Saturday, 24 October 2009

Interview With Deborah Riley-Magnus

I first encountered Deborah Riley-Magnus through the online writing community Authonomy. She had two full novels uploaded and I had the pleasure of reading both, two very different types of work indeed. "Cold In California" was a Vampire-busting genre book, while "Blind In The Light" was an inquiry into spirituality, guided through the Catholic tradition but going so much further.

We undertook that most rare beast within an online writing community, a long, hard and frank discussion on the craft of our respective books; if I remember, on a post I started up called "Nothing To See Here" and merrily watched people dropping in and very quickly out when they realised that they had neither read the whole book, nor wanted to get all forensic. From that point on, we struck up a fruitful writers' friendship and solidarity, despite having very different approaches to the form and existing on radically separated time zones.

Deborah is a write-a-holic. Each of her two novels are part of trilogies, she has an ingenious recipe book on the go, she does commercial writing within the marketing sphere, she's a publicist with her own company Magnus Consulting, she has two blogs and set up "Whispers Of The Muse" which showcases the work of new writers in its literary wing, while it also has a special fanfiction shrine devoted mainly to Russell Crowe and some erotica too. (I know that was an inordinately long sentence, but this woman has many strings to her bow to cram in).

Debs supports new writing selflessly. Her tastes are wide and in addition to "Muse", she is currently engaged in bringing together writers as mentors under the "Cranky Critics" banner. I give you Deborah Riley-Magnus, WRITER, networker, facilitator, muse (in her own right) and all round good-egg.

"When we kicked around together on Authonomy, I read both your novels posted there. They were very different. How would you describe them?"

Blind in the Light is a literary novel about a Catholic priest who serves as one of the Vatican’s premier investigators of spiritual phenomena. He’s a man faced with the crisis of questioning the limitations of his faith within Catholicism and making the choice to leave the church to explore what he’s learned … that God works miracles through every part of life and on every level.

Cold in California is a genre novel that began as an urban fantasy and has since evolved into a supernatural romance. It’s the first fun adventure in a five book series and features a twice-dead vampire who wakes in a kind of purgatory with several other very dead supernaturals living in a West Hollywood warehouse. Their goal is to take advantage of their one last chance to earn heaven or hell (against their natures, of course).

"They seem to come from very different places within you. Representing different parts of yourself. Would that be fair?"

Sure, I suppose that would be a fair first glance opinion, but in truth, almost all of my writing seems to follow the same theme of redemption and salvation. They both come from a place of questioning.

Raised Catholic, I’m a sometime visitor at Sunday mass, but I spent ten years studying under a Native American Medicine Man and the similarities and distinct differences in how various religions and spiritualities look at life and afterlife always has me curious. What if a devout priest faced miracles he can’t explain? Would he categorize them away as unimportant, inexplicable events? Or would he delve deeper? What if a vampire died his second and supposedly final death and discovered he was chosen for one last shot at heaven? Wouldn’t he feel like an atheist standing at the pearly gates? Wouldn’t his first thought be, “Oh shit”?

Both novels are very, very different genres, but both concepts come from a singular place deep inside that defines me as a person.

"Okay, that's very interesting. Why do you feel you needed two very different ways of attacking your theme? What could one give to it that the other couldn't and vice versa?"

Nothing, and I honestly don’t think I need two different ways of attacking any theme. It’s just that this theme is part and parcel of who I am as a person. It’s simply something that intrigues me. I may stumble across a hundred ways to do it. As long as those ways are unique and interesting, I may explore them. Another answer to this might come from the marketing evil twin inside me. See, the person who reads Blind in the Light is not the same person who reads Cold in California. It’s all a matter of voice and audience. The New York Philharmonic, or Rock ‘n Roll at the L.A. House of Blues.

"How would you feel if one of the two 'made it', leaving the other one seemingly less validated?"

Ohhhh, now you’ve tapped into my biggest fear! Blind in the Light is a three book series and two of those books are completed. Cold in California is a five book series backed up with a cookbook (don’t ask, LOL, part of my author’s platform.). Yes, it is terrifying to imagine I’ll only find publication and build a reputation for one over the other. Truth? I believe in both genres … both book series.

"Although pushing at the conventions, one is definitely 'genre'. If that gets published professionally, then you risk getting pigeonholed as a genre writer. Equally, if your literary work was taken up, I bet your publishers would dissuade you from putting out the genre work, at least under the same writing name. How would you feel about either of these scenarios?"

I have thought about these possibilities long and hard. One of my favorite authors is Barbara Kingsolver. She began her writing career with a genre I like to call “light chick lit with guts”. Animal Dreams, The Bean Trees, etc. But Kingsolver is not only a prolific writer but and author with a cause. She has also published short story collections, essay collections then she charged like a bull into heavy literary work with her best selling The Poisonwood Bible and Prodigal Summer. Nothing pigeonholed her, and I like to believe I have the same tenacity to drive forward and have my voice heard.

All I need to do is get that voice perfectly polished. Kingsolver is a literary genius!

"In our online chats, you astounded me by saying you know virtually the whole book before you've even written word one. How does this come about in your head and how does it stay fresh for you as you write it?"

Well, it stays fresh because it excites me so much I can’t sit still and I usually write nonstop for months until it’s ready for readers, betas, editing and revamping. But I will say one thing, it’s not like I wake every few weeks with a whole new novel bursting to get out of my head. It germinates until it reaches a climax and I know … absolutely KNOW without a shadow of a doubt how the story progresses from the first to the final word. By that point the characters have been talking to me for months, arguing with me in dreams and basically working out the conflicts and events of the book.

"You're red hot on marketing. But I have to ask, do you think about genre before you've written a word? Or do you write the last period point and then turn round and think how to label it for marketing purposes?"

Unfortunately or fortunately, I am marketing from the bone to brain. Working with clients who struggle to shove a concept down a prospective customer’s throat against their will has made me a wary writer. Yes, I’m clearly aware of genre and the market, but mostly I’m aware of how hard or easy it may be to sell the manuscript based on the trends. Blind in the Light is a tough sell. Vampires and a cookbook featuring recipes for the (emotional) vampires in a cook’s life are very, very hot sells.

Even when I write a book I know will be tough, there’s a tiny marketing wizard living in my brain that pings with ideas to make it more marketable after it’s written. It doesn’t change the story or redirect the genre; it simply whispers “hey, this might be wonderful in winery gift shops that sell books”. For example, my second level brain is currently working out the details of a literary novel I intend to write after Cold in California rewrite. Already I have jotted down fifteen unique venues for its sale as well as a platform for the target subject. It all sort of happens while the book is being written.

"What do you see as the respective merits of both genre literature and literary fiction? "

The merits are easy to define. There are millions of people who read on this planet and just as many preferences. I may not be the author of choice for a Dan Brown fan, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a fan out there of my own I need to reach. Remember, you’re talking to the consummate optimist here.

I respect authors like you, who explore new ways of communicating with a reader, using experimental thoughts and language to tell a story. It’s an art. I respect authors who want to talk to young adults. I respect authors who write non-fiction only and I respect authors who have found a successful genre niche and fiercely staked their territory. I honestly believe there is merit to every kind of writing, from high literary to the lowly fortune cookie.

"How do you relate this to the workings of the publishing industry?"

The workings of the publishing industry? What workings? I think at this point we can all observe that the way things have been done for centuries just isn’t working anymore. I absolutely love the fact that the industry is in flux and shuffle. It demands better attention to all elements of the industry, including the author, and it forces everyone from Harper-Collins to start-up e-publishers to do their job better and better.

The direction and author chooses now is an open landscape, the terrain is constantly reforming but getting more stable by the minute. I’m not advocating a “sit tight and wait” attitude, but I am saying that no writer should close themselves off to the various publishing models available these days.

"How do you pack in so much into just 24 hour days? Never a day goes by when there isn't a new blog post, short fiction, new chapters from you and that's in addition to your day job promoting others?"

I have no idea. All I can say is that I love the work, I love the writing and I’m a pretty social being – for someone who almost never leaves the house. I never have a problem finding energy for it (although the dust is building on the furniture and most times I don’t wash dinner dishes until the next day). I get a charge out of helping my friends and clients be successful … that breeds networks … that breeds marketing and publicity ideas … and that breeds writing ideas. It’s a glorious, vicious cycle. I’m pretty blessed.

"What do you see as the future of literature? Do all the new media forms for books hold any interest for you as a writer?"

The future of literature? More intelligent, more meaningful, more entertaining, more reflective of the universe we live in and supported by the need for people to stop, read and get out of their own lives. Genres will begin to split and mutate into new genres. Authors who could never before find publication will become household names – IF they do their marketing chores like good girls and boys.

As I writer I’m interested in everything from e-publishing to traditional publishing. I consider indie publishers and have taken a serious look at POD. Lord knows I’d love to be agented but the more authors I represent as a publicist, the more I’m seeing that after the efforts to perfect and polish a manuscript … getting it out there is only successful with letting everyone know it’s out there. Okay, I’ll stop now, I won’t get onto my marketing bandwagon, LOL.

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