Special Feature: Author Interview
with Betsy Dornbusch
||The first scene of EXILE is extremely dramatic: "Cut her throat. His own wife." Was this your original opening?
Not at all. It started out as a more typical portal story-a rogue MI6 agent stumbles into a fantasy world. Then I worked out that I really needed to feature a character from Akrasia's world (and that portal stories were totally passe) and I changed the story quite a bit. The present opening is part of that revision. Gah, I think he woke up or talked on the phone or looked at himself in the mirror in the original first scene, maybe all three!
The world-building and mythology in EXILE is fascinating. In particular, the necromancy and associated magic is complex and unique. How did you come up with this?
It was a really organic process from when I had the luxury of writing slowly without plotting ahead. Osias is really mysterious, even to me, and I started thinking what is he hiding? I tried to make it the creepiest thing I could think of-which of course means dead people. Zombie-esque possessed humans and nasty-smelling necromancy are pretty damned creepy, to me at least. Of course eventually I had to put some rules and logic around it. But I also kept wondering what would happen if the logic and rules broke down...
Draken seems to be a very interesting protagonist, with a variety of flaws and strengths. Tell us about him.
Draken went through several incarnations in his life before he was exiled, child-slave, bastard cousin to the king, sailor, respected secret service agent. He's always been assigned the dirty duties no one else wants to do. He really has a complex about his own self-worth-some of that is based in the fact that he's biracial-in that world mixing races is heresy against the gods, and he's got a total complex about women that dates back to his estranged mother. He is one messed up dude, which makes him dangerous and determined.
How did you get into the male head? Do you think men and women essentially think similarly or differently?
For me it's really more about character than gender. I put characters in a situation/culture and give them wants and faults and let them go at it. I do tend to write more male characters and I have no idea why. I tend to gravitate more to guys in friendships, too. Maybe because I have brothers?
Character-wise, I think men and women can think similarly despite gender, or quite differently because of gender, depending on their circumstances and personality.
Do you think male and female readers look for the same things in novels?
I do think male and female characters often look for some of the same classic things: acceptance, control over their situation, love. How they go about getting what they want might be different based on their gender though. That's when culture starts to play in.
There are some powerful women in EXILE, for example, the Queen and the prison-ship Captain. What is the role of women in this world and how does it compare to their role in classic fantasies?
Akrasia has an outward appearance of being equal, but really it's recent and due to Queen Elena, who's only been queen about a year when Draken arrives on the scene. She got some females in her guards, army, and courtiers. Monoea is much more equal. It's an older culture and they consider themselves enlightened, so blatant sexism isn't tolerated socially. Brin is a strictly male-dominated society. Women have almost no rights, certainly not to inherit or rule. Brin's culture of sexism is something Draken struggles with more in EMISSARY, the sequel.
EXILE flirts with the idea of bi-sexuality. As a writer, how do you avoid being constrained by societal expectations?
There are societal expectations? Damn, I didn't get that memo.
Am I trying to change the world with my writing? No. Am I trying to widen a few minds? Sure, maybe. Thing is, I do think honesty is essential in good fiction. We're basically lying to the reader through the whole story; the least we can do is lie from an honest place in our hearts. I like this quote by John Updike: "I'm willing to show good taste, if I can, in somebody else's living room, but our reading life is too short for a writer to be in any way polite."
It's also fun to back Draken into corners. Magic is a big corner for him. Sleeping three to a bed is a corner. Another is his attraction to Osias, which makes him really uncomfortable. I think everyone can identify with conflicting feelings in a variety of situations; bisexuality was an easy device to use on Draken as a character. I certainly have other characters to whom bisexual feelings would be a pleasant surprise.
In fantasy there are certain tropes that readers love; what do you think it is about the Champion that appeals to readers so much?
What's not to like, someone sweeping in and saving the day? The world is damn scary; we all need a hero to rely on. I personally still love some of the tropes in fantasy which other readers might be tired of: the enigmatic mage, the figure in power who withholds information for the Hero's own good, the love interest, the sidekick, the Greek Chorus.
I love characters who don't do as we expect, too. In a book I'm reading, a character just killed off his love interest. He had a good reason for doing it but it didn't make me very happy and I certainly didn't see it coming. What might appear to be an irredeemable act can force a hero into the savior/hero role. Or not. That's part of the joy of the thing, finding out. In a good book with well-drawn characters it's tough to know what they'll do next. I like unpredictable characters.
Some scholars say literary fantasy was created as a reaction against the rationalism of the scientific method/industrial revolution. Do you agree? Disagree? Is your work inherently irrational?
It's been so long since my English coursework in college, I'm not sure I can adequately answer the question about the history of fantasy without doing a lot of googling. I have read the resurgence of its popularity is a typical reaction to societal struggles. People gravitate to fantasy when the real world is upended by war, poor economics, anything outside our control. My sense is that we're experiencing a revival in fantasy in all kinds of media, and it's directly related to the rough economy. Tolkien's timing is certainly suspect when you look at his real world in the 1930s.
But my own work? Oh, it's probably pretty dang irrational. But so is the idea of a bunch of guys rushing into a cement estate and shooting Bin Ladin in the head, right? (And, by the way, getting not so much as guaranteed healthcare or a pension after they left the Navy.) Or much more, some disturbed kid shooting up a school. The world is irrational. If anything, stories do their best to frame irrationality within some kind of logic, even if it's only the logic of a familiar plot structure: plants and payoffs, red herrings, and dark moments. Life is not a three-act play, but people are always looking for the dénouement.
I've also heard it said that all fiction can be considered fantasy. What do you think?
As opposed to what? Life? I'm not sure I buy into that. Sure, we're all making stuff up. But mysteries set in present day Boulder or Regency historicals are held to pretty stringent standards of truth in world-building and character. But I think the standards of world building and character are inherently opposite in fantasy-readers want something different, something that surprises them, that really twists what they know. That's why SF/F readers go to the genre and why originality is crucial-and why it must be penned in a bit by trope or at least recognizable types and devices.
Of course every writer has the challenge of writing something identifiable to readers. I'm thinking of the well-researched Truman Capote's book In Cold Blood (which I haven't read in 15 years). While it's arguably a well-written book and a horrific, intriguing story based on truth, I had trouble believing while reading it because Capote never sufficiently entered the heads of the perpetrators (for me). No matter what you write, no matter how far out there, the writer has to give a reader a rope to hang onto. The framework of Story serves for this, and so do recognizable characteristics and cultural features. Those elements are not going to be fantastical at all. The prejudice in EXILE, for instance, certainly isn't fantastical. So actually, at its heart, I'd say fiction, even fantasy, is often less fantastical than life. Throwing a dragon at it doesn't make it more fantastical, because, whether the writer wills it or not, the dragon is so often That Thing we can't control in real life.
I know you have a background in art. Do creating art and creating fiction have anything in common? What do you think drives people to create?
Oh boy, yeah, art is art is art, especially when you do it for pay. I did commissioned installation paintings, so it actually was easier and more focused on craft and skill and business rather than unbridled creativity. It definitely taught me to work creatively within expectation, which benefits me as a writer, whether it's a commissioned story in an existing world like I wrote last summer or figuring out what readers want from a sequel, which I'm working on right now. It also taught me that art is worth actual cash-money.
Do you have much short story experience? How do writing short stories and novels differ? Does writing short fiction help novelists? How so?
In Betsy's Literary Utopia every writer would have to write a few dozen short stories before they ever attempt a novel. I think it would save agents and editors a lot of grief in their slush piles.
I've written lots of short stories, published about a dozen. I tend to write them between novels now as palate cleanser, but I did take a year off novel writing just to write short stories. That was when I started selling more consistently. I think it's done a number of things for my writing: focused my attention on craft, on plot structure, on conciseness, on the importance of scene. Short stories taught me to plot and the benefit of that. In a short story every word has to serve The Story. It's part of the universal promise of storytellers-human beings have the expectation that everything matters in a story. Good storytellers know that and the short form taught me to implement it in writing.
Speaking of slush piles, of course I've got one here, too. It's given me an objective distance on my own submissions and work and also helped me nail down my own subjective likes and dislikes. All good things. I think a certain amount of distance from one's own work is required by working writers, and I've found that distance in the slush pile, and especially in the magazine itself because the stories are so damn good.
Are you active in writers groups? What do you think writers get from interacting with their peers? What's your opinion of critique groups?
I'm as active as I can be, with family and writing commitments, but less than I want. I think it's essential to befriend other writers. Not only are writers who are ahead of you in the game the ones who will do things like give you quotes, let you know about opportunities, and introduce you to agents and editors, they're your tribe. Writers get you. Plus, writing is so damned lonely; it's good to socialize.
I'm a huge critique proponent and have been for years. EXILE wouldn't be the book it is without critique. I recently had to leave my longstanding group because of time/writing commitments, though I promptly joined another smaller online group. I do think beta readers (who read the whole manuscript at one go) are really good for all writers, but particularly the ones who have improved their craft to a selling standard. As voice develops, writers need a lot less of the stuff you get in some critique groups about basic rules, and they need more input on story/plot/character issues-which in the big books I've been writing are better spotted when reading an entire draft. I've only met one selling writer without at least a few readers.
Do authors need to market themselves on the web these days? Do you have any marketing tips?
Honestly, online stuff can be great for networking and building buzz, but the very best marketing a writer can do is still to write your next book and your next book and your next. Yeah, it takes time, but careers take time to build. I had a grueling year of appearances last year, and my agent gently advised me to be more reasonable, especially with the projects I want to complete this year. (I'll be dealing with something like half a million words.) Appearances and online stuff definitely interfere with productivity. I just read a blog post where someone said they spend half their time writing and half their time promoting. I call bullshit. That's not promotion, it's procrastination.
Is there a Betsy Dornbusch public persona? If so, how did you develop her?
Hmm. I have been online for so long that whatever persona I've developed has blended with who I actually am. Not sure if it's wise; it just is the way it is. That said, when I'm at a con or appearance, I'm definitely "on." I consider myself an entertainer when I'm in the public eye, whether it's through my fiction, at a con, or online.
But again with the professional distance. The ability to separate your words from yourself is crucial. You're going to get bad reviews. People are going to disagree with you, nitpick your words and your stories, and yourself, especially if you take on any hot topics. Everyone has their own idea of how to handle those topics and people are vocal about what they think. The Internet has made it so, and that's cool. But there are definitely people who don't know me, who have said things about me online over the years that make it patently obvious they haven't even tried to know me.
Also a main concern of mine is not dragging my family into the public sphere with me, since they didn't choose this. For instance, after I put something up about my daughter and her boyfriend on Facebook, she asked me not to talk about it in public anymore. And you know what? That's absolutely fair.
What can you tell us about EXILE's path to publication? Was it straightforward?
Snort. I wrote it eight years ago to learn mad storytelling skillz (not with the intention to sell but to learn) and promptly put the book away. When I learned more about stories and writing and the market, I thought the story might have something to it, so I revised it about three years ago. I didn't collect nearly enough rejections on it (meaning I gave up on submitting). I met Jeremy Lassen and the rest of the Night Shade Books crew at their party at World Fantasy 2011, got to talking to them, and really liked what they were doing. (Book covers as beer labels is marketing genius-I almost insisted that I get that in my contract. I still want an EXILE beer bottle!) I gave Jeremy EXILE because it was the only thing I had complete at the time and NSB does great fantasy.
When I got the offer the best part was telling my husband, "See? Partying really does pay off!" (It was a bit of an epic evening there at the NSB party.) The cool thing, too, is through contacts I met my agent. Sara and I hit it off, she loved EXILE, and I signed with her. I'm so lucky to have her in my corner, for sure! She does all the business stuff I suck at so I can concentrate on writing.
What new projects are on the horizon for you?
Whoa, lots of stuff. I'm wrapping up EMISSARY, the sequel to EXILE. Draken has to go back to Monoea, where there's a death sentence on his head. It's another big book; probably top out at 130K words or so, and it will need lots of revision before first readers take a stab at it. (Bradley Beaulieu calls that his zeroth draft-great term. I'm on my zeroth draft of EMISSARY.) Fortunately my deadline is way out so that gives me time. But, I also am preparing an old project for submission, a book called SILVER SCAR (a post-apocalyptic religious fantasy thriller-how's that for a genre mashup?), a space opera series, plus I have to start the final book in the SEVEN EYES series, AND I'm plotting a new fantasy series which I hope to begin before 2014 hits. Busy year for me, but I believe in getting as many projects out there as possible as fast as possible (while keeping up quality, of course). Even five books in, I consider myself at the start of my career.
Do you have any further advice for aspiring writers?
Take risks. Meet people. Go to conferences and conventions. Editors don't bite, I promise. Turn rejected stories around in 24 hours. Write out goals, from daily to decade. Critique groups should lift you up rather than knock you down. If it's not fun for you, it's not fun for the reader. Try to only worry about the stuff you can control (pretty much just the writing). Read, watch TV, go to movies, read the news. Immerse yourself in Story every day.