I’ve interviewed some awesome writers about their work and small press publishers about the industry. Here, you’ll have an opportunity to get to know them a little better and maybe even learn a little about parasol duelling and why nice guys write horror.
Axel Howerton has a great sense of story – not only for those he writes, but also for those he publishes. What strikes me about Axel is his sincerity – he isn’t involved in the writing community as a marketing or publishing strategy – for him, it’s a passion for a good story told, to support authors, and to provide readers with access to the unique and weird tales they love. I asked Axel about his experiences as a publisher and what he sees in the future for noir and noir crime genres.
Axel, Coffin Hop Press serves the genre of horror and noir and embraces it in all the sub genres of science fiction, fantasy, alternate history, detective noir, western and literary. You belong to the Crime Writers of Canada and have had several stories published. What did you see or not see happening in the market place that spurred you to start Coffin Hop Press?
When I came back to writing fiction (after a decade of “entertainment journalism” doing reviews, interviews and articles on film and DVD), I started in horror. My first few publications were in horror publications, and I worked briefly as an associate editor for a quarterly called Dark Moon Digest. I found myself in a new community of horror and dark fantasy writers, and found that there were very few promotional avenues for us at the time. I started a blog hop event called Coffin Hop. Back then, all of the blog hops and online events were for romance writers.
By the third year of the event, it had exploded beyond expectations, and many of those involved wanted to put together a book. So, we chose a charity – LitWorld.org – and put together what became the first Coffin Hop Press book, Death by Drive-In. Once I had created that imprint, and had the systems in place, I used it to self-publish a few things, but something about that felt disingenuous, so I sought out a new anthology project. The first idea was for weird westerns, borne of my own love for weird pulp fiction, and the number of writer friends I have who have similar interests. As I became more involved with Crime Writers of Canada, and especially my local writing community in Alberta, I once again felt the need to build something to showcase the underexposed people I had been working with. That led to AB Negative, a collection of Alberta-based crime stories by Alberta-based crime writers. My new goal is to turn Coffin Hop Press into a solid business, to continue making great anthologies, but also branch out and help the world discover great new writers and unusual genres.
Coffin Hop Press has done a lot of interesting things to promote itself, its books and anthologies but also to promote the genre of horror and crime. I sense you’re having too much fun with it all! You have Noir at the Bar events, you participate in Canada Crime Writer and con events, you’ve sponsored several fun and twisted crime anthologies and now you’re launching Noirvellas.
I’ve long been known (in my own little publishing circles, anyways) as the genre guy, and particularly as the “noir” guy. My tastes have always run to the weird and wonderful – 40’s gangsters, 50’s sci-fi, 60’s sleaze, 70’s crime thrillers – and that’s what I want to publish. With novellas being more marketable due to the proliferation of digital readers, and “noir” becoming something of a catchphrase for dark crime thrillers, it seemed like a no-brainer to put the two together. I think the dark subject matter and shorter format go together like chocolate and peanut butter.
Noir at the Bar was another way to foster crime writing in my own community. It’s something that started a while ago in St. Louis and spread across North America. I’m proud to say ours was one of the very first in Canada, but more than anything, it’s a way to get people out to hear local crime writers and talk about that kind of fiction.
I’m also working with the Chiaroscuro Reading series, which is a national series sponsored by ChiZine Publications that focuses on the darker side of sci-fi and fantasy, as well as horror. All puddles that I still have my toes dipped in. My latest novel, Furr, and the upcoming Wolf & Devil series are a mix of crime and dark urban fantasy.
For a few years, you held the Coffin Hop which was a week of blog hops and tours held in October. What were your goals with that event? You eventually stopped running it. What were your take-aways from the event and would you recommend it as a marketing strategy for other niche presses?
At the time, an extended multi-author event was a novel approach for horror. We tried very hard to make it something special. We made it a week long, with required cross-pollination between authors. We added special events like poetry slams and art shows, and everyone was required to do giveaways. The problem was, the more popular it became, the more diluted it became, until it was just a flood of people demanding to be involved, yet unwilling to follow those rules, or provide those benefits to readers. The original participants began to get disheartened by the number of people who swooped in and just threw up a paragraph mentioning the hop, then spent a week blasting their own repetitive advertising, instead of working together to make the week a real event for everyone’s readers. Eventually, I got tired of explaining the rules to boorish spammers, and trying to enforce some semblance of fun and frivolity out of the chaos of hundreds of people trying to out scream each other. It had become something akin to a carnival barker convention on crack. At the same time, I wanted to use the imprint that I had created and owned the website for, etc. etc. to work on new book projects, so I suspended the hop and opened the press.
I do think that a similar type of event could work very well, if contained and managed properly. I blame myself for opening the floodgates and not being ready for the onslaught. It was definitely a wake-up call to see the difference between writers and self-advertisers. There’s a troubling ocean of people out there who are flooding the internet with product. They care much less about the art and value of their writing, about telling stories, than they do about getting attention and flogging their wares for a quick buck.
What is local and normal for some is exotic for others. You’ve made it a point to encourage and promote crime and noir stories set locally in the province of Alberta and in Canada. Why this strategy?
AB Negative was a way for me to try and foster the community that I’m in, my hometown crime writing community. There’s a lot of great talent here that is mostly overlooked. There are a lot more avenues for promoting your work in Toronto or Vancouver but, as I found in my dealings with the Crime Writers of Canada, the rest of the country is very much left out in the cold, if you’ll excuse the pun. I wanted to showcase some of the people whose work I admire, and put out the kind of collection I like to read, something eclectic and diverse, with different voices, different styles, and different sub-genres of crime fiction. Nothing annoys me more than using the label “Crime Fiction” and then only applying it to a narrow definition of cozy mystery stories, or quirky local detective yarns. Crime should encapsulate everything from Jim Thompson psycho-sheriff stories to Agatha Christie locked room mysteries; from James Ellroy’s serial-killer lit to Elmore Leonard’s Detroit hipster pulp; from Poe to Patterson and from Marlowe to Fargo.
Looking into your noir crystal ball, what do you see for the future of noir and the noir crime genre? What would you like to happen next?
Neo-noir is big business these days, mostly due to the amount of great television out there, and the ease of access to foreign crime shows and books. The Nordic stuff, especially, has had a great influence on our own culture through shows people are watching on Netflix and the like. There’s also a wider appreciation for the great history of incredible British crime programming. People are watching these dark crime shows and movies, and it’s resonating, much as it did in the 30’s and 40’s when the term “noir” was coined to describe nihilistic American crime flicks.
It’s a much slower, and more difficult process to see those trends in book selling (and especially book writing). It takes an incredibly long time for a book to gain traction, let alone cause a profound influence in our modern culture. Television and movies, current events, these are the things that tend to reflect more quickly in our fiction. The great thing about writing books – and I’m not condoning writing for the purpose of getting a TV deal or anything, I think a book should always be written for the sake of the story itself – but, the great thing about writing books is that you become a one-person production studio on your own film, your own epic TV saga. In the end they are all just mediums to carry our stories. When you produce visual media, you need hundreds, sometimes thousands of collaborators with individual interests and opinions. When YOU write a short story, or a novel, or a “noirvella”… YOU control the mood, the lighting, the sets, the actors.
That being said, the culture right now (as always seems to happen in times of social upheaval and political insecurity) seems to be leaning towards science fiction again. There’s already a number of great films and tv shows coming out, and the revival of old favourites like Blade Runner, Aliens, and Star Wars (albeit with a darker edge), seem to point to a coming resurgence of science fiction in our popular literature. It’s already been happening with runaway hit novels like Ready Player One and The Martian. I think there’s a lot more to come.
That’s partly why we have revived the Sci-Fi Noir anthology we had shelved last year. Keep an eye out for Black Hole Son in 2019. Before that we have an anthology of weird holiday tales, Weird Wonderland, coming this November and featuring writers like Jessica McHugh, Will Viharo, David James Keaton and the amazing Sarah L. Johnson. We have an anthology of “Ladies of Canadian Crime” called The Dame Was Trouble coming out in April next year to celebrate the “Year of Publishing Women”, and a second volume of weird western tales, Taller Tales of the Weirder West, next summer.
Right now, Coffin Hop Press has a sort-of dual presence as a publisher of “weird tales”, EC Comics-type stuff, and crime fiction – usually dark, almost always tempered with black comedy. We have plans to spread out more – take the weird side towards more horror, sci-fi and urban fantasy; expand from crime into more literary -tinged mystery and gothic fiction.
Any advice for those thinking about starting their own small press to fill void in a niche market?
Diversify. Serving a niche is fine, serving several works better. More than anything, just like writing what you love, publish what you love. While publishing is a business, if you’re smaller potatoes – julienne, even – why waste time on material you don’t believe in? Why waste passion on books you wouldn’t want to read. Here’s the tip. You’re going to have to read these books. Over and over and over. They might as well be the kind you really enjoy. Seek out authors that you find exciting, not just profitable names. If you help those emerging writers who are doing really vibrant and exceptional work, the world will eventually notice, and you may be the one who gave them that break. Surround yourself with authors and editors that you respect and really connect with, and treat them with respect in turn. Word gets around. If you do good work, and you treat people professionally, you can build a business. If you’re in it to make fast deals and crap out product en mass? You may make a little money to start, but you’ll be dead in the water by your second or third project, and nobody is going to want to work with you. Of course, if you’re treating it like a scam, you probably haven’t read this far because I’m not talking about revenue streams and Facebook ads. Be good. Be true. Tell stories. That’s what it should always be about.
Axel Howerton is a former entertainment journalist, and the author of the Arthur Ellis Award nominated detective caper “Hot Sinatra”, the modern gothic fairytale “Furr”, and the forthcoming “Wolf & Devil” urban fantasy series. His work – including short stories, columns, poetry and essays – have appeared the world over, in no fewer than five languages. Axel is a former Prairies director of the Crime Writers of Canada, and a member of the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association, the Calgary Crime Writers, and the Kintsugi Poets. He is also the editor of the books “Death by Drive-In”, “AB Negative”, and “Tall Tales of the Weird West”, and is the Calgary chair of the Chiaroscuro national reading series, and the organizer behind one of Canada’s first recurring “Noir At The Bar” events, #NoirBarYYC.
An author’s worst fear can be about getting their work edited or critiqued by an editor, an agent, or even a critique group. Yet, whether indie publishing or working with a large or small press, the process of getting edited is critical to make the story the best it can be. I had the fortune to meet over dinner with award winning author Jayne Barnard and her editor Adria Laycraft to chat about what makes their relationship work. Adria edited Jayne’s latest novel Maddie Hatter and the Gilded Gauge.
Ace: Jayne, what is your worst fear when working with a new editor?
Jayne: You really have to take a leap of faith that the person is coming into it has the right spirit, that they’re not looking to score off you or browbeat you into doing what they want with your story.
Ace: It’s not about ego, it’s about making the story as good as it can be.
Jayne: Yes, and it can come apart very quickly if either the editor or the writer is acting superior. You see that in so many series. The example of Harry Potter comes to mind. The first three books when J.K. Rowling was a new author were clean, tight, and tidy, and they’ve got cool structure. The fourth book could have been cut by 10% off the top and the fine details polished. Did that not happen because of Rowling or because the publisher felt that they didn’t need to make the investment? We’ll never know.
Ace: Adria, what is your fear when taking on a new client?
Adria: That’s a loaded question. In this case, it’s about not only doing the best for Jayne, but for the publisher who hired me, Tyche Books. The big thing for me in a new relationship is being understood.
Adria: You know how easy it is to misunderstand the tone and the body language in a text? Are they saying: I’ll be right there, or I’ll be right there? But when we speak, we use different intonations to convey specific meanings. As an editor, I have to figure out the author’s intention and if that intention is being conveyed. So, when I make changes and suggestions, my fear is about being misunderstood and upsetting the author. If that happens, it’s difficult to achieve our common goal to make the story its best.
Ace: How do you make it the decision whether it’s grammar or the author’s voice?
Adria: I don’t make the decision. I point it out to the author and they make the decision. It’s their book and their choice. For example, I pointed out some things to Jayne which weren’t technically correct and let her decide.
Jayne: Like capitalizing the seasons. Adria noted that technically this wasn’t correct and asked if I wanted to do this. That’s a very Victorian style that I deliberately used.
Adria: Whereas an editor with a nice big ego <<grins>> charges in and fixes things so that it’s technically accurate but ends up ruining the story.
Jayne: But a good editor can also help make the story richer. For example, Adria and I are working on foreshadowing and subtext. Foreshadowing and subtext build things up from the very beginning. One word here or three words there, and then the choice of colour for a hair bow – all the things which build up a character or subplot subconsciously. Individually, they don’t mean much but all together they make the story amazing. What happens when you over-edit, and you can over-edit yourself <<laughter – we’ve all done that!>> you edit out the things that make your work colourful and strong. In effect, you’ve flattened your work. It becomes more of the same, less whimsical. When you have an editor really into your work and I’ve only discovered this because Adria is the best editor I’ve ever had…
Adria: Now I’ll have a swollen head. <<peals of laughter!>>
Jayne: …she points out the things that I can exploit to make the story richer. Sometimes, though, I think, “Hey, I could do this with it!” and then Adria asks if it’s relevant and if it serves the story.
Ace: You’re talking about danglers which should be either eliminated or exploited?
Adria: They’re the elements that never get properly tied up in the end. Some are so cool that you have to find a way to use them. But always you have to ask if you need them and if so, how you’re going to use them.
Ace: The question is: Is it a gem you need to polish or is it a stone you need to throw away?
Jayne: It’s more like throwing a ruby into the gravel. To me it’s just coloured glass, a whimsy, until Adria she points out that it’s really a ruby, dusty and uncut, but a gem. The question then becomes, does it need it be faceted and polished to its full potential, or does it need to be removed because it’s a distraction from the greater story?
I also think it helps to be edited by someone who’s writing a speculative fiction because I know her ego isn’t invested in my work, but her own.
Adria <<grinning>>: My ego is also invested in how well your book does, Jayne.
Jayne <<laughing>>: Because your name is on it too!
Adria: And I want other people to hire me to edit too. I love editing. I love helping other people realize the dream of what they want their book to be! I’d like to read something that Jayne texted to me recently: the crux of a good editing relationship is the free flow of information and ideas like a conversation between professionals. It isn’t hard to keep it professional, is it?
Jayne: No, it isn’t.
Adria: Then I said, the key for the editor is to help an author create the best version of the story they want to tell and to remember not to start rewriting their words.
Adria: I’ve personally had that experience with other editors and in critique groups and all the years of critiquing others and being critiqued. The key thing that helps me be a good editor now is knowing not to over critique or to over edit, and especially to not try to rewrite the person’s story for them.
Jayne <<laughing>>: No matter how tempting it is!
Adria: And sometimes it’s really tempting! But, it’s their story and all I can do is make suggestions. It’s not my story to write. That was the big learning curve for me to become a good editor.
Ace: Advice to new writers would be that to learn how to work with an editor go to critique groups get critiques done, and give critiques. That teaches us how to be respectful of an editor and which fights are the important fights to pick.
Jayne: That’s a good point: which fights to pick. Now, I’ve been fairly lucky with Adria because she reads and writes in my genre. She thinks it’s all fine fun <<more laughter>> so in that sense we have some fundamental compatibilities in looking at the project. Adria challenges me to make it better, deeper, richer – I’ve never had an editor do that before. They focused on making it technically correct or easier for the reader to understand, but not creatively greater than before.
Ace: The special sauce of this relationship is mutual respect with a common goal which is to make the book the best that it can be.
Adria: Yes, but to really make the relationship work, my advice for new authors is to be professional, and don’t get defensive. Take the comment and go sit with it for a while. When you kick into defensive mode, I can’t help you. You won’t see what I’m trying to point out if all you’re going to do is to defend why there has to be a ruby in the gravel.
Ace: Perhaps if you have to defend something, then maybe you haven’t expressed it clearly as a writer. If your editor isn’t getting it, then no one else is going to get it.
Adria: If you have to explain it and defend it, then that’s why I’m pointing it out – because there’s an issue.
Jayne: And from the author’s side, I would say that if the editor says something you really disagree with, don’t answer right away. Go for a walk, go whack down some weeds in the back yard, or sound off to your best friend. Then, as a professional, set aside your feelings and think about what those comments mean for the story.
Ace: Some reader will always tell you that you’ve got it all wrong and they may not be so nice about it. But with an editor, you have the opportunity to consider the comments and make changes. Once published, you don’t have an opportunity to change the manuscript.
Jayne: Readers paid for your book in money and time so they have the right to their opinion even if they totally missed what you were trying to say.
Adria: If you’re a new writer, even an established writer, and you’re getting the same comment from 5 out of 8 people in a critique group, then there is a problem. If it’s just one, and you disagree with it, you have a right to disagree. If you’re getting the same thing again and again, then you must look at it. For instance, early on in my writing, I was told that my characters were passive. It took me a long time to hear that, to stop being defensive about it. I was trying to tell the story of characters who were passive and it didn’t work. When I stopped being defensive, I realized they were right.
Jayne: It’s all about the outcome – the best words in the best order. Unlike the football player or the stage actor who have to make it perfect in the moment, with no do-overs, writers have the leisure to consider what words we’re putting in what order. There’s no excuse for a writer to publish a shabby story.
Ace: Thank you both for your candor and your time. Now, when I’ve transcribed this interview, I’ll send it to you both for your editing.
Adria: But you’re the interviewer, you’re supposed to edit it.
Ace: As a good editor, I know that these words are yours and not mine and only you can have the last say!
<<peals of laughter>>
Adria is a grateful member of IFWA (The Imaginative Fiction Writers Association) and a proud survivor of the Odyssey Writers Workshop. She is also a member of the Calgary Association of Freelance Editors (CAFÉ). Her biggest claim to fame as an editor is Urban Green Man, which launched in August of 2013 and was nominated for an Aurora Award. Look for her stories in Orson Scott Card’s IGMS, the Third Flatiron Anthology Abbreviated Epics, the FAE Anthology, Tesseracts 16, Neo-opsis, On-Spec, James Gunn’s Ad Astra, and Hypersonic Tales, among others. To learn more about her work and editing services, contact Adria at adrialaycraft.com.
After 25 years writing short mystery fiction, Jayne shifted to long-form crime with the YA Steampunk romp, MADDIE HATTER AND THE DEADLY DIAMOND (2015), a finalist for the BPAA and the Prix Aurora. The second Maddie Hatter Adventure, MADDIE HATTER AND THE GILDED GAUGE, (Tyche Books, May 2017) is on shelves now and the third is due out this fall Her contemporary suspense novel, WHEN THE FLOOD FALLS, won the Dundurn Unhanged Arthur in 2016 and is being published by Dundurn along with two sequels. Jayne divides her year between the Alberta Rockies and the Vancouver Island shores.
Website: jaynebarnard.ca; Facebook: @MaddieHatterAdventures;
Arabella of Mars – Regency Steampunk at Its Best!
An interview with David D. Levine.
I liked that Arabella wasn’t a man in a woman’s body. Her sensibilities and problem solving for a woman of her status respected the conventions of the time period. But she wasn’t a Mary Sue either or a Miss Marple trying to solve a problem. She was smart, deceitful, worked alongside her male counterparts, yet in her private moments we saw the personal effect of her daring choices. She feels like you wrote about someone you admire. Can you tell us who Arabella is to you.
I know a lot of writers who refer to their projects by the main character’s name — for example, “I’m working on Alfreda all this month” — but I’m usually not one of those; I usually start with the worldbuilding and come up with a character who exists in that world second (or third, after the plot). Also, the main character’s name is usually subject to change right up to the last minute. But Arabella is different. She has been Arabella from the beginning and this project, which has grown from a standalone novel to a three-book series and might grow further, has always been called Arabella. She’s someone who fights her society’s strictures and lets nothing stand in her way, but is still vulnerable and somewhat naïve. I admire her and I feel protective of her, and this is something that’s never happened to me with any of my own creations before.
Mars is a new and exotic settlement where European colonization and commerce abound. Arabella’s father is a successful business man. Arabella loves growing up on Mars and she takes great interest in this world which includes romping around with her brother, learning the culture from her Martian nanny, and taking an interest in mechanical gadgets. Despite her aptitudes, her father decides to send her home back to conventional England. Can you tell us about her father, what motivates him and why, despite his pioneering attitude, he decides to send Arabella home?
Arabella’s father is much more conventional than his daughter. Although he loves all his children, Michael is his firstborn, his heir, and his only son, and as a man of his era he is more strongly attached to Michael than to Arabella. But he does love and support her, and — as someone who left his own home planet to seek his fortune — he admires her adventurous nature more than her mother’s conservative one. When Arabella’s mother puts her foot down and demands to take the children “home” to Earth — a planet they have never even visited — he would like to keep both Michael and Arabella with him, but feels compelled to compromise. This doesn’t appear on the page, but he never really reconciled himself to this decision, and the question of whether or not he did the right thing nagged him until he died.
Your world building is persuasive, yet deft in its execution. You pay homage to early steampunk while touching upon colonization, xenophobia, but you set it the Regency Era rather than in the traditional Victorian Era. What is it about this time period that excited you?
You can blame Patrick O’Brian, whose Napoleonic War novels combine historical accuracy, adventure, and wit. I’m a great fan of those novels and when I had the idea of an interplanetary adventure in a world where the solar system is full of air it wasn’t a hard decision to set it in that period. It was a time of exploration and adventure, when the wider world was known but not well-known, and when a talented man (and why not a woman as well?) could be a warrior, a scientist, an inventor, an artist, and a diplomat all at once. Also, Mary Robinette Kowal and Naomi Novik showed that there was demand within the SF&F field for stories set in that era.
I appreciated the restraint in your approach on the issues of colonization and xenophobia – they became elements in good story telling and steampunk world building. Arabella’s reactions show, rather than simply tell, the issues. Why was it important to address these issues?
We live in interesting times, and questions of what is right and wrong when dealing with other genders, races, and cultures — and, indeed, how these distinctions are defined or if they even exist — seem more contentious now than ever before. These questions apply with equal force to history. Knowing what we know now, should we consider Columbus a hero or a villain? I felt that it would be dishonest, even immoral, to write a novel that ignored these questions… but, at the same time, it had to be a rip-roaring adventure. I hope that I’ve succeeded with both those aspects.
Tall, dark and handsome, Captain Singh, captain of the airship Diana, has a commanding and professional presence despite being the strong, silent type. Can you tell us more about him, who he represents, and what inspired his character?
Captain Singh, like Arabella, is an outsider who has nonetheless achieved a degree of success within his society — but, because of his outsider status, may see what he has achieved taken away at any time. I wanted someone Arabella could look up to and be inspired by, yet also someone who might be a little intimidating until you get to know him. He’s also someone who, because of his unique perspective, is willing to take a chance on another outsider. I knew early on that he would be Indian, to amplify the echoes of India in my version of Mars, but his background and personal history changed frequently as the book developed.
Aadim, the clockwork navigator – I can’t let end this interview without knowing your inspiration for Aadim. Despite being silent (except for the sounds he makes when he receives information to calculate navigations), he feels like a very real, yet mysterious character and he’s almost creepy because his movements feel like human reactions. When I think about it, we attribute a lot to our devices and machines. Was your treatment of Aadim in this manner a comment on our relationship with our devices or was it about the possibilities the steampunk writers saw in this world?
He is, of course, inspired by the Mechanical Turk, a chess-playing automaton of the 1700s (which was, alas, a fraud with a person inside). Originally I thought that most ships in this world would have these automaton navigators, necessitated by the difficulties of navigating in three dimensions, but as the story grew I decided to make him unique. He also provides a bond between Arabella and Captain Singh, due to their shared interest in complex automata. I had a lot of fun making his actions and reactions ambiguous, right on the edge of the Uncanny Valley. Is he completely plausible, given the technology of the early 19th century? No, not really, but this is a fictional world after all.
Thank you very much for this opportunity! I’m glad you liked the book and I hope many more people do.
Thank you for a great interview David! ARABELLA OF MARS is now a favorite! If the interview wasn’t enough to convince you to get the book, dear reader, perhaps this blurb will:Arabella Ashby is a Patrick O’Brian girl in a Jane Austen world — born and raised on Mars, she was hauled back home by her mother, where she’s stifled by England’s gravity, climate, and attitudes toward women. When she learns that her evil cousin plans to kill her brother and inherit the family fortune, she joins the crew of an interplanetary clipper ship in order to beat him to Mars. But privateers, mutiny, and insurrection stand in her way. Will she arrive in time?
David D. Levine is the author of novel ARABELLA OF MARS (Tor 2016) and over fifty SF and fantasy stories. His story “Tk’Tk’Tk” won the Hugo Award, and he has been shortlisted for awards including the Hugo, Nebula, Campbell, and Sturgeon. Stories have appeared in Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF, Tor.com, and multiple Year’s Best anthologies as well as award-winning collection Space Magic from Wheatland Press. David is a contributor to George R. R. Martin’s bestselling shared-world series Wild Cards. He is also a member of publishing cooperative Book View Cafe and of nonprofit organization Oregon Science Fiction Conventions Inc. He has narrated podcasts for Escape Pod, PodCastle, and StarShipSofa, and his video Dr. Talon’s Letter to the Editor was a finalist for the Parsec Award. In 2010 he spent two weeks at a simulated Mars base in the Utah desert. David lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife Kate Yule. His web site iswww.daviddlevine.com.
Mystery writer and steampunk aficionado Jayne Barnard has written a smashing novella, MADDIE HATTER AND THE DEADLY DIAMOND. The novella is fun and the world Jayne created is fascinating. Steampunk, if done right, feels like a period in history that we should have studied in school and where Jayne’s book is compulsory reading. For all these reasons, I had to interview Jayne.
We had so much to talk about however, that you’ll have to read the second part of the interview Dueling Parasols and Creating a Steampunk World, Jayne Barnard Tells All to learn why Jayne chose to pay homage to certain personalities, her steampunk fashion choices and about the sport of dueling parasols!
Being a Steamlord’s daughter must be oppressive because Maddie vies to stay out from under her father’s thumb. Her class status, though, gives her insights (and privileges) into the upper echelons of society which are delightful for the reader to see. What is it like to be a Steamlord’s daughter and why does Maddie wish herself to be so independent from it?
Maddie Hatter comes from one of the three earliest Steamlord families. Her great-grandfather invented a mechanism that allowed steam power to be used for a much wider variety of purposes than before. The family’s wealth is almost beyond counting; they live in a vast subterranean mansion, have servants for every possible task, and travel everywhere by private luxury airships. They’re the 1% of their era. But a peerage only four generations old is barely a blip to English aristocrats who can trace their lineage back to the Norman Conquest. The Steamlords want to improve their family trees by marrying into the Old Nobility, which is lineage-rich but often cash-poor.
That’s the pressure Maddie is escaping: to be handed off, along with a well-padded dowry, to some family even more restrictive than hers, and spend the rest of her life taking tea with her mother-in-law and bear children for some inbred aristocratic fop, all so her father can fulfill his inherited duty to advance the family’s social and political power. Maddie is a girl of spirit and independence, not about to tamely submit to having her whole life decided for her before she’s twenty.
It must have been hard for Maddie to leave home and learn to fend for herself but she can’t seem to make a complete break. Why is making a complete break hard for her?
Since fleeing her home, Maddie has had to learn to do things for herself that a girl of any lesser family would have learned at a much younger age: to dress herself, care for her own clothing, organize her own meals, and most especially to earn her own living. She managed for two years on her own, and now has made a sort of peace with her family, becoming a female variant of the remittance man. That adventurous breed historically – often reckless younger sons who embarrassed their family once too often – was sent abroad to live or die as they chose. Their families paid an allowance on condition they stayed away and kept the family name clear of scandal. As a woman, Maddie’s not paid well for her work. Her father’s allowance is all that she will be able to save toward someday buying a home, or for her eventual retirement. A little older and wiser now since venturing on her own, Maddie knows that she can’t realistically make a complete break until she is earning enough to fund her future life as well as her current adventures.
The gadgets: mechanical birdie, airships, coffee service – you’ve got a wonderful smattering of them which makes Maddie’s world very interesting. Her little mechanical bird, Tweetle-D, who so delightfully inks things he’s seen, who is Maddie’s spy and is so helpful to her job. What inspired you to create him, and why him instead of a human helper?
Steampunk runs on clockworks, the brassier the better. To create the gadgets in Maddie’s world, I needed to only look around at daily activities and think: if this world were operating by a combination of steam power and clockwork controls, how could – for example – making and serving tea be done? As for the mechanical bird Tweetle-D, or TD as he is more often called, he is small, mostly quiet, but quite a personality for all that. He serves as a confidant for Maddie while she is cut off from family (by her own choosing) and from friends (by her assignment in Egypt). While he can’t fly far on his own, he travels well by airship, train, river-steamship or even by camel if necessary, and with far less fuss and bother than a living animal companion would require. And he’s got mad skills in note-taking and picture-taking, both essentials for a young lady trying to make her way as an investigative journalist.
Maddie is precocious, very liberated and besides needing to keep her true identity secret, she’s fighting for a place in a man’s world of crime reporting. She’s strong, as are all the female characters in this world. Is this historically accurate?
This story is historically accurate in the sense that young women ‘of good family’ who grew up in the late Victorian era were finally breaking out of the wife-governess-nun straitjacket, entering the workforce as shopgirls, office workers, nurses, authors, mathematicians, professors, and yes, as reporters. Maddie’s story is partly inspired by the barrier-breaking American journalist, Nellie Bly, who in the 1880s tackled a great many stories outside her early purview of fashion and society gossip. She not only went undercover (as Maddie also did) in pursuit of stories – most notably as an inmate in an insane asylum – but she set the record for getting around the world in under 80 days. As an inspiration for a young lady journalist, she’d be hard to beat. But then, this story is also inspired by the true story of a British colonial officer who stole a fabulous diamond ‘eye’ from a temple in India.
Less historically accurate but equally inspiring were the stories written by Jules Verne or H.G. Wells, the Indiana Jones and Young Indiana Jones movies, and my wonderfully imaginative friends in the Steampunk community in Calgary.
It’s as if the women have found a way to do what’s important and be themselves despite the obstacles. Is this story a social commentary?
This is first and foremost an entertaining story of one young woman taking on the world.
As for social commentary, women in the West have continuously struggled to take and keep control of our own financial security despite the political, social, religious, and economic barriers thrown up in front of us, our mothers, our grandmothers, and our daughters. More than a century after Maddie and Nellie Bly, women have still not achieved the grail of equal pay for equal work, except in unionized workplaces. Despite women outperforming men academically in sciences and mathematics, there are still glass ceilings and male-dominated industries and professions. The internet shames women relentlessly for sexual conduct (including for reporting rape or assault) as much as any Victorian society matron would, and threatens women’s lives for speaking up in some perceived male bastion (Gamergate, anyone?). Just recently, the female premier of Alberta was threatened with assassination by men who disagreed with her politics.
I didn’t set out to write a feminist fiction but the element most fantastical of all in Maddie Hatter and the Deadly Diamond may be that the women all found a way to do what’s important and be themselves despite the obstacles, and nobody threatened – or tried – to kill them for it.
That concludes this part of our interview. If you’d like to read MADDIE HATTER AND THE DEADLY DIAMOND and see what other people have said about it, you can find it at Amazon and Tyche Books, and there are reviews on Goodreads.
Be sure to check out Dueling Parasols and Creating a Steampunk World, Jayne Barnard Tells All – you don’t want to miss out on dueling parasols!
Dueling Parasols and Creating a Steampunk World, Jayne Barnard Tells All
Welcome to my second interview with author Jayne Barnard and her steampunk novel MADDIE HATTER AND THE DEADLY DIAMOND.
In my previous interview with Jayne, Jayne Barnard on Maddie Hatter’s Steampunk Society, we spoke about Maddie’s life as a Steamlord’s daughter, the constraints and attitudes of the Victorian era and how it affected Maddie’s quest for independence. Jayne’s historical accuracy made this steampunk novel very believable. Even the mechanical gadgets, like Tweedle Dee the mechanical bird who is Maddie’s companion, seem commonplace.
Today, we’ll learn more about how Jayne chose to create Maddie’s steampunk world, and about Steampunk’s fine sport of dueling with parasols.
Dueling parasols? It’s not in Maddie’s book, but I know you’re personally involved in this sport.
Victorian women’s lives were very much constrained by the clothing they wore and social rules of their class. Even more than in this age of internet slut-shaming, their behavior could be judged without mercy by their peers and, if their families were important, by the tabloid press. Their chances of marriage, the only career open to most of them, were dependent in large part on not attracting public notice. Thus they had to swallow a lot of subtly and overtly insulting behavior from other women who, because of their relative money and social power, did not need to be as well-behaved.
Men could settle combat by dueling with swords or pistols, by fisticuffs (aka boxing), by racing, or any other means they chose. They considered those means honourable, and a man who shirked, or who did not abide by the result, lost his honour. It was an outgrowth of the old trial by combat system. Parasol Dueling, a non-contact combat sport based on ranking parasol moves or ‘figures’, gave Steampunk women a means to settle insults rather than allow them to fester until the women broke out in mean-spirited or socially unacceptable behavior. Parasols allow for non-contact dueling that any two ladies may engage in at any place where a parasol might be carried.
Where can we learn more about dueling parasols?
Steampunks around the world now learn, practice, and occasionally duel with intent, but the World Championships are held annually in Calgary, where the sport originated. We’ve aligned with Beakerhead, that five-day festival where Arts & Sciences meet. Planning has just begun for next September’s Beakerhead, so I can’t give you details on that yet, but the Regional Championships are held during Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo. Meanwhile, you can learn much more about the fictional and very real histories of Parasol Dueling at the Steampunk blog Gears, Goggles & Steam and on Facebook at Madame Saffron Hemlock’s Parasol Dueling League for Steampunk Ladies (hey, I didn’t give it that very long name!)
Fashion – that’s what I love about steampunk. You must have spent hours dreaming about the wardrobes, drawing them out and then finding just the right words to describe them so succinctly yet vividly. Can you tell us a bit about the process of creating your world of fashion?
Pictures. Lots and lots of pictures. That’s the short answer.
Steampunk fashion draws primarily from late Victorian style but interprets freely and is not as class-bound as it was in our history. Thanks be to Google for directing me to page after page of photos and discussions of original, preserved costumes as well as modern reproductions that are accurate in cut and – as much as possible – fabric down to the thread in the hand-stitched knickers. Before photography there were portraits, admittedly mostly of rich people, in which garments were thoroughly depicted. In Steampunk, I get to make my own fashion rules, and the rules governing Maddie Hatter’s fictional world are grounded in but not tightly bound by historical fashion.
But Maddie is a young woman skirting (pun not intended!) the precipice of the upper class and the middle class. How do her fashion choices reflect her chosen status?
Maddie’s clothing, as befits her modest lower-middle-class job, is fairly conservative in cut and colour. Browns and grays and blues instead of crimson, purple, and metallics. She sometimes yearns for the vivid and beautiful – and very well-tailored – gowns she used to wear when her father was footing the wardrobe bill. She retained a few good dresses from her Society life, but only those that could pass for a well-dressed journalist’s. They are now a few years out of date, which is good. Their age (in a fashion sense) demonstrates to the upper classes, on whom she reports, that she both understands good clothing and is not in competition with her supposed betters.
The upper classes assume Maddie bought her best dresses second- (or third-) hand, and don’t think less of her for that. Historically, lower classes wore clothing that was at least one full style-generation behind the upper classes; this was partly because employers often gave their out-of-style cast-offs to their servants as part of their wages and benefits (along with food and shelter), and partly due to a thriving trade in strongly-made second-hand clothing, which was often all the working classes could afford before widespread mass-production of clothing (imagine finding one of Jackie Kennedy’s or Princess Diana’s gowns in a consignment store).
Much of my research, and my fascination to date, has been in English fashion; however I will be exploring some other countries’ and other cultures’ fashions in future Maddie adventures.
The world you created includes homage to only one historical personage, Mr. Flinders Petrie. Why him?
I have great respect for history, and for humans whose deeds were sufficiently great to be recorded for posterity. The only truly historical personage mentioned in the Deadly Diamond is Mr. Flinders Petrie, one of the most respected of European Egyptologists, who was working in Egypt during the real-life period covered by our alternate-history. Mr. Petrie is generally credited with curtailing the wholesale upheaval of archaeological sites in search of treasures, and with ushering in a new standard for the recording and preservation of Egyptian antiquities. Without him, the history of Egypt would be far less complete. But, in a novella, there’s not a lot of room to be true to the known facts and foibles of historical individuals – or not as true as I would prefer to be – and thus Mr. Petrie alone gets his name on the page, as a mark of my respect for a man who changed history.
To the best of my ability, though, I accurately recreated the ranks of the various military personnel, the colonial structure of the British Protectorate in Egypt, even the dining room of Shepheard’s Hotel Anglaise in Cairo as it looked in 1898. It’s a world one technological tweak separated from our own.
So then your decision not to write an alternate history by including real people was deliberate. What aspects of the society did you focus on?
Because English-language Steampunk is almost entirely based in the manners and social structures of the late Victorian era, Queen Victoria is there by implication. Like monarchs before and after her, she gave peerages to industrialists who revolutionized the country’s economy. The Steamlords, my fictional class of peers, were first granted peerages around the time of the Napoleonic Wars, when steam power was just beginning to be harnessed for industrial and military purposes. These technological trail-blazers naturally made fortunes licensing and exporting their steam technologies, and gained power and prominence quickly as the 19th century Industrial Revolution unfolded….much to the dismay of those families traditionally close to the reins of power in England.
That concludes our interview, but if you’d like to read MADDIE HATTER AND THE DEADLY DIAMOND and see what other people have said about it, you can find it at Amazon and Tyche Books, and there are reviews on Goodreads.
Jayne Barnard is a founding member of Madame Saffron’s Parasol Dueling League for Steampunk Ladies and a longtime crime writer. Her fiction and non-fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines. Awards for short fiction range from the 1990 Saskatchewan Writers Guild Award for PRINCESS ALEX AND THE DRAGON DEAL to the 2011 Bony Pete for EACH CANADIAN SON. She’s been shortlisted for both the Unhanged Arthur in Canada and the Debut Dagger in the UK. You can visit her at her blog or on Facebook.
Our theme this month is memorable characters and that makes it a great opportunity to interview Sonia Orin Lyris about her debut novel, THE SEER.
In creating the Arunkel Empire, Lyris blends the realities of being a commoner and the ruling classes, the complex politics of the Houses vying for the Palace’s attention amidst rebellion, treason, and treachery. It is this world that Amarta the Seer must successfully navigate not only to save her sister and baby nephew, but to realize that as she predicts the future, she can create it.
Not only has Lyris created a truly memorable world, but there is a ring of truth about her characters which resonates long after the book is done. (Be warned: some mild spoilers are included in the questions and answers below.)
The seer, Amarta, is introduced as a young child who has a rare talent. Being the child, she’s too young to understand it except to know that the things which she sees happen and they’re not pleasant. As she grows into young adulthood she and others pays heavy prices as she tries to evade pursuers who covet her talent. I’m curious about starting with such young child, for that’s rarely done, and what her talent and her journey mean to you.
As an author, I have a particular responsibility when writing a coming-of-age story, like THE SEER. I have an obligation to neither dumb-down the child Amarta nor to overestimate her abilities.
When the door opens in chapter one, we meet a child who has already had a difficult life, yet she’s been sheltered and is naive in many ways, knowing little of the greater world in which intrigue and treason is occurring. Her visions tell her things she can’t possibly understand yet, but she must try to, if she is to survive.
I wanted Amarta to be a whole person. Even as young as she is, she’s not simple. She has a family she loves. There is loss and pain in her past. She is struggling to understand what she is.
Who would she become, I wanted to know. Who must she become, to be able to take on the great power that she has come to hold?
The story starts with her so young because the challenges these questions raise start early. These challenges are the seeds of her journey.
There are mages in the novel. Mage live long, are capable of many powerful things. When we meet Maris, we quickly learn that there is a great cost to become a mage, paid not only by her parents, but also by her during her training. Unlike most other novels where the wizard or mage talent is taken for granted, you address the cost of becoming a mage as well as the cost, both personal and indebtedness, of taking on a contract.
Yes, mages pay dearly for their power and status. In Maris’s case, her parents paid a price as well.
You know the old adage that great responsibility comes with great power? This is a moral stance that the very powerful must come to understand out of their experience because no one can force them to take it. I wanted to explore the cost of achieving such power, and examine the consequent responsibility.
The contract Maris takes on to undergo the transformation into mage — her apprenticeship contract — is one that typically ends in success or in death. High stakes, over many years. It’s not a pretty business, and Maris’s personal experience of that is very much part of her journey.
At one point in the story, Maris is talking about what it would mean for someone to become a mage. She thinks: “It would break him, rip his world to shreds. Change everything he thought he knew.”
I wanted to know more about her journey. Where had she come from? Where would she go? Would she resolve her bitterness at the cost she had paid?
An interesting parallel exists between the struggles of royalty and the commoner. I’m thinking of Cern, the king’s daughter who becomes queen because of her betrothed’s treachery, and Amarta, the seer. Both have responsibilities due to fate. Both are forced into roles they don’t choose and their actions or inactions have profound effects on a kingdom. Yet, their character arcs are so different.
Yes, both Amarta and Cern are both thrust into responsibility without choice, and their arcs are very much about this unchosen power. Cern has every advantage of education and wealth, but she struggles with an isolated and loveless familial existence that shapes her every step toward the throne. Amarta has the very wealth that Cern lacks — family and true loyalty — but lacks the rest.
What they share, perhaps ironically, is that they are both living under dire threat, and neither is safe in the world, except as they learn to make themselves so.
To what lengths would I go to have power? I found myself asking that question because of Innel, a commoner who is raised in the Palace’s Cohort group. He’ll do anything to please the King, to earn his respect so he can have a chance at marrying the princess Cern. He is, at once, fascinating and terrifying, and this balance is hard to achieve for many writers. Can you share with us how you so deftly managed to create Innel and what is it about him that made you want to write him?
Power is so interesting. The more you have, the more it has you.
As the story opens, we see this forceful, wealthy man show up at the door, intent on lethal answers from Amarta. In chapter two we find out more: who he is, what he’s done. Then the consequences of his earlier actions begin to unroll.
I had to do more than say Innel was ambitious and close to the throne. He had to make sense in the context of his history and culture, all the way back to childhood. We see more about this childhood in “Touchstone”, a tie-in story available for free on the Baen website, where we find out how he and his brother came to the Cohort.
I wanted to go deep into Innel’s journey in the novel because he balances Amarta’s journey. What, I wondered, had happened in his past that drove him to the circumstances of chapter one? What was it like for him to stand so dizzyingly close to such monarchical power?
Again, it’s about making him a whole person, with all the conflicts and convictions that someone in his position might actually have. What is he afraid of? What does he want?
And how far will he go to get it?
Here’s the ‘where did you get the idea?’ question. The hidden city of Kusan where the slave race, the Emendi, live is brilliant. I found myself wanting to visit this tangle of warrens in the hills and to learn their secret language. What inspired you to create this society?
As it happens, you can visit Kusan – or nearly so — because Kusan is based on the underground city at Derinkuyu, Turkey, a subterranean city thousands of years old that descends many levels. The actual city is big enough to house thousands of people, along with their livestock and supplies. Highly defensible, the entrances could be sealed with huge stone doors. It had underground wells of fresh water, ventilation ducts, and an extensive network of rooms and stairs and tunnels. Across its history, the underground city at Derinkuyu many times served as a refuge.
When I heard about this underground city, I knew at once that it was my hidden city, the novel’s Emendi haven. The Emendi were long ago abducted from across the waters, brought back, and forced into slavery. Emendi are blond, and there is a long-standing folktale that the gold of their hair implies pure gold inside their bodies as well. In the face of this story, is dangerous for them to be in the open.
And yet, over many years, some managed to escape. Kusan — the Hidden City — is where they found refuge, and now live, quietly and safely.
But again, we’re talking about real people, with complicated motivations beyond freedom and survival. The Emendi have created their own hidden culture in the subterranean city of Kusan. They have a signing language, one they developed in the halls of their captors, and keep alive so that they never forget where they came from, or forget the family they left behind, who are still enslaved. They have traditions of stealth and caution. They are especially cautious about their oppressors, the Arunkel people, who live above ground all around them.
Want to see what Kusan looks like? Here is a collection of photos of the underground city at Derinkuyu, in Turkey:
And one final question: You’ve created a world which feels very real and with it a full complement of memorable characters. Do you have any advice on creating memorable characters?
There many ways to create memorable characters. Lots of techniques. The scope of them can be daunting, especially if a writer does not naturally tend toward the character-oriented approach.
But rather than hand over a fish, let me tell you about my pole and bait.
In a story of memorable characters, each character is the protagonist of their own tale. Even the least consequential of them has a past, a family, a culture, just like the flesh-and-blood people around us.
So I ask myself: what does the world look like from their point of view? Where are their joys, their terrors? What do they care about?
I’m not suggesting a writer must describe all that, but do have a feel for it. Just as the people around us have personalities, so do story characters. To get better at understanding this, I recommend studying good examples, such as the flesh-and-blood characters around us.
What makes them tick? What makes them joyful? What pisses them off? How do they explain themselves? What is the story they tell themselves about who they are and what they are doing in the world?
If you listen well, with compassion and curiosity, people will talk plenty. As they do, imagine what they must feel like inside. Step into their shirts and shoes. Wiggle your fingers and toes. How does it feel to be there? What is this person about?
Then do the same with your characters.
A hearty thank you to Sonia Orin Lyris for this interview. For a copy of THE SEER, check with your favorite bookstore or find it online at Baen or Amazon. Gain deeper insight into the Arunkel Empire and the significance of its coinage by reading her guest blog for us titledWill Build Worlds for Spare Change.
Sonia Orin Lyris is the author of The Seer (http://bit.ly/seersaga), a high fantasy novel from Baen Books (http://www.baen.com/). Her published fiction includes fantasy, science fiction, horror, mainstream, and more, and may be found at lyris.org/fiction . Follow her on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/authorlyris/) or Twitter (https://twitter.com/slyris). You can also read her blog at Noise and Signal.
Horror delivers fear. It’s why we love it. But as writers, how can we deliver fear effectively?
Scary events are titillating, but what makes a good horror novel is characterization that draws the reader into the story in a visceral way. Good characters get people reading with their gut instead of their head. People come first, scary stuff second. Story is everything.
At first glance, you might not think THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy would win a Pulitzer and become a national bestseller. After all, in McCarthy’s dead, apocalyptic world, the survivors have resorted to vicious murder and cannibalism. Very unpleasant stuff. The reason the novel works is the story is really about a father who will do anything to protect his son in such a world, including his boy’s purity and innocence, even when ultimately their survival appears hopeless. We deeply care about what happens because we identify with the father and want him and his boy to survive.
What then what does the statement “Jacking the emotions effectively, raising the stakes higher and higher in a believable yet terrifying manner” mean to you?
If you’re going to write good horror, create a visceral connection with the reader that is emotional; that brings the reader into the story. Raise the stakes steadily, while occasionally releasing a little tension; that intensifies reader interest and hurls them toward the cathartic climax. Make it believable, which respects and enhances the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. And, yes, scare the crap out of them along the way.
TOOTH AND NAIL is a story is about a platoon of soldiers dealing with the unthinkable – fighting people they swore to protect on their native soil. THE INFECTION is about a small group of broken people who have lost everything and are trying to reach sanctuary. SUFFER THE CHILDREN is about what parents will do for their children. When you choose a theme or an issue, is it because you’re making social or political commentary?
My horror operating themes tend to focus on human response to crisis and the ethics of choices associated with survival. As for specific social and political commentary, it’s more a byproduct, with any commentary being directly related to characters and their own points of view. Which brings up an interesting side point. As a writer, I don’t believe every character should have my own political and social views. That’s not telling a story, it’s preaching. So I may have characters with whom I agree and some with whom I completely disagree, and they’re treated roughly the same by the story god, which is me as the author. I have plenty of axes to grind like anybody else, but that has no place in my fiction. For me, it’s essential that the story feel real, be real, with flesh and blood characters.
In SUFFER THE CHILDREN, you have David, a doctor, as the voice of reason. Can you tell us a little about him and why you chose to have him and how you used him to increase the psychological tension?
I have five major characters in that novel and wanted them to represent a cross section of how people might respond to the world’s children essentially becoming vampires. One parent will do anything and embraces that, another will go beyond but hates himself for it, and another is willing to let them go. David is a man whose own child died long before Herod syndrome claimed the world’s children, so he understands their grief, but he’s also able to think rationally. As a doctor, he has an analytical mind and sees the big picture. In that capacity, he stands in for the rational part of the reader’s mind and provides a foil for the other characters.
You stated in an interview on zombiefiles.com (http://www.zombiephiles.com/zombies-ate-my-brains/tooth-and-nail-interview-with-craig-dilouie) that you are more of an apocalyptic fiction fan than a zombie fiction fan yet you are recognized as a horror writer. What attracts you this genre and why do you mash it with horror?
I like writing fantastic fiction—horror, fantasy, science fiction. The juxtaposition of the fantastic to the normal is fun to write, and there are tons of story possibilities. In particular, I enjoy writing apocalyptic fiction. During a major disaster, the best and worst of humanity are on full display, and there is a sense of zeitgeist—that the world has changed forever, and this is the new world. Think 9/11 on a global scale. People’s identities and morals are thoroughly tested. You can put your characters through the wringer and really find out what they’re made of, who they are. The reader is similarly confronted with choices and consequently learn about themselves. They get the thrill of reading horror—the same instinct that makes people go on roller coasters—which is to face danger (death) and survive the encounter. That being said, I see my zombie fiction as being less in the horror genre and more in the thriller genre.
You have a new novel coming out, and it isn’t horror. What is it and why the departure?
I’m in final negotiations for THE ALCHEMISTS, which is a Renaissance fantasy story. It’s fun, funny, light, romantic and action-packed. Readers will be surprised it’s the same guy who writes the horror stuff. In a way, THE ALCHEMISTS is going back to my roots, as I wrote science fiction for years before I found my way into horror, or more accurately, before that genre found me.
Besides that, I’m developing a series called CRASH DIVE. This is a series of novellas for Kindle about submarine warfare in World War II. It reads like HORNBLOWER in World War II. The first book is out and has done well; I’m working on the second episode. I’m also working on two zombie series with Joe McKinney, Stephen Knight, David Moody and Tim Long. And I’m also collaborating with Jonathan Moon on a poetry collection titled CHILDREN OF GOD. This work is kind of like a found footage film but expressed as poetry. The conceit is that the survivors of a cult—which ended with a mass suicide and massacre—finally find their voice again with poetry therapy, and this book is their poems. In CHILDREN OF GOD, they talk about why they joined the cult, what they hoped and believed, how it went bad, and how it ended. It’s both scary and emotionally powerful.
How was writing THE ALCHEMISTS different from writing horror?
The intensity is different. When you write, you get in the mood. Instead of going to a dark place, I went to a more fun place. I like doing both.
I know you and I know you’re a really nice guy and a good person. Yet, people always wonder if horror writers are really weird or twisted inside. I mean, how can a nice person write such horrifying things?
[laughs] When I tell people I write horror, I sometimes get a confused look. Horror writers, you see, are like serial killers. People say, “He was such a nice, mannered guy. I never suspected he wrote horror.” What’s a guy like me doing in a genre like this? Well, it’s fun! That, and as a writer of horror, my imagination can truly soar. Good horror breaks boundaries, makes us uncomfortable, asks disturbing questions, makes readers sweat. It’s writing at the cutting edge of human nature. On top of that, after attending numerous horror conventions and being a member of the Horror Writers Association for years, I have to say horror writers are generally nice people. While my writing tastes go beyond horror, I’m proud to be part of that community.
It’s been said that readers want to become somebody else for hours and to face unimaginable terrors. Why do you think we want that experience?
People who seek out horror tend to thrive on exciting experiences. They want to step outside their comfort zone and the confines of their safe, mundane world to get an adrenaline rush by confronting their fears. It’s the same reason thrillers are so popular, why people rubber neck car crashes, why people go on roller coasters. People want to face death (voyeuristically) and experience the catharsis of survival, asking along the way, “What would I do in that situation?”
What are your deepest fears and do you write them into your work?
I write my greatest fears into all my horror work. At the root is my fear of death and my fear of something bad happening to my family. These are virtually universal fears.
Sometimes, they’re brought to the fore, as in my novel SUFFER THE CHILDREN (Simon & Schuster, 2014). In that novel, a strange disease claims the world’s children before bringing them back to ask for blood. If they receive a steady diet of blood, they can go on surviving. Unfortunately, there’s only so much blood. The children are vampires, but the monsters in the story are the parents who must decide how far they will go to keep their children alive. So this is a story where the operating theme is directly informed by a parent’s love and fears for his or her children. And it asks the reader, how far would you go?
Other times, these fears aren’t part of the operating theme but instead the fabric of the story, as in the case of my apocalyptic fiction. In my opinion, it’s what marks these stories as being emotionally resonant rather than simple entertainment.
Is there ever a point in your writing where you feel you’ve gone too far?
It’s strange that I’ve been asked that in interviews about SUFFER THE CHILDREN, which has very little gore and violence, but not my zombie fiction, which has plenty of gore and violence. What shocked people about that novel was that it forced them to confront uncomfortable truths about human nature and, in some cases, about themselves. Many parents say they’d put their arm in a shredder for their kids, but would they put somebody else’s arm in a shredder? Five people? A hundred? To do that idea justice, and because I was dealing with the subject of children dying, I made a conscious effort on every page not to overplay the sensationalism inherent in the plot for spectacle or cheap shock. Cheap shock and repulsion get attention but would have robbed this story of its authenticity. The story I wanted to tell was one that felt real to the reader. It’s horror, but it’s really a story about parental love the same way Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD isn’t a story about the apocalypse, but a father’s struggle to protect his son.
Otherwise, aside from my own sensibilities, I don’t really know what “going too far” means, as that kind of judgment is really up to each individual reader. I applaud any fiction that makes the effort, particularly in horror, as good horror pushes boundaries. If it does that internally rather than through cheap shock, by making the reader confront uncomfortable truths, so much the better. In my view, the best horror holds up a fractured mirror to the human soul.
Of the books you’ve written, which was the most challenging?
SUFFER THE CHILDREN, absolutely. I didn’t so much pour my heart into it as let the novel tear it out of me. I was proud to see it nominated for a Bram Stoker Award and Audie Award.
Who are your favorite characters in your books?
I love all of the characters in my books, and I tend to write the kind of books where a lot of these people suffer or die, so it’s hard to let them go. But in my fiction, their deaths mean something. They may suffer and die, but this either serves a principle or ensure the survival of other characters or the species as a whole.
Your website contains some great reviews. What’s on your current reading list?
I’m currently reading TOUCH by Elmore Leonard, an author I love and who has a secret sauce for dialog and character I’m trying to understand better from a technical point of view. Otherwise, as you can imagine, I tend to read a lot of horror fiction, though I’ve stuffed myself with so much of it in recent years I’ve gotten a bit jaded. One horror novel I read recently I completely enjoyed was KIN by Kealan Patrick Burke. It basically tells the story of a young woman who escapes a rural farm occupied by a family of cannibals and what it’s like for her in the aftermath. It reads like a sequel to THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. The story has plenty of sensationalism but it’s told with realism and genuine emotional depth. Otherwise, if you’re interested in good horror and apocalyptic stuff, my blog, www.craigdilouie.com, has tons of reviews not only of books but also short films and movies.
Craig DiLouie is the author of nine novels, notably SUFFER THE CHILDREN, THE RETREAT, THE INFECTION, THE KILLING FLOOR and TOOTH AND NAIL. He has also contributed short fiction to a number of anthologies. Learn more about Craig’s fiction at CraigDiLouie.com.