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.
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.
Louise Marley’s first novel, Sing the Light, was published in 1995, and was followed by two sequels, Sing the Warmth and Receive the Gift. She blogs at The Red Room.
I had the good fortune to discover her writing just after that, when I reviewed her astounding feminist SF novel The Terrorists of Irustan, which came out in 1999, for Scifi.com. After that, I jumped at the chance to read her other books. I said this about The Glass Harmonica in 2001:
The Glass Harmonica is a novel that will haunt readers long after they have moved on to less complex fare. . . it leaves me torn between the desire to reread immediately and the hunger for Marley’s next outing.
My feelings on that subject haven’t changed: Marley’s work is lyrical, deep and interesting and I can’t get enough of her.
At one time a singer with the Seattle Opera, she had a foot in two worlds for a number of years before retiring from music to write fulltime. I started our interview by asking about the shape of her life now, and got this response:
Like you, I live in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, and a lot of the time it feels like the rainforest. I don’t sing professionally anymore, but I still love to do that, as well as practice yoga, play golf, and spend time with my Scottie. I teach for the Long Ridge Writers Group, and I write. It doesn’t seem like too much activity, but I’m always busy!
As I write this, I’m celebrating the publication of Mozart’s Blood (, which is officially out tomorrow, June 29th. This is a book that was perhaps the most fun to write of all my dozen novels. It covers four hundred years of history and music, and features a reluctant vampire who just happens to be an opera singer. I did research in Milan and in New York (touring the opera houses in those cities, and had a wonderful time with all of it. Now I’m at work on a similar book which features Brahms. Not vampire, but certainly paranormal. There will be three of these–the third will be either Puccini or Verdi. Detect a theme?
We use to say, in the world of singing, that if you could do something else you should go do it. I’ve had the experience twice now of a real compulsion to do something. I knew I wanted to sing at the age of five, and I never wavered. When the urge to write overtook me, I didn’t try to resist at all, although I didn’t expect to make a career out of it. I thought I needed a hobby! (I can hear you laughing, Alyx. Stop it.) It was when I was reading my first book aloud to my first writing class, and getting a positive response, that I realized writing was a great deal like singing: it’s a performance. I was hooked, and I’ve stayed that way.
I was always an science fiction and fantasy reader. I cut my teeth, as it were, on the Oz books–all eight of them, or whatever there were–and then graduated to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover novels. I read everything I could get my hands on, like so many folks in our genre. I love fantasy and science fiction and all its little offshoots. The genre is drama at its most dramatic–a bit like opera, don’t you think?
I attended Clarion West in 1993, and it’s not putting too fine a point on it to say that in terms of my writing career, it was life changing. I had been studying writing, taking courses, meeting with a writer’s group, but the six weeks of Clarion crystallized everything for me. My class was a bit of a difficult one, I think, and a number of the attendees aren’t writing now. I can assure you no one that year thought that I would be the one to sell a bunch of novels. But everything I heard there, and the input from my classmates, made all the difference in my work. They were so talented! It’s a shame that some of them haven’t kept writing.
Sing the Light was in revision with my agent when I went to Clarion. I had just found him–as in just before the workshop began–but he made me rewrite three times before he thought the novel was ready to sell. Then he placed it in two weeks. Won my undying admiration!
For a while, after I retired from my musical endeavors, I just wrote. Now I teach as well, but I worry that some of my writing energy gets spent teaching. I’m sure that’s a concern for all writers. I’ve been able to keep up my output, so far, and I love teaching, so I suppose I’ll continue. The dream of an uninterrupted writing day is still that–a dream. I tend to have complicated days in which I do housework, walk the dog, take a yoga class or play golf, cook, teach–and somewhere in there I write. The one consistency is that I write every day, whether it’s half an hour or four hours. Every day.
I’ve had the same struggle in publishing that I did in my singing career: It’s hard for me to be businesslike about it. I loved singing so much! There was nothing more fun than putting on a long dress and my big earrings and going to stand in front of an orchestra. I adored the opera, the staging rehearsals, the collegiality, the costumes–all of it. It was hard to care whether the fee was a thousand dollars or a hundred dollars. I just loved doing it. Now, as a writer, I’m tempted down the same path. I love writing. I love creating a world, whether it’s a fantastical one or a science fictional one or a historical one. I adore learning what make characters tick (resonates with all those opera roles) and I invariably fall in love with the best ones. I’m incredibly fortunate to get paid for doing something so satisfying.
Naturally, human beings always want more. I’d like more success, and the money and security that come along with it. But I’m delighted to be a working writer, to be active in the business, to have editors recognize my name, and most of all–above everything else–to have acquired a readership. An audience. Bless their hearts, every single one of them!
Readers curious about Mozart’s Blood can find out more at Louise’s web site–the section about the novel features not only a Virtual Book Tour, musical suggestions, a list of ten discussion questions for book clubs. It also has a Book Club Party Kit, with suggestions for menus, costumes, music, and decorations! You can find her Facebook Fan page by searching for Louise Marley.
Kelly and I made a little change to our pre-work walk this morning, taking 8th Avenue past the new community garden where some friends of ours have a plot. I’ve been able to see the installation happening as I’ve gone to and fro–between one thing and another, I pass the Broadway/Commercial intersection four to six times a day–but hadn’t gotten a good look. What’s there is attractive and thoughtfully laid out. The central area holds raised garden beds made of cedar, already pre-planted with veggies and herbs. Ground-level flower and berry gardens encircle these beds, and the backdrop is the Grandview Cut. The plants were donated by a local nursery, all the cedar chips are new and fragrant, and the whole thing radiates a newness and warmth that’s very pleasing. We are thinking we’ll do the walk past a lot in the next little while.
Afterward, I made my way to Cafe Calabria and had a bash at the current fiction project, that slice of a novel I mentioned before, for the grant application. I was searching for one more scene to add into it, looking for something that had a bit of literary grit and referred back to the stuff I’ve put in the proposal, which is about shifting landscapes of privilege and the labeling, within large families, of different individuals as insiders and outsiders. On Wednesday I was sitting in the cafe scraping after that scene, whatever it was. I didn’t really expect to find the right answer, because I hadn’t slept the night before. But the idea came, to my surprise, and I scribbled some notes on it without getting started–trying to write on no sleep is never a good idea for me. Yesterday I drafted the first half, and today I wrapped it up. I have a piece I’m happy with now, and I have until fall to polish it until it shines.
I am delighted to have reached this point. If I’m not swamped by other commitments (some of which I’m chasing very actively), I will write a draft of the whole book in November, just as I did WINTERGIRLS and DAUGHTERS OF ZEUS.
Here’s a snippet from earlier the draft:
Sarah Varney’s address was a residential hotel, one that, from the look of it, was home to a good chunk of the city’s addict population. Its windows were black with grime, its awning greasy and tattered, with loose aluminium ribs inhabited by motheaten, feebly peeping pigeons. The sidewalk leading to the reinforced revolving door was glazed in bird droppings; it was impossible not to track them in.
The door spun them out into a lobby that smelled of Lysol and urine. A diminutive Asian crone eyeballed them through a cage of greasy bulletproof glass.
This feels very much as if it’s at a finished-for-now point, and given that we’re headed to Seattle for the LOCUS Awards tomorrow, I will probably skip actual fiction-writing for the whole of the weekend. By Monday, I’ll need to have decided what to work on next. I have another proposal I’d be delighted to work on, but I’m waiting on some notes; I have a drafted squid story that could use some attention, and a horror novel, SEE HOW THEY RUN, that I want to revise at some point in the near. I have a pile of books I need to read for various research stuff, and one I want to review.
Non-fic stuff on the go includes three last lectures for Novel Writing II and assorted admin stuff, two guest blog posts to write, a review, some things I want to talk and post about in this space, critiques for a couple of my one on one students, fine-tuning of a website I’m developing for my choir, and more work on the alyxdellamonica.com page.
On a more recreational note, I need to review everything I learned in last year’s Italian class before my next one begins in about ten days time and one of my Jonathan Coulton albums has vanished from my iPod.
I have been thinking about getting the latter in the history section for weeks, not so much because it’s exactly what I want to read but because for weeks it was the most tempting item on that particular shelf. It looks terrific, and French history is something I especially enjoy, but I wasn’t necessarily prepared to pick it up. But today the Nelson book was out, and it’s just the thing for primary research on one of my projects, and I knew the bookstore ‘owed’ me a kickback for all the bookbuying of the past year, so… treasure!
I will of course let you know how they are.
Because they’ve just freshened up all the shelves for the summer session, the bookstore has new “Summer Reading” and “Local Author” displays, and Indigo Springs was prominently displayed in both. I say was, because apparently by the time I noticed this gratifying fact, the Local Author copies had been sold. They are very very good to me out there.