Thursday, September 27, 2012

Interview: Stina Leicht

For those who have read my previous interviews, my interview with Campbell Award nominee, Stina Leicht will be a bit of a departure. Rather than simply send a list of questions for her to answer, Stina and I corresponded by email one question and answer at a time. I has a great time picking her brain and count the experience as one the best of my short blogging career. The resulting interview has a more conversational feel, and I believe does an excellent job of capturing Stina's charm, wit, and refreshingly down to earth take on the genre, writing and the challenges of success in the field. Enjoy.

52 Reviews: Of Blood and Honey is certainly an innovative and fresh take on urban fantasy. In fact, it reads much more like literary fiction with the fantastic taking a backseat to the unfolding drama of Liam's story. What led you to this unusual setting and its decidedly low key use of the supernatural elements compared to most of the books in the genre?

Stina Leight: To begin with, I tend to prefer old school Urban Fantasy like Charles de Lint's works and Emma Bull's War for the Oaks. I also like to write in a male point of view. That's just me.

Originally, the story you see today was only intended to be Liam's back story. When my agent asked me to rewrite and set Of Blood and Honey entirely in the 1970s I admit I was a bit terrified. The Troubles is not a light-hearted subject. War just isn't. The fact that it's a war that took place within living memory makes the subject even more complex. As a result, I knew I'd have to earn that setting. Above all, I wanted to be respectful of Northern Ireland, the politics, the war, and the people. I felt it was important as an outsider to be aware and be careful. In addition, most Americans know very little of the Troubles. I feel it's a topic we can learn a great deal from. So, education was one of the goals. We hear about terrorism so much these days. I feel it's important to understand the causes. In any case, I knew I couldn't just slop something together, drop in shape-shifters, wise-cracking bad asses, and call it fiction. That would've been insulting and callus. So, I had an overwhelming job ahead of me. I rolled up my sleeves and did the research. I did interviews. I had the text vetted by someone who lives in West Belfast and lived there during the 1970s. It took a great deal of effort -- three years, in fact, and I still didn't get everything dead perfect, but that's okay. I knew I wasn't going to get everything right, but I did my best anyway. That's all you can do. Now, the subsequent books will lean more in the fantasy direction because the ground work is done. That's why And Blue Skies from Pain is a bit different and contains more of the fantasy elements.

52 Reviews: Your mention of Charles De Lint and Emma Bull reminded me that when I first read them both that Urban Fantasy was much more of a niche category on the genre shelves. And having consumed much of DeLint's earlier work as a teenager, I can honestly say that Of Blood and Honey fits the old-school label fantastically. Do you think having had the opportunity to be mentored by Mr. De Lint has led you to follow in his footsteps so to speak, or was your writing style already firmly set based on your reading preferences and other factors?

Stina Leight: Actually, I'm not a big believer in slavishly following the style of other authors unless it's an exercise designed to study in detail what works and how it works. (In which case, it's not the final product.) In art school we learned the methods of the old masters by copying famous paintings. By doing this--by following in a master's brush strokes, students learned in detail about painting styles and techniques, how to work with tones, color and so forth. When you actually follow along you learn on a visceral level. Writing is an art form too, and you can do the same thing with literature. However, in the end an author must develop their individual voice. Otherwise, why bother reading someone's work who is merely a pale copy of another? We already have Dickens, Conrad, Shelley,  Woolf and Kafka. We already have Butcher, Rowling, and Meyer too. That's one thing I'll never understand about mimics. Mimicry is a method for learning. It's a step in being a better writer. It isn't the ultimate goal. Don't cheat yourself. Be yourself.

So, Charles de Lint isn't the only author whose work I admire and study. Understand, I came to Urban Fantasy much later than you did. When I was a teen I read epic fantasy--as much as I could get my hands on. J.R.R. Tolkien was my favorite. Then one day it all became so formulaic that I no longer wanted to read it. I switched to horror, and spent years with the genre. Stephen King is a big influence. I must admit. I enjoy the psychological side of horror, and King does that very, very well. (The Shining is a brilliant study of addiction, for example.) Shirley Jackson is another amazing author. Her prose is intense and impactful. She's also wonderfully creepy. Then there's Neil Gaiman who bridges fantasy and horror. I adored his characters, his simple means of blending reality with fantasy--must like Stephen King does. I adored Neil Gaiman's quiet humor. To be honest, I didn't return home to fantasy until my husband insisted I read Terry Pratchett. Pratchett is a genius. There is no other word for it. He's also a writer's writer. He has a nimble grace with word play that I haven't seen from anyone. He uses humor to cut deeper into humanity and then shows us the mirror. He makes me think hard about why things are the way they are. He makes me cry and laugh out loud too. No other author has ever done that to me before, and I want more than anything to do that to my readers. At the same time, I discovered Holly Black who is simply amazing. Her characters are terrific, and she's deft at making the unsympathetic, sympathetic. Valiant was a great book. And then there's Ray Bradbury whose gift with poetic prose is breath-taking. Lastly, while writing Of Blood and Honey and And Blue Skies from Pain I studied Northern Irish crime writers. Among them, Adrian McKinty is my favorite. He's gory and brutal and violent and profane as hell. He's also a master at making all these things glisten like a stained glass window in a cathedral on a sunny day.

Do you see the pattern? De Lint, as wonderful as he is, isn't my only teacher. And although he was one of the authors who gave me encouragement when I needed it most and although he is an influence -- he isn't the only one. No mentor can be, and more importantly, no great mentor would want to be. I also read extensively outside my chosen genre and find influences there. Good authors do this. If you don't, you begin to regurgitate things that have already done over and over until they become tropes, and it becomes very difficult to bring in anything new. This is why sub-genres grow stale over time. I'm also a big believer in not doing things by accident. If you use a trope, know you're doing it and employ it for your own purposes. Don't thoughtlessly follow along.

52 Reviews: I find it very interesting that you mention employing tropes to your own purposes. Did you intentionally follows the common tropes about the Fey's vulnerability to iron and being bound to their promises so that you could use that built in knowledge to make it possible to avoid most of the exposition about the supernatural elements of the story? I found the subtlety of your hinting at the effects of iron while Liam is unaware of his heritage to be some of the most impressive examples of "showing not telling" I've seen in genre fiction in a long time.

Stina Leicht: Yes, I did. For one thing, I felt that the setting alone meant that readers would have a lot of unfamiliar subjects to deal with. Northern Ireland is an alien place for most Americans, and Irish is not the same thing as American born Irish. So, I wanted to provide aspects of the story which would be familiar to readers. The fey reaction to iron being one of them. At the same time, I wanted to drop in my own ideas of what that was about and where it came from. (You find out why they have that reaction to iron in the next book.) As for being bound to promises, my understanding of the word "geas" is that it's an oath. Honor features heavily in the old stories of the Fianna. A member of the Fianna didn't break their word -- particularly if that word was given to a woman of power, not without a lot of consequences.

I believe in making the reader feel smart. Too much media these days talks down to viewers and readers. It's as if we're supposed to believe that the average person is stupid. I disagree. Most of my friends are smarter than I am. Now, they aren't average, mind you. Most attended schools for the gifted. However, I didn't attend a school for the gifted. I'm average. Hell, I flunked grammar in High School. (I have dyslexia.) Still, I loathe being treated like an idiot. So, I show respect to my readers by giving them enough information to work certain things out for themselves. It's rewarding being in the know. I also snuck in a few other things under the radar that Americans probably won't pick up on but someone from Ireland probably would. For example, the moth in Mary Kate's hospital room. It doesn't take away from the story to not know the reference. However, it does add to it, if you do.

In addition, giving the reader more information than the characters works well as a hook. It creates tension. I like when readers tell me that they screamed at Liam not to do this or that thing. A well-rounded protagonist isn't perfect. They make mistakes because human beings make mistakes. The trick is to have them make mistakes that aren't so stupid that the reader stops sympathizing with the protagonist.

52 Reviews: From the sheer amount of research you put into Of Blood and Honey it seems that you are firmly in the camp of "knowing what you are writing", which is the reverse of the old saw of "write what you know". Could you tell us a little about how you approach that old adage? What parts of your personality and life experience are hidden in this tale of Liam and friends?

Stina Leicht: Elizabeth Moon once told me that the saying is really, "Write what you love." not "Write what you know." because you honestly can't love something until you know it. Therefore, I think having passion for your work is vital. Readers can sense when a writer feels strongly about their story, and some of that passion bleeds off the page. (I also think that explains why some stories are genuinely adored by their audience even if they aren't very well written.)

My husband likes to joke that I'm a Method Writer because I use real life experiences. For example: since Liam was  a wheelman, I figured I needed to know how to drive well in adverse conditions. The closest thing I could think of was rally racing. Therefore, I took rally racing lessons. (That was so much fun, I must say.) Since that was my approach it made sense that Liam would get involved in rally racing too. He'd take his responsibility seriously because others rely on him--which I can relate to. I also gave him my love of fast street cars. (I adore '60s era muscle cars.) And personally, I'm not big on beer. (But I had to come up with a really good reason why Liam would hate it.) I borrowed some small moments from when my mother in law died in the hospital as well as a friend's death on the street in a car wreck. (He died a couple hundred feet away from where I was living. My ex-boyfriend and I were first on the scene.) I also used experiences from car accidents that I've lived through. I've shot guns in order to get to know what they're like. I gave Liam my dyslexia but made it much worse. Sometimes I use tidbits from friends' stories about certain experiences and extrapolate from there. Things like that. At the same time, there's a great deal of what Liam does experience that I never have and never will. (Like heroin or being in prison.) So, I had to rely on outside sources and my imagination. Fiction is always a combination of the truth and the lie. The goal is to get enough truth into the story to make the lie seem real.

52 Reviews: How did you approach world building for Of Blood and Honey? While you seem to have relied on copious amounts of research to get the historical setting of 1970's Ireland as close to reality as possible, how was the process of structuring the more fantastic elements of the novel different? Will we be seeing that aspect of Liam's tale come more to the forefront in And Blue Skies From Pain?

Stina Leicht: I can't take credit for the world building. The world building is already done in a realistic setting. The most difficult task is in presenting a complex, foreign setting in a way that doesn't confuse the reader. As for setting up the magical elements--I can't really take credit for that either. In my books, the fey are being portrayed in their place of origin. Of course, they're going to fit in seamlessly. Think about it. In a way, that's like remarking on how well 1930s bungalows fit in the background of a 1930s setting. Ireland is a foreign country. Here in the United States, we've a great deal of separation between the past and present. Our buildings are only a couple hundred years old at the most. In most of Ireland, their new buildings tend to be older than that. Here, christianity arrived at the same time as the fabled pilgrims. Our myths--those associated with mainstream culture--aren't that old, nor are there that many. (Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, and John Henry and that's about it.) So, we have a cultural separation from myth that the Irish don't, not like we do--at least that's my theory. In a lot of ways, I feel that Urban Fantasy is the American way of creating a place for myth in modern society. Humanity needs myth. It's an important part of who we are psychologically. When we lack it, we create it. Think about the similarities between alien abduction stories and changeling stories of old, and you'll see what I mean. Space is our "ancient, dark, mysterious forest filled with the unknown." Aliens are our fairies.

And Blue Skies from Pain does contain more of the magical elements. Per usual, I kept to the original myth as much as I could but then gave it my own twist. It's a lot of fun thinking about myth that way. I enjoy building off the original rather than just using what has been already done more recently. As Vizzini in The Princess Bride would say, when the job goes wrong you have to go back to the beginning.

52 Reviews: With world building being so widely derived from both history and myth, what other aspect of the novel was your main focus? Was it characterization, plotting, pacing, theme, or the beauty of the prose itself? Or is there some super secret formula we can attribute the glowing success of your debut novel?

Stina Leicht: I like character driven stories. So, I tend to focus on the characters. I want to understand them -- what makes them think and act as they do. I try to make them as real as I can. My philosophy is that reading is like a amusement park ride. The more realistic I make the ride, the more of a thrill the reader gets. Whether that has anything to do with success, I've no idea, frankly. I don't think there's a super secret formula for success. If such a thing existed, then it would've been discovered, sold for a profit many times over by now, every piece written would follow that formula, and every writer would be a success. Yet, as formulaic as Hollywood is, not everything that comes out of Hollywood is a grand success is it?

52 Reviews: As a author who is focused primarily on character, have any of your characters dictated their own story? I have heard more than one author who says that at a certain point the story takes on a life of its own and they are more a less just recording what the characters tell them to. Is there any truth to that in your experience? If so tell us a little bit about one of those moments?

Stina Leicht: There are authors who will vehemently oppose this point of view because it makes writers sound like a) holy prophets chosen by God or b) complete nutters. Although I've never been one to get upset, I get it. This thought perpetuates the Myth of the Suffering Artist(tm). (REAL Artists must suffer and starve. Artists are addicts or alcoholics, and/or crazy. No truly great creative work gets done unless this suffering happens -- as if creative types are some form of masochistic brownie that vanishes upon being given a living wage. Pardon my Texan, but I call horse shit. With that out of the way, let's address what an author is really saying when they claim the story took off on its own.

Writing requires a vivid imagination. I know it sounds like I'm stating the obvious here but think about what that means. My experience of writing a new story and even rewriting one that is already sketched out is like daydreaming -- only I do my daydreaming in front of a computer screen. Sometimes I even close my eyes to type out what I imagine. Naturally, this process taps into the subconscious. (All art does on some level.) There's nothing magical about it. Everyone has an imagination. Everyone has used this process to make up stories when they were kids. Everyone has the ability. However, just like programming or nursing or managing a business... some people are better at it than others. So, there you are. No more mystery. I think a lot of the reason why it takes so long to get good at writing is we have to learn how to work with our subconscious consistently and productively. That's not as easy as it sounds. Everyone is a little different.

Do my stories take on a life of their own? Yes. Do my characters willfully take off in directions I haven't planned for them? Oh, hell yes. That's the fun. It's a signal that the story is working and my subconscious is engaged. One of those moments was while writing the scene where Father Murray drives Liam and Mary Kate to the hospital. Mary Kate kept apologizing for losing the baby, over and over and wouldn't stop. I was stuck. I knew from experience to not force the story forward. I had to listen to the characters (my subconscious.) So, I stopped typing and thought, "What do you have to apologize for, Mary Kate? You didn't do anything. None of this is your fault." And then it came to me that she wasn't apologizing for losing the baby -- well, not *that* one. There'd been another baby, one before this one. A baby that Liam didn't know about. WHAM! Hit me like a ton of bricks. "Holy shit. That's why you were sick! And Father Murray took you away to... Holy crap, Mary Kate!" So, I backtracked and cleaned things up a bit.

52 Reviews: What a interesting way of looking at dealing with your muse. Could you tell us a little about your personal journey to learn how to work with your subconscious? Did you learn anything during the process of writing Of Blood and Honey that made writing the sequel even easier?

Stina Leicht: I hate to tell you this, but the second book is actually *more difficult* to write than the first. We're all used to failure. We know what to do afterward. We have a lot of practice with failure. It's success that's tough because it's more rare. Isn't that odd? But that's the truth. It's why so many creative types crash after their first success. So when Of Blood and Honey was successful, it was hard not to think that it was the best book I'd ever create. I also worried that readers wouldn't like Blue Skies. The two books are very different, after all. However, I hope to always improve and grow as a writer, and I want to do something new with every novel. I suspect that when writing becomes easy and formulaic it's a signal that you aren't stretching yourself as a writer. You aren't doing your best. So, what helped me write the second book? All in all, I'd have to say experience and perseverance helped more than anything -- also the deadline, my agent and then there was my husband. He knows my process almost better than I do.

52 Reviews: As a writer who has received quite a bit of acclaim for her debut novel, what effect has this had on your writing? What are the best and worst parts of success for you?

Stina Leicht: I could answer the last question with one word: anticipation. Living with the fear that no one will read your work is quite different from dealing with the fear that you'll disappoint those who read them. I deeply appreciate my readers. I want to do my best for them. I want to improve as a writer for myself. I don't want to let either of us down. So, in some ways it's given me more confidence. At the same time, it's also slowed down my production and given me less confidence. Creativity is funny that way. It requires a sense of playfulness. It also requires a safe environment for mistakes. I think you see where I'm going with this. Just like the saying goes... the best way to dance is to imagine no one is watching. So is the best way to draw, or sing or even write.  

52 Reviews: What one piece of advice do you wish you would have been given before embarking on your career as a writer. And what one piece of advice would you give to aspiring authors after such successes in your own career?

Stina Leicht: I think if me now were to talk to me then... I'd tell her not to take the set backs quite so personally, and keep working just as hard. Oh, and to remember that everything is a lesson worth learning from -- so stay positive. (That's not always easy to remember.)

As for others... I'd say don't give up on your dream. Be both patient and persistent. Remember it took me more than ten years to get where I am now -- actually, eleven years, and I'm only a new author. I've my whole career ahead of me. (One hopes.) If your dream is to be published by a publisher, understand that it's totally possible - no matter how far away it might seem. It takes time to get good. No one is born the perfect writer--not even Stephen King. Time is going to pass anyway. You might as well invest it in learning to be the best writer you can be. Don't cheat yourself with short cuts. Short cuts don't do anyone any good... well, except the person *selling* the short cut. 

Thanks again to Stina for taking part in my interview experiment. I think the results would qualify this as success. 


  1. What an amazing interview, and with one of my favorite authors!

    Matt, i think you might be starting a trend here, with the standard "author interview" becoming something much more in depth.

  2. That's exciting, I have always wanted to be a trend-setter! Glad you enjoyed the interview. Stina was a great sport, since the unusual format make the process more time consuming. But I think this format yielded some excellent results.