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An Interview With Mystery and Fantasy Author Carole Nelson Douglas

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Carole Nelson Douglas is the author of Dancing with Werewolves published in October 2007 by Juno Books The first chapter is available for download at the site.

Nielsen BookScan has listed her novel as #20 on the mass market horror/occult/psychological list for last week. It is #29 overall (in hardcovers and trade) in the horror/occult category. She is up there with Stephen King, Dean Koontz and the like. I recently got a chance to talk to this very talented and prolific award-winning writer.

Carole, thanks for granting me this interview. You´ve written over fifty novels in so many genres. I know you´re a busy woman.

Never too busy to talk about writing and books, though.

Tell me a little about yourself. How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?

Being an only child (my father died before I was three) with a working mother meant I had to entertain myself a lot. That made me a bookworm and hyper-creative. I made dioramas with moss and twigs and dollhouses, "wrote" and put on plays, and was writing "Hollywood" on my aunt's old manual typewriter at age eight. I was pitching my favorite book as a movie so I could play the eight-year-old heroine. Ahead of my time. Now kids get music and acting breaks early!

I attended Catholic girls' schools in high school and college, so had no idea that the larger society had limited roles for women. As a theater major, I stood on 12-foot ladders to hang lights, and worked with animal glue and gauze to build sets as well as acted and directed. I saw women running student government and contributed to the campus newspaper and literary magazine.

Going out into the "real" working world was a shock. The talents and hard work that earned me such options as working on Vogue magazine as an editorial assistant (I was a finalist in a tough, three-stage writing contest but didn't take the job), didn't work at the metro daily newspaper where I got myself from advertising department flunkie to women's department reporter in a year, without a journalism degree, but then stalled.

I was the first woman on The Newspaper Guild of the Twin Cities union executive board, the first woman to chair the Twin Cities annual Gridiron Show (when I started writing for it, women were not allowed to attend or act in it), and the first full-time female Opinion Page staff and Editorial Board member. But despite doing award-winning writing, I was never allowed to reach my full potential. I finally discovered the management never read the features sections I worked in. Not manly.

Oh brother.
In college I'd started what became my first published novel, triggered by a fondness for the Gothic romances then popular, but a loathing of the wimpy heroines in need of constant rescuing. These Gothics were descendants of Jane Eyre, probably the first novel to feature a "working woman" who wasn't a prostitute, and could have been good role models for women. A bigoted anti-Irish comment I heard a British couple make was another trigger for the novel and gave me my theme and "cause." The heroine was half English and half Irish.

I resumed writing that first novel Amberleigh after hitting the glass ceiling in my reporter job, just to see if I could end up with a real novel. I was surprised that I could. From that moment, I became determined to work my way from nonfiction writing into full-time fiction writing, which I've been doing since 1984. Everyone said you couldn't make a living writing fiction, and they are pretty correct, but some of those who are persistent and prolific can.

I reported on the arts and popular culture, and interviewed many famous actors, writers, artists who became my accidental mentors by making clear that my work was way above what they were used to from the press. They gave me confidence in my abilities I certainly wasn't getting inside the newspaper. The late Garson Kanin, a Golden Age film director and playwright and Ruth Gordon's husband, took Amberleigh to his publisher because he'd been so impressed with an interview I'd done with him five years before. That was my one big "break." It got Amberleigh read, but by then Gothics were dead. Amberleigh was a mainstream, post-feminist Gothic, though, so it did sell, and came out disguised as a historical romance.

You´ve been on a lot of award lists, about fifty in all genres. But you’re still writing and still have many stories to tell.

I was astonished recently to realize that I'd written the 28 novels so far in those two series exclusively for seventeen years! That's why I'm so relishing my return to fantasy with Delilah Street and Dancing with Werewolves.

I'd written ten novels in such various genres as high fantasy and contemporary SF thriller, historical and contemporary romance and mainstream women's fiction, when I wrote the first novel to focus on a woman from the Sherlock Holmes Canon, Good Night, Mr. Holmes, published in 1990.

It surprised me by not only winning a couple awards, but was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. By then, I knew how to construct a series with characters and themes that would allow me to explore them for many novels.

Many of your characters such as Midnight Louie, your private investigator, and Irene Adler from your historical series are well known to many readers. All these genres are so different, but there seems to be a lot of cross-genre stuff in your books.

Of course, the two mystery series have fantasy elements. A "Sam Spade with hairballs" feline PI like Midnight Louie, who writes his own chapters, is a fantasy construct. The series is long-running because of the four human characters and their relationships and how they reflect social concerns and current culture. And I've toyed with paranormal elements in the Adler novels, just as Doyle did in his Holmes stories.

Mainstream romance, mysteries, scifi, fantasy, and now urban fantasy. Do you let the story or the genre lead you? Or do other factors affect your choices?

I'm totally character-driven. Whatever the genre, my starting points are "the three Cs": character, concept, conflict. The plot grows from that. I write organically. It wasn't until I finished the ninth book in the Midnight Louie series, which I used alphabetical titles for after the first two books, that I realized a backstory arc had finished and the book was "the first season ender."

Now I'm more consciously writing the novels as part of a three-year TV "season" that will end at book Z. (Readers have been asking for years how Louie can continue after that, but this is his second series, after a contemporary romance quartet he debuted in, so I'm confident he'll find some new human characters to assist and bedevil.) I've always used continuing backstory and issues in the series. Each Louie novel is a chapter in a larger mega-fiction.

In some ways that reminds me of Balzac’s Human Comedy, where characters turned up in many different stories, either as main characters or supporting characters. You mentioned you were an imaginative child left alone to create her own entertainment but do you recall how your interest in writing specifically originated?

I can remember lying on the little hill in the back yard watching clouds and making mental descriptions of them. I drew, I wrote and directed and acted in my little plays. I played dress-up since a toddler, which has led to an extensive vintage clothing collection. I recited a poem for the fifth grade talent show. I just love to make imaginary worlds.

I totally understand, and it’s fun to share those worlds. Have you ever been through a difficult career period? How did you survive it?

When publishing is your livelihood, every year seems a difficult career period. Most of us who went to full-time fiction writing years ago did in it an era when how publishing worked was top secret. Publishers wouldn't even tell authors how many of their books they printed. Sales figures were secret from the author and other publishers. Today, computers and the Internet make that impossible, which is both good and bad for authors. We know more what to expect in terms of income, but everyone also knows our sales "numbers" and can give or withhold support on the basis of them.

The worst period came from my best period. My two high fantasies, Six of Swords and Exiles of the Rynth, became "surprise" bestsellers. Because I worked at a newspaper, I had access to the B. Dalton newsletter and saw my books were on the Top 25 combined fiction and nonfiction bestseller lists, without any promotion. Incredible luck!

But it was your worst period?

What I didn't know was that the fantasy editor was controlling and abusive. The imprint wanted new, naïve authors not tuned into the sf/f convention world to sign substandard contracts for years, that would sell well but never break out enough to attract other houses to the author. Because I went to the American Bookseller Association conventions, I met the sales force, who told me my Irissa/Kendric books were showing the "same sales patterns as Donaldson and Eddings" and I'd "make the New York Times bestseller list by the third or fourth book."

Wow!

On the basis of the assumption that I would always be writing fantasy, I quit my bread-winning well-paid union newspaper job. But after I quit and moved to Texas, I discovered that the male editor would not ever take a third book from me, even though I'd signed for three more at the lowest advance I was getting then. The books' success was too public to control or unfairly exploit.

When the royalty statements came in years later, I learned the two books had sold almost half a million paperback copies and that the editor could have reasonably offered me FIVE times the advance I got. That low advance forced me to come up with the four-book Midnight Louie contemporary romance series, which was also disastrously handled by the editor both financially and artistically, which motivated me to move Louie into mystery. Which eventually came out okay.

That is a cautionary lesson for the rest of us. Even today, so many writers are so trusting of editors and don’t really understand the business of publishing.

I was able to sell the three next high fantasy books to another publisher, but it was four years before another paperback in the series came out; the market had changed and the momentum was gone. My fantasy career, despite it's phenomenal start, was crushed by the culture of the field, which was toxic to women at that time far beyond that one mysogynistic editor. I was not the only woman then to have a rising fantasy career stomped out.

Before I started writing fiction, I remember being shocked to read that Andre Norton had to fight to get her first fantasy featuring a woman protagonist The Year of the Unicorn out as "late" as 1965. Twenty years later, my phenomenally promising fantasy career was thoroughly sabotaged against all reason. So you can imagine how tickled I am that paranormal and urban fantasy written by women is now The Big Thing driving sf/f sales. And that Delilah Street and I are back in it, battling it out again under much fairer rules.

I’m definitely beginning to imagine. So many times we emerging writers don’t really understand what trials the avant-garde women writers had to endure.

I survived the fantasy "crash" by persisting and by moving unconsciously to a genre, mystery, that was going up as sf/f was starting to go down. I wrote the first Irene Adler novel when I noticed yet another new Holmes-related novel coming out and was puzzled why only men wrote such books when I and other women had relished the stories as young readers too. I had no idea when I wrote it that it would be shelved as "mystery."

So switching genres really was both a career move and a personal decision. What genre are you most comfortable writing?

Really, I love them all, and the differing requirements of each, but I'm a genre-blender and I like to "add" elements that the genres skimp on, which can make my work hard to sell. When I wrote historical romance, I wrote realistic action and sea battle sequences. I wanted realistic men/women relationships in sf/f. I do like a larger-than-life element in all my books, but I also want them to address deep human and societal issues. The romance editor who stifled the Midnight Louie quartet did so on the pretext that it was "too sophisticated, mainstream and upmarket." And those aren't desirable qualities???

Wow, you’re making me think there are a lot of insane, unsophisticated, behind-the-times and selfish editors out there. Okay, tell us about your newest book, Dancing with Werewolves? The editor is Paula Guran, whom we know is very sane and open to creative unusual books. Your book is urban fantasy. What’s your definition of urban fantasy?

Urban fantasy is set in a recognizable contemporary setting, rather than the totally made up worlds I used in my high fantasy Sword and Circlet novels. My two Taliswoman novels from the early '90s were crossing over into urban fantasy, starting in contemporary St. Paul and moving to a linked fantasy world.

Dancing with Werewolves is flat-out fantasy and even slightly futuristic with a science fiction tang. (It's set in 2013 after the millennium outed the supernatural beings of myth and legend as real. No apocalypse, just a semi-apocalypse. :) The "unhumans" are still emerging and revealing themselves and human society is trying to deal with them.

Louie's Las Vegas, in which I mixed actual hotels and attractions with fictional ones I could manipulate any way I wanted to, seemed ripe to take a much darker turn. In Delilah's Las Vegas,

Delilah is your main character in Dancing with Werewolves?


Y
es. In this Las Vegas, magic and technology blend to produce entertainment through the use of celebrity zombies, and darker versions of all the usual "addictions" of Sin City. The most scary emerging power of the day is not the Mob, or even the werewolf mob, but the shadowy Immortality Mob that profits from all the dark glitter of the sintertainment capitol of the world.

Ooh, sounds totally odd and original this world you’ve created.

I tried to create a fresh and different world, considering all the urban and paranormal fantasies already out there, and am pleased that Dancing with Werewolves just got a starred review in Publisher's Weekly and several authors have given it terrific quotes: Kelley Armstrong, Sherilynn Kenyon, Heather Graham, Rebecca York, and Nancy Pickard. The Romantic Times and online reviews have great too. It's just so much fun to be back in world building fantasy again!

How did you come up with your character? And do you love your main character?


I love all my characters, but main characters are key. The naming of characters is an important as the naming of demons. Delilah came to me, and I liked the Biblical (also sexy) flavor for my apocalyptic spin on Vegas. I wanted to make sure not to leave my mystery readers out of the new series, so "Street" is in honor of Perry Mason's girl Friday, Della Street. Delilah's name seemed like a good clue for them. (But Delilah is no one's girl Friday!)

I never like to leave a blatant marketing idea without a relevant underlayment, so I decided that she was named Delilah Street because that's where she'd been found as an abandoned infant and that was ALL she knew about her background. (And, of course, there's NO Delilah Street in Wichita, Kansas, where Delilah grew up.) The isolated protagonist on a coming of age mission is always interesting. I Googled "Delilah Street," found only one in a California city, and promptly made plans for the city.

Then I Googled that same topic some time later, coming up with Delilah Streets all over the place. Oh, baby, love that! More plans. She's also tracking a possible twin, clone, or doppelganger named Lilith. And guess what, there are a lot of Lilith Streets near Delilah Streets . . . That's the process on just a "simple" thing like a name. Google makes it a lot easier these days.

Delilah loses a lot of what she's managed to make of her life at the beginning of Dancing with Werewolves. That enables her to go on a mission into a wide, wilder world and grow, grow, grow, and also grow the urban fantasy world from small-town Kansas to international playground Vegas.

 
Does your book have a villain? What do you think of that person?


There are at least a couple nasty villains so far, and one super charismatic devil-or-angel figure, he in whose honor Delilah creates the Albino Vampire cocktail (at his own hotel bar) just to tick him off. Snow is the lead singer of the Seven Deadly Sins rock group and owns the Inferno Hotel. And he denies he's an albino vampire, but just what he is no one knows, not even me yet.
Delilah's issue is she's Black Irish, with the Snow White coloring that reminds vampires of that yummy crystal coffin in the woods. She's been fighting off punk half-vamps since she was twelve and has ended up with zero social life . . . until she meets ex-FBI agent Ricardo Montoya in Sunset Park in Las Vegas, over two dead bodies. Ric is Mr. Salsa Smooth and Hot, but it turns out he's had a very rough and macabre history.

The book sounds like total fun. What books have most influenced your life most?


So many writers that I read when young: Poe. Dumas. Doyle. Oscar Wilde. Dorothy Sayers and Josephine Tey. Andre Norton. The internal and external drama of the metaphysical and cavalier poets. Yeats and Eliot and Elinor Wylie. My favorite books when I was quite young were Little Women, The Last of the Mohicans, Three Plays by Oscar Wilde, The Three Musketeers, and the complete Sherlock Holmes. Also loved The Once and Future King. The book I read that I wanted Hollywood to film was Through the Desert, the tale of two European children's flight alone through Egypt and Africa after the uprising of the Mahdi separated them from their families working on the Suez Canal, so I've always loved adventure tales. I think my novels are more basically "adventures" and have genre elements like mystery, fantasy, romance, and thriller. Now I don't have much time to read for pleasure but I love Alice Hoffman and Elizabeth George.


What is your creative nemesis? And how do you stay focused? How do you keep the joy of writing each novel fresh?

ARGHH! I wish I could plot outline. It just doesn't work for me. Instead I have to work my way through the book with the characters and scenes. There are two types of writers: character-driven and plot-driven and both have to work in their own way, and would like some of the other way's advantages.

The freshness for me probably comes in having to make it up as I go along for the ride with the characters. Things I never planned on pop up from whatever research I've done. As a mystery writer, I learned to find the bizarre detail that can drive a puzzle and those do help the plot.


How do you journey through your novels? Do you use a road-map or do you discover your characters and your themes along the way?


I know the themes before I start. The Midnight Louie series, for instance, is sometimes mistaken for, and dismissed as, a fluffy cat mystery series, but not by the readers.

I knew Louie was a good voice–Sam Spade with hairballs–and he's an excellent commentator on human foibles. But just as I thought it was high time a woman wrote in the Holmes world, I was disturbed by some mystery trends back in 1990 and wanted to counter them.

The hard-boiled female sleuth was queen by the end of the '80s, but she had all the flaws that made the marvelous hard-boiled male PIs created by Hammett and Chandler an aging cliche after decades of dominance. These women were loners without deep connections, too many were tough enough to sucker-punch thugs than seemed believable, and they did one- night stands without any mention of protection although the books went into grisly details of death and autopsies.

So the Louie series was designed to explore sexual responsibility in the age of AIDS. And my four human characters — two men, two women, two crime pros, two amateurs — have been playing out that hidden author agenda in their private lives all through the series as they search for a monogamy that works. It's no accident that one man is a former Roman Catholic priest. AIDS panic is not as strong now, more than 15 years later, and the population is more responsible, so the need to show positive role models is not as urgent, but the human quest for trust and honesty and connection is still as vital. And, of course, the cast of cat characters reflect the underlying theme, because of feral cats and overbreeding. Louie is tracked down by his unacknowledged daughter, Midnight Louise, who's after "the dirty dog who left my mama flat with a six-pack of kits after a one-night stand." Louise has become a reader favorite, playing the upstart hard-boiled detective to his aging PI. But Louie always rules.

What is your favorite aspect of your job?


Research and writing. I also enjoy getting out to conventions and signings and meeting readers in person, although more of that is over the Internet now.

Do politics, spirituality or any philosophy affect or enter into your work?


Because I reported on critical social issues affecting women — from single women not getting bank loans for buying houses because they were considered crazy for not waiting for Mr. Right, to dictatorial male doctors controlling women's wanting babies or not wanting babies, to men getting vasectomies, to women's reproductive health issues and abortion — my novels all address underlying social and women's issues, all in the guise of an entertaining read. Men's too. I often end up with female/male co-protagonists.

The Midnight Louie series gets more into politics and religion than I planned on for a humorous mystery series. I call them cozy-noirs, by the way, which is also the name of my self-pub press, which has done two illustrated Louie short stories so far. I find the term "cozy" for female-written mysteries not set on the mean streets denigrating. So
I mocked it. You can make political points best with humor.

When I attended the College of St. Catherine, you were required to have a Philosophy minor, which meant Aristotle and Logic and a few religious classes. A religious education certainly has a big effect on the issue of ethics, and a Catholic education has a strong emphasis on social justice. When asked for quotes of wisdom for writers or anyone, I rely on two by Bob Dylan: "He is who is not busy being born is busy dying." And the key word there is "busy." And: "I'm better than no one and no one is better than me," which is the best statement of equality I've heard. That balance, to refuse to accept a lesser level for yourself but to respect everyone else's equality, is wonderful and simple.

It applies to the homeless and the CEOs. I've learned a lot from people society in general dismisses, and I've seen a lot of privileged people who deceive themselves, thinking they have some elevated form of immunity, fall.


What spiritual journey  — if any — did you have to travel in order to finish a story? What Traits do an Author need in order to survive as long as you have? And how does one develop those traits?

Keeping the faith, baby, that's the trick. Finishing a story takes discipline. I track my writing dates/words, so I can see my progress (or lack of it). I learned to write on deadline at the newspaper and the secret of that is to never edit yourself while you're writing. That's also the secret to freeing your imagination.

If that internal editor pops up, I send her to the far horizon. I say novel writing should be like whitewater rafting. You start the journey knowing it's going to be confusing, risky, and unknown, but you keep up the momentum and deal with whatever rapids you encounter as best you can. Then, when you get to the end and come out of the water, you can "recollect in tranquility" and let the editor out to play.

At a recent college reunion, a theater professor who has written plays on the side all along commented to me "If I had half your discipline I'd have really accomplished something." I found it interesting that he found me disciplined back then. That discipline comes from my complete absorption in the act of creation. I have left the building with Elvis.

It does take grit to create a work that will go out to be rejected. And all books and authors are rejected by somebody, even if just on Amazon. If you do something original, I can guarantee it'll be misunderstood. You read the lives of the artists and you see how they fought to follow their vision and chaffed to have it underestimated or even derided. But they kept on. Many had little satisfaction while alive. It's the journey, not the destination.


What do you think is the power of art in our society? Does art have any drawbacks for you personally or in society?


Art is empowering and right now it's becoming more democratized, which is good. On the small literary scale, what's happening now, the decline of the midlist genre writer in mainstream publishing, is not only downsizing a class of writer that was able to make a decent living and some decent money for their publishers ("decent consistent" profit is not enough for the huge corporations that own publishers now), but it's limiting the influence of all the authors I devoured when I was a kid who inspired me and others to read and some to write themselves.

I believe the entertainment and social value of good genre fiction is an immense source of pleasure, knowledge, and imagination in society. Even bad genre fiction frees the imagination and keeps people relating intimately one-on-one with a creator.

In a sense, with the Internet, everyone is becoming a creator now, and that's good. But some creative artists have more to offer than others, and it's sad to think that their ability to find an audience is getting harder and harder. It's never been a cakewalk, but now the structures that help guide people to them are breaking down.

Maybe the Internet will build some writers — a very few have been "discovered" there by NY publishers — but it works better for the performance arts so far.

Where do you see yourself in the framework of modern writers?

Oh, gee. I don't. I write for a living. I try to do it as well as I can. I love the language and can't abandon that core value even when some editors think it should be dumbed down. I have a need to explore the species and the world and what I've learned about them both, and myself, the lies we were and are told and the truths we all need to find in each other.


What do you think makes a good story?

The search for self, one's place in society, the nature of that society and its failures and successes and higher values, the search for connection with others, for making a difference, for affecting others' lives in a good way.


If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor? And what would you say if you were mentoring a young woman writer?


Judy Delton, the late children's author, really rooted for me and my writing. She was teaching a writing class at the downtown YWCA when I decided I wanted to freelance articles to national magazines. I took her class to learn the mechanics of submission in a social situation, where I could ask questions, rather than from a book.

My newspaper colleagues laughed at the idea of a metropolitan daily byline writer signing up for a "dinky" writing class at the Y. But I've never been a snob and that turned out to be _the_ key motivating moment.

Judy hadn't mentioned the second class hour was everyone reading from what they were working on. So I listened to an elderly lady who wrote exquisite poetry, a divorced man writing a "cookbook for one" with wryly named recipes, a woman writing a novel about how her bigamist husband abandoned her in a Nevada ghost town.

My nonfiction article was such unambitious, tame stuff compared to what the "amateurs" were tackling. So I dug the first chapter of Amberleigh out of a drawer and read it. When I finished there was a long, long silence. Then Judy said, "Get out of this class and write that book!"

That class reaction was my Paul-falling-off-the-horse moment. I'd never considered fiction as my way out. I was afire to finish the book and find out if it could be. Judy and I met many times for lunch after that when I was depressed about the newspaper. A former grade school teacher, she radiated encouragement and positivity. "Carole," she'd say, "you are the best writer at that newspaper, you just go ahead and write that book and get out of there."

I'd say the same thing to a young woman writer: trust your talent, use your discipline, and go for it.


What book are you reading now?

The biography of James McNeill Whistler and Mark Helprin's A Winter's Tale Freddy and Fredericka.


What´s your latest news?

I'm finishing the Dancing with Werewolves sequel, Brimstone Kiss – oh, it will be a wicked turn of events! — and beginning the next Louie.


Anything else you’d like to say?
Thanks for the challenging questions.

Thanks for the interview 

Visit Carole Nelson Douglas at her website. And learn more about Dancing with werewolves at the book’s website website

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