. That was the premise as it was pitched to me by Shahid Mahmud, the publisher who came up with this idea because he was so distressed to see the way that the nation was being torn apart on the macro scale by the Trump phenomenon and families were being torn apart on the micro-scale. And he just thought, well, maybe science fiction writers can make a valuable contribution to that conversation. I turned him down initially. I said, “Shahid, I can’t work with this. The thought of Trump being re-elected and Pence getting two terms after that is so depressing. Sorry, I’m out of here.”  And so, after I rejected membership in this committee, I remembered something that Shahid had said in pitching it to me, which was that Trump would be dead when the story opened. And I said, “Well, what if Pence is falling under the spell of a spiritual adviser who is not all she seems, and was, in fact, working for Pacifica. What if Pence becomes convinced that he could bring Trump back from the dead? That could be a lot of fun. All right.” So, the very next day, I said, “Shahid, is the slot still open? Can I still join your project?” And he said yes, and I’m really glad.

So, it is still science fiction/fantasy. It’s not just political commentary.

These three novellas, they’re all in the grand tradition of sort-of near future . . . not prophecy. I think the distinction that Orwell makes between a warning and a prophecy is very important. So, I don’t think we’re saying this is going to have to be how it turns out, but we are trying to just diagnose what’s happening, and we all come at it from three very different directions. I should hasten to add that when Trump is actually resurrected in the Washington National Cathedral, what’s going on is not supernatural. It appears that Trump has come back from the dead, but in fact, it’s an audio-animatronics robot.

Like Disneyland.

Exactly.

And what else are you working on?

Well, let’s see. For once, I think I actually have written a novel in a year, as Stephen King prescribes. It’s called Those Who Favor Fire, and it’s a comedy about climate change and a title I’ve always wanted to use. Many years ago, I wrote a nuclear war comedy, or dark comedy, that saw print as This Is the Way the World Ends. I wanted to call it Those Who Favor Fire, but at the time, another work of fiction with that title was coming out, and my editor and I said, well, we want to avoid confusion. So, I finally got to use the line from the Robert Frost poem “Fire and Ice” as the title of my climate-change novel. And very briefly, it posits that the hollow earth theory is the case, and there’s actually a race of human beings living beneath the surface of our consensus reality. And they’ve got a problem with ice. Their side of the planet has fallen victim to global cooling. So, it’s an allegory, I guess, though I like to think I can avoid the usual pitfalls of allegory where things just map neatly onto each other.

Any indication of when that will be out?

Well, yeah, sure. It’ll be done in a year, and so it will be out next year, except, no, this is James Morrow, and I’m sure I will once again trip myself up with a long rewriting and workshopping process. And it’s not a book that’s been commissioned by a publisher. And, you know, I think I’ll take it to St. Martin’s Press, who did my last novel, to see hardcover print. But there’s no guarantees. It may or may not ever find a publisher. As you may know, I don’t want to spoil your day, Ed, it could even happen to you, a writer at my age can end up in a condition that’s called post-novel, where, you know, where people will take a much harder look at your sales figures and your status, and if you’ve not had a bestseller, it becomes really hard to unload a novel.

Yeah, well, here’s hoping. And those who would like to see how you’re doing, where can they find you online?

I have a website, www.jamesmorrow.net, and I have a Facebook presence of sorts, and I do some twittering, some tweeting.

Okay, I will put those links in, as I always do. And I think that’s about our time, so, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed that. I hope you did, too.

I enjoyed it very much. You’re welcome.

Episode 66: Kacey Ezell

An hour-long conversation with Kacey Ezell, an active-duty USAF instructor helicopter pilot who writes sci-fi/fantasy/horror/noir/alternate history fiction including Minds of Men and The World Asunder, both Dragon Award Finalists for Best Alternate History in 2018 and 2019, respectively, and, with Griffin Barber, the far-future noir thriller Second Chance Angel.

Website
www.kaceyezell.net

Facebook
@KaceyEzell

Instagram
@KaceyEzell

Kacey Ezell’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Kacey Ezell is an active duty USAF instructor pilot with 2500+ hours in the UH-1N Huey and Mi-171 helicopters.  When not teaching young pilots to beat the air into submission, she writes sci-fi/fantasy/horror/noir/alternate history fiction. Her novels Minds of Men and The World Asunder were both Dragon Award Finalists for Best Alternate History in 2018 and 2019, respectively. She’s contributed to multiple Baen anthologies and has twice been selected for inclusion in the Year’s Best Military and Adventure Science Fiction compilation. In 2018, her story “Family Over Blood” won the Year’s Best Military and Adventure Science Fiction Readers’ Choice Award.

In addition to writing for Baen Books and Blackstone Publishing, Kacey has published several novels and short stories with independent publisher Chris Kennedy Publishing. She is married with two daughters. 

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Kacey, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you so much for having me.

I should point out that we are speaking across a vast portion of the Earth’s surface, since you’re Tokyo, and I’m in Regina, Saskatchewan. So, yeah, 15 hours difference, I think. So, it’s an early-morning interview for you and a late-afternoon one for me, on two different days. It really is a science-fictional world.

The future is now, friends. It really is.

Exactly. Well, I’m glad to have the chance to talk to you. Your name was suggested to me by one of your fellow Baen authors. So, I’m always glad to get recommendations for people I’ve talked to. We’ve never met in person. So, this will be a good chance to get to know you. So, let’s start at the very beginning, as they say in The Sound of Music. And one interesting thing is that you were born in South Dakota, as you probably actually know where Saskatchewan is. So that’s nice.

I do vaguely. Sort of northish.

Yeah. Just go up past North Dakota, and then it’s us, basically.

Yeah, right.

So, yeah, so, let’s start with—I always say this—we’ll take you back into the mists of time, where you grew up and how you got interested in . . . well, probably you started as a reader. Most of us do. And how that led you to become a writer. And also, this whole bit of being in the Air Force and being a helicopter pilot. That’s interesting, too.

Well, yeah, so. So, I was born in South Dakota, but my parents, when I was about six years old, my parents joined the United States Air Force, as well. And so, we started moving around shortly after like first grade. And one of the very intelligent things that my mother did . . . so, I was kind of an early reader. I started reading just before kindergarten. And once I started reading, I very quickly devoured, you know, any written word I could get my hands on. And during one of our first moves, my mom, I think desperate for me to stop whining that I was bored and didn’t have any friends yet, because we had just moved, to put a copy of Anne McCaffery’s Dragondrums into my hands and said, “Here, this is for kids, read it.” And so, I read it and was immediately entranced. And that was my gateway drug to science fiction and fantasy, if you will, was the Harper Hall trilogy for Dragonriders of Pern.

That would do it.

Yeah, yeah, it really did. And, well, you know, and so here’s me, I’m like, well, so, I read Dragondrums when we lived in Albuquerque. And then very shortly after that, we moved overseas to the Philippines. And during that overseas move, my mom gave me the actual Dragonriders of Pern trilogy, the first trilogy that Anne McCaffrey wrote in that series. And for, you know, a kid who was leaving all of her friends behind to go overseas to another country, like, the idea of being a dragonrider and being telepathically paired with, like, your perfect companion who will always love you, who will never leave you, you’ll never have to move away from, was really enticing. And I got it into my head that I really, really wanted to be a dragonrider. And it turns out dragons are in fairly short supply here on mundane Earth. So, my very logical nine-year-old brain decided that I was going to be a pilot instead because that was about as close as I was going to be able to get. So that’s when I, one, both fell in love with science fiction and  fantasy, and two, decided to pursue aviation as a career. It’s all Anne McCaffery’s fault.

Besides Anne McCaffery, were there some other books that were kind of inspiring to you along the way?

Oh, absolutely. You know, like I said, I, I read anything I could get my hands on, so, you know, my mom put The Lord of the Rings, she bought me that trilogy very shortly after that. And, you know, I got really into Tolkien for the, which was my introduction, as I think it is for most people, to the world of high fantasy. And, you know, in an odd way, you know, I pointed this out at a convention a couple of years ago, but there’s a connection there between, like, Tolkienesque fantasy and a lot of the military science fiction that, you know, that I read and write today because, you know, with epic fantasy, you’re talking about these sweeping movements, but you’re also a lot of times talking about armies and, you know, the movements of armies and the tactical decisions of the, you know, of their leadership and stuff. And that’s part of what makes military science fiction so interesting, too. So I think that that kind of, in a way, laid the groundwork for my interest in that, as did my, you know, my own military career, of course. And the experiences that I had growing up as a military brat, particularly living overseas in the Philippines, which was, you know, as I’m sure most people know, the Philippines was a hotly contested area back in the, you know, 1940s timeframe. And so, the opportunity to see a lot of those historical, you know, memorials and some of the battlefield sites and things of that nature was really cool and really interesting to me as a budding history enthusiast and writer.

Well, when did you actually start trying your own hand at writing?

So, my mom, somewhere in her stuff, has a notebook that I wrote, like, some of my first stories in, when I was about six years old. So, I was young. I started writing almost as soon as I started reading.

And did you . . .

Maybe that wasn’t the answer to the question that you wanted as far as, like, professionally, is that what you’re saying?

Well, how did that develop? And as you went along, I mean, OK, you started when you were six, but you wrote longer and longer stuff. And did you share it with other people? I like to ask that question because I did, but not everybody does.

Yeah. No, I did. I did. I shared it. You know, I would show my things to my mom. And my mother was . . . so, my mother’s a huge science fiction fantasy fan. She’s a, you know, she’s another voracious reader, and she’s always been, you know, probably my you know, my number one first reader and fan, obviously, you know, as moms tend to do so. Yeah, I would show me my stories to my mom. But the other thing that I would do and, you know, I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was kind of a bossy little girl. So when, you know, I would get my friends together, the kids together in the neighborhood or on the playground at school or wherever, a lot of times it was like, “Hey, let’s play pretend. We’re going to pretend that we’re on a spaceship and you’re going to be the captain and I’m going to be the pilot. And you’re going to . . .”  And I would make up these play scenarios that really were just stories, you know, and I was like, “OK, and now the aliens are attacking.” And, you know, it’s, so . . . 

So, I used to do that. My friends never really got into it the same way I did. It was kind of annoying.

No. Well, mine rarely did. Sometimes it worked, you know, and sometimes we would play out, you know, a certain, I don’t know, scenario for a couple of days or whatever. But, yeah, in in a lot of ways, I think that was . . . well, it wasn’t necessarily writing things down, but it was still sort of making up stories and sharing, you know, sharing those stories with other people, trying to involve other people in my stories, so. Yeah. A little bit of an extrovert, so yeah, I tend to want everyone to pay attention to me and my stories.

Well, you went into the Air Force and pilot training and all that. I would have thought that would keep you fairly busy for a while.

Absolutely.

When did you start to try to write professionally?

Well, so yeah. So, for sure, the Air Force kept me very busy. But here’s the thing, is that . . . so, I graduated in Air Force Academy in 2003, sorry, 1999. And right around that time I discovered the magical world of AOL fandom and the Dragonriders of Pern fandom groups that existed there. And so, once again, you know, Anne McCaffery comes to my rescue, right? So, even though I was busy at work and busy, you know, learning to fly and things like that, one of my hobby outlets became interacting with other fans on these groups and actually writing fan fiction.

And in those groups, you know, doing like . . . and when I say writing fan fiction, it wasn’t necessarily, like, writing stories to, you know, be produced in like a fanzine or anything like that. It was mostly, like, role play by email, essentially, where, you know, I would create a dragonrider character, and my friends would create this other one. And we would, our characters would, interact via the email. And it’s super geeky and super nerdy, I mean, don’t get me wrong, but it was an outlet, and it was something that I really enjoyed. And it allowed me to, you know, to kind of play in one of my favorite worlds. And so . . . and actually, you know, during the course of that, I learned a lot about, you know, things like character development and story pacing and, you know, what to do in dialogue, what not to do in dialogue, and how to keep your character’s thoughts confined to their own head and not go head-hopping and things like that, because you can’t act when someone else is controlling the other character in the scene, you know, it’s considered very rude.

So, yeah, super geeky, but it was fun, and it allowed me to continue . . . you know, Toni Weiskopf, the publisher of Baen Books, she has a saying that she says all the time, that writers write because they can’t help it. And I find that to be kind of true in my case, that if I’m not actually, like, writing stories, the stories are going to come out in some way, whether it’s through, you know, playing with my friends or doing online fan fiction or whatever. I’m never not writing, right? It’s kind of like breathing. It’s something that I have to do.

That sounds familiar. And you don’t have to talk to me about being geeky. I actually drew pictures for a Star Trek fanzine when I was in university. So I was . . . 

Oh, that’s awesome, dude.

Doing pictures of Kirk and Spock. I think I did a pretty good Spock. And I’m not . . . that’s all I can remember. I remember doing a pretty good Spock.

That’s awesome. Yeah, I have zero talent when it comes to, like, creating visual fan art. I wish I did, because there’s some gorgeous stuff out there, and yeah, I would love to learn how to draw dragons, but . . . just never got there.

Well, I minored in art, so it actually was a potential direction to go in.

Oh, that’s cool.

 But I . . . I often say that I supposedly majored in journalism because I wanted to be a writer, but really, I majored in Dungeons and Dragons and everything else was kind of a sideline to that.

Dungeons and Dragons should be a major at school.

Like, I think I put more time into that than I did my schoolwork, for sure.

Yeah. There’s a lot that you can learn from tabletop role-playing. I, I support that. Really.

So, when did you start trying to get published professionally?

So, I have a confession to make, but it happened sort of by accident. So, when I was in pilot training back in 2001, I discovered the amazing, mind-bending experience that is DragonCon in Atlanta over Labor Day week.

I’ve been once.

Oh, my gosh. Am I right, though? It’s mind-bending. It’s like walking into . . . it’s like being, you know, being away from home your whole life and then walking through the doors of the hotel and suddenly you’re on your home planet with your people. Everybody’s geeky, everybody’s into the things you’re into, and if they’re not, it’s just because they don’t know about it yet. And yeah, I love it. DragonCon is always the highlight of my year.

But my first one was in 2001, because I’m super-old, and after that, I went back several other times. And one of the . . . so in 2004, I think was the next one that I attended. And in 2004, I had the opportunity to meet a guy by the name of John Ringo, who—I didn’t know this at the time, I hadn’t read any of his work before meeting him—but he was a New York Times bestselling military science fiction author, also published by Bain Books, still is, as a matter of fact. And just talking with him, you know, he’s into MilSciFi, that’s his genre. And so, you know, we were talking about flying and about, you know, fandom and being geeks in the military and things like that. And he struck up a friendship with our group of friends that were, we were all there together, and we maintained an email correspondence. And I saw him at conventions, you know, a couple of years after that.

And then when I was deployed to Iraq in 2009, he emailed me and said, hey, I’m doing this, you know, I got asked to do this project, I’m editing this anthology of military science fiction by military veterans, and I want to include some new voices, along with some of the, you know, the reprints that we’ve done and things like that. And I know you just finished . . . so, the Air Force made me get a degree, a master’s degree, but they didn’t specify what it had to be, and so, I was like, all right, well, I’m going to get an MFA in writing, because screw you guys, I can do what I want. And so, John knew that I just finished that just, you know, because I had been like, hey, guess what, I’m done with my master’s. Right?

And he was like, “I know you just got your writing degree. Do you want to, do you have anything that you’d like to submit?” And I said, “No, but I could. Give me 24 hours.” And so, I wrote a story very quickly. But when you’re deployed, there’s very little to do. You really, like, you go to work, you fly, you go to the gym, you eat, and the rest of it is just kind of hanging-out time, right? And so, I just took that hanging-out time and knocked out this story. And it wasn’t very long. I think it was only, like, 5,000 words or something like that. But it was a cute little story. And I sent it in, and it became part of the anthology, you know, they accepted it for the anthology. And so, that was my first publication.

And then after that, Jim Minz, a couple of years later, once I was back in the States and again back at DragonCon, Jim Minz, you know, who also had, he was one of the editors on the product as well, came up to me and he was like, “So, when are you going have a novel for me? I’ve been waiting for it for a couple of years. And I was like, “Oh, well, let me get on that.” So, that was really the start of my career. I started doing, writing short stories for anthologies, again, mostly connected with John Ringo. He kind of like pulled me . . . and then I started, you know, branching out from there.

Before we go on to what you started writing at that point, I’m interested in the MFA because I’ve talked to other authors who have had, you know, that sort of formal creative writing training. And I get mixed reviews on how helpful it actually was. Was it helpful in your case? Did you find it very worthwhile?

So, aspects of it were helpful. Not necessarily from the standpoint of professional connections or anything like that, but like I said, the Air Force was going to make me get a master’s degree, and they were going to pay for it, and they didn’t really care what it was in. It was just kind of, almost like a box to be checked. So, I decided to do something, you know, knowing myself the way that I do, I really only want to spend energy and time on things that are interesting to me. And I knew that I wouldn’t, you know, if I tried to get, like, an aviation management degree, there would be aspects of it that were interesting, but there would be other aspects of it that would be deadly dull and that I would probably procrastinate and, you know, potentially not do very well. So instead, I chose to pursue the MFA in creative writing.

Where did you get that?

From National University. It’s a primarily online university that caters to a lot of military folks. I think they’re based out of San Diego. So not a real big, well-known name in academia or anything like that. But the program itself I really enjoyed. I found it to be . . . you know, because I think what I was trying to get out of it was one, just the piece of paper that said I had a master’s degree that the Air Force required, but two, I was just trying to have an enjoyable experience and kind of expand my toolbox, if you will. My concentration was in poetry, not in short fiction or . . . I mean, I guess you could kind of do a long fiction concentration . . . but I chose poetry, in part because I’ve always loved poetry. I’ve written it almost as long as I’ve written stories. And I find that a skillful  . . . that a lot of the tips and techniques and, you know . . . what’s the word I’m looking for . . . just, the things that you do that make poetry poetry, can really inform your prose writing and really help to make it beautiful. So that’s why . . . well, and also poems are shorter. So again, less—typically. Not always. Sometimes they’re super long—but the graduation requirements were definitely shorter. Rather than writing a novel, I only had to write a book of 50 poems for me to complete my program. So that was a pretty big draw, too. You know, when you’re active-duty military and at the time a single mom, I was trying to balance out my requirements, and that was my strategic decision.

But I did. I loved it. Not because it necessarily got me anywhere in the publishing business, but for my own personal development. It taught me how to critique. It taught me how to take critique. And that’s probably the most immediately valuable lessons that I learned from that program, is how to how to give a constructive critique that is actually useful to the other individual and how to receive critique and to tell what’s constructive and what’s just, “Oh, I loved it. It’s great. You should write more,” you know, stuff like that. Not that there’s anything wrong with those kinds of comments. We love those kinds of comments, but they don’t necessarily help develop you as a writer.

Yeah, it’s like . . . my mom didn’t read my stuff, but my dad would, and he’d say it was great and, OK, but I need more than that to make it better in the future.

Right. Right.

Your poetry that you were writing, did it have any fantastical element to it, or was it more straightforward?

Some did, yeah, some did. So, what I what I mostly wrote for the program was actually aviation-related because I was the only pilot in my group that was going through the program at the time and so, you know, write what you know, right? But also, not only write what you know but write about what makes you different and what makes you unique. And that’s sort of, you know, find that niche, that brand. And so, I ended up writing a lot of poetry about, I’m just thinking of my chapbook collection now, you know, a lot of it has to do with flying and, you know, being in the air force and, you know, what it’s like to fly in the daytime and nighttime and stuff like that.

So, this has nothing to do with writing a book. What drew you to helicopters as opposed to, say, fixed-wing?

They were more fun.

They’re more fun?

They seemed more fun. Yeah, no, before I went to pilot training, when I was a what’s called a casual lieutenant, I had already graduated from the Air Force Academy and been commissioned, but I was awaiting my pilot-training start date. I had the opportunity to ride on an MH-53 helicopter. It’s what the Air Force used to use for special operations. They’ve since retired that airframe. And I remember sitting on the back . . . so, it had, like, a ramp on the back, and it had a 50-caliber machine gun mounted on that ramp. And we were out flying over a range. And I didn’t actually get to shoot that day, which made me very sad. But I did get to sit on the ramp next to the gunner. You know, he was sitting on one side of the weapon, and I was sitting on the other side and, you know, kicking my feet off the back of the ramp. While we’re flying 50 feet above the ground and it was pretty cool. I was like, yeah, this is a lot of fun. I want to do this.

Was it at least some of the feeling of flying on a dragon, do you think?

A USAF UH-1N Huey.

Oh, yeah, maybe. Maybe although, yeah, not necessarily that particular experience because we were going backward, you know, because I was sitting out the back. But sometimes, yeah, sometimes it has. You know, when you can feel . . . the thing about flying helicopters versus flying fixed-wing is that, you know, flying fixed-wing is about 50 percent art, 50 percent science, right? But flying helicopters is more like 70/30 art versus science. And the reason is because you do so much more of it, at least my helicopter. Now, I fly a UH-1 Huey, which, you know, was the quintessential Vietnam era helicopter, if that tells you anything. Every tail number that I fly was made in 1969. So, they are old birds, and we’re not talking cutting-edge technology in any sense of the word. And so, because of that, in part because of that, so much more, so much of what we do is, it’s our seat-of-the-pants muscle memory, like, you have to, it has to feel right.

And that, you know, when we’re teaching young aviators, half of what we’re teaching is just getting them to practice the maneuvers to the point where they can feel what feels right versus what feels wrong. And so, I think that when, you know, occasionally when you do a particular maneuver, and it feels just right, I think that it must be very similar to what that would feel like, you know, on the back of your own dragon to whom you were telepathically linked.

I’ve been sitting here trying to remember . . . I had characters in a helicopter in a book, two or three books ago in my current series. And so, I was researching helicopters because I’m not exactly an expert on the subject. And I went down a rabbit hole where I was reading helicopter jokes for about half an hour.

There’s a ton of them.

And unfortunately, I can’t remember any of them off the top of my head. I was going to try one on you, but . . .

Yeah, well, beating the air, we don’t fly, we beat the air into submission. That’s a very common one. Or, we don’t fly, we’re so ugly the Earth repels us.

Oh, yeah, I remember that. Yeah.

Oh, yeah. No, it’s there’s a, yeah, there’s a ton of helicopter jokes. And what’s so funny is that that, you know, like a lot of professions that, you know, have jokes about us, we tend to embrace those things. And helicopter aircrews as a whole, we have a reputation for being a little bit crazy. And what’s very interesting about that is that there’s some science to actually back that up. If you put our personality traits, and by our I mean society’s personality traits on a bell curve, helicopter aircrews are highly skewed to one end when it comes to traits of, like aggressiveness and, you know, adrenaline junkieness, whatever, whatever the proper term for that is. So, yeah, so there’s some data to back up the fact that we’re all crazy., Or you could just meet one of us and know that. 

Well, taking us back to the writing side of things . . .

Sure.

So, Jim Minz had suggested a novel to you, but your . . . was your first novel Minds of Man? Is that then your first novel? But that’s not a Baen book.

Yeah, no, well, no, so . . . not for lack of trying. It wasn’t. So my first . . . my first actual novel contract was with Baen, and it was for Gunpowder and Embers, which was a collaboration that I did with John Ringo and Christopher L. Smith. And that just came out last January. And while we were working on Gunpowder, and it was . . . we’d finished up the first draft, and it was in edits and development. I had this other idea to write a story about World War II aviation, but with female psychics on board.

As one does.

Right. Well, because so what got me thinking about it was, you know, I was thinking about how aircrew are kind of a different, you know . . . like a lot of subcultures, I’ll say, you know, we end up being kind of a different breed and having our own discreet ways of communicating with one another. And I kind of got to thinking about that. And then the other thing that happened was that we had an air show and I had the opportunity to see the inside of a B17 cockpit. And I’m used to flying with a relatively primitive aircraft. But I got nothing on those guys, man. I have no idea how they even navigated. I mean, it’s no wonder that they had an entire crew member whose sole job was to do navigation, because their navigation, you know, their tools that they had to use were so primitive, and to think that they took hundred-ship formations of this incredibly primitive aircraft, not just into the weather, but into the weather, out the other side, and then flew them in combat. It was, like, mind-boggling. I mean, just the amount of courage of those men who did that was, you know, it was flabbergasting when it dawned on me the magnitude of the task that they had accomplished and done so over and over and over again. And, you know, their loss rates were just staggering.

And so, I started thinking about that. And the reason I came up with the psychics was that one of the things that that could potentially compensate for, you know, in a way that we have compensated with technology, would be, you know, the instantaneous communication that a telepathic connection might provide, because . . . So, anyway, I got to thinking about that, and I decided to write a story, and it became Minds of Men. And did actually send it to Toni at Baen. And she sent it back saying, you know, “This is not for us.” It’s not for, you know, “It’s not the kind of thing that I think our readership would snap up.” However, she sent me some very, very valuable critique. And I will be forever grateful to her for that time and attention that she took to actually provide that for me instead of just saying, no thanks. And so, I took it and applied the critique. And I had recently been approached by Chris Kennedy of Chris Kennedy Publishing to do a novel in his and Mark Wandrey’s military science fiction shared world called The Four Horsemen Universe. And so, I decided to just ring him up, I guess, and say, “Hey, you know, would you be interested in looking at this?” He said, “Yeah, send it on over.” And the thing about Chris is that he’s an aviator, too, right? So, I think I kind of spoke to my audience there with that one and but yeah, he loved it. And so, I published it under Chris Kennedy’s Theogony imprint and, yeah, that was kind of the start of the Psyche of War series.

Well, we’ll take a closer look at that one as an example of your creative process. I did want to mention that I also had an opportunity to tour the inside of a B17 when it came to our local airport a couple of years ago. And my experience there, which I never thought I would have, was that this horrendous thunderstorm blew in, and we were all kind of stuck out there on the tarmac. And I’m standing under the wing of an all-aluminum airplane while lightning is cracking around and the rain’s pouring down. And I’m thinking, “I’m not sure this is the best place we could be at this moment, but . . .I have video of it somewhere. My daughter was with me, and she was quite concerned. And I wasn’t terribly happy myself.

Oh, poor girl, yeah.

But the other thing I want to mention that navigation was that my wife’s grandfather, my grandfather in law, was a First World War navigator on a Handley Page bomber. These things had an 80-foot wingspan. They were enormous. But you talk about your primitive navigation, it was mostly . . . we actually have, we actually have his notebook from when he was at navigation school, and he was like one of the top-ranking students when he was in the navigation school in the Royal Air Force. But a lot of it went down to was, “Do you recognize that church steeple over there on the horizon?”

Right.

’Cause that’s the target, right?

Yeah, absolutely.

So, that was interesting.

Yeah. So, by the time World War Two had rolled around, they had very, very basic radio navigation available. But what they would do is, they would call on the radio to a station and get a ping and then the navigator would plot the information that they got from that ping and then just triangulate their position from there. And then, they used a lot of dead reckoning, which, you know, that’s just following, you know, flying this direction over the map for a given period of time should put us here if we maintain a constant speed. And yeah, it was just it was insane. I’ll take my GPS, thank you very much.

I always found the word “dead” in dead reckoning to be a little alarming.

It’s slightly ominous for sure, especially when we’re talking about dead reckoning into combat. Right.

So, you sort of talked about where the idea for Minds of Men came from, and you gave a hint of it. But do you want to give a bit more of a synopsis of it and then we’ll talk about it?

Yeah, so the synopsis of Minds of Men is, essentially, it’s 1943 and 8th Air Force bombers are flying out of England and they’re, you know, they’re just getting their lunch eaten by the Luftwaffe fighters because they didn’t have a long-range fighter escort that had the capability to take them all the way to their target and back. So, they were particularly vulnerable during, you know, during part of their sortie. And their loss rates were just incredible and staggering, if you actually go and read those numbers and think about, you know, how many men that represents. And in this, like I said, in this world, some women—and they’re all women because I’m sorry, I’m sexist—but some women have the ability to create psychic connections with other people and communicate with them telepathically. And one of these Air Force generals knows about it because his wife is one of these women. So they end up, you know, doing a super-secret recruiting drive, essentially, and come up with 20 women powerful enough to do this job, who end up flying with these bomber crews out of England, helping them to maintain closer formation, better formation integrity, helping them to respond quicker to, you know, threats and things like that. And that ups their success rate, but at what kind of cost, right? Because now, these women are not only experiencing the hell of warfare for themselves, but they’re experiencing it tenfold because they’re experiencing it through the minds of each of their crew members, too. And then, of course, as is every aircrew member’s nightmare, you know, at some point the main character gets shot down. And so now, she’s stuck in occupied Europe, you know, with her surviving crew, trying to find her surviving crew members from the crash. And they’re having to escape and evade their way through occupied Europe, all while being chased by . . . because it turns out that the Germans have psychics, too. So, there’s a team of German Fallschirmjäger and a psychic woman who is pursuing them.

The latter half of the book was actually a lot of fun to write. Well, the whole thing was pretty fun to write, but I really enjoyed doing the research for the latter half of the book because I really got to dig into some of the stories about resistance-led escape lines that ran throughout Europe in the Second World War. And these were organizations that would help, not just allied airmen, but they actually started, really, helping to repatriate soldiers stranded by the evacuation of Europe, you know, ones who couldn’t get out at Dunkirk, essentially. At least, that’s when one of the Belgian lines that I researched started. And they would smuggle these, you know, these allied airmen and soldiers through the Nazi lines and, you know, take them on trains and try to get them out, either get them out to sea to get picked up by, usually, Royal Navy destroyers, or over the Pyrenees into ostensibly neutral Spain and get them picked up at the British embassy there. So really fascinating stuff and it was a lot of fun to right, you know, to kind of combine those stories and put it in my own.

Well, so, what . . . that kind of brings you out to the next question. Well, first of all, you said, you know, as a helicopter pilot, you’re kind of a seat of the pants flyer. Are you also a seat of the pants writer, or are you a detailed outliner?

So, that aspect of my style is sort of evolving, honestly. And I do a lot of collaboration, and I find that when working with another author, a detailed outline is actually really helpful because it allows you to say, “OK, well, you know, I’m going to go away, and I’m going to work on this part of the outline. I’m going to bring it back. And here it is.” And then, you know, you can just get more done that way if you agree ahead of time where you’re going with the story. So, you don’t have surprises. For myself, I would say that I’m an outliner, but I outline in phases. I don’t do the whole thing right up front, all right, like the outline of the first act and then I’ll write the first act and kind of see how it’s going, and then I’ll figure out, “OK, where am I going to go in the second act?” And so, I kind of do it in chunks, if that makes sense.

And once you have the outline, what is your actual writing process. Do you write, you know, with a quill pen under a tree or . . .

No, I use my laptop.

Well, being a poet, you ever know.

Right? Yeah. No, I, I use my laptop. I actually, I enjoy Scrivner. It’s a program . . .

Yeah. I have it, and haven’t climbed the learning curve yet to use it, but I have it.

It is steep, the learning curve is steep. I got it. And I went ahead and said, “OK, you know, I paid for this program, I’m going to learn how to use it.” And I dedicated two days and just went through the tutorials. And it took that long, but I’m glad that I did it because, you know, it walked me through all of the functionality. And I’ve since forgotten a lot of it because I don’t, you know, it’s a very, very capable program. And I don’t use, you know, I probably only use about two-thirds of what it’s actually able to do. But, yeah, I like it a lot. I like the flexibility that it gives me to move things around and kind of see, “OK, this is where this is,” and, you know, link characters to different things and stuff. So. Yeah. I use Scrivener.

Do you write sequentially.

Yeah, most of the time I have to. When I don’t, it’s usually because I’m dead stuck, and I’ve just, I’ve got to skip a part and go on and come back and fill it in. But for the most part, I write sequentially. The challenge for me is always, like I think it is for many people, you know, who have day jobs and families and stuff, is always finding that balance to, you know, time to dedicate to sit down and do the writing. And not just the time, but the energy, you know, because I could for sure sit down every night at 10:00 and write for an hour, but by that time, a lot of times I’m so exhausted that, you know, what would be the point, right? I don’t know that I’d get anything useful out of it.

Yeah, it does take energy to write. I’m not . . . you know, people think you just sit there and type, but it actually takes a lot of energy to write.

Right. Right. And it’s the mental energy, which is the kind that, like, just gets sucked out of you if you have a boring day at work or whatever. So, for me, what I’ve found is that I have to have a very low but consistent daily word-count goal. And I have to keep that habit up of writing. So, mine, it’s . . . I don’t even know if it’s the goal, but my minimum is that every day, no matter how exhausted I am, I need to sit down and write 100 words, just 100 words. And if I get to 100 words, and I’m exhausted, and I want to quit, I’ll allow myself to quit and just say, “OK, this was a lower day.” But just like with . . . and I actually heard of this technique in regards to exercise, actually, where people are like, “Oh, I don’t really want to go to exercise, but let me, you know, let me get on the bike for ten minutes. And after ten minutes, if I want to quit, I let myself quit.” But most of the time, you know, by the time you’re 10 minutes in or, in the case of writing, by the time you’re a hundred words in, you know, there’s more going on in your head, and there’s more that’s ready to come out. And so, you end up getting a little bit more than that, at least.

So, my productivity has definitely fallen off this year. Like, you know, I think a lot of us who write, that’s been the case. At least, you know, among people that I’ve talked to, that’s been the case. And using this technique of forgiving myself and just being like, all right, you know, I’m going to keep, as long as I’m moving forward, forward progress is forward progress. We’re not going to harp on how much forward progress we’re getting. It’s been working for me.

Once you have a draft, what does your revision process look like?

So, I do the thing that most people say you shouldn’t do, and I edit as I go, but I do that because I, I can’t . . . it just bothers me. It bothers me to not do it. So, I do, I edit as I go. So, once I have a draft, it’s usually fairly clean. I will read through it one more time out loud because I find that that helps me catch typos, and more importantly, it helps me catch repeated words that I, you know, use too often.

Yeah, reading out loud is a great way to find things. Better to find it while you’re writing it than when you’re doing a public reading later, which is when I usually find those things. Oh, I wish I’d change that before it went into print.

That’s not what I said. Yeah. And that was another tip from Toni Weiskopf from Baen Books. So, it was read it out loud and listen to, you know, listen to how it flows and how it sounds and stuff. So, I will I’ll read through the draft out loud, start to finish, and make any changes that I, you know, that I find needs making there. And then from there, I usually send it off to the editor and let the editor, you know, take a look.

So, you don’t have any beta readers or anything like that?

Well, no, that’s not true, I do. It depends on the project, right? So . . . and again, a lot of times, you know, other than the Psyche of War series, a lot of my novels have been collaborations. So, you know, a lot of times I will bounce the ideas or . . . not the ideas, but I’ll go through it, and then my co-author will go through it, is what I’m trying to say. And sometimes, we have beta readers. But sometimes, you know, like I said, it just goes straight to the editor. A lot of times lately, we’ve been working very under, very, you know, right up to the deadlines. So, not the best practice, but . . . 

But it’s an extremely common one. Let me tell you.

For Gunpowder, we had beta readers, for Second Chance Angel, we had beta readers. So, I had some beta readers for Minds of Men. I didn’t for World Asunder because I was late on it. So, it was like, all right, get it done, make sure it’s clean, send it to the editor.

What kind of editorial feedback do you get back typically?

Oh, again, you know, it varies. For Second Chance Angel, Griffin and I had the wonderful experience of working with . . . oh, I’m going to not remember her last name . . . our editor, Betsy. She’s a fantastic editor who’s been in the business for years and years. And she worked with us on a developmental level. And so, with her, you know, we sent her the draft, and she came back, and it was it was very much a conversation kind of . . . modality, I guess. You know, where it was like, all right, so, you know, “I have questions about this. What if you did this to this part?” or “What would you think about this?” or “This part threw me out, you know, of the story.” “How can you make this . . . how can you tie this back in?” And she had some . . . you know, one of the major, one of the best suggestions she gave us was, you know, Second Chance Angel is a post-war, post-galactic-war story. And Betsy, she came back, and she said, “Look, I think that what you really need to do is make a timeline of the war so that you have it very clear on how all of these things, you know, kind of came to be. It doesn’t necessarily have to be included in the text, but you guys need to know it,” and, you know, things like that. On the developmental level, some of my work, when I get edits back, it’s really just, like, copyedit-level stuff. And I find that, I get that. So, with my Psyche of War series, because it’s alternate history, I don’t have to do a lot of worldbuilding because it’s our world, there’s just psychics in it, right? So, I find that the more—maybe I’m just weak in worldbuilding—the more worldbuilding I have to do, the more, like, developmental-edit type feedback I get, whereas when there’s not that much worldbuilding to do, it’s really more on the copyeditor level, if that makes sense. And I’m happy to have it both.

You’re talking a little bit about Second Chance Angel, and that’s the other one we want to mention. I’m actually talking to your co-author, Griffin . . .

Yes.

. . . actually, this week, as we’re speaking, in just a few days, I’ll be talking to him, too. So, maybe . . .

He’s a riot. You’re going to have a good time.

Maybe a quick synopsis of that one, and then we’ll talk about it a little bit.

OK, so, Second Chance Angel is a sci-fi noir thriller that Griffin Barber and I co-wrote together, and it is the story, like I said, it’s a story set in the aftermath of a great galactic war, where humans essentially joined this war on the side of this alien race, kind of mysterious alien race, that we call the Mentors. And one of ways that the Mentors enticed humanity to come into the war on their side was by offering these cybernetic upgrades that require artificial intelligence to run the upgrades or to maintain the modifications. And so, these . . .  they have these AIs that were written as personal AIs that inhabit the body with the person. And it should kind of just be transparent. But one of our characters is actually one of these AIs that we call angels. And so Ralston Muck is a down-on-his-uck veteran bouncer who’s had his angel removed . . .

That’s a great name, by the way, Ralston Muck.

Yeah, that was Griffin’s idea. It’s very noir.

Very.

So, he finds himself, you know, mixed up in, and went, you know, when a singer at the club that he works at disappears and he finds himself in a position of having to go look for her and having to work with her personal AI to go find her. You know, they kind of slip into, uncover some seedy underworld stuff, as you know, as noir stories do. And, yeah, so that’s sort of the synopsis of the book is that they’re trying to find Siren . . .

Oddly enough, I just watched Chinatown last night. You know, it’s only been out for, what, 50 years and I’ve never watched it, so . . .

Well, it’s such a great movie. Yeah, it’s . . . I love the noir subgenre and Second Chance Angel for both Griffin and I is sort of our love letter, too, to the noir subgenre. A couple of years back, when I really got into it, I was reading a lot of Raymond Chandler, and I just I fell in love with the way that that guy could turn a phrase, you know, and the way that he would create these characters and make them, you know, just real people, just  by the words that they would say and the comparisons that they would draw, you know. And so, yeah, I, I love it. I love the aesthetics of it. And so does Griffin. And so, we decided to write a book and make it noir.

And how did you do that? Did you write, like, one chapter, alternating chapters, or exactly how did that work?

Kind of, yeah. So, in the book, we have essentially three points of view represented. So, one of the noir tropes is that, you know, you have this first-person point of view narration, which has its advantages and it has its disadvantages. One of the advantages is that you can really do some cool, like, unreliable-narrator type stuff that way, right? And we did do some of that. But one of the disadvantages is that it’s by necessity a very tight POV. You know, there’s only so much that you can do. So, what we did was, we had both Angel and Muck in first person POV, and I essentially wrote Angel’s Point of View, and Griffin wrote Muck. And there was some overlap. And sometimes where we, you know, did one or the other. But for the most part, that’s how it came about. And then, kind of to address that that disadvantage, you know, we realized that there was another dimension to the story that we needed to tell. And so, we did that through some of the additional AIs that are not necessarily personal augmentation eyes like Angel, but, like, the AI that is running the admin for the space station and the AI that is the law enforcement officer AI. We rolled them in and used them to tell part of the story, too, from a third-person point-of-view perspective.

Well, it sounds quite fascinating.

Yeah, it was fun. It was . . . it kind of came about organically, you know, we didn’t sit down and say, “OK, you’re going to do this, and you’re going to do this.” It was just sort of like, “Well, here, let me see. Well, I think this is how Angel would react,” and was like, “Oh, OK, well, this is what Mike would do next and just sort of went from there.”

Well, getting close to the end of the time here. So, time to turn my attention to the big philosophical question, which is . . .

Dum dum dum.

Yeah, exactly. Why, why? Why do this? Why write? Why do you write? Why do you think anybody writes? Why do we tell stories, and why specifically stories of science fiction and fantasy?

Oh, OK, well, those are a lot of questions.

I like to pretend it’s just one, but it’s actually more than one.

Yeah, really. So, the reason that I write? I write like I breathe, right? You know, I kind of alluded to this earlier when I was talking about being a little kid, and I’ve never not made up stories. I don’t know how to process life without making up stories. And I think that that’s on some level true for us as a human race. We are in so many ways defined by our stories, the stories that we tell, the stories that we remember, what we choose to remember, what we choose to forget. I think that stories are an essential part of the human experience. And because, you know, I don’t know you and you don’t know me, but I can tell you a story that is similar to something that you’ve experienced and that then becomes a point of connection between us. And I think that that’s something that was very important for us as humans to do, is to connect with one another, you know. So, I think that we write for all of those reasons, you know, because that’s part of what makes us who we are.

Why stories of the fantastic?

Because that also makes this part of who we are. Because we, you know, we have the amazing ability to not just talk about what is but what could be, and to get excited about what could be and to inspire ourselves and each other and. And so, I think that, you know, there’s great joy to be had there, in telling stories of the fantastic, whether it be in science fiction or in fantasy or even in, you know, even in the darker stuff, like the horror and the noir and . . .you know, they’re two very different things, but they’re all ways of processing this experience, right, so . . . you know, it’s like dark humor, for example. I mean, I’ve been in the military for 20 years, and I have a very dark sense of humor, and most of my friends have a very dark sense of humor. And, you know, the same is true of first responders who work where they see terrible things all the time, police officers who have to deal with domestic violence and social workers who have to go into these situations and stuff. One of the major coping mechanisms for all of this is dark humor, is the ability to laugh so that you don’t cry.

And I think that, you know, there’s so much out there that frightens us as humans, even, you know, even, you want to talk even on an evolutionary level, like, we’re not the biggest, baddest animal out there. We don’t have super-sharp teeth or super-sharp claws we can’t see in the dark. But what we do have is our mind and our imagination. And we have this, like I said, this ability to tell stories and this ability to inspire each other and this ability to think beyond what is, to see what could be. And that is our great evolutionary advantage. And so, you know, even taking something that’s dark and turning it into our own story, you know, telling a story about it, makes it a little bit more accessible, and it gives us the ability to process the emotions that come with fear a little bit better, in fact. I don’t know if any of that made sense.

It made sense to me.

OK, good. I’m glad.

What are you working on now?

So, Griffin and I are . . . we have started the sequel to Second Chance Angel, which . . . Second Chance Angel releases, if you don’t mind me saying this, Angel releases on September 8, which is today for me while we’re recording this, I’m not sure when this will go up, but here in Japan, it’s already release day. So, yeah, happy release day!

It will have been out for some time before this goes live.

Good. You guys can just be part of my retroactive celebration! So, we’ve started the sequel, which is called The Third Sin, and we’re about three chapters into that. I’m also working on the third book in my Psyche of War series, which is a story set in the Vietnam era. And I’m working on a sequel to Gunpowder and Embers, started outlining that, and a couple of short stories and stuff. So, I’ve got a lot of projects.

And where can people find you online? I mentioned the website off the top. Oh, I should say that’s . . . better spell that.

Yeah. So, my website kaceyezell.net. That’s sort of the hub for where you can find me. You can go there and find lists of all my books, all my social media links, and join my mailing list, actually. And if you do that, you get, like, two free stories. So, there’s that as well, if you’re into that sort of thing. But also, I’m available on Instagram at KaceyEzell and then Facebook at KaceyEzell, too. So that’s kind of usually where I’m most interactive on social media is Instagram and Facebook.

OK, great. Well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed that. I hope you did, too.

I did! Thank you so much for having me. It was really fun to talk to you.

Episode 65: Cat Rambo

A 45-minute chat with Cat Rambo, Nebula Award-winning author of more than 200 published short stories and several novels, editor, writing teacher, and past president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, about her creative process.

Website
www.catrambo.com

Twitter
@catrambo

Facebook
@catrambo

Cat Rambo’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Cat Rambo’s more than 200 published short stories have appeared in Asimov’sWeird TalesClarkesworldStrange Horizons, and many others, and consistently garner mentions and appearances in year’s-best-of anthologies. Cat’s collectionEyes Like Smoke and Coal and Moonlight, was an Endeavor Award finalist in 2010 and followed their collaboration with Jeff Vandermeer, The Surgeon’s Tale & Other Stories. Their most recent collection is Neither Here Nor There, which follows Near + Far, containing Nebula-nominated “Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain.” Their most recent novel is Hearts of Tabat from Wordfire Press, Book Two of the Tabat Quartet. They have edited anthologies, including the political-SF anthology If This Goes On, as well as the online, award-winning, critically acclaimed Fantasy Magazine. The work there earned a nomination for World Fantasy Award in 2012.

Cat runs the decade-old online writing school the Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers, a highly successful series of online classes featuring some of the best fantasy and science fiction writers in the business, and has also taught for Bellevue College, Johns Hopkins, Towson State University, Clarion West, the King County Library System, Blizzard, the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, Cascade Writers, and countless convention workshops. And although no longer actively involved with the game, Cat is one of the minds behind Armageddon MUD, the oldest roleplay-intensive MUD (interactive text-based game) on the Internet. They continue to do some game writing, as well as technology, journalism, and book reviews.

A long-time volunteer with the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Cat served as its vice-president from 2014 to 2015 and its president for two terms, from 2015 to 2019, and continues to volunteer with the organization.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you.

You may not remember…we did meet, actually, at the SFWA table in San Jose, I think. I was volunteering, and you happened to come by.

Oh, nice.

Like I said, you wouldn’t remember, but I remember you.

Conventions become a giddy world for you when you’re SFWA president, unfortunately.

I’m sure. So, we’ll start, as I always start by taking the guest, you in this case, back into the mists of time, which…as I keep saying, especially when I’m talking to young authors, the mists of time is deeper for some of us than for others. But, how did you get…well, first of all, where did you grow up and all that kind of stuff? And how did you begin to become interested in science fiction and fantasy and in the writing of it particularly?

Well, I grew up in South Bend, Indiana, which is northern Indiana, and I was a child who read ravenously and early on discovered that I loved fantasy and science fiction. My babysitter was reading Tolkien’s The Hobbit aloud to me, and I began sneaking chapters on weekends when she wasn’t there. And at the same time, it was always assumed that I was going to write because I loved to read so much and because my grandmother wrote young adult novels, under her initials because they were sports novels. So, she was the author of such classics as Football Flash, Basketball Bones, and my favorite Martha Norton, Operation Fitness USA.

I’ll have to look those up. So, when did you start writing? I.

I started…when I was, I want to see nine or ten, I had a poem published. My grandmother had actually given me a book on writing, and I started writing poetry and sent something off to a contest. So, I was writing from nine or ten. After a fashion. Some of them were, I think, more story-shaped than others.

I always like to say that—because it’s true–that my first published work was in Cat Fancy Magazine when I was about 12 years old or something like that. They had something called Young Authors Open, and you could send stuff in. And it was a terrible pun about…they were looking for a replacement for Santa Claus, and they found this guy that looked like he’d be perfect, but the previous Santa observed him all year, and when he saw what his garden was like, he realized he could never be Santa because he wouldn’t hoe, hoe, hoe.

Oh, that’s cute. That’s awesome, though.

So, I think I got like fifteen dollars or something. So, my first professional sale.

I remember that magazine? So, yeah. Oh, that’s too funny.

When you started writing, did you…you had the poem, but were you writing other stuff, and were you sharing with other people? I always ask that because I shared my writing and with my classmates and so forth, and that’s how I found out I could tell stories.

I was. I had a story, a serial story that I was writing instead of actually practicing in typing class, because my parents and the parents of four of my friends enrolled us in summer school in typing class because they thought it would be good for us. And my act of rebellion was to actually write a long serial space opera that the other girls loved. And so, I did. I learned that people enjoyed my stories and kept writing them after that.

Did you write longer and…I guess, when did you start trying to get your stories published? I guess that’s the next step.

I had a few stories published in high school, usually connected to gaming, like, in gaming magazines. I had a couple of game reviews and book reviews and a terrible, terrible short story. So that, yeah, in high school pretty much.

Did you study writing formally at some point?

I did. I was one of those people who took a while to go through college, and so I dropped out and worked in a bookstore for a long time and then came back and actually dropped out a second time, just to make sure I was totally confused. But then, after I came back to college, I ended up going off to get a master’s in writing at Johns Hopkins, where I studied with John Barth and enjoyed myself very much.

I often ask people who did do formal writing training if it was helpful. And it sounds like in your case, it was.

Well, I think it was. But I also want to say that it wasn’t until I came to fantasy and science fiction that I got a lot of the nuts-and-bolts stuff. I felt like Hopkins was a lot of theory, which certainly is very useful, but it wasn’t until I got to Clarion West that we started talking about kind of, like, here’s the advantages of, say, first-person versus third-person. The more crafty sort of stuff.

And when the longer there, did you start making sales?

I…let’s see, I started selling stuff when I was in grad school, to small literary magazines, which meant I was making like five dollars or ten dollars a sale. And then I got kind of sidetracked and went into computers. And it wasn’t until 2005 that I sort of came back and started sending stuff out again, began sort of taking it seriously. And so, after about 2005, I started making some decent sales.

Yeah, well, I was interested in the writing, working in computers. My first books that I wrote were all these sort of basic computer manuals. My first book was Using Microsoft Publisher for Windows 95.

Then you will appreciate, that’s what I did, I was a documentation manager, and we were documenting VisualBasic.net.

And has any of that fed into your writing in any other way, the working on that side of things, has that fed into your stories at all?

Well, I tend to be more open to new technology and interested, particularly in new computer stuff, I think, than some other writers. One of the things I found, paradoxically, about science fiction writers is that many of them seem to sort of freeze at a particular technological level. And apparently, I haven’t encountered the one I’m going to freeze at yet.

When did you move on to the longer work, your novels?

I went to Clarion West, which is a local fantasy and science fiction workshop in 2005, and started writing a book immediately out of that, but it didn’t get published until eight years later. It went through, like, thirteen drafts and various convulsions. One of the jokes in my family is that I could never leave my husband because he’d read thirteen drafts. Which I’m not sure…we don’t need to tell him this, I’m not sure I would have done for him. I mean, can you imagine reading thirteen drafts of the same book? Holy crap.

I get tired of reading my own books, much less somebody else’s.

Oh, God.

Do you think that you’re…I mean, people do seem to specialize in one thing or another. You’ve clearly written more short fiction than long fiction. Do you think you’re more naturally a short-story writer than a longer fiction writer? Or do you even think that’s true, that people tend to be one or the other?

Well, I think they’re very different forms, and I think that they play to different strengths. One of the things I have to tell my students often is that a novel is not just sort of a bunch of short stories clumped together. It’s a lot more complicated than that. I think I’m good at both of them. I think I’m better at short stories. But I don’t want anybody to go, “Oh, shitty at novels. Why should I check them out?” Because my novels rock. Go buy them immediately.

Yeah, I was not suggesting that people not go out and…

No, but a good short story is, just can be, so pleasurable and so interesting and, at the same time not be the huge investment of time that a novel is, right? Depending on how fast you read, a novel can be a substantial investment of time, and a short story can be fit into standing in line somewhere.

Well, you’ve also done editing. How did you fall into that?

I was very stubborn about sending out stories. And so, I was sending stories to Fantasy Magazine, and at some point, the editor asked me if I was interested in, I think in reading slush, and then, was I interested in editing? And it was because we had done a lot of talking and I had been, I think, very persistent about sending him stories. So, I became the editor. I sort of fell into it. And since then, I’ve pursued a couple of projects. I’ve actually got a project coming up that I’m really excited about, which is going to be an anthology of near-future science-fiction relationship stories, because I think one of the things that science fiction has fallen short on is…often it’s very good at projecting what technology will change, but not so much on what the social dynamics are that will change.

What have you found…I mean, the editing I’ve done, and I’ve done a lot of…and so have you, you teach writing, and this will tie into that, too. But all that kind of working with other people’s work, how does that fit into your own work? Do you learn, you know, by…what’s that thing from The King and I, that by your students you are taught, if you become a teacher by your students you are taught?

Oh, you do. No, you really do learn so much. And I think that critiquing and editing other people’s stuff gives you some distance that lets you learn things that you might not from reading your own. But the other advantage of the school is that I go out and pursue teachers that I want to study with. And so, like, Seanan Maguire has done four classes for me now. I just got Henry Lien to do an awesome workshop that I’m very excited about. And so, I don’t just have the benefit of teaching. I have the advantage of, at least once a week, I’m sitting in on a class with someone world-class talking about fantasy and science fiction, and I count myself incredibly lucky.

So, despite all the teaching and everything you have published, you still feel that you’re learning the craft as well as teaching the craft?

Oh, absolutely. You’re always learning. It would be sad to stop learning.

Well, we’re going to talk about two things here. You have a…so, we’ll start with the joint project that’s coming up from Arc Manor, you and Harry Turtledove and James Morrow. James Morrow is going to be on the podcast; I’m talking to him in a couple of weeks, as well. So, tell me a little bit about that and how that came about and what your contribution to it is.

Well, A, how fricking intimidating, to write something with Harry Turtledove and James Morrow. Harry and I are Twitter friends, you know, and then we’ve met at a few conventions and talked back and forth. I’m a huge admirer of his work. And he said, are you interested in being the third in this project that Arc Manor is putting together? And I said, sure. And it was…I don’t know, it’s a really interesting project. The three novellas are incredibly different. I don’t know that you could find three more different pieces.

Three very different writers.

And Harry’s is very considered, and it’s full of quotes from Confederate history and civil war history. And you could tell he really knows his politics and stuff. So, I’m reading it, and I’m thinking, “OK, so this is what I need to do.” And then I read James’s, and James’s has a cross-dressing porn star persuading Mike Pence to do increasingly improbable things, and I’m just like, “Well, this is so like, OK, you know,” and so my story is, I just went in a completely different, different direction and went rather Black Mirror and depressing because I figured all the humor had been absorbed by James.

So, the name of the book is The Last Trump Shall Sound, is that right?

And the Last Trump Shall Sound. Yeah, it’s got a great cover based on that Grant Wood, “American Gothic,” Trump and Pence dressed up as that couple.

And that’s coming up in September, right?

It is coming out in September. And that was surreal. I’m going to say…I just did an essay about this. It’s coming out in the SFWA blog, where it was just weird. I had turned the novella in January, and I got the copy edits back a few months later. And I was just like, “Wow, the world has changed radically in the last three months.” And it was hard knowing whether to go back and insert some of the incredibly improbable things that had happened in the meantime.

Yeah, this is one of those years that should have been a science fiction novel about, oh, 1990.

Yeah.

Except nobody would have believed it, so…and then the other one, and we’re going to use this one as kind of focusing on your creative process. You have the Nebula Award-winning novelette Carpe Glitter.

 Mm-hmm.

So, for those who have not read it, can you give a quick synopsis?

Carpe Glitter is about a young woman who goes to sort through the belongings of her grandmother, who was not just a hoarder, but a stage magician. And in the course of sorting through not just one but three houses worth of clutter, she discovers a magical legacy that has influenced her family history in a way that she was not aware of.

OK, so how did this one come about and how does, more generally, I know this is a cliché question, and yet it’s a legitimate question…

It is a legitimate question.

…where do you get your ideas? Or as I like to say sometimes, what was the seed of this particular…?

What was the seed? So, with this one, it actually was the title. I was playing around with phrases, and I really liked “carpe glitter.” And I started thinking about what sort of person might have that as a life motto. And at the same time, I had been reading a book that was talking about hoarders, and I started thinking about that idea of kind of seizing the glitter and then never letting it go. And at the same time, there was a call for dieselpunk short stories. And so, I threw in a dieselpunk context and started writing from there. As far as where ideas come from, I find that the more that I am both reading short fiction and writing down ideas as they come to me, the more ideas come. It’s when I’m not reading or not paying attention to inspiration that things dry up.

I can’t remember who I was talking to, maybe it was James Alan Gardner, who said ideas are like neutrinos. They’re everywhere, but you have to be dense enough to stop them, or something like that.

I like to think of it as…your unconscious mind is a lot like a cat, and it will bring you small dead-animal story ideas as long as you are praising it. And if you are not sufficiently appreciative of the little bodies, then it will stop bringing them to you. It’s actually a pretty bad metaphor.

I like it. So, once you have your idea and you’ve decided you’re going to write this story, what does your plan…and this applies to all of your stories and also to your novels, because they often would take more planning, I would think. Are you an outliner, or are you more of a just launch right in and get writing…?

That is something that has changed a lot over the course of my writing career. And I used to be a total pantser, and now I’m much more of an outliner. But I also…I have, actually, a book called Moving from Ideas to Draft, which is about the fact that…I think ideas come in different forms. And the question I often get asked at conventions is how do I tell the bad ideas from the good ideas, by which people mean, you know, how do I tell the idea that I can turn into a story versus the one that I get halfway into and then abandon? And my theory is that there are no bad ideas. It’s simply that different ideas give you different things. And so, I have stories that started as titles. I have stories that started as characters. I have stories that started as, I want to write a story about how people carry grudges around with them and how it gets in the way. I have stories that have come about in all sorts of different ways, including just springing into my head full-fledged, which is very nice and does not happen half as often as it should.

Yeah, and sometimes…well, I have a metaphor I use sometimes, which is when you have that initial idea, it’s like you have this beautiful Christmas ornament and it’s perfect and round. And then you smash it with a hammer, and you try to get back together using words.

That’s perfect. That’s exactly what it’s like.

Because sometimes those ideas are, like, this is brilliant! And then somehow, the process of actually turning them into story can be a challenge.

The thing I always say to my students is, I used to be like, “Well, yes, sure, there’s some ideas you just, you can’t do anything with.” And then I read a story by Michael Swanwick, which basically is a story of people journeying across the surface of a giant grasshopper. And I was like, “OK, if Michael could carry that off, you can do whatever you like in a story,” because that is the dopiest idea I had ever heard. And he did it.

I always think of Cory Doctorow, who’s also going to be on the show, no too long from now. 

Oh, awesome.

And, you know, he had the one with one of the characters was a mountain and one was a washing machine.

Was it, like, Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town?

Yeah, that was it. Yeah.

That was an excellent, excellent book. Yeah. Yeah.

So, once you begin writing, are you a straightforward start-to-finish, or do you write, especially in longer stuff, do you tend to write scenes and piece it together, or how does that work for you?

The longer the piece is, the more likely I am to write it as a sort of a creation of scenes. I just got…Beneath Ceaseless Skies just took a novelette from me. And one of the things I was very worried about, in fact, that it was that it had gotten written out of order. And I was worried that in the rewrite I had not made it, put it all in order. But apparently, I seem to have. So, yeah, it’s…and it’s hard. I just finished designing a class called “Principles for Pantsers,” which is basically about kind of like what to do when you’ve got these huge lumps where you’re just like, none of this makes sense. How do you untangle it?

That’s interesting that…you know, you’re teaching all these classes, and as I said, I’ve done some teaching as well, and I sometimes find that I will be telling, you know…I was writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library for nine months, this last September to May, although I was writer-in-residence in my residence for the last two and a half months of that, but anyway. And, you know, I’ll tell them something, and I’m all confident and, you know, this is this…and then I think, you know, if they look in that book of mine, they’re going to see that I didn’t actually do any about it. Do you ever feel that when you’re, a little of that, when you’re teaching writing, that, you know, that sometimes you don’t do what you teach?

Oh, every once in a while, yeah. Because I’m…one of the things I’m big about is, for example, is telling people that they need to build enough time into the writing process for revision. And I suggest that they put the story away for a week at least, and then come back to it. And of course, you do that because the story in your head and the story on the paper are, as you said, one is a Christmas ornament that is beautiful, and the other is much less beautiful. And I do try to do that, but I’m also aware that I am human, and I am prone to procrastination and there is always at least a few times each year where I am like, “Holy crud, this story is due tomorrow. Why is it not done yet? Oh, oh, oh, and then turn it in at the last minute.

I always think of the…I guess it was Douglas Adams that had the quote that he loved deadlines, he loved the whooshing sound they made as they rushed by.

And as an editor, you become aware of what a pain in the ass those writers are, right? And so, you don’t want to be that person. I just had a friend, bought a reprint from me, and she sent me an email that said, basically, “We cannot send this to the audio folks until you send in the contract,” and I was like, all right, that was a really smart thing to say, because if it was just sort of like, we’re not going to pay you till you get the contract, you know, it’s ten dollars. So, of course, I’m going to probably procrastinate because, you know, ten dollars. But when I know that I’m holding people up, I’m going to be much better about it. At least, I’d like to think so.

You mentioned the revision process. So, what is your revision process…first of all, do you do it all yourself? Do you use beta readers, or how does that work for you?

I try to use beta readers, particularly for longer work, and I do have a fairly structured process where I do try to put it aside, and then I read, I create a sort of plan of attack. I move the big, kind of look for the big-ticket items, and I try to sort of work my way in with finer and finer-grained edits because it doesn’t make sense to polish a scene if you’re going to cut it out. So, the line edits are the last thing, and then the read-out-loud pass, which has to happen, is one of the very last steps.

Do you find that you have certain things that you find yourself having to polish every time?

Oh, yeah.

We all have tics that…

Oh, yeah. One of the things I do, which your listeners may find handy, is if you run a word-frequency count, you will catch, for example, the fact that you had characters tilt their head twenty-seven times over the course of a single book. So, I look for that sort of stuff because, you know, sometimes it’s basically, your mind is just saying sort of “insert body language here” and you have defaults. And so, you stick in your default, and you need to go back and just sort of make sure that you aren’t constantly tilting your head.

Yeah, I saw somebody on Twitter today who was talking about writing, say, “Is there any way that characters…” I don’t know what he was reading, or maybe it was something he was writing… “where the characters express emotion other than taking deep breaths, taking short breaths…”

Yes. And you find yourself doing whatever you’re doing. I can remember writing a short story at one point, it was when I was a smoker, and I went back and looked at the draft and realized that I’d had the character light a new cigarette like every two pages and that they surely had an ashtray smoldering in front of them, just disgustingly full of cigarette.

Somebody asked me if my character was perhaps drinking too much and if I had a problem. But no, it was just, you know, again, it’s business to fill. Sometimes you need something for the character to do. And I said, you’re probably right. I should maybe not have her, especially when she’s, like, about to be interrogated or something. She probably shouldn’t be having that second glass, whatever.

Yeah.

I also find that my characters tend to make a lot of animal noises, like, they tend to growl dialogue or snarl dialogue. And I try to catch all that, although my most recent one has werewolves and vampires in it, so the werewolves, I guess, you know, they do growl dialogue. So then, once you have this polished to your satisfaction and it goes to an editor, what kind of editorial feedback do you typically…in short stories, it’s there’s sometimes a lot, sometimes a little. In longer stuff, you’re more likely to get more editorial feedback.

Some places I get no changes at all, or they’ll fix a typo or whatever, but, like, the novelette with Beneath Ceaseless Skies, I’ve just got a second round of edits from the editor, which is kind of, that’s actually outside the norm for there to be that much. But Scott Andrews is just super, super careful with the sentences. Plus, I think he has learned to explain things at length when he makes changes because he knows I will push back if I don’t understand the change. I love Scott, and just we really go back and forth on the edits, so that may be atypical. I think most of the time when you sell stories, though, there’s not that many edits.

And if they are, I mean, I think you probably run into this when talking to starting writers and some writers are worried about what an editor will do to their…

Oh, yeah.

…deathless prose. And I always say they make it better. Typically, they make it better. If it’s a good editor.

Yeah. And it’s so rarely…I mean, I can only think of a couple of times when I have run into an editor where I thought, “OK, they are they are not doing happy things to my prose.” And I think most of the time editors are also very good about letting you push back if you can say why you’re pushing back, and” because it’s my deathless prose” is unfortunately not sufficient reason to push back.

Now, Carpe Glitter is a novelette. Was it published as a standalone originally, or did it appear somewhere else or…?

It was a standalone. Meerkat Press came to me and asked if I had any novelettes or novellas because they were starting a standalone series. And I think it had been to a couple of markets. And it actually was sort of sitting on my shelf because, as you know, longer stories are harder to sell. And so, I gave it to them, and I was so happy to work with them. And then it surprised me by winning a Nebula Award, which was super cool. 

Yeah. What was that like?

That was a ton of fun. I’m kind of sad that I didn’t get to go to the Nebulas in person, but they did just a glorious job with the online events. And honestly, I had talked myself out of it by the time that they announced it, you knew, as you do, you’re just like,” I’m not going to be disappointed. I know I haven’t won.” And so, when I won, it was just…really, it was very cool.

You’d been nominated before. But that was the first time you’d won.

That was the first time I’d won. And I’d…actually I had been nominated once and stayed on the ballot, and then I had been nominated once and there was an unfortunate issue with it having been put in the wrong category. And I ended up withdrawing from the ballot that year because if I had moved categories, I would have bumped three people off of the other ballot because they were tied and I didn’t want to do that.

You’ve been nominated for a World Fantasy Award, too. Do you think awards are valuable?

Oh…no.

I mean, aside from the, “It’s really nice to win one because it makes you feel good.”

Well…I do know that…I think it increases your stock a little bit. I know that I’ve talked to Ann Leckie, who was a classmate at Clarion West and sort of irritated us all by winning, like, every single award that she could the first year she published a novel, and she said, yeah, it’s made a difference to her career. Because she won the Hugo, she won a Nebula, she won a, I forget…Compton Crook, and she won a Clarke Award. She’s just disgusting. And I love Ann, but if I didn’t, I would have to kill her because she’s just way too talented.

Yeah. I mean, the one I’ve won is the Aurora Award here in Canada. Won it for this podcast, actually the first time I won it for a novel, but then I won it the podcast last year. And it’s really nice, and it gives you something. But, especially in the case of the Aurora, which…this is a pretty small market up here…I can’t say I’ve noticed any uptick in sales or anything. But every time a book comes out, they’ll put…you know, you can legally…not legally, but morally, say, award-winning author. So it does that.

Yeah. And you get an award. Like, I have my Nebula sitting on my shelf. I can look at it, and it’s really pretty. And it reminds me that people read my books and like them. Because writing is so solitary, as you know, it’s nice to be reminded that it’s not entirely.

That’s kind of the big philosophical question which I was headed to, which is, why do it, then? Why do you write, and why do you think any of us write, and why write this kind of stuff in particular?

Well, I think to a certain extent…at least, I meet a lot of writers who, like myself, we write because we kind of have to. We are always making stories. We are watching a paper cup floating down in the gutter, kind of going along the street, and we’re constructing a narrative in our head where it’s the brave little paper cup, and it’s, you know, that sort of thing. I mean, we just, we make stories all the time, and we like making them because making art is pleasurable. Making art is very pleasurable when other people like it, it builds to our ego. But making art is simply pleasurable for the sake of making art and knowing that you created something cool that nobody else could create.

Well, I think most writers would…or have, actually, at least for part of their career, wrote without any particular expectation that anybody much was going to, you know…it wasn’t going to get published. And even if you weren’t getting published, would you still write?

Oh, yeah. Yeah, definitely.

Now, I want to go back to the teaching of writing. I have to ask you about the Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers. Where did it come from, and how did it get the name?

So, I was teaching for Bellevue College, and no offense to any Bellevue College people that are listening, but I looked at my paycheck, and then I looked at the brochure and noticed the amount that they were paying me versus the amount that they were charging the students. And I thought, well, that seems like…kind of like a big discrepancy, actually, because I was making, like, twenty-five bucks an hour. And Google Hangouts had just come out, and I was, I had a lot of people who were also coming up to me at conventions and saying, “I really want to take a class with you, but you’re not in my area. How do you do it?” And so, I started teaching classes online about ten, eleven years ago. And at some point, I talked to my friend Rachel Swirsky and said, “You’re interested in teaching, will you come talk to my students about a class?” And then, I forget…Ann Leckie, actually, I think was the second person I brought in, I said, “Ann, will you come talk to them about space opera?” And after that, I started going after people that I wanted to take classes from. And we now have on-demand and live classes. We have a virtual campus, which, during the pandemic, we actually have been doing daily coworking sessions, and we have a short-story discussion group, and the people play writing games for an hour every week. So, the school has become a very important part of my life, actually. Particularly nowadays, that virtual campus is a place that I’m hanging out. Yeah, it’s my community.

How did you get started teaching to begin with? What drew you to, from just writing to start trying to teach other people how to write?

That was how…for Hopkins, for grad school, I got a teaching assistantship. And they had us teaching absolutely hapless Johns Hopkins freshman creative writing. Talk about the blind leading the blind. And it was this class called Introduction to Contemporary American Letters, which was basically, in my opinion, a scam to sell books by the faculty members. And so basically, they were like, here’s a list of twelve books, it just happened to be twelve books of fiction by our faculty members that you will teach. And so, it was always a very eclectic and kind of weird mix of fiction and poetry. But you have not lived until you have tried to explain John Barth to freshmen that are actively hostile to the idea that fiction might actually have something more than just sort of a story in it. It’s just…it was hysterical and wonderful.

But clearly, you got the bug.

I did. I like doing it. I like teaching. I like explaining things. I don’t even know…I like talking to people. And I think I’ve always been one of those people who enjoys talking to people and giving them advice. I suspect, were I not a writer, I would be a counselor of some kind.

Well, and is that side of things kind of what led you into becoming so involved with SFWA?

A long time ago, when I was up at DragonCon, I took one of my first writing workshops with Ann Crispin, who was a long-time super volunteer. This would have been in 2004. And she said to us, “You write a story and you qualify for membership. You join SFWA and you volunteer. And that is what you do. That is the career path you will all take.” And I was like, “Yes, ma’am.” And so, I qualified and joined. I was on a committee actually with Cory Doctorow on copyright. So, that was interesting. So, yes, that was one of my first experiences.

And then you rose up through the ranks…

Rose up…

And is it as much like herding cats as has sometimes been said?

Oh, God. It’s hysterical. Because you’ve got…like, there’s two thousand members and they are all strong, most of them are what I would call strong personalities, and even the ones that are very shy are very capable of being very strong personalities online, and you have a lot of ego, and writers are by nature insecure and prone to imagining things, which is not a good quality in a membership, in my opinion, but I mean, I had so much fun with SFWA. I made so many good friends, and one of the things that I did when I was done that last month was I sat down and I wrote a thank you note, and wrote them to all the people who had helped me or who I had encountered. And I’m sure I left out a bunch of them, but I sent out over 800 thank you notes to people.

Did you get any sense of the…state of the union, I guess, state of the genre, from your time there? You would have a different window on things than I think those of us who are just writing our stories and sending them to editors.

Oh, I think right now science fiction is in an absolutely marvelous time in some ways. I think that you’re seeing a lot of potential with independent publishing. You’ve seen a lot of potential with stuff like games that are also fiction. One of the things SFWA has done is that they now have a game writing award, which includes interactive novels and stuff like that. And it’s also a time when people, many people are working to bring a more diverse group into publishing and trying to help the already diverse folks that are there, and to me, I see a community that is so well-meaning and so good about helping each other that it is, quite frankly, one of the things that still gives me faith in humanity in, as we said, today’s odd world.

Well, I guess we can wrap things up here pretty much. First of all, though, what are you working on now?

I am writing a book two in a space opera series, the first of which is coming out from Tor Macmillan next March.

And what’s it called?

It is called You Sexy Thing, which is the name of the intelligent bioship that my protagonists steal.

So, it sounds like a far-future space opera.

It is. It’s a bunch of retired mercenaries who have started a restaurant aboard a space station. And then a mysterious package arrives, things start exploding, and we are off on adventure.

And anything else that’s in the offing?

I have a fantasy novel that should be coming out soon. It is the third book of the Tabat series, Exiles of Tabet, and I’m finishing up the edits on that right now.

And where can people find you online?

You can always find me on Twitter as @CatRambo. Most social media I’m there as Cat Rambo or findable thereon, or find me at catrambo.com.

OK! Well, I think that kind of wraps up everything I have to ask. So, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed it. I hope you did, too.

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

Episode 64: R. B. Lemberg

An hour-long conversation with R.B. Lemberg, a linguist, and author of many stories set in the Birdverse, an LGBTQIA+-focused secondary world, including The Four Profound Weaves, a novella just released by Tachyon Publications.

Website:
rblemberg.net

Twitter:
@rb_lemberg

Patreon:
rblemberg

R.B. Lemberg’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

R.B. Lemberg is a queer, bigender immigrant from Ukraine, Russia, and Israel to the US. Their stories and poems have appeared in Lightspeed’s Queers Destroy Science FictionBeneath Ceaseless SkiesStrange HorizonsUncanny MagazineSisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology, People of the Book: A Decade of Jewish Science Fiction and Fantasy, and more. R.B.’s work has been a finalist for the Nebula, Crawford, and other awards. Many of R.B.’s stories are situated in Birdverse, an LGBTQIA+-focused secondary world. Their Birdverse novella The Four Profound Weaves has just been released by Tachyon Publications.

In their academic life, R.B. is a sociolinguist working on immigrant discourse, identity, and gender. R.B. lives in Lawrence, KS with their spouse Bogi Takács, child Mati, and “an odd but cheerful community of books.”

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, R.B., welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you so much for having me.

Now, we have not met in person, I don’t think, at all, but I’ve been talking to several Tachyon authors. Then I started doing the research, and you seemed like a really interesting person to talk to, so I’m looking forward to this.

Thank you.

Now, I always start off the same way, by taking the guests back into what I usually call the mists of time, more misty for some of us than others. And so, let’s start there, because Ukraine, Russia, Israel—where did you grow up and how did you get interested in science fiction and fantasy and writing?

Well, thank you so much for asking this question. As you can imagine, it is not an easy question for me to answer, because I’m from many places. So, I was born in Lviv, Ukraine, under the Soviet regime. So, I was born in the Soviet Union. My parents lived in Lviv for a while and then, due to a variety of reasons—some of them had to do with my father, who was an underground activist a little bit and had some trouble doing what he was doing. My father and my mother then went to Vorkuta, which is a circumpolar town in northern Russia. So, when you think about Fairbanks, Alaska, you know, the place, but up there in the north. It’s actually in northern Siberia. It’s on the European side of the Ural mountains, and it’s the only gulag site which was in Europe. My mother and my father had a relative there who said, “Well, it’s a place where you can actually come.” And they went there. And I lived there with them on and off. I lived with my grandmother in Lviv, and then I lived with my parents in Vorkuta until the Soviet Union started collapsing, and the situation became really, really dire, including for my family. And we sought to leave the Soviet Union as it was collapsing. And we wanted to go to the U.S., but the U.S. had quotas, as it always has, so we couldn’t actually go to the U.S., so we went to Israel. And from there, I received my undergraduate there in linguistics, and then one of my mentors said, “Well, you should go to the U.S. and study there for graduate school if you want to do graduate school.” So, I thought that was an interesting idea, and I applied to Berkeley, and they accepted me, which was really exciting. And so, I went to Berkeley, and I was in Berkeley for my Ph.D., and then I got a job. So, this is my trajectory.

As to what got me into fantasy and science fiction, I think with a background like this, you kind of almost have to. It’s not…you don’t necessarily have to, but if you do, nobody is going to be very surprised. So, my family, like for many geeks, nerds, or whatever you want to call us, my parents were into sci-fi, especially my dad. And so, when I was very little, my dad, first of all, also was into mythology and folklore, and so from a very early age, my dad, and my mom to a lesser degree, my dad would tell me fairy tales and read things to me from memory. It’s something that exists in Russian culture. A lot of people memorize poems. And with my father from, like, toddler age, I would memorize Pushkin’s fairy tale poems, I was really into them. And then, again, I remember, as a little child, I would read, I would get from my parents various mythology and folklore books. And I got also a lot of oral tradition from my family and from friends. And I was really into everything fantasy from as, you know, as young as I can remember myself. I was wandering around and I was making up worlds. I made my first constructed language at a very, very young age. I later found that it’s actually common among linguists specifically to invent constructed languages when they’re kids. So, when I started, you know, studying linguistics at the university, I met a lot of other people who had their own constructed languages and who wanted to become writers.

I didn’t actually want to become a writer for a while. I was content with, you know, thinking I would be a linguist. The problem with being a writer, it’s not that I didn’t want to because I know that I’ve written on and off—and there is also some trauma involved in this that I don’t want to get into—but I’ve written on and off. But it was really difficult for me to figure out in what language I wanted to write. And I’ve tried writing…so, the languages in which I’ve written something are varied, but they certainly include Russian. I’ve done a little bit in Ukrainian, not too much, but that was a very long time ago. I’ve done a lot in Hebrew, when I was 18, and then I’ve also written a bit in Yiddish and a bit in Czech and in Bulgarian, like, I’ve tried my hand in all the various languages that I’ve studied or felt close to at different points in my life. And then, uh, yeah, I started writing in English. When I moved to this country, I didn’t feel like I could ever write in English. I felt that my English was just not there, and I felt very self-conscious. And then, I met Shweta Narayan through Berkeley. Shweta also went through linguistics at Berkeley, and we had a mentor, who was the same mentor. So, we met through Eve, who was our mentor. And Shweta helped me. And she said things like, “It’s OK not to be a writer of a hegemonic English, and it’s OK to think about things from the perspective of a diaspora writer,” or, you know, multinational, or whatever it is that you call it. And together, we kind of explored this because Shweta also is multilingual and comes from various countries. And so, together, we started exploring the issues that kind of related to not being American, to writing in English while you’re not actually writing in your native tongue or even, you know, it’s not immediately your inheritance.

And so, we started exploring these issues. And Shweta went to Clarion. I did not do workshops for various reasons. So, we started editing this magazine called Stone Telling Magazine. I founded it, and Shweta joined me as a co-editor. And we edited a poetry magazine, which was subtitled A Magazine of Boundary-Crossing Poetry. And we looked for specifically multilingual queer, trans voices, voices of color, voices from many marginalized communities. And it kind of coalesced as it went on. And I started also publishing fiction at the time. Slightly earlier, before I started the magazine. I was publishing fiction for a short time before we started the magazine. So, doing the magazine and editing the magazine, I think, really helped me become braver about what I had to say. Because I saw the poets from all kinds of backgrounds, from all kinds of countries around the world, reach into kind of the deepest, most vulnerable place to speak about their experiences through the lens of speculative fiction. Well, speculative poetry in that case.

And that has just been extremely powerful for me, to witness how transformative the works of fantasy, science fiction, horror, magic realism, et cetera, that fall under the  spec umbrella can be to express our identities and struggles and hopes and dreams as people who do not necessarily fit into the straight and narrow, so to speak, paradigm of who gets to write what. And then, it kind of, from that place where I was so uplifted by how much the poets and the essay writers who sent us their work were brave and vulnerable and brilliant, that my work itself changed. So, I was already writing fantasy. I love fantasy. So, I was already writing fantasy, but I began writing in Birdverse, which is the universe of my upcoming novella from Tachyon, which is coming out next week, and I’m really excited about it. So, that’s kind of the long and the short of it.

What drew you to linguistics?

Well, it’s awesome.

Just the love of language?

Well, I think linguistics…so, when we think about linguistics, we think about language having a fundamental place in human experience. Language is not a universal for everybody. Not everybody uses language the same way. Some people don’t use verbal language at all, they use other means of communication. But language is such a fundamental thing for human experience. For many social science and humanities disciplines, language underlies everything. So, when you want to answer questions like…

So, here’s a more nerdy answer. When I was 14, and I’d just migrated to Israel, I was very miserable. Immigration was really hard on my family. And so, I was really, really miserable. And a friend gave me a translation of Lord of the Rings, the first book, into Russian, which existed, but it was kind of rare, and I’ve never seen it before. This was in the mists of the early 1990s, now you can figure out how old I am, but it’s not hard. So, I read it in Russian translation and the preface, which Russian editions often do, there was a beefy preface which said, “J.R.R. Tolkien was a linguist and philologist and here were his interests and here’s how his interest shaped this world.” So, I read this with great interest because it really intrigued me that you could study ancient languages from a comparative perspective, which I already knew about, but I didn’t know about in detail. So, I read the book. I loved the book. There was no second or third translation into Russian that I knew about, and I couldn’t get my hands on it. So, I began teaching myself English, which was a really interesting process. I knew English a little bit already. I had some English in school, but I was not fluent, and I couldn’t read in it, it was really difficult. So, I began teaching myself English just to read this book. And I’m neurotypical. I’m also very stubborn. So, when I focus on something, I just go. And I learned English, and I read the books.

And by the time I finished, which was about a year later, I said to myself, “Actually, I’m really interested in all those works that Tolkien was inspired by, so I’m going to seek them out.” So, I began in high school, I began teaching myself, Old Norse, teaching myself Old English, teaching myself Old French. And by the time I started reading these texts and got to college and started learning them, I was so deeply in love with historical linguistics and felt, that’s the more interesting stuff than Tolkien. And I’m still interested in Tolkien. I don’t want to lambast Tolkien in any way. But I was just so intrigued by the actual ancient and medieval texts that I wanted to become a historical linguist.

And then, when I started in college, actually learning historical linguistics, I expanded my horizons beyond things that interested Tolkien to other things. And that’s kind of a lifelong journey. I’m not a historical linguist. I did not go in that direction in the end, but I still have an interest in how languages develop, in how kind of the history of languages can really be inspiring to think about in terms of world-building. I have a deep love of world-building. So, I think language is an integral part of world-building and to world-building, which is informed about cultures which are not all the same. Because languages are not all the same in how they shape how we think. And so, that’s the intersection that really interests me. And that’s where the connection between the linguistics that I do in my academic life and my fantasy writing is.

Yeah, I was interested in the fact that you’ve written in multiple…I mean, I’m feeling very…I can speak English, and I learned a little bit of French because I live in Canada, and that’s kind of it. And so I always feel a little, you know, like I’m missing out on something and wish I was better on languages. But when you’re writing in different languages…like, as I understand it, there are some things you could say in one language that never really translate to another language because it’s so specific to the language and the culture. Is that a true statement?

That is absolutely a true statement.

And how would that affect this writing in various languages?

Well, thank you very much for that question. That’s actually a really important question. First of all, I want to say that knowing or studying more than one language is awesome. So, if you can do it, that’s great. Not everybody can. But I recommend that. I think it really opens up your world. It shows you how diverse human experiences are around the world in space and time. And it’s one way to see the incredible diversity of human experience—not the only way, but it’s a good way. But there are some writers who can do multiple languages at once in their writing. I’m not one of them. When I made the decision to write in English, I just gave it my all because…I think it would have to be either Russian or English at that point and, uh…and maybe, I don’t know, and maybe Hebrew. I’m not convinced.

But what English really opened up for me personally is the queer trans experience, because in English I had through friends who taught me the words and taught me the expressions, I had the vocabulary to express my queer non-binary trans experience in a way that I couldn’t really in either Hebrew or Russian,  both languages which are very deeply grammatically gendered. So, you don’t only use pronouns which distinguish between genders, but you also do them with nouns, you do them with adjectives, you do them with verbs. And for many of them, certainly for Hebrew, you only get the feminine and masculine option. For Russian, you have a little bit more flexibility, but mostly for inanimate objects. So, it gets really fraught. And that’s something that I’m dealing with now also personally in my life. How do I talk about myself and my other languages? And also when we talk about translations. For example, I recently had a wonderful conversation with a translator who was interested in discussing with me what I want to do in Polish, not just for myself, but also for my characters.

And so, we had these discussions about how to work with these languages that have such deep grammatical gender that there are barriers which English doesn’t have. These barriers are surmountable. People do various things. But there’s just a very different approach than we have in English. And I felt liberated by English and also deeply sad that I can do it in a language which is not my native language. So, it’s created kind of like a bit of a struggle for me internally, and I express it in my fiction.

So, in The Four Profound Weaves, the main character, who is a trans man, transmasculine person, who grows up in a culture which is very binary. It’s not trans accepting. It’s queer accepting and queer normative, in fact, but it’s not trans accepting. And the language, which I built based on Semitic and Hebrew specifically, the language only has the binary options. So, that person feels alienated from his society because he needs to travel and seek help from different people whose language is more flexible, whose culture is more flexible. But that makes him feel an alienation from his own home culture, and he struggles with that. So, I feel that my fiction expresses some of these things that I think about when they think about language and the place of LGBTQIA writing specifically.

Then, I admire people, like, people who can do multiple languages at once and write bilingually. Actually, this is something that I’m exploring more and more now, having more code-switching, maybe not in Birdverse so much, but in my other works, which are kind of more magic realism, having more code-switching in there. I have supported poets and writers who want to have code-switching, which is untranslated, in their works. I think it’s really important.

So, one of the people that I published in Stone Telling, as well as in my collection that I edited called An Alphabet of Embers, who is better known as fan artist for her magnificent art. She wrote a series of these bilingual pieces where the translation is simply not offered. And I think that’s so powerful because I think I think we don’t need to control everything. Does that make sense? Like, we don’t need to understand every single word the other person is saying. It’s OK for them to have a way to voice their experiences which is not accessible to a reader who is not as familiar with those experiences. But it kind of, like, pushes against the paradigm that the editor needs to control everything the author produces. I don’t believe in that. And I also don’t believe that the reader necessarily needs to control everything that an author produces does. Does that make sense? Like, there has to be a space for partial understanding and just trust that the other person is giving you some of their experience, some of their experience which you won’t necessarily immediately understand. So, from that perspective…

Yeah, I think that does make perfect sense. I think whenever we’re…you know, even something that seems completely accessible, you are reading something that the author has things going on there that you’re not necessarily picking up on because of their background and their approach to the world. And so, I think even for something that seems on the surface to be completely accessible, there can sometimes be those kinds of hidden places where there’s something else going on. And that’s fine. And certainly, the more difficult text that we read that we don’t, you know, maybe don’t immediately penetrate what’s going on there quite the same way, that can be exciting. And I think in science fiction and fantasy in particular, it’s often that, encountering the strangeness and encountering those different ways of looking at things, that’s actually part of the appeal of the genre, at least to me.

I agree, I agree. And I think in science fiction and fantasy is where you often have this very intricate worldbuilding that shows you different worlds, you know, it shows you different models of being, that experiments with, even with language. There were plenty of science fiction and fantasy writers who thought about what other languages would look like and how it would express culture. I mean, Ursula K. Le Guin is such an amazing example of this is, but there’s many other writers who experimented with meaning and worldbuilding. So, for me, that’s the pleasure of reading sci-fi and fantasy as opposed to, I don’t know, realism, you know, that you can actually be transported. 

You mentioned a little bit about The Four Profound Weaves and kind of gave a little bit of a synopsis of it. So, let’s segue over to talk about that. Is there more of a synopsis of that you want to give or more of an explanation of the book before we talk about how it came about?

Sure, sure. Sure. So, in The Four Profound Weaves, it’s set in Birdverse, which is my secondary world, which I’ve written them before. And this novella is a standalone. In this novella, two transgender people who are in their 60s, there’s a trans man and a trans woman, they’re friends. They team together on a personal journey, and they end up learning…they want to learn how to weave from death. One of them is seeking the mastery of the four profound weaves, which is kind of a goal she had all her life and couldn’t quite accomplish. And they end up fighting an evil ruler who imprisons rebellious women and hoards their bones and souls. And they fight, they have to fight this ruler by the means of learning how to weave from death. And so, it’s kind of a novella about art and craft and waiting for very many years for something to start happening in your life that you desperately wanted and desperately waited for, and kind of getting another chance at truly figuring out who you are and embracing yourself. And it’s also a story of the transformative power of art to push against a dictatorship and tyranny. And I also feel that it’s both a story about grief, because both of these characters have a lot of a past that they have to deal with, past lovers, people who died, people who betrayed them, people who weren’t there for them, people who tried to constrain them. So, there’s a lot of grief and regret about what didn’t happen earlier in life. But it’s also a story of hope and what we can accomplish, no matter how old we are, that it’s never too late to embrace your identity and become fully yourself. So that’s, I guess, the longer synopsis.

Well, it’s set in the Birdverse universe. So, my first question at this point is always that that old hoary question, where do you get your ideas? But in this case, how did the Birdverse come about, now that this novella has grown out of it?

You know, this is also kind of a complicated question. There’s a simple answer and a complicated answer, but I’ll give you the complicated answer because I like complicated things, and I hope it’s OK. I remember when I was 16, I read, I was in Ursula Le Guin, which is pretty clear from my writing. I love her. And I also knew her a little bit personally. And I read…I don’t even remember where I read it, and I might misremember it, but I read that Le Guin said that when she was little she had, with a friend, invented a story, a kind of like a beginner’s story world, which came from a bird. And I started thinking about that because I love birds. So, I started thinking about this, this primordial egg, which is also actually mythologically widespread, there’s a lot of mythology about the world egg, the first egg. And so, I started thinking about this bird, this bird that gives birth to a world. And over the years, the thought kept percolating. I wanted to write about this bird. And I wasn’t even writing. I was not writing in any language. I was writing very little. And I was, you know, drawing. I was making worlds, but I wasn’t actually making stories at the time.

And then, somewhere in graduate school, I made up a story of a linguist character, who is not in any published works, but I’ve written two novel drafts in which she’s a character, that are not published and hopefully maybe one day will see light, but maybe not. So, there’s this linguist character who goes out to do linguistics fieldwork in some other place. And I thought, well, maybe these are connected, and maybe this is the world of the bird. And so, this is how Birdverse, roughly, was born. So, this was all before I was even writing. And then, I started writing in a completely different corner of this world just because I thought of a story.

And the story came to me, and I said, “Well, what if it’s in the same world?” So, I started writing it. I had a few of my Birdverse stories published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Scott Andrews has just been an amazing editor. I always praise him because he is awesome. And so, he has this really wonderful ability, both a deep interest in worldbuilding but also in character. So, he’s the kind of person who is always seeking experiences that are maybe, you know, maybe people like he doesn’t yet know or…and he’s published a lot of very diverse authors, which is wonderful. So, Scott is very encouraging to me. So, I’ve written a bunch of stories, and they became popular, people who were drawn to them. And one of those stories was my Nebula-nominated story called “Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds,” which was a Nebula finalist and also was on the Hugo shortlist—longlist, sorry, not shortlist. I wish!—longlist. It was on the Tiptree long list. So, it got some attention. And so, there was a side character…Uiziya, the trans woman, was a very minor character in that story. And the nameless man who is a character also in The Four Profound Weaves was the grandparent of the main character in that story.

And so, for many years after that, it kept nagging at me, “Hm, I want to know what happened to these characters. I want to know their story.” So, my dad passed away in late 2016, and I was thinking about death, as one does when a parent passes away. And I was unable to write for a few months, I was dealing with grief, and when I emerged and started writing again, I wrote a bunch of stories, and then I felt that, “The time has come for me to answer the question of what’s the story of those older people.” And so, I wrote The Four Profound Weaves, and then Tachyon bought it. And here we are.

So, once you decided to do that story, what did your planning process look like? Do you do a detailed outline? Do you just write? How does it work for you?

I do not do a detailed outline. Oh, my God. I wish! I admire people who can do that. That seems so orderly and so good to me. I wish I could do it. I like planning, in my nonfiction and my academic work, I plan, but in my fiction, I don’t. But I do a little…I’m not a complete pantser. That I cannot say. So, tI always need to know what is, first of all, where are we starting? And it might not be where we end up starting, but kind of, I know the first scene, and then I know the last scene. And then I start figuring out what are the touchstones. In between those Points A and B, what are the big emotional scenes where the reader really will get the payoff of following my characters, and very often, scenes along the way that are very vivid to me, that I know how they’re going to look like. I want to know what they’re going to feel like when I’m going to write them. I want to imagine them. So, it’s like a movie that’s playing in my head over and over. So, I walk around, and the movie plays, and I think about that and come up with more scenes. A lot of my thinking about fiction comes when I’m in motion. So, I love walking when I can. The pandemic’s been really difficult that way for me, but I love walking, sometimes driving even, things happen. So, I need to be in motion. And then once I figured out enough of my, “Here’s A, here’s B, here are some touchstones along the way.” I try to connect them, and I start writing, and I start asking myself, “How do I lead from this scene to the next scene that I know is a pivotal emotional scene?”

So, in The Four Profound Weaves, I knew the beginning, and I started writing there, and I knew that the next big emotional point would be meeting with Uiziya’s aunt, Benesret, which happens in the desert. And so, I was writing towards that and then towards the next point and then towards the next point and then towards the next point until I reach the end. So, I can say that I’m a complete pantster, but it’s not very orderly. But that’s what it is.

Do you write it sequentially, like beginning to end, or do you write scenes and then knit them together?

I always write sequentially. That I cannot break myself from. And my friends often told me, try to just write the big scenes and then connect them and I cannot do that. I write sequentially.

Yeah. I’ve you know, I’ve talked to a few people that do it that way, and it wouldn’t work for me. I just start, and then it has to just keep flowing out.

Exactly. Yeah. Yeah.

What’s your actual writing process? Do you write, you know, the same time every day? Do you go out, obviously not now, maybe, but go out to the coffee shop or something? Or do you sit under a tree with a quill pen? How do you like to write?

So, I have a laptop and I’m kind of attached to my laptop. You cannot separate me from my laptop. Um, like, it’s my arm, third arm or, I don’t know, third stomach, second stomach, I don’t know. So, I write on the laptop, and I wish I could write at the same time every day, but unfortunately, I can’t commit to that just because I’m an academic, I’m a parent, you know, I work full time, I parent full time, especially now in the pandemic. I am married to another writer who also needs access to…and is also academic, Bogi is an academic as well. So, we kind of play it by ear a lot of times, but I do write every day if I can, too. I mean, things happen, and you can’t really write every day reliably if you have a disability or pain or you have, you know…maybe other people can, but I can’t always, because caregiving job, pain, you know, all of those factors combine to make my commitment to everyday writing not as firm as I would like, but I do try to write every day. Sometimes I only write fiction, sometimes I only write my academic writing, because that’s also a thing I need to write. As to where, I love writing in coffee shops. That has gone away for me, and that has been such a rough adjustment for me because I love coffee shops, and I’ve written most, I think, of my work in coffee shops up until the pandemic.

So, now that I can no longer write in the coffee shop, it’s a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because lately, in coffee shops, I could not really be left alone. People recognize me, not necessarily because of my writing, but because they know me from various places. I’m in the college town, so it’s not huge, and I would always go to the same place. So, I would get interrupted, and I would talk to people, which is fine, I like talking to people, but I wouldn’t get as much done as I hoped for. So, being able to actually be in my room, which is my office, which was not set up at the beginning of the pandemic, but is now beautiful, it’s set up, and Bogi and I have worked out how are we going to divide the child care, and the kid is older, and he’s gotten into video games. That has been really cool because, while he’s playing video games, both of us can have some time to write. I prefer, my natural inclination is to write at night, late at night, when it’s quiet and dark. That’s when there’s no distraction, and that’s when I prefer to write. But honestly, I write whenever I can. So, if I have time, I try to do it. So, that’s my process.

Do you think of yourself as a fast writer or a slow writer?

OK, so I have two speeds, on and off. The off is when I don’t write. So, I told you I write every day, but I also can tell you that there are days when I don’t write. And by that, I mean I will write academic work. I will write nonfiction rather than fiction. And so, those days for me, I feel, “Oh, I haven’t written. I want to write.” Even though I’ve written. But when I really get…but these days are good days, when I’m not writing fiction, because I’m thinking about it and I’m planning and I’m strategizing and things are growing while I’m maybe not putting them to paper. But then, when I start writing, I begin writing, I can write things very fast because I’ve already thought about them so deeply. And I know sometimes even whole phrases that I’ve already made up in my mind, and I know them. I can write very fast. So, I think I’m neither slow nor fast. I just have variable speeds.

Once you have…you’ve started at the beginning, you’ve worked your way to the end. Then comes the revision process. What does that look like for you? Do you go back to the beginning, start the beginning, work your way through? Do you have beta readers? How does it all work?

So. immediately after I finish, I am tempted to immediately begin revising. All of my friends told me not to do it, and they’re all right, they’re all correct, and I’m not. But I can’t stop myself because usually, when I’m carried past the moment of the end, I have built so much momentum I am tempted to immediately start revising. So, I let myself do it. And in the first pass, I usually fix the issues that I already know are there. And I make the beginning work better with the end. And I fix sentence-level stuff, I fix some continuity issues. My drafts tend to be quite clean. This is my downfall because the fact that they’re are clean and readable doesn’t mean that they don’t need work. So, after I’ve done the second pass and I’ve completed the second pass, I usually do one of two things. Either I send it out to a beta reader, a friend who wants to read, and reads it for me. Sometimes it’s Bogi, sometimes it’s one of my other close friends. I mean, I just lost a very dear friend, Cory, who would read a lot of my stuff at that stage and…I’m sorry, it’s just still very raw. And after that, beta readers give me, or maybe they’re more alpha readers than beta readers at this point. They give me feedback, and they say, “Well, this worked, this didn’t work, or this is this is cool, or they didn’t understand. Then I usually put it away because it needs to bake a little bit. And then after a few weeks, sometimes a month, sometimes even more, but usually it’s a few weeks to a month, I come back to it, and I do a serious revision.

What sorts of things do you find yourself working on at that level, once it comes back for some serious revisions? Is it, like, characterization, plot, description, what sorts of things do you have to work on?

It’s always plot. It’s always plot. It’s always, always, always plot. I believe that each writer has a weakness or weaknesses and a strength or strengths. And so, I often when I give advice, I tell people, play to your strengths, emphasize the strong things, whatever it is, if it’s plot, work on plot, if it’s character, work on character, if it’s relationships, which is character work, too, work on relationships, if it’s world-building, work on that, just do what brings you joy. And then, in revision, you need to work on the things that you are less strong in. And my world-building, I think, is very strong. This is my strength. This is where I’m at home. This is what I want to do. My character work, I feel, I understand from other people, is strong. Like, people love my characters. People connect to my characters. So that’s all good. Plot, however, is not a strength for me. And I have put a lot of effort over the years into becoming better. A lot. But I’m not, and I’m not because I’m not into linear storytelling at all. I love a tapestry. I want worlds to be complicated. I want it to be interconnected. And I don’t like linear plots. However, people love linear plots, or at least A to B type of plots, and they’re easy to read, and they’re engaging. So, the bulk of my revision work is always plot, and it’s always pacing, like, knowing how to build pacing. That’s going to really make something pop. But it’s very rarely other things.

I was going to ask you about characterization. That sounds like something that you’ve got all worked out in your head before you start actually writing, then. How do you find your characters, and how do you go about building them?

Thank you. So, my characters. So, I think, over the years, I’ve talked to a fair amount of writers about characters and there are many very interesting approaches to building character. Some go a route that I think of as the D&D route, where you have a character sheet, and you kind of build the character on the sheet, which I think works. And it’s a great technique if you’re into it, where you write what they look like and their likes and dislikes and their strengths and weaknesses and all that. And from that, you build a character. For others, it is more like, this is a person. And for me, this is how it happens. I meet a person, and that person is a character in my world. Usually, they start out as secondary characters in my world, which is why people often feel, oh, it’s all connected. Yes, it’s all connected, but there’s no beginning. Like, there’s no canonical this is the first. I mean, The Four Profound Weaves is the debut, so I guess it’s going to be the first. But a lot of times, I write something, and there’s a secondary character, and I know very little about them. And when I finish writing, I start thinking, “Hmm, there was a little scene in the little place and that person was sitting somewhere in the corner, and the person said an interesting thing. I want to know that person a little bit better.” And so, I start, as I walk around before, long before, I start writing, as I walk around, I start imagining what the person is like. How do they move? Like, how do they speak? Like, what language do they speak? What are they wearing? Are they fat, thin, or maybe somewhere in between? Are they older or are they younger? What are their relationships like? Do they want something, to tell me something?

And then at some point, characters in my head start talking to me, and they start telling me a little bit. Usually, these are things that they don’t tell other people. Maybe nobody listens. Maybe it’s painful. Maybe it’s too personal. So I feel the storyteller, for me, how I see myself, the storyteller is the presence that, when you are alone, and you’re really conflicted or torn or in pain, and you want to tell something to somebody, the storyteller is that hovering presence in the empty room, who is listening to that voice, that then you say to an empty room, “OK, this hurts,” or “I want to tell a story from my childhood,” or “This is something I’ve never told anybody.”

And so, I think a lot of my character building begins there and begins with a secret, with something the character didn’t want to talk about. I write a lot about characters who are traumatized, who are neurotypical and/or disabled in some way. Trauma plays a major role in my storytelling. I want my storytelling to be both gentle in its treatment of trauma and also not to shy away from the fact that people have trauma in their lives. And so, once I learn a person’s secret, it becomes something really deep for me and really meaningful. I want to give them gentleness and healing. So, a lot of my readers have really appreciated that even when my stories get really dark, and they often get really dark, there is a place for healing. I am not there to break the reader. I want to unbreak the reader. And often, the readers who most appreciate my work are readers who themselves have marginalization. They come from places that maybe they have struggled and they have trauma. And so, they appreciate that perspective of caring that I bring to my storytelling.

So, I would think that if I spent maybe half or maybe a third of the time that I spend on my characters and plot, I would be golden. But I don’t. So, that’s why plot takes second seat, and it really shouldn’t because we need plots. A plot is a skeleton of a story, and it shouldn’t fall down without the skeleton. But think I’m just really into characterization, and I really love my characters. And if I write about them for a while, they become people to me, and I care about them.

Once you have the actual draft, as far as you’re going to take it, then it goes to an editor. What does your editorial feedback tend to look like?

So, I worked with some amazing editors. I’ve had so much luck in terms of my editors, and I think that editors, editors who understand the writer’s work, and want to make it better, are golden. And there are many wonderful people in the industry who are like that. At Tachyon, I worked with Jaymee Goh, and I worked with Jill Roberts. Both of them have had an impact on how The Four Profound Weaves was shaped when they accepted the novella.

It was much shorter, and they wanted it longer. It was still a novella, but it was shorter. They wanted it longer. They felt it needed more room. And so, with the help of Jaymee, who gave me…Jaymee, she gave me kind of, like, here’s where it can go, here are some of the things that we feel needed more development. And so, I sat with it, and then I revised it. And Jamie gave me very detailed and very sensitive editorial instructions, which just made, I feel…and then, when Jaymee was done with it, Jill, who was the managing editor at Tachyon, who’s also fantastic, Jill read it, and Jill gave me actual comments. Some of them I took, some of them I didn’t take. And it was just the most collaborative, constructive, and respectful process. And so, that’s one of the reasons I say that I love working with Tachyon because the people there are good. They’re good people. They’re sensitive. They want the story to be the best it can be. They’re committed to working with the writers. I really love that process.

I also had so much luck with Scott Andrews, whom I already mentioned. I’ve worked with other editors who were golden, too. But I think Scott, especially. I learned so much from him, especially when I was a new writer. Scott would ask me questions and try to understand why I made the decisions that I made, even when he thought a scene is dragging too long or too short or, “I don’t understand why this is happening” or “I don’t understand this character.” Scott always tries to understand where you’re coming from with a story. 

So, I remember I was sitting in my office at work, and I got my first rewrite request from Beneath Ceaseless Skies. And I was thinking, “Oh, my God, this could be my second professional sale. I’m on my way to becoming a SFWA member.” I was really into it at the time. I am a SFWA member now. And the more I read of it, it was so long, and I was getting this feeling of fear. “I am never going to be able to do this. I don’t understand how this works.” And so, my friends, bless them, walked me through it and said, “No, actually this is really sympathetic. Try to just respond to it.” And so, I sold the rewrite request. And after I’d done that, I felt like…I’ve learned that beyond my own revision processes, I also will work with an editor. And the editor that I want to work with is an editor who is hands-on. I love that. I love the back and forth. I love the dialogue. I love working with editors who are not the my-way-or-the-highway type of editor because that that cannot work for me. But I like—I love—working with editors who are collaborative, who want to make the manuscript the best it can be, who can give feedback, who are invested in the work. And I just hope that going forward in my career, I will work with other editors and/or the same editors, because I love my editors, who are hands-on.

Well, the novella will be out when this airs. It’s about to come out as we’re recording it. But you’ve had some pretty good reviews already, so it looks like…are you happy with the response you’re seeing from some of those reviewers?

I am so happy, I am just beyond thrilled with the response that I’ve been getting on the novella. I have gotten a starred review from Publishers Weekly. I’ve gotten a starred review from the Library Journal. I got one from Forward Literary, also a starred review, which is for indie titles. I’ve gotten a lot of advance praise. And I am just so…I mean, how can you not be happy with such a response? I did not anticipate that it would be so positive. I’m thrilled. I also know that some people, from the reviews I’ve seen here and there, I feel that some people felt that my language was too lyrical and that kind of was not their thing. And that’s OK. I am a very firm believer that not every book is for every reader. And the beautiful thing about science fiction, fantasy, and horror is that there is room for a variety of styles and approaches. And if not every reader is going to embrace it, that’s just fine. I just was most concerned about doing justice to my community.

So, I wanted the work to speak first and foremost to the experience of trans people and queer people and people who have maybe lived long lives and struggled with coming out, or lived long lives and struggled with regret. So, I’ve had some sensitivity readers and beta readers and alpha readers from the community who’ve read the book and have given me their comments, and they all felt that the book is sensitive. So, that’s what was super important to me. And it’s as important as those starred reviews for me because I want to do justice to my people and I want to uplift my people. I actually want to uplift everybody because everybody deserves an experience of hope that’s coming out of some kind of personal darkness. I think that’s a beautiful thing, and that’s what I kind of try to achieve with this book. But it’s OK that there’s no universal adoration. I do not want that. I do not expect that. But I’m thrilled with the response, and I’m just hoping that people who need this book will find it.

I would say I never expect universal adulation. I wouldn’t say I don’t want universal adulation.

Hey, if it comes, it comes. But I don’t think it’s a thing I strive for. You can’t please everyone. You just can’t. People are so different.

Yeah, people are very different. One thing about the podcast here, you find out from talking to, you know, so many different writers, is how different everybody’s approach is to the craft. And that kind of brings me to my big philosophical question at the end, which you maybe kind of answered along the way a bit. But as I mentioned off the top, when we were setting this up, that question is, why do you do this? Why do you write? Why do you write this stuff? Why do you think any of us do, for that matter? What is it that makes us tell these stories?

OK. So, I don’t know. And I wish I did, but I think if I if I knew that would make me maybe not as human as I am for me personally. I just don’t feel that this…why are humans, some humans compelled to creativity, is a question about God, the universe, existence, and other things. But I often feel, I often think about the metaphor of the pearl for myself. And the metaphor of the pearl is that the pearl, you know, a mollusk exists with no problem up until a grain of sand lands, and you begin working around this grain of sand and wrapping it and wrapping it and wrapping it, and it feels really painful, and you don’t know why you’re doing it. Then, in the end, you hopefully created the pearl and not a pile of shit—so sorry, pardon me. So, for me, the process of a grain of sand has landed, and now we’re working around it. That’s the metaphor that I’m working with. Not a lot of…  don’t know if everybody’s like this, but that’s what it is like for me. Something is bothering me that cannot be expressed through nonfiction, that cannot be expressed through not writing, and that something needs to be expressed. And that’s why I’m writing.

And what are you working on now?

So, I’m working on the few Birdverse longer pieces. I’m working on revising a novel that I’ve been working on for a long time that’s about revolution and linguistics, also set in Birdverse. There’s one other thing that I’m working on in Birdverse, which is a novella about a character about whom I also…who is a side character in some of my other works that I’ve known about for a long time, who needs to save her people from disaster and is not really managing to save her people from disaster. It is suddenly very, very current. It wasn’t as current as when I was starting it. So, that’s what I’m working on. And then I’m also working on a science fiction novel which is called, in my head, it’s called Space Putin because it is about Putin in space, or not Putin, but somebody who is like Putin maybe a little bit. 

I suspect that title will change!

It’s not going to be the title. And hopefully, hopefully Putin is not going to get, the real Putin, is not going to get involved. But I am a big fan of the Brothers Strugatsky, who are Russian science fiction writers that were fundamental for most Russian-speaking people who write science fiction. Also, people in general, awesome writers. And so, I’ve been doing a long reread of Strugatsky work for a while now, and I decided to write a section novel. It’s about two people, from kind of different factions who…and one of them is a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone of somebody who is very important in the revolution and must be now on the run from space Putin. So, it’s kind of an adventure, but also has these themes and thoughts about the Soviet Union that I have and how it collapsed and other things.

Well, I’m going to remember Space Putin now, that’s for sure.

It is catchy, isn’t it?

It is, it is. And where can people find you online?

So, I am on Twitter a little bit too much as RB_Lemberg, and then I have a Patreon, which is RBLembergwithout the underscore, just patreon.com/RBLemberg.

And I post a lot of things that I don’t want to publish, or I don’t get published, I publish on Patreon, which includes fiction, poetry, drawings, and other things. And I also have a website, rblemberg.net, where you can I can follow me. I am not on Facebook, I don’t like Facebook, not really. I mean, I’m kind of there, but I’m not there really. And I’m a little bit on Instagram, but those, those are not good outlets. I think I’m mainly on Twitter and on Patreon in those days.

I talk a lot of authors who are on Instagram, but I hardly ever do anything on Instagram. It’s a hard one to get a handle on for me. 

I post flowers. So, if people want flowers they can go.

Cat pictures. Cat pictures are always good. Well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed that, I hope you did, too.

Yes, I did. Thank you so much for your time and thank you for such great questions. I really enjoyed the conversation.

I did, too. OK, bye for now.

Episode 63: Kathrin Hutson

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.

Website
kathrinhutsonfiction.com

Facebook
@KathrinHutsonFiction

Instagram
@KathrinHutsonFiction

Twitter
@ExquisitelyDark

Kathrin Hutson’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

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.

Patricia McKillip.

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?

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.

Very nice!

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.

Yes, absolutely.

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?

I did.

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.

That’s interesting.

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…

Yeah.

And yet, you still have to make it work for yourself as the writer.

Right.

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.

Yes.

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…

Excellent!

…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.

Yes.

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.”

Whoops! Yeah.

But it is very helpful, I find.

Yes, absolutely.

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?

Of course, my website is kathrinhutsonfiction.com.

You should probably spell your name because it’s…

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.

I sure did. Thank you so much for having me.

Episode 62: Kate Elliott

An hour-long-plus conversation with Kate Elliott, author of Unconquerable Sun, “gender-swapped Alexander the Great in space,” and many others, including the Crown of Stars epic fantasy series, the Afro-Celtic post-Roman alt-history fantasy with lawyer-dinosaurs, Cold Magic, and sequels, the science fiction novels of the Jaran, the YA fantasy Court of Fives, and the epic fantasy Crossroads Trilogy,

Websites
www.kateelliott.com
imakeupworlds.com

Twitter
@KateElliottSFF

Kate Elliott’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Photo by April Quintanilla

Kate Elliott has been writing stories since she was nine years old, which has led her to believe that writing like breathing, keeps her alive. As a child in rural Oregon, she made up stories because she longed to escape to a world of lurid adventure fiction. Her most recent is Unconquerable Sun, “gender-swapped Alexander the Great in space.”

She is also known for her Crown of Stars epic fantasy series, the Afro-Celtic post-Roman alt-history fantasy with lawyer-dinosaurs, Cold Magic, and sequels, the science fiction novels of the Jaran and the YA fantasy Court of Fives, and the epic- fantasy Crossroads Trilogy, with giant justice eagles. Her particular focus is immersive world-building and centering women in epic stories of adventure and transformative cultural change.

She lives in Hawaii, where she paddles outrigger canoes and spoils her schnauzer.

So, Kate, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Ed, thank you so much. I want to say that at the moment, the usual club outrigger canoe practice has been cancelled or suspended, I’ll say, due to the pandemic. So, that’s the one thing that I’m not paddling my usual six-man six-feet canoe three to four times a week.

Well, here in the middle of the continent, we don’t have a lot of that anyway. So, I hadn’t really noticed that that was one of the things that had been cancelled. Well, we have met because we’ve both been published by DAW and we met at one of the lovely DAW dinners. For your DAW books is Sheila your editor, Sheila Gilbert?

Yes, yeah.

And she’s mine, as well. So, we share that.

She’s a fantastic editor.

Yes, she certainly is. So, I’m going to start, as I always do, by taking you—this has become a cliche on the program, “back into the mists of time,z’ and I’m going to put reverb on it. One of these days, I’m going to do that, “back into the mists of time,” to find out…well, I know from your little bio that you’ve been writing since you were very young. So, how did you get interested in writing and…well, reading and writing and all that kind of stuff? What led you down the garden path to being a writer?

You know, this is the big question, isn’t it? And I think there’s an even deeper question that goes even below that, which is like, why do human beings create at all? What is the, let’s say, the evolutionary advantage of the way our minds work, which is sometimes in amazing ways and sometimes it really debilitating ways. I think they’re all kind of linked. Why? I guess I would say is that I believe that human beings, part of what makes us who we are, is pattern making and creativity. And there would be survival mechanism in that, in, like, seeing that we could eat this food, right, or seeing that if these seeds dropped here, in the next season, when I came back, there was stuff here I could eat. So, that then develops to language and to all the other ways that we think about, not just art, but about science and about religion, all the ways that we understand the world.

So really, the question I would ask is, why do some people not feel they’re creative, which to me is a tragedy and something I think that is imposed on people from the outside, not part of who people are, really, kind of at root? But then, the other question is, why did I decide to write? Why did I want to tell stories as opposed to designing clothes or playing music or woodworking and building furniture? And I don’t know. I could say maybe why I didn’t do some of the other things. So, it’s easier to define that negatively, in a way. But I just know, from a very early age, I liked to draw maps, and I liked to draw large underground domiciles where, you know, where thousands of people were living. And I was doing that at age 10, 11. I don’t know why. It just intrigued me. I would tape pieces of paper together and then draw these just huge architectural things that had nothing to do with how anything would really be built. But I enjoyed it. And that went to maps, and then I guess, partly because I grew up in rural Oregon and I loved being outdoors, but it was also kind of boring. So, when I started reading science fiction and fantasy, then, of course, as a teenager, I was like, “Oh, I want to live science fiction and fantasy.” And since I couldn’t figure out a portal, I couldn’t figure out where the portal was to that other world that I really wanted to be in, the best portal I had was to write stories.

Yeah, kids in stories are always stumbling these things, and I was never able to find one either. It seemed totally unfair.

I know, right?

My wardrobe, I didn’t have a wardrobe, but my closet didn’t lead anywhere. And, you know, there wasn’t any hole in the backyard that led to the world of Óg or whatever. Yeah, it’s very unfair. And tornadoes are a terrible means of transportation.

I haven’t, yeah. I’ve actually not experienced a tornado yet. Who knows? But I would like one, like, if I would go out hiking…my family camped a lot when I was a kid. We would go on camping trips…and I would always look for those two trees growing close together whose branches intertwine, and I would say, “Maybe this is the one. I’ll step through, and it will be the portal into that other world.” But, yeah.

What were some of the books that kind of woke you up to science fiction and fantasy when you started reading them?

The earliest chapter books I remember reading are ones…they were these editions of books that my father had read as a child that we still had, and they were by Thornton Burgess, the Mother West Wind stories. And most people my age aren’t aware of them. And I only knew them because they were in the house. And I think today he’s probably mostly forgotten. But back in the day, when my dad was young, these were stories written, set in the…I can’t even remember…the Wild Woods. Anyway, they were in the woods, and everything was anthropomorphized, so that Mother West Wind was…she had thoughts, and she had the merry little breezes, and then all the animals, and they all had these little adventures. And I read those obsessively when I was very, very young. And I always feel like they were my gateway into this idea that there could be this fantastic other world of things that I wasn’t aware of.

And from there, I would say, I read Scholastic Book Fair books that had fantasy in them or science fiction. I couldn’t give you any particular titles now. The big one for me was reading Lord of the Rings at 13, and that kind of kicked me onto the path that I then never left. Also, Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, that was…those were two in what was then called junior high school, now would be called middle school. And then, you know, in high school, I began to read Le Guin and just…

Yeah, I think we’re almost exactly the same age, and that’s a very familiar set of books and pathway. It’s almost the same ages at which I was reading those things, as well.

Yeah.

But you started writing stories, as well, very early. Did you share those stories with other people, or was it just kind of a solitary thing you did to entertain yourself?

Um, when I was in ninth grade, I think it was, my best friend and I wrote kind of a shared set of stories. We drew a map and then wrote a shared set of stories. And interestingly, that set of stories, there were these two main characters, one was hers and one was mine, and they were both men. And that’s like…because when I was 14, that’s who was in those stories. So, if you were going to write a fantasy story, it had to be about men. But by the next year, I had switched over and started writing stories about women. And I wrote a lot in high school, and I’m not sure that anybody read it.

I always ask that question because I wrote in high school, three novels in high school, and I did share them with my classmates, and it was one of the things that actually told me maybe I could tell stories. So, I always like to ask that question, and I get differing answers from different authors. Some people say, “Oh, I would never have shared anything at that level.” Have you…well, OK, here’s another question. Have you shared it since? Has anybody read your juvenilia?

No, not a chance. Not a chance. Although I have recently…I’m actually really intrigued that you shared the books with your friends, which I think is fantastic. And they read them all, and they asked for more and wanted to read the next one?

Yeah. Well, they weren’t a series, but I had a teacher—I had more than one teacher!—but I had one particular teacher, we were required to keep a writing book, so you had to write a page of something every day. And most kids were copying stuff or, you know, not doing much with it. But I started writing The Golden Sword when I was 14 years old, and it was only for one semester that we had that class. And it’s all dated in the book I was writing it. And so, you get to December and the dates at the top stop, but the story just keeps going because I was way ahead and going on to the end. And I learned to type in Grade 10, and as soon as I learned to type—I was just dying to learn to type—and as soon as I learnt how to type, I would type these things up, and I bound them up, and I handed them out to my classmates. And people really seemed to enjoy them. So, it was kind of a thing for me to kind of help point me in the direction of being a writer.

That’s…I just think that’s fantastic. I also remember learning to type in high school and how great it was because I could type so fast. You know, it’s interesting. I didn’t share as much. I wouldn’t have shared it. I think a lot of it was too personal to me. I did find, some years ago, I hunted down and found the journal I kept when I was 16, which was not a normal journal because it was me pretending to be a person going…I had drawn this map, it was like my special map, my, like, the map that the portal would take me to, right?. And then this journal was me going to different places on the map and describing them and describing the journey, and then whatever else a 16-year-old would put in there. And before I wrote Court of Fives, or maybe in the early stages of writing Court of Fives, which of course is a young adult novel, I thought, “Oh, you know what? I’m going to go back and see if I can gain some inspiration and insight into my 16-year-old self.” I could not get through two pages of it, not because it was badly written, but because I was 16 when I wrote it. And it wasn’t bad. I’m not saying that in any way to criticize myself, but I was just like, “Whoa, whoa, man!” That mindset was, like, so much for me. It was so intense. But it was interesting to realize how intense being a teenager is.

As they say, the past is a different country, and it’s true of your own past as well as some of the world’s past, I think.

Well, I could see me. I mean, it was me. I recognized me. And I recognized things that are very much still me in it. But, wow. Yeah. It was enlightening. And then, another thing that happened recently is…my first full novel, I wrote in high school, and I was talking to my editor about it, and she said, “Oh, you should put that up on Wattpad.” So, I again dug down, down deep, deep, and I found it. And I’ve been looking at it and thinking, “I wonder if this would be worth cleaning up a little and putting on Wattpad just for the fun of it.”

It’s funny you should say that because I’ve been looking at my magnum opus from high school, which I wrote when I was sixteen.

Which is called?

Slavers of Thok.

Oh, wow.

It’s a big fantasy novel. It has a map because, of course, as you know very well, maps are essential to a true fantasy novel.

Yeah.

With really terrible place names. And I typed it, so I was able to do an optical character recognition, kind of, because my ribbon was dim in a lot of places, and I have been thinking the same thing. I might just throw it up somewhere and see what comes of it. It’s not horrible in some places. It’s a pretty good story, actually. So, we’ll see.

I think we’re probably better. I didn’t actually start reading mine. I just found it. And there was a lot of it, single-spaced on legal-size paper. A lot of it. Both sides. So, but yeah, I, I think we’re better, and also inexperienced, as teenage writers, better than we perhaps think we are and not as good as we think we are. So, it kind of goes hand in hand, right?

I think that describes it exactly. So, you left Oregon to go to university in California, I believe.

Ed, I have to say, sorry, it’s Oregon.

So, what am I saying?

You’re saying OreGON.

Oh, sorry.

Sorry. No, no, I don’t…I hate to be pedantic about it, but…

No, no. It’s hilarious, because I live in Saskatchewan and nobody can pronounce Saskatchewan.

Saskatchewan. Saskatchewan.

So, people say SaskatcheWAN, just like I’m saying, OreGON. Oregon. There you go.

Oregon. Perfect. It’s just kind of like….yeah.

And the other one is Newfoundland. NewfoundLAND. You have to emphasize the land. So, yeah, there’s a lot of things like that. OK, Oregon. So, you left Oregon and went to California. What did you study in college? Did you study writing or something completely different?

Well, college was strange for me. I went to Mills College in Oakland, California. I only actually went there two years. My senior year in high school, I took enough college class credit classes at the local community college that I came in with a full year already. And then I went one year to Mills, and I didn’t love it. So, the next year I did my, what was by then my junior year, abroad at the University of Wales in Wales, at Bangor, Wales. Then I worked for a year at the BBC in the radio division on a student work visa. And then I came back and finished my degree at Mills. So, I had kind of an eclectic…I did some history, I did some anthropology, and I ended up majoring in English, mostly because that was what I had enough credits to do. So…and I did get a…I think I got like a minor or a…I didn’t call it a minor, but a minor in creative writing, which frankly was kind of a waste of time.

That was my next question.

Well, they were so full of, you know, why are…these were literally the people saying to me, “Why are you writing science fiction and fantasy? You should be writing real literature.” So, it wasn’t…you know, it’s just not useful to take courses from people like that.

I’ve asked that question of a lot of the writers I’ve interviewed, and of those who have taken formal writing classes, I would say there are more that say that than say that they were really helpful to them, which I always find interesting.

Well, I think it could have been helpful if people hadn’t been so dismissive of science fiction and fantasy.

Now, I also wanted to mention, because I’ve seen, in things I’ve read about you, that you were active in Society for Creative Anachronism, and I dabbled in that. But it not very active where I am here now. And that’s where you met your husband, isn’t it?

Well, I’m no longer married, but yeah, yeah. But what I loved about the SCA, I wasn’t that interested in the re-creation aspects. I’m an athlete. So, I was really what they called in the ACA in those days, they called a stick jock. I just went there to fight, to put on armor and fight, so that’s what…I did that, and actually, that was pretty great. And it was useful as a fantasy writer, not because we were actually, you know…well, I did get a broken arm once…but it was useful because it gave me a sense of how it feels to have people around you, how it feels to be lying wounded on a battlefield, not that I was really wounded, but how space worked, the physical function of space, people nearby, people far away, what you could hear, what the sun might feel like, you know, how skirmishes might act, how they would run. So, that was useful information for me to have, especially when I wrote Crown of Stars, which is a seven-volume epic fantasy series set in a…well, it’s really inspired by early medieval Germany. So, smaller units, you didn’t have big armies. And I really got a lot of use out of that, in that series, of that experience of fighting in the SCA. So, I’m glad I did it.

Has the history and anthropology you studied also come in useful in your writing? I would expect they would.

Well, I still read a lot of…I mean, history is my main reading. The thing I read most is history. My dad was a history teacher, and so I’m very much still reading history and anthropology. I consider myself still a student of it, I guess I would say.

And that figures into your worldbuilding and everything?

Oh, absolutely.

Well, let’s talk about how you broke in, then. How did you go from being, you know, writing, but then writing professionally? How did that all work for you?

So, you know, when I broke in back in the day, things were very different. Social media didn’t exist. The Internet was in it…even in its early days, you could get together. I got on, like, bulletin boards like Genie, back in the late eighties. And it was very much a query culture. You would write to agents and hope someone would want to represent you, and then they would send, you know, your work to editors. Some publishers still had slush piles. So, I did what a lot of people did. I wrote around until I finally got an agent who was willing to represent me and then they eventually sold something of mine, and then it just proceeded from there. I later switched agents. So…does that explain enough? I don’t know that it’s a particularly relevant story in terms of what people can know today. It just…you just have to be persistent.

Yeah. And I’m from the same era, but I didn’t break in as early as you did, but I was certainly going through that whole process as well. So, yeah,

And I also wanted to say that I didn’t come up come in through the science fiction/fantasy community. I know a fair number of people who were fans first, which is another way. I mean, there’s no, like…there is no one right way or better way to do it. So, I know people who came in through fandom. And they were in fandom and then they got published. And that’s another way to do it. I’d never attended a science fiction/fantasy convention until after I was published. So, they weren’t anything I really knew about until then.

We didn’t have a lot of them around Weyburn, Saskatchewan, where I was growing up. I think the first one I was at was when WorldCon was in Winnipeg. That was the first major convention I was at.

Yeah, yeah. So, I didn’t…I just wasn’t aware of things like that. And I was probably a little too reserved to ever have gone just on my own anyway.

Well, let’s talk about your making of books, which is what this podcast is about. And also, you know, you already mentioned that everybody does it differently. And that’s one thing I’ve certainly found out in talking to…I think you’ll be like my sixtieth author or something like that I’ve interviewed.

Wow.

Everybody does it differently. But let’s find out how you do it, and we’ll focus on Unconquerable Sun, which is the new one. And I’ve delved into it. I haven’t finished it, which is fine because I’m going to get you to give a synopsis of it without giving any spoilers.

Well, I just say what the pitch is, which is it is gender-bent Alexander the Great in space.

That’s pretty much a perfect elevator pitch.

It is. And I’m not even good at elevator pitches, but that is literally what it is. So, the first book is what I would call young Alexander. So, it takes place in a set period of time. It takes place…there’s an opening sequence of things and then a time skip, and then the rest of the book takes place in about two weeks. Based on our understanding of a week, not on theirs. Right?

That’s a fast pace.

Yeah.

For a big space-opera type story.

Yeah. So, it’s…yeah. I’m not good at describing plots, that’s why I…

Well, I think the pitch does a good job of presenting an intriguing set-up, that’s for sure. And I have enjoyed what I’ve read of it, delving into it. How many…well, it’s obviously more than one book. How many books do you envision in this?

Well, I do want to say that the first book is a complete story. It doesn’t end on a cliff-hanger, it’s a complete story. Which I did on purpose because I think if one is going to use…I’ve written…let me just backtrack a moment to say that I have, of course, written trilogies that had cliff-hangers at the end of every volume. And with this one, I wanted to try to give people the chance to read a book, feel really satisfied at the end that they had read a complete story, things had been resolved, but that there were other threads now that they would want to follow. And that was my intention all along with book one, and that’s why I call it Young Alexander, because it takes place at what would have been the Court of Macedon, more or less. Yeah. So…where were we going with this question?

How many books do you envision eventually?

A trilogy.

Trilogy.

Yeah.

All right, so we have our elevator pitch here, which almost sounds like the idea that came to you to start this whole process. But what was the genesis of this and the kernel that this grew from? And is that typical of the way that you start growing stories? 

It isn’t, because actually, it did kind of come from the, “What if I did gender-bend Alexander the Great in space?” And normally, my stories start with, like, an image or a moment, as if almost as if seen in a motion-picture sense. So, for example, Crown of Stars, which is seven volumes, the seed of the idea for that was me, in my head, seeing a young man who’s walking between the village where he was born and grew up, as far as he knows, walking over…it’s on the ocean, and he’s walking up and over a ridge pathway that leads, on the other side of the ridge, to a monastery, where he’s taking something for the monks that his aunt is sending him with. And as he’s walking up over them, he sees this massive storm coming in, way too fast, off the sea, and as it overtakes him on the ridge, a woman, a middle-aged woman wearing battered armor, with a sword, rides out of the storm toward him. That’s the beginning of that book. That’s the seed image of that book. Everything else grows out of that.

Or Cold Magic, the Spirit Walker trilogy, the first book is called Cold Magic. This is the afro-Celtic post-Roman lawyer-dinosaur book. So with that one, it’s similar, in the sense that, in my mind, I saw these two young women sitting in a paned, p.a.n.e.d,  like windowpane, window seat, looking out over a courtyard as a carriage arrives, and they know that something unpleasant or something that means something bad for them…they have a bad feeling about that carriage and what or who is coming in with that carriage. So that again…and that’s the whole seed of that story. And in both of those cases, what you see is, you have a person with something about to meet them. You know, there’s your conflict, right?

And then, but also in my mind’s eye, what I see also tells me something about the kind of the general historical era it’s going to be in. So, on the one hand, the armor she’s wearing is chainmail, it’s not plate. So now we’re going earlier, and it’s there’s a medieval sense because there’s a monastery. So, now I know that I’m in a more early medieval period. And the other one there is a carriage and the way they’re dressed, and I could see that it was kind of a late 18th-, early 19th-century setting.

But with gender-bent Alexander the Great in space, that’s a very concept-driven idea. And I’m not, in that sense, concept driven. I’m more like emotional-moment, meeting-a-landscape, meeting-a-conflict driven. That’s where most of my stories come out of. So, for me, with that concept—and there’s, in a way, more to it than that, but I won’t…you know, I had just written Court of…well, first of all, I have a son named Alexander, you know, so I’ve been interested in the story. And he is named after Alexander the Great. And so, I’ve been interested in the story of Alexander the Great for a long time, just in general. But then when I wrote the young adult fantasy trilogy, Court of Fives, that…I drew a lot of inspiration from the Hellenistic-era Egypt, in which people from Macedonia, Macedonians, came and established themselves as the rulers of Egypt over this large indigenous population. And I…and the last Ptolemaic, the last of those rulers, was Cleopatra, who we…she was actually the seventh Cleopatra of that lineage, but she’s the Cleopatra we all know, right?

So, writing that…and I did so much reading about the Hellenistic era, which is that period…it’s the period basically from Alexander to Cleopatra. And that’s called the Hellenistic period, when the Hellenic, the Greek, culture was spread throughout the Mediterranean. And it was kind of, it was kind of the multinational American pop Hollywood culture of its day. That’s a terrible, terrible simplification, but there’s a similar sense. So…and I think that kind of rolled me toward gender-bent Alexander the Great in space, if you see what I mean.

But conceptually, what I had to do then was to say, “OK, I’m going to do it like this. I want to do this concept. But now, what do I want it to mean? What do I want to do with that concept?” And that’s, for me, a different direction to build a universe from than what I’m used to, because in the other cases it’s more like, “Oh, I see, I’m in this place already. Now I need to discover it by writing it and deciding what aspects I want to see. And where does this road go to, right?” But in this case, I could have done anything because I didn’t have that visual seed image already in it.

So, what was your approach to planning it out, and how does that match up with the usual approach? Do you do a lot of outlining, or how does that work for you?

Well, I’m not really a…I outline, and I don’t outline. So, I kind of do both. But I can actually. I can. So, what I had to do was to ask myself specific questions. And there’s two main questions I had to ask. So, the first one is, if I’m going to make the Alexander character a woman, the first question I have to ask myself is, “How does this princess…?” Well, actually, let me step back to a third question. So, the first thing I have to do is I have to say, “OK, Alexander the Great as a story only works if I have a kind of a monarchy, and I have a lot of war.” So, either you’re going to want to write that story or not, right? And, you know, I get tired of writing about monarchies. I’ve written stories that weren’t about monarchies because I was like, “I’m done with writing about monarchy.” So, that was partly an issue for me. It was like, “Do I really want to go back to…do I really want to do this again?” But I really wanted to do it. I really loved the concept. So, that was my first thing, was to accept that it’s not that story if you don’t have those things. So…do you see what I’m saying? It’s like, “I want to write a Sherlock Holmes story, but he doesn’t solve any of the mysteries.” Then it’s not a Sherlock Holmes story.

Yeah, exactly.

Or if he’s super well-adjusted about everything, well, then it’s not really a Sherlock Holmes story, you know, and he doesn’t have his sidekick, Watson. Well, I mean, part of that…that story is based also on their relationship. So, when you’re taking something, a concept like that, that has a relationship to things that readers know, but that, you know, there’s a—for me, and I’m not saying anybody has to do this—but for me, there is…I have to decide what essential things are absolutely necessary to make it still that story or to be a Sherlock Holmes retelling, right? What do I have to have for that? So, what would I have to have for it to be an Alexander the Great retelling? So, that was stage one.

Stage two was, “What am I going to do with the princess?” Is she going to be the…because, you know, Macedon, like the ancient Greece of its time, was a patriarchal society, where men ruled. Now, women had more scope, in Macedon especially, and women had more scope in the Hellenistic era. It’s quite interesting. And for those who are interested in this issue, please read Elizabeth Carney. I highly recommend her book, Women and Monarchy in Macedonia. It’s an easy read. She really knows her stuff.

I’ll put a link to it in the transcript when I do this.

Yeah, do. Because there’s a lot more interesting stuff going on than one is generally taught in school and then, you know, and the stereotype of what it was like. But nevertheless, it was a patriarchal society. So, this question two is, “Is she the scrappy princess who proves that she’s worth ruling even though she has to fight against misogyny and sexism?” Or…one of the most important things about the story of Alexander is that he was raised as heir in a society where it was absolutely assumed that he was worthy of being heir, right? He had to prove his competency to lead troops in battle because it was, Macedonia, at that time, was very focused on war. The reason that Alexander’s father, Philip, became king was because his older brother died with a, like, a three-year-old son, and a three-year-old son can’t lead an army. So, Philip became king.

And this is actually common. And this is true in, like, Anglo-Saxon England as well. Alfred the Great, whom many of us have heard of, became King because he was like the fifth or sixth of six brothers. And the other ones all died one by one, killed in wars with the Vikings. And any children they left were too young to lead armies. And so, it passed down the brother line, not father-to-son line. And that’s an important difference in how rulership is seen. So…and that’s where the history comes in useful, right/ Just to know that that exists, that it doesn’t have to go father to infant son. It can go father to brother, or it can go adult to adult.

But anyway, one of the things about Alexander—sorry I’m so geeky about history—but one of the things about Alexander is he was made for the moment, everything about his life, who he was, his capabilities, made him for that moment. He didn’t make that moment. He was there, the right person at the right time. And when I looked at the story, I thought, “You know, if the scrappy princess fights against sexism to prove her worth, it’s not that story anymore, is it?” So, that was the first thing, the first decision, the first worldbuilding thing that fell into place was, it’s absolutely commonplace. They don’t care in this society. Gender doesn’t matter in that sense.

So…and, in fact, I swap a lot of, you know, I spin a lot of gender. So, the Phillip character is…so the Alexander character’s name Sun, like the sun in the Sky, and her mother, Eirini, which means peace, by the way, it’s an ironic name, is the Philip analogue. So…but Eirini in the book has three older brothers. And, in fact, Philip had two older brothers and they had a sister, these three brothers. So that’s kind of borrowed from history, as well. And they were all…they all ruled before her but were killed in war, and it came to her down that line. So, deciding that that aspect of it was that rulership wasn’t based on gender, it wasn’t that only women ruled or only men ruled, it was, you know, the most competent person ruled if they were part of the royal house. So, that made that decision for me.

And then, the third question I asked myself was, “Am I going to create a setting, a space opera setting, that is completely unattached to Earth?” It’s kind of like Star Wars, right? There’s nothing in Star—I mean, except for the fact that it’s written by us and we see it—it’s not—there’s no references to Earth that I know of in the Star Wars universe.

No.

So, I could either do that, or I could do that thing where there are connections to Earth. And for my own purposes, mostly because, in large part because I thought it would be more fun because I really like Easter eggs and stories, I decided to go for a connection with Earth and then I had to decide how I wanted that connection to be. Did I want it to be a close connection or a very, very distant connection? And my decision was to make, to set this, in the far, far future, very far away, you know, an unfathomable distance away, that the people, that humans, had settled it via generation ships and that the separation between this place, where they have spread out now into a rich network of worlds, their relationship to Earth is that for them, Earth is the mythic celestial empire. And their understanding…and because the archives that came on the ships, this isn’t really a spoiler, it’s referenced, people reference it, kind of, in the story, but it’s never explained because they wouldn’t think to explain it. So, all the archives that came with the ships were contaminated and broken down.

So, it’s basically, when we look at ancient Sumeria or when we look at the Harapan civilizations of the Indus Valley of four, five, six thousand years ago, we have fragments, and we try to build an understanding of their past by looking at these fragments and by filtering them through our understanding. And that was the core worldbuilding principle I chose to use, which is they have fragments of the past, but they don’t even know Earth is…they wouldn’t even call Earth, Earth. They call it the Celestial Empire, you know, the world…so, they have fragments of it, and how they put that together into their own society is the way…is the foundation on which I built the world. And I did it partly for the Easter eggs, partly so I could use familiar names and not have to use made-up names. And then, it just allows me to play a lot…both with expectations, it allows me to make references that the reader will get, but that the people in the world don’t know is a reference to that thing. It just allows me…it allowed me a lot of leeway to make commentary and also to have fun. And I think space opera should be fun.

I agree. Did you then…doing all this worldbuilding, at what point does the actual plotting come in? Do you work out a detailed plot, or do you write and then use the revision to pull everything together?

Well, again, this story is a little different because it comes with a plot. And it’s not that I use that plot exactly. But I drew heavily, heavily from the actual history of Alexander the Great. And I changed things up and moved stuff around, and that’s ongoing as I work on the subsequent books, right?

But, for example, and this, again, isn’t really a spoiler, the plot kind of works outward. Like, the first scene I specifically had in mind that I knew I wanted to use is a famous incident from the life of Alexander when he was…he would have been, I guess, at this point, 20…his father, Philip—Philip had like, I don’t know, six, seven wives. Not—and in those days, the king would marry for alliances, alliance purposes, and so you could, you would have more than one wife at once, it just wasn’t the same concept of what marriage was for—but his father, having…Philip was actually an amazing character who accomplished an incredible amount, which I won’t go into here, but he kind of had a festival celebrating himself. He was not a man of small ego. He had a festival celebrating himself, at which he also married Alexander’s full sister—so Alexander had one full sister, Cleopatra—he married Cleopatra to…their mother, Alexander and Cleopatra’s mother, was the famous Olympias. She had two children by Philip. Her brother was king of Epirus, which was a neighboring kingdom. And that’s…you used alliances to link those things…so, Philip had a festival to celebrate himself and to marry his daughter, Cleopatra, to her uncle. Because that’s what you did in those days and…

No, I’m wrong. Never mind. OK. Sorry, that’s a different episode. Let me step back. Let me step back a moment. I’m still with the banquet. No, it’s because what I’m writing right now has me in that headspace. This is, see, this is the difficulty of writing history.

OK, when Alexander was 18, move back two years…I knew I was on the right road when I talked about the six wives. Anyway, Phillip had married all these women for alliance purposes, and now he’s in his mid-forties or late forties, and he marries a young Macedonian—oh, and all the wives he had married were not Macedonian. They were Illyrian. They were Epirote, like Olympias. They were…I think there was one from Thalassia. I don’t know. Anyway. So, but they were alliance marriages, right? And now he’s older, and he decides to…evidently he actually fell in love with this young, probably 18, 17, 18-year-old, young Macedonian woman who was highborn and whose uncle was one of Philip’s companions, one of his intimate friends who were his supporters and the people he trusted most, right? So, this man was her guardian. And he, Philip, decided to marry her to, to marry Cleopatra, which angered Alexander’s mother, because, you know, there’s always more rivals, right? Especially if there’s someone in court who can be pushing for this woman. And Philip is still young at this point, mid-forties was still, he wasn’t an old man, he was still young. There was no reason to think he could live easily another twenty years as long as he didn’t die in battle or whatever, right?

So, at the banquet, which Olympias did not attend because of the insult to her, even though she was the fourth of six wives, at the banquet, everyone got drunk. And there were no women at the banquet, I should say. Besides the fact Olympias wasn’t at the palace, there were no women at these banquets. Everyone gets drunk, and the uncle of the new bride stands up. So, remember, Alexander’s mother is Epirote. So, she’s not Macedonian. She’s Epirote, from the neighboring kingdom.

The uncle of the bride, the young bride, stands up and toasts her and says, “Now, at last, we can have a true Macedonian heir.” Right? Well, Alexander was quick to take offense to this. He was drunk and he was eighteen. He jumps up, and he threw a cup at this man, right? And hit him in the head, which, of course, is a horrible, horrible insult in guest terms since Philip was hosting the party. So, Philip, who was also drunk, jumps up and he’s like…I won’t use bad words…anyway, he uses the equivalent of an “eff you, you!” to his own son, right? Grabs a spear and makes to throw the spear at his own son, who has already proven himself in battle at this point, by the way, as a competent war leader. But he trips and falls, and it all goes…and then Alexander says something like, “Well, look, there’s the man who says he’s going to conquer Asia. He can’t even stand upright, you know, because he’s so drunk.” So, then Alexander leaves court for a while, while things cool off, you know. But, of course… and then, the new wife gives birth to a girl baby. So, Alexander comes back, right? So, we’re all good, right. Anyway, that scene is so great on so many levels. That’s the scene, like, that I built the book out from.

What does your actual writing process look like? Are you…I think you’ve said somewhere that you think you’re a fairly slow writer? Do you write with parchment under a tree somewhere or do you go out, do you write in your own office? How do you like to work?

Oh, I write in my own office. I’m fortunate. A back…I know this happened…this was like, a thousand years ago, I also would sometimes go to, like, the library or to the coffee shop to work for a change of scene.

I work in coffee shops. Well, not right now, but I work in the coffee shops some myself.

Sometimes I just want the change, you know, to kind of shake things up a bit. I have a book that I mostly wrote at the library because I found that if I was at home, I wasn’t working on it. But if I went to the library—and this was back when the library, it was hard, it was so hard to get on the Internet at the library, or maybe there were only, like, two limited slots, I think it was before wi-fi, that it was really great or before this whole library had…yeah. So, I was like, I had nothing to do but write there. But yeah, I work at home.

Do you work sequentially, just start the beginning and write to the end of the story, or do you do it scenes and then stitch them together later? How does that work for you?

I am a sequential writer. I know people who stitch, which I find fascinating. It’s not something I can do.

Me, either. So, I always ask.

No, but I know people who do it, who will, like, write out of order. Katherine Kerr, for example, who wrote the Deverry series. She writes scenes…well, you should ask her, but she just had a book out in February called Sword of Fire, a standalone Deverry novel, in fact.

She’d be a good guest. I should definitely reach out.

She would. She would be she’d be a great guest. But, yeah, I tend to…I both outline and don’t outline, so I’m kind of a major-points outliner. I need to know where my endpoint is. I know some of the major scenes along the way. And then…but then I discover. So, it’s kind of like islands, the Hawaiian Islands, for example. So, I can see the point I want to get to, but I’ve got to go underwater to get there. And underwater is the stuff I don’t quite know. But I’ve also…I said before that I’m an athlete. One of the interesting things to me about writing is, I’ve heard of people who can plot everything in their head before they start writing. But I have to…like, literally physically for me, I swear, the act of going from my head through my arms, through my hands onto that motion. I think that’s part of the process for me.

Yeah, I’m not much of an athlete, but I feel that myself as well. There’s something about the actual process of typing that makes it happen.

Yeah. There’s a kinesthetic thing there. And I feel like, if it doesn’t go through my hands, I’m losing a step.

And I have talked to, well, David Weber, for example, because of an accident, dictates most of his work. And I have done that once for a nonfiction book. And it wasn’t too bad for nonfiction, but I’m not sure, I don’t know what would come out if I tried to dictate a story. I may try it sometime just to see what happens.

I know Kevin Anderson dictates his first drafts, I believe.

Because to me, it seems like it’s just such a completely different way of translating what’s in your head into words than the typing process. So, anyway…

Yeah, yeah, yeah,

Everybody does it different, as we said. And that brings us around to the revision process. Once you have that draft…and I know you’ve written extensively about this on your website, so I should point people to that, that you have a three-part, the revision process in three parts on your website, which goes, I think it’s about eleven pages when I printed it out. But, in brief, what’s your revision process look like?

Well, one of the things that happens to me is, when I say I write sequentially, I do, but I don’t. Often, I will write forward to a certain point, and then I’ll say, “Ooh, wait, now I’ve moved myself off onto this other path. I need to go back and fix some of the things that were pointing me to a different path,” because I somehow just can’t, I can’t keep going till the end if stuff is pointing the wrong direction. So, I revise…it’s not that I…I try to write straight through to get a complete draft because I can’t really understand the book until I have a complete draft. But at the same time, often there’s a couple of pause points where I’ll often stop and go back and revise forward and then go on.

But my revision process has a lot to do with structure. I need my books to be structured, like, the framework needs to be right. So, the first thing I always do is, look, “Do these scenes lead to each other? Have I set up the…not the mystery, but I have set up like the character journey or the plot way that I’m presenting?” Like, I might be presenting ideas that and foreshadowing and set up, so that, you know, at three-quarters of the way through the book, the reader will suddenly go, “Oh, my gosh, these two people are going to meet, aren’t they?” Right? And so, that’s kind of my first thing, is to see, “Are these things set up the right way for the ending I want.” Once I’ve done that—and sometimes revising the structural aspects can be a major, major task. My novel Black Wolves, I must have restructured it three times before I settled on the structure that I wanted.

Then I’ll go back…and I would call that a structural revision…then I would go back and do large scene revisions, where I have to ask myself, “Does this scene even need to be here? What do I need this scene to do? Is it helping? Is it helping the larger story? Is it pointed the right way? Are they saying the things they need to say to get me…and, does it lead into the next scene? Maybe I need to flip two chapters because they make more sense.” So, that’s kind of that level. So, it’s kind of like the big level, the broad camera level, the widescreen level, and then the kind of the medium-screen level.

And then, after I’ve done that revision, then I’ll go in and kind of fine-tune the scenes, you know, “Can I cut out any of this dialogue? Can I collapse these two sentences into one? Can I cut out some details that I don’t need? What’s the one detail I need for this scene to pop out?”, you know.

And then the last revision stage for me would be what I would call line edit, where I would just go through and close read it, to cut what I can and to make sure that the language is good and the sentences make sense and, you know, are most felicitous to read.

I think you’ve said in something that I read that you do use beta readers. Where do you find those people, and what do they do for you?

Well…the beta readers I use are just, they’re really just other writers I know. So, I don’t, like, go looking for them. I just build…as I have built community, I have people who will beta read for me. Does that make sense?

Yeah.

And another thing that happens is that you may go through a phase where, like, I’ll have, like, you know, I might have one series that one person beta read a lot of it, but then, the next series they were doing stuff and couldn’t read it and so they haven’t read anything of some other series. So, sometimes it’s just…I go through phases where one person might do a lot of beta reading for me for a couple-of-years period and then maybe none after that, or, you know. So, it comes and goes, what people have time for. I’m the same. I’ve beta read for people as well and, you know. Like, right now, there’s a couple of people who I’ve done a fair bit of reading for. And in ten years, maybe I won’t have, you know, I mean, I just don’t know. It’s just kind of cyclical.

What do you find as a benefit of having beta readers?

The benefit of just, different eyes. They’re looking at it in a way I’m not. And one of the important things about beta readers…it’s useful to have what I call alpha readers, and those are people who just pat you on the back? Sometimes you just need someone to say, “Hey, this is great. Hey, can I have something more? Hey, I love this. Hey, keep writing!” if you maybe are struggling or aren’t sure. But a beta reader is supposed to be there to say, “Hey, I didn’t understand this.” I just read a science fiction novel, beta-read it, and I said, “I don’t understand how this spaceship is laid out. And a lot of the story, the story has a kind of a mystery-thriller aspect. And so, they would say, “Well, I went down to the X,” and I’m like, “I have no idea where the X is.” So, they ended up just dropping in early in. There’s this, like, three-sentence description, and it’s done in a way that the main character is talking about it or thinking about it, where it just lays out how the ship works, how the ship is laid out physically, in very clear terms. Because to the writer, he knew it in his head. He could see it. And he thought that his two words using, I think he used cylinder and torus, well, that should be enough. Right? And I’m like, “I don’t understand where I am.”

That’s actually something I often mention when I work with new writers is yes, you understand everything that’s going on. It’s all very clear in your head, but you have to put enough on the page for the reader to be able to make that jump and get some sense. Yeah, that’s a…it’s a common thing.

But I still struggle with that all the time. Every book.

Yeah, me too.

I mean, do we ever get this fully right?

And this is something…we’re getting up to the editor stage now, where you send it in, and the editor takes a look at it. That’s often something that I’ve found that the editor will come back and say, “You didn’t explain enough of this, or there’s a connection here that’s missing or something.” Do you get that same kind of feedback?

Well, that’s what a good editor does, right? So, there’s for me, a…I’m going to say, bad editor. I hate using that word bad…a bad editor wants you to write the story that they think it should be. A good editor says, “What’s the story you want to tell here? And how can we make sure that you’ve told that in the clearest, most engaging and most accessible way possible?” Accessible based on what your goal is. I mean, if your goal is to write a very dense inaccessible tome, that’s fine. I mean, seriously, that’s fine. But you want it to be that. So, a good editor will look at what you’re doing, and they’ll be able to get what you’re doing, and they’ll be able to dig into you and say, “Is this what you want? What are you trying to get here? How can you bring this out more clearly?”

And we mentioned that we both worked with Sheila Gilbert at DAW.

Yeah.

And one of the things I’d like to point out about editors, and Sheila is a great example, is they have seen so much. So many stories and so many ways of telling stories. They’ve seen all the mistakes and they….yeah. And I always really appreciate the feedback I get from Sheila for that reason.

Well, and the other thing about an experienced editor is that an experienced editor is patient for that reason, because they love books. They wouldn’t be doing this if they didn’t love books. And they’re patient with your flaws. So, sometimes…some people will go over and over and over a book because they want to turn in something that could be immediately typeset. And sometimes it’s because they don’t want other people, other hands in it, which is fine, I mean, we all get to process how we do that. And others, I think it’s because they’re uncomfortable with people reading something flawed. But I’m a youngest child. I do not care. I want to ultimately write, I ultimately want published, the best book I can. And so, I’m happy for my editor to see it at a little earlier stage if that means that she can help me with some of the places that I might not be seeing, you know, and then that allows me to to get my fingers in there at an earlier stage when the narrative is more elastic, because I find for me that as I do each stage of revision, you know, down to the line edit, by the time at the line edit stage, things are less elastic now, I can’t make big changes without having to rip apart the whole book. But I can make larger changes earlier on. It’s not solidified yet. So, I would, you know, I would rather…I like getting feedback at that earlier stage and then in the other stages as well.

Well, we are kind of at the end of the time here. So, I do want to ask you…you kind of touched on part of what I usually ask at this point, why people create and write. You mentioned that right off the top. But to bring it down to you…and this is sort of in the bio, breathing and writing, right? Why do you write? Why do you do this? What do you get out of it, and what do you hope that your readers get out of what you present to them?

It’s a particularly interesting question, because what I…I still get out of it what I got out when I was young, which is just the joy of telling stories and kind of the amazement of telling stories about people who don’t exist, you know, doing things that never happened. Why do we enjoy these things? It’s kind of bizarre when you think about it, but it’s also really cool. So, I still have that. But then, as you spend decades doing it, as I have, and as you have, right, then other things happen.

I mean, partly for me, it’s like, I have no other skill at this point. You know, it’s like this is my marketable skill. This is what I know how to do. I have a habit. I’m used to doing this. But the other reason is that I just want to do, I want to keep getting better. So, part of it for me is just that I want to write, I want to do better with my next book. I want to do something that I couldn’t do ten books ago, but now I can do it. Now, I know, because for me the process is just this, the excitement of challenging myself. So, I can continually challenge myself at something that I like to think I have gained skill at, that I am no longer an apprentice, but a master at doing. And I just love that sense of challenge and of getting closer to, you know, having that product and…not product, but that story at the end where I say, “Yes, yes, this was it. This was what I wanted to write. This matches more closely than ever before that thing I had in my head.” 

I’ve sometimes used the metaphor of writing is, when you first have the idea and the concept, it’s like this beautiful Christmas tree ornament, and it’s shiny and it’s perfect, and then you smash it, and you try to glue it back together with words.

That’s great. Yeah.

And what are you working…oh, the other part of that there was, what do you hope your readers get from your writing?

Well, you know, I hope that they feel immersed in the world and that it gives them that…I hope that while they’re reading it, they really feel that they are in that other place, you know, living with these people through whatever they’re going through. That’s really my goal as a writer, is that immersion.

So, you’re offering them that portal that you never found when you were a kid?

That’s right. That’s right, Ed.

And what are you working on now? I mean, obviously, the next book in this series, but…

Yeah. Yeah, I am.

Does it have a title?

Yes. Book two is called Furious Heaven.

And anything else in the works?

Yes, but nothing I can talk about at the moment.

OK. And where can people find you online?

I am on Twitter @Kate ElliottSFF. That’s Sam Frank Frank. On Twitter. Did I say that, Twitter, already? And I do have a website called I Make Up Worlds, which I haven’t been posting on recently. So mostly it’s Twitter these days for me. I’ve backed off on other things. It’s just too much.

Yes. So often, social media seems like too much.

Yeah. Yeah. And I…yeah. And I’ll be backing off online quite a bit for the rest of the year to just really focus on writing.

All right. Well, thank you so much for being a guest on The Worldshapers. I really enjoyed the chat. I hope you did too.

I did, Ed. And I’m sorry I went so history geeky. I just can’t…I just love history. And I want to say one last thing about worldshaping and about worldbuilding and how much I recommend to people that they read widely about human culture and human experience. I think that is really the best foundation any of us can have as writers.

An excellent recommendation. OK, well, thanks so much.

Thank you.

Episode 59: Marie Brennan

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

Website
www.swantower.com

Twitter
@Swan_Tower

Patreon
New Worlds

Marie Brennan’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Photo by Perry Reichanadter

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

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

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

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

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Welcome to The Worldshapers. Marie.

Thank you for having me.

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

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

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

I’m very glad to be here.

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

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

It does in Texas.

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

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

Yeah, yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I remember that one.

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

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

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

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

Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tell me about it.

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

Yeah.

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

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

I love the covers.

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

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

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

Yeah, she has those two sides, for sure.

Yeah.

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

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

I’ll remember it!

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

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

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

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

I suppose that’s true.

Yeah.

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Form follows function.

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you a fast writer or a slow writer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah.

Because every writer has similar stories.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My wife’s an engineer, so…

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

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

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

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

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

And what are you working on yourself?

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

And you wanted to make a mention of your Patreon?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sounds good.

Thanks again for being on.

Well, thank you.

Episode 58: Faith Hunter

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

Website
www.faithhunter.net

Facebook
@Official.Faith.Hunter

Twitter
@HunterFaith

Faith Hunter’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Photo by Kim Hunter.

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

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

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

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So welcome to The Worldshapers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

First book in the Dragonriders
of Pern, original cover.

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

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

Yes.

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

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

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

Wow.

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

Yes.

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

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

Where did you grow up?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was its title?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay. And what’s Junkyard Cats about?

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

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

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

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

That was my next question.

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

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

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

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

Yes, of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I do.

Are you a fast writer or a slow writer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, it is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And who is your wonderful editor?

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

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

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

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

Is she? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And where can people find you online?

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

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

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

Thank you.

Episode 56: Kelley Armstrong

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

Website
kelleyarmstrong.com

Twitter
@KelleyArmstrong

Facebook
@KelleyArmstrongAuthor

Kelley Armstrong’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Photo of Kelley Armstrong
Photo by Kathryn Hollinrake

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

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

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

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

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Kelly, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you.

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

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

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

I am.

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

They are.

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

It’s a long way.

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

Exactly.

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

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

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

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

I remember reading Big Red.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commodore 64 with disk drive, monitor, and joystick.

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

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

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

And there’s been quite a few since then.

There has been, yeah.

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

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

Yeah, that sounds familiar.

Yeah.

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

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

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

It’s weird, yeah,

And another one coming in October, I think.

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

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

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

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

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

She’s probably read Bitten by now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sounds like a great setup for a story.

It’s a lot of fun.

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

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

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

Exactly.

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

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

So these are two very different books…

Very different books, exactly.

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

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

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

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

On the mystery side, is it any different?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sounds nice.

It is!

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

Yeah, yep.

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

Right, yeah, exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It does, yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exactly!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, and what are you working on now?

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

And where can people find you online?

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

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

Exactly. I do, too.

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

Thank you!

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

I did. Thank you very much.

Well, bye for now.

OK, bye-bye.

Episode 54: Lisa Foiles

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

Website
lisafoiles.com

Twitter
@LisaFoiles

Instagram
@LisaFoiles

Facebook
@LisaFoilesOfficial

Lisa Foile’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Lisa Foiles

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

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

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Welcome to The Worldshapers, Lisa.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes. Yes.

So it did start very early then.

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

Oh, I love that one, yeah.

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

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

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

Yeah. ‘70s, I would think.

Yeah, that sounds right.

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

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

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

Oh. In Spokane?

Yeah. So I was in Spokane.

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

Oh, that’s a huge leap of faith!

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

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

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

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

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

Wow.

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

Wow. Lucky you!

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

Hahahahaha.

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

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

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

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

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

Are you like that with your film and TV performances?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I like this guy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How detailed an outline did you do?

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

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

Oh, my goodness. Wow.

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

That’s terrifying.

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

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

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

That’s true, throw them in school…

Speaking from experience.

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

Mine’s 19, or about to turn 19.

Mine are one and three.

Oh, yeah.

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

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

Oh, yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, that’s what you know, yeah.

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

Oh, that’s funny.

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

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

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

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

Yes.

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

Yes.

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

For sure, absolutely.

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

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

They might not be very happy with you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The god of…well, whatever, you know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, good point, yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

A few of mine, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You too. Thank you.