If you could cook dinner for any author, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you make?
Spicy enchiladas for Daphne Du Maurier – the greatest suspense writer of all time.
What scares you the most about the writing process? How do you combat your fears?
I’m scared that I won’t have the time in my life to write all of the projects that I want to, and/or that I will start a piece and then never finish it. The best way to combat that, I think, is to work according to your own schedule, but make sure you put in work every day, even if that work is only conceptualizing the project(s). Also, respect the editing process: once the first draft is finished, that’s when the bulk of the work begins and the piece really starts to take shape.
Who is your biggest literary crush, author or character?
I mentioned Daphne du Maurier above, but in terms of literary characters I’m obsessed with, I’ll say Villanelle from Jeannette Winterson’s The Passion, one of my favorite novels.
What books are on your nightstand?
Currently, Class, Politics, and Ideology in the Iranian Revolution by Mansoor Moaddel (partially as research for an upcoming book) and Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. (I always try to maintain an eclectic reading list.)
Favorite punctuation mark? Why?
The ellipsis. So much mystery and angst is contained within those three dots.
What book were you supposed to read in high school, but never did?
I couldn’t get through The Scarlet Letter the first time around. I’ve since tried to reread it with slightly more success. (As far as Hawthorne goes, “Young Goodman Brown” is my favorite.)
What inanimate object would you thank in your acknowledgements?
My record player, which accompanies nearly all my writing sessions.
If you could write an inspirational quote on the mirrors of aspiring writers, what would you write?
“Conquering self-doubt is the first step to being the writer you want to be.”
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Writing energizes me but editing exhausts me.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
I think writing what you expect other people want to read (or what you think publishers or marketers want to sell) is the worst trap. That inevitably leads to uninspired or generic writing. Any artist can only create the work that speaks to them – that they themselves would want to read or watch or listen to.
What is your writing Kryptonite?
Stress. Exhaustion from my day job or social obligations makes me too distracted to focus on the work the way I should.
Have you ever gotten reader’s block?
Not really. I have a plan in my head for what book is next on the docket. (Although I do worry that I won’t have enough time to read all the great books out there. It’s a good problem to have, in my opinion.)
Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
No. Thinking critically about the world is also a must, but it’s not enough to only be conceptual - there must be passion to your ideas.
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
I’m friends with several fiction writers based (or formerly based) in the Twin Cities, either published or unpublished; and with numerous international film critics and theorists. There’s not enough time to list all the ways they help me become a better writer! It is indispensable for artists to have a community and a discourse to share ideas, support each other, constructively criticize them, commiserate through the rough periods, and get excited about the work they admire. In particular, I used to be part of a group of horror and sci-fi writers in Minneapolis that would share their ideas and early drafts of work on Google Docs. This was important because we would also frequently talk about how speculative genres are underrecognized for their artistic and subversive potential.
Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?
Both. That might be a cop-out answer, but it’s true. Every work should stand on its own, but an artist should have a collective body of work with at least thematic connections between them. I do also admire sequels, prequels, spinoffs, and other works that expand the universe of a work of art, not simply to capitalize on a familiar name.
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
It increased my confidence. From starting to write the book to publication was about nine years. If you put in the work and have faith throughout the process, then the end goal really is achievable.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
This may sound like paid promotion (it’s not!) but about six years ago I spent almost $1,000 to work with Mark Malatesta, a professional literary coach (and former agent). He helped me write my query letter and synopsis and compile a list of agents to reach out to, along with providing insight into what I could expect from the querying process. He landed me my first agent, and even though a publishing deal didn’t come directly from that, it was indispensable experience.
What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?
J.G. Ballard is the first author that comes to mind. I don’t love his early book The Drowned World (which was the first thing I read by him), but have really admired almost everything else.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
Weirdly enough, I remember the O.J. Simpson trial being televised when I was about ten years old, and it’s one of the first major public discourses I can remember. Even at the time, I noticed that the way people talked about it (especially as it related to their racial identity) was especially charged.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins is one of the best British novels of the 19th century.
As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
The bur oak tree. It’s a majestic tree native to the American Midwest that grows slowly but lives a very long time – an apt metaphor for the writing process. It also is not outwardly beautiful (it doesn’t have dazzling fall colors) but the leaves often have a faint golden hue in the autumn, which is a kind of understated glamor I admire.
What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?
An attempt to make those characters as complex, genuine, and rooted in sympathetic motivations as possible. That should describe every character, but especially those based on real people.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
About five (and even more unfinished screenplays). I used to feel very anxious about these unfinished or unpublished works, but now I think it’s constant motivation – a reminder of how many other stories I want to tell.
What does literary success look like to you?
To have my work read by strangers (no matter the number, but the more the better) who connect with it in some way is the ultimate goal. To write a novel (and edit it numerous times until it’s “final”) is incredibly gratifying, but the book doesn’t really come alive until it’s read by people who simply want to read it because they love literature. The true epitome of success would be to make enough money from writing and editing that it could be my full-time job and I could focus on my art as much as I think it deserves, without relying on a day job. But no matter how financially lucrative it is, I’ll continue writing regardless.
What’s the best way to market your books?
I’ve always thought that word of mouth is the best strategy no matter the art form. So getting the book out there to critics, readers, and writers who also respect genres like horror and believe that great work can be made within that format is my ideal approach. If the work is good enough, word of mouth will be spread (through social media, conversation, interviews, etc.) and the book will gain a following, even if it takes some time.
What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
I think writing any character is extremely challenging, no matter their sex, racial identity, sexual orientation, etc., but it’s the most exhilarating challenge in writing fiction. You have to fully inhabit each character, whether their identity is relatively similar or totally different from your own, and try to understand them inside and out; develop a backstory for them, envision their hopes and fears, even if you don’t necessarily write about that in the novel. So the most difficult thing is to try to know them and empathize with them completely but convey that succinctly. That’s a challenge even with people we know in real life: human beings are always mysteries, and that’s what makes them so compelling. (I do think that writers need to basically be empaths, though. I can’t imagine writing a compelling character if you’re not radically empathetic to them.)
What did you edit out of this book?”
SO MUCH. Hollow went through at least six rounds of edits, including an early round with a New York editor named John Paine who really helped improve the novel and allowed me to recognize its early weaknesses. I cut out a scene in which the protagonist investigates the central mystery by visiting a hospital in Grange, the town in which the novel is set. I also cut out some horrific scenes involving the witch in the novel, since they were somewhat repetitive. More beneficial, though, were the scenes I added, including more backstory about the Ben and Amy characters, and the scene in which Ben goes to visit his estranged wife and then leaves in shame at the last moment, which is now one of my favorite scenes in the novel.
If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?
I currently do have a day job in the marketing department of an educational theater company. I’ve also worked at restaurants, movie theaters, art museums, coffeeshops, you name it. Writing is my passion and the thing I want to dedicate my life to, so I’ll keep working day jobs as long as I have to to support that passion. But ideally that work would involve the creative arts somehow; film is my other great passion, so I’ve also really enjoyed working at theaters and film festivals.
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