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Interview with Seanan McGuire

I had the recent fortune to sit down with Seanan McGuire, one of urban fantasies finest wordsmiths, at Borderlands Cafe here in San Francisco, to discuss life as a new writer in the Digital Age and what she has planned for the future.

Seanan McGuire is the author of the October Daye series (Rosemary & Rue, A Local Habitation, An Artificial Night and Late Eclipses), an urban fantasy about the world of Faerie in modern day San Francisco. The latest in the series, Late Eclipses, made the Extended New York Times Bestseller List at #33 the week after it was released.

Late Eclipses (cover)FEED (cover)DEADLINE (cover)

Seanan has also published a science-fiction plague (re: zombies) thriller under the pen name Mira Grant, entitled FEED. Edge of Propinquity has published her series of short stories, Sparrow Hill Road, which are available for free at their website. Along with her writing, Seanan is also a filker (sci-fi/fantasy folk music) and cartoonist. Please join me for a candid and entertaining discussion with Seanan McGuire.

Seanan, you got your start as a fan-fiction writer. Are there any hazards associated with writing fan-fiction? What are the benefits?

One of the problems in fan-fiction is the same problem that we’re starting to see in some areas of self-publishing. Because there is no setup cost, you don’t have to pay for the paper, all you have to do is write it, post it and you’re done; you don’t even have internal quality control a lot of the time.

You get some incredible stuff coming out of fan-fic and the shortcuts it allows new writers to use are invaluable for learning how to do what you’re doing. You don’t have to create a character; you don’t have to create a setting. The audience already knows who they are. It’s like jumping into book three of a seven book series. You can learn how to do dialogue, how to make a scene, how to make it work.

I think it can be a great way for a new writer to learn the craft without having to learn everything right away, because world building is hard.

It is. And especially in the modern internet age. I think the feedback you get from writing fan-fic is such an essential thing to learn to deal with before you start getting reviews online, because you will get people who will fawn all over you, telling you that you are the best thing ever and “Oh my god, why aren’t you outselling Stephanie Meyer and Stephen King combined? Can I have your baby?” Then you will get people that think you are the worst shit that has been shat out by the things that shit eats, and there is no middle ground. You learn how to put up with both of those things without overloading.

One of the things I keep hearing as a new writer looking to be published, is that you have to build your platform a year in advance; you have to participate in social media, you have to blog; you have to build this fan base before anyone will even consider your work. But I think beyond that, you see new authors like yourself who have thousands of followers on Twitter and this immensely rabid fan base. How do you feel that has affected your writing?

First of all, I kind of cheated because I came into writing, became a professional author, after writing fan-fic for several years and a fairly well-known filker, which means I had albums out and people following me from those communities. So I wasn’t doing the “I’m coming out in a year, let me build a platform,” because I already had a web persona in place. Beyond that, it is very important as a new writer to be active on the internet, to be accessible, to talk to people, to not be a dick. It sounds like you’re being funny, but no one is Harlan Ellison anymore. Not even Harlan could do Harlan Ellison anymore, not on the internet now. The biggest danger I’ve seen is when people set up their social media sites (Twitter, Facebook) and they link it all together, and everything is talking to everything else and then all they do is shamelessly self-promote. And you can’t do that. Nobody wants to follow you just to be advertised to.

Right, and there is the media aspect of it but there is also the social aspect. You are interacting with other people. I think one of the best things Twitter has done is allow people to follow their favorite authors.

It lets people see what they do day-to-day and talk to them about what’s going on. James Gunn, who is my favorite zombie movie director, answered one of my tweets. I was ecstatic; I watch his feed all the time. We aren’t friends, we don’t regularly interact, but one response to me and I’ll follow him for another six months.

I think the biggest thing on social media is that you do have to be there to some degree, but you have to use it socially. And that does lead to some pitfalls. Don’t ever respond to reviews. Ever.

You may think that you’re being social, because it’s in the context of social media, but don’t respond to reviews. If somebody says, “Hey @Person, I reviewed your book.” your response should be “Thank you” and to leave it alone. Your response should not be “Your review is a piece of crap.” If somebody posts a review of your book, don’t think that going to your blog and posting a review of their review, you’re being clever. Because you’re really not. You’re only setting yourself up to become the next Authors Gone Wild extravaganza.

How do you feel about the delineation of the genre? It seems like some of the genre subdivisions only exist to aid marketing departments.

It is interestingly like how they were dividing category romances for years, which I find fascinating because the stereotypical audience for fantasy is male. For years, category romance was broken into historical, modern, fantasy, adventure, even firefighter. And we’re starting to get more of that in the genre subdivisions for science fiction and fantasy which I find frustrating because some people are getting shoehorned and not reading outside their subdivision.

Then you get people making assumptions about what subgenre a specific book falls under, and then judging things strictly by that subgenre. So then, I get people picking up Rosemary & Rue and assuming that a book with a female on the cover has to be paranormal romance rather than urban fantasy. As a paranormal romance, the October Daye books are pretty lousy. Everybody keeps their pants on. And people, when they get into that wedge of ‘I only read X,’ start judging based on that and they limit themselves.

One of the things I’ve seen on Fantasy-Faction cropping up in various threads is the perception that paranormal romance and urban fantasy are the same thing. Writers like Jim Butcher, Kim Harrison, Kelley Armstrong, and yourself standing toe-to-toe with writers like Laurell K. Hamilton.

Well, it depends on whose story structure you wandered in with. Did you pick up your structure from crime fiction or standard fantasy, or did you pick up your story structure from romance? It is going to determine your focus and your end-thrust, not to make a bad pun, and it’s going to determine the makeup of your plot-to-porn pie chart. And it is a sliding spectrum.

I find the lack of smut in your work refreshing. In fact, there is only a mild bit of romance littered throughout the books. Was that intentional?

My mother reads these books. I like that my mother can read these books and not look at me funny. But aside from that, one of the issues I have with certain trends in urban fantasy is that 80 percent of the books are written from the first-person perspective and a lot of these characters just wouldn’t let you into their bedrooms. Like Toby is not going to let me follow her into her room and transcribe her having sex. That’s just not gonna happen. It always oddly feels like fan service in most cases. In some cases, it works though. Gini Koch’s Touched By An Alien series is full of smokin’ hot sex, and it works. I can totally picture her characters sitting down in a coffee shop saying “You will never believe…”

On to the Toby questions. Do you do a lot of bread-crumbing in your novels?

I’m under contract with DAW for seven books, and in those seven books, I’m not paying off everything because I very much hope we can continue. I have been, from the first page of the first book, putting certain things down so that later, when you get them in context, you will know what’s going on. It is very important to me that they be there, or else people will come after me with bricks.

October Daye is a changeling (half-fae) and a good portion of the sympathetic characters in the books are changelings. You write a lot about the social and political structure of faerie and where changelings fit in as necessary but second-class citizens. Did you write all this intentionally with social conscience?

I did. I wanted to have a situation where there were people who were trying to construct some sort of a society when they couldn’t go to mortal or fae society fully. I grew up on the liminal spaces, and I liked the idea of sticking a lot of my sympathetic characters into the liminal spaces. Even ones that aren’t changelings fall into that space. We have the Court of Cats, and that exists between the standard political divides of faerie. We have the selkies, who are caught between the land and the undersea; they’re not in a very good position there. And we have Sylvester Torquill, who is just weird.

I like Sylvester.

I like Sylvester too, but he’s a bit of a kook.

I imagine, but it’s faerie so I also sort of expect it. And then there’s Tybalt.

I love Tybalt.

And I can tell, from reading your other interviews, even just from the way he’s written that he’s one of your favorite characters. What was your inspiration?

I honestly have no idea, he just sort of showed up.

Which is a nice lead-in to my next question. Has the sudden appearance of a character wrecked the plan for a novel?

Oh god yes. For a while, I used to joke that I couldn’t ever get through a book without having a new character that wasn’t in the outline show up. Rosemary & Rue was in and of itself accidental. It was the only book I’ve written that I went into with no plan at all. I had written a short story about this character named Toby. It was fourteen pages long, I was done, that was it. There was no book here. A couple of my friends thought it was fun to follow me around saying “Toby wants a novel, Toby wants a novel.” just to be annoying.

So I was working a temp job on Christmas Eve. I was bored and they left me in a room with a typewriter. I started writing what is now Chapter 9 (of Rosemary & Rue) and got out eleven pages. They were completely out of context, I had no idea what was going on and I realized that Toby did in fact want a novel. So I went back and started writing what would turn into October Daye’s first novel. So most of the cast just showed up with no warning.

Acacia, from the third book (An Artificial Night) showed up, wasn’t in the outline and completely changed everything. Over in the Mira Grant books, there is a character named Richard Cousins, who wasn’t in the outline and I couldn’t figure out why he was there. It turned out that without him, the book would have ended very differently and I wouldn’t have been able to write the sequel.

I have one surprise character show up in every book. My biggest success with surprise characters was Danny, the bridge troll cab driver (from the October Daye series).

He seemed like a throwaway character in the first book.

He wasn’t in the first book. When we initially submitted and sold the first book, Danny wasn’t in it at all. My editor asked me to have a little more screen-time for Devin, a character that only appears in the first book, and she wanted to see a bit more of him. So I needed to set up a scene where Devin would come and see Toby at her apartment. The only way I could do that without breaking the mortal/fae dividing line that I try to keep was to have a fae cab driver take Toby home, and that turned out to be Danny. He has now been in every book, and has grown increasingly more important.

The scene at the beginning of An Artificial Night with Danny, Toby, and the barghests was one of my favorite opening moments in any book.

And he still has the barghests. I have a novella in an upcoming Charlaine Harris and Tony Kellerman anthology where the only characters in it are Toby, Danny, May and Quentin. And the barghests and some giant spiders.

Has Toby ever decidedly said ‘No, I’m not going to do that’ and thrown a wrench in your plans?

Yes. Now I’m not crazy. I don’t believe my characters talk to me. However, in order to write them properly I have to set them up as coherently as possible, then let them go and see where they wind up. Toby is not assured of her own indestructibility, she’s just really fond of punching her way through things. So there have been a few times where I wanted to set things up to be nice and subtle and have them go a certain way, and it was like Harrison Ford filming Indiana Jones. They say, “Okay, we’re going to have a swordfight now.” And Harrison says, “I have a gun.”

Toby seems fond of VW Beetles, and wrecking them. Did that come from real life or is that a Toby trait?

That is purely a Toby trait. I don’t drive at all, so I have to have actual drivers check all of those action sequences. And Toby seems to be going through a car a book. I was a little disappointed that she didn’t kill a car in the fourth book. I had intended it, but then there were revisions and Danny wound up driving instead.

Would you ever want to meet Toby or any of your other characters in real life?

Oh God no! Toby would cut me to pieces! People ask me this question and my usual response is “Whichever one is in a coma.” I would be happy to meet Rose Marshall from the Sparrow Hill Road stories, because as long as I didn’t give her a coat, she couldn’t hurt me. She’s a ghost. I’d just stand there and wave.

Are the Sparrow Hill Road stories ever going to make their way into print?

I’m working on smoothing them out into a more linear narrative right now, and I’m writing the 13th story now. I’m adding in some framing stuff about ghost stories and American folklore to tie it all together, and then hopefully we’ll be able to have a print edition. That would make me very happy.

I understand that you were a folklore major at UC Berkely and I think that is excellent. I also want to commend you for putting that degree to use.

I actually started as a dual-major between folklore and herpetology, which is the ‘fantasy author degree’ package. Fairy tales plus snakes equal dragons. But I dropped the herpetology major after being bit a couple times too many.

Your next series is called InCryptid. Will this tie back into the folklore angle?

InCryptid is the story of a family of cryptozoologists, they study creatures whose existence has yet to be proved by science. For a long time, they belonged to this globe-spanning organization called the Covenant of St. George. Their mission statement was “If it wasn’t on Noah’s Ark, kill it.”

The great-great grandfather of the current batch of characters figured out that maybe these monsters were doing something, ecologically speaking. If you kill a unicorn, everybody in the village dies of cholera. If you kill a siren that sinks a ship every generation, the frog demons that the siren was killing in the mean time now come out every low tide and kill a village every week. So he went to the Covenant and said, “We have to reconsider our plan.” The Covenant’s response was, “Get out, heathen!”

So now it is several generations later and the family is trying to protect the cryptids and humans from each other.

Sort of like Greenpeace for uglies?

More like Steve Irwin actually.

So what is the most difficult cryptid to die from?

That would probably be the mice. The family has paper records, they write field guides and exchange notes with other underground cryptozoologists, but they have to stay in hiding because the Covenant of St. George wants them all to die. So they have to maintain a consistent record somehow, and that is where the mice come in. Tiny, talking pantheistic demon mice.

Sort of like the pan-dimensional overlords from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?

Not quite. They’re a little less advanced than that. Aeslin mice tend towards religious mania and every colony will adopt something as its divinity. This colony as adopted this family of cryptozoologists as the local divinity. Aeslin mice have perfect oral recall, so they can recite the entire family history. They just do it in the form of catechism and religious metaphor.

Don’t tell me anymore, I’m looking forward to reading it.

Oh I love the mice. And I’ll be dealing with them for the rest of my life. The mice are why people shout ‘Cheese and Cake’ on my Twitter feed.

You talk about Mira and Seanan being separate aspects of the writer’s brain. What do you think would happen if Toby and Georgia met each other in a dark alley?

In a dark alley? They would look at each other blankly for a little while, then they would go out for coffee. They’d probably sit in the back of the room and revel in the fact that nobody was trying to kill them. Toby and George would have a lot to bond on, and then I would be in trouble.

You have all these projects going on, between the October Daye stuff, Newsflesh, Sparrow Hill, and InCryptid. And you filk and you cartoon, plus the social media. You also work full time?

Yep. I have a 40-hour a week day job.

Do you feel as if you stop or slow down, you’ll lose your inertia?

No. I periodically hit a wall and stop for 16 hours, and then I wake up and start running again. This is the speed I’ve always operated at. I’m a little more focused now, and more intent on where I’m going, which is sometimes weird for me. I haven’t started a new series in 6 months and that’s freaking me out a little. I don’t think in single books, I think in volumes.

That seems to be the trend that the market is taking, but also the need of the story right?

It is. I sometimes I envy people who can sit down and write 110,000 words and say, “Okay, I’m done. Time to move on to the next story. What about you, Seanan?” “I’ve written 780,000 in the current story, and I’m moving onto volume nine. Look, a bunny!”

Do you take things one step at a time, or are you always thinking about the over-arching plan?

I know that I’m excited when I start thinking about the next book in a series. When I find myself blocking out scenes from the next book in my head, that’s when I know I’ve really walked into excitement on what I’m doing. I usually will write a book thinking about that story, and then rewrite it thinking about the whole series. I tell people that if I get to take Toby to book eight, I’m going to need books nine and ten to mop up the mess that I made, because book eight is where everything changes. Book eight has been set up since book one. If the pieces were not in place throughout books 1 – 7, I would get lynched.

I look forward to the continuation of the series. Do you have a different process for the different books? Say writing as Seanan versus writing as Mira?

I really just sit down and write. I try to make sure that everyone has a very distinct voice, and if I feel that someone is beginning to slip into someone else, I will stop that project and move on to the one I clearly want to work on. For the most part though, Toby sounds like herself, same with Georgia and Verity and they don’t bleed over much.

You grew up just outside San Francisco, you still live in the area and you work in the city itself. When you’re going through San Francisco, do you see some place that just stands out as needing to be the location for a scene?

I do. There are a lot of places that get worked in after I’ve encountered them. Borderlands Cafe is actually showing up in book seven. After I discovered the store, I asked Allen Beats, the owner, if I could borrow it. Toby’s house is a place I discovered wandering around San Francisco. I actually grew up in Concord, CA and I’m more familiar with the neighborhoods out there, so I’m more likely to try and work those places in.

In the second book, A Local Habitation, you sort of delve into the realm of cyberpunk in terms of faerie’s interaction with modern technology. Was that just for the one story, or are you planning on bringing more of those ideas into later books?

A little bit of both. April is still around and there will be repercussions from the actions in the book.

Well, Seanan, that about wraps up my questions for you. Thank you for your time.

You’re very welcome!

If you want to find out more about Seanan McGuire, hear some of her music and see what else she has to say, please check out her website http://www.seananmcguire.com.

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Fantasy-Faction feels the need to add an additional thank you to both Seanan and staff member/forum moderator Matthew Maenpaa for their lengthy, charismatic interview. That simply put is a priceless addition to the Fantasy-Faction archives! Note: All images used are copyright http://www.seananmcguire.com.

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5 Comments

  1. Avatar Autumn2May says:

    Awesome interview! Just as good on the second read. 🙂 Good job! 🙂

  2. Matt,
    Thanks!!! Brilliant! This has to be my favorite Seanan interview yet! I like the directions that you took it. It would be nice to see what you have to ask about Filk.

  3. Avatar nilling says:

    Fab interview Matt!

  4. Avatar Elfy says:

    Great interview, I’ve read it before, but always nice to hear more about Seanan and her creations. Dying to meet the Aelsin Mice. Cheese and cake!

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