Words are like shards of glass. By themselves, they’re worthless; however, when placed together in just the right way, they can become brilliant works of art.
—Leigh M. Lane
Writing for more than two decades, and under more than one moniker, you’ve published 10 novels and a dozen shorts, and have done so across multiple genres: erotica, romance, science fiction, horror, and literary fiction. You also paint, speak Italian, are a musician and singer (even having sung the easiest of pieces, The Star Spangled Banner, for an opening Dodgers game), and hold a black belt in Shōrin Ryū karate. If you’re not yet a Renaissance woman, you’re certainly well on your way.
Also a writer and a martial artist, I’m reminded of two quotes. The first from Bruce Lee:
“To me, ultimately, martial arts means honestly expressing yourself.”
Next, is the great line from author Albert Camus:
“Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”
For you, when did this drive to express first manifest? Have you found it difficult? How do these terms “honesty” and “truth” impact your work. Along with this, ’cause I have to ask, are the legends about twins—identical twins, no less—true? Do you and your sister think alike, finish each other’s sentences? Often, writers talk about their muse. In your case, with your sister, were you two muses for each other? How did the rest of your family dynamic contribute to such artistic diversity?
I’ve always been driven to express myself, one way or the other. I loved to draw when I was a little girl, and I wrote my first short story when I was around eight or nine. It wasn’t until I went back to college and gained a good understanding of just how powerful literature can be, however, that I felt driven to express my deepest thoughts in prose. With that said, I was not at all honest with myself in the beginning of my publishing career; I allowed my work to become what my publisher thought was most marketable, allowing a bit of integrity as a writer to fall to the wayside simply for the sake of getting published. I was naïve and far too eager to put myself on the map. I’m not proud of every book currently out there with my name on it, although I do think it’s pretty cool to have had one of my erotic horror novels reviewed by Penthouse Forum. I chose to publish my speculative and literary works under my nickname to delineate my erotica from my more serious works.
Regarding the infamous twin legends … Erin and I were a lot alike when we were little, and
while we still resemble one another physically, we view the world through thoroughly different filters, so different that we have not spoken in nearly a year. It’s tough letting go of what used to be such a special connection (we were best friends up until our early thirties), but we just cannot seem to get along these days. It’s untrue what they say about twins thinking alike, but we used to finish one another’s sentences (or respond to a question in unplanned, perfect unison) all the time. We did also speak our own language when we were kids. Quirefo pun viyaifed?
We wrote a novel together in our early teens, and it was absolute synergy, but that was where our muse-sharing ended. She is like our biological father, a singer/songwriter, and both of them are exceptionally talented. While singing is a passion we share (yes, we did sing the National Anthem for the opening of a Dodgers game; your use of the term “easy” was quite comical), I don’t think I could write a decent song to save my life and she has not written prose in well over 20-years.
Moving full-circle to the first part of your question, I strongly believe that the greatest of truths are revealed through good fiction. By using fabricated worldly evils as stand-ins for the actual ones that plague society, we can approach them without feeling the need to pull our punches. I think a good example of that is my novel Myths of Gods. The theme revolves around abuse of religious power, but I did not want to use any actual religion as my catalyst, lest I offend—albeit wholly unintentionally—one group or another.
I’ve read that your supernatural thriller, The Hidden Valley Horror, was inspired by Clive Barker, Ray Bradbury, and Stephen King, and of how your book World-Mart stands as a tribute to Orwell, Serling, and Vonnegut.
Furthermore, you’ve stated Poe’s greatest contribution to horror was his use of the unreliable narrator, a “… trope I employ in my novel Finding Poe. Through the unreliable narrator, Poe was able to explore his own fears of insanity and loss of order and control. He used it to dig deep into the psyche—both his and his audience’s—creating stories and poems that one not only reads, but also experiences.”
Though there’s no reason to doubt these statements as true, it would appear to be a major mistake to presume that it’s King, Bradbury, Poe, and Barker who inspire your horror work, and that it’s Orwell, Serling, Bradbury (yes, again), and Vonnegut, your science fiction.
After all, with World-Mart, a dystopian nightmare, the book reads as much of an homage to Ira Levin as anyone else, is not written in the point of view of the unreliable narrator, and yet still offers that layered—and increasingly penetrating—exploration of fear, loss of order, control, and that, yes, offers not only an entertaining read, but, indeed, a story that is experienced by the reader.
So, what’re the questions?
Despite the fact there’s surely times a famous author has inspired something within the same genre of work, how often do you find your diverse reading background, and its corresponding icons, crossing into different genres and/or points of view? How often is this crossover intentional? How often does it just happen, perhaps unknowingly for a time? When it occurs, is it a surprise? Can you control it? Should you?
An eclectic reader makes for an eclectic writer. King’s right on target when he stressed the importance of writers being avid readers. I believe it’s also important for writers to read outside their favored genres every so often, as different genres offer different approaches to literature and literary theory. I learn something new from nearly every story I read, effectively adding another tool to the toolbox, and I suppose my mentioning one influence or another is my way of saying I hope the various tools I’ve picked up show through in a given piece.
The crossover is, indeed, unintentional. As much as I do outline my stories, planning literary devices and main plot points, I find myself surprised by most of what ends up in them. Stories have a way of taking on lives of their own, and far be it from me to attempt to undermine the muses. I tried it once, actually, when I wrote The Hidden Valley Horror, and I must humbly admit it ended up falling short. I learned my lesson, i.e., that the muses know best.
Regarding your dark fiction work, you’ve said:
“I’ve known my share of human ‘monsters,’ and I’ve seen my fill of social injustice; [these] are what drive me to continue writing what I write.”
Author and writing instructor Maralys Wills has said that in her view, writers—the good ones—most often share two characteristics. First, they’ve experienced trauma. Second, they tend to be optimists. Do you find these applicable? Do you find your fiction work, especially the dark stuff, to be cathartic? Beyond the desire to entertain readers, is there a message, or a set of lessons you’re attempting to impart?
Maralys Wills is a wise woman.
I think much of my drive to (at least attempt to) make a difference through my writing stems from trauma. My empathy comes from a very real, very dark place. I find writing extremely cathartic; the darker the work, the greater my release. I write for myself just as much as I do for my readers. I do hope they find my stories entertaining, but it is far more important to me that they leave my stories pondering the big questions: What is my place in this tiny world? What evils have I been wrongly ignoring? What can I do to change that?
I have no desire for fame or fortune, but I do hope that, long after I’ve died, English professors will be sharing my stories with young, open minds, and that my work influences and inspires them to take a broader look at the world as they know it.
I wish I could say I’m an optimist. I’m hopeful, but my faith in mankind is guarded.
Again, I write with the hope of making some kind of difference where that is concerned. I hold no illusions that one author might change the world, but maybe a few thoughtful books might have a chance at making at least a small dent.
You’ve mentioned that when you go to work in another genre, or when looking for a particular work’s “voice,” there’s a needed period of transition. Along this same line, you’ve also said:
It’s like finding the harmony to a song’s melody; once you figure out a few of the notes, the rest comes on its own.
The end of your quote—the rest comes on its own—might suggest an easy process. That’s not necessarily always the case, though, is it? For example, in prepping for your 2013 EPIC Award finalist, Gothic horror novel Finding Poe, you spent months reading and re-reading all of Poe’s work, and spent every effort to re-produce his style.
Though it’s sure to vary piece to piece, short- and long-form, what’s this “transition time” like? Do you first need a cool-down period? Do you do all your research upfront, before the writing, or is that something that’s ongoing? How do you decide if you’ve the time and/or energy to make the kind of Daniel Day-Lewis type of commitment that seems so evident in your work?
Once I’ve found a work’s voice, maintaining that voice usually comes pretty naturally. It’s leaving that voice for a new one that’s sometimes difficult. The transition period is usually a bit shaky, and I often need a good month or two to shift gears. Especially after finishing a novel, I won’t even attempt to start a new story for at least a month, sometimes much longer. It gives me a good excuse to delve into my TBR-list, which is ever-growing.
Most of my stories require little research, generally because I’m writing their world’s rules, which allows me a certain level of freedom. Stories like Finding Poe are the exception, but when I do need to research, I do the bulk of it before I begin writing. Where Finding Poe was concerned, some aspects required research throughout the writing process, and some even in the midst of redrafts. I had various Poe works open in different windows throughout the process, just to ensure the details I used through Karina’s journey were accurate. Still, I was surprised by how many anachronisms there were in my first few drafts, despite all of my efforts.
I haven’t mentioned this yet, nor have I seen it talked about in print or on the Web, but it’s more than worth mentioning, and that’s your blog, The Cerebral Writer, and the treasure trove of non-fiction material on your site, from your detailed and learned, reviews and re-caps and analyses of popular shows, or your take on craft or various social justice issues. Have you thought about putting together a non-fiction work? If so, can you offer us some teasers? Also, with this new age of anyone-can-publish-at-any-time, regardless of skill, what are your thoughts of taking not only an artistic approach to one’s art, but a cerebral one, in regards to craft, networking, social and business issues?
I’d love to expand to nonfiction books, although I’m not sure I would use what I have on my blog as a springboard. I just don’t know if there’s a big enough demand; however, I have long planned on writing a parents’ manual for raising twins and other multiples. I’ve had notes for years, but never have been able to get more than 15- or 20-pages in. Perhaps I’m still recovering from my own “twinsie” childhood, and am still too close to the material, as much as I have to say on the topic. For example, most parents think it’s cute to dress identical twins in identical clothing. Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you, it’s enough to scar them for life.
Where media and networking are concerned, I think the door is wide open for new approaches, both artistic and cerebral, and we’ve only scratched the surface on the potential angles. Themed cross promotion and collaborative networking are a good start, but the future of online media will likely involve an integration of visual art, literature and music. Everyone’s looking for that next big idea, and I believe Sideshow is on the right track. Think of the evolution of video games over just the past 30-years—consider the shift we’ve seen from simple, repetitive games, like those on Intellivision and Atari, to the highly-detailed graphics, sophisticated game play, and cinema-quality plots and cut-scenes—and apply them to other forms of entertainment. I think the future of media will lie in works that appeal to more than one of the senses, and that will require all of the arts—and their artists—to come together in exciting new ways.
You’ve gone public about having systemic lupus. How has this diagnosis impacted your work? More importantly, what steps, psychologically, technologically, perhaps spiritually, have you taken to not allow this challenge to deter your from your art(s)?
Seems every writer has some cross to bear, whether one’s talking about Christy Brown and his famous “left foot,” to Rowling writing on napkins in coffee shops while on the dole, to another wrestling with dyslexia. All too often, though, people become derailed from their dreams. You, on the other hand, have been so positive, or at least unflinchingly determined to continue striving forward. From where do you find this strength? And what lessons can you offer?
Lupus has had a profound effect on every aspect of my life, including my writing. For those who are not familiar with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), it causes the immune system to turn on its own body, and it can manifest in many different ways, affecting everything from the skin to just about any internal organ. Regardless of the individual manifestations, when it flares, the body reacts as if it’s fighting the flu, causing fever, fatigue, and a host of other various, sometimes even life-threatening, issues. I was bedridden for months at a time before finally getting diagnosed and treated, but even treatment only helps so much. I’ve had to learn to manage my time wisely, lest I overexert and end up in bed for days or even longer.
There are times when I feel sorry for myself, especially when I’ve been stuck in bed for more than a couple of days, but I do my best to refrain from sharing the negative thoughts on social media. After all, who wants to associate with someone who complains about being sick all the time?
Last year, my antibodies began to attack my retinas (the back area of the eyes where vision receptors are located), which has resulted in multiple blind spots. To make a long story short, there’s no agreed-upon treatment for this particular manifestation, and in many cases, the retinas eventually heal once the immune system backs down. This has not been the case in my situation, and not only have the initial blind spots remained, but more have joined them. For many months, they were too distracting for me to be able to read or write. I feared I might never write again, and I even contemplated suicide. What’s a writer who cannot write? My husband stepped in, promising to be my eyes whenever I needed them. He temporarily took over all of my social media, and I dictated to him everything I wanted to write. Over time, I’ve learned to work around the blind spots. I’ve been training with Dragon Naturally Speaking, a voice-to-text recognition software, and have researched the various resources available that allow the visually impaired to navigate the Internet. I read and write much slower than I used to, and I make more typos because my brain fills in the blanks, often doing a poor job of it, but I manage okay. My most recent blind spot started forming last month. It freaks me out. I still have a good cry from time to time over the possibility of going blind from this.
Like most other struggles I’ve dealt with, I’ve released a lot of my fear and frustration into my art. When I couldn’t write, I painted. I ended up doing a surreal depiction of the spots, which I found extremely cathartic. When I felt confident enough in front of the computer, I wrote a short story that ended with an author going blind, one spot at a time. It was a good way to express my fears in a productive way.
With your Sideshow contribution, the wonderfully creepy story “It’s All in the Cards,” your style, though not a clone of Ray Bradbury’s, was certainly Bradbury-esque, nailing what was asked in the guidelines in terms of atmosphere and tone. Of a truth, the entire piece has an almost dreamlike (read nightmarish) quality.
Without giving away the farm, what can you tell us about your process with this story? Its inspiration? Its warning?
As a Bradbury fan, I was excited by the prospect of contributing to a horror anthology that called specifically for stories relying on atmosphere and tone. I love to write with an immersive voice, really thrust the reader into the heart of the story, and Sideshow was the perfect excuse to see just how deeply I could delve into the style. When I write, I see a movie in my mind’s eye, and capturing that movie in prose without missing any of the details is something I work hard to accomplish.
When I was in my early 20s, both Erin and I read tarot. Let’s just say divination attracts all sorts of different kinds of people, and not all of them good. The reading portrayed in “It’s All in the Cards” is based on a reading given to Erin by the owner of an occult bookstore when she realized she was in over her head and quit reading for the store. He told her that her world would crumble, and boy did it. Be it coincidence or curse, it was unsettling to watch the string of events that ensued. If there’s a lesson in all of that, it’s that, no matter what we believe, there are things in this world that should remain in the realm of the unknown.
Back to World-Mart, a dystopian science fiction work (or in my mind, a valid cross-genre piece of science fiction/horror), I’ve yet to deliver my promised review.
Let me take the opportunity now to say that upon purchasing my Kindle, it was one of the first titles I picked up, and upon reading it, it blew me away. First, by giving me great hope and expectation about the quality of independently and self-published works (something which other titles by other writers have worked against), but then by the story itself, and how quickly and unassuming it brought me into this distant/not-so-distant potential future.
The story was so professionally written, penned with such confidence, that I was immediately immersed into not only the setting/world, but in identifying with the central cast of characters, that of the Irwin family.
Even better, by the close of the novel, I found myself … well, at first—angry. Angry and depressed. I walked away from the work—scarred. Though not the most voracious of readers, I still manage to put away an average of 55-novels a year. Do I remember them all? No. But World-Mart is there to stay, branded in my mind. A work so well stamped, like King’s “The Dark Half” or “Misery,” I may not ever have to re-read it, and a work so good, I’ve no hesitation in lauding the scars it has to offer.
You’ve said of World-Mart, that it’s an homage to Orwell, Serling, and Vonnegut. At the risk of sounding pompous, I can’t say how many times I’ve heard such a line by this writer or that, about some story/novel being an homage … and then, after reading said work, thinking the horrible truth: Gawd! Were such and such great author to read this, they’d burn it! Homage my ass.
Yet, with World-Mart, the claim, though undoubtedly as honestly made as these others I’m lamenting, the words echo true to what an homage should actually be. I’m reminded of the line: It ain’t braggin’ if it’s true.
And then, recently, I read you’re writing a prequel. What can you tell us about it, and the process gone through to get into that needed tale’s “voice”?
First of all, thank you for your kind words. I wrote World-Mart with the intention of putting its readers into the closing character’s shoes—namely feeling distraught and uncertain about the future—and its reception has been extremely (and often passionately) divided.
Its prequel, which I only recently finished, ends with a much different tone, but I hope the story as a whole keeps at least a few people awake at night. It takes place in a world readers will find much more familiar, as society has yet to transform into the enclosed corpocracy depicted in World-Mart, but the transition period in which it takes place offers some all-too-real glimpses of what could easily come to pass should we make just a couple of careless political choices.
As far as recapturing the original voice goes, I began outlining during the tail end of the 2012 presidential election, fueled by rhetoric and what I felt to be some very scary discourse. I think readers will find the overall feel of the novel reflects that of World-Mart, and I can only hope they enjoy it just the same.
In closing, wanting to tap into your philosophy as a storyteller, what do you feel you owe, first to yourself, then—if anything—to your readers?
I feel I owe it to myself to keep pushing the envelope, to take chances wherever I can, and to keep hold of my tenacity no matter what roadblocks might fall into my path. I owe myself a gentle reminder from time to time that success and failure are both necessary parts of the journey, and that there’s no need to fear one or the other. What is meant to be is meant to be, and it’s important sometimes just to let go and have faith in that.
I feel I owe my readers a new and unique experience with each of my stories. I owe them works I’ve taken the time to craft carefully and thoughtfully, works they might not always walk away from with a warm and fuzzy feeling, but will leave them thinking long after they’ve had some time to digest that final line. Most of all, I owe my readers a heartfelt thanks for hitching a ride on my bizarre train of thought, allowing me to share my dreams and my nightmares in the most intimate way I know how.
Want to learn more about this remarkable woman and author?