Category Archives: Storyteller Showcase

Brian Barr…professional story

I’ve always loved telling stories and writing since I was a kid. I would share ghost stories with my cousins and friends, write comics on lined paper, jot short stories, etc. I had a love for reading and fiction for as long as I can remember.

The first time I got interested in publishing or releasing my own work was when I saw my friend Matt Rowe releasing his own Xeroxed zines in a DIY punk fashion. I was impressed by Matt’s creativity in writing articles and poetry, and doing art; it awakened a need in me to create and put out my own work. At the time, I learned about different avenues, but it would be a while before I actually pursued serious publishing.

My books started to get published around 2014/2015. Carolina Daemonic was my first novel, released by J. Ellington Ashton Press, and I published Empress with Chuck Amadori through Comixology first. I published short stories, mostly horror, through a few small presses before my friend Jeff O’Brien got me into publishing stories on my own. I still publish with small presses and publishers, but I also like to release my own work. I mostly marketed on Facebook, where I was shocked to see so many writers, artists, and comic creators, and fans of horror, fantasy, and science fiction. I also did a little local promotion, and El Burrito, my favorite restaurant which is no longer in business, sported posters of my work and helped sell my book. I did a local showcase at Richland Library, and also collaborated with a bunch of local authors for a Make Your Own Adventure book the library hosted.

Doing Empress with Chuck Amadori has been a great learning experience for me. Chuck taught me how to write comics to the point, and how to best outline my scripts without clutter. We worked with the artist Marcelo Salaza and the colorist Matheus Bronca, who are amazing, and currently we work with artists Sullivan Suad, Zilson Costa, and Geraldo Filho. Matheus still colors a number of our covers and helps with flats, I believe. Without them, our comic would not exist.

I’ve learned that in order to be more successful, specifically in the areas you care about, you have to be true to yourself and connect to the right people. Not all audiences will appreciate your work, so you have to find the right audiences for what you like to do. You also have to engage with them, and be a fan yourself, loving, sharing, and appreciating their work genuinely. You can do this if you really care about what you do and the people you network with, and it comes to a great advantage without effort. I’ve also learned to know when an audience or direction doesn’t work and to keep moving.

My brain-saving technique is to listen to my brain when I’m writing. Basically, if I feel drained and uninspired, it’s time to rest. When I’m in the flow, it’s time to write down every idea that comes to me, to store it, and to get in the zone as I write. Just let it all come out, then revise and revise until I’m ready to send it to an editor and release a story as a finished project. But there are times when I need to recharge and it doesn’t help to push at that point. Sleep gives me the recharge I need.

Brian Barr . . . teasers

The 3 H’s Trilogy: A mix of comedic bizzaro romance horror, cosmic horror, and occult dark fantasy, The 3 H’s Trilogy begins when a gardener discovers a disembodied head in her mother’s garden. What starts as an absurd love story turns into a gruesome inter-dimensional nightmare. Consists of The Head, The House, and The Hell.

The Head

The Head Excerpt

Elizabeth looked back at the house, the phone firmly in her mind. She needed to call 911. This was the authorities’ problem. Whoever placed this head there, whatever force possessed it with the power to speak, after death…

Elizabeth looked back at the house, the phone firmly in her mind. She needed to call 911. This was the authorities’ problem. Whoever placed this head there, whatever force possessed it with the power to speak, after death…

Elizabeth walked up to the head and picked it up in her pink gloves. She stared at it for a moment, before taking it into the house with her.

Carolina Daemonic: Confederate Shadows: The first novel of Brian Barr’s Carolina Daemonic series released in 2015, Confederate Shadows is an occult urban horror fantasy with steampunk elements set in an alternative dystopian world where the Confederacy rules America. Uncompromising and raw, Confederate Shadows takes us into a world of grotesque monsters, dark magic, and chaos.

Carolina Daemonic: Confederate Shadows

Carolina Daemonic: Confederate Shadows Excerpt

The redhead looked up at the skies, coaxing Wei to look upwards as well. Far off dark bodies could be seen, flapping and soaring like wild birds, closer and closer. Behind them, far off into the distance, Wei could see what looked like a weird blue portal, opened with lightning bolts dancing within its womb.

“My sisters come,” the beautiful porcelain skinned woman continued. “Migrating Madonnas. You awoke us.”

Wei slowly stood up, shaking uncontrollably. She didn’t know what to say.

The woman gazed back and stared with a smile. “You will join us in our realm. This place reeks of mundane and disgusting men. It is no place for those like us.

“Wh…who are you then?” Wei asked, truly curious, but afraid to really know the answer.

“I am Celeste, one of the Lilin.”

Carolina Daemonic: Confederate Shadows Excerpt

Descending from the heavens in the black pool of night, something came. Something more foreign, more of an “other,” an outsider, than any societal scapegoat could have dreamed of being in the eyes of a fearful oppressor. Something further removed from the normality of society, from the expected nature of life and existence in general. The creature was humanoid in shape, recognizable mostly in the fact that it bore a head and neck with extended fins, torso and limbs. The composition of this thing seemed flesh-like, if flesh were turned inside out, pinkish and vein-ridden, muscle spasming and pus fizzling with what looked like the result of viral diseases. Its eyes were round and popping out, the pupils dilated. Bizarre and uncanny, it seemed to glide with ease from the heights of the sky. It fell onto the back of the unsuspecting sailor, wrapping its legs around the gasping man’s torso. A strange black collar flashed with rainbow lights around the demonic thing’s neck. Its hands were outstretched with sharp, shiny nails, its jaws open as a long tongue licked the air with insatiable delight.

The woman watched the thing fall for probably three seconds, astonished by the sight, left thoughtless. Had the thing taken an extra second to descend, or even an extra millisecond, the strange drunk’s foot would have found its way to her gut. That cruel show would’ve kicked her pregnant stomach, risked the life or welfare of the living organism, or organisms, incubating inside her. For its timing, the unintelligible thing was a savior in some way, a knight in flesh tissue and demonic extensions of tongue and nail. A holy savage fiend, a living oxymoron of the highest degree. She couldn’t pinpoint what to call this angelic demon, feeling both awe and dread in one shattering moment.

She still screamed. Still screamed as the ravaging thing grabbed her assailant.

Empress: Co-created and co-written by Chuck Amadori and Brian Barr, Empress is a comic book series that centers around Zia, a famous Hollywood actress who goes missing in the early 20th century. She  returns to America as the embodiment of the chthonic goddess Hekate and ushers in a new age for the same world that oppressed her spirit and legacy.

Empress volume 2

Brian Barr . . . bio and works

Born and raised in Hawaii, Arizona, and Maryland, Brian Barr resides in South Carolina and is the author of the Carolina Daemonic series, the 3 H’s Trilogy, the Nihon Cyberpunk collection (read my reviews of #2, #3, and #4), and the Brutal Bazaar collection. His stories meld fantasy, horror, and science fiction, with themes that range from the occult to the exploration of the human condition, art, music, societal issues and political concerns. As a small press and independent author, he is heavily influenced by DIY and punk culture when it comes to formatting and releasing his work. Brian has written novels, short stories, and comics. He co-created and co-writes the comic book Empress with Chuck Amadori, which features art by Sullivan Suad and Zilson Costa, colored by Geraldo Filho. Sullivan Suad and Zilson Costa have also collaborated with Brian to provide many of the art for his covers.

Follow Brian on his Amazon Author Page and purchase his works…

Carolina DaemonicNovel One (Second Novel Rebel Hell Coming in 2019) and Short Story Collection

Carolina Daemonic: Confederate Shadows: The first novel of Brian Barr’s Carolina Daemonic series released in 2015, Confederate Shadows is an occult urban horror fantasy with steampunk elements set in an alternative dystopian world where the Confederacy rules America. Uncompromising and raw, Confederate Shadows takes us into a world of grotesque monsters, dark magic, and chaos.

Carolina Daemonomaniac I: The First Carolina Daemonic Short Stories Collection: This is the first collection of Carolina Daemonic short stories. Along with the steampunk war comic The Tamed Tiger, Carolina Daemonomaniac includes various tales of Voodoo/Vudon spirituality, necromancy, weird science and the undead.

The 3 H’s Trilogy: A mix of comedic bizzaro romance horror, cosmic horror, and occult dark fantasy, The 3 H’s Trilogy begins when a gardener discovers a disembodied head in her mother’s garden. What starts as an absurd love story turns into a gruesome inter-dimensional nightmare. Consists of The Head, The House, and The Hell.

Brutal Bazaar: A horror collection of short stories, Brutal Bazaar includes The 3 H’s Trilogy, The Bloody Writer’s Trilogy, Badlam Betty, and various other bloodcurdling tales penned by Brian Barr. From slashers to occult horror, these tales include gruesome scenes mixed with dark humor and existential dread.

Nihon Cyberpunk: Nihon Cyberpunk is a collection of science fiction stories set in Japan. Inspired by Black Mirror, The Twilight Zone,Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and various other sources, Nihon Cyberpunk explores the human condition and probes philosophical questions in a dark and dystopian Japan ruled by technology. Includes The Kage Majitsu Trilogy and An American Otaku in Neo-Nihon’s Underbelly as bonus stories.

Empress: Co-created and co-written by Chuck Amadori and Brian Barr, Empress is a comic book series that centers around Zia, a famous Hollywood actress who goes missing in the early 20th century. She  returns to America as the embodiment of the chthonic goddess Hekate and ushers in a new age for the same world that oppressed her spirit and legacy.

Ruth E. Sharman—Artist, Illustrator, Writer, and Jewelry Designer

Ruth has a dynamic persona online; she’s friendly, smart, and funny, supporting other artists with her wit and wisdom. She also happens to be multi-talented, sharing her writing and artwork on Facebook. Links to connect with her to commission artwork / illustrations are at the end of the interview.

Tell me about your writing process: schedule, environment, inspiration, tools, magic spell, etc.

Sorry, I’m still grinning from ear to ear at the description you’ve given. She sounds pretty amazing, actually. Quite like to meet her.

I started properly writing about two years ago whilst going through a very difficult time in my personal life. I woke up at 4am in the usual panicked state, picked up my phone and began to write a scene which had been hanging around in my head for a while. It started an escape from reality; I discovered that I could immerse myself in the safety of words and the worlds they create. It not only got me through that challenging situation; it secured my way out. The piece I wrote was fan-fiction (Discworld, if you’re wondering), imperfect but a decent story nonetheless. It hooked the interest of a fellow fan who ended up marrying me. Words are important!

After that I tried a sequel, but a story idea I had from twenty years before was rather insistent I get back to it and so, on my daily commute, I would feverishly tap into my phone. It made what was essentially dead time bearable and productive. I would aim for a minimum 200 words a day, but usually made 400+, which wasn’t bad for an hour’s work.

I’m now working from home as an artist, primarily, and this has meant no commute time. I’m still coming to terms with that, and so writing has been a little bit neglected. It’s not that I get writer’s block, but that I get involved in other projects and need to reign myself in every so often! Flash fiction often helps get me back on track and there’s nothing so good as reading to promote the need to write.

I am inspired by anything and everything, but as some wise person once said, write what you know. So, as I’ve had a strong interest in the paranormal since I was very young (I used to think I was a werewolf, but I’m alright nowOOooOOOooo!) and an undying love of comedy, I had to push the two together. My current project is a paranormal comic fantasy mystery novel. Four genres are better than one, right? And so the dark comedy of Pemberton and Shearsmith, combined with all the true crimes and hauntings I’ve read about over the years, have definitely played a part. I also listen to music for inspiration and there are several references to tracks by 80s ska band, ‘The Specials’ and the ‘Fun Boy Three’, although those references are for my enjoyment; the reader may not necessarily spot them.

Describe your art process: similarities / differences to writing process and just how much time, energy, effort, and personal essence goes into each piece.

I describe both writing and painting as ‘flow’ activities in that, when I’m in the process I lose myself and the subconscious takes over for me. I become unaware of my surroundings and totally focused on pinning down what I see either in words or lines. When I write I visualise very strongly and so I see the characters interacting—I see the scene play out in my mind’s eye, hear their voices. It’s like a big game of pretend where I’m in charge of everything, but there is a feeling of really only being a scribe for these imaginary people. When I paint, and it’s predominantly portraiture that I do, I usually have a reference to work from so I’m trying to capture what’s in front of me, but more than that, the spirit of the person I’m replicating. I write about the dead and oddly my subjects are often no longer with us, but whether I’m literally channeling anything I couldn’t say. But again, I think my subconscious picks up on the features or the expression of the subject and seems to know what bits I should downplay or accentuate to put that likeness across. For the time I’m working on it, I pour my whole self into it.

When you let your conscious mind take the backseat it’s a very calming and cathartic experience. It does wonders for mental health and staving off depression and anxiety and you don’t need a prescription from a professional!

Explain your support system online and IRL; who are your biggest cheerleaders?

My husband, Graham, is my biggest cheerleader, although the visual that just inspired will haunt me. He’s not really the build for a leotard and pompoms. If it wasn’t for his encouraging words when I first started writing, I certainly wouldn’t be where I am now. He is in the process of designing, then building, my workshop where I’ll be doing all things creative. At the moment my kitchen table is my studio!

Online I’m predominantly on Facebook as a platform and I love it because, aside from the inevitable bots and trolls, you’re meeting and interacting with real people. Through groups and pages I can explore and share my special interests, as well as test out gags. I’d say half of the jokes in my novel are inspired from my need to outdo others in the witty riposte stakes. All of my commissions have come from Facebook, which again, has been due to my taking part in Inktober and continuing this with a Daily Drawing. Regular content is a must. These aren’t anonymous people—these are actual people and genuine connections which I find infinitely more fulfilling than some of my real life friendships (not you, Louise—my bestie if she’s reading!)

How does your life influence your work (writing / art), and vice versa?

I wrote a story that had two characters fall in love, in the midst of a dramatic backdrop. I was in the midst of a dramatic backdrop in my real life; then a man not unlike the lead stepped in and we fell in love. Thankfully, I didn’t kill either of those characters off because I do think that what we write, whilst inspired by our experiences, can also influence our experiences. I’m weird like that. A specific example is that the climax of my novel is set in a real place, The Secret Nuclear Bunker, which I visited with my husband before we married. It is undoubtedly the most unpleasant place I have ever visited and at some point I’ll need to visit it again for writing purposes. As we were leaving there was a sign on one of the doors that said ‘No Paranormals’ and in my head I heard Geoff (werewolf archivist and anal retentive) say, ‘Well, that’s just prejudiced!’. On the drive home the cogs whirred and by nightfall I had the entire end of the book worked out. Poor Graham then had to listen to this before either of us were going to get any sleep.

As for art, I like painting people because they fascinate me. That sounds as if I am not a person, but faces and expressions and trying to capture that I simply love.

What do you lost most about your creativity?

Love? I am never able to just do nothing. I’ve always got something I’m thinking on, working out, planning to do next. Often before the last project is done…What if this? What if that? The majority of my heroes were creatives and so I’ve spent a lot of time learning about their processes and what drove them to do what they do. Buster Keaton is an unlikely inspiration for my writing, although he was quite a writer himself. I have a character specifically based on him and I’ve really enjoyed the challenge of writing for a character that can’t, the majority of the time, speak. I like those hooks, I wouldn’t call them gimmicks, but I enjoy writing most when I’m restricted. So for instance, having a character literally written into a situation so difficult you wonder how you’ll get them out of it. That’s when we’re at our most creative, when we have limits to work within, so I’ll often self-impose these. It’s a good writing exercise too, like, write a 100 word piece on being a parent without using the words child, kid, responsibility, mother or father; go! Go on, you should try that.

Author Extra: novel-in-progress teaser

Maddie Webb’s life was at a dead end but, for some, being dead is just the beginning. When she inherits the family business she doesn’t bargain on inheriting her late Uncle Stan too. Teaming up with his ghost, a demonic cat, a painfully cool vampire and an anally retentive werewolf, she unwittingly finds a purpose.

WEBB PARANORMAL INVESTIGATIONS: serving the supernatural community. The Devil’s in the details.

Connect with Ruth:

Webb Paranormal Investigations

lovelyruthie@gmail.com

lovelyruthie.etsy.com

lovelyruthieslovelyart

lovelyruthieslovelystuff

Janie Chang—Bestselling Author of Speculative Historical Fiction

When I asked the Tall Poppies for speculative authors, I was given Janie Chang’s name. I fell in love with her two novels; read my reviews on Dragon Springs Road and Three Souls, and eagerly anticipate her upcoming book.

Tell me about your writing process: schedule, environment, strategies, inspirations material and intangible, magic spells, and treats.

With only three books under my writing belt, I’m not sure that there is a defined process yet. Each has been a different journey. I’ve sold one novel on the basis of a synopsis, and then delivered a totally different book. I’ve also written a synopsis and stuck to it pretty closely.

I see stories everywhere, but when an idea keeps coming back, it’s the one I take seriously. It always begins with a “now wouldn’t it be interesting if…” or “but what if…” series of thoughts, and then I dive into research to determine whether I can make it work. For my first two books, the opening scene just came to me and that provided impetus. The third … well, I’m still revising the first chapter.

Research itself provides so many ideas, insights, and anecdotes that you pull into your work. I probably spend six months off and on for research.

When the writing begins, I treat it as a job. Its butt glue time. Or as Shilpi Gowda says more elegantly, ABC: Apply Bum to Chair. I write 6 days a week. My husband goes into “support the author” mode and makes dinner. Housekeeping standards nosedive. The cat thinks she’s finally trained me to sit still for hours so that she has a lap to sleep on. Because basically, you need to get words on a page before you know whether your ideas are any good. You can imagine all you want in your head, but without executing those thoughts, you really can’t tell. You have nothing to work with. You can always edit crap, but you can’t edit a blank page.

Describe your publishing process from final draft to final product, including publishing team, timeline, and expectations of you as the author.

Well, this is something I’m trying to change. I’ve been very much a loner during the writing process; mostly because in the early stages my manuscripts are so embarrassingly dog poop that I don’t want to inflict them on author friends, even the ones who’ve offered to be beta readers. Thoughtful reading and critique is time-consuming.

I’ve hired professional editors though, because you do need someone else to offer critique. You’re always too close to your own work. The first draft may not be 100,000 words yet ,but it needs to be the entire story from start to finish, so that the editor can see what you want to achieve with your story, characters, and themes.

Then I revise based on the editorial notes and a discussion with the editor to make sure I understand what she means. This is where the most extensive re-writing comes in. Many drafts. After that, I send the manuscript to my agent who gives it a yea or nay, whether it’s good enough to send on to my publishers. Then it’s working with the editorial teams at HarperCollins (my publishers)–substantive editing, line editing, copy editing (where historical facts are double-checked, among other things), and then the final proof reading.

But lately some author friends have managed to convince me that they really are OK with reading dog poop and I’m starting to think it would be better for my mental health to have writing friends to talk things over with rather than stew on my own while eating too much chocolate.

Dragon Springs Road in Polish

Talk about your support system online and IRL, especially how you (exciting!) came to be a Tall Poppy.

You definitely need to socialize with other published authors. They understand the business challenges, they nod sympathetically when you wail “But writing in third person is so hard compared to first person!”. I have a poet friend who is the loveliest, most non-judgmental person ever and we walk around the seawall talking about everything: adolescence, sexual abuse, the state of Canadian literature. I have a group of women novelist friends and we take turns hosting potluck dinners every 3-4 months. I love cooking, so whenever possible, I invite authors and friends from the publishing industry over. Sometimes my guests don’t know each other, so it’s a good way to help people network.

Social media is good for staying current, but email is the medium I use to exchange deep, dark thoughts with my really good author friends. And OK, it’s not all serious stuff. One of them has a new book coming out in 2019 and it’s going to be a killer. We’ve been sending each other ideas for which actors to cast in which roles for when someone buys the film rights.

As for Tall Poppies–I’m not sure of the process except that it’s by nomination. So I think my nomination might’ve been due to Weina Dai Randel. Then the others check you out. I first met her online when her duology about Empress Wu came out, when we were both part of an online group for writers of novels about Asia. Then she invited me to join her panel in Portland, at the annual Historical Novel Society conference, and that’s when we met IRL. I met about 20 Poppies in Chicago at PoppyCon and they’re all so smart and fun and NICE. It was like an instant sisterhood. You feel you can talk about any problem and everyone will care and offer good advice. The accumulated wisdom in that group is awesome.

Mischa

The stories you share of your ancestors and China on your website are fascinating. It’s clear that this drives your work; how does your writing influence your life?

When you know how much work it takes to write 100,000 words, you really need to focus on the story that pushes its way to the front of your brain, the one that’s important enough to sustain your interest through the long months of writing to come. And so far, it’s the China of my parents’ childhood and the history of that era that’s pushing the hardest.

Writing has changed my life totally. You recalibrate your schedule and your relationships. Fortunately, I have friends who understand that writing books is not a hobby; it’s serious business. So I can’t travel with them or do as much with them as before. You need time for writing and mental space to let the story grow.

What do you love most about your creativity?

I live for those moments in the creative process when your characters take over and take your story in a different direction than what you had planned. This is why we write and write, to get enough of the plot and the characters and their challenges onto the page so that your subconscious has enough to work with. Then you get the reward, of those flashes of insight when you realize “Well of course this is how that character would handle the situation”–and then the next few pages almost write themselves and another piece of the puzzle has fallen into place. It feels like magic.

Connect with Janie and purchase her books:

website

Facebook

Twitter

Pinterest

Goodreads

Amazon

Indiebound

Barnes & Noble

Sandi Ward—women’s fiction author who writes humanity-embracing stories from the unique perspective of cats

 

I met Sandi on Twitter. She is super friendly and supportive of other writers. If you’re a fan of Hallmark, love heartwarming stories, and appreciate learning about other humans through reading, her novels are for you. Oh, you must also love cats! Here’s my review on her second novel Something Worth Saving.

 

Tell me about your writing process: schedule, environment, strategies, and inspirations tangible and abstract—what’s in your office?

Because I work full-time (I’m a medical copywriter at an ad agency), I write my fiction sporadically, whenever I can grab a few minutes here and there. My MacBook Air is always with me, and it essentially is my office-to-go! I’ll write in the early morning, on my lunch hour, late at night, or whenever else I can grab a few minutes.

I prefer to write with a hot cup of coffee nearby. My primary requirement is quiet. I can’t write with music or other background noise going on.

I don’t outline my story arc on a line chart, or put plot points on post-it notes, or anything like that. I’m completely what some people call a “pantser,” making it up as I go along (flying by the seat of my pants). I re-read written chapters and then add a new one, going back constantly to edit in new ideas. My goal is to write stories that are unexpected, and not formulaic. I let the characters surprise me, in the hopes that they will also surprise the reader.

Walk me through your publishing process from final draft to final product: publishing team, timeline, and expectations of you as the author, especially toward marketing and publicity.

Kensington gives me a year to write a novel, during which time their art department starts to design a cover and their marketing team writes potential cover copy (once I can supply a synopsis). Once the draft is done, it goes to my agent and editor, and we do a round of changes before moving on to copy editing, and finally page proofs. This stage also takes about a year, from final first draft to published book.

On the one hand, this process is slow. By the time of book launch, it has been over a year since I wrote the story. But I’m happy to be writing general fiction, where I get the time I need to devote to writing a first draft. Other writers, in genres like romance and mystery, are sometimes under pressure to write much faster, and that would be tough for me. I’m always promoting books at the same time I’m writing new stories, so I’ve got plenty to keep me busy. Right now I’m finishing up the first draft of my third novel, What Holds Us Together.

My publicists and the social media team at Kensington decide where and how to promote the book, for example via print or online advertising, but I also do as much as I can! I maintain my website and social media accounts, and reach out to other authors, readers and book bloggers who might be able to share news and reviews of the book.

Winnie, the cat

Describe your support system online and IRL—who are your biggest cheerleaders?

My literary agent, Stacy Testa at Writers House, is my #1 go-to person for all of the questions I have about writing and promotion. She’s amazing and I’m very lucky to be working with her!

Other authors have also been incredibly supportive. The online writing and reading community is great about sharing information and helpful tips. I belong to a number of writing-based Facebook groups where I learn new things every day, and try to share some of my own knowledge.

At home, it helps that my husband and teens are all writers. My husband is also in advertising, my son is a journalism major in college, and my daughter is a student filmmaker. They can relate when I need to disappear into my laptop for a while.

Your unusual protagonists are cats; I suspect you’re a huge animal lover, and I’m curious how you determined to write cat main characters. How does your life influence your writing and vice versa?

I do love animals! I have both a cat and a dog.

When people ask me what inspired me to write from a cat’s point of view, the truth is, I don’t remember exactly how I got started with it. Essentially, I wanted to experiment and try writing from the viewpoint of an unconventional narrator. I love books like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which are written from unexpected points of view, where the reader realizes that more is going on than the narrator fully understands.

A main theme that runs throughout all of my books is how hard it is to be a parent—especially of teenagers. Real life absolutely influences my characters and stories. I don’t usually talk about my personal life too much, but if you read my books, you’ll quickly figure out where I stand on many issues.

When I wrote Something Worth Saving, I was feeling pessimistic about how divisive society has become. I don’t have all the answers. I think it’s okay to disagree with others, but it’s also important to be respectful and not make anyone feel unsafe. My character Charlie (my narrator Lily’s favorite human) should not have to feel threatened when he wants to express himself—not at school, not at home, not anywhere. For me, writing a novel is a better way to try and convince someone to take another look at an issue, rather than shouting on Twitter about it.

What do you love most about your creativity?

I enjoy getting really enthusiastic about ideas, words and images. This is true at my job at the ad agency as well as when I’m writing fiction. Great ideas should get the creator fired up, and want to share those thoughts with the world. I believe you have to write for yourself first, and then you can try to get everyone else on board.

Connect with Sandi:

website

Goodreads

Facebook

Twitter

Amazon

Pinterest

Instagram

Mark Dery—Author, Biographer, Essayist

Mark promoted his Edward Gorey biography Born to Be Posthumous on Twitter and I politely asked for a copy to review. He graciously offered publisher contact information, and Little, Brown, & Company sent me a copy. It’s so good, people. If you’re not familiar with Gorey’s work, you will want to be in on this open secret after reading Dery’s book. Gorey was a fascinating character, and Dery is a brilliant storyteller. He’s really so much more—this interview a tiny peek into the profundity of his work, but I’ll let you read up on Mark further on his own website. Links to connect with Mark and purchase his work follow the interview.

Tell me about your writing process: schedule, environment, strategies, inspirations intangible and material, magic spells, etc.

I rise at the crack of noon, as Christopher Hitchens liked to say, and lower myself into a vat of virgins’ blood in strict adherence to Elizabeth Báthory’s beauty regimen for eternal youth. After a rejuvenating soak, I trim the topiary; then spend the morning in bed, languidly leafing through the Encyclopedia of Unimaginable Customs and nibbling candied violets.

But seriously: I have no set schedule unless I’m on assignment—working on a lecture, knocking off a piece of journalism, or writing a book, as I have been for the past seven years.

My “environment”—why am I thinking of a hermit crab in a terrarium?—is a small office in the attic of my house, a worse-for-wear 1868 Victorian in New York’s Lower Hudson Valley. It’s the proverbial garret, snug as a fo’c’sle, or what I imagine a fo’c’sle would feel like, based on second-grade memories of books about pirates and whaling. On top of one of my bookshelves is what I like to call my aesthete’s altar, a poor man’s cabinet of curiosities: a pickled Jerusalem Cricket floating in formalin, a desiccated Tarantula Hawk, postcards of my pantheon of secular saints—E.A. Poe, Oscar Wilde—and of images from my personal symbology (Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley, that Diane Arbus photo of identical twins) and, for crowning effect, two human skulls. Which makes it sound more romantic than it is: the paint on the walls nearest my desk is scabrous; teetering stacks of whatever books I’m using for my research are heaped on every available surface, including the floor surrounding my desk, which makes the passage from desk to door tricky at best and perilous at worst. When I’m in the death throes of an essay or a book chapter, things can get seriously out of hand, with xeroxes of articles and books propped open to specific pages threatening to avalanche off my desk, which they often do. Inspiration? That comes from the subject at hand, whatever it is, but if inspiration is lacking, a heart-hammering cup of Bustelo—three scoops of espresso made in my battle-tested Bialetti Moka—never fails to beckon the muse. I’m one of those writers who listens to music while he works, instrumental only (words are too distracting), preferably something that suits the mood of whatever I’m working on, though not necessarily in a strictly literal way. For Gorey, that could be anything from Morton Feldman to Jóhann Jóhannsson’s soundtrack for Arrival to György Ligeti’s “Études for Piano” to No Pussyfooting by Fripp and Eno. By five o’clock, I’ve had two pots of Bustelo and need to chase the evil spirits out of my head. A bike ride or a run along the tree-lined streets at the woodsier end of town are just what the doctor ordered; deer are everywhere, browsing on suburban shrubs, and the trees look uncanny in the oncoming twilight, branches clawing at the sky. (My iPhone is full of photos of trees that look like something out of Algernon Blackwood’s gothic tales of haunted forests.) Then it’s home for dinner, typically spent yelling at cable news, then back to my lair for a few hundred more hard-won words, with a glass of shiraz to downshift after my heavily caffeinated day.

How do you choose your subjects?

They choose me. I have the attention span of a gnat, which is good for the mind but bad for the wallet, since hoeing the same row is more lucrative than being an intellectual flâneur. One subject leads me to another, through some combination of serendipity and free-association. In an age of hyperspecialization, being a generalist isn’t a recipe for success but the idea of fitting your mind to a monorail seems like living death. I had a colleague once, a journalism pundit, who told an interviewer (with suitable portentousness), “I get up every day and ask myself one question: What are journalists for?” Just shoot me, I thought.

Talk about your support system online and IRL; what motivates you? Who are your biggest cheerleaders?

In all honesty, I don’t look for support, at least not in the sense you seem to mean—a kind of validation. Do most writers? I suspect not. Writers write not because they want to write but because they must; it’s not what they do but who they are. Certainly, fan mail is balm to the soul, not to mention a bracing antidote to that nasty review that made you want to inch out onto the window ledge—or drop a cornice on the offending critic. That said, I write for The Ideal Reader, a vaguely defined apparition who should never be brought into sharp focus but who bears a striking resemblance, I have a sneaking suspicion, to the face in the shaving mirror. Few writers admit it, but most write for themselves. Of course, you have to divide yourself by The Other—your wider audience—to save yourself from a fatal self-indulgence, not to mention abject poverty, which is where editors are very writer’s saving grace. Mine, Michael Szczerban at Little, Brown, saved me from a million little misdemeanors and a few Class A felonies in my Gorey biography. Writing is a communicative act, to be sure, unless you’re writing a diary, the point of which has always eluded me: there’s no paycheck, and no applause. At the same time, a good writer is his own severest critic and thus his most honest reader—maybe not the only support system he needs, but certainly the linchpin of the thing. As Lou Reed snarls in his onstage rant, on Take No Prisoners, about the rock critic John Rockwell, “I don’t need you to tell me that I’m good.”

As a writer and public speaker, how does your life influence your work and vice versa?

It doesn’t. Lecturing is to writing as improvisation is to composing, I suppose. I speak from written texts but, in the run-up to my talk, annotate them with frantically scribbled marginalia, jotted notes for fruitful digressions inspired by keywords in the text. They’re a kind of musical notation, indicating where to wander off into the weeds and when to double back to the main arc of the argument or narrative. Sometimes, ideas generated in this manner will find their way into a revised version of the essay or book chapter or whatever it is; so, too, will comments and questions from the audience. But I’m enough of a control freak that I almost never speak completely extempore. At the same time, I’d never think of just reading my text, as academics tend to; it’s pure chloroform, calculated to send the audience streaming to the exits in the first 10 minutes!

What do you love most about your creativity?

That it opens the door to The Marvelous, as the surrealists called it. As a practicing surrealist, I’m always on the lookout for The Marvelous—the uncanny, the fantastic, the utterly alien lurking just around the corner, hidden in the everyday, but only revealed when seen from a certain angle. Gorey was fond of quoting two quotes that were, he said, at the heart of his worldview. One of them was from the surrealist poet Paul Éluard: “There is another world but it is this one.” The other was from the Oulipo author Raymond Queneau: “Things aren’t as they seem, but they aren’t anything else, either” (or words to that effect). Where those two realities flow together is where I fish, as a writer.

Connect with Mark:

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The Daily Beast

Hyperallergic

Thought Catalog

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Francesca Hornak—British Author and Journalist

I won Seven Days of Us through Goodreads and devoured it, a story full of complicated family dynamics imploding from mandatory quarantine due to a daughter’s work in treating an epidemic—my review here. Francesca is not the first novelist I’ve interviewed who is also a journalist, which I expect imbues their fiction with nuanced description from honed observation skills, and a broad sense of the real world. I’m honored to share another talented journalistic novelist with my readers. If you haven’t yet read Seven Days of Us, I recommend it highly. Enjoy learning about Francesca’s process and creativity. Links to connect with Francesca and purchase Seven Days of Us are at the end of the interview.

Describe your writing process—schedule, environment(s), strategies / techniques, and inspirations big and small, tangible and abstract: writers, quotes, objects, places, ideas, etc.

I try to write every weekday morning between 9:15 and 12:15, which is the window when both my children are in nursery. I’m actually glad it’s so regimented, as it enforces a kind of ‘exam conditions’ pressure, which I find easier than if I had all day at my disposal. I could write at home, but I generally go to a café or library, as I like to work surrounded by strangers, and I always get more done in a place where I’m not connected to the Wi-Fi. I usually begin by having a really elaborate breakfast over my laptop, which I definitely wouldn’t recommend as a writing strategy, but I’ve now come to believe that I physically can’t write without a particular kind of coffee/juice/toast/peanut butter etc. Other than that I’m not too particular; I just always avert my eyes from the Wi-Fi password and usually wear earplugs—unless I’m eavesdropping on an especially interesting conversation. Inspiration is a mix of internal and external. It might be something I’ve experienced, that I want to relive through a character., or it might be a news story, or a chance conversation, that sparks an idea.

Walk me through your publishing process from final draft to final product—who does what, your input, and marketing done by you as the author, and talk to me about pre-empted TV rights for Seven Days of Us.

The final product wasn’t hugely different to the final draft, and luckily my editors (I edited UK and US editions simultaneously) agreed on everything. There were two scenes in my draft that we all felt were implausible or melodramatic, so I cut one and changed the other. Jesse’s character (the illegitimate son who gatecrashes his birth father’s quarantine) was also given a little more backstory and depth. The rest of the editing was mostly me finessing the wording. I’d rushed submitting to publishers, as my agent and I were both pregnant and wanted to get the manuscript out before we gave birth. So I wanted to perfect nearly everything—towards the end my US editor did suggest I ‘cease and desist’….

The marketing and publicity I’ve done has mostly been writing pieces for magazines, radio interviews, the odd talk, and Q&As like these. It’s all fun to do, and working in journalism means the press side isn’t new to me—I’m just on the other side to before. The TV rights were bought by a company called Little Island before the book was published, after my agent sent the manuscript out to a few scouts, and now Entertainment One is on board too which is great.

Tell me about your support system online and IRL—who are your biggest cheerleaders, and what keeps you going?

My biggest real life cheerleaders are my husband, mother, agent and editor—although I mostly really enjoy writing fiction, so I don’t really feel in need of a support system (it’s less stressful than working at a magazine!). I’m not part of any online writing community, but I have a few friends who happen to be writers who I sometimes run plot dilemmas by via email. What keeps me going is the fact that I always need that next chunk of advance money! And I don’t like to miss deadlines.

How has your journalist background prepared you for writing novels—how does your life influence your art and vice versa?

I think the obvious thing is that it helps you to see writing as a job, which is useful for actually finishing a draft. But I hope it also makes me more rigorous about what I’m offering a reader. As a commissioning editor and features writer, I spent ten years thinking ‘Would anyone want to read this story?’ or ‘Has this been done before?’ or ‘Is this the most entertaining way I can convey this information?’ and I’m glad I had that training. I don’t think my fiction writing especially influences my life, except that half of my brain is always thinking about what I could be writing. But that was the same when I was a journalist.

What do you love most about your creativity?

The escapism of diving into my own fictional world every day, I think. It’s like having a telescope onto a parallel universe. I also really enjoy wearing athleisure for work.

Connect with Francesca:

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Richard Zacks—Author of Historical Non-Fiction and Hollywood Historical Consultant

Richard Zacks was born in Savannah, Georgia, but grew up in New York City. As a teenager, he gambled on the horses, played blackjack in illegal Manhattan card parlors, and bought his first drink at age 15 at the Plaza Hotel. He studied Arabic in Cairo, Italian in Perugia, and French in the vineyards of France. He wrote a syndicated column for four years carried by the NY Daily News, Boston Globe, Dallas Morning News, and many others. He keeps a hole-in-the-wall office in Manhattan. Zacks spent more than three years researching The Pirate Hunter, including months at the Public Record Office in London (where he found a pirate prisoner’s long-lost diary). He is the author of six books of unusual research, including History Laid Bare and perennial book club favorite An Underground Education—he dug up stories about Edison’s electric chair and Lincoln’s tentative plan to ship out the freed slaves. He also authored Island of Vice (about Teddy Roosevelt as NYC police commissioner), Chasing the Last Laugh (about Mark Twain’s round-the-world comedy tour) and The Pirate Coast (about America’s first overseas covert op in 1805).

Describe your writing process—schedule, environment, tactics, and inspirations—and research protocols; how do you choose your subject matter?

My writing process? I usually wait until my self-loathing over procrastinating is so great that it is a choice: write something or change professions. (I was a house painter in college and I really don’t want to go back to that.) I have an office in an old New York building near Union Square Park. I go every day.

Books come in phases. I love the research. It plays to my voyeuristic/private eye tendencies. I love snooping into lives in the past, reading personal letters, trying to build out entire scenes. Since I was trained as a journalist before becoming a historian, I lean hard towards Who, What, When and Where. I want physical details, so I build elaborate timelines, sometimes 400 pages long… Aug. 22, 1893, Aug. 24, 1894… and then I layer in every detail I can find with its source. Over time, these random details accumulate and a clear picture of many individual days starts to emerge. This format of a giant timeline helps with “plotting” the non-fiction narrative. Yes, it is non-fiction, but writers have huge choices as to structure and I always want to build a plot and suspense, because that’s what I need as a reader to keep me interested.

Choosing a topic is the hardest part of the process. I have an office crammed with rejected ideas. I want to pick a topic that fascinates me and will also lure a large enough audience. (Pirate Hunter sold more than 200,000 copies.) I have spent far too much time on Casanova and Sir Richard Burton without green-lighting anything. Lately I have done work for Hollywood. I was the historical consultant for The Alienist, Caleb Carr’s great suspense novel in 1890s New York. Two of my books are under option, and I am working with the producers to develop the material, but I need to re-focus on finding a book idea.

I should read non-fiction all day long, but I am reading mostly fiction these days. And then there’s the NYT crossword puzzle.

Walk me through your publishing process—who does what and when, how much input you have throughout, and what marketing you’re expected to do as the author.

A friend described his publishing process as “the calm before the calm.” Thankfully, I have never experienced that. The PR departments of the various publishers have gotten me piles of radio interviews over the years and bookstores appearances. I LOVE giving my PowerPoints, especially this last one on Twain, since it generated lots of laughs. I never knew how absolutely glorious it feels to make two hundred people laugh. Thank you, St. Louis.

I create my own website, because it’s fun and easy. I should do more on Facebook. I don’t tweet, because I think I would get addicted. Basically: radio, speeches, and the occasional self-promoting op-ed or companion article. I want people to read my book, so promotion is not too painful.

Tell me about your support system online and IRL—who sings loudest your praises and who pats your back?

My wife is a literary agent, so she reads the near-final draft. She is brutally honest, after I convince her yet again that I want to be brutally honest. I try not to bother her too much, but she is really good at what she does, and has dozens of paying clients to serve. Reviews have been solidly positive over the years, but I did get a complete slam in one major publication. I was flabbergasted. I complained to the book editor and he asked whether I believed in freedom of the press and of opinions. I said “Sure,” but that he shouldn’t let children play with matches. I also like Ben Franklin’s line about Freedom of the Press being accompanied by Freedom of the Cudgel. Ka-boom.

Your question was upbeat in tone. I love getting passionate positive emails from strangers. I used to say that was the best part of the publishing process and almost mean it.

In what ways does life influence your art and vice versa; do you harbor such secrets as your subjects?

My subjects reflect my personality, which I would describe as subversive, voyeuristic, adventurous, with a solid sense of humor. There is also a Walter Mitty aspect, slipping into the lives of others.

My first book was sex in history; my second book aimed to one-up the experts and deliver contrarian views. Then came my pirate phase. I live a respectable life; who wouldn’t want to be an outlaw, a pirate… at least for a week? Robbing from ships owned by stodgy arrogant nobleman who never worked a day in their lives, drinking rum, dancing to the hornpipe, eating shellfish, shooting cannons. (The older I get, the harder it is to justify.) Then… to go along on a covert op to rescue 300 American hostages in Tripoli… then explore vice in 1890s New York… finally spend a few years with Mark Twain when he was down and out… and very darkly funny.

What do you love most about your creativity?

Life is really swell in the middle of researching a book.

Connect with Richard Zacks:

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The works of Richard Zacks

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My favorite Richard Zacks’ book

Rufi Thorpe—Author, Essayist, and Teacher

Rufi Thorpe received her MFA from the University of Virginia in 2009. Her first novel, The Girls from Corona del Mar, was long listed for the 2014 International Dylan Thomas Prize and for the 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. Her second novel, Dear Fang, With Love, was published by Knopf in May 2016. Her third novel, The Knockout Queen, is forthcoming in 2020, also from Knopf. She lives in California with her husband and two sons.

She was also my teacher for a Catapult class (which I highly recommend—Catapult in general and any class of hers specifically) and my Twitter friend, which delights me. At the end of the interview are links to connect with Rufi online, and you too will be delighted. Then read her books!

Describe your writing process: schedule, mechanics, environment(s), nuances, and inspirations tangible and abstract. What’s in your head? What’s in your office? What keeps you going?

Because I have two small children, much of my writing for the past six years has been stolen during naptimes. My first son would only sleep if I was beside him, and so I got used to writing in bed right next to him as he napped, semi-recumbent, my laptop on my thighs. With the second one, he just didn’t fucking nap, and so I hired my husband’s cousin to come nanny for us, and she would take him for three or four hours in the morning, and I would sneak away to try desperately to assemble some sense of self, usually in my mother’s apartment, which was adjacent. For some reason, I hardly ever turned on the lights and it was dim in there, and my boobs were full of milk, and I would pull on my own hair and stare at the screen and think: who am I?

Now my children are older and I have many more hours while they are at school, but those hours still feel somewhat stolen, and that lends the act of writing some urgency. I have never, for instance, had to worry that I would fritter away my few hours with social media. I am also, for better or worse, one of those writers who enjoys the act of writing itself. I enter a kind of narcotic stupor, and I can write twenty pages and then kind of “wake up” and have to figure out if anything interesting happened in them or not. I have to throw away a lot, but it also means I think I torture myself less than is common. Both because my time almost always feel stolen, and because I actually enjoy writing more than any other activity I do, my writing time has almost no ritual element. I don’t have to get in the mood, or become inspired. All that is required is a computer. I suppose the only truly odd thing is that I prefer to be entirely alone and dislike it even if someone is in the next room.

Walk me through your publishing process from final draft to final product, including who does what, how much input you’re allowed throughout, and marketing expected of you.

Oh, interesting! No one has really asked me that before! So, when I finish a first draft, my first move is to show it to a few close friends, also writers, who give me feedback. Then I usually put it away for a while, like aging beef! Then I revise, put it away, revise, put it away. When I’m not sure how else I could possibly improve it, I send it to my agent. That whole process, the beef aging, can be about half a year. Then my agent has LOTS of ideas about how I could improve it. My agent is an incredible editor. I’ve learned more from her than I did from my MFA. So then I rewrite it again. Sometimes she has massive problems with something, sometimes very minimal tinkering. This part takes anywhere from one month to three.

Then we show it to my editor, and (hopefully) she buys it. Once the offer has been made and accepted, then my editor and I usually have a big phone call talking about edits and marketing ideas and how our children are. She just bought my third book, and she’s bought all my books, so we’ve known each other for… six years now? I love her very dearly. Usually her editorial suggestions take anywhere from one month to four months to implement, and then I submit the final manuscript! But it is also, of course, not done yet. Final manuscript is a misnomer. There are still months and months of copyediting to go through.

The book undergoes four rounds of copyedits, which involves changes made by the copyeditor, which I then review, everything from spelling or grammar errors, typos, to “would a football game be on at this time of the day on west coast time?” Copyeditors are amazing people. At around this time, you start to see cover mock-ups. While I don’t think I have full cover control, i.e. the ability to legally veto a given cover, my publisher very much wants me to be happy, and if I have a big problem with something they will try to accommodate me. But I’ve been very happy with all the covers they have shown me, so we have never had to really duke it out.

In general, from accepted manuscript to the hardcover publication date is about a year. It’s an incredibly long pipeline.

In terms of marketing, there are parts I am central to, like writing letters to booksellers to be included with ARCs, or going to marketing lunches with booksellers, or doing events once the book is out, and there are other parts, like seeking review coverage, that I don’t have any knowledge of. I do try to write some personal essays to come out the weeks before and after the pub date, just to try to get my name out there, to get passed around on social media. I have no idea if these essays actually sell copies, but I have very much enjoyed learning more about how to write an essay, and they have caused me to read far more essays by other writers than I might have otherwise, so I am quite grateful for that process.

Tell me about your support system—who are your cheerleaders?

My mother and my best friend, both of whom are also writers. They read my drafts, they nurse my insecurities, they agonize with me through every part of the process, from wading out into the primordial soup of a book I am just figuring out to weighing in on the narrator options for the audio book. They are the two smartest women I know, and I would be lost without them.

How does life influence your art; does your work influence your life?

I am not an autobiographical writer, and I don’t ever write characters who are “me” or even who share a lot of biographical detail with me. But certainly life influences art. Your life is your reality, and your art is a depiction of your reality, your convictions: justice is possible or not possible, love is real or illusory, man is moral and celestial, or man is base and animal.

As far as my work influencing my life, I suspect it does in so far as I prefer imaginary people to real ones, and I have been indulged in that to an extent that now I am shit at small talk, and I just get really weird and awkward really fast. It doesn’t happen so much when I’m teaching, but put me at a PTA meeting and I’m sure to tell a woman her earrings look piratical “in a good way” or something.

What do you love most about your creativity? Teaching others?

Well, teaching I love because it is so straightforward. The task is pretty much: “help these people learn to do this thing.” It’s much easier then other tasks, like, “Get these people to win this war,” or “work hard at very boring spreadsheets whilst simultaneously performing complex social hierarchy maneuvers.” I would be bad at both of those! Helping people to learn something is actually very straightforward. You simply tell them everything you know about a given subject and then try to earnestly answer their questions. And of course, every time you teach something you come to understand it in a new way, and the questions you are asked are usually very surprising and interesting and make you think in new ways, so the end result is that you end up learning a lot from your students in the process of trying to teach them something, which makes it extremely rewarding. I mean, I think it is very rare in life that just being earnest and open is all you need for success, but teaching is like that.

Writing is a whole other thing. On the one hand, writing can be very lonely, because no one can really tell you how to do it, and you spend many hours alone, just striving, and you can never really feel satisfied with what you have done. The moment of connection with the reader happens away from you, you don’t get to see it. Sometimes they send you letters and that feels good. It is almost overwhelming to think you have had that kind of effect, and you can’t help but feel very grateful that they have taken the time to write you, but there is another way in which it feels like it has nothing to do with you, like they are simply reporting that they ran into your doppelganger somewhere else where you have never been. And they are like, “Your doppelganger! She was amazing!” And you’re like, “Wow, I’m so glad! I’ve never met her, I hope she is nice.”

But writing is also the place where I am my truest, most essential self. My most real connections to this world have taken place in books, and I am intimately connected and indebted to many novelists I have never met. It is a strange, anonymous intimacy. And if I were to write to them and tell them about it, it would be as useless to them as if I told them I had run into their doppelganger at a Macy’s in south Orange County or whatever. “How nice,” they would say. “Thumbs up.” And yet, they have spoken to me about reality more deeply than I am able to communicate with even my husband. What is one to make of such a connection?

But to get back to your question, which is what do I love about it, I think what I love about it is that it is the place where you get to earnestly try to figure out what the fuck is going on. Why do people hurt each other? What does love look like? Does doing bad things make you bad, or do you have to be bad to do bad things? How well do people know each other?

The writing always asks you: What do you know is true so deeply that you didn’t know you knew it?

And you have to try to answer.

Connect with Rufi:

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Amazon author page

brilliant essays in McSweeney’s