Author Bill Blais stops by Open Book Society to chat with Annabell about his novel, No Good Deed, which is the first book in his Kelly and Umber Series. He discusses why he chose to write from a female perspective, how he approached writing dark themes, what he thinks is the hardest part about writing a novel and why he would do a book tour with Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz.
Book Review for No Good Deed
Author Bill Blais: I just want to preface my responses with the fact that I’m working on a deficit of sleep recently, thanks to the new baby, so the coherence of the following is likely minimal in places, for which I apologize because Annabell came up with some fantastic and really challenging questions.
Annabell: Where did the idea for No Good Deed stem from? Why demons and why the supernatural/fantasy genres?
Bill Blais:The core of NGD actually came to me in the car as I was driving to Readercon a few years ago. I’d been reading about a lot of the growing Urban Fantasy genre, particularly the ‘strong’ female characters, but I wasn’t seeing it. It felt like ‘strong’ was being used in the purely physical/aggression sense (in and of itself, not terrible, but where was the true strength of character, the difficult choices, the genuine sacrifice?). So, I decided to see if I could write my own hero.
I’ve been a fantasy kid from day one (to my parents’ occasional concern), but urban fantasy was relatively new to me. Aside from Anne Rice’s seminal series, vampires and werewolves have never really interested me, but demons, particularly as I came to understand them in these books, gave me something else entirely, and opened doors I had not expected.
Fun fact: The original idea for No Good Deed centered not around Kelly or even Umber, but around Grishane, a character who doesn’t actually make an appearance until Hell Hath No Fury. As the story blossomed from kernel to book, though, Kelly appeared and took center stage almost without me realizing it.
Annabell: Why did you decide to narrate your book through a female voice?
Bill Blais:Two reasons. First, I thought a woman like Kelly was overdue in the genre. She’s not perfect but she’s trying to do the right thing. She’s not svelte, but she has her own beauty. She’s not brilliant, but she doesn’t give up. She’s the kind of character I hope readers can appreciate and root for.
Second, I wanted to see if I could pull off a ‘believable’ female voice. I think I still have some work to do, but I hope it’s close. Kelly started as an amalgamation of various people I had met, but she quickly became her own distinct person. When I’m really listening to her, I write her best; when I try to get her to say what I want her to say, it’s never right and everyone can tell (except, sometimes, me, for which I am deeply indebted to my beta readers).
Annabel: Kelly is the quote-end quote ordinary person thrown into an extraordinary world. What I like is that the world of demon hunting is not glamorized or romanticized. It’s as dark and dangerous as normal life can sometimes feel. What do you think it is about “ordinary heroes” that draws readers in? How did you approach creating the dark themes in the book?
Bill Blais:I think ordinary heroes are the best kind. I’m an absolute sucker for underdogs, but underdogs are underdogs not because they are destined for greatness, but because they are people like us, people with weaknesses and frailties, and despite the odds that push them down, they manage to get back up.
As for the dark themes, I tried very hard to approach them with the same reality that I did Kelly’s ‘normal’ life. There are certainly (hopefully!) moments of kick-butt fun, but everything has consequences, and it is these consequences that are the most challenging and exciting to me, as a writer.
The world Kelly discovers is brutal and dark and, at times, incomprehensible, but I didn’t want it to be arbitrary or gratuitous. Ultimately, though, what’s the point of having demons if they aren’t scary?
Annabell: What type of research did you have to undertake in order to create the world Denis Larocque introduces both Kelly and the readers to?
Bill Blais:As an English major, I started with my copy of Dante’s Inferno, but I quickly discovered this was too easy. If an underworld of demons really did exist, I can’t imagine it adhering to a single culture’s interpretation. As a result, I found myself trolling the Internet for demons across all cultures, from Western to Eastern, Russian to African, Witch-Hunts to Zoroastrianism, literary to role-playing games. This was a lot of fun and quite an eye opener.
When Denis and team stepped into the story, I discovered that their day-jobs were an excellent intermediary between the worlds. My previous interest in the world of antiques was largely limited to occasional viewings of The Antiques Road Show, but Denis challenged me to do things right and try to make the shop and their work as realistic as I could. Did I succeed?
Annabell: Shawn has Multiple Sclerosis, why did you choose to present such an important topic within the storyline of the book?
Bill Blais:Actually, this was part mental exercise, part malicious author decision, and part personal note.
First, it seemed to me that people are rarely sick in books. Either they’re deathly ill or they have the sniffles, but few are long-term survivors, people making do day by day with an ongoing sickness. What this would do to the story intrigued me, and I wanted to know whether I could pull it off honestly.
Second, I thought I should make Kelly’s life more difficult. Mean, huh? Probably, but again, it seems to me that the people with the greatest burdens often rise to the greatest challenges. It’s unfair, no question, but that’s the point. Life often is unfair, but heroes strive to rise above, not condemn and bemoan.
Last, some folks in my life have been stricken with terrible and insidious diseases and I wanted to show a character who dealt with such an illness in a realistic, believable way, and how that impacts the rest of the people in that person’s life. Mostly, though, I wanted to show that sick people are heroes too, fighting silent battles every single day, whatever the end result.
Annabell: Denis’ team have different colors to indicate who they are when they are out chasing demons and all of them undergo extensive training. If you could create your own demon hunting team, what would the team be called and what kind of job would be your cover? What kind of training would you demand your team to have?
Hm. I’m afraid I’ll have to plead the fifth. I have some ideas, but they have a bearing on future Kelly & Umber books.
Also, I’m really not sure I would trust anyone who trusted me to be their leader. I wish I was that person, but I’m not.
Annabell: No Good Deed is the first in the Kelly and Umber Series. How many more books will there be? And what are some fun tidbits you’re willing to give away about what happens in the next installment, Hell Hath No Fury?
Bill Blais:I currently have the final outline for book 3, tentatively titled The Road To Hell, and some loose ideas for book 4, but I don’t have a specific end in sight. I do worry sometimes about ‘jumping the shark’, but I believe Kelly and Umber and the others still have plenty to share. As long as they keep talking to me, I’ll keep writing it down.
As for HHNF tidbits, I can honestly say that I did not expect to write what I wrote. It’s actually darker than NGD, but I couldn’t see any other way to do it. To be cliché about it, I would say that this time, it’s personal. Some folks in the foreground of NGD fade to the back, but if you’re looking for more Umber . . . well, I guess that’s the next question.
Annabell: Outside of Kelly, Umber is my favorite character! He’s an Incubus with a powerful touch (literally). Will there be more of his back story in the Hell Hath No Fury? Does he have a bigger role in the next book? If you were an Incubus, what would you want your power to be?
Umber definitely has a certain . . . appeal, doesn’t he? He does indeed have a much bigger role in the next book. As for being an Incubus, I can think of few more terrible fates. It’s also part of the appeal of writing him. But that’s probably a discussion for after you’ve read HHNF (nudge, nudge, wink, wink).
Annabell: You’ve recently become a dad, how does having a family affect the way you approach creating plots and characters for your story?
Bill Blais:You know, I actually thought it would, but so far it hasn’t. Perhaps that’s because it’s only been a month (!), but even when I have thought about new stories and characters, I don’t feel much differently about them. I’ve learned I have to write the stories that speak to me, not the stories I think I should write, and the stories that speak to me are ones that, ultimately, empower (I hope).
Annabell: In your opinion, what is the hardest part about writing a book? What is the easiest part?
Bill Blais:Hardest: Starting. I don’t get writer’s block, per se. I get an idea for a book that fires me up, and I race through outlines and tangents and possibilities, scratching them onto whatever writing surface is near. When the first blush has passed and my plan is largely laid, however, I balk at the months of pre-dawn mornings and past-my-bedtime nights ahead, and the emotional rollercoaster of good writing days and bad. Once I finally put pencil to paper on the first draft, though, I’m off to the races.
Easiest: Revising. I believe Will Shetterly had it right: “The great thing about revision is that it’s your opportunity to fake being brilliant.” I don’t claim to be or sound brilliant, but I absolutely adore the craft of writing, from whole plots all the way down to individual words. That said, I can easily succumb to the devil in the details. My first book, Witness, had 13 revisions over 3 years (yes, my wife is a saint).
Annabell: As an avid reader, what is the type of content you look for in a novel?
Bill Blais:I know it’s sad, but the things I most value in a novel are coherence and believability. I like to read across all genres, but there are few things that bother me more than plot flaws and poor editing. I’m also an English instructor, after all.
Beyond this, though, I love being taken someplace new, either in our world or another, with characters I can believe in.
Annabell: Fun Random Questions:
What was it like living in London? What is one of the best memories you have?
Bill Blais:London is an amazing city. That’s said a lot, and there are a lot of not-so-nice things about it (the recent riots are an example of racial tensions), but we had a wonderful experience, from wandering the great streets to the fabulous food to the history everywhere around us.
I think the best part, though, was living a couple streets over from Portobello Market (featured in the Hugh Grant/Julia Roberts film Notting Hill), an incredibly long open-air public market with everything from kumquats to sweatshirts to pork chops to antiques, with vendors calling prices and people bustling everywhere. It was like a slice of another time.
Shawn and Kelly have such a deep love for each other. What is something romantic you have done for your wife?
Bill Blais:I’m the luckiest man in love that I know though I may not always show her as much as she deserves, I keep trying: A couple years ago, I secretly wrote her a new poem each day for a year and then surprised her with the collection as a book for Christmas.
The best part? Having more poems than days and never once running out of things to say.
What was one of your favorite scenes to write in No Good Deed?
Bill Blais: Ooh, tough question. I think one of the most unexpected favorites, though, was the scene with Linwood. I don’t think I knew it was coming at all, actually (I may not have known until Walter told Kelly about it), but it turned out to be both a very grounding — and rather spooky — situation for Kelly and for the story, that surprised and fascinated me.
Superman or Batman?
Bill Blais:I’d have to say Batman, though neither one was really a favorite of mine. Superman never had to work for his powers and Batman had all the money in the world. Yes, they both had trauma to overcome, but they were also starting from such heights that I never felt deeply invested.
Favorite snack you just can’t get enough of:
Bill Blais: Jax cheese curls. Deadly things, those. Delicious, but deadly.
Great, now I’m hungry.
If you could tag team with one of your favorite authors to go on a book tour with, which author would you choose and how would you design the tour bus to look like?
Bill Blais:A little weird, but I would pick Polish author, Henryk Sienkiewicz (Quo Vadis and With Fire and Sword, among others). He’s long dead, but With Fire and Sword is a historical fiction epic in every sense of the word. I was swept away by the writing, covering everything from sweeping battle scenes to courtly intrigues to nuanced romances. I think it would be amazing to spend time with him and ‘talk shop’ about writing.
I’d trade the tour bus for an old fashioned train, as that was what he traveled the US in during a visit across the country. And it would be more comfortable than the horses and carts often found in his novels.
Annabell: BIG thank you to Author Bill Blais for the FUN and inspiring interview! Sleep deprivation didn’t hurt any *wink* If you are interested in finding out more about the author and the Kelly and Umber Series, check out: http://www.billblais.com/