Stina Leicht, the talented author of Of Blood and Honey, which we finished reading a couple weeks ago, and AndBlue Skies from Pain has graciously agreed to join us for an interview today. She’s been a rising star in the field and was nominated this year for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.
I met Stina at ConDFW 2011 and was instantly snared during the urban fantasy class by her description of her first novel as taking place in Ireland during The Troubles. When she described it as “historical urban fantasy,” I had to get a copy. As many of you know, who have followed my read and review of her debut novel, it was well worth every penny spent and minute sitting on the edge of my seat, waiting to find out what would happen to Liam Kelly next.
Laura Lee Nutt: First of all, Stina, thank you for being here today. It’s been a real pleasure following you and your work, and I can’t thank you enough for your encouraging response to the read and review I did of Of Blood and Honey. Let’s start with last weekend in Chicago at Worldcon. I know you’ve been swamped with getting ready for it and while at the convention itself. Are there any highlights of the weekend that you can share with us? Any high moments or low moments? Anything particularly amusing?
Stina Leicht: WorldCon was, all in all, fabulous. When I went to pick up my convention packet a volunteer said, "Hey, there's a little box inside your envelope. It's one that no one else got. Mind if I ask what it is?" I opened it up and found my Campbell Award Nominee pin. The volunteer asked, "What is that?" I told him, and his eyes bugged. Have you seen the pin? It looks like a tiny silver shuriken made of fountain pen nibs. I adore it. Other highlights included meeting George R.R. Martin for the first time, getting a hug from Neil Gaiman, getting to meet my friend Gareth from Ireland face to face, running into my friend Roderick again, hanging out with so many wonderful people -- most of whom I don't get to see but once a year, meeting new wonderful people, and well, the Hugo ceremony itself. Oh, that reminds me. The rehearsal for the Hugos was fun. They walk you through the whole process so that you know where to pause, which direction to face for the cameras and so on. (Naturally, that goes right out the window the instant the real thing happens.) The funny part was backstage. It was like a Disney's Space Mountain ride for winner stress attacks. Backstage was a mini labyrinth. There were two people to hold you up in case your knees buckled, a ramp in case you couldn't handle stairs, tissues for criers, a water station... they were prepared for every eventuality. Well, of course they were, but it hadn't even occurred to me. Seeing everything lined up on folding tables along the path like that, I had to laugh. It was so unreal.
My only regret is that I spent so much time being stupidly nervous. If this sort of thing ever happens again, I'm not repeating that mistake. I'll take John Picacio's advice and think of myself as having lost and enjoy the nomination. It's best, really.
LLN: Now, E. Lily Yu received the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, but it’s still extremely impressive that you were nominated. How has the nomination impacted you as a writer before last weekend and since?
SL: I'm so very thankful of the nomination -- no matter what, and Lily totally deserved to win. The voters made an excellent choice, and to be honest, she was one of those for whom I was crossing my fingers. In a lot of ways the nomination has affected my self-confidence. I no longer feel like a puny newb who might vanish in a puff of bad review, and I don't struggle with impostor syndrome as much. Of course, I've a new set of worries now. (Keep in mind that worrying is a hobby of mine.) I'm concerned about living up to reader expectations. It sounds silly, I know, but it is scary. No one wants to let people down.
LLN: Awards aside, since a lot of this blog’s readers are writers themselves, I’d like to turn more directly to the subject of writing. You were the first person I ever heard use the phrase “historical urban fantasy,” and fascinating as it is, I don’t often hear it discussed as a subgenre. At ConDFW, you mentioned that your editor had a hard time deciding which genre to place Of Blood and Honey. What tipped the scales and ultimately landed it in fantasy and historical urban fantasy specifically?
SL: My agent asked me point blank if I felt more comfortable labeling my work as literary or simply genre. I answered genre. Ultimately, it was up to my publisher, Night Shade Books, and whatever I said didn’t matter. That said, I'm not sure that literary fiction was a real option to be honest. Although they ride the line between genre and literary quite a bit, Night Shade doesn't have a presence in literary fiction to my knowledge. The funny thing about riding that line is that you're kind of doomed either way. If you choose literary, you're accused of being too snooty for your SFF roots in genre circles. If you select genre, you're sniffed at for not making the SFF elements predominant enough. I find the whole thing kind of amusing and frustrating. Shouldn't it just be about good books? Isn't there room in SFF for everything? Isn't that what makes SFF a viable, lively, creative, and ultimately enjoyable literary environment? Nonetheless, some readers don't want surprises. They want what they want and don't care if it's the same every time. They read for comfort. There's nothing wrong with that. However, I think it's important to understand that just because something doesn't fit your individual tastes doesn't mean it shouldn't exist -- nor does it mean that it's bad writing.
I don't hear Historical Urban Fantasy used much either, but it does slip in from time to time. I just participated in an interesting podcast conversation about the shifting definitions surrounding Urban Fantasy. I came to the conclusion that labels are moving targets largely because creative types need to push against the boundaries to which they are confined. This is a good thing, ultimately, even if it does result in confusion sometimes.
LLN: As a subgenre, historical urban fantasy is pretty new. I’ve seen only a few titles that probably qualify. Where do you see the subgenre going in the next few years? Do you think it will expand or remain a relatively selective section of fantasy and urban fantasy in general?
SL: To be honest, I don't know. I've never been terribly good at predicting the future. That's why I write fantasy and not sci-fi for the most part. However, I do plan on continuing Liam and Father Murray's adventures. I even see myself writing about other members of Liam's family. I hope the subgenre expands. There's a lot more room to play within Urban Fantasy than has been explored. It's possible someone else might take it in another direction entirely. I hope so. It’ll be exciting to see.
LLN: I gather you used to work at a bookstore. What experiences there most impacted you as a writer? I know you made some fantastic contacts, but knowing what was selling and what worked, did it help you sharpen your own writing or pitches?
SL: Working in a bookstore was definitely a big bonus. For a start, I practiced elevator pitches every day for six years. That's what selling a book you've read and loved to a customer is. You've about a minute, tops, to make the story appeal. After that, the customer needs to see something else. As for my own writing, yes, it did help me to see what was popular. But here's the deal: one should never write to a market. For a start, that market is likely to dry up by the time you finish writing, going through the editing process and so on--even if you self publish (which I don't recommend.) Write what you truly love. Readers can tell the difference between someone writing on subjects for which they feel passionate about and someone just doing it for the money. This is how books like Twilight get so popular. They may not be the most well-crafted, technique-wise, but there's a great deal of the author's self in the work and that gets people's attention. Naturally, in an ideal world one should do both -- write well and be passionate about writing. But in the long run, enthusiasm is what readers remember. Besides, we've a word for "doing it for the money." I believe it’s ‘prostitution.’ Another benefit of working in a bookstore was the ability to study my chosen genre for eight hours straight, every day. We were expected to read books we hadn’t read before. You can't hand sell very effectively if you don't read. So, I could borrow whatever I wanted from the bookstore. I saw everything as it came in. I got to try out books I wouldn't have read otherwise. This expanded my genre vocabulary. I read outside my genre more extensively than before which is a very important thing for a writer to do. If you ask me, it’s one of the reasons why libraries are so important.
LLN: Turning to your series, The Fey and the Fallen, specifically, I understand that Of Blood and Honey started as a writing exercise. What exercise was it, and what seed from that exercise ultimately spawned the whole series?
SL: My best friend Melissa and I were reading Kate Wilhelm's Storyteller, I believe. (Although, it might have been a book that Melissa has and I never found a copy of.) It was an exercise called "Starters," and we wrote different variations on how to start a story. I'd just finished reading the non-fiction book Those are Real Bullets and Melissa had pushed me to write something different from the standard fantasy stuff I wrote. So, I decided to play with setting something in Derry. With the exception of Liam's name (he started life as Finn) you'd see a lot of familiar bits in those starter scenes. I think Liam's name was the only major change. Everyone else's names -- Mary Kate, Kathleen O'Byrne, Aunt Sheila, Patrick Kelly -- all stayed the same. I'll show you the shortest one. It was 'starting a story with a narrative summary:
"Finn had always known. He knew it in the way his Gran held him – at a distance as if he were some unpleasant-smelling beast. He knew it in the way that his mother never spoke of his father, and in how Mrs. Foyle frowned at his mother’s short skirts. He knew it in the way his Aunt Sheila went out of her way to tell him stories, distracting him from the silence of unanswered questions. He knew it in the way Sister Margaret took a special interest in whether or not he said his prayers. He certainly didn’t need Sean MacGowan to tell him his father was a Protestant and had vanished leaving his mother pregnant with a bastard."
LLN: Your interview with SF Signal back in June 2011 revealed that, originally, Of Blood and Honey started as a short story about Bran and Kathleen. Is that right?
SL: Actually, no. It started with a not terribly great short story about Ronan (Liam) and a young woman from Austin named Tess. Although that question does give me an idea for a short story about Kathleen and Bran. Thanks. (Wow. That was fast. I already have a title and everything.)
LLN: As a fan, I personally would love to read a story about how Bran and Kathleen got together, and much as I understand her reasons for staying with Patrick, her current husband, I’d also love to see them end up together again in the future. Obviously, this series is about Liam though, who of course has his own fascinating journey, but is there any chance you might release something in the future starring some of these side characters much as Jim Butcher, for example, has shorts about Marcone or Thomas?
SL: Yes. Absolutely. And I know exactly how Bran and Kathleen's story ends, but I won't tell you because it'll spoil it. Aren't I the meanie?
LLN: This may be a tricky question to answer because, as a writer myself, I understand that there are so many elements that go into a book that are wonderful, but if you had to pick one character or aspect of The Fey and the Fallen that you enjoy writing most, what would it be and why?
SL: I love writing car chases. Seriously. They're a total blast. Especially the car chase in Blue Skies -- the second book. I'm a gearhead. In particular, I adore roadsters and late 60s/early 70s American muscle cars. Besides Liam, I enjoyed the hell out of D.C. Haddock. He's a complete and total bastard and doesn't apologize for it. Above all, he thinks he's doing the right thing and just doesn't care what anyone thinks of him in the process. He's got a duty to the law -- which he breaks and twists into every imaginable knot for the sake of his own idea of justice. He was/is one of my favorite characters. Of course, I enjoyed writing Mary Kate too. That scene were Liam is chasing her around the apartment and she attempts to fend him off with a thermometer was a lot of fun. Of course, so was that argument when Liam finds out Mary Kate knows he's with the Provos. And Oran. And Father Murray, of course. Crap. It's tough to decide.
LLN: As of now, do you have plans for other stories outside of The Fey and the Fallen? What do you hope to write in the future?
SL: Right now, I'm almost finished with a novel temporarily called "Cold Iron" which is a high fantasy set in a fictional Georgian Era world. I want to have more than one series running at the same time, if I can manage it. I don't want to feel trapped in Northern Ireland. I'm having too much fun with it.
LLN: And finally, if you could visit anywhere in Ireland, where would it be and why?
SL: Derry and Belfast, definitely. Also Dublin. Derry and Belfast for obvious reasons. I need to experience both cities first hand and not just imagine them through photos, films, first person accounts, and local fiction -- especially if I'm going to continue writing about them. In Derry, I'd like to see Aggro Corner and the neighborhoods around it. In Belfast, I'd like to take one of those Black Taxi mural tours, have a few drinks in a pub, buy music at Good Vibrations (if it's still around by the time I finally get there,) see a local band play, and wander around Queen's University campus. I'd like to visit ancient sights too: the Giant's Causeway, the Giant's Ring, the Morrigan's Cave. I’d prefer to stay in Bed and Breakfasts or with friends. I’m not into big fancy hotels that are exactly the same no matter where they are. It’d be fun to ride a horse in the country, provided I could keep from falling off like an idiot. Oh, and experience real Irish food. As for Dublin? I hear so many lovely things about it from friends. I really want to see it for myself.
Thank you again for joining us today, Stina. Allow me to wish you tremendous success with this series and with your career in general.