Yesterday, I posted the first part of my interview with author and journalist Elizabeth Donald. We talked about her Furlough Tour, the main character from her Blackfire series, Major Sara Harvey, as well as her interpretation of the traditional zombie monster. Today, we talk about some of the research she does for her books, her dual hats as reporter and fiction writer, a little bit about the Sarah Connor Charm School, and of course, what’s coming up soon!
When it comes to monsters, you are definitely an equal opportunity horror connoisseur. Where do you find them, and which one is your favorite?
I love all my monsters! I’m particularly fond of my zombies, because they’ve been so much fun to write. But that’s also because the Blackfire series lets me play with lots of other monsters through the flashbacks to other battles the team has fought. In two books I’ve already had them face a British redcap, a Filipino aswang, a springheel, South American kuru-pira, Afghan devalpa, Russian rusalka, djinn, vrees demon, the North American Piasa, Incan sapay demons… and in both books, only the Raptor in Chicago was completely made up. All the others were drawn from real legends and myths in various cultures, which is a fascination of mine.
I think if I had to pick one of the Blackfire critters, it would be the vrees demon. It’s a shape-changer, one that assumes the form of whatever terrifies you the most. That makes it fun for a character exposition, because you learn a lot about a person by finding out what scares him.
But I think ghosts are really the most versatile of scary critters. Ghosts can be anything, can do anything, and there’s always a tragic backstory. I got to play around with ghosts quite a bit in a novel that hasn’t yet been contracted. When I was researching ghost lore for Yellow Roses, I learned a lot about the history of my little Illinois river town and a few other towns nearby. I found it fascinating and a lot of fun to play with those ghosts, and I think I might do it again.
Let’s talk a little about craft. Do your journalism and fiction worlds ever collide? Does working in one genre influence your work in the other?
I am the luckiest person I know, because both my day job and my night job involve writing. From the outside, people might assume I was doing one to fund the other, since anyone who’s ever been a journalist or a novelist knows that neither pays much of a living wage. But I do them both because I love them both, in very different ways. When I was a young theater major, I was planning to found a theater company that would raise money for social causes with its performances – saving the world through art. I was very young. As I grew older, I found other ways to tell stories and save the world at the same time. At least, in very small ways!
That said, fiction writing and reporting require two totally different skill sets. Reporting is a public service, requiring as much reading and research as interviewing and writing. They pay us not just to stand there with a notebook and write down what people say, but to read and investigate, to understand the complex structures that we must explain in print. It’s a calling as much as it is a profession. To write a news story is a careful dance of assembling vital information and explaining it to people who weren’t in the room and didn’t hear what happened, and doing so in a balanced manner that gives all sides their say.
Fiction requires tapping into a totally different mindset. Fiction can be inspired by observation and research, but actually creating the story comes from that capering what-if demon that lives inside the imagination. It’s not about assembling information in a coherent structure; it’s painting a picture with words, using language to show the reader the images in my head. Stephen King called writing the closest thing we’ll ever have to telepathy, as we use the clumsy tool of language to communicate something amazing to another mind. That’s a different kind of language, a different area of the brain, a different skillset altogether.
That’s why I find it difficult to simply leap from writing nonfiction all day into working on the books. I have to have some kind of buffer between them – usually cooking dinner for my family! Sure, there’s the occasional moment when someone on my reporting beat recognizes me from my fiction work, but usually that leads to ribbing me about my fondness for things that go chomp in the night. I always tell them, “That’s my evil twin.”
One of the reasons I came to check out your reading at Dragon*Con was due to a post in the Sarah Connor Charm School Facebook page, that let us know you, an alumnus of the project, would be there. How did you become involved in the SCCS? And how has it affected your story crafting?
The Sarah Connor Charm School, as founded by Kym Lambert, was my venue to learn about physical feminism. In my youth, I bought into the myths of female frailty, of those supposedly inevitable limitations that kept women from doing the things we absolutely can do. But after reading many of Kym’s writings, books like The Frailty Myth and similar feminist writings, I learned a lot more about my own capabilities. It spurred me into trying things I always would have dismissed before, like backpacking and weight training. I found once I accepted the idea that I was not naturally frail or weak, it changed the way I faced my daily life. I was less afraid, and more willing to stand up for myself. I did not wait for others to come along and solve my problems for me; I was responsible for my own solutions, and thus was able to take charge of my own life.
Now I see young women who believe they must be weak and therefore need protection, who run to men they think will be strong for them and take care of them, and I want to sit them down and tell them: You are strong. You are limited only by your own mind. It is hard work, and sometimes frightening, to think of standing up for yourself instead of waiting for someone to save you. But it is the only way to truly be yourself, and the only way to be free. That’s the kind of heroine I like to write, because it’s the kind of woman I strive to be and the kind of role model I want to present: a woman who doesn’t wait to be saved.
That is great to hear, because that is the kind of heroine I like to read … Speaking of which, what can we expect to see coming in the future from The Literary Underworld?
The Literary Underworld is an author cooperative, helping authors and small presses get their work out in a marketplace that is increasingly saturated. Buying from LitUnd means buying directly from the author or publisher, which means a much larger portion of the money goes directly to the one who wrote it – and frequently the reader is paying less as well, since costs on Amazon et al often drive up the price. We just finished our last convention of the year, and now we’re turning our attention to the holidays. We have several new works coming and new authors joining the stable. It’s very exciting!
What’s new from me? My latest book is Dreadmire, a reimagining of a work I did four years ago that was titled The Dreadmire Chronicles. It’s a fantasy adventure, following four people who are searching for a missing woman in a haunted, dismal swamp. The worldbuilding is based on the ecology of the Louisiana bayous, with weregators and monstrous mosquitoes and undead cannibal elves. Those were fun. Well, they were fun for me; not so much for my heroes! The original work was geared mostly toward fans of the game series, but this work is designed more for a wider audience, so you don’t have to play the game in order to enjoy the story. I’m very excited about it, and delighted it’s finding new life – or unlife, as the case may be.
Next year I hope to release my science fiction adventure, Banshee’s Run, as well as a short story collection titled Moonlight Sonata. Those will be published by New Babel Books, as soon as I finish writing them! Before I can do that, though, I am working on a novella titled Gethsemene that is promised to the backers of my Kickstarter campaign. That should come out next month, and may be available for a short time as an ebook.
Thank you very much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. I’m looking forward to reading some more!
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Learn more about Elizabeth Donald and the Literary Underworld at the following links: