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Interview 11-09-2008

Page history last edited by Cleolinda 13 years, 2 months ago


An interview I wanted to archive here--done with a reader on LJ for a school assignment.



When were you first interested in writing?


My mother always read to me when I was a child, even if it was just picture books to begin with, and I just always wanted to be the person who wrote those books. I was drawing really silly little picture books (she’d put each one together like a book for me in three-brad folders) before I could write words, and by the time I was in first grade, the school was taking kids who were interested to the Young Authors Conference each year. I think I went to those each year until I was out of elementary school. And the teachers at school, too, would get cardboard and contact shelf paper and help us bind stories into “books,” which we would then take to the conference. The one I took in first grade was about monsters living in the forsythia bushes in my backyard, I think.


What had interested you about writing back then and what interests you about it now?


There was never really a time when I didn’t want to write, so it’s hard to identify a point of becoming interested. I guess I just always wanted to be the one telling the story. It was just something I couldn’t not do. It’s hard to say. Although I wrote about talking animals a lot. I was really interested in that, for some reason.


As I got older, I got really interested in how you create certain effects—gaining more control over how the story affected the reader, maybe. Maybe it’s what they call “craft,” I don’t know. I got very interested in opening lines and final lines, alliteration, rhythm, pacing, suspense, character/narrator voice. And part of that was learning to tone my writing down; I went through one of those really florid periods, like a lot of teenagers do, where everything is very lyrical and overwrought. I wrote a lot of angsty poems about purple seas of rage, that kind of thing.


I think that might have been good training—studying various effects, I mean, not the awful poems—for trying to write humor. You start to look at how and why certain things work and certain things don’t, and there’s a certain sense of pure mechanics with humor. The buildup, the punchline, the rhythm; not dragging it out too long, not repeating yourself too much, figuring out what makes people laugh. Although that’s still very much a learning process for me.


How did it feel to get published the first time?


It was kind of horrible, actually. I was eight years old and in—second grade? Third grade? I want to say third grade. I was in an extra “talent pool” class for gifted kids—we were kind of arbitrarily picked out for it—and the talent pool teacher (who I loved) submitted a story I’d written to a student/teacher magazine. Actually, the story was kind of like that show The Amazing Race now, just with… talking animals. And since it was based on a dream I’d had, the story had kind of a strange matter-of-fact tone to it, like, you know, of course talking animals would be in a race around the world riding down waterfalls and flying on planes and flagging down cabs. Well, the editors of the magazine took it upon themselves to completely rewrite my story, and the worst part was, they completely didn’t understand the tone at all—they rewrote it so that everyone in the story was very surprised to see the talking animals, and the animals being just part of the world and taken for granted was very much part of the story, in my mind. When my teacher gave me the magazine and I realized what they’d done, that it barely even looked like what I’d written on a sentence-by-sentence level, I went home and cried for about three hours straight.


How did it feel to publish your first book? and can you tell us how it came about?


It was just about the most random thing in the world, for real. I wrote Van Helsing in Fifteen Minutes for fun back in 2004 (May 9th), and it blew up into this huge thing that everyone linked. It took me completely by surprise. I’d never written anything like that before; my LiveJournal was only about six months old at that point. I think I wrote another one or two, movies that were airing on TV or something (I forget the exact order everything was written in), and then I posted Troy in Fifteen Minutes on May 16th. I think that was a… Friday? By the following Thursday, I had a book deal. Someone had sent the Troy link to an editor with Orion, the British publishing house, and he asked if I’d like to do a whole book of movie parodies. I freaked out and emailed the writing professor I had in grad school at the time, and he told me to get an agent to walk me through the contract process, and where to look online to find some listings, and so the next day I basically cold-called (well, it was a letter, actually) an agent who specialized in the genres I was writing. It’s pretty easy to get an agent, really, when your letter basically says, “Please help, I have a deal already, I don’t know what to do,” so by Monday she’d called me on the phone and we were on our way. By July, we’d worked all of that out and discussed the structure of the book, which movies to do and all, and I started writing.


I think I turned in the manuscript like June 1st of the next year—end of May, beginning of June?—and I’ll be honest, that was one of the most nerve-wracking periods of my life. I don’t know if it was so hard because I was writing humor (which is either funny or it isn’t, and you know it. It’s not like a novel, where you can just throw anything out there on the first couple of drafts until you figure out what you’re doing with it) or what. I’d always seen myself as a Very Serious Novelist-type writer growing up; I like writing humor, and I’d written a couple of comic essays in high school, I always had a little humor running through anything “serious” that I wrote anyway, but… as of April 2004, I didn’t think of myself as a “humor writer” at all. Suddenly, in May 2004, everyone decided that I was. I just about had a nervous breakdown trying to write this book that wasn’t like anything I’d ever thought I would write; you can go back and read my LJ entries from the winter/spring of 2005, where I’m all but rocking back and forth, twitching with anxiety—which is to answer your question about how it felt: the writing of it was fun and exciting but very, very scary.


After it was published—I knew that it wasn’t going to be all that big a deal when it came out. It would be nice to have a book published, particularly in the sense of having an introduction to the industry, and I’d have a little money to buy a new computer and pay for a graduate class with. But I think part of me thought it might suddenly be a huge hit, because so many things you’d never expect, particularly on the internet or related to it, just randomly become huge. And of course, it didn’t. So there was a lot of mental adjustment to make after it came out—“You knew intellectually that this wasn’t going to change anything, and it really didn’t. Time to get back to work.”


I’d probably sum it up as a learning experience, really-truly. People say that when they really mean that they want to write something off as a wash, but I mean it: I missed deadlines and the world didn’t end. I will always need more time to write something than I think I do. I don’t work well under pressure. I create a lot of pressure for myself that doesn’t really exist. Most reviews disliked the book and yet somehow life went on. The important thing is that I set out to write something and I finished it, and I heard from a lot of people that it made them smile or laugh or have a better day than they’d started out with. I try to make sure that that’s what really matters to me, and I know all of this now.


What and who are the influences and inspirations to your writing?


I still think of myself as having two kinds of writing—the humor/blog writing and the Serious Novel Writing, although it’s a lot less Serious now—so there’s probably two different sets of influences there. I think both Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Dennis Miller’s show on HBO in the—late ‘90s?—were big influences on the way I write humor. They were both throwing 1) a constant barrage jokes and 2) cultural or historical references out there, and no one was bound to laugh at everything, but everyone was bound to laugh at something. And you got both a sense of pop-culture cross-referencing and a certain trust in the audience—you know, trusting that if you throw something out there, they’re smart enough to get it. Not everyone gets everything, but again, that’s where the constant stream of jokes works out for you. It doesn’t have to be banana peels and fart jokes; you really can trust your audience’s intelligence.


As for the Serious Novel Writing—I read a lot of Louisa May Alcott and L.M. Montgomery and Madeleine L’Engle and C.S. Lewis (probably where my love of talking animals came from) as a kid. Jane Eyre and Dracula and Sherlock Holmes stories were my favorites when I was in my early teens—I always had a thing for the Victorian era—and E.M. Forster and The Scarlet Letter and Madame Bovary were my favorite in high school (the latter two probably taught me a lot about symbolism, now that I think about it; Forster was more about a certain kind of emotional realism for me). Nabokov’s Lolita was a huge influence on me when I was in late high school and college—probably a bad influence, really, because I spent way too much time on the verbal gingerbread and not on actually telling a story. I loved Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient then too, but I think it had a similar effect.


I started trying to get back to a more basic style after that—the fact that I had started reading more children’s/YA lit towards the end of college probably had a lot to do with that, because I realized that I enjoyed reading JK Rowling and Philip Pullman and Lemony Snicket a lot more than I did “serious,” overly-lyrical novels about people feeling alienated but not really doing anything. And Stephen King—I’ve always loved his short stories, ever since I was in my early teens, and the few short stories I’ve finished are probably very much in that vein; I tend to go spooky, if not actually into “horror,” for those. The thing I really learned from him, though, and I think I’ve carried this over into my blogging, is the value of a strong conversational voice. When you read almost anything he’s written, you can all but hear him talking to you, and that’s something that really appealed to me, something I tried to do—not to sound like him, but to sound more like myself, to try to write the way that I talk, as if I’m talking to you right now. And it’s something you can look at for any narrative voice—if you’re writing a period piece, even if it’s just third-person omniscient, how does that time period talk? It’s a little like acting, in a way.


The other thing I’ve really learned in the last few years is something that both King and Rowling do—they’re able to write some really, really gripping, horrific suspense because they make you care about their characters. It’s not about inventing new ways to cut people to ribbons; it’s about making the reader feel, whether you’re making them feel horror or sorrow or joy. If you can make the reader care, there’s no end to the roller coasters you can take them on.


What do you tend to write about and what genre would you like to write in next?


I’m kind of scatterbrained—I write in a lot of genres (and I rarely have anything finished to show for it), but I’ve written fantasy, kids/YA, historical, that sort of Stephen King-esque supernatural/suspense, your basic “literary” personal drama (you can imagine how I feel about that now), humor, all kinds of random things. Nowadays I tend to set up a lot of historically-based supernatural/suspense stories and then put them aside for the future. Right now I’m trying to finish a Victorian vampire steampunk kind of thing I’ve been writing for about five years now, but I’ve always wanted to go back to the high fantasy genre, the one I spent most of my childhood and adolescence writing.



What is your writing process like? (your habits and how you approach writing things creative and non-fiction)


I tend to do a lot of it in my mind—daydreaming, lying awake at night, working things out in the shower or while I’m making breakfast. I might keep an initial idea in my head for weeks before I ever write it down—in case it’s just a passing fantasy. A lot of times, it just takes that long to gestate into something worth writing about. When I do start writing it down, it’s very scattershot, just whatever words and phrases come to me; I’ll talk it out with myself a lot, describe what I’m thinking or talk about the characters, rather than try to write a full-on narrative. (Although sometimes a little of that slips out as well.) When enough of that accumulates, I start doing research if necessary—if a historical setting is involved, locations and customs and period-appropriate behavior are going to suggest or direct a lot of the plot. And once I have enough of that, I start doing rough outlines, trying to get an idea of where it’s all going—the last scene of the story is often one of the first things I come up with. I always know the destination of the story, even if I don’t know how I’m getting there. I always write out of order, jumping around as things come to me.


That’s pretty much how I write parody and commentary/recaps as well—whatever key lines occurred to me along the way, they get written down first, and then I start filling out the rest of the piece around them. It helps avoid filler and dead weight—basically, you skip around and write all the “good parts” first, and then you look up and hey! You’re done.


As for actual habits—I tend to get up in the morning, check my email and Google Reader and a couple of message boards (takes an hour, maybe two on a busy day), and get to work on whatever project I’m supposed to be working on at the moment, the one that’s highest priority. During the day, if anything bloggy occurs to me, I’ll type it up in Semagic and leave it, although sometimes I post entries in the middle of the day. Around four or five pm, usually, I start trying to compile the day’s linkspam entry, since the news cycle is winding down at that point and most articles of interest will be posted by the time I’m done. I tend to fool around on message boards or games after dinner if I’m still on the computer at all, not really get anything substantial done after that point. Unless I specifically decide to be lazy, this is generally how the weekend goes as well, maybe minus the linkspam.


Does having a blog effect your writing in any way?


I think it’s affected the way I write a lot—I think it’s helped me develop a certain comfort and confidence with just sitting down and writing improvisationally. And obviously, a lot of what I know (insofar as I know anything) about writing humor, I learned from having a live audience and seeing what they respond (or don’t respond) to.


The thing a lot of bloggers discover, though, is that posting online can sap your creative energy. That is, you can spend all day writing and feel like you’ve really accomplished something… and it’s all blog posts. Which is great, except that you also had work on your novel that you needed to get done, but you didn’t, and no one’s paying you to blog. (I mean, unless they are and that’s your job, in which case: go you!) I mean, I can look back at this year and go, you know, I wrote a lot of Twilight commentaries and True Blood recaps and “The Secret Life of Dolls” entries that I’m really pleased with, but… my novel of five years still isn’t finished. So it’s a balance you have to strike, because I feel like blogging is worth it—it increases your confidence and your facility with words, as well as helping you build an audience for that theoretical novel you haven’t finished yet… but you have to make sure you set enough time aside for the actual, paying work.


I understand that you are writing a steampunk novel, can you tell us anything about it?


Ah, you already remembered it. One of the toughest things to do is summarize a novel, while at the same time being an absolutely crucial thing to do if you’re going to try to sell it. They tell you to try to explain it in a sentence, and I worked diligently on my sentence until I had one and it was great—and then I realized it’s really a two-character story, in terms of the leads, and I’d only covered one of them. So I’m still at two sentences instead of one, but that’s not too bad. Basically, it’s about a young female doctor in Victorian (steampunk) London who’s got her whole life ahead of her, all these opportunities ahead of her to choose from, and suddenly she’s infected with this vampirism that she’s got to find a way to cure. And this happened because a friend of her father’s, a Mysterious Stranger (if you will) was hired by a government ministry to hunt down vampires infiltrating London, she was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and now he’s got to go against his take-no-prisoners policy to help her. I have it sketched out in my mind as two series of four books, each with kind of its own complete story arc, and the first one is The Black Ribbon, because the heroine wears a black ribbon around her neck to hide the vampire bites; the first book in that series is The Bitter Kiss. On my journal I just refer to it as “Black Ribbon” for short, but technically, The Bitter Kiss is the book I’m trying to finish.


For a while, I was trying to keep the vampire element under wraps, so that it would be a surprise when she was attacked—and in the story itself, if you randomly picked the book up at a store, it still would be—but in terms of pitching the story to people and trying to get them interested in it, I’ve given up on trying to hide that element. It’s the Victorian Vampire Steampunk Story now.


What is it like writing in the steampunk genre?


Steampunk has actually broken out as the trendy new up-and-coming genre right now, somewhat to my dismay—not because it’s gone “mainstream,” but because I’m afraid it’ll be passé before I can get my novel out, and considering that I’ve been working on this for five years, that would really, really suck. I first got into steampunk after reading Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen—Alan Moore is another big influence, I guess, between LOEG and From Hell. This was in 2003, and I had started working on the Black Ribbon story earlier that spring, and steampunk presented itself as a way to do something different with your general Victorian vampire story. I mean, knowing my luck, I’m sure two or three people have already done the basic idea somewhere else, but for me, it was a way to open up the setting of the story and what you could do with the plot itself—you could have faster transportation and communication, you could have alternate medicine and technology, you could have the social and political ramifications of a new invention and what people might do to obtain it, that kind of thing.


I wanted it to be really genuinely steampunk, though, not just “alternate history,” so I started following a few steampunk-oriented websites to get a feel for the kind of things fans of the genre, the neo-Victorian do-it-yourself handicraft lifestyle, were really into. I mean, on a superficial level, I was researching it for the set dressing—the sprockets and brass goggles and clockwork automatons—but I also got really taken with steampunk philosophy, that sense of rolling technology back to when anything was possible, when science was more more mundane and accessible, when you could invent something in your basement with a boiler and a handful of gears that might change the world. Basically, it’s Victorian science fiction—the can-do optimism of the future with the elegance of the past. And Rose Hannah’s father was always an inventor in the story, so that was a natural opportunity to bring steampunk in, and then I started trying to work out how it might affect the lives of the other characters—someone whose family business goes under, maybe it’s because they lost money trying to advertise it with hot-air balloons that crashed, you know? You want to work in the spirit of the genre, not just the surface frills.


After you finish your next book, what are you planning to write next?


I’m going to have to finish researching the second book, Danse Macabre, which is set largely in Paris and then in Vienna. I’ve already done a good bit of the Vienna research, but the geography of Paris is going to require a lot more. And there’s another supernatural element that gets brought in—I shouldn’t say what, but I’m going to have to do more research and world-building on that as well. I’d like to write some more short-short stories like “Bell Donner Gives Her Word,” which I put out an audio reading of this Halloween, because I’ve always really liked short fiction, and short fiction is easier to finish.


As far as Movies in Fifteen Minutes goes, I decided a few months back that they’re probably best suited to staying online and free of charge, as an occasional thing, the way they originally were. As something fun for me, in other words, rather than “work.” I’ve put out three this year so far—which is actually above my post-book average, quite honestly—and I might try to do a couple more before the year’s over.


See also

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