Laura Lam Interview
We are excited to once again have the talented author Laura Lam with us today. Her most recent novel, False Hearts, was released this June and the conclusion to her Micah Grey series, Masquerade, is due out in January 2017.
In the years since Pantomime and Shadowplay, the first two books in the Micah Grey series, what have you been up to? Raising a fluffy cat army? Petitioning for a Black Widow movie? Caught in infinite looping gif wars on Twitter? Or has it mostly been the writing now that you’ve signed with Tor and taken that leap into “full time writer” territory?
All of the above! Well, I’ve definitely been cuddling my two cats a lot more since I’m home all day, and I’m always up for yelling about how we need more superhero movies and female-led franchises. I do love a good gif war. But yes, on the whole, I’m able to focus a lot more time on my writing now that it’s not stolen from evenings, weekends, and lunch breaks. I’m able to have a better work/life balance, which is also good for creativity. I was very close to burnout in 2014.
False Hearts is a huge departure from the Micah Grey trilogy. Was this an organic product of writing, or did you want to write something with this theme/setting/aesthetic? If so, what’s so appealing about futuristic Earth-bound sci-fi?
It was a very conscious decision to change and write something completely different. Micah Grey’s fate was completely up in the air, and I tried to write an Earth-bound time-travel fantasy but it just wasn’t clicking. When I had the idea for False Hearts, which started with the twins, I knew it’d work really well in a near future setting and as a slicker thriller.
One advantage of Earth-bound sci-fi is you don’t have to make up absolutely everything, like you do in a secondary world, and you don’t have to explain the mechanics of the world in as much detail. It was nice to stretch my writing muscles in different ways, and I feel I learned a lot writing False Hearts.
What kind of research went into False Hearts? What was the most difficult part in regards to a) finding the info and b) knowing how to apply what you found? Did any of the results change or shift the writing/editing of False Hearts in any way? What were the most interesting results of your research? Anything that surprised or shocked you?
I’m someone who would rather research too much than too little. Topics I looked into include: identical twins, conjoined twins, futuristic architecture, medical advancements, cults, underground mobs, San Francisco geography and landmarks, neuroscience, how drugs affect the brain, and how memories and dreams are stored within the brain. There’s probably more as well, but I’ve forgotten. Most of my research was done via the internet or nonfiction books. Plenty of research led me down tangents or shifted my focus, though it’s hard to pinpoint how exactly.
I was able to fly back home to San Francisco just after I finished the first draft of the book. It was fun when I told my mom I wanted to go to the Xanadu Gallery in SF.
“Why, honey, do they have something interesting on?” she asked.
“Not particularly,” I replied. “But it’s where I’ve set a scene in False Hearts and I have to imagine it riddled with bullets.”
My mom: “OK!”
So we went and it was useful because the building was smaller than I imagined, so I had to think about that, and I wandered around the rooms looking at the art and keeping an eye out for where a character could hide for cover and shoot bad guys.
Were you nervous about writing something so different from Micah and the fantasy circus/stage setting of that world, or was it mostly the excitement of a new project? Was it easy to slip into the different voices and aesthetics?
I was terrified. It seemed so completely outside my skillset at first that for the whole time of drafting it, I called it Bonkers Book. I thought it was maybe too out there and wouldn’t sell, but evidently it’s actually commercial, so thank goodness! I’d just come out of a rough patch in my writing career, and False Hearts ended up being my lifeline book. I had a lot of fun writing it, even if I was terrified, and it was the fastest I’ve ever drafted a book. I had fun and realised that no matter what setbacks I face, I’m going to keep doing this whole novel-writing thing.
What’s your favourite piece of tech that exists in the would-be perfection of this new San Francisco?
Probably the ability to brainload large amounts of information and retain it well. I have a poor memory for details like character names and such, so it’d be nice to be able to remember things better. The aging slowly and not having to worry about dying of cancer would also be nice.
Whose narrative was the easiest for you to slip into?
Taema is very much like me—our internal voices are pretty similar and she reacts to things how I would. The main difference is she’s an engineer and I have absolutely zero skill with numbers. Tila is much brasher than me and also angrier. Her chapters are diary entries, so it’s a more off-the-cuff style that was really fun to write. I found both narratives easy to slip into but in different ways. If I was stuck on one storyline, I’d switch to the other sister.
Did you plan out the story from the beginning, or did it plot its own course as you wrote it?
Sort of both? The process of writing this book was weird, because it was a bit more unfocused than how I usually write. I wrote the first chapter (what is now the prologue) and then the first bit from Tila’s POV (chapter 3) to get an idea for their voices. I then planned out maybe six or seven chapters, with some verrry vague notes after that. I wrote those first few chapters, then planned out another chunk and eventually figured out how everything would fit together. The first draft was very short, about 60% of the final version, so subsequent drafts were fleshing everything out and making it cohesive.
If you could download information to your brain only once, what topic(s) would you cram into the download session? Why these things?
Maybe a lot of scientific and medical information, as it’s something that can be hard for me to understand or retain yet it’d be very useful for future thrillers!
How easy was it to find good, information to help with steering clear of clichés and stereotypes, regarding topics such as sex work and cults and such? What kind of advice would you give aspiring writers when researching similar topics that require informed research?
The internet is a pretty amazing place. Google is very often your friend, which was how I found a lot of information on cults or suggestions of fiction or documentaries to watch. I also ended up interviewing a few sex workers via Tumblr, which was very helpful to make sure Tila was well-rounded. Sex work isn’t demonised in my future—it’s perfectly legal and protected.
Aspiring writers these days can do their homework a lot easier. My advice is to be thorough and systematic, and also don’t be too proud to admit when you didn’t manage to get something quite right the first time. Learn and don’t make the same mistake again.
What was the experience of self-publishing the Vestigial Tales like? What did you learn from it? In what ways did you prefer it (or not) to traditional publishing? Would you do it again?
It was an interesting project. I did it partly to help give me something to do while I got False Hearts ready to go on submission and to keep interest in Micah Grey alive. It was a great experience to write some prequels from secondary character viewpoints like Drystan and Cyan.
Self-publishing is nice because you control every aspect of the project. The downside is that you also have to control every aspect of the project. I was also on a tight budget, but luckily I had a good team of beta readers to help with editing and my childhood friend, Dianna Walla, did my beautiful cover illustrations.
I love having real-time access to sales, but since short stories and novellas are a smaller corner of the market, sales have never been super high. I made a small profit and I still make enough each month to cover maybe 5-8 lattes, so that’s nice. I might end up doing more down the line, but it depends on time. I might be releasing another Vestigial Tale as a pre-order incentive for Masquerade, so stay tuned.
Taema is bisexual and she discloses this very casually and naturally—how important to you was it to have that in black and white, instead of being a part of her character that was a fact and might have been mentioned in interviews etc., but never disclosed on the page? Was there a level of “I’m going to put this here”, or was it not even a conscious thing you were aware of?
It seems to be this strange taboo to call characters bisexual, and I don’t understand it. If I had a quarter for every time I came across a character who says, “I don’t like labels,” I’d have a lot of quarters. And, of course, some people don’t like labels and that’s fine, but in media we should have a mixture, and at the moment we don’t really. The few bi characters we get often fall into tropes.
In the Micah Grey series, because it’s quasi-historical secondary world fantasy, they don’t have the same array of terms in that world, so once I was in a near future setting, I very deliberately had Taema say “I’m bi.” There’s power in naming something, and I can’t have people read her as not bi by her saying she is and disclosing she’s dated men and women in the past, even if her current love interest is male. There are a lot of bi women out there dating men. Like me.
Was False Hearts first envisaged as a standalone book or part of a trilogy/series?
I wrote it as a standalone book. When it came time to pitch a second book, I came up with an idea of another standalone also set in Pacifica. I have ideas for a few more Pacifica books, so hopefully they’ll happen too. After having a trilogy be cancelled on me (even if it was eventually finished), I am burned out on trilogies for a while. Standalones in the same world are the best of both worlds. You can still develop the setting more in each volume, but you don’t have to arc the characters over several books.
After Masquerade is finished, are you done with YA fantasy, or are there more ideas still waiting to be written? Do you think, after enjoying writing False Hearts so much, you’ll continue to switch genres and write what you’re feeling at the time?
I don’t know. I definitely have more fantasy ideas, but I’m not sure if they’re YA or adult yet. I don’t think I’ll write only near-future thrillers for the rest of my career for sure. I’m 27 and plan to be writing for a long time. I might not even only write speculative fiction—I have an idea for a family saga spreading three generations that has zero magic or sci-fi elements (at least right now). I like to mix things up, and I often enjoy reading authors who bounce between genres, like Iain (M.) Banks and Margaret Atwood.
If the events of False Hearts hadn’t happened when they did, where would Taema and Tila be now? What would their lives be like without this story?
They’d be dead at sixteen, so it wouldn’t be a great life for them, really!
What would their social media feeds look like and would they be very different from one another?
Taema’s would share a lot of science information and cooking tips, whereas Tila would have lots of arty stuff or photos from nights out on the town. There’d also be a lot of photos of them travelling together.
How might their lives and subsequent story have been different had they not been born into the cult? Could False Hearts still have ended up as the same or similar story?
I don’t think it would have worked without the cult. They would have been separated much sooner, and part of the thing that was interesting about writing False Hearts is that they were outsiders to San Francisco society, too, so things look different to them as opposed to those who were raised there. And the plot would have had to change very significantly. Plus, cults are really interesting.
In a perfect casting for a movie of False Hearts, who would play Taema and Tila?
Is there a tentative release date for Shattered Minds (book two in the False Hearts series)? Can we hope for 2017?
At the moment, June 2017!