An hour-long conversation with Kristi Charish, author of the Kincaid Strange and The Adventures of Owl urban fantasy series and a scientist with a Ph.D. in Zoology who specializes in genetics, cell biology, and molecular biology.
Kristi Charish is the author of Kincaid Strange, an urban fantasy series about a voodoo practitioner living in Seattle with the ghost of a grunge rocker, and The Adventures of Owl, an “Indiana Jane”-style adventure about ex-archaeology grad student turned international antiquities thief who reluctantly navigates the hidden supernatural world.
Kristi writes what she loves; adventure heavy stories featuring strong, savvy female protagonists, pop culture, and the occasional RPG fantasy game thrown in the mix. Kristi is also a scientist. She has a BSc and MSc from Simon Fraser University in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry and a PhD in Zoology from the University of British Columbia. She specializes in genetics, cell biology, and molecular biology and gratuitously uses her expertise throughout her fiction. You can find Kristi with her laptop on Vancouver film sets, getting paid to write while filling in the background.
Faith Hunter is the award-winning New York Times– and USA Today-bestselling author of the Jane Yellowrock series and the Soulwood series. She also wrote and sold the first of the Junkyard Cats novella series as an Audible Original. Junkyard Cats was the number-one selling book at Audible when released. She also has written three Rogue Mage series novels, two anthologies in that series, and coauthored a role-playing game.
She is the coauthor and author of sixteen thrillers under pen names Gary Hunter and Gwen Hunter. Altogether, she has forty-plus books and dozens of short stories in print ,and is juggling multiple projects. She sold her first book in 1989 and hasn’t stopped writing since.
Faith collects orchids and animal skulls, loves thunderstorms, and writes. She likes to cook soup, bake bread, garden, and kayak Class III whitewater rivers. She edits the occasional anthology and drinks a lot of tea.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So welcome to The Worldshapers.
Thank you for having me. This is so much fun.
Thanks so much for being on. We made the connection because we’re both with Penguin Random House, and I mentioned to my publicist that, you know, I had this podcast and I could talk to authors, and next thing I knew, there you were. So . . .
I am just absolutely thrilled to be here. This is wonderful.
So, we’ll start with my usual sort of taking you back into the mists of time–someday I’m going to put reverb on that, THE MISTS OF TIME, and also at the end when I do the big philosophical questions.
Well, you’ve got a big voice. You can pull it off without the reverb. It’s very impressive.
Yeah, I echo in my own head. But, going back into the mists of time, how did you get interested in . . . most of us, it starts with books . . . reading and writing and particularly the kind of, you know, fantastical stuff that you write. How did that all come about for you?
I started out as, like a lot of writers, as the weird kid in school who didn’t fit in anywhere, who fell between all of the cracks and just had a reputation of being strange. So, when you’re strange, you start reading, and you read strange things, and I read Pern and I read all of the old masters of science fiction, as they’re called, and I read fantasy and mystery and began to work my way through thrillers and just simply found a place where my head and my heart could be at peace, and that was in somebody else’s world, So, when I hit 10th grade, and my 10th-grade teacher told me that I had writing talent and I should make writing my career, I believed her, for better or worse. And thank you, Carol Koller (sp?), for telling me that that little gem of poetry, horrible poetry that I wrote, had merit. And she set my life, my 10th-grade teacher set my life on its course.
I’m glad you mentioned that because I often ask if there were, you know, teachers or mentors or something early on. And I think many of us, if we’re lucky, we encounter somebody like that. So, that was in the 10th grade.
Did you do a lot of writing in high school, and did you share your writing with other people?
I did. And we had a literary magazine, which all of the literary pieces were turned in anonymously and I turned in about, I don’t know, forty. And when the literary magazine–and no one knew. Different people picked everything. And when the literary magazine came out, of about sixty pieces, something like twenty were mine, which cemented my teacher’s recognition of my work. And so, that was my first moment to really think that I might be a writer, to really believe that it was possible. And being my father’s daughter, he was an engineer, I started working to discover how writers lived, how they did their job. So, I spent hours at the local library talking with the librarians and letting them give me magazines to sit and study and asking permission, “May I please tear out this form here so I can get this magazine at my house?” And being given the opportunity to learn the hard things about writing, as it was at the time, which is you have to have a finished project to be paid, and you have to go through a process to be paid by New York. And I worked for three solid years through 10th, 11th, and 12th grade to educate myself on the business of writing as it was way back in the Dark Ages, and to teach myself as much about the tools of writing, the methods of writing, as I possibly could.
It’s interesting that you mentioned your father was an engineer. I’m married to an engineer. My wife is an engineer and a past president of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Saskatchewan, in fact.
And one thing I have found, being married to an engineer, is that engineers approach problems very analytically.
More so that perhaps comes naturally to me. So sometimes, when she’s approaching something, I think, “Oh, I never thought of that question.”
I tend to, because of my father’s deliberate training in debate, I tend to think of worst-case scenarios, which is really, really helpful when you’re writing fiction because you want your character to face the worst thing possible short of death and come out some sort of a hero. That’s your goal as a writer, to make that transition from flawed character to successful character take place amidst the conflict that the characters are facing. So, because of Dad demanding that I debate him constantly, I think in two different ways when I’m writing. Part of me is deeply involved in the methodologies and the toolbox things. “How do you phrase this? How many times? What is the meter of my prose? Where’s the last time I used a gerund? Oh, this sentence runs on too long.” Versus the worst-case scenario, which is, “This isn’t bad enough. I have to make this worse for my reader to really get into this scene.” So, those two parts of my brain are always working together now, my mother’s creative self and my father’s engineering lessons in the reality of logic.
Where did you grow up?
All over the South. Dad worked for a paper company. And back in the day, big international paper companies would, because everybody was, I mean, they were everywhere because everyone was reading newspapers. And so, he was in the newspaper-making arm, and he was an electrical engineer. So we moved to different . . . we never spent more than four years in any one place. And usually, it was closer to two years. It was two years in Mississippi and two years in Louisiana and two–I mean, it was just all over the southeast. And then Dad took a job in a little town called Rock Hill, South Carolina, with a different paper company, and we stayed there for many, many years, and that’s where I went to school.
Now, when you went to university, did you study writing? Because you initially started in, what, biomedical laboratory work?
Yes. No, I went to tech school. This was long enough ago that you could go to a two-year tech school and the post-World War Two scholastic situation was still in place. So, you could go to school for two years in a science-based or an engineering-based job. And in a lot of them, you could then take the four-year test, and you could get credit for four years of school. So that’s what I did. Dad, in all of his debating, never told me that I was going to have to pay for my own schooling because he wasn’t going to do that, and so I had to go to school the cheapest way it was possible to do it. And that meant the local tech school and study really, really, really hard so I could pass that test, which I did. And I had a good job with benefits for 40 years before I felt brave enough and strong enough in my writing career to quit.
Yeah, I . . . when I was looking into writing, when I was in high school, I made the decision that you can’t actually make a living at it right off the front. And so I went into journalism so at least I was doing something with words.
I thought about journalism. And there was a local college I could have gone to. It would have taken me about six years to pay my way through or maybe eight. But the idea of working in hospitals and being helpful to people was another part of my personality, and clearly, I liked it enough to stay with it. So that was . . . and learning the sciences and having a science background gave me an opportunity to learn a different type of writing, because report writing is very much like journalistic writing in the sense that you have a different timeline and you have different verbiage and you have different methodologies of reaching a point. So that was helpful in its own odd, unique way.
Were there other helpful things about working in that job for all those years. Does that fit into your writing in any other way?
Well, let’s see. Yes. I worked for, spent many years at small hospitals, and in small hospitals, there’s an awful lot of job crossover. So, I took part with . . . I was the assistant for lots of autopsies, and I was the person who went to the morgue and drew vitreous fluid or did a suprapubic stick to get urine or did a heart stick to get blood from the accident victims or murder victims or whatever was down there. And I was a part of the in-house first-response team for all codes, which means if someone stopped breathing or crashed in surgery or whatever, I was right there and then took the samples back to the lab and actually did the processing. So, in a small hospital, you very often get to do and see more, a lot more, than the average person does today. I don’t know if that’s the answer you really wanted, but, yes, I’ve put all of that, all of that learning together. So, when I describe a dead body, at any point, I can do it at least a modicum of success because I’ve seen it, and when I need an injury that doesn’t kill someone, I’ve also got that. I’ve seen everything. So, yeah, it was very handy to my writing.
I usually say that no matter what you do, you’ll find elements of it useful in your fiction writing, it’s like you have to have something in the tank before you can, you know, have anything to write about.
Absolutely. People who sit in an ivory tower don’t know how to write about real-life problems. They have to get out there in some kind of a trench. Now, it could be politics. It could be . . . it can be anything. But sitting in your basement or your living room or anywhere on your heinie and not being involved in the world does not prepare you for the writing life. You have to have a background or a knowledge, not just of the English language, but of the world.
And I would think, working in that kind of environment, you also saw a wide range of people.
Yes. And a wide range of victims and a wide range of perpetrators and a wide range of everything that . . . to start out with I didn’t have the life skills to deal with because I started my on-the-job training at 18. And that was difficult,
I would imagine. Were you writing, then, all through this time as you got your two-year . . . and then into the workforce?
I gave myself two years off from writing. I did no writing during those two years except what I had to do for school, which was report writing, essays, the usual college stuff you still have to do even if you’re at a tech school. You still have to take writing courses and English courses and your basic math and that sort of thing. But I gave myself time off because my job was to get a four-year education in two years. So, the day I got out of school, I walked across the stage, and the day after that I went to work researching for my next book, which had been percolating–my first book, I should say–which had been percolating in the back of my mind for two years.
Did you take any formal writing training at any time? I always ask that because some writers do, and then they say, but it wasn’t very useful.
I did. I took, uh, three options in the tech school. One was actually a . . . oh, gosh, that’s been a long time ago . . . it was a creative writing course of some sort, I don’t remember what now, and then when I was trying to write my first book, I took a poetry course from a two-time Gutenberg winner at the local college and I took a short-story course from a writer who was a critically acclaimed writer and also taught on the side. I learned a lot from those two classes, and the poetry class taught me to cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, action words, all the things that you need to make your prose really strong. And the short story course taught me things about plot and conflict and story arc that I needed. So, those two courses did come in handy. I don’t think I needed much else at that point, and I was ready to go because, as I said before, I studied hard for three years. I read every book I could find on writing. I read every magazine. Every possible writing magazine came to my house, and I studied them and marked them up and dog-eared pages and–not of the books because I got those from the library–but of my magazines, I made it a point to study. And if you really work hard at it, you can teach yourself a lot of things in life.
What was that first look, and how long did it take you then to complete it and presumably submit it? And did it get published?
It actually was finished, and I had about two inches tall of rejection letters–because back then there were probably 150 publishers out there. And I put it aside when I met a cop in the emergency room one night, and I heard him talking about wanting to write a book when he retired. We got chatting and started working together, our first lines were . . . I wish I could remember that first line that we came up with together . . . something about a warehouse with the stink of winter and rats that only a good raising could cure. And at the time, it sounded very poetic to me. But that first book–that second book for me, our first book together–took five years for us to write and the first editor who looked at it bought it.
What was its title?
Either Death Sentence or Death Warrant, I’m not sure which came first, but it was a two-book series, it was a police procedural. Long, long ago.
And you’ve written a great many since then, forty-plus, I believe your bio said.
Yes, I only count up when I think I might have hit another ten. So, I don’t know where I am right now. I do know that I have one book coming out in July, the end of July, which is Spells for the Dead. And I have a . . . I’m in the middle of rewrites for the Junkyard Cats number two, which doesn’t have a real title yet, but I’m calling it Junkyard Bargain. Just for funsies. So I know I’ve got those still coming, and then I have turned and book fourteen in the Jane Yellowrock series, which is my most popular series at this point, and it is in the hands of the editor waiting for that lovely thing writers call a rewrite letter but is really the letter of devastation and misery.
Well, we’re going to talk about that because we’re going to talk about your process. So, first of all, then, maybe we should have a synopsis of Spells for the Dead. And I want to talk about the Junkyard Cat series, too, because I want to ask you about the difference between writing direct for audio and writing for print.
Oh, dear, you want to know about . . . and of course, my brain is not on Spells for the Dead. Wait a minute.
I know, something that you did a long time ago because you’re working on the next thing. I know how that goes.
Right. I just…wait a minute. Let me see. Let me pull it up so I can look at it. Wait a minute. It’s horrible when you have to . . . sometimes I can’t even remember my own titles. That really happens a lot. Okay, well, Nell Ingram is the main character in the Soulwood series. And that series is a paranormal police procedural slash with . . . well, fantasy, with a little tiny bit of romance woven through it, not enough to turn off my male readers, but, you know, enough to to make my female readers happy, Nell works in Tennessee, out of Knoxville, and she’s called to the Tennessee mansion of a country music star and finds a disturbing scene–which takes you back to something we said just a few minutes ago–she sees dead bodies rapidly decaying before everyone’s eyes. And the witch on her team has never seen magic that can steal life forces like this. So Nell and the team have to go in and solve this mystery and prevent these new dark magics from spiraling out of control.
Okay. And what’s Junkyard Cats about?
Junkyard Cats is science fiction. And it is fabulous. I am having the most fun with it. The series is about post-World War Three, post-alien invasion, and forced peace on the Earth by the aliens because we were destroying ourselves and our planet, and my character is in hiding because she was accidentally contaminated by two different kinds of nanobots and they’ve done something to her. So, Shining Smith is her name, she’s a former biker with the Outlaws, and she runs Smith’s Junk and Scrap Yard in the middle of West Virginia, in the middle of the West Virginian desert. And the Cats part is because she has cats, which you discover at some point in book one are actually sentient thanks to her.
Hmm. Those both sound very interesting. What were . . . okay, this is a cliché question. “Where do you get your ideas?” But it’s a valid question. How do ideas come to you? How do you get the seeds of stories? These ones specifically, but in general, how is that process work for you?
Well, of course, when you’re writing a series, you don’t have to worry about worldbuilding or character creation or character relationships, all of those are already in place. So, when I’m working on the Soulwood series or the Jane Yellowrock series, what I’m planning is mostly plot-related and character-development related. That process is very different because you start out in the middle of a well-designed, hopefully, world, and you bring in the little bits of the world that you need for this particular book. But you have to also be smart and know that maybe your readers haven’t read all of the other books, and so you have to be very clear and concise about the necessary history for your character that you present in this new book. So, you start out in a different place from a stand-alone book or the beginning of a new series.
So, when I start with a Jane Yellowrock or Soulwood book, it’s usually with plot. Who’s died, who’s in trouble? What conflict are they facing? Is it natural or is it mundane? Is it magical? Is it, in the case of the science fiction, is it technological? Is it related to the damage that was done to the Earth in the war? What problem is this now-established character facing that will do two things, number one, challenge the new and the remaining weaknesses in that character, that’s number one, and number two, take that character through a journey where that character has to change and become better or worse in order to accomplish the end. So, if I’m just looking at an established character and all I’m doing is the plot planning, that’s one type of book to start. And I do that with an extremely heavily detailed seven- to thirty-five-page single-spaced outline.
That was my next question.
Now, when I’m doing something brand-new, for instance, Junkyard Cats, all I knew was the beginning and the end. My proposal to myself was about two pages, and it was as much worldbuilding as anything else. And then I realized, of course, I have to have help. So, I got two physicists to help me set up the changes in technology in the world. And they were extremely helpful. And I got some readers handy who would be able to help me with some genetic changes. So, then I just, for the first time in literally well, since 2006, I pantsed something. I flew by the seat of my pants, and I actually wrote the outline so I would have a way to keep track of what had happened as I wrote each day’s writing. So, I would write what I wanted to that day and I would transfer it to the outline. Then I would go back and write the next day’s work, and I would transfer the necessary information to the outline. And then about halfway through, I realized I needed to start my bible because I was loving this. And the bible is all of the things that are going to happen in a series. And in this case, it was technology and characters. So, I have about a twenty-five page single-spaced bible now, and I’ve only got one novella published.
So, the process is different. I was . . . when I started Junkyard Cats, it was all about the creation of this character, the creation of the world, and how much did I need and how much was just fluff and how much do I put away and how much satisfies me as a writer. Because sometimes, as a writer, I need to be satisfied with the craft of writing. I need to have that good poetic feel to things, to my work, that makes me happy and may not do anything for my reader. So, it’s a juggling aspect when I’m pantsing it. It’s very different. It’s . . . Okay, it’s more fun. Let me just say this right up front. Pantsing a novella is WAY more fun than writing from an outline.
When you started working on that, were you thinking direct to audio, or did that come along later, or how did that work?
I finished it, and I sent it to my agent, and I said . . . let’s see, how did that work? Oh, I remember. Audible had asked me if I had anything that they could use as an Audible original. This was some time ago. And I said, “Nope, not a thing. Everything is under contract. But I’ve kind of got an idea in the back of my head, if I ever get time to write it, I’ll let my agent know.” So, I finished all of this, and I sent it to her, and I said, “I doubt that this is anything that Audible would be interested in, but if you think they would be, here.” And she read it and made some significant suggestions, because she’s the excellent, wonderful agent she is. Am I permitted to say her name?
Yes, of course.
Okay, Lucianne Diver of the Night Agency is fabulous, and she made lots of suggestions, which I incorporated into a rewrite. And then she took it to Audible, and they bought it as an Audible original. So it is still under . . . they had a six-month exclusive on it, where it can’t be in print anywhere, and the six months will be out at the end of July, so sometime in August, the end of August, I think, it will come out as an e-book from a small press.
I’m sure you’ve had . . . most of your books have been audiobooks. Do you ever listen to them?
Really, I don’t. I hate to say that because my fans adore my narrator. They think she’s the cat’s meow. Khristine Hvam can do all of the voices, and she’s really good about keeping them in place between book and book and from the beginning to the end, and the characters always sound like they’re supposed to. But if I listen to the way she speaks my characters’ voices, it won’t be what I hear inside my head. So, no, I don’t, and that’s embarrassing, but–love you, Khristine!–but no, have not ever, ever listened to a book.
That seems to be fairly common in authors I’ve talked to. And I haven’t listened to . . . Except for the ones that I commissioned myself and I had to do the proof-listening, and I liked them, fortunately . . . but yeah, the ones that I’ve had that have been done by some other company, I’ve never actually listened to the whole thing. And it’s kind of the same thing. It’s like, well, that’s not quite the way it sounded in my head, so.
Right. I mean . . . and then when you go back to starting the next book, do you . . . I would have to go back and reread a whole bunch in a previous book to find that voice again, because my characters . . . My books don’t sound alike. The authorial voice is totally different in every book, I mean, in every series, so . . . The way I write, the syntax, the punctuation, every little thing is different in the Jane Yellowrock books from the books that I wrote as Gwen, which are much more purple. Those have a lot more flavor to them, in a sense, because the characters are not warriors, and Jane is a warrior, so my authorial voice is so different. If I listen to anything, I would have to go back and reread, and that would annoy me, I guess, some.
What’s your actual writing process? I think I read that you aim for a certain number of pages a day.
Are you a fast writer or a slow writer?
Well, COVID has changed the answer to that. Normally, I . . . when I was writing and trying to get a book out every six months and working full-time, I wrote for 12 hours a day, five days a week, and then worked to 16- to 17-hour days at the hospital. And while I was fast, I was doing two books a year, so I was always behind, and a good week was 10,000 words. Then I quit the job and realized I was killing myself, so I switched from a book every six months to a book every eight months. And that was much more doable. I was not killing myself anymore. And so, if I could do, let’s see, how much would that be, if I could do 8,000 words a week to 10,000 words a week over seven days, that was a lot easier on me.
And then COVID hit, and I can’t go anywhere, so I’m back up writing way faster, and I’m getting caught up on all of my deadlines, and I’m not sitting at the desk but about six to eight hours a day. And it’s pretty wonderful. So, I hate to say that COVID has been beneficial in any way, but it makes me concentrate on my writing so I don’t have to think about the world. And I think . . . I know that a lot of my writing friends have had the opposite effect where they can’t think about their writing because the only thing they can think about is the world. And it’s horrible, and everything’s on fire. But for me, I’m hiding from that when I’m writing, I’m not watching the news, I’m not checking Facebook or Twitter, I’m not going anywhere but into this world and I can sit and write, and it’s pouring out of me, and it’s wonderful. Now, I don’t know if that will continue. What has it done to you? I mean, I’m really curious about how other people have reacted to this.
Hasn’t really changed much for me. I’m . . . you know, I work at home. I was writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library, which is a two-and-a-half-hour drive north of here. So, I would go up on Tuesday morning, and I stayed overnight, and I was in the library for two days meeting with writers and going . . . you know, stuff like that. And all that changed was that I no longer made the trip to Saskatoon and I just sat here and did it all virtually, and it actually benefited me because I wasn’t spending money on that hotel room one night a week up in Saskatoon so that that all went by, and, you know, I always sit in my house and type, so it hasn’t really changed much from my point of view. But yeah, I’ve heard that, you know, different things for different people. I assume from what you said that you mostly write at home anyway, you’re not a go out into the coffee shops or scribble under a tree with a pen or something.
Absolutely not. I want my computer system set up exactly as it’s set up. When we go somewhere to paddle, I still have to write, and I take all my computer system with me. So we travel in an RV, and it has a big, deep dash. So, when we are stopped, and I am working, I still have my two great big screens and my laptop to the side, and so that gives me two keyboards. So, I have two full systems to write with because, especially now that when I’m writing a series, I have to have so many different files open. I’ve got to have the bible open. I’ve got to have maybe the previous book open. I might have to have the writing order and the time schedule open. I might have to have the editor’s notes open. So, when I’m writing, I always have at least four files open at a time. And all of them are related to this project that I’m working on. So, I have to . . . I just . . . when I go somewhere else, I replicate my office.
What . . . once you have that first draft, what does your revision process look like? Do you have a very clean draft? When you get to the end you’re done, you don’t have to go through it again? How does that work for you?
Well. I’ve been writing for a long time. When my father was passing away, I had about three years there where I did not turn in very clean drafts, and I felt very sorry for my editor. And they kindly, at Penguin Random House, kept working with me through those three years. But normally, except for those three years, I start out the day revising everything I wrote the day before and then putting in another X number of words to get to where I need to be for that day to meet a deadline for the week. So, for instance, if I know I’ve got a 40,000-word document due on Monday, and I’ve got seven days to do it, then each day I’ve got to . . . each week I’ve got to do 10,000 words. So I just divide it up, and normally I’m able to make it. Lately, though, I’ve given . . . I’ve had some health issues myself, so I’ve given myself a little bit longer. I’m not pushing myself. I’m just letting my COVID brain write all the time, and I’m not watching word count as much as I did before. So . . . everything changes. It just . . . life changes, people get sick, people die, your dog dies, you, I mean . . . you and your husband get to go on vacation to Ireland, and you don’t write the whole time you’re there, and then you come home with all these ideas and you have a brand-new concept, and you sit down, and you write like crazy. So, life is just odd, and the process is . . . the writing processes always have to change based on the reality of the world.
As they say, life is just one darn thing after another.
Yes, it is.
Do you . . . it doesn’t sound like you have beta readers or anybody like that. Or do you?
I used to not, but I do now. I have one beta reader who keeps up with the timeline and the bible and makes sure that all of the characters are where they should be at the start of one book, based on where they were, where they last appeared in the series, So if I’ve killed off the character, the character is not back in this book. So, I have her, and she is in . . .
Well, in your book, couldn’t that happen? In your series?
Yes, well, it did three times by accident. And that forced me to reintroduce to . . . not to reintroduce but to introduce . . . an accidental time-loop situation. So, that gave the book, gave the Jane Yellowrock series five more books, because I made that accident, so no one’s complaining except the poor person who has to keep up with what I’ve done. And she was . . . the timeline editor has also been a non-fiction editor, so she’s really good about, um, the broad strokes in the editing process. So she’s a beta reader, but I also now . . . she started out as a beta reader. I now pay her to be my timeline editor. And I have a genetics person who does plants and people genetics. And she’s also my, one of my PR people. I have personal PR people as well as the wonderful people at Penguin. So, yes, I have two really regular beta readers that I use, and then this last time, I have two people who are . . . three, excuse me, three new people who are beta readers for mindset and weapons from so that a new character, I’ve never written in his brain before, so that he thinks properly when he’s faced with danger. My character, Eli Younger, is a former Ranger, active duty in the Middle East. And when he comes home, he’s injured. Now I’m writing a story where he has to face a bad guy, that he doesn’t have any of the weapons needed to fight. So, part of this new novella I’m working on is through his point of view. And I needed to make sure that the weapons he would choose, the number of shots fired at this creature, the way he would, his body mechanics would, work during a fight and the way his brain would work, because those are all parts of one whole. And so, I have three brand-new beta readers who were very helpful in this new novella.
Once you get the book submitted–and you mentioned the letter of devastation from the editor–what says what sorts of things do you usually find yourself having to do in the editorial pass?
Really, really good stuff. I have the best editor at Penguin ever. I’ve already told her if she ever retires, I’m quitting, and she laughs, and I go, “I might be serious here!”, but she catches things like plot holes like, “This makes no sense. You said this here, then you said this here forty pages later, and they have no connectivity. So you need to address this, and you need to bring this. You need to create a connectivity between these two events, and your character needs to work through this.” And she’ll say things like, “Your character sounds mean.” Or, “Your character sounds like you,” or, “Why would your character know this? This character does not have any backstory that gives him or her a knowledge base in this area. And you sound like an expert.” Because, you know, I did my research, but off the fly, a character wouldn’t have time to. So, it’s not just the nit-picky things, it’s the big, broad strokes of the novel. It usually starts out with, “This was so much fun. I always loved getting back into this. Here’s five single-spaced paragraphs of what’s wrong with it. And then here’s all the nit-picky things,” the next five pages, single-spaced.
And who is your wonderful editor?
My wonderful editor is Jessica Wade at Ace at Penguin Random House. And I cannot recommend her enough if you can get in with her. She’s fabulous.
Well, my editor is the only editor . . . well, I’ve worked with multiple editors . . . but the only one in my major publisher is Sheila Gilbert at DAW, just down the hall from Ace, actually, in the Penguin building.
Very good. Well, but they’re all working at home now, so . . .
Yeah, yeah. She’s actually is in New Jersey.
Yeah. But what’s interesting about Sheila is that . . . because I talk to authors, and everybody gets these written letters and Sheila doesn’t give you a written letter. We have very long phone conversations, which is, you know, just different. But it’s the same thing, you know, “This character can’t do that, or never set that up,” or, you know, it’s the same sort of thing. And when I work with new writers, as I did as writer-in-residence, there’s occasionally, people are concerned about working with editors. They think they’re going to somehow damage their deathless prose or something. And I explain that editors actually make things better. That seems to be your experience.
Yes. I would not work without an editor. I just I wouldn’t do it. And when I say an editor, let me back up. In case someone is out there who doesn’t know about editors, there’s multiple kinds. There’s a developmental editor, which is what Jessica is, and there’s copy editors, and those are the people who do the timeline, nit-picky, but very important stuff like, you killed this character on page 12, and they’re back doing a fight scene over here. Or, you change this character’s gender midway through the scene, or you started out in a truck and now they’re in an airplane, that kind of thing. And then there’s the line editors who do the even more nit-picky things like fixing quotations and that sort of thing and making sure there’s no duplicated words. Jessica can do all of those, but her primary importance to my work is as a developmental editor. And she rips the plot to shreds, which is what I asked her to do when we first met.
Now, you’ve been writing a long time, have you been surprised by how people have embraced your words over all these years? Or pleased, at least?
I don’t know if happy or pleased fit exactly what I feel, I think embarrassed and humbled and sort of tongue-tied when people gush? I just . . . I don’t know what to say when people like what I’ve written, I’ve learned to say “thank you” with some sort of regularity in the appropriate–most of the time–in the appropriate spot. But I will admit, it’s difficult to believe that people like my work.
They seem to. Well, we’re towards the end here, and so now it’s time for the big philosophical questions, which is not that big. Well, maybe it’s a big question. I don’t know if it’s particularly philosophical. But the question is, why do you do this? Why do you write? And on a bigger scope, why do any of us write and then, being more specific, why this kind of stuff, this kind of science fiction and fantasy stuff?
Uh, well, I’ve written . . . let me answer the last one first. The last part first. I’ve written science fiction/fantasy because I got bored with the format required from thrillers and mystery. I know that sounds dreadful to all of my mystery fans, but they were always current-world driven, and that put limitations on.the writing methodology that I just got tired of. And I had always loved, back when I was even more strange than I am now, that strange young girl, that odd young girl who buried her nose in books, I had always liked other worlds and flying dragons and knights in shining armor and more importantly, women who could fight their own battles. So, I got tired of writing in the real world, which to me, mystery is, and I wanted to write other things, and that’s where I am now.
And it’s so much more fulfilling to me as a creator because it takes a lot more effort. When you’re writing mystery or even just . . . anything . . . that is real-world based you are kept in these constraints, and. They’re known, and they’re easy. When you create a new world, a new world system, you have to have the checks and balances in place before you start, and you have to know how they differ from reality and how they make your world harder to live in for your characters. And that’s something that a lot of real-world writers don’t realize. They actually will make fun of people who write fantasy and sci-fi, and you go, “Wait a minute, I have to do everything you’re doing, in a world with entirely different rules and many more pitfalls, so stop and think what you’re saying, you’re actually taking the easy way out. And I know that because I used to write that way.” And they tend to get very quiet.
And why, in general, tell stories of any sort?
Because I’m still that strange little girl with a beast living inside me. I need to write. I write for my mental health, I write because when I wake up in the morning, I want the day to go well, and I can make sure it does in my writing. I can bring it to a point of fabulous conclusion if I choose at the end of each day, where something great happens, or something horrible happens that I know is going to be solved tomorrow or the day after that. And there is a blessing in living that way that I don’t have when I don’t write. And I have thought many times over the years of giving up and when I would retire and if I would retire. And now I’m having so much fun writing again, now that I’m pantsing this new series, this new novella series, I don’t want to quit anymore. I’m back to, “Oh, this is fun. Yay!” And I’m looking forward to the new projects.
This podcast is called The Worldshapers, and we’ve talked about the worldbuilding side of that. But the other side of that is, do you hope that your fiction . . . I know, I don’t think very many stories have actually shaped the world, a few classics, maybe. But what do you hope that your readers . . . are they shaped in some way by your fiction? Even if it’s just be entertained.
I . . . yeah. I think what I get right now is, ‘I’m so glad I have your books to read. I just discovered them, and I’m hiding from the world in your books. And I’m so glad you have a female character who doesn’t sit on the train tracks and scream, ‘Help me, help me!'” Like Dudley Doolittle’s characters, female characters, always did. They’re very happy that my characters are take-charge women and take-charge fighters and go after the bad guys who are hurting the underdogs, and that makes them happy. When I was writing as Gwen, it was a different thematic thing, although my characters did take charge and kill their own snakes, as we say in the South. They lived in a world that was different, and they had more back-up. They had people they could depend on most of the time to help. So, it was different . . . it was a different world. And what people got from that was, “Thank you for addressing this issue in this wonderful story you told,” about polygamy or about some trigger element that this person needed to see in print at the time and it would help them through some problem that is ongoing in their past and now in their present. So there’s . . . it’s different things for different people, and I’m just happy people are reading my books, it makes me weep with . . . mm, I said that word, and I almost wanted to. It makes me weep with happiness, I guess, I’m going to go back to your word. It doesn’t feel real. But then, I write fiction! So, there you go.
And you have mentioned what you’re working on, but maybe just reiterate what you’re working on now.
I am working on novella number two in the Junkyard Cat series right now, it’s being rewritten to go back to the editor, hopefully soon. I have Spells for the Dead, which is Nell Ingram, and the series of Soulwood. It is number five in that series. It’s coming out in July.
I think I called it Souls of the Dead when I mentioned it.
Spells for the Dead and Soulwood, so . . . and I do that too, and I have to stop and think . . . that’s why I had to go look it up when you ask me what the title was, because I couldn’t remember. And then I have turned in True Dead, which is Jane Yellowrock fourteen, to the lovely and brutal and fabulous Jessica Wade. And so, I’m waiting for that rewrite letter, and I hope that letter of devastation stays at least another couple of weeks away and I’ll be all caught up. Yay!
And where can people find you online?
I am on Facebook. You can just hunt for Faith Hunter Author on Facebook. I have FaithHunter.net, where I have a website, I don’t do a whole lot on it. And then I have two fan pages, or three, on Facebook, which you can find if you look for Faith Hunter Discussion Group and Faith Hunter Spoiler Group, you can do a search for tha, and it should pull both of them up…all of them up.
Okay. That’s kind of the end of our time. So, thanks so much for being on. I really enjoyed the conversation.
Thank you for letting me ramble on. It was incoherent much of the time, but you’re very good at pulling me back on track. Thank you.
An hour-long chat with Carrie Vaughn, author of the Philip K. Dick Award-winning novel Bannerless, the New York Times-bestselling Kitty Norville urban fantasy series: more than twenty novels and upwards of 100 short stories, two of which have been finalists for the Hugo Award.
Carrie Vaughn‘s work includes the Philip K. Dick Award-winning novel Bannerless, the New York Times bestselling Kitty Norville urban fantasy series: more than twenty novels and upwards of 100 short stories, two of which have been finalists for the Hugo Award. Her most recent work includes a Kitty spin-off collection, The Immortal Conquistador, and a pair of novellas about Robin Hood’s children, The Ghosts of Sherwood and The Heirs of Locksley. She’s a contributor to the Wild Cards series of shared world superhero books edited by George R. R. Martin and a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop.
A bona fide Air Force brat (her father served on a B-52 flight crew during the Vietnam War), Carrie grew up all over the U.S. but managed to put down roots in Colorado, in the Boulder area, where she pursues an endlessly growing list of hobbies and enjoys the outdoors as much as she can. She is fiercely guarded by a miniature American Eskimo dog named Lily.
Could’ve sworn it said November for The Forbidden Stars. Anyway…
I probably told you the wrong date. Like most authors, I have only the vaguest idea of when anything is coming out. I think last year it came out…the second book came out in September, the first one might have come out in November. That’s probably what happened.
Close enough, anyway. Yeah, and I just finished reading the first two, so I’m looking forward to talking to you about them. Usually at this point in the podcast, I will talk about how we met at some convention or other, but I’m not sure we’ve ever met at a convention. I might have seen you at a WorldCon or World Fantasy, but I can’t say for sure that we’ve ever actually spoken. So, this is a new one.
Yeah. Nice to meet you. I used to go to a lot of conventions, and then I had a child about twelve years ago and have only in the last couple of years kind of gotten back into getting back into the convention scene. But there was a long stretch there where I only went if it was, you know, twenty minutes from my house.
Which most of them aren’t.
Well, you know, I’m in the Bay Area, so it’s not absolutely none, but yeah, it’s not that many.
Well, we’re gonna talk about the Axiom series in particular as an example of your creative process, but before we do that, let’s go back, as I like to say, into the mists of time, which you’re getting further back for some of us than others. I say that having just had a 60th birthday not that long ago…
Oh, happy birthday.
…and find out how you first became interested in, first of all, in science fiction fantasy, and how you became interested in writing the same.
Oh, absolutely. Really, my parents were just really big readers. I grew up fairly poor, travelled around a lot with my mom. She was a single mom for the first six years of my life and we lived all over the south and kind of had no fixed address. We stayed with relatives or we spent some time in West Virginia, Texas, wherever. But she was always a science fiction fan, so those books were around. When I was about six, she married my stepdad and we settled down in North Carolina. And, you know, my dad’s a welder and my mom for a long time was, you know, just worked the cash register in a store, although later she became a paramedic when I was in high school. And so, not sort of the classic literary upbringing. There was no beautiful library full of volumes, but what they would do is whenever they were at the thrift store they would pick up all the cheap paperbacks, right, and they would bring them home. So, there are always millions of books in my house, and the majority of them were science fiction, fantasy, and horror. So that was just early exposure. You know, by the time I was eight years old, I was reading Stephen King novels, not entirely understanding everything that was happening in them, but I was reading them.
And then, in summers, I would stay with my great-grandmother, Annie, who would watch me while my parents were working. And she was a huge science fiction novel fan. And she was like, she didn’t mess around with fantasy, she didn’t mess around with horror. She was a Clarke, Heinlein, Asimov science-fiction fan, and her guestroom was just full of shelves and just full of hundreds of books. And so in the summer, you know, I would like to eat ice cream and watch TV, but she would be like, “No, you can’t watch TV all day. Go weed the garden and, you know, and you can read.” And so I’d read her books. And that, I mean, honestly, that was my education and my grounding in science fiction.
Not a bad one.
So when did you become interested in writing it, or writing in general?
The oldest story that my mom still has in the shoebox is from when I was in second grade, so before I remember not being into writing, right, I don’t have a memory of not being interested in it. You know, kids play around with all the arts, right? I wanted to be a visual artist. I wanted to be a musician. I wanted to be a chef. All these things. Honestly, I think writing stuck because writing had the lowest barrier to entry. You know, if I wanted to play music, well, I had to get a guitar from somewhere, right? If I wanted to be an artist. I needed to get art supplies. If I wanted to write. I just needed a spiral-bound notebook and a pencil. I had that anyway to go to school. So that’s sort of the artistic endeavor that I just started and kept at. My learning curve was incredibly slow because I didn’t sell any fiction until I was in my twenties, but I was working at it.
So, did you write, as you went through school, were you writing a lot of stories? And were you sharing them with friends to see what they thought or anything like that?
I did. Yeah, I was collaborating with a friend in fourth grade. I actually just recently was digging through some old files and found something. I was like, “Oh, yeah, we wrote this thing together.” When I was in high school, once I was in typing class–not keyboarding class, we had, they were electric, but we had typewriters–I started making just a little satirical like joke-filled newspaper thing for my friends that I would just type there and it would end up getting sort of circulated around–I mean, one copy at a time, but it would get passed around the school. I was always writing and in high school I was sort of, I was known as the writer. I have no idea why, I’d published on a couple of like, you know, school literary magazines or whatever. But somehow, like, my senior year, I was voted “most talented.” I’m like, “How? Why? Like, it should go to someone who’s like playing in a band or like doing art that’s hanging in the halls, at least. Like, how does anybody know I do anything?” But I guess I never shut up about it. so people knew that I was doing it.
Did you write make longer stuff, like novels, or you sort of on the shorter side during all of that time?
Most of that time I was writing short stories. I really love short stories. I did take a couple of stabs at longer things and probably in high school produced some novella-length stuff that wasn’t very good. It was college before I really settled down and thought, “You know, I’d like to sort of figure out how to do novels now.” And I wrote a few of those through college and I went to Clarion right after college and after Clarion…so, at Clarion they warn you, “You know, you’ve been here, you’ve been so intense, you’ve been so focused, a lot of people, they come out declaring they’re just blocked. They’re, like, too hypercritical of their work, they can’t produce anything just because they freeze up about everything they’re doing wrong.”
It sounds like telling people that would be a good way to make that happen.
Right. Yeah, let’s plant the seed of fear. But, so I sort of thought, well, I’m not gonna let that happen. So I came back from Clarion and I did a novel there, which was…there were a bunch of people online who would do, like, dare each other to write a novel in thirty days. So, sort of NaNoWriMo-ish, except usually longer, like an eighty-, ninety-, hundred-thousand-word novel that you would try to write in thirty days, and sort of just boost each other up online. And so, I did one of those, like, immediately after clearing. And that book was also terrible, but the book I wrote after that, I sold.
Well, it’s that old thing, and it’s attributed to various people–somebody told me Ray Bradbury said you had write 800,000 words and Stephen King said you only had to write 500,000. So it’s getting better, you know, as you go along.
That’s right. Yeah.
You’re talking about writing a novella-length…I had thought I had written novels in high school because they were typed up and they made a substantial stack of paper. But recently, I scanned the first one I wrote, when I was fourteen, which I typed up as soon as I had my–and it was on a typewriter–my typing classes. And, you know, I thought it was long, but when I scanned it and did a word count, it’s like 38,000 words.
Pretty close, but it wasn’t really a novel. But still, it looks like one. So… I’m thinking about putting it out online under my…I was known as Eddie Willett when I was a kid…putting it out under my Eddie Willett byline on Amazon. My worry is it might sell better than my other stuff.
You know, it’s a fear. I took the first novel that I finished, that I wrote when I was probably a sophomore in college…and it’s not very good, it’s sort of contemporary fantasy thing…and I do a Patreon where I read a new story every month, I’ve been doing it for years, and I do bonus material sometime, and usually it’s like trunk stories or fragments or audio, just, like, weird stuff. But I was like, “You know, I have this novel. I’m just going to resist the urge to clean it up. Really. I’ll go through it and make sure there’s not anything too, like, horrific because it was written by a twenty-year-old white guy,” and I posted it to my Patreon as a bonus novel. So, there are at least a couple of hundred people who’ve potentially been able to read my juvenilia. I don’t think I’d put it on Amazon.
Back at the Denver WorldCon, I think it was, I suggested a panel of writers reading their juvenilia, because I had this, and we had Connie Willis on it…
Oh, that’s great.
…Josh Palmatier, Sarah Hoyt and me, and we all read. Connie didn’t really have juvenilia, but she read some of her early romance short stories that she had written.
Oh, yeah. She used to write for the magazines.
Yes, she did. And I read from my novel, and I don’t know what the others read. It actually went over really, really well. It’s sometimes hard to find authors who are willing to do it, though.
Well, I think it’s fun. And sometimes you get, like, “It Came from the Slush Pile,” reading terrible things that, you know, were submitted. That always makes me a little bit twitchy because God knows I’ve submitted some terrible things and I would be embarrassed. But if you’re an author and you’re embracing your own terribleness, you know, you can get the same laughs, I think.
The fear of going to “It Came from a Slush Pile” would be, you’d be sitting there prepared to laugh at this stuff, and then they read something you submitted.
Exactly. A frisson of terror.
So, you mentioned Clarion. You were an actual English major, were you not, at university?
I was. I took the very laziest path. In retrospect, I got more out of my history classes, and I probably should have majored in that. I almost double majored, but I needed to take one more class, and instead I went to Clarion, so I said, “Fine, I’ll do a history minor.” But yeah, it was just, you know, “I like to write. I like to read…” I thought I was going to…I went into college intending to become an English teacher. I thought that was, you know, the safe path, like, a plausible thing to do.
And then when I was a freshman, I ended up taking a workshop, a ten-day workshop that Orson Scott Card ran, because he had an association with my university. And they…like, the university…had this apartment, or I guess it was like a little townhouse, in Washington, D.C., and Scott would go up there and run these ten-day workshops for, you know, eight or ten college kids. And I went in there and I took some stories and Scott kind of took me aside and said, “I think you have it in you to do this professionally.” And that was only encouragement I needed. I then immediately threw away all my plans to have any kind of reasonable backup, you know, professional safety net and said, “Okay, I’m just going to be a writer. I’m going to do it.”
Well, I was going to ask about your experience as an English major, because when I’ve talked to some writers who have done that and they’ve taken creative writing, they say that they had a…they would run into pushback because of what they wanted to write. And obviously, you at least had some classes with Orson Scott Card, a previous guest on here, so I’m guessing there wasn’t a particular problem with the genre you were writing.
Well, it’s funny, because I took…it actually didn’t have to be genre fiction to get into that workshop, and I submitted literary stories because I had sort of been beaten about the head and told, “Oh, we don’t really want to cover the science fiction and fantasy stuff,” right? And so, I was writing…you know, they were still weird and they had elements of crime and stuff like that, but I was writing stories without supernatural or science fictional elements. So, once I got to the workshop, I freed myself. I was like, “This is a sympathetic audience. I’ll do this.” I did end up doing my honors thesis in poetry instead of fiction, because the woman who ran the fiction department, though she was lovely, just did not get science fiction and fantasy, she just didn’t really understand it. I found the poets in the department much more sympathetic, so I came out with a degree with a concentration in creative writing, but my thesis was poetry.
So, what happened after university? How did you break in?
Yeah, so I went to Clarion, I took a couple of stories, I met a bunch of great people who I’m still close friends with, Tobias Buckell, Jenn Reese are both still writing a lot. Lots of other people, honestly. I learned so much from my instructors. It was really huge for me. And like I said, then I came back and I wrote a novel to make sure that I hadn’t broken my brain by being at Clarion and came to California pretty much on a whim. I was living in the mountains of North Carolina. I was working in advertising, so I was making money, but I really did not enjoy my job. I kind of didn’t like the face I saw in the mirror every morning. I mean, it’s fine. You can do advertising and do it ethically. I worked for a company whose explicit approach was to go into small towns and put the locally owned businesses out of business. Like, they had specific strategies to do this so that they could dominate the local markets, and I just felt kind of twitchy about it. So, I had a friend who is studying astronomy in grad school in Santa Cruz, and he said, “Santa Cruz is beautiful, you should move out here. I need a housemate in the fall anyway. I’m going to have to move.” So I said, “Sure.” And I loaded up the car and drove for four days across the country.
Loaded up the car, and you moved to…
I did. I moved to…
Not quite Beverly…
Not quite. A little bit farther north. But, you know, the whole time I was still writing, and I had…around ’99, 2000, started to occasionally sell stories to, like, very tiny small-press magazines and stuff like that. So I was getting some encouragement. I got up here and I lived in Santa Cruz for a while and I moved up to Oakland after I met Heather Shaw, whom I eventually married, also a writer and editor. We started dating, and dating up and down the coast from Santa Cruz to Oakland proved to be a little bit tiring, so I moved up to Oakland, and I got a job at Locus. I applied at Locus Magazine, and was fortunate in that one of my Clarion instructors was Michaela Roessner, who was very good friends with Charles Brown, who was still alive and running Locus. So, I came up for the interview and he said, “Oh, I asked Mikey about you and, you know, you got the job if you want it. Here’s what the job is.” So that helped a lot.
For those who don’t know, you should maybe explain what Locus is.
Oh, sure. Locus is a trade publishing magazine for science fiction and fantasy. So, we run book reviews, we run interviews, we run obituaries–I write those–we run listings of science fiction books, we do all sorts of features, we cover the conventions, we do quarterly forthcoming books listing where we painstakingly gather information from publishers big and small about all the science fiction and fantasy books that are coming out in the next nine months. And that’s a really helpful issue. Booksellers and librarians really love that issue because they can go through and see what’s coming down the road that they’re interested in.
Lots of little tiny print.
You know, we’ve revamped a little bit. Our reviews are a bigger type size than they used to be. But yeah, the listings of books…there’s just so many books now, right? With all the small-press stuff, the barrier to entry to self-publish is so low that, you know, we used to get on the order of, you know, hundreds of books in a month, and now sometimes we’ll see, you know, several hundred bucks a month, right, instead of like a couple hundred. And, you know, it’s got squeezed in there somewhere.
I was just gonna say, you know, I’ve been reading books for a long time. And there’s this thing among authors known as Locus Envy, where you’re looking in the news and you see that, you know, somebody you never heard of just landed a twelve-book deal for $14 million and the mini-series is coming out next week…yeah, so.
It’s an issue, but I write the People in Publishing column, which has all of those deals in it, and it used to drive me nuts, especially when I was, like, desperate to sell a novel, because I had been at Locus for a few years before I sold the book. I’d been at Locus for a couple of years before I sold the story professionally. But I’ve actually come around to say, “You know, what this tells me is that there are still publishers out there that will value science fiction and fantasy to that degree, right? They’re willing to invest in it.” And the thing to remember is that, like, somebody else’s hugely successful book is the thing that subsidizes your potentially less successful book, right? I had the same editor as George R.R. Martin for a little while. And you know what? My books didn’t do like George’s did, but George’s made enough money that they could take chances on books like mine.
In my case, I’m at DAW, and Patrick Rothfuss has helped a lot in that regard.
Oh, absolutely right. Rising tides, they lift all boats.
So, we should probably talk about your books…
…and how you write them, because that’s what this is all about. So, looking at the Axiom series, maybe you can give a synopsis so I don’t give it away. I have read the first two books and enjoyed them very much. I just came back from St. John’s, Newfoundland, because my wife is an engineer and she was on a committee of Engineers Canada and she had to go up there for a meeting, so I tagged along, since I’d never been out there. But it’s a three-hour flight to Toronto and another three hours to St. John’s. I think I finished the first book in that first trip to St. John’s and I read the other while I was there. So I got them both read before I talked to. So, I enjoyed it very much, but maybe you can explain what the premise is.
Yeah, I always try to do an elevator pitch and I always say I need a very slow freight elevator and a very tall building. Essentially, they’re set about 600 years in the future. Humankind has made contact with a species of aliens, which we call Liars because we don’t know what they’re really called, because they lie about everything, which leads to some funny first-contact shenanigans that I sort of exposit, talk about a little bit, but it’s all deep pre-history to my characters. Right? They’ve known about these aliens for centuries. But the liars just confabulate. They make up stories about their own origins, about the nature of the universe. You can’t really rely on them to tell the truth about anything. But eventually, once humans figure out what they’re dealing with, they manage to work out some trade, right? If you make sure that the thing that they’re giving you is the thing that, you know, you think it is, sometimes the trade works out okay. And one of the things that the liars give us is the location of these wormhole gates. There’s one out near Jupiter, and we don’t know it’s there because until it’s bombarded with exactly the right kind of radiation, it’s nothing. It’s empty space. But when it’s bombarded with the right combination of radiation, it opens up into this portal that leads, potentially, to various other places. So, there are about thirty known wormhole gates scattered throughout the galaxy, and what they enable humans to do is go out and colonize, right? They can spread. So, a lot of these systems have habitable planets or planets that can be terraformed, which the Liars also have great technology for.
So, the first book starts with a bunch of, sort of ragtag post-humans, a crew, because I like a nice misfit crew, and they’re working salvage and security for a space station, the stuff out in the outer fringes of our solar system, out beyond the orbit of Neptune, and they find this wrecked ship. And when they open up the wrecked ship, they find a bunch of destroyed cryopods and one cryopod that still has a human being in it. And this is pretty weird because they realize promptly that this ship was what they call a Goldilocks ship. So, back before we met the Liars, back before we got some technological remediation, the planet was not doing very well, and in a sort of desperate last-ditch effort to save humanity, we sent out a bunch of ships, just slow, sublight speed, with people cryogenically frozen. They’re seed ships, right, so they have lots of embryos and lots of seed stock and they just send them out to various stars that look like they have planets in the Goldilocks zones, right, so planets that might conceivably be habitable. Probably most of them aren’t. Probably ninety-nine percent of them aren’t. But things were so desperate and there were enough people who were willing to volunteer to take this shot that they sent these colony ships out. The funny thing is then, you know, while they were all still taking their slow journeys, then we met aliens, and the aliens helped us, and they helped us fix Earth. And so, most of those colony ships were sort of forgotten. And, in fact, some of them would arrive to find the planet that they were going to try to colonize already having a thriving colony, right, if it happened to be one that had a wormhole gate in that system.
So, they find this Goldilocks ship, and it’s baffling because it should not be in our solar system. It should be really, really far away by now, right? It left 500 years ago. And so, they wake up the one person who’s in the ship, who’s a biologist named Elena, and ask her what happens. She says, “Oh, our ship, it was incredible, it was amazing. We met aliens.” And they all say, “Oh, yeah, we know. We know about the aliens. That’s kind of old news. I’m sorry.” And she says, “No, no, no, not those aliens. These are different aliens.” As far as humans know, Liars are the only other intelligence pieces of aliens in the universe. We’ve never met any other ones. And it turns out there’s a reason for that. So the aliens Elena met are much more terrifying, much more uninterested in working with humans and more interested in scouring humans from life. And eventually, I mean, this is a little bit of a spoiler, but it’s the name of the trilogy, they discover that there’s this ancient alien race called the Axiom, and one hates to make generalizations about entire species, but as a culture, the Axiom were not nice. They were about domination and control and exterminating anything that might be a threat to them. The Liars they kept around because the Liars could be useful to them. They were essentially, you know, a servitor species, which is not fun for them. The Axiom, thousands of years ago, mostly went dormant as they wait for various long-term projects that they have set to go into fruition.
So, essentially what my ragtag crew discovers is that the galaxy is littered with these space stations and these facilities and these things that look like planets–but they’re not actually planets–that the Axiom have built that are doing stuff we don’t even understand, that have technology way beyond anything we can imagine. And so, there’s extremely dangerous toys lying around. The problem is, if the Axiom happened to wake up and notice us like, say, if we start messing with their toys, they’d probably exterminate all humanity. So now my crew has this terrible secret that they want to tell anybody about, because humans, being humans, will go try to pillage these treasure boxes to see what they can find, and as a consequence, they might kill everybody. So my crew is trying to sort of, with the help of a Liar named Lantern, who’s from a sect that knows about the Axiom, this crew, they’re trying to figure it out. They’re trying to deal with it. So the books are about them, basically, like running into Axiom stuff and attempting to deal with. And then, over the course of the trilogy, trying to sort of figure out a larger strategy to deal with this huge existential threat that no people know about. And there’s all kinds of deeper stuff in it, like why the Liars tell lies is one of the big reveals in the first book, you know, the cultural reason for why they make up all these stories. And the second book is about a giant virtual reality engine, because I like VR stuff. That was really fun. And then the third book, The Forbidden Stars, the one that’s coming out, which you have not read…
No, I have not.
So I sort of mentioned, what I like to do in series, I’ve done a few series, I like to sort of, you know, put some Chekhov’s guns, not even on the mantelpiece, but like way out in the front yard, you know? So, in book one, I’ll mention something and I’ll come back to it three books later. And that’s essentially what this book is about. I mentioned that, of the wormhole gates, there’s one gate that people just stopped coming back through. Right? Like, colonists went in, for a while there was communication, and then it just shut down. And various, you know, ships have been sent in to try to figure out what happened on the other side, what happened to the system. They never come back, either. Right? So it becomes known as the forbidden system, the interdicted system. Nobody’s allowed, you know, the militaries, or the polities, that control the wormhole gates don’t let anybody go there because it seems to be a one-way ticket. You seem to not come back. The assumption is that something horrible happened there. Well, in the course of the series, my ragtag crew of post-humans, they get hold of technology that nobody else has, Axiom technology. They can open wormholes anywhere they want to in the galaxy, so they can go places that no one else can go. And they decide, for various reasons, that they should go see what’s happening in the Vanir System, that’s the system that’s interdicted.
I’m going to predict the Axiom has something to do with it.
You know, it’s possible that mean, bad aliens could be involved. So, that’s what The Forbidden Stars is about. They’re able to go. And it’s the Vanir system is the most remote of all the colonized systems. It’s so far out in the galaxy that conventionally, you know, it would take thousands of years for a ship to get there. So ,it really is a complete mystery. And the crew pops in and they find out all sorts of interesting things that are happening. And the third book, because it’s the last one in the trilogy, I also reveal like some big fundamental stuff about the axiom. You know, it ends up having sort of…it’s a book with two climaxes, because they have to sort of deal with the local problem, and then I want to like address the sort of global, bigger problem, which is that, like, six people are trying to save the galaxy, which is a great story, but practically maybe, maybe the scale is a little bit beyond what they can deal with. So…
In your dialogue, which is very witty and fun, because it is, like, this ragtag bunch trying to save the galaxy, it did have for me certain Guardians of the Galaxy vibes.
A completely different crew, but it was still that kind of joking, and the banter was…it’s really a lot of fun to read.
Well, you know, I love that sense of, sort of a found family that the bumbling around in space, you know, the Firefly feel, right, I mean, The Killjoys feel, like there’s a lot of things that kind of have that vibe. And I think it’s fun. And you either have…if you’re trapped on a ship with a bunch of people, either you poisonously hate each other–and that’s, you know, one way you can go in space opera to have drama–or you sort of figure out how to, like, tolerate and enjoy one another’s weird qualities and foibles.
Now, how did this all come about? What was the seed for this trilogy? And is the way that it came about fairly typical of the way that you find your stories to tell?
So, this one’s a little bit odd in that I am historically a fantasy writer. The thing I was probably best known for before this was an urban fantasy series about a character named Marla Mason that I did ten books and a prequel, a short novel, and a collection right? And so I had spent a decade of my working life doing urban fantasy. And other things, too, but mostly always contemporary fantasy. A little bit of sword and sorcery and stuff. So I thought, well, one thing I really love that I’ve never written much, except the occasional short story, I love space opera. And I always felt this resistance because I have a great respect for science and a great respect for math. And I’m not very good, especially at the math. I have friends who are astronomers who can help me out with stuff, but when it comes to, like, calculating orbital mechanics and stuff, I am hopeless. The Internet has been a great help because there are all sorts of calculators where you can plug in values and sort of figure out things, but it’s just not the way my mind works. And I always thought, you know, if I write it, I’m going to screw it up, I’m not going to be able to do it well enough. Just in the back of my head, I thought, “I’m not qualified to write space opera.” And then I stopped myself and I thought, “But really, space opera is a big tent, right? Like, you can have, you know, The Expanse is pretty crunchy, right, like it’s pretty much…they try to stay within the realm of feasibility for the most part. But at the other end, you know, you have stuff like Firefly, right, you have stuff like Farscape. So, somewhere in there is a range where I can exist happily, right? So, sort of the small-scale local solar system stuff, I thought, “Okay, I will try and learn enough that I can do this halfway plausibly, like see what it’s actually, you know, how the spaceships would actually work, actually pay attention to it, and then as quickly as I can, I will get magical alien technology, right? The stuff the Axiom has, like, they can violate laws of physics, right? Like they can do all sorts of things. Once I was got that, I was like, oh…
Very much Clarke’s Law stuff there.
I can have artificial gravity at that point, okay, right? Like, there’s all these things I can do. I can have, you know, wormhole travel so that it doesn’t take, you know, thousands or millions of years to get from point A to point B. And once I sort of told myself, “It’s OK, I can find a place that is reasonable to use my level of science and math knowledge. It’ll be okay. A space opera has a lot of flexibility, right? It’s not like it’s hard science fiction anyway. It’s supposed to be sort of adventure stories in space,” I decided I could do that. So I sat down with a notebook and I wrote down everything that I like in space opera. And you know, I love Iain Banks, you know, I like Lois McMaster Bujold, I like M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract stuff, like, my taste in space opera is super broad. So, I just wrote down all the stuff I like, post-human weirdos, like Peter Watts’s Blindside I love, it’s a great book. It’s super depressing, but it’s about a spaceship full of post-human weirdos and they all have a weird thing about them, right? You know, there’s the person who has a bifurcated brain, and there’s a technologically plausible vampire, and there’s, you know, somebody who has multiple personalities. There’s…and I really like that sort of assemblage of bizarre characters. So that was one of the things. I like weird, menacing alien technology. I like wormholes. I like really huge-scale space stations floating around, right, where there are entire sort of hothouse cultures that develop on space stations. So I made a list of all the things I love.
Then, I made a somewhat shorter list of things I hate. Like, alien cultures that are monocultures, right? I used to see this lot more in old science fiction. People have gotten better about it. But you know, sort of the Star Trek thing, where this is a planet of, they’re all worriers, they all have bumpy foreheads, and they all follow the Bushido code, right? Like, I always thought that was kind of boring because just in my neighborhood in South Berkeley, there are probably 400 overlapping cultures and subcultures, right? And so I thought, if I’m going to have aliens, they need to have that level of complexity.
Now, there’s a reason that most science fiction writers don’t do that, and that’s because it impossible. You can’t have anything approaching the granularity of actual culture and subculture in an alien species. That’s why you have the shorthand that says, oh, they’re all warriors. And then maybe you point out, “Well, there’s some pacifists over here and there’s some guys who just really like writing bicycles over here.” But sort of the way that I approach that was by having the Liars, who create their own version of their culture, their own history. So every group of them you meet, whether it’s a giant ship or if it’s, you know, a small, you know, half a dozen of them living together on a hollowed-out asteroid. They all have their own made-up story about where they come from and what they are and their purpose in the universe. You know, they have religions and it’s unclear for much of the series whether they believe the things that they tell you or whether they’re just messing with outsiders, or what. And eventually it does, as I said, get revealed in book one, why they are the way they are. But that was my approach to dealing with that thing that, you know, that I don’t like so much in science fiction.
So, I took my big list of things I loved and things I didn’t love, and I bashed together, you know, sixty pages of prose and an outline, and I started sending it around. And I remember my agent had sent it out to a bunch of places, and I had reached out to some (publishers) that I knew personally, and, you know, it was like any novel submission, we were getting some rejections and some “close, but not quite”s, and all that.
So I was walking around Lake Merritt, the beautiful jewel of Oakland, out with my friend Sarah, walking around, enjoying the weather and just talking about stuff, and I got an email from Mark Gascoigne, who was then at Angry Robot, the science fiction publisher that he founded. And I had known Mark a little bit from back in the day. He’d worked on some anthologies that I had had stories in and stuff like that. We had a friendly relationship. So I’d said, “Hey, Mark, I have this space opera, maybe you’ll take a look.” And he wrote me back and he said he loved it and he wanted to buy it. So that was that was a happy thing. And, you know, I jumped around and said, “Hooray!” And then we talked about sort of the nitty-gritty. And the cool thing was, I sold them one book, and Mark liked what I had so much that he came back to me and said, “Actually, how would you like to do a couple more books?” And so, pretty soon I had, not just not just one book, but I had a trilogy deal, which was awesome because I like to be gainfully employed for years.
It’s funny when publishers say things like that, no author ever says, “No, no, I think I’d just like to do the one.”
“I’ll just do the one.” There are circumstances under which I would decline, like, if the money was really terrible…
It is possible to write a book that just…sequels make no sense to, of course.
Oh, absolutely. And you know, if it was a publisher, I wasn’t sure about, maybe, right? But I had, you know, I had a good feeling about Mark. He’d done me some good turns that he did not have to do earlier in my career. So, I was absolutely thrilled. And, you know, I had friends who’d published with Angry Robot and I’d done all my due diligence, so I was pretty happy. And they’ve done great with the books. They got Paul Scott Canavan, did these wonderful covers.
Yeah, they’re very nice.
Yeah, right? Like, I got a book with a spaceship on the cover. I thought I’d never have that my career. You know, I write about weird magicians who live in cities and stuff.
I had a book called Falcon’s Egg, which was the second book in a duology I did for a small Canadian press called Bundoran Press. And it has an exploding spaceship on the cover…
Oh, that’s great.
…and that been a dream of mine since I was like eleven, so.
Oh, yeah, that’s beautiful.
It’s also a bit of a spoiler because it’s about two-thirds of the way through the book with that particular spaceship explodes, and it’s also on the cover of the first book. So you know which spaceship it is. There’s only one spaceship, really, one big spaceship. But still, it’s an exploding spaceship, so I like it.
Well, it creates suspense. People are reading, waiting to see when the spaceship is going to explode.
I suppose that’s true. So, just to back away from the trilogy for a minute, when you’re writing your short stories and things like that, what’s a typical way for you to get an idea for something like that or for some of your other work?
You know, I just…my brain is always looking for stuff. You know, I read a lot of popular science, I read a lot of history and mythology, I read a whole lot of fiction. And what a lot of writers do, I’m sure you know, is, you’ll read something and be like, “Oh, that’s great idea. I could have done that better.” Or, “Oh, I would have taken that in a different direction, right?” And so, sometimes you do that. You go, you just take it in a different direction.
It is a field that we often say is in conversation with itself. And that’s part of it, all these ideas are floating around and people deal with them differently. And you think, “Well, I don’t like the way you dealt with it. I’m going to write it this way,” or, “Well, she did a good job on that. But I would have taken it over here.” So we all are always feeding off of this stuff.
Yeah. And I love that. You know, I love the sense that we’re working within this huge sort of shared universe of tropes and ideas and possibilities that we can ring all these changes on. And we can interrogate and we can critique things, right, that other people have done or that have just been common in the field. So, I think about that stuff a lot. And, you know, I’m a character-driven writer, honestly, so I come up with a neat idea or cool situation and then I try to come up with a character who would be the most fun to torture in that situation, right? And then I just attempt to sort of build them up psychologically into my mind and model what they would be likely to do.
Is that how you came up with the characters for the Axiom trilogy?
Absolutely. I wanted to have somebody, you know, I wanted to have sort of an acerbic space captain, right, who’s a little bit abrasive, but is ultimately good, good-hearted. I wanted to have a weird cyborg. There’s a character named Ashok who a lot of people love…
I like him.
Ashok is great.
I know a lot of engineers. So he kind of…
Exactly. Yeah. Ashok is a classic engineer, right? He doesn’t care as much about why as about how he’s going to know fix it or exploit it. He’s an early adopter. You know, I have friends who are always…you know, I live in the Bay Area. I’m surrounded by tech people. So I know people, whenever the new thing is out there, they’re the first one in line or, you know, the first one to order it online. And so I thought, you know, you take that far enough in the future where there’s better prosthetics and stuff, then maybe you would have people who would say, “You know, my human arm is fine, but it wouldn’t be so terrible if I was in a horrible salvage accident and lost it, because then I could get this amazing new prosthetic that has the in-built microsurgery tools or whatever.” Right? So that’s Ashok. He just, he wants to improve what nature gave him. And I wanted to have sort of a morose ship’s doctor to kind of ground the crew and be sort of a voice of reason. So I put him in there. And, you know, I have a ship’s AI, who is in love with the captain for complicated reasons.
And so I sort of put together…I wanted to have a crew that had lots of strong personalities that would sort of act in conflict with each other. You know, they’re a family. They love each other. But that doesn’t mean they always get along, they always agree. I’m also a hopeless romantic, like a lot of my stuff is love stories. And there is a love story that’s central to the trilogy. And throughout the trilogy, I resisted making a plot point…it’s the captain and the woman who they thaw out of the cryopod, so it’s a time-slip romance, sort of…I resisted the urge to make a source of conflict them getting into a fight, because I really wanted to demonstrate them as a partnership. Right. Even when they disagree, they support one another. They have each other’s back. So that was important to me in that book.
When you were outlining and synopsizing, what do those look like for you? You said you did like sixty pages. That’s a fairly lengthy synopsis.
That was text. That was sample chapters. I wrote sixty pages of actual book, and then then about a page of what I thought the rest of the book was going to be, which was sort of semi-accurate. And then for the other two, they said, “We just need something written on a piece of paper so that we can justify writing you checks, right?”
So essentially…well, you know, I’ve done a lot of books and Mark was familiar with my work and knew that I would…you know, I’ve done work for hire, like I if I’m known for anything in this business, it’s for being reliable and turning in decent copy on time. And so, for those I just was able to write a couple paragraphs, kind of about what I thought they were about. So those were cool. But I will tell you my trick for writing outlines and synopses if you want.
I’m sure people will be interested.
So, I had, I struggled like hell with it for the longest time. I would sit down and I would write, you know, what was going to happen in the book, and it would be the driest, most boring recitation. It would be like a third-grade book report of a book you didn’t like that much. And it drove me nuts. And then one day, I was at a party and I’d had a couple of drinks, and a friend of mine who was a writer asked me what I was working on. I started telling them how excited I was about this book, that I was going to work on. And I was telling them all the coolest things about it, and like all the things I was most excited about and how amazing it was, and something clicked in my head. And I said, “This is the way I need to write synopses. I need to write my synopsis like I’m slightly drunk at a party telling an editor how awesome my book is going to be.” And so that’s what I did. You know, I still hit the highlights, I talk about what happens in the book, I talk about the plot and the characters, but I do it with the energy and the enthusiasm. And, you know, I’m not plodding and sequential, I talk about it in a way that conveys my excitement about it. And since I have done that, every proposal I have tried to write like that has sold. I mean, maybe it’s taken a few times, but they’ve all sold.
I’m actually…I’m currently writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library. So I’m working with anybody that wants to come in and say hi and ask me questions or give me something to critique. And actually, I had a fellow in yesterday who was asking that specific question, about how to create a successful synopsis. So I’ll be sure to point him to your answer.
Yeah. You don’t have to be drunk. You know, this is…that’ just me. But something…whatever helps you convey that enthusiasm in an uninhibited way.
What’s your actual writing process look like? I presume you work directly on the keyboard. You’re not writing in longhand under a tree somewhere in a parchment notebook.
I used to, and when I write poetry, I do tend to write longhand. I feel like I get a little bit closer to the language somehow when I write longhand. But for novels and for stories, I pretty much compose straight into the keyboard. Back in the old days, I would sometimes draft longhand and then my first round of revision would be when I typed it in.
Yeah, I used to do that.
In practice, I eventually hit a point where I had to hustle, like, a lot. I was writing two and a half, three books a year for a while, just because, you know, I had a kid and I work for a non-profit, and so I had to make some money. Things have eased off since then. But just for time reasons, I stopped writing longhand and I started typing directly because it was just faster. And I’ve kept it up. I compose pretty comfortably on my little laptop.
Do you work at home or do you work out somewhere? Where do you like to work?
I was sort of your classic coffee-shop writer for a long time. This was especially when I lived in places where I had housemates. It could be hard to find a place that was quiet. And so I would go out and, you know, find the corner of a coffee shop and write. As I said, I had a kid about twelve years ago and that stopped me going out quite so much. So now mostly I tend to write at home. I’ll write wherever with my laptop in my lap. if it’s only an hour or two, if I am on deadline and I’m having to work for hours and hours at a stretch, I acknowledge my forty-something-year-old body and set up a little more ergonomically at a desk, plug the laptop into the monitor and the keyboard.
Are you a fast writer?
I am a slow thinker and a fast writer. Yeah. So I tend to think about stuff a lot, and by the time I sit down to type, it comes out pretty quickly.The Axiom books in particular…I’ve always been kind of a binge driver by preference, like, I’ll not write at all week, and then on a day I’ll spend seven or eight hours writing. And I had to adjust that after I had a kid, especially when he was little, because I didn’t have long stretches of uninterrupted time anymore. So, I had to retrain my brain to be able to write in sort of ten-minute snatches or half-Hour snatches. And so, as a result, I’m a much more flexible writer now than I used to be. But my preference is still long stretches of time and to draft things very quickly. The Dreaming Stars was written…like, actual days spent typing, probably in less than a month, and half of it I wrote in a week at a writing retreat where I went. You know, I have a kid, I have a day job, like, so if I take the time away to go write, I have to maximize that time. I have to really use it. So I was writing 10 or 12,000 words a day at that retreat.
I got a chance to do that with a book called Magebane, which is…it’s written under a pseudonym, Lee Arthur Chane, but it’s me, as I keep telling people when I’m trying to sell it to. “No, really, it’s me. I’ll sign it Lee Arthur Chane. But really, it’s me”. But there’s…the Banff Center has a self-directed retreat you can go on, where you stay in…they’re basically dorms, hotels, a cheap way to stay in Banff…and then you just write, and I did 50,000 words in a week. I don’t do that usually. And I have a kid, too. She’s gone to university as of this year, but still.
Oh, yeah. Well, in my house I can’t produce to that level. But if I’m in a place where my only job is to write a lot? And for The Forbidden Stars, I went…I had some friends who have a place up in Marin that’s in the country, and they kindly let me stay up there for a few days, and I pounded out, not quite half, but a big chunk of The Forbidden Stars I wrote up there, going slowly stir-crazy all alone in the forest.
What does your revision process look like once you have that draft? You do produce polished prose? Do you have to go back and do a lot of fixing and rewriting? Do you show it to beta readers? How does it work for you?
Yeah, it’s not super polished. It tends to be pretty schematic because I’m writing very quickly. So, I get down the situation that’s happening, I usually get down some good lines of dialogue. My next pass I go through and I flesh out the world. You know, I remember, “Oh, sometimes things have odours, right? Sometimes people have physical reactions to things that, you know, they say to each other.” So I go through and I do an extra layer. So my stuff always gets longer. So my first drafts will be maybe 70,000 words. And then. I’ll go back through and flesh them out and, like, I’ll foreshadow and I’ll touch up my subplots and all that, and they’ll grow by ten or fifteen or 20,000 words in the course of revision. I’m a putter-inner rather than taker-outer…
Yeah, me too.
…as a reviser. Yeah, I mean, I feel like it’s more efficient that way. You’re not throwing away words you could get paid for. That’s my feeling.
How long are the books? I read them in e-book, so I have no idea.
Yeah. They’re like eighty-five, ninety, around that range. That’s a pretty comfortable range. Like, most of my novels are about that long.
That’s kind of what I felt, because it wasn’t like I felt like I was slogging through Game of Thrones, which, you know I enjoyed, but they’re very long. But because they were in e-book—and I read both of them in e-book, but certainly I got through yours fashion than I did his. So I knew they were shorter.
Yeah. You know, I love a big immersive fantasy. It’s just not what I write. You know, I tend to, you know, lean and mean…I think the longest book I’ve written is maybe a 110, 120,000 words long.
Does it go straight to your editor once you’re happy with it, or do you have other people who look at it first?
Well, when I was newer, when I was first starting out, I had a lot of beta readers. And, you know, I have a lot of friends who are writers. If there’s something that I feel like isn’t working, I will reach out to some trusted friends, whose biases I know and understand, and I will ask them about things. In practice, like, in terms of deadlines, I don’t have a lot of time to send out stuff for the most part. And at this point, I’ve done, you know, thirty-some novels or something like that. I can usually tell if it’s kind of working, you know, so I’ll do my round of vision to clean it up, and then I’ll sort of read…put it aside if I can for a little while, read the whole thing, and sort of minimally mark it up as I read through it, because what I’m looking for in that read is like horrible failures of pacing, or horrible, you know, changes in tone, things that just…you know, I try to get a sense of the gestalt of the whole thing to see if it’s working. And if it’s not, then I sort of fine tune that. And then I do…I love to line edit I will line edit things all day, I do a line-edit pass or two, and then I send it off to my editor and deal with whatever they want dealt with. But for the most part, I tend to clean it…by the time I turn it into my editor, it’s usually pretty clean.
My agent is good, especially about character issues, so sometimes I’ll run a book past her. I’ve…you know, I went to Charlie Finlay’s Blue Heaven writing workshop once back in the day. So, I have done more of a critique process, but for the most part…Tim Powers said once that he never shows his books to anyone who’s not in a position to write him a check for them, which is not…he’s a little bit stretching the truth. He does show it to them. I know his wife helps him out stuff, but I sort of thought, “Oh, that’s a nice ethos. I can get behind that.”
Well, I’ve just always lived someplace where there wasn’t anybody around to help. So I’ve always…pretty much it just go straight to my editor. And what does your editor come back with typically? What are the sorts of things…I know you’ve worked with more than one editor…what sorts of things do they typically come back with you to maybe tweak a little more?
You know, I probably block all these things out. Revision is very traumatic. I remember on The Forbidden Stories, it was kind of cool, I had Simon Spanton, the venerable British editor, is now…who’s worked with all sorts of, you know, big science fiction, space opera, people…he edited the third book, which was cool. And he came back with a lot of really interesting stuff about me maybe not fully thinking through the implications of some of the technologies that I was introducing, right.? Because I had all this, “Oh, here’s all this cool stuff.” And Simon said, “Well, that’s cool, but you have to think if you have this in your universe, that implies this and implies this. And why don’t they just do this?” Right? So he had me sort of scale back some of my more godlike technology and make stuff a little bit more grounded and plausible. And it is also, like, if your character can wave a magic wand and defeat, you know, a battalion of enemies, that’s not quite as exciting, right, as having them have to struggle a little more. So Simon was great. You know, it’s stuff like, “Maybe beef up this character a little more or, you know, I thought this thing came out of nowhere. Could you maybe set it up and prepare it a little better?” But yeah, I mean, honestly, turning in pretty clean drafts is just one of the things, it’s one of the things that came in the box for me. It’s one of things I’m pretty good at.
My editor at DAW, of course, is Sheila Gilbert, and she’s great about picking up on things that maybe don’t quite make sense. My current fantasy series, we worked a lot on it because she was making sure that I had thought through things like that, so I didn’t get in trouble further down the road. Has that ever happened to you where you’ve put something into a book in a series, you had a long series, and you got bitten by it later down the road because you put it in as a sort of a throwaway moment, then you want to do something later and you can’t do it because you’ve established in your world that that’s not possible. Anything like that ever happened to you?
It is a difficulty. Yeah.
Continuity, I guess.
Yeah, it has happened. In my urban fantasy series, I could usually find ways to route around that damage, because it’s magic. I can come up with magic or a new kind of magic or a more powerful magic or whatever. So, usually I could work on it. I did think of another editorial feedback thing that was helpful. So, in The Dreaming Stars, they go to the Jovian system, they spend some time there and they spend some time on Ganymede. And I did a lot of research about Ganymede, and Ganymede is fascinating. And so, I just filled the book with all these wonderful Ganymede facts. And my editor came back and said, “You know, this book is really enjoyable. I love the banter and the interplay with the characters. Nothing happens for the first quarter of this book. They just talk about Ganymede. Maybe we could scale back on the Ganymede facts and increase the tension here and there.” And so I said, “Fine.” I did I did a reading where I was like, “So here, I’m going to read to you the Ganymede facts I had to cut from my novel.
Well, at least you had have a use for them.
Well, we’re getting within the last ten minutes or so here, so I’m going to move to the big philosophical questions. I’d like to change my voice for that: Big Philosophical Questions. It’s really just one question, with multiple parts, I guess. Why do you write? Why do you write science fiction fantasy? And why do you think anybody writes science fiction fantasy? Why do we do this?
This is actually something I’ve been thinking about a lot. I’m going to be principal speaker at PhilCon in November and I have to write a speech, and so I was thinking about things I could talk about. And it dovetails pretty neatly into this question. So, for me, I grew up in rural North Carolina, lived in a trailer park, right? The people that I knew were factory workers or they were farm workers, right? Like the fancy people had retail jobs or like office jobs, right? There was no sense that there was like a literary or creative life, right, that you could be more, that you could pursue a life in the arts, that you could, you know, move more than ten miles away from where your family had grown up. And there’s some good things to be said about that. You know, my dad’s side of the family, especially, is very close-knit, and there’s a real sense of community there. But for me, I always kind of had my head in the clouds and my eyes on the stars. And so, the fact that I had access to all these books that were in my parents’ house and that were in my grandmother’s house, what they did was show me the possibility of other worlds, right? That there could be something more than living in, you know, among the swamps and the soybean fields in eastern North Carolina, that if that didn’t feel like the right world for me, that there might be another world that did feel right. And it just opened my eyes.
When I was a kid, it was everything. You know, it’s the reason that I had the courage to go off to college, you know, I was the first person in my family to go to college. It was the reason that I was able to move out to California, which was just not…you know, my mom traveled around, but even she mostly stayed in the South. And that was all down the books, it was all down to showing me there’s all these other kinds of people and all these other worlds. And, you know, like, I’m a weird liberal bisexual person, like all sorts of things that didn’t really fit in super well where I grew up. And books showed me that it was okay, and there were places where it was OK. And I think a lot of why I wrote was because I loved the feeling that I had when I read books and I thought if I wrote, I could have that same feeling in worlds that I’d created, and that always worked, right? I write the books that I want to read. But as I got older and thought about it more and started to have a career and thought about, “What am I doing?”, sort of bigger-level, like, “What kind of books do I want to write?” I want to write books that do for other people what books did for me, right? I want to show them that there are other ways of being and there are places where you can be accepted for who you are and that it’s worth taking chances, and sometimes you’re gonna get a smacked down, sometimes it will hurt, but it’s still worth it to take the chance, and that you should live your life open-hearted. All these things that I learned from books that I certainly wasn’t getting from where I grew up, right? You know, we were pretty poor, and it was…you know, my parents always made sure we were fed. We had a roof over our heads. But, you know, it could be a little rough sometimes…that there was a world beyond that. And so, that’s what I tried to do in my books, you know? I want a kid who picks up one of my books to feel like there’s magic in the world, right? To feel that they’re gonna find their tribe, right, or at least that it’s possible that they can find their tribe. And, you know, let them go out there.
As for, “Why science fiction and fantasy?” Honestly, I think it was just early exposure. You know, I could have written other kinds of books–perhaps not crime novels, since they have a somewhat darker world view than what I’m talking about. I love reading them., but part of why I love reading them is because I don’t write them, so I can enjoy them purely as a reader and not analyze them. But, you know, it’s just, that’s what I grew up with. That’s what my parents loved.
You know, the first books that I remember reading were, you know, Stephen King, and I had an aunt who gave me some Clive Barker, you know, my grandmother gave me Heinlein and Asimov, right? And it was just, that was just the kind of story…I read comic books, you know, I watched The Twilight Zone. For whatever reason, all that stuff really appealed to me. And when I think about it intellectually, I love the ability to make metaphors literal. I love thinking about how people react to extreme circumstances, and science fiction and fantasy allow you to create really extreme circumstances, like, way more extreme than most people are going to plausibly encounter in their day to day life,
Yeah, right. And, you know, I think the…like my favorite short story writer, dead short story writer, I suppose…is Theodore Sturgeon, and I just loved that when he wrote about technology, he wrote about how technology impacted people, how it affected humans. So, when I do science fiction, that’s always my interest, too, right? It’s like, how this changes what it means to be human, how this changes how we relate to each other as humans. I mean, that’s the stuff that I like. So, I think that’s why science fiction and fantasy.
It sounds like a good reason to do what you do. Well, that’s kind of the end of our time, I think, so thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. Oh, but before we go, what are you working on now?
So, I have another novel that it looks like is going to get bought. The contract is not signed yet, so I have to be a little bit skimpy with the details. But it is a multiverse book. I’ve wanted to write a multiverse book for ages. I love, and in my short stories I write a lot about, alternate dimensions, parallel dimensions, mirror universes, all that stuff. And I get to write a book that’s a multiverse book. So, that’s the next thing.
That’s actually…my current series is the characters moving from world to world, Shaped worlds that have been created by people that live in them. And so…the first one was kind of a version of our world, only with differences, but the second one that’s out right now is a Jules Verne-inspired world.
Oh, that’s cool.
And the one after that is…it doesn’t have a real title, but the working titled is Werewolves and Vampires and Peasants, Oh, My!
So, I’m having a lot of fun with that. And where can people find you online?
I am at timpratt.org, which is my sporadically updated website where I put sort of officially things.
You’re an organization.
Well, yeah, unfortunately, the dot coms and all of the various other dots were taken, so I became an org. And I’m on Twitter a lot. That’s sort of my social media presence. TimPratt on Twitter. And yeah, and I’ve been doing for four or five years, for years going into my fifth year, a story a month on Patreon, because I love writing short stories and that’s a great excuse to do it every month.
Great. Well, again, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers, I had a great time talking with you. I hope you enjoyed it.
Fonda Lee is the author of the Green Bones Saga, beginning with Jade City, which won the 2018 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, and continuing in Jade War, which came out in August. Book 3, Jade Legacy, is currently in progress. She is also the author of the acclaimed young adult science fiction novels Zeroboxer, Exo, and Cross Fire.
Fonda’s work has been nominated for the Nebula, Andre Norton, and Locus Awards and been named two best-of-year lists by NPR, Barnes and Noble, Powells Books, and SyFy Wire, among others. She won the Aurora Award, Canada’s National Science Fiction and Fantasy Award, twice in the same year for best novel and best young adult novel. Fonda is a recovering corporate strategist, black-belt martial artist, and action-movie aficionado residing in Portland, Oregon.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Fonda, welcome to The Worldshapers.
Thanks, Edward, it’s great to be here.
Now, we kind of almost crossed paths last year at When Words Collide in Calgary, which is where you were born, right? You were born in Calgary?
Was that your first time at that convention?
No, I’ve been to that convention a few times and I’m gonna be there next year as the guest of honor. I still have family in Calgary, so it’s always a great opportunity for me to combine visiting family with making it out to When Worlds Collide.
Well, I always like to plug When Worlds collide because it’s such a great event. We go every year.
It is, yeah. I like the fact that it’s it’s a great size. It’s not too huge, but it’s still very vibrant. And I like the fact that it’s very much modeled after an SF con, but it is cross-genre, and so I always end up seeing some panels and talks about mystery and thriller and romance and other genres besides my own.
Even poetry pops up.
Yeah. I like it a lot. And so, since I have plugged it now, we have plugged it, we should mention that the website for it is whenwordscollide.org. It’s capped at 750 or something like that, or 500, I don’ remember what it is.
Yeah. And unfortunately, I won’t be there this year because I’ll be traveling in Ireland before Worldcon in Dublin, but I will be there next year and I’m always happy to make it over there when I can.
Unclear. Still up in the air. I’ve got a bunch of travel for the rest of the year, so I’m trying to parse it out so that I’m not totally overloaded. I actually have to write a book sometime this year.
That’s such a nuisance, isn’t it? All these other things you can do, and then, oh, yeah, you’ve still got to write the books.
Well, and speaking of writing books, we’re going to talk primarily about the Jade–I guess it’s called the Green Bones Saga, is the name for the series. I am reading Jade City. I haven’t finished it, but I’ve read quite a bit of it, so I have a good sense of the setting, and I’m enjoying it very much. And Jade War is…is it out now? This is July 15, I guess, when we are conducting this conversation. Is it out, or is it coming out later this month?
It is not out quite yet. It comes out next week. We are one week away from release.
Well, it will definitely be out when this goes live, so…
So, we’ll talk about that and how it all came about. But to start with, I always take my guests back into the mists of time–further back for some of us than others, and my mists of time are starting to get quite far back–to find out how you, first of all, became interested in writing science fiction and fantasy, and secondly, how you started writing. You were born in Calgary, but I know then that you moved to the States, so how did that all work out and when did writing kick in for you there?
Yeah. So, I wanted to be a writer when I was quite young. I think I was probably around ten or so. And I was a voracious reader as a child and loved to make up stories. So, at some point I told my parents, “I want to be a writer,” and I think they said, “Oh, that’s nice,” and patted me on the head and encouraged me to get a real job that would allow me to support myself as a functional adult when I grew up. And so, over the rest of my childhood, writing was something that I still loved to do. I always was doing it in my spare time. I had an extremely boring and long forty-five-minute bus ride to school and then another forty-five minutes back, and did not have, at that time, Gameboy or an iPad and whatever else that kids have these days to distract themselves. So, I had a very large pad of paper and I wrote a novel. So, my first novel I wrote when I was in fifth grade, and it ended up being 300 pages of handwritten prose about a young dragon and his motley crew of assorted magical forest friends on a quest for a magical amulet. That was my very first novel, which is possibly still bound with elastic bands in my parents’ attic. I then wrote a second novel when I was in high school that was a pulpy superhero saga, where I cast all of my classmates into this story about cyborgs and superheroes and nefarious corporate tycoons, and printed it out as a graduation gift to all of them. I wrote it, co-wrote it, with a classmate of mine during biology class by passing a graphing calculator.
What do they call that? Tuckerization. when you use real names in your book?
Yes. So that was that. And then I…I didn’t really think that writing would ever amount to more than that for me. I went off and got a business degree, and then an MBA, and I worked in management consulting and corporate jobs and eventually ended up…well, lived in Toronto for a while, then ended up moving to Portland, Oregon, to work at Nike, which is located here. And it wasn’t it until I was in my thirties when I kind of had this epiphany that I wasn’t writing anymore because I just gotten way too busy. I had a full-time job, I had two small children, and writing had just completely fallen off to the wayside. And that’s when I realized, “Wow, something really feels like it’s missing in my life and I need to get back to what I really enjoy.” So I took writing much more seriously than I ever had before and made changes to my work schedule, to what my priorities were in life. And then, once I did that, I was like, “No, I’m in it 100 percent. I want to be published and I want to make this my career.”
Well, you mentioned that you were a voracious reader. What were some of the books that you read that… because clearly you were reading the kinds of books that led you to write your first story as a fantasy.
Yeah. So, I was a fantasy/science fiction reader from the start. I loved…The Chronicles of Prydain was one of my favorite early books. I read Monica Hughes. I don’t know if many readers remember Monica Hughes books. She was a Canadian science fiction author.
Yeah! Devil on My Back was a book I really loved when I was a kid. I read, well, Narnia, of course, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, all of those books. And I also loved animal stories. I read, like, all of those Black Stallion books.
Oh, me too. You know, I always like to point this out. Walter Farley actually wrote science fiction in the that arc with…the Island Stallion books actually have a science fiction twist.
Yeah! Yeah, so I loved those stories as well. So, I graduated later on in my teens to Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Anne McCaffrey, all of the science fiction/fantasy greats at that time. So, I’ve been very much in this genre as a fan since the start.
Well, those are all the same books I read, which…and I also wrote my first…well, I didn’t write it, I didn’t write my novel quite as young as you, but you were mentioning it, and I just happened to have it on my desk, my first novel, which I wrote when I was fourteen. And you were…yours was 300. Mine was only 201 when I hit THE END, so you outdid me. And it’s in a binder that says “Eddie Willett, Algebra,” on the front of it.
Oh, that’s great. It’s an artifact now.
And it has little drawings of race cars on it. I sometimes take it to school readings to show off. So, how did the first…was the first book you wrote trying to get published, published, or did you have some false starts along the way? How did you break in, I guess?
I wrote a practice novel that I knew would not be published, but I just wanted to teach myself how to write a novel. So, I wrote a novel that never saw the light of day at all. Then I wrote a young-adult fantasy novel that I wanted to see published and I began querying it after it was done. It went through quite a few rounds of querying and it picked up some interest from agents, but nothing…but it didn’t go anywhere beyond that. And while I was querying that novel, I wrote Zeroboxer, which would become my debut. And I took that novel, as well as the one I had been querying previous to it, to a writing conference here in Portland called Willamette Writers. And I didn’t really know which of these projects I should pitch, but Zeroboxer was hot off the press, I had just recently finished writing and revising it and felt like it was in shape to start being sent out, so I pitched that, and I got a lot of agent interest. A number of agents said, “Send me the manuscript right away.”
So at that point, I sent out queries to those agents as well as others that were on my list, and within a couple of weeks in offers of representation, I signed with my agent now, who…I’ve had him since the start…and we did a round of revision, took it out, and within three months we had an offer. So, between me finishing that novel, that would have been August…that conference would’ve been August of 2013. And we had a book deal in December of 2013. So when it happened, it happened quickly.
It doesn’t happen that way for everyone.
I know, it’s funny, because publishing often does feel like it’s slow, slow, slow, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Then it happens and it’s like, boom, all these things start cascading.
Well, I often ask authors if they showed their work to people when they were starting out, but clearly you did, since you wrote with a classmate and put all your classmates in it and gave it to them as a graduation present. And the reason I asked that is because it’s…for me, that was when I kind of discovered that, “I’m writing stories that people actually do enjoy reading.” Did you have any formal creative writing, training or anything along the way? Or were you just…you read and then you wrote, which is what I did, so I often ask that question, too.
Yeah. So, I did not, when it came to formal educatio. In fact, I regret that fact, because when I was in college, I took an English class, and then I think…I probably took a couple of English classes that were required. But I also had finance and accounting and marketing and all of those. And my English classes were…the English department was sort of against giving out As to what no matter what I did, I would always get, like, a B-plus, sort of regardless of, you know, the quality of whatever essay I was writing. It seemed like everyone in the class got somewhere between like a B-minus and a B plus. So, you know, academic overachiever that I was, I was like, “Well, I’m not going to have this dragging me down.” So, I ended up not taking future English classes in in the latter half of my undergrad except for one class that I couldn’t resist. And that was a class on the history of science fiction. And I ended up doing a term paper on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and we read stories by Sawyer and Bradbury. And that was, of all the classes I have taken…I don’t remember a thing from Finance 101, but I remember that undergrad science fiction class.
But, in terms of craft of writing, once I started getting serious about it as an adult, I took an online writing class through continuing-ed classes, I applied and got into the Viable Paradise Writing Workshop–which I’m going back to this year as a faculty member, which is pretty cool. And those were ways for me to get into, first of all, the discipline and habit of writing and treating it really seriously and improving my craft, and also a way to meet other writers and find a community and get validated that, yeah, like, “This is this is really something I could do and want to do.”
Have you ever had any writing groups that you belong to, like critique groups or anything like that, that some writers have?
Yeah, I have…actually my Viable Paradise classmates. I’ve asked them to read for me on occasion. I have a beta reader group. So, I don’t have a critique group that follows the model of meeting once every couple of weeks or every week to share small pieces. I need to write my novels in isolation and I don’t show them to anyone until they’re in pretty decent shape. So, I’ll go for a year or more without showing my work to anyone. And that’s…especially with these novels, thay’re so long. So, I need to write by myself and get it into…see the whole shape of it first. And then I will send it out to beta readers. I’ll have a few people read it and I’ll send it to my agent and he reads it before it goes to my editor.
Well, we’re going to focus on the Green Bones Saga as an example of your creative process, but I did want to mention your earlier books, too, because you started in YA, and now you’re writing adult. And I’ve kind of crossed that divide myself, and back and forth, and sometimes there seems to be…and I was reading an interview with you in Locus, actually, and you were talking about this. There can be a kind of a confusion sometimes if your voice is YA, but your story is more adult, and I think you mentioned that in connection with Zeroboxer, and I’ve run into that, as well. So, what in your mind is the difference between writing YA and writing adult, and how do you go back and forth between them?
So…over the years it’s clarified in my mind that young adult is very much about voice and perspective. I don’t approach the writing of my YA novels differently than my adult novels, process-wise, the same amount of work goes into developing the world and the characters and the storyline. But with my young adult novels I have…I’m conscious of wanting to make them much tighter in terms of the perspective and making sure that that teen mindset, that teen voice, is there, because you can have any number of things going on in a YA speculative fiction world.
Exo is a good example of this, my duology. It has not just global stakes, but interplanetary stakes, where there’s a war between alien races and Earth is potentially caught in the middle, and there’s…entire human cities get demolished. So, it is very…it’s the same stakes as you would find in any big space opera. But it is very focused on the main character, this seventeen-year-old guy named Donovan, and everything is filtered through his experience and him trying to figure out what he should do, what his responsibilities are to his friends, his family, his cohort, to humanity. And that is, I think, the defining characteristic of young adult, is that, no matter what’s going on, it is still about the teen character.
And a good example of this is Hunger Games. Hunger Games…by the end, Katniss is leading a revolution against the capital, but it doesn’t zoom out like an adult novel might and go to whatever political machinations are occurring in the glass towers of the capital. It’s always with Katniss and her situation, her romantic tribulations and her struggle to survive and so on.
So, with my adult fiction, I feel a lot more free to expand the perspective and the scope. And that was certainly the case with the Green Bones Saga, because I knew from the start that it would be a family saga, and that it wasn’t about one character, especially one teen character. It was going to be a cast of characters, different ages. Their relationships were gonna take center stage. The world was going to be a very…there was gonna be a lot of stuff happening in different places. So, from the start, it was pretty clear to me that it was an adult novel. And my very first novel, Zeroboxer, I think could have gone either way. And that was..it ended up being picked up by a young adult imprint and published as young adult, but looking back on it, it could have gone either way. And now I’m more cognizant of deciding early on, figuring out early on what type of story this is.
See, what happened in my case was my…I wrote under the pseudonym E.C. Blake–who was a guest host on here and interviewed me–E.C. Blake interviewed Edward Willett in an earlier episode of the podcast. E.C. Blake wrote a fantasy trilogy, Masks of Aygrima, with a fifteen-year-old female protagonist. And it was always conceived as a YA book in my mind. But DAW wanted it, and DAW doesn’t have a YA line, so it was published in the adult fantasy market. And I got it from two directions, with people saying, “Oh, this read like a YA book”–well, yeah–and others saying, “Well, this is too adult for my YA readers.” So, yeah, I’ve been caught like that too. And the funny thing is Worldshaper, my latest novel from DAW, is up for a…well, it’s longlisted for the Starburst Award for best young adult novel.
Yeah, but there’s not a teenager in the entire story. The main character is in her late twenties, and I still don’t know how it ended up being considered a YA novel. So…
Well, there is a grey zone, certainly, there’s kind of this blurry line, and what I see is a lot of young adult conventions filtering up into adult fiction. There’s more adult spec-fic these days that features young protagonists that kind of adopt some of that YA pacing and tone. So, there is certainly a gray zone in between there, but eventually, at the end of the day, your book has to sit on a shelf somewhere and the publishing powers that be need to be able to tell the buyers at bookstores this is where you’re your book is going to sit.
And the young adult’s over there, and the adult’s over there, and they’re two different things.
Well, let’s talk about the Green Bones Saga. Well, first of all, perhaps a synopsis without giving away anything you don’t want to give away, because if I talked about it, I might give away something you don’t want to give away so you synopsize it, and then we’ll go from there.
So, the Green Bones Saga is a modern-era epic urban-fantasy gangster-family saga that I have on multiple occasions described as The Godfather with magic and Kung Fu. It takes place in a…
That’s pretty much I would have described it, so…
It seems to work for people. You know, it’s nice when you can encapsulate your book in a couple of sentences, because you get asked to do it quite a bit. So, it is set in a secondary world on this fictional Asian-inspired island metropolis called Kecon. And what distinguishes this island is that it is the world’s only source of magic jade. And this magic jade is this resource that the Keconese people have long had to themselves. And it gives those who wear it these superhuman abilities that are not unlike superhuman abilities you might see in Wu Chia-Hsiang Kung Fu-movie martial-arts heroes. So they can…they have enhanced strength and speed and perception. And they can, not exactly fly, but they can, you know, jump great distances.
So, they have over time developed this warrior caste called the Green Bones. And the Green Bones can use jade, but not without cost, because it’s not like anyone can use it, they have to train for a very long period of time. And if you have too much jade or you’re too sensitive to it, bad things happened, including madness and death.
So, the story follows one of the two clans that ostensibly rule the city. And these two clans used to be united back when they were patriotic organizations that fought against foreign colonialist powers, but have since become rivals. And the No Peak clan is one of these clans, and it’s led by a family called the Kaul family that has this aging, bitter patriarch who has four grandchildren. And the story is really about them. The brother Lan is the head of the family now, and he has a younger brother, a younger sister, and they have an adopted sibling. And clan war is looming on the horizon. And one thing leads to another and all hell breaks loose. So that is pretty much the summary of Jade City. And Jade War…
I think the title gives something away there.
Yeah! So, Jade War is the second book, and it expands on a lot of the things that happened in Jade City and takes this conflict between the clans and then sees it become an international one on the world stage. So, that pretty much sums it up. You know, it’s very much a mash up of things that I’ve loved. I’m, you know, a big fan of. of Wu Chia-Hsiang Kung Fu films, gangster movies like The Godfather and Goodfellas, and epic fantasy. So, all of those came together and and became this mash-up in my mind that I created in the Green Bones Saga.
Was there…and I guess this applies to all your novels..is there a kind of..do ideas come to you in sort of the same way, is it like an image, or something you’ve read, or two ideas banging together? Or…how do how do stories begin for you? And how did this one in particular begin?
Yeah, so, stories come to me in different ways. With Zeroboxer, it was the storyline that came to me first, the plot came to me first. With my young adult duology, Exo and Cross Fire, the character came to me first. And with the Green Bones Saga, it was the world.
So, this story came to me actually as just the premise of this magic jade and the aesthetic that this world would be, this kind of gangster fantasy. And the first thing I wrote down in my writing notebook was Jade City, was the title. So, that was the first spark. And I wrote Jade City, and then I wrote, “Modern-era world where combat is hand-to-hand. There’s guns and cars and so on, but power rests with those who have magic jade.” And that was it. I had no plot, I had no characters, I had nothing. I just had that idea. And then it sat in my notebook for a very long time. And like many good ideas, it accreted material around it like a piece of sand in a oyster shell, until I had enough to grasp onto it and then start turning it into a book.
Well, and what does that process look like for you, when you start building on the initial idea? How do you then develop a story, and do you end up doing a detailed outline, or are you more of a “let’s just get started and see what happens” kind of writer?
I do write an outline. For me to start writing. I need to know the beginning, I need to know the end, and I need to know some of the big turning points in there between the beginning and the end. And I won’t start writing until I have that. And I will do at least two to three months of just research and brainstorming. And for every book that looks different, but it involves a lot of reading and just absorbing as much information as I can that will help me in that creation process.
What are the things you researched for Jade City?
So, I did everything from, you know, watch a lot of Hong Kong crime dramas to read up on the gangs of New York and the history of the Italian American Mafia and Cosa Nostra, and articles, non-fiction articles about the Yakuza and the Triads and, you know, everything. And oh, jade mining, you know, drug production and smuggling. Anything that I knew would kind of have some bearing in this fantasy world. So I kept a notebook. I have a Scrivener file where I’m just dumping loads of research, and I’m just collecting a lot of stuff and seeing the connections and figuring out how that works. So, for example, you know, I’m seeing connections between…how the Italian-American Mafia family structure could be combined with, like, the flowery titles and ranks used in the Triads. “OK, I like both of those ideas. How am I going to work those into the story?” So, things like that.
And then I will do a lot of just free writing, outlining, writing, like character, little profiles of characters. And then at some point I feel like I have enough of an outline. The outline is helpful to me only as a safety net, for me to feel like, “Oh, I can finally start writing,” because I know that it will change. I know the outline is most likely not going to stay the same. But I have it to at least get started. So, then I set everything aside, close all the research files so that I’m not tied to them, I’m just keeping them in the back of my mind. And then I start writing.
You mentioned doing character profiles. What do those…well, first of all, how do you find the characters that you need for the story and how do you go about developing them?
So, they they start off as fulfilling particular roles in the story I want to tell. So, the siblings, I knew the main characters would be members of this family. And so, it helps to have a vision of what you want this story to be. And because I knew this was a family saga, I knew the main points of view would revolve around this family. And then I started kind of fleshing out, what would the roles be? “What characters do I want to have in this story?” So, I knew there would be a character who is going to be sort of the responsible one, you know, the prudent, reasonable leader. And, you know, he was the elder brother.
And then I knew that other characters were going to be playing off of each other, and there was going to be a much more emotional, impulsive, charismatic brother, and he would be this counterpoint to his older brother, but he would also have this rivalry with his sister, who was very similar in age. And she was bringing a different perspective because she rejected their upbringing and all the constraints of that patriarchal society and left. And she’s coming back. So, I knew that she would have a particular character arc.
So, I just started off, and then I was like, “Okay, well, I also want a character who is new to this, like, he’s the protege, and through him, I’m going to be able to introduce how this jade magic works and how people come up in this world, because that’ll be…the fact that he’s in school, he’s going to be able to show the reader, you know, how people train to be able to harness this magic.
So, they start off as fulfilling specific rules in the story, and then they gain their own unique identity, and then the story starts responding to them. So there’s this interplay. It’s not like, you know, the characters come first and then the plot, or the plot comes first and then the characters, they’re very much sort of interacting, and there’s this whole iterative process between them and the storyline.
Characters change as you write, at least, mine do, from what you might have initially. But as you throw them into situations, you see how they react and how they interact with each other. And I’m always fascinated by that, because these things…we set out with an idea in our head, and yet somehow, as the words flow out of your fingers, it’s not always an entirely conscious process. It’s quite fascinating to me.
Yeah, definitely. I mentioned the outline changing. I initially had…even though I knew how the story would end, I didn’t have the specifics of it correct. So, I had an idea of what the final big climax would be. And as I wrote, I realized, “No, based on what the characters would do, that’s not going to be how it how it goes.” So, you’re right, there’s this…things change, because you get to know the characters better. You start off…they sort of start off as puppets doing your will, having…you’re just trying to move them around. And then by the time you’re finished, get to near the end of the book, you know them a lot better, and you go back to the beginning and start revising and you’re like, “Oh, yeah, no, that’s not really how he would say that. So, yeah.”
So, yeah, and I want to talk about revision process in a mintue. But I also wanted to ask about the…there’s a great fascination in people who are interested in writing fantasy with creating magic systems. And this one is unique, I think. I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like this. And I kind of like the fact that it’s just this one single magical thing in a world that is otherwise very much like ours, and how that changes things. Is that kind of what you were going for?
Yes, definitely. I really like my fantasy to feel very grounded. And, you know, I’ve never really gravitated towards writing high fantasy, if you will. And before I wrote this series, I was writing science fiction.
And this does have a certain amount of a science fiction feel to it just because it is a high-tech world.
Right. And I’ve had that comment before, that this feels like a fantasy where the magic is treated in a science fiction away. You know, there’s…you may not have reached this chapter yet, but there’s a scene where the Jade is being referred to by these foreigners, and they’re calling it bio-energetic jade. Because, you know, it’s not magic in this world. It’s magic…
To us, but the characters just see it as, “This is just the way it was,” just sort of…I mean, it’s something that we don’t totally understand. I mean, I’m not sure I totally understand quantum physics. It’s magic to me, but it exists. And so, these characters don’t think of it like magic. In fact, there’s never the use of the word magic in the entire series.
So, I like to write the use of, the existence of, this substance as a way to to heighten and examine the social conflicts. So, the fact that this jade exists creates the particular structure of this civilization, and the fact that other countries are coveting it and that technology is impacting its use is also playing in here, because if there was this substance in our world, you know, it wouldn’t be like a fantasy novel where there is birthright and only certain people are born with magic. There’s a drug being created that would allow other people to use it. And that’s just feels very real to me. Like, yes, of course, like, someone would apply science to this magic thing and figure out how to use it more widely. And so, all of those things are playing into the story.
And it was very much my intention that, you know, this magic substance is a resource. And with any scarce resource, it’s going to create disparity of distribution. It’s going to create conflict. It’s going to create, you know, social questions of, you know, how it’s viewed religiously and socially. So, all of that is part of the story, and it’s not, you know, it’s not treated like magic. It’s just treated like a fact.
In the family and the clans and the whole society, there are all sorts of different points of view being presented and bouncing off of each other. And I noticed in your previous interview that you were a high-school debater, which stuck out for me because I was also a high school debater. And I do think–and I think you mentioned it, this was in the Locus interview–when you do formal debate, you have to argue both sides.
It doesn’t matter which one you personally are drawn to, you have to argue both sides to the best of your ability. And I think that does come through in the book.
Yeah, I think it is very much present in, I think, almost all of my writing, honestly, I feel like I don’t ever want to write just obviously good characters and obviously bad characters. I like to write stories where you can see the point of view of the other side. Like, the main antagonist in the Green Bones Saga is Ayt Mada, who is the leader of the opposing clan. And, you know, she makes some pretty good points. You know, she wants to kill all of our protagonist characters, but, you know, she has reasons for why she’s doing what she’s doing. And I like to think that I can rewrite the story again from the other clan’s point of view and make a case for your sympathies that way.
That was certainly my approach when I was writing my young adult duology as well. It would be easy to write a teen protagonist who is just, you know, plucky hero fighting against the aliens. But I made him a security officer whose job is to enforce the laws under alien governance. And, you know, there is…because of his position, he can see a lot of the good things that have come out of the intergalactic trade and being part of this larger alien empire. And so, there’s…I like to…I like having characters in that gray zone of, you know, moral ambiguity and which side is right. Is there a right side? And I think that does come through in my writing, even if it…regardless of whether it’s YA or adult or fantasy or science fiction.
So going back to your actual process, what…you said, you have to write in isolation, do you sit at your desk for four or five or six hours a day in your home office? Do you go off and write in a notebook under a tree somewhere? What’s your actual writing process look like?
Much more like the former, the sitting in my chair at the desk for four to five hours. Not always in my home because…well, sometimes in my home, maybe about half the time. and sometimes I just need to get out and have a change of scene. So, I’ll go to a coffee shop or the library and I will write there. But I try to…not necessarily write the same amount of time or the same number of words every day, but I have short-term and medium-term goals that I set for myself by backing in from what I need to get things done. So, I know that I have to hit some deadline at some point and I’ll back out from there and say, “OK, well, that means I need to have a second draft by this date, which means I need a first draft by this date so I have time to give it to better readers…” So, if I know when I need to get a first draft done, then I’ll be like, “OK, I really should try and get the first half done by the end of summer,” for example. And that means I need to really get about X number of words, or this week I’m going to try and get these two scenes done. and then I’ll block out time to do that. So it’s, you know, it’s always thrown for a loop by the schedule, whether I’m traveling or, you know, other things are going on.
But I work best when I am by myself and it’s quiet. I don’t even listen to music. I put on noise-canceling headphones with ambient noise just in the background, like rain falling–it’s actually quite easy because Portland is usually raining, so there’s usually background noise of rain falling–and a big cup of tea. If I can get a solid three to five hours, that’s what I’m most productive.
Now we’ll circle back around to the revision process. So, you mentioned first draft, second draft, so I’m guessing you do a complete first draft and then go back and rewrite from the beginning. Is that how it works?
You know, it depends. It’s kind of…every book sort of is different in that regard. I don’t always do a full first draft and then go back from the beginning and start rewriting. Sometimes that is the case. That was the case with Zeroboxer. I just got, boom!, all the way through and wrote a first draft, but other books have sort of defied that model. Jade War is a good example because I had multiple POVs and they were in different places and I couldn’t write straight through. I would lose the thread of the overall narrative, so I had to write non-linearly. I would write one character’s POV, and then I would write another character’s POV, and I would try to figure out how to stitch the…where they were intersecting and where they fell in the overall timeline…and then stitch them together. And it was…it was more like quilting then like one straight, you know, knitting process. So, I couldn’t even tell you what draft I was on at any given time because it would be like, “I don’t know, is this like 2.34?” Because there would be parts where I had written it and then I had revised that part, but I had still not written the first draft of this other part. And so, it was just all piecemeal and all over the place. So, you know, at some point the idea of even like first, second draft just sort of fell apart.
Once you had it to the point where you considered it more-or-ess complete…you mentioned beta readers. So, what do they provide for you?
So, I will send it to beta readers to have them read the whole thing and give reactions on the structure, which parts felt like they needed more work. Maybe where things were not clear. It really is just to get outside eyes on it.
How many do you have? And where did you find them?
I have, you know, usually between three to five people read it, not including my husband, who I also use as a reader. And I’ve found them from, generally, just the writing community here in Portland, and other spec-fic writers who are also working on novels, because though we don’t have these expectations of meeting every second week, we just are very much…we’ve set it up so that it’s a…we get in touch when one of us has a novel that is done.
So you do the same thing for other writers as well?
And then once it gets to the editor, what what does your editorial feedback look like?
Well, my editor is…I’ve had multiple editors. So, I have an editor for my YA–I’ve had two different editors there–and obviously my editor at Orbit, and usually it goes to my editor, and then there’s silence for a little while, and then I get this very long, very daunting letter back, you know, with all the reactions and what needs work. And then I look at the letter and I panic for forty-eight hours, and then I set up a phone call with my editor and we talk through it.
And I find…I really…the editorial process is one of the best parts of of the whole writing process, even though it is very stressful at times. It’s where the book really gets better. The editorial feedback is just so intensely valuable. And the editor is both a source of misery, but a real…but also, your greatest champion. Because my editor wants the book to be true to my vision and to be the best possible version of itself that it can be. So, it’s really a partnership. And my editor is frighteningly efficient. I think I turned in Jade War…I can’t even remember exactly when I turned it in…but she read it and had this long edit letter for me like two weeks later, I don’t think I’d even really fully recovered from finishing it and handing it in. So when the edit letter came back it was like whiplash, ’cause she had read the whole thing and gotten back to me with notes so quickly.
But I think a lot of aspiring writers fear the editorial process. I get this a lot. I’ll teach writing workshops and writers will say things like, “Oh, but like, you know, what’s it like when the editor wants to change your book? Like, do you have to listen to them?” And these…they’ll have comments that make it seem like the editor is your enemy. And, you know, “What do you do if they want you to change your book?” Most of the time, that is not not how the relationship goes at all. I mean, I’m not saying there are no bad editor relationships. There certainly are. But in my experience, you know, you and the editor are working toward the same goal. And every one of my editors has made my books better.
Well, you have a pretty impressive list of awards that you’ve picked up along the way. What have those meant to you, to get that kind of professional feedback?
I mean, they’ve been…they’ve meant a lot because, you know, they are…they’re first of all, a sense of, “Wow, like people actually are reading my books and they like them and they think they’re good.” So, I often say this, it’s funny because awards are both very meaningful and meaningless at the same time. So, they are very meaningful in the sense that you have received outside validation that you’re doing pretty well and other people in the know, especially if it’s a pure award like the Nebula nomination, I know I’m being nominated not just by, you know, any random person, but all my fellow science fiction and fantasy writers, whom I respect and I know that that isn’t a nomination that’s given lightly. They’re not going to nominate something that they don’t think is well written. So, it’s very meaningful. The World Fantasy Award, which I won, was hugely meaningful because I knew that…it’s a juried award, and these jurors are chosen carefully, and they’re like experts in their field, they’ve read a lot. They read–I don’t know how many books in order to come up with the shortlist and then to decide. So, it’s incredibly important. It’s a huge honor to get nominated for any of those major awards and to win an award like that.
At the same time, it doesn’t change your day-to-day life or routine. Like, you have this burst of achievement and joy and people are congratulating you, and it feels amazing for a short while, and then it’s, you know, it’s back to work. You know, you’ve still got a sit down, your life doesn’t change overnight or anything like that. It’s not like, you know, you’ve won the lottery in publishing and now from now on, you know, you’re not going to get rejected anymore like you. It’s not a magic sales ticket. It’s not like, you know, the next day suddenly you’re, you know, raking in dough. You get the validation and you enjoy it and you bask in that achievement and then you sit right back down in your chair, and you’re still facing the blank screen the next day.
And, of course, with a lot of these things, you get recognized for something that to you is now way in the past and you’re struggling with something brand new.
It’s like, you know, when get your book, and you…people say, “Isn’t it exciting to get your book?” Well, it is, but I have no desire to read it because it’s in the past, right? I’m working on something new.
Yeah. I remember actually feeling quite stressed after won the World Fantasy Award. I was smack dab in the middle of writing the second book. And the amount of…after the, you know, the excitement wore off, there was the pressure of, “Oh, great. Like, how am I going to write a sequel to live up to the first book?” Because now there’s expectations. So…and I feel the same way.
The same thing happens with book launches. Book launches are very funny because, you know, you’re launching a thing that you worked on so long ago. And you’re, you know, talking to interviewers and you’re doing bookstore events and you’re talking about this thing that you wrote and you’re acting happy and excited. You are happy and excited, but, you know, in the back of your mind, you’re stressing about whatever it is you’re working on right now. You know, “I still can’t figure out this plot point.” So it’s funny. Your brain is always kind of broken up based on the projects that are going on.
Well, we’re getting close to the end here, so this is where I asked the big philosophical questions. Well, one really, Which is simply…well, it’s kind of a three-parter. Why do you write, why do you think anybody writes, and in particular, why do you and I and other people write science fiction and fantasy?
So, I write because I love stories. And I think that stories are the truest form of human communication. I think everything that we do to relate to each other revolves around stories. Have you sat down with a bunch of friends that you haven’t seen for a few years or weeks? You immediately start telling stories, saying, “Oh, how’s it going?” And someone says like, “Oh, well, you know, last month I went here and this and that.” And they’ll, you know, they start telling a story.
I think that the stories are how we share ourselves with others. And everything that I write, I feel like I’m sharing something about myself with the world. And ideally. I’m sending that out into the world so that other people who read it will find something in those words that connects with them, and they’ll be like, “Yeah, like I feel like I relate and I understand and I see myself in that, too.” So, you know, there’s something personal about writing that…I think writers feel very drawn to kind of put their own truth out there. And, you know, when you see things in the world and, you know, you have personal experiences, you know, you can…part of, for me, the way to process them and to talk about them is to tell a story.
And when it comes to, you know, why science fiction and fantasy in particular? I think it’s a way to really stretch the imaginative boundaries of our minds, but then use that to tell fundamental truth or to reflect the human experience. So, if I’m going to tell a story about war, I could write about a specific war in our real history, but I can say something more, both broader and kind of more underlying about war itself in general, by putting it in a fantasy world or a science fiction world where, you know, there’s two alien races or, you know, it’s humans against cyborgs or whatever, and tell a story about war that way. And then I’m not bringing the real-life baggage of a specific event in history from our world into the conversation. Then it’s just a story about the truth of war and how it affects those characters and those characters are a stand in for, you know, any number of humans or people in our world.
So, I think that science fiction/fantasy really builds empathy in a way because, can you make a reader relate to a human who’s living 300 years in the future or an alien or a magical being or a robot? If you can, then you’re asking them to empathize with someone who’s very different than them. And that’s something that we can all use more of in the world.
I was going to say, this podcast is called The Worldshapers, and so I’ll ask you, as I’ve asked others, do you hope in some way that through your fiction you are…shaping the world might be a little grand, but at least shaping individuals and changing them in some way when they read your stories?
I certainly hope so. And I think that, you know, that is really probably the most validating thing about being an author, is when you hear from a reader who has really connected with your work and for whom your book means a lot. We all have those books in our lives where, you know, you feel like you read this book and it really shapedd, you know, our view on something, fiction or, you know, some issue or what have you. And having those moments…I mean, I’ve I’ve been honestly amazed and thrilled by how much international enthusiasm the Green Bones Saga has gotten. You know, I’ve had readers from the Philippines and New Zealand and Britain, like, people all over the world, who’ve said that they really love the fact that, you know, it’s a different take on fantasy, that it’s not fantasy that is set in some version of medieval northern Europe, that they are seeing fantasy worlds that that aren’t sort of the traditional mold of fantasy and that that meant a lot to them. That has been really, really awesome. And, you know, I think the fantasy genre as a whole is seeing a lot of that, just a broadening of, like, what sort of voices and stories are being told in fantasy. And I am really glad I get to be a part of that.
And what are you working on now?
Well, my answer is gonna be the same for the next year or so. And that is the third book of the Green Bones saga.
Does it have a title?
Yeah, there is, and I can’t announce it yet. Maybe by the time this podcast goes live, it will be public (It is, as you can see from the cover art at left – Ed.), but it does have a title. Orbit will be announcing it soon. And that will be my monster project for a while, because capping this trilogy is going to be no mean feat. And then I’ve got some other projects in the works that…well, I won’t speak of yet, but stay tuned.
And where can people find you online?
They can find me on my Web site, which is fondalee.com. I am on Twitter @FondaaJLee, and occasionally on Facebook. But yeah, people can certainly find me on the interweb.
I’m just curious, why is there a J in the Twitter handle and not on your website?
Only because the Twitter handle was taken by some sort of egg.
That’s so annoying.
Yeah. The reason this is called…well, it wasn’t a Twitter problem, but it was a domain name problem. This podcast is called The Worldshapers because Worldshapers was just being held by somebody who said, “Oh, well, we’ll sell it to you for $2,000 or $5,000, whatever it was. I said, “You know, I don’t think I need to spend that money on that.”
Well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers I enjoyed the conversation. I hope you did, too.
I did! Thank you, Ed. And I will be sure to signal boost once it goes live. And good luck with the rest of your interviews you have lined up. Sounds like you’ve got quite a lineup the rest of this summer and year.
Yeah, it’s going really well. So, I hope to keep doing it for a long time. Anyway…
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.
A former accountant, military contractor, firearms instructor, and machine-gun dealer, Larry has been a full-time author for several years. His first novel, Monster Hunter International,was originally self-published. He’s now published in seven countries.
Larry lives in northern Utah with his very patient wife and four children.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, Larry, welcome to The Worldshapers.
Thanks for having me on.
Now we met very, very, very briefly, at DragonCon this year…last year, I guess, which was my very first DragonCon. I found it a bit overwhelming. There’s a lot of people there.
Oh, yeah. It’s a giant nerd Mardi Gras.
I was at your panel on–I made a point of sitting in the front row, actually, at the panel on monsters that you were on, which was a very good panel, and then introduced myself and asked if you’d be interested being on the podcast and you said yes, and we’ve finally gotten around to it. So, very glad to have you. I’ve enjoyed your books and am looking forward to talking to you about them. We’re gonna talk specifically about The Saga of the Forgotten Warrior, your fantasy…I guess it’s going to be a trilogy? Or longer?
Well, I originally pitched it as a trilogy to Toni Weisskopf, my publisher, and she’s…you know, Toni knows this stuff very well, and I give her a kind of a plot outline for the trilogy. And she came back and she gave me a book deal for three books, and then she said, “You know, there’s no way in the world you’re going to fit this into three books, right?” Yeah. So, originally it was a trilogy but there’s probably going to be more than that. I’m working on the fourth one right now.
We’ll call it a series, then. The first book of that was Son of the Black Sword, and so we’ll talk about how that all came about a little later. But to start with, I like to talk with my guests about how they got started doing this crazy thing that they did. So, I guess, take us back into the mists of time. First of all, where did you grow up, and how did you first get interested in in science fiction and fantasy as a reader, and then as a writer. How did that all come about? You have a rather unusual path to publication.
Oh, yeah. Well I’m originally from El Nido, California, which is a little tiny town in Merced County, which is the San Joaquin Valley. It’s the part of California that’s more cows than people. That’s where I’m from. I grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere, and we were really poor, but there was a little, tiny library, a little, tiny county library. And I was a nerdy kid. I loved reading books and I read every single thing they had there–and then I discovered interlibrary loans. I was always that awkward kid that read books on the bus and read books during recess and I just always loved to read.
I know that kid. I was that kid.
I think that’s most of us. I grew up…it was a pretty rough place, we were, you know, poor dairy farmers, a lot of hard manual labor. It was a lot of of fun, but I read to escape, and I discovered science fiction and fantasy pretty early on. I mean, I started out with Westerns, because…you have to understand, my dad didn’t read. He didn’t appreciate books, he didn’t like books, he thought books were kind of a sissy activity, that was kind of how I was raised. But I got a pass on Westerns, and so I actually started out with Louis L’Amour. My dad thought Westerns were manly and cool and tough, so Westerns were okay. But then, actually, I think one of the first fantasy books I ever came across was Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks, an old classic, and discovered that first. That was my gateway drug to fantasy.
That’s interesting, starting with Sword of Shannara. Of course, it was very much in the mold of Tolkien. But you came to it first instead of Tolkien.
Yeah. Well, actually, I came to Tolkien later. I went backwards on that. I mean, I got to meet Terry Brooks in person for the first time five or six years ago, and I think I really nerded out pretty hard. No, I kind of got into that and…I read a lot of different things, various genres. I love reading different genres. I pretty much wound up as a fantasy guy just because that was what I was good at and that’s what I enjoyed writing the most, but I’m kind of a multi-genre kind of guy myself, I write in a bunch of different genres, too. But fantasy is my primary thing and I love it.
So, when did you actually start putting your own words on paper and telling your own stories?
Oh, I was really young, actually. I would get like books with paper and I would illustrate the stories, too. And my mom actually saved some of these, so after I die my wife will probably be able to sell these on eBay to my fans for a lot of money. You know, there’s like, really goofy little adventure stories with cartoons and stuff.
My first attempt at seriously writing, I was in college, and at the time I was on a Tom Clancy kick. I had been reading a ton of techno-thrillers, and I decided…the very first book I ever tried to write was actually a thriller. And it was terrible. It just wasn’t very good. You know, the first thing you try to write has training wheels, and it was terrible. I didn’t know what I was doing. And that got shelved.
And then I graduated college and for about ten years I went off and had a career and a family and worked hard and didn’t really have time for it. And then I decided to give it a shot again in the mid 2000s. I started…at the time, the kick I was on was horror movies, and I’m also a gun nut, I was a firearms instructor, and so I took two things I knew a lot about, horror movies and gun nuttery, and I stuck them together, and that’s where my Monster Hunter series came from. And that book actually did really super well. It’s still going well. So, that’s kind of how I started writing, so I guess I’ve always kind of been a writer, but I took, like, a decade off to be a grown-up.
Did you do anything in the way of, you know, writers’ groups or classes or anything in all that time? I know you certainly didn’t study it at university, you became an accountant, eventually.
Yeah, I got my degree in accounting and did a bunch of things like that. I was an auditor and then I was in the gun business for a long time, then I was a military-contractor accountant, and I did that for many years. But the thing is, I never did any writing-related stuff other than business writing. I wrote nonfiction, because I actually wrote technical articles and review articles for gun magazines, and I wrote articles about, you know, I guess the best way to put this for a non-gun-nut audience is tactical stuff, because I was an instructor. And so, I wrote things like that, but I never wrote any fiction during that time. I never had any training. I took the minimal number of English classes required to graduate. I was never in any writers’ groups or anything of that nature. I just read a lot. So, I kind of learned by doing, I guess.
That, in your words, “very bad thriller” that you wrote, did you share it with anybody, you know, at least get a hint that perhaps you could you could tell a story that people were interested in?
A handful of people, a handful of friends. And actually, people liked it and they really enjoyed it and they were kind of surprised that I was literate, you know, being a big dumb knuckle-dragging farm kid, they were like, “Wow, this is actually really good.” But it just wasn’t up to snuff. It’s funny, though, because there’s no such thing as wasted writing. You know, we always save…even our worst stuff has little nuggets in it…so later on, when I was doing the Dead Six series with Mike Kupari, I stole pretty much every line of dialogue, every cool character, everything that was neat or good from that first book I stole and later on, it wound up in other books. But, you know, it was good practice. But, no, I never had a sort of organized group or anything, just, I would hand it out to friends and said, “Hey! Check this out.” But that’s about it.
I wrote novels in high school that I showed to my friends, and they, you know, they said, “This is really good,” and of course, like you, I look back at those now and I think, “No, actually they weren’t.” But at least I learned that, you know, people were interested in reading what I wrote, and that kind of was what drove me into into doing it.
You were talking about writing nonfiction. I was a journalist myself, so I wrote, you know, thousands and thousands and thousands of words of nonfiction. I would say probably–and let’s see if you would agree with me–that even though you’re not writing fiction, the mere act of putting that many words together, even if it’s for gun magazines or whatever it is, still contributes to your writing improving. Would you say that’s fair?
Oh, I would say that’s totally fair. Like I said, there’s no such thing as wasted writing. Honestly, I think that anything that you’re doing that you’re having to put together a coherent narrative is good training. It’s just good practice, just stringing words together, wordsmithing, it’s all useful. Well, I mean, maybe not Twitter.
The great Twitter novel has yet to be written.
Yeah, I don’t know if I want to read it.
Now, Monster Hunter International…it wasn’t published by a traditional publisher to begin with. was it?
No, it was not. I’m with Baen now, and I’ve been with them for about ten years…yeah, ten years this year. But originally, it was self-published, because what happened is, I wrote this book, and best way to describe is, think, you know, X Files meets The Expendables, okay? So, it’s all the tropes of the various horror movies, and, you know, the Lovecraft mythos, because I love Lovecraft, all that’s in there, only, the people…it’s not a horror story, it’s an adventure story, because the characters are not, you know, typical horror-movie characters who scream and run and get eaten. They’re my people. And so, there are a bunch of gun nuts, and military contractors, and combat vets, and all those people, and they dealt with all these monster problems like my people would. (You know, the running joke as if you made a horror movie about the average gun nut it’d be a really short horror movie.)
So, I did this, and I tried to sell it in the traditional manner. Back in those days.. this predates the e-book revolution and Kindle and all that, so I tried to sell it the traditional way, by getting it to agents and then sending it to slush piles, and I collected…it was just over a hundred rejections. I had a shoebox full of rejections, and basically I had a lot of people, you know, agents, well-known agents, come back and say, “Hey, this is really good, this is really fun, but I don’t think it’s sellable. I don’t see a market for this.” And, well, I was a business man, I was a fairly successful businessman at this point, I understood marketing, I understood market, I understood audiences. And I’m looking at this, and I’m thinking, “Well, I think there is a market for this. It might not be a market that, you know, regular Manhattan publishing understands, but I think there’s sufficient number of people out here that I can sell this book.” And so…at that point, self-publishing was kind of more of a vanity thing. You know, you didn’t have e-books, you had $25 print-on-demand paperbacks, which…that’s a pretty hard sell. But I had an audience already from some of my other work, and I was a moderator on a couple of big Internet gun forums. And so, I actually did some online fiction for free, with another guy, named Mike Kupari, who I later on wrote novels with, a great guy, a very good writer, and we put out, you know, free online fiction, and people read it and were like, “Wow, this guy can actually write fiction, this is pretty good.” And so then I launched my $25 print-on-demand paperback, and it actually did really, extremely well, which in those days of self-publishing was like, if you sold 3,000 to 5,000 copies of a print-on-demand paperback, that was huge. It was nothing like it is today, very different. But it was actually a very big success and…Uncle Hugo’s is this big independent bookstore in Minneapolis, Minnesota, great bookstore, great guys. And one of their employees read this, one of their former employees read this, and then passed it on to Uncle Hugo, or Don Blyly of Uncle Hugo’s, who wound up printing out the Word document file on his printer and read the whole thing that night, and then he called Toni Weisskopf, who was the publisher at Baen, and said, “You guys need to buy this book ’cause I could sell the heck out of it.” And that got Toni Weisskopf to take a look at it, and she thought it was great, and she…at that point my self-published book was doing pretty good…so she contacted me and made me an offer to buy it.
And this is where it really is cool. I had to discontinue the self-published version. I signed my contract, but, you know, the way publishing schedules work, it wasn’t going to come out for almost a year and a half. So what happened is, for a year and a half, everybody talked about this great self-published book that they really, really liked to their friends, and their friends couldn’t buy it, because there were no more. And nothing makes somebody want something more than not being able to have it. So, for a year and a half everybody wanted to get their hands on this book, and no one could. So then when the actual Baen version came out, it was just mass-market paperback, that was before I was in hardcover, our little print run sold out in like the first twenty-four hours, it just exploded. And so she did another print run, and it went nuts and it was just instantaneously sold out. And so she did a third print run, and it went nuts, too.
At that point it kind of slowed off, but, you know, she’d given me a contract for a few more books at that point. So, yeah, so that’s how my career got started, and I’ve been doing this for about ten years now. That was back in 2009, is when the Baen version came out, and I’m at twenty-one novels now, I think, and a couple of collections of short stories, and a bunch of novellas and miscellaneous projects. So, it’s been really busy.
It’s safe to say this is what you do full time now?
Oh, yeah, yeah, I quit my accounting job about…I want to say five or six years ago…and I’ve been a full-time writer ever since.
Well, I have to say…I had run across mentions of Monster Hunter international…I think I was actually in the hospital for some reason and I needed stuff to read, and I may have gotten it through…was it in the Baen Free Library? That may have been where I got the first book.
Yeah, once we, I think, three or four books in the series, they added the first one to the Free Library. So, yes, for your listeners, you can get my first book for free, it’s available on baen.com, or you can download a free version for your Kindle on Amazon.
But be warned that that was like a, you know, one hit and then you’re hooked, at least in my case, because then I tore through all the others and I’ve been keeping up with it ever since. Good job, Baen.
That’s why we do it. Yeah, it’s the…we follow the crack-dealer method of product distribution where the first hit is free. The rest of the books cost you.
It’s interesting. One of the things that I often get asked and, you know, I’ve asked…you’re my, what, eighteenth or twentieth interview or something in this podcast?… people always ask, well, “How do you break in, or how did you get your first book published?”, and the thing is, it’s different for absolutely everybody. So, you know, your story is fascinating, but it’s probably not going to help anybody else, because it can’t, it’s not going to happen that way to anybody else.
Well, and technology changes so rapidly now. So even though this was only ten years ago for me, the entire method of how I got into it doesn’t even exist anymore really.
And now self publishing has become so easy the challenge there is, I mean, yeah, anybody can self-publish and it’s a snap, but you have to compete with the hundred thousand other people that also self-published that month. It’s super-competitive, very different than when I did it.
I did want to ask–and the reason is that my first book with DAW had been rejected by them and then through a roundabout way got accepted by them as a paperback–had Baen–you said you had a hundred rejections. Had Baen rejected it once before it came back to them?
This is kind of funny. So actually what happened with them–’cause most of my rejections were agents, and I also submitted directly to every publisher that would let you–Baen does a slush pile. So back in those days you would just mail the manuscript to Baen, and they would have, like, a big pile in their office of typed manuscripts, and they would go through and read them, they would have their slush readers. So, I did actually mail one, I did submit one to the slush pile. However, it disappeared or never arrived, because what happened was years later they were going through their own slush pile trying to find the original Monster Hunter I mailed them, just so they could just have it. You know, it’s an international bestseller for them now, we’ve got millions of books in print, and so they were trying to find this original photocopied manuscript that I had mailed them and they could never find it. And so I don’t know. It got lost at the post office? So, no, I didn’t ever actually get rejected by Baen.
Someday it’ll turn up.
Yeah, I figure it’ll show up on eBay when some postal employee finds it in, you know, the floor boards of his car. So that was just, that was a weird one right there, but, no, I got rejected a lot. But, you know, I always tell aspiring writers, you know, “You’re going to get rejected. There’s nothing wrong with that. Just keep going.” You know, a hundred sounds like a lot, but I’m not even near the top. I want to say Laurell K. Hamilton got rejected, like, two hundred and fifty times, and that was for her Anita Blake stuff, which has gone on to sell, like, 30 million copies. But back then, that was before paranormal romance was really a thing. She’s kind of like the godmother of that genre. And so publishers just didn’t know what to do with it. People were going, “I really don’t know how I’d sell this, I don’t know what genre is this.” Urban fantasy was a weird oddball thing back then and paranormal romance didn’t even exist, so they didn’t know. And now she is super, super successful. You never know. You just gotta keep throwing stuff out there to see what’s next.
Everybody hopes that that kind of a story will be theirs and for most people it isn’t. But the possibility is always there. So that’s what keeps a lot of writers going, I think.
There’s a lot of people, we show up and it’s like, “Wow, it’s like you’re an overnight success!” Yeah, it only took five years.
Well, in my case it was, before I had anything published fiction-wise, I’d been trying to sell for fifteen years, I think, or something like that. My first book was Using Microsoft Publisher for Windows 95, and my second book was Using Microsoft Publisher for Windows 97. So it was like a series, you know, but not quite what I was interested in.
Yeah. I mean, we all come at this from different ways. There’s no one right answer. And it’s funny, because I go to these panels, and people always ask me, like, “What is the trick? What is the secret?” And I’m like, “Dude, I wish I knew, because I would totally like, you know, sell that.”
Yeah, if I’d known, I wouldn’t have taken so long to get to where I am. Well, we’re going to talk about the Saga of the Forgotten Warrior series (not trilogy!). So, we’ll start with talking…obviously, we’ll talk about the first book, because it’s hard to talk about the second book if you haven’t read the first book, which I have, by the way. The first book is called Son of the Black Sword, and maybe I’ll let you give a synopsis, because otherwise I’m liable to spoil something that shouldn’t be spoiled.
No problem. Okay, so Son of the Black Sword is an epic fantasy. It’s set in a world that’s kind of loosely based on India. I won’t say too much about the setting. It’s a world with really brutal caste systems, but it’s not a religious society: in fact, religion has been banned for a very long time. Instead, they have an all-encompassing Law, and everybody in this society has a place. The story’s about…the main character is a fellow named Ashok Vadal, who is a magical super-warrior figure. Think of this guy as kind of a roving, magical Judge Dredd, okay? This guy is the ultimate law enforcer in a land where the law is basically God. But the story is about him and what happens to him, because it turns out he is not who he thinks he is. And that’s…
The problem with epic fantasies is you can’t over-describe them without giving away the plot, but it’s really awesome. It came out super good. I love it. It’s done really well, been very popular. The story is…basically, I describe this guy as, he’s kind of a cross between The Punisher and George Washington. And it’s the story of how he basically turns from this unflinching role enforcer to…the saga’s him becoming a human being. But these are people that have not had religion for a long time, it’s been banned, and the old gods are kind of meddling in the affairs of man once again. This is a world where the seas, where the oceans, are basically hell. And so the culture is developed up around that. No, you don’t want to be by the ocean. The ocean is bad news in this setting.
It’s a fun series. The first one is Son of the Black Sword, which came out a couple of years ago and did really well. It’s my first foray into epic fantasy, based kind of…I’m a huge Robert E. Howard fan, so I kind of think of it as sword and sorcery, but it’s epic fantasy. The sequel is called House of Assassins, and that actually comes out right now. I think by the time this airs I’ll be on book tour for it. So that’s number two. And then number three is called Destroyer of Worlds, and I’m working on that right now. That’s actually what I was typing on when you called, or when you e-mailed me. So, yeah, the series is a lot of fun. I’ve really enjoyed it. (It’s a very dark setting, so when I say fun, to put this in perspective, I’m a writer. We have…our ideas of fun are a little different.
Yeah. You know, I destroy planets for fun.
Yeah, exactly. No, this is…I get to tackle a bunch of issues and have a lot of fun with it, but I don’t…I’m not a heavy-handed message-fiction kind of guy. I’m an action-adventure guy. If a theme sneaks in there it’s usually an accident, and don’t worry, I always put the action scenes first.
So what was the genesis of this? The seed from which this is grew?
You know, this is really interesting, because this is the funny thing about how how ideas works. Many years ago, I was a panelist, when I was a new writer, I was a brand-new writer, I was on a panel at a convention called LTUE, which is Life, the Universe, and Everything, in Provo, Utah. Back then it was held on the BYU college campus. And I was the newbie writer, and I was on a panel with Lee Modesitt Jr., Brandon Sanderson, and Dave Wolverton, who, as you know, are three big-deal, big-time, very successful fantasy writers.
So, I’m on this panel and somebody, some college student in the audience, had a question about…something. I can’t remember what the question was, and I had a really good answer for it. And so, I started to answer the question, and this college student cuts me off. He goes, “No, no, no, no, you’re just an urban-fantasy writer. I want to hear from the epic-fantasy writers.” And I was like, “You little bastard.” And I sat there and I was kind of like torqued, right. Like I said, I’d only been a writer for a couple of years. And so, as soon as the panel was over I snagged Brandon Sanderson, and I was like, “Hey, Brandon, what makes something an epic fantasy?” And so, he’s like, “Well, you know, it’s gotta have a lot of characters and a big giant plot and usually world-spanning events and a lot of history and worldbuilding and that kind of stuff.”
I went, “Okay, okay, cool, cool.” And so then I hooked up with Mike Kupari, whom I’ve mentioned before, ’cause Mike’s one of my best friends, and my co-author on my thriller series, and we’re driving home, and we start brainstorming, and actually the epic fantasy that I came up with turned out to be Hard Magic, the Grimnoir Chronicles, which is my Hard Magic series. So, my first attempt epic fantasy turned into 1930s alternate-history superheroes.
And I’d actually call one science fiction. It really has a science-fiction undercurrent.
Exactly. But that was the genesis of my foray into epic fantasy. But some of the ideas I came up with during this process, brainstorming, a lot of this turned into a series, which is actually a very successful one, and critically acclaimed, and it’s won the Audie for best audio book two out of the three novels. It was like number sixteen on Audible’s top 100 audio books of all time, so it’s been really good. But the thing is, this was my first foray into epic fantasy and it turned out not epic fantasy at all.
Then the next year, actually when I was working on Monster Hunter Alpha, I still at this point really wanted to tackle an epic fantasy, just ’cause I read ’em, I enjoyed ’em, and I hadn’t written one–because, like I said, my attempt turned out to be alternate-history superheroes. So, I was like, “I’m going to write an epic fantasy.” So, while I was working on Monster Hunter Alpha…I always listen to music as I write, and I usually listen to movie soundtracks, because they’re instrumental, there’s no words to mess with me, just music. And so, I hadn’t even seen the movie yet, but I had downloaded the soundtrack for Inception, because I love Hans Zimmer, right? Hans Zimmer’s awesome. So while I was listening to Inception, there’s a song called “Waiting for a Train,” and it’s like this eight-minute-long or nine-minute-long song, that starts really, really slow, and then builds up to this just massive crescendo. And before the crescendo begins, there’s actually this woman, there are some lyrics, and this woman comes on and sings one line in French, and having not seen the movie, I had no context at all, right? But I was so struck by this song that I stopped writing the novel that I was working on, and I actually wound up writing this little two-thousand-word short scene that was just a fantasy setting set specifically to that song. Once again, I hadn’t seen the movie, so I had no context of what it actually looked like, right? Or what it was actually for. (Boy, I was off! I was nowhere near what the movie Inception was like. )
So, I wrote that one little scene, and if you’ve read Son of the Black Sword, it’s actually the scene where Ashok is returning home, after he’s learned the truth of his existence, to confront his aunt. Basically, it turned into the dinner-party scene, the dinner-party knife-fight scene. That was actually the genesis of Son of the Black Sword, I was just inspired to write this one scene to correspond with this song. And then when I finished up this, I started brainstorming it out and really came up with a big plot.
The Indian setting was actually kind of interesting, because…I’m not a crusader by any means, in fact that stuff annoys the heck out of me, and this was before the whole big push for non-Western settings because you’re supposed to, or any of that stuff–I just thought it sounded interesting. I thought it sounded fun. Plus, I watch a lot of Bollywood movies, and so I was just looking at this like, you know, that would actually be really kind of a cool setting. And plus, I’d already been thinking through with that initial scene I did, where I’d already, just off that, was using a setting with caste systems. So, at that point it made perfect sense to just kind of borrow heavily from Indian history and mythology for the setting. And so it just kind of expanded out from there, and I actually wound up expanding it out and borrowing from…well, I won’t get into it, but, like, some other elements from Southeast Asia and even East Africa. So I got to throw in a bunch of stuff in there from that for inspiration. But then it kind of morphed into its own thing. So that’s where that came from.
You know, it would be cool to have a Bollywood movie version of Son of the Black Sword. Don’t you think you could have one?
Oh, my gosh. Well, in my head canon as I’m writing this, I always like to have, like, actors or people I actually know playing various characters. That way as I write them it helps me keep them consistent. So, actually, Kumar, in my head, is Ashok. Ashok looks like the actor Kumar. He’s been in a lot of movies. You’ve probably seen him. So, if they would like to make a movie that’d be great. They’d have to add some musical numbers.
I was going to say the musical numbers would be interesting.
My daughter, my oldest daughter, who’s a writer also, she’s watched a lot of these movies with me, and she’s like, at one point, I was saying that would be funny, if they made a Bollywood version of Son of the Black Sword, and my daughter goes, “Nah, Ashok don’t dance.” This is not a man who would dance, he’s not a man given to frivoloity.
She definitely has a point. So, you’ve talked a little bit about bringing all that, all those various things, together–was there a lot of research involved at this point, then, or did that come along as you develop the plot?
Oh, I kind of–that goes in spurts because, you know, there’s always the ever-widening Wiki spiral that all authors, we tend to do as we’re researching. No, I did the basic plot outline first. I’m an outliner.
That was my next question.
Oh, yeah, yeah, I’m definitely an outliner, so…plus I learned my lesson on my earlier books: I would outline, but I didn’t necessarily keep a series bible. Which, when you’re only one or two or three books into a series, that’s not a big deal. But on Monster Hunter I’m, you know, seven books in, with three spinoffs and a short-story collection. So, all of a sudden, this universe has gotten so big. I didn’t originally have a universe guide for it, and so I’m trying to remember, like, “Whoa, did I say where this person is from? Is this guy left-handed? Did I ever say what color this person’s eyes are?” All that little stuff…
It starts to pile up.
Yeah, it does, it piles up. So, what I did from the beginning of this series is, I had my outline, but then, I also have a separate world guide. Especially when you’re writing urban fantasy, a lot of stuff you don’t need a world guide, because it’s just, you’re just taking our existing world and inserting stuff into it. So, I don’t need to, like, have a description of the city of Chicago. It’s just Chicago, right? But for this, when you make up every single city, every single place, every single family, every single culture, cultural thing, you have to have some constant reference, down to like, you know, the calendar: how you know what are the names of the days of the week and the days of the month and what are the names of the month, of the year, and how does the calendar work, and all this stuff. And so, I try not to worry too much about all that stuff up front because it messes with you and it slows you down. So, I usually outline the story first. When I say outline, I’m talking maybe four or five pages, maybe eight or ten pages tops for a book. I’m not a super-religious outliner, it’s a very loose outline, and then I’ll jump in, I’ll start writing, and then when I come to something that I need to stop and research, if I’m on a roll I’ll just mark it–for me, my mark is always XXX, because then I go back and I control-F and search for XXX, every instance of XXX, that tells me this is something I need to figure out or research.
I use that, too, because it never shows up by accident.
Exactly. Yeah. You’re never gonna find that on the middle of a word by accident…well, I guess if you’re writing porn, I mean, that could happen. Luckily that’s not an issue.
So, if I’m not on a roll and I come up with something then I’ll stop and I’ll go and I’ll do research on it and figure out how I’m going to do it. Then I’ll add that to my world guide and I’ll just go ahead and write. But if I’m on a roll and I don’t want to stop to go figure out how calendars work or how does, you know, agriculture in the northern provinces work, I’m going to put XXX and I’m going to keep plowing ahead, and then later on, when I’m stuck or bored or whatever where I’m at, I’ll flip back and that’s when I’ll do my research. I guess I do a minimal amount of research upfront for the outlining and for the opening, and then I just go.
And, of course, research has become much more easy than it was pre-Internet and pre-Google and all these wonderful tools we have now.
Oh my gosh, yeah. Even in the ten years that I’ve been doing this it’s gotten way easier. And, you know, ten years ago we did have the internet. I mean, it wasn’t that long I’ve been doing this. But, yeah, it’s funny. It’s interesting, too. I find that research, especially for fantasy novels, is super-helpful, because it just opens up so many other corridors in your brain that you otherwise hadn’t thought of.
My example of that was, I have a book under a pseudonym, E.C. Blake, I wrote a trilogy called The Masks of Aygrima, and part of it is set in a mine, and I needed some way for them to get up and down in the mine, and I thought, “Well, ladders are boring,” and then I did some research and found this thing called a “man-engine,” which is driven by water and reciprocating beams and two sets of platforms go up and down and as they go up and down they meet momentarily and you can step from one platform to the next and get carried down. And so that made its way in, and it made the whole scene more interesting and gave me all sorts of things that I could do. So, yeah, that sort of thing happens all the time.
Yeah, I love that stuff.
Now, what does your actual writing process look like. Do you write in longhand. for example?
Oh, gosh, no. My handwriting is awful.
I have met, I have talked to authors who do, which blows my mind. But some people still do it.
Yeah, Marko Kloos writes everything originally with just a nice ink pen and a Moleskine notebook. I’m like, “I don’t know how he does that.” No, I type. I was actually mentioning to you earlier I didn’t know if this program we’re using right now would work because I have an eight-year-old laptop that I’ve just never bothered to replace.
As long as the hamsters run fast enough it’ll be fine.
Well, I mean, all I really use my computer for it is Wikipedia, Facebook, and typing. So, no, I work in a pretty much normal…ever since I quit my day job I work in a normal workday, so…I’m not a morning person, I don’t try to force myself to work early in the morning, because my brain doesn’t work that way. So, about eight-thirty or nine o’clock, I will usually drift into my office. I work from home, I have a nice office. I’ll go in here and I’ll usually write until about lunchtime, and then I’ll take a break for a little while to eat lunch, unless I’m on a roll, then I eat while I type. Then I work until, usually, about three-thirty or four o’clock in the afternoon–by then my imagination is starting to peter off. Unless, again, I’m on a roll, because, you know, if you’re having one of those days where you’re on a roll, you just keep working. Then I’ll work until nine o’clock, ten o’clock at night.
If I have a deadline I work however long I need to work. I did a sixteen-hour day last week, or about two weeks ago. I had to do the short story “The Testimony of the Traitor Ratul,” and I had forgotten about that. And so I was up on my deadline and I had to do a 5,000-word short story that day. And so I did, and I was working until like, I want to say eight o’clock at night, and the story was almost done, it was pretty good. Then I went to bed and I lay there and it was about eleven-thirty or midnight, I was still awake ’cause I was so in the zone, and so I had to get back up and finish the story, writing till about two-thirty in the morning, which is always scary, ’cause I have a rule of thumb, you don’t write after midnight, because what happens is then you check it the next day and it’s crap. But this time I checked it and it was like, it was actually really good. I was like, “Okay, perfect!”
But normally, the vast majority of the time, I’m a nine-to-five kind of writer. I actually take weekends off now, which is amazing, because for the first half of my writing career I had a day job, and it wasn’t just a wimpy day job, it was a high-level management and finance-management kind of job with a, I was the finance guy for a military-contracting company. It was a high-pressure job with a lot of hours, a lot of brain, a lot of hard work, a lot of math, and so I would do that all day and I’d come home and I would write for a couple of hours at night and then I would usually do most of my writing on the weekends. So all day Saturday and Sunday would just be these marathon writing days.
It’s kind of funny, because back then I had this goal that I would try to write 10,000 words a week which, you know, that’s a good goal. I didn’t always get it, but I would try. Which is funny because my goal still today, now that I do this full-time, is still 10,000 words a week. The difference is, life is much nicer now. And also, the big thing is, that old stuff that I would cram in, 10,000 words a week here and there, writing on my lunch hour, writing late at night, writing all day Saturday, that stuff, it was funny because I would write all that and then I would have to edit it way more. I’d spend a lot more hours editing it because it was just wasn’t as good. Now I’ll try to write 10,000 words in a week and I just do my nine to five, but then when I go to edit, my editing passes are actually way cleaner, and I don’t spend nearly as many hours editing as I used to. That’s good, because writing is fun, editing is work.
That’s actually the next question. What does your revision process look like, once you have that draft. You’ve mentioned that you might mark things with XXX that you have to go back and flesh out later. So, what does your revising process look like?
Usually what I do is…so, I’ll finish the first draft, and I’m one of those guys that if I’m stuck on a scene I’ll just mark it and move to the next scene. I don’t like killing momentum because I’ve gotten to a hard part. A lot of people, you know, they’ll freeze up and they’ll get stuck on a scene forever, and I think that’s just the kiss of death. I mean skip that, go to the next one you want to do. So, when I get to the end of the book I have to go back and fill in those scenes that I skipped, or parts I skipped, or sometimes it’s just like, I skipped a paragraph because I didn’t feel like explaining how something works. So, I go back and I fill all this stuff in and usually it’s a lot easier when you do that, because by then you’ve written past that scene, so you know absolutely what must happen. That’s why these guys who write longhand on paper, I’m like, “I stand in awe,” because that is not how my brain works.
And then I go through, I’ll clean all that stuff up. I’ll usually do a clean pass, where I’ll read it from beginning to end, I’ll usually do that once or twice. And then–this is very important–I have a group of alpha readers now. These are people that I trust, these are various authors and friends of mine that I’ve gotten over the years, and also a lot of times technical experts, like…so, in this case, I’m writing a book with a lot of sword fighting. I’m not a sword-fighting expert. I’m a gun expert, but I’m not a sword guy. And so I have a couple of people that are, modern or Western martial artists or Eastern martial artists or professional sword people, and I send it to them.
Then, I give it about a month. During that month, I will not look at this manuscript at all. I will walk away from it. Because what happens is, I need to be, I need to get some distance between me and the manuscript. Because if I keep reading a book, I’m too close to it. There’s stuff that’s in my head that’s not necessarily on the page, but it’s in my head, so I don’t catch it. So during that month I’ll go work on another book. I will go outline other projects. That’s usually…I’ve written, like, fifty short stories now, and I think most of my short stories have been written between novels like this. So during that month, I will go to all sorts other stuff.
Then I will go back, I will read everything the alpha readers had to say about it, and then I will start again, and I will read it from beginning to end. And now I have some distance between me and the book. I will catch errors, I will catch mistakes, I’m, like, little things, I’ll improve them, just because a lot of that stuff, when you’re too close to a manuscript, you can’t see this stuff. You’ve got to get some distance, then you have a clean eye. And then after that it goes to my real editors. I’ve had several different editors with Baen, it just depends on which book in which series, and they’ve all been awesome. And I just take their feedback and incorporate it.
Who’s the editor on the these books? The Saga of the Forgotten Warrior books.
This is interesting, because actually, these have been popular, so I’ve had multiple…multiple people have joined in on this. So Toni is our overall publisher, but Jim Minz and also Tony Daniel have been my editors on the series.
What kind of notes do you get back from them?
Actually, apparently I’m one of their favorites because I’m easy to edit. I’m not one of those sensitive artist types, so I’m pretty much open to anything, and usually they’ll tag stuff and they’ll be like, “Hey, Larry look at this.” A lot of times they’ll just let me solve it. They know I’m pretty good at solving a problem, so if, like, a scene doesn’t work, they’ll just put a note that, “Hey, I don’t understand what’s going on here,” and they’ll just kick it back to me and I’ll go over it. Very seldom have I ever had to make any major changes in edits. But just give you an idea, in House of Assassins, the one that’s coming out right now, the sequel to Son of the Black Sword, the biggest edit in there was actually the chapter that I open with was originally Chapter Three. I opened with…Chapter 2 was originally the opening of the thing. And Jim read this, and he loved the book, but he was just like, “You know, I just think this other chapter that you have later on, I think is just a stronger opening. I think if you opened with this chapter instead of this one it would be stronger.” Now, I’d have to change stuff around in the chronology to do that, but I looked at it. The key to being edited is, you’ve got to be humble and don’t be a prideful jerk about, because, you know, your editors are smart people, too. And I looked at this and Jim was right. It was spot on. He was very correct, that that other chapter made for a much cooler, more interesting opening. You know, so stuff like that.
My favorite edit that I ever got was actually one of my Monster Hunter books, and it’s from Toni Weisskopf. Toni is a hilarious edtior. So this scene, for whatever reason, just didn’t work. And so the note on the scene says, the note at the top of the page literally says, “This scene sucks. Make it not suck.” And I looked at it, and she was right. And so I did. You know, she didn’t need to tell me how to fix it. She just said this doesn’t work. Make it work. And I did. So, I’ve had really good editors. I’ve been really lucky there. They’ve been pretty awesome.
I like to point out to writers who are worried about being edited, that, especially if you’re at a big house like Baen, or my publisher, DAW…you know, my editor, Sheila Gilbert, who’s been in the business for 30-some years now, editing…
She’s awesome, yeah.
They have seen more stuff than you have in the field and know, you know, they know when things aren’t working, and they have a pretty good feel for what does work. So, yeah, I’m very humble when it comes to being edited.
One of my favorite editing stories is…just to put this in perspective for most authors, you know, a good editor is mostly there for suggestions. It’s your story. A bad editor takes over and makes you rewrite it according to their every whim, and that’s just bad editing. That’s not a good fit. My favorite editing story, just to illustrate how a good editor works, is in one of my books, I have this scene, where it’s about…it’s from the bad guy’s perspective, and she’s… it’s this kind of this lonely scene, and she’s doing evil things, and it’s just to show that she’s an evil messed-up person, and then at the end, she gets this cupcake out of her backpack and puts a candle in it, because it turns out that today, this day she’s doing all this evil stuff, is her birthday. My editor read this scene, and he said, “No, no, no. This is what you do. How about open with the cupcake and the candle and her singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to herself? And then you back up to how you got there. And it just…all I did was move, like, two paragraphs, but all of a sudden it made the scene like a thousand times cooler. So that’s what a good editor does, you know? They just kind of help you massage stuff to make it better.
Well, we are getting close to the end here, so we will move on to the big philosophical questions I like to ask.
Yeah. This podcast is called The Worldshapers. And yes, that’s partly because my latest novel is called Worldshaper…
Notice how I eased that in there. But I guess the question I like to ask authors is, obviously we all shape, we shape our fictional worlds. Do you ever have…you’ve said you’re not, you know, you’re not focused on pushing a message by any stretch, but do you still hope that in some way you you shape, if not the world, per se, that might be a little grand but, at least have an impact on your readers in some fashion?
I do, yeah. Actually, this is a really interesting one as a writer. You know, I think how…we hear from people all the time, and I don’t like to…I get a little…I don’t like to share these stories, but I’ll just speak in general here…but we hear from readers all the time how somehow, something we wrote touched them, where they’re going through a hard time and we cheered them up or, you know, they lost a loved one, and they were sad for a while, but the first time they laughed in a month was, they read one of our books, and it made them smile. It made them forget the suckiness of what was going on in their life right then. And so, there’s little moments like that and, you know…I was on a panel one time with Jim Butcher and another author (who I will not name), and somebody asked this question, and Jim was very classy and said, “You know what, I’ve got a lot of my readers tell me I’ve improved their life or I’ve helped them out of a tough spot or, you know, I cheered them up, but those aren’t my stories to tell. Those are theirs.” And I was like, “You know, that was so classy.” And I really respected that. But then the next author went onto this really long-winded story about how he saved the day and how he was so super-important, and I just remember sitting there thinking, “Yeah, Jim’s answer was way classier.”
But as far as message, I tend to write about, I like writing about, heroic people. I like writing about brave, rugged individuals who don’t fit in, who try to do the right thing. I’m old-fashioned, I do believe in good and evil, and I like when the good guys succeed. I like when the good guys fight. They don’t always succeed, because, you know, the bad guy’s got to win sometimes, too, or there’s no tension. But, you know, I like good versus evil, I like these big epic struggles. One thing I really enjoy, and this was kind of like my point in the Grimnoir Chronicles, was, I was writing about these people that were facing all these hard odds, and they were fighting against kind of this, like, totalitarian government. And part of my, part of that was, the big question in that series was, “Do the people own the government or does the government own the people?” Because these were…you know, it was a very American 1930s book, but that was the big philosophical question. In Son of the Black Sword, I’m writing about these people with these really brutal caste systems and this Law where everybody has…what some of the people keep saying is, “Every man has a place,” because in this society everybody has what’s expected of them, and if you go outside of what’s expected of you, that’s trouble. And so, I’m writing about the people that are the oddballs, the people who don’t fit in, the people who, you know, they’re bringing crazy, crazy ideas like liberty or freedom, and how just insane that is. I love touching on that stuff. I love entertaining people. So, if I can accomplish anything, it’s just to give people a good time, you know, make them happy, cheer ’em up, give ’em some cool, fun ,action-adventure. If I brighten somebody’s day, then I did my job. I guess that’s how I look at it.
I had this conversation with Toni Weisskopf, and I was saying basically what I just said, and she kind of shot me down, because she takes a very different outlook on that, because she’s primarily a science-fiction person. She says the job of science fiction authors is to teach people to dream big so they can ry to achieve these great things, and then the job of the fantasy authors is to make people heroic enough to do it. And I thought that was kind of cool.
Well, bringing it back from effect on readers to you, why do you do it? What do you think drives any of us to write and to make up stories?
Well, on the on the very first, most base level, I love getting paid. One of the writing jokes on my blog, when I’m writing about it is, “I’m like the prophet of capitalism, man, I’m all about, ‘Hey, we tell good stories, readers like it, they buy our books.'” But, honestly, a big part of it is, I just like telling stories. I’ve always been a storyteller. I was always that kid with the big dramatic story. I was always the guy that was, you know, just telling everybody else what’s going on, telling jokes, telling tall tales, campfire stories, whatever…oh, speaking of which, when you wind up, when you get drafted to be a scoutmaster and you go on a camping trip, and, you know, you do the thing where you tell the scary stories to scare the teenagers? Nobody is better at that than a professional fantasy author. I’ve written a lot of horror, too, so, man, I can scare the crap out of some teenagers around a campfire. I am legend for that. But, no, I just like telling stories. I enjoy it.
And the fact that I get to do this for a living and get to do this all day for fun is kind of amazing. It’s like the coolest job in the world. I get to just…as my mom says. I love the way my mom, my mom phrased this one time as, “I make crap up and tell lies for a living.”
That’s about it.
Thanks, Mom! Great way to put it. But yeah, no, it’s awesome, it’s the best job ever. I absolutely love what I do and I’m very, I’m super thankful that I’ve got fans that let me do this for a living. I love my fans.
There’s a famous…I live in Saskatchewan there’s a famous author from, actually, the same town that I used to be the newspaper editor, Weyburn, W.O. Mitchell, and way back when I was young, which has been a while, there was a television program that had some of his stories have been dramatized, and he sort of did the Alfred Hitchcock thing and introduced it, but the title of the anthology series was The Magic Lie, which I think is a pretty good description of what fiction is.
Pretty much, yeah.
Now, what are you working on now?
I’m working on a couple of things simultaneously, because that’s how my brain works, but I’m working on Destroyer of Worlds, which is Book 3 in the Saga of the Forgotten Warrior, and I’m also working on another novella, which is gonna be an exclusive for Audible back home. My series is called Tom Stranger: Interdimensional Insurance Agent, which is my comedy series. It’s narrated by Adam Baldwin, the actor from Firefly and The Last Ship. He’s awesome. He’s a great guy, great sense of humor, he does wonderful comedy, and so I’m doing that right now, too. So, one really super-serious project, and one super-silly project at the same time. We’ll see how that works out.
And looking further down the road, what’s what’s still to come that you know about?
Oh, gosh. Well, so after those two I have, later on this year I have a anthology called Noir Fatale, which was edited by me and a great writer named Kacey Ezell, and Noir Fatale is a collection of science fiction and fantasy noir-themed stories, you know, hardboiled detective, femme fatales, murder mysteries. We got some great writers in there. I got David Weber, who did a new Honor Harrington story for us. I got Laurell Hamilton, who did a new Anita Blake story for us. We’ve got a bunch of really super-talented authors in there. I’ll plug my daughter, my daughter actually sold me a story that’s in there, it’s a Japanese ghost-hunting detective story, and she, you know, she had to actually…nepotism is a hell of a thing, but she had to sell it to me and it’s really good.
So I have that coming out later this year and then I also have another collection, the second volume of my collected short stories, called Target Rich Environment, Target Rich Environment Volume 2 comes out at the end of the year. Oh, yeah, Monster Hunter Guardian, the next Monster Hunter novel, this one is a collaboration with Sarah Hoyt, it comes out in August. So this is the sixth book in the regular Monster Hunter series. It’s about a character named Julie Shackleford, who is one of the main, main characters in the series, and it’s awesome. This book is really cool. The best way to describe it is…you know the movie Taken? This is the Monster Hunter version of Taken. Its intense. It’s really good.
So lots to look forward to, then.
Yeah, it’s kind of funny, there’s like a Larry Correia release every quarter this year. They keep me busy, but I like to work, so it works out well.
And if people would like to find you online, where would they look for you?
Monsterhunternation.com is my blog, but I’m also on Facebook. I am no longer on Twitter. I got banned off of there. (Laughs.) No, I’m still on Twitter, too. I gave up on it. I’m on Facebook, just under Larry Correia, but the best place to find me is my blog, monsterhunternation.com.
Ok. Well, that brings us, I think, to the end of the time, so thank you so much for being a guest on The Worldshapers.
Well, cool, thank you so much for having me on. I appreciate it.