Welcome to the Author Spotlight, Astrid and congratulations on the release of ‘Fireman’s Cat ’!
Thank you so much, it’s a delight to be here.
You started as a FanFic writer. Can you tell us a bit about the early days?
I wanted more romance in the books I read and the TV shows I watched: I wanted strong female characters, not clichéd damsels in distress. I wanted, but didn’t get, until Star Trek came along. In 1974 I became involved in Trek fandom, and I came out of the closet to reveal that I had been writing since I was aged five. I wrote for my own amusement, until fanfic gave me the opportunity to share my stories with others. I also published hundreds of fanzines over the course of ten years. Because I wanted the freedom to explore characters and scenarios that were entirely my own, with more romance, deeper characterisation, more fun and textured plots, I began to write my own speculative romances. This in turn led me to organise numerous conventions, and co-ordinate several fantasy/SF and writing groups, one of which ran for over 30 years. I remain in contact with the friends I made in that group, one of them is now a ninety year old great-grandmother! She has remained my most loyal fan and strongest critiquer.
What do you see as the benefits for writers doing FanFic? Does it help to grow an audience prior to publishing? (as we have learnt by Fifty Shades.)
Fanfic—stories written by fans for fans. It is a “safe” environment to learn the writing craft. However, fans can be very harsh and it’s unacceptable if any fanfic writer kills off a major character. Fanfic can also give a writer confidence to develop their own voice and style, and learn about publishing, promotion and marketing. In the early days, fanfic was limited to small circulation print editions, but now with the digital world, fanfic is everywhere, and readily accessible. Yes, it is a way for writers and artists to get known. Since the mid twentieth century, many top selling speculative authors started off as fanfic writers. Fanfic always has an important place at SF conventions with program items, awards and other activities. It’s not a small time thing and it’s getting bigger. Boundaries are being pushed, because now FF&P romance writers attend these conventions, where before anyone who wrote (or read) romance and attended a SF/fantasy convention never divulged that to anyone there!
Fanfic can also generate popularity for stories that may not be considered “marketable”. For example, the paranormal genre in the mid nineties was really not considered viable by traditional publishers. Enter TV shows such as Buffy, Angel, Beauty and the Beast (hugely popular with fans!), and books such as Twilight – all these and more created spinoff fanfic.
You’ve led a very interesting life in regards to travelling, events, meeting famous people and getting into the thick of things in regards to your genre. How has this all enriched you as a writer?
I’m not a fence-sitter, so if there’s a group or event to be organised, then I usually go out and do it. I guess that’s where my motto comes from – dare to be different/be passionate. For me, getting into the thick of things, or meeting famous people and travelling gets me out of my comfort zone. That’s important for any author. It builds confidence. In the writing and publishing industry you need to become self-reliant, because so much of what you do is in isolation.
One anecdote I’d like to share – I presented a FF&P worldbuilding workshop at a RWA conference. I noticed an editor sitting in the back row which was nerve-wracking for me! After my presentation she came up to me and handed over her business card and asked me to submit some fantasy romance to her. I did and for years my stories were accepted by her company until the publisher ceased trading. If I hadn’t gone out on a limb and presented this workshop… Authors need to get out of their comfort zone and create their own luck.
You also present classes on writing craft. How important is it for aspiring authors to learn?
I’m largely self-taught, because I started writing when I was 5 and I wrote and wrote – and read a book a day. Aspiring authors can fast track some of their craft learning by attending classes, but what you can’t learn is the elusive style and voice – the “X” factor—that comes with years of trial and error. I think aspiring authors need to read voraciously and widely – in every genre, including literary. Being familiar with only one genre is the worst thing any writer can do. It stifles creativity and individuality. I believe authors (regardless of their publishing credits) need to regularly re-evaluate themselves, their writing and career.
I’d also go so far to say that writers need to experiment with their writing and write in genres they don’t like, or are unfamiliar with. I challenge new writers to do this in my classes with certain fun exercises and often the writer ends up switching genre because she has found her niche, but was too afraid to try it for fear of “failure”, or fear of the unknown. Every author learns and continues to learn until their dying day. If an author believes they know it all, then I think they are delusional. The best advice? Read, read, read and write, write, write. Attend classes presented by successful authors, attend RWA conferences, but always be selective of what you attend—information over-load can occur, as well as confusion. For example, one author says to do it this way, the next class says to do it another way—which expert is right? They both are, but how is the aspiring author to decide? The only way, I think, is to experiment for yourself – write constantly and analyse and critique your work. Never be happy with what you write – aim to be brilliant and push those boundaries! Become passionate about your writing. Without passion—and knowing what makes you passionate—an author can lack motivation when the going gets tough. I found my passion and it took me to New York last year.
You are a passionate conservationist and animal lover. Can you tell us a bit about that please?
LOL. There’s that word—passionate—again.
I grew up in the sixties, just when people were becoming aware of “spaceship” earth’s finite resources – the book by Rachel Carson, Silent Spring summed up the era’s fledgling awareness. I designed my house and property using Permaculture principles (where possible). It can be daunting to try and fix the world, so the permaculture philosophy is simple: “Think Global, but Act Local” – do what you can do – small steps are better than no steps. I believe that my awareness grew from the Star Trek philosophy: this TV show painted a bright future for humankind, rather than the usual bleak scenario. I use my philosophy in many of my books, particularly the shapeshifter stories – humans who change to animal can advocate for animals and the environment from a unique perspective.
I rescue animals, and as a result I’ve been bitten to the bone, have been on a midnight stakeout to trap an abandoned cat, captured a wild goat… I wrote a blog about this non-writing activity. The link will be at the end of this interview.
You write M-M romance, Sensual romance, Spec-Rom and non-fiction. Which is your favourite?
I have no favourite, because these days I think the blurring of the genres allows me to write with elements of all my favourites in the one story. However, I love strong characters, intricate plots, sometimes a subtle “message”, but all with an intense love interest that defies the odds, or defies convention. Whatever story I am writing is my “favourite”—I am passionate about what I do.
What are the ingredients of a successful M-M romance? How is it different from F-M romance?
Er, (blushing!) I think the only difference is the mechanics of the sex. M-M and F-M characters are all looking for their perfect mate, for love and a HEA. You need to have sexual tension, snappy dialogue, pace, action, immediacy and sensuality – all the ingredients of the successful M-F romance.
The mechanics of writing a M-M can be challenging. For example, in an all-male scene, the pronouns of “he” and “his” can be confusing. Two men in the scene—who is “he”? It takes a little more time to make sure that the reader knows who “he” is and what’s happening. To overcome this, I use endearments, nick-names, and distinctive dialogue styles to indicate the character, plus the use of proper names is more frequent in M-M, to avoid that reader confusion. It is also very important to retain POV purity, so that readers know whose head they are in while reading a scene. I also find that my male characters have more “earthy” relationships and language. Male characters engage differently with each other: there is more strength and physical stuff happening in the stories—I don’t mean sex, I mean men are more aggressive in their physical relationships than the more gentle M-F relationship, where the hero has to be aware of his strength, hold it in check when he is with the heroine—at least that’s what I think.
When writing SF or Fantasy, what comes first – character, scenario or setting? How is this genre different from romances that take place in the world as we know it?
I write romantic fiction, so for me, the starting point is always with the character. I think every work of fiction starts with a character, but the expectations of each genre reflect the style, content and focus of the story. Speculative fiction will create the scene/world and give it equal importance with the character, whereas most romantic fiction will focus on emotions and characters with the setting a mere backdrop. Paranormal and dark urban fantasy and steampunk romances tend to focus on the setting more than contemporary romances.
My stories all begin with a character in a moment of change—the classic “call to adventure” that Joseph Campbell wrote about in his book Hero with a thousand faces. All fiction has this call. In my futuristic romance, Crystal Dreams, I saw the hero striding through a mist dressed in a kilt. I knew his name, I knew he was “Caledonian” and the story evolved from that hero image.
For me, characters must be true to their nature. A vampire, therefore, isn’t just a human with fangs, he (or she) must have a different world view to humans, which, logically, will bring them into conflict with non-vamp characters. In my Monsters inK series, you will find: humans, shapeshifters, vampires and wizards. They all have different perspectives, and here I add a little of my conservation and animal rights philosophies into the mix, because these non humans will have some pertinent observations to make about the nature of humanity, prejudice, love and what it means to be “human” (I can’t escape my Star Trek roots!)
When you are world building, what is your process in relation to designing clothes, modes of transport, scenery?
Research. Imagination. Passion. Daring to be different. Asking the question… “what if…?”
The greatest tool in any author’s repertoire is that simple question—what if…? And when answering that what if question I never self-censor. Someone might tell me “you can’t do that!” and I will ask “why not?” For example, I was told that “no one” wants to read a story set in Australia with magic and wizards, just have shapeshifters and normal guys. I wrote what I believed in, pushed some boundaries. My readers and reviewers of my Monsters stories have proved that advice “wrong”.
Regardless of genre, every author writer creates a “world” – a believable framework on which to tell their story. Whether it’s the boardroom, the kitchen, a hospital, or a dank castle, an author researches that setting to make sure they have it right, so that the readers are involved in the reality, in the scene—it is authentic and immediate. You use one or more of the five senses to bring the scene to life (to give it immediacy) and you add description—if possible told from the POV of a character who is not familiar with that setting. Their observations will bring a freshness to even the most mundane scene. I use the five senses and I “see” the scene as I write it—I am literally in that scene, experiencing it with the characters. This is the immediacy that every author needs to bring to their scene and their stories, regardless of setting.
As I said, research is the key. The hero of one of my vampire romance drives a red Ferrari (red, because everyone knows that a red car goes faster!). I had no experience of a Ferrari, so how could I write with any authenticity? I had to know, because my heroine is a passenger in the Ferrari. So, I headed off to the Ferrari dealership, spoke to the salesman and I was allowed to sit in the car and make notes. In one of my fantasy romances, my heroine had to wear a suit of armour. She’s never worn one before, how would it feel? How could I convey this to the reader? I visited a medieval re-enactment society and donned chain mail, helmet and armour. For a one paragraph description, it took me a day of research. But the scene came alive because I went that extra mile to get that authenticity.
Absolutely, worldbuilding can be a mammoth task, but it’s fun and in the end your creation will be unique: your story and characters will also be unique. I wrote an article for RWA’s paranormal romance group on research. The link is at the end of this interview.
Congratulations again on the release of ‘ Fireman’s Cat’. Could you please share a brief excerpt with us?
Happy to do so, but the content of the story is sizzling with sexual tension, so it’s a little difficult to find something that would be acceptable… a lengthy excerpt is available at my publisher’s website.
This scene is near the end of the story: to explain the scene: Brendan is a fireman, and Aeric (“Ric”) is his mate – a cat shapeshifter whose magic is fire. This scene is set in Brendan’s home town, and it’s Christmas Eve. Brendan has the duty to switch on the lights of the tree in the town’s main street, but Ric decides to liven up the night…
“Bren, isn’t that your moggy up there?” Jane demanded at his side.
“Look,” she said pointing.
Dozens of eyes stared upward.
John nodded. “Yeah, I see him. At the top there, near the star.”
“He’s stuck,” Jane said.
Tom, now minus his Santa outfit, joined Brendan and Jane. “Yeah, he looks stuck to me. How did he get up there in the first place?”
“He likes to climb and he’s not stuck. He’s just waiting to be rescued by a fireman.” Brendan shot an irritated glance at the cat who stepped forward and stared down. He yowled pathetically. Oh give it a rest, Ric!
“He needs to be rescued. Go to it, fireman.” Tom laughed. “Full gear, Mr. Tierney, including harness.”
Muttering beneath his breath, imagining all manner of payback on Ric for pulling such a stunt, Brendan retuned from the temporary fire headquarters in the CWA Hall, dressed in full bunker gear, his safety harness jangling as he walked.
Wolf whistles followed him all the way to the fire engine’s ladder.
“I so loooove a man in uniform!” Garry shouted, adding another piercing whistle to the cacophony. People laughed. Bren’s ears burned in mortification.
Tom had moved the truck closer to the tree, the ladder extended to the top branch. Bren donned his helmet and clipped the harness to the rung. He slowly scaled the ladder, to the crowd chanting: ‘Brendan, Brendan, Brendan, go boy go’.
Reaching the top, he went to scruff the cat. Ric clawed at his glove.
“You friggin’ scratch me, and I’ll bite you.”
If I faint in my fireman’s arms, will you give me the kiss of life?
“You shimmy up this tree again, and I’ll give you the kiss of death.”
Now you’re talkin’, dude.
“You bloody mangy cat!” Bren stared. He’d forgotten that his mate could mind-send to him.
I ain’t mangy, sweetheart—my fur’s ruffled because of all that talk about the kiss of death.
Astrid is kindly giving away one digital copy (PDF) of ‘Fireman’s Cat’ to one lucky reader, with two runners up receiving a special limited edition Fireman’s Cat Calendar!
This competition is open worldwide and will be drawn on Wednesday 26th of February 2014.