Now that I live in the UK, you might think I don’t celebrate Thanksgiving.
You’re right, I don’t. Well, not really. This year, I’ll be introducing my UK family to a few treats from the American South via a lovely lunch on Sunday that will also have some traditional British fare.
Today, however, I hope to be finishing up with NaNoWriMo. So I won’t be around too much until I’ve got that badge in my hand. Er…on my desktop.
I was updating my media kit recently and I realized I’ve been writing features for the Graveyard Shift Sisters blog for over a year now. For anyone unfamiliar with Graveyard Shift Sisters, it is a site dedicated to purging the black female horror fan from the margins. Before sites such as GSS, many of us had few like minds to discuss our love of the genre with. In talking with other black female horror writers, we also experienced surprise from others–readers and authors alike–and it was much the same:
*You* write horror? Really?
Yes. Yes, I do and I’m not alone.
Those responses were the reason I reached out to the owner of GSS, Ashlee Blackwell, and asked if I could write a feature on the black women who write horror. To my delight she responded with a resounding, “Yes!”.
My posts for these features tend to be my reading a book of the author’s choice and reviewing it, along with sending them an emailed list of questions about their work and inspirations, their experience with horror, and what shape they would like to see future of horror take. I’ve been told it’s one of Graveyard Shift Sisters’ most popular features. *Blush* (Actually, I think it’s badass.)
This time, I had a real treat with the feature. Since I’ve moved to the UK, I’ve not been able to find a strong group of writers to talk shop with and I missed that feeling of camaraderie. So when African horror author Nuzo Onoh emailed me to review her latest release, Unhallowed Graves, I asked her if she’d be open to doing the interview on the phone instead of via email. (My first review/interview with her was via email on her short horror collection, The Reluctant Dead. You can read about it here.)
Nuzo agreed and I’m so glad she did. It’s different conducting an interview on the phone, but it was the right call to make. (Ha!) We had an inspiring talk about writing, writing horror as a woman of African descent, the similarities between her culture (Igbo) and mine (Gullah-Geechee), and the differences between England and America. (That last topic is for another post.)
Writing the other–authors writing characters with backgrounds not of their own, whether that “other” is race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion–is a minefield to some authors.
I’ve spoken with authors who stay away from writing the other and choose to “write what they know” instead. Many times, it’s just that they write within a comfort zone–their own field of experience–and they don’t deviate from it. Which is fine, if that’s their preference. But other authors want to write characters of the other but are hesitant to because they think they’ll be berated for it. So they never make the attempt.
As author Jim Chines says in his blog post, people don’t complain when you write a character who happens to be female (or Asian, or gay, or Jewish). But they might complain if you do it badly: make them one-dimensional and/or steeped in stereotypes.
So how do you do it well?
There are several places to read up on how to do it well. (Although I think, like anything, practice is needed.) Nisi Shawl’s article is a good place to start reading. And listening. But I wanted to reach out to people doing it. Since I don’t know James Patterson, Patricia McKillip, or Tabitha King, I decided to interview a few authors I do know who are writing the other.
First up is Jay Requard, author of The Gem of Acitus, a short sword and sorcery story published by Mocha Memoirs Press.
Synopsis: Master thief Manwe, known to the frontier city of Tolivius as “The Panther”, stalks the streets in search of riches to fuel his people’s rebellion out on the savannah. Lifting a fabled stone from the possession of a posh noble, he is soon trapped in a web of lies and deceit. Caught between the cruelty of a merchant and a lie meant to incriminate him, Manwe must ply the darkness if he is to prove his innocence and save the man he loves.
ER: Where did the idea for The Gem of Acitus come from? What influenced you?
JR: I’m a big believer in serendipity, as I think writers should be reacting to the world around them. I had the idea for a long time about writing a “rogue story” that would be part Indiana Jones, part Thief (a classic video game), with notes I had learned from Robert E. Howard early-Conan works and Ari Marmell’s Widdershins Adventures. I love the idea of characters using their wits and intellect over bruising their way across a battlefield, though that is my bread-and-butter as well.
Serendipity was cruel for Manwe the Panther, however, as the idea for the main conflict came from an NPR story where an African-American man was released after spending 40 years in jail for a rape conviction that was never properly adjudicated according to the actual evidence because of his race, speaking to how people of color do not often get a fair shake within our society. I believe firmly in social justice and an egalitarian sense of equality, which I believe expands to fair legal treatment. Anyone with a sense of reality or critical thinking ability knows that more often than not, people of color are not afforded that. I had something to say with Manwe, so I said it.
ER: Tell us the storyline in two sentences.
JR: Set against by the dark city where he wins his coin through his wits alone, Manwe the Panther must steal the truth from the mouths of liars if he is save his lover. Facing greedy lords, weird shamans, and time itself, this master thief leaps into action, hoping that he won’t be too late.
ER: When you come up with the concept of a story, do you consider where it’s going to be published before or during writing?
JR: Great question! Yes and no. When it comes to novels (I’ve written three and am working on a fourth), I know what level of publishing I want to throw a manuscript at first. Short stories, however, are like art pieces—I finish them, and then worry about selling them. Since I write in a very specified set of genre (Epic /Heroic Fantasy and Sword & Sorcery), I know the markets available to me. Thankfully, I’ve been able to at least prove myself on the short fiction scene, so it’s easier to get work placed now than it used to be.
ER: Has the story changed from its original concept? How many revisions did you go through?
JR: Another good question! The Gem of Acitus went through two revisions, though the original concept never changed. The biggest challenge was framing the ending. Originally I had it sequenced one way, but I ended up switching it. Both versions worked, but with the help of readers, my fellow writers, my fiancé, and just my intuition, I chose to leave it the way it ended up being published by Mocha Memoirs Press.
ER: Sword and sorcery is not typically a genre full of diversity. What made you create Manwe the Panther as he is: a homosexual man of color?
JR: The only way we bring people into genre is by having positive characters that they themselves can relate to. That is not to say that people of different ethnicities and origins do not love white characters or white authors (they obviously do). That being said, I have to defend my beloved genre: there have always been diverse voices in Sword & Sorcery, be it Charles R. Saunders’ Imaro, CL Moore (a FANTASTIC female voice for the genre), and many more who came from very diverse backgrounds, both socially and in terms of who they are. The problem has always been that for the longest time the arbiters of genre have paid more attention to something else, so many of these great voices were left out or paid little attention to. Thanks to the ability Amazon gives authors to publish their backlists, I hope this changes in time.
ER: Were you concerned about the reception The Gem of Acitus would receive? Why or why not?
JR: A little bit. I don’t want this story to come off as disrespectful. I think Manwe is the story of a positive character that represents a lot of different people, including friends of mine in the LGBT community. He’s a character who tries very hard to do the right thing, even though the right thing often goes in the opposite direction of society at large. I think those kind of characters are really important to talk about, and using a world that is a mix of Ancient Greek and African cultures, I wanted to create a multicultural setting where the world is meeting itself for an inevitable clash, kind of like what we are going through right now with race, gender, and orientation here in America. There are a lot of things to talk about, but what I hope is that I am adding to the discussion on a positive note.
ER: How did you do your research for this work? What sources, if any, did you consult?
JR: I started outlining this storyline near the end of 2013. At the time, I was reading Octavia Butler’s Kindred and listening to a lot of hip-hop, metal, and blues music centered on the ideas of revolution, spirituality, and liberation. I was also writing more and more stories that were firmly outside of the traditional “western European fantasy” box, taking them to different eras like the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, or settings that there were nuanced versions of India and China. In terms of the setting for The Gem of Acitus, I grew up reading David Gemmell, who wrote a wonderful series about Troy. I started reading more books on ancient Afro-Greek art and architecture of the Mediterranean. Franklin Snowden’s Blacks in Antiquity helped me visualize Tolivius, an Archaic city where Manwe’ story takes place. I also read a large body of African folklore for stories examining the passage between worlds, life and afterlife, and the topic of gender as it relates to spirituality. In doing so I found a really interesting West African myth about this hole in the ground where shamans would sneak into the earth for months on end, only to emerge with greater power than what they had had before. I really enjoyed incorporating these elements into the traditional structures of Sword & Sorcery in the dark vein of Karl Edward Wagner, and Manwe was the result.
ER: Many writers are hesitant to write characters unlike themselves. If authors want to write characters from outside of their own experience, whether it be a different race, gender, or sexual orientation, what advice would you give to them?
JR: That is a question that could honestly go on forever. Here’s the Cliff Notes version:
Go in there with honest intentions. The story comes first. You can have the glitteriest writing, the sharpest dialogue, or the wittiest subtext, but none of that matters if you don’t have a good story to begin with. Though I admit this is purely subjective, I wrote a great story first and finished the world-building second when it came to Manwe, including the external and internal issues he deals with.
More importantly, remember that your characters ARE NOT you. Treat them like they are their own individuals. Find the real core of the characters, what lies beneath. My Manwe wants to save his lover. Tolkien’s Bilbo wants to prove himself worthy of being in Thorin’s company. Nix’s Sabriel wants to know who she is in relation to who she came from. Find out what the characters truly want and write around that.
Finally, put in the work to understand perspectives other than your own. Some of us live with far less and some of us live with far more, but we all live with the reality that the world around us is precious and finite, though some of us live like it isn’t, which often leads to bad things. Stories are constructed by where you and your characters are, by who you and your characters are, but it is interpreted through them as first. Reflect what is going on outside within them and what they do in response.
Jay Requard is a Heroic Fantasy and Sword & Sorcery author from Charlotte, North Carolina. When he is not fighting the good fight, he spends his time lifting kettlebells and maces, sipping scotch, painting, and reading voraciously. He has a fluffy cat named Mona.
And so I come full circle with this latest interview: the phenomenal Crystal Connor–half of the horror writing duo known as Connor Titus.
Earlier in the year, I interviewed Lori Titus on the Graveyard Shift Sisters blog and reviewed her book The Guardians of Man. You can check that interview out here.
I’ve known Crystal online for years and she is a fearless author, and a force of nature when it comes to branding and marketing her work. She’s also a champion of indie writers and a lover of all things horror.
Whenever I do an interview and review for the Graveyard Shift Sister website, I also post it here in case there’s someone who follows my blog, but isn’t connected to me on Facebook or Twitter.
Since the last post was about me, I’d neglected to do that.
While I have no issue singing the praises of other authors, I have a hard time promoting my own work. A part of me feels like it’s tooting my own horn and I should be more modest. But blogs and books on writing (and my advice to other authors) state you must get over that.
It takes a lot for me to go against my natural tendencies and promote myself and my work. Thankfully, the super talented Sumiko Saulson was willing to help. Sumiko interviewed me via telephone and it was great to be able to chat about writing, trends in horror and my own inspirations.
May is Short Story Month, so I’ve asked horror short story author Kenya Moss-Dyme to be Graveyard Shift Sister of the month.
As such, I’ve reviewed her collection Daymares, seven short tales of all-too-possible horror.Kenya is excellent at choosing everyday subjects and twisting them into stories that make you not want to trust anyone. I mean, we all know what happens when our loved one gets possessed by the spirit of a dead gangster. It’s hard to trust a guy after that.
Read my review of Daymares and my interview with Kenya on the Graveyard Shift Sisters site here.
I don’t read a lot of stories with tragic endings. Strange thing to say considering I read a great deal of horror. Somehow in those stories, I don’t feel sadness because there is a positive aspect to the tale. Maybe the final girl survives the evil—possibly only to face it again later, but still she struggles forward. Even though several people have been killed or gone mad in the story—many not deservingly—a small amount of hope usually glimmers somewhere.
At times, the story is a “the monster wins” sort of tale, but my reaction is typically more along the lines of “That’s really f’ed up.” Then I reach for the nearest book in my Calvin and Hobbes collection and read a few pages to bathe my mind.
Rarely do I read anything that have what is considered a tragic ending. It isn’t something I come across much. It seems it isn’t in vogue right now: People want happy-ish endings, even in their mystery and horror.
Me? The last time I read a tragedy was in school. Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet, most likely. When tragedy was considered a genre people flocked to see on the stage. Classic tragedy—think Shakespearean— is a genre which has a noble, yet flawed, protagonist who is placed in a stressful heightened situation and ends with a fatal conclusion. (Thanks, Wikipedia!)
Modern tragedy is focused on smaller characters—not nobles or royals or anything so grandiose—with smaller aspirations who act out of impulse, which becomes their downfall. Some of the modern works shelved as tragedy in Goodreads, The Kite Runner and The Hunger Games, I don’t see as tragic. Others, I agree fit the modern tragedy definition: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and Damage by Josephine Hart.
Then there’s Neal Litherland’s New Avalon: Love and Loss in the City of Steam.
New Avalon is a collection of Steampunk Noir stories. I was warned that each of the stories in this collection of shorts would end in some kind of tragedy. But I like to spread my wings beyond reading horror, romance (yes, I read it and write it too), mysteries, and classical literature. (I enjoy the classical literature, but it also helps with getting the answers right when I watch quiz shows.)
So I read it. I didn’t cry—must be made of some strong stuff—but they did impact me. I tended to pause at the end of each story to absorb each final scene. Litherland’s stories are mixed with strength and beauty, which serves to make each ending more pronounced in its tragedy.
I enjoyed the stories greatly, but knowing that they’d end in some sort of tragedy, I was bracing myself the entire time. Many of the tales resonated with me as I’d grown to like and understand the characters—a feat for an author to achieve in itself.
Also, I appreciated the diversity in characters. They were portrayed non-stereotypically and it showed me that there didn’t need to be a lot of attention called to their inclusion in the stories. Each character fit seamlessly into the world Litherland created—one of dark city streets, gunslingers, and mechanical leading men taking the stage…
These tales are extremely well written, but they have sad and despairing endings. Make sure you’re ready for them.
My favorites are: “Flight of Icarus”, “The Legend of Black Jack Guillotine”, and “The Understudy”.
And I liked the Steel Necktie. He’s a great character I hope Litherland makes sure we see more of him.
Neal granted me an interview recently to talk about New Avalon, tragic tales, and making diversity work in fiction.
First of all, thank you for granting me this interview. Tell us a bit about yourself and your writing style.
Well, I guess I’ll begin at the beginning. I’m an author who currently lives in Northwest Indiana, went to college once, and I always seem to have something I’m either working on or putting out. My writing style changes a little from story to story and genre to genre, but it’s largely inspired by gritty thrillers and film noir. When I feel like being clever I call it “metaphor as a weapon.”
What inspired you to write New Avalon? How did you choose the stories to include?
The inspiration came with the character The Steel Necktie (whose origin story is included in the book). The original idea was to write a series of novels, but I realized that creating my own imaginary city was going to take some work. I wrote the first story, “Love is a Broken Clock” in response to a call for steampunk short stories, and the others just sort of came. After the third story I drew a map of the city, and decided to center one story in each district as a way to build the city with stories.
Is New Avalon is considered grimdark? Define the grimdark genre for us.
I wouldn’t actually consider it to be a grimdark book, but if people want to put that label on it I won’t argue too strenuously against it. The genre requires three things: a dark tone, a sense of realism, and agency of your characters. This is a pretty broad umbrella, and grimdark comes in varying shades of gray, though the easiest example for people who want one is George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.
For you, what makes a great dark tale? What do you like to read?
My reading tastes are all over the board. I love private detective stories, whether they’re Sherlock Holmes mysteries or Dashiell Hammett novels. I’m a big fan of horror stories, I love fantasy series, but I won’t turn down anything I like the taste of.
As far as “dark” stories go, I’ve got a pretty high bar. The story needs to be subtle with its darkness, and it needs to go slowly in order to pull me in. Heavy-handed torture scenes or lazy “his life was falling apart” setups that are meant to hammer you just make me roll my eyes. Shadows are not powerful things, unless you really start making your audience wonder what could be lurking in them.
What research did you perform for New Avalon or are the characters and scenes fictionalized versions from your own experience?
New Avalon is made up whole cloth. There are no real people, places, or experiences put into that collection.
Why short stories? How do you make an emotional impact in only a few pages?
I didn’t actively decide to make a collection until I’d written the first three stories, and at that point I figured if I was going to really write ten stories then I might as well use them to test the waters to see if readers wanted more of this place.
As far as making an emotional impact in a few thousand words, it’s something that takes practice. The first story, “Love is a Broken Clock” has a short wind up, but when you get to the end it drops on your heart like a nine-pound hammer. Other stories, like “Flight of Icarus” take their time whistling and looking anywhere but at you, and just when you think you’re safe they sink a knife in your back.
I noticed that you incorporate characters from diverse backgrounds smoothly into your work. How can other authors succeed in what is called “writing the other”, whether it be women, people of color or people of a different religion or creed?
Practice, and taking a page out of George R. R. Martin’s book. People are people, and you’re the one with creative control. Gender, ethnicity, sexuality, etc. these are traits of a character, but no one is defined solely by these things. An easy way to do it is to create characters who have one aspect you don’t understand (say you’re a white writer who wants to create a black character), and other aspects that you do (said character might have a career the author understands, or be from an area of the country that author is familiar with). A great example in my experience is military fiction precisely because of the way people are supposed to be integrated into a single whole (there are huge problems with this in reality, but for fiction the melting pot idea works pretty well). No matter who you are or where you came from, you’re all in the army now.
What’s your next project? Is there a subject you refuse to touch?
I’m currently working on a novel tentatively titled Old Soldiers. It’s an expansion of two previous short stories (“Heart of the Myrmidon” now out-of-print, and “Gods and Heroes” which should be coming out in the Golden Age anthology from Long Count Press in Fall 2015). The short version is that it’s set in a post-apocalyptic world where mankind has been driven underground by the fallout of its first war with an alien race. It follows Pollux, one of several experimental soldiers designed to fight the Hyperion, as he tries to cope with a world where he doesn’t seem to have a purpose. Until, that is, people start trying to kill him. It quickly becomes a race against time and the resources of a shadowy conspiracy as Pollux and his allies try to figure out what it is they’ve uncovered before it’s too late.
As far as subjects I won’t touch, if my name is going on it the project has to be up to my standards. I’ve written for a huge variety of genres though, and I’m not shy about crossing those lines if that’s what the next project calls for.
I found your characters and their situations to be relatable and therefore, more sympathetic and tragic. How can authors prevent falling into the usual stereotypes when creating characters and plotlines in their stories?
I almost ran into this with “The Steel Second” when I realized it was quickly becoming a disposable woman revenge story. The best way for you to avoid stereotypes and cliché is to make sure you’re aware of them so you don’t put them into your stories without thinking about it (spending a few dozen hours on TVTropes.com is a great help with this). As far as making good characters you need to dig deep and make sure they’re real people, with goals, aspirations, quirks, etc. If you find yourself creating “hard-nosed cop” ask yourself why. Why is the most powerful question you have, and you should always have an answer.
What’s missing in fiction? What shape would you like to see the future of dark fiction to take?
Aside from minor nit picks and style differences, I’d like to see people stop pulling their punches. I think all too often we get caught up in action scenes or sex scenes, but we don’t stop to ask about the real impact those things have and what they say about a character. If you can kill four men, whether it was self defense or not, and go on with your day what does that say about you? If you can enjoy partners without any emotional connection, why is that? Too often we’re caught up in spectacle without asking what the fallout of that spectacle should rightly be.
Who is your main inspiration?
I’ve been inspired by a lot of different authors over the years, but I think the finishing touch and the one who helped me find my voice was Simon R. Green.
What’s the most difficult part of writing for you?
There isn’t any one thing. Each project has different challenges unique to it, and overcoming them is part of the satisfaction that comes with the job.
Thank you for the interview. Is there anything else you like to mention?
Just that while authors are the ones with the magic, the readers are the ones with the power. They’re the ones who make what we do worthwhile, and without them we’re just telling stories to ourselves.
Pick up a copy of New Avalon: Love and Loss in the City of Steam on Amazon