Category Archives: Author Interview

An Interview with Merry Jones

Child's PlayMerry Jones was kind enough to join me today to talk about Child’s Play, the latest novel in her Elle Harrison thriller series. Before we get to the questions, I’ll kick things off with an introduction…

Merry Jones is the author of the Harper Jennings mystery series, which includes Summer Session and Behind the Walls, and the Philadelphia-based Zoe Hayes series, which includes The Nanny Murders and The River Killings. Over the years, she has written a wide range of material in a variety of styles and for diverse media. In addition to her thrillers, she has written non-fiction, including Birthmothers, and the best-selling humor book I Love Him, But…, and has contributed articles to Glamour, Ladies’ Home Journal, and American Woman. Her books have been translated into Spanish, Chinese, Hebrew, French, German, Norwegian, Turkish, and Dutch.

Welcome, Merry! To start things off, could you talk a little bit about your latest book, Child’s Play?

Hi Alison, thanks for inviting me to be interviewed!

So, Child’s Play begins with a second grade teacher, our protagonist Elle Harrison, preparing for the first day of school. She finds out that a former student, Ty Evans, has turned twenty-one and been released from juvenile detention where he’d served eight years for killing his father. Almost immediately, people against whom Ty has had grudges begin to get murdered—starting with the school principal, whose disfigured corpse Elle finds on that first day back. Ty seeks Elle out and, before long, she is assaulted. As she recovers, she worries for her own safety and that of her colleagues, and she questions her assumptions about family, childhood, female friendships, justice and innocence.

Child’s Play is the third book in the Elle Harrison series, and you have two other thriller series with recurring characters. What appeals to you about writing series? Is there a long arc for your characters that spans their entire series, or do you tend to have complete arcs within each book that build on each other as the series progresses?

Writing a series is fun for lots of reasons. You build a readership who have their own relationships with the characters. And these readers have expectations which are fun to meet/surpass. Also, you get to know your characters better with each book, so writing another one is like spending time with old friends. And it’s comfortable to begin a novel with “givens” about the protagonist and some of the other characters, not to have to reinvent new people with each book.

The arcs, I think, do complete in each book, enough so that if you only read one, you’re fine. But they also span the entire series in that the characters’ lives change and develop across titles. A divorcee might remarry, or a married person get divorced. A child might be born. A father might die. The characters’ arcs proceed through life after they survive the arcs of the individual books.

Crime and thriller novels often require authors to know grisly details about the ways people can die, what happens to their bodies after death, and how crimes are solved. How do you go about your research? What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever had to look up, or ask an expert? What’s the oddest or most unexpected thing you’ve learned while doing research? Do you ever get concerned looks from people while doing research, or when letting slip an obscure fact at a cocktail party?

I love this question. The concerned looks do happen. For example, I was in a bar with a friend, talking about a book-in-progress. “That effing rapist! I’m glad you killed him. He deserved to die.”

You can imagine the people in the next booth, overhearing this. So, yes, people do get uneasy with talk about murders and mayhem, but so far no one has called the police.

Research, though not always about cadavers and murder, provides some of the best fun of writing. In the course of a dozen suspense novels, I’ve had to learn about pre-Colombian religion, human trafficking, art smuggling, brain damage, sleep disorders, military secrets, Bible prophecy. Also about the juvenile detention system. Elective plastic surgery. Narcissistic personality disorder. Survivalists. I do a lot of research online, for sure. But I also interview experts like police detectives, surgeons, soldiers, prison guards. And I travel to relevant locations, for example, a sleep clinic, a museum, a national park, a funeral home. Getting details right is essential.

As to what I’ve learned during all this research, the list is long—Each book brings more information. Facts about rigor mortis, about how long it takes for bodies to start smelling. About the lack of an antidote for the puffer fish poison, and about its symptoms (which include sweating, hallucinations, a sense of flying, and horrible pain.) About the phase of sleep in which people are paralyzed but conscious, able to hear and see but not move or speak. I can list more examples, but you get the idea.

The research is important, but to me, the real terror in thrillers comes not from poisons or sleep paralysis or weapons of death, but from the characters who happily employ them.

A simple steak knife, for example, can be horrifying in the hands of a cheerfully sociopathic pre-teen. The tension and suspense about what she might do with that knife is far scarier than showing the hilt protruding from a victim’s chest.

Switching gears slightly, you’re a member of a group called the Liar’s Club in Philadelphia. Could you talk a bit about the group, how it came to be, and the work you and your fellow authors do to support those who are just starting their writing careers?

Sure, though this is my point of view, not an official mission statement. Loosely, Liars Club is an organization of writers of all genres who are committed to building and supporting their writing community. It was started by two Philly writers, Jonathan Maberry and Greg Frost, in a bar about a decade ago. Since then, we’ve spent a lot more time in bars, but we’ve also accomplished a number of projects, including touring and signing at Indie book stores, publishing an anthology, and holding monthly free Writers Coffeehouses to which anyone—new writers, longtime writers, or anyone else interested in writing–can come and talk about the business and craft of writing while bonding over coffee. Liars Club is growing, having already spread to several cities including San Diego, where Jonathan now lives. Philly Liars Club hopes to increase its impact, so we’re planning a podcast, workshops and other projects. It’s a group with great heart, and I’m proud to be part of it.

On a somewhat related note, there are quite a few authors in the Philadelphia area. Do you think there’s something particular about Philadelphia that draws creative types? Do you have a favorite spot in Philadelphia where you go to recharge your creative brain, or gather inspiration?

Honestly, I think there are creative people everywhere. Writers find stories no matter where we are. We can’t escape them. So, no, I don’t think Philadelphia in particular draws creative types. It has a lot of them, but so do other big cities.

When I want to recharge, I don’t have a particular place to go. I simply break my patterns for a while. Change my rhythm. I might travel, might not. Might clean the house. Might stop writing for a week or two. There’s no particular place or activity involved. It’s more about slowing down, letting go, changing perspective. Letting my mind breathe.

In addition to being a phenomenal and prolific author, you’re also a rower. Does rowing ever help you solve snarled plot points, or is it what you do when you need to completely get away from writing for a while? How did you get into rowing, and do you compete, or row just for fun?

Rowing, yes, is what I do to get away from writing and life. While I row I rarely think of anything but rowing—the condition of the water, the motion of the boat, the position of my oars, the fluidity of my strokes. What rowing might do is realign my brain so I can look at my work refreshed. But it doesn’t necessarily help me untangle plots.

As to how I started: It was eighteen years ago, when a community rowing program offered free lessons on the Schuylkill. My older daughter was then 12, and we signed up together. We both loved it and have been rowing ever since. I’m a member of Vesper Boat Club, but I race only rarely—most recently this fall with my daughter in a double. Mostly I row for the joy of being on the river. In fact, when my husband and I travel, we try to connect with local rowing clubs, so we’ve skulled on a bunch of rivers.

To finish things off, what are you working on next, now that Child’s Play is out? Are there any other projects in particular you want people to know about?

I think for writers, the next book is the most important one. I’m heavy into one but let’s talk about it when it’s finished. Not that I’m superstitious. Just that talking about it is bad luck.

Totally understandable! Thank you for joining me!

Thank you, Alison. This was fun!

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An Interview with Kelly Robson

Kelly Robson was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her new Gothic Horror novelette, A Human Stain. To get things started, I will shamelessly crib some notes from Kelly’s author bio…

In 2015, Kelly Robson’s first fiction publications appeared in major Science Fiction markets Clarkesworld, Tor.com, and Asimov’s Science Fiction, and in the anthologies New Canadian Noir, In the Shadow of the Towers, and License Expired. Her work has been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award, the Nebula Award, the Prix Aurora Award, the Theodore Sturgeon Award, and the Sunburst Award. After years in Vancouver, she now lives in Toronto with her wife, fellow SF writer A.M. Dellamonica.

Human StainWelcome! Without giving too much away, what can readers expect to find within the virtual pages of A Human Stain?

A Human Stain is a lesbian gothic horror set in a remote Bavarian alpine schloss in 1905. Thematically, structurally, and in many of its plot elements, the story is the evil twin of my 2015 novella Waters of Versailles. It’s very dark indeed. Ellen Datlow says it’s one of the ickiest stories she’s ever bought for Tor.com.

The art is absolutely stunning. Did you have any input in terms of choosing the artist, or nudging them in a particular direction?

Not at all! The covers are always a complete surprise. I don’t see them until they hit social media. It wasn’t what I was expecting (it never is), but I love it. And the cover certainly lets you know what you’re going to get in this story isn’t pretty.

I’m a touch obsessed with your novella, The Waters of Versailles. Would you mind talking a bit about where the inspiration for the story came from, and how you made a story about toilets so damned amazing?

From 2008 to 2012, I wrote the wine column for Canada’s largest women’s magazine, Chatelaine. It was a great freelance gig with a lot of perks – free wine, free gourmet meals, free trips. All of a sudden I was hanging out with a lot of classy people, which is not my milieu at all. That “fish out of water” feeling definitely informed the story.

An important theme for me is the question of what people do when they are given power. Sylvian has an incredible gift – the love and devotion of a creature with complete control over water. What he chooses to do with it is kind of interesting. If I were in 1738, I one of the first things I’d miss would be toilets, so I can’t fault him at all for inventing them – I might do that too! But he gives them to people who can’t truly appreciate them, and that’s where he goes wrong.

I have two more novellas planned in this universe. They’re going to be about central heating and electricity.

I also have to ask about License Expired. You and Alyx both have stories in the anthology, which for those who don’t know is a Canadian anthology of James Bond stories, as the character is considered public domain in Canada. Did you grow up a James Bond fan? Did you and Alyx collaborate or consult each other at all as you worked on your respective stories? What was the best part of writing in Bond’s world?

Actually, Alyx and I kept our Bond stories completely secret from each other until we were both done. The reveal was a totally hoot.

My Bond story is absolutely my favorite thing I’ve ever written. I’m not a huge Bond fan, but I’ve always liked the honeypot/spy dynamic. It brims with sexy dramatic tension. I loved being able to turn that dynamic on its head.

The best part of writing in Bond’s world is it’s just one hell of a lot of fun. Having a massive canon behind the story means you can set events into motion without having to do the hard lifting of backstory, setup, or setting. You can just have fun with it, and the reader is right there, colluding with you from the first paragraph.

Shifting gears a bit, you currently live in Toronto, as do a good number of speculative fiction writers. Do you think there’s anything particularly speculative or science fictional about Toronto that draws authors there? What is your favorite spot in Toronto to gather inspiration, or to hang out in general?

Toronto is Canada’s largest city, so the concentration of SF writers is inevitable. But we’re a lovely coherent group because of the monthly SF readings ChiSeries on the third Wednesday of every month. When we moved to Toronto three and a half years ago, the gang there welcomed us with open arms. ChiSeries is definitely my favorite spot in Toronto!

I like to ask my fellow Canadians about the idea of “Canadian Literature”. Do you think there’s a particular theme, tone, or some common unifying thread that makes a piece of writing particularly Canadian? If so, do you find it in your own writing, either surfacing unconsciously, or something you actively work toward or against?

CanLit is generally obsessed with the unpredictability and danger of our harsh climate, unforgiving terrain, isolating vast distances, and unpredictable natural forces. I believe it’s said that the climate is always a major character in Canadian Literature.

I do write about the natural world and I can’t seem to keep from writing about water. But in my stories, it’s usually not an unspeaking force. It’s something the characters are aware of and are negotiating their lives around. I would probably never use natural or climatic disasters just to amp up the drama.

Now that A Human Stain is out in the world, what’s next for you? What are you working on, or what else do you have coming up that you want people to know about?

For the past year and a half I’ve been working on a time travel novella. It’s out on submission now. *fingers crossed* Here’s the elevator pitch:

“The Last Landing of the Lucky Peach” is set several hundred years in the future. The world has just begun to recover from a mass extinction event, but the invention of time travel by secretive think tank TERN has blocked the flow of funding for long-term ecological restoration projects. Minh, an elderly fluvial geomorphologist, is enraged at having her life’s work disrupted by the illusion of quick-fix solutions to the world’s problems, so when she’s given the opportunity to travel to 2024 BCE for a past-state ecological assessment of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, she jumps at the chance to uncover TERN’s secrets.

It sounds amazing! Good luck with it, and thanks for dropping by!

Thank you for having me!!!

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An Interview with A.M. Dellamonica

Nature of a PirateI’m delighted to welcome A.M. Dellamonica back to my blog today to talk about The Nature of a Pirate, the latest installment in her Hidden Sea Tales series, which is officially out tomorrow. To refresh your minds, or to introduce Alyx to those new to her work, I’ll shamelessly steal from her author bio…

A.M. Dellamonica moved to Toronto, Canada, in 2013, after 22 years in Vancouver. In addition to writing, she studies yoga and takes thousands of digital photographs. She is a graduate of Clarion West
and teaches writing at the University of Toronto and through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. Dellamonica’s first novel, Indigo Springs, won the Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic. Her latest, A Daughter of No Nation, was released by Tor Books in the summer of 2015 and won the 2016 Prix Aurora for best SF/F novel.

She is the author of more than forty short stories in a variety of genres; they can be found on Tor.com, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and in numerous print magazines and anthologies.

Welcome back! Congratulations on The Nature of a Pirate, the final (more on that later) book in your Hidden Sea Tales trilogy. Without giving too much away, can you tell us a bit about the final installment in the series?

I sometimes call the Hidden Sea Tales trilogy “Narnia for environmentalists,” and by this third stage of the story, Sophie Hansa and her brother Bram are having huge problems maintaining their lives in San Francisco while simultaneously vanishing for months so they can conduct research into the magical realm, Stormwrack, that they’ve discovered.

On Stormwrack, meanwhile, there’s a new scheme afoot to topple the delicate international balance of power. Someone is sinking ships within the Fleet of Nations, and tempers are rising each time a ship goes down. The the sinkings are magical in nature, but the government is desperate enough, once again, to ask Sophie and Bram if science can shed any light on what’s happening.

A follow up question, as the cool kids say. I assume cool kids say that, don’t they? Anyway. In our last interview, you described the Hidden Sea books as ‘at least three books’, to paraphrase, and you’ve written several related short stories. Are there more stories to tell in this world, and what form do you think they’ll take – short form, novel, other?

You do seem awfully cool to me. I do have an idea that the short story series, The Gales, will need one or two more novelette-length chapters to bring it to a conclusion. There are four of those stories out now and a fifth coming from Tor.com next year. The stories are about Gale Feliachild at the height of her career, and about how her life has been shaped by a prophecy that she will be murdered.

In CHILD OF A HIDDEN SEA, the first book, we see what becomes of that prophecy. But in the stories, Gale’s fate is still years off, and she’s grappling with, among other things, the accumulated consequences of living every day of her life as if it might be her last.

My dream is to do a third series exploring the relationship between Tonio, the first mate of the sailing vessel Nightjar, and Bram Hansa. There just wasn’t room to do that justice in the first trilogy. I’m not sure yet what form that storyline might take.

A follow-up to my follow-up – what is it that keeps you coming back to this world? The characters? The world? A combination of both? Or something else?

When I created Stormwrack I rolled out a massive canvas for myself–it’s a big world with a lot of countries, each with their own form of government, their own microclimate and their own magical spells. I wanted a world I could revisit for the rest of my life. I wanted room to plant seeds in one story and then see what they could grow into in another. It was scaled for this kind of bigness all along.

I love creating cultures, and a world like this offers a chance both to build new island nations and simultaneously place them in the greater context of the Fleet. What if there’s an island where all the medical students are magically given a third eye, one which allows them to perceive the nature of their patient’s injuries and ailments? How do you poison someone right under their noses? How do they offer their services to other countries? What if someone’s poaching the manta ray whose sting is necessary to the inscription that runs the spell?

I haven’t even created that island and I have three story ideas right there!

Your Hidden Seas novels and stories touch on marine biology, sailing, pirates, magic, and many other complex subjects. What kind of research did you do to inform the background of your world? What’s the oddest, or most obscure fact you learned in the course of your research, whether or not it made
it onto the page?

The best thing I did was go on a sail on a tall ship in Victoria, British Columbia, to get a sense of what hauling sails and travelling asea under wind power was like. The rest was far less hands-on: I watched a lot of nature documentaries, for example, and read a lot of books.

One of the coolest books I read for this most recent novel was called “Suspect Identities: A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification,” by Simon Cole. It talks about how fingerprinting proliferated, as a forensic science, via the mail: police in various parts of the British Empire, and elsewhere, wrote to each other and taught each other dactyloscopy. Cole talks too about how a lot of the impetus for those early efforts was a desire by white law enforcement officers to distinguish between the people of color whom they had colonized and were, in various awful ways, oppressing.

Fun fact: what some cops wanted from fingerprinting was actually predictive. They wanted to be able to say “This kind of fingerprint means this person is inherently bad.” We see an echo of that kind of misguided desire within practices like racial profiling, and the attempt to track various kinds of traits within human DNA.

To switch gears a bit, I like to ask authors about their non-writing related jobs. Stephen King was a janitor and J.D. Salinger worked as the entertainment director on a luxury cruise line. What’s the weirdest non-writing job you’ve ever had, and did it inspire any stories or teach you anything you’ve used in your writing?

I have had lots of weird jobs. I’ve been a bouncer in a Star Trek IRC channel, and I’ve written questions for trivia games… but I think the strangest and most story-gristy thing I ever did was go to work on the graveyard shift for an answering service and alarm monitoring company. It was about 1990, a time when phones were getting fairly computerized. But this particular place was the phone hell that time forgot, complete with mid-century cord boards and alarms that ran–I kid you not–on frickin’ ticker tape. If someone broke a window at a car dealership (or, sometimes, if the temperature reached 30 below zero), the ticker tape would start banging out a code in zigzags on a spooling piece of paper. The printout looked rather like a heart rate monitor! The operator then had to decode the zigzags–which client was it, where in the building was the alarm coming from, etc.?–and call the police.

In between alarm calls–a whole year’s worth of false alarms generally netted one actual burglar–I was taking body pick-up calls for a funeral home, emergency calls from drunk drivers to the city’s one 24-hour lawyer, oil rig emergency repair calls, and even calls from random perverts who’d worked out that they could raise a woman at 2:00 a.m. on one or another given number.

That sounds like an amazing job, in a really strange way. Switching gears again, I have to ask about License Expired. Subject to the timey-wimey nature of interviews, I have either already asked, or will ask, your wife, Kelly Robson, about this as well. You both have stories in the anthology, which for those who don’t know is a Canadian anthology of James Bond stories since the character is considered public domain in Canada. Did you grow up a James Bond fan? Did you and Kelly collaborate or consult each other at all as you worked on your respective stories? What was the best part of writing in Bond’s world?

I wasn’t a Bond fan before the antho: there were movies I’d liked, and movies I hadn’t cared for. When LICENSE EXPIRED came up, I had to re-evaluate, which meant first of all taking a good look at an actual Ian Fleming book, CASINO ROYALE.

I had decided upon a Moneypenny story quite early in the process, and had also settled on the idea that it’d be fun to write a story where James Bond was literally incapable of telling women apart. After that, and after I’d had time to research a neurological condition that somewhat fit the bill (prosopagnosia) the story almost wrote itself.

My memory of the writing period for the story was that neither Kelly nor I told the other much, if anything, about what we were working on beyond saying, in gleeful tones, “OMG, my story is so coooooooollll!!!”

If you could pick any other character (whether they’re currently public domain or not)
to write an original story about, who would it be?

I love being paid to write fanfiction, so that list would be long. It would also, probably, change every day. Right this minute, though, that part of my brain has been thinking a lot about the Marvel Cinematic Universe characters, perhaps especially Natasha Romanov, Matt Murdoch, and Tony Stark.

I would absolutely read any and all of those! To switch gears yet again, I adore your story ‘The Color of Paradox’. One of my favorite things about the story (and there’s a lot to love) is the fact that a woman is the first time traveler. In many traditional time travel stories, women are either completely absent, a goal the time traveling man is working toward, or someone left patiently waiting at home. Was this trope something you consciously sought to address with your story? Regardless, how do you feel about the trope? What was the original inspiration behind the story?

Part of the idea behind Wills is that she isn’t the first time traveller, exactly. She’s the first who survived. Project Mayfly dropped two men into its base in 1920s Seattle, and they both died. Only then did they decide to see if trying a female traveller would make a difference. Wills had the intestinal fortitude to crawl off the decomposing bodies of her predecessors, beat back the madness, and figure out how to get on with physically surviving her mission.

The next people Mayfly sends–some of them, anyway–are able to survive because Wills has made a place for them. Unlike her, they have somewhere safe to land, medical assistance, and a nice hot cup of soup waiting.

I’ll leave you to decide what I’m addressing there.

The core idea is a difficult one for me. Time travel in the Souring universe is a one way voyage. You can go back, but you can never go home. You can send information forward, via time capsules, but it’s a very imperfect process.

I have done tons of noodling and planning and imagining in that universe–a few times, I’ve even conceived it as a TV show!–and for years, none of that work had ever quite come to anything. Then one December, Jules came to me, like a brilliant and horrid little holiday visitor, and with him came the Mayfly device and Dr. Stefoff. “The Color of Paradox” came together.

I want to write more there. I’m still struggling to find another way in.

Finally, now that the last (maybe) installment in the Hidden Seas trilogy is out, what else are you working on or do you have coming up that you want people to know about?

I am simultaneously working on a novella and a novel that are near-future greenpunk. The novella takes place in about twenty years time, during a period called the Setback–a period when climate change is escalating, fascism is on the rise, and war and other kinds of chaos have the world on the edge of falling apart. In this novella, a young journalist named Drow tries to level up his approval rating within global social media networks… and instead he ends up a pariah. This forces him to do something quite desperate.

The novel takes place during Drow’s daughter’s time, during the Bounceback. After decades of rationing and various other measures, humankind is slowly bringing down atmospheric carbon levels and the population, and there’s some hope that we’ll terraform Earth back into a sustainable habitat for homo sapiens. The next step is reoxygenating the oceans, a project that’s moving towards success even as it slowly crowdfunds the carbon credits needed for its launch.

In the novel, which is called Win Conditions, Rubi is a public defender working for Crowdsight, the organization that determines everyone’s social capital. She basically does advocacy on support tickets for people who’ve fallen into huge disfavour with the rest of the human population. But now Interpol thinks her latest client–a guy who’s been trying to draw Likes away from the oxygenation project–might be an AI, constructed by someone who doesn’t want humanity to survive.

That sounds fantastic! Thanks for stopping by!

Thank you for having me!!

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An Interview with Heather Rose Jones

MotherOf SoulsHeather Rose Jones was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her latest novel, Mother of Souls. To get things started, I’ll make introductions by shamelessly stealing from her author bio…

Heather Rose Jones writes fantasy, historic fantasy, and historical fiction, including the Alpennia series with swordswomen and magic in an alternate Regency setting. She blogs about research into lesbian-like motifs in history and literature at the Lesbian Historic Motif Project which provides inspiration for her fiction. She has a PhD in linguistics, studying metaphor theory and the semantics of Medieval Welsh prepositions, and works as an industrial failure investigator in biotech. Find her on facebook and on twitter as @heatherosejones.

Welcome, and congratulations on the publication of Mother of Souls! Without giving too much away, would you care to tell readers a bit about your latest novel?

The Alpennia series follows a loose network of women in a fictitious early 19th century country inserted roughly around the intersection of France, Switzerland, and Italy. It’s a combination of a collection of personal stories and an overall political intrigue plot. Mother of Souls is about Serafina Talarico, an Ethiopian immigrant to Rome who is struggling to master her mystical talents and thinks that she can find a teacher in Margerit Sovitre, the Royal Thaumaturgist to Princess Anna of Alpennia. And it’s about Luzie Valorin, a widowed music teacher who discovers an unexpected talent when she sets her sights on composing an opera about the philosopher Tanfrit. It’s about Margerit Sovitre’s ambition to found a women’s college. And it’s about a sorcery that has the entirety of central Europe locked in a mystical storm that is beginning to break down the structures of magic that have stood for centuries. It’s…complicated.

This is the third book in your Alpennia series. Each novel seems to focus on very different characters – are they traditional sequels, or standalone books set in a shared world? When you wrote the first book in the Alpennia series, did you always intend to return to the world? Are there more Alpennia stories to come?

When I wrote the first book (Daughter of Mystery), it was supposed to be a standalone, but even as I was polishing it up the second book (The Mystic Marriage) grabbed me. By the time I’d finished that manuscript, I had a fairly good idea of the scope of the overall series, though the details are still working themselves out. At this point I’m planning seven books in the main series (with short fiction to fill in some of the cracks), plus an entirely independent novel set earlier in Alpennian history. It isn’t a traditional series that follows one central character throughout. I’m very much writing about community, and each book has a slightly different set of viewpoint characters.

As an author of historical fantasy and historical fiction, what is your research process like? What’s the strangest, most intriguing, or most obscure bit of history you’ve ever come across while researching? Have you ever written something into a novel that’s based on actual history, but which readers assumed you must have invented from whole cloth because it was too fantastical to believe, or vice versa?

I’ve been a history fanatic all my life and fell in love with European history when I was ten years old and my family lived in Prague for a year when my dad was on sabbatical. Most of my research is the background information I’ve been storing away over the last five decades. But it was a bit of a surprise to me to write a series in the 19th century because most of my research interests previously have been medieval and Renaissance. So I’ve had to do a lot of delving into post-Napoleonic politics and timelines to integrate the story into real history. It’s hard to identify the strangest thing I’ve turned up. That would probably be some very obscure bit of textile technology! But in terms of what I put in my novels, I do a lot of research on queer women in history, and the most surprising thing is probably finding all the ways that women managed to live outside the norms of society in different times and places. But for unbelievable details in my own fiction, I think I’d have to step outside Alpennia and point to my novelette “The Mazarinette and the Musketeer” which is a romp involving various outrageous women in late 17th century England and France. Since I self-published it as a freebie, I went so far as to include endnotes laying out how none of the most unbelievable bits were invented.

On a somewhat related note, in addition to your fiction writing, you also launched the Lesbian Historic Motif Project as a resource for other writers and researchers. Could you talk a bit about how LHMP came to be, your goals for the project, and how you’d like to see if grow in the future?

Originally the Lesbian Historic Motif Project was just my own research notes, gathering background for a variety of historic romances I wanted to write. I had this urge to write stories that were both historically accurate and fun escapist romantic adventures. So I needed to know as much as possible about what it could have been like to be a queer woman at various times and places. And then…well, I have the soul of a cataloger. I know that the hardest part of doing research is knowing that the information you want actually exists and having some idea how to find it. So I wanted to summarize my research in a way that was useful for other interested parties. Back when I started, I was thinking in terms of a published sourcebook, but fortunately the web came along in the meantime and a blog is a much more practical way to present it! The main idea is simply to say, “Here is information; here’s what these publications cover; here’s where you can find them.” Not everyone has the same goals and interests, so it was more important to me to be a conduit than an interpreter. As for the future, I don’t anticipate running out of material to cover anytime soon, so mostly I’ll just keep plugging along. I’d love for more people to know about the Project and use it as a start for their own research.

How does your academic background in linguistics inform your fiction writing process? Do you have any tips or recommendations for authors looking to incorporate the development or evolution of language into their world-building? Are there any invented fantasy language tropes you’ve seen used (or misused) that bother you as someone with a background in linguistics?

As a linguist, my main advice would be: “Kids, don’t try this at home!” But seriously, it’s easy to include over-simplified approaches to language in world-building; much harder to do it in a realistic way. The language aspects in Alpennia are two-fold. The more superficial aspect is in how I’ve created an underlying system for creating Alpennian proper names and small bits of vocabulary, so that it “feels” like a real language without being identical to one that exists. The deeper way I’ve used my linguistics background is in how the characters think about and use language in a multilingual society, and in a framework for using mystical talents that relies heavily on the structure and symbolism of language. It’s more a matter of an awareness of the importance of language than using any specific elements of linguistics. I think the language-related tropes that bother me the most in fantasy is sloppy use of personal names. For example, borrowing names or naming systems from an actual culture without thinking about what baggage those elements carry with them. But conversely, I think authors shouldn’t twist themselves up in knots about “getting language right.” In a very real sense, all historic or secondary world novels are “translated” for the reader. The question is only how well the translation works.

Now that Mother of Souls is out in the world, what are you working on next? Any other projects or works you’d like people to know about?

The next Alpennia book will be a bit of a change-up. I plan it to be a YA novel that can be a new starting point into the series. Floodtide will introduce a new protagonist, as well as bringing in several of the younger minor characters from the existing books. It overlaps a fair amount of the timeline of Mother of Souls but with an entirely different focus. But in the mean time, I’m working on a non-Alpennia project. I wrote a series of connected short stories about a shape-shifting clan in a sort of Iron Age not!Europe for the Sword and Sorceress anthology series, and now I’ve written a novelette that ties up the series and plan to collect them all up in a single volume and self-publish it. Working title is Skinsinger: Tales of the Kaltaoven.

Thanks for stopping by!

Thank you for inviting me!

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An Interview with Caroline M. Yoachim

Caroline M. Yoachim was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her debut short story collection, Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World, among other things. I’ll kick things off in the usual way by shamelessly stealing her author bio to make introductions…

Caroline M. Yoachim lives in Seattle and loves cold cloudy weather. Her fiction has appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, and Daily Science Fiction, among other places. She is a 2006 graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop, and her 2010 novelette “Stone Wall Truth” was nominated for a Nebula Award. Caroline’s debut short story collection is coming out with Fairwood Press in 2016.

7 Wonders CoverWelcome! First off, congratulations on the publication of your collection. Would you care to give readers a taste of what kind of stories they’ll find within its pages?

Thank you! There are stories of time travel, alien invasions, Japanese mermaids, and monsters under the bed. I try to write the kind of sense-of-wonder science fiction and fantasy stories I loved when I was younger, but from perspectives that were largely absent from the literature of my childhood.
Psychology features prominently in both my SF and my fantasy (that’s my academic background, and I find the workings of the human brain fascinating). The nature of identity is a recurring theme in my collection: If a person replaces their body (either all at once or bit by bit), are they still the same person? How does our biological form impact our sense of self? How does who we are change over time, with age and experience? Short fiction is a great way to explore these kinds of ideas because I can revisit the same questions from lots of different angles.

I’m a bit of a process nerd, so I’m curious, how did you go about choosing which stories to include in the collection? Are the way the stories grouped meant to highlight certain themes in your writing?

I started by making a list of all my available publications. At the time when I was putting the collection together, I had about 60 published stories to choose from. There were about a dozen pieces that I was sure had to be in the collection, so I started a table of contents with those. I figured out early on that I wanted to start with “Five Stages of Grief After the Alien Invasion” and I wanted to end with the title story: “Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World”.
After that I was at a bit of a loss for how to proceed.

I ended up taking my list of available stories and sorting them into categories: fantasy stories, science fiction stories, and flash fiction (irrespective of genre). Initially I’d planned on mixing the flash stories in with the longer pieces, but as a reader I enjoy flash stories more if I know in advance that I’ll be reading flash. When I go into a flash story expecting something longer, I am inevitably disappointed, despite the fact that I really love flash!

The solution was to separate the flash from the rest of the stories. I initially thought I’d divide the longer stories into fantasy stories and science fiction stories, with a cluster of flash fiction in the middle, but when I looked at my list I realized I’d written about twice as much science fiction as fantasy.

So I divided the book into three main sections, based on the type of world in which the story takes place: our world, fantasy worlds, and alien worlds. There were definitely some stories that could have gone in more than one category, but overall it seemed like a good structure. In between each of the main sections of the book there is an ‘interlude’ of six flash stories.

Flash isn’t an easy length to write. Do you find it comes naturally to you, or was it something you had to teach yourself to write? What is your process like for writing a longer piece versus a flash piece, if they differ?

These days I do find that flash comes pretty naturally to me, but it is something that I originally had to learn to write. One nice thing about flash is that because it is so short you can write lots of flash stories in a relatively short period of time–it is an easy form to practice. There’s also something very satisfying (at least to me) about trimming a story down to its bare essentials, giving the reader just enough to extrapolate an entire world.

For me, writing longer stories is often about building a core (flash-length) idea into something bigger. One way I’ve done that is to mash several flash stories together: “Five Stages of Grief After the Alien Invasion” is an example of this flash-mash method. I show the aftermath of an alien invasion through a series of five interrelated flash stories. Each one focuses on a different stage of grief, and told from a different character’s perspective.

The other main strategy I use for building shorter ideas in to longer ones is to add extra threads. Flash stories tend to be simpler: fewer characters, one driving goal, fewer obstacles to overcome. Adding more elements tends to make the story more complex, at which point it requires more words. I’m currently working on a space opera novella, and creating something at that length has been an exercise in exploring tangents and nuances that I would normally trim away when writing a shorter story.

I have to gush about the collection’s cover art for a moment, because it’s absolutely gorgeous. Is the artist someone you found, or someone your publisher connected you with? Was it a pre-existing piece that fit your stories, or did you have any input into the design?

Thank you! I LOVE the cover art. It is by a Japanese artist: shichigoro-shingo. I was looking for artwork for my cover and stumbled across his work–he did the October 2015 cover for Clarkesworld. My cover art is a pre-existing piece, but it captures the feel I wanted for the collection as a whole, and it is also a good fit for the title story.

Wil Wheaton praised your story ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors, Love, Death‘ on Twitter, which is pretty darn awesome (both the story, and the fact that he linked to it). Did he happen across the story on his own, or do you have a connection to him? Was there a sudden spike in the story’s readership after he signal-boosted it?

I was ridiculously excited about that when I found out about it! Aside from that one tweet, I have absolutely no connection with Wil Wheaton. He happened across the story on his own–from what I gather, he reads Lightspeed Magazine on a regular basis.

The story definitely got some extra attention after the tweet. I checked with John Joseph Adams, and there was a spike of about a thousand readers over a two or three day period.

In addition to your writing, you’re also a photographer. Do the two ever feed into each other? Have you ever written a story inspired by a moment you captured through a lens, or, on the flipside, have you ever set out to compose a photograph specifically to illustrate your work?

These days the two tend to stay relatively separate, mainly because I haven’t had much time to devote to photography.

I’ve had one photograph that was the official illustration for a story of mine–back in 2010 my story “Blood Willows” appeared in Flash Fiction Online, illustrated with a photo I’d taken of a Japanese Laceleaf Maple. For the old version of my website, I used to make small photo icons to go with each story on my publications page. It was fun, but once I got over a dozen stories it made the page too cluttered and hard to read, so now I just list the stories.

I’ve written stories that were sparked by images before, and even stories inspired by photographs, but I don’t think I’ve ever written a story that was inspired by a photograph that I took myself.

In 2010, your novelette ‘Stone Wall Truth‘ was nominated for a Nebula Award. Do you remember where you were when you heard the news, and what you did to celebrate?

I do remember! At the time, my oldest daughter was a little over a year old, and I was home with her when I got the call to say that I was a nominee. We had a lovely time bouncing around in the living room and squeeing, although my daughter (obviously) had no idea what the excitement was about. Later celebrations included wine, chocolate, and shopping for a fancy dress to wear to the award ceremony.

Now that the collection is out in the world, what else are you working on? Any inclination to write something novel-length? Anything else in general you have upcoming that you want folks to know about?

I have just finished the latest round of revisions on a middle grade novel with the working title Junk Craft Magic. It’s the story of a mixed-race girl who helps the local junkyard pixies fight a monster made of hazardous waste. I’m also working on a space opera novella (with fire kittens!) and a handful of short stories.

The middle grade novel and the space opera novella both sound fantastic. I can’t wait until they make their way into the world so I can read them. Thanks for stopping by!

Thank you for inviting me!

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An Interview with Claire Humphrey

Claire Humphrey was kind enough to drop by to talk about her debut novel, Spells of Blood and Kin, among other things. To get things started, I will stick with tradition and shamelessly steal her author bio by way of introduction…

Claire Humphrey’s short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Apex, Crossed Genres, Fantasy Magazine, and Podcastle. Her short story “Bleaker Collegiate Presents an All-Female Production of Waiting for Godot” appeared in the Lambda Award-nominated collection Beyond Binary, and her short story “The Witch of Tarup” was published in the critically acclaimed anthology Long Hidden. Spells of Blood and Kin is her first novel.

Spells of Blood and KinACW: Welcome! Congratulations on Spells of Blood and Kin. I adored this novel, and I feel pretty darn lucky to have gotten a sneak peek at it. For those who haven’t read it, could you give readers a hint of what’s in store for them?

CH: Thank you so much! Spells of Blood and Kin is what happened when I tried to write a light urban fantasy to distract myself during a tough time in my life. I failed at the distraction, and I failed even more at making it light. (I think I did okay with the urban fantasy part.)

Spells of Blood and Kin is about what families hand down through generations, both the good and the bad. One of the families is related by blood in the usual way. One of the families is related by blood in a supernatural way. Both families are kind of dysfunctional.

ACW: One of the things I found particularly brilliant about the novel is that it’s essentially a werewolf novel that never once uses the word werewolf. It also resists the tropes of moody/tortured/misunderstood-but-ultimately-awesome-person-turned-into-a-wolf and portrays a genuinely pained and terrible condition. Where did the roots of the story come from for you? Did you set out to write an ‘anti werewolf’ novel? If not, what inspired it?

CH: Actually when I first set out I wanted to write a fun paranormal romance. But that wasn’t in me. I initially imagined Nick as a charming lightweight who develops emotional depth through being turned into something new, and Lissa as a responsible girl who learns to let loose a little. And I was going to have them get together! But as I began writing, those tropes felt so false to me: not that others shouldn’t use them, but I couldn’t write them. I started to understand Nick as someone who takes his own power way too lightly, and hurts others as a result, and Lissa as someone weighed down by her duty, by a heritage that can’t easily be cast aside. And those are just the mostly-human.

I had been writing stories about Gus Hillyard–Maksim’s family member, for lack of a better word–for a while. None of those stories were fun. They were mostly about coping strategies, about surviving instead of thriving, about the high price we pay for being born and staying alive–and the price we exact on others. Gus and Maksim have learned that when they let themselves get close to anyone, they have the power to cause immense damage. They each deal with that power in different ways: Gus by becoming an alcoholic drifter, Maksim by walling up part of his nature with magic.

We all have that power in reality, of course. The bond of blood–literal or metaphoric–is what keeps us close even when we’re hurting, or being hurt, or both.

ACW: The novel also draws heavily on Russian fairy tales, mythology, and history. What kind of research did you do for Spells of Blood and Kin?

CH: I started with a pair of books my parents gave me so long ago that I feel like I’ve had them always. They’re reproductions of Russian folk tales from 1899 with gorgeous illustrations by Ivan Bilibin. One is about Vasilissa going into the forest to get magical fire from the witch Baba Yaga: this one’s described in my book. The other is about Vasilissa’s later life as a powerful witch turned into a frog by the sorcerer Koschei the Deathless; she convinces a prince to marry her and hunt down the sorcerer to break his spell. Both are full of rich images of skulls, animals, eggs, trickery and bargaining. Those stories formed the thematic heart of the book.

As I wrote, I had to dig into some practical, factual stuff too, of course. One of my favourites was a book called The Soviet-Afghan War, by the Russian General Staff, which contained intense detail of troop movements and composition, and analysis of engagements which the Russians felt they had lost. I ended up using almost nothing from this book but it was fascinating to read.

I’m a pantser generally when it comes to research: I’ll be halfway through a scene, trying to describe a vehicle or a house or a piece of clothing, and then I’ll realize I don’t know enough about it, and start Googling. I have a lot of books in my house, too, on topics like historical weaponry, homes and costumes, so I usually have something helpful I can consult.

ACW: Shifting gears a bit, there’s a question I like to ask my fellow Canadians. In your mind, are there particular tones, themes, or subjects that make a piece of literature quintessentially Canadian? If so, do you ever consciously draw on them in your own work, or deliberately avoid them?

CH: There’s a lot of Canadian fiction dealing with families and inheritance, with the idea of baggage carried across the ocean and bestowed on a new generation. A whole lot of us in this country came from somewhere else, or our parents did, and we didn’t always get to choose what we brought with us. This book takes that trope and makes it magical.

ACW: On a related note, since you live in the Toronto area and quite a few other excellent speculative fiction writers have settled there, is there anything about the neighborhood that makes it especially speculative in your mind? Having recently visited, I feel there are certain areas ripe for inclusion in SFF stories. Do you have any favorite spots that inspire your stories? If not, are there generally things about the city that inspire you – bookstores, parks, museums, restaurants, must-see places you’d recommend to first time visitors?

CH: I struggled with how to answer this question, because I don’t find Toronto magical at all. After some thought I realized that I don’t find any places magical. I’m not that writer. I actually want exactly the opposite from a place: I love places that have a strong and particular sense of themselves, an air and a look that can’t be found anywhere else. I lean on these places to ground my work. To me, stories with speculative elements need a strong counterbalance.

Toronto is an easy one for me because I’ve lived here for almost two decades, and even before that, I always yearned toward it. My Toronto is a gorgeously messy place: graffiti murals in the alleys off Queen West, fruit smashed on the streetcar tracks of Spadina. Every bar with a raunchy basement bathroom painted some garish colour. Kensington Market, Parkdale, Little Italy, Little Portugal, all thronged with people, usually celebrating something: religious parades, soccer wins, zombie walks, all-night art festivals. It’s a city that rewards you for just walking out the door and joining the rush.

ACW: In addition to your novel, you’re also the author of some stunningly brilliant short fiction. On a purely selfish note, might you ever set additional stories – or a longer work – in the world of ‘Your Figure Will Assume Beautiful Outlines’? (Because boxing and magic are an awesome combination as far as I’m concerned.) On a more general level, how does your process differ in writing short fiction versus a novel?

CH: Oh, thank you! The world of “Your Figure Will Assume Beautiful Outlines” is actually a world I built for my first novel… a novel that won’t see the light of day unless I am prepared to substantially rework it, as it’s more than a quarter of a million words long and still not nearly finished (!) Never say never, though, right? I love the world and I’m sure I will set more stories there, even if that novel stays in the trunk.

In general I guess I start novels with a character, while I start stories with a feeling. Stories are easier to feel your way through without much of a plan, and I do. I wrote the first draft of Spells of Blood and Kin without a formal plan, also, and was delighted to discover I’d given it an intricate structure anyway (kind of a repeating chiastic structure–although I’m not sure all of this survived through the multiple drafts). The next book I wrote turned out to naturally follow a three-act structure, without my conscious intervention. For the one I’m now working on, I actually made a three-act plan before I began writing, although I’ve departed from it a little as I go. It’s helping me write faster.

ACW: Now that Spells of Blood and Kin is out in the world, what’s next for you?

CH: The novel I’m currently working on in set in the same world, this time with Gus Hillyard as the protagonist–she’s my favourite character to write, and I’m loving spending time with her, although so far this book is pretty emotionally difficult.

I’ve also got some new stories in the pipeline–I haven’t been writing as much short fiction lately and it feels good to have some things lined up. The most recently published is a story called “Crew 255″ in Dominik Parisien’s Clockwork Canada anthology. The anthology consists of steampunk alternate histories of Canada, and my story is about Portuguese workers coming to rebuild downtown Toronto after an airship explosion.

ACW: Thanks for stopping by! Now that I know about your plans for the next novel, I’m very much looking forward to reading Gus’ story.

CH: Thanks so much for having me, and for the great questions!

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An Interview with Anna Kashina

AnnaAnna Kashina was kind enough to drop by my blog today to talk about her Majat Code series, among other things. The third novel in the series, The Assassin Queen, was just released by Angry Robot Books. To start things off, I will shamelessly steal from Anna’s author bio by way of introduction…

Anna Kashina was born in Russia and moved to the United States after receiving her PhD in biology. She has been writing for as long as she remembers herself, and completed her first novel (published in Russia) when she was in high school. Her fantasy and historical fiction appeared in original editions in Russia, Germany, Australia, and the US. She lives near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she combines her writing with a successful career in biomedical research.Anna is the 2015 Prism Award winner for “The Guild of Assassins”, which received the first prize in the fantasy category and the “Best of the Best” grand prize.

Welcome, and congratulations on the publication of the third book in your Majat Code series! For those who may be unfamiliar with the series, could you provide a taste of what the books are about? And for those who do know the series, without giving too much away, can you give us a hint of what’s in store in book three?

Hi, Alison, thank you so much for the chance to stop by! I love to talk about my series!
The Majat Code books are adventure fantasies with elements of romance. Each has a standalone story, but together they continue the same overarching plot that comes to a full – and hopefully satisfactory – conclusion in “Assassin Queen”. The books center around the Majat warriors, highly skilled mercenaries and assassins who hire out their services and follow a very strict code. Throughout the series, their resolve to follow the code is thoroughly tested as they face a powerful enemy plotting to overthrow the Majat and restore the notorious rule of the Old Empire.

In book 3 the conflict erupts in full and leads to the final showdown. There are also some subplots involving a royal family in a very fun desert kingdom. I hope that the fans of the series as well as the newbies will enjoy it!

After writing two previous books in the Majat series, along with a few shorter companion pieces, was there anything about the characters or the world that took you completely by surprise this time around?

Assassin QueenMy characters have been surprising me all through the series, to the point that I started thinking of them as real people. In book 3 I was especially fascinated by the way several of the characters, who tended to be somewhat immature before, took charge and accomplished seemingly impossible things, which resolved some of the standoffs and ultimately saved the day. Some scenes literally unraveled in front of my eyes. It was the strangest thing to see them do things I had no idea they were capable of. In “Assassin Queen”, more than any other of my books, I found myself just following their whims and letting them do what they want. I am very happy with the result.

The second book in the series, The Guild of Assassins, won the ‘Best of the Best’ 2015 Prism Award, which is given by the Fantasy, Futuristic, and Paranormal branch of the Romance Writers of America. Prior to receiving the award, did you consider yourself a romance writer? Did receiving the award change your approach to the third book in terms of romantic content?

Funny you asked. When I wrote “Blades of the Old Empire”, book 1 in the series, romance was very far from my mind. Yet, a few main characters are young and attractive, and I found them developing interests and relationships before I knew it. In fact, the only relationship that wasn’t quite working out was the one I planned from the start, so the characters really took control right there.

When the book came out, many readers and reviewers commented on how the story seemed so romance-heavy. So when I was working on the sequel, “The Guild of Assassins”, I decided to just let it go. I allowed the characters to follow their hearts, and what came out was, I believe, true romance by the conventions of the romance genre.

I was tremendously honored and thrilled to receive the award, for which I was nominated along with some authors I really admire. Among other things this award did teach me that romance is a genre I feel natural and comfortable exploring in my books. So, when I wrote “Assassin Queen” I allowed all the romantic elements to happen, without holding back. I would say it is less of a conventional romance than “The Guild of Assassins”, but it is still up there. I hope it will appeal to the readers of both fantasy and romance genres.

Shifting gears a bit, let’s talk about your first novel, which was published in Russia. You wrote it while you were in high school, which is quite amazing! How long was it before the novel was published? How do you feel about that novel now?

That novel, “In the Name of the Queen”, was historical fiction –again, with elements of romance – co-written with my grandfather. It features Queen Elizabeth of England, Sir Francis Drake, and has been inspired by our love for the novels by Rafael Sabatini and Sir Walter Scott. This book remains very special to me, because it holds the essence of my closeness to my grandfather and the memory of our good times together. It was also very rigorously researched, and the story is seamless. But, I was in 10th grade when we finished it, and I would have definitely written it differently today.

It got published about 6 years after we wrote it, I believe just because historical fiction about England is always popular in Russia. The print did sell out, and the publisher promptly spent the money and went out of business, as tended to be the trend in Russia in those times.

I sometimes think about translating this book into English, which would really mean rewriting it completely following the same story line. Some day, I might actually do it.

I think that sounds like a fantastic idea. I for one would love to read it! On a related note, I’m always fascinated by people who write in multiple languages. When did you first begin writing and seeking publication in English? With your English novels, do you ever find yourself coming up against concepts or phrases that would be better expressed in Russian and wishing you could switch over?

Around the time I moved to the US I wrote my first not co-authored novel that I considered publishable – “The Princess of Dhagabad”. It was in Russian, but I quickly realized that if I wanted to achieve something with it, it needed to be in English. So, I took a big dictionary and translated it, word by word. I was surprised to realize in the process that the two languages are completely different. Very often there is no direct translation for words or concepts. I write in English now, but for the more difficult concepts I still come up with a Russian word first, and often I cannot immediately find an appropriate English equivalent. In these cases I usually put the Russian words down, to return to later when I edit the draft. Very often it is hard to say it as well in English, and I have to get around it by rewriting the whole passage.

In general, I think Russian is better for descriptions, and English – for action and dialogue. So, a perfect book should really be written in both languages at the same time?

Your day job in biomedical research seems far removed from the secondary world fantasy you typically write. Have you ever written anything more on the science fiction side inspired by your work? Does your day job inform you writing in other ways, even when you’re not writing science fiction?

Somehow I enjoy keeping these two sides of my life separate. Every time I try writing science fiction, I tend to feel too constrained by everything I know. My imagination just does not fly the way it tends to do with fantasy. This sense of letting go of all boundaries and constraints of my everyday life has always been a big part of the appeal for me, both in writing and in reading.

At the same time, I do consider writing and science very synergistic. In both, it is essential to keep in mind both the big picture and the details. It is also essential to lay down every thought very clearly. When I write, I do better science, and vice versa. When I cannot find time to write fantasy I tend to feel miserable and less productive in my day job. And I do feel so blessed to be able to have two creative professions at the same time.

There are quite a few speculative fiction writers living in the Philadelphia area. Do you think there’s anything particularly speculative or fantastic about the city to draw such authors to the area? What are some of your favorite things about living in the Philadelphia area? Are there restaurants, attractions, or other places you’d recommend to someone visiting for the first time?

I actually believe Philadelphia is one of the best kept secrets in the US. It looks shabby on the outside – especially when driving from the airport–but once you are in the city, everything just magically changes. When I first moved here I was terrified, and it took all but five minutes to blend in and realize how good this place is. In some ways this change of perception felt like stepping through the looking glass into another world.

To me, there are many things about Philadelphia that factor into this attraction. It has rich and diverse history, and is very active and dynamic without being overwhelming. It is also ideal for living a quiet, comfortable life. I do enjoy the restaurants, and art galleries, and shows, and the fact that in the Center City you can just walk outside at midnight and feel very relaxed. I also appreciate the fact that I can shop for food in big supermarkets selling ethnic foods. And, I love living in the forest and working in the city, only 25 minutes away. In the end, I guess it comes down to having a lot of things just right to fit your lifestyle. I am not sure if our great writing community is the result of this, but this community by now is part of the attraction too. It does seem amazing how many wonderful speculative fiction authors live here and how open to interactions they are.

Now that the third book in the Majat series is out, what’s next for you? What else are you working on or do you have coming up that you want people to know about?

I am working on a new novel that will hopefully become a part of a brand new series. True to my current passion, it will have a multicultural setting, adventure, intrigue, fancy swordplay – and, of course, romance.

Thanks for stopping by!

Thanks so much for having me. These were great questions I really enjoyed!

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An Interview with Mike Allen

Mike Allen was kind enough to drop by my blog today to talk about his latest collection, The Spider Tapestries, among other things. The Spider Tapestries is out on March 1, but there’s a Goodreads giveaway going on right now, so after you’re done reading Mike’s interview, head on over and enter for your chance to win. Now, to get things started, as I frequently do, I will shameless steal Mike’s author bio by way of introduction…

Spider TapestriesMike Allen edits the critically-acclaimed anthology series Clockwork Phoenix and the long-running magazine Mythic Delirium. His books include post-apocalyptic dark fantasy novel The Black Fire Concerto and career-spanning poetry collection Hungry Constellations. Mike’s stories have popped up in places like Weird Tales, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the anthologies Cthulhu’s Reign, Solaris Rising 2 and Tomorrow’s Cthulhu. His poetry has won the Rhysling Award three times, and his fiction has been nominated for the Nebula Award and the Shirley Jackson Award. By day he works as the arts and culture columnist for the daily newspaper in Roanoke, Va., where he lives with his wife Anita, a goofy dog, and two cats with varying degrees of psychosis. You can follow Mike’s exploits as a writer at descentintolight.com, as an editor at mythicdelirium.com, and all at once on Twitter at @mythicdelirium.

First of all, welcome and congratulations on the publication of your latest collection! I was lucky enough to get a sneak peek at The Spider Tapestries, but for those who haven’t, would you care to provide a taste of what’s in store?

Thanks, Alison! The Spider Tapestries samples my writing at its absolute weirdest. It’s funny for me to say that, because just about all of my published stories were born in Bizarreland. But these seven stories (and I always wanted it to be seven, I think because of the rhythm of “Seven Strange Stories” as a subtitle) represent the tales where I pushed hardest against the boundaries of what a story can hold –and in some instances, how a story can be told.

My first collection, Unseaming, had some wacky story structure and surreal plot developments, but I think all the tales in that book can be unambiguously classified as “horror.” While the stories in Spider Tapestries run amok through genre conventions. I tend to describe the book as “half as long as Unseaming and ten times weirder.”

You blend a lot of styles in The Spider Tapestries. One style I was particularly intrigued by was the weird-noir of Twa Sisters and Still Life With Skull. Could you talk about where that voice and world came from? Are there other stories set in this universe? Perhaps a whole story cycle, or even a novel?

“Twa Sisters” was the first, and it came about as a kind of kooky convergence. On the one hand, my buddy Patty Templeton introduced me to the art of Alessandro Bavari, whose astonishing photo-manipulations contain a whole cosmos of post-human decadence. One the other hand, my great friend Nicole Kornher-Stace dared me to write a story the way I write a poem. She was thinking in terms of my use of language, but that’s not the only tool I use in poetry. I’ve written a lot of ekphrastic poetry, and I’ve written concrete poems that arrange words in shapes on the page to convey sci-fi concepts, in deliberate tribute to works by Alfred Bester and Harlan Ellison.

So I decided to write an ekphrastic story based on Bavari’s imagery, and added concrete poetry techniques to convey how the two entities that live inside my first person narrator’s brain have independent points of view. I challenged myself to just make up the story as I went rather than work from an outline, which for some reason led to that mock-noir tone. That established the atmosphere for all that follows. I began “Still Life With Skull” as a lark and finished it for Ian Whates’s Solaris Rising 2 anthology, drawing more inspiration from Bavari’s work. It was a fun exercise: I assumed those surreal images were photographs of real events, and then tried to deduce the who and the why.

I have actually drafted a third story in the sequence, called “The Three-fold Feather,” that will probably end up as a novelette once it’s all spit-polished. I can’t fathom where I’m going to sell that story, but that’s a problem for another day.

In addition to your short fiction, you’re also an award-winning poet, a novelist, and a newspaper columnist. Do you have separate compartments in your brain for each type of writing, or do they all flow into one another? When you need a break from writing all together, are there other creative (or non-creative) outlets you turn to in order to recharge your batteries?

The different types of writing do require some compartmentalization, but not as much as you might think. Stringing together the paragraphs of a news story and stanzas of a poem can be remarkably similar, for example. Often, both are non-linear in structure, and I’m writing them with a mind toward juxtaposing elements so they convey maximum information and impact. When I’m writing a story, I don’t concentrate near as much on cadence and quirky word choice as I do with a poem, and yet, if I had a dime for every response to my work that included some variant on “You can tell the dude’s a poet” … I’d have a nice pile of dimes, heh.

I’ve quite deliberately maneuvered things so that darn near everything I do in my life connects to writing in some way. I love hiking and I’m something of a movie snob, and that might well be about the sum of what there is to know regarding how I spend my time…

On a somewhat related note, you also edit Mythic Delirium, which in its current iteration is a magazine of prose and poetry, and the Clockwork Phoenix anthology series. Do you ever sleep? Or, to put it in a slightly more seriously, how do you balance all your projects? Does your editorial work influence your writing, or vice versa?

I didn’t graduate college with any ambitions to become an editor. In 1995 an acquaintance asked me to edit an anthology, claiming he would provide the funding. This turned out to be a lie, but I had already acquired all the stories and poems before I figured this out! I finished the project on my own dollar, and on the scale of what could be expected from a self-published, Kinko’s-copied, saddle-stapled book in that era, it was a success that actually opened some doors for me. That book , New Dominions, is long forgotten, but it showed me that I could pull off that kind of project. So I kept pursuing them.

How do I balance them? Quite poorly! I do sleep occasionally though.

My writing and editing do cross-pollinate, but it’s difficult to explain exactly how. As an editor, I get introduced to writers who are working well outside the mainstream (some of them I catch while they’re still on their way toward re-defining the mainstream). That’s great for me, in terms of discovering creative regions to explore that are new to me. As a writer myself, I know what my hopes are in terms of how an editor will treat my work, and so I use those as guidelines for how I approach editing. I think my tastes as an editor are significantly different from my tastes as a writer, though: more breadth of subject matter, more light to balance the darkness, fewer monsters and corpses.

At conventions, you have been known to roam the halls wearing a truly fabulous hat. It looks like the kind of hat with a story behind it. Is there a story, or is it the sort of thing where if you told me, you’d have to kill me?

Alas, the hat you reference has vanished into the aether! A natural outcome, I suppose, for a gift from a Goblin Queen (i.e. Amal El-Mohtar, co-editor of Goblin Fruit). My wife, Anita, must be given due credit for having added more and more decorations to that hat until it achieved extreme fabulousity — everything on it referenced something I had written. A replacement may be in the works.

I have no doubt that the new hat will be every bit as fabulous as its predecessor! Anyway, now that your second collection is out in the world, what are you working on next?

I am revising a novel, Trail of Shadows, that’s an expansion of one of my stories from Unseaming, “The Hiker’s Tale.” I’m also busy promoting my newest anthology, Clockwork Phoenix 5, which you know as you contributed an awesome story to its pages (he said with a grin).

Aww, shucks! You’re too kind. Thank you for stopping by!

Thanks for letting me do so!

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An Interview with A.M. Dellamonica

A.M. Dellamonica was kind enough to drop by my blog today to talk about her latest novel, A Daughter of No Nation (released today!), among other things. To get things started, as I frequently do, I will shamelessly steal her author bio by way of introduction…

A.M. Dellamonica moved to Toronto, Canada, in 2013, after 22 years in Vancouver. In addition to writing, she studies yoga and takes thousands of digital photographs. She is a graduate of Clarion West and teaches writing through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. Dellamonica’s first novel, Indigo Springs, won the Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic. Her most recent book, Child of a Hidden Sea, was released by Tor Books in the summer of 2014 and was a finalist on the Lambda Award ballot.

She is the author of more than thirty-five short stories in a variety of genres; they can be found on Tor.com, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and in numerous print magazines and anthologies.

ACW: Welcome! Congratulations on the publication of A Daughter of No Nation. Could you talk about the novel a bit and the Hidden Sea Tales Trilogy in general? Did you always plan for the books to be a trilogy, or did you find yourself coming to the end of the first book and realizing there was more of the story to tell?

AMD: I conceived of the Hidden Sea Tales as a trilogy from the start–or, really, “at least three.” The basic scheme was to create a world I could keep visiting from now until death, with an abundance of political and physical settings and cool photogenic wildlife and intriguing magic and pirates. Writing three to begin with was in some sense reining myself in… limiting the initial story to Sophie Hansa and her journey.

Except I didn’t, which is how I ended up writing The Gales. More on that soon.

ACW: I’m always curious about process and what goes on behind the scenes of an author’s work. After finishing Child of a Hidden Sea, did you jump straight into writing A Daughter of No Nation, or did you give yourself a break in-between to work on other things and recharge your batteries? Is there anything in particular you find easier or harder about writing the second book in a series as opposed to the first?

There was a bit of back and forth. Initially sent an outline of the story to my editor at Tor and tried to work on other things–they could have said no, after all–but then I couldn’t leave the world of Stormwrack alone. I’d made all these shiny things, after all! So I wrote some backstory on Gale Feliachild and Garland Parrish, which eventually turned into the first of the story cycle I call The Gales – “Among the Silvering Herd.” That gave me some insight into some things that happened in the first novel, and I couldn’t quite keep from writing another big chunk of that. Then I got to the part of Child of a Hidden Sea that takes place on Erinth, and I remembered I wasn’t “supposed” to be writing the novel yet, but I wanted to explore Erinth. And hey, that would help with the book anyway, right? So I wrote the next of the Gales, “The Ugly Woman of Castello di Putti.”

And then I simply couldn’t contain myself so I went back to CHS, until I found myself wanting to do some story development on the Fleet itself, so I wrote “The Glass Galago” (which’ll be out on tor.com in the not too distant) and then I worked on the book until everyone got to Tallon, at which point I stopped and wrote a story set there: “Losing Heart Among the Tall.” (ACW note: Losing Heart Among the Tall will also be published by Tor.com sometime in the future.)

It was something of a process of wallowing in my own splendid creation, and being thoroughly pleased with myself.

At some point, to make a long story long, I got to work on ADoNN. I don’t remember there being any kind of delay between books. The only thing that was really hard about the second book was that in writing it I used up most of the nifty plot turns I’d proposed to Tor for both books two and three. So the hardest work came when I then had to figure out the story within the third book, The Nature of a Pirate…

ACW: Did you have any trouble slipping back into your characters’ voices and their world? Were you ever constrained by something you’d written in the first book that closed off an avenue you suddenly found yourself wanting to explore in the second?

I have trouble slipping into specific pieces of the setting sometimes. That “should” voice of mine is pretty sure I ought to finish off the next of the Gales, “Island of the Giants,” but there’s some piece of that setting, the island Nysa, that is holding me at a distance.

ACW: Since we’re both Canadian, I feel the need to ask – do you think there are particular tones, themes, or subjects that make a piece of literature quintessentially Canadian? If so, do you ever consciously draw on them in your own work, or even consciously avoid them?

People tend to say Canadian SF is more engaged with the environment or landscapes that surround the characters. I’m not sure I entirely buy this–it sounds like a generalization–but it’s certainly true that the ecofantasy I write is very much about terrain: the mutated semi-enchanted, entirely-feral forest that erupts in Indigo Springs and Blue Magic when the magic gets loose, for example, and the microclimates of the Fleet of Nations in this new series.

ACW: On a somewhat related note, there seems to be quite a few excellent speculative fiction writers living in and around the Toronto area. Is there anything about Toronto that makes it such fertile ground for speculative fiction writing? In general, what are some of your favorite things about the city – bookstores, parks, museums, restaurants, must-see places you’d recommend to someone visiting for the first time?

AMD: I am still getting to know all of the amazing people who live and work here–it’s very exciting. (Though of course I miss all my Vancouver friends, writer and otherwise, too.)

Is Toronto especially fertile ground for speculative fiction? I suspect that the thing that makes it so is population density. I’m a big believer in the idea of a scenius, a critical mass of like-minded artists who essentially inspire and push each other, and I think that happens more in face to face contact than online. Toronto is the city where events like the ChiSeries readings happen monthly, which means that every 3-4 weeks there’s a gathering of writers. Those personal connections and the conversations that arise from them increase our productivity, help us plow through rough patches in the creative (and professional) process, and also add fun to what can sometimes seem like a solitary grind.

ACW: You have a background in theater, and you’re also an avid photographer. Do either play into your writing at all?

AMD: I have written theater stories, though in recent years more of those have been straight mystery-genre stuff than speculative fiction. Music–I used to sing–and dance come into my work quite a bit too. As for photography, I write about it all the time, and Sophie Hansa, the main character in the current trilogy, is a marine videographer as well as a biologist. She’s a modern woman from San Francisco running around a Narnia-Galapagos mash-up, with a single tank of oxygen and a camera, in other words.

ACW: Finally, aside from the third book in the Hidden Sea Tales trilogy, what else are you working on or do you have coming up that you want people to know about?

AMD: As I write this, I’m prepping The Nature of a Pirate for submission to my editor at Tor, and I really cannot see past that. I have a few ideas about what my next project will be, but finishing Sophie’s story is like a huge wall, blocking out everything. It’s an unfamiliar sensation–it seems weird. I do have an arc for the Gale and Garland stories, which I call “The Gales” in my head, and Should Voice says I ought to finish “Island of the Giants” and then write two more novelettes in that timeline, preferably one of which would feature Sophie’s birth father. But these are just the haziest fumblings toward the future; I’m not really sure where I’m going next.

ACW: Thanks for stopping by!

AMD: Thank you for having me!

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An Interview with Marlee Jane Ward

Marlee Jane Ward was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her new novella, Welcome to Orphancorp. I’ll start things off, as I tend to do, by shamelessly stealing from her author bio…

Marlee Jane Ward is a writer, reader and weirdo living in Melbourne, Australia. She grew up in a small town on the Central Coast of New South Wales and studied Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong. In 2014 she attended the Clarion West Writers Workshop in Seattle, Washington. She has short stories in Interfictions, Hear Me Roar and Mad Scentist Journal. Her debut novella, Welcome to Orphancorp, won Seizure’s Viva La Novella 2015 and was published in August. She likes dreaming of the future, cats, and making an utter spectacle of herself.

OrphancorpWelcome! First off, congratulations on the publication of the novella, and congratulations on winning the Viva La Novella Prize. Without giving too much away, can you give readers a little taste of what to expect with Welcome to Orphancorp?

Welcome to Orphancorp is a novella-length dystopian riff about the indomitable Mirii Mahoney’s last week in an industrial orphanage. If she can just keep outta trouble, she’s going to taste freedom for the first time, but she’s fighting against the system, against the other kids, and against herself. It’s a heartfelt, emotional, funny, and diverse story.

Novellas are a tricky length to write. Authors often shy away from it as there aren’t that many publishers willing to take them on, and some readers might avoid them as too long to read in a single sitting, but too short to sink their teeth into in the same way as a novel. What appeals to you about writing novella-length work? Did you always plan for this to be a novella, or did it simply grow beyond the confines of a short story?

It started as a short story at Clarion West, written during Kij Johnson’s week, pretty much entirely just to impress her because she’s so rad and amazing. During the workshop session, she mentioned that it could be extended to novella-length.

When I got back home I found Seizure’s Viva La Novella competition and wrote the extended version in six weeks (and edited it in two) to meet the deadline. It was the longest thing I’d ever written at that point, but because I had the base short story, it was actually kind of easy. If it didn’t win the competition, I had no idea what I was going to do with it, maybe self-publish? But it did, so I was lucky I didn’t have to think about it.

Novella-length appeals to me for a bunch of reasons. One is that I’ve always focused on short stories, which involves paring a story back to its bare bones. Going the other way is a huge stretch for me, but something I need to do. A novella allowed me to work up to getting longer. I also really like that a person can read a novella in one long, or a few short sittings. It’s an immersive way to read.

The Orphancorp world seems like one that’s ripe for additional stories. Do you plan to revisit the world?

I’m writing the sequel now. I’m not finding it as easy. Because WTO is a story about leaving Orphancorp, I’m able to now jump out into the wider world. But the confines of the corp made it easy to tell the story. Outside of it, anything can happen, so I’m struggling a little, just like Mirii would be with taking the next steps of her life and into adulthood. That is a really fraught time for a lot of people – well, it was for me, and it’s been a scramble to get my thoughts sorted, and try to work out all the things I want to say. Right now it’s half-done and already as long as the original. I have a third book planned too, but that’s still hazy in my brain. I think it will solidify more when the second book is finished.

The first story of yours I encountered was, The Walking Thing, published at Interfictions. As I read it, it struck me as a perfect anti-zombie zombie story, inverting and subverting the idea of the walking dead. Was that at all in your mind as you wrote the story? What inspired the story in general?

I love Zombie movies, as well as movies and books about plagues. I read Stephen King’s The Stand at a very early age and the first part of that book really stuck with me. I’d always wanted to write a plague story and I didn’t think much about inverting the whole epidemic/zombie genre until I’d already written the first draft, which is what happens a lot when I write – yay for my subconscious! I love walking – bushwalks and trails, that sort of thing, and when I’m on a long walk I get this weird sense that I’m doing something my body is designed to do, something very primal, so I wondered what it might be like to have that compulsion turn on you.

I also wanted to capture the feel of small towns, one of which I grew up in. Small-town Australia is a very interesting and rough and amazing and scary place that really challenged me as a child and teenager. I wasn’t sure if it would translate well to a US market, but maybe small towns have a kinship, no matter where they are.

Lastly, I really wanted to explore a lot of the issues I had with relationships at that age, both familial and others. I tried really hard to convey that need to learn to stop caring about the people who don’t care about you, and recognizing the relationships that actually matter, which is something that gets very muddied when you are coming of age. So I just mashed all that together and The Walking Thing happened.

You attended the Clarion Writers Workshop last year. Could you talk a bit about that experience? What would you say to someone who might be considering attending? What was the most unexpected thing about Clarion?

Clarion West was one of the best times of my life. It’s so hard to accurately describe just how wonderful that experience was, and what it did for my writing and my life. It was intense, and I was very afraid that I might crumble. I had this intense fear as it was getting closer that they might find out what a nutcase I was and not let me come! At the time I was in a difficult place, mentally. But it was such a balm, the people were so wonderful and I loved them and they loved me. It made believe in my ability as a writer and my value as a person. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.

I would recommend that anyone who is thinking about attending should try, and if they get in, make the most of it. Work as hard as you can and don’t waste the precious time you have there, because you’ll never be as productive again. But also, stay up every night playing games, go to all the parties, eat everything, make out with as many people as you can. Maybe don’t drink as much as I did though – unless you are Australian and can handle it.

As for the most unexpected part? It was all a surprise to me. But I think I was most surprised at how quickly so many people from so many different backgrounds bonded and how much I just adored everyone.

Outside of a workshop where you’re intensively writing on a tight deadline, do you have a preferred working method? Do you outline? Wing it? Is there a particular place you like to get your writing done?

I am the worst writer – I plan nothing, have no idea how I get my ideas, and don’t know what I’m doing most of the time, but somehow I make it work. I think that my subconscious does a great deal of puzzling stuff out while I’m thinking of other things, so I’m often pleasantly surprised and I’m learning to trust that more as time goes on. I think people just need to accept that they write the way they write and not compare themselves to others, even though that’s really hard. I berate myself constantly for not being more efficient or having more forethought, but I get stuff done, so maybe I should go easier on myself.

I do like writing in café’s most of all. I adore café culture and I’m always spending far too much money on coffee and food, but it’s the best place for me to get things done. The best cafes must have good wifi and powerpoints by the tables, and it helps that at my favourites the staff all know me and have my order ready to go when I show up.

I like to ask this question of my fellow Canadians, but I see no reason why I shouldn’t ask you as well… As an Australian, do you think there are certain characteristics – setting, theme, tone – to Australian speculative fiction that set it apart from other speculative fiction? (Or Australian writing in general, it doesn’t have to be speculative fiction.)

I don’t know if I’d say that Aussie spec fic has a distinct tone or theme, but there’s often a really distinct sense of place to it, which I would love to be able to capture in more of my work. The land and environment is pervasive in Australian fiction because it’s a really essential part of living here. When you write about Australia, the landscape is as much a part of the story as any character. There’s a kinship with the land that a lot of Aussie writers capture, and an ominousness too. I’ve lived through floods and bushfires and dust storms and that’s just from someone with a pretty tame experience of this country.

I’m really keen to read more Oz spec stuff. I’m about to jump into Justin Wooley’s A Town Called Dust, which has a very cool concept. Jane Rawson’s A Wrong Turn at The Office of Unmade Lists is an excellent novel about post-climate-change Melbourne. I love seeing places I know rendered in fiction. It just gives me an extra connection to it.

The Australian writing scene is very lit focused. So much so that when I began my creative writing degree we were told that genre fiction would not be accepted. It feels like there’s this great divide between the lit and the genre camps. I’ve always loved genre because I love action and because the real world is always all around us all the time, so I like to escape.

While I was growing up in the 90’s there was a lot of great Aussie YA spec fic coming out, from writers like Gillian Rubenstein, Isobelle Carmody, Victor Kelleher, Paul Jennings and John Marsden that I adored, and I’ve kept those books close to my heart. I scour second-hand bookstores for my old YA favourites and am getting a good collection of them again.

What else are you working on, or do you have coming up you’d like people to know about?

I’m still plugging away at the sequel to Welcome To Orphancorp and I hope to be done before the end of the year. In between I work on whatever short story comes to mind, which is like a quick and illicit encounter away from my main squeeze, you know? I’ve got a bunch of shorts second-rounded and accepted so I’m excited to find out if any of them might be available soon.

Thanks for stopping by!

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