Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Feature: Interview with Vera Nazarian

Every Tuesday, I'll have a feature article posted.

Vera Nazarian's short stories have appeared in various anthologies and publications such as the Sword and Sorceress and Darkover anthology series, The Age of Reason, Outside the Box, Beyond the Last Star, Strange Pleasures #2, Lord of Swords, Best New Romantic Fantasy #2, Jabberwocky, Fantasy Magazine, and others. Her novels have been nominated for the Spectrum Awards and Nazarian is currently the publisher of Norilana Books.

Thanks for agreeing to do the interview! Let's start with your upcoming novella, The Duke In His Castle. What inspired you to write this story? Did you initially know it was going to be this long?

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to carry on at leisure. Here's the thing about The Duke -- I started writing it in college, which makes it over 20 years ago now. Talk about a gestation period -- I could have given birth to multiple elephants at this rate! The Duke started out as a horrendously written fantasy short story (of course my short stories in those days ran to about 9,000 words). The original premise was simple -- a person cannot leave their residence by magic -- or whatever mystical, occult, supernatural means. And then the notions of life and death came into play in my mind, and a conflict of the two somehow became the answer to this person's dilemma. Only... things evolved. And changed. And mutated like a Greek Chorus of chameleons. The abode became a decrepit castle of Gormenghast proportions. The Duke became a mysterious young and sexy magician with a bad attitude and a Byronic case of ennui. And his visitor... well, she was the one who drove the story. I rewrote this thing too many times to mention and submitted it possibly every market in existence. I thank the stars it was never accepted in its many half-baked and variously crappy incarnations -- smart people, those editors, Ellen Datlow, Gardner Dozois, Gordon Van Gelder, et al! -- and instead it gave me the chance to make a long novella (or short novel, if you will) of some intricacy and sophistication, of which I am quite proud. As it stands now, I believe it’s the strongest thing I've written, in the psychological sense.

Can we talk about how the novella originally found a home with Papaveria Press and then finally to Norilana Books? What was the most difficult part of the process?

What happened was... bones.

Artist, writer, and editor, Erzebet YellowBoy is the mastermind behind Papaveria Press, this amazing micropress which publishes gorgeous limited editions of written works, books both tiny and large, hand-bound and handmade in every sense, with individually sewn sheets and gold leaf pressed into pages and fine fabrics and decorations used for covers, and other arcane things I cannot even describe that result in often miniature works of art and exquisite very limited editions. Erzebet is also a fine artist and she collects bones and natural elements to create art. She loves all things having to do with bones.

And, at that point, it occurred to me that my novella (which had just been rejected by yet another market, and which at this point I honestly thought was good enough to sell already, dammit), my novella had bones in it... many, many bones. They were very important to the storyline. They were sophisticated and weird and enticing. And so I sent the novella to Erzebet to see if she wanted to do a hand-bound limited art edition of it. She read it and loved it and said yes. We had an agreement. I was psyched! Unfortunately due to life circumstances, after about two years there was still no book, the publisher relocated to England, and basically I asked for the first rights back. We currently have a friendly agreement that she can do the hand-bound edition any time when she can. I look forward to that art edition with much anticipation.

Meanwhile, at around the same time, my father had just passed away in February of this year, and I decided to dedicate the book to his memory. The themes of life and death became even more pronounced for me. So, the time was now, I figured I can do this book myself through my own Norilana Books since life (and death!) is too short to wait forever -- another 20 years -- until some third party finally wants to buy this story. And so here it is at last, a very difficult and beloved child of my imagination, engendered in life and death.

The most difficult thing about it was finally letting go.

What for you was the most challenging experience in becoming a professional author?

I would say the answer for many of us, after we learn the basic ropes, is the same -- the wait and the frustration. The industry moves at a glacial pace. Continental drift has nothing on novel submission response times and wait periods. Even short story subs take about 6 months on the average, and let no oldtimer pro used to better treatment tell you otherwise. As for novels -- species become extinct by the time you hear back. Somewhere in New York they have Mayan pyramid mountains of manuscripts covered with dust just growing yet undiscovered microorganisms in slush-pile-sized petri dishes.

And there are so many frustrating mini-stages to the whole larger frustration. The small frustration of finding an agent (I still have no agent, and would like to have one), then, once you acquire one, the frustration of waiting for results of your submissions, etc. I am not a very patient person. Oh, I can wait professionally and politely with the best of them, but the waiting really eats me up psychologically, not to mention I have bills to pay in the here and now. And part of my problem is, I've been stuck in a vicious circle of struggling financially all my life, and having no time to finish my books so that I can give an agent a whole book not a partial, and in addition I am also a very slow and careful writer -- my first drafts are near-final, but they take a long time to happen. Frustration is thus neverending.

Do you think your childhood experiences has been a hurdle, an asset, or both in your career?

Good question, and the answer is, both. Yes, the unusual experiences and the life adventure material enriches my imagination and I have a large creative well to dip into, which is an advantage. My stories are different, often stodgy, original, often unlike most of what's out there.

The bad thing is, my stories are often unlike most of what's out there. :-)

And, I am truly not cut out to write contemporary fiction. Because I don’t "live" in the here and now. I am immersed in the old and the by-gone, and my writing has been called stodgy. Again, good and bad. To write contemporary with flair (as opposed to pretending you know it and making things laughable), you have to be a part of your contemporary surroundings -- your immediate culture, its slang, mores, quirks. I am still not; probably never will be. I don’t know what it's like to have gone to an American high school prom because believe it or not, I did not KNOW what a prom was when I was enrolled in and attending the American high school. Clueless, you say? My family didn’t know how or even why to run a dishwasher for many years. My mother did not know about dishwashing liquid (we used hand soap to scrub dishes) and would not wear long pants only dresses for decades after coming to the West. Mostly, we had no money to go out there and try things. In order to know about civilized gadgets you need money to try things. I had two changes of clothes and one pair of shoes through three of my four high school years and I used to replace scotch tape on the bottom of the shoes to cover the large holes and cracked soles daily so that it would not destroy my few socks. My father learned to drive only after he was 60 and he took several years to venture off the surface streets and onto an American freeway. I've never gone to a movie in an actual theater until I was in college (which I attended on complete financial aid). And many of our other friends were immigrants too who knew just as little. This is how insulated my immigrant family had been.

And yet, I had high tech jobs, went to a top liberal arts college.

I still cut my own hair (never been to a beauty salon in my life). And I refuse to own a cell phone (although I used to carry a company cell phone in a holster for years before it caught on with everyone on the planet, when doing tech support at one of my former day jobs).

This is how odd a life can be. So when you write, they say "write what you know." And that's exactly what I do -- I write what's in my head, the ancient wonder. What I do know is not what most people know. On the other hand, what I do know, I know very well. I only wish other people were more interested in knowing it too.

How did you first fall in love with the fantasy/science fiction genre? Have you finally been reunited with your friend Cathy? Do you still want to take on the persona of an Amazonian Athena?

Hah! I see you've read my old website! My friend Cathy who started writing at the same time I did in junior high, and with whom I've lost touch, emailed me several years ago, since she came upon my website on the internet, so we have caught up since. I should update that webpage already.

Athena the goddess of War and Wisdom will always have a special place in my heart, imagination, and soul. No, I don't want to change my name anymore, but I will always honor her as the ultimate feminist symbol. Because a woman warrior -- or any warrior for that matter -- is nothing without wisdom of reason to light the way. She remains my ideal of a woman. Strong, intelligent, aggressive if necessary, careful and clever and steadfast at other times.

And fantasy -- how can I measure the moment when I started loving it? My dreams are fantasy, and for as long as I can imagine, I will be in love -- in need -- of fantastic fiction. It is the best sustenance for the soul. Science fiction is in my mind a subset of the greater genre fantasy, the literature of wonder and unrealized possibilities. "What if" becomes "what if I?"

Who are some of your favorite authors (past and present) and/or what are some of your favorite books?

I grew up on classics. First, Homer, and with him all of Ancient Greece in a grand amphora, then a variety of Russian, European, Middle Eastern. It's hard to write contemporary fast-paced urban when your natural ideal of a descriptive passage as it is taught to you is painstakingly leisurely detail of Victor Hugo's THE MAN WHO LAUGHS or Tolstoy's WAR AND PEACE. When your ideal man is a crazy ascetic in CONSUELO by George Sand. So many other books have had an impression on me that I honestly cannot name them all. Perfect love? JANE EYRE. Perfect heroism? THE GADFLY. Most erotic? Anything by Stendahl. Most divine? THE IDIOT by Dostoyevsky.

As far as contemporary authors, I will always name my pantheon of personal favorites and masters -- Tanith Lee, Gene Wolfe, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Charles de Lint, Jacqueline Carey, Andre Norton, Anne Bishop, Catherine Asaro, C.J. Cherryh.

Taking a page from Jeff Vandermeer's interview with you, how do define "wonder fiction"?

I used to get somewhat frustrated trying to explain what it is that I write -- fantasy and science fiction and dark fantasy and light and comic and literary and plebeian and mythic and foreign and ancient. Only one thing connected all of these things that I write -- a sense of wonder. For me, one of the high points of writing -- in addition to character development and emotional arcs -- is the moment of wonder that only speculative fiction and fantasy can provide.

So I coined a term. Wonder fiction is that which has moments of transcendence for the reader. When the floor falls out from under you. Or the ceiling caves in on your mindset. Or you feel the prickle of ecstatic transport at the back of your skull and you feel so light you can suddenly soar into the sky. Whether it comes as a result of insight or being blown away by the possibilities, or the sheer amazing things the author presents, or emotional resonance. Wonder fiction has to positively change the reader on some level.

As minor aside -- I've always liked superhero origin stories best. Not the following stories when the superhero is already established and they are out there saving the world and kicking super-villain ass. But the stories when the superhero first becomes -- becomes who or what they are, comes into their powers. When they get their powers, and in that moment discover this transcendence about themselves and the world around them -- a sense of wonder.

In that moment, it all becomes wonder fiction.

At what point did you know you wanted to pursue writing? Would you jump at a chance to pursue another career (astronomer, astronaut, rock star, music diva, etc.) if -insert favorite deity- offered it to you?

The funny thing is, I've never at any point decided I wanted to be a writer. Writing just always happened while I was trying to become other things -- artist, college student, computer tech, psychologist, etc. At this point I am far too tired and old to try something too drastic like becoming an astronomer, but I would still like to get back to fine art -- money and time permitting -- the physical paints and canvases kind, not the digital stuff I do on a computer screen when I do book cover design. I still have plenty of images of beauty inside me that I’d like to paint with tangible pigments not just words.

How does one become a professional artist?

Assuming that a person is already competent -- whether by having attended art courses or by sheer practice and self-study (my own way), the next step is to have your art shown. You enter juried competitions by submitting slides or transparencies of your work (at least that's how we did it back in the 90's; these days who knows maybe it's emailed image files or CDs) usually accompanied by an entrance fee ranging from small ($5-$10 a piece) to large (several hundred dollars). As your work gets accepted to shows and wins awards, you get more recognition, and you are suddenly in demand. At most such exhibitions artwork could be designated for sale by the artist via the hosting gallery. Then you get connections and your name gets around, etc.

I got my art into shows, sold stuff, but never went too far with this because again, there is only so much time and energy not to mention financial backing you can allocate to such a pursuit that on its own requires a lifetime of commitment. Just as is a writer, an artist is his or her own brand name, and that takes a long time to build up.

Turns out, my commitment was strongest toward writing, of all my other creative pursuits.

How does one become a professional musician?

I've never actually been a professional musician -- if you consider professional getting paid for it. But I've performed, composed, recorded, and know other music pros. One thing that happens with time is your voice goes as you get older. I am a vocalist first and foremost. A player of an instrument lasts much longer in the music business. These days I don’t think I can sustain a performance, that's how exhausted I am. Maybe, again, if things finally straighten out financially and my life becomes more stable (all hail my publishing business Norilana Books!) I can get back to music, and pull out those old guitars out of the closet and dust off the keyboard.

How does one juggle all of those tasks (including publishing!)?

Well, one doesn't. There is one thing that eventually pulls you stronger than all the other creative pursuits, and if you have financial and other resources your resist the single-minded focused pull longer than others who don't have your resources. But eventually when you only have so much energy to allocate, it all goes into one thing. For me, it's writing. Publishing is a wonderful secondary career that I am finding an ideal backup job for a creative person such as myself, to keep the money coming in. I have the chance to use a variety of my creative talents in cover design, recording of excerpts (dramatic reading), etc.

Which reminds me, I really need to record some of my fiction. I am one helluva dramatic reader -- they teach it to you in Russia from the earliest school grades. Unless you can read with feeling and the skill of a voice actor you get reprimanded. And my mother, the literature teacher -- she could read like a songbird sings, she knew epic poems and prose by heart (think Eugene Onegin and its ilk) and could recite it to her classes.

When we came to America and I first heard people read out-loud in English, it seemed deadly boring. What's considered good dramatic reading here is just not up to par with most everywhere else. Maybe English speakers are embarrassed to enunciate? And that's just too darn bad. I think this should be taught to kids in school together with other basics. But wait, what am I saying? Basics are not even taught properly -- stop me before I go off on a rant about primary education...

Ever thought of producing a book in which you write, illustrate, and perform the music as well?

Don't tempt me. One of these days I just might! The Duke in His Castle comes very close to it -- I wrote the words, illustrated it, did the cover design and layout. All that's left is the bonus songs CD.

What made you decide to establish Norilana Books?

Simple -- the need for money. I was getting laid off, then rehired, then surviving mergers, the high tech industry in which I specialized was turning into a dead end, I was too tired to get new certification in other areas or field 100's of tech support calls a day from screaming people; middle management was the pits. In the meantime, I was moonlighting for my publisher in the webmaster and promotional capacity, and was doing a lot of other publishing related tasks. I figured out "I can do this myself and make more doing it." Plus, it's much more fun than troubleshooting same old hardware shit for new idiots or programming UPC barcodes into label printers or waiting for promised equipment upgrades to arrive from upper management.

In short, I was tired to hell of working for "the man," and finally could become the man myself!

And then the second part was the realization that for the first time in my life I can finally have control over my effort and my work, and will have the amazingly liberating ability to bring back into print classics of world literature and publish the wonderful work of other deserving people who are going unread and unheard and unseen by the public.

These days it's an awesome feeling that for all practical purposes I am living off the writing royalties of great classic public domain authors, and making sure they are not forgotten but issued again in beautiful editions! A win-win situation. You can't beat this job for anything. The only thing better would be fulltime writing.

Do you handle everything (web design, promotion, acquisition, etc.)?

Very short answer -- yes. I am -- no, we are -- Norilana Books. The Royal We, of course. We handle it all -- book packaging, acquisition, proofing and copyediting, formatting, cover design, website programming, promotion, shipping review copies, PR writing, PR blogging, mailings, technical nitty gritty, emailing communications with authors, booksellers, colleges who want to order titles, bookkeeping, royalties, data entry, Bowker Books-In-Print, ISBNs, copyright registration, business taxes (with the help of an awesome high-end accountant), plus things I have surely forgotten to mention (believe me, there are a zillion such things). I really don’t know how I manage, to be honest. I am always doing something, always exhausted and slightly behind (and sometimes not-so-slightly). It's hard to do the work of a whole cadre of people. In short, I have no life.

The only thing I don't do is edit or make decisions on the content of anthologies -- I have wonderful editors for that -- Mike Allen, Deborah J. Ross, Roby James, the Marion Zimmer Bradely Literary Works Trust and Elisabeth Waters.

What's are some of the hurdles you've faced?

My whole life has been a hurdle -- immigration, culture shock, poverty, family illness, not fitting in. Too long to even begin to talk about, but one thing I’d like to highlight is that I am a fighter, an indomitable optimist, and I absolutely never give up.

Plus I have the gall to believe in myself and my work.

How is it faring so far?

If life were a mountain of effort and obstacles, I think I've just about to scale the highest peak, and things are going to become stable very soon, as I start to coast downhill at last. Knock on wood.

And that's a good thing.

Because it means I can finally get back to writing.

What books are you publishing this year that particularly stand out for you?

I am thrilled to be publishing some truly amazing anthologies, many of which have been longtime dreams of mine, and all of which will be annual recurring series. WARRIOR WISEWOMAN edited by Roby James is the science fiction companion volume to the classic SWORD AND SORCERESS series edited by Marion Zimmer Bradley -- which I am privileged and honored to have the permission to continue, under the editorship of Elisabeth Waters and the MZB Literary Works Trust. CLOCKWORK PHOENIX edited by Mike Allen is my idea of the best of the best in surreal and cutting-edge fantasy fiction, the literary high end. LACE AND BLADE edited by Deborah J. Ross is elegant swashbuckling romantic fantasy based on my dream notions of what is truly romantic, and the belief that elegant wit, compassion, beautiful manners, and a sharp outlook can trump coarse brute strength any day.

Then there are the collections and novels. I am thrilled to be publishing William Sanders' definitive collection of Sidewise Award-winning and Nebula-nominated works, EAST OF THE SUN AND WEST OF FORT SMITH, multiple Hugo, Chesley and Nebula winner John Grant's striking science fiction muliverse dystopia LEAVING FORTUSA, and Sherwood Smith's delightful YA fantasy from the YA Angst imprint, such as A POSSE OF PRINCESSES, and the prequel to her wildly popular CROWN DUEL, titled A STRANGER TO COMMAND.

Finally, there are the hard-to-categorize works from the Curiosities imprint, the poetry and mythic folklore collection A GUIDE TO FOLKTALES IN FRAGILE DIALECTS by Tiptree Award winner Catherynne M. Valente, and the stunning SF and fantasy poetry cornucopia THE JOURNEY TO KAILASH by the many-time Rhysling Award winner Mike Allen.

There are more great works, but they are coming next year, including the classic Flat Earth series of Tanith Lee, reissued in its entirety, one book at a time, and indeed a whole imprint dedicated to her work, TaLeKa. Plus, watch for the dark, erotic and stunning THE CAPTAIN'S WITCH by Rosemary Hawley Jarman, a dazzling debut collection from Eugie Foster, and more wonderful titles from Ken Rand, David Dvorkin, Leonore Dvorkin, JoSelle Vanderhooft and others.

But here -- browse the Norilana Books website to see for yourself:


And check out the complete Norilana Books catalog here:


I get all silly and giddy just thinking about all my wonderful authors and their upcoming books!

What made you decide to take on Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword & Sorceress line? Was it in that anthology that you sold your first professional story?

Yes, it's a way of paying forward, and a way of continuing the beloved legacy of my dear mentor and first editor, the grand dame of science fantasy, Marion Zimmer Bradley.

Sword and Sorceress, a true classic, one of the longest running series of fantasy anthologies, currently in its 23rd year, will always have a very special place in my heart, not only as my first sale (I sold my first story to S&S #2 when I was a high school junior or senior, and saw the book come out a month after my high school graduation) but also as the one thing that sustained hope in me.

For many years Marion Zimmer Bradley was the only editor who would publish me. As I grew as a writer, I knew it was not the quality of my writing so much as the fact that my writing philosophy and hers resonated. We both believed that a story should have true meaning, an arc of emotional involvement that had a beginning, middle and end. No open-ended wishy-washy nonsense clad in nice prose, no let the reader fill-in-the blanks because the author has no guts to make a real point. This is probably going to insult a lot of people but this is, in my opinion, the one true problem with most modern writing. Writers have been told not to "preach" and never draw a moral lesson in their writing (since the popular thing is to subscribe to the nonsense that universal morals do not exist and everyone is an existential island doing their own thing), and so they are deathly afraid to espouse an opinion and illustrate it properly by means of a story. The original reason for "no preaching" -- don’t be unsubtle, don’t be blunt, don’t pound the reader over the head, in other words, don’t be a bad writer -- has been lost in a general fear of saying anything at all, anything strong and based on a personal life philosophy or belief or mindset. These days literary and genre-literary sophisticated writers wallow in uncertainty, weave beautiful verbal lace out of nothing and come to resounding silence for a conclusion.

Don't preach? Hah, I say! We preach with every breath we take; indeed, the air that comes out of our lungs is subtly permeated with our personal bias. Instead, make your point, promote, I say! Seduce, beguile, trick, cajole, influence, lead, guide the reader with all your heart and all your faith, you fearless author, for it is the one purpose of your life. Don't even bother fooling yourself with anything else.

Just do it with subtlety and finesse. And then no one can fault you for it, since they will be too enchanted to know better.

What advice can you give to aspiring publishers?

First, get to know the situation and realities of the publishing industry and what kind of publishing models and technologies are available -- offset, print on demand, etc. Then decide what your goals are, both short-term and long term. Consider your budget. Consider your personnel. Consider your own strengths and abilities.

And then, just don't do it, for God's sake, don't do it! -- unless you are someone like me, a tireless jill-of-all-trades who is willing and can do it all. *grin*

Advice to aspiring authors?

First, have a strong enough desire to say something, to the world at large in an elegant verbal way.

Then, get a clue. Seriously, I mean it. Don't be a stupid clueless newbie idiot with a beatific short-sighted idea of what you want to write, and a highly inflated idea of your own talent versus craft versus personal drive ratio (it's a little like your debt ratio; unless all things are in balance you cannot make it, just like you would not be able to get a loan), and where you're going with your writing.

Learn the trade -- both the writing (by reading a whole lot of other people who can write and have written throughout history, on all subjects, fiction and non-fiction) and the craft of it by sheer practice (as in, write, write, write!). At the same time learn what it means to be a professional writer -- one easy way -- read the blogs of professional writers and see what they do every day, and you try to copy them. Learn proper manuscript format, learn to be courteous and friendly and professional, get to know people in the industry -- not so much personally as in a sense of knowing who they are and what they do, and don't insult their intelligence by making stupid assumptions about anything. Don't be crazy or pushy (that is not the same as being persistent). Submit your work in professional packages and wait patiently. Persist. Repeat ad infinitum until you either make progress and sell something or you make new connections and learn something.

Eventually something will come of it, if you are subtle, persistent, and good enough.

Anything else you'd like to plug?

I would like to plug my much neglected and unnoticed novel LORDS OF RAINBOW, and epic fantasy in one standalone volume about a world without color, true love, and true wonder. If there's one book you are willing to take a chance on this year, please try it. It is my masterwork.

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