Journey – with Kay Kenyon

Posted on July 12, 2010 by

Kay Kenyon sold her first novel, The Seeds of Time, in 1997 and followed it with six stand-alone novels (including Maximum Ice and The Braided World, which I reviewed for Locus), before embarking on the four-part sci-fantasy series The Entire and The Rose.

The latest installment in this series, Prince of Storms, was released in trade paperback July 1st. The lead title, Bright of the Sky, was one of Publishers Weekly’s top books of 2007. The series has twice been shortlisted for the American Library Association Reading List awards. Kay will sign books with Louise Marley at U Book Store in Seattle on August 5.

I began by asking Kay to tell us something about herself and this series:

I write novels. I am on my 12 or 13th novel. Funny how you always think you’ll know how many you’ve got, but after awhile they blur. I am a compulsive writer. I don’t know if I’m a writer because I’m compulsive or the other way around.

In an effort to have a more normal life (marriage and housekeeping for a large, awfully picky cat still doesn’t do it) I started a writing conference and organization, and I pour a lot of energy into that. Write on the River is a May literary conference and year-round writers’ organization for Eastern Washington. It gets me away from the keyboard and helps me connect with real carbon-based units. Other than these things, I play golf, keep a fanatical rose garden (don’t ask) and raise asparagus and raspberries and assorted edibles.

Kay Kenyon

Kay Kenyon

Most recently, I have written a series called The Entire and The Rose. It’s about two universes, one of which thinks it’s the only one (thus “the Entire”). The other–ours–is named after a flower.

I call the series sci-fantasy because it is science fiction with a fantasy feel. The universe where most of the action takes place has a seamless interface between advanced technology and the natural environment, making the rules of the world appear almost magical. It is also a quest story, so that gives the series a fantasy pace and framework.

This series, a quartet of stories, has received by far the best reviews of my career. I am grateful but confused by this. Did I finally figure out what people really want to read, or did I lurch forward into some master-space where I suddenly knew how to turn a phrase and give people fever dreams? I don’t know. The last book of the series, Prince of Storms just came out in trade paper. Also, all the books so far have been Endeavour Award nominees.

I have been writing for a living almost my whole life, but not always, alas, fiction. I’ve had a bunch of jobs writing TV and radio commercials, press releases, technical documents, and newsletters. Then I hit a big decade birthday and decided that I’d wasted enough time writing technical stuff and ad copy, and asked myself if I wanted to end up at the end of my life having only written totally lame things.

So I scared myself into writing a novel. I launched immediately into the project–because honestly, how hard could it be?–and then failed to sell the thing. After that, I started to go to writers’ conferences and study with pros. My next book was The Seeds of Time, and it sold 30,000 copies, which I was told was pretty good for a newcomer. So I was a fast learner.

(Yeah, I am ducking saying how old I am. But I’ve been selling novels for almost fifteen years.)

You seldom support yourself with writing fiction. That’s the truth, as unwelcome as it may be. I’m fortunate that I don’t have to have a high-paying job anymore. My husband indulges my pursuit of stories.

I couldn’t quit writing and be happy. As I said, I am a compulsive writer. There’s a reason for the compulsion: fiction writing is a singular and amazing rush, a monumentally satisfying pleasure, the most fascinating interaction with one’s own mind and the minds of readers–who are willingly entering into your fictive creation and believing it. And I would want to sell life insurance why?

Fantasy and science fiction have always been my playground. Paranormal, a touch of horror, the usual ancillary fields also compel me. I’m so glad you didn’t ask why I write in this genre–because I’ve answered that question a hundred ways and never been totally convinced I had any idea what I was talking about.

It took me about eight years to break into publishing. I wrote that unpublishable novel that I mentioned, and then spent a few more years writing a 150,000 word novel that did sell, but only after being passed on by most of the big houses before being picked up by Bantam. My commitment to writing was fierce in those days. (These days I’m less fanatical.) Nothing was going to stop me.

I must admit that breaking in was a harrowing experience. I had almost given up hope when my agent called to announce the sale: “They want your book, and it’s a two book deal, so I hope you’re got another one.” Looking back, this must have been the most ecstatic day of my life. Eight years is a long time to wait.

I was bowled over by the generosity of other writers. I expected the world of authors to be a clique of sorts, and I ended up making deep friendships that mean the world to me. So that was a big surprise. I wasn’t in it for the people, but I might almost say that that is the main thing I got. I mean, I’ve had ferocious ups and downs career-wise, but my friendships in the industry have been steady. I also was pleasantly surprised by the relationship with my agent, Donald Maass. He has taken a strong hand in guiding my career and been a valuable collaborator on story concepts.

A more unpleasant surprise: I didn’t expect that my novels would end up being seriously dark. My darkest stories didn’t find a wide readership. I had to look carefully at the darkness and let a little light in.

I think that those who say “you must always write what’s in your heart” are a little dreamy in their focus. Since this is a topic that often generates argument, let me explain. “Heart” is not different from “mind,” for starters. If by “heart” we mean emotional truth, well that is processed through the mind, and is naturally laced with strands of logic and experience. So there is no sacred place from which our stories spring that is other than our minds.

Once we’re off the high horse of “heart,” we can look at the issue as how much the writer should be influenced by the marketplace. I think it must be a mix. I’d argue, not so much for the marketplace (which sounds like following fads), but for writing the most entertaining story you can wrestle out of yourself. That means analyzing your premise, milieu, and plot to see if it can reach a wider audience. A little adjustment–or even a big one–can teach us to be more flexible and inventive. And our careers tend to be longer.

Now it feels like I am sailing just above the fray. That is, I’ve weathered so much, and I have come to a point of mastery that is the highest I can claim. I know that sounds conceited, but all I mean is, this is my best dance. The words spill out, the scenes flood my mind, the books blossom. Even if they don’t take the world by storm (although I think my next one will!) I am entranced, seduced, happy. Whatever happens.

Kay Kenyon can be found on the web at her official site, Writing the World, on Facebook, and, finally, on Twitter. There’s also a terrific review of Prince of Storms here.

Story intro: “A Key to the Illuminated Heretic”

Posted on July 10, 2010 by

The individual introductions to short stories are one of my favorite things about reading single-author collections. The stories themselves are delightful in their own right, of course, but I love it when the author gives us an extra glimpse into what was going on when a given piece was written. It’s a little like getting to unwrap a high-end truffle; there’s an extra layer of ritual before one settles down to enjoy. With that in mind, I’ve decided to put a bit of that kind of love into the short fiction area of my site. What will accumulate, I expect, is a cluster of notes about the writing process, all tied to the various stories I’ve got sprinkled out and about the Web and in print.

This is my first foray into this territory–I hope you enjoy it.

A Key to the Illuminated Heretic

In 2001, I met Charles N. Brown at Norwescon and he asked me to start reviewing books for Locus. For the next three years I did four, five, even six books a month for the magazine–the ARCs flowed to my door, a glorious river of words. This was not long after I’d first encountered Harry Turtledove, and his unforgettable How Few Remain. I was in love with alternate history. I inhaled the series spawned by How Few Remain, and the Worldwar series. Happily, none of the other Locus reviewers seemed inclined to wrestle me for the AH, so for a couple of glorious years I didn’t just get my Turtledove fix. I got it all: Kurt R.A. Giambastiani’s awesome The Year the Cloud Fell saga, Steven Barnes’ Lion’s Blood, Hannibal’s Children by John Maddox Roberts… it was like falling into a cave full of pirate loot, literary doubloons for history nerds.

Naturally, all of this stimulated my writerbrain to start considering the prospect of writing some AH of my own, which in turn drew me back to one of my oldest historical passions–Joan of Arc. I started reading, and noodling, and reading some more. Maybe twenty history books later, I had a fine amateur-historian grasp on Joan’s short personal history, a reasonable grip on that little slice of the Hundred Years War, and the perfect point of divergence. I didn’t have a hook though, or any kind of grasp of the story. I started it a few times… and abandoned those openers. A few of my best pieces have gone this way, with three or six or even twelve failed starts. Then again, some of those same failed starts have gone nowhere… at least so far.

Joan of Arc

As all this cogitation was taking place, Harry was producing books. Lots of them! Books, delicious books, and I was reading them all for Locus. As a result, I’d gotten to know Harry in that distant, online, ‘we’ll meet at a con one day, huh?’ way. One spring we were back-and-forthing about something, and he asked: would I like to submit something to Alternate Generals III? In six weeks?

With the fiery impetus of a short deadline and the ubercool prospect of writing for Harry dangling before me, I dropped everything and started scribbling. I wrote draft, longhand, over pots of mint tea at a vegetarian Indian place on the Drive; I wrote more at Mosaic Creek Park. I got “Heretic” drafted, workshopped, revised, rerevised and off just barely in time… and a week later, I got what was the fastest acceptance I’d ever had. (It may have been my first electronic submission: this was 2003, and things were still going out in hard copy a good deal of the time.)

As stories go, “Heretic” remains one of my personal favorites. At that point in my life, it was among the best things I’d ever written, and when I revisit it, I’m still satisfied with how it came off. I remember it as a breakthrough, as the first time I felt as though I’d brought off precisely the emotional effect I was striving for. The process of writing it was unique, too, because I had done all that research. It was a ludicrous amount of reading, considering that we’re talking about a 9,500 word novelette. But wow! Historical fiction sure feels easy when all the big facts you could possibly want have been poured into your brain, when they’re just waiting to spill out onto the page.

This is my ideal model for research now: read as much as I please on whatever’s interesting, and hope the noggin will be crammed full right when someone asks me for a story, NOW. It hasn’t happened again, not yet. I don’t mind the “I’m chugging along and now I suddenly I realize need to learn more about X,” model, but the sensation, with “Heretic,” was magical. It’s probably as close to omnipotence as anyone can hope to get.

Time passed, Alternate Generals III came out and “Heretic” got good reviews; it made the Nebula Preliminary ballot that year, and got shortlisted for the Sidewise Award. I have thought occasionally of writing a follow-up, at novel-length, set in a Jehanniste present, but I have never quite found the hook–I haven’t even gotten as far as a false start. So that idea is very much on the backburner.

Here’s a snippet:

Frontispiece: Joan of Arc stands chained in a horse-drawn wagon, wearing a black gown. Leaning against a pair of nuns, she seems almost to swoon. Her right arm is portrayed as bones without flesh. The horses’ ornate curls and gleaming teeth lend a ghastly note, and blackened angels border the image.

The scene is easily recognized: the Maid’s debilitation, the nuns, and especially the cloud of larks above serve to identify it as Joan’s journey to the trial that ended her 13-year imprisonment for heresy. It was at this “Exoneration Trial” that she encountered Dulice Aulon, the Jehanniste artist responsible for the holy pictures on which the codex illuminations are based.

“We mustn’t face the King in battle.” Joan had the light, clear voice of a young woman, even after her years in prison and the hard decade since her release. She’d asked one of the new archers, a girl of perhaps seventeen, to cut her hair, and a few broken strands of silver hair clung to her neck. The rest lay at her feet, bright in the glow of the dying fire.

“Not fight Charles?” Hermeland was incredulous. He was a badger of a man, with a dramatic, pointy face and remarkable speed with a sword. “We must turn his army back before it unites with the force of mercenaries coming up from Rome. If you can’t see that–”

“Can’t see it? Who ordered us to turn north, days before anyone knew the King had pursued us into Burgundy?”

“You–” he began, and as her brow came up he corrected, “your Voices.”

Urban Fantasy Spotlight and a hint of smut…

Posted on July 9, 2010 by

Tor.com’s Urban Fantasy spotlight continues and there are goodies on offer–if you post a comment here by Tuesday, you can win a grab bag of books (including, possibly, mine). There’s an editorial round table discussion on the heroes and heroines of paranormal romance, a story, “Olga,” by C.T. Adams and many other intriguing and delightful goodies.

I’ve spent this morning experimenting with my various electronic gadgets, by way of podcasting my own novelette for this TOR.COM spotlight. “The Cage” is eight thousand words long and takes over forty minutes to read, so naturally I did a few shorter dry runs, testing out bits and pieces of equipment. For one of these tests, I used the six-minute snippet that I read far and wide at Broad Universe Rapidfire Readings in 2009. That’s right, folks, I am finally making good on my promise to record and post the Indigo Springs sex scene. If you don’t mind a few spoilers or you’ve already read the book, you can listen to it by clicking here.

I do have a Rapidfire-sized snippet of Blue Magic, too, and I will post that in the not too distant. It’s not nearly as (cough) romantic.

It’s hot out. I live near a busy street, and I’ve had the windows shut as I made recordings, so that there wouldn’t be too much road noise. A side bonus of the fact that it’s ninety-plus degrees in my office is that the cats didn’t feel a need to contribute–Rumble, in particular, punctuated my last podcasting attempt rather ferociously.

Now I’m going to crack some windows and try to get this place ventilated before I venture out in search of library books and fresh fruit.

Memories served cold…

Posted on July 8, 2010 by

As I write this it’s Wednesday afternoon, three-ish, and the living room thermometer claims it’s about 85 degrees indoors. I am alternating bursts of work with little forays into emptying out our fridge and packing away the perishables in temporary cool storage. All this because kelly-yoyoKelly and I bought a new fridge about a month ago; between one thing and another, it is only just arriving today… sometime between four in the afternoon and bedtime.

I am thus trying to find the perfect balance between having to empty an entire fridge if the guys arrive early with taking the food out and then having to wait so long that, even in coolers, it melts. All while keeping enough of the kitchen clean to accomplish dinner.

The new fridge is black, energy-efficient, and a hair bigger than its predecessor, a lowend GE model with no Energy star rating whatever, chipped paint, two decades of accumulated grime, busted crisper drawers and assorted condensation/mildew issues. Since I’m allergic to mold, I’m thrilled to be rid of the thing on that count alone!

I am pretty sure I have never cohabited with a fridge that wasn’t on the old and wheezy side. The Moldebeast is the only fridge I’ve even owned.

The landlords of my youth, not surprisingly, favored disastrously cheap appliances. I can remember a weeks-long battle to convince our first BC landlord that food was rotting in our fridge overnight. He’d have kept fake-fixing that one forever while we fought food poisoning, if I hadn’t taken advantage of its single working feature–beautiful, well-oiled casters. I slammed it into the wall repeatedly one afternoon, until the various non-working bits were too busted up to sustain the game of pretend. The guy then got us a reconditioned fridge which was large and flesh colored and heroic and functional; we named it Cyrano.

Shortly after that we moved on to Chez Frank, whose freezer was supposed to be self-defrosting. It wasn’t, and so we had Frank up every six months or so to pull it out from the wall and power-thaw the bits we couldn’t reach. Since Frank sincerely cared and kept it working, we lived with it.

The first fridge I remember was in the house in Bonnyville. These rocks lived on it–they are rocks my grandmother Maudie picked up in the Nevada desert. She then cut, polished and glued them to tragically weak magnets. I am sentimental about them; I think the three-toned one looks like a lake with ice on it, and I cannot tell you how many hours I spent watching them all lose the war with gravity, sliding down to the floor.

That fridge handle, in Bonnyville, had a wicked sharp edge; just a little rasp of metal that would reach out to snag clothes or your arm. One of those dumb things, a pain, but not worth doing anything about. We all scraped ourselves on it at one time or another.

Anyway, cruising toward a point, I swear: as a tween, I had the job of clearing the dishes after dinner, and one night I was multitasking, by which I mean putting away food and, simultaneously, scrapping with my sister. I have no idea what we were arguing about or what was said, but soon enough she was lunging at me. This I remember as M coming at me in a classic X-men Wolverine lunge: body canted, head low (and of course she didn’t have claws like that).

I was opening the fridge door anyway, but I gave it a bit more arm. Malice aforethought: it’s embasassing to admit to premeditation, all these years later. I figured she’d hit the flat part and bounce. Haha, argument over.

Or… not! Instead of bouncing like a wacky cartoon animal, poor Sib cracked her bean open on the sharp bit of the fridge door. Chaos ensued. The magnets probably all hit the floor, but between the spray of blood, the screaming, and the sudden mustering of a Trip to ER, I don’t remember that. Three stitches later, the wound was sufficient to leave a small vertical scar right in the center of her forehead. Did I mention that my father nigh faints at the sight of blood? Yeah, it was a fun night.

So. Not one of my shining childish moments of humanity. However, I am a better person now and as proof I will point out that I did not name this post, despite strong temptation, “Fridge over troubled daughters.” (And if you read this, M–Oh! Still damned sorry about that! I cringe when I think of it!)

Ahem. Grandma’s fridge was green and had its own collection of fridge-rocks. Plus it was magic! You could find Hostess Ding Dongs and kid-sized cans of sarsaparilla soda in it.