During her recent visit to Australia, Kelley Armstrong talks to Nalini Haynes of Dark Matter. The interview is available as an MP3 (podcast) at the bottom of this page as well as in text format here.
Hi Kelley. You said you’ve always written stories about undead and zombies, even in school. Do you have any funny stories to tell about your teachers’ reactions?
All I can remember is a general reaction of horror. I learned since going to the writers’ conference here that genre fiction seems to be treated in Australia a lot like Canada where it definitely does not get any respect. At that age I was writing it, it was basically, ‘That’s very… nice. Could you try something… different.’ When I got older and started joining writers’ groups I was still reading that kind of thing, fantasy, horror, and I would get, ‘You seem to have some talent. So why are you writing that?’ I like writing that. There was a time when I did try writing something more literary, something more mainstream but it does not work. I am not happy with it.
What authors were you reading that you enjoyed?
I remember as a child reading absolutely everything, reading whatever I could find on the shelves. It would have been a real mix, everything from fantasy, adventure, The Hardy Boys… I could never really get Nancy Drew because her adventures were not quite as exciting, but Hardy Boys certainly. Then in my teen years moving more into straight fantasy, horror, Stephen King… All through high school I read Stephen King, Stephen King and more Stephen King. I managed to convince 3 of my teachers to let me do projects on Stephen King which is not easy.
Congratulations. How did you manage to do that?
It was doing the analysis and relating what he was writing to older horror, its roots, whether it was Dracula, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, they could go with that as long as I was finding some basis for it in classic literature even if it was horror classics. They were ok with it.
Well done. How did your family respond to all this story writing?
They were very supportive. It didn’t matter to my family what I was actually writing. I think back now and wonder what they were thinking when I was bringing all these stories with ghosts, zombies and goblins. They were the ones who were like, ‘Write, write, write, whatever you want, write.’ At the time though it was never ‘write and this is what you will do for a job’. I came from a middle class family and nobody had a career in the arts. Nobody had a career in the arts. No artists, no actors, no musicians. It was definitely seen as a hobby. They were extremely encouraging but it was not something I could have said, ‘I want to make a living from this’, which is probably a good way to look at it.
The number of people who can make a living at it is a very small percentage.
It is very small. I do writers workshops all the time and I mention that because they have to know how hard it is going to be. It is not just jot something out and sell it. The last stat I had in the US is there are about 500 people making a full time living at writing. That may have gone up with the digital and independent publishing, but certainly 5 years ago, 500 people in the US. So in Canada that would have been about 50.
I certainly know of a lot of authors in Australia who have day jobs.
They do. When I’m on a panel at any kind of event, if there are 3 authors you can pretty much guarantee that one is writing full time, one is writing while working part time and one is writing while still working full time.
You mentioned before your family’s attitude to writing as a hobby, so you were encouraged to have a career.
You studied psychology and then switched to computer programming. How did all of this happen?
I was going through psychology trying to become a psychologist thinking I would write on the side and get a book published. When I was in my teens it was ‘a book’. By the time I got to university it was I’d like to someday do this part time. I’d like to have a part-time regular job plus write part-time. When I was heading into grad school, I got in and the gap between a bachelors and grad school. I was heading in, and I just sort of stopped and thought I’m heading into the kind of job where I am not going to be able to go home at night and write. All those years of school and even after that I’m going home late at night exhausted, I want a family, I can’t do all of that.
I can’t have the hard core career plus family plus writing. So I thought, ok step back. I thought, ‘How important is the writing? How big a chance am I going to take on it?’ I thought I’m going to switch gears. I am going into programming. Which is something I’ve always done and was my alternate career choice, but go to just community college for it and try to get a regular 9 to 5 job. So I did. I got a 9 to 5 job doing really boring programming, not the exciting stuff but the really boring, working in a cubicle 9 to 5 where I could learn to <alt> <tab> really fast so I could be writing while doing my work.
I’ve heard of a number of creators who have really boring day jobs. That seems to really nurture the creativity out of hours. Did that work for you?
It does. Certainly with programming I could have gotten something more interesting. I was always there thinking if the writing doesn’t go, I can get a better programming job, I can be working on something that’s interesting and not be working on 20 year old code that’s just number crunching for a bank. In the meantime it was an easy job so it was easy to get my work done and have hours left in the day so if I didn’t spend it at the water cooler I could actually spend it writing.
How did you move into writing full-time?
It was a tough decision. I was kind of forced into it sooner than I would have normally jumped into that. I sold Bitten when I was 6 months pregnant. Just timing, complete timing. I’d been trying for years and years and years and when it actually sells I’m 6 months pregnant. By the time Bitten came out 2 years later, my third child was 6 months old. I had 2 kids under the age of 2 plus a 7 or 8 year old, so 3 kids at home, 2 well before school age, a job, a book contract, it’s like something had to give. It can’t be the kids, it’s not going to be the writing, so let’s take a chance and just hope it works out. Programming at the time was a good enough career that I could, with some confidence, say let’s give this a shot and if in a year or two it hasn’t worked I can find a job.
Congratulations. Can you tell me about your novels? You have a few series out there and you’ve done some graphic novels.
I have. What I call my main series, my publishers don’t necessarily agree, my main series is The Otherworld. The thirteenth book comes out next year and that is the last book. It is adult urban fantasy that I started in 2001. In 2008, my first young adult novel came out. The Summoning. I’m now up to number 4 in that series. It easily outsells my adult books. In the US it would outsell by about 3 to 1. In Canada it outsells by about 2 to 1. The UK is the only place where, as far as I know, I’m still outselling with my adult books. That is because my YA is picking up there. But certainly YA took off so that would be my best-selling series. I also have 2 books in a straight mystery series, ex-cop turned hit woman came out I think in 2006, 2008. But obviously once the YA took off like that, when you’re looking at priorities, it had to be the paranormal series because they were vastly outselling the mystery series.
How do you manage to keep all these series separate and not have them bleeding into each other?
This year has been lots of fun. Not only have I still got the YA series, that’s contracted through to 9 books, I’m ending The Otherworld. In the first book in the follow up, I’ve written and sold the first book I’m going to do for adults, which is more paranormal mystery, and I’ve just sold this Spring a co-written middle grade fantasy. I’m collaborating with author Melissa Carr, we’re doing a middle grade fantasy based on Norse mythology. So I’ve been working on 4 very different projects. It just so happens that I’ve been switching projects and taking on something new all at the same time. I’ve had to really buckle down and have one project at a time. So I write one and I finish, move on to something different, when the edits come back for the previous one, wait until I’ve got a break. Don’t stop part way through. Wait until I have a break then do the edits straight through. So far it’s worked out mainly because I’m so far ahead of schedule that I’m not bumping up against deadlines.
That’s good. I should probably clarify, I’ve read two of your books, Spellbound and The Gathering, as well as your free online graphic novel Becoming. The female characters in The Gathering and Spellbound seem quite strong although flawed and have relationships with similarly strong but flawed boys. Edward Cullen is supposedly perfect. Why have you chosen a different path?
I think there really is the appeal of the perfect guy but I can’t do anything with them. I want flawed characters. It might be my psychology background, but I love a more complicated character. Someone I can give a backstory to. Who I can predict their actions are not always the correct actions. They can make mistakes. They can screw up like average people. In a romantic setting certainly a perfect guy is so appealing but I just have a lot more fun with flawed characters.
Do you set out to write characters who could be role models?
No. Definitely not. When I am writing YA I am paying some attention, but in general I am writing the kinds of characters I want to see. The kind of characters I want to see in a book would, I’m hoping, be the right kind of characters for a young adult audience. And it’s based a lot on whether it’s the YA, it’s the girls I see around me, the teenage girls, with their flaws, but certainly not necessarily what I would call strong heroines, not like Kick Ass heroines, but capable. Characters who might not have the skills to get through whatever is threatening them but they will develop the skills. They have the smarts or whatever it is, they can reach into themselves to find whatever they need to solve the problem.
And yet they’re not independent. They have their friendships, their relationships.
Yes, definitely. I don’t do lone wolves. I might do werewolves but I’ve never done an actual lone wolf character. I think that’s a strong theme in all my writing, it’s networks. Nobody is out there on their own. You don’t have the woman who is out there kicking butts and saving the world. You have someone who is out there with her group who complement her and have skill sets that help and together they will save the world.
Gail Carriger comments that to her the female lone wolf type character is actually a male hero with breasts. What would you say to that?
It is possible. Women I see around me do not typically do that unless there is a really good reason. You can put something in somebody’s past that is going to make them be that lone wolf character but in general women are far more co-operative. You can see this in so many ways, even within the writing community, like the Romance Writers of Australia, it is so co-operative. Everybody wants to help everybody. It’s networking. It is here, can I give you any advice? What can I do to help get you published? There is never any idea of ‘If you get published, you could take away sales’.
I like that co-operative theme. You wrote Angel: Aftermath. How did that happen?
I was at a Toronto convention and I was on a panel with other authors and one of the questions that came up was if you could write in someone else’s world, whose world would you write in. I said Joss Whedon. Absolutely. He’s the only person whose world I would ever consider writing in. Another author on the panel, an American author, was apparently approached by the company that was doing the Angel comics, to write, or he’d known the editor, I’m not exactly sure. But they were looking for writers and he said, ‘I think I know someone who might be interested.’ So they contacted me and said, ‘I’d heard you might be willing to do this.’ So it was wonderful and it was terrifying and I’m not sure I’d ever do it again. It was so exciting getting to write in that world, but when I was getting into it I realised I was going to screw up. I’m going to mess up something, I’m going to annoy readers, I’m going to get something wrong. It’s so hard to write in someone else’s world. No matter how much you love it, it’s so hard to write in somebody else’s world. I think I’m better off just doing my own world.
Well that way you don’t have to worry about their rules, their history and everything.
You don’t. You don’t have to worry so much about were you in character, were all your motivations in character, did you miss something that was said earlier that you’ve now contradicted… Not that you can’t do that with your own world.
But maybe readers are a bit more forgiving if it’s your own world.
Oh they are. They are certainly more forgiving if you’ve mucked up your own world than if you’ve mucked up something that they love. Because obviously Joss Whedon’s world is so beloved that you just don’t want to mess with it.
How much control did you have over the artwork for Aftermath?
Not a lot. I was doing full scripting so I was doing every panel, writing it out, then I got to see it. But again, because it’s based on someone else’s work, you can’t say, ‘My character doesn’t quite look like so-and-so.’ It looked really great, but I’ve done Becoming, I’ve done my own, so I can definitely get in there and say, ‘Mm no, that doesn’t look quite right.’ Or shift the expression. It’s a little different when it’s someone else’s. I was thrilled to see the artwork, it was thrilling to see what I’d written come to life. It actually looks like Angel.
Did you do Becoming before Aftermath or the other way around?
Yes, it was done before. I’d been doing online fiction for years. An artist friend, she’s in Paris, that we’d collaborated on smaller art projects. She said what about doing an online free graphic novel. I said that would be a lot of work for her. She really wanted to do it. I don’t think she realised quite how much work it would be. We discussed what we would do and I said I do have the perfect story because readers wanted to see this one part of the backstory for my main character. She was bitten and turned into a werewolf but the stories start 10 years later. Readers wanted to see how she actually dealt with that change. They got bits and pieces of it, but they wanted to see it. I thought as prose that would just be angst, angst, angst. It would just be the horror of it, the pain and suffering. I thought we could do it better in graphics. So I said let’s do that. Of course the actual writing of the script didn’t take that long. She knew comics much better. She’s a translator for French Japanese Manga so she knew that form. So she was able to help me get the script right. Then of course it took years for the actual art to be drawn. But it did give me a good background for Angel, because I thought yes, I know full scripting now, I’m a little more confident doing this.
Do you know why Kate’s clothing style changed from Angel: After the Fall to Angel: Aftermath?
Yeah. I wanted to change that character. This is that little bit of fanservice, fanfic, for me, which is looking back to Kate as a character in the TV series. I liked her but she was a bit dull, and you kind of had a character where you could see a lot of potential. You could see that she served her purpose in the TV series and then faded out. But if she had to face what happened in After the Fall, if she was living through that, how could that change her? Take that, plus what she’d gotten out of the Angel series, how could you then turn her into that warrior woman out there fighting.
Did you decide to have the werecat change into naked human form during the fight?
Oh the cat woman! Yeah that’s a problem with naked… I have dealt with this in my books. Obviously when you shift and change forms, there is not clothing there all the time. And there would be the changing in the middle of a fight. And yes, I remember dealing with this way back, early on. Bitten was going to be made into a movie early on. Angelina Jolie was going to star in it. I’d gotten the script notes on the book that hadn’t even come out yet. They were like ‘Could you not have her walking around naked after a change? Could you find some way to have the clothing right there?’ I was like, ‘You have Angelina Jolie as a star and you are complaining about gratuitous nudity!’ So yes, and doing that when I was writing this, I was like ‘She has to be naked, how are they going to draw that?’ So we had these little script notes in there – ‘Draw shadows. Lots and lots of shadows.’ So you can see how the artist did it strategically to hide the fact that she was naked most of the time. Because she would come out as a cat, change, where is her clothing, nowhere.
Did Bitten get made into a movie?
No. That was way back when they were trying to develop it, but it never got anywhere.
That would have been way before Twilight.
Yes, before Twilight. Early 2000 or so, yes.
Is there any talk about making any of these into movies now?
The rights to the werewolf one are held by a Canadian production company who are trying to make it into a TV show. It’s moving along nicely, I’m really impressed. It’s great to see it after all these years. Also because I’m ending the series, I’ve gotten more distance from it, so I’m thrilled to see someone else’s take on it, possibly more than I would have been way back when Bitten first came out and I knew that they would make changes and I was terrified of what changes they would actually make.
It’s your baby.
I recently attended a convention at Monash University where Angel: Aftermath came up. There were concerns about the presentation of Kate and the werecat. How would you like to respond to these concerns?
What were they concerned about?
The sexualisation of characters because Kate’s wearing a midriff top and the werecat is naked.
The nudity is in the script because that is the problem with shapeshifters. As someone who’s done a lot of shapeshifters I was finding lots of ways to give her clothing. I was concerned at the time that people would think this was gratuitous nudity. Hopefully they’ll do it in such a way that people will understand that she can’t have a fanny pack (bum bag or backpack). She can’t run around as a cat with a fanny pack. I did not describe Kate’s outfit. The character and her actions were as I described, but I didn’t describe what she was wearing. When I saw it, I thought, ‘Remember Kelley, it’s comic books, clearly they’re going to do something with that.’ Maybe I should have described what she was wearing to make it more… I think in my mind she would have been more jeans casual. She would have looked like a warrior. But not necessarily like that.
In your graphic novel Becoming, it appears Elena is changed against her will into a werewolf, raped, kidnapped, and eventually she trades sex for a ride back into Toronto. Is this intended as a moral tale or a warning for young ladies?
No it’s not. Rape, you mean when she was abused as a child? I’m not sure that came out in Becoming. She was definitely not raped at any point past that. She did have an abusive childhood. I think Becoming does not necessarily stand very well on its own. Not having read Bitten or anything else that tied into that. This is why it was done online. It was really meant for readers, for people who knew where it would fit into the series and how it stood as a moment in time. It really was this character who was horribly betrayed. In the backstories Clay’s motivation [for biting Elena] is not clear. It is not something that can be forgiven. It is 10 years before she comes back around to the Pack and rejoins the Pack. Part of it was because she was so abused as a foster child, the betrayal was difficult. But the fact that she was then forced to trade sexual favours for transit, it was going to be a blow that was degrading. It was bringing her back to that. So readers got that this was just as big a betrayal as the bite, to then lower herself to that to get back home. And how big a scar that left. And that was dealt with over the book series. And her past. It probably does not come across quite right if you’ve just read Becoming.
So it’s all about the context. Becoming was written, the whole project was a fanservice for people who wanted to go back and see the origin of Elena.
Yeah. We had Bitten, which takes place 10 years after the bite. There are then several short fiction stories that take place before the bite. But the bite was the one significant area I had not touched and readers who know that I will happily go back and give them the backstories, were like, ‘Why can’t we get that one?’ So I said ok.
What did you think of the artwork?
Good, yes. I know the artist. You can actually see the progression of the artwork from the beginning to end. Because it was taking place over a few years for her. At the end she was saying, ‘Can I go back and redo the first bit?’ I said no.
What can you tell readers about the sequels to The Gathering and Spellbound?
Spellbound is another book that would be really hard to read out of order. It is the second last book, and the middle book of a trilogy. The one before that was The Wakening, and the one after that, 13, which is actually called Thirteen, will be the last in the series. It will take everything and wrap it up. We often call the middle book the middle sausage link. It’s really hard to just read the middle sausage link.
Actually I read these (Spellbound and The Gathering) on their own, I thought The Gathering was the beginning of the series.
It is, in general.
For a book that is coming at the end of a series is surprisingly possible to read alone. I wouldn’t recommend reading it alone, but it is possible.
Good. My editors do go back a lot and say ‘Kelley you need to explain that’. At this point, I’m like, ‘It’s book 12. Nobody’s going to pick up book 12.’ But The Gathering is the first for those characters. It’s the 4th YA book, but the first for those characters. There are very small tip offs to events in the first 3 books, but the characters in The Gathering know nothing of them. But readers who read the first 3 books will see little tiny tip offs. There is a statue in the town square of Dr Lyall. Those who read the first books will know Dr Lyall. There is a mention of Dr Davidoff who is mentioned in the first trilogy. There are those little hints but otherwise it really is stand alone. It is meant to be a second entry point into the series. Then there are 2 more in the trilogy. Then the 2 groups from the first and the second trilogy will meet up.
Will they meet up in this trilogy?
In the 3rd book of that trilogy, that I just finished last month, had the 2 groups meeting up. So I’ve got a wider cast of characters. As you probably saw in this other series, I like having a big cast of characters.
Why do you like having a big cast of characters?
I need that freshness. When I started that Otherworld series with Bitten and they wanted a series, I thought I can’t write a long running series with just those characters. I love them but there’s no way I could do a long running series. I could only do it if I could bring in other supernaturals and do spin offs to their stories, and have the characters age a year for every book. So Savannah went from being 12 in book 2 to being 21 in book 11. Readers have seen her grow up. And she knows the other characters very well, so that allowed me to bring them in for the grand finale.
Do you think having your own children helped with the growing up of the characters?
It might have. Certainly you could see progression. You could see a lot of dealing with Savannah’s mother who’s dead but she got her own book as a ghost. Her dealing with the loss of her daughter. There would be a lot of me in there looking at what it would be like to have passed on and to be able to see her, watch her and not contact her.
It would be heartbreaking. Do you have any plans for any more graphic novels?
At this point not right now because there is so much going on in fiction. Certainly my artist from Becoming has said, ‘Hey, are we going to do something else?’ And I’ve said, ‘Are you really sure you want to do something else?’ We might do something shorter. I found comics very difficult, not in the actual writing but in the business abstract. I’m accustomed to doing novels where you’re contracting, you do the work, it comes out. I’ve had a couple where it sort of stops and starts, being contracted to do something original then the line falls. Being contracted to do something within my series’ original story, then it’s just not working out. So the business end seems very different to the publishing end, so I’ve gotten a little gunshy I think.
Have you thought about having the novels that you’ve actually written made into graphic novels?
I’ve been asked but the rights are all held by the publishers. So I’ve been asked and I’ve had companies approach the publishers. The problem is the US, Canadian and UK are all separate publishers for The Otherworld series and they all hold graphic rights. So to make something they would all need to agree and negotiate. As soon as a comic book publisher hears that, they run. They won’t touch it. They want something where the author holds the rights therefore they can just negotiate with the author. Which is why I’ve tried a couple of originals, that would have to be the way it would have to go. But it has not worked out. I’ve had to take the scripts that I’ve had for the original stories and turned them into prose novellas because I want the stories but they’re not going to work out.
You’ve just been to the Australian Romance Writers Convention. Is there anything you’d like to share with readers about the convention?
It’s a lot of fun. For anybody who wants to write, going to something like that is really helpful. Not only are you going to get advice from all across the industry, you’re going to get authors, publishers and agents, you’re going to get advice from everybody. But you’re going to have a really good time. And you’re going to have time to focus completely on your writing. It’s one of the rare times when you can focus on that and deal with people who understand. In your normal life you can’t go to your friends and say, ‘I’m really having problems plotting this part. The pacing’s off and I can’t figure out what I’m doing wrong.’ It just does not work out in normal life. You really need to have another author who can say, ‘Ok, so where is the problem?’ Or just sympathise.
Over a cup of tea. Yep.
How come you’ve come all this way for this convention?
They invited me. If I’m invited to a place that sounds like it would be a lot of fun, I go. I’ve certainly gone to Romance Writers of America. Canada’s chapters are typically part of America. For every genre group, they have Canadian chapters but it’s always ‘such and such of America’.
Do you have anything to say to readers and potential authors?
If it’s your readers, just keep reading. Keep finding new authors. It’s very easy to get into a rut and just stick with my comfortable authors, but there are new authors coming out all the time. Amazing things. And if you’re not willing to reach out and try something different, you’ll miss out on some great reading experiences.
Is there anyone that comes to mind that you’d recommend?
Certainly in the YA we’re seeing some great stuff come out, constantly new writers. In YA some recent great ones: Ally Condie’s Matched, Veronica Roth’s Divergent. New things by distinguished authors: Holly Black’s White Cat, Red Glove. Great books that are something new for her.