Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Feature: Interview with Carrie Laben

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

Carrie Laben is a new writer whose short story, "Something in the Mermaid Way", debuted in Clarkesworld Magazine and got nominated for the Shirley Jackson Awards. Her fiction has also been published in Apex Online and in the upcoming Phantom anthology from Prime Books.

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, you're a relatively new writer. For unfamiliar readers, where can we find samples of your work?

Thanks for having me! Two of my stories are available online at present: "Something in the Mermaid Way" at Clarkesworld Magazine and "Potholes" at Apex Digest Online.

How has getting your story accepted into Clarkesworld affected you as a writer?

Well, for one thing, it put my confidence through the roof! It also helped me meet some fabulous people. Clarkesworld is a great place for a young writer for several reasons. First, of course, they have a reputation for publishing excellent, innovative stories and that never hurts. And since they only publish two of those stories per month, you're not going to get lost in the shuffle. And then there's the fact that they publish online, which makes it easy to get eyes on the story - people who wouldn't go out of their way to pick up a copy of a print magazine will click on a link. And if you're lucky they'll forward it to their friends.

You have a few stories out in the professional market. Do you now consider yourself a professional author? Do you still have self-confidence issues when it comes to getting some of your work published?

I've actually considered myself a professional writer for some time, since I'm a technical writer by day. A professional fiction writer? I consider myself to be actively in the process of getting there. I still get nervous when I send out stories - I doubt that will ever go away. The difference now is that instead of worrying that I'm a fraud who can't write fiction at all, I can worry that what I've done so far was a fluke.

Did you always want to become a writer? Do you intent to some day transition to writing novels or is the short story your preferred format?

I wrote and illustrated my first story when I was four or five years old. (It also had a mermaid in it, but the technique is a little more naive.) Since then, I've wavered on the subject of whether or not I'd be able to make a living writing, but never on whether I'd keep writing anyway.

I've actually always envisioned myself writing novels; I've completed three so far that aren't any good, and I'm working on one now that I intend to actually submit once it's finished. I came to short stories later, in part because I read very few of them as a kid and didn't have a sense of the form's potential. Eventually I started writing them just because I was sick of spending a year or more on a project and then realizing it was fatally flawed (see: those three trunked novels) and wanted to pack more trial and error into a shorter period of time. That worked out pretty well.

I've only read two of your stories so far and both have elements of horror in them. Is there a specific genre or theme that you're targeting?

My sense of horror comes, in large part, out of my passion for the natural world. I studied Natural Resource Management in college in the late 90s and early aughts, and if there's any subject matter calculated to scare the crap out of a sensitive soul, that's it! We are really in a terribly bad way. I think that the single horror story that speaks most to me, for this reason, is Lovecraft's "The Colour out of Space".

I'm not really interested in human or supernatural maliciousness; other writers have that covered. I'm not interested, very much, in horror that's localized in the human body. I prefer to write about horror that encompasses whole systems - ecosystems, economic systems, religious and political systems. Especially, as I said, ecosystems.

Can you describe your writing process?

I tend to write rather slowly. Oh, the technical writing and even creative non-fiction I can crank out pretty fast; but when it comes to fiction I'm one of those awful persnickety writers who needs a comfy place to sit, the right tunes, and my martini properly chilled. On top of that I'm easily distracted by the internet. Fortunately, when it comes right down to it I find writing fiction fun, so I'm motivated to make the time and chill the martini.

My stories usually start as little nuggets of fact, and I work them over in my head for some time before I get around to committing them to paper. I almost never get a full plot, or a well-realized character, just strolling into my brain as some writers do.

What in your opinion was the biggest hurdle in getting your first piece published?

Time. I had to write a lot of bad stories before I started writing good ones. If the time I spent on those three junked novels and all the horrible stories that will never see the light of day had not been available to me - if I'd had a child or two, or a sick elderly relative to look after, say, on top of working full time, or if I'd needed to take a second job to make ends meet, or my job was of the type that left me so physically exhausted after work that I just fell asleep after dinner every night, then I wouldn't have been able to do it. Some people have been able to do it in those circumstances, but I wouldn't have made it. As it is, I'm thirty now and still a neonate as a fiction writer, and there's no way I'm going to fit everything I'd like to write into the allotted three score and ten.

What are the steps you're currently taking, either to improve your writing, get your work out there, or to promote yourself? What are some of the challenges you're facing?

Well, as I mentioned before, I'm working on a novel. I'm also doing a lot more nonfiction on environmental topics, especially on extinction issues, which are very near to my heart. And since the internet is determined to eat my life one way or the other, I'm trying to figure out the best ways to make it work for me. Right now I mostly use it for market research, but as I mentioned before, it's also useful for word-of-mouth publicity. I currently have two blogs; one at livejournal which deals with writing-centric and personal matters (teratologist.livejournal.com) and one at wordpress which is for my nature writing (pinguinus.wordpress.com)

My main challenge is still time! My current day job is more managerial than any I've taken on before; turns out, I suck at managing, and the stress eats my brain even when I'm out of the office. I've been Peter Principled. So I'm trying to scale back and return to more of a pure writerly role.

Let's focus on you. What are you willing to share to us about yourself?

Let's see... my favorite movie is Cane Toads: An Unnatural history. I have four cats and six siblings (The cats live with me; the siblings, thank goodness, don't.) I'm not happy unless I can have a garden, even if it's only in a windowbox.

What attracted you to fiction?

The usual thing; I was a huge reader as a kid, and from there it was monkey-see, monkey-do.

Who are some of your favorite writers or what are some of your favorite books?

That would be a book in and of itself!

To pick out just a few things that I've read recently and enjoyed, there's Sarah Monette's The Bone Key, Scott Weidensaul's The Ghost with Trembling Wings, Look to Windward by Ian M. Banks, and The Corner by David Simon and Ed Burns.

The writers I go back to again and again are Lovecraft (as problematic as he is,) M. R. James, Douglas Adams, Kurt Vonnegut, Shirley Jackson, and more recently Sarah Waters and Haruki Murakami.

What are some of your hobbies?

Birding is my main hobby, in terms of time and money expended - I recently added the 300th bird to my life list on a trip to the UK. I recently bought a new bike, so I'm getting a lot of riding in. I also enjoying gardening and baking and poking around library sales looking for neglected first editions. And Scotch. Especially from Islay.

Do you attend conventions, participate in workshops, have a critiquing group, etc.?

I average one convention a year - this year I'm attending Readercon, last year it was World Fantasy. In a perfect world I'd attend more. I haven't been in a writer's group since college, but I have a handful of first readers I rely on, people I trust a great deal but who also know they can be honest with me without shattering my fragile artiste ego.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

People will tell you a lot of crap about writing, but the one thing that's true is that you'll probably have to write a bunch of junk for practice before you start writing stuff that isn't junk.

And for the love of Pete, don't argue with rejection letters. Nothing good will come of it.

Anything else you want to plug?

My latest story, "Invasive Species", is appearing in the new Wallace and Tremblay anthology Phantom, which will either be imminent or just arrived depending on when this gets posted. Also depending on when this is posted, I'm either about to or just have participated in my first reading, the Shirley Jackson Awards fundraiser at KGB on July 23rd. It's going to be a great reading (Sarah Langan, Jeffry Ford, and Peter Straub will be participating, among others) and we'll all be reading from the work of the great Shirley Jackson herself.

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