Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Feature: Interview with Samantha Henderson

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

Samantha Henderon's upcoming novel, which will be released on September 2, is Heaven's Bones: A Novel of the Mists. Her short fiction and poetry has appeared in several publications including Lone Star Stories, Ideomancer, Chizine, Helix, and Strange Horizons.

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, when did you know you wanted to be a writer/poet?

I started writing poetry very early on, and I still remember parts of the first science fiction story I wrote at the approximate age of ten: "Rhombus looked out into the dark void of space." Yes, my main character's name was Rhombus. I wrote on and off for years, but not really with the idea of publication. Then, some years back, I was meeting my husband at work and had some time to kill, so I stopped in a café on Sunset Boulevard in LA and they had shelves of old tattered SF books.* I read one out of boredom and it hit me -- I can do just as good as this. I can do better than this, and it would be fun to try. I don't think I've lost that excitement.

*It was also the first time I had a Peach Snapple.

How did you get your start in the industry? Looking at your bibliography, your first short story was in 1995 in Theater of Blood and your next story was in 2000. Why the huge gap?

Heh. Eldest daughter 1995, smallest daughter 1997, plus I was working management in a media tracking company. There are people who have the self-discipline to write regularly despite such a schedule; I'm not one of them. I wrote one or two stories over that time and kept notes on others, but didn't really try to submit anything.

When I started seriously submitting stories the market-landscape had changed from the last time I had looked at it -- far more online markets and also online market information. I stumbled across Ralan Conley's market site (ralan.com), which has information that's updated much faster than annuals such as Writer's Market. I was lucky enough to have the first two stories I sent out -- to Strange Horizons and The Fortean Bureau -- accepted fairly quickly, which was very encouraging. Then of course it was ages before I got another acceptance and I realized it wasn't quite as easy as all that. This field is, I think, very welcoming to new writers, at least in short fiction -- there are so many markets now and a lot of places where a new writer can go to get market advice, writing advice, moral support, hooked up with critique groups, etc.

In the past few years, your output seems to be quite prolific! What's your writing schedule like? Do you come up with an idea first or does your story develop as you write?

I don't think of myself as all that prolific -- ideas tend to germinate -- or, perhaps, fester -- inside my head over a long time and then they sort of explode all over the place, giving the illusion of abundance. During the time I just didn't have the time to write I did get ideas and scribbled them down, so that when I finally starting writing long-reserved stories just spilled out.

I find I can be (or fake being) prolific when I have the discipline to write daily -- those are the kind of stories which tend to develop as I write -- I like Stephen King's metaphor of the process being like uncovering a mammoth skeleton: the story's there and you just need to uncover it.

So I suppose I both plod and spasm.

What are some of your favorite books and/or who are some of your favorite authors?

This changes depending on the day and my bad memory. Jane Austen, Elizabeth Bowen, Kipling, Graham Greene, Anne McCaffrey. PC Wren's Beau Geste trilogy (you've got to read them all), Dorothy Sayers, Anthony Trollope, Flann O'Brien. Books I tend to read over and over again (probably out of laziness) are Pride and Prejudice, Gaudy Night, The Woman Warrior, At the Mountains of Madness. But, as I said, it changes.

In some of your short stories, your writing seems to be influenced by fairy tales and myth. What's the appeal of such subject matter for you?

Probably it has to do with the fact that fairy tales and myths are usually the first stories we're told and we tend to imprint on them, and then remanufacture to suit our desires. I think my main interest in such material is what's going on at the periphery of the story, with characters one might think were minor. When I watch a film, I'm often interested more in one of the supporting characters than the main character -- I want to follow them home and see what they do. Or I want to know how minor characters deal with the wake of the main character's passing. The same with fairy tales -- I want to know what happened betwixt and between.

What can you tell us about your upcoming novel from Wizards of the Coast?

Heaven's Bones is a dark fantasy set for the most part in later Victorian England, about a doctor who goes off the deep end when his wife dies in childbirth. Unfortunately, his mental state leaves him open to a malevolent entity from an alternate world. There's a female physician, a psychic detective, a dead little girl, an angel lurking in the Underground and a truly psycho ante-bellum gynecologist.

How did you make the transition from writing short stories to a novel for a mainstream publisher? Did you have to pitch Heaven's Bones?

Cortney Marabetta, an editor at Wizards of the Coast, contacted me, having read some of my online work, and asked if I wanted to pitch WotC a dark fantasy set in the Victorian era. My mom mentioned to me that she felt that one of the most terrifying aspects of that time would be gynecological -- or, as I interpreted it, how women's bodies were regarded and treated medically. So I let my imagination run wind on that subject and ended up with a story idea they liked. My delivery date was pushed forward so I ended up having a grueling writing schedule for a while -- but I was given a lot of latitude about the subject and also how I presented the story, so it ended up being a lot of fun.

I read in your interview at The Fix that you suffer from dyslexia and ADD. How did you overcome this challenge? How did it help/affect you in your writing?

I was diagnosed later than kids usually are today -- but once it was diagnosed my family was able to deal with it fairly quickly. It probably helped that my mother was getting her teaching degree and was therefore better equipped to help me with it. My dyslexia isn't severe in that I don't have a problem reading -- although I sometimes get the order of words mixed up and have to puzzle it out -- but my spelling is and always will be horrendous. I try not to let anything go out without another person looking at it, and if I ever get cocky and do, it's a disaster. I'll get stuck on words sometimes -- I'll know it, I can say it aloud, but on paper (or more likely on screen) I won't even know what letter it starts with and I'll just have to guess and muscle through.

It's an advantage, I guess, in that it forces me sometimes to break words apart, or sentences apart, to understand them and make them work. And sometimes I misread things in an interesting way that gives me a story idea -- for example, reading "I love your face as "I lost your face."

What's the appeal of poetry for you?

Writing wise -- I think I use poetry as an emotional jumping-off point; in a way I'm able to access a "suddenness" when I write it, a kind of raw, unrefined, immediate gnosis about (what I feel to be) the essence of a trope or situation. Writing fiction is more rooted in artifice, and sometimes I can be too careful about it. As a result, I fear my poetry tends to be very rooted in my personal mythology and therefore sometimes hard to access, although one does try to supply the reader with a lexicon.

What's your opinion with regards to the markets of speculative fiction poetry and how it's being received by the public?

There are a lot of markets for speculative poetry right now, and I think mainstream poetry markets are open to it (especially if you don't call it speculative). I don't know how's it's received by the general public -- although most non-genre readers I talk to about it seem intrigued that there's such a genre of poetry. There's discussion -- sometimes heated -- going on in some parts of the community about the quality of speculative poetry, and I wonder if it's not unlike the pulp era of science fiction, when people were discovering the possibilities of the genre and were very excited about its themes but not always concerned about the craft. Which isn't to say, of course, that there isn't a lot of very finely crafted speculative poetry out there.

What's it like being the treasurer of the Science Fiction Poetry Association?

It's a living Hell on Earth.

Heh. Just kidding. (It is.)

But I will say it's fun to be in contact with so many of the people who are making poetry and helping just now to define the field.

Which is more difficult for you to write, short fiction or poetry?

Short fiction.

I can imagine writing poems on napkins but do you really write short stories on napkins as well? Do you still keep the stories once the stories are published?

There are these writers who have lovely neat notebooks with beautiful blocks of text, glossed like a medieval bible, with perhaps elegant doodles in the corner. I can't work like that; my notebooks are a mess because my brain attacks stories from a lot of directions. I write story ideas on napkins, and sometimes scraps of stories, and I usually don't keep them because they don't matter and it's important they don't matter, because I find that if I'm not concerned with them being good (at least at the idea stage) then I'm willing to take risks with them. I think that August Wilson said that he wrote on napkins because "it doesn't count," and he found that liberating. (Goes off to Google). Yup. August Wilson.

What's the coolest thing that's happened to you thanks to being a writer/poet? The strangest thing?

The coolest thing, I think, is when someone I don't know reads something I've written all the way through and enjoys it.* And it's strange and cool to be in the company of people who love to write, and who understand feeling wonderful and terrible at the same time about writing.

I suspect the strangest thing hasn't happened yet.

*Or doesn't hate it. I'm not picky.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

It all boils down to writing and submitting. Try to maintain a regular writing schedule -- everyday, twice a week, whatever, but do it and stick to it. Submit while writing and write while submitting. Don't get defensive about people's criticism; thank them for their time, consider if any of their points are valid, and move on. Don't be afraid to send your stories to big markets, well-paying markets, markets you think you'd never have a chance in.

Advice for aspiring poets?

Exactly the same.

Anything else you'd like to plug?

Eaten Alive Media is in the process of making a short film based on my 2007 Realms of Fantasy short story, "Bottles." It's a surreal process watching your work sifted through the number of creative screens involved in filmmaking. With luck, it'll be released later this year.

I have a signing at Mystery and Imagination Bookstore in Glendale, September 20 at 2pm -- mysteryandimagination.com.


banzai cat said...

Oh, so does that mean WotC is still coming out with the Discoveries books pre-shutdown lineup as promised?

Charles said...

Unfortunately, no. This is more on their Ravenloft brand.

Marshall Payne said...

I really enjoyed this interview!

Charles said...

Yay! Credit goes to Sam... she's the one who came up with all the great answers!

Charles said...

I also couldn't have done it without your prior interview with Sam!

Marshall Payne said...

Thanks! Sam was the first I asked when I got the gig. :-)

Charles said...

I was looking at my succeeding list of interviews and looks like I'm following in your footsteps...

Marshall Payne said...

You've got quite a list of interviewees there, Charles!

I find I'm really enjoying this aspect at The Fix. It's sort of like reviewing. I read the author's work, but then I get to ask a few questions instead of deconstructing the stories. Reviewing is fun, but it can be a rather lonely business.

Habibi (Salamet) said...

Yay Sam!

banzai cat said...

This is Ravenloft? But in our world? (It did mention Scotland Yard.) Interesting and interesting...

... anyway, as usual, I await your review on this one. ;-)