Welcome to Shalanna Collins (Denise Weeks), who shares with us her work, her inspiration, and special thoughts about her process.
By Laurel-Rain Snow
–Tell us about your latest book.
I have two that I’d consider fairly new, both available in trade paperback or on the Amazon Kindle. You can download a sample of each for the Kindle (sample chapters can be viewed on a PC or Mac using the free Kindle app) to see if they’re your sort of novels.
For mystery lovers, MURDER BY THE MARFA LIGHTS is the first book in the Ariadne and Zoe French series. Marfa, Texas, is an artist’s colony town where the film GIANT was made in the fifties, but it’s mostly famous for the Marfa Mystery Lights. Ari French gets a phone call informing her that her (ex-? Or just AWOL?) fiance has died in Marfa and has left her everything. She goes to the West Texas town to find some answers (including why Aaron hadn’t sent for her once he’d found their ideal retreat, as he’d promised when he left almost a year ago) and finds the circumstances of Aaron’s death suspicious. Aaron had developed a new encryption scheme that is claimed to be three times faster than the one commonly used across the ‘net, and it seems that several bidders were on the hook for the rights. Could Aaron have been murdered for the algorithm? It turns out that to ask that question can be very dangerous. . . . It’s $1.99 for the Kindle.
My other mystery series was kicked off by winning the Oak Tree Press 2011 contest with NICE WORK, the first Jacquidon Carroll mystery. It is much lighter-hearted and less dark than the Ari series, even though it does deal with the BDSM community and a group of very angry people. (No explicit sex, though–it’s all played for laughs.) That one is still fairly recent and is now available on the Kindle as well.
If you are game to try some “literary chick lit with a paranormal twist,” the book of my heart is LITTLE RITUALS. Have you ever met someone who believes she’s cursed? The amusing quest on which Daphne Dilbeck embarks when she decides she needs to lift the curse that has ruined her luck and her life will entertain you and make you think about the nature of luck and whether we can control the winds or just trim our sails. The voice is somewhere between chick lit and your favorite blogger, but the subject matter isn’t shoes or shopping, but the coming of age of a nearly thirty-year-old naif who finds her way with a little help from her true friends. Again, $1.99 for the Kindle.
Will you like my books? Not everyone likes every writer. Maybe a little about me is in order. I prefer text to just about every other form of input, including motion pictures, plays, and comic books. (I do have a soft spot for comics!) Also, I like a BOOK book, one that doesn’t shy away from introspection and philosophical thoughts (although they’re not always lofty!) Movies can hit the sweet spot sometimes, but in general I can’t stand the SEQUENTIALness of film and computer games. You can’t skip around. You can’t linger on parts you enjoy and go back to check something to see if your guesses were right and you don’t get to savor great lines. You get a different experience. You can’t interrupt a film the way you can a book and “get back into it” after the trip to the store or on the next bedtime. It doesn’t work that way. Yes, you can back up the TiVo or run the DVD back a few tracks, but it’s tough to find a particular moment, and there’s no way to mark a particularly lovely line. With a film, you need to sit there and watch it sequentially so you’ll be immersed. I can usually get back into a book fairly swiftly.
I like to use my own imagination. I don’t want to be SHOWN everything from the POV of some director. Well, with some stories that’s the beauty of the film. But generally I like to create my own movie from the words.
My books are for readers who are kindred spirits. I prefer a book to a film just about any day. If you’re the same way, I invite you to sample my work!
–I love to savor a book, too, returning to favorite parts. Can you share a little bit about what you’re working on now or what’s coming next?
Coming soon from Muse Harbor Press (hi, Dave!) is APRIL, MAYBE JUNE, the first in a YA fantasy/adventure series. Unlike my book DULCINEA (which is more of a female Harry Potter thing, or like Diana Wynne Jones), this one is a shorter, faster-paced fantasy/adventure about a pair of preteen sisters who get mixed up with a magical grimoire left behind by their wicked cousin, and go on a grand adventure as a result. Train scenes! Magic! Kidnapping! Crazy family! And lots more. Great summer read, beach read, good for middle grade readers and young adults who can identify with the concerns of the girls as well as for grown-ups who have never lost the sense of wonder. If you liked HOW TO BUY A LOVE OF READING or the Millicent Min books with a first-person genius girl narrator, this is your cuppa.
–What is a typical writing day like for you?
I try to sit down early in the day to work on my current masterpiece. Usually, though, I can only get in an hour or so before I need to stop and do the things the family and household needs. Sometimes I get a block of free time during the day, but I’ll confess that I usually read my e-mail and surf the ‘net then; I don’t want to get into the book and then have to leap out to fix some crisis in real life. Later that night, sometimes even as late as nine or ten PM, I will generally get back to the computer and do a little more. I would love to spend the entire day writing, but right now my responsibilities prevent it. It’s best if you spend at least an hour at a time writing so that you can go into the flowstate as described in the book FLOW. When you’re constantly being interrupted, the Muse flees. So you should try to clear an hour on your schedule (or more) in order to serve your purpose. Lock the door and set the cell phone to voicemail.
But in another sense, I’m always working on something. It’s all fodder for the writing mill, and I carry a small notebook around so I can note snatches of dialogue that occur to me or sudden ideas for plot fixing. (Friends no longer get upset when I take notes during our lunches out, although many people roll their eyes.) One of my mottoes is that Talking Heads line: “There’s a party in my mind–and I hope it never stops.”
–When you’re writing, who’s in control, you or the characters?
Hard to say, really–although we must bear in mind that the characters ARE you, or they’re part of you, or you’re channeling them as you channel the Muse, depending on your belief system. All of this stuff comes from the Girls in the Basement, and very little of it is planned consciously in advance, at least in my case.
My characters spring forth (usually) mostly formed and in some sort of intriguing situation, and in the process of writing about them, I learn what I need to know. This is completely at odds with those authors who fill out a complete “character profile and history” sheet before ever beginning to write, but oh well. The times I have done that I’ve ended up not being able to write the story because there was no mystery left–like someone who throws himself at you and tells you all about himself and strips down begging to be liked. That turns people off. You need to maintain a certain air of hidden-ness, let people sense that there are layers beneath these surface layers, a subtext that you may never fully grok. So I note things about my characters as I discover them (in order not to contradict what I’ve said later on), and I generally find that my subconscious mind knows a lot more and has planted whatever little factoid for use later as we come to the turning points of the story.
(But to actually answer your question.) I have a general idea about what’s going to happen, but in some sense the characters are in control and will say or do things that surprise and delight me. These “new” things lead to the next story question and plot development, and so they are acting out the story for me, as if it were a “vivid, continuous dream” that I am co-creating and weaving a tapestry of background visuals and smells and noises for. (The writing teacher John Gardner refers to a novel as a “vivid, continuous dream” that the writer weaves for the reader to step into and willingly co-create, and I love that imagery.)
A word of warning, though. You’ve heard that you shouldn’t act alongside children and animals because they’ll steal every scene? Don’t let minor characters take over the story, even if they are hamming it up and acting really cute. If they need their own books, write those later. Put that part of the scene into your “use later” file and go back to tell the story you originally intended.
–Ah, yes, the feeling that the characters are with us in the process is a familiar one. Who are your favorite authors, the ones you read when you should be doing something else? Why do they appeal to you?
Harper Lee, Connie Willis, Robert Heinlein, Kurt Vonnegut, C. S. Lewis, Ray Bradbury, and Charles Dickens. These authors have distinctive voices and styles, and their books couldn’t have been written by anyone else. The sheer individuality of each voice is wonderful. You go into their worlds and come out changed. Their prose is cadenced and eloquent, but never impenetrable. If you haven’t read Philip K. Dick (whose oeuvre is actually one meta-novel, in my opinion) and Harlan Ellison, you should–even if you think you don’t like science fiction. Two guilty pleasures of mine are Sarah Bird’s _The Boyfriend School_ and Donna Tartt’s _The Secret History_.
I have a stack of comfort reads that I turn to now and then. Most of the authors I enjoy are on the literary side and explore a bit of philosophy while spinning a yarn. When someone has a command of the language and a way with the turn of a phrase as well as the ability to dramatize a story and have us believing that “this is really happening” and “these people are real,” it is a rare pleasure.
–-Promotion is a big—and usually the most hated—part of being a writer. Can you share a little bit about how you promote?
I am the last person to ask about this. I know I am terrible at promotion. It turns me off when someone’s every Facebook post is about their next novel and how wonderful it is, or how their book is free today on the Kindle, or how they just did a great book tour. It makes me feel as if they’re an Amway distributor working the room and I’m just another mark, not a friend to share a life with.
I do have blogs for each aspect of my writing life. I love blogging; I was doing it before it became required for all authors. I have done guest posts on others’ sites as part of blog tours. I also have done book signings and interviews with various media people.
My “official” blog for my Denise Weeks books (including both mystery series):
The blog of NICE WORK’s main characters, Jacquidon and Chantal Carroll:
My personal blog (where you’ll read about all sorts of things)
See links to all my books (Shalanna Collins and Denise Weeks):
–How long have you been writing?
Since I could hold a crayon. I had chicken pox at age six and when I asked for more books, Daddy perched on the foot of my bed and told me that books didn’t drop from the sky fully formed, but were written by mortals. From then on, I resolved to take my stories to the next level and write novels that would live forever on library shelves so they might be discovered by future generations of little girls who love to read.
However, my first attempts at fiction were met with displeasure from my mother. She said my stories (verbal and written) counted as “lying,” so I was frequently spanked and shamed over these efforts. But it didn’t deter me, and soon my teachers were being charmed by my flights of fancy. Of course teachers are far easier to impress and please than New York editors, so my early juvenilia came winging back from the “New Yorker” offices with charming little rejection notes (I suspect from the tone of these notes that my correspondents knew they were dealing with an eight-year-old, and then with a twelve-year-old, and so on–my poems and stories weren’t exactly ARCHY AND MEHITABEL caliber.) For those of you born after 1990, this happened before personal computers, and everything I mailed out was done on my parents’ Royal portable typewriter. I’ll bet that many of today’s writers, if they had to insert the paper, straighten it out, press the carriage return at the end of every line, and retype any page with more than three corrections, would have given up as soon as they ran out of carbon paper! Word processing has truly reshaped the landscape.
–Isn’t it interesting how others and their reactions deeply influence us? Who or what has been the biggest influence in your writing career and why?
Believe it or not, Robert Benchley and James Thurber have been major influences on me. When I was in fifth grade, there was a TV series called “My World and Welcome To It,” based on the life and work of humorist and New Yorker writer James Thurber. Scholastic Books reissued his memoir “My Life and Hard Times” around that time, and once I got hold of the book, I was hooked. When I ran out of Thurber, I went to the library’s humor section next to where his books were shelved and discovered Robert Benchley. Benchley was a man even closer to my heart, and HIM, I could write like. (I have taken second and third place several times in the annual Robert Benchley Society essay contest.) I ended up researching the Algonquin Round Table as a result of reading Benchley, and followed threads to several other authors I don’t think I would have discovered otherwise. Seeing how these people built writing careers gave me the impetus to keep trying and striving.
–What do you consider the single most satisfying aspect of being a writer?
I think most writers would tell you that it’s the complete creative control. You are the Queen of Everything. You invent the people (or channel the archetypes as they are given by the Muse–but you have a lot of leeway as far as how they look and feel) and paint the setting and make up the events of the story, and you are the one whose subconscious inserts the theme and subtext and meaning. It’s kind of a power trip, I suppose. And you are always teaching, as well.
No, seriously. When someone reads your work, he or she should be learning something (or else isn’t it a waste of time?) People love to learn about a profession they’ll never pursue and all the little quirks and details of a setting they’d never visit. (And if your research is incorrect, Katy bar the door.) You are giving them vicarious experiences that enrich their lives. Your story should also illuminate some aspect of the eternal human condition and should have something to say (or at least to point out, or bring up as a question) about how we should live or what life is really all about. Not in a heavy-handed way, of course, but through subtext and through the interpretation of events.
Your character(s) must go through change and end up different people, preferably improved. Remember Bill Murray’s character in “Groundhog Day” who had to learn his lesson before he could go on? And remember all those romantic comedies in which people were paired up with the wrong person and finally ended up with their soulmates? Readers feel a sense of closure, a sense that it could only have ended the way it did, and come away satisfied. That’s what I’m talking about.
This is related to theme. Whether your theme is “love conquers all” or “be true to yourself and don’t try to be who you’re not” or “justice will prevail,” it’s THERE. If your story says nothing . . . readers come away feeling cheated, and the book hits the wall and falls onto the stack of other popcorn reads that seemed fun at the time, but that didn’t deliver and made the reader angry because she just wasted several hours that she can never get back. She went on the rollercoaster ride, but before she could splash down into a satisfying conclusion, it all petered out. This is the worst sin a writer can commit: to do something hollow with no meaning, such that readers come away saying, “So what? Why did we go THROUGH all of that?”
–We love visualizing our guests in their surroundings. Tell us a little bit about where you live.
I’m a native Texan and still live in a northern suburb of Dallas. Texas is a character in its own right. We’re the state that has everything and knows it. West Texas is the landscape of MURDER BY THE MARFA LIGHTS, while LITTLE RITUALS and NICE WORK are set in the fictional village of Renner, Texas, just north of cosmopolitan Dallas. Texas has a Hill Country that’s as bucolic as they come, while east Texas is known as the Piney Woods for good reason. Note that most portrayals of Texas, especially those of Dallas itself, in the media are ridiculously off base. If you want to experience the greatness of the Lone Star State, you’ll just have to come here and see it for yourself. Next best is to read my books and those of Susan Wittig Albert (who writes mysteries set in the San Marcos area) and Earl Staggs (who sets his work around Fort Worth, where the West begins and the East peters out.) Oh, and Terry Southern (_Red Dirt Marijuana_) and the inimitable Larry McMurtry, of course.
–Mark Twain said, “Southerners speak music…” Do you have a favorite Southern saying you can share with our readers?
“Bless your heart.” This does not always mean “oh, you poor little idiot,” but often this is the connotation. “He said if I would sleep with him and *censored* tonight, he’d marry me tomorrow!” “Oh, honey. Bless your heart.”
Related: “That boy ain’t right.” “His elevator don’t go all the way to the top.” “He couldn’t pour pee out of a boot if it had instructions on the heel.”
Sometimes I feel I’ve been “rode hard and put up wet.” (Think of horses and you’ll hear that one click.) Of course, in Texas, the higher the hair, the closer to Heaven.
Right now, I am also thinking of “what goes around, comes around.” I am seeing the circle of karma swallowing up some really bad types, and I keep thinking where they went wrong so I don’t get tempted to go that way.
–Who were your favorite authors as a child? Have they influenced your writing career in any way?
I imprinted on the classics–Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Pooh. I started reading the Bobbsey Twins series before I started school. Mother would bring me a new volume every time she went to the grocery store, about once a week. I also got hold of the Nancy Drew mysteries (before the expurgated editions of the 1970s), the Dana Girls, Encyclopedia Brown, and the Donna Parker series. That’s what got me hooked on mysteries. I adore THE EGYPT GAME by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, everything by E. L. Konigsburg, HARRIET THE SPY, and the Narnia books by C. S. Lewis. Their influence on me should be apparent when you read my work.
These are the people who made me want to write. When I ran out of their books and told my mother that I needed more, she said, “I guess you’ll just have to write more, then.” She was distracted and tells me she doesn’t even remember saying that because she was probably up to her elbows kneading bread dough, but the advice took hold.
I write the books I want to read. It’s the only way I can get them!
Thanks for joining us, Shalanna (Denise), and I am eager to pick up your books.