Today we’d like to welcome Nancy Holzner author of the mystery novel Peace, Love, and Murder, and of the urban fantasy novel, Deadtown which is on sale today at bookstores everywhere. Nancy will be hanging around after the interview — or at least checking in throughout the day to respond to your questions. And we will be giving away a copy of Deadtown to not one but two lucky commenters. If you’re a fantasy fan, you don’t want to miss Deadtown; It’s a fun, fast read.
SB Frank: So, how does one go from being a medievalist with a Ph.D. in English to writing contemporary urban fantasy?
Nancy Holzner: A lot of medieval literature was the contemporary fantasy of its own day, with magic and monsters and dangerous quests where opponents don’t play fair. Even the saints’ lives I studied are full of conflict, danger, and magic (in the form of miracles). There’s nothing like a good virgin martyr legend for some slam-bang, larger-than-life conflict between good and evil.
But I didn’t go into academia thinking that I’d find good source material for my own fiction. I didn’t write fiction at the time, and I expected to become a career academic. (Now, I call myself a “recovering academic.”) But my early career choices were all about stories. Throughout college, grad school, and my teaching years, I always loved reading, thinking about, and discussing literature. It seemed like a natural progression to me to want to start telling stories and not just analyze them. First I tried writing something more literary, but it wasn’t fun. I was in an online writers’ group at the time, and we used to do short writing exercises in response to weekly writing prompts. Someone posted a prompt that gave me an idea for a mystery, and I ran with it. It sounds obvious now, but it was a big revelation to me that it could be fun to write the same kinds of books I read for fun. When I was working on the mystery, I read a lot of urban fantasy — couldn’t get enough of it. So after the mystery was finished, I jumped right into the project that became Deadtown.
SB Frank: Thus far you have two novels in two different genres, but both of these seem like they could turn into successful series. Do you see yourself settling into mystery and contemporary fantasy for a while, or are you more of a genre hopper?
Nancy Holzner: From where I stand right now, I expect to focus on fantasy. Deadtown is the first book in a series. The sequel will be out in about a year, and I’m currently plotting out books three through five. It’s been a blast writing this series — the characters are great company and I enjoy their world — and I want to see where Vicky’s story goes.
SB Frank: I love the teenage zombie sidekick in Deadtown. Was she supposed to play a major role right from the start? And how did you first get the idea?
Nancy Holzner: Tina actually showed up about halfway through the first draft of Deadtown. I was writing that draft knowing that my opening scene didn’t work and that I’d have to rewrite it drastically in revisions. When Tina blasted into the story, I knew right away that she’d be in Chapter 1, causing trouble for Vicky from the very first page. Later in my writing process, Vicky and Tina were having an argument, and Vicky complained about how Tina had messed up a job by following her into a client’s dream. As soon as Vicky said that, I thought, “Why are they talking about this? I need to show what happened!” — and I knew I had my opening scene.
As for where Tina came from, I taught high school for a few years. She’s not based on any particular student, but she could easily be friends with many of the students I’ve known. She combines the energy, interests, and strong emotions of a teenage girl with an outlook that’s all her own. It’s hard for me to say where I got the idea for a character, because it often feels like they’re already lurking somewhere in my psyche, waiting for me to notice them so they can step forward and jump into a story.
SB Frank: You mention on your blog that you have an idea for another fantasy series. Is there anything you can share with us about that?
Nancy Holzner: It’s still percolating, so it’s too early to say much about it. I can say that it’s set in the Catskill Mountains — home of Rip Van Winkle and the Headless Horseman — and involves ghosts and strong magic.
SB Frank: Sounds like my type of novel. In your mystery novel, Peace, Love, & Murder, the protagonist, Bo (short for Rainbow) Forrester, returns home from serving in the military where his parents had lived in a commune. Are there any similarities between Rainbow’s parents and childhood and your own? What was home like for you growing up in Western Massachusetts?
Nancy Holzner: I grew up in a very stable and loving home. My dad was a clinical chemist and my mom was a special needs teacher at an elementary school. I was in the middle of three sisters. When I was in junior high, two foster kids came to live with us — one older than me and one younger, so I was still stuck in the middle. I love the Berkshires, where I grew up. It’s a beautiful, hilly region and in the summer there are tons of festivals — classical music, dance, theater. When I was growing up in a small town of about 6,000 people, I couldn’t wait to leave and head for the big city (Boston was my first stop), but now my home town is one of my favorite places.
So my upbringing was very different from Bo’s. I did a lot of research into communes of the late ’60s and early-to-mid ’70s to get a feel for what his childhood would have been like. There were communes around Ithaca, NY, where I live now and those are the loose inspiration for Bo’s home town of Rhodes.
SB Frank: While we’re on the subject of your personal upbringing, in Deadtown, women shapeshifters must give up their powers when they have children. Have you felt personal tension between mothering and a career, or was this inspired by more general societal trends and pressures, or something else?
Nancy Holzner: That’s an interesting question. I met my first husband while I was studying abroad in London, and he and I got married and had our daughter while we were both still in college. She was three when I started grad school. I’ve always assumed that I’d combine motherhood with a career, and I approached parenting and building a career from that perspective. It wasn’t easy, but it was a challenge I accepted right from the start and simply dealt with from one day to the next. (It wasn’t easy for my husband, either, who was an engaged father and worked to support the family while I was earning my Ph.D.)
The limitations on shapeshifting among the Cerddorion stem from the mythology that serves as background to my story. One of the legends of the medieval Welsh Mabinogi tells the story of Gwion Bach, a shepherd boy who gained shapeshifting ability after drinking a potion brewed by the witch/goddess Ceridwen. She chases him, both of them changing their shapes, until she finally catches and eats him. Later, she gives birth to him anew. And after that, there’s no more mention of shapeshifting. My interpretation of this legend led to the shapeshifting restrictions in Deadtown’s world: Among the Cerddorion, the descendants of Ceridwen, only females can shift (since Gwion stole his shapeshifting ability from Ceridwen’s potion), and that ability manifests at puberty and disappears at the birth of a child.
I guess that the limitations on shapeshifting do reflect the difficulty of simultaneously raising children and having a career, but this wasn’t something I set out to write about. In Deadtown, Vicky comes to understand her role as a demon slayer as less of a career choice and more of a calling, a duty, that’s central to who she is. She accepts the sacrifice that comes with that calling. The fact that she accepts it doesn’t mean she’s free of conflict, though. She adores her niece and nephews, and she knows that someday, due to werewolf culture, Kane will want children. But I see Vicky’s conflict as one that’s broader than the gender-specific one of career vs. motherhood. I hope it will resonate with anyone who’s had to make difficult choices.
From Kat: That cover art is AWESOME! Did you have any input into the design?
NH: It’s gorgeous, isn’t it? Before the artist set to work, I had a couple of conversations with my editor how we pictured Vicky and scenes from the book that might inspire the cover. But that was it. When the cover was done, the editor sent me an email with the subject line, “Prepare to be WOWed!!!” and the cover art attached. “Wowed” doesn’t even begin to describe my reaction. I think I screamed; I know for sure that my husband (we both work at home) called out from his office to ask what was going on. I had to wait a few weeks until the cover was finalized before I could share it. That was hard! The cover artist, by the way, is the very talented Don Sipley.
From Lin George: I love the thought of old legends recreated for modern times. Was it difficult to work in the modern technology?
NH: The medieval Welsh tales of the Mabinogi inspired the background mythology for Deadtown, but it’s very much a contemporary fantasy. The medieval background comes into play more directly in the sequel than it does in the first book.
From Tia: I always like to ask debuts authors about their publishing story. Did you have to go through the whole agent query thing or did you take a more unusual route to publishing, such as contest wins, or getting noticed in a workshop? Let us know and inspire us!
NH: I became a nonfiction author — I write how-to and reference books — before I tried to publish a novel. I had an agent to represent my nonfiction, but she doesn’t handle fiction at all. So when I had a novel to sell (my mystery Peace, Love, and Murder) I had to start from square one and search for an agent who’d be interested in taking it on. That took several months, and when I found a fiction agent it took her about a year to sell the mystery to a small press. I still have two agents: one for nonfiction and one for fiction (and yes, they know about each other J).
The path I took to getting Deadtown published was a detour from the traditional route, though. I’d written the manuscript but hadn’t yet shown it to my agent. One day I was looking around the Ace/Roc website and saw that they accept direct submissions from authors. On a whim, I typed up a query and submitted it, along with the manuscript’s first ten pages, per the submission guidelines. I can’t tell you why I did this instead of going through my agent — I’m not usually impulsive like that. Maybe it was because I’d written this urban fantasy when I was “supposed to be” working on a sequel to the mystery. At any rate, when I received a two-book offer nearly six months later, my agent stepped in to help with negotiations. She’s a pro, and I do wish I’d involved her from the start. But at least I get to say that I made it through the slush pile. J
From Bill Capossere: Urban Fantasy is clearly such an omnipresent force now. How aware of what was already out there were you as you wrote Deadtown? Did it affect your writing at all, as in specific attempts to distinguish Deadtown from similar works or times where you thought what you had was edging too close to what had been done before? Similar, say, to epic fantasy writers who have all these stock tropes looking over their shoulders (the horse clan, the snarky thief, the gruff dwarf, the small band of thrown together questers, etc.). How do you keep things “fresh” and in marketing terms how do you convey that freshness to readers perhaps overwhelmed by the quantity of choices?
NH: I started writing Deadtown a little over three years ago, so the urban fantasy landscape looked somewhat different at that time. It was growing, for sure, but hadn’t yet exploded into the ubiquity you note. Back when I was writing the story, I was trying to touch upon some of the conventions of urban fantasy and do my own thing at the same time. For example, in Vicky’s roommate Juliet I play with the “sexy vampire” convention—not satirizing it, exactly, but having some fun with that trope. And my zombies aren’t like the zombies you find in most urban fantasy or horror fiction. For my main character, I knew I wanted a character other than a vampire or a werewolf, and when I remembered the Mabinogi’s shapeshifting story, it clicked. As I wrote, I wasn’t concerned so much about positioning my story in relation to others already out there as I was with following the story that was unfolding.
From RK Charron: Did your work as an editor help when rewriting your writing before sending it out and in anticipating the editor’s editing requests? Also, what is your “The Call” story?
NH: Working as an editor has definitely helped me to become more flexible about being edited. Sometimes. :-D So far, the editorial process for fiction has been a lot gentler than the edits I go through when I’m writing nonfiction. For a technical how-to book, for example, the author review stage means that I have to review and fix chapters that have been marked up by the developmental editor, the copyeditor, and up to three technical editors. All those people are trying to “catch” problems and potential issues, and while I understand the goal is to produce a better book, it can be tough to plow through all the queries, changes, and revision requests. In contrast, for the novels I’ve written so far, even a lengthy editorial letter feels so much more civilized. I feel like I should be sipping tea from a porcelain cup and nibbling cucumber sandwiches as I read it.
Here’s my story about “The Call”: As I said in my answer to Tia’s question above, I submitted Deadtown’s manuscript directly through the publisher’s website. Almost immediately after I did so, my life was taken over by a nonfiction project — it was a big book, and my coauthor suddenly dropped out but the schedule couldn’t change. So for a couple of months I did nothing but work on that nonfiction project and sleep. I had no time to obsess about the fate of the Deadtown manuscript, although of course I wondered from time to time.
I finished the big project, and I still hadn’t heard anything back from Ace/Roc. Around the five-month mark after I’d sent in the query, I figured they weren’t interested. I was trying to decide whether to ’fess up to my agent that I’d submitted a query myself or just focus on a new novel when I got an email from Ace/Roc asking for the next 50 pages. I sent those, and the same day they requested the rest of the manuscript.
The next two weeks were hard. On the one hand, I was checking my email a zillion times each day. On the other, I knew that silence might mean that the manuscript was making its way through the acquisition process. I tried to keep a “no news is good news” mindset — every day that went by without a rejection was a good day. When The Call came, my husband answered the phone, asked who was calling, and told me the caller’s name, which of course I recognized. I quickly learned how to carry on a rational conversation, jump up and down, keep my voice reasonably steady, and make frantic hand signals to my husband, all at the same time. I was thrilled that she wanted to make an offer, but when she said “two books,” I nearly keeled over. Champagne flowed that night.
Stefan: Do you have any rituals or habits when you sit down to write? Anything you absolutely need, or absolutely can not tolerate?
NH: No specific rituals. I prefer to be in quiet surroundings, although I can usually tolerate some noise if I have to. I like my writing atmosphere to be conducive to concentration — good lighting, quiet, and a comfortable chair are pretty much all I need. Because I write for my day job too, I’m usually pretty good at sitting down and getting started. As long as I don’t get sucked into Internet-based distractions. :-D
Stacey Stew: How long did it take you to write this book? Will it have a sequel? Do you like the Resident Evil movies?
NH: It took about three months to write the first draft. I was fortunate because my schedule allowed me to write full-time during those months. The second draft took maybe twice that long — if I’d been working on it full-time, that is, but I was back to squeezing in writing time on evenings and weekends. And it took maybe two weeks’ worth of polishing the final draft before I felt it was ready to send out.
I’m kind of embarrassed to admit it, but I’ve never seen any of the Resident Evil movies. Cool video games, though.
Justin: I’ve noticed that a lot authors put a little piece of themselves into their main character (especially new authors). Did you do this with Victory Vaughn? If so how much of yourself did you put into the character? If not then was there any real world inspiration when creating Vicky?
NH: I think Vicky is very different from me. Some of her emotional reactions have their roots in my own experiences, but she’s the kind of person who charges in and acts, whereas I’m more likely to sit back and think things through (read: waffle :-D ). When I have a story idea that clicks, it feels like the characters step forward from wherever they’ve been lurking in the shadows of my subconscious, like they already exist and now it’s my job to get to know them. In other words, I don’t feel like I build my characters so much as I discover them.
Van Pham: How did you come up with the idea for this novel? Who inspired you to write?
NH: The idea came from several different sources: medieval literature, a desire to use Boston as a setting, and a passing comment I came across on an agent’s blog about dislike for characters who “wrestle with their own personal demons” and wondering who besides you could (or would want to) wrestle with your personal demons. That made me go, “Hmmm . . .” :-D
Raspberry: Where are you at in that picture of you?
NH: That photo was taken in a park on the shore of Cayuga Lake in the Finger Lakes region of central New York state. (And there’s a great waterfall just up the road from it, too.)
Abou Monkey: How would you categorize Deadtown?
NH: I think Deadtown falls squarely into the urban fantasy category. It’s got a lot of action, some humor, and just a hint of romance. I worked pretty hard to build a credible and vivid alternative version of Boston.
John L.: Which authors would you say influenced you the most?
NH: That’s one of the hardest questions for me to answer, because I spent many years studying literature. I believe that people who read a lot soak up a lot of influence through sheer osmosis. So there’s about a thousand years’ worth of literary influences floating around in my head. But that’s avoiding your question. :-D Mystery author Donald E. Westlake is an influence—I love his Dortmunder series. In urban fantasy, the authors who made me want write in the genre were Kim Harrison, Patricia Briggs, and Laurell K. Hamilton (some of her early books). Other urban fantasy writers I admire include Ilona Andrews, Devon Monk, and Faith Hunter (who writes a mean shapeshifter story).
Melissa My World: With growing up with books in hand, did you always want to be a writer of novels? Or did writing just start out as a fun pass time for you?
NH: From the time I was young until maybe halfway through college, I wanted to write poetry. I loved reading poetry and enjoyed writing it. Then I decided to pursue an academic career, and I stopped writing creatively. I focused on analyzing literature, learning about literary history, and writing academic papers. That’s fun as far as it goes, but writing about other people’s stories doesn’t come anywhere near the satisfaction of creating your own.
Kelly: I always want to know…what was the last really great book you read?
SB Frank: Thanks for visiting with us, Nancy! Readers, comment below for a chance to win a copy of Deadtown!