Author Inanna Arthen is near and dear to my heart as rarely have I met a person with as much, if not more, passion for vampires than I myself have. I count myself lucky to have been on panels with her at various conventions. She is an intelligent and engaging speaker and I am happy to bring you this interview with her.
How would you classify your writing? Speculative fiction? Horror? Fantasy?
I think of it as “magical realism,” because I present the real world, as authentically as possible, with the addition of a few fantastic (maybe) elements such as immortal vampires. I do extensive research into the real world history and locations, and much of the “fantasy” is based on my personal experience with magic and the paranormal. If I have to choose from some limited menu of categories, I classify my fiction as fantasy or dark fantasy.
How do you incorporate your writing into your everyday life? For example do you set aside x amount of hours for writing a day?
I have to write every day or I go into “writing withdrawal”–I found that out in the past two years of attending conventions. That doesn’t mean all fiction writing. I do a lot of journaling. But all my writing is mutually supportive. If I need to get myself into the mood to write a sermon or a short story, I can “prime the pump” by rereading my journal entries or reviews. I write like I breathe…I could almost say I keep breathing in order to write! That doesn’t mean it’s easy. I’m very concerned with craft, especially when it comes to fiction.
How did you get into writing? What are your first memories of it?
Unlike some writers, I didn’t write a lot as a child. When I was young, I drew constantly. I was always a story-teller, and I read avidly, but when it came to creative self-expression, I drew pictures–constantly, on any spare piece of paper that came to hand. All my school papers ended up with pictures on the back of them. I went through a dramatic and unexplained personality shift when I was 11 years old, and suddenly I stopped drawing so much and starting writing more. I still did a lot of art, and I consider myself an artist, in multiple media (including music). But I wasn’t really writing a lot of stories until I was in my teens, and I didn’t write fiction that other people read. I wrote and published non-fiction (enough to fill three pages on my graduate school application), but it wasn’t until I joined the e-group Vampyres List in 1994 that I started writing fiction and posting it in public for large numbers of people to see. I owe Vampyres List a huge debt for getting my fiction out of shoeboxes and into the world.
Who were some of your biggest influences and who do you currently read?
“Biggest influences” would be the authors I obsessively read over and over again when I was young, including Madeleine L’Engle, Scott O’Dell, Margaret Mitchell, “Carolyn Keene” (I read dozens of the Nancy Drew mysteries), Bram Stoker and Kenneth Graham. Authors I read in later life that absolutely influenced my own writing include Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, Peter Straub, Ursula K. Leguin and J.R.R. Tolkien (when he was being down-to-earth, not his high-falutin’ prose).
I currently keep up with P.N. Elrod’s Jack Fleming series and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Saint-Germain series, but my fiction-reading time tends to be monopolized by unpublished manuscripts and books I review for Blogcritics.org and my own blogs. Right now I’m reading a review copy of Jeaniene Frost’s Destined for an Early Grave, and I just finished Stephenie Meyer’s Eclipse and started the unabridged audiobook of Breaking Dawn. I read Susan Hubbard’s Society of S because someone told me that I was mentioned by name in the book, which turned out to be true, and having read that, I read the sequel, The Year of Disappearances, as well.
Can you tell us about your most recent publication and what you are working on next?
My most recent published book is my novel, Mortal Touch, which is the first in the Vampires of New England series. One of the legacies of the fiction-posting heyday of Vampyres List for me was a whole file folder full of half-finished stories or ideas for stories. I developed one of those when I needed a story for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in 2005–which I joined because all my writing friends were talking about NaNoWriMo and it seemed like a great device to get me past my overweening perfectionism blocks. My 2005 NaNo “winner” became Mortal Touch. At that point, I started to look at some of the other story kernels that I just couldn’t let go of, and I decided to weave them all together into a non-linear series about a tiny, loosely connected community of vampires who all live, or return repeatedly, to the New England region. The second book in the series, The Longer the Fall, will be released in spring 2010. I’d written half of that book and posted it to Vampyres List and the list members gave it an award–but then I was stuck on how to finish it. I just finished it in one thirteen-day writing marathon last month. It took me fourteen years to figure out what I was doing wrong with that story and fix it! There is a lot of information about The Vampires of New England Series at The Vampires of New England. I’m getting ready to use NaNoWriMo again to get started on the third volume, which continues from The Longer the Fall with characters who appear in Mortal Touch, and has a working title of All the Shadows of the Rainbow.
Vampires are a big influence for you. Can you tell us more about that?
I’ve been absolutely obsessed with the topic of vampires since I was 11 years old–and I have no idea why. I can still recall the very first vampire movie I ever saw–The Brides of Dracula, on TV one afternoon–and I read Dracula when I was 12 in one sitting. I’ve made an intensive study of vampire folklore, which is very much misunderstood and misrepresented in common culture. Even academics constantly repeat the same hoary misinformation. My vampire interest is linked to my lifelong interest in and studies of all types of paranormal phenomena and forteana, which I see as all interconnected, and other types of folklore, including contemporary folklore or “urban legends.” I wrote a research paper for a Harvard seminar on the Greek vrykolakas tradition, and I’ve found it linked and cited in a number of academic works.
I’ve been studying vampires in folklore, history, culture, and the media for over forty years now and unashamedly consider myself an expert on the topic. I’m afraid I’m a bit fanatical about correcting erroneous statements about vampire mythology and trends. That keeps me busy because there is more misinformation repeated about vampires than almost anything else. But vampires or publishing–just don’t even get me started!
You also run By Light Unseen Media. Can you tell us about that?
By Light Unseen Media is the dream of a lifetime and the job I was born to do. I’d always had fantasies of owning my own small press, complete with a physical print shop that would only run at night and employ frustrated night owls like me. I never thought I’d have enough money to do it. But I spent my life collecting skill sets relevant to publishing (page layout, graphic design, typesetting, web design, editing, etc), just because they were all things I enjoyed doing and did well anyway. By the time I unexpectedly got capitalization to start By Light Unseen Media, in 2006, the industry had changed drastically. You no longer needed huge amounts of money upfront to start a publishing house, thanks to digital publishing and the computerization of everything. My biggest initial expenditures were upgraded computer equipment and Adobe InDesign software. I immersed myself into an intensive self-education program in marketing, book design, promotion and the business of publishing, and after a year or so, I was surprised at how much more I seemed to know than some small publishers who’d been running their companies for years (and were burning out). My business model is to embrace every innovation and exploit every possible platform for getting content to consumers that I possibly can. I was one of the first publishers to convert my titles for the Amazon Kindle, for example, and my books are available through the Espresso Book Machine.
I named my company after my vampire research website, By Light Unseen, because that gave me instant search engine optimization. By Light Unseen had been online for nine years and was very well known, so it made sense to piggy-back my new company right onto that. Dedicating my press exclusively to vampire fiction and non-fiction was a result of where my chief interest and energies have been for the last decade or so. My earliest publishing daydreams were about a press that would publish books about Paganism, the paranormal, and so on, but there are a number of houses that already cover that field, including Llewellyn and Samuel Weiser. I always hated the condescending way mainstream publishers treated (and still treat) vampire fiction.
I never intended to publish my own books first. Originally, I’d hoped that Anne Fraser’s novel, Gideon Redoak (August, 2009), would be our first title. For one thing, it was finished in 2006 and Mortal Touch was not! But Anne was diagnosed with cancer–she passed away last year–and I was already behind schedule because my mom died of cancer three months after I founded By Light Unseen Media. So I had to change my plans.
You attend a lot of science fiction conventions. How did you get into doing that and how does it help your career?
Well…for the past two years, I have been going to a lot of conventions. I’m now evaluating the return on investment that I’ve gotten from those. It’s been very mixed.
I’d attended fan conventions, large and small, over the years. My first convention was the second Star Trek Convention in New York City in 1973, and I went to the Boston Worldcon, Noreascon II, in 1980, and a dozen or so smaller regional conventions. I hadn’t been to a convention for twelve years when I saw that World Fantasy Convention was going to be in Saratoga Springs , NY in 2007 and decided that as both an author and a publisher, I absolutely had to go. As an author, I hoped to promote my own books, with readings, signings and other ways of making myself known to readers; as a publisher, I wanted to network with writers who had manuscripts I could buy, as well as other industry professionals. I attended five conventions in 2008 and six conventions in 2009. I’ve had some successes, notably in achieving some visibility for myself and my company, but I’ve often been disappointed, as well. I’m not sure that conventions are that fruitful for authors who aren’t already so well-known that fans come to the conventions specifically to meet them. I’m focusing more on in-person appearances like the talk and slideshow I did in June at The Rabbit Hole bookstore. My events will all be listed on my author website at Inanna Arthen.
Do you find that the internet helps and/or hurts you as an author and in what ways?
I don’t know what I’d do without it! The Internet allows a degree of direct interaction, at almost no cost, which is unprecedented in human history. The chief challenge it presents comes out of the fact that the Internet itself has become so fractured and compartmentalized in recent years. If I’d started By Light Unseen Media in 1996, I’d have known exactly where to find vampire fans online. Now, people have pulled into so many tiny sub-communities, it’s difficult to reach a large consumer base easily. But the Internet is still the only way to effectively connect with like-minded people with eccentric interests, all over the world.
Is your writing style very strict or fluid? Meaning do you create an outline and stick with it or do you jump around depending on what ideas hit you at the moment?
I have a very strategic mind, and I tend to map everything out in my head at great length before I get it down in concrete form. I definitely don’t “jump around,” because story and plot are second only to character in my fiction. But I never work with a literal outline, either. What tends to happen is that the general sequence of events will evolve in my head, like a string of beads, with key scenes and passages of dialogue popping into clarity, and then I have to string them all together into their final form. So, I work both holistically and in linear fashion. I work this way for just about everything creative I do, not just writing. I often don’t know how the “transitional” parts will develop until I’m actually writing them, too. I start at A and I know I have to get to B, but the characters can really surprise me along the way. My characters are very real people to me, and they have lives of their own. They’ve been known to make me change things I thought I was going to write.
How do you get your ideas?
For born story-tellers like me, the real issue is, “how do I NOT get ideas?” My imagination is always spinning off little mini-stories when I read or watch anything else. If I’m having a bad day, I can get into unpleasant tangents and have to firmly stop myself from running away with them. The challenge isn’t getting the initial ideas, but developing them from scenes and snippets and daydreams into something cohesive. The movie The Big Picture gives you a perfect idea of what it’s like to have this kind of imagination. The down side is that my mind is constantly wandering off when I try to read anything, fiction or non-fiction. I have the worst attention span. I’ve meandered off on fantasies sparked by math textbooks! I test off the scale in what’s called “divergent thinking,” and it’s a mixed blessing, believe me.
Do you listen to music while you are writing and if so what kind/who?
No, I can’t write, or do anything else involving mental focus, to music. I was brought up in a musical family and I’m hyper-sensitive to music. I can’t ignore it–if there’s music playing, it commands my full attention. When I write, I not only need silence, I usually wear ear plugs.
And last but not least what advice do you have for aspiring authors?
READ. And learn to read critically and analytically. THINK about what you read, as well as just enjoy it. And then learn how to read your own work the same way.
The worst problem I see with aspiring authors is an inability to honestly evaluate their own work. I get queries that are so bad, I’m simply aghast that the writer would even let someone else see this material, let alone submit it for publication. Aspiring writers now chatter away about critique partners and beta readers and writers’ groups, but they’re just depending on the feedback of others rather than developing their own judgment. Writers need to learn what makes good writing good (and bad writing bad), learn it so well that they don’t even have to think about it, and then apply those lessons mercilessly to themselves. Ultimately, the only advice a writer needs to listen to is the advice of people who are prepared to pay money for their work. It does no good to go to a writers’ group consisting of equally clueless would-be writers! Feedback from “beta readers” and “critique partners” is only useful when you understand how to accept it and perceive what is helpful and what isn’t, and that generally takes training. Become a perceptive, honest, humble but critical reader and read, read, read, read, the very best fiction that you can find. And then write–every day, write something. Write letters, write journal entries, write mini-reviews, write anything, narrate your life! That’s the surest path to becoming a good writer.
Thanks Inanna! That’s great advice! So what do you guys do to flex your reading and writing muscles?