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Interview with P.N. Elrod, author of the Vampire Files series

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P.N. "Pat" Elrod is the quintessential Working Writer. She cut her teeth writing game modules for TSR in the 1980s, and in 1990 published her first novel, Bloodlist, which debuted Jack Fleming and the Vampire Files series. Nineteen years later, she has published twenty-three print novels and more than twenty short stories, and edited or co-edited numerous anthologies.

Pat has created several unique and memorable vampire protagonists, including 1930s gumshoe-cum-nightclub owner Jack Fleming, Revolutionary-era Jonathan Barrett, and Medieval despot Lord Strahd von Zarovich. She has co-written three books with actor Nigel Bennett in the Lord Richard Dun series, and revisioned Stoker's character of Quincey Morris. Her lively website includes information for aspiring writers, and she co-facilitates workshops and panels on writing and publishing at conventions. She's now branching out into graphic novel scripts and screenplays.

Outspoken and unpretentious, Pat is an enthusiastic fan as well as a vivid and imaginative author, and freely talks about her inspiration for her own characters and stories in pop culture, from Dracula to The Shadow, pulp mysteries, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Dark Shadows, and Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Pat's newest book, the twelfth in the Vampire Files series, is Dark Road Rising, just released on September 1, 2009. A privately printed, signed and numbered limited edition Vampire Files novella, The Devil You Know, was released on May 20, 2009 and is available exclusively through Pat's website.

You've talked many times about vampire Jack Fleming's origins as a character in a role-playing game. In Song in the Dark you introduced a new vampire character, Gabriel "Whitey" Kroun. He plays a major role in your new book, Dark Road Rising. Where did he come from? Did you know he would take on a life of his own when you started writing him?

Not really. He was just a grumpy voice on the phone in Cold Streets. When I needed a big bad mob boss to come to Chicago to kick Jack around Kroun was the logical choice. Him being another vampire with Jack totally missing that detail was fun to write.

In Dark Road Rising, you utilize the unusual technique of a dual primary point of view, shared by Jack Fleming and Gabe Kroun. How did you decide to write the book that way?

It's not terribly unusual, was the best way to tell the story, and not the first time I have used the device. I did the same thing in The Adventures of Myhr for Baen Books.

I was going to do first-person for both lead characters in Dark Road Rising, but after chatting with other writers (and writing a bit of it) I figured out it would be too distracting to be shifting back and forth in dual first person. So Jack Fleming was first person as usual, and Kroun was in third person. I was careful to put in clean breaks with clear notice on who was in charge of any one scene or chapter. Third person just worked for Kroun. I didn't want to get too much inside his head or it would have spoiled the payoff at the end.

Gabe Kroun seems to be a very deep character with a lot of potential. I'd love to read more about him. Is he going to get his own series, like Lord Richard Dun and Jonathan Barrett?

I hope so. But I'd have to do a detailed proposal for it and right now I'm busy with other projects. His time will come when it's right for him!

You were among the first authors to create "good guy vampires." Now the Twilight Saga and TV shows like Moonlight, Blood Ties and True Blood are making "good guy vampires" a pop culture phenomenon. What do you think about this trend?

Meh, I was hardly the first. Blame Dark Shadows. Jonathan Frid was the one who made a vampire with a conscience a plausible concept. I cannot thank him enough!

Trends come and go. I ignore them and write what interests me, not what I think is hot. By the time you finish something for a trend, the trend is over. This time next year we may be back to vamps as bad guys again, but I'll still be doing my thing—and selling it!

You've published numerous Vampire Files stories in anthologies, but you decided to produce and print the new Jack Fleming novel, The Devil You Know, on your own. Why?
 
I wanted to get something out there to tide readers over until the next Vampire Files book hit the racks, and I wanted to see if it would work. The story wasn't one I could sell to a commercial fiction house, since it is very much a sequel to one of my earlier novels. No editor or marketing department would go for it. The book's aimed at my hardcore fans. They sure seem to like it, too!

Most self-pub books do not do well, but this one paid out my investment and is showing a little profit. However, I would never recommend a new writer to self-pub. I have attracted a lot of readers in the last 19 years. New writers don't have that kind of platform. They'd lose their shirts.

I should mention that the book is a signed, numbered, limited edition on archival paper, not a mass-market paperback. There are only to be so many copies printed and that's it. It's only available through my website, www.vampwriter.com, if you will allow me a shameless plug!

Most people have no idea what's involved in producing a book. Talk about the process you went through to get The Devil You Know from manuscript to finished edition. What was the hardest part? Did anything come as a surprise along the way?

The hardest part was sitting down and writing the danged thing. Words do not come to me easily, I have to yank them bloody from my brain one at a time. The rest of the project—proofing, editing, cover design, interior design, was an unholy joy. I'd take too many breaks from the writing to tweak this or that. I researched book production and looked at tons of books for a 101 in interior format design. Most people picking it up for a peek inside are surprised by how good it looks. I was very detail-oriented to make it look as professional as possible.

The best surprise was working with long time bud, writer Thomas W. Knowles, whose company, Tops Printing, did the printing for me. He went above and beyond to make the book even better than I'd hoped. He did a turn at proofing, tweaked things here and there, and got the page count down so it wouldn't cost too much to print and thus kept the selling price down. I can't say enough nice things about him and his efforts. Most printers can't do that. This was an exceptional case where "who you know" was a very good thing, indeed. Tom is also the head honcho of DarkStar Books and has an open invitation for me to send him anything I like, which is mighty decent of him. When I get the chance, I certainly will do so!

I was also very lucky that Tops Printing is just a three-hour drive from my home. I was able to save on shipping by driving down to pick up the boxes of newly printed books myself. Tom gave me a full tour of the place, which I found wholly fascinating. I love seeing the mechanics behind getting a book into print. He showed me the machines that do the actual printing, the binding, folding, the works.

Those looking to self-publish the way I did don't always take into account all of the costs. The page count, weight of the book for shipping costs, registering it with the U.S. Copyright office, buying an ISBN number, paying for cover art, and more, are all part of one's overhead. Usually THAT is all take care of by one's publisher. This has given me a new appreciation for all that they do, and an astonishment that they can make any money at publishing. It is certainly true that the writer's advance is the least of their expenses!

This was a hell of a lot of work for me, but I would like to do it again, providing I can find the time!

Most of your books are set in past eras of history, such as 1930s Chicago or Colonial America, and include very convincing period details. You've mentioned how much research you do, and how little of that gets into the final work. But many aspiring writers don't know where to begin when researching for fiction. How do you find your sources, know what to look for and where, and use what you find in your stories?

The library has always been a writer's best friend. There is only so much research you can do on the Net before you learn that the things you need to know aren't there or are suspect in accuracy.

I used contemporary sources for all my research. I read newspapers of the period, wound through miles of microfiche files, flipped through the old magazines, and read autobiographies of people who lived then. Those sources provide a better picture of how life was back in the day than reading a history book. There is a fine university library nearby and they don't mind a researcher dropping in. I usually take snacks, as I try to get it all done in one day. I'll have worked the plot out first, so I know what kinds of things to look for that will help it along, and I take tons of notes. There's a knack to getting that telling detail without going overboard. You want to give a taste of the time but not overwhelm people with it. I'm more interested in what the characters are saying and doing than writing a data dump.

Your website includes a page of advice for aspiring writers, and you do presentations on "how to get published" at conventions. But many industry professionals are talking about drastic changes in publishing that are impacting writers. Book sales are declining, print magazines are dying and print newspapers are in crisis. How can writers avoid getting the short end of the stick as the 20th century publishing model disappears?

There have always been drastic changes going on somewhere or other all the time. Writers have never had it easy, but they adapt. There must have been a few panic attacks when Gutenberg figured out movable type, but writers kept writing. There were many kerfluffles when e-publishers started up, but print books are still the big sellers. I think they will continue to be more popular than e-books until the generation that grew up on print books dies away.

I can't begin to guess how new writers will manage in the future, nor am I terribly interested. I have my own present to worry about so I deal with it. Print books will certainly be in demand for the rest of my lifetime, and I leave the intricacies of sales and strategy to my amazing agent. The future will take care of itself; it usually does. You keep writing and go with the flow for as long as it puts money in your pocket.

There are new publishing models attracting lots of attention from readers, book-buyers and customers. The Kindle and the Sony Reader are taking off and their owners seem to love them.

I was temped to get one of those, but I'm a klutz and would drop mine and lose everything on it in the first week. When one drops a regular book and it goes bounding across the room like a startled gazelle it might be a bit dinged, but still readable. I'd hate to have my whole library go poof like that! I'd like books on one as a back up, but I still prefer to hold a book in hand. Sony Readers make lousy step stools, too. There's nothing like a stack of encyclopedias for helping you reach a top shelf. They don't make that expensive crunching sound when you…oh, never mind.

Some pundits say that books designed to be read on cell phones are the next big thing. Should writers be proactive about planning for these new markets? How can writers reach young readers directly and protect their own interests?

I'm a writer, not a marketing expert. If people want to read books on their phones, I'm all for it, so long as I get my fair cut of the sales. I leave it to my very able agent to look out for my interests. She knows more about that kind of thing.

Some of my writer friends are doing up promo videos, which is great if you know how to do that kind of thing yourself, and terrible if you don't. You can hurt your sales with a crappy video, so I'm holding off for the moment.

I've got as much promotion as I can manage with my website and blog, though I opened a MySpace and Facebook page. Mostly it was to keep anyone from grabbing my name. I don't have time to be a constant presence on either of them. Other writers swear by them and use Twitter, but that's not my style. Sure, I could put up a dozen tweets a day, but they'd all be the same: "I'm busy writing and don't have time for this!"

The big traditional publishers have a very gloomy outlook these days, but many innovative small presses are much more optimistic. What's the most exciting new trend that you see in the publishing field right now?

They've had a gloomy outlook for as long as I can remember. I have no idea about what new trends are out there or which is exciting. I'm too busy writing.

As a seasoned career writer, if you could give the traditional publishing industry your personal advice, what would you tell them?

Buy my books, pay me more money for them — LOTS more — and promote them like hell so you get a solid return on your investment. Then I'll shut up. They'll throw a party with much rejoicing, I'm sure of it.

You've had some problems with plagiarism and book piracy. Most recently, you discovered that your independently-published novel, The Devil You Know, has been scanned and posted to pirate websites. What do you do when something like this happens? How does piracy hurt writers and their honest readers, and what steps can a writer take to address this kind of thing?

It's like playing Whack-A-Mole, you shut one venue with your books illegally posted down and another pops up. Some writers ignore it, but I'm not wired that way. I can't abide a thief. I worked hard for those words and should get paid for it. I have Google alerts in place and go through the hoops on the share sites once a week, and usually they're good about taking my stuff down. But they keep letting the same thieves repost.

Piracy hurts not just writers, but the readers. One too many downloads and the bean counters notice that last year's wildly popular writer's sales are slipping badly. Those free downloads are invisible to the accountants. All they see is the book they paid a lot of money for isn't pulling its weight. The next time the writer comes up with a book to sell, word comes down to give it a pass or offer a much lower advance. The readers don't get a new book, the writer loses a sale and maybe has to quit writing and focus on the day job to make ends meet. What really annoys me are the thieves who think they deserve to have free copies of those books. Thankfully, they are in the minority. Most readers are honest and support the writers they love, but there will always be the ones with a terminal sense of entitlement.

What I would like to see are publishers getting off their collective arses and going after these "share" sites. The sites give lip service to copyright and the Digital Media Copyright Act, but they don't police their own site or enforce their own rules unless the copyright holder makes a complaint—which I do when I find them. The sites don't make it easy to lodge a complaint. It's always in the fine print behind the "Beware of Leopard" sign. Illegal posters have identity protection, but the copyright holder has to provide detailed contact information just short of giving them your social security number.

Some sites are set up that you can't even get a contact email addy unless you register as a user and download their file-sharing software crap—which could be virus-infected.

Most writers simply cannot police such sites on their own. It has cut into my writing time and I resent that I have to be the one to do it.

Publishers are shooting themselves in the foot by not using a fraction of their resources to prosecute such sites. Their costs in hiring lawyers is nothing to what they are losing in sales to pirated books, movies, and music. Leaving it up to the writers just doesn't get the job done. For one thing, most of us don't have the money to hire lawyers. Harlan Ellison, God bless him, DID go after some of the pirates and won. You don't see his works up anywhere. I love that man. He's scary, but I love him.

There is a movement among some writers, such as Cory Doctorow, to make content available for free as a promotional device. They argue that for fiction, this helps "hook" readers and earn their loyalty, and ends up more than compensating for whatever money might have been lost by giving away the books instead of charging for them. Do you agree or disagree with their arguments, and why?

What he wants to do is his business, and he has a point, but he CHOSE to do what he does.

I absolutely did NOT choose to put ANY of my books up for free on the Web!

Some thief took that choice from me; I'd like to wring his or her neck as a thank you, or barring that, drag their thieving arses into court. I can't afford to, so I do what I can, one at a time, to get the illegal copies taken down. I try to educate the newbies, and let them know that any angle you look at it, it is theft and they have a right to protect their work.

The thing most ironic about this is that the pirates would scream bloody murder if they put in a week's work on their job and their boss told them, "You know, you do such fantastic work and you seem to enjoy it so much that I don't see why I need to pay you for it!" They'd have the law after him in a heartbeat.

As for libraries—I'm all for them. The book that library bought gave me a royalty, and I'm happy and so is my publisher. Sometimes people will read the library book and buy a copy for their own, sometimes not, but I got my pittance out of the deal. Librarians record how many times a popular writer's work is checked out. When the writer's next book comes along, they order more copies than before. I love library sales!

Used bookstores? No problem. At some point in that book's life it earned a bit of royalty for me. I'm a happy camper.

But used bookstores, as a good friend of mine pointed out, do not sell or give away Xerox copies of books.

If you love a writer's book and want to share AND keep them writing, then blog about it, send people to their website, buy copies as gifts, loan out your own—I'll be your new best friend!

You started out writing game modules before you published your first novel, Bloodlist, in 1990. What similar "unglamorous" writing jobs can help an aspiring fiction writer get started these days?

It wasn't a bit unglamorous, I had huge fun writing those, and I'd do it again if I had the time! And sorry, but I haven't the least idea what jobs can help an aspiring writer get started. I'd hate to have to be starting out now. I'd say join a writer's board like Absolute Write and take advantage of the body of knowledge to be found there. Write every day and keep sending stuff in until you sell.

What's the most important advice you'd give to an aspiring writer?

Read your library. All of it. Seriously.

And when you send out your book, send it to the biggest damned publisher or agent you can find. Don't work your way up, start at the top. Who knows, they might like it and take you on.

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About Vyrdolak

Inanna Arthen (Vyrdolak) is an artist, speaker and author of The Vampires of New England Series (http://vampiresofnewengland.com): Mortal Touch (2007), The Longer the Fall (2010), and All the Shadows of the Rainbow (2013). Book 4 is currently in progress. Inanna is a lifelong scholar of vampire folklore, fiction and fact, and runs By Light Unseen Media (http://bylightunseenmedia.com), an independent press dedicated to publishing vampire fiction and nonfiction. She is a member of Broad Universe, New England Horror Writers, Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) and Independent Publishers of New England (IPNE). She holds an M.Div degree from Harvard and is an outspoken advocate for the Pagan and LGBT communities. She is minister of the Unitarian-Unitarian Church of Winchendon, MA.