Welcome to the one hundred and sixth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, directors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. Today’s is with multi-genre writer Lillian Stewart Carl. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate the author further. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here.
Morgen: Hello, Lillian. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Lillian: I’m the only child of two college professors, born into a house filled with books. I can’t remember not being able to read. I would sit in my first grade class bored to tears, having read the entire reader as well as the teacher’s notes in the back while my classmates were struggling with “See Dick run”. Even in grade school I would write poetry, plays, bits of stories, just about anything. By the time I got to high school I tried Star Trek fan fiction, among other things, written with my friend Lois McMaster, who is now, as Lois McMaster Bujold, a best-selling and award-winning science fiction writer.
I still have a few bits and pieces in fading pencil on fading notebook paper. I suspect I was more creative then, untrammeled by commercial considerations, but wasn’t particularly skilful. I know much better what I’m doing now, but don’t feel as creative—a thought that occurred to me when I recently re-read my first published novels for electronic publication, four epic fantasies written in a style I call “gonzo mythology”. Amazingly, these all came from one line in a magazine suggesting that Alexander the Great had had a love affair with an Amazon. How I got from there to The Iliad fought in an alternate-history India is literally a long story.
Morgen: I’m always really green when I hear or see that someone started writing so early. I’m a relative newcomer (6 years) so have a lot of catching up to do! What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Lillian: Now my novels (if not my short stories) have contemporary settings, and are mystery flavored with romance and the paranormal / supernatural. Everything I write is based on history, mythology, and legend. It’s not a matter of considering other genres, it’s a matter of having to discipline myself to keep within genre boundaries at least enough to sooth the hackles of the publisher’s marketing department. My Fairbairn / Cameron series, for example, is marketed as mystery. Yes, each book contains a complete mystery—and also a complete ghost story, while a romance / relationship arc continues from book to book. I summarize the series as: America’s exile and Scotland’s finest on the trail of all-too-living legends.
Then there’s Lucifer’s Crown, a fantasy which begins as a murder mystery, has more than one romance, and can be read either as a dissertation on the quest for the Holy Grail or as a spiritual thriller.
Then there’s Shadows in Scarlet, an offbeat paranormal romance with a different sort of murder mystery. And there are traditional, Mary Stewart (no relation) style romantic suspense novels such as the Ashes to Ashes series and Memory and Desire. What can I say? My muse is a gypsy.
Morgen: I love that. If it’s not too long a list, what have you had published to-date, and can you remember where you saw your first books on the shelves?
Lillian: I’ve published seventeen novels under my own name, one under another name (a computer game tie-in) a couple of dozen short stories, and some short non-fiction pieces. I also co-edited a non-fiction book….
Morgen: Wow. Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?
Lillian: ….which was shortlisted for a Hugo, science fiction’s most prestigious award. The Vorkosigan Companion, edited with John Helfers, is about my friend Lois McMaster Bujold’s science fiction work. It was a great honor, not to mention great fun, to attend the World Science Fiction Convention in Montreal in 2009 as a Hugo nominee—among other things, the publisher treated us to an amazing meal of French-Canadian cuisine—but I realize I only got the job because of my association with Lois (and my previous work with John), and the nomination says nothing about the quality of my fiction.
Morgen: Oh dear. Are your books available as eBooks? If so what was your experience of that process? And do you read eBooks?
Lillian: Oh yes. I’ve ebooked (to create a verb) all seventeen novels and a short story collection, and am now working on posting more stories. I’ve also done the electronic wizardry necessary to make my first seven novels, long out of print, available in handsome print-on-demand versions available on Amazon or directly from CreateSpace, the printer. Since I’m far from a techie, all this meant more of a learning cliff than a learning curve, and required a fair amount of hair-pulling and more than a bit of chocolate. Fortunately I had help from my colleagues at http://www.backlistebooks.com, which lists lots of previously print-published books now available as ebooks.
Morgen: Yay! What was your first acceptance and is being accepted still a thrill?
Lillian: My first professional sale was a short story to a fantasy anthology from DAW books. This story later became the first couple of chapters of my first published novel, Sabazel. I remember pulling my self-addressed envelope out of the mailbox, opening it up, staring, and then floating up the walk to the house! What a day! Of course I still enjoy being accepted, but it’s not a thrill. For one thing, it’s been a long time since I’ve written anything without it first being contracted (or at least expected) by a publisher. Since I’m a braces-and-belt sort of person, I’m not complaining.
Morgen: I wouldn’t either. Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Lillian: Heavens, yes, I’ve had rejection after rejection, some much more difficult to take than others. I usually go through all the stages: anger (Unfair! They have no taste!), depression (I’m a lousy writer!), acceptance (It’s a business). Chocolate helps. So does champagne. Who says champagne only works for celebrations?
Morgen: Absolutely, although I’m more of a ‘shorts and fudge’ person. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Lillian: I finished the five-novel Jean Fairbairn / Alasdair Cameron series and am now contemplating a cycle of Fairbairn / Cameron novellas—shorter pieces that will let the readers who’ve repeatedly asked for more of their favorite characters get their fix. And which will introduce new readers to the series, or so I hope.
Morgen: Fingers crossed. What is your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it? If so, how do you ‘cure’ it?
Lillian: I’ve heard people say dismissively that writer’s block is only a matter of not knowing what happens next in the story. Well yeah—but it can stem from deeper roots than that. Letting my internal critic run riot will certainly dampen my muse. And sometimes real life is simply a lot louder than that little voice whispering sweet fictional nothings in my ear. Curing a block is sometimes a matter of just keeping on keeping on, writing even if it seems to be garbage, and then going back and revising. I can’t revise something I haven’t written, after all. Sometimes it’s a matter of shutting out the competing noise. Sometimes it’s a matter of resting, taking some time off, refilling the well.
Morgen: Exactly, can’t edit a blank page. And a change of scene (pardon the pun!) works wonders. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Lillian: I’m not a plotter by nature. That I write mysteries shows a certain level of masochism. I’ve learned how to do it, but the process is a messy one. I’ll start with a vague idea, then read a variety of sources connected with that idea and make notes. Then, even though I have only a glimpse of the plot, I’ll send a prayer to the plot fairy and set out into the undiscovered country of the novel. The process of writing develops those glimpses into scenic overlooks, from where I can see roads and other patterns. The further I get into the story, the more clearly incident leads to incident, and by the middle of the book I can foresee not just the next scene, but several more. I have to go back repeatedly and revise, revise, revise, adding and changing clues, motivations, and the relationships between incidents. Rearranging bits of dialog can be particularly tricky—one time I found I had two characters commiserating over the death of the murder victim before he’d actually been murdered!
In only one book of the five Fairbairn / Cameron mysteries did I know who the murderer was from the beginning. And even then, I wasn’t quite sure of his motivation. Thank goodness for a computer! All I can do on paper is jot down notes for the next session at the keyboard. I can’t imagine how people used to write any sort of novel, let alone mysteries, with pen and paper or even typewriters. They must have had their stories much better organized in their minds and didn’t need to revise as much as I do.
Morgen: What would we do without cut & paste or the ‘undo’ icon. The format painter is also a firm friend. Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to?
Lillian: I have two or three e-mail friends who always read my work and are very helpful in spotting not just places where words are left out or typoed, but broader problems. One time two friends seemed to contradict each other about the structure of the plot. That’s when I had to go to a third friend, who put her finger on why their comments actually stemmed from the same source. Whew! My husband also reads everything, and catches lapses of logic and real-world mistakes. He once spotted a scientific error that I thought at first destroyed as important aspect of my plot, but that I was able to work around. Whew again!
Morgen: It’s amazing how easy it is for us to miss something because we know the meaning behind it. I think everyone, regardless of how good they are, needs a second eye… or should that be third? What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Lillian: I’m happiest with third-person, a very tight or close third-person, as though the reader is inside the head of one of the characters and observing events through his or her eyes. I’ve done a few short stories in first-person, but I’m not entirely comfortable with it, since it seems artificial, and pulls me out of the story—of course the character survives the fire/robbery/quest, they’re telling you about it! I’ve never tried second-person, and have no desire to do so, except in very short passages where the detective tells a witness, “You then went into the secret passage behind the suit of armor….”
Morgen: I love second person (and keep raving about it!) but yes, it’s has a longevity… lengthevity? Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Lillian: Yes, and thank goodness. Sabazel was the third novel I wrote. The first two were very much learning experiences, and are staying in my closet.
Morgen: I think I have a few of those. In which country are you based and do you find this a help or hindrance with letting people know about your work?
Lillian: I’m in the US, in Texas—where it’s so hot right now I’m dreaming every day of northern Scotland! Since the US is a huge market, it’s convenient being here, but I do regret that some of my paper books are hard to get in the UK and other countries. Fortunately the internet makes it possible to chat daily with friends and fans all over the world, so national boundaries aren’t the barriers they used to be.
Morgen: Can we have some of your heat please? Where can we find out about you and your work?
Morgen: Thank you Lillian for taking part.
Lillian Stewart Carl has written multiple novels and multiple short stories in multiple genres, mixing and matching history, romance, and fantasy, all which evoke a legendary past, especially in contemporary settings. She and her long-suffering husband have wandered countless British single-track roads, from Orkney to Dover and back again. Also, just for variety, she has excavated the Biblical city of Gezer in Israel, worn a pink and mauve sari to a wedding in Hyderabad, India, searched for Middle-earth in New Zealand, and sung “Waltzing Matilda” in a haunted cottage in the Australian outback.
Update June 2012: The Mortsafe, a sixth (if very short) novel in the Fairbairn/Cameron mystery series is now available, as are Along the Rim of Time and The Muse and Other Stories of History, Mystery, and Myth, two collections of Lillian’s short stories.
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