fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsBeth Johnson interviews Stacia Kane, author of Personal Demons.

Beth: So for starters… one of the things I really loved about Personal Demons was Megan. She was a good, strong character without being one of those attitude-packing tough broads so common in urban fantasy. What made you decide to make her that way? Was that how you originally envisioned her, or did she end up having her own ideas?

Stacia Kane: It’s basically how I envisioned her from the beginning. While I enjoy reading stories about really tough girls sometimes, I knew I just wouldn’t be able to write one. That’s not me, by which I mean those characters don’t interest me from a writing standpoint as opposed to reading. I wanted Megan to be smart — that’s always really important to me — and tough, but not a trained assassin or fighter or anything like that; I wanted her to be a regular woman suddenly shoved into this world she doesn’t understand, which presented such a challenge for her because she’s been able to coast by using her psychic abilities all her life. It gave her an extra layer of vulnerability, just like her lonely past did. And to me she kind of became proof that you don’t have to be an ubertough babe with weapons and muscles in order to have adventures and get the man, if you know what I mean.

She really did just pop into my head. I came up with the tagline for the story first, and the idea that she would be a therapist (originally she was a therapist, not a PhD), and from that came the radio show (again, originally she’d written a book. But the last thing I wanted to do was write about a writer, even if it wasn’t her day job). But then I thought, the kind of woman who would really like the whole “slay your demons” tagline wouldn’t really be the kind of woman I wanted to write about. And then it just fell into place, even her name. She was there, all ready to go.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsYou wrote some pretty scary scenes there. Do you draw on any inspirations for those scenes when you sit down to write them?

Not really. I tend to try and aim for creepiness, rather than scariness, and then I just see where it goes from there. I think anything can be scary if the MC is scared by it; as long as the reader gets to feel that reaction in a visceral way, walking to get in your car can be scary. Every night when I turn out the lights downstairs and go up to bed I’m a little nervous, thinking something might be hiding in the shadows waiting to grab my leg or something, even though I know nothing is there. And that’s walking up my own staircase, in my own home. So I figure if something as mundane as switching off the lights to go to bed can be scary, anything can be.

Good to know I’m not the only one who gets creeped out that way! So then do you like reading scary books or watching scary movies at all?

I do, yeah. But it’s hard to find really good, scary stuff that doesn’t either turn to gore (like a lot of “horror” movies do) and doesn’t step on some of my personal no-go areas, a big one of which is little kids dying. For a while it seemed like every heroine in every suspense or horror novel had lost a young child, and being the mother of two little girls I just can’t stomach it. It feels like I’m being manipulated. So I don’t like to read books where little kids die and I don’t kill little kids in my books. I’m sorry if that ruins the suspense for any readers, but…no. (Of course, once they hit the teen years they’re fair game. Muahahaha!)

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And as for movies… a well-done, truly scary horror film is a thing of beauty. My absolute favorite ever is The Changeling. Absolutely terrifying. Very little blood (see, I don’t mind gore, I just dislike it when it’s substituted for real emotional intensity or suspense. Watching a bunch of dumb teenagers who should have gone to Padre like everyone else get murdered isn’t scary to me, it’s just bland. It’s not the goriness itself that bugs me, it’s the laziness of it. Rather than coming up with a good, scary story, they just stick a lunatic in the woods with a gang of scantily clad coeds and call it a horror film. But horror should be more intimate than that, at least in my opinion.) It’s such a dark film, such a well-crafted ghost story, that even though it violates my aforementioned No-Little-Dead-Kids rule I love it anyway. I’ve seen it dozens of times and each time it scares me just as effectively as it did before. When that wheelchair starts moving — oooh, it makes me shudder just thinking of it.

I’ve also enjoyed some of the Japanese horror films. I guess what really does it for me is not only the supernatural element, but the idea that in a real horror movie, everyone might survive (of course they might not, but they might). So we can really hope for that and identify with the characters, instead of a slasher flick where they’re usually just a gaggle of caricatures who it’s hard to care about.

Speaking of horror books, I saw mention on your blog of something called Unholy Ghosts. Would you be willing to tell us a little about it?

Sure! Unholy Ghosts is my latest project, the first in a new series. In a nutshell, it’s about drugs, black magic, ghettos, gangs, and ghosts. It’s a much, much darker series than the DEMONS books.

Chess Putnam is an orphan — just like thousands of other people, whose families were killed in the ghost apocalypse known as Haunted Week. The old religions have disappeared, replaced by the Church of Real Truth, which discovered a way to defeat the ghosts, contain them underground, and protect humanity. So they are now the ruling power — you don’t mess with the people who could unleash hell on you if you don’t give them what they want — and if a ghost turns up in your house they pay you a settlement. Obviously that makes it very tempting for people to fake hauntings, which is why the Church has Debunkers who prove or disprove them.

Chess is a Debunker. She’s also a former abused foster child and a drug addict who lives in a punk-rock ghetto known as Downside and owes her dealer a lot of money. He offers her a choice: she can Debunk the haunting of an abandoned airport so he can smuggle drugs into it (or banish the ghosts if they prove real), or he can let his enforcer, Terrible, break every bone in her body in lieu of payment. So Chess chooses the airport, but quickly discovers there’s more to the case than just a few ghosts and she’s in danger of getting a lot worse than just a few broken bones, especially when a rival gang gets involved and there seems to be a connection to her latest Debunking case.

I’m really, really excited about it — certainly I think it’s the strongest work I’ve ever done, and something about it just clicked for me instantly. So I have very high hopes for it. :-)

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsOoo, sounds ballsy! I like that. Well, I hope you don’t mind me jumping around a bit, but I have to ask… curiosity compels me. Maleficarum, Malleus, and… Spud? Why Spud? How did that come about?

Hee. It’s actually kind of funny (to me anyway) because Megan was one of the last characters in this world. I’d had an idea for a book (and actually got about 1/3 of the way into it) where Tera the witch was the main character, her and another demon who appears in the second book. And one of the main points of that book was the whole demon/witch antipathy, that there had been a sort of minor war and there was still all this bad blood between the two. But the whole “personal demons” thing came to me while I was taking a break from that book, and I realized Tera worked better in it, at least to start.

So once I had that, and I started thinking of big, tough demon bodyguards, like demon soldiers…it made sense they would have anti-witch names. I like names to mean something. Greyson originally had a different name (I don’t remember what it was; he only had it for about ten minutes) but obviously his name is a reference to Dante’s Inferno. His middle name, which we find out in the second book, is a reference to a medieval legend. The Accuser is an actual “person”; it’s a translation of “Satan” sometimes used in Hebrew, and he was written about by Sir Robert Burton (who described him as promoting the sin of despair and leading the Eighth Order of Hell) and William Blake. Tera and her sisters are named after stars in the Seven Sisters constellation: Asterope, Elektra, and Merope (their mother died before she could have more children; it’s a little bit of witch lore that may never find its way into the books, but there should have been seven of them; it was a big part of Tera’s story).

So, to quit digressing all over the place and answer the original question, Malleus & Maleficarum just popped in my head, and right on the heels of it was “…and Spud.” I’m not sure how or why, he just was there, fully formed, standing around saying nothing but “Yeh” all the time. And it just seemed to fit; I’d wanted the brothers to provide some comic relief and there it was.

Oh, I don’t mind digression. In fact, I love those little details. They’re always so interesting. I’m even going to ask you another question of that sort, though this one will probably be weirder: As someone who’s spent time as an art and fashion student, sometimes I’ll spend a whole book cringing at fashion and color choice. So I was really in former-fashion-student heaven over the dress you thought up for Megan, because it was such lovely imagery. When you’re looking at that kind of detail, do you make it all up from whole cloth, or is there outside inspiration too?

Thank you!
Hee, I know what you mean about clothes. I generally try to avoid mentioning them too much, unless it’s necessary, like with the outfit the brothers picked out for Megan to wear to the Ieuranlier. (They have a tendency to pick out fairly slutty clothes for Megan, it’s a bit of a running joke I’m having a lot of fun with, actually.) Or when I think it adds something to the character, like Greyson’s very expensive suits.

I made the dress up completely. I suppose I did have some outside inspiration, as I thought about what sort of dress I’d like to wear and sort of imagined a composite of the sorts of things I like, but it wasn’t like I found it in a magazine and described it or anything. I mainly just wanted something fairly plain, so that it could be easily described; nothing outrageous that might “look” different to different people, (although I knew that the beading would but that was okay). Like if I’d said it had a plunging neckline, what I imagine might be different from what you might imagine. I might picture a little cleavage whereas you might picture something Carmen Elektra would wear and need double-sided tape to keep in place. So I went for strapless, and black because not only do I love black, but everyone knows what black looks like (plus, of course he would buy her a black dress.)

For me the description of the dress wasn’t so much about the dress itself as it was about how well Greyson knew her, and what would flatter her and what she would like. I was basically writing his esteem and attraction, not an item of clothing, so the fabric was actually his hands gliding over her or his gaze studying her. (And you didn’t ask, but I’ve been asked a few times elsewhere so I’ll mention it: No, he didn’t create the dress from thin air or something. He knew what boring clothes she tended to pick and so bought that on the assumption she planned to wear something dull and unimpressive. That’s why one of the brothers — was it Malleus or Maleficarum? — called him; they knew he had the dress and saw he was right and she’d need it. And yes, he definitely planned to seduce her that night, so that was part of it too. He was trying to butter her up. He is a demon, after all. :-)

Maybe I’m just a sucker for bad boys, but that seems like a sound strategy to me! Is there one question you always wish someone would ask you, but no one ever does? If so, what is it? And what’s the answer? (Yes, grade school question formatting has been forever imprinted on my brain.)

Do you know, I’ve had such a hard time coming up with a reply to this that I actually opened it up to my blog readers for suggestions? There honestly isn’t anything I wish someone would ask me; the questions I think might be interesting to answer are also very personal, so I’m not really hoping or wishing someone would force me to open up about my personal life. I’m not really what you’d call an open person. I’m fairly secretive and feel weird talking about myself.

But someone I trust suggested I take the opportunity to ask a question of the sort most interviewers wouldn’t ask, and one that really reveals something. So. The uncomfortable question I came up with is: With one or two exceptions, your characters tend to be unhappy people. They have bad family/home lives, if they have family/home lives at all. They don’t have a lot of friends. They have low to no self-esteem; they’re outcasts in some way. How does that relate to you and your life? Why don’t you write happy people?

Answer: Well, part of it is simply practicality. Happy people are low-conflict people. There’s not a lot to work with when you have someone who likes everybody and everybody likes him or her, and they don’t have any real serious flaws. But also…I just don’t relate to those people. I have only the vaguest sort of idea what it feels like to be genuinely happy; I have no clue how to represent that in my work. I don’t mean that I’m a terribly depressed, suicidal person or anything like that. I’m fairly cheerful and optimistic most of the time. But I don’t really know what happiness is. Like just about everyone else in the world, I didn’t have a family that supported me or tried to make me feel good about myself. I had a very lonely childhood; I never felt valued or important. (There’s more to that than just my family, but it’s not really important at this point.) I was homeless for a while when I was seventeen/eighteen; I slept in my car. I spent a lot of years really, genuinely disliking myself and letting that show in everything I did; I allowed other people to treat me badly because I didn’t think it mattered.

I don’t want to sound like my family are terrible people. They’re not, and we all get along just fine now. But I still don’t understand what a happy family really feels or looks like; I don’t know how to portray that or what kind of person would come from that environment, at least not from the point of view of a child rather than a parent (since I am a parent, my husband and I both work very hard to make sure our daughters will know what that’s like as they grow up.)

But the fact is, when I sit down to write it comes from a very dark place; that’s really all I have to express. So while I do like to write funny people, and I do like to put humor in my books, ultimately everyone is broken in some way simply because I don’t know how to write anything other than broken people.

Wow. Remind me never to try that again. I feel like I need to go get drunk and hide in a closet for a month with a carton of cigarettes and a scrub brush or something.

That was a brave answer… thanks so much for being willing to share that with us. I think a lot of people will understand that feeling, actually.

Okay, last one, before this grows into Interviewzilla. It’s — dun dun dun! — the advice question. I’m sure there’s a lot of things you’ve learned, but what’s one thing you know now, that you really wish someone had told you before you got started? (Barring that, any piece of advice you think important for aspiring writers will do.)

Hmm. I can’t really say I wish someone had warned me how difficult this business can be and how thick a skin you have to develop, because if I’d known that I might never have started! :-)

But in a way I do. I did have my eyes at least somewhat open going in, and I can’t remember when I first started writing or really wanting to be a writer — I know when I was eight or so I wrote a story about a horse and sent it to a publisher (can’t recall which one, it might have been Houghton-Mifflin) and got a form rejection, which as actually really nice of them as I hadn’t included an SASE or anything and I think the manuscript itself was written in crayon — but I’ve always been aware that this is a difficult business. I do have some bits of advice and stuff, though, so here they are:

1. Really, develop a thick skin. Learn to accept criticism. Chances are your first book stinks (I know mine did.) Chances are you, in the first flush of love, think it’s great. Chances are you will post it for critique and it will be ripped apart. This is where you have a choice. You can get totally upset and yell at people before flouncing off, you can get totally discouraged and then flounce off, or you can take those words to heart and really study and work and study and work and work some more. I think which choice you make determines whether or not you have a real chance at writing professionally. Either you care about the work and want to do it, or you just want people to kiss your ass and tell you how great you are — in which case you should find another career.

2. You must be able to spell correctly and construct a decent sentence. Editors will not do it for you. If you don’t care about proper spelling and grammar, you should not even think of being a writer. Seriously. To claim you don’t need that stuff to be a good writer is shockingly disrespectful.

3. Just because you’re published doesn’t mean you’re published well. Not all publishers are equal. Stay away from start-ups. I did an entire series on this last summer on my blog, if you click the tag Choose the right publisher it’s there. Read it. Spend time on other sites that offer advice — Absolute Write, the Writer Beware blog, places like that. Places where the truth is encouraged and everyone is professional.

This third point has a subpoint, which is STAY AWAY FROM PUBLISHAMERICA; IT IS NOT A REAL PUBLISHER. It is a printing house, and being accepted there means nothing more than that you were naive enough to submit to them to begin with.

4. Keep trying. Keep writing. Read everything you can. Read outside your genre. Read advice on writing from reputable sources. learn abut the industry — it’s the best way to protect yourself from scams. Ask questions of those with experience — you’d be surprised how many writers are willing, even eager, to offer help and advice.

5. Never pay anybody for anything. I didn’t pay to be published. I don’t buy copies of my own books. I didn’t pay my agent a reading fee when I submitted my query or manuscript to him; I didn’t pay him a contract or representation fee when I signed with him. He gets paid when he sells my work, period. Publishers get paid when people buy the books they publish, period.

6. There is always room for new writers, and anyone who tells you there isn’t has an axe to grind. New writers get published every day, and published well.

I guess that’s it, really. I think the best piece of advice I can give, honestly, is to join the Absolute Write forums. There’s so much good information there, necessary information, and it’s a great community. It’s been extremely helpful to me and a lot of other writers I know; it’s definitely worth the free registration, even if all you do is read and lurk (the Bewares & Background Check forum alone should be required reading). Avoid any forum where they seem more interested in patting each other on the back, making each other “feel good”, and kissing ass than in actually helping each other improve as writers and make informed decisions regarding publishers.

(Opinionated? Who, me? Nooo.)


  • Beth Johnson Sonderby (guest)

    BETH JOHNSON, one of our guest reviewers, discovered fantasy books at age nine, when a love of horses spurred her to pick up Bruce Coville’s Into the Land of the Unicorns. Beth lives in Sweden with her husband. She writes short stories and has been working on a novel.

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