6 Questions with Deborah Grabien

1. On a scale of one to ten, rank your current level of insanity–where ten is belongs-in-lunatic-asylum insane–and tell us why.

At the moment? I’d have to give it a solid eight, not all of which has to do with writing. There are money issues keeping me up at night, plus I’m deeply involved in local rock and roll (Bay Area), especially in helping with the organization and ramp-up for San Francisco’s free concert in Golden Gate Park on 2 September. It’s the fortieth anniversary of the Summer of Love, and the show is going to be a monster. I’m dealing with the political end. My to-do list for the day includes nagging the mayor of San Francisco and my congressional representative, who also happens to be the Speaker of the House, about whether or not they’re appearing. Going to be a long day.

More insanity, on the writing front: I’m working on a YA novel (for 15 and up, I’d say), called Dark in the Park, narrated by a feral cat. Sixteen thousand words in at the moment; I’m trying to finish that one by the end of September. Plus, I’ve been doing a series of Mystery panels for the Santa Clara Library System with other authors, and the final one is this week. I’ve got a two-hour radio appearance this coming Saturday.

And that doesn’t touch the fact that I’ve got two novels coming out within a few weeks of each other in November and December, plus the anthology I’m in for Avalon.

Did I say eight? Make that a nine. A nice little rubber room somewhere, with a fruit basket and an espresso machine, and crayons to write with, sounds perfect…

2. After publishing a few books, you took a few years away from writing to learn how to cook. Did you write during that time, even just dabbling? Or was cooking too all-consuming?

Do you know, I don’t think I wrote a word of fiction during that ten years. I didn’t take the ten years off to perfect the cooking skills – I mean, yes, polishing the cookery was what I did, but it wasn’t why I walked away. I walked away because I really hated what publishing looked to be becoming: giant conglomerates who wanted product rather than books or authors, individual players who were more interested in seeing their name dropped casually in the New York Times, blah blah blah. Not what I signed on for. So I said, to hell with it, and turned my back.

But this is really more the answer to question six, so I’ll talk more about it there.

I think I didn’t write during that period because there were other things happening in my world. I wasn’t just cooking – I was ill for a chunk of it. I had stage one cervical cancer in 1997. I had throat surgery in 1999. I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2002.

I got into my forties and things just fell apart, physically. So that was part of what was happening – a lot of my emotional energy went into staying alive.

3. You’ve been writing a whole lot in the past few years. You’re not afraid that you’re heading towards burn-out? Or do you merely consider it an exhilarating pace?

Oh, I doubt it’s burn-out; I don’t work that way, emotionally or creatively. And yes, the pace is exhilarating, but whether it keeps up is an open question. Only time will tell.

I’m a storyteller. It’s what I do. And a storyteller creates stories, whether by book or by song lyric or by simply drawing people around the campfire and saying “Once upon a time…” It’s as integral as breathing. I’ve never had writer’s block, probably for that very reason. There’s always a story, and the story wants out.

Plus, the stories I want to tell at fifty aren’t the ones I told at thirty. You hit midlife and suddenly there are doors with signs on them saying “Not an option anymore, move along.” But there are always other doors.

So as long as I’m alive and receptive to listening to myself, the stories will coalesce. At least, I hope so.

4. Music has been a big part of your life, and it plays a part in your next series, the Kinkaid Chronicles. Is it a part of your writing process as well?

Absolutely. That’s one of those things that’s changed over the years. Of the first four novels, three were written with absolute quiet – even a fly buzzing could send me into a snarling fit. When I wrote Plainsong, though, I was listening to Suzanne Vega’s “Solitude Standing” CD. That was my main listening for the six weeks that book took to write. It was an unbelievably tranquil experience.

When I started the Kinkaids, the need for music was obvious. My narrator, JP Kinkaid, is a rock star and a session guitarist who was a child prodigy. He also came out of a man I knew and loved thirty-five years ago, a world-class musician; part of writing the Kinkaids in the first place was to get him back by using his voice as I remembered it, and to see myself as I was then and as we both might have evolved, had things gone differently.

So this one came with the built-in soundtrack, because I had the music JP’s inspiration made, all those years ago. And now, no matter what I’m working on, I want music, all day and all of the night (two points to anyone who got the Kinks reference!). My iTunes gets a serious workout.

5. Last month marked the release of the final novel of your Haunted Ballad quintet, which is set in Britain as well as having mysteries that often center around British folklore and music. Did you have an interest in the music and the history before you started writing the series, or because you started writing the series?

Interest first, books second. I’ve always loved rock and roll and I’ve always adored traditional music as well (I have jazz days, but not as frequently as I used to, alas). When the trad bands in the UK went electric, I did the serious dance of joy. Fairport Convention, Pentangle, Steeleye Span – loved them all (still do).

So I’ve been listening to that music, and getting into the bardic tradition it represents, for over forty years now. And the history? Hell, that’s one of my majors. I was a Plantagenet specialist, which made the second Haunted Ballad, The Famous Flower of Serving Men, the easiest one to write, in terms of the historical aspect. That was Wat Tyler, John of Gaunt and the Peasants Rebellion. Right there in my wheelhouse.

6. Still Life With Devils is Drollerie Press‘s first print release. Can you share how it came to be published with a small press?

Well, I had Still Life With Devils written; like the first Haunted Ballad, I’d begun it in 1993 or thereabouts, and then I put both books in a drawer and walked away from writing and publishing. My agent then didn’t seem to have any enthusiasm for anything that wasn’t a series book, something she could sell without some hard work involved. In those days, I had no interest in writing a series.

Plus, the surge of “cult of personality” attitude in publishing – it’s worse today than it ever was, in fact – was enough to make me unwilling to deal with it. We’re seeing it in mainstream publishing more and more: “Superagent wining and dining publishers in NYC with Big New Client!” The big new client is some politician’s kid. Said superagent gets the kid a half-million dollar deal on the strength of Cult of Personality, the publisher takes that allotment of their resources away from publishing ten other authors and flings it into shining shite, basically, and the books sells maybe five thousand out of a fifty thousand print run. And everyone loses except the politician’s kid and the agent.

I got bored with it back then, and I’m bored with it now. I love my editor at SMP – she’s a legend for a reason. But the industry as a whole is, I think, in a deep dark hole, and they’re trying to dig their way out of. And of course, all it leaves them is deeper down.

I liked the small press option, because I think they may be the saving of publishing. And I knew both Deena and Amy, and trust them both implicitly, both creatively and as businesswomen.

So when Deena contacted me and asked if I would consider giving them Still Life With Devils, I said yes. It was really a no-brainer: the book wasn’t one I’d have given Saint Martins Press (and they’re already have two of my series in any case), it fit Drollerie’s guidelines to a tee (magical realism thriller), and with any luck, the fact that I already had nine other novels out and a reasonable reputation as a literary writer would get Drollerie’s stable of first-time writers get a foot in the door for things like Publishers Weekly or Kirkus reviews.

Deborah Grabien‘s current releases are Still Life With Devils and New Slain Knight. She also has an essay in the collection For Keeps.


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