Thursday, July 25, 2013

Susan Dorsey, local history, books, hairdressers and ghosts

Susan Dorsey
Author, Local Historian
drinks Martinis
Thriller writer Susan Dorsey drops by the Blog Mansion for a tour of some local history and book talk.

Johnny: Over there is where a group of survivalist separatists holed up in a bunker demanding their new nation of “Burtberg” be recognized.

Susan: What happened?

J: They came out after six months. No one had noticed they were gone. They sold their arsenal a the Crossroads of the West Gun Show and blew the whole wad and hookers and cocaine over a weekend.

S: Colorful.

J: There’s a story in there somewhere. Is that where ideas for your stories? Local history?

S: I do get a lot of my story ideas from local history.  I’ve been fortunate enough to have lived in East Tennessee all my life.  We have a ton of cool stuff that went on around here, most of which I never learned in school.  I had to find out on my own that Hernando De Soto visited an island where I often take my kids to the park.  I had to read and discover that Confederate General Longstreet chased Union General Burnside up the road that runs behind my house one hundred and fifty years ago.  I had to learn from family research that the dark-skinned group of people known as Melungeons predated the “English” settlers in this area.  Sorry, I’m starting to get carried away.  East Tennessee is fascinating to me, but I’m equally sure that where you and your readers live is just as interesting.  All you have to do is dig a bit under the surface and see what you find.

J: How do you go about doing local history research?

S: Read anything and everything you can get your hands on.  Google your town. You’d be amazed at what you find.  Talk to older people, little old ladies, and librarians. 

J: So four books, about a hairdresser - A Civil Death (2011), A Discriminating Death (2012), A Haunted Death (2013) and Death's A Drag (2013). Really?

S: Really. Who better to be involved in everyone else’s business?  I worked in a salon for several years doing nails.  Let me tell you, your hairdresser knows everything that’s going on in your town.  You can’t imagine the stories I’ve heard! Honestly, when I left the salon, I should’ve just skipped writing and gone straight to extortion. 

J: Tel me about Jane Brooks? Is she like you?

S: Jane is a little like me.  Mostly we share bad hair experiences. 

J: Oh look there. That’s where a dog chased two Mormon Missionaries up a tree for six hours.

S: Six hours?

J: It was a mean dog and there are a lot of missionaries. Don’t you have them in Knoxville Tennessee?

S: Oh, I need to borrow your dog.  True story – I hardly ever nap, but two weeks ago, I was exhausted at three in the afternoon.  I settled in on the couch and had just drifted off to sleep when the doorbell rang. You guessed it. Missionaries. Now, I don’t much care what anyone else believes about God.  I figure that is their business, not mine.  I would’ve been equally angry with any group that came to the door that day.  Still, I was polite as I told them to leave. That’s what Southerners do. We’re polite until we stab you to death.

J: It’s the Bible Belt right? How does that effect your writing?

S: I think it effects everything down here.  Like I said, I don’t much care what other people believe about God. It does seem that a large part of the population in my neck of the woods doesn’t feel the same way.  People here very much care that you believe the same as they do.

J: You have a recurring gay characters. Tell me about that. Have you gotten any flack for that?

S: Despite the bad rap the Bible Belt gets, I honestly haven’t had any open criticism of my gay characters. It might be offensive to some people, but if so, no one has called me out on it. I never intended my gay characters to be a special because of their orientation. Rodney and John are just gay.  It’s no more of an issue than the fact that Jane is straight. 

J: Give me your pitch for your newest book, A Haunted Death.

S: Jane doubted she’d see a spirit at a paranormal investigation in a client’s haunted barn, but she never dreamed she’d see a ghost. The police ruled that the Ghost Hunter died from natural causes, but Jane and her fellow hairdresser Rodney must determine if they are being haunted by a ghost or hunted by a human. Jane must discover the truth about what happened in the barn before she becomes a corpse herself.  She may find that some secrets are better left buried.

J: Cool. How’d you get into writing?

S: I’ve written stories since I was a kid in elementary school. My Dad recently found two of my earliest works and mailed them to me.  One story was called “The Chartreuse Piglet.” The second story was titled “The Rotten Tomato.” The piglet ended up being evil and the tomato somehow ended up in heaven. 

J: How hard was it to get your first book in print?

S: Very hard. Gut wrenching, blood sweating, hard. I sent it to everyone I could find. I got more rejections than I could count. Finally, an indie press picked it up. The second book was easier to sell.  I actually had a couple of offers for it, and even more for the third.  It helps tremendously to have a body of work listed in a query letter.  My advice to writers just starting out is to keep writing and keep submitting to everyone that will give you the time of day.

J: Amen. You have little kids? How do you find time to write?

S: I don’t! At least I don’t during summer break.  It’s just been too chaotic to stick to a schedule.  I do have a regular writers group that I meet with every week, so that’s helped me keep on track with some editing. My real creative work is going to just have to wait till the school bell rings this fall.

J: Where on the internet can people find out more about you?
BLOG - wordsmith
BLOG - blogspot
TWITTER:  @SDorseyBooks
J: Here’s a monument to the terrible Fire Ant invasion of 2013. I was there. What’s the best local history/Knoxville story you know?

S: It’s hard to find a historical site that serves really good martinis.  This is one of my favorite stories and places in Knoxville.  I think this bit of history shows the true nature of Knoxville during the Civil War.  East Tennessee did not blindly follow the rest of the state’s Confederate leanings. A lot of people here were Unionists at heart.  The city of Knoxville changed hands repeatedly during the war.  Loyalties were divided and brother truly fought brother here.
                  There is an old house on Kingston Pike in Knoxville called the Baker Peters House. It currently is home to the Baker Peters Jazz Club. It was originally the mansion home of Dr. James Harvey Baker. Some say that Dr. Baker was a Confederate sympathizer while others claim he maintained neutrality during the war. What is not in dispute is the fact that his son Abner joined the Confederate army and marched off to fight the Union.
                  While Abner was away, Dr. Baker used his home as a makeshift hospital for wounded Confederate soldiers.  Union soldiers discovered his treachery, broke in, and shot him to death.
Abner returned from the front to find his father dead and rumors that the postmaster, William Hall, had reported his father to Federal forces. Abner shot and killed William Hall. The commemorative marker at the front of the Jazz Club today praises him for his “courage and loyalty to his family.”
                  If you step inside the restaurant, you’ll be greeted by a host or hostess.  If you ask nicely and you’re lucky, they’ll show you a doorway marred with bullet holes made by Federal guns.  If you’re really, really lucky, they’ll show you a photo of the ghost of Abner.  You can see him looking in the front window of the restaurant before you make your way upstairs to order one of the best martinis in Knoxville. 

J: I don't buy it. Martinis in Tennessee? Come on... it's the south....
Mint Julep

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Ann Marie Meyers goes Up in the Air with me.

Anne Marie Meyers
Goes Up in the Air
Anne Marie Meyers and I pushed off the hill at 7:30AM in a tandem paraglider. The morning thermals swiftly picked up the wing and lifted us high in over the suburban landscape below. We could see traffic streaming like ants on the freeway below and hear the wind rustling in the canopy.

Johnny: Wow! This is great. I’ve never done this before. We’re flying!

Ann: What? You’ve never done this before?

J: No.

A: I haven’t either.

J: But you wrote a book about flying. I assumed you knew how to paraglide.

A: You assumed wrong.

J: I told them you were an expert. They’d have never let me have the sail without a qualified pilot.

A: Nope. First time. I thought you knew how to fly.

J: Oh.

A: Oh.

The breeze sent us back over the hill in slow rotating spirals, ever higher.

J: Nice day though.

A: Yeah. It’s a good day to die.

J: Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We’re flying.

A: Yes, that’s nice.

J: So you’re telling me you did no practical research into your book, Up In The Air?

A:  Um, well, I mean, uh… whaaaat?

J: What’s it about?

A: Oh, well (whew), I can answer that. Up In The Air is about a girl named Melody who has dreamed of flying since forever! When she lands in the mystical realm of Chimeroan and gets the wings of her dreams, she thinks life is finally going her way. Yet, even with wings, Melody soon finds our how wrong she is and that it’s impossible to ‘outfly’ her past. She is still traumatized by the car accident that left her father paralyzed, without leaving even a trace of a scar on her; and she blames herself for the accident. In Chimeroan, Melody is forced to come to terms with her part in her father's accident, and in the end she is faced with a dilemma: to choose between the two things that have become the world to her: keeping her wings or healing her father.

J: What are the challenges of writing for Middle Grade?

A:  When I realized that I wanted to start writing for children, I read a lot of middle grade books. I was surprised at the variety that interested kids nowadays. In my day, the Bobsey Twins did the trick for me. But now twelve-year old children (even younger) are into The Hunger Games, Twilight, Harry Potter. I had to completely reinvent the wheel, so to speak, and open my mind to what would interest a child between 8-12 years old.  Story content, I think, is one of the major challenges, and there is a much wider range of genres children are reading nowadays. The other challenges, such as coming up with a dynamic, page-turning plot, finding the right tone, etc. etc. usually falls into place once the story idea is known.

J: Is it all content and vocabulary or do you see other differences between books aimed at a younger age group than adults?

A: There has to be a certain sensibility when writing for a younger age group. This can certainly come from reading as many Middle Grade books as possible, of course. However, having some understanding about the younger generation, the ways in which they differ from, and are similar to, us when we were that age, their aspirations and the influences (eg: socially, technologically) that affect them will only serve to make books for kids more poignant and enjoyable.

J: Is Melody more like you or your daughter?

A: Melody isn’t like either of us (unless… do you mean if Melody’s wings are the same color as mine?)

J: Your book is in the first person present tense. Did you have problems with your editor about the verb tense?

A: Actually, no. That was never an issue.  

J: Tell me these vultures are taking advantage of the thermal we’re on and aren’t just waiting for us to crash to eat our bodies.

A: They have their eyes on you, Johnny. Can you just shift over a bit please? More. Much better.

J: I understand your book is being marketed to educators. Tell me about that.

A: I’m not sure that is specifically the case, though I am planning to visit schools and chat with the kids. I did go to one school several weeks ago and I read to a Grade 4 class. I loved it!! The kids asked me questions I hadn’t thought of, and forced me to dig deeper into Up In The Air and look at the story from different angles. You should have seen their eyes light up when I told them what the book was about.

J: How closely did you work with your illustrator?

A: Not closely at all. I initially gave some suggestions as to what I thought would be a good image for an illustration in each chapter, and left the rest to the illustrator, Ethan Aldridge. I believe he worked with Jolly Fish Press towards the final product.

An American Airlines 707 flew past and sent us spiraling downward.

J: Pull that string.

A: This one? What does it do?

J: I don’t know. Maybe something.

We fell faster, this time counter-clockwise.

A: Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh! Heeeeeellllllp!

J: I’ll pull the other.

We leveled off heading west.
J: So where are you from?

A: (Pant, pant)  Tri-Tri-Trinidad.

J: That’s right. Up in the Air is being released Internationally. That’s cool. How does that work?

A: Well I’ll be holding a book launch (and readings) in Toronto as well as in Trinidad.

J: That works. How many languages do you speak?

A: French, Spanish, English and a bit of Chinese (Mandarin). I’ve actually lost most of my Chinese as I don’t practice. But it was such an interesting language to learn.

J: Are you translating Up In The Air into those?

A:  No!! It’s best for a native speaker in the target language to do the translation.

J: Tell me about getting published. What was your journey to publishing?

A:  Months and years of writing and rewriting ad infinitum. Rejections were the hardest to take. They definitely took my ego down several hundred steps or so. I don’t know what I would have done without the writers groups I belonged to. Their support and encouragement were invaluable. But you know something, all those years spent creating new stories, rewriting and revising have given me a confidence that I didn’t have when I first started out. I know that, no matter what, I have the ability to develop new stories and stick with them until they are ready, regardless of the loops and challenges the characters throw at me.

J: It’s getting cold.

A: The sun’s going down.

J: We’ve been up here a long time. I think we’re getting lower. Where on the internets can my peeps find you, you know, to send flowers and all that.

A: I love flowers. ☺

Shortly after dusk, we find ourselves streaking across a rooftops and trees. Anne Marie fell asleep somewhere over the wastelands.

J: Wake up Ann Marie. We're landing.

A: Oh? Good. Thank goodness.

J: We just have to make it over this next rise.

A: What's that sound?

J: The ocean.

A: With ocean winds?

We're wafted high above an ocean. I think it's the Pacific, but I don't know. We're sent higher than we we ever.

J: Crappy way to end the interview, but approapriate, don't you think.

A: Up in the Air?

J: Quite.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Daniel Ribot - of vampires, Big Brothers and drone strikes

Daniel Ribot
man of the world, writer of vampires
My head is spinning with new revelations about the NSA, Big Brother in the USA. In England, where Big Brother was conceived, they call it GCHQ because people might remember 1984 as something other than an Olympic year. These domestic spying tactics all originated in the practices of the early Soviet Union. What do all these things have in common? Vampires of course.

English author Daniel Ribot, author of the new horror thriller VAMPSOV visits me in an undisclosed location to discuss politics, secret police and vampires.

Johnny: What do you think of all the internet spying going on?

Daniel: The growth of the surveillance society has concerned me off and on for a long time. The Internet is just the most modern tool used of both government and corporate intrusion against us (George Orwell, Philip K Dick and J.G. Ballard among others were riffing on this theme a generation ago). Sure, the way our lives have become entwined with online data networks have accelerated this process, but despite this I am an optimist. The Soviets and Chinese in the postwar era built the most sophisticated state control apparatus using no computers; just typewriters, card index files, string and rubber bands. Today they seek to maintain the same levels of surveillance but, despite the surveillance cameras, computers, satellites and other technical advances, they find it a lot harder to control their populations. So I think the jury's out on that one. I think the Internet may indeed end up as just another method of control but for now at least, it also helps people to come together and resist oppression and even overthrow governments – as happened in North Africa in the recent revolutions.

J: That's enough optimism for now. What’s your book about?

D: Ah, good question! It's about a group of disparate characters who unite to deal with a dangerous threat. The twist is that these are Russian Communists (committed Stalinists at that) fighting against vampires. It is also more specifically the story of Ludmilla, my main character, a woman whose view of the world is based on certainties; about nature, politics, ethics, relationships, love. Slowly these certainties are taken away from her and she develops a more nuanced view of life –  with all the messy contradictions that that brings with it. In terms of themes It is also a book about the monstrous and inhuman, about how you make sense of humanity's capacity for great cruelty as well as great kindness.

J: Your book is set in a political powder keg of Stalinist Russia. What advantages and disadvantages did you find setting your story then and there?

D: The great thing about writing historical fiction (even historical fiction with vampires in) is that it gives you a framework on which to hang your story. Events happen in a certain time and place, so you have 'markers' around which to weave your plot. For example my novel is set during the time that Hitler's territorial expansion is beginning to step up a gear. Interventions in Spain, the invasion of Austria,  annexation of the Sudetenland, etc. help build up a sense of impending doom for the Russians, who know that Hitler and his allies will soon move against them. Another advantage is that you can, with a very few brush strokes, paint a picture of a particular scene. Readers have their own images of what life was like in various times past (particularly the more recent). Once you know what cars people drove, the cigarette brands they smoked, some of the foods they ate in the period, it is much easier to set the scene in a manner most readers will accept as authentic. The flip side of it all is that a) you need to do your research (particularly as many readers are very knowledgeable about their history). And b) You always need to keep in mind that history is contested, that – particularly in the case of VAMPSOV – there are many victims of Stalinist repression and their relatives who may think I'm are making light of their tragedy or mocking them. I have been conscious of my responsibility to show the reality of life under the regime and I have done my very best to show it in its all its awful truth, given the proviso that I'm writing fiction – and vampire fiction at that. HAKDI GHEQ AHYE AIIA AGUWY GHGGE AGWBH MABNV QAHHD

J: Sorry. I lost the last of that. The scrambler frequency slipped. I think it’s fixed now.

D: Ha! Decadent Western technology. Always needs fixing...

J: Do your vampires don't sparkle do they?

Undisclosed location
D: My vampires sparkle only when they've spent the night in a Siberian snowstorm and the light of the moon twinkles on the snow and frost crystals that cover them. Even then, however, they sparkle less than the eyes of proletarian children when they dream of the eventual triumph of Socialism.

J: How do you see VAMPSOV affecting the vampire genre?

D: Perhaps all that VAMPSOV wants to say has been said already, I don't know. From Lincoln, Vampire Hunter to Jasper Kent's Twelve (a vampire novel set in 19th century Russia), many writers – often better than I – have tried to add historical depth to the genre. I aspire to that tradition and hope that VAMPSOV can help promote the diversity and versatility of the vampire myth beyond romance and teen angst. Not that those are bad things, of course.

J: What were your inspirations for VAMPSOV?

D: The novel is based on a set of rambling ideas and conversations about vampires, history and politics. The nub of my contention was that vampires, associated as they are with hierarchy, order  and aristocracy, would be the natural allies of fascists and Nazis. Add to that the shared aesthetic of  blood, soil, youth and black leather and it all starts to sound a wee bit plausible. The modern tendency in popular culture (Buffy, Tru Blood, Twilight etc) to prettify the vamps to the point where they could pass for Leni Riefenstahl's Aryan archetypes, added fuel to this conceit. After I'd made this  connection, all I needed (as all novels do) was conflict. Who would be the natural enemy of vampires if they sided with the Nazis? Why, uncle Joe Stalin, of course! So that was the genesis of it all.

J: Are you afraid that your book will be seen as a subversive text and put you on an enemy watch list?

D: I'd be happy if it was. The more subversion the better in my opinion. As governments are run by bloodsuckers any way, I'm sure they'll hate it!

J: Someone said at a party that you have dealings with Basque Separatists, but i put them right. I said you were really working for Catalan Nationists. Do they pay well?

D: No. Catalans are notoriously tight fisted, I should know because my family is Catalan and... What? You were at a party? And no invite? Those pesky Basques! ...

J: You speak English, Spanish, French and Catalan? How do you explain speaking so many languages if not for spying purposes?

D: Well, I have had to do a lot of travelling in my life. At the moment I'm Germany working, so I get to pick up these things. Otherwise you'd be really stuck!

J: You’re among friends here. No body reads my blog.

D: Except the NSA and GCHQ.

J: Oh. Right. Do like tea or coffee?

D: Tea. Milk. No sugar or sodium pentahol. Polonium if you have any, thanks!

J: How did you get into writing?

D: About five years ago I returned to my English home town of Leicester at a bit of a loose end. My professional life was going nowhere, I had to move in back with my parents due to lack of money, all the friends I'd had had moved away... In that rut I thought I might as well do something creative with my time, so I signed up for courses at the local Writing School. By chance or design, Leicester has the best of these institutions in the UK outside of a university. I got to meet some inspirational people and try my hand at all sorts of genres, styles and formats. Luckily, I found my voice as a writer fairly quickly and as I started to write more and more, ideas and plotlines began appearing in my head. After two years I'd writen my first novel. It wasn't very good, but I'd proved to myself that I could handle a novel length narrative and taught me a lot of lessons I was to use later in Vampsov.

J: I’m always interested in the author’s journey from writer to published author. Tell me yours:

D: The journey from writer to published author was a long and tortuous one. My main problem in finding a publisher was that I lacked the craft to bring about my vision to a reader. Obviously most editors and agents have a pretty shrewd idea of when a writer is ready to publish and more importantly, what readers want. It took me years to get there, it took a lot of hard work. And I don't think I'm the best writer I could be even now. My journey has brought many obstacles (harsh critiques, rewrites, edits, reflections and the erasing of numerous scenes, characters and pipe dreams that cluttered my plotting and story-lines), but I've also  made a lot of friends along the way. They all deserve their share of credit for this too. Even now I've got here, there's still so much to learn about the writing game, dammit!

J: How’s been your relationship with Omnium Gatherum?

D: My relation to Omnium Gatherum is really about my relationship with the editor supremo, Kate Jonez (author of Candy House). She has taken VAMPSOV through two major edits with patience, insight and belief in the eventual success of the novel that I found both energizing and incredible. In a sense Kate acted just like I'd been told old-school editors did before the world changed and traditional publishing (supposedly) died. Kate had faith in my novel from its early drafts and helped me every step of the way to make their book the best it could be. She helped make an author out of me. That's what Kate did for me and I will always be grateful.

J: Who, besides me, are your favorite authors?

D: Writers I admire apart from Johnny Worthen? Gosh... Well I'm an SF and fantasy buff at heart so I love the works of J. G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K Dick, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ursula Le Guin, Adam Roberts, China Mieville, Kim Newman, Graham Joyce and others. I'm also a fan of Latin American writing, particularly Borges, Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes and Carmen Boullosa. At present I'm on a Will Self and Roberto Bolaño kick, reading everything I can from both of them. In terms of the vamp genre, I love Laurel K Hamilton's series and Justin Cronin's The Passage.

J: What are your internet addresses so people without NSA database access can learn more about you?

TWITTER @Daniel_Ribot

J: Is that a cell phone? You brought a cell phone into my “undisclosed location?!”

D: What’s that siren?

J: Early warning drone strike alarm. Nice knowing you Daniel.