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Interview with author Caitlin R. Kiernan

Posted on December 13, 2005 by Flames

How did you get started as an author?

As a published author? I wrote The Five of Cups in 1992 and, knowing how hard it was going to be to get it published, how hard it is to break in, I dredged up the addresses of a whole bunch of authors. It was a crazy, inconsiderate thing to do, and I do not encourage anyone to ever do this, but I sent the prologue out to, I don’t know, something like fifteen writers. I asked them to read it and, if they liked what they saw, to please show it to their agents. To my surprise, most of them at least wrote me back. And most of them even liked the little bit I’d sent them. A few asked me to send the whole manuscript. One of them, Melanie Tem, showed it to her agent, Richard Curtis, and he offered to represent me. And, to make a very long story short, that’s how I got to be a published author. Except it wasn’t anywhere near as painless as I just made it sound. Melanie also helped me make my first short fiction sale in 1993. I really have an awful lot of people to thank for the way things have gone.

What have you learned about writing and the industry since then?

That’s it’s a hard life. I’ve had amazingly good years and incredibly bad years and just about everything in between. It’s not a vocation for pussies. That’s what I’ve learned about writing. You get a thick skin and you get used to the constant stress and uncertainty and you learn self-discipline or you give it up and do something else. I never imagined how stressful it would be, and I think that’s something a lot of people who want to be working writers never stop to think about. Even for fairly successful writers, there’s all the stress that comes with the uncertainty of not knowing. All sorts of not knowing. Not knowing what you’ll write next or who will publish it or if they’ll pay enough that you can afford to write something else, not knowing what the critics will think or if the book’s going to sell, not knowing whether you’re really any good or not, not knowing if you’ll have money for emergencies, health care, retirement. That’s the worst of it, all the not knowing, that and the waiting. You must become very, very good at waiting, and I still suck at waiting. But yeah, you learn that writing’s work, no matter how much you might love it, it’s damn hard work, and it never really gets any easier. It’s not for the faint of heart.

What sorts of research goes into your writing?

That really depends on what I’m writing, on how familiar I am with a subject going in. But, in general, I do a lot of research. I am a great believer in writing what you know and knowing what you write. The best research is almost always firsthand experience. For example, if I’m going to write about a city, then it’s very important that I know that city. Not just the stuff you’ll read in books, but the stuff you have to spend time there to learn. One reason I don’t do as many historical pieces as I did earlier on is that I put so much effort into the research before I’d let myself begin actually writing the story. These days, I have to weigh the amount of research that will be required for a story before I take it on. If I’m going to write a story about X, then I need to know X inside out. Even then you make mistakes, of course. But I get very frustrated when it’s obvious that an author has just decided to wing it, when there are so many mistakes or just the general sort of superficiality that makes it clear that the author couldn’t be bothered to research whatever he or she has written about.

What can you tell us about To Charles Fort, with Love?

It’s my third collection of short fiction, made up of stories I wrote between 1999 and 2003. It was released by Subterranean Press in October, and I’m really not sure what you say about a collection of short stories. I mean, it’s so many things. It goes so many places. It’s getting wonderful reviews and selling well. As far as having any unifying theme, I don’t know. When I did the stories for Tales of Pain and Wonder (2000), I knew that many of them were interconnected and it was sort of like writing a very loose novel. I could tell people what the book was “about.” To Charles Fort, With Love is a different sort of collection, more traditional in that the stories are connected by theme, not shared characters. Well, actually, the last three are interconnected and grouped together as “the Dandridge Cycle.” I think, mostly, it’s a book that shows how my writing has evolved. And it didn’t start out as a tribute to Fort. That just sort of happened. I was looking for a title, and so many of the stories mention or quote Fort, because his writing is frequently a starting point for me, it just made sense. I like the playfulness of the title, because there’s nothing much playful in the stories themselves.

What can you tell us about The Five of Cups?

It’s the first novel I wrote, though it wasn’t published until after Silk and Threshold had been released, and after Low Red Moon was written. I wrote it between June 1992 and January 1993, at a time when my life desperately needed focus. I mean, desperately. So, I decided I’d write a vampire novel. Back in the early ‘90s, I think a new vampire novel was hitting the stands every five or ten minutes. When I was writing it, I never thought that The Five of Cups would be published. Much less did I think that it would be the start of an actual writing career. You know, there’s really way too much to say about The Five of Cups. I wrote a long essay on the ups and downs of that book for Subterranean Press when they published it in 2003. Most importantly, it was the book that taught me that I could write a novel, and it brought me to the attention of a lot of published authors. So, even though it didn’t actually see print for ten years, it was like this great portfolio sort of thing I lugged around. It got me an agent. It got me an interview in Writer’s Digest when I was still an unknown. If I hadn’t done it, I never would have written Silk or much of anything else, so I have to love it for that alone. It was something I wouldn’t do now, a fairly traditional modern vampire novel, but it was also something that I very much needed to get out of my system.

What has been your most challenging work so far? Why?

Well, it usually seems that the most challenging thing is whatever I’ll be doing next or whatever I’ve just done. I don’t know. Maybe the new novel, Daughter of Hounds, because it’s so different from my other novels, because two of the main characters are children and much of the story is told from a child’s perspective. Murder of Angels was especially difficult, as well, since I was coming back to the characters from Silk after so many years. And I was very concerned about the expectations that readers would bring to that book. I knew from the start MoA would be a very different sort of book, compared to Silk, that it probably wouldn’t be what a lot of my readers would expect from a sequel to Silk. So, not only did I have to figure out who Daria, Niki, Walter, and Spyder had become a decade after the first novel, I had to trust my instincts and not second guess readers.

Do you prefer writing short fiction or novels? Why?

I definitely prefer short fiction to novels, both as a reader and as a writer. Part of it, speaking as a writer, may be an instant gratification thing. With a short story, it only takes a week or two instead of many months or years before I can see the finished work. Yeah, that’s part of it. But I also think that novels, being such vast, unwieldy things, put the author at far greater risk of screwing it all up. By their very nature, novels involve far more complex acts of contrivance than do short stories. There’s so much plot and characterization and so forth to be juggled, far more opportunity to drop one or the other. I’d much rather be writing short stories than struggling with a novel. It surprises me that almost everyone seems to prefer novels over short stories.

Do you have any favorite horror or dark fantasy tales that you would recommend everyone read?

Too many to name, I’m sure. I think the most recent genuinely great dark fantasy I read was Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. That’s such an amazing, brilliant book. These days, I don’t read a lot of what might be called horror. I’m leaning more towards the fantasy side of “dark fantasy.” But Peter Straub is still doing wonderful things, and Ramsey Campbell and Thomas Ligotti. Mostly, when asked this sort of question, I find myself pointing readers to earlier authors, people like Angela Carter, H. P. Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, and so on. There just aren’t that many people writing dark fiction today who really excite me. I wish that there were.

Do you miss your time onstage as part of Death’s Little Sister?

Sometimes I still do. That was such a long time ago, it’s not something that I think about a lot. And it was a fairly tumultuous experience. I really wanted out of the band when I finally left, but just a few months later, I started to miss it. Well, no. I missed singing and song writing and performing. I didn’t miss the endless band drama that went along with it. I didn’t miss the crappy clubs. I didn’t miss rehearsing six or seven days a week, literally dusk to dawn. I didn’t miss that part. But I did miss singing and being on stage. For a while, I thought, well, eventually I’ll wind up in another band. It would come up every now and then, but my workload and responsibilities as an author kept growing. By 2001, I think I knew that the whole band thing was something that was part of my past, not part of my future. But there are still little things, every now and then. For example, Chris Ewen of Future Bible Heroes is using the lyrics from one of the old DLS songs on an album called The Hidden Variable, that also includes songs written by Neil Gaiman, Lemony Snickett, Peter Straub, Gregory Maguire, and lots of other great writers. So, yeah, I do miss the band sometime. Even with the downsides, which were many, it’s a time in my life and an experience I don’t regret.

What’s next for you?

Well, I’ve just finished my next novel, Daughter of Hounds, just this past week. Now I’m busy revising my second novel, Threshold, for the mass-market paperback edition that Penguin will be releasing next year. I’m about to begin work on the final story for Alabaster, a new short fiction collection that Subterranean Press will be releasing next year. Alabaster collects all the Dancy Flammarion stories I’ve written in the last four years, and it’ll be illustrated by Ted Naifeh, one of my very favorite artists to work with. I’ll also be doing another short sf novel for them next year, as well. I’ve just begun an experimental sort of project, Sirenia Digest (www.caitlinrkiernan.com/sirenia.html), a monthly subscription thing that grew out Frog Toes and Tentacles, of a book of dark erotica I wrote last year. I’m very excited about that, though it remains to be seen how big a success it will be. I guess the big next thing will be the next novel. I’m talking with my agent about doing a young adult novel next, a more traditional fantasy, perhaps. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for some time now.

Can you give us a teaser about Daughter of Hounds?

I’ll say that it’s a sort of sequel to Low Red Moon, though it’s also meant to work just as well as a stand-alone novel. It’s about Chance and Deacon’s daughter, and it’s about the Benefit Street ghouls, and, like Murder of Angels, it’s more fantasy than horror. Well, a very dark fantasy. I think it’s my most Lovecraftian novel to date, though I think some people will always say that Threshold is my most Lovecraftian novel. I think Daughter of Hounds is a very hard novel to categorize. I’ve jokingly said that it’s sort of like Pulp Fiction meets Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, but it’s really not like that at all. It’s set in Providence, Rhode Island, and in New York City and parts of Massachusetts, ten years after the events in Low Red Moon.

Drop by Caitlin’s Website for all the latest updates and other information about her work…

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2 Responses to “Interview with author Caitlin R. Kiernan”

  1. Liza says:

    Thanks for posting this interview! I just read one of her short stories and was so impressed I decided to look her up and found this!

    Reply

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