Laura Anne Gilman: The Terribleminds Interview

Twitter is serendipitous to me, because without it, I’d not have met or communicated with, well, pretty much anybody. I’d be alone in a clawfoot bathtub with a cat. And I don’t own a cat. Point being, without Twitter I’d not have come into range of Laura Anne Gilman, once an editor, now a “write the hell out of some books” novelist. Writers, you best go ahead and read what she has to say. Let the interview commence. (Oh, and if you wanna follow her on the Twitters, you’ll find her @LAGILMAN.)

This is a blog about writing and storytelling, so before we do anything else, I’d like you to tell me – and, of course, the fine miscreants and deviants that read this site – a story. As short or long as you care to make it, as true or false as you see it.

Three days ago the second squirrel arrived. We’d been lured into passivity by the first one, I suppose: it had seemed friendly enough, willing to stay on its side of the screen, not tormenting the cats more than normal. The tree-rats in our neighborhood are bright eyed and thick-coated, finding enough food to eat, supplemented by the little old ladies’ bread crumbs and an occasional abandoned sandwich. You don’t think of them as a threat.

That was before the second squirrel. Before we found the window screen cut away, and the peanut butter jar missing. As well as the smaller of the cats.

[some of this story is true. some of it is not. yet.]

How would you describe your writing or storytelling style?

…. um….. the bastard child of a haiku sensibility and a genre-rific childhood, as raised by literary-minded housecats? Beyond that, I leave it to future scholars to argue about it.

In truth, I’ve had so many influences growing up, it’s hard for me to point to any two and say “there, that’s it.” Hemingway and Roger Zelazny, Dorothy Sayers and Robin McKinley, Robert Frost, Dashiell Hammett, Madeleine L’Engle and Raymond Carver were all on my shelves as a teenager. That was also when I started getting interested in haiku, in the idea of conveying something complex in a deceptively simple visual image or turn. So.. terse but lyrical is my goal, I suppose. Although that conflicts mightily with my love of the semi-colon….

What’s awesome about being a writer or storyteller?

Writing. Head down, full-on, discovery-of-story. The kind of writing that makes you do a chair dance every so often, just because you’re having so much fun.

Conversely, what sucks about it?

Everything else? No, really, the only thing that sucks about being a writer is the fact that so many people seem to think “anyone” can do it, that all it takes is an idea and some time. I’m not sure there’s any other profession that gets that kind of dismissal. Maybe teaching. Which is a sad commentary on how literacy is treated, I guess…

Deliver unto us a single-serving dollop of writing or storytelling advice that you yourself follow as a critical tip without which you might starve and die atop a glacier somewhere:

I have this in the sidebar of my Livejournal, because it’s so damn true:

“You sit down. You tell a story. You do it any damn way it comes out that works consistently for you. You hope people like it. You hope people pay you for it. You do it again. And again. That’s all I got. Zen and the Art of Writer Maintenance. You can cheer me on and I can cheer you on, but in the end? In the end it’s down to how you get your getting done, done. So get it done.”

I say that everybody has their own story of “breaking in” and getting published — it’s like we all dig our own tunnels and detonate them behind us. Any interesting tales from your rise to ascendancy as a creative penmonkey?

I find that a lot of people think that, because I was an editor, my route to publication was easy/simple/fast. Not so much. I sold my first short story to the first market I sent it to – Amazing Stories, back in the 1990’s – but that was it for over a year. And my first original novel, STAYING DEAD, went to all the major genre publishers at the time – seven, I think – and got some nice responses, but nobody was putting money on the table. One publisher asked me to rewrite chapters to see if it would work as a YA, but that didn’t go anywhere. Then I was having lunch with an editor at a brand-new imprint, who had put out a call for historical fantasy – and I had submitted another project there – and I mentioned this book to her. “Send it,” she said. A total flyer, and she had to do some fast talking, I suspect, to get it approved. That was *counts* ten books ago, and we have another two under contract, all in the same universe. Right place, right time, right project. And the right editor. That’s pretty much been the story of my career so far.

You’ve got experience as an editor — so, what’s one mistake you see too many writers making in their manuscripts?

Oh, we’re creative, we make all SORTS of mistakes….. Not trusting ourselves and not pushing hard enough, that’s a big’un. No matter what you’re writing, second-guessing the market and trying to keep it ‘familiar’ is always going to hurt you far more than being “too original” or “too …” anything, really. We’re goddamned WRITERS, we CREATE. Even if you’re writing to formula, twist it! Give the story something new, something specifically yours. Or why bother doing it at all?

Whoops. Starting waving my hands a bit there. Never a good sign. Did I knock over your glass?

Favorite word? And then, the follow up: Favorite curse word?

Just one? Without any context? Aww… Verklempt. Mainly because it’s fun to say, and so evocative. Favorite curse word is motherfucker. It’s rounded, with real weight, and conveys so many different meanings depending on the tone of voice used. really, a multipurpose tool.

Favorite alcoholic beverage? (If cocktail: provide recipe. If you don’t drink alcohol, fine, fine, a non-alcoholic beverage will do.)

Wine. A crisp, flinty white, or a red with a lot of complexity and depth… I like my wines to acknowledge their tannins, invite them in and make them feel welcome. I can talk endlessly about wine, so this is your warning to shut me up now or that’s all we’re going to talk about for the rest of the interview…

Yeah, I’m known for drinking Scotch* whisky, too, but that’s my ‘working’ drink, when I want to keep focused. Wine is social, expansive.

*and Irish whiskey and American bourbon and…

Fuck it, let’s talk about wine. Recommend me a nice red, but a red that goes well with summer.

For warm weather reds, I like Zinfandel for picnics – it’s a warm, fruit-forward taste that goes well with bbq (I’m talking real Zin here, not that pink stuff they sell.) But that’s a bolder taste, and most folk prefer the lighter reds, that take well to being served lightly chilled (yes, you can chill some red wines). You want something young, with a lowerish alcohol rating (under 12%), ideally aged in steel, not wood. Rioja (Spain), and Beaujolais (France) are the first I’d think of, and then Pinot Noir (France/NZ/US). You could also try a Pinotage (SA).

Recommend a book, comic book, film, game: something with great story. Go!

Leverage (the tv show). Great stories, told not only with words but visuals – the body languages of the actors, the camera shots chosen by the directors, even the choice of stories, and the white spaces in-between, where what they DIDN’T do is strongly implied… it all creates this amazing package that kept me – who usually has a very short attention span when it come to tv – fascinated. And there’s an evolving arc – not in terms of “this is the story,” but “these are the people in the story.”

Where are my pants?

That’s between you and your dog. er, god.

Got anything to pimp? Now’s the time!

Two things. okay, four things, but only two am I really going to be pimptastic about.

The first is DRAGON VIRUS. I’m still not sure if it’s a collection of short stories connected by a narrative thread, or a very odd novella spanning 100+ years. It’s SFnal horror with a literary edge, and one of those projects that are only possible because of small presses (in this instance, Fairwood Press). Not for everyone (if you’re looking for puppies and kittens and rainbows it ain’t here), but the people who have liked it have really really liked it.

The second is Practical Meerkat. This is a weekly column I’m doing for Book View Cafe, the full title being “Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers.” Each week, for a year, I approach a different aspect of writing – both craft and business-side, gleaned form my experience as an editor (15 years) and a writer (going on 17 years now, published). At the end of the year all the essays will be collected & polished into an e-book, so you don’t have to worry about keeping up if life (and writing) gets busy.

The other two things, of course, are The Vineart War, my Nebula-nominated epic fantasy trilogy (the third and final book, THE SHATTERED VINE, will be out in October 2011), and the Cosa Nostradamus urban fantasy series (most recently PACK OF LIES), which combines caper novels and police procedurals with modern magic in New York City. Guaranteed vampire-free UF! You can find samples to read on my website and via my publishers (Harlequin and S&S.) (Also, here’s an Amazon link to all her workcdw.)

DRAGON VIRUS lives on at a small press. (I’m a fan of small presses — I think they can move and turn fast in response to industry shifts.) Publishing right now is in a crazy place. Care to predict where books and authors and publishing will be in five, ten years? In case you choose not to answer that, I’ll remind you that I’ve strapped a bomb to the underside of your chair.

I’ve been saying for several years now (usually into the ears of people saying la la la can’t hear you) that small press, big press, and digital are going to become equal partners, much the same way that hardcover and mass market did, decades ago (Most people in publishing today have always worked with mass market, but I’ve heard stories about how the hardcover folk panicked at this upstart…much the same way trad publishers reacted at first to digital). One format isn’t going to ‘wipe out’ the other, not the way some partisans are predicting. The companies that survive are either going to pick one and specialize, or learn to spread their costs over both print and digital.

Self-publishing is popular right now, and both the process and the market are chaotic as hell, but in about 3-5 years it’s going to shake out and take its place within the overall publishing structure described above, rather than dismantling it.

The one thing I believe will continue is the role of the editor. Self-publishing is the buzzword now, but the larger that pool grows, the more there will be a need for a story to stand out to succeed. You have to be offer something more than average, more than merely “good,” when there’s competition. The much-maligned gatekeepers were one way that happened – now I could easily see the editor coming back into use as that gatekeeper, rather than a publisher’s brand.

I certainly think that would be a good thing, for both writers and readers.

What’s wrong with fantasy and/or urban fantasy today? Anything you’d like to cast a wary gaze at? If a new writer is looking to work in those genres, where could they go wrong?

Too many people coming in, thinking that UF is A, and only A. The wonderful thing about contemporary fantasy is that it’s incredibly inclusive – you can range from the unromantic tough-edged adventures all the way to the overtly romantic, from dark to light, male and female main characters, big cities or small towns, etc. But too often people identify “urban fantasy” as kickass babe in leather, with vampire/were companion,” and that’s only one slice out of the pie. Mind you, that’s the slice that seems to get all the press… but there’s room for so much more, and if we narrow in, we risk becoming a parody of everything that was originally good and fresh and interesting.

Fantasy has an incredible opportunity to be whatever it wants. You’re not stuck to a specific type of story, or a frame of reference. The fantastical elements should be restricted only by the plausibility of your worldbuilding.

15 comments

  • As a fantasy and contemporary fantasy writer (or soon to be anyways), I like you and I shall follow you and steal all your pearls wisdom, mwahahaha.

    Your epic fantasy trilogy sounds really promising. Can you tell me a little bit more about what it’s about?

  • Amber – hi, and thanks! The Vineart War trilogy is about.. well, wine. Okay, not, but that’s a great hook isn’t it? It’s a classic 3-act trilogy set in a world where winemakers are magicians – but magic, and those who use it, are severely restricted, and how one young student is forced to destroy everything he knows in order to save what he can.

    (that sounds like a spoiler, but it actually isn’t…)

    It’s also about choice and freedom, or the lack thereof, and how we pay for both.

  • You had me at “choice and freedom”. I’m trying write a story about those themes as well, but I’m having…difficulties.

    Also, I’m kind of hooked by that last part about the young student. I think I’m definitely going to check this out. Thanks for writing it!

  • True story from some visiting friends:

    Feed the cute racoon bread crumbs on the front lawn. Come downstairs the next morning to find the screen slit open and the racoon eating bread out of the breadbox. He obviously thought he was invited.

    Lesson learned:

    Don’t feed the neighborhood “rats.”

    You have a wild, free mind, and I like that. Good luck with your projects. I’m sure to read some of them.

  • Quick question: Did you guys do this interview live (ie Skype chat or something) or was it through email?
    Cuz if these answers are off-the-cuff…well I’m impressed. I’m impressed either way really, but still…

  • The questions came via email, but I tried to answer them the same way I would in a ‘live’ interview. Which explains the typos and the OMG I said THAT? post-interview reactions….

  • Thank you for the wonderful, fun, informative interview Laura & Chuck.

    Practical Meerkat sounds like a very good investment & Yay! for Shattered Vines!
    :)

    All the best,
    RK Charron

  • Holy crap! I love “Hard Magic” and “Pack of Lies”! When I saw your name I thought “nah, must be some other Laura Anne Gilman”, but then you were pimping your books and there is was. I’m really glad you stopped by to interview. Urban fantasy is the genre closest to my heart, having cut my teeth on Bordertown stories, but lately it’s gotten very full of the leather wearing chick who sleeps with a ton of men variety. I don’t mind that variety once in a while, but when it’s all that seems to be there…

    Then I found “Hard Magic” and thought, “Finally! A refreshing new idea!”

    :D Thanks for coming by, and I’ll be sure to check out your new fantasy trilogy. It sounds great.

  • Elizabeth – so far as I know, there’s only me with this name, although there are other Laura Gilmans out there… and several 3-named Gilmans writing genre!)

    Glad you like the PSI books! Have you read the earlier Retriever novels? Same universe, different characters, sort of the “robbers” to PSI’s “cops.”

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