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An Interview with Ellen Klages

Ellen Klages was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her new short story collection, Wicked Wonders, out now from Tachyon Publication. As always, I’ll start things off making introductions by shamelessly stealing from Ellen’s author bio…

ELLEN KLAGES is the author of two acclaimed historical novels: The Green Glass Sea, which won the Scott O’Dell Award, and the New Mexico Book Award; and White Sands, Red Menace, which won the California and New Mexico Book awards. Her story, “Basement Magic,” won a Nebula Award and  “Wakulla Springs,” co-authored with Andy Duncan, was nominated for the Nebula, Hugo, and Locus awards, and won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novella. Her most recent books are Passing Strange (tor.com, 2017), a queer/noir/pulp novella set in San Francisco in 1940; and Wicked Wonders (Tachyon, 2017), her second collection of short fiction. Ellen lives in San Francisco, in a small house full of strange and wondrous things.

Wicked WondersCongratulations on the publication of Wicked Wonders! Can you give readers a taste of the type of stories they’ll find in its pages?

It’s a stew. The stories are a mixture of straight out science fiction, fantasy, some mainstream, and one non-fiction piece. Most of the stories in the collection have one foot in the fantastic, and one in the mainstream world.

What was your process like for putting the collection together? Were you going for a certain theme or tone with the stories you selected, or any overarching thesis?

Wicked Wonders contains every short story I’ve written from the last ten years, with the exception of Wakulla Springs, co-written with Andy Duncan. In speaking with my editor for the collection, we decided since it was a two-author story, and almost twice as long as anything already in the book, it would be best left out. The collection does include one new story, which is the longest and the last in the book.

You’ve written novels, but much of your writing seems focused on short fiction. Do you have a preference for one form over another? How does your writing process differ between the two lengths?

I love short fiction, but I also love the novels I’ve written. I’ve written two novellas as well, which is a lovely length. Short fiction is my first love however. There’s an essay in Wicked Wonders which explains my writing process, and my frustration before I’d written any novels with constantly being asked “when are you going to write a novel”, as if it’s a natural progression from short fiction. My process for the two lengths is roughly the same, though a novel takes longer, but I treat each novel chapter like a short story.

Everyone’s writing process is different, and I wouldn’t recommend mine to anyone else. It’s messy, but in the end, the important thing is whether it works for readers. On the other side of that, if I’m not happy with a story, I assume no one else will be. If I’m happy with the result, I figure at least half of the readers will like it. With Wicked Wonders, almost every reviewer differs on their favorite story in the collection, which is a good thing. It means I ended up with a balanced collection, and something to appeal to everyone.

I wanted to ask about your novella, Passing Strange, which I adored. I love the way your home city of San Francisco is another character in the novella. What kind of research did you do to capture the history of the city and the feel of the 1940s? What drew you to setting the story in that particular era?

I started writing Passing Strange in 1977. I was just out of college, and I’d just moved to San Francisco. I was completely and totally smitten with the city and all its layers. It’s a romantic city, not in the lovey-dovey sense, but in the sense of old film noir movies. I originally wrote four scenes with Emily and Haskel on a typewriter, and I kept adding more over the years. I also did a lot of research in 1977, which I kept it all in a file folder and added to over the years. Then I did an additional four to five months of research in 2015 before I started writing the novella.

In order to capture a sense of the historic setting, I used a combination of things, including View Master images and old photographs of the World’s Fair, Google Maps to show me what it would look like sitting on the Greenwich Steps and looking toward Treasure Island, and library books. I also walked around in the present day locales and took photographs and compared them to the old images. Google is immensely useful for visualizing a setting, and for little details like knowing what the top song was in a particular year. If you do your research well as an author, it’s like giving your readers a backstage tour of history. Of course, as with most research, I only ended up using about 2% of what I gathered for Passing Strange.

To me, research is the most fun part of the writing process, but also the trickiest. I want people to feel like they’ve been to San Francisco in the 1940s without overwhelming them with details. Having a hard upper word limit on the novella helped me strike that balance. The original draft was about 46,000 words, which I winnowed down. As a result, I think Passing Strange is the best thing I’ve ever written. Everything is distilled down to its essence, and there’s nothing extraneous.

However, if people do want to know more about the world of the novella, Wicked Wonders contains two stories featuring the characters and settings of Passing Strange.

On a related note, San Francisco strikes me as the ideal setting for speculative story telling. As a resident, are there any especially fantastical elements to the city that inspire you? Overall, do have favorite places to visit to recharge your writing batteries, or places you’d recommend to first time visitors?

I don’t think there’s anything that’s not fantastical about San Francisco! I love looking out my window at the old buildings and the landscape. I grew up in Ohio, which is very flat. In San Francisco, everywhere you go there’s a view of the water, or the sky, or colorful buildings. You don’t get views like that in flat cities. Also the food in San Francisco is really good. The first thing I like to do with visitors is find a good place to eat. Then I like to drive them around to things they wouldn’t see elsewhere, like a unique view of the ocean, or a little alleyway with one building that survived the great 1906 earthquake.

When my editor, Jonathan Strahan, visited San Francisco, I gave him the Passing Strange tour. Treasure Island is a naval base now, but I showed him where it was, and pointed out Haskel’s studio, and the house I based Franny’s house on. I even took him to the bakery to get raspberry rings. For those who can’t visit San Francisco in person, I put together a kind of virtual tour based on my research, which is available on YouTube.

A lot of my fiction, probably most of my fiction, involves real things and real places with my imaginary friends walking around in it.

One of my favorite questions to ask authors is about their non-writing related work. Authors are notorious for working strange jobs, for example J.D. Salinger’s stint as the entertainment director on a luxury cruise line. What’s the most unusual job you’ve ever had, and did it inspire any stories or teach you anything you’ve used in your writing?

I have a degree in Philosophy, so when I got out of college, I looked in the Want Ads under P, and there were no jobs in Philosophy. But I did manage a pinball arcade, worked as a proofreader, and as a painter. Most jobs I’ve had involved writing of some kind, including working for the Exploratorium Museum of Science, Art, and Human Perception. It was the best job I ever had, and it led to me writing three science books for kids. My boss at the Exploratorium also happened to be science fiction author Pat Murphy. When I was thirteen, I was certain I was going to be the youngest Pulitzer Prize winning novelist. That didn’t happen. In college, I wrote stories, sent them out, got rejected, and started to doubt myself, but Pat encouraged me to keep writing, and keep trying, and keep sending my stories out into the world.

Now that Wicked Wonders is out in the world, what’s next for you? Any upcoming projects you want folks to know about?

I’m currently working on a middle grade novel called Out of Left Field, which is set in 1957 and is about a girl who wants to play Little League. It’s an examination of the history of women in baseball, which is largely unknown to most people, outside of A League of Their Own. It’s due out in summer 2018. A few characters from Passing Strange and from my first novel, Green Glass Sea, make an appearance. I think it’s nice when all my imaginary friends know each other.

Thanks so much for stopping by!

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An Interview with Angela Slatter

Angela Slatter was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her new novel, Corpselight, the sequel to Vigil, which will be published this July. To get things started, I’ll make introductions by shamelessly stealing from Angela’s author bio…

Specialising in dark fantasy and horror, Angela Slatter is the author of The Girl with No Hands and Other Tales, Sourdough and Other Stories, the Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings, Winter Children and Other Chilly Tales, A Feast of Sorrows: Stories and Black-Winged Angels, as well as Midnight and Moonshine and The Female Factory (both with Lisa L. Hannett). She has won a World Fantasy Award, a British Fantasy Award, a Ditmar, and five Aurealis Awards, as well as being a finalist for the Norma K. Hemming Award.

CorpselightWelcome, Angela, and congratulations on the upcoming publication of Corpselight. For those who may not be familiar, and without giving too much away, what can you tell readers about Corpselight and the series as a whole?

Thanks for having me over! Corpselight is the second book in the Verity Fassbinder series, which is an urban fantasy trilogy set in Brisbane, Australia. It’s a mix of fantasy and crime and a bit of kitchen sink drama that follows the investigator for the Weyrd Council, Verity Fassbinder, who tries to keep the Normal and Weyrd worlds from clashing, assisted (sometimes ably, sometimes not so much) by her ex-Bela and her colleague Ziggy Hassman. Vigil introduced us to Verity and her life, battling garbage golems, rebel angels, a witch who made wine from the tears of children, arguing with grumpy sirens and an even grumpier police inspector, and generally eating a lot of cake.

In addition to your novels, you’re also a prolific short story writer, and you’ve written novellas as well. Do you have a different process for short fiction versus long fiction? Does one come more naturally to you, or are you equally comfortable with both?

The basic rule for short stories is: CUT BACK! The basic rule for novels is: ADD MORE WORDS! The basic rule for the novella is: JUST FIND A HAPPY MEDIUM!

Learning the difference between writing the three forms was a challenge. I started as a short story writer and I hone the editing skills needed to make something nice and short and tight. Then I started to work on novels and OMG there were so many more words required. So, my secret now is planning the structure, knowing what points I need to hit, so I work things out on a spreadsheet, and set minimum chapter word counts for novellas and novels – that helps keep me on track.

Short stories are a lot more free form for me, but I keep a basic three act structure in mind. The first draft is always ugly, ugly brain-vomit. The editing process is when I tidy things up and impose a more solid structure over the top. And yes, it does take a mindset readjustment every time I start a new project. Initially I’d have said the short story comes more naturally, but this far down the track I’m kind of used to both now.

On a somewhat related note, you’ve also co-written work with Lisa L. Hannett. What was the collaborative process like between you?

We’ve written a short story (“The February Dragon”), and two collections (“Midnight and Moonshine” and “The Female Factory”). At first we brainstorm what we think the story/collection is about, then we do some overall very loose plotting. When it comes to something like the collections, we generally start at the beginning (i.e. the first story) and if one of us has a particular spark of an idea, then she starts that story, writes until the brain is empty (generally a chunk of about 2000-2500 words), then sends it back to the other. Then that one reads and edits what’s there, then writes another chunk of new words, then sends it back; so it’s a process of back and forth, editing and new writing until the story is finished, then we go onto the next story in the collection. When all the stories are done, then we do a mega edit to check on overarching storylines, etc, to make sure everything is moving towards the same big story conclusion. By that time there’s basically voice that sounds like neither of us, but also both of us.

At this point in your career, you’re a multiple award winner and nominee, but do you remember how you learned about your first ever award nomination, and what you did to celebrate?

I *think* it was for “Dresses, Three” (Shimmer Art Issue, edited by Mary Robinette Kowal – Hello, Mary!). I suspect I was at work, and as I worked in the Creative Writing School at QUT, so I think my MA supervisor might have shouted it down the corridor. It was exciting, it was my first nomination and I’d only been publishing for a year, I think.

There’s a question I like to ask my fellow Canadian authors, but I’ll ask it to you as an Australian author. Do you think there’s a particular national flavor to Australia speculative fiction? A common set of themes, or a certain voice that makes something especially Australian? If so, do you think it has an influence on your own writing?

Well, as I co-write with a Canadian and can put away vast amounts of salmon, I’m given to understand I’m practically Canadian! Just joking, sorry, Canada – I’m just truly envious of your Prime Minister (I mean, seriously, have you seen ours???)

Wait, what was the question? I think the answer is yes and no – it depends on what you’re writing. I think if it’s dystopian spec-fic or urban fantasy, then yes, there’s a definite Australian flavour to it: if you’re reading anything by Cat Sparks or Thoraiya Dyer or Robert Hood or Sean Williams or Kaaron Warren (to name but a few), then you will absolutely notice something uniquely Australian about it (a lot of that stems from how much we use climate and landscape in our fiction, what with our box seat for the oncoming apocalypse). If you’re reading authors like Karen Miller or Karen Brooks or Sara Douglass or Rjurik Davidson, the epic-y fantasy writers, then it probably doesn’t come through quite as much because that kind of fantasy relies heavily on a faux medieval kind of feel – and we really didn’t have a Middle Ages in Oz.

You run your own interview series on your blog. Do you have a favorite question to ask authors, and if so, how would you answer it yourself?

I think the one that gets me in trouble most is telling people they have to choose only five books to take to a desert island. I would take: Jane Gaskell’s Atlan; Tanith Lee’s Night’s Master; Margo Lanagan’s Black Juice; John Connolly’s Dark Hollow; and Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber.

Personally, one of my favorite questions to ask authors is about their non-writing related work. Authors are notorious for working strange jobs, for example J.D. Salinger’s stint as the entertainment director on a luxury cruise line. What’s the most unusual job you’ve ever had, and did it inspire any stories or teach you anything you’ve used in your writing?

Oh, wow. I’ve been a full-time freelancer since 2011, and before then I worked at the Queensland Writers Centre for 3 years, and before that 3 years at the Creative Writing School, so I’ve kind of been in writing and publishing for a long while! My high school job was as a check-out chick at a supermarket, so I guess that taught me a lot about the creative ways people will try to shoplift – haven’t used that in a story yet!

Now that Corpselight is out in the world, what’s next for you? Is there anything in particular you have upcoming that you’d like folks to know about?

Corpselight! Then I’m working on the third and final Verity book. Then I’ll be working on turning The Briar Book of the Dead from a novella to a novel and selling it (it’s set in the world of the Sourdough and Bitterwood collections). Then I want to finish off the Scandalous Lady Detective novel. And then, and then, and then!

Thanks for stopping by!

Thanks so much for letting me come and play!

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An Interview with Sarah Gailey

Sarah Gailey was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her new novella, River of Teeth, which is forthcoming from Tor. As always, I’ll start things off making introductions by shamelessly stealing from Sarah’s author bio…

Sarah Gailey is a Bay Area native and an unabashed bibliophile, living and working in beautiful Oakland, California. She enjoys painting, baking, vulgar embroidery, and writing stories about murder and monsters. Her fiction been published internationally; her most recent credits include Mothership Zeta, Fireside Fiction, the Colored Lens, and the Speculative Bookshop Anthology. Her nonfiction has been published by Mashable, Tor.com, and the Boston Globe. You can find links to her work at www.sarahgailey.com. She tweets about dogs and makes dad jokes @gaileyfrey.

Congratulations on the publication of your novella! Without giving too much away, what can you tell us about River of Teeth?

River of TeethRiver of Teeth is a the first book in a duology about hippos and the cowboys who love them. In River of Teeth, a team of hoppers (that’s the cowboys who ride hippos, if you weren’t aware) are hired by the federal government to rid the Mississippi River of an infestation of feral hippos. They’re up against a cold-blooded riverboat kingpin and a brace of bloodthirsty ferals who have developed a taste for human flesh.

Without giving away the plot, I can tell you about The Crew! Winslow Remington Houndstooth, The Brains, is a handsome Brit with a thirst for vengeance and an eye for lovely things (“things” ranging from clothes to knives to, ahem. Romantic conquests). Regina “Archie” Archambault, The Con, is a fat frenchwoman who is more than prepared to seduce your wallet right out of your pocket. Adelia Reyes, The Assassin, is a cool and collected woman who knows a thousand ways to kill a man and would like very much to use all of them on the next person who gets into her personal space. Hero Shackleby, The Tech, has come out of retirement for one last job, and they’re hoping that their explosives expertise and poisoning skills will make this gig run smoothly enough to sail them right back into retirement. Bringing up the rear is Calhoun Hotchkiss, the river rat — he knows the Mississippi like the back of his hand, but frankly, he’s in over his head.

I adore the idea of feral hippos in the Louisiana bayou, and the people who wrangle them – I have to ask, where did the seed of this fantastic concept originate?

This is a real thing that almost happened! In the early 1900’s, our country was going through a “meat crisis” — there wasn’t enough meat to feed our growing population. A guy named Robert Broussard proposed that we import hippos for meat: they’d eat the invasive water hyacinth that was choking off the Mississippi, we’d eat the hippos, everybody wins. (Well. Except the hippos. They don’t win). I knew that I wanted to write an ensemble cast — a heist-ish narrative — and the hippo plan was a perfect fit!

Given that this is alternate history, how much research did you have to do to make the world feel accurate? Is there anything you included that actually did happen that people are bound to think you made up? Are there any fun facts, historical or otherwise, that you learned but just couldn’t fit into the book?

I cheated a little bit with River of Teeth by pushing the whole narrative back by 50 years. I wanted to have cowboys riding my hippos, and I figured that if readers could deal with hippos in the waterways of the Mississippi, they could also handle cowboys.

That said, one of my favorite parts of writing River of Teeth was the research. I had to do a good amount of looking into types of knives and explosives that would have been used at that time. I think that readers will be skeptical of the explosives that are used in the book, but I can tell them with absolute certainty that they were around in the 1890’s!

I’d like to talk about Archie for a bit. She’s fat, and you were quite firm that she be shown as such, and not slimmed down or thin-washed for publication. Could you talk a bit about her, and why fat representation is important to you?

I will warn readers now: Archie is the best. Everyone who has read this book has got a crush on her, and you will too.

First, let me say: I have been so pleased with the amount of pushback I got from Tor.com on having a fat character in my book and on the book’s cover. That amount of pushback was absolutely zero. That said, going into conversations around publication, I was very explicit about having her on the cover as a fat woman.

My attitude toward Archie’s representation stems from the same place as my attitude toward the rest of the cast, which is diverse along several intersections. A lot of people who I know and love (and, obviously, a lot more people who I don’t know) have spoken publicly and privately about the pain and frustration that they feel when they see themselves misrepresented or unrepresented in stories and media. My friends who are fat frequently see themselves represented in harmful ways — or, they see themselves erased altogether. When I think of them reading my book, I don’t want them to read something that hurts them or makes them feel unseen. So, the answer to “why is X representation important to me” is really… I don’t want to harm people. While I’m not the right person to tell a story about what it’s like to be fat (or to experience any other oppression that’s not personally mine), I can put a fat character in my book, and I can sure as hell put in the time and effort to make sure her story isn’t a hurtful one.

Shifting gears a bit, I’d like to ask about your wonderful Women of Harry Potter series at Tor.com. Obviously you’re a fan, but how did the essay series come about? How do you feel about the movie depictions of your favorite female characters versus the way they’re written in the books? Are there nuances you feel my have been lost from page to screen, and conversely, were there any places you felt the movies improved upon the written work?

Oh man, that series was so much fun! I went in knowing that I wanted to write about women for Tor.com, and they specifically focus on SFF. I wrote the Hermione essay right after my Defense of Villainesses, and it felt so right to explore this character who I think often gets short shrift in the narrative of the book. I asked my editor how she would feel about me exploring some of the other women in the series, and she was totally on board. As I wrote the series, I started to understand some of what I think J.K. Rowling was trying to do with the female characters that she wrote. Many of them are fierce, courageous, and principled, and they have an enormous impact on the story. They fight for what’s right, and they fight against tyranny, and I think the movie depictions lose a lot, partly due to ~*Hollywood*~ and partly due to time constraints. For instance, I think that we lose out on Hermione’s awkward adolescence in the movies (largely because Emma Watson is just unrelentingly beautiful). Rowling makes a point of telling the reader over and over again that Hermione is not pretty, and furthermore, that she’s sometimes really bothered by that. I loved reading that, because so often we either get an ugly girl who is obsessed with becoming beautiful, or who doesn’t care about or notice her looks at all. Hermione, on the other hand, was written as a pretty well-fleshed-out adolescent girl who is unsatisfied with how she looks and occasionally makes attempts to change how she looks, but who isn’t constantly focused on her appearance.

Conversely, I think the movies did a much better job with Umbridge than the books did. Rowling has a lot of problematic narratives, and the fatphobic lens through which she wrote Umbridge is one of them. I think the films handled her characterization better than the books did, by making her evil unconnected to any physical characteristic, and by eliding the focus that Rowling placed on her body composition as a sign of her villainy.

Now that River of Teeth is out in the world, what’s next for you? Is there anything in particular you want folks to know about that you have upcoming or that you’re working on?

Right now I’m working on the sequel to River of Teeth, which is called Taste of Marrow. I can’t tell you much about it without spoiling the first book, but I can tell you this: there’s a kidnapping, some blood, a lot of fighting, several great outfits, and a lot of kissing. You won’t want to miss it.
Other stuff I’m working on: an unrelated novel which is not about hippos at all. Also, keep an eye on Tor.com for my upcoming essay series on iconic costumes of SFF!

Both of those sound fantastic. I can’t wait to read them. Thanks so much for stopping by!

Thank you so much for having me!

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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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