A Conversation with Elizabeth Donald, Part 1…

As I mentioned in the teaser, author Elizabeth Donald is a journalist, as well as a blogger and a writer of fiction. I met her at Dragon*Con, where I attended a reading and then stayed to bug her and bend her ear. She and I used to live out in the same neck of the woods (if you could call Waynesville, MO, as being maybe the lower shoulder, perhaps the left pectoral of the woods of St. Louis), and we share a mutual membership in the Sarah Connor Charm School. I wanted her to talk a little about her writing, her career as a journalist, and other aspects of her work.

When I first wrote to her, she was heading out on a Furlough Tour, financed by a Kickstarter campaign, getting ready to take the world by storm. The world was indeed taken, after which she sat down and sent me many good words, so many in fact that this is going to be Part One of a two-part interview. My first question, of course, was…

Elizabeth Donald, Author.

Elizabeth Donald, Author.

Infamous Scribbler: How was the tour?

Elizabeth Donald: The Kickstarter campaign was more frightening than anything else I’ve done as a writer. Giving my acceptance speech at the Darrell Awards was nothing compared to this, and being on a panel with Charlaine Harris was a walk in the park. Then I could only make a fool of myself in front of a roomful of people – though the panel with Charlaine was a pretty big room! But this had the potential to be really embarrassing.

To recap: I was furloughed from my job for a week. Sure, it was a temporary thing, but it still left me with an unpaid week of my life. I don’t know a single person, especially a writer, who can afford to lose a week’s pay. So I determined it was the perfect opportunity for a cross-country tour, something I’ve never been able to do because of the time constraints of my job. The Kickstarter raised money for the tour expenses and a new novella, which I’m putting out for the backers and eventually the public.

I was nervous because I wasn’t sure there would be enough time and interest to raise the $750 I needed. I felt awkward asking people to donate money for the privilege of seeing me visit their towns, speak in their coffeehouses and sign my books for them. It felt presumptuous. So you couldn’t have surprised me more when we raised more than $3,000!

Thanks to the Kickstarter, I fully funded the Furlough Tour and some additional appearances, hitting multiple cities throughout the U.S. that I’ve never been able to visit in ten years as a published author. I’m more than grateful; I’m stunned at the response. It’s actually rejuvenated my creativity; the idea that this many people are that invested in my fictional musings makes me very happy, humbled and honored. But it has also motivated me to get some serious writing done. If a writer is just writing for her own ego, it’s the literary equivalent of talking to herself. This experience has reminded me that people are listening.

The Blackfire Series, by Elizabeth Donald.

The Blackfire Series, by Elizabeth Donald.

Speaking of your writing, which I enjoy very much, tell me about the main character of The Blackfire Series, Sara Harvey.

The real Sara Harvey is a terrific author and a dear friend. She’s a costume designer and a teacher, a Romany with a wonderful sense of humor, a distinctive feminine style and a genuinely positive nature. So she’s about as opposite “Major Sara Harvey” as she could possibly be! When I see my friend Sara, she’s likely to be in a lovely flowing skirt with beautifully done-up hair and glitter on her skin – in fact, my son dubbed her “The Glitter Lady” when he was small. Major Sara Harvey wears camo pants, tank top and a black leather jacket, with not-so-optional weapons in every pocket. She cuts her hair severely short because she doesn’t want to be bothered with it, and she swears about four times as often than the real Sara. But the real Sara loves her alter ego – says she gets to celebrate her inner badass – and is amused when people ask her to sign copies of the books.

As to Major Sara’s personality… the archetype is one that I enjoy writing, and have done so on a few occasions. I have never served in the military, but I admire the ethic of those who have served. I enjoy stories about women leaders, women who take responsibility for others and act on behalf of the greater good. The “strong woman character” is too frequently relegated as the requisite warrior, with no personality of her own and is called strong because she can kick ass. I prefer a fully-drawn heroine with history and voice, something like a real person. A character is strong because she makes hard choices and accepts the consequences of them, because her personality is unique and realistic and stays in the reader’s mind once the book is closed, not because she has a great back spin kick.

You are speaking my language! I love to read such characters, and am looking forward to more Major Harvey. Speaking of which, the first book in the series, The Cold Ones, is a zombie novella, but they are not your typical zombies. Tell us a little bit about the series, and your unique take on a traditional monster.

I was approached to write The Cold Ones by a publisher developing an anthology of traditional monsters written in non-traditional ways. I thought they were going to make me do vampires again, since that was my most popular series at the time. But instead they gave me zombies, which I had never written. Most zombie fiction was dependent on taboo-breaking, on grossing out the reader with guts and brains and entrail-chewing. I wanted to write zombies that were terrifying without being gross. That isn’t to say I didn’t want blood; after all, The Cold Ones has more than a little gore to it. But that isn’t the part that scares me.

When I thought about the terror of a zombie attack, I realized the scary part isn’t being killed or even being eaten. Lots of things can kill you and eat you; ask your friendly neighborhood tyrannosaur. But a zombie combines our fear of disease with our fear of the apocalypse in one ugly bite. I thought the scariest part of a zombie attack would be the time between being bitten and “turning.” It was the sure knowledge that you are going to die, that nothing you did would change that immutable fact, and when you die, you will become the thing you fear the most. You will become the very monster you have fought, a danger to yourself and others, and part of the thing that is destroying your world.

And then there is the very personal fear: the looming nature of death itself. Harlan Ellison said – and I’m paraphrasing here – that when you reach his age, you don’t joke about death. It’s always there, out of the corner of your eye like a “salivating fanboy at a Star Trek convention,” he said. Very few of us know exactly when we’re going to go, but a zombie bite is pretty final. So I wondered… if you knew you had only two hours to live, and nothing you did would change that fact, what would you do? Who would you want to see, and what would you say to them? How do you want to go out?

I built my zombies around that idea. I went back to the original Haitian lore of the so-called “zombie powder” used by sorcerers to capture the soul of the individual and enslave them. That’s where I got the concept that the single mind controls the zombies, who are not actually walking dead but live people whose minds have been erased and enslaved to a single controlling mind. Now, that’s not unique to me; the Borg of Star Trek are a similar concept of mental subjugation, Brian Keene’s Rising series had Ob as controller; and Jonathan Maberry’s Dead of Night postulated dead zombies with the mind still active but unable to control the body. So the human Borg cannot stop themselves from doing terrible things, and Maberry’s zombies must bear witness to the horrible things they are forced to do.

In Blackfire, of course, the zombies are changing; they’re not just the controlled living but also the walking dead of Romero’s design. That change was intentional, and leads to all sorts of new complications. But if I go any further into that, I’m giving away not only the ending of The Cold Ones, but also what’s going to happen in the final book. And nobody knows that but me… yet.

Stay tuned … we will have more from Elizabeth Donald tomorrow!

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Learn more about Elizabeth Donald and the Literary Underworld at the following links:

Website: elizabethdonald.com
Blog: literaryunderworld.blogspot.com
LitUnd: literaryunderworld.com

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