An hour-long chat with Rebecca Yarros, the USA Today– and New York Times-bestselling author of more than fifteen novels, including the just-released Fourth Wing, book one of the new fantasy series The Empyrean.
Rebecca Yaros is the USA Today– and New York Times-bestselling author of more than fifteen novels, with multiple starred Publishers Weekly reviews and a Kirkus Best Book of the Year. A second-generation army brat, Rebecca loves military heroes and has been blissfully married to hers for more than twenty years. She’s the mother of six children, and she and her family live in Colorado with their stubborn English bulldogs, two feisty chinchillas, and a cat named Artemis, who rules them all.
Having fostered, then adopted, their youngest daughter, Rebecca is passionate about helping children in the foster system through her nonprofit, One October, which she co-founded with her husband in 2019.
Joan He was born and raised in Philadelphia but still will, on occasion, lose her way. At a young age, she received classical instruction in oil painting before discovering that storytelling was her favourite form of expression. She studied Psychology and East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Pennsylvania and currently splits her time between Philly and Chicago.
She is the bestselling author of The Ones We’re Meant to Find, Descendant of the Crane, and Strike the Zither, the first in a duology, recently released by McMillan.
Defying all odds is what #1 New York Times and international bestselling author Sherrilyn McQueen writing as Sherrilyn Kenyon does best. Rising from extreme poverty as a child that culminated in being a homeless mother with an infant, she has become one of the most popular and influential authors in the world (in both adult and YA fiction), with dedicated legions of fans known as Paladins–thousands of whom proudly sport tattoos from her numerous genre-defying series.
Since her first book debuted while she was still in college, she has placed more than 80 novels on the New York Times list in all formats and genres, including manga and graphic novels, and has more than 70 million books in print worldwide. Her current series include: Dark-Hunters®, Chronicles of Nick®, Deadman’s Cross™, Eve of Destruction™, Nevermore™, Lords of Avalon® and The League®.
Over the years, her Lords of Avalon® novels have been adapted by Marvel, and her Dark-Hunters® and Chronicles of Nick® are New York Times bestselling manga and comics and are #1 bestselling adult coloring books.
An hour-long conversation with Walter Jon Williams, Nebula Award-winning, New York Times-bestselling author of more than forty books of historical fiction, fantasy, and science fiction, as well as work in film, television, comics, and games.
Walter Jon Williams is the Nebula Award-winning, New York Times-bestelling author of more than forty volumes of fiction, in addition to works in film, television, comics, and the gaming field.
He began his career writing historical fiction, the sea-adventure series Privateers & Gentlemen, then, when the market for historical novels died, began a new career as a science fiction writer. Since then, he’s written cyberpunk, near-future thrillers, classic space opera, “new” space opera, post-cyberpunk epic fantasy new weird, and the world’s only gothic western science fiction police procedural (Days of Atonement). He’s also a reasonably prolific writer of short fiction, including contributions to George RR Martin’s Wild Cards project.
Williams has been nominated for numerous literary awards, and won Nebula Awards in 205 and 2011. In addition to fiction, he’s written a number of films for Hollywood, although none have yet been made. He’s also maintained a foot in the gaming industry, having written RPGs based on his Privateers & Gentlemen series and his novel Hardwired, contributed to the alternate-reality game Last Call Poker, and written the dialog for the Electronic Arts game Spore. In 2017, he was the Guest of Honor at the 75th World Science Fiction Convention, held in Helsinki.
In addition to writing, Williams is a world traveler, scuba diver, and a black belt in Kenpo Karate. He lives in New Mexico.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, Walter, welcome to The Worldshapers.
Happy to be here.
I always try to find connections, and I can think of two. You live in New Mexico, and I was born in New Mexico. So that’s something.
I was born in Silver City, New Mexico, but yeah, I didn’t live there very long. We moved to Texas, and then we moved from Texas to Canada, which is where I am now. But, yeah. So, there’s that connection.
Silver City is quite pretty and has quite a history.
I don’t believe I’ve ever seen it when I was old enough to remember it. I know we went back a couple of times when I was young, but I don’t have any memories of it, unfortunately.
Well, the thing I like about certain old towns is, you know, if they were, say, a mining town, silver-mining town, which Silver City was, and then the silver mining went bust, they never had enough money to tear down their old Victorian town and build up an ugly new modern one.
So, it’s still got all these beautiful Victorian buildings still, as does all the surrounding area.
It’s a bit like Moose Jaw here in Saskatchewan. They had a couple of fires in the early years that burned everything down. So, they passed a bylaw that everything had to be built out of brick.
And then there was kind of a boom and then a bust. And a lot of those old brick buildings are still there. So, Moose Jaw has some really nice character buildings still existing. Plus, it has that name, Moose Jaw, going for it. The other connection is, we did actually eat at the same restaurant at some convention, but I can’t remember which one. I was probably Denver or Reno, but . . .
I think I’ll have to take your word for it. I’ve eaten in many restaurants at many conventions.
Yeah, so have I at this point. You more than me, I’m sure. And they do tend to kind of run together over time. Well, anyway, so, that’s not actually what we’re going to talk about. We’re going to talk about your writing process. But first, I want to take you back into the mists of time, which is getting further and further back for some of us, I guess. For all of us, really. Where did you grow up, and how did you get interested in reading and writing and all that good stuff? How did you get started in this strange way of making a living?
I was born and raised in Duluth, Minnesota, and I always wanted to be a writer. As soon as I knew what a writer was, I wanted to be that. I was probably four years old. I didn’t know how to read or write yet, so I would dictate stories to my parents, who would write them down for me. And then I would illustrate them with my crayons, and fortunately, none of those have survived. And so, I mean, it wasn’t a choice for me. I was compelled to be a writer, and I just work hard at it all my life until I managed to sell some fiction. And then I worked hard at writing more fiction to sell.
If you wanted to be a writer, that must have come from having encountered books. So, was there a reading component to your wanting to become a writer, I presume?
Well, once again, I didn’t know how to read, but I had books read to me and comic books, which I think were a big influence on my very early writing development, since I was better with crayons than I was with, you know, actually crafting prose. So, let’s see. And so, my family left Duluth and moved to New Mexico when I was thirteen. And with some exceptions, I’ve been here ever since.
Did you study writing formally at some point or . . . ?
I took some creative writing classes in college. I’m not sure that they helped. Well, I think, you know, I took a lot of literature courses, and that exposed me to a lot of different material, different writers, different ways of writing, different approaches to writing. And those turned out to be quite valuable. But the actual writing classes . . . well, probably they did no harm.
Well, I often ask writers about that, and more often than not . . . I have rarely gotten a ringing endorsement of creative writing courses at the university level from anybody I’ve talked to you on the podcast. So, that’s interesting. Were there specific books, once you were reading your own books, were there specific books along the way that influenced you, do you think?
Well, science fiction was an early passion. I think I was in second grade when I . . . my mom, who was not a science fiction person at all, sort of marched through the local public library one day, and she knew I would like science fiction, so she grabbed a couple of science fiction books off the shelf and brought them home for me. And the first one was Robert Heinlein’s Have Spaceship Will Travel, which is still my favorite Heinlein novel.
Mine too, actually.
You know, I don’t know why it hasn’t been made into a movie. It would be glorious. But so. I read science fiction from second grade on. I was really fond of books about natural history and animals, including, you know, fiction about animals, you know, The Jungle Book and so on. And then I just continued, and I read a ton of history because I just love history, and that’s a big influence on one of my current projects.
Just mentioning animal books, did you read the Black Stallion books by any chance?
No, I did not. They were not available.
The only reason I ask is, I often ask if anybody has encountered them because it’s perhaps little known that Walter Farley wrote a subsection of those, the Island Stallion books, that were actually science fiction. There’s, like, aliens involved, with horse racing as well.
If I’d known that, I would have sought them out, I’m sure.
His final book that he wrote, late in life, Alec and the Black are wandering around the southwestern desert, Arizona, I think, not New Mexico, while there’s been some sort of asteroid strike or something, it’s like a post-apocalyptic almost setting, with the horse and the boy. And it’s very odd, really. So, that’s why I asked.
Yeah, it’s . . . you sort of wonder if he was running out of ideas for ordinary horse stories, you know that., OK, well, let’s have a post-Holocaust horse story and see what that seems like.
It might have been something like that, or he was just feeling really depressed. I don’t know. It kind of reads that way, too. So, you mentioned the historical, and when you did start becoming published, I know that your first books were historical novels, were they not?
My first published books were. There were some unpublished ones that weren’t. There are a whole host of projects that I never completed for one reason or another, including science fiction and fantasy. I wrote a sort of literary novel that took place in the Civil War that attracted some attention but never got published. And I followed that up with a murder mystery and then had the idea for a series of sea-adventure novels. And those were the ones that sold. It was . . . they were in the realm of C.S. Forester or Jack Aubrey, you know, except that my heroes were Americans rather than Royal Navy.
Did you have any . . . I’ve always had a fondness for these stories, one of the books, one of the series I read growing up was a series of British children’s books called Swallows and Amazons, in which the kids sail. Now, they’re not. They’re just sailing, like, little sailing dinghies around the Lake District in England for many of the books. But in their mind, they’re having these sea adventures with pirates and broadsides and all that stuff going on. And I think that’s where my interest in and see stories came. Did you have any connection to the sea other than just wanting to write about it?
Well, I think growing up on Lake Superior. Lake Superior is, you know, it’s the largest body of fresh water on the planet. And it is, it’s, you know, it’s pretty much a sea of its own. And also, growing up in Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes, I spent a lot of time in the water when I was a kid and on boats. So, you know, I grew up, and I became a small-boat sailor and a scuba diver. So, you know, it’s been a consistent thing in my life.
And that series you’ve brought out as ebooks now, haven’t you? After they were not available for a while. It’s called Privateers and Gentleman, right?
That’s the series title. And I also restored my original titles that the publisher . . . the original publisher was Dell, and they had a formula for how they wanted series books to be titled. Which was The (Adjective). And the adjective would change, but it had to be a two-word title, the first word had to be “the.”
That gets repetitious after a while, I would think.
Yeah, yeah. And especially as I had much better titles. Those titles are now restored to the books that needed them.
Where could people get those if they wanted to read them?
Your favorite online bookstore.
Available everywhere I can find to put it, yeah.
So how did you make the switch from the historicals to science fiction?
Oh, that was easy. The market for historical fiction in the United States completely collapsed about May of 1982. And so, what I planned as a ten-book series became a five-book series. And so, I spent a desperate six months writing proposals for things that didn’t sell. And it was across the spectrum, I mean, I wrote proposals for mysteries, for historicals, for science–not for science fiction, actually—everything but category romance, I think. And none of them sold.
And then, a science fiction proposal that I had written some years before sold. And so, I became a science fiction writer. And the science fiction proposal had been bouncing around publisher to publisher without being read. It’s kind of a fascinating saga, it’s probably too long for this interview, but it sort of explains how publishers can screw up repeatedly. And it finally ended up at Tor books. And the editor at that point was Jim Baen. And there were only three people in the office. There was Tom Doherty, who was the publisher, Jim Baen, the editor, and then there was Mrs. Doherty, who ran the account—was the accounting department. And, you know, now Tor is the largest science fiction publisher, and it doesn’t run like that anymore. But Jim Baen read the proposal and bought it. And although it had been on the market for two or three years, it actually sold to the first editor who rented.
How did it not get read at the other places that it had been?
Well, there were a lot of mergers going on in publishing, as there are now. And so, you know, I don’t recall the exact sequence, but, you know, it was sent to Ace. And Susan Allison, who was the editor, left Ace to go to Berkeley, and until she was replaced, they put a buying hold. So, then it came back, and then it was sent to Berkeley and to Susan Allison at Berkeley, and then Berkeley acquired Ace and suddenly they had too many manuscripts sitting in the office. So, another buying hold went, and then it went to David Hartwell at Timescape, and it was lost in the mailroom for about six months. And by the time that was discovered, they had put a buying hold on. And so, it just kept bouncing off of these things until it actually went to an editor who still had a publishing schedule to fill up.
That must have been satisfying when it did finally sell.
I was greatly, greatly relieved because I was, you know, beginning to look in the help wanted section of the paper so that I could make my rent. And suddenly . . . although it has to be said that the science fiction sold for a lot less money than the historical fiction did. So, I was . . . it took me a few years before I could reach my former miserable standard of living from where I was merely poor instead of in wretched poverty.
Yeah. I can relate. So, there was also a venture into writing for games, and you’ve written for . . . I know, I’ve been a full-time freelancer for thirty years, and I know you do, you know, anything for a buck, basically, but how did you get involved on the gaming side, and have you kept your hand in there?
I’d always been doing games, I’d been playing games for a long time, Avalon Hill games and spy games, historical war games and stuff and Dungeons and Dragons. And so, you know, I was familiar with the genre. And what happened was Jim Bain formed his own publishing company. He left Tor, formed Baen Books, and he also decided to get into computer games, which was a new thing. And because he had a distribution deal with Simon and Schuster, he was going to market his computer games through Simon and Schuster, and they would appear in every bookstore in America and be a huge success. Except, he didn’t realize that the crack Simon and Schuster sales force weren’t interested in computer games, didn’t know how to sell them, and didn’t care to try. And so, it ended up being a terrible failure. And I did write four computer games for Baen Software, of which only one saw print, and the company collapsed before the others could appear.
I’m curious about it because it’s, you know, I’ve never done it, and I’ve always thought it might be interesting to do. Playing them, it seems to me like there’s an . . . there’s an awful lot of dialogue that has to be written for every conceivable iteration of how the game might play. Is that a fair description of it?
Well, especially with, say, a large-scale computer game. I did write the dialogue for a game called Spore, which was sort of galactic adventure with many different alien races that fit various categories of every warlike or mercenary or capitalistic or concerned about ecosystems or whatever. And so, you know, when you say hello to one of them, depending on what kind of alien they are, which category they fit into, they will respond in character. And you end up having these long dialogues with these people. And it was done very imaginatively. They found all these artists who could do gibberish. And so, you know, you would say, “hello,” and this gibberish would come back at you along with the translation. And that was quite epic, but fortunately, I was paid quite well for it. You know, it’s incredibly tedious, mind-numbing work. And I was the second writer they hired. The first one had, I think, OD’d on it and gone kind of nuts, and so they wanted someone who could rein it in a little more.
You didn’t have to write the gibberish; the voice actors made that up?
The voice actors. Yeah.
You’ve also done some screenwriting, haven’t you?
I have. I wrote several movies that never got made, which is a typical screenwriter experience. I should point out that ninety-nine percent of scripts never get made. But I got paid for writing. The only thing you can see of mine is a science fiction show called Andromeda. And I had one episode in the first season, and it was . . . there were just epic casting problems on that particular episode. And so, it was rewritten, I think, twenty-seven times in the ten days that it took to shoot, when they realized that their guest star couldn’t act and couldn’t remember lines.
The fellow I interviewed for the last episode of this podcast, Chris Humphreys, is both a writer and actor, and he actually played a starfleet commander on Andromeda at some point, but hopefully not in that episode.
No, there weren’t any starfleet commanders in that episode.
All right. Well, let’s talk about your novels then. That does kind of tie in because I’m curious, whenever I talk to somebody who’s done screenwriting or other forms of writing like that, do you learn something doing that that you then bring to your novels? Or was it the other way around? Was the fact that you a novelist, you know. . .?
I was an established writer by the time I did any of these screenplays. So, I already knew how to write fiction. But the main thing was a kind of mental switch because, in my fiction, my characters all have strong inner lives. And they’re always thinking and reacting and having emotional responses to what’s going on, but it’s not necessarily visible to any of the other characters. And so . . . but you can’t have that in a screenplay. You can’t have somebody think in a screenplay and not tell you what he’s thinking. All the audience sees is action and dialogue, and so, I had to make that adjustment. My characters couldn’t have interior lives. It was only outer life.
Well, I do some stage acting, and I’ve written plays, and it’s much the same thing. Everything is driven by the visible action and the dialogue and whatever the actor can do to emote. But, you know, everybody interprets that differently, depending on who the person is that’s viewing it.
Yeah. You know, I did have, you know, second readers on my screenplays and stuff. And they would ask, I don’t understand why your character is doing this. And I said, “Well, because he worked it out in his head that this is what he should do and then . . . No. That’s not a viable approach for screenwriting.
There’s the few where they have a voiceover narration, but that always seems a little forced after a while.
I really miss the artist’s soliloquy. I wish I was living in Shakespearean times so that I could just have the character turn to the audience and explain what he was going to do.
If you ever get a chance, there’s a show on Amazon Prime now, it’s from the BBC, called Upstart Crow, which is a situation comedy about Shakespeare writing his plays.
It is terrific. I’ve seen all seasons.
I thought of that because the actors will turn to the front and say, “By strict convention. I can now say what I want to say, and nobody around me can hear what I’m . . .”
Well, let’s talk about your writing of novels then. Now, Fleet Elements, that’s the most recent one—well, you have a new short story collection we’ll mention as well, later on. So, using that as an example, we’ll talk about how you write your novels. And I guess the first thing would be a bit of a synopsis without giving away anything you don’t want to go away.
OK. Well, my elevator pitch is war and revolution as seen through the eyes of a pair of star-crossed lovers. Or alternatively, star-crossed lovers experience war and revolution, but it is set in the far future in a somewhat decrepit space empire in which humanity and several other alien species were conquered by another race. And that other race is gone now. They all died. And now, we, the human race, and these other species have to figure out what comes next. Because they’re very good at taking instruction from these totalitarian aliens, but the totalitarian aliens aren’t giving them instructions anymore, and now, they have to work it out on their own, and they’re not used to that, and they’re not very good at.
I should point out this was inspired by–I was reading a lot of classical history, Polybius and Livy and people like that, and they told this wide-scale history with very vivid characters. And I thought, I should be able to do that. And so, when I planned this series, twenty years ago now, I planned it for nine to twelve volumes. And for various reasons . . . anyway, the fifth or seventh one has just come out, depending on how you point them there. This is the fifth one from Harper Collins, but there was one from Tor, that was a novella, and there was another novella that I published on my own. So, I think of this, Fleet Elements, as book seven, but the publisher thinks of it as Book Five.
Do you know exactly how many volumes it’s going to be now, or is it still in flux?
I think twelve.
So not even halfway yet, depending on how you count.
I’ve plotted them all out. I know what’s going to happen in all of them. That’s part of my process. In the first trilogy, I knew what the last line of the last book was going to be before I wrote the first line of the first book. I always have the end in view, and I always know where I’m going. Sometimes there’s a certain amount of difficulty in getting there. I always know the beginning of the book really well, and I know the end of the book really well, but the middle part is sometimes a bit of a mystery. And that’s where I tend to struggle.
Well, you mentioned what the inspiration was. Was that typical of the way ideas . . . I mean, ideas come from everywhere, I know, and it’s cliche to ask, where do you get your ideas? But is that fairly typical for you, something you’ve read or just something you’re thinking about, or how does it work for you?
Very often, I get an idea just from reading other people’s fiction. And I see something that was undeveloped or something that could be viewed in some other way, and usually, you know, even my short fiction, there’s more than one idea happening. So, I tend to like the collision of ideas, so I’ll wait till I get a certain number of ideas that are kind of undeveloped, and then I will sort of have them smash each other head-on like particles in a particle beam accelerator just to see what happens.
See what kind of strange quarks emerge.
You mentioned a little bit about knowing the beginning and the end, but are you much of an outliner? I mean, this is a big sprawling series.
How much work did you do ahead of time to plan it out? What does it look like for you? Is it very detailed or more sketchy or what?
When I’m working on one project, I’m always thinking about other projects. So, I was able to plot out twelve volumes while I was writing something else. Because that’s just usually how it works, you know. I’m not a very fast writer. I’m a plodder, but I’m persistent. I don’t . . . you know, I write every day. I just don’t write a huge amount of words every day. And so, you know, I have a lot of time to think about my next project. And I have probably outlined, at least in my head, more projects than I can write in a lifetime.
What does the actual outline that’s not in your head look like?
Well, there are a couple of kinds. I mean, I have to write a synopsis for the publisher, right? Because publishers require synopsis and sample chapters even for writers that they know well now. I mean, I recently, you know, sent a proposal to an editor I knew well, right, and he said, look, the company requires me to have sample chapters. I know you can write. I know you don’t need to write these sample chapters; you don’t have to prove anything to me. But the company has this checklist, and I have to put that check there. And so, I wrote him those damn sample chapters, you know, really annoying.
I don’t have to do that with DAW. Still just getting by with the synopsis.
Well, that’s because DAW is still family owned.
Yeah, I think that’s the difference.
They aren’t owned by an international corporation. Good for them.
So, your synopsis, will it be like ten single-spaced pages or . . . ?
Yeah, something like that? Well, you know, it worked out to ten double-spaced pages. But I write outlines for myself, and they are a lot more eccentric. I tend to write them on yellow legal pads in colored ink with different characters being represented by a different colored ink and arrows and timelines and stuff like that. It would be incomprehensible to anyone else. I know what all this stuff means, all these weird scribbles, but I can’t see anyone else getting a hold of one of those outlines and being able to write a book from it.
How closely do you follow your outlines once you actually start the writing process? Do you find that you wander off as you create things along the way, or are you fairly strict?
Well, outlines are just outlines, and I don’t so much wander away from the outlines as I find other aspects of the story that would contribute to the value of the fiction, right, so, you know, I find new sidelights on characters, new sidelights on the action. And so, for me, it’s a process of addition. I start with the outline, and then I add things as I go if I think they would contribute.
And what about your characters? Do you do a lot of detailed work on them beforehand, or do you discover them as you write?
Uh, I pretty much . . . the major characters I know pretty well by the time I start. I don’t always write down their personalities or the little details and stuff, but I have that worked out in my head.
You mentioned that you write every day. What does your actual writing process look like? You outline on yellow legal paper, but I bet you don’t write on yellow legal paper longhand.
No, no, I write on a computer. I use Scrivener, which is a software that is developed specifically for writing fiction.
Yeah, I have it, and I’ve never climbed the learning curve to use it. I’m still plugging away on Word.
Well, the thing is that, as with every modern word processing program, most of it is stuff you’ll never use.
It’s certainly true of Word.
Yeah. That’s true of Scrivener, too. There’s just a lot of stuff in there that you probably won’t ever use. But it does have a very useful outlining function where it actually gives you the index cards and the little pins. And you could put them in and rearrange them and stuff. It allows you to rearrange scenes very easily, which is extremely useful in at least some of my projects where I’m not too sure on the chronology until it’s all done.
Yeah, I should probably . . . the one I’m working on now is a space opera called The Tangled Stars, and it’s kind of tangled my brain, too, so I should probably be using Scrivener. That might help. So, you said you’re not a fast writer. Do you have a set word counts you try to get done every day or . . .?
I seem to average about 500 words a day. It’s not a lot, but I get to write one book a year plus some short fiction, and that’s what it amounts to.
And once you have your first draft, how does the revision process start for you? Or do you write in drafts? Do you do a rolling revision or what?
I don’t anymore because word processors make it so easy to revise. So, probably by that, by the time I’m done with my, quote, first draft, unquote, everything’s been gone over half a dozen times. I always start my day by revising the previous day’s work. And, you know, whenever I have to go back and look something up, I’ll probably revise it a bit. So, ideally, it’s very polished by the time I get to the end of the first draft. So, revision for the second draft is generally pretty quick and easy just because I’ve been over it so many times.
That’s interesting because the very first person I interviewed on here was John Scalzi, and he was talking about how he does rolling revisions. But then I’ve talked to other people who started on typewriters, as I’m sure you did, because I did, and you’re maybe a little bit older than me, I’m not sure, but somewhere along in there. And he thought that people who wrote on typewriters tended to still do single drafts and then go back to the beginning and revise it, as you had to do on a typewritten manuscript.
But it sounds like you’ve switched more to the word processing.
I’m very pleased that I never have to use a carbon ever again.
But yeah, and since I’ve adopted a word processor as opposed to a typewriter, my books have gotten a lot more complex simply because the word processor makes that easy to do. The stuff I wrote on typewriters was very straightforward.
I still remember the first decent printer I had, because of course, dot matrix printers, editors didn’t want that. I had a daisy wheel printer, but I had to feed the paper into it just like it was a typewriter. I wasn’t typing it, but I still had to sit there, and it would make a carpet. So, I was still using carbon paper and feeding it into my daisy wheel printer. I don’t miss that. Yeah, I’m old. So, do you use beta readers or anything like that? A lot of people do.
Well, I use my wife, who was a very good beta reader and who has worked as a copyeditor in the past. So, I get a free copyedit, which is pretty cool. But I used to belong to several workshops, and I would workshop everything. And then, I started a workshop of my own called Taos Toolbox, where I actually teach writing for two weeks up in a ski lodge in northern New Mexico every summer.
And I work with Nancy Kress, who is just brilliant at teaching.
But it kind of ruined me for workshopping because, during that two weeks, I have to read and critique maybe three hundred and fifty thousand words of fiction. And I am so burnt out by that process that it takes me a year to recover. And I just don’t want to workshop anymore. I don’t want to have to read anybody else’s drafts until it’s time to do Taos Toolbox again.
Do you . . . I’ve done a smidgen of teaching, and I’ve been a writer in residence and worked with a lot of writers at a couple of libraries where I’ve been a writer in residence. Do you find that teaching writing benefits you as a writer?
Not that much. I do occasionally get excited about one of the students and, you know, but it’s mainly—I’m mainly teaching in this, I’m not necessarily out to learn new tricks.
Do you ever find—
That’s it . . . I have I encountered a dilemma in one of my, my current project, and I went back and looked at my own lecture notes. Which I normally don’t do. I looked at my notes, my lecture notes, and I found the solution to the problem I was having. And that was kind of fun. I actually took my own advice.
I was actually going to ask because that’s something I found. You know, I will confidently tell somebody, you know, you should do it like this or something like this, and then, just don’t look in that book I wrote where I didn’t do that. Because it’s easy to give advice sometimes that you don’t take yourself.
Well, writers are very individual, and they each need, you know, critique and so on that is pitched to them. And this is why Nancy and I do so well, because Nancy has a completely different approach to writing than I do. I’m a plotter, she’s a pantser, and so if my approach won’t work for you, here’s her approach,
Well, that’s one of the reasons for this podcast, is why it’s, you know, it’s focused on this kind of stuff, so that people can go and find out that there is no one right way to do this thing. You’ll hear every possible approach from somebody that I’ve interviewed or will interview in the future, I’m sure. So, going back to the revision, are there specific things you find that you have to work on in revision? Like, is there a consistent tick that you have to clean up or anything like that?
Well, my first drafts tend to have very elaborate, long sentences with peculiar syntax and a lot of words derived from Latin roots, polysyllabic words from Latin roots. And so, I have to remind myself to make the syntax a lot more straightforward, replace the Latin words with Anglo-Saxon words, which are punchier. And that’s my typical . . . I mean, if you actually saw a very first draft of mine, you would think I was hopeless. I really do need to spend a lot of time polishing it to make it readable.
But clearly, you get there.
Yeah, I think a lot of it is, English is not my first language. And so, it’s a struggle to translate the language that’s going on in my head into English.
What is your first language?
I don’t know.
Perhaps it’s Latin!
It seems to be a symbolic language. It’s like . . . when I think, it’s like laying out an array of Tarot cards. And so, I have these different symbols that together all means something, but when I translate it, I have to literally do the translation and add the grammar and all of that. I’m the only person I know who has this problem. Most people apparently think in their native language, and I guess I do, too, except it’s not English.
That rings a bell from somebody who was talking about . . . hey were startled to realize that other people didn’t think the way they thought, and I don’t remember who it was, or if it was exactly along those lines. But somebody else had told me something similar to that, which I find . . . I find it fascinating because, you know, one of the things about writing is, we present the illusion that we know how other people think, right, but really, we don’t, we don’t have a clue what goes on inside anybody else’s head.
Well, I know what’s going on in my character’s heads, and that’s kind of all that matters as far as my books go.
I know how they think.
Your readers come to that and will actually take something different than what you’re picturing in your head.
Yeah, you’re right.
Because it is a collaborative effort.
I find that people read the book that they want to read, and it isn’t necessarily the one that I wrote.
So, once you have the book and it goes off to the publisher, what does the editorial process typically look like for you? Are there things that come back, or is it pretty clean . . .?
It’s mostly sitting around for months waiting for my notes. And, you know, I won’t name any names, but I turned in a book last September, and I’m just getting the notes from it today, supposedly.
Well, it will be . . . you know, you’ll be looking at it with a fresh eye, I guess.
So, I’m going to be doing, you know, spend the next week doing a bunch of rewriting, I expect, you know, unless he says, “Oh, it’s OK, we’ll just send it to the copyeditor.”
Are there things that you typically get editorial notes about? Like, in my case, from Sheila Gilbert at DAW, it’s usually, you know, I didn’t explain enough about some aspect or, you know, the characters need a little more development, that sort of thing.
Yeah, uh, generally, I think because I know too much about the way that my characters think, I don’t necessarily explain their motives and actions as clearly as I could. So, it’s always useful to have someone say, “I need to understand why this action is happening now,” and then I can handle that. Another thing I tend to do is I can overdo things. You know, it’s just the prose just becomes too much. And I need somebody to tell me when to back down, back off, and let the story happen instead of scenes of hallucinogenic intensity.
That sounds like you really enjoy the words themselves. Is that fair to say?
I do. I have a series out now called Quillifer, which is basically my love letter to the English language. I mean, aside from being a jolly good read, you know. But I am deliberately spending a lot of time playing with the language in that series.
I do love a good, convoluted sentence myself, as people have told me, so I can appreciate that. I also wanted to . . . you have written a lot of short stories, and in fact, you have a collection out now, you said. Novellas, mostly, but some short stories.
It’s just out this week. It’s The Best of Walter Jon Williams, oddly enough, out from Subterranean Press. It’s 200,000 words of fiction, which is, you know, a couple of novels worth. Mostly it’s a longer short fiction, novelettes and novellas, and including a lot of award nominees and a few award winners. So, you know, I’m very proud of it. I just wish I could have added another 100,000 words . . .
That’s the sequel!
. . . because there are always some I wish, you know, there was room for.
Of course, if you call the first one The Best of Walter Jon Williams, would you have to call the second one The Second-Best of Walter Jon Williams?
I think Even More Best.
Even More best.
Even More Bester of Walter Jon Williams.
So, these would go back right through your entire career?
Pretty much. Yeah, it’s from the mid-’80s through the fairly recent present. And it’s sort of every stage of my career represented.
So, you write novels and short stories. Do you think you have a preference for one that you’re better at than the others? I always think some people are better at short stories and some people are better at novels. Are you good at both, or . . .?
My best work is in the shorter form because, in something that is of a modest length, everything can be perfect. You can actually put everything in it that you think ought to be there and then make sure it’s available to the reader. For a novel, something the length of a novel, something’s going to go wrong somewhere. There’s going to be a mistake, there’s going to be, you know, some of my tangled syntax got through all the editing. So, you know, I view my novels as good but necessarily flawed, which is how I view everybody’s novels. But my short fiction, I’m very proud of.
I’ve often used the metaphor of where you have this . . . in your head, the story is this beautiful, shiny Christmas ornament, absolutely perfect. And then you smash it with a hammer and try to glue it back together with words. Yeah, that’s the way it feels to me, that initial moment of, “Oh, this is going to be perfect,” and then you can’t actually get to perfect, unfortunately. Well, I’m going to ask the big philosophical questions—I’m going to put reverb on that sometime—you’ve been writing for a long time. You say you always wanted to be a writer, but the first one is why? Why do you write?
Well, it remains a mystery. It was a compulsion. It was an irresistible compulsion to be a writer. And that irresistible compulsion lasted from when I was four years old to when I was around forty, when it began to fade. And so then, I realized I was no longer compelled to do this, but it was kind of the only thing I was good at. You know, it’s not like I have a work history. My last real job was, like, in 1978, and so, I have no job history. I’m not even qualified to be a greeter at Wal-Mart, in terms of the straight world. So, but what I realized I had to do was I had to find some reason to love what I was doing and to really love the craft and love everything I was working on and find joy and delight in it. That wasn’t necessary before. I didn’t have to love it. All I had to do was just write it because I was compelled to do that. So, I think my approach to writing now comes from love, and this is what I tell my students. “If you don’t love it, don’t do it.”
Don’t do it for the money.
Yeah, because there won’t be any. Sorry.
So, you say you found a love for it. Why do you love it now? What do you love about this?
Why do you ask these complicated questions? I . . . it’s just I enjoy doing stuff that I’m good at. And this is the thing that I’m best at, is writing fiction. And I do a lot of other stuff, you know, I’m a scuba diver, I’m a martial artist, and love all that to a certain degree. But that’s not where, you know, my homeworld is. My homeworld is fiction.
Do you find some love in the love that your readers give back to you when they read something of yours and they really enjoy it?
It’s always gratifying when I hear from the readers. But see, the thing is, between the time that I finish a project and the time that it appears in print, I’ve written a bunch more on other projects. So, you know, when a novel comes out, I may have written two novels in the period of time between finishing that one and it appearing in print, so my head is in another place. And once I deliver a book, it’s kind of not mine anymore. It kind of belongs to the reader. So, there is . . . there’s a part there’s a time in which I know I’m the only person that possesses this work. Right when I’m working at it, I can really love it, and I can feel like I possess it. I can own it, and then I give it away, hopefully for money, but I give it away, and then it belongs to other people.
Who may be discovering it twenty years from now, for all you know, once they’re out there, they’re out there.
OK, so that’s why you write. Why do you think, in the bigger picture, why do any of us write? Why do human beings do this strange thing?
Well, I think storytelling is a compulsion. I think I think we make stories out of anything. I mean, you know, look at a newscast, right? They don’t just tell you this happened, they make a story about it so that you’ll be involved in it and you’ll care, and so I . . . because we’re in a covid pandemic right now and one of the things that television can shoot safely is reality TV because they can get everyone in one place and isolate. And so, I’ve watched a lot of that. And one thing that I’ve noticed is that if you’re completing a project on some reality television show, you have to tell a story about . . . it’s not just, oh, I made this cool thing. This is this, this story connects to the deepest wellsprings of my childhood, and it’s all about my grandmother, who passed away just two months ago. And I’m still, you know . . . and the audience responds to that. It may not even be true. In fact, it probably isn’t. They probably learned that they have to tell that—that soap opera is where you’re going with these kind of shows. S I don’t know why anyone else writes. I’m glad that they do. For some people, it’s a bucket list. They actually have “write a novel” on their bucket list, and then they write it and either sell it or self-publish it, and then they go on to the next item on their bucket list. I don’t understand that at all. It’s just too much work to write a novel just to tick off something on the list.
Yeah, just beat your head against the wall. It’d be simpler.
Yeah. And some just write for mercenary motives, which I don’t get either. Because so far as I can tell, these people aren’t rich.
Yeah. And the third question is, why write stories of the fantastic, specifically science fiction and fantasy. Why do we write about things that aren’t real?
Well, in my case, it seems to be what I’m good at. I just seem to come at reality from a somewhat sideways perspective. And, you know, I have written other stuff, and I have a whole lot of unsold fiction sitting around n other various categories, literary fiction or mysteries or whatever. But what I kept being told is this is too strange. We can’t publish it. They hardly ever say that with science fiction. And when I write science fiction, I can write about anything, so long as it has certain science fiction elements. So, war and revolution from the point of view of star-crossed lovers. I wrote the world’s only Gothic Western police procedural, a science fiction novel called Days of Atonement, set in Silver City, by the way, really a fictional analog Silver City, but if you know New Mexico, you know where you are. You know, I’ve written cyberpunk, I’ve written anthropological science fiction, I’ve written, I don’t know how to describe it, gonzo science fiction, I guess, really high-concept stuff. I’ve written near-future science fiction that actually got overtaken by events. I wrote a novel about the Arab Spring, and it appeared the week that the Arab Spring started. So, that’s one of my more successful predictions, I’d like to think. And oddly enough, no one cared. My agent was out there contacting every news organization in the world, saying, “my writer predicted that this was going to happen, and the book is out, and you should talk to them.” And they said, “No, we have our own analysts. We pay them.”
What was the name of it?
Deep State, the middle book of a series about alternate reality gaming, oddly, and they are also now all available for me as ebooks. But it begins with This is Not a Game, is the first one. There are four, although the last one is a novella. But it was interesting going back because I just, you know, once I mounted my own editions, I went back, and I was reading the reviews, and one of them said, “These are really good books, but this is in no way science fiction.” And I said, “They were science fiction when I wrote them. And then it all happened.” So, once again, it’s kind of a matter of timing. I wrote a Black Lives Matter novel twenty-five years ago called The Rift. And it was such a colossal commercial failure that I didn’t sell another book for five years. So timing is everything. If I were to write a Black Lives Matter novel now, it might do better.
Or there’d be so many of them that it would get lost in the . . .
Yeah, that’s true.
So, what are you working on now? You’ve touched on it a little bit.
I’m working on the next book In the Praxis series, so Fleet Elements is to be followed by The Restoration. And I’m about halfway through that book.
When is it expected out?
Probably late 2022. Because I’m scheduled to deliver it later this year, and it will spend at least a year in production.
And anything else?
Yes, I have my Quillifer series, which is high fantasy and my love letter to the English language. The third book of that will appear around the New Year. I don’t know. The final schedule hasn’t been decided yet. It makes me happy to write these books. It’s just a delight to write Quillifer, because he’s just so, so much fun. And they are sort of a swashbuckler, Rafael Sabattini meets Michael Moorcook meets Tolkien, I guess. He’s a kind of impish character, and I like writing these characters.
So, lots for people to look forward to, it sounds like, in the not-too-distant future.
And of course, the short story . . .
And they can prepare for it by reading the two earlier books in the series, which are Quillifer and Quillifer The Knight
That sounds like my cup of tea, so I’m going to check those out.
And where can people find you online?
Uh, www.WalterJonWilliams.net. I’m the only person I know who has a .net instead of a .com, but somebody had already stolen my identity with the .com.
And just for those who don’t know—you should know—it’s Jon without an H.
All right. Well, thanks so much for being on! I enjoyed that. I hope you did, too.
It was great fun. Thank you.
And we say hi to Nancy the next time you see her because she was a guest on here not too long ago.
An hour-long interview with F. Paul Wilson, the award-winning, bestselling author of 60 books and nearly 100 short stories spanning science fiction, horror, adventure, medical thrillers, and virtually everything between.
F. Paul Wilson is the award-winning, bestselling author of 60 books and nearly 100 short stories spanning science fiction, horror, adventure, medical thrillers, and virtually everything between.
His novels The Keep, The Tomb, Harbingers, By the Sword, The Dark at the End, and Nightworld were New York Times Bestsellers. The Tomb received the 1984 Porgie Award from The West Coast Review of Books. Wheels Within Wheels won the first Prometheus Award, and Sims another; Healer and An Enemy of the State were elected to the Prometheus Hall of Fame. Dydeetown World was on the young adult recommended reading lists of the American Library Association and the New York Public Library, among others. His novella “Aftershock” won the Stoker Award. He was voted Grand Master by the World Horror Convention; he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Horror Writers of America, and the Thriller Lifetime Achievement Award from the editors of Romantic Times. He also received the prestigious San Diego ComiCon Inkpot Award and is listed in the 50th anniversary edition of Who’s Who in America.
His short fiction has been collected in Soft & Others, The Barrens & Others, and Aftershock & Others. He has edited two anthologies: Freak Show and Diagnosis: Terminal plus (with Pierce Watters) the only complete collection of Henry Kuttner’s Hogben stories, The Hogben Chronicles.
In 1983 Paramount rendered his novel The Keep into a visually striking but otherwise incomprehensible movie with screenplay and direction by Michael Mann.
The Tomb has spent 25 years in development hell at Beacon Films.
Dario Argento adapted his story “Pelts” for Masters of Horror.
Over nine million copies of his books are in print in the US, and his work has been translated into twenty-four languages. He also has written for the stage, screen, comics, and interactive media. He resides at the Jersey Shore
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, welcome to The Worldshapers, Paul.
Well, glad to be here.
You know, I like to give people who, you know, haven’t done much an opportunity to be on the show once in a while.
And maybe I can help out your career a little bit. Well, it’s nice to meet you. We’ve never met in person, but your name sort of popped up in something I was reading, and I thought, “That’d be a great guy to talk to.” And I have to say that I have a very strong memory of reading The Keep when it first came out, back in 1981, was it, I think?
Yeah, it was.
And I also remember seeing the movie, and I do remember thinking that it was rather incomprehensible but pretty to look at. So, yeah, I think that was an accurate description. So, we’re going to talk a little bit about your upcoming collection, which will come out about the same time as this goes live. But first, I want to do what I always do with my guests and take you back into the mists of time to find out how you got interested in this kind of stuff and how you started writing. How did that all come about for you? Where did you grow up, and when did you start reading this kind of thing, and when did you start writing it?
Well, I grew up in a classic middle-class family, mother, father, sister, brother, dog, cats. My father was an immigrant from England in, oh, I guess he was age eight in the ‘20s and I . . . .you know, he never encouraged me toward science fiction, but he never discouraged me. And but it was something I always gravitated to. I mean, when we had that little TV set with, maybe it had an eight-inch or a 12-inch screen, I remember King Kong coming on, the trailer for King Kong, when they re-released it in the ‘50s, and I was just was absolutely fascinated with that. And then came The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. And I was on the set. I would sit there and watch the TV, and we had three channels then, and I’d be switching back and forth, praying that somebody would show it again. And finally, you know . . . and I drove my parents crazy. At that time, polio was a threat. The vaccine hadn’t come out yet. And they didn’t want me to go to the movies. It was a summer movie, and summer with other kids was where you got polio. And they said, “You want to end up in an iron lung?” And I said, “I would take that risk to see this film.” And finally, I came up with the idea, hey, drive-in. I’ll be the only one, my family will be the only people I’ll be exposed to, so then they couldn’t object anymore. My father took me, and it was just a wonderful experience to see that on the big screen. And that sort of really cemented my love affair with monsters and science fiction. EC Comics were big at the time. It was before they were censored, and they used to have . . .
Tales of the Crypt, that was EC, wasn’t it?
Yeah, Tales of the Crypt, but they also had the science fiction ones where, you know, they’d have a dinosaur. Maybe drawn by Frazetta, sometimes it was drawn by Frazetta, and Williamson on the cover and on the side, they’d have a rocket ship taking off. I mean, those are my two triggers. I could not buy them. And so, the EC Comics and Uncle Scrooge comics were–because Uncle Scrooge stories were full of imagination—those were my reading staples as a grammar school kid. And then I started reading science fiction and finally got to the point where I said, “I’d like to try to write some of this.” And it took me years, years of rejection, before John Campbell finally bought my first story in 1970, so that’s 50 years ago this year, by the way, and by that time I was hooked. I couldn’t not write. And it’s become an obsessive-compulsive disorder. You know, if I’m not writing, I’m thinking about writing. I fall asleep at night working out plot twists or plot problems. It’s just an integral part of my life. There’s no thought or no possibility of not doing it anymore.
So, did you start writing when you were still in school and as a kid?
In college. Oh, I wrote stories, and I submitted them, you know, like werewolves and haunted house stories, and I submitted them to, like, the school paper, and stuff like that. And they always got rejected. But in college, I started very seriously. I just wanted to get published once. I figured, “If I can just get published once, I’ll be a published writer, and after that, I can do whatever I want.” And, you know, I was going to be, I planned on being a dilettante writer, but in the four or five years it took me to tell the first story, I just became hooked on it, on the process. And I was sure that my, you know, my stories were being rejected because nobody knew my name. You know, if I had Robert Silverberg or Harlan Ellison on the byline, they’d buy this story because it’s great. And after I finally did start selling, I went back to see if I could resell any of these things, or resubmit any of these things, and they were terrible. They were awful. And I just realized they got rejected for very good reason. I never had a writing course. I was just, you know, going by trying to write something I would like to read. Imitating Heinlein . . . I couldn’t imitate Ray Bradbury, that was beyond me, but I could imitate Poul Anderson, I could imitate Robert Heinlein. At least, feel that I was trying to imitate that. Bradbury was too verbose and too picturesque for me.
You mentioned you didn’t actually study writing. You actually were in medical school, weren’t you?
Yes, yes. When I sold my first story, I was a first-year medical student and got $375 or $365, something like that, you know, five cents a word, which they’re still paying nowadays.
Yes, they are.
So, at that time, I went online, and I did one of those inflation calculators and that’s worth almost $2,500 in buying power today. That’s amazing.
Yeah, there was a time when you could make a living just writing short fiction.
In the pulps and things like that. But I think that time is long gone, unfortunately.
Did you ever do anything . . . like, did you complete your medical degree and ever do anything in the medical field, or did the writing sort of take over?
I was in family practice for 44 years.
So after 20 years in there, around the mid-‘90s, like 1994, I was doing full-time medicine, and basically, I was putting out a novel a year. I’d learned how to do the two of them. But by the mid-‘90s, I had partnered with Matt Costello when we were riding interactive scripts, we were scripting the SciFi channel’s FTL Newsfeed, I was still writing books, and we were writing tie-in books together for the games we had sold, and I just couldn’t do it. I just had to cut back on medicine. I cut back to two days a week, and I stayed at that until I retired at the beginning of 2019. So, I’ve been retired for a year and a half, so . . .
Well, you have written some medical thrillers, but in general, has your medical experience fed into your writing? Do you think it was very beneficial for your writing to have that other side of things going on at the same time?
Yes, well, I’m a big believer in keeping the day job for writers because it keeps you in contact with people. Because I notice now since I’ve been retired . . . well, of course, with Covid. All your social contacts are cut way back, but I used to go to conventions all the time, I love being out with the readers. I love being out with other writers. And so, right now, I’m a shut-in and I . . . you know, that human contact, because basically, even if you have the greatest plot, plots happen to people, so, I mean, you’ve got to have good characters and you can’t create characters totally in a vacuum. You know, you have to know what real people are like and what they talk like and imitate that to some extent. So . . . but also, I mean, writing was also my golf game as a doctor. I couldn’t play golf. It was just, you know, I had golf attention deficit disorder, where after a few holes I’d be saying, what am I doing here? But I noticed that one thing that was recurring in my fiction was the miracle cure. It just pops up again and again, and I think that’s something subconscious, that being a doctor, and being a family practitioner, you know, you have patients you’ve had for a long time, and all of a sudden, they get terminally ill, and there’s nothing you can do. And you just wish there was something that you could do. But you’re helpless. You know, the sixteen-year-old girl with an acute leukemia, I mean . . . you know, she’s gone so quickly, and it just tears you up. So, I mean, you know, The Touch was about miracle cures, even my first novel was called Healer. So, it did influence me, but I did try to stay away from medical themes because that was too much like going back to work. As I said, this is my golf game.
Wait, you did venture and have ventured quite a bit into horror. What drew you to horror as opposed to more straightforward science fiction?
Horror was my first love. You know, I loved the rocketships and all that kind of stuff, but monsters, especially like Godzilla, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. I just loved the monster aspect of it. Then they released the Universal monsters films onto TV, and, you know, I was watching Dracula, watching Frankenstein, watching The Wolf Man, I mean, I just loved those things. I built the Aurora models.
Oh, I remember those.
Probably anybody who is in this, you know . . . that was one of the things, when I first read Salem’s Lot, I didn’t know who Stephen King was. I got it from the Literary Guild, my copy. And never once did it mention a vampire was going to be in the book, on the flap copy and the advertisements, never once mentioned vampires. And I’m reading along, and I’m saying, “Oh, you know, the only thing that can explain this is a vampire, but he’s going to cop out because everybody cops out. Nobody has vampires anymore. And then, that kid, I forget the name of the kid who was like, the main protagonist, it turns out that he had built the Aurora models, and I said, “Oh, this Stephen King, he’s one of us.” And all of a sudden, it turned out to be a real vampire. It was like, “Oh, yes!” And so, you know, that that was one of the highlights of the ‘70s, was coming across that novel and absolutely loving it. And then . . . King had made some inroads into horror, but unless you were, in the ‘70s, unless you were Blatty or you were Ira Levin, you really couldn’t get a horror novel published. So, that’s why I was writing science fiction, because there were all these science fiction magazines. There were no horror magazines. Stu Schiff was doing Whispers, and he could only take so many stories. So, as soon as the horror market opened up . . . I had written three science fiction novels and a novella, mostly for Doubleday and Dell. And then I decided, “It’s time to write my horror novel.” So that I sat down and I wrote The Keep. And that changed my life. I mean, that was a huge international bestseller. It’s never been out of print. I’m just getting the movie rights. In February, I filed for recapture of the movie rights; after 35 years, you can do that. And so, we’ve already got people bidding on it to remake it. So, you may see a movie that resembles my novel in more than the title.
Like I said, I really remember reading The Keep. I would have been 20 . . .
Oh, don’t say it, really.
. . . 21 or 22 at the time, I guess 22 probably, and I have a . . . yeah, it really stuck in my mind. And I kind of went through everything, like, I read science fiction, I read fantasy, I read horror. But I actually read more horror for a while after reading The Keep, looking for something else that I liked as much as I enjoyed The Keep. So, there you go. That was the influence on me. I think you mentioned Lovecraft as an influence as well when you encountered him as a young reader.
Yeah, I encountered him . . . the first time was in The Macabre Reader, edited by Donald Wollheim for Ace, and I had this really Emsh cover. And they were all old stories from weird tales. And there was this one called The Thing on the Doorstep, and it had to be the weirdest damn story I had ever read in my life, and I was sure, asking, “Where is Arkham, Massachusetts? Where is Miskatonic University? I’ve got to go there and get a look at some of these books. And actually, I actually got the college guide. I’m looking up Miskatonic, and it wasn’t in there. I mean, that’s how convincing he was and setting up his world. So, you know . . . I never admired his style, but the idea of cosmic horror really got under my skin, and I just thought, “You know, this is really unsettling.” And that has influenced horror work right from The Keep onward.
Well, let’s talk about how you go about crafting a novel. It’s a very old question, and yet it’s legitimate. Where do you get your ideas? What are the seeds for you, the something that will come to you and make you think, you know, I’ve got to write a book about this? Where do those things come to you from?
Different places. I have a notebook, which every writer should have, and I write down little snatches of whatever. Sometimes the first line, sometimes it’s an idea. Like, the Repairman Jack novel Crisscross, that came from an idea I’d written down that a guy is a recurrent killer, but no one can convict him of any of the murders he’s done, so why not convict him of a murder he didn’t do? And that was just the idea there, but, you know, it turns out that in the end, Jack frames him for the murder he didn’t commit, and that’s what gets him. All the murders he did commit still are unaccounted for. But I saw, I was reading the New York Times and I saw this article that talked about lightning survivors having a meeting, getting together in Clearwater, Florida, which is right on Lightning Alley, and where a lot of them had been struck. And it says some of the survivors have been struck two or three times. And how do you get hit by lightning more than once? Three times. I mean, you’ve got to be out there on the golf course holding a putter. And then I said, well, what if they want to get hit? Yeah, I think they kind of want to get hit, but why would they want to get hit? And then (unclear) had asked me for a ghost story, and I said I couldn’t do it, I had no ideas for ghost stories. And I saw this, and I thought, well, what if you can see a dead loved one, even for just a few minutes? And that became “Aftershock,” and that won me the Stoker Award. So from one little blurb in a newspaper . . . or another one, I saw a line that said chimpanzees, this was years and years ago, it said chimpanzees share 98.4 percent of their DNA with humans. And I’m saying, “What? Really? What if they shared 99.6? “That’s where the novel Sim came from. So those are like the epiphanies, the lightning strikes. But the more practiced approach is from the notebook, because I just, as time goes on, I go back and read through the notes and, you know, one from page six, a little blurb on page six will suddenly adhere to something on page eight. And so that’s something . . . sometimes the books grow by a process of accretion. And it’s got to get to the point where I want to write. I think I can make this worthy of somebody’s time to read it and also worthy of my time to write it. And I used to be a real outliner . . .
That was my next question.
I am a firm believer in an author knowing how to end the story before he begins it. I’ve read too many books, and I’m sure you have to, where you’re going along, and it’s great, it’s just sailing along, cooking, then three-quarters of the way through, it starts to fall apart. You see the little cracks form, and by the end, it’s all falling apart because the author didn’t know how he was going to end it. He’s said, “Oh, sure, I can end it. I’ll think of something when I get there ‘cause I don’t know how I’m going to get there.” Well, you know, sorry, you just disappointed me. I feel I’ve sort of wasted my time reading this. I mean, yeah, the journey’s part of it, but also the destination is really important. Especially for a thriller. I mean, I can see some literary novel where it’s a peripatetic type of wandering narrative, and if it’s really got a good voice, fine, you can be happy with it. But with a thriller, with a horror story, even with science fiction, I want that catharsis. You’re going to be building up emotion in me, you’re going to be building up anticipation, and you’ve got to pay off. I have to blow off that steam. Otherwise, I feel that you haven’t done your job.
I read, I don’t remember what it was, it was a long time ago, but it was kind of a post-apocalyptic thing, and the characters are trying to get to . . . I think it was to New Orleans, where they thought there was still some sort of civilization going on down there. And the whole book is about them trying to get there. But when you got to the end, they were heading down, and it was a standalone, they were heading down the Mississippi, and the book literally ended with, “And maybe they got there, and maybe they didn’t. It’s up to you to decide,” basically.
So that’s about the only book that I literally threw across the room when got to the end of it.
Yeah, that’s . . . why did you do that? You could have just come up with something. But I outline and plotless now. I do more, you know, story points. I know how I’m going to get there. I mean, I know where I’m going, I’m not always sure how I’m going to get there, but I have the story points and plot points that I can sort of hop to. But even when I had a big outline, I would always put in a drawer and write the book. Because the story was in my head by then. But every once in awhile, I’d come up against something and say, “How do I how do I solve this?” So that’s when I pull out the outline, I say, “Oh, I did, I figured it out in the outline. And there’s how I got around this.” And I put it back. But a lot of times, stuff that looks great in an outline doesn’t work great fleshed out, you know? So, then you’ve got to take a different path, you’ve got to make a left turn or a right turn there, so you wander off your outline, but at least you know where you’re going. This is where I’m going. And then you get there, and you get that catharsis that you promised.
Well, that’s pretty much the way . . . that’s very familiar to me, because these days, fortunately, writing for DAW, you know, I’m selling from a synopsis rather than writing the whole book. So, I have the whole thing figured out. But then I don’t look at it when I’m writing. It’s only if I get stuck somewhere that I might take another look at it and say, “What was I thinking originally? Maybe that actually is better than what it’s ended up being. And so, it’s very similar for me.
Yeah, you wander off the path, which is good, but then, you wonder why you had the path, and then you go and look and say, “Oh yeah, that’s why I had that there.”
What’s your actual writing process like you? Do you write a certain time every day? Do you work on a parchment with a quill pen, or how do you like to write?
Well, you know, I started off on the Olympia portable, and then I started making a little money out of it, I bought the IBM Selectric, and I think it was 1980, I was at the World SF Convention in Boston, I was talking to Joe Halderman, and he said, “Oh, I’m writing on a computer now.” I said, “What?” He said, “Yeah, I’m using a word processor on Apple II.” And I said, “Word processor, that sounds wonderful,” because I’m still a two-finger typer, millions and millions of words published, all done with two fingers. So the idea of moving a paragraph around or something like that, and not having to retype the page. I mean, this was . . . oh, how long has this been going on? Well, it hadn’t been going on very long. But I went out, and I blew a lot of money. It was like $3,500 to get an Apple II+ with two floppy drives and 48K of RAM.
All you’ll ever need!
Yeah, I could have had 64, but who needs 64? And I used Apple Writer, which was so crude. It didn’t even have word breaks, it was a total wrap-round on the screen. It did print out with word breaks, but on the screen, you couldn’t see the word breaks and an Epson dot-matrix printer. But I thought I was, you know, I was in hog heaven here. I could just fool around with this stuff. I didn’t have the retype stuff, or minimal retyping. It was mostly just fixing. And so now, I write at the computer completely. I’m a morning writer. I always start early in the morning. I’m a morning person. And the first draft, I like to do a thousand, 1500 words a day. And that way, I can keep up the narrative momentum. And I never look back, I never go back and rewrite until I’m done. I call it the vomit draft. I get everything out, get the story on paper, and then I go back and fix it. I forget who said it, but it’s a great saying about getting that vomit draft out. They said, “You can fix bad writing. You can’t fix no writing.”
You’re the second person I’ve interviewed that calls it the vomit draft. My very first interview on the podcast was Robert J. Sawyer, and that’s what he calls it.
And he said he’d gotten it from Edo van Belkom, who’s a Canadian horror writer.
I know that name.
So, I don’t know where it originated, but yeah. And I’ve been using it since, I’ve been telling people it’s like, “Yeah, you get it on paper, and it’s a huge mess, but you feel better, and then you just have to clean it up. So, it’s quite a good metaphor. So, once you do have that vomit draft, what does your rewriting process look like, then? Do you go back to the beginning? And what sorts of things are you finding and correcting? And how many passes will you do on your revisions?
Well, you know, I’m doing fewer and fewer revision passes because, after 50 years, I’ve gotten pretty good at the first draft.
Practice makes perfect!
Yeah. But, you know, often it’s going back because I’ve made notes as I’ve gone along, I say, “Oh, you got to fix this because, you know, you did this here and you didn’t set it up back there. So, we have to go back and set it up.” So that’s a lot of what my first rewrite or revision is, is consistency, and make sure I’ve set up things that happened later on that occurred to me that weren’t in my original plan. And that happens all the time. And that’s one of the things about writing, say, a trilogy or something like that, is you hand in the first book, it’s gone into production, or maybe even on the third book and the first one is in print. And you’re in the third book and go, “Holy crap, I just wish I had done this blah, blah, blah in book one, so I could do this here, you know. And so, it’s always a process with me, and I’m sure I’m not alone, is that you can’t, over the course of three books, you can’t totally plan for everything you want to do. So, I find that going in chapter by chapter in a standalone book, you’ve got to set everything up. It’s very important to avoid the deus ex feeling in your readers of “where did this come from?” So, that’s usually what my first revision is. Then I don’t play around with it too much before sending it out to my beta readers. And I have an understanding with them that they can say anything. They can’t hurt my feelings. We’re both on the same page that, “You guys like thrillers, I like to write thrillers, and you want to help me make my book better. So, no matter what you say, I’m not going to take it personally.”
How many beta readers do you have? And where did you find them?
I had four. I’m down to three. Most of, a lot of, times they are other writers, but there are a couple of people who were fans, and they actually asked me, you know, “I found these errors in the book. Yeah, you want me to take a look at something before it goes to press?” And it’s amazing. I work with Tor a lot, and I read it, and I reread it, then my four beta readers read it and make corrections. Then my editor reads it. Then they have a professional copy editor read it, then they typeset it, and then they send it back to me for another read-through of the page proofs, and there’s still, it goes to press, and it comes out, and somebody says, oh, you know, there’s this here and there. Jesus!
Usually when you’re doing a public reading, that’s when I tend to find those. I’m doing a reading at a bookstore or something, and there’s a typo.
Yes, you’ll be reading . . . you know, I always read my dialogue out loud, but I don’t read the whole book out loud. And probably I should, because even then, you know, your brain puts that word in. I just had . . . I did a Christmas children’s back around 2000. Alan Clarke did the illustrations. And we just republished it. And he was going through all the typesetting and everything, and he wrote to me and said, “You know, there’s a word missing in this sentence.” It’s an 8,000-word story. I’ve been through it so many times. And there it is. There’s the word “to.” “To” is missing in between two other words. And every time I read it, I put that word in, my brain put that word in, and for some reason, because he was typesetting it, it popped out to him. So, that’s very frustrating. I find that very frustrating. But that’s why . . . you know, I’ve had some very good beta readers. Someone would drop out because life gets in the way and stuff like that. And then after that, if the beta readers are somewhat consistent, if at least two of them find a problem, then I’ll fix it. If one of them has a problem and the other three don’t know, then it’s iffy if I’ll fix it, or whether I think it really needs to be fixed. But a lot of times, you know, they’ll spot some inconsistency, “Well, you said so and so said this here and then he said this over here,” And I’ll say, “Oh, you’re right.” One of the things that have changed my writing is . . . back, I think it was 2006, Tom Monteleone and Elizabeth Monteleone asked me to be an instructor at their writers’ boot camp. Now, I never had a writing course, never been to a workshop. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I said, “Sure, you know, just give me the manuscripts, I’ll line-edit them, and then we can go over them with the writers.” And, you know, I came back from that, you know, it’s just a very intense three days. I came back from that, and I had been correcting passive voice and doing all this type of stuff for them. And I looked at my own work in progress, and I’m saying, “Holy crap, I’m doing the same thing I was correcting them for. Look at this passive voice, all of these bad constructions.” So, it was an eye-opener for me, and it really improved my writing, really tightened it up, because I kept crossing stuff out of theirs, and I’m looking at my stuff saying, “Yeah, I can do without that. I can do without that.” And so, I think you can see a sort of a watershed in 2006 where all of a sudden my writing becomes leaner and cleaner because of that.
Yeah, I just finished a term as a writer in residence at the Saskatoon Public Library, and I did it a few years ago at the Regina Public Library. And I’ve done workshops and stuff like that. And writer-in-residencing is the same thing. People give me manuscripts, and I go over them and then we talk about them. And I would say very confidently, you know, “Here, you should be doing this.” And in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, “I have a feeling if they look at my own stuff, they’re going to see I did exactly the same thing.”
Don’t look at my stuff!
Do as I say, not as I do, is some of that.
So, once it gets to your editor, what kind of editorial feedback do you typically get?
I haven’t had much lately. I miss David Hartwell. He used to be my editor for the Repairman Jack books. You know, he was good for the big picture. Writing day after day after day, I’d get a little bit too involved in the leaves, and he would be able to step back and look at the shape of the tree, and said, “You need to fill this out over here and maybe trim this back over here,” or, “Jack’s reaction here, you know, he’s already been through an awful lot of stuff, he’s probably not going to react like this at this point in his career.” And I’m saying, “Yeah, you’re right. Let me just go fix that. So, I miss him because he was with almost all the Repairman Jack books, right up through Nightworld. And the big irony, he fell carrying a bookcase at home and hit his head and died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Carrying a bookcase. Well, I guess that’s a good way to go.
One thing that I meant to ask as we were talking about the writing process was about characters, and of course, Repairmen Jack is a famous character of yours, but how do you develop characters? Where do you find the people that inhabit your books? And how much work do you do on them before you start writing, and how much simply grows through the process of telling the stories?
I do almost no work on them before. I’m like Nabokov. I think characters are my galley slaves, that’s what he called them, and they’re there to perform a function. So, I mean, for Jack, I did, I made some conscious decisions before I wrote the first Repairman Jack novel that he was going to be not like the other typical thriller heroes. He was not going to be ex-CIA, he was not going to have a history of black ops, he was not an ex-cop, he was not anybody. He was a guy from New Jersey who happened to kill someone, who murdered somebody in New Jersey, the guy who killed his mother, and he murdered him in cold blood. And it sort of changed him. He just sort of divorced himself from human society and went to live in New York City under the radar. So I said, this guy, he’s not going to pay taxes, he’s going to be totally under the radar and off the grid, blah, blah, blah. And so, he’s going to have to set up his own network if he’s going to be doing these fixes and he can’t call on the police, he can’t call on an old buddy to run license plates or fingerprints, he’s got to do it on his own. So, he wound up being a blue-collar hero. And people just responded to that. I mean, when I finished the first book, it was supposed to be a standalone. And I knew when I finished, “People are going to want another one.” And I was determined not to do it. I did not want to get into a series and. So, I spent 14 years doing other things before I did the second Repairman Jack novel. But I let the characters develop as I’m writing. They have to serve the story. I don’t like to really define a character before I start writing because then they start thinking that they’re in charge, and this is my book. “You’re not in charge, I’m in charge, and you do what I tell you to do.” And so . . . unless you have, like, a series character, it changes things. Series characters are different because they have their own personality over the course of the books, and they’re going to do what they’re going to do. But everybody else, they’re going to do what I want them to do. And that’s another thing, when I go back and do my first revision. I don’t know that character when I start. By the end of the book, I know that character pretty well. So I go and rewrite him from the beginning, or her, to be the person I need them to be at the end, and so that way, it seems like I planned this all along. But I haven’t. I’ve just I’ve gone by, you know, I’ve winged it. But it sure doesn’t look like that because, as I said, I make it consistent all the way through.
Well, we’ve been talking about your novels. But, of course, what you have coming up, or probably is out as this goes live, is . . .
My next one is . . . oh, yeah, October.
Yeah, is this collection of shorter pieces. Pastiches, I believe you called them. So, tell me about that and what that is. It sounds interesting.
Well, Other Sandboxes is the title, and over the years. I’ve been asked to do . . . I’ve been asked to do a Lovecraft story, like for Lovecraft’s Legacy, Bob Weinberg and Marty Greenberg, they wanted a Lovecraft story. So, I wrote “The Barrens,” sort of a novella, you know, and it mentions Miskatonic University, it mentions Arkham, Massachusetts and the like, but it takes place in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, which I so twisted into a very Lovecraftian place. I didn’t have to do a lot of twisting. It is a weird place. And then you’re going along . . . and Marty Greenberg is responsible for a lot of it because of all the anthologies he did, all the theme anthologies. Like, he did a Batman anthology when the movie came out, The Further Adventures of Batman, and he didn’t ask me to be in it. And I caught him one day, and I said, “You know, you never asked me,” he said, “I didn’t think you would be interested in comic books,” and I said, “I just love comic books. I’ve written for comic books. I wrote for Creepy and Eerie during the ‘70s. And Batman is the one hero I like because he doesn’t have superpowers.” And he said, “We’re doing a Joker anthology next, do you want in?” and I said, “Oh, I definitely want in.” So that was, “Definitive Therapy,” and then he did a Dick Tracy anthology to go with the movie, and I did one for that, and so as time goes on . . . I mean, Joe Lansdale asked me for a story for his retro-pulp anthology, and I mixed in Fu Manchu. I even threw in Daddy Warbucks. So, there’s a whole bunch of these stories, plus there are other people that I have, you know, living writers like Blake Crouch. He did that Wayward Pines that became a TV series, but he did three books initially and Kindle Worlds, they did a Kindle World for him for his Wayward Pines stories. And he asked me to kick it off if I would, and I didn’t think I could, and all of a sudden, I came up with a really killer story. And so, I did that and . . . so oh, yeah, Leslie Klinger asked me for a Sherlock Holmes for one of his Sherlock Holmes anthologies. So, they all added up, and I had all these stories in other people’s sandboxes. And so, I said, “Gee, why don’t I just put them all together.” And I love the title, and Borderlands Press is putting it out . . .oh, and the coverage by a Canadian, Gerhard, he used to do the backgrounds for the Cerebrus comic book. He’s from Kitchener. And so, it’s a really handsome, handsome book, and it’s pretty fat, too, it’s like 160,000 words.
Yeah. A lot of stories I’ve done all those years, so I’m looking forward to that. You’re recycling stories, obviously, but . . .
It’s rare that anybody would have read them all, so they’ll be new to most people.
Exactly. You’re going to find some, you know, even if you’ve read some of the other ones, you’re going to find a passel of new ones you haven’t. And, you know, they’re all definitely the thriller type of short story.
We’re getting close to the end of the time here, end of the hour. Not that anybody’s really counting, it’s just me and the cat, and the cat doesn’t care. But I’d like to ask the big philosophical question, which is basically, why we do this. Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write? And why write stories of the fantastic specifically?
Oh, that’s always a tough one. Why do you do anything? I just . . . I don’t consider myself a writer. I’m a storyteller. I love to tell stories, and I love to suck you into a good story because then, for a while, I can own you, I can squeeze your adrenaline, squeeze your tear ducts, or whatever. But I find tremendous satisfaction in finishing a story and having it come out the way I wanted it to. And that’s tremendously satisfying for me. So, that’s what keeps me going. I think I started off doing it to see if I could do it. But that, you know, once I found out I could do it, there has to be something else that’s going to, you know, keep it going. And sometimes, you know, you think it’s a little bit of immortality, that after you’re gone, somebody is going to pick up one of these books and read it and in a way, you’re still alive. Woody Allen once said, he says, some people, writers, want to achieve immortality through their books. He said, “I’d much prefer to achieve immortality by not dying.” But anyway, I knew that, just for some reason, I get a tremendous satisfaction out of it. And I always tell a story that I would want to read. And I don’t want to read literary fiction. I don’t want to read a straight romance novel. I want something that’s going to . . . I don’t like mimetic fiction. I don’t want to read about something that could be happening down my block. I don’t want to read about a professor having an affair, an English professor having an affair at the college with a student, or something like that. Because that really happens. And that’s the promise of fiction to me, is to take you someplace where you can’t go. And this writer is going to take me someplace where I can’t go by myself, and I want to go along. And if I can walk down the street and find these people that some of these writers are writing about, what do I need them for? You know, I can find the people myself. But you’re going to take me someplace that doesn’t exist? Well, cool. I’m there. So that’s what I want to do.
And where are you taking readers next? What are you working on right now?
Right now, I’m working on another sort of a cosmic horror novel, but I do have a, next June, I have to call it a science fiction, weird science fiction, but science fiction novel, coming out from Tor. My title was (unclear), they always hate my title, so now it’s called Double Threat. And it’s really a rewrite of my first novel, Healer, transposed from the far future to the present time. I transgendered the hero from male to a millennial female, and . . . totally different take on the book. And those changes, you know, make it . . . you wouldn’t know it was the same book. So that was fun.
And that comes out next June?
That comes out in June.
And where can people find you online?
I’m at RepairmanJack.com. I’m also on Facebook, and I’m also on Twitter @FPaulWilson.
Well, that’s kind of the time. So, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed that chat. I hope you did, too.
I did. And that’s it for now. So, thanks so much, and bye for now.
In times past, she has written Star Trek (TOS) and Star Wars tie-in novels (Ishamel, Crossroad, Children of the Jedi), and did scripts for Saturday morning cartoons. In addition – when she can – she writes short fiction about the further adventures of characters from her fantasy novels of the ‘80s and ‘90s, which can be purchased on Amazon (Gil and Ingold from the Darwath series, Antryg and Joanna from The Silent Tower, John and Jenny from Dragonsbane, plus a couple of Sherlock Holmes tales “for the hell of it”).
She teaches history at a local community college, and practices iaido, costuming, and painting. Now a widow, she shares a house in Los Angeles with several small carnivores.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, welcome to The Worldshapers, Barb.
Well, thank you. Thank you. Thank you for asking me to be on.
Well, it was…I ran into you, I guess, at World Fantasy, I was sort of, you know, keeping my eye out for people I wanted to talk to. And I thought, hey, there’s somebody. So I’m glad you said yes.
I think that’s the only time we’ve met, actually. And we didn’t really meet, just sort of chatted there at World Fantasy, but I’ve been familiar with your work for a long time and currently reading, I haven’t quite finished it, but Stranger at the Wedding is the one we’re gonna talk about today as an example of your creative process. So we’ll get to that in a little bit.
But I always start by taking my guests back into the mists of time and finding out how you got started, became interested in writing, how you got started writing, and also just a little bit of your biography, which is kind of an interesting one. So, where did you grow up and all that sort of stuff? And how did you get interested in writing? Was it through reading books like most of us?
I suppose it must have been. But I remember, even before I learned to read, I was storyboarding stories. I would, like, draw the characters in a storyboard form. And I remember doing that when I was about four. So actually, I think my desire to tell stories predated learning to read. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a household where my father was a great reader. He always had fiction. He loved the Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars series, he was a great fan of Zane Grey. He liked adventure stories. He liked biographies. He liked history and when we were small children…my mother is not a great reader, but she was a very conscientious mom. And I think she looked up lists of books that had won the Newbery Award or had won children’s book awards, and she made sure that she read these to us. So we were always surrounded by an atmosphere of storytelling.
And in your, we mentioned Stranger at the Wedding, you have some pictures at the back of that of your family from when you were little, as well. So, I think I can picture your mom and dad because I have a picture of them right in front of me.
Oh, my gosh.
And a picture of you as a very little girl.
So you were growing up on a Marine base, it says.
Yes. Well, my dad was in the Marines when he met my mom. He met my mom immediately after World War Two ended, and they got married, and he was stationed in San Diego, which is where all three of us kids were born. And then he was transferred out to a Marine base in the middle of the desert in a place called China Lake. And my earliest memories are of being in…and of course, at that time, housing of any kind was very much at a premium because the war was just over, and you were in the first wave of the baby boom. And so, on the Marine base out in the middle of the Mojave Desert, the married officers’ housing was a trailer park. And my poor mother got to keep house in a 30-foot single wide with three children under the age of six. And my earliest recollections are of living in the trailer, and you’d step out of the trailer, and because it was all brand new, there was nothing. There was a little concrete path around the outskirts of the trailers, and beyond that, it was desert. It was, you know, if you watch any of the 1950s science fiction films like Them or…all of those 1950s science fiction films, they’re all in, like black and white and they’re out in the middle of the desert, that’s where I grew up.
That was immediately what I thought of when you were describing it.
They were all filmed out in the Mojave Desert because it is within a couple of hours’ driving distance of Los Angeles.
And then, when did you actually start writing your own stories?
Well, as I said, I started storyboarding stories. I would storyboard stories about my toys. When I was four, I started writing stories as soon as I learned the alphabet. I would write…one of my favorite series was the Oz books, and, I’m sure everyone knows, in addition to The Wizard of Oz, there were about 25 or 30 other books about characters in Oz. And for me, it was like fan fiction. I would then write my own Oz stories. When I became enamored of Sherlock Holmes in the third grade, I would write my own Sherlock Holmes stories. And writing was just something I did. It was always completely natural to me. Storytelling was always the thing that I did. It was the thing that shaped my life.
Did you share your early writing, like with your friends or schoolmates or parents?
In seventh grade, I mentioned to some of the other students in my class that I…at that time, I was writing Edgar Rice Burroughs takeoffs…and I got teased so badly that that was the last time I told anybody that I wrote until I got published.
I always ask that because I get such different responses to it…the people who never shared, and people who were like me, and I was handing out copies of it to my classmates in high school. “Here read this. Read this!” So that’s why I always ask.
Actually I did write…starting in high school, I would write Man from U.N.C.L.E. stories. I would write…I wrote this unbelievably long—it was like a hundred-part—story about the Beatles. And those I did share with two of my classmates. And then when Star Trek came along…I was kind of a weird kid and I did not have many friends and I had been teased and bullied to the point where I was not…I didn’t tell most people what was going on with me. But in high school, I had a couple of very close friends and we were the only people in the high school who were tremendous Star Trek fans. It was the first season, the first time, the original series, it was 1966, Star Trek came on and it hit the three of us like a ton of bricks. And so, we all started writing Star Trek stories and I wrote simply for the audience of my two friends. One of them would write stories for me, for our little group, and these were the only people who knew that I wrote because I pretty much didn’t talk to anybody else in high school.
Were there any teachers who were, you know, helping out or supporting you along the way, or did you kind of keep it from them, too?
Oh, God, no. There were teachers that made a tremendous impression on me, but I certainly would not share with any of them or with anybody else the fact that I wrote.
Well, when you got to university, you didn’t study writing, you studied medieval history and went so far as to get a master’s in. What drew you into that?
Well, I,,,when I originally…because I always knew I wanted to be a writer, and when I got into UC Riverside, it was 1969 and I thought, If I want to be a writer, I should be an English major. And I went to my first creative writing class, I was like eighteen years old, sitting in the front row with the class. And there was this woman up in the front of the class, the instructor, with a size eleven mouth and an ego to match. And here am I, sitting in the front row, thinking, You tell me what you’ve published and then I’ll listen to you. As far as I could tell, the class was supposed to be in creative writing and it actually seemed to be a class in how to write bad Flannery O’Connor knockoffs. And that was the last creative writing class I ever took.
Now, when, many years later, for purposes of the plot, I needed to find a teaching job, I went to the local community college and applied for a teaching job in creative writing. And at this point in time, I had published about sixty novels. So I applied. I said, you know, I’m a professional writer. I’ve published about sixty novels. And they said, oh, we can’t hire you because you don’t have an MFA—because after that creative writing class that I took way back in 1969, I’d switched over to being a history major. So, when I’m applying for a job teaching creative writing, they said, “We can’t hire you to teach creative writing because you don’t have an MFA. And even if you did have an MFA, if the English department hired you, they would hire you to teach remedial English because all of the creative writing classes are taught by the tenured full-time English professors because it’s more fun for them.”
And I thought, Oh, good. You have people who want to learn to be a professional writer, and instead of hiring a professional writer to teach them, you have them taught by an academic who has never published any fiction in his or her life because it’s more fun for them. And then they said, “You want to teach history?” And I said, “Absolutely.”
When I…back in 1969, as I said, when I finished my first and last creative writing class, I switched over to getting a BA and then an MA in history, which served me very well, it got me a nice job teaching history, which I still have.
And has it fed into your writing, as well?
Oh, God, yes. I…well, I’ve always been interested in history. My dad was a history buff. I had some excellent history teachers in high school and in university. My best friend in high school was a history buff. She is still my best friend and she is still a history buff, and history always felt very natural to me. I always wanted to write in historical settings or fantasy settings, but it’s the same thing, you’re world building in both in both genres. And I think that’s one reason why I’ve written in both genres, is it’s about worldbuilding. It’s about going to another world, going to a world that is not my own.
You know, in creative writing classes, they would always say, “Well, write what you know.” And…for one thing, nobody would be interested in the adventures of a fat pimply virgin in Southern California in the 1960s. I wasn’t even interested in them. So I wanted to be somewhere else. I wanted to go somewhere else. J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings hit me like a ton of bricks. I read the first unauthorized copy of The Two Towers. And it’s like, “This is what I want. This is the world I want to be in. This is what I want to do.”
And you got there. But you did a few other things along the way before that first novel came out, didn’t you?
Yes, yes. Well, from the time I was…actually, junior high and in high school, I—going back to “write what you know”—always in the back of my head was, I knew I wanted to write adventure fiction. And I knew that if I was going to do this, I was going to…there were certain things I would need to know. When I was fifteen, I joined a fencing class. I was always interested in historical costuming and that got me among the historical costumers, for things like, you know, stuff your characters need to know. What is it like to wear a corset and a bustle? What is it like to be in a physical fight with someone? I started taking karate in 1974 partly so that I would know what it is like to be in a physical fight with someone, which is not something that girls generally do, unless they go to a high school and are bullied by the Mexican girls.
And of course, once I got into karate, that was a whole new world. The martial arts has been a constant in my life since 1974. But it blends in with this. I do it because I love it. I also do it because if I’m going to have a hero who is wielding a sword, I want to know how to wield a sword. We would go horseback riding, and partly in the back of my mind is, If I’m going to write stories about people who get from place to place on horses, I better learn how to ride a horse.
So, there’s always this moving back and forth between real life and the fictional world inside the books, and the fact that I am going to need this information if I am going to produce these stories effectively. That’s one of the reasons that I’m drawn to history, partly because I just love history, partly because I need to know how non-industrial societies work. I need to look at stuff that has happened in history and go, I can use that. There will be times I’ll be in conversations with my friends and someone will be talking about the behavioral enormities being practiced by their sister or their brother or whomever, and I’ll be sitting there thinking, I can use that!
So tell me about the first novel and how that came about, Time of the Dark, which kind of launched your career.
Well, when I started taking karate, I quit writing for about two years. And I had a dream. And the dream was…one sequence at the beginning of Time of the Dark where the young screw-up hero first sees the dark ones, sees this creature, and because they can change their size it’s slithering in through, like, a crack in the wall, and he is shocked and horrified. And he goes to the old wizard who’s in the next room. And the wizard said, “Oh, did you think they’d be human?” And from that dream, then I extrapolated how did this situation come about and extrapolated what came from that situation.
I originally wrote it up as a single volume. I sent it to…I went to the library and got a list of publishers who were taking fantasy. I sent it to Lester Del Rey, who was the editor at Del Rey Books at the time, and he sent me back this long letter, basically telling me that I had enough material there for a trilogy, extrapolating from this, extrapolating from that. “Can you pursue this? Can you pursue that?” And I sat down for the next almost a year. Again, I didn’t tell anybody I was working on this. And I sat down and expanded it into a trilogy, sent it back to Lester, and, you know, everybody has told me it’s really hard to break into the field. But I guess in that year, they were really looking for trilogies, because I sent this manuscript back to Lester and I got a reply in two weeks saying, “We’ll take it.” And then I went, “Oh, dang, I don’t have an agent. I’d better get an agent.” And immediately had to hunt around for an agent who is…she’s still my agent.
It’s always easy to get an agent when you’ve already sold the book.
Oh, absolutely. And she immediately got me a better deal on the contract. But I didn’t…my experience with writing the book and getting accepted was…I don’t think it’s typical.
As far as I can tell from talking to authors, nobody has a typical story. It’s different for everybody. Mine was very different as well.
Well, we’re gonna talk about Stranger at the Wedding as an example of your creative process. But before we get to that, I did just want to ask you about some of the other writing you’ve done, the Saturday-morning cartoons and the Star Wars and Star Trek books. How is that different from writing your own material?
And did you enjoy it?
Oh, tremendously. Tremendously. Of course, as a tremendous Star Trek fan, when they started coming out with the Star Trek novels, my agent got in touch with me and said, “They are looking for Star Trek novels, and they were looking for Trek novels, of course, because everybody was writing fan fiction for Trek. And at that time, my agent told me, “They’re looking for Star Trek novels written by authors who have already been published.” Because at that time they didn’t want to have to teach somebody how to write. They wanted a manuscript by somebody who knew how to write a manuscript. And so the editor at that time was looking for…”Hey, do you have something? Do you have a Star Trek novel in your drawer? We know you’ve got a Star Trek novel in your drawer.” And as it happened, I did. And that was Ishmael, which was infamous for other reasons. And then I wrote another two Star Trek novels.
And the thing about the Star Trek novels was, they kept changing the approvals loop. Part of the problems I had with Ishmael, the first of the of my Star Trek novels, was that book went through about five editors. And the editors at the beginning of the process were telling me things that later turned out were not true, were not correct. And the mess had to be cleared up by an editor, you know, five editors down the line. But this was a problem with the Star Trek novels: they kept changing the approvals loop. So, something would get approved, and then by the time I turned in the manuscript, they said, “Oh, no, we don’t want that.”
Ghost Walker, which was the second one, I’d turned in the outline saying, you know, the plot involved Captain Kirk being in a serious romantic relationship with the guest star. And by the time I turned the manuscript in, they said, “Oh, we don’t…we can’t have Captain Kirk being in a serious romantic relationship. “And I said, “That’s fine. You don’t have to publish the book, but you have to pay me for it, because that’s the first line on the outline, saying Captain Kirk is in a serious romantic relationship with X, Y, Z.”
And, you know, when I turned in the outline for Crossroad, which was the third of my Trek novels, they said, “Mr. Roddenberry doesn’t want Trek novels on that subject.” And I said, “OK.” And eighteen months later, when Mr. Roddenberry was no longer in the approvals loop, I got a phone call from the editor saying, “You still want to write Crossroad?” And I said, “Oh, yeah.” But of course, it was eighteen months later, so I had written this outline and I’d kind of forgotten how things happened. So at one point, the outline said, “And then these five aliens take over the entire Enterprise.” And as I’m typing along and I reach that point of the outline, I went, “God, how they do that?”
Well, it’s just like a writing exercise you set for yourself.
Oh, yeah. Yeah. The Star Wars…I was friends with Kevin Anderson, Kevin J. Anderson, who was doing the first two of the Star Wars anthologies of short stories, Tales from the Star Wars Cantina and Tales from Jabba’s Palace. And he introduced me to Betsy Mitchell, who was in charge of that first bunch of Star Wars novels that were being done by Bantam. And then she asked me, you know, would you do a Star Wars novel? And I was so delighted. I loved Star Wars. I loved the original Star Wars. I love the original Star Wars.
In the early days of my writing, I was…you don’t make a lot when you’re starting out. In fact, you make almost as little as you make now. So at the time, I had a part-time job at the library. And friends of mine in Los Angeles…one of my friends in Los Angeles was a fellow named Michael Reeves, who was the…he was sort of the center of a group of people who were writing Saturday-morning cartoons. And this was in the late ’80s, when you had just gotten…Transformers had just come on and you had all of these, what the writers called “poster shows,” which means that the toy company would put out a line of vehicles, and then they would hire an animation company, to…at that time, seasons were very long. A season would be, like, forty-eight episodes. And they would say, “We’re going to do a season of, essentially, yes, it’s the adventures involving these vehicles that you can buy down in the store as a toy.” And the vehicles would always transform into something else.
The first of these, the animation company that was doing them was called DIC.
And so they decided—because, of course, there was no Writers Guild that dealt with animation. This was all cheap non-union—they called us together for a…called all of the sort of bush-league science fiction writers in the Los Angeles area, called us together, and they explained that they needed scripts and they were paying…I think it was a thousand bucks a script, which to me was phenomenal. It would mean I could quit my job in the library.
And the fellow explained to us that the show was called Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors. And it was about…it involved giant metal vines growing between planets. And these metal creatures would grow out of metal flowers on the vines, and the vines would go between planets, they would go between galaxies, they would go between solar systems. And these evil vehicles would trundle along these metal vines through outer space and strip mine every world in the cosmos for resources. And our brave little band of adventurers were fighting against these guys, in the vehicles that are being sold in your local toy store.
And somebody in the group of science fiction writers said, “Planets turn on their axis, and planets orbit different stars, and all the stars in the galaxy are moving away from one another, and you cannot have giant vines growing between planets.” And the story editor said, “I have explained this to the producers of the show. I have explained this to the toy company. I have explained this to the administration of DIC. Now write the scripts.” One fellow got up and walked out. But I thought, It’s basically the cast of Star Wars meets the Daleks. I can write Star Wars dialogue. I can write Dalek dialogue. No problem. So I worked on a number of shows for DIC. And it meant basically that I had more time to do my actual writing.
Well, and turning to the actual writing, let’s talk about Stranger at the Wedding, which is the one you’d suggested. I guess, quickly give a synopsis of it that doesn’t spoil anything for people like me who haven’t gotten to the end of it yet, although I’ve read quite a bit of it.
Oh, and, of course, I haven’t been able to reread as much of it as I would have liked to, due to circumstances beyond my control. But the way the story came about in my mind, is that…in the story, the young heroine, she is at Wizards’ College and she’s the daughter of a wealthy merchant family back in the big city. And her younger sister is going to have an arranged marriage with the business partner, a business associate, of their father’s. And Kyra, the heroine, has been essentially disowned by her family because she is in training to be a wizard. And Kyra starts getting omens and prophetic dreams, saying that her younger sister is going to die on her wedding night. And Kyra returns to her family, who are horrified that she’s shown up, and she has to stop the wedding until she can find out what’s happening. And so she’s basically in a position of throwing all kinds of Murphy hexes, everything that could possibly go wrong with the ceremony goes wrong. Mice infest the church and, you know, the bishop breaks his ankle and all this horrible stuff takes place. And then she falls in love with the groom. Her younger sister, it turns out, is in love with one of the kitchen help. And Kyra falls in love with the groom while still trying to ascertain who has put a curse on the wedding, who is attempting to kill her lovely eighteen-year-old sister, and why? What’s going on?
I’m enjoying it very much, as far as I’ve gotten into it. I think the main character’s very appealing. What was the, kind of the seed for this story? And is that typical of the way the story ideas come to you?
There are basically two seeds. The first of the seeds is the fact that…I’m trying to think of a tactful way of saying this. My mother tended, tends, to drag me over to total strangers and say, “This is my daughter, the author.” Or say to people at church, you know, the people at church say, “Oh, you know, my daughter wants to write books.” And Mom will say, “Oh, she can come and talk to Barbara.” And it’s like, Barbara is…Barbara has other things to do. And I’ve always found this being touted very…it makes me very uncomfortable. I know it makes my mother very happy, but it makes me very uncomfortable. So part of the seed for that, is, you know, all of those times when I would go home for Christmas and Mom would say, “Why don’t you talk to the next-door neighbor’s daughter who wants to write books?”
And the other seed was, I was invited many years ago to a workshop on neurolinguistics, and they asked me, the fellow who was facilitating the workshop, said, “What is your process of putting together a story?” And I said, “I’ll usually start with the characters.” And he said, “Well, why don’t you explain how you put together a story?” And he said, “Characters…let’s take Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.” And I closed my eyes for a second and tried to think of a fantasy that ,if you made it into a movie, it would with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. And then, I produced the entire plot in, like, one paragraph, just sitting there. I had never had this idea before, and I came up with, oh, “The older sister is in Wizard College and the younger sister and she finds out that she has a curse and she’s gonna die on her wedding night and she comes home and falls in love with the groom.” And everybody in the workshop, including the facilitator, just sat there, because there was no process. It’s like, “You give me the characters and I’ll give you a fully formed plot.” That’s…you know, that’s a trick like swatting a fly out of the air. You can do it once by chance. And everyone goes, “How’d you do that? I have no idea.”
So what’s more typical?
What’s more typical? Generally, it does start with characters. The vampire series…I wanted to put together a story of…no, I was waiting for my sweetheart to arrive because he and I were gonna go someplace and I was lying on the couch in his house and just started thinking about a vampire and a living person having to go into partnership because someone is killing the vampires of London. And the vampires, they can’t go out in the daytime to be detectives, so they have to hire a detective. And I thought, that’s really good. And this was the start of Those Who Hunt the Night, which turned into the vampire series, because I really liked the characters. But it started out with, “What do vampires do when somebody is…when there’s a vampire hunter on their trail?” And so, they have to hire a living guy, and he knows they’re gonna kill him when he solves the case. And then from there, just going, “OK, how do you get into this situation, how do you get out of this situation?” It was exactly the same with Time of the Dark. I had this single scene in my mind. “How did we get into this scene? Where do we go from this scene?”
So it is very much like a seed that grows.
What’s your actual planning process look like as you get started to write. Do you do a detailed outline? Do you just start? How does that work for you?
Oh, no, I’m an outline girl. My outlines are usually…four or five pages, single spaced? And they’re very…they’re sort of loose. It’s…details get changed, scenes get changed, but I always have to know, if we’re starting from here, we’re going to end up here. I don’t write very well not having a goal. I have to know where we’re going. I can’t just set sail because I’ve read too many books that quite clearly did not have an outline, and that type of structure does not appeal to me.
Do you find yourself diverting from the outline as the story takes on its own pathway sometimes?
Somewhat, yes, but never, never galloping off into another direction. Mostly because I know the character well enough to know where we’re going, where his or her personal development is going. The only exception to that was Dragonsbane, where up until I was close to the end of the book, I did not know whether…at one point the wizard, the heroine, transforms herself into a dragon. Basically, she falls…she is…the man that she loves is a dragonslayer. And when they go to slay this dragon, she ends up falling in love with the dragon. And at the end of the story, she transforms herself into a dragon. And then she realizes, “I need to go back to the man that I love.” And up until the end of the story, I didn’t know whether she was going to just continue to live on as a dragon or whether she was going to step down from that and return to the man she loves. Basically, she’s choosing between becoming and being a dragon or remaining human and experiencing the depths of human love. And once I had done that, I realized the story is not a story about dragon slaying. The story is a story about love. And then, of course, I…actually through the whole process of writing the book, I needed to come up with a hero who would be emotional competition for a dragon. And I have continued to write the further adventures of this couple, John and Jenny. Occasionally the dragon reappears, but it’s…I’ve continued to write novelettes about them for sale on Amazon as downloads.
What does your actual writing process look like? Do you write longhand? On a typewriter? On a computer at home? In a coffee shop? How do you like to work?
I must…there cannot be anyone else under the same roof. And I have set up my entire life to be solitary. I’ve always liked solitude. I cannot write if there was someone else in the house,
Definitely not a coffee-shop writer.
I am not a coffee-shop writer. I write at a desk. I have a desktop computer. I…when I’m writing first draft, I can usually only work a couple of hours a day because it is just so exhausting. At the moment, it’s difficult to forge out the time to write because I teach at a community college. I only teach one class a semester, but we were informed at the beginning of this month that we had two weeks to switch all of our classes over to online classes, and that takes a tremendous amount of time and I have been waking up very, very early in the morning to buy myself enough time. I’m working on first draft of a project and I’m tired most of the time.
Under normal circumstances, would you consider yourself a fast writer or slow writer or just-right writer?
I…sometimes I think I’m fast, sometimes I think I’m slow, I have no idea.
That sounds familiar. And do you…you’ve talked about a first draft. So, do you do a complete draft and then go back and revise from the beginning? What’s the revision process?
Yes. I do a complete draft and then go back and revise from the beginning.
What sorts of things do you find yourself working on in revision?
Sometimes, as I’m getting close to the end of the story, I realize, “Oh, that is a more efficient way to solve the problem, so we’re gonna have to go back and rewrite whole chapters.” Other times it’s just word choices or sentence structure. Other times I will look at it and go, “This person’s motivation is not clearly conveyed, this person…I need a scene between these people to clarify, either a plot point or some motivation.” The first revision is always the hardest and the most challenging and the most tiring because that’s where the heavy work gets done. Then there will be a second, not quite so heavy revision. And from there, it’s usually just progressive polishing.
There was one of the Benjamín Januarys, the historical murder mysteries, which, of course, take place in the American south in the 1830s, 1840s. And one of these involved…it’s like, my hero is black, of course he’s involved with the Underground Railroad. And I wanted to do a murder mystery that took place against the background of the Underground Railroad. And about halfway through, I reread what I had written and…the plot, the themes in the book, were very, very dark. Basically, the book was heavily based on slavery and rape. And I went, “Nobody’s gonna be able to read this. How do I lighten it? How do I make it readable?” And I thought, OK, we’ve got this going on one side. But my hero is dealing with… and I had to put in a lighter element simply to to balance out that darkness. And I thought, OK, my hero is working out of a circus. So we’re going to deal with circuses in the 19th century. And we’re also going to deal, because the circus is in town, there’s also a revival meeting in town. So that lets me cut away from this horrible stuff that is happening connected with the murder. And, yeah, we’re going hunting for clues, but we’re doing it against the background of the circus, we’re doing it against the background of this fake preacher who is basically trying to bilk the congregation out of their money. And that lightened the weight of the book. In my opinion, it made it readable.
I’m going to guess that you’re not somebody who uses beta readers, but then it goes on to your editor directly from you. Is that correct?
What kind of editorial feedback you usually get?
I have published close to seventy novels. So I’m…I don’t get much editorial feedback because I’m good at my craft. The times when I do get more editorial feedback is if ,for whatever reason, I did not have time to smooth the differences between two drafts and they’re catching things that I would have caught if I had had the time to do one more draft. And this is something that I have developed as time goes along.
remember there was one book where they got someone as a copyeditor and she came back saying things that were completely against, that ran completely contrary to the point that the book was making. “Well, she shouldn’t say this. She should say that.” And I. emailed the acquisitions editor and said, “Do I have to change things according to what this person said?”, and they made sure I never got that copyeditor again. Beta reading has to be by somebody that you really trust.
Yeah, it’s not something I’ve ever had because I’ve just never lived…I was always off kind of away for many other writers and…I had a couple of people by mail that I used to share manuscripts with way back before email. But I’ve never used beta readers. And I’ve talked to many people who do, and sometimes I think maybe I should, but I think I’m too set in my ways to change to that now.
And I don’t really know who it would be anyway. Well, I want to move on to our closing question, because we’re getting up here on the time, and that’s the big philosophical question, which is why do you do this? And why do any of us do it, why do any of us write, but why do you write and why do you write the stuff you write?
And the reply is, because I can’t not do it.
A good friend of mine once said there’s two basically two kinds of writers. And he said type A, the first kind of writer, is the writer for whom writing is the safe place—you go down into the dark of your mind and you see all of these things, and that’s where your safe. And he said this type of writer usually starts as a child.
He said the other type of writer is the one for whom writing is the dangerous place. And you go down into the dark of your mind and you see all of these things and it scares the bejesus out of you. He said this type of writer usually starts later in life, and it was his personal opinion that this is why you sometimes find writers who have substance abuse problems.
Because if you are a writer, you have to write. There really is no question about why do you do this. You do this because you do this. Because you can’t not. It is indeed a calling. And nobody in their right mind would be trying to do this, trying to make a living in this fashion, if there was any other way to be.
Fortunately, I was the first kind of writer. I started as a child. It is the safe place. It is the wonderful place. It is the place where I am happiest. I was married to a man who was the other kind of writer, where it was the dangerous place, it was the terrifying place. But he couldn’t not do it. Because he just…we are what we are and we can’t change what we are, and if we try, it hurts us.
And on that note…I’m the childhood, it’s a safe place writer myself…
…what are you working on now? Aside from putting your courses online.
My publishers in Britain asked me to conclude the vampire series, to finish off the vampire series, and asked me to start another historical murder mystery series. I am working on that, but I would rather not talk about that until I’m a little bit further on with it. I realize this is not a good thing to say, but I, I just, I would rather…I’m working on another historical murder mystery series, and I would rather not talk about that until I get a little bit of a better feeling of what I’m doing.
Still, lots to look forward to.
Oh, yeah. Yeah.
And where can people find you or find out about you online?
I have a Facebook site, Barbara Hambly, writer. I have not posted on my Livejournal site in a long time, simply from lack of time. Those are the two best places.
If you want to…if you were a fan of the fantasy series that I wrote back in the ’80s and ‘90s, the Darwathseries, the Dragonsbane series, the Sun Wolf and Starhawk series, if you’re a fan of those series, I continue those series in the form of novelettes. I’ll write novelettes about those characters. They’re available on Amazon for five bucks a throw. And a lot of people, they…you know, with a with a series, you like to know what the people are doing. You’d like to know where those characters are now. And I will be continuing the vampire series as novelettes on Amazon. So in addition to transferring all of my history class on to online and working on this new historical novel series, I’m also trying to fit in enough time to work on these, what I call the further adventures. So it’s busy times.
Well, thanks so much for taking time to talk to me in the midst of all that. I enjoyed that. I hope you do, too.
Thank you so much. And I’m sorry if I talked too much.
Kim Harrison is best known as the author of the New York Times #1 best selling Hollows series, but she has written more than urban fantasy and has published more than two dozen books, spanning the gamut from young adult novels, accelerated-science thrillers, and several anthologies, to scripts for two original graphic novels set in the Hollows universe. Kim Harrison is a pen name; she has also published traditional fantasy under her real name, Dawn Cook.
Dawn was born and raised in the upper Midwest. After gaining her bachelor’s degree in the sciences, she moved to South Carolina, where she remained until relatively recently, moving back to Michigan because she missed the snow.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, Dawn, I always like to start by asking my guests to go back into the mists of time, which is…you know, those mists are deeper for some of us than others…and find out how you first got interested in…well, first of all, I presume, reading science fiction and fantasy, and then how you finally got around to writing it, which we’re all glad you did.
Yes, yes, it was reading. I was an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy back in the heyday of the ’70s and the early ’80s, and I read everything, just gobbled it up, and you can see that if you pick my work apart, because I try to pace everything like a good science fiction novel, ’cause I think that’s the way all stories should read.
But, yeah, it wasn’t until later that I thought I could actually make a go at writing. So, I did not take any classes for writing at all. I avoided it like the plague. I’ve got a science degree, actually, and I use it every day, and my dad says, “You’re kidding! You went to school for science and now you’re writing,” and I say, “But, Dad, I use my degree every single day. But when I did decide that writing was something I wanted to do, I had a big learning curve that I had to handle because, like I said, I didn’t take any classes and I still, you know, I talk to literary people and they start spouting things like “the fourth wall” and I star at them blankly because I have no clue, I have to go Google it find out what they’re talking about. But a good story is a good story and if you can get it down, you know, more power to you.
It wasn’t until I got to move down to South Carolina and I found a writers’ critique group that…oh, it was dedicated. It was my Camelot, actually, because we’d meet every single week and we’d all get a chance to share our work. And I made the connections there that allowed me to break into print and hone my work and toughen up my skin. If it wasn’t for them I don’t think it would have happened. But they’re really hard to find these days.
Yes, and of course,, when I teach writing and when people ask about writing groups, I always say that you have to be careful, because if you have writers in the group and you’re all at a kind of a beginner level, you don’t help each other as much. You need to have people who are at a higher level than you, perhaps, to help lift you up.
Yes, yes. And I was fortunate enough that there was somebody like that.
Now, what were some of the books that you read as a kid that kind of drew you into this?
Oh, Anne McCaffrey was a favorite early on. I read a lot of Isaac Asimov. I didn’t understand him at the time, but I read him. Ray Bradbury was my favorite, back then, because he was the first person who showed me that the worst monsters are the ones that live next door to people. People are monsters…well, they can be. So I read a lot of Ray Bradbury. Jack L. Chalker, loved his stuff, so probably a lot…I’ve got a lot of old names here that people are going to be scratching their heads over…Aspirin, Robert Aspirin. He actually went to school, college, near my hometown, so I got to meet him when he was thin and gawky and just starting out. That was a thrill.
Well, they don’t have me scratching my head because I think I’m a couple of years older than you are, so it’s right in my era as well. I’ve read many of those same books. Now, you mentioned that your degree was in science. What specific discipline?
Well, I’ve got a degree in science engineering and technology, but I basically ran the the…I worked in the labs and I ran the greenhouse as a work study program. But mostly biology, mostly botany, and I am an avid gardener. You know, it’s hard to find a job in the sciences. My first job was at Dow Chemical and I was chaperoning an experimental fiber. I like to tell people that’s where I learned how to type because I didn’t know how to type until then, but, you know, I’ve had really weird jobs. My favourite job was running live-animal traplines for two years, catching chipmunks and mice for a research project for one of my professors.
Where did you go to university?
Saginaw Valley State University. That’s in Michigan.
Is that where you grew up, in Michigan?
Yes, I did. I grew up just outside of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and went to school at Saginaw Valley State University and then moved down to South Carolina for about 13 years following my husband’s job. And we recently–I say recently but I think it’s been like 10 years now–we moved back to another small town outside of Ann Arbor and it just feels like home. It’s really nice to be back.
So, tell me a little bit about the the first book that you broke into with.
The first book! It was a traditional fantasy called The First Truth and it’s still in print, actually. Tt was the first one of a four-book series and it was…oh, I had everything in it. I had telepathic dragons that could shape shift all in a pre-industrial setting with dragons and wizards and that kind of thing…”and I know they’ll love it!” I went back recently to look something up, a reader had a question, and so I was thumbing through it and I got lost for an hour reading it and it was like, “Oh, yeah, I remember that, oh, yeah, it was so fun.” But yeah, that was the first thing actually that I ever wrote, to tell you the honest truth, because I didn’t write when I was growing up. This particular novel idea came to me when I was like 13 or 14 and I wrote it down when I was in my early 20s and I wrote and rewrote it and rewrote it for about four years and that’s what I honed my writing skills on. A lot of people, I’ve noticed, will write a lot of different manuscripts when they’re honing their skills and try out a lot of different ideas, but I just worked on the one manuscript trying out different things until I found what worked for me.
And that was the one you were working with the writers group?
Yes, it is.
What kind of feedback did you get from them that was helpful?
Well, the first one…one of the very first things that somebody said to me was, he leaned back, he put his hand on his hip, and he said, “This is what you’re going to use to break into print?” And I leaned forward, and I said, “Yes, it is absolutely.” I don’t want to make it sound like they were not supportive because they really, really were, it was just something very different from what what he was writing. And so, in another book that I wrote I killed him off. But it was all in fun. But, yeah.
I actually saw a T-shirt that said, “If you were in my novel I would have killed you off by now.”
That’s the one thing we get to do, legal.
So how did you go from that…how did you break in? How did that book come to the attention of publishers?
That one…well, I found an agent at a writer’s conference, and he took it on and said, “If you can do this, this, and this, I will see about, you know, I will take you as a client and I will see about getting it published,” and so I did this, this, and that, and about a year or two later it was. Now, the Truth books, they did OK, but it wasn’t until I wrote, I started writing an urban fantasy under the Kim Harrison name that I really broke into print, really in a big way. And that one was just a natural extension of taking what I like to write,,,what I like to read, which was the science fiction, and what I like to write, which was the fantasy, and merging the two. Which is kind of what urban fantasy is, you take your fantasy creatures and put them in a modern-day setting. And this was right about the time when Jim Butcher was just getting started, and Charlaine Harris, I think she only had, like, two books out, and Laurell K. Hamilton was really the front runner for the urban fantasy. So, I was getting in on the bottom row of the first tier of the big urban fantasy authors.
Yeah, it’s hard to think that, you know, say, in the ’90s, nobody ever heard of anything called urban fantasy, really, it’s all quite a new subgenre of the field.
He sounds a lot like me, only he has a southern accent and I don’t.
Oh, wicked, wicked.
Anyway, people always ask me, you know, why do you write under a pseudonym? And I have my answer but I’ve already done that in my interview, so, how did your pseudonym come about and why did you use it?
The Kim Harrison pseudonym came out because I switched publishers, and the easiest way to switch publishers is to take on a pen name. At the time, the Dawn Cook books were doing okay, but a publisher is kind of leery of starting up…a new publisher taking on an established author is carrying the weight of the numbers of the last book, unless they take a pen name. And sometimes they’ll take a pen name because book buyers will buy more books from an unknown author than they will one that already has an established track record. Like, if you’ve only sold 10,000 books under your old name, they’ll only buy 10,000 books if you keep that name. But if you change your name, they might take a chance on it and buy 20. So, there’s a numbers game, there’s a legality game because, you know, my original publisher only had the first-look rights to anything written under Dawn, so I was able to make a clean break and go forward as Kim with my second one.
Also, there was the issue that it was a new genre and my new publisher wanted to create a new persona to push these books. And so, I got a wig and I wore leather a couple of times and had a really good time stretching in my skin and becoming Kim, so to speak. Now it’s funny, because I’ll run into people who know me as both, and sometimes I’ll get called Kim and sometimes I’ll get called Dawn, and it might seem confusing, but people have different names–you know, there’s mom or sister or wife. It’s all the same to me, although I know some people are really fussy about their pen names and it’s like, “No, no, use this name,” but I go by anything.
Was it a secret for a while?
It was a really tight secret for a long time. I don’t know how it stayed…we’re talking years. It’s really hard to keep a secret in New York because most of the publishers know and it’s easy to let things slip, and how we managed to keep the Dawn name and the Kim name separate for so long is beyond me. But it’s out now, and it came out when I decided it should come out and the Kim Harrison career was doing well, and my publisher said that it wouldn’t be hurt by having it associated with the original Dawn books. So, it was just easier to come out at that point and not try to keep it a secret anymore. And I recently lost the wig. So, I’ll run into people again who have known me as Kim and they stare at me like, “That’s not Kim.” And we’ll go to conferences and, it’s funny, for the first couple of years when I had lost the wig, I could walk around and not get recognized unless somebody recognized my husband, who is always with me at conferences, and then it’s like, “That can’t be Kim. It’s gotta be Kim. Oh, yeah, it’s Kim!”
Did you ever do any acting when you were growing up?
Oh, I am terribly shy. I…well, yeah. I’m really, really shy and so acting was not ever on my horizon. So, no acting, no. But, you know, I daydreamed a lot, and obviously you use those same muscles when you write.
Yes. One reason I ask that question is because, you know, the pseudonym thing is a little bit like acting, but whenever I talk to–and I act, I’m an actor as well–whenever I talk to authors who’ve done acting, we all find that we are using basically the same mental muscles, because you’re pretending to be somebody else, basically.
Right, right. And, actually, it did help out quite a bit when Kim Harrison name, titles, and books got more popular and I had to do more presenting and I had to do more public appearances. It was nice to have that persona to fall into where I could be more confident and be more comfortable being confident. Now, I don’t need all the trappings that go along with it, which is really nice.
Now, you’ve got books published by more than one publisher, do you not?
Yes. Yeah. I have a couple of graphic novels out through Del Rey. I’ve got my fantasies, which are under Ace. I have the Hollows, which is under HarperCollins, and Perfection, which is under Subterranean Press.
We’re going to talk a little bit about the editing process later, so maybe I’ll save the next logical question for when we get to there. Well, we are going to focus on your brand-new book, um…Perfunctory Affection.
Yes. I call it just Perfection because it’s a mouthful, but yes.
Well, and of course the typography they use for the title highlights the Per and Fection so that you get that Perfection when you look at it. And that ties into the story, of course. I’m going to get you to do a synopsis of it, so I don’t give away something you don’t want to give away.
How would you describe the book?
Oh, well, that would depend on what kind of day I’m having. At its basis, it’s about Meg, who’s dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder from a couple of accidents in her life. And she is an artist and she’s poised to take the art world by storm if she can get over her debilitating anxiety. She teaches art at one of the local universities and she’s working with a psychiatrist, too, to get through this. And she’s getting better, but she meets a couple of people who seem, you know, perfect. And her psychiatrist puts her on a new medication that makes it easier to deal with the stresses in her life, and her life seems to be turning around, and then her boyfriend starts to appear to be controlling, and not in a good way. I mean, he’s kind and he’s nice, but he’s making it easier for her to not become the person that she wants to be. And the doctor herself, she starts to look a little gray, and the waters get muddier and muddier until you’re really not sure what happened when the book is finally over.
And that was my goal, to have the reader finish the book and close it and say, “Did that just happen, or did she just imagine it?” And so, I hope that’s the way people feel when they finish the book because that’s something new for me, and I am really glad I had the opportunity to try to write that.
Yeah, I did find that interesting, you know, I would decide that something was real and then I’d think, “Wait a minute, maybe it wasn’t,” all the way to the end, so, yes, I think you accomplished exactly what you set out to accomplish.
Oh, good, good.
What was…well, specifically, what was the genesis of this book, but more generally, where do book ideas come to you from?
This one…this one I think came from–a tiny little nugget came from my husband, who drives me around and makes my life very easy. He’s…I want to say he’s the perfect house-husband without him feeling bad about that, because he does make my life easier and so I’m able to avoid the things that I don’t like to do. So, there’s a tiny nugget of that in there, but most of my book ideas come from what I’m dealing with on a daily basis, where, you know, I’m not dealing with vampires and werewolves, you know, and I’m not trying to solve crimes, issues that she deals with on an emotional level and there’s a couple of other books…oh, my Drafter series! I forgot all about my accelerated-science thrillers, the Drafter books, where the main character, her ability when she uses it in her job, her magic ability, it takes chunks of her memory so it can be debilitating. And, you know, I’m dealing with a parent who’s losing chunks of their memory, so that impacted me and I wanted to write about and try to find a way to deal with it by working with it on a daily basis in my books.
And you know, I have another series, that’s not published, about a woman who is at the top of her game, and then a medical issue comes and takes everything that she’s, you know, sacrificed for away, and she has to find a way to get the job done without that ability and find a new meaning for life. And, you know, everybody loses things. And so, that comes into my work and I put it in there.
So, the kernels of the story, besides the saving the world, what’s going on with the character, that comes from things that are, they’re hitting my life and making my life challenging, and ways for me to overcome my own obstacles. So, it’s very much…maybe I’m a method writer, I guess maybe you’d call it, by taking in what what’s around me and internalizing it before I can, excuse me, word-vomit it all over the place. But that’s where my ideas come from. The saving the world is secondary, it’s always the character development and the characters that pull me to my desk every day.
So, once you had this initial germ of an idea, how did you go about developing it? What kind of an outline or planner are you?
Oh, I have a really good balance of plotting and pantser. I used to think that I was strictly a plotter because I do outlines, and I love my outlines, and I don’t like starting a book until I have it all sketched out. And it’ll take me a couple of weeks, and I’ll start with a real quick synopsis, which grows into a three-page, and then I break it down, and I have a page per chapter–but I never hold to it. Usually about page 100 I’ve made enough changes that I have to rewrite my outline, and right about page 300 I throw my outline out and I just pants it to the end, knowing I have the goals. The goals are still there, but how I’m getting there shifts. But it’s always…the actual, when I sit down and write, it’s always dialogue first, and I’ll spend the day writing out the dialogue for a chapter, and it kind of looks like what I imagine a script might, with a little minor directions of character movement and whatnot, but it’s mostly dialogue, and if I don’t have that dialogue I start wandering off track. So that keeps me on point and I get to where I’m going that way.
It does actually sound like you should try writing plays.
My dialogue chapters look a lot like a play, yeah.
Now, you’d said that it’s the characters for you that drive the story forward and bring you back to it. How do you find the characters that you are going to put into your story?
They…the main character usually grows out of the issue that I’m dealing with. The supplemental characters come from the story itself, to fill a need, whether it be a romantic interest or a platonic relationship or of something that just brings out the issue that the character is dealing with. I find that my antagonists are often more interesting and fun to watch than my protagonist. I really enjoy my antagonists. I have very few that are fully bad. I think I have a vampire who’s totally irredeemable but most of them are redeemable. Most of them don’t get redeemed. If you’re familiar at all with the Hollows series, Trent Kalamack was supposed to be my big, bad ugly through the whole series but about Book 6 Rachel began to understand where he was coming from and that his purpose was noble and at that point she either had to kill him or start to really understand him, and by the end of the series…well, it’s not ended, actually there’s another one in the works…but by the original ending he was a love interest, and it worked. I mean,, it took a long time to get there because I like my relationships to be believable, but I did make him go from an antagonist to a protagonist.
Did you know that was going to happen when you started the series or did that happen along the way?
No, I did not. I wanted my hero to be the poor, downtrodden, wickedly smart man and my villain to be the really wealthy, rich kind of snobby boy, which…and it turned out all wrong. The readers…I do not write romance but because I pay so much attention to relationships I have a really wide following in the romance area, and my romance readers, they told me first, they said, “She should be with Trent,” so I explored it my mind a little bit and I said, “Yeah, you know what? You might be right.” And it took several books to believably turn that around—but I’m glad I did!
Now, when you are initially designing characters, do you do detailed character sheets or is it more you have an idea and it comes out on the page as you write?
It’s a little of both. I do have character sheets. They’re very messy, they’re handwritten, and they’re only there so I don’t make a mistake and have somebody with eyes blue in book and brown in the other.
The perennial problem!
But it was a real problem when I went to do my world book that I didn’t have more details on my characters. But most of them develop like you get to know a person, you know, surface stuff and then a little deeper and when you see them at their worst point, you know, the really core of a person comes out, and that’s, I think, my favourite part.
This particular book, Perfunctory Affection, has a very tight point of view. You’re in Meg’s head for the entire time, which, of course, I think the kind of book it is that pretty much was the only way you could tell it. Is that typical or do you do different points of view over different books?
Well, my first book was third, and I wrote in third person for quite a while and I enjoyed it, but it was a fantasy and you kind of need that to manage the scope. The Hollows books were written in first person, which is what most urban fantasy is because the readers like the intimacy of it, and I found I had to almost re-learn how to tell a story from a first-person point of view because, like I said, I like my villains, and I wanted to see them and get to know them, and it’s harder when you’re in only one person’s point of view. However, it does give you a more intimate feel, which I really like. And the Hollows books were, they’re kind of detective, so it fits. You can do it, it works. I’m writing in third person right now, on the work I’m working on currently, but I think first person is my favorite just because of that intimacy.
Did you consider it for Perfunctory Affection?
You know, I did but, like you noticed, it really has to be from one person’s point of view in order to…it is, isn’t it? It’s been a while since I’ve worked on it…
Yes, it’s entirely very tightly in Meg’s point of view.
I didn’t think I had anything in there from third.
It’s as tight in as if it was first person, but it’s written in third.
And, yeah, what I found interesting, because of the and…as I said I think it almost…okay, if I had been writing it I wouldn’t have done it in first person, either. Therefore, I think you made the correct decision.
Okay. Seriously, it’s been so long I don’t remember actually what…but now that I think about it, it was third, wasn’t it?
But it was all her point of view pretty much.
And I think because of the not being sure what’s real and what’s not, I thought that that also…
Yeah, it really had to be like that.
Yeah. What’s your actual…well, one question before we get to that.
Meg, in this story, is an artist and you’ve mentioned you’ve done some art, and there’s some other…you know, what kind of research do you do going into a book?
Um…that’s tricky. I don’t do a whole lot of research. I don’t like falling into that research trap. If a place setting is important, I will do a lot of research on a place. The Hollows books take place in Cincinnati ,and I know Cincinnati better than my hometown, you know, I’ve been in the tunnels, I’ve been on Carew Tower, I’ve been on the streets, and I’ll spend a week there if I need to, but before anything else I prefer to spend, like, maybe an hour or two online to get an idea of how I need to tackle this or move forward in it, and then I just go.
And maybe research as you encounter things along the way?
Yeah. Most of my research, if you can call it that, is just done by living. You know, I’m constantly taking things in. I’m constantly weighing them in my mind. I’m constantly trying to figure out why this is that way. And I’ll come out to my husband and say the weirdest things, like, “I think she turned around and went the other way because of blah blah blah blah blah.” And that’s how I live my life. I’m always trying to figure out why people are doing things the way they are. And that’s pretty much most of my research. Like, I didn’t do a whole lot of research on anxiety…well, I looked it up to find out what the symptoms were, you know, that kind of thing, but no, not a whole lot, to tell you the honest truth.
The question went out of my head that I was about to ask…oh, yes. So, you were talking about the researching, you know, basically by living, and you have done, as you said, a lot of different and interesting kinds of jobs, and you have that science degree which which you say you apply. How does all that feed into your work?
Oh, a lot. I look very analytically at most problems that appear on the page. I use science quite a bit. I tap into DNA as being a reason for the way things are. When I’m designing creatures like vampires and witches and pixies and and stuff I will pull on my biology background and say, “Well, it’s a pixie, it’s small, that means it needs a high-energy source, so it’s probably feeding on nectar, which means it’s going to hibernate or migrate during the winter. It’s going to have a, you know, low cold tolerance.” So, you know, it just builds on itself like that. So, that’s how I use my biology degree mostly, but I do like the beauty behind genetics and, you know, I’ve recently looked back at my body of work and I’ve got genetics in that first fantasy series that I did and I touch on it in the Hollows books and it just keeps popping up here and there. You know, it must be on my mind.
What’s your actual writing process look like? Do you sit in an office and type, do you work in a coffee shop, do you hand write, how does it work for you?
Yeah, I do, I sit in the office. I am lucky enough now to have a office that is six steps away from my back door. It’s a stand-alone octagon. I’ve got windows on all eight sides of me, and I’m basically sitting in a glass box in the middle of my garden. And, it’s been a, you know, when I’m out of my office I’m landscaping the area that I’m looking at and when I’m inside my office I’m head down over the keyboard. When I’m working on plotting there’s a section that’s handwritten, but then I graduate to typing, fairly rapidly now, and then it’s all on the keyboard. I like to work at my office and then…so that when I leave my office I can separate the book world from my real world, and if I have a physical, you know, shut-the-door sensation I think it makes it easier. I think most writers are working all the time whether they know it or not. But being able to shut the door and walk away has helped me divorce myself from whatever issues my characters are working on–because it can spill over into your everyday life if you’re not careful.
I have tried working other places. I recently was in Tucson for two months and I developed the ability to sit outside in the sunshine and work on a laptop instead of in my office off a keyboard, so, you know, I can be flexible, but–I don’t want to say it’s a nine-to-five job now, but I do work almost every day and I try to keep to a schedule. And I think that’s about the only way that I can get anything done. I’m not a splurgeist, I am a a scheduled-time-to-write person.
You mentioned that you start with dialogues, so then you flesh it out from there in your first draft?
Yes. And my first draft is really ugly. I will be the first to admit it. I don’t show my first draft to anybody but my husband and…he’s my sounding board, actually, which is really nice, to have somebody who knows your work as much as you do, and the characters, so that you can talk things over. But I don’t show that to my my editor until I’m at least on my second or third draft because they are so ugly. My first drafts have holes in them and some logic issues. The whole point of a first draft for me is to find out where you’re going and what you end up at. And then you go back and you make it work.
It’s kind of like, going back to the art, it’s sort of like having the clay, you roughly shape it out the first time and then you go in and you put in the details.
Yeah, exactly, exactly.
You mentioned your husband being a sounding board. Do you, at some point, do you use beta readers or anything like that like some writers do?
No, I do not. And I don’t know if that’s…you know, a lot of people do. But I have just never been comfortable with it.
I don’t either, so I’m glad that somebody else doesn’t.
Yeah, my editor is usually the first professional who sees it and I’m…I don’t want to say I’m particular about my editors but I have to trust them implicitly, and so, if it’s a bad fit, it goes sour really fast because if I don’t trust their judgment, you know, it’s like, “Why should I make this change?” You know, I have a little bit of a stubborn streak. But if I trust their judgment it’s like, “I will do it even if I don’t understand why because I trust your judgment.” And if it’s a good fit and they know where I’m going and we’re coming from the same place, it works. You know, I really enjoy working with an editor that I trust.
And, since you have worked with a number of different publishers, you must have worked with a number of different editors over the years.
I have. Probably fewer than most, though. I find somebody I like and I don’t want to go anywhere. I enjoy working…I enjoy feeling like I’m a part of a team even though I’m not involved a lot in in many of the decisions abut how a book is marketed and published and placed. But I enjoy feeling like I’m a part of a team, and my job is to present a product that can be tailored to an editor’s…what an editor sees can be marketable. And, you know, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But, yeah, I do enjoy working with my editors.
What kind of feedback do you get from editors, as in, is there a recurring theme in the sorts of things that you find yourself working on in the editorial pass? I know, for me there’s certain things that…well, of course, have basically only worked with, on the big publisher side, DAW Books, it’s been Sheila Gilbert the entire time. And I already…and everybody that’s edited by Sheila says the same thing, it’s that you get to the point where you’re saying, “Sheila is going to say something about that.” And sure enough, Sheila says something about that.
I’ve never run into that before!
Do you find that there’s certain things that you’re always getting asked to work on in the editorial revision?
I get asked a lot to put in more physical characteristics, and I think that’s just because I see people by how they act rather than what they look like. So, I have really had to work hard at describing people more. You know, I can describe them well but then I don’t…if I don’t remind myself I don’t remind the reader of what they look like throughout the book. And I hear that a lot. Other than that, it’s mostly…mostly I get a lot of questions on, “Can you clarify how this magic system works?” or “Can you flesh out the world a little bit more?” or it might be, “This reaction doesn’t wash with me. You either need to fix it or change the reaction or go back and add some more stuff so I understand why it happened.” Stuff like that.
I think that’s…I think the thing that editors, and new writers will often…they’ll say, “Well, I don’t know if I want to be edited or not. The editor’s going to change things or tell me to change things.”
But good editors have seen a lot of stories and they know what works and they know what doesn’t and they know where you need to kick things up a bit.
Yes. I have run in…most of my editors have been really good but occasionally you might run into one who doesn’t read your work thoroughly enough, and they’ll…I had one editor wipe out the first three pages of almost every chapter and then say, “I need more detail on this this and this.” And it was…and that’s what was in the first three pages! But I had wedged it in so carefully that she skimmed right over it. But that’s rare. I think most of the time editors really care about what they’re doing and they buy your work because they like it and they want…and they see a way to make it better. And they see a place where it can be sold. So if…my advice is, if an editor tells you to change something, unless it’s something that, you know, clearly they missed, change it. Do it. See if…it might work better. You can always change it back.
I like what you said about being part of a team because although as writers we work very independently and on our own for much of the time, once it gets up to the publication level you are part of a team and it’s becomes more of a collaborative thing. That final book has gone through, you know, copyeditors and…the editors and the copyeditors and there’s cover art and there’s blurb writing and there’s all these things that come together to actually make the book when it actually hits the shelf.
And I think if an author feels like they’re part of the process, not just giving them a manuscript and doing a copyedit and page proofs but really part of the process of helping to design the cover, and…the worst covers I’ve ever done are the ones that I’ve tried to design. So, you know, the author is not the person to design the cover but input, a little input, makes you feel involved and the more involved the author is in those later stages of the book, I think the more they’re willing to help push it through their own…like Facebook and Twitter and their…their outreaches to the readers.
And speaking of readers, you’ve already mentioned that some of the feedback from readers had you take another look at the relationship in the Hollows books and you are a, you know, very widely read author, do you get a lot of feedback from your readers, and how does that impact what you do going forward?
I listen to them because sometimes they see things before I do. Sometimes they see things that…a more interesting path than I normally would. I’m in touch with my readers a lot. I’m pretty active on my Facebook and my Twitter, Instagram not so much but I’ve got an account, and it works for me. They often come to me with questions. Rarely do they come to me with suggestions but their questions lead me to think about, “Well, maybe what if?” And that’s that’s what an author always wants to be doing, is saying, “Well, what if?” And to me, the editing, the changing, you know, once you get that first draft done, that’s the hard part. The fun part is tweaking it and tailoring it and seeing what would happen if they go through this door instead of that or they pick up the stray dog, you know, that kind of thing.
And I…going back to the idea of teamwork, ultimately a book is collaborative not just with the people who produce it, but also also with the people who read it. It doesn’t exist, in a way, until somebody reads it and what they get out of it may be quite different from what you thought you were putting in there but clearly because they got it out of there it’s in there somewhere.
Yeah, it’s in there whether you meant it to be or not.
There’s a story about Isaac Asimov, whom you mentioned, I think it was in one of his biographical books, Opus 100 or Opus 200 or Opus 300, I think he went that far, where he mentioned to being in a classroom in a university where they were teaching his classic story “Nightfall,” and he listened to the professor talk about it and then afterwards he went up to him, and he said, “that was very interesting but I’m Isaac Asimov and I wrote that story and I didn’t put any of that stuff in there.” And the professor said, “Well, I’m very glad to meet you but what makes you think that, just because you wrote it, you know what’s in there?” I’ve kept that in the back of my head for thirty, forty years now.
Yeah, that works, that really…that’s right.
Well, let’s talk a bit about the big philosophical questions here. Why do you write, do you think, after all these years, and why do you keep doing it, and specifically why do you write this kind of stuff?
I write to keep from going insane.
I get that a lot from authors.
Yeah, yeah. I think we’re all different but we’re all of a type. It’s…writing is a way for me to get a grip on reality, of what’s going on around me. I don’t want to say that I have a bad life, because I have a wonderful life, but life is full of ups and downs and minor, you know, personal tragedies. And writing helps me work through it and find a way to deal with it. I like puzzles and exploring how things fit together, and that’s what writing is to me. A lot of it is seeing, you know, you start with all these pieces and this is what you want. Well, how do you put them together to get there? And it’s just…it’s a way for me to relax, if I may say so. This is…I’m an introvert, so I need a lot of personal time, and this is the way I can do that and pay the bills. Lucky me, lucky, lucky me! And it’s an escape. You know, people read to escape. Well, I write to escape, and it’s a healthy escape. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
And why science fiction and fantasy?
Why science fiction and fantasy. Yeah, I forgot that part, didn’t I? Probably because that’s what I read growing up, and it’s tied to emotions and good feelings and there’s probably some endorphins going on in there, too–the mind’s a wonderful thing. But that’s probably why. It’s what I like to read so it’s what I like to write. I think it’s that simple.
In the case of Perfunctory Affection, if you read it in one way, it’s not just science fiction or fantasy at all.
No, no it isn’t. It is not. And that is why I really enjoyed writing it. I had just finished…well, I thought I had just finished the Hollows series and I needed something to cleanse my palate, and Perfunctory Affection was an idea that I wanted to work on for a long time and hadn’t been able to. So, I just dived right into it. And it came out to be a weird length, it’s like 68,000 words, which is about half of what I usually write…well, actually, it’s maybe a third of what I usually write for a book. But I couldn’t bear the thought of padding it to make it a full novel because it needed to be slim and trim and the way it is. I don’t really want to think about what was going on in my head or my life at the time that I wrote it because this kind of scary, but, no, it is not fantasy. It is not science fiction. I think I’d call it a psychological thriller, maybe?
Yeah, I think that would fit. I mean, it has a science element to it.
So, in a way it’s science fiction because it has science in it and it’s fiction. But still, I don’t think I would call it that.
And then with Haley and Rory, I don’t know, that might be fantasy.
It is if you read it one way, yeah.
Yes, it is. Yeah. Yeah. So, if it can be read multiple ways I think I’ve done my job.
Sixty-eight thousand is kind of a young adult length. That’s the length of some young adult books that I wrote, and you have written young adult, haven’t you?
I have. Oh, I forgot about those. Yes. I wrote those under Kim Harrison. Again, I think they’re urban fantasy although they don’t deal with vampires. They deal with the grim reaper and angels and that might be urban fantasy-ish.
I think I’d still call it that.
What do you find different writing for young adults and adults?
Not a whole lot. My young adults tend to be, like, 16 to 20, maybe. And the biggest thing that I keep in mind when I sit down is that, aside from including a parent figure in there, that the odds are higher. I think most young adults feel like they don’t have any resources compared to an adult. And…when the truth of the matter is that they’ve got tons of resources, they’ve got friends, they’ve got, you know, they’ve got their own internal power, their strength, their courage, you know, they’ve got tons and tons of of resources, they just don’t realize it. And the fun part about young adult is being able to show a character who feels like they don’t have these resources in order to surmount whatever they need to, and then showing how, yes, you do, and how they grow into it, so to speak. But young adult is where I first started reading,and I love writing young adult, it’s just…I don’t know. The adult issues I guess come up more often, or more easier perhaps, in the adult stuff, and I think for me it’s harder for me to write a young adult and put those adult issues in it, like a lot of authors do. I kind of like to keep my young adult something that I wouldn’t mind my grandma reading, so to speak.
So, we’ve talked about readers and so I guess the other…this whole podcast is called The Worldshapers. Do you hope through your writing that you are shaping…I know, shaping the real world might be a bit grand…but ate least shaping readers in some way, reaching into them and changing them a little bit?
Yes. And I have. I have gotten the feeling that I have changed…I don’t want to say I’ve changed people’s lives…people have read my work and changed their lives in certain instances. I’ve toured for a while, and one of the fun things is, I had a couple come up to me at one of my events and they told me that they met in line two years ago or last year and now they’re a couple. I mean, that’s cool in itself! My favorite story is, a reader came up to me and told me a story that he was in a coffee shop and he saw somebody reading one of my books across the way. And he looked at the woman and he made a bunny-eared kiss-kiss, which is basically a peace sign where you crook your fingers twice in quick succession, and his friend said, “Do you know that woman?” And the woman, you know, across the way, crooked her fingers and did the same thing back, and the guy said, “No, it’s a book thing, it’s a Hollows thing.” And to be able to know that you have impacted the world enough that two people who don’t know each other and share a moment across the coffee shop, you know, that’s heady stuff.
We’re just about out of time here. So, tell me what you’re working on now. What comes next?
I am actually working on American Demon. It is the next Hollows book, with Rachel and Trent. It picks up after the last book but before the epilogue in the last book. So I’ve wedged it in. I hope the readers will be pleased with it. I’m also working on a something completely out of my wheelhouse. It’s more of a hero’s journey. And I don’t really want to say much more than that but it’s not in the Hollows, it’s something else. But I’ve been enjoying being able to write on a multitude of subjects, which is something that, once you get kind of name brand into a genre, that you don’t often get a chance to do, so I’ve just been enjoying writing whatever I feel like. But American Demon is the thing that’s on my plate right now.
And Perfunctory Affection just came out.
It will be out on the March 31.
Which will probably be before this airs, I think I can say…
Ok, yes, so it just came out.
And it’s from Subterranean Press, right?
Yes, it is. And this one is a little special. They are all signed and numbered, which is something new for me. Usually I have a small print run that’s signed and numbered. It is a small print run, but this is it. There is an audio version that will come out and I believe the e-book will come out at some point. But if you want to get a hold of this, it’s…you can get it through Amazon, but Subterranean Press is the publisher and they’re all signed and numbered.
Oh, I feel I feel fortunate to have had an advance reader copy.
There weren’t very many of them, no!
And where can people find you online?
They can find me at my Web site, kimharrison.net. I’m also on Facebook and Twitter @BurningBuddies.
Okay! Well, thank you so much for being on The Worldshapers!
Well, thank you! This has been a fabulous interview.
Victoria/V.E. Schwab is the number-one New York Times best-selling author of more than a dozen books, including the acclaimed Shades of Magicseries, The Savage Song, Our Dark Duet,Vicious, Vengeful,The Near Witch, and City of Ghosts. . Her work has received critical acclaim, been featured in the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, the Washington Post, and more, has been translated into more than a dozen languages, and has been optioned for television and film. When she’s not haunting Paris streets or trudging up English hillsides, she’s usually tucked in the corner of a coffee shop, dreaming up monsters. She currently lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Thank you for having me.
Before we started recording this, I was just telling you that my daughter is a fan, and the way I came to your books, was my niece, she’s a lawyer, actually, in her 30s, had recommended the Shades of Magic to my daughter, who then read them and then recommended them to me. So, it’s what, you know, they say, “Word of mouth is the best possible publicity.”
I think, especially, weirdly word of mouth is more powerful these days when there’s so much buzz in so many different directions that I think there’s an authenticity that comes with word of mouth that really makes it very special. So, I’m incredibly flattered that that’s how you came to my work.
I always like to see if I can find any connections with the authors, your about the twenty-third I’ve interviewed here, and it’s a stretch with you, but you grew up in Nashville, and I went to university at Harding University, in Searcy, AR, which is in the neighborhood, church of Christ, you’ll be familiar with that if you grew up in Nashville.
And I spent a month with a family in Edinburgh, before you were born, so there you go, there’s a connection.
That’s a good connection, that’s like, what, five degrees of separation, not six.
Yeah, not bad at all. So how did you, first of all, become interested in reading—I presume you started as a reader of the fantastic—and then moved on from there to start writing it. Did that all start when you were a kid or what was your story?
I definitely wasn’t one of those children who grew up in a library. I think those are really beautiful narratives to hear. I was a jock. I was a really serious athlete all growing up. I wanted to go to the World Cup for soccer long before I ever thought about telling stories for a living. But I had a lot of health problems as well and so I wasn’t able to compete in sports at that level, but really I was a proficient reader, in that I was a very capable reader, but I had not had the experience that many children have growing up where they read something that makes them forget that they’re reading, that transportative experience. And the first time that ever really happened with me was with Harry Potter. And that can seem like a very trite answer these days, when almost everyone, it seems, has read those books, but you have to remember I’m 31, and so I read the first Harry Potterbook when it came out and I was 11 and Harry Potter was 11. So, I had the, based purely on the year in which I was born, the immense (privilege) of ageing with a protagonist in that way, and of becoming part of something that was such a phenomenon, such a worldwide phenomenon. And so, Harry Potterwould come to dominate and inform my entire teen years, my entire youth, in that way.
And that was a really special thing, because if I hadn’t had that series, I’m not sure how long it would have taken for me to find a series that transported me in that sense, that made me realize the power of narrative, because I grew up in love with poetry. And poetry is incredible, poetry, everything from William Blake to Shel Silverstein, is wonderful but it’s not transportative in the same way. It gives you an intense appreciation for language, but it doesn’t make you forget at any point that you’re reading.
And so, that’s really the power that Harry Potterhad for me, and being a true World-Domination-seeking Slytherin, my first reaction was, oh wow, this is cool, and my second reaction as an eleven, twelve-year-old was, “Wow, words are very powerful.” You know, the idea of words on a page being something which could psychologically impact you in that way, which could emotionally transport you, was to me a very intoxicating premise. And so it wasn’t very long before I started trying to write as well, though it would be, I would be 18 or 19 before I tried to write a book.
Did you write stuff before that, short stories or pieces?
I was particularly into fragments, yeah, really into poems, very dark, apocalyptic poems. All teenagers should write bad poetry. I was really into short stories. I was really into narrative non-fiction. Basically. I was really into anything that wasn’t novel-length because I was so convinced, to be honest, sixteen books I’m still convinced, that I don’t have the attention span for a novel. I was very afraid of the idea of having to keep a novel in my head while putting it down on paper. And so, I really…one of the only reasons that it even took me until college to try and write a novel was because I tried every other form first and then I realized that, as a sophomore in college I realized that the reason I hadn’t tried to write a novel was because I was afraid of failing. And I have a very antagonistic relationship to fear. The moment somebody points out that I’m afraid of something, or the moment I realize I’m afraid of something, I have a kind of combative reaction to that. So I realized I had a fear of heights and I jumped out of an airplane when I turned 18, and I realized I had a fear of change and I chopped off all my hair, and I realized I had a fear of being away from my comforts and so I traveled around Europe, like backpacking, and so, when I realized that I was afraid of failing to do this thing I immediately sat down and was determined to start and finish a novel.
Well, when you were writing fragments and bad teenage poetry—and I’ve edited magazines of teenaged writing, and I can assure that teenagers still write bad teenage poetry—were people encouraging you that, you know, you’ve got something here, maybe you should be writing it. Did you have encouragement along the way?
I did have some reinforcement in that, I struggled a lot as a teenager, and I felt very displaced at the time. I was so in the closet that I had no concept that I was gay, but I just felt continuously othered. I had been dropped into an all-girls Southern preparatory school at age thirteen in a completely different state, and I felt so out of place and so out of my element that writing became something that was just a tether. It was just an outlet for me. And then I had a couple of teachers who began to encourage me. And you know, God knows if they saw something or if they were just trying to say, “Here’s an anchor, here’s a life raft, but it really helped. And I, because I grew up with poetry I had a really, really good ear for cadence. And so, I actually…I mean, I was 15 or 16 when I started submitting poetry and winning contests with it. And by the time I graduated high school I was my high school’s Poet Laureate, and I had a sense from there on that I really wanted to do something with words, that words gave me a sense of power that I didn’t feel in the rest of my environment.
So, when you got to university, did you study writing, or did you study something else and write on the side?
When I first went to university I started out in astrophysics, and so needless to say I was a great departure. I would end up changing my major six times…and I stand by this. though. I wasn’t changing it because I wasn’t capable in any one discipline. I was changing it because the idea of choosing only one was terrifying to me. And that was really one of the first indicators I should have had that I wanted a creative profession because one of the beauties of writing fiction is that you get to become somebody else for a limited period of time. You get to become an astrophysicist, you get to become an explorer, you get to become an archaeologist, a scholar, a write,r you get to become all of these things and kind of dive into different lives. And that was something which really, really appealed to me. I do have a minor in creative writing.
I’m of very many minds when it comes to pursuing creative writing from an academic perspective instead of from a exploratory perspective. I still believe that the best education that I’ve gotten towards my own writing has been reading. I still believe that the vast majority of what I took away from those programs was, if anything, simply a…not a comfort, I don’t think I ever became comfortable with sharing my work, but the necessity of getting over that fear of critique, that was something that I took away from the programs. But the writing was something which happened in the background. It was something that I protected throughout university as a creative outlet.
It’s interesting, because several authors I’ve talked, some of whom did have formal creative writing classes, are also of two minds. I went into journalism myself, when I made my decision I wanted to work with words, because I was very, very practical and thought, “I can get a job,” as opposed to just trying to make a living just writing stories or something. So, how did the first novel come about? How did you break in, I guess is the question.
So, my…weirdly, because of my background in poetry, because I had an interesting or unusual cadence, I was able to get a literary agent with that first, first novel that I ever wrote, the one that I wrote when I was a sophomore in college. Now, that book never got published. It got very far up the acquisitions ladder at multiple houses and got rightfully rejected because it had no plot, because I didn’t actually know how to write a book. It was the first time I’d ever even tried. And what I was good at was writing very pretty sentences and what I had not yet figured out how to do was write a story. And so, I was so busy, that happened when I was a sophomore, I got an agent, from my sophomore year through my junior year that book was on submission to publishers and being summarily rejected from them. I hit my senior year, it was my second semester senior, and at that point I was doing an arts program. I had moved from astrophysics into set design into art history into English into…oh, God, one other one…and then—Japanese cultures and mythologies—and then into graphic design and marketing and design, and because I had come into the program so late, I was really behind. So I had this intense course load that I was having to take because most of the design majors had been in their program for like, four years, and I had been in it for a year and a half. So I had no time. It would have been very, very easy to put writing aside, and I would have followed that classic narrative arc of going off and doing something else for ten, fifteen, twenty years and then saying, “Oh I always wanted to write a book, I always wanted to be an author,” and find my way back to it. And I had this crystal-clear, almost out-of-body experience, on a February night as a second-semester senior, thinking, like, “This is where I make this choice. I either sit down right now and try again and try to write another book. or it is going to be something that I come back to after I have had another life,” and I didn’t want it to be that.
And so I began checking out of my art studio space for two hours every night from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m., walking off-campus to a coffee shop across the street, and sitting down and writing for two hours a night. It was time I really didn’t have, but I made this decision that I did not want to…I didn’t want the first book I had ever written to be a fluke and I didn’t want to give up on this path. And so, some nights I would write 500 words and some nights I would write 2,000 words, but essentially by the time I graduated that spring I had a draft of another novel and that novel was called The Near Witch, which is about a village where a stranger appears one night, and the following night all of the children begin to disappear one by one, and that would go on to be my debut novel
And there’s been several since then.
How many are you up to now, after about ten years?
Well, sixteen in about eight years, because it sold ten years ago, but I had several gaps. I had an eighteen-month gap between when it came out and when my next book came out. So for a while there, it was a two-year gap between when it sold and when it was published and…so, but yeah, it will come out to about seventeen books in ten years.
Now, you write both young adult and adult. Was the first book young adult or adult?
The first book was young adult, and I’ve actually written a few middle grade in ther,e as well, so for the age bracket below young adult. The Near Witchwas young adult. My first three books, The Near Witch, The Archived, and The Unbound, were all young adult, and then my fourth novel, Vicious, was my first adult novel.
When I started, my first unpublished novels were all basically young adult because that’s how old I was.
Is that one reason why you started in the young adult market? Because you were quite young when you wrote that first book.
Interestingly…and this is something that I had to do a lot of, like, soul-searching with afterwards, I have never written very comfortably into YA. Even my books that we were talking about earlier, The Savage Songand Our Dark Duet, they’re very, very much upper YA. And it has nothing to do with any of the arbitrary boundaries. I find that I tend to write very dark and very adult and less…I write almost no romance and I write very little coming-of-age, and so, it’s not that I ever fell cleanly in one category or another, it’s simply that my agent said, this will work in this category or this will work in this. I have always tried very hard to do what’s right for the story, and and try to worry about where it fits on a shelf later, because, you know, YA is a category of which more than half the readers are adults, and adult is a category of which more than half the readers teenagers. And so, I think it could be really unnecessarily divisive when we think creatively about these boundaries and about these thresholds. My primary interest is writing stories for a version of myself. So, when I write middle-grade novels, I am writing the book that I would have wanted to read at ten or eleven. Now I was a very morbid, strange ten- and eleven-year-old reading Jason Bourne and Stephen King. I was a very morbid and strange and outsider seventeen-year-old, which is who I wrote The Savage Songand Our Dark Duetand the Archivebooks for, and I’m a very morbid and strange thirty-one-year-old, which is who I wrote Vengefulfor earlier this year, and so, I think that’s really the only way that I fathom the boundaries between my books.
And I think you’ve pointed out, I’ve seen in interviews, that there are different categories in different countries.
Exactly. Yeah, my threshold for young adult in France is like twenty-three, and the threshold in, what is it, let’s see, in Brazil it’s quite high…or it’s quite low…oh, but in like the UK, which is where I live, you’ll see the young adult spaces on the shelves really skew younger. So, what we would consider a lower YA in the US, in terms of that kind of, like, fourteen and fifteen and much more contemporary, that’s the bulk of the young adult shelf in the UK. So, even books of mine which are published as YA in the US then are published as adult in the UK
I want to talk specifically about the Shades of Magic trilogy, and…so, I’m going to ask you the classic question. I won’t say where do you get your ideas, but I will say, what was the spark for that particular trilogy? And there’s more books coming in the series.
There are, there are. So, I’m a bit of a magpie writer. I have a slow process in which I collect many shiny bits and pieces of an idea before it coalesces into something, before I have a nester or whatever. I…so, it’s never like, one thing. I’m not a person who dreams entire stories. I’m not a person who sits down and has an entire character spill out. It’s usually a collection of fragments that simply…something comes along to become the codifying ingredient. And so, for Shades of Magic, A Darker Shade of Magic is the first book, and for those who don’t know, it’s about a magician with the ability to move between alternate versions of the world, officially as a messenger and unofficially as a smuggler, and he comes into possession of something he should not have. It all came about from several, several sources, gathered together slowly, but essentially, I wanted to write a love letter to Harry Potterbut not to any of the specifics of Harry Potter. I wanted to write a love letter to the nostalgia of wanting to visit a place, because at the time I was thinking about Shades of Magic, the market was inundated with dystopia and with narratives in which…the narratives themselves were incredibly compelling, but you as the reader would never want to go back and visit just to spend time in those worlds. Whereas, with Harry Potter, like, you wanted to go back to Hogwarts and you could kind of visually, mentally extrapolate what house you would be in and what you would study and do all these things, and it kind of gave you a world of nostalgia that existed outside of the actual plots of the characters. And I missed that, I missed having a world that I wanted to simply spend time in. So, I wanted to design that.
I also wanted to…I really like designing magical structures because I think that magical structures work best when they are at their most intuitive. And so, I wanted to design an intuitive magical structure. I wanted to do a nod to Avatar: The Last Airbender, which I was very much in love with at the time and still am, and I just…I had a visual in my head, along with all of those other elements. I had this still-frame picture, which I get sometimes, I get still-frame pictures in my head, and it was a man in a red coat walking through a wall and colliding with a girl dressed as a boy. And I had no story to go with it. And so, that was that was actually the first piece of the puzzle that I had. And then I was piecing through a snowfield garden, talking to a friend of mine, trying to figure out what I was going to write next, and I mentioned that picture, and I thought about how I write about a lot of different kinds of doors in my books, metaphorical and physical, but I had never written, at that point, alternate worlds, alternate realities. And when I mentioned that, I immediately thought back to that visual in my head and thought, “Oh, what if he wasn’t walking through a wall between rooms, like, what if he was walking through a wall between worlds?” And all of a sudden all of the other little shiny magpie pieces that I had just kind of started clicking, cascading into place.
One of the, I would almost call it a character in the book, is the city of London, and it’s three different iterations. Why London?
You know, it’s twofold. My cheeky answer is that London is the most overused setting in fantasy, and I wanted to play with that, because while all three to four of the Londoners in the series are called London, only one of them is actually London as we know it? And the rest is kind of a semantic anomaly. And so, you can go in assuming you know what the setting of this book is going to be and be proven very wrong because we spend very little time in our London, and the other answer is that the way that my magic systems are designed is, essentially, I wanted to build different bodies on the same bones. So I wanted to strip the geography down to its base elements and then build new cities on top of that. So, one step in our London is one step in Red London, is one step in Grey London. They have the exact same geographic footprint. And then I build the cities on top of them based on their relationships to magic. So, in Red London magic has thrived and so have the people and so the way that their environment works is a very magic-driven system, whereas in White London magic is being controlled and dominated and constrained by the people and it’s starving out all of the nutrients of their city, et cetera, et cetera. And so, I needed a geographic foundation that was easily recognizable, and London is one of those that is…it’s easy division. I mean, it has two banks and it has a river in the middle. And that’s essentially what I needed to do. I needed them all to be on the same footing pretty quickly.
Now once you had your actual idea, and all these elements that you had together, what did…and does…your planning process look like? Are you a detailed outliner or are you more of an on-the-fly kind of writer?
No, no. I plan. So, but I don’t plan everything. I think people hear the word outliner and they think like I’ve, you’ve stripped all of the magic from the process, like that you’ve somehow left no room for discovery and I disagree pretty strongly with that idea of an outliner. I have to know certain things when I go into a book. I have to know how it ends because I work backwards. So, I need to know how the story ends and where all of the characters are at the end so I can know who they should be and where they should be at the beginning. And so, I have a little bit of a rewind process when I’m writing.
Normally, I will then figure out five to ten of the most important kind of beats, the pins in the map, and then I will give myself enough space to explore and find my way between those pins. For A Darker Shade of Magic, it was a little unique because I was selling it to Tor, my US publisher, on a proposal, and so, essentially, because it was quite an ambitious project, I sat down and I wrote a five- to six-thousand word synopsis that was essentially a beat sheet for the story that I wanted to tell. And that’s more detailed than I had ever done before, but I knew that I…I am somebody who feels more comfortable with a map. I don’t hold myself to that map I don’t but it gives me a sense of where the world ends. It gives me a sense of, “Oh, if I go this way I’m gonna fall off a cliff and I don’t want to do that.” So, I use the map as giving me a safe environment to explore without getting derailed too far.
It’s interesting, again, talking to so many different authors, how different that process is for everyone. I think Peter V. Brett, who wrote the Demon Cycle books, writes like a 150-page outline, so he’s just very, very, very precise. Then there are people who say, “Well, I do a page, and then I go for it.”
I think it’s really interesting it’s so important to remember that there’s no right way to write. I think the what what works for you is whatever allows you to get out of your own way. So, for me, I get scared by not having a plan, and so that eliminates any of the joy that would come from discovery. Whereas there are other writers who—ninety percent of their joy comes from just wandering in the dark. I am somebody who gets a huge amount of joy from executing a strategy.
What does your actual writing process look like? Do you, you know, sit down at a desk for eight hours a day? Do you write in a coffee shop? Do you write in longhand? How do you do it?
A little bit of everything. I probably max out about two to three hours a day, because my job also requires me to…I mean, it’s an embarrassment of riches but I am really, really lucky to be at a point in my career where there are a lot of other demands on my job that are not actually word making. So, whether it’s, I’m about to set out on tour for almost three months straight, and so that obviously will change, and I will need to adapt and write in airports and write in hotel bars and in my room and things like that. I am somebody, though, who writes in twenty- to twenty-five-minute sprints because I have very short focus and it’s going many directions usually, and I try to do two to three hours of those twenty-minute sprints a day. And obviously, some days I exceed that and some days I don’t.
But I think it’s also really important to remember that there’s a difference between time spent creating and time spent typing. So, while I only sit down at my computer for two to three hours a day to write, I am creatively cogs turning all day, when I am at the gym, when I am walking my dog, when I am on a train or a plane, I am constantly turning over pieces of the story, so that when I sit down I can work. And sometimes I write by hand when I’m stuck. I don’t draft by hand, but I plot and I strategize and I create myself beat sheets for a scene by hand. I will do whatever I need to do to keep creative momentum. And some days when I’m travelling I don’t actually write any words but I spend time with the story so that I keep the creative door propped open in my head.
It sounds like you probably are a little different on every book in the way that it all comes together.
Absolutely. I will say that my process differs based on whether I’m writing a 45,000- word middle grade installment for my City of Ghostsseries or the adult novel that I’m working on right now, which is a book that has been in the process for almost a decade.
Once you have that draft, what does your revision process look like?
My revision process is really interestingly consistent considering I have three different editors at three different publishing houses. I think the more books I write the more I hate first drafts, because you become more and more aware of the things you’re doing wrong but you still have to do them wrong before you can do them right so that you have something to work with. I really do, it goes straight to my editor, first of all, like, I have a beta reader, she’s wonderful, and her job is essentially to keep me from quitting. And then I have very close relationships with all three of my editors. And so, I go…I turn in the first draft. Well, but also, I should sidebar or footnote and say that I do revise as I go. I don’t zero draft. So, when I say I turn in my first draft to my editor, I have been told, at least, that my quote-unquote first draft looks a lot more like perhaps a third draft because. By the time I’m turning it in I have outlined and strategized and plotted and kind of polished what I have as I’m going.
So, I turn that to my editors and then I usually do three to five rounds of revision, in kind of concentric circles. So, the first round of revision is very broad. It’s big picture. It’s plot and arc and pacing and worldbuilding. And then from there we move in kind of Russian-doll style to character and, again, pacing because by then I will have made some structural changes that need to be shored up and tightening of internal motivations. And of, you know, a lot of the emotional cogs. And then the third round, we start looking at the actual wording, tightening up any of the line edits, perhaps cutting one last scene in order to just to make sure that it’s functioning in its absolute strongest form. And from there it’s just last polish.
Are there any things that you find that you consistently end up doing getting in revision that for some reason you just didn’t notice in the first draft. We all have weaknesses that are caught by our editors.
Yeah, I do try. I do think that the more books I write the more I’m aware of those weaknesses. It doesn’t always stop me from making them, but I usually…I really have gotten better listening to the voice in my head that throws up a little warning light that something’s not working. And so even if I don’t know how to fix it I’ve gotten better at flagging it for my editor, as saying like, hey I know this moment isn’t achieving the right emotional piece or the right number of beats or whatever it is. That is probably the only thing that I feel like I’ve gained over the course of drafting. But the middle of the book and I always fight. The tension in the middle. I am quite confident in my last notes and in my first notes but there’s usually always something in the middle that I struggle with.
Using characters…and this question kind of goes back to the first draft…but how do you decide what characters you need and who are going to be your characters that carry the story forward. And do you do a lot of character planning?
No, I don’t, like do a sheet, I don’t, like, put them through their, like, psychological profiles and Meyers Briggs. My rule with characters is that they need to be fully realized enough that I could give them their own book, even if this is not their book, and they would be able to hold it up as the protagonist. And that is the rule that I hold for characters who are on-page for one scene. If you meet them in the course of my book, they should have enough depth, even if you never see it all, that they could have been the protagonist of a different story. And so, in the early stages of a book I don’t necessarily always know which characters are going to take up more space as the story goes on. A classic example of that is, there’s a character in the Shades of Magicseries who becomes kind of our, like, doorway to grey London, to our London, named Ned, Ned Tuttle, and Ned Tuttle is a human character with no magical powers who was only supposed to show up in one page of the first book. And…but because I try very hard to give characters enough potential, enough depth, he became somebody that my editor and my readers wanted to see more of as the books went on, and so he started to show up more and more.
And so that is the luxury of treating each of your characters as though they are a main character, simply not of this book. I make sure that for every one of my characters I can answer the questions, “What are they afraid of, what do they want, and what are they willing to do to get it?” Because I think understanding those core psychological tenants, those core kind of ethical and motivational tenants, are some of the most important for grasping a character, even if they aren’t going to be the central one of the narrative.
You had mentioned that briefly you had studied set design. Have you done any other…like, been an actress?
No. God, no.
The only reason I ask is because I am an actor.
The process that you talked about with characters, sounds very much like what actors do to try to bring characters to life, even if you have a walk on, you try to make them in some way memorable.
Well, that doesn’t surprise me. I mean, I do think that authors…I think one of the… I don’t want to call it a failing One of the frustrations I’ve had with some of the novels that I’ve read lately is, I think, in the interests of plot and pacing, sometimes authors are forsaking character a little bit and they have to remember that, if we don’t care about the people that the plot is happening to, we will not care about the plot when it is over. Like, you have to, if you think about it, if you’re writing a series, we come to the first book in a series for the plot because we don’t know the characters yet. Right? So, we have to be drawn to the first book in a series solely based on the concept and the plot. But we don’t come back to a series for the plot. We come back to the subsequent books for the characters.
Now this is going to be a little shorter than some of these, because I know that you’re very, very busy, so I’m going to come to the final couple of questions…
I have a nine-month-old puppy who keeps coming into the kitchen and looking at me like, “Hey!”
So, a couple of big philosophical questions here. You’ve talked a little bit about why you started, but why do you think anybody writes. Why do we tell stories, and particularly stories of the fantastic?
Oh, God, that’s such a big question. I’m not sure I have an answer to it. I mean, I can’t…this is the thing, I can’t speak to it a general…writing is such a personal process. I think many of us probably have slightly different motivations. I have friends who write because they’re good at it and they make money and I have friends who write because it is an exorcism of internal chaos and I probably fall somewhere in the middle. Like, I love my job. I see it as a job. But even if I weren’t being published, I would write, because it is the only way to make straight lines out of all of the tangles in my head.
Another way to ask is, why do you think readers read stories and are interested in what we right. And also, because this is the others the other question I would ask is, What do you hope your books give to readers. What do you hope they take it away from them?
I think sometimes it’s escapism and sometimes it’s mirror. Like, sometimes we want to be somebody else and sometimes we want to see ourselves. And so, I think that can depend, really, on the story. I think a goal for me when I write is to give them both, is just, show somebody who isn’t usually centered in the narrative, to give them space in the middle, to let them see themselves in that way, but also sometimes to let them escape their reality. I mean, I write fantasy because…and this is the dedication at the beginning A Darker Shade of Magic…but I grew up wanting the world to be stranger than it was. I grew up looking for cracks in stone walls that might be doorways and I may I still believe in magic and I still believe that there’s so much more to this world than we understand and it’s that potential for magic that makes me want my readers to doubt their reality. That’s my goal. I want you to pick up one of my books and ask yourself by the end, like, I mean, “Is that possible?”, because, for instance, I have a series called The Villainsseries. The first book is Viciousand the second book is Vengeful. And these books are built on a sci-fi concept, on the concept that superpowers can evolve from a specific kind of near-death experience, right? And, like, it’s an extrapolation of science, of the kind of the phenomenon that happen s when adrenal responses overload under immense stress. But I tried to write it with an eye toward utmost realism. And it’s funny to say I tried to write a supervillain novel with an eye towards realism, but every few months I will get an email from somebody, usually a guy, a like, grown man, who will say, “Hey, like, I read these books and, like, I just want you to, like, confirm this isn’t real, is it? Like, this phenomenon isn’t real.” And that entire interaction right there is my goal. That entire interaction, whether I’m writing fantasy or science fiction. I want readers to doubt, because when we’re when we’re young we doubt. When we’re young we believe so easily, and that’s something that we seem so loathe to hold onto or so unable to hold on to. And that’s what I love about fantasy, both as a reader and as a writer, is that it reintroduces doubt and possibility.
You talked about the crack in reality. I think it’s a great metaphor. That was Doctor Whowhen the crack opens up in the wall in Amy Pond’s room.
And we’re thinking, “That could happen. That could totally happen.”
We read to believe something can happen, if we are not sure about it, in our own world, or if we don’t think it’s possible in our own world, whether that’s a person, whether that’s magic, whether that’s simply a better, stronger, stranger, darker, freer version of ourselves
So, you are going on book tour. Perhaps we should at least mention that book.
What’s really interesting is I’m going on book tour in part for The Near Witch, which is the book that I mentioned at the very beginning, the very first novel. It went out of print…I mean, this is the thing. Writing is an art and publishing is a business. And when The Near Witchcame out in 2011 it was strange and quiet at a time when the things which were successful were very loud. And I had no readership yet, it was my debut novel, and it wasn’t particularly given the time that it needed to find its strange little morbid audience. And I have the immense fortune now, almost a decade later, that my readership has grown and is full of readers who like my strange, morbid, peculiar stories. And so, The Near Witchis finally being rereleased after five, six years not on shelves, and so I’m going on tour for that and for the graphic-novel release of my comic book series, which is set in the Shades of Magicworld, called The Steel Prince.
It’s interesting, because The Near Witch is going to seem like a brand-new book, then, to most people.
Some people have been, like, “Why did somebody put on the blurb that this is her debut novel, like, this is obviously her sixteenth or seventeenth book,” and I’m like, “Well, this is the weird paradox of it, isn’t it?” Like, it is a brand-new book and it has a novella with it that was never published. And it’s gonna be really interesting to see what the readers’ reception is to this book, for those who assume it is a new book
Now, for those who want to follow along and try and find out where you are and what you do doing, and all that stuff, how do they find you online?
Oh, I live inside the Internet, so it’s very, very simple. Probably the best places to find me are on Twitter and Instagram. On Instagram I post my tour schedules when they’re finalized, so it’s a good way to figure out where I’m going to be, a little bit more static than Twitter. But I’m @VESchwab on both of those platforms
When this airs, you’ll actually be well into the tour, this will probably be on in April sometime, I think. So, have a great tour.
Thank you so much for being on The Worldshapers. It’s been a great pleasure talking to you.
A notorious night-owl, she loves watching TV, eating bacon, playing video games with her kids, and sending cheesy texts to her husband. You can find Tosca hanging around the snack table or wherever bacon is served.
The Lightly Edited Transcript
So, Tosca, welcome to The Worldshapers.
Thank you so much for having me.
Now, we’ve never met in person, but we do have something in common: we both share a publicist, Mickey Mickelson, at Creative Edge. So, I think we ought to give him a shout out off the top here.
Yay, Mickey! Yes. He’s awesome.
He is. Now, we’re going to focus a little later on in the interview on your very latest novel, The Line Between, which will, I think, when this goes live it will have just released, so this will be very timely. January 29, I believe is the release date.
So, we’ll talk about that in detail. I finished reading it just this morning, actually, as we’re recording this, and so it’s very fresh in my mind. But let’s go back in the mists of time to find out what path actually took you to writing, ’cause you didn’t start out planning to be a writer, did you when you were a kid?
No, I didn’t. I really wanted to be a professional ballerina and it was something I pursued very ardently and very seriously, up until I had a…I tore a groin when I was a teenager. So, that takes a long time to heal, and then I grew six inches, which can…you know, on pointe shoes I’m six-foot tall, so it takes a special kind of partner to be tall enough to partner me now. So, yeah, it kind of became apparent maybe that was not going to be the path for me, so I went off to college and was thinking maybe I’d go into some kind of business. My dad was a lifelong business management professor. And I thought, maybe, I’ll do something in business, or maybe I’ll…at some point my parents said, “Why don’t you become a news anchor or something?” I don’t know why, and I was like, “Oh, yeah,” and then I thought, well, maybe I’ll go into advertising. I don’t know why I thought these things. But it was not really at the forefront of my mind, even though I had been writing my whole life. I grew up, you know, writing stories and poems and things, and I won contests, and went off to little young people’s writing conferences and stuff. But I just never really thought of it as a thing.
Where did you grow up?
So, I was born in Virginia and we moved, right before I started First Grade. So, I did most of my growing up in Nebraska, where my dad taught at the University until just a few years ago, when he retired.
Well, I’m in Saskatchewan, so I kind of that whole Great Plains thing is very familiar.
Very familiar. Absolutely.
And all my relatives are in places like Missouri and Oklahoma and places like that stand.
Also, the ballerina aspect is interesting to me because my daughter is a dancer and she’s taken ballet and tap and, never really thought of doing it professionally, because she doesn’t have the a body type either, but it’s interesting because she has commented on the fact that she has friends who wanted to be professional dancers, and then they injure themselves as a teenager and that dream kind of fades at that moment. So, she’s actually thinking of going into kinesiology and wants to help people like that work through their problems, and sports psychology and all that kind of stuff.
That’s wonderful, because it’s become, even in the last couple of decades, since…well, it was slightly longer than that I guess for me, but in the last couple decades even, dancing has become so competitive and the bar is so much higher, I think, than it was even then. So, it’s very extreme.
Yeah, I’m just as glad she’s not trying to pursue it professionally, speaking as a father.
It’s hard on the body.
And, speaking of fathers, your dad, actually…I was reading an interview with you…he actually had a lot to do with you writing your first novel, didn’t he?
Yeah, he did. Well, what happened is, so I went off to college and went to Smith College in Massachusetts, and I was back for spring break for some reason, I’d come back for spring break, and I was, we were in the car, and I was talking with my dad and I was talking about…talk about the mists of time, I was talking about one of my favorite books, which was called The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley.
I know it.
You know that one?
I just loved that book and I’ve read it many times. It’s a retelling of the women behind King Arthur’s throne, the women behind the King, basically. And it’s fascinating, the characters are amazing, and I was having this conversation with my dad and talking about how books are like emotional roller coasters and they’ve got twists and turns and sometimes you’re upside down. And I just blurted it out that day and said, “You know, I think I’d like to write a book,” and the thought was, you know, maybe it’d be fun to see if I could write something like that for somebody else to enjoy. And so, my dad made me a deal that day. He said, “Okay, look. I will I will pay you what you would have made this coming summer working at the bank. which I had done the summer before and I was supposed to go back and work again as a bank teller, which I’m terrible at because I’m horrible with numbers, and my drawer would never balance, and it was just a fiasco, but he said, “I will pay you what you would have made working at the bank if you will very seriously spend your summer writing full time, writing a novel. Your first novel.” And I said yes. And so, I did, I spent that summer writing my first novel. And of course, I couldn’t do anything just kind of simple for starters. I had to write this Neolithic historical novel about the people of Stonehenge, England. And of course, I spent the early part of my summer over in Oxford, I was studying economics the first part of the summer, so I bought all these books because, you know, we didn’t have the Internet then, or any of that stuff. So, I bought all these books about Stonehenge and all this and brought them back with me and by then I had about two months left, and I didn’t really know that you can’t really do this, most people can’t do this, in about two months. But I didn’t know this. So, ignorance is bliss. And I read these books and I researched, and I tried to kind of piece together an outline and I wrote my first novel that summer…and it was not very good.
Do you still have it?
Yeah, it’s in the basement with my skeletons. I spent the next summer…I actually submitted it to Writers House, which is one of the premier agencies in New York. And I did everything you’re not supposed to do. Like, back in the day you were supposed to print it, but not bind it. Well, I bound it. You’re not supposed to put a cover on it. Well, I put a cover on it with a nice cute little picture of Stonehenge and everything. And I wrote my synopsis and I sent it off…and the other day I found the rejection letter from Writers House, and it starts off with, “Even after reading the twenty-three-page synopsis, we’re still not sure what this novel is about.”
Never write a twenty-three-page synopsis. Oh, my gosh. And, you know, they said, “Your characters are two dimensional, and the story lacks tension,” and all this, but somewhere in the in the letter–and it was a great letter because it was personal feedback, I mean, it was real feedback instead of just a form letter which is what you so often get these days. At some point in the letter they said, “But it is strangely reminiscent of Clan of the Cave Bear, which was also one of my other favorite novels. So, what I took away from that is my book is like Clan of the Cave Bear. And I said to myself, I’m going to do this again!
And you did. But not right away.
No. No, not right away. I ended up graduating from college and I went to work for a computer magazine. So that was fun, and it was very cool because I became a professional writer in that way and learned about the process of editing and publishing and I wrote two computer books during that time as well. So, it was it was very educational.
See, that caught my eye as well because I went into journalism–I’m ten years older than you, I think–I went into journalism and worked as a newspaper reporter and editor. And, yeah, writing was what I did, but my first published book when I became a freelancer was Using Microsoft Publisher for Windows 95.
My second book was Using Microsoft Publisher for Windows 97. So, I had a series going.
Yes, you did, you did. Was it a do ology or a longer series?
It turned out to just be a duology. After that, I moved on to writing about other exciting topics like Microsoft Office and Creating Cool Web Pages on AOL and stuff like that. So yeah, my writing books actually started with computer books as well. So that’s also caught my eye.
That’s awesome. I remember writing tutorials for the magazine on how to use WordStar. Remember WordSstar?
I still know two authors who use it.
George R.R. Martin uses it, I think.
Robert J. Sawyer does as well, and another fellow DAW author, Gerald Brandt, uses it.
Oh, my gosh. I didn’t even know it was really still around until I read that, I think about George R.R. Martin, and I remember thinking, “Oh, my gosh. I used to know all those commands by heart. That’s what I read in my college papers on. So crazy.
And there was another interesting thing that happened there in the ‘90s. You did beauty pageants.
Yeah, that was a classic case of somebody saying, “You should go try this, or do that,” and I was like, “Okay,” so that happened. And I had never really grown up doing anything like that. It had just never really been in my realm of possibility. But the one thing that taught me was that when people believe in you or believe you can go do something, suddenly in your mind something opens up and it becomes possible. And so, I tried it, and I didn’t win. And then my sister-in-law at the time said, “I think you should go back and try it again.” I was like, “No, no, I’ve already done that,” and she’s like, “No, I think you have unfinished business. Go back.” And…I really learned through that process and through the second time especially, which was the time that I won, that, you know, people want to…and you want to think a beauty pageant would teach you this…that people want to make connection. They want to be seen. They want to feel that they are connecting with others. And I learned that very much through that through that whole process and through the appearances that I was fortunate enough to get to do on behalf of a lot of charities and things around the state. And actually, that experience has served me really well in this new job of being an author. I say new, it’s been a while, but in this job of being an author, especially when it comes to doing things like interviewing or interacting with people or going out and meeting readers and speaking and signing, you know, stuff like that, because I think that’s basically what we all want, to connect and to know that we’re not alone.
And you were also writing, during that time, your second novel, weren’t you?
Yeah, I was writing a book that I that I never finished that I fondly call “the book that will kill me.” And then I wrote another book very quickly, in about six weeks. I wrote a book that would become my first published novel, but that then took about six years to publish actually.
Yeah, overnight success.
It always seems like, and people always think that you are, even though they don’t know how many years have come into that process.
Well, especially in the days when you had to print things off and you mailed them off in boxes and then you waited and waited and waited.
And you have to send the self-addressed stamped envelope and it came with all these ominous warnings, remember: if he didn’t send it you would not hear back.
Well, I lived in Canada, so I had to send International Reply Coupons. It was awful. So, tell me about that first novel, Demon: A Memoir.
I was part of an online gaming community at the time, and I was trying to think of a new gaming character, and I was actually thinking about doing like an angel or something, and I thought a fallen angel would be much more interesting and I just really got to thinking about life as a fallen angel and witnessing history and the progression of time. And I came home, and I started writing that book. I wrote, like, I don’t know forty-some pages that night by hand. And within about six weeks I had a first draft. But the narrative was kind of unconventional and it took a few editors…well, the editor who finally acquired it is the one who said, “Look, I think you need to frame it more like this,” and it gave me the guidance to go in and redo it and then, so that one was picked up in a three-book deal. And I remember them saying, “What else do you have?”, and during that time I had briefly entertained the idea of writing a book about Eve, from her point of view, and I had written like one page, and I pulled that page out and I was like, “Well, I’ve got this I’ve got this one page about Eve,” and they are like, “Great! We’ll take it and one other book,” and I was like, “I don’t have any other ideas,” and they said, ‘You’ll think of something. So, that was that. So, yeah, suddenly I had this three book. But I say suddenly, you know, very tongue in cheek.
Yeah, it’s always in retrospect it may seem suddenly but…
I was interested because a lot of your early books and even the current one, there is certainly a Christian element and you’ve been published in the Christian market. What’s your religious background?
I grew up Christian. I grew up non-denominational, in just a Bible-teaching church, and so when I was writing about this fallen angel, it just made sense for me to go to the Scriptures and form it that way, because for me that’s the authority on those things that I have grown up with. So, that’s been really important to me as I wrote the story of Eve, and then I went on to write the story of Judas Iscariot and the Queen of Sheba. And so, I’m trying to keep things as scripturally accurate as possible. When you are writing Biblical stories, it has been really important. And to that end I’ve always maintained like a small cadre of experts that I can always go to, theologians, academics, you know, scriptural experts, that I can go to pick their brains and get help as I needed it.
So that struck me as well, because I grew up in the church of Christ, and my dad was a preacher and an elder and so all of that stuff is very familiar to me as well.
We’re like twins!
Well, you’re a bestseller and I’m not. There’s that difference.
Well, yeah, that’s an overnight thing too…no, it’s not.
So, all of that strikes me, and my own fiction has a lot of religious references and it does play a part in the plot as well, so that kind of struck my eye as well. Now, moving on to your current one, which we want to talk about, The Line Between, maybe you could give a synopsis so that I don’t give away something you don’t want to give away.
Well, The Line Between is about a disease that has emerged from the melting permafrost and it’s causing madness in its victims and it’s spiraling towards a pandemic by the time that the main character, whose name is Winter Roth, is expelled from a doomsday cult on the American prairie, in Iowa, and so as she’s trying to acclimate to life outside this cult, in a world that she’s been taught to regard as evil, this seeming apocalypse is happening, and it seems like all the things that she was taught to fear and to expect are actually happening. And so, that’s the premise of the story and it’s…I don’t know if I can say a lot more without giving it away. She ends up on a mad race across the Midwest…yeah.
That’s why I wanted you to do it and not me so I didn’t give away something I shouldn’t. So, what was…this will be a very apt metaphor considering that the New Life cult sells seeds…what was the seed from which this book grew?
Well, two things. It was actually two separate ideas. One was about the disease coming out of the permafrost–and that was taken straight out of headlines, actually. There’s quite a few headlines in the last couple years talking about microbes and things coming out of the permafrost that are still viable. There was also a news story a couple of years ago in Siberia about a reindeer carcass that thawed from the permafrost, and it was full of anthrax, and it made an entire Siberian village sick and a little boy died. So, this kind of you, know menace, you know, trapped in the frozen tundra and stuff was very interesting to me and there’s been some stories about that. So, in that way it’s not completely unheard of or completely original. So, I took that in and then I also had this idea about a girl leaving a cult and just what it would be like to look at the world through her eyes as she tries to start over. And I was in New York with my publisher, Simon and Schuster, and we were having a meeting, and I was talking through some of these ideas–I came with a short list of some favorites. And my publisher at the time said, “I like these two, why don’t you put them together,” and I said, “Oh, I didn’t think of that, but that could be cool.” So, I really have to…I think it worked out really well and I really have to give credit to my publisher for that.
Well this kind of, I would call it near-future science-fiction thriller, that’s what I would call it, it seems a bit of a departure from what your previous books have been. So, is this kind of a new direction for you?
Well, it is only in so much that it’s a little bit apocalyptic. The two books I did before that were thrillers, also. So, this is my third thriller, so I kind of took a right turn somewhere after doing several historical, biblical historical novels, and started doing these thrillers. My duology before this, The Progeny and Firstborn are what they’re called, had a historical element in it. So, there was a little bit of that, but, yeah, it’s a little different. I’m really enjoying the thrillers. It’s just a completely different animal.
So, with that initial idea, what happened next? There was obviously a lot of research involved in this book. Is that how you start?
Yeah, I’m pretty obsessive about research. There’s not as much research as I have experienced for some of my other books like Iscariot, about Judas Iscariot, and the Queen of Sheba. So, I do my research, I form my outline…this one I ended up going round and round with a few times. It took me a little longer than normal.
Yeah, I’ve got a new series that just started, and the first book was back and forth with my editor because you have to make sure you have everything in that first book that will then support the books that come afterwards.
Yes. The smart thing to do would be to plan out all the, you know, what’s going to happen throughout the books, except I never do that.
I recently interviewed Peter V Brett, who wrote The Demon Cycle books that start with The Warded Man. And he writes like a hundred and fifty pages of outline, so everything is planned out in the tiniest detail, and I thought, “That sounds like a great idea, but I’m never going to do it.”
I dream about outlining like that and it doesn’t ever happen. But I think for me that the more outline I have, it is better. I know people who write completely free of any outlines, and I’ve tried that before, and it’s never worked out very well for me.
So, what does your outline look like? How long is it?
Well, it may it may turn out to be about nineteen or twenty pages, but it’s a loose kind of list of events that happen throughout the book. And then sometimes I plug in little bits of research or things, kind of more or less where I would need them. So, it’s really just a document with things more or less in order as far as I can tell.
Do you find that you do some of your research as you’re going along, like you get to a point and you say, “Oh, I don’t know what Council Bluffs looks like or whatever, and you have to do a little research at that point?
Absolutely. I’m always looking things up and I’m just afraid that someday some government person is going to come knock on my door because of the of my searches.
Yeah, I’ve thought of that. I recently had to look up, “What’s the best way to kill somebody from behind with a knife?”, and I thought, “You know, that could look bad.”
Yeah, I have looked up so many killing things and weapon things and strange, strange things. Yeah.
And this particular one, of course, there is the medical/scientific aspect of it. Who did you talk to about that?
My sister is a doctor and she also teaches medical school.
Oh, that’s handy!
Yeah! So, it is a prion disease in this book which is the same…it’s the kind of disease that Mad Cow is. It’s called Creutzfeldt-Jacobs Disease when it’s in humans. It’s very insidious, it’s very scary. We had to accelerate it a little bit for this book and so…it was really kind of fun and scary and a little weird to realize that you’re like basically designing this, like, designer disease to wipe out a bunch of people.
So, with this, I mean, The Line Between has a fairly complex structure, with flashbacks mixed with the present-day action. It’s largely first-person, but not quite entirely. Did you…does your outline say, well, “Here we’ll have the flashback, and then this part will be present-day, and then here’s another flashback,” or does that sort of happen as you’re writing?
That kind of thing happens as I’m writing. I’m not I’m not quite that visionary or organized ahead of time. You know, I kind of know what I want to happen, and then when I go in, I just have to kind of see how it feels. And a lot of things happen in the process of writing. I mean, I find that I can outline to my heart’s content, but things always change, and things always come up in the actual process of writing and I compare it to looking down at a map or down at the ground from 30,000 feet, but it’s very different when you have boots on the ground. So, it’s a completely different perspective. So, things happen in the process of writing. For that one, I wanted to show what had transpired to lead to Winter’s being expelled from this cult, but I didn’t want to slow down the narrative, or drain out the tension. And so, that’s why I decided to go with this kind of back-and-forth, like past-present-past-present structure in the book.
I thought it worked very well, because, it was like, just when you wonder about something in the present day, then you get this little nugget of information from back in the enclave of how it got to that point. I thought it worked really, really well.
Thank you. Well, it took a little massaging through some of the some of the drafts, that I am very happy with how that part too. So, thank you.
And then there’s a couple of not-first-person sections was that just a place where you felt you needed to get some information out and that was the best way was to give a short scene with another viewpoint?
I’ve got these kind of odd little one-off scenes with these, just where the camera…I always think of it kind of like a movie or TV show where the camera pans over to somewhere else where we see what’s going on. Those were just fun. I don’t know how to say it any differently. I mean, I wanted to show a little bit of…you know, the story could have done without them, but it was just fun.
Well, the one with the farmer and the pigs and the carcass being uncovered, that’s the sort of thing in a movie, that happens, and then you go, “Uh-oh! That’s bad!”.
Is it bad to say I kind of enjoyed that one, where, you know, where the…it’s at the very beginning of the book so we’re not we’re not giving anything away…it’s the farmer finds that his pigs have savaged one another after they’ve dug up this carcass that came up out of the permafrost. And that was actually really fun to write.
What about settings, like the enclave in particular? Do you have a detailed map of things like that, or just as, it’s sort of, as you need it, you’ll figure out where things are?
For that, I kind of had to just form a mental map of where the things are. So, the enclave is the cult compound, basically. It’s a self-contained compound where these cult members live and work and they grow their own food and all this stuff, and they also have a seed company that they use to help support themselves. And, I did kind of have to have, like, a mental layout of where everything was just for my own sanity.
I suppose one thing about writing a present-day or near-future is that at least the world itself doesn’t have to be created. People know what gas stations look like and bars and things like that.
Yeah, that’s one of the hardest things when you’re doing, like, ancient historical…I mean, I literally spent a whole day once researching ancient toilets, ancient Israel…I’ve actually seen some, you know, when I was over there before…researching how that worked and what people used as toilet paper and stuff like that. And I remember thinking, “Wow, I just spent a whole day doing this.” So, that’s the luxury of writing present-day stuff is you don’t have to inform everyone how these things work, or what people are eating or wearing or whatever.
Yeah, it’s the challenge of writing any form of far-future science fiction or historical novels or fantasy novels is you always have to figure out these things. But at least now you know ancient Israeli toilets, and if it comes up at a party, you’ve got something to say.
It was a sponge on a stick. That’s what they used.
Oh good. Now I know, too.
There you go.
How do you develop the characters? You have a first-person character, Winter. How do you go about developing a character? Well, first of all, how do you decide who your character should be, and then how do you develop them, bring them to life?
Well, it’s prescribed for me when I do my historical novels, so that that much is already informed, in the case of, for instance, Judas Iscariot or Eve or the Queen of Sheba. So, for that, it’s all about the research and what the research might tell me about the character, what has impacted this character and how it may have formed their personality. And when I do my historicals, my role is that those characters have to very much be a product of their day. So, for the thrillers, my main characters have been younger women, women in their twenties, I think just because that’s what I have been able to identify with. They are characters that…for me, I need to be able to respect them, I need to be able to feel like I’m offering someone who might be respect-worthy for readers, while at the same time offering somebody that readers can also identify with. I mentioned before I used to be part of a gaming community, a roleplaying community. And I say this, and it’s kind of weird, but I feel like I learned a lot about characterization from doing that, because I did it for so many years and we used to write stories about our characters, and I feel like I am putting on that other skin and roleplaying that character whenever I’m writing a novel. So, it’s pretty organic for me.
How do you create a role? Going back to roleplaying…I was also a big role-player at one point…Dungeons and Dragons was my actual major in university, not journalism. Do you do a character sheet, like you list all these details about the character that you work from, or is again more of a sort of as-you-go thing for you?
I don’t. I know people who do. I know people who, friends, they’ll have…they’re so organized, and maybe I’m just disorganized…but they’ll have pictures all their characters. I mean, they’ve got all this stuff, you know? And for me, though, I just…I kind of try to get that character very firmly in my mind and I really try to get that character’s neuroses and background and injuries and wounds and hopes and all that, all that stuff very firmly in my mind, so that so that I can go into a scene and I can be that character and I can respond organically as that character. So, for instance, Winter in The Line Between has been spiritually abused, basically, and she leaves and she’s contending with PTSD and she has OCD and she’s got OCD in a world that’s being taken over by a pandemic. It was…I loaned her a couple of my own things, because I, too, have OCD, so in that way maybe she’s a little bit similar to me, but I try to just keep it really organic and just go in and go, you know?
I think really all of our characters have at least a little bit of us in them, because what else do we know to write from when it comes to writing people. There’s always a little bit of us in there.
Absolutely. And you know, when I was maybe…do you remember the game Myst, the computer game Myst?
I do indeed.
So, when I was writing for Smart Computing, I interviewed those guys–I think they were brothers that wrote that game–and I was asking them about it, and they said, you know, we just want to make a game that we would like to play. And I think about that when I write books. I want to write a book that I would want to read, about a character that I would want to follow around. So that’s really my intent when it comes to characterization and plotting and everything.
What is your actual writing process? Do you write on computer, do you write longhand, do you dictate? How does it work for you? And where do you do it?
Well, I…so I live on a farm, and a couple of years ago I married a single father and farmer. So, I write upstairs–I call the attic, it’s the old part of the farm house–and I do it on a computer, just in the interest of time. I think…I’ve gotten used to it over the years. but I think that my original desire would have been to write everything in longhand first, but it’s too time-consuming, so I do it on the computer. I procrastinate for as long as possible. And I keep thinking I’m going to mature one of these days and get over this. But I turn fifty this year, I will turn fifty this year, and at this point I don’t know if I’m going to change that much. I’ve been this way since school, when I used to write my papers the night before they were due. So, I procrastinate as long as I can, and then a few months before my deadline I freak out and then I decide I’d better get going and then I write and I get tired here and there, and then the last month or a few weeks or so I’m going very hard at it. In the last couple weeks, I’ll write up to twenty hours a day, and I just…I don’t know how long I can keep doing it that way because it’s very physically draining…but that’s my process. It’s a matter of obsession and panic after a bunch of procrastination.
So, once you have that novel crafted, or at least a draft of it, what’s your rewriting process? Do you use beta readers, or how does that work for you?
I have an editor friend who’s been with me through quite a few…most of my novels, I think almost all of them except for the first one and maybe one of the ones I co-authored… and so I will usually turn to him, to have him read it. He’s very familiar with all my writing tics, he’s often helped me, you know, structure it ahead of time, and so I have him read it, and then I go in and I rewrite. And I rewrite pretty obsessively, and I edit pretty obsessively and it’s very hard for me to turn a novel in. I actually like the process of editing better than the process of writing the first draft. I find first drafts really painful. But I like it when I have something to work with and I can really go in and shape it up. I think that’s a lot of fun. And it’s hard for me to turn it in, though, because I want to keep picking at it. I’m a picker.
You mentioned writing tics. What are some of yours that you have to watch out for?
I’ve worked really hard to try to get rid of them. I used to use a lot of dashes and I used to like to jumble up kind of the order of my sentences and, like, where you’d get the clause in front or whatever it’s called. I used to really overuse the phrase “for the first time.” I write in first person a lot and my characters would often say, “For the first time in blah blah blah I felt this, or I saw this,” or “The first time in my life this…” Those are items that my friend Steve, my editor friend, calls Toscaisms.
I have to watch out watch out for my characters making animal noises, you know, growling and snarling…
So…I had another question about the rewriting process…your editor! What does the editor contribute then, when the manuscript comes in? How much editorial revision do you typically end up with?
The editor at my publisher?
Okay. Well it just depends. I mean, for The Line Between, she had some suggestions around the structure in order to keep that pacing that’s so important for thrillers. But it just depends on the book. When I re-did it and I sent it in, we did several rounds on that one, but on my most recent one that I turned in, the one that went really, really quickly, actually, and I think that’s how you know that it’s fairly clean, she sent it back and she said, “This is the shortest editorial letter I’ve ever written.” And I was like, “This is either really good or really bad, I don’t know.” So, I went through and I made just the few changes she had and sent it back in and she sent me the line edit and she goes, “I think this is the shortest line edit I’ve ever done.” So, it just really depends on the book and kind of what’s going on. The Line Between took me a few rounds to really wrestle into shape and I think…I don’t think it was so much the story. I think there was a lot of upheaval happening at my publisher at the time, and I think that all those things can kind of go in and play with your confidence as you are working. So, I think that probably affected my writing I was working on it.
Yeah, there’s been a lot of a publishing upheaval over the last few years, that’s for sure. One thing I found in the book that was interesting was the little, the ads for the seed business. Was that something that..at what point did you decide those needed to be in the book?
Yeah, I’ve got an ad, and I’ve got a web page for it, I think. I just thought, I just…there are these little things that, once again, that just kind of come up while you’re working on something and where you think, “You know, this might be kind of helpful?” We’re so used to looking at web pages, we’re Googling things, and I thought, “Let’s just slam a web page in here, right here, for the seed business,” because it’s a little piece of extra information, and your eye can go over it quickly, you can read it.
Well, I was reading it on my iPad and my first inclination was to poke at the link…even though I knew it wouldn’t work, but that’s, I had this urge to poke at it.
I should I should have thought of that, because that would be so funny, to make some of those links live, like, on the Kindle or something.
It doesn’t work in a PDF, I can tell you that. I also wanted to ask you about…you have collaborated with Ted Dekker. What does a collaboration…how did that work for you?
Collaborations are fun and they’re educational, I think, for both parties. And if you’re ever considering doing it, my advice is always to know what your strengths are as a writer and to know what you’re bringing to the table, because, as in any partnership, whether it’s a business partnership, whether it’s a friendship, whether it’s a writing collaboration, it’s important to know how your strengths will complement the other person’s. And so, it takes time to kind of iron out the process, and I’ve known many people who have collaborated, many authors, and I’ve never heard of anybody having exactly the same process. I mean, I know coauthors that literally sit in the same room together and write each word together, looking over each other’s shoulders at the screen, which would drive me crazy, and I know other people that trade off chapters and trade off characters. Over the course of three books, we had a few different processes for that, Ted and I, and I can tell you that the first book, generally, it took quite a lot longer and the second book was much faster. And then the third book just flew by because by then we had the process down.
So, we should probably say what those three books are.
Oh, sorry, okay. So, it’s the Books of Mortals trilogy, and they are Forbidden, Mortal, and Sovereign. And I’ve actually collaborated with another author since then, but we have not put that book out yet, so…and it was again a very rewarding experience and also a very different process from the way that Ted and I wrote. So, I think it’s always different and I think it’s really important always, as a writer, to know yourself well enough to know how you work best, and to bring that to the collaboration, too.
Well, now we’ll go on to the big philosophical questions.
They’re not that hard. Well, maybe they are, I don’t know, but hopefully not. Well, first of all, why do you write, and then second, in the more general sense, why do you think anybody writes? Especially, why do we write things like historical novels and fantasies and science fiction, things that are counterfactual or alternative worlds or however you want to think of that?
I think for several reasons, I think because, a) it’s fun. You know, when you’re a kid, you tell stories. At some point we grow up and we think maybe we shouldn’t spend our time doing stuff like that, but I think on its most basic level we write, and we tell stories because it’s fun. And I think also because it’s entertaining. I think at the beginning of my career I wanted to write to see if I could do it and I wanted to write to connect with history and connect with other people. And I think, as I said earlier, that we all basically want to know that we’re not alone. And so that’s why we read and that’s why we write. These days, though…that is still there, and the fun part is still there, but I also really enjoy entertaining readers. And it took me a while off doing signings and stuff. I had…I would occasionally have people come up and give me a hug or something. and some of them would start crying. and there was some emotional response there, and what I didn’t know is that the books I had written…and the crying was not about me, and it wasn’t even really about my book, it was the fact that they, we, all turn to fiction to escape for a time, whether it’s just boredom or whether it’s just to go enjoy ourselves or whether it’s, you know, we’re going through something difficult like a divorce or we’re caretaking for an older parent or something. We all need to escape. And I realized that there were people coming and telling me, “I read your book when I was in the hospital and I was very sick, and I read your book when I was going through this difficult time.” And so, there’s an emotional connection there. And I think of those readers when I write, a lot, because it’s such a privilege to offer them those adventures or those escapes. And I love doing that.
That seems like a good reason. When you write these, you’re shaping…this is called World shapers, so I’ll use the term “shaping” your fictional worlds…are you hoping in some fashion to shape your readers, to have some impact on the real world, and if so, in what way? And if not, why not?
Well, yes, I mean I always hope that there’s something that they will take away, that they will think about, or that they will learn. And in the historical novels it’s really easy to say that, because I want them to have experienced and seen or learned something new about the history or about that time period that maybe they didn’t know before. But I really also just want them to have something to chew on when they finish reading and they’re still thinking about the book. I really like that. I like that for myself as a reader, when a part of me is still in that world and I’m still thinking about something in it. I don’t really try to dictate what that might be because I’ve learned that what it is that people take away from a book depends so much on what they bring to it and what’s going on with them at that time. So. Yeah.
So, it sounds like connecting with your readers is something that’s very important to you.
Yeah, it is, in stories and in the books but even on social media and stuff like that too. That’s one of the funnest parts about being an author to me, being invited into the lives of my readers and being able to join them for a time.
And what are you working on now? And what’s after that?
Well, currently on my desk I’ve got edits for A Single Light, which is the sequel to The Line Between, which comes out in September, I think the 17th or something like that. I have just sent over to my agent a concept for my next book proposal, which is also a thriller with a historical element. So, we’ll see what happens there. And…yeah, those two things. Oh, and it’s that busy time right before a book releases, and so it’s a little bit crazy right now but I’m trying to do these edits and stuff in the midst of all.
Is it just the two books, then, in this particular story?
Yeah, just the two books.
Well, I got to the end of it and was anxious to find out what happened next, so I’ll be looking to the next one.
Well, make sure that you get the next one.
It’s not exactly a cliffhanger but there’s definitely a sense of something is about to happen.
I put a terrible cliffhanger at the end of The Progeny, and I have some people who just wanted to murder me, I guess, over that one, so I really tried not to do that with this one, so…
I’ve discovered that. My first book in my series ends with a very definite cliffhanger and I’ve discovered there are readers who really, really hate books that end with cliffhangers, or they might like the book, but they don’t like the cliffhanger.
Yeah. If they have to wait, they don’t like it. Now it’s the book, the sequel’s already out then they’re usually okay, I think.
It’s always nice if you can get a complete series and read it from start to finish.
Maybe not for the author who wants the book to sell as it comes out, but….
Well, you know, we live in this society that so used to bingeing everything now, so I think we’re used to it in that way, to being able to watch and read and consume everything all at once.
Well, you mentioned George R.R. Martin. I finally read the books, last fall, I think, and I thought there were so many of them that he’d surely have the last one out by the time I finished the ones that are already out. But no.
He missed his deadline. I felt so bad for him. He wrote this long post about how he had missed his deadline and I just thought, “Oh, gosh, you know, the pressure for him must be so immense.”
Yeah, it has to be. So, where can people find you online if they want to connect with you.
Well my Web site, which is ToscaLee.com. I’m on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat (I’m not very good at Snapchat). But, I’m on social media…
And you’re active on there?
I’m active on there, yep.
That’s great. Well, I think that’s about it. So, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers.
Thanks for having me. I so enjoyed it.
And we should just mention, what’s the new book called and when does it come out?
It’s The Line Betweenand it’s out January 29, so it’ll be out now when this airs, and then the follow-up is A Single Lightand it’s coming in September.
And are there audiobook versions as well?
Yes, and I’m very happy to say that Cassandra Campbell–she did my last novel, Firstborn, but she must recently did Bird Boxas well–she’s narrating, and she’s fabulous.
Okay, so something else. Because there certainly are people that love audiobooks.
I love audiobooks, too.
All right. Well thank you very much for being on. I’ll let you go for now. But I really enjoyed it.