1. How does blogging fit into your work as an author?
I started a blog in the early days of my career because my agent suggested it. It’s a good way to get news out, share snippets of works in progress, and hold contests. Over the years, however, I find I’ve developed a rapport with fans, and really enjoy the direct contact. On my live journal I’ll start a topic and they can weigh in, ask questions, etc. They’re also a handy quick reference guide of my work. Like many authors, when I finish a book and move on to the next, the last project quickly begins to fade from my mind. Readers, on the other hand, read the books over and over again and know all sorts of little details. If I happen to need some detail and can’t quite remember where to find it, I just throw the question out to the LJ and within ten minutes I have the answer from half a dozen people. I call them my Rhíminee Irregulars. I also find I’ve drifted into treating the LJ like a diary, and share bits and pieces of my non-writing related life. I put up little Buddhist quotes, talk about tea, my kids, my dogs and fish. I post pictures of places I’ve been. I post jokes and political rants. We have some very interesting conversations, my fans and I. It’s nice.
What is the most interesting conversation you’ve had with your fans?
I really can’t narrow that down. There have been so many over the years.
2. What kind of writing excercises do you do if you have writer’s block?
I don’t do writing exercises. Instead, I start by doing something that has absolutely nothing to do with writing, like taking long walks, meditating, doing some photography or knitting to rest my mind. Then I begin to analyze what’s wrong. Nine times out of ten it’s because I’m trying to force a plot line in the wrong direction, or make the characters do something out of character. It can take a few days to figure that out. Then the best thing I can do is get back to work. If I’m still feeling blocked and anxious, I tell myself that I only have to remain at the computer for half an hour that day, but that I have to write for half an hour, even if it’s all terrible. This usually gets me going again. But if all that does work, then it’s not writer’s block so much as writer’s pause.
3. What lead you to engage in explicitly queer themes?
When I first got the idea for the Nightrunner series, the main character, Seregil, sort of showed up gay– forgive me for not using the term “queer.” I know it’s being reclaimed, but it was such an insult when I was growing up that I’m just not comfortable with it. Anyway, Seregil’s sexuality wasn’t the focal point of his character, just a characteristic. At the time I didn’t think a gay hero would fly, but I wanted to try it because I hadn’t seen many positive LGBT characters. They were mostly evil or weak. That didn’t seem fair. Friends and family members told me the book wouldn’t sell. Guess I showed them! Something I didn’t anticipate was hearing from gay people that my books helped them in some way, giving them a hero they can identify with, or even helping them come out to their family. I get a lot of mail like that, and it’s really touching. I even get mail from straight people, men mostly, who say the books helped them look at gay people in real life in a more positive light. Seriously, who’d expect fantasy adventure novels to have that kind of impact?
4. How do you brainstorm/design your characters?
If you watched me, a lot of it would look like I was just staring off into space or at a wall. Sometimes the story dictates the character, sometimes it’s the other way around. In either case, you need the basics like gender and appearance. After that you start adding details like their family background, quirks and foibles, strengths and weaknesses, their sense of ethics, sense of humor or lack thereof. There’s no real system to it. Imagine a magnet attracting iron filings. Things just come in and stick. Whenever I start a new book, I buy a project notebook. Once a character begins to take shape, I write down all these factors, stare at them some more, and add. But a character doesn’t really come alive for me until I’ve written them into a chapter or two. Once I start writing, my subconscious/imagination kicks in and things start to flow without me having to think about it. I mean, I am obviously thinking on some level, but it comes very naturally at that point. You know what the character would or wouldn’t do or say. Sometimes you write a scene and sit back and go “No, that’s not them” and tear it all out. The further I get into a book, the less that happens. I wrote the first three Nightrunner books, then took a break and wrote the three Tamír books. When I went back to Alec and Seregil (Nightrunner) I had to write my way back to them. It was like they were mad at me for being gone for so long and didn’t want to talk to me. I did a lot of ripping and tearing with that book. White Road has come a lot easier, now that I’m back in the swing of those characters.
5. Any hints about The White Road? What historical sources are you drawing on for it?
At this point I’m using my own created history, which is based on the sort of research I’ve spoken of already. Once you get a world up and running, it has—or should have— an internal consistency that guides you. But then, of course, you have to keep everything straight— names, time lines, events, etc. When I get things wrong, and I do now and then, I hear about it from my readers! The White Road is the sequel to Shadows Return, and completes that story arc. One thing I will give away is that you’ll see more of the Retha’noi people, who were introduced in the Tamir books. I really like them.
6. How do you research your fantasy novels in general?
I love history, and do a lot of book research on medieval and ancient politics, warfare, architecture, geography, food, archery, sword making, religions— every aspect I can think of to lend veracity to my created world. I learned how weather works, and tides. Tides are hard. Food is fun. I have several medieval cookbooks and use the different types of food in my books. I also use foods I make myself. My forthcoming Nightrunner novel, The White Road, features my grandmother’s fish chowder. I draw a lot from my own life. I grew up in northern Maine, hunting, fishing, and camping. I can clean a fish and gut a partridge, and know how to cook them over a fire. I know how to build a fire and a shelter. I know how the woods smell at any time of the year, and I know snow. I’ve also traveled, and just plain lived. If a writer can’t draw inspiration from just being alive, they aren’t paying attention. For instance, in The White Road, I have a new year’s eve celebration that involves watching the first full moonrise of the year. That’s based directly on a full moon festival retreat I attended last year at Deer Park Monastery. A hundred or so of us sat out on the grass, eating traditional Vietnamese Buddhist festival foods and watching the full moon rise over the mountains. It was magical. You can’t believe how fast the moon moves until you sit there and pay attention. Things like that have a way of popping up in my books.
7. Does the Nightrunner world map out cleanly onto a particularly Earth culture? What are its primary sources of inspiration?
Not really. It’s more a pastiche of Europe, ancient Greece and Rome, and my imagination. As you can probably tell, I did base the central area of the Three Lands on the Mediterranean basin, especially Greece, though the weather is a bit wetter.
8. JK Rowling has mentioned that the Harry Potter-verse is actually way more detailed in her head than it is in the books. Is it the same for you? If so, what are some of the tidbits/character traits you wish you could mention about your secondary characters?
Well, there’s the relationship between Queen Phoria and her twin brother Korathan. It’s not incestuous, but there is a powerful twin bond there, and she’d definitely got the upper hand. And I do mention that Seregil and Korathan were lovers briefly, until Big Sister found out and quashed it. There’s a story. There’s a lot of backstory alluded to between Seregil and Micum Cavish. That I did explore in a short story called “By The River,“ which can now be found at my Live Journal. One of the minor characters in Luck, a young thief named Skut, grows up to have his own story in an anthology called Assassin Fantastic, “Raven’s Cut.” It’s about a medieval serial killer. Beka has her Aurënfaie husband—she’s going to age and die while he and their half blood children live for centuries. Then there’s Thero, who’s now the head of the Watchers, which is a lot bigger job than the reader ever sees. But I also wish I could project what I see in my head onto a screen for people to see, especially places like the Street of Lights. I’m told I use a lot of detail in my writing, but I don’t know if the whole picture ever makes it to the page.
9. How does your interest in meditation appear in your fantasy novels?
Hmmm. I mention it occasionally, usually being practiced by a wizard, but since I’ve only been practicing seriously for the past couple of years, it hasn’t had a chance to seep in that much. Since becoming a Buddhist, however, I do find it harder to kill people–in the books, that is. But my characters still hunt and eat meat.
10. What sources are your go-to guides for meditative practice?
I’m still very much a beginner, but I practice Buddhist meditation. I took my vows with Thich Nhat Hanh, so I’m technically Vietnamese Zen. I’m reading the sutras, and the methods TNH teaches are firmly based in the Buddha’s actual teachings. You begin by focusing on your breathing. If you don’t get any further than that, you are still meditating. It’s amazing how powerful it can be, especially in times of stress. Beyond that, you examine your feelings, thoughts, mental constructs and so forth, seeing them all from the standpoint of impermanence. A core teaching is that all that arises ceases, and that everything, from thoughts to concrete objects and people, are manifestations of combinations of unrelated things. We aren’t made of “human’” molecules. We’re made of carbon and water and so forth, all of which are made of other things. Take away any one thing and the rest ceases to manifest in that form. Everything changes. Everything dies and remanifests and dies and remanifests . . . . It’s not a pessimistic view. It’s very freeing. It’s good to love, but it’s better and wiser to do it without attaching to the idea of permanence. For instance, accepting that my beloved husband will die, rather than fearing the inevitable, allows me to enjoy his presence now more fully and mindfully. I still cry when people and pets die but it’s because I will miss them in that form, not because something unnatural has happened. Wow, that turned into a long answer.
But a good one! I think it’s interesting, too, since I think Seregil and Alec are struggling with this change/love/natural issue at times.
11. Do you plan out character evolutions? Do your characters ever surprise you?
There are two broad categories of writers, it seems to me from talking with a lot of other writers: those who plan in detail before they start writing, and those of us who do it by the seat of our pants. I call it organic writing, with the story growing naturally along a more generalized framework. One of my favorite quotes about writing comes from E.L. Doctrow, I believe: ”Writing a novel is like driving at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” That pretty much describes my process. I know where I want to go, but the details happen in the process. So yes, my characters frequently surprise me! Usually with something really good, too. Alec establishing a physical relationship with Seregil was a bit of a surprise. That wasn’t the original plan, but by the end of Luck I knew things were heading that way.
12. What is it like, to be an acclaimed fantasy author and an adjunct faculty member? That seems very “when worlds collide!”
LOL. I’m not sure how acclaimed I am, but thank you. As adjunct faculty, my job is to edit graduate student papers. Since editing is a big part of being a writer, it comes quite naturally. Getting to rip someone else’s writing apart is a nice change. Very refreshing. And the papers are all math and science, no lit. so I get to use a different part of my brain.
13. What authors are your go-tos for structural/creative inspiration?
I don’t write like Ray Bradbury or William Faulkner, but the beautiful way they use language inspires me to try and do so in my own way. Reading Lord of the Rings and the Sherlock Holmes canon a gazillion times taught me that good characters can bring a reader back again and again, long after you know the plot by heart. Holmes was one of the inspirations for Seregil. Stephen King taught me a lot about dramatic tension, and how things in ordinary life can be really scary. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is another example of that. It’s one of the scariest things I’ve ever read, and you never see anything! Brilliant.
14. What authors would you consider personal or professional mentors?
I always wanted a real mentor. The closest I ever came was a great literary writer named Cathie Pelletier. She and I are both from Northern Maine and I’m a big fan of her books, which are often set there. While I was still writing Luck I took a writing workshop with her and to my surprise, she really liked my fantasy work in progress and went out of her way to try to help me get published. Her connections didn’t work out, but her support and enthusiasm were incredibly helpful. When I tried to thank her, she told me to pay it forward with other aspiring writers, because someone had done that for her, too, and she was passing it along to me. And I have.
15. What is your favorite word? How did you acquire it?
Someone else asked me that recently and the only thing I could come up with was “penumbra.” It’s the “partly lighted area surrounding the complete shadow (umbra) of a body, as the moon, during an eclipse,” according to Webster’s. I just love the way it sounds. The irony is that I discovered it in a story I didn’t like by a guy I didn’t much care for, and that I’ve never had occasion to use it in my own writing. I’ve only had one eclipse in my books, in Stalking Darkness, but it was a solar eclipse and I don’t think I knew the word then. I did manage to work in “ synodical,” though.
16. Anything you want to plug?
I can’t tell you how much fun we had on the last cruise/workshop. Really, I can’t. The students made me sign a contract. No, really, we had a ball. I knew I’d enjoy it, but had no idea I would become such good friends with the students. We had the workshops of course, and reading salons. We also dined together each evening, and ended up doing some partying, too. I have vague memories of singing back up karaoke. . . The cruise ships are luxurious, and the food was first rate.
I hold workshop sessions on the days that we are at sea, and on shore days everyone is free to go play. Six of us ended up together swimming with sea turtles at one point. We were in the Caribbean. This time will be a bit different. We’re sailing out of Boston, and up the New England coast into Canada. It’s in the autumn, which is just a beautiful time of year there. That is also the 15th anniversary of Luck in the Shadows, so I will be leading a special workshop ashore at Schoodic Point, the place in Acadia National Park in Maine that inspired the ending of Stalking Darkness. I’ll take people to the “sea temple.” We’ll be talking about description and inspiration, among other things. It’s a spectacular place. Because I have a number of returning students, I’ll be doing both a beginner and advanced track, although there will be plenty of overlap.
I also have a limited number of private critique sessions available, although those are filling up fast. Each one is an hour long, and I will give critique and guidance on a portion of a student’s work in progress.
There are still berths available, but the sooner people put down a deposit, the more likely they are to lock in the special rate. Everything is included except the special field trips, some beverages, and some of the restaurants on board, but the food in the main dining room and cafeteria is excellent. I had a balcony cabin and highly recommend it, although the inside cabins are cheaper. There are a number of options for every budget. Please check out the cruise link for more information.
I’d also like to plug my first Nightrunner short story collection, Glimpses. It is exactly that, short stories that give glimpses of times in the character’s lives that are only alluded to in the book, including Alec’s early childhood and how his parents met, how Seregil and Micum Cavish met, and Seregil and Alec’s first days (and nights!) as lovers, and how Seregil met Nysander. Several of them are quite sexy, but I’m not saying more than that. I also held a fan art contest and it is illustrated with 31 pieces that won. They are beautiful and so varied. The book is available through Amazon, Createspace, Kindle and other ebook formats, and more!