20 Questions: An Interview with Margarita Engle

Absolute BlankBy Shelley Carpenter (Harpspeed)

Margarita Engle is a Cuban-American poet, award-winning novelist and journalist whose work has been published in many countries. As a reader and a writer I am doubly excited to have had such a wonderful conversation with Margarita who writes children’s stories and young adult novels, many of which echo her own family history and love of nature.

20 Questions: An Interview with Margarita Engle

Background Image: margaritaengle.com

Toasted Cheese: Margarita, what were you like as a kid?

Margarita Engle: I was a shy bookworm with glasses, a long braid, a broken tooth, and homemade mother-daughter clothes. I loved plants and animals, especially horses. I wrote poetry.

TC: From your self-description, you could be a young character in a book, yourself. Tell us what inspired you to write your first book?

ME: After a long separation from Cuba, I finally obtained permission to go back in 1991. My grown-up prose novels were inspired by family history, but after the turn of this new century, I switched to children’s and young adult verse novels. The Poet Slave of Cuba was my first verse novel, and it changed my life forever.

TC: Many of your stories such as The Surrender Tree, The Poet Slave of Cuba, The Drum Dream Girl are historically set in Cuba and have characters that struggle for their freedom and independence. Are any of the characters’ experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?

ME: The Wild Book is based on stories my grandmother told me about her childhood. Mountain Dog is inspired by real people and real wilderness search and rescue dogs. Enchanted Air is a memoir.

TC: Skywriting has a young character that escaped from Cuba on a raft made from inner tubes that parallels the modern world. In the last 50 years, hundreds of refugees made similar epic and perilous journeys across the dangerous 90 miles of ocean to the Florida coast. With US economic sanctions lifting, how will this new political atmosphere affect your writing?

ME: I just returned to Cuba a couple of weeks ago, and not much has changed yet, but there is hope, and that is huge. I always write about hope, but now I’ll do it with the extra excitement of knowing that more than a half of a century of mutual hostilities between my two beloved countries will finally begin to fade.

TC: Another aspect of your stories relates to gender equality. Your female characters are often main characters and are wonderfully fierce and determined to stay true to their beliefs and purpose. They have a strong sense of themselves, of who they are. They persevere and affect positive and political change for themselves and others. Is there a message for girls today in your stories?

ME: Perseverance and a belief in equality certainly are recurring themes, but I don’t invent that aspect. It already exists in the lives of real people I admire, such as Rosa la Bayamesa in The Surrender Tree, Fredrika Bremer in The Firefly Letters, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda in The Lightning Dreamer, Maria Merian in Summer Birds, and Millo Castro Zaldarriaga in Drum Dream Girl.

TC: Family is also a prevalent theme in your stories. There is separation and loss in many of them, yet love and friendship are present even when the characters disagree or are antagonists. Can you speak to that?

ME: I don’t do this consciously. It just emerges from the need for mutual understanding and forgiveness.

TC: From your writing I also detect a love of nature based on your lovely descriptive environmental prose. Setting is as prominent as the characters in many of your stories.

ME: Before I turned to full time creative writing, I studied agriculture and botany, and worked as an agronomy professor, an irrigation water conservation specialist, and a scientific writer. I have always loved nature, even though I grew up in the big city of Los Angeles.

TC: Tell us why you love dogs.

ME: When I married my husband, he had a dog that went to all his college classes with him. Now, 37 years later, he has a wilderness search-and-rescue dog trained to help find lost hikers in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. My role is hiding in the forest, so that various K-9 SAR teams can practice. Dogs are just part of my daily life.

TC: Do you have to travel much concerning your book(s)?

ME: I love to travel, and I especially love returning to Cuba, but I also went to Panama to research Silver People, and Borneo for Orangutanka.

TC: Why are so many of your novels are written in verse?

ME: I fell in love with the form, and especially with its suitability for historical fiction. I love the way free verse gives me room for a character’s thoughts and feelings, without requiring the clutter of every fact and figure known about a subject. Occasionally I’ll add a bit of rhyme, especially in a picture book for very young children.

TC: Your picture books also convey similar themes on a smaller scale.

ME: Drum Dream Girl and Summer Birds are about women who accomplished things only men were supposed to attempt. The Sky Painter is about Louis Fuertes, the bird artist who stopped the tradition of killing and posing birds. When You Wander is about search and rescue dogs, and how to avoid getting lost in the wilderness. Tiny Rabbit’s Big Wish is a Cuban folktale about being satisfied with what we have. Orangutanka is an introduction to a beautiful, intelligent, critically endangered species. In general, my picture books are either about people who dared to try something original, or about animals, and the things we can learn from them.

TC: When you were researching, did you discover anything interesting or cool that didn’t make it into any of your stories? Perhaps seeds for future stories?

ME: That’s an interesting question, because it really is easy to get sidetracked, and become fascinated with stories related to the one I’m researching. The Firefly Letters grew from research for The Poet Slave of Cuba, and The Sky Painter was an offshoot of research for Silver People. Many of the things that haven’t made it into a book yet really do survive as tiny seeds in the back of my mind.

TC: Here’s my burning question: You are the recipient of many prestigious awards for your stories and poetry—Is there a cost to literary fame? More responsibility? Or is it all good?

ME: It’s all good! Awards help me continue to get published.

TC: What books have most influenced your life most?

ME: Poetry from Cuba and Spain is the most influential, especially José Martí, Dulce María Loynaz, and Antonio Machado.

TC: If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?

ME: Tomás Rivera was my creative writing professor. He really was a mentor, simply by teaching me to write from the heart, without worrying about getting published. That comes later.

TC: Do you have a specific writing style and process?

ME: I’m a morning person. I write first drafts with a pen on paper, because I love the flow of ink. I try not to worry about corrections until a much later draft.

TC: What was the hardest part of writing your books?

ME: The hardest part is fear. Each time I start a manuscript, I have to find the courage to say what I want to say, without worrying about the approval of strangers.

TC: Do you have a favorite character from your books?

ME: My grandmother in The Wild Book.

TC: How long does it take to write a historical verse novel? How long does it take to write a picture book?

ME: A historical verse novel usually takes me around one year of research, and one year of scribbling, but The Poet Slave of Cuba took ten years of false starts in prose. A picture book can be written quickly, but then I have to wait for the editor to choose an illustrator, which can take months. Once the illustrator agrees to work on the book, it can take several years before the artwork is complete. Writers need patience. There are no shortcuts.

TC: Thank you, Margarita. And one final question: do you have any advice for Toasted Cheese writers?

ME: Listen to Tomás Rivera: Write from the heart. Don’t worry about getting published. That comes later.

Fiction is a Series of Choices: Interview with Seanan McGuire

Absolute BlankBy Erin Bellavia (Billiard)

Seanan McGuire (pronounced SHAWN-in) is a literary force to be reckoned with.

She is the author of the October Daye urban fantasies, the InCryptid urban fantasies, and several other works both stand-alone and in trilogies or duologies. The ninth October Daye book, A Red-Rose Chain, comes out next month. She also writes under the pseudonym “Mira Grant.” (For details on her work as Mira, check out MiraGrant.com.)

You’d think that would be enough to keep her busy, and you’d be right, if we were talking about an ordinary human. In her spare time, Seanan records CDs of her original filk music (see her Albums page for details). She is also a cartoonist, and draws an irregularly posted autobiographical web comic, “With Friends Like These…”. Somehow, she also manages to post to her blog, Tumblr, and Twitter regularly, watch a sickening amount of television, maintain her website, and go to pretty much any movie with the words “blood,” “night,” “terror” or “attack” in the title. Most people believe she doesn’t sleep. We think there might be some kind of demonic bargain going on.

Seanan was the winner of the 2010 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and her novel Feed (as Mira Grant) was named as one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of 2010. In 2013 she became the first person ever to appear five times on the same Hugo Ballot.

We talked to Seanan about gender, being a “social justice warrior,” navigating social media, and the soon-to-be released A Red-Rose Chain.

Background Photo: seananmcguire.com

Background Photo: seananmcguire.com

Toasted Cheese: You have a name that, to many, appears to be of ambiguous gender. On your Tumblr, you recently posted a link to this article, and responded to a reader’s question about it (here). Can you tell us a bit more about any gender bias you’ve dealt with (directly or indirectly) in terms of publishing/readership?

Seanan McGuire: For the most part, my readers are awesome, and they aren’t weighted one direction or another (so it’s not “only women read me” or “only men read me,” or anything like this). I think I receive a lot more rape threats than male authors. They seem genuinely stunned, when I talk to them about it, to discover that this is just how life is for me, and for most of the other female authors I know. I wish it would stop.

TC: You seem to endeavor to make sure your characters represent a variety of racial and gender identities. We (and many others) see this as a positive. This question comes in two parts:

  1. Is this something that comes naturally to you, or have you had to consciously work at it?
  2. Have you dealt with any pushback, either from publishers or fans, because of it?

SM: I honestly just want the characters I write about to reflect the diversity that I see in my friends and in the world around me. I also grew up white and cisgendered in America, so I do have to make an effort not to default to “white, cis, American.” That can be an effort. It’s worth it.

I’ve received a few inquiries to the effect of “why did character X have to be gay?” or “why did character Y have to be Indian?” I try not to be cranky about those. I do wonder if the people who ask me those questions go up to people on the street and ask “why did you have to be ______?” Fiction is a series of choices. Reality is a series of coincidences. If our choices are not as varied and diverse as those coincidences, we’re doing something wrong.

TC: You blog and tweet a lot about social justice issues (like racial and gender inequality, the representation of women in the media, etc.), and as we previously noted, these issues certainly enter into your work. Because of that, you and a number of other current science fiction and fantasy authors have been the target of complaints by other authors and fans claiming that these “social justice warrior” (SJW) issues are “ruining” SFF. What is your response/reaction to those complaints?

SM: I feel like a lot of those people have not read much science fiction, which has always been about “SJW issues.” Science fiction is about politics and society and pushing the envelope. Anyone who’s read Tiptree or Heinlein or Piper or King can see that. I think that there’s a tendency to paint the work of our childhood in rose tones, thinking it was always perfectly suited to us—I find it when I go back to watch old horror movies, and am just stunned by all the slut-shaming. I wonder if some of these people wouldn’t be equally stunned if they went back and read the authors they say they admire.

TC: We recently wrote an article about the negotiation of social media for writers… you weren’t able to participate at the time, but since you’re an author we always think of when we think of authors on social media, we’d like to ask for your response to a few of those questions! So… how has your relationship with the internet/social media changed since being published?

SM: I spend a lot less time reading web comics, and a lot more time trading Disney pins. Really, it hasn’t changed that much.

TC: How would you describe your relationship with your fans online?

SM: A lot of them are super-sweet, and so excited to talk to me. I do worry about hurting someone’s feelings without meaning to, since I’m a little odd sometimes, so I try to be ultra careful.

TC: What are three things you wish fans wouldn’t do when interacting with you online?

SM: Ask me questions about pub dates that I haven’t announced; ask me for spoilers; yell at me because a book is not available in their region. I am incredibly accessible and up-front. The flip side of this is that if I haven’t said something, I probably can’t, and I get really uncomfortable when pressured.

TC: Let’s talk about Toby! The Winter Long, Book 8 in the series, was kind of a game-changer. With A Red-Rose Chain coming next month, what should readers expect from Toby & Co. moving forward?

SM: A book annually, as long as DAW lets me. More seriously, I don’t do spoilers. They, too, make me super uncomfortable.

(At least four more books after A Red-Rose Chain are confirmed at this time. Be sure to check out the review in our next issue for more!)

TC: Many readers of this series enjoy the way you’ve built the faerie world Toby inhabits. We know that you studied folklore, but how much of Toby’s Faerie is your creation, as opposed to already-existing folklore?

SM: It’s sort of “chicken and the egg.” Most of Toby’s Faerie is based on folklore, but then spun, hard, in my own direction.

(You can find out more about Seanan and Toby’s version of Faerie on Seanan’s blog, where she answers reader questions about Toby’s world in the lead-up to the release of each book. You’ll see several posts at the link, but if you want to dig even deeper, check out the Toby Daye tag!)

TC: And let’s go out on a light note… we know you’re a big fan of lots of different kinds of media. Give our fans a recommendation of one of your favorite:

All-time favorite: It by Stephen King.
Recent favorite: The Girl with All the Gifts by M.K. Carey.

Slither, written and directed by James Gunn.

TV shows
Most likely to re-watch: Leverage or The West Wing.

I spent literally a decade following the Counting Crows around the West Coast. I am a fan forever.

Seanan’s Links:

Negotiating Social Media for Writers: A Conversation With Jim C. Hines, Mary Robinette Kowal & Kameron Hurley

Absolute BlankBy Erin Bellavia (Billiard)

“The Internet, like the steam engine, is a technological breakthrough that changed the world.” —Peter Singer

The internet can be both a blessing and a curse, giving us a wealth of information at our fingertips, and allowing us to make connections across continents and around the world. For published authors, the internet has become a place to research quickly and easily as well as interact with fans and colleagues instantaneously. Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr all create spaces that allow for different levels and types of interaction.

We wondered how blogs and social media affect the writing and personal lives of working authors, so we contacted Jim C. Hines, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Kameron Hurley, all authors with a prominent online presence, and asked them to talk to us about their lives on the internet.

Negotiating Social Media for Writers

Background Image: Peter Kirkeskov Rasmussen/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Toasted Cheese: Thinking back to before you were published, can you think of any online behaviors that may have helped your career?

Jim C. Hines: Back in the wee days of the internet, when we hand-coded our “online journals” into Geocities while adding starry backgrounds and moving dragon gifs, I mostly used my web presence to connect with a handful of other struggling writers. It was a great way to share encouragement and to feel like I wasn’t alone in the struggle. Back then, the internet was pretty much worthless as a tool for self-promotion, at least for most of us, but it did help me build those human connections. That’s one of the things I try to focus on today, fifteen years later. Promotion and sales are nice, but those connections are the best part of being online.

Mary Robinette Kowal: Most of the online behaviors were mirrors of things that I do in real life. Celebrating other people’s successes, being interested in what people are working on, and generally trying to be helpful while trying to avoid being pushy.

Kameron Hurley: Writing well and passionately, certainly. Engaging with people. And not being a jerk, generally. That doesn’t mean not disagreeing with people—I disagree with people all the time—but I disagree with ideas and statements and world views. I try not to condemn people as human beings because we disagree about something. Writers have professional disagreements all the time. What I learned is that there’s a core group of people in the business with you now who will be there in twenty years, so try not to burn any bridges or start any feuds unless you’re really, really sure of what you’re doing. You’re going to see these people at all your professional events.

Writing is a business, and you have to treat it like any other business.

TC: What online media (social and otherwise) do you use most? For what? How do you use different media in different ways?)

JCH: I’ve got a blog I use for longer essays and things that require a bit more complex thought. And also the occasional Lego picture. Twitter is great for joking and chatting with folks, like the world’s biggest social bar. I’ve also started doing a little more long-form stuff on Twitter, posting things in five or ten parts. Facebook is good for posting photos and sometimes links back to longer pieces or conversations, along with shorter excerpts and jokes and such. Facebook is also nice for getting input or feedback. It’s easier to tap into the internet hivemind over there.

MRK: Twitter is where I hang out the most. I like the conversational aspect of it. It’s fantastic for research, because most of the people on there are really, let’s be honest, looking for a way to procrastinate. So queries like, “Anyone know where I can find the telegraph code for Atlanta in 1907?” get answered in five minutes flat.

KH: I spend most of my online life on Twitter, and I write all of my long form content on a blog that I own and manage at kameronhurley.com. I strongly recommend that if folks are going to write content, that they host it all on their own websites. Platforms grow, change, and dissolve, but you can maintain your website and its content presumably forever.

I cross-post all of my content to Facebook, Google Plus, Twitter, and Tumblr, and I recently started an Instagram account. Tumblr and Instagram I created primarily because I knew there was a huge potential audience who used those platforms that I was completely missing. The average age of someone using Twitter is 34. If you want to find younger readers, you need to be where they are, so I do make an effort. That said, I don’t like them as much, so I keep my involvement there very low maintenance. It’s all on autopilot, set to post across platform when I click “publish” on my blog.

But Twitter is the biggest cocktail party, and certainly the platform that’s been best for me to connect with colleagues and fans. I’ve virtually “met” a ton of people who I later hung out with at conventions or appearances. I like the immediacy and low time investment of the form.

I’d pick one or two social platforms you like and put your time into those. Don’t try to fracture your time too much, or you’ll burn out really quickly. Social media moves so fast that keeping up is a full time job in and of itself.

TC: How has your relationship with the internet/social media changed since being published?

JCH: It’s gotten… bigger, really. More people, more followers, more interactions, more content… it takes significantly more time than it used to. There are a lot more options out there now. It also feels a lot more tense sometimes. I think there are a lot of important conversations and discussions happening right now, but there are also days I just want to post funny animal pictures, you know?

MRK: I talk a lot less about my personal life than I did. I used to blog about lunches and company. When 100 people follow you and they are mostly folks you know in real life, then it’s just chatting with your friends. But with 14,000 followers, it now it feels like I’m invading the privacy of my guests if I trot them out for public view.

KH: I spend more time thinking about what I’m saying instead of just blasting out angry rants. Overall, I think this is actually a good thing—as a writer, I should pay special attention to the words I’m using, and writing publicly now, with more people listening, means I’m more aware of the impact of my words, and I take greater responsibility for them. Do I really mean what I’m saying in exactly this way? Am I needlessly attacking someone? Am I being gauche to shock and hurt people? What am I trying to accomplish with a rant?

TC: Has your pre-publication online life ever “come back to haunt you”?

JCH: Not yet! My post-publication online life, on the other hand…

MRK: Not yet!

KH: Strangely enough, not that I know of. But then, my colleagues are forgiving.

TC: How do you use blogging and social media for promotion? How much self-promotion is expected of you?

JCH: I’ll announce when new books come out and things like that, but self-promotion is very much secondary. People know I’m an author. There’s links and info about my books on my sites. If readers want to check those things out, they can. They don’t need me shoving it in their face every other post.

As for how much is expected of me? I haven’t had much outside pressure from my agent or publisher or anything like that. I’ve talked to authors who feel like they’re supposed to be online and actively promoting themselves on ALL THE SITES, but that hasn’t been my experience, nor is it something I’d be comfortable trying to do. I don’t want to be a salesman. I want to talk about cool SF/F stuff with my fellow geeks, and maybe sometimes rant about stuff that pisses me off.

MRK: I do. I think the thing most people miss with social media is that the emphasis is on social. Which means that you have to be engaged in the community for it to work. Sometimes I describe social media as a high school cafeteria. You can wander through, overhearing snippets of conversations, and occasionally stop to join in them. If you need everyone to know about a thing, you stand up on the table and shout about it. If you’ve been engaging and part of the community, then everyone will help spread the word. If not…you’re just the obnoxious person who stood on the table and shouted.

KH: No one really expects authors to promote themselves; they hope for it, sometimes they ask and prod about it, but writing and promotion are very different skills, and the reality is that many of the world’s best writers are very poor promoters. The best advice I ever got on promotion was from fellow science fiction writer Tobias Buckell, who told me to only do the things I enjoyed doing when it came to promo. I don’t like doing readings, so I stopped doing them, and I doubled down on what I’m good at, which is blogging. I can write essays pretty quickly. Now I do fairly extensive blog tours during the release weeks of my books.

What you find is that media works like a sieve—you do a ton of blog posts for small blogs, and folks one tier up see that. So you do some for mid-sized blogs. Then you get invited to podcasts, you get invited to radio shows, then mid-sized publications quote you, then larger publications come knocking. It’s about projecting your presence across a number of different media during a short, intense, promotion window. Think of yourself like a puffer fish, always putting out content that makes you look like a bigger deal than you are. Sounds like a trick, right? And it is. People think I’m far more financially successful than I am when it comes to writing fiction, but that, in turn, has led to me being more successful because I’ve been invited to more projects and gotten more gigs. You project success and importance and speak loudly and smartly, and you’re funny and delightful, and then people start asking you to do more work. If you can do the work well, and on time, then congrats—you’ve faked your way to success!

Which is what a lot of us do, really. A lot of promotion is pretending to be the person you want to be, even during the times you’re really not feeling it.

TC: How would you describe your relationship with your fans online?

JCH: Pretty darn good. One fan just send me a gift certificate for gourmet bacon. My fans and readers and community of online geeks are awesome.

MRK: They are lovely, lovely people.

KH: That’s a good question. I think you’d have to ask them! Fun, overall, for me. Fans are delightful and encouraging, and one of the best parts of the jobs. I’m on Twitter to have fun, interesting conversations. Most of the folks who follow me are there for that reason, too.

TC: Of course, one drawback of the internet is the anonymous hate and trolling that sometimes goes along with having an online presence. Can you describe a time when you had to deal with hate and/or trolling?

JCH: Eh. I don’t get too much trolling, and the hate is significantly milder than I’ve seen other people get. (Which I’m sure has absolutely nothing to do with me being male and white and straight. /sarcasm) I have no problem with people arguing with me online. When people get abusive or cross the line into just being dicks, I generally just block them and get on with my life.

MRK: Yesterday. So, I decided that it would be a nice thing to offer to help people who couldn’t afford a supporting membership for the Hugo awards, by doing a drawing to give some away. This led to cries of “Vote buying!” even though I wasn’t up for an award. My feed became infested with people associated with GamerGate. So I did something I call “politeness trolling.” Which is that someone says something hateful to me, and I answer them with a request for clarification, often accompanied by an apology. More often than not, this actually leads to an interesting conversation.

And the ones that are just trolling me? Heh. I grew up in the South where we’re taught to say, “That’s nice,” instead of “Fuck you.” I can bless someone’s heart all day.

KH: I used to get death threats and such in the beginning (back in 2004), when I had comments turned on for my blog. I got rid of comments, have my assistant screen my email, and block people ruthlessly on Twitter now. I’ve made it so I’m able to live pretty troll-free. Twitter’s mute function is fabulous. I’m also very careful never to wade into comment sections that I know aren’t going to be useful conversations—you get very good at figuring out when someone’s discussing your work and when someone just wants to start a pile on, or poke at you to see if you’ll have some public meltdown. Inciting author meltdowns is a sport, for some people.

I see so many people giving over their platforms to trolls these days—retweeting hateful statements, getting into arguments with people who are clearly just there to argue—and I can’t imagine it’s very satisfying to anyone but the troll. You have to get that trolls are sadists. They want you to waste your time arguing with them. They want to discourage you from creating work. They want you to be upset and be fearful. The best thing you can do in the face of evil is to do the work that evil doesn’t want you to do, because it’s the work that helps create a world that has no place for them.

TC: It’s fun to watch popular authors interact with fans online, and while I’m sure the majority of interactions are positive, what are three things you wish fans wouldn’t do when interacting with you online?

JCH: Stop adding me to Facebook groups without asking! Don’t tag authors when posting nasty reviews of their books. And for Cthulhu’s sake, if you think the proper way to argue with a woman is to call her a bitch or a c**t, or to post threats of rape or violence, do civilization a favor and get the hell off the internet.

MRK: 1. Apologize for bothering me; 2. Offer me unsolicited advice on writing; 3. Complain about the pricing of my books.

KH: I occasionally get folks who tweet at me like twenty or thirty times a day, without really adding to a conversation, just sort of being like, “I’m here! I’m here!” It’s lovely that they are there, but the reality is that if something feels like spam, I need to mute it for my own sanity. I do sometimes get folks who try and make “ironic” sexist or racist jokes, which always falls flat with me. I mute those immediately, even knowing they meant no harm. When you’re surrounded in real hate all day, even the ironic stuff gets to you.

Overall, though, my fans are great. They are funny and smart and supportive. I even had one bring me a bottle of scotch to a signing, raising the bar for all future fan interactions (TAKE NOTE FANS).

TC: Can you offer any advice to those hoping to be published, regarding their internet/social media presence?

JCH: Be yourself. Have fun. Don’t try to do everything, because you’ll burn yourself out fast. Figure out what you’re comfortable with and do that.

MRK: Don’t stress about it too hard. The social in social media means that you really should be engaging in ways that are comfortable to you. Anything that you have to work at, or hate doing, is going to show as a lack of sincerity. And at the end of the day, your job is to write. So do that first.

KH: Do what you love. Avoid the stuff you don’t like doing. But know the difference between “I don’t like this” and “this is too hard to learn.” Sometimes, if you take the time to learn a new platform, you’ll end up liking it, but you don’t know if you don’t try.

And don’t be a jerk. For the love of all things… don’t be a jerk. Be the best possible version of you. Treat people kindly and humanely. These aren’t pixels, they’re people. And when you are burned out (and you WILL be burned out, at one time or another), it’s OK to take a break from the internet and promotion and all the rest.

I’ve gotten to the point now where I schedule six weeks a year that are just to promote whatever novel I have coming out, and I don’t expect to do any writing in that time. Then I go dark for a month or two, and really pull back on my social presence after that while I work on the next book. Don’t try and be “on” all the time. Break it up into manageable chunks of time.

But most of all, I want to remind folks that the work comes first. Write great books. THEN figure out how to tell people about them. Walk before you run.


Jim C. Hines‘s first novel was Goblin Quest, the humorous tale of a nearsighted goblin runt and his pet fire-spider. Actor and author Wil Wheaton described the book as “too f***ing cool for words,” which is pretty much the Best Blurb Ever. After finishing the goblin trilogy, he went on to write the Princess series of fairy tale retellings, and is currently working on the Magic ex Libris books, a modern-day fantasy series about a magic-wielding librarian, a dryad, a secret society founded by Johannes Gutenberg, a flaming spider, and an enchanted convertible. He’s also the author of the Fable Legends tie-in Blood of Heroes. His short fiction has appeared in more than 50 magazines and anthologies.

Jim is an active blogger about topics ranging from sexism and harassment to zombie-themed Christmas carols, and won the Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer in 2012. He has an undergraduate degree in psychology and a Masters in English, and lives with his wife and two children in mid-Michigan.

Mary Robinette Kowal is a Hugo-award winning author, voice actor, and professional puppeteer. Her debut novel Shades of Milk and Honey (Tor, 2010) was nominated for the 2010 Nebula Award for Best Novel. In 2008 she won the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, while two of her short fiction works have been nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Short Story: “Evil Robot Monkey” in 2009 and “For Want of a Nail” in 2011, which won the Hugo that year. Her stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Asimov’s, and several Year’s Best anthologies, as well as in her collection Scenting the Dark and Other Stories from Subterranean Press. Mary lives in Chicago with her husband Rob and over a dozen manual typewriters. Sometimes she even writes on them.

Kameron Hurley is the author of the novels God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture—a science-fantasy noir series which earned her the Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer and the Kitschy Award for Best Debut Novel. She has won the Hugo Award (twice), and been a finalist for the Nebula Award, the Clarke Award, the Locus Award, and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her most recent novel is the subversive epic fantasy The Mirror Empire. The sequel, Empire Ascendant, will be out in October 2015. She writes regularly for Locus Magazine and publishes personal essays at kameronhurley.com.

Emotional Terrain: Interview with Vanessa Blakeslee

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Vanessa Blakeslee’s first short fiction collection Train Shots was recently published by Burrow Press. In it we meet characters ranging from a drug-addicted doctor to a Britney Spears-like “pop princess” in places ranging from Costa Rica to Pennsylvania to Florida. Vanessa recently took time from her reading tour and Edward F. Albee Foundation residency to talk about the collection, her characters, and the burgeoning Orlando literary scene.

Emotional Terrain: Interview with Vanessa Blakeslee

Toasted Cheese: We discovered that we kind of traded places (I grew up all over Florida and moved to Pennsylvania; you moved to Florida from a different part of Pennsylvania). “Barbecue Rabbit” technically could take place anywhere but it’s set in Pennsylvania and feels like a Pennsylvania story down to the bones. Pennsylvania also dips a toe into the title story as well. I’m curious about the perspective of someone who isn’t shaking Pennsylvania from her boots the same way I can’t shake Florida. Do you think there’s something particular that stays with you when you make a geographic or culture change or is it simply our life experience in play?

Vanessa Blakeslee: It’s uncanny that you ask this because right now I’m revisiting a project that I’ve been working on over the past few summers set in northeast Pennsylvania, where I grew up. For a while I didn’t think Pennsylvania was an itch I wanted to scratch as a fiction writer but while at Vermont College, I wrote a story called “Shadow Boxes” that took place in my hometown. The story later won the Bosque Fiction Prize and got shortlisted for a number of others. This prompted me to consider that maybe there was more to mine in the subject matter (apparently so). I’m two or three stories away from a completed first draft. I’m still early in the process—and who knows how the manuscript may change—but so far the project feels very much in the tradition of Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women, or Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, both books I greatly admire.

Vanessa Blakeslee

Vanessa Blakeslee

I think when you’ve spent a significant portion of your life somewhere, those particulars of place can’t help but stay with you. You undergo moments of humiliation and joy in an array of locales, from the grocery store where you landed your first job (and maybe your first love), say, to the woods where you walked with your grandmother, to the school parking lot where you got beaten up. Those memories become ingrained in the landscape, whether your returns are real or imagined. At the same time you’re shaped by the natural world—even if that world is New York City—down to the climate and weather, and the cultural milieu that is inhabited by the people there. You can’t escape those factors, nor should you; they’re what knit inhabitants together across economic divides, the insular peculiarities of individual families, age, and time. And over time, it’s as if the heaviness of memory pressurizes one’s sensory knowledge of a place with the emotional terrain—that’s when you’ve got real gold to mine from, as a writer.

TC: It seems like you’re being tagged specifically as a “Florida writer.” It never feels dismissive but it doesn’t feel complete when I read it. How do you interpret “Florida writer,” if not simply “I live and write in Florida?”

VB: Again, I think this has more to do with the emotional terrain in my fiction rather than the concrete specifics of place. Most Floridians are from somewhere else, many from the Northeast who chose to make Florida their home for a number of reasons—so you have a vast number of residents who didn’t spend their childhoods there, and are in some way deliberately starting a new chapter in life. There’s a sense of displacement there, of transition—perhaps even frontier. Transplants set out to move there with hope and optimism, if only for the weather and lifestyle—so you’ve got everyone from college students to retirees showing up, brimming with desire and dreams. We’re now the third largest state; all of this growth happened so quickly that you have radically different people colliding on one narrow peninsula. All of this makes for unique conflict scenarios as well as emotional terrain for fiction.

As for the label, I don’t mind being called a Florida writer because I do write a lot about my adopted state—just watch out if I move somewhere else! Because I write what I write, and I certainly don’t feel pressure to be a “Florida writer.” If that’s how others chose to see my work, fine, but ultimately labels fall short and backfire. Literature is vastly bigger than any convenient labels we can come up with.

TC: There’s incredible diversity in the state (people, backgrounds, geography). What do you find inspiring about Florida?

VB: I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have my eyes peeled for what happens in my backyard, or my neighbors’ backyards. But Florida, and Orlando in particular, has such a variety of establishments, parks, neighborhoods, malls, etc., in part due to the tourist economy, that I think the city offers plenty in terms of choosing lively backdrops for fiction. PR’s, the Tex-Mex restaurant, was an obvious one since I worked there for five years. I wasn’t surprised when the restaurant worked into my imagination, both in “Clock In” and “Train Shots” (also in “Arthur and George: The Quest” which didn’t make it into this collection but is available online at Drunken Boat).

The landscape and climate inspire me a great deal. In the case of “The Lung,” I had fun setting that story during a summer of raging wildfires rather than a more expected scenario. There’s no “hurricane story” in the book, for example, and I kind of like that. I like bringing readers into the real world of a place, and the reality is that Florida’s chilly winters and torrential summer downpours are much more evocative of what life is like here than the occasional devastating hurricane season.

TC: What do you wish more non-residents knew?

VB: That the literary scene in Orlando has really taken off. We have our longstanding traditions, like the annual Winter with the Writers festival at Rollins College, which brings in A-list poets and writers every February. Over the past five years, I’ve noticed a renewed energy and enthusiasm within the writing community. The University of Central Florida now offers the MFA in Writing, plus the University of Tampa has a low-residency program. The Jack Kerouac Writers-in-Residence Project hosts a new writer every three months; those residents come from every corner of the globe and bring new lifeblood. Burrow Press, the publisher of Train Shots, showcases noteworthy talent several times a year at its up-and-coming reading series, Functionally Literate. Peruse the weekly event listings during the school year and you’ll find the calendar packed with literary events—so many, you’ll often find yourself missing out.

I love where the Orlando lit scene is at right now. It’s just big enough that we’ve got a considerable pool of varied and burgeoning talent, yet small and intimate enough that most of us know each other and love nothing more than cheering each other on, absent of petty jealousies and competition. I’m not claiming that we’re the Brooklyn of the South yet—maybe in another eight or ten years—but we’re definitely on our way. I couldn’t be happier to be here right now, because I deeply sense that we—not just as a literary scene, but as a city—are fast approaching coming into our own. Ultimately the lit scene will change as Orlando grows; the egos will flare up as the intimacy dies. I hope that doesn’t happen for a long time yet. I can only describe our literary scene as being a place of true community, love and support. I’m ever grateful for it, and excited for its future.

TC: No matter where your story is set, your settings are specific and vibrant (“Welcome, Lost Dogs” struck me in this way). Do you think of setting as a character in its own right or more of a backdrop for particular situations or people?

VB: It depends on the story. My fiction arises very much from setting. I’m not so much an image-driven writer; often I find myself fascinated by hearing anecdotes of people stuck in unusual circumstances, and my stories grow out of exploring those predicaments. Setting very much drives a story such as, “Welcome, Lost Dogs” or “Don’t Forget the Beignets.” In “Princess of Pop” setting looms so large, it functions almost as another character: the pop star is falling apart, she chooses to hole up in the hotel where Joplin died, and the story pretty much remains there.

In others, where the setting takes more of a backseat to the conflict—“Ask Jesus” comes to mind, as well as “The Lung” and even “Hospice of the Au Pair”—I crafted the setting to create a certain desired effect. I suppose a premise has to contain a certain peculiarity for me to set it in Florida—a juxtaposition of the inherent natural beauty abundant in this state, as well as an extreme, perhaps comically absurd, element of the grotesque—one might call it the New Southern Gothic, or even Florida Gothic, who knows? For instance, “The Lung” could have taken place anywhere. But since it’s a story about smoking, disease and the impermanence of nature, I set it in Florida during a summer of raging wildfires. Likewise, I chose for the protagonist to work in the field of environmental protection and have a green thumb.

Conversely, “Hospice of the Au Pair,” about a WASPy middle-class girl who falls in love with a morphine-addicted doctor, was originally set in Florida but something about the premise and setting rang as too expected, somehow. Maybe it came off too consciously as “another kooky Florida story,” and therefore gimmicky. In that case, changing the backdrop to Costa Rica injected the story—if you don’t mind the pun—with just the right unusual details to make it truly fresh and believable.

TC: Some of your characters aren’t written to provoke sympathy or likeability but they’re compelling and realistic (Sam in “Hospice of the Au Pair” stands out to me). When writing short fiction, how deeply do you get into your characters? Do you let their backgrounds evolve as you work or do you begin with their histories in mind?

VB: Short fiction doesn’t leave much room for backstory so I don’t spend too much time on characters’ histories aside from nailing down the immediate situation they’ve just come out of offstage, which has propelled them into the crisis they’re facing now. Much of the time this is very thin, just a couple of lines at the outset. Then, as the story progresses and a gap opens up where a bit of backstory information is called for to shed light on the present situation, I’ll make something up that is ideally both idiosyncratic to the individuals, setting, etc., and also inevitably fitting.

For instance, I don’t know much about Sam, the expat doctor in “Hospice of the Au Pair,” but in the final scene in the yard, he notices the blazing colors of the tropical trees. Why does he notice them? What’s the significance of this gesture? I tied it back to the autumns of his boyhood in the northern United States, a purer time which he very much yearns to return to now, via his own, albeit fractured, family. So I feel that I do get into characters as deeply as when writing a novel, but you’re just in and out so quickly with the short form. And in a way it’s very freeing, not having to come up with as much backstory to fuel the narrative moment. Although I’ll add that even with a novel, writers usually don’t need as much character history as they think they do—a story centers on what’s happening now, after all, not back then. There, too, I find myself making up the material I need as I plug along. With novels, I feel like there’s more of a sense of character history but that’s an element best left to the subconscious to work on. In composing first drafts, I’m hyper-focused on pushing the action forward.

TC: Your characters seem to come from a place of great empathy and insight. I’m curious about how and where you observe people for inspiration.

VB: Thank you. I draw upon people I meet in real life as a starting point for my characters but often I combine traits from different individuals. If you’re writing character-driven literary fiction, then as you craft motivation and plot you have to exaggerate or diminish certain traits of a protagonist as he or she navigates the situation and the obstacles flung in front of them. To what degree you manipulate those traits and to what effect, therein lies the art. Characters, even ones rooted in real life, inevitably take on their own shape because the form demands that you invent and embellish.

The characters I felt closest to while writing the stories were the narrator in “Welcome, Lost Dogs,” the pop icon protagonist in “Princess of Pop,” as well as the female heroines in “The Sponge Diver” and “Don’t Forget the Beignets.” I also felt close to P.T., the engineer in “Train Shots.” While all of the characters I just cited are female with the exception of P.T., I wouldn’t say that sharing the same gender has as much to do with “closeness,” however—rather, it’s a certain emotional terrain that we occupy, or that those characters spring from. I have lived, in brief spurts, the isolating experience of being an expat “caught between countries.” I have been in romantic relationships with varying degrees of power dynamics, for good and for ill. As fiction writers we talk a lot about what we “reveal and conceal” on the page, and I’m fascinated by how relationships operate that way, too—how much of privacy contains secrecy, and when does secrecy cross over into deception?

The character of Margot in “The Lung” I found a bit slippery to capture at first, because I see her as so different from me. She’s very much the strong, no-nonsense woman I aspire to be; perhaps, in recent years I’ve made strides toward becoming more like her. The troubled Ethan was often hairy to handle in scene—figuring out exactly what his objectives were, and where his motivations were coming from. Same thing with Jono, the love interest in “The Sponge Diver.” In revision, it became apparent that the story’s quiet power lay in the potential to make both of the characters responsible for their relationship’s demise, but getting that to happen, pinpointing and rendering vivid those tiny moments of miscommunication and masquerade that build to bring it down, was tricky.

While my life is a far-cry from that of a celebrity or train engineer, in emotional terms we’re not so different. That’s what I aim to do in my fiction—illuminate how we all struggle with loneliness and disenchantment even when we are “living the dream,” whatever that dream is, and often especially after we achieve expertise or status. Doubt, despair, feeling like a fraud, whether in our vocation or in our efforts to love others—I don’t think any of us escapes our time on this planet without grappling with these things. At what point does the despair become too much? P.T. wonders in “Train Shots”—a poignant and worthwhile question, one which echoes back to the protagonist’s crisis in “Princess of Pop.”

TC: Looking back weeks after reading Train Shots, “Princess of Pop” is the story that stayed with me most strongly. I was just telling my husband about it over the weekend. I think it’s because it’s a character we think we already know.

Speaking of characters, I have to ask: is Erica in “Ask Jesus” the same Erica, mentioned but never seen, from “Clock In?”

VB: I’ll say this: I did deliberately chose the name Erica for both stories so that the reader might have the option to make that connection. But it’s up to the reader to decide.

TC: There’s a romantic or sexual relationship in every Train Shots story, whether currently happening in the center (“Ask Jesus”) or the periphery of the story (“Train Shots”) or in the past but looming over the characters (“Uninvited Guests”). I feel like a lot of writers, particularly in short fiction, stay away from sexuality in the story unless it’s directly involved in the plot instead of acknowledging that it’s primary to human nature.

VB: Biological impulses and sexual desire drive the world; we like to believe we’re more sophisticated than that, but it’s naïve to believe so. Literary fiction, at its most basic level, is about connection and disconnection between men and women, and while all stories don’t have to be centered on love and sex—that would be rather mundane—its absence in storytelling is as noticeable as an elephant in the room.

Writing literary sex, whether funny or awkward or passionate or violent, is just like facing any other scene you’ve got to capture; there’s no need for gratuitous detail, but you have to stare. Sex—the lack of it, the yearning for it, and the messy consequences of our romantic pursuits—occupies a great deal of our adult lives. That concept of emotional terrain crops up. Would P.T., the engineer in “Train Shots,” be so distraught if not for his longtime companion having broken up with him three days before the young woman’s suicide? How much of the Princess of Pop’s turmoil is wrapped up in her status as a sex symbol, her identity stolen by corporate interests and molded into a pawn from when she was barely a teen? No doubt her hypersexualized image influenced Erica, the character from “Ask Jesus” in some way, in how she chooses to modify her body to fit what the culture deems sexy—which plays with her head and takes a toll on her marriage.

So maybe it’s just the way I see the world, that sex and sexuality are integral to the messes we get ourselves into even when a situation doesn’t overtly appear that way. What do human beings long for most but freedom and intimacy—how do we go about pursuing both? What do we sacrifice? I’m fascinated by this.

TC: One example of a story with a sexual relationship is “The Sponge Diver,” which was originally published in Toasted Cheese. Most (all?) of the stories in Train Shots are previously published. Did you do much or any rewriting between the previously published versions of the stories and the versions that appear in the collection? How did you prepare the stories for the collection? Did you do your own editing or collaborate with an editor or publisher?

VB: I started many of these stories, including “The Sponge Diver,” as an MFA student at Vermont College. In the years since, I kept revising them as they were accepted for publication in literary journals and along the way, kept sending out the manuscript to small press contests for book-length collections. Twice, the full manuscript placed as a finalist, although under different titles.

I kept playing with the stories to include, the order and the title. Just as I found myself exhausted of submitting it through the contest system, Ryan Rivas (the editor at Burrow Press) approached me about possibly launching my debut collection. At the time I was writing a craft blog for the Burrow Press Review. He had come to know me as a hard worker and an active member of the literary scene and he knew I’d been publishing in well-regarded places. He read the manuscript in January 2013 and afterwards contacted me with a firm offer. For the next several months, we went back and forth deciding which stories to swap out and which to include.

Train Shots

Train Shots (Burrow Press, 2014)

Ryan’s philosophy is that assembling a story collection is a lot like putting together a music album, and he’s absolutely right. We left out certain stories not because they lacked merit but because the ones chosen must speak to each other in a particular, resonating way. I’d describe the process as very hands-on; I absolutely loved the thorough scrutiny we both brought to the manuscript as a team. On my own, I’d never been able to come up with a satisfying order. Ryan had a terrific eye—and ear, I might add—for which stories belonged where, a vision of the book as a living, breathing whole. Whereas I’d worked on the stories for so long on my own, I think I’d become too close to them. So I’d say I was ultimately surprised and thrilled by the final “playlist,” not to mention profoundly grateful.

I was also surprised by how heavily we edited, and even revised in some cases, certain stories. All of them had been published before. I think it’s easy for emerging writers to assume that once a journal has published a story, there’s no more work to be done, which is far from the case. This is the stage where you have the opportunity to refine and bring your work to the next level, so you’re really presenting your best—to zero in on repeated diction and unwieldy syntax, to make sure the final notes of each story truly sing. We had a deadline, of course, but we took our time. I believe our efforts paid off.

I had always wanted to include the flash fiction, “Clock In,” as the opening, as it uses second person and literally invites the reader into the world of the book. “Train Shots” is one of my most memorable and usual stories, so we knew we’d include that one from the beginning; the tone and theme made it a ready contender for final spot, and usually the placement of the title story bears weight, so that made sense—Train Shots. But also there’s a double-meaning to the phrase “train shots.” In one sense, the collection is a journey, the reader peering in on different characters in various settings, glimpsing a “shot” of these individuals’ lives before the train zooms on. Then in the title story itself, P.T. eats dinner at a dive bar alongside the tracks in Winter Park, where the bartenders offer “train shot” drink specials when the trains go by.

As for the order, we probably considered twice as many stories than what ended up making the final cut. We eliminated ones that would contain beats or subject matter too similar to others, and sought a balance in narrative perspectives and moods, from light to dark. I recommend to anyone who is seriously putting together a collection to get together with a trusted writer friend or teacher and employ another pair of eyes, at least, to help you select and juggle the order—doing so would have saved me a lot of grief and time.

TC: Travel and transition are themes in Train Shots and the pieces seem to have a sense of motion to them. What has been your journey as a writer so far? How did you begin? Who encouraged you? How long have you been publishing?

VB: I’ve been writing since I was six. As a child I made up stories constantly—whether by playacting with Thundercats action figures or sitting down at my mom’s electric typewriter until I used up all the ribbon. By high school and my first year of college, I had largely set aside my own imaginative writings. My sophomore year I studied abroad in Australia, and I can only describe my time there as a spiritual awakening of sorts, the kind born from travel and spending time intensely with a congenial group of very different people. When I came back, I enrolled in my first creative writing workshop and within the first few classes, knew that this would be my path. Still, I didn’t publish my first story until 29—“The Lung” which appeared in Cimarron Review.

Two short essays of mine provide a fairly succinct snapshot of my writing journey leading up to Train Shots: “The Corner Booth” and “Paradise Lost,” both of which can be found online at The Paris Review Daily. They are also far more lyrical and lively than any answer I could supply here.

TC: Where is your next journey? More publishing? Short fiction? A novel? Another collection? Do you like to plan where you’re going or see where fate takes you?

VB: All of the above. At the moment I’m at the Edward F. Albee Foundation residency in Montauk, NY and will be working on what I envision will be a novel-in-stories set in Pennsylvania. In between, I’ve been working on essays, book reviews, and the occasional poem. Lately I’ve been drawn to speculative and dystopian fiction, and hope to write a futuristic novel—although not until the book promo for Train Shots dies down, because the new novel project requires research and a trip or two. My agent is currently shopping my first novel, so with luck that will get picked up soon.

TC: Where can we find you online?

VB: For events and book news, vanessablakeslee.com. For my thoughts on the writing life, interviews, book reviews, guest blog posts and the like, visit Vanessa Blakeslee: On Writing. You can follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and my new favorite, Instagram.

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Horror and Sorrow and Beauty: Interview with Mercedes M. Yardley

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Mercedes M. Yardley writes “whimsical horror.” Her happy endings might have every character die or go mad. Her characters might have holes in their hands, through which stars fall to Earth (incidentally, stars can prevent you from peeling Granny Smiths by knocking knives out of your hole-free hands). She would tag her new novel with #lovehurts and considers herself a “pantser” when it comes to her characters. She won Reddit’s /r/Fantasy 2013 Best Short Fiction “Stabby” for Apocalyptic Montessa and Nuclear Lulu: A Tale of Atomic Love.

While reading her work, you don’t want to put it down. Then you realize you have to put it down in order to go find more (and sometimes to eat, drink, see the sun, etc.). Her delicate yet powerful prose sends unique characters on fascinating journeys and she has cultivated a faithful fanbase. Her first novel, Nameless, was published this month by Ragnarok Publications.

Interview with Mercedes M. Yardley

Toasted Cheese: Let’s start with important stuff. Tell us about the connection to your close personal friend Gloria Gaynor.


Mercedes M. Yardley

Mercedes M. Yardley: Gloria and I are like this. BFFs. She calls every morning to get my fashion advice. I totally tell her to go with the white hat. Nobody can rock it like she does.

Ha, no, actually, I’m one of many authors in an anthology that she put out. Somebody sent me an email saying there was a call for submissions and she thought it might be up my alley. The theme is how Ms. Gaynor’s song “I Will Survive” has inspired us in one way or another. I sat down and wrote an essay about being knocked flat once or twice (or a million times) in life, and how I was trying to get my roar back.

Being in the book is a fangurl’s dream for me. Ms. Gaynor personalized my copy of the book and the CD she made to go with it. I’m a real geek when it comes to things like this.

TC: I discovered your work through Shock Totem. How did you get involved with the journal? Could you share a little about your journey from contributor to contributing editor to editor emeritus (so to speak)?

MMY: I wrote a black, funny little story called “Murder for Beginners”. It was one of my very first sales, actually, to a new and intriguing dark fantasy magazine called Shock Totem.

The staff was nuts. Ken Wood, the editor, sent this awesome rejection letter that was irreverent and hilarious. I later found out that he had originally rejected “Murder for Beginners” but the other staff liked it enough to fight for it. Thankfully mob… er, majority rule is how Shock Totem works.

I started hanging out on the forums. It was the first forum I ever frequented, and it was just a lot of fun. The staff and I hit it off beautifully. After a while, they asked if I would be interested in coming aboard.

It was a big decision, quite honestly. I loved the staff and the stories and the magazine, but I was afraid that it would take too much time from my own writing. I was also afraid that the dark subject matter would get to me. But ultimately I decided to jump, and it was one of the very best decisions I ever made. I loved it. Loved all of it. Seeing things from the other side of the desk was amazing. Staff became family for me. Shock Totem became a huge part of my life.

But things change. I have three kiddos now, and two of them are medically fragile. Three kids are so much more difficult than two. I started publishing a little bit more, and I realized that I was being stretched too thin. I was sick all of the time. I was a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. I was dropping balls left and right. I really felt like a failure.

I realized that I had to make some changes to keep myself healthy in every way. I started cutting things out. Eventually I realized that I needed to let Shock Totem go, and it was really tough. I miss it every day. But it’s time to focus on writing novels full time. Everything has a season.

TC: I recently had to make a declaration that if it wasn’t about family, my own writing, or Toasted Cheese, I had to let it go. You’ve just done something similar. Do you feel freer and more productive yet or is an “overstretched” element hanging on?

MMY: I admire you for making that commitment. I know it isn’t easy.

I hope to feel freer. Right now, I’m still exhausted and over-committed. I don’t prize my time like I should. I need to be more selfish with it. Right now I dole it out left and right and then I’m surprised when I look at the clock and it’s midnight. I’ve done things for everybody else, but what about my manuscript? ARG!

TC: You belong to a writing group. Is your group face to face or online? What does it give you to belong to a group? What happens in your group (writing talk, commiseration, editing help, brainstorming, etc.)?

MMY: My writer’s group is called The Illiterati, or The Interdimensional Wombats. Don’t ask, because I’ve long since forgot how that all came about.

Yardley2We meet face-to-face in the Wombat Lair every Tuesday for about three hours. And we do everything. Read each other’s work. Brainstorm. Edit. Fight. Eat pizza. Hold write-ins. Celebrate birthdays. We’re family in every sense of the word. We even argue like it, sometimes.

We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We know each other’s potential. Our main goal as a group is to make sure that we don’t let each other send something out that’s subpar. Anything less than our best.

Ideally, we’ll all move to a commune together. We’ll raise bees, grow our own vegetables, and hold writer’s retreats at our place. There’s an island in Chile that would be perfect for us. You know. After we buy it for twelve million dollars.

I’m also in a secret online group called The Pit Crew. It’s cobbled together by a few Illiterati, some members of Shock Totem. My literary nemesis takes part. There’s another horror writer whom I adore. This one is much more laid back. More quick reads and minor suggestions. Questions about the business.

The Illiterati is out for blood. The secret Pit Crew is backup. Though I guess we’re not secret anymore. 😛

TC: That makes me want to do an evil laugh and rub my hands in little circles.

Do you have an Ideal Reader? Is it a real person or a construct? Describe the person or audience for whom you write.

MMY: I actually wrote Nameless for my friend, Janyece. We’ve known each other since we were two or three. She’s my oldest friend. So in that sense, she was my first and only Ideal Reader. I’ve never specifically written for somebody before.

Yardley3Well, perhaps that isn’t true. I write the book for the characters. I write as though they’re reading, and I’m telling their stories. My short story “Black Mary”, for instance, is about a kidnapped little girl. Am I telling her story honestly enough? Truthfully enough? Delicately enough. Am I handling the situation with the respect and tenderness that it deserves? I’ve come to the realization that people identify with the characters and situations, especially the dark, painful ones. Sure, I’m writing about a person that doesn’t exist, but the pain she experiences is real. I’ve been astounded at some of the emails I’ve received, saying how people identified with characters, especially Montessa from Apocalyptic Montessa and Nuclear Lulu: A Tale of Atomic Love.

So I write to her. Montessa and Mary and Azhar and Reed Taylor and the characters I’m writing about. It’s perhaps a bizarre way to do it, but keeps the story true.

TC: Tell us about Nameless, which comes out this month. Who are your main characters and what do they want? What’s the journey they undertake?

MMY: Ah, Nameless! Nameless is one of my favorites. I wrote this very quickly, originally. I was writing a chapter a day for my friend. Then I lost two of my triplets at birth, and I couldn’t work on anything for a bit. It was a joy to come back to, when I finally did.

Luna Masterson has been able to see demons from a very young age. Everybody thinks that she’s crazy except for her father. He checks out while she and her brother are still fairly young, so they’re growing up on their own.

She’s mouthy. She rides a motorcycle, partly for the thrill and partly to keep people away from her. Sorry, there isn’t room for anybody else on here. Them’s the breaks. But she loves her brother, Seth, fiercely, and especially his baby girl, Lydia. She’d do anything for them, and she does.

Seth is very organized and logical. His ex-wife was a beautiful and vindictive woman named Sparkles, and she left Seth and Lydia for another man. So he’s trying to pull himself together, keep a job, and raise his daughter by himself. That’s where Luna comes in.

Reed Taylor is one of my favorite characters of all time. He’s a recovering addict who doesn’t see demons, but he falls for Luna. He has his own secrets.

And Mouth is a demon of some import, fairly high in the demonic hierarchy. He’s hanging around Luna for his own reasons. He and Reed Taylor loathe each other. I love putting them together and hearing the retorts fly.

They’re a diverse group of people. Ultimately, they’re all lonely and they’re trying their very best. They’ll get it wrong, of course. But they’ll also do some things right. If Nameless had a tag, I’d say it would be “Love hurts.”

TC: You’ve written several short stories, published a collection of shorts, and now you’re putting out novels. Do you have a preferred story length?

MMY: I adore flash fiction. It appeals to my short attention span and it allows me to tell several stories versus telling one story in a novella or novel. But in a longer piece of work, you get to explore things in a way that you can’t in a short story. It’s allowed to be a little more lush. I really enjoy that.

I think I’ll always think in short stories, but novellas and novels are my new playground.

TC: Do you write on a regular basis or as the mood (or your schedule) allows?

MMY: Excuse me while I sit in the corner and laugh uproariously.

TC: Yeah, every writer likes that one, along with the advice to “write at least (random word count) every day” when there are full time jobs, parenting, illness, and life in general competing for your time.

MMY: I would love to write every day. Ideally, that’s the case. And I try. But things always seem to get in the way. So I write as my schedule allows. I’m always in the mood. Writing is what I want to do more than anything else, besides spending time with my family. But real life seems to demand its time, too.

TC: You’ve said that you write quickly and passionately, then go back and give the pieces a couple of light polishes and that’s it. Have you always worked this way or is it a method you’ve developed to suit your work, needs, or time schedule?

MMY: Not only is it the way that I work, but it’s the way I live my life. Whatever project I’m doing at the time, I’m 110% into it. Passionately, wildly. It consumes me. I throw everything I have into it, and do so until something else comes up and interrupts. Then the flame cools and I can go back over it with a more refined eye later.

Short, intense bursts, and then reality. I’ve always done this, and it works well for me.

Yardley4TC: When I read your collection Beautiful Sorrows, I was moved by its magical realism, how you handle it with a light touch while it’s intrinsic to the stories. Do you find readers to be excited, put off, or a combination of both when they encounter something like a talking star or river?

MMY: Of course every reader is different. Some really seem to like the delicacy of magical realism. Pixie eggs grow in the corner of windows. The desert leaves footprints as it stalks around your front door. Boys hang stars, naturally. I think there’s charm to it, and some readers really seem to enjoy the sweetness.

Then again, I get readers who are very vocal in their distaste. There needs to be a reason for the pixie egg. Why do they grow there, exactly? Is it the humidity? A nexus? A blessing or curse? It drives some people crazy that these things aren’t explained. “So that guy just walked through the wall and began brushing her hair? How does he do that? Why?”

Their brains are beautifully mechanical. Gorgeously logical. That isn’t how my mind works. Dig too deep into the meaning of things and it loses its magic. Don’t tell me why. Simply show me that it happens, and I’ll follow you there. I want to believe.

TC: Speaking of magical realism and genre, your stories have strong horror elements, maybe even a bit Gothic or outright romantic. In terms of genre, do you like to color within the lines or do you like something a little more like watercolor that runs and blends together? Also could you tell us about “whimsical horror”?

Yardley5MMY: “Whimsical horror” is a description that I made up. My work isn’t tra-la-la light and it isn’t straight-up horror. It’s stuck somewhere in the middle in a genre that I’m told doesn’t exist. I needed a way to describe it quickly so people’s eyes don’t glaze over. So I found the phrase that was most apt, and “whimsical horror” was it.

Your description of watercolor that blends together is beautiful. And I think that’s how I write. I write what I find lovely and/or horrifying at the time. I find that horror and sorrow and beauty are closely linked. They all cause this type of exquisite pain. I also find that writing helps me work through my current thought processes and issues of the moment, so naturally my emotions come to the forefront. Horror, despite the stigma that is associated it, is all about emotion. So I find that lovely.

TC: You say that the main characters in Apocalyptic Montessa and Nuclear Lulu are “wonderfully, beautifully broken people.” When creating characters, do you have their flaws in mind from the outset or do they develop as you work?

MMY: Lu had a fire within him. Montessa was dead, only her body hadn’t caught up with her soul. They were going to fall in love, and it would be wonderful and tragic.

That’s all I had when I started. I’m a pantser to the extreme. I have a gem of an idea and then sit down and write. The characters are fleshed out as I go. Ha, even the plot is created as I go! I have no idea what’s going to happen. In my favorite novel that I ever wrote, I didn’t know if the main character would live or die until I wrote the final chapter! So I don’t have their flaws in mind when I sit down to create. I’m as much of a reader as I am a writer. I sit at the keyboard and I’m excited to see what’s going to occur in the story that day.

TC: Two themes I find consistent in your work are hope and love. Is this a conscious statement you’re making with your work or something else, like an extension of your personality that naturally comes through?

MMY: I want there to be hope in the story. Of course, my idea of hope is usually a little different than most people’s. One of the guys in my writer’s group, Ryan Bridger, and I got into a friendly little brawl about my definition of happy endings.

“All of my stories have happy endings,” I said. “They’re all about hope.”

“Which happy ending?” he said. “The one where they all die?”

“They don’t all die!”

“Or how about the one where she’s abused, freezing to death, and possibly crazy?”

“She escaped, Ryan. Doesn’t get much happier than that.”

“What about the one where—”

“Just shut up, okay? Shut. It.”

I guess what I’m saying is that life is bleak. It just is. But we’re survivors. Humans are resilient. There’s always a silver lining. Always something worth striving for. I hope that’s something that always comes through, because it’s something that I very much believe.

TC: You seem to be a natural creatrix, not just with words but with food and you’ve tried knitting (i.e. “stabbing …beautiful yarn with sharp sticks ”). What are the last few things you’ve made that didn’t involve words?

Yardley6MMY: Oh, I love to make things! I make all sorts of things. I like to work with paper, so I make a lot of cards. I also make different types of jewelry. I especially like to work with stones. Wire wrapping, beading. I made a few sets of really fun dragon horns. I love baking. Trifles. Cakes. I make my own Twix candy bars, and my own peanut butter cups. In fact, one of my favorite things was getting all of the horror writers to help me make peanut butter cups at 2:30 in the morning at Killercon convention this year. We didn’t have any rolling pins so they crushed up the graham crackers with tequila bottles. It was definitely memorable!

I like making things. It really makes me happy. Really gives me joy.

More Mercedes:


Absolute Blank 2014

It’s almost November, and that means it’s time to start thinking about—and scheduling—Absolute Blank articles for 2014.

We know our author interviews are always popular, and we also know a lot of authors follow us on Twitter and Facebook, so we’ve set up an interview request form. If you’re an author with at least one book published (or forthcoming in 2014) and you’d be interested in being interviewed, tell us about yourself and share why you’d make an awesome interview subject.

As always, if you’re interested in writing an article, here are the article guidelines.

And, if there’s a writing-related topic you’d like to see us cover in the coming year, let us know. Contact us at editors [at] toasted-cheese.com.

We look forward to hearing from you!

Tell the Stories You Have to Tell: Interview with Tanya Huff

Absolute Blank

By Erin Bellavia (Billiard)

Canadian fantasy author Tanya Huff was born in Nova Scotia, but spent much of her childhood in Kingston, Ontario. She eventually moved to Toronto, and later, to “the middle of nowhere,” Ontario. Her first novel, Child of the Grove was published in 1988.

Blood TiesHuff’s “Blood Books” (a series of novels pairing human detective Vicki Nelson with vampire and novelist Henry Fitzroy) were adapted as the series Blood Ties for CBC Television. The series also aired in the US on Lifetime.

The third book in her current series (commonly referred to as the “Gale Girls” series) was recently completed. The second book, The Wild Ways, was released in November 2011.

Earlier this month, Huff’s 2012 novel The Silvered won the 2013 Aurora Award. (The Aurora Awards honor science fiction and fantasy works by Canadian authors.)

We here at Toasted Cheese were happy to have Tanya Huff share her experience and insight with us. (And be warned… a couple of her responses had the interviewer all choked up!)

Tell the Stories You Have to Tell

Toasted Cheese: When did you first know that writing was what you wanted to do?

Tanya Huff: The late George Carlin used to answer the question “Did you always know you wanted to be a comedian?” with “Not in the womb, but right after that.” I have a letter that my grandmother, who was taking care of me, wrote to my father while he was out to sea, when I was three. In it, she tells him a story I told her of a spider who lived at the bottom of the garden. (He made a web and ate a fly and then he fell asleep and his web got broken. —come on, I was three!) I also illustrated it. Badly.

The year I turned ten, one of my cousins had spinal surgery and had to spend the entire summer in bed. I spent a good portion of my summer telling her stories—and acting them out with our Barbie dolls.

The thing is, I have always been a storyteller but I had no idea you could make a career of it. My family is not exactly… bookish.

TC: How long have you been writing professionally? Did you do anything else before you started writing?

Child of the GroveTH: I sold two pieces of poetry when I was ten—but I don’t think you could call that writing professionally. In 1985 I sold a story to George Scithers at Amazing and then in early 1986 I sold Child of the Grove to Sheila Gilbert at DAW. I went on to sell another four stories to George and another twenty-eight books to Sheila.

Before that I spent a year studying forestry at Lakehead University, took a class C posting with the Naval Reserve (which I’d been in for two years at that point), spent six months in LA where if I’d had any idea of the way things worked, I’d be a television writer today, six months working for a security company, four months working maintenance for the YWCA in Toronto, three months in a coffee factory, then off to Ryerson Polytechnic for a degree in Radio and Television Arts paid for by working at Mr. Gameway’s Ark and selling sunglasses from a pushcart at Yonge and Bloor but graduated the year the CBC had massive layoff so went to work managing Gypsy Bazaar—the first of the flea markets as stores—and, finally, left them to work at Bakka Books for eight years where I was when I wrote the first four of my novels.

TC: We all know that the work of writing often involves just doing the work, regardless of whether or not the muse is in the building. That said, what inspires you?

TH: Hmmm, good question. People, definitely. Everyone has a story and a lot of those stories are distinctly stranger than fiction. And other people’s writing. When I finish a book that really touches me—emotionally, or intellectually—it gets me all fired up to go and write.

TC: Do you have any specific habits or rituals that help you get “in the zone”?

TH: Hot beverages are important. *g* It used to always be tea—plain black tea with milk—but in the last few years I’ve started drinking more coffee and green tea so just generally, the making of a hot drink. Boiling the water. Pouring into the pot. Waiting. Pouring it into the cup. Carrying it into my office. It’s one of the reasons I don’t work on a laptop—I’ve drowned any number of keyboards over the years.

TC: I know that music is important to you. Do you listen to music when you write? How does music inform your characters and their stories?

The Wild WaysTH: The only time I’ve ever listened to music while writing was during The Wild Ways when I had Cape Breton fiddle music on fairly constantly. Usually, I relate to music the way I relate to short stories, each piece is complete in and of itself and isn’t meant to be a creative layer in a larger whole. I listen when I’m running, and in the truck, and doing housework, and it often inspires creativity the way any other piece of another person’s writing may, but when I’m actually working and being creative myself, I prefer silence. Now, if things aren’t going particularly well, then I’ll throw on some music and play spider solitaire for a while until something breaks loose but, generally, if I’m at my desk, it’s quiet.

TC: Where is your favorite place to write?

TH: I have an office with a desk and my desktop and a whole lot of research books and, if I’m home, that’s where I am between one and six in the afternoon. I’ve never understood how people can write in coffee shops—I’d be too busy people watching. That said, I really like to write on trains. I don’t know what it is, but I can sometimes produce an entire day’s word count during the two-and-a-half hours it takes to get into Toronto.

TC: I know that this is like asking someone to choose their favorite child, but do you have a favorite of the books (or series) you’ve written?

TH: It is kind of a favorite child question… Unlike a number of writers, I still like everything I’ve ever written. There’s a few structural things I’d like to fix in some of the early stuff—although I think the Quarters books are some of my best writing, particularly The Quartered Sea—but for me, it’s all about the storytelling and I enjoy the stories I tell. I even still like the Ravensloft book I wrote for hire. Now, I can say that Valor’s Choice was the most fun I ever had writing a book. Fitting space marines and evolved dinosaurs into Rorke’s Drift was joy from start to finish.

TC: How about of the ones you haven’t written? (That is, that have been written by someone else… not imaginary ones. *g*)

TH: I adore everything Terry Pratchett has ever written. When there’s a hole in my life for whatever reason, I turn to Pratchett. He sees people, with all their complexities and stupidities and courage and cowardice and potential in a way that no other writer I know does.

I love Charles de Lint’s work and I think he knows secret things the rest of us only suspect exist.

TC: Earlier this year, Stephen King wrote about first lines for The Atlantic. Do you have a favorite opening line from any of your books or stories? How much thought do you put into those first words your reader will see? Are there any opening lines by other authors that you admire?

TH: Sitting here, without getting up and checking, I have no memory of what any of my first lines are. And I just sent my latest book of three days ago. This is not to say I don’t work at getting the first lines right, but once they’re written they’re part of the story and while I remember the story, I don’t remember the words that make it up.

So, let’s take a look at a few…

The Future Falls: 3rd Gale girl book, just turned in… She lay stretched out under a beach umbrella, long silver braid coiled on top of her head, the fingers of one hand wrapped around a Pina Colada—made with real island rum and fresh coconut milk—the fingers of the other drumming against the broad teak arm of the lounge chair. Hmmm, really needs the next line to make it work. She’d been watching a beach volleyball game and she hadn’t appreciated having her view of half naked, athletic young men bounding about on the sand interrupted by the Sight of a falling rock.

We’ve set up the Gale’s appreciation of handsome young men, given enough information that readers of the first two books can identify the character but—hopefully—intrigued new readers, and set up the entire A plot. Not too bad.

The SilveredThe Silvered: 2012’s hardcover release… Senses nearly overpowered by the scent of sweat and gunpowder and cheap pipe tobacco, Tomas followed his nose through the 1st Aydori Volunteers, searching for his greatcoat. Okay, that introduces a main character, lets you know he’s probably not human, sets the tech level as post-gunpowder, and suggests there’s going to be a military element. Decent set up.

Blood Price: 1991, the first of the Vicki Nelson/Henry Fitzroy books… Ian shoved his hands deep in his pockets and scowled down the length of the empty subway platform. Well, that pretty much establishes something’s definitely going to happen and that we probably shouldn’t get too attached to Ian given the lack of information about him.

Now, my absolute favorite line in any book ever is from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis: There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. Although honesty forces me to admit that I remember it as: Once there was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb…

TC: What was your favorite book as a child or teen (or both, if you like…)?

TH: As a child, I lived in the Narnia books. I’ve been trying to get through that wardrobe since I was seven. As a teen it was Andre Norton and Anne McCaffrey and Zenna Henderson and Robert Heinlein topping the list, but I read everything I could get my hands on so it was harder to have a favorite. Although, I did stand in line for two hours to have Anne McCaffrey sign Dragon Singer so…

TC: Earlier this year on your blog, you discussed an issue with some staffers at a bookstore chain warning readers away from your books due to LGBT content. Was it resolved to your satisfaction? Had you experienced any similar problems previously?

TH: Once I mentioned it in the blog, I was contacted by people from the chain who took it completely seriously and assured me this was an individual not a company policy and it was dealt with. I was impressed by their response and, as I said at the time, well aware that in other stores in the same chain my books have likely been recommended because of their LGBT content.

I’ve never, to my knowledge, had a previous problem with that sort of thing. My editor has never wanted me to change a character’s orientation. The Smoke books, which have a gay protagonist, did have an interesting drop in numbers from book one to book two, but that could have been because of the realization they weren’t continuations of the Blood books not because the gay was front and center instead of safely in the background. I do have to say though, people who love the Smoke books, really love the Smoke books.

TC: Can you tell us anything about any new projects that you’re working on?

The Enchantment EmporiumTH: As I mentioned earlier, I’ve just handed in The Future Falls, the third Gale Girls book (after The Enchantment Emporium and The Wild Ways). It tried to kill me—never write a book based on a clever idea you and your editor kicked around during a phone call. Or maybe you can. I need a little more mulling it over time. I’m now about to start on a new Torin Kerr book. I can’t call it a new Valor book because if you’ve read Truth of Valor you know there’s been some changes but I’m really looking forward to getting back into that ‘verse.

TC: Finally, any words of wisdom for our readers?

TH: Tell the stories you have to tell. Write a book, write a story, write a poem, write a song, bake cupcakes, bake cookies, bake pie, build a house, dance, sew, paint, draw, rebuild a car, garden, knit, quilt, carve, program a computer, raise a child, make a home, sit around a campfire and start with, “Once upon a time…”

It’s not how the story is told, it’s the telling.

Catch up with Tanya Huff online:
Tanya Huff’s LiveJournal
Tanya Huff’s Twitter

Final Poll Results

Toasted Cheese Success Stories: Interview with Janet Mullany

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

In her author bio, Janet Mullany states that she “has worked as an archaeologist, classical music radio announcer, arts administrator, and for a small press.” Janet was also one of Toasted Cheese’s original forum hosts. A few of Janet’s stories can be found in the archives, including “Snow, The Seven and The Moon,” which won the first annual Dead of Winter writing contest.

In the decade since she left TC, Janet has published more than a dozen books in various romance sub-genres. Her books aren’t your typical romances, though; they’re infused with comedic elements and clever wordplay. Even if you don’t consider yourself a romance fan, you might be surprised to find yourself won over by Janet’s witty (erm, dare I say snarky?) sense of humor.

Her most recent book, Hidden Paradise, a contemporary erotic romance, was released in September 2012. I interviewed Janet by email earlier this year.

Toasted Cheese: In your bio, you state that you were “raised in England by half of an amateur string quartet.” I’ve always been curious—how did you end up on this side of the Atlantic? And do you have any musical talents of your own?

Janet Mullany: I marry Americans. Serially, that is. I’ve done it twice so far. As far as musical talent goes, I used to play the flute, but my major skill is being able to identify the composer within a few seconds of hearing a piece, within reason—I can identify most popular eighteenth- and nineteenth-century repertoire but sometimes only the nationality of the composer. I’m not any sort of idiot savant.

TC: Well, that seems like a talent to me, perhaps even one that might come in handy when writing historical fiction.

When you hosted at TC, it was prior to the publication of your first book. Can you take us back and tell us a little about your first book and how it came to be published?

JM: That was Dedication, which I wrote over a period of a couple of years, and which underwent a lot of rewrites and had some near misses. Then it won a contest sponsored by the Beau Monde, the Regency special interest chapter of Romance Writers of America (R) and I was offered a contract for it as a Signet Regency which was the traditional line. Now this was a bit of a problem. It was a very sexy book accepted for a notoriously “close the bedroom door” line, and when the editor made the offer and asked me to cut 20,000 words, I said, “Fine, but the sex has to stay.” To my surprise, she agreed. I didn’t know then but the Signets were on their way out, and I think they just weren’t that concerned about content; or, in a more charitable mood, they thought having a bit of heat mightn’t hurt. There was quite a bit of buzz about it because it had an older hero (early 40s) and heroine (late 30s)—children, their children—both of whom had been around the block and although they had fallen in love two decades before had since got over themselves and had gone on to have real relationships with other people. Apparently that was something new. Then a couple of years ago I had the rights back and put even more sex in it and published it with Loose-Id (excerpt).

TC: That’s quite the story, and an excellent lead-in to my next question. You write romance, which is known for having rules (or, at least, ‘rules’) about how stories should play out, but you write in several different sub-genres and play with conventions. Clearly you’re not afraid to break rules, but I imagine there are limits. Is working within the constraints of the genre part of the fun of writing for you? Do you have a favorite sub-genre?

JM: I always feel like I’m attempting to crack the romance code. I didn’t “choose” to write romance in the sense that I loved the genre or was even particularly widely read in it, but I was very impressed with romance writers writing to sell and being smart about the market. I also figured out that since it is such a huge genre I could find a niche in it.

The limitations are irritating. One is that readers and many editors are not particularly interested in language, whereas I love playing around with words and admire good, clean cliché-free writing. Also readers and editors expect a moral message (so eighteenth century) with a tremendous emphasis on sexual-emotional healing. To be honest I’m not that interested in people who look to a relationship to solve their problems. I wrote an erotic romance (well, I thought it was a romance! But obviously, what do I know…) called Tell Me More that was quite fantastically filthy with a heroine who screwed anything that moved and suddenly the editor asked what she learned in the course of the story. Um, that she liked sex? Sure enough, some readers loved it but others screeched that they hoped the heroine would get crotch rot and die [Found and read this review. Dying. Laughing, that is. -TF] and that she was incredibly screwed up emotionally. And it was odd, because I saw her as this daring, adventurous, yet very level-headed woman. I tend to like characters who are grown up enough to take responsibility for their behavior but also capable of making mistakes.

Fav sub-genre—to write, oh, I guess I’d say historicals, but so much of the market is obsessed with dukes wearing the wrong sort of shirt. I’m English and I don’t like aristocrats much, and I’m very fond of eighteenth-century shirts with frills and man cleavage.

TC: It’s interesting you mention romance readers expecting a moral message. One of the things I remember liking about your writing back in the day was your sense of humor, which definitely is on display in The Rules of Gentility. In fact, one of the notes I jotted down while reading was “hilarious.” However, when I perused reviews afterward, I noticed some readers seemed perplexed by the comedic elements. Do you think there’s perhaps a mistaken expectation that historical romances will be more serious than contemporary ones? How would you describe your style to potential readers? What reader reactions have most surprised you?

JM: I don’t think readers expect comedy in romance. Falling in love is a serious business! Most books billed as romantic comedies have a few funny bits with a dog or amusing secondary characters, or some snappy dialogue and one-liners. Mine have all that but a lot of physical comedy and I like to make fun of the most overused Regency clichés. My Regency chick-lits published by Little Black Dress did quite well in England because I have a very English sense of humor but sadly my niche in the US remains small.

TC: I’m not English, but I do enjoy your sense of humor, so I’ll keep those in mind.

2013, the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice, is a big year for Jane Austen fans. You were a bit ahead of the curve with your ‘Immortal Jane Austen’ series. Mashing up two extremely popular but seemingly-unrelated things—Jane Austen and vampires—was genius. How did you come up with the idea? Do you have plans to write more in this series or do you have something different in mind for Jane?

JM: An editor dangled the challenge of writing something paranormal about Austen, hoping to jump on the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies bandwagon. So I came up with the most outrageous idea I could, Austen as a vampire—my original titles were Blood Bath (the first book was set in Bath) or Austen Powers. I wanted to tie in the imaginary action of the books with Austen’s life, so I’m afraid she did die in 1817. But I set it in an alternate England where vampires—the Damned—are out and about in society and very fashionable, and I threw in a French invasion too. Why not. But I tried to keep the details about Austen as accurate as I could. I found channeling Austen very intimidating.

TC: Ok, those titles are fabulous. Just so you know, I now have visions of Jane Austen dancing to the Austin Powers theme and admonishing her fellow vampires with “Oh, behave.”

What would you say were the most valuable things you did to get to where you are today with your writing? Who or what have you found particularly helpful?

JM: Reading, absolutely essential, and outside the genre. I had a pretty strong voice right from the start because I’d read so much, and I instinctively knew to trust my voice, particularly when critique partners threw up their hands and cried “You can’t do that in a romance.” I have critique partners on and off, a community of cheerleaders including a very good agent, and a husband blissfully unaware of what I write. He likes books with pictures.

TC: Love the advice to read widely. What’s your writing process like? Are you a planner who outlines meticulously before starting to write or do you tend to write from the seat of your pants? Can you describe what a typical writing session is like for you—or is there one?

JM: I have to be able to write a synopsis to sell on proposal, even though I want to just let things sprawl. On the other hand my synopses are very vague and mercifully short. I usually start with an idea, which is basically a tagline, write a few chapters, and once I get to know the characters a little I can figure out what is going to happen, more or less. I claim to use the phrase “After many exciting adventures…” because god knows what they might be and possibly whatever they are might scare off an editor.

TC: This is a strategy I think many fiction writers don’t consider. Often the synopsis is thought of as something that can wait until the book is complete.

After seeing how many books you’d published in the past few years, I wondered if you were writing full-time now—but then I noticed you’d mentioned your day job in a recent blog post. As you know, many writers struggle to finish even one book while working another job. I’m sure our readers would love to know—what’s your secret to being so prolific?

JM: Ahem. At the moment I’m not particularly prolific, but when I was… I write very clean first drafts so I’m lucky there. On a practical level, I don’t get out much, have very little in the way of family responsibilities, and if I want to write I don’t watch TV. I think TV sucks the life out of you creatively. I use a kitchen timer, set it for twenty minutes and write like crazy, gritting my teeth at the beginning but hopefully getting into the zone by the time the bell rings and I jump out of my skin and keep going.

TC: The timer’s a great idea. I’m a big advocate of making appointments to write.

You have a website, you’re on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads, and you blog at The Risky Regencies. How important do you think social media is for writers? Did social media play a role in the pre-publication process for any of your books or do you find it’s more a place to connect with readers?

JM: Apparently social media is very important although I suspect writers spend their time marketing to each other rather than the readers who probably have better things to do. What does sell books is word of mouth and we have to try to make that happen using social media. I find the general chirpy niceness we’re expected to project online exhausting; I’m not naturally chirpy. I get the most traffic on my Facebook page when I post pics of the cat or things I have baked.

TC: Why does that not surprise me?

What’s next for you? What are you working on? Do you have anything forthcoming this year?

JM: The latest attempt to crack the romance code is a partial for a three-book historical series doing the rounds. There is an indirect duke and the closest I can get to an alpha male hero. I’m also one chapter and a synopsis into a partial for an erotic contemporary; I ended the first chapter on a tremendous hook and am now congratulating myself on a job well done, rather than setting the timer and squeezing out another two chapters. I’m also rewriting a book that did fairly disastrously a few years ago to be self-pubbed later in the year, no title yet, and a couple of novellas, one self-pubbed and a new one to go with the full-length book. So technically I’m very busy.

Thanks so much for the interview, Theryn!

TC: Thank you, Janet! Congratulations on all your success and all the best with your many works-in-progress.

Where you can find Janet:

Final Poll Results

Fish and Ships: An Interview with Traci Chee

Absolute Blank

By Shelley Carpenter (harpspeed)

Traci Chee began her writing career in fourth grade, writing and illustrating and experimenting with characters and story-building games. Today, Traci Chee is a middle school teacher, as well as a freelance writer. She holds a degree in creative writing from San Francisco State University. Her writing has appeared in Prick of the Spindle, Thieves Jargon, Abjective, Able Muse, The Big Stupid Review and Toasted Cheese. When she isn’t teaching, Traci Chee may be spotted on the Golden Gate Bridge, mentally mapping her stories and crafting characters as she sits in traffic. She likes fish and ships. (Maybe bridges, too.)

Toasted Cheese: What were you like as a kid?

Traci Chee: My family would tell you that I was bossy as a kid. Tyrannically bossy. They would be right. But I’d also like to think that I was already a burgeoning storyteller. My two best friends and I had a series of three or four games that we would cycle through every couple months or so: Lemmings, that awesome nineties video game in which you try to save as many lemmings as possible but inevitably sacrifice some to stompers and chompers and being blown up; Stuffed Animals and My Little Ponies, which were pretty much what they sound like; and Dogs.

This is how Dogs went: Two of us got to be the dogs, wandering around on all fours, wagging imaginary tails, and begging for treats. The remaining person had to play all the human roles, including the cruel, capricious pet store owner, the kind new owner who buys the dogs, and the boarding school trainer, who now that I think about it was pretty much the same character as the pet store owner but with a whip.

The story was always the same: Pet store owner is mean. Dogs are sad. Kind new owner adopts one dog, then the other a day later. Dogs misbehave. Kind new owner gets fed up and takes dogs to boarding school to be trained. Drive to boarding school is the best part because you pretend the road is really windy and there’s a lot of leaning crazily and bouncing around on imaginary bumps. Boarding school trainer is mean. Dogs misbehave and try to get the best of the trainer. As far as I can remember, we never got to the end of the story because then it would be dinnertime and we’d stop the game to go eat. Yes, it was formulaic, but it became this shared storytelling experience between the three of us, knitting us together, even after months of being apart.

TC: You and your young friends were creating scripts—one might even say that you were child playwrights. When did you make that leap from playing stories to actually writing them?

Chee: I made my first conscious decision to make writing a huge part of my life when I was in high school. I had been playing a lot of video games, all role-playing games with a big focus on story, and I had gotten into writing fan fiction, taking someone else’s characters and expanding or retelling their stories in a way that seemed right, at least to me. However, I quickly realized that fan fiction was too confining—I wanted my own characters, my own world—so I quickly expanded into writing original fiction… and some pretty terrible poetry.

However, when I look back a little farther, I realize that I’ve been writing, seriously writing, with revision and editing and everything, since I was in fourth grade. My best friend and I had this old computer program called Storybook Weaver—released on floppy disk for Mac!—that allowed us to write and illustrate these sprawling stories. Our first effort was about a dragon who rescues a princess using a bomb shaped like a chili pepper, and our second was this epic never-finished story called “The Haunted Castle,” which featured every single one of our classmates as either monsters of the castle or as victims of it. We spent hours mapping out the castle, developing the characters, and plotting each event. Because we kept adding new characters, we had to keep revising the beginning, and we never really got anywhere past the middle of the story. Still, I feel like that was my first introduction to storytelling, and it really stuck with me.

TC: Who are your favorite authors and books?

Chee: My favorite authors are the ones who surprise and delight me with their work, ones that show me wonderful things I never knew existed, or ones that show me things I always knew existed but never had the right words for. Books like this include: Cosmicomics and Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie, and poetry. So much of poetry does this.

I also like books that are about books. They are curious, powerful objects that can do many things with many media, and I’m interested in the way that the form of the book (electronic, print, codex, fan, etc.) shapes the format of the book (margins, font, font size, etc.) and the content of the book (characters, plot, themes, motifs, etc.). Books like this include: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, and a lot of work by Jorge Luis Borges crosses both of these categories.

TC: In your short story collection, Consonant Sounds for Fish Songs, there are many themes and motifs, some repeating such as water and music. Where do your ideas come from?

Chee: Music has always been a huge part of my life. On long road trips, my mom used to play “Classical Kids” in the car. It was this series that told stories based on the lives and works of famous composers like Beethoven and Bach, introducing classical music to kids in this really engaging way. I begged her to let me take piano lessons when I was little, and with a bit of help from my grandmother, she bought a piano and I started lessons with a piano teacher who lived down the street. Playing the piano is hard! There were so many times when I didn’t want to practice, didn’t feel like I was getting any better, and wanted to quit. But my mom didn’t let me, and I’m so glad, because I stuck with the piano well into high school, and did a little flute, guitar, and choir along the way. Music is such a wonderful, universal way of communicating. Sometimes I feel like it picks up just as we lose the words to express ourselves, which is why I try to work it into my writing, hoping that some of the tones and rhythms will help to capture a story or character or theme.

TC: Yes! Music is so evocative in expressing unspoken emotions and feelings. And song lyrics can also fill in those spaces. Some of the stories in your collection have this added layer.

Chee: A lot of the stories in Consonant Sounds were actually inspired by songs—and not fancy-shmancy classical songs either. If you take a look at the back of the book, there’s a big list of music that has influenced the writing of the stories. While I was working, I would be listening to one of these songs and I would find inside it the kernel of a story: a character, a scene, an emotion. Then I’d put the song on repeat and write and write and write until the character or scene or emotion had become this fully independent creature, with just hints of the music inside it. Sometimes the song is obvious, as with “To Keep Me Awake and Alive,” in which the narrator recites “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel in a desperate attempt to convince himself that he is still alive. Sometimes it isn’t so obvious, like with “The Fisherman,” in which I tried to capture some of that sense of melancholy, and small everyday things, and breathing, of Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek.”

TC: Also, for this reader, your stories had a heightened sense of being in “the moment.” Was this a craft effect that you created purposefully or did it happen in an organic way, spontaneously?

Chee: One of my favorite things about writing is that readers will notice themes, motifs, and arcs that you never—quite—intended, but that are somehow so perfect and so fitting for what you were trying to accomplish. I hadn’t intentionally tried to create a sense of “being in the moment” in these stories, but I love that it feels that way. Some BIG IDEAS in the collection revolve around dealing with death, searching for God, and being in love—sometimes two of them at once! For me, these tend to be “in the moment” sorts of actions: that blind grasping after the death of someone you love, that feeling of smallness-yet-total connectedness you might get at church, or in a concert hall, that sucker punch of young, stupid love. There’s not a lot of dwelling on the past or fretting about the future in moments like that; it’s more about that feeling of being right here, right now, experiencing this.

TC: What is your writing process like? Do you aim for a set amount of words each day? Do you have a special time or space to write? Do you belong to a writing group?

Chee: Have you ever read an interview where a super-established real writer gets this question, and s/he says something like, “Oh, I write eight hours every day on an antique typewriter that used to belong to my great-grandfather.” Or: “Oh, I write in a studio with a bulletin board on which I post all of the ideas that will for sure become award-winning pieces of literature.” I wish I could give you an answer like this.

The embarrassing truth is that my process is very fluid. I think this developed out of necessity. When I was in college, my writing options changed almost daily. Sometimes I’d write in my dorm room. Sometimes in a coffee shop. Sometimes outside on the grass. Those days, I listened to music. These days, only occasionally. Sometimes I need to type. Sometimes I need to write longhand. Sometimes I need to draw. Other times—and these are really frustrating—I can’t write a word—well, not one worth keeping—because the ideas and characters are still developing in my mind, still slowly taking on form and shape and color.

The trick to this process, I think, is learning to listen to myself. This means learning the difference between the times when I’m feeling lazy and the times when I really do need a while to ruminate over a scene. This means pushing myself to keep typing, even when my hands are cramping and my wrists ache, because the characters are taking a story where it needs to go. This means that some days—especially those really exhausting ones during the school year, when I’m so burnt out from planning and teaching and grading—the only “writing” I get done is mentally developing a character’s history while sitting in traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge.

TC: I like that image of you on the Golden Gate writing your stories.

Chee: I can’t advocate this process for everyone, because it feels very fickle and sometimes makes me feel a little like I’m just posing as a “Real Writer.” But I think it’s important to figure out how you work best, and go with that for as long as it keeps working. I suspect that my process will continue to change as I come to different points in my life. Maybe one day, when I’m ready to settle down in one place, I’ll have a settled-down process to match, one in which I sit at a desk for five hours every morning and three each afternoon. But for now, this is what works for me.

TC: So, what are you working on now?

Chee: Currently, I’m working on what I can best describe as a young adult literary fantasy novel. Unsurprisingly, it features fish, ships, and a girl with the only book in her entire world.

TC: What an interesting premise. I also like the idea of the novel being literary as well as a fantasy story. I look forward to reading it one day. But in the meantime, I have a burning question: Will you please tell us why you like fish and ships?

Chee: It sounds cool, right?

TC: Curiously cool.

Chee: For some reason fish keep showing up in my work without invitation. A goldfish appeared in “The Flying Fish and the Frying Fish,” then another in “Philematophilia.” Then Jeff, the main character of “Fish Songs,” decided that turning into a fish was the only way for him to cope with the loneliness of being human. Bear fought a shark in “No Place.” I didn’t plan any of this out beforehand, but I’ve realized that fish, and ships, and the ocean are all wonderfully rich metaphors. There’s freedom, and joy, and anger, and wildness, and that feeling of being very, very small but very, very connected to something vast and unfathomable.

Honestly, though, I get terrible, terrible seasickness. My family and I once went whale watching in the Monterey Bay, California—it was just a bay, not even the open ocean—and I was so headachy and nauseous by the end of the first hour that the best I could do when we found the humpback whales was video it for later and try not to throw up. I wonder if maybe my very incompatibility with the sea makes it appear in my work, as if by writing about it I’m trying to understand it, or to bring it into myself—an impossibility in real life.

TC: You mentioned earlier that you are a middle school teacher, how have your colleagues and students responded to your success?

Chee: I told my students at the beginning of the school year that I was also a writer. I don’t think they really believed me until fairly recently, within the last month or so, when one of them Googled me and found out I take up the majority of the first eleven pages of the search. Apparently, one of them posted this Facebook status: “that awkward moment when you realize your English teacher is famous.” Which I’m pretty sure prompted a bunch of other students to Google me, too. Within a day, students were coming up to me saying, “Ms. Chee, you have a Twitter account!?” and, “Ms. Chee, Imma follow you on Twitter!” Naturally, my response to all of this was to tweet about it.


Then it really exploded because someone took a screen cap and put it on Instagram, and they are all little Instagram fiends, so at that point pretty much the entire middle school knew and it became a running joke. Except I’m always serious about studying vocabulary.

TC: Funny! What other advice can you give aspiring authors, young and old?

Chee: I was trying to think of what advice would have sounded relevant and witty to my younger self—you know, maybe go for a metaphor or something cool—but I think writing, for me, comes down to two things, and while they’re not particularly clever, they are what gets me through.

First, hone your craft. For me, this means taking classes and studying with people who are better writers than me and getting criticized—harshly and justifiably—and criticizing back. This means looking at the shape of a book, looking at the shape of a sentence, or listening to the sound of a single word. This means reading books about writing and books about books and books that I would never read again and books that I will always read again.

I think the point is to never be satisfied, and to know that your writing could always be better, sharper, clearer, and to keep grasping after that. Or maybe the point is to always be learning something new about the way words can be put together. I don’t think everyone needs to take classes to hone their craft, but I do think that sharpening your writing until it cuts the paper is something we should all be after. Getting so fine an edge that it’s difficult to say whether it’s beautiful or devastating.

TC: And the second piece of advice?

Chee: The second piece of advice is obvious: Write. I mean, I guess it’s built into the first, but after all the learning and the striving and the refining, it really comes down to just doing it. Putting that pen on paper. Banging out that sentence on your keyboard. Write because you want to. Write because you have to. Write because the stories are a current of electricity running throughout your body and even when you aren’t working on them, they are always there, humming in the back of your mind, waiting in your forearms and fingertips. Write when it’s easy, and especially write when it’s hard. Write when people say that no one reads anymore. Write when people say that the publishing industry is dying. Write when you don’t get published. Write when you do get published. Write when your internal editor is looking over your shoulder and telling you that everything you do is cliché and overwrought. Write about the things that are inside of you, that are desperately trying to find their words.

TC: Those are great reasons to write. Yet, has there ever been at time when you didn’t write—maybe even avoided writing for any reason?

Chee: I make so many excuses every day, every hour, not to write. “I’m hungry. I’m tired. I’m burnt out.” Sometimes I believe the excuses, and I don’t write. This is because writing is hard, and watching TV and checking Facebook and eating are much, much easier. But I write because the writing is inside me and if I don’t write then I become a grumpy, shriveled up shell of a person. Writing fills me up. Writing makes me whole.

TC: How can readers discover more about you and your work?

Chee: Hooray! This one’s easy.

Blog: HELLO MY NAME IS TRACI and this is my blog
Twitter: @tracichee
Facebook: Consonant Sounds for Fish Songs

Final Poll Results

Combining Your Passions: Interview with DeAnna Cameron

Absolute Blank

By Erica Ruedas (pinupgeek)

DeAnna Cameron started her writing career as a journalist before switching to writing fiction. After taking a writing class where she was inspired to combine two of her passions, writing and belly dance, she wrote and published her first novel, The Belly Dancer, about Dora Chambers, a young bride trying to find her place in society, who finds herself entranced by belly dancers at the 1893 Chicago’s fair. Her second novel, Dancing at the Chance, follows Pepper McClair, a dancer in New York at the beginning of the vaudeville era, who tries to realize her dreams as a dancer and find love.

Here she answers some questions about writing, marketing with a niche audience, and her love for belly dancing.

Toasted Cheese: You’ve said that when you published The Belly Dancer you had to learn how to market your novel very quickly. Did you change anything about the way you marketed Dancing at the Chance?

DeAnna Cameron: I did handle things differently the second time around. I think some of it worked better, and some of it didn’t, but it’s almost impossible to know for sure. The reality is an author can rarely pinpoint exactly what is working, so my philosophy is to do what you can and what you enjoy (belly dance parties!), but never to let marketing one book replace the importance of writing the next one.

One thing I did differently, and which I wish I had been able to do the first time around, was to attend reader conferences like the ones held by the Historical Novel Society, RT Booklovers and RWA, where I could participate in the huge book-signing events they hold. Another thing I did was to connect with a lot more blogger reviewers. As bookstores disappear, readers are less likely to discover new authors by browsing bookshelves. Following book bloggers has become one way readers have filled the gap, so it’s important for new authors to go where the readers are.

TC: For marketing The Belly Dancer, you reached out to the belly dance community. How would you say that helped get your book out there, and how did it help when it came time to market Dancing at the Chance?

DC: It was a terrific help. My love for the art and history of Middle Eastern dance was the driving force behind the story, so it felt natural to want to share it with other belly dancers when it became a book. And I couldn’t have asked for a more receptive community. Every belly dance publication I can think of featured either a review or article about it, and I’ve heard from belly dancers from all over the country about how much they enjoyed the story. When Dancing at the Chance came out, I think its connection to vaudeville appealed to them as well because it’s an aesthetic that’s popular with so many belly dancers. There’s a lot of cross-over appeal between belly dance and vaudeville, and of course there is some pure belly dance in Dancing at the Chance as well, and the main characters of The Belly Dancer make a cameo appearance.

TC: They say “write what you love.” How much of your novels began as just a personal interest in the Vaudevillian era and the late 19th century and in dance?

DC: Dancing at the Chance actually began as a sequel to The Belly Dancer. Since many of the Egyptian belly dancers who performed at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair stayed in this country after the fair ended and went on to perform in the vaudeville circuits, I intended to continue their story in that milieu. And what’s funny is that I thought I already knew a lot about vaudeville. But when I started doing the research, I realized I didn’t know it at all. It was so much crazier and more interesting than I ever imagined. And it wasn’t the belly dancers and the other headline acts that I found most interesting, but all the performers who worked at the opposite end of the spectrum, the acts that filled the least desirable spots on the bill. The scrappy, struggling performers who lived on little more than hopes and dreams, and all the people who worked behind the scenes to create the magic that happened onstage.

TC: What’s your tried and true method of organizing all your historical research?

DC: I don’t know if it’s tried and true, but my method involves a fat three-ring binder to keep my handwritten and typewritten notes organized, a slew of tabbed and earmarked historical resource books, and a carefully catalogued index on my computer of any online resources I come across that I think I might want to revisit later. It could be anything from a picture of a period dress that would suit a character or a picture of a building I plan to reference, maybe a biography of a historical person referenced in the story, or perhaps just an archived menu from a restaurant the characters will visit.

TC: How does your interest in belly dance fuel your passion for writing? Do you believe that they are both sides of the same coin or that they are two separate things you just happened to combine for your novels?

DC: I think it’s what you said before, about “writing what you love.” I’ve started stories about dozens of different things, but none of them hooked me long enough to turn them into novels. The story about The Belly Dancers at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and then later with the plight of struggling vaudevillians in Old New York, captivated me and I think that passion fueled the stories and hooked other people too.

TC: There’s historical fiction, romance novels, and dance. What made you combine all three? Which part is more fun to write?

DC: I was so naive when I started writing The Belly Dancer that I didn’t even know I was writing historical fiction or romantic fiction or dance-related fiction. I was simply writing a story that interested me and that I thought might interest other people, too. It was only when it was finished, and when there was an agent and a publisher involved, that I realized how important these labels are. So there was no master plan on my part. Some authors figure out what kind of novel they want to write and then write it. I wrote the novel I wanted to write, and then tried to figure out how to label it.

TC: You went from a long journalism career to writing fiction. What did you take from your journalism career to help you write your novels?

DC: As a fiction writer, I think I use what I learned as a journalist every single day. I learned how to research quickly and the importance of vetting what you find. I learned to write fast and to write through writer’s block. I learned the importance of narrative structure and style. Really, it was an invaluable experience and I’m eternally grateful for all the mentors I had along the way.

TC: What are you working on now?

DC: I actually have a few things in the works. One historical novel is still in an early research stage. I’m also working on a young adult Victorian paranormal trilogy. And, finally, I have a contemporary romance that centers on a young woman whose life is changed by belly dance class. See? I always come back to belly dance.

TC: Any advice for the budding historical fiction or romance writer?

DC: To be a writer, you have to write, so make it a priority. Write every day if you can, but at least a few times a week. It sounds simple, but there are so many people who say they want to be writers but they never write anything. Or they don’t finish what they’ve started. If you can finish a novel, you’ve probably got the drive to do what it’ll take to become a published author. So keep writing, even when it’s hard.

Where you can find DeAnna:

Website: DeAnnaCameron.com
Twitter: @DeAnnaMCameron

Final Poll Results