pretty extensively and actually spent time sailing on some old wooden ships so I could get the details of the Riptide perfect. I went to pirate museums from here to Nassau. I even learned how to play (horribly) the hurdy gurdy. I research in batches...I find that I discover new research topics as I write. It makes writing adventurous, and it's part of the reason I write historical fantasy. I just bought a bunch of books on old Southern folk legends in the South for my next project!
What did you edit out of this book?
Honestly, mostly the romance. There is importance in Tom and Merrin's relationship--it parallels her parents' romance and Evangeline and Winters'--but it wasn't the focus of the story. I was much more interested in seeing Merrin evolve from a hesitant orphan to a literal captain in her own right more than I was seeing her fall in love, and I think that was the priority for her, too. I also edited out some of Winters' scenes, as he's such a magnetic character that I was worried he might get too much spotlight in Merrin's story. But don't worry, I have a lot more to say about Winters and Tom and the rest of the crew, so they'll all get their turn.
What was your hardest scene to write?
The historic scenes were the easiest, because they were so research-based that I couldn't wait to get my notes onto paper. The most challenging scenes, ironically, were those between Merrin and her mother, Melusine, and also Evangeline. These are three incredibly strong, resilient, and enduring women--and all so distinctly different. There's a hint of a Triple Goddess structure here, and all of these women approach their feminism very differently, so it was a challenge to keep them all true to themselves, but I think I did it.
So it was no surprise that I missed Mrs. Littlefield calling us to circle time when I was so close to the end of my book. In third grade, though, tattle-tales abound, and another student soon pointed me out to Mrs. Littlefield. Sternly she called me over to her chair, where she was surrounded by the entire class. Her grim demeanor changed, however, when she saw my face streaked with tears. "What's the matter?" she asked. Sobbing, I jerkily informed her that I had just finished Old Yeller. She dropped her own book, opened her arms, and pulled me close. "Well, then, that makes perfect sense," she told me. "We all cry at Old Yeller."
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?
This feels like a trick question, since Bury The Lead is all about connections, both real and manipulated. Which is fair, because I only have a trick answer. At face value, my work is primarily composed of stand-alone novels and poetry. However, the questions addressed by all of them are the same. How does love alter us and our reality? What is truth? What price will we pay for liberty - and can we even define what liberty is? What makes us human, and at what point do we leave our humanity behind? I write in many genres, but the questions - those tricky connections - remain the same.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
Never let it be said I came late to my melodramatic sensibilities. I was in junior high when I first noted that my great - and ever unrequited - love, who was also a writer, was carrying around a big red-and-black hardbound book everywhere he went. Since true love means reading all the same books (yes, I scoured his library card records, and yes, I was a scary little stalker,) I of course set myself to discovering what it was. It turned out to be Roget's International Thesaurus, Fourth Edition. I saved up my birthday money and bought a copy of my own at the mall bookstore. I quickly discovered its many magical properties, and to this day, it sits ever at my side as I work. Most of the time I find that the word I want is the one already in hand, but just the flavor and feel of the words, sliding over my lips and into my mind, are a delight. And sometimes whole stories arise from the invocation of a single word.
In Concord, Massachusetts, I checked out Walden Pond and the houses of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Then, for good measure, I went to the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery to visit their graves. I particularly loved Emerson’s grave. It’s just a boulder with a plaque on it, which is so perfectly Emerson. I also went to the other, bigger, more famous Sleepy Hollow cemetery in Tarrytown, New York. The Washington Irving one. Besides gravestones that have the names of characters from Sleepy Hollow, Irving is buried there, too.
Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?
When I first started writing, I considered a pseudonym or using my initials since, as a female writer, I know I’m at a disadvantage right off the bat. It’s a pretty well proven fact that male writers have a bit of an edge in the literary world. However, I decided not to go that way because, for one thing, I think those days are fading into the past, and for another thing, hiding the fact that I’m a woman just did not sit right with me. I touch on aspects of feminism in all my books, and those ideas wouldn’t come across the same if people thought they were coming from a man.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
I should probably blather on about one of Dostoyevsky’s lesser-known books right now, but I’m going to go with the pirate books by Gideon Defoe. He has five. The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists is the first one. They’re perfectly, amazingly, beautifully funny. They’re like Monty Python but in book form and about pirates. The humor is just so right in ways you’d have to read it to understand, so you should probably go ahead and buy all five of them. Right now. You’re welcome.
The pirates all have names like the pirate with a scarf, the pirate with the Brooklyn accent, and the albino pirate. There are running gags about ham, and funny footnotes, and in each book the pirates have lovely, historically inaccurate adventures with the likes of Ahab and Charles Darwin and Lord Byron. They’re written in a casual style that reminds me of The Princess Bride in a way but is also uniquely its own; as a writer who values creativity, humor, pushing boundaries of the established rules of writing, and the use of one’s own true voice, I could gush about these books forever, but I’ll try to restrain myself and end it here. Done.
What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
It’s something that I’m mindful of. There’s a balance—a “literary sweet spot,” if you will— that you need fall into.
First, I feel you need to acknowledge that there are things that you absolutely do not and will not understand of the opposite sex. Just come to terms with that. Rest your head on a pillow at night and don’t let it haunt your dreams. Trying to solve everything that makes one “male” or makes one “female” (and even locking it to within those binaries) is something that writers have been exploring for decades, though very few—if any—have the lifespan to fully answer. So I say: don’t. Be aware of the differences, write responsibly, and pen your characters based on who they are and not what they are expected to be.
Since most of my writing focuses on social constructs and cultural habits, I usually define my characters, male or female, by what their adversity looks like and how they are able to cope. I write on the train and I see it all the time. Trust me: the NYC transit system teaches you a great deal about gender norms and sexuality.
You can easily sidestep tropes of writing the opposite sex by keeping in mind how a character would react in stressful situations. A male or female character saying nothing and doing nothing are primarily the same. There’s no pressure to be who they are, no approaching threat to challenge them. But a woman going to buy milk at a supermarket experiences the event completely different from a man. Even if it’s the same time of day, same supermarket, same carton of milk—the nuances and micro aggressions bombarding them as they push through this dimension attempting to satisfy their dairy quotient are worlds apart. For instance, of the six or seven characters I’ve developed in And Then There Were Crows, each one would react differently to, say, almost getting hit by a bike messenger when crossing a street or finding a finger in their hotdog. Then, factor in not just gender, but also age, race, values, experiences…and it gets even more complicated. My motto is that if you know the string of decisions that have led a character to this given point in time, and you truly understand their stressors, then you can build credible experiences and—even in worlds of the fantasy or absurd, believable characters. Treat every character on their own merit. What song would she listen to? What would be her social media post for today? Once you have this in mind, always know that it’s not enough to write a female character different from a male character. You also need to make sure that you’re writing her different from all of your other female characters. You have to be mindful of each character’s story.
Do you believe in writer’s block?
Wait, people don’t believe in writer’s block? I do, absolutely. Stephen King had a really great philosophy about writing while creating the Dark Tower series in that writers look through “doors” into other dimensions. Sometimes the door is wide open and we can see/hear/smell/sense everything in that world and connect with it. Sometimes it’s barely open. Sometimes it’s shut. I’ve always thought that writer’s block is the act of a writer banging their knuckles bloody on a door that might open tomorrow, fifteen years from now, or never.
I feel like it’s possible to search for another door until the one you want reopens. Last year, I published over twenty pieces [of writing] both online and in print. I wrote four to six hours per day. I hopped genres and styles: poetry, non-fic, fiction, horror, satire, politics. I wrote without breaks for nine months and never stopped chasing a new narrative. This is what we in writing, both in culturally creative circles as well as in the foundations of academia, unaimously dub “maniac.”
Writer’s block most definitely exists, but if you know yourself and put your energy into your strengths, it doesn’t have to put out the fire in your gut.
Preorder Alcy's upcoming book here.
What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
I've done some of the obligatories. I went to Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris and tipped my hat to Oscar Wilde. That was a few years after I went to the Dublin Writers Museum. Oscar Wilde may think I'm stalking him.
I went to Providence in 2009 to do the Lovecraft walking tour. Record amounts of snow had fallen the night before thanks to a nor'easter, a term I may be using correctly. I was living in Texas at the time, and I was horribly unsuited to the bitter east coast February from a wardrobe perspective. It was a fairly miserable experience.
That's not to say I didn't enjoy it. I just nearly froze to death in the process. The cold, grey sky was the perfect backdrop for walking in the footsteps of my favorite horror writer.
How do you select the names of your characters?
Proper people, who exist outside the realm of fiction, seem to be assigned names at random. It happens at or shortly after birth, before one's personality has had the opportunity to develop. It only qualifies as a minor tragedy, as parents rarely harbor deep regrets about their Dylans growing up to look more like Reginalds. Or if they do, they keep it to themselves and take up drinking alone in dark closets. That's how the world works.
In writing, if I think of my characters as my children, I get the benefit of bringing them into the world as fully grown adults. For the record, I don't like to think of characters as my children, given how often I end up murdering them. There wouldn't be enough booze in the closet for all the coping I'd need to do.
In conjuring fictional people from thin air, I get to decide who they are before I name them; furthermore, in many cases, I get to change their names during the third draft once I've finally decided that the original name simply didn't fit. Most of them have traditional names from one culture or another, which makes it easy. I do a search for "[nationality] [gender] names" and pick one. German and Romanian are the staples for the Terribly Serious Darkness series.
Some characters get their names based on obvious attributes that define them, such as Mrs. Knife. Very few of them don't come from me at all, like Santa or Loki.
My favorites are the ones that take me the most time. They're the ones I've invented by capturing the very souls of the characters and distilling them into syllables. That's how Sloot Peril, Krespo the elf, and Ghasterly the necromancer got their names. If I loved all of my characters equally, I'd do this for every one of them; however, I don't. They're not my children. They're more like indentured servants, most of whom will meet grisly ends at the hands of other, more murderous characters. It's not a perfect arrangement, but it keeps my drinking moderate and out of the closet.
PreOrder Sam's upcoming book here.