Monday, October 29, 2012

Special Guest Author: Tessa Gratton

This week we welcome Tessa Gratton, author of Blood Magic and Blood Keeper.  Tessa has wanted to be a paleontologist or a wizard since she was seven.  She was too impatient to hunt dinosaurs, but is still searching fro someone to teach her magic.  After traveling the world with her military family, she acquired a BA (and the important parts of an MA) in gender studies, and then settled down in Kansas with her partner, her cats, and her mutant dog.  You can visit Tessa at


From about age 8, my goal in life was to be a great wizard. The sort who’s discovered randomly in the fields one day and taken to a dark tower where she’s alone with her teacher for at least a decade, learning about mathematics and alchemy in order to control the natural world with a complicated ritual. Possibly also I’d have a griffon familiar.

Because it’s the little things.

By the time I was in high school I realized that a) a wizard master would be nearly impossible to find, and b) probably it was for the best, because I was likely to turn out a very DARK wizard. The world is better off for my not having phenomenal cosmic powers. The next best thing was to be a writer.

I wrote loads of stories about wizards and magic and fantastical worlds, but by the time I started Blood Magic, which would become my first published novel, I was thinking about magic very differently. It was a more intimate thing, tied to prayer and desire, not grandiose plots and world domination. I read everything I could get my hands on about “real” magic around the world. Religious rituals, witchcraft from all ages and countries, folklore and fairy tales – in all of these places, magic was about the heart, about balance and sacrifice and nature. Heroic magic hinged on simple choices instead of geometry.

And it was darker than anything I’d imagined. Animal sacrifice, blood magic, resurrection, cursework; all of these things exist in our world, in our major religions. I became desperate to explore them in a modern setting.

I started the story with character, of course, with family and relationships and loss, but when I began to build the magic my main questions were:

How far do you have to go for this magic?

How far can you go and still be a hero?

How bad can I make it?

Where is the line between my hero and my villain and the magic they each use?

There are three voices in Blood Magic: a girl, a boy, and the villain. I follow the villain’s descent into darkness in order to highlight the choices she makes that drag her down, to parallel her with the modern girl who struggles with the same dark impulses, but chooses more selflessly.

What makes dark fantasy thrilling and scary is that it’s not about world domination or creatures, it’s that the monsters are us. They’re reflections of who we are, or who we could be. Darkness in stories lets us explore ourselves, lets us look the monster in the face and relate to it.

My 8 year old self would have assumed that Blood Magic would be about great alchemy and warring wizard kingdoms, but instead it’s just about a girl trying to figure out who to become. Her magic is dark dark dark, but intimate and immediate and personal. It reflects her heart.

It reflects my heart.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Special Guest Author: Melissa Mickelsen

This week we welcome our sister at Hadley Rille Books, author Melissa Mickelsen. 

Melissa is the author of the critically acclaimed novel Nightingale. Born and raised in Georgia, Melissa currently lives in Germany with her Air Force husband and two cats. Melissa loves hiking in the mountains, eating strawberries, reading, reading, more reading, and really good barbecue.

She began writing in high school. After graduating from the University of Georgia in 2007 with a degree in Art History, Melissa worked in various jobs before pursuing a master’s degree in technical communication and information design from Southern Polytechnic State University.

Melissa's been kind enough to provide us with an excerpt from Nightingale, so after her interview, please keep reading!

Tell us a little about the novel Nightingale.

Nightingale is the story of a halfblood girl. Halfbloods are rare creatures, half-human and half-anthela, and ultimately regarded as demons by both races. They don’t fit in anywhere. When she is young, her home and everything she ever held dear is destroyed, and the man responsible forces her to become an assassin against her will. He uses her strangeness and the fear her kind inspires to terrorize a kingdom. She struggles for her freedom, pursued at every turn by the king’s General Talros who has vowed to capture her.

The book is about one girl’s fight to find herself, to live as she wants, but first she has to survive.

What was the inspiration for the character that goes by the name Nightingale?

Honestly, my teenage years. I went through some rough times growing up. At the core of it, we all want to be accepted as we are. We all struggle through tough situations in life, situations we think will break us, but there is always an ending. Things get better. Sometimes, though, we are the catalyst. Sometimes we have to force our circumstances to change.

The world of Nightingale is complex and very richly imagined.  How long did it take you to work out all the details?

Well, I first wrote Nightingale while I was in high school. The first draft, which was extremely rough, was written in about 4 months. I reworked it from the ground up a few years later and the whole process took about a year and a half to complete. I took many notes during that time, sketching out regions and races, and reading a lot of books about medieval living, weapons, herbs, terrain, etc.

What other projects are you working on right now?  Will there be a sequel to Nightingale?

I do have sequels planned for Nightingale. In fact, there are three other books planned in the series. I am currently working on writing and self-editing the third one.

What is your writing process like?  Any interesting rituals or techniques?

I write best in the early morning or late at night. I usually listen to music; the Lord of the Rings and Morrowind soundtracks are my favorite right now. I also don’t like having the overhead light on. A lamp in the corner is fine. A softer light makes it easier for me to concentrate.

What are you reading right now? Who is your favorite author?

I’m reading The Burning Land by Bernard Cornwell and Meat by Joseph D’Lacey. I have a lot of favorite authors: Jean M. Auel, Juliet Marillier, James Clavell, and Dan Simmons are a few. I mostly read fantasy and historical fiction, and sometimes dabble in science fiction.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

Read everything you can get your hands on. Even something that might not sound interesting can contain a scene or sentence or thought that can spark an idea. The next piece of advice would be to develop your own style. Don’t try and copy anyone else; just be yourself. Work on developing your own voice. Just write naturally and don’t try to force it.


Excerpt from Nightingale

      I sprinted through the lanes made into labyrinths by the ramshackle houses, searching for refuge. This was Astin Talros after me, the revered General of the vaunted Weapons. I had to find a place to hide, and fast. I could no longer hear him behind me, but did not spare a glance to make certain. It would slow me down.
      I chose a ledge and jumped, scrambled upwards onto a roof and raced down the length of the lane until a missing roof halted my progress. I spun, looked swiftly, and leapt to the nearest structure on the opposite side of the street, thanking the gods for narrow passages.
      I dashed over rafters and loose roofs with heaving lungs and galloping heart until a section of rotted shingles cracked under me. I was thrown off-balance, skidded to my knees and slipped close to the edge of the pitched covering. In an instant I was up and off again, but the slip had slowed me considerably. Exposed beams like skeletal fingers stretched before me and I ran toward them.
      The pain was immediate and incredible. I gasped as my shoulder erupted in agony, as I was lifted off my feet and sent spinning through the open air to land in a stunned tangle on the refuse-littered ground. I fought for breath, for sense, and came to myself just enough to notice the pale-fletched arrow protruding from the front of my right shoulder, just under the collarbone.
      My trembling fingers touched it and the pain blossomed in my skull. I cried out as the redness washed over me, trying to drag me into the depths of unconsciousness.
      His horrid face loomed over me, wavering in my pain-watered gaze. “Where is Guildmaster Caspon?” he rasped, grabbing me by the front of my tunic and lifting my torso off the ground. “I know he’s your master, so tell me where he’s hiding!”
      I struggled to draw breath, to see straight. I could feel the wooden shaft against my bones, scraping against the muscles I worked to keep still. Each pulse of my heart was fire and ice, like sharp gravel in my veins. “I am…” I said as strongly as I could. The front of my tunic was wet with blood, sticky on my skin. “I am no one’s slave.” The words were more powerful than I thought they would be. I met Talros’ eyes with as much dignity as I could muster.
      And then I could not focus on words for my world was spinning. I screamed as the arrow shaft was snapped and my hands rebound. “You are a coward and a fool,” Talros said in a flat tone, shoving my headband into my mouth to stifle the noises I must be making, and heaved me over a shoulder so that my hair hung loose around my face. I could feel trickles of my own blood creep down my neck toward my face, leaving hot trails of wet in their wake.
      His arm went around my waist, holding me like a porter does a sack of flour. Each step was torture, each breath torment. Of all the arrows I had loosed, of all those aimed in my direction, not one had ever struck me. Was this what my victims had felt, this searing pain? My self-loathing redoubled. I had caused this suffering to others; it was only fair that my turn had come.
      I thought suddenly of my companion. Had he made it to the manor? Get away, I thought. Run from here and forget the maps. Talros was more cunning that I had thought, to my detriment, but if I could keep him from Nyx then I would try my hardest, wounded or not. I exhaled and let my body go limp in the hopes that Talros would put me down, thinking I was unconscious or perhaps dead.
      He did not fall for my ruse, and I made myself turn my head, heavy though it seemed, to gain my bearings now that we were gone from the mummers’ area. The rotting shacks had vanished and the lanes were stone and soil both, giving way to cobblestone as we went onward. An upward-sloping area came up beside the lane, and I recognized it as my practice field.
      The manor! Oh gods, oh gods! I thought wildly. He is going to the manor. Why? Nyx might still be in there, fool boy who had insisted on the job, and we two could not be remotely safe in the same place. I had to delay if I could to give Nyx a greater chance at escape. I was not certain how much time had passed, but it could not have been enough. Daylight could come and I would still think it had not been enough.
      I twisted my body, fighting the flaring pain, and kicked outward, struggling to slip from his grasp. He grunted in surprise and hurt as the toe of my hard boot punched him in the ribs, and his arm tightened on my waist. The other wrapped around my knees in an iron grip, stopping my flailing feet almost as soon as they had started.
      “Stop!” he snarled, pulling his arms tight, but I writhed like a snake and managed to contort enough to snap my teeth on the flesh right below his ear. He bellowed and heaved me from his shoulder. I landed on my side on the stone street, the wind knocked from my lungs. The hurt was incredible but I had no air to cry out. I could see my blood in the starlight, dark and gleaming like water under a full moon. I rolled my eyes to the man, seeing a black slick on the side of his neck, and bared my teeth at him.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Other Side of the Screen Door

Halloween is just a couple of weeks away; how better to celebrate the season than with a ghost story? I wrote this a couple of years ago, to help celebrate Halloweeniness on a friend's blog. It remains one of my personal favorites.

Happy Halloweeeeeen!
I sit on the porch swing every evening, watching the stars step out of dusk, glittering debutantes swirling onto a dance floor. It’s my favorite time of the day. My peaceful time. The stars don’t seem as bright as they were when I was a child; but I remember. I pretend. It’s nearly as good as it used to be, for a little while.
It’s cold, though. I never minded the cold before. It used to be a relief from the southern heat. Now I miss its velvet clinging to my skin, making my hair curl. I miss the fireflies and cricketsong and the scent of peaches long after season’s end. It was always summer. Once. Things change. They become too small to see, to hear.
I swing. Back and forth. Back and forth. The chains of the porch swing creak and groan. How many times I’ve asked him to oil them. He doesn’t hear me, or pretends not to. If he would listen, just once, things would be better. I’d stop being so angry all the time. I don’t like to be harsh with him. I love him. And it’s so very unladylike, throwing things, breaking things, making a mess that he has to tidy. Fool that I am; I keep hoping he’ll see things the way I do. Love is not supposed to be this way.
I hear him inside, cleaning up the dishes I dashed to the floor, pretending he can’t hear the porch swing, believing he can drown me out. He should know better by now. I can hold out longer than he can. I swing faster. The creaking becomes a rusty, grating, angry sound. I want to be a girl again, full of dreams that will never come true. I want to go inside, make him acknowledge me, make him love me. I want. I want. But I never get what I want. Why should this be any different?
The screen door opens and clacks closed again. I let the swing sway to a stop. He is standing so near. I can imagine his warmth. I can imagine his touch. I long for both. He breathes deeply, and lets it go like a sigh.
“You have to go, Liddy,” he says. “Please. Leave me in peace.”
He calls me Liddy. My name is Charlotte. If he would only look upstairs in that closet I bang closed all the time, he’d see my name written on the wall there.
I can’t, I tell him. I won’t. I love you.
But he doesn’t hear me. He never hears me.
The swing sways, creaks. Softly. He weeps. Inside, a crash. A mirror, I think. Maybe it was more than one. I don’t want to do this. He leaves me no choice, and I’m sorry for it, but a girl must do what a girl must do.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Sex, Sensuality, Eroticism, where do you draw the line?

I will never forget the words of my first reviewer-critic, my grandmother, a committed reader, matriarch and saint after she read some of my early efforts, “This is a good story, Mark, but you need to put a little sex in it.”   

Hearing those words spoken in grandma-voice, wow, deep emotional scars.  And yet over the years I have come to realize she was right.  That story was good. Some bits and pieces have survived to this day as nuances in The Poets of Pevana and subsequent projects. My grandmother was a pretty savvy gal. She liked her romances on the sensual side. She was a painter, loved sweets (her Divinity recipe is a family heirloom), and understood that no matter how fanciful the tale, certain fundamental qualities should always prevail. Sex is always there. You cannot write people stories, or for that matter, being stories without coming to grips with the concept.

I think this is true in all fiction, especially fantasy, and as writers we all need to make decisions about how we present that stuff. How much is too much? How much allegiance do we owe our intended audience? How much do we allow our characters to set that tone?

I raised myself on the epic good verses evil tomes. I am still a sucker for the form, but I learned early on that once you get beyond the descriptions of the hero’s armor, the fifth heroic comment and save the world from the ubiquitous Dr. Evil type bad guy plot, more often than not what you have is a flat tale full of cardboard cut outs. There’s flesh and then there’s flesh, as it were. 

Tolkien’s sensuality comes through in his wonderful language, but the tale is largely devoid of physical sex. Perhaps that is why Boredof the Rings, The Harvard Lampoon’s marvelous parody was so successful.  Practically every page drips with titillation; it is a bathroom joke response. The underlying comment is a criticism of the form: LOTR is great but it risks turning off its audience because, despite the plethora of pair bonds, infatuations and attractions there is absolutely no sack time!
I wonder if Sam thought Rosie had a great ass.  Did Gimli have erotic dreams of Galadriel’s ears or timeless cleavage on the boat journey south? How does one have elf-sex in a tree? I just don’t see how a talan would serve if things got immortal-energetic, know what I mean? Did Aragorn manage to talk Arwen into a few mortal-fumbling pleasures in the garden at Rivendell?

I’m not trying to ridicule my favorite book and author, far from it. I admire the late professor for crafting such a wonderful body of work without having to resort to the sorts of things my grandmother seemed to feel essential.  I don’t think we will ever again have a work with similar restraint be as successful. Martin has shown us the marketing value of ripping fantasy sex, and I doubt the genre will ever be the same. And yet I think there is room here for discussion beyond Martin’s heavy handed use of nudity, body parts and intimacy.  I believe we have to let our characters tell their stories.   

In Poets, I started out with the idea of letting things go, playing around with titillation, dalliance and adultery within a framework of a political/religious story.  I recall having to fight for a character’s sensual aspect with my wonderful editor (perhaps the only battle I won in that process J). And yet as I drafted the earliest versions of the novel I quickly came to realize that the characters kept asking me for more realism. One of my least favorite characters early on has become one three drafted novels on: Demona Anargi, the over-sexed wife of Sevire Anargi in Poets. Her only use for me initially was to serve as post-adolescent angst totem for Talyior, one of the poet-main characters. A funny thing happened on the way to the conclusion. I learned Demona’s only weapon in the world she lived in was the sensuality and assets that threatened to turn her into a cliché. I actually found myself toning down some of her scenes because, in the light of her growing reality for me, the way I was using her seemed tilted towards cheap eroticism rather than an expression of her human power and weakness.  And I mean just that. Demona now represents for me one of the most real characters I have ever created. She’s a contradiction—just like the rest of us.  

And that is where I think my original question becomes more pertinent: Where do we draw the line between artifice and actual? And in using the motif, how much do we show? For me, the sensuality in my novels has served as a way into the real lives of the characters on the page. I’m a sucker for love. I think there is a place for it in our genre that allows for truth while avoiding rank eroticism. It’s handling that responsibility that makes the characters and the world they live in come alive for us and, hopefully, our readers.

I also think Sam liked Rosie’s curves, Celeborn had a thing for Galadriel’s rack, and Arwen and Aragorn had a great time making up for sixty years of abstinence. Just sayin’.


Monday, October 1, 2012

The Eternal Return of the Vampire

October is with us again!  And along with it fall colors, chilly nights, warm sweaters, and -- best of all -- scary stories. 

This Halloween season on Heroines of Fantasy, we will dedicate our discussion to dark fantasy and horror.  We will also have two special guests at the end of the month, Melissa Mickelsen and Tessa Gratton, who write dark fantasy and will share with us some of the secrets of their fantasy worlds. 

An iconic scene from the horror film Nosferatu.
My post this week was inspired by the story of Abigail Gibbs, a young author recently awarded a six-figure contract for her vampire novel The Dark Heroine, inspired by the Twilight saga.  I found out about Abigail through Facebook, where her achievement was met with much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Twilight, again?!  When will they learn a dead horse is a dead horse?  

Of course, mixed in with the pleas for no more Twilight was a not-so-subtle thread of professional jealousy over that 6-figure contract. 

I don't begrudge Abigail Gibbs her success. 

Edward Cullen, the epitomy of the
"romantic" vampire.
What little I know about her indicates she is a gifted young woman with verve and dedication.  She is poised to start her English degree at Oxford University; she spent her high school years writing novels. She promises The Dark Heroine will be grittier than Twilight, bloodier and infused with more horror elements, which I can't help but think will be an improvement, a refreshing return to the classic vampire myth.  I am even hoping that she will cast a glance our way, and grace Heroines of Fantasy with a guest post at some point, though I will have to do some homework on how to make this happen, now that she's uber-famous without even having published. 

But beyond Abigail Gibbs, and Twilight, and all the spinoffs they might inspire, lies a deeper question for me, and it is this: 

What, exactly, is the eternal appeal of the vampire myth?  Why is it continually resurrected, virtually unchanged, in story after story?

Akasha, one of the few vampiresses that
made it to the big screen, came complete
with bikini armor.
I'll admit up front that I am not the person to answer this question.  I used to be an avid follower of vampires, back in high school, when Anne Rice rose to the top of the genre with her bestseller Interview with the Vampire and its companion novels.  But somewhere between high school and college, vampires lost their appeal. They ceased, quite honestly, to have anything new to offer.

Even the Twilight craze didn't succeed in pulling me back into the vampire myth.  We rented the movie once it was out on DVD, but I wasn't all that impressed, and I certainly didn't experience the thrill that vampires gave me back when I was an adolescent. 

Indeed, the further I've drifted from the vampire literature, the more inclined I've been to see its symbolisms and tropes in a rather critical light. 

She's too young for you, dude!
For example, is it just me, or is there something rather decrepit when a 500 year-old-man courts an eighteen-year-old girl?  If you do the math, in vampire time that young lady is about 3 years old. Now, to be fair to those old bachelor vampires, I understand it gets harder as the centuries pass.  All the good vampiresses marry other dark lords, or they have stakes driven through their hearts, or they suffer terrible accidents on sunny beaches. 

But couldn't you maybe try to court someone at least a little more mature? Like, say, around fifty -- which, in vampire years, would still be an innocent-and-ripe-for-the-picking ten.  And fifty-some ladies are looking better all the time in this day and age.  Take Madonna, for example. I'm sure she'd be up for immortality, and she wouldn't blink an eye at having to drink blood every night for the rest of eternity. 

Courtship is a central theme of the vampire myth, and it's almost always a vampire man courting a mortal woman.  Anne Rice, for a brief moment, brought us Akasha and Mekare in Queen of the Damned.  But all the iconic vampires -- Dracula, Nosferatu, Barnabas, Kurt Barlow, Lestat, Edward -- are men.

Kurt Barlow's look was almost certainly
inspired by Nosferatu.
Why is it up to the men to initiate women into the dark arts?  I would love to see a 500-year-old woman court an eighteen year old boy, just for a change of pace.  What would that relationship look like? How would the public react to it? Would the story look at all the same, if we were to reverse the traditional roles of the vampire myth?  Maybe a new perspective like this will be one of the treats in store for us when Abigail Gibbs unveils her new take on the old story.

Now, don't get me wrong.  I haven't abandoned my love of vampires entirely.  I just tend to look askance at the romantic vampires.  Perhaps my standards have risen too much since high school, but I simply don't find the blood sucking dead guy all that appealing as a date.

Vampires are, however, very appealing as creatures of horror, capable of reflecting the most terrorific aspects of our own nightmares, driven to madness by hunger and the incomprehensible burdens of their great age and isolation.   

My favorite vampire of all time?  Nosferatu.  Now there was a monster you did not want to meet in a dark alley, much less go out to dinner with.  All the others pale (or shall I say, sparkle?) by comparison. 

So this month, I ask Abigail Gibbs and all the aspiring vampire authors out there:

Give us the scary vampires, the Nosfaratus and the Kurt Barlows, and while you're at it, give us some kick-ass scary female vampires too.  Make it bloodier.  Make it grittier. 

Make us jump like the mere mortals we are when the vampire says, "Boo!"

Not a pretty boy, but that's what horror is all about.

Posted by Karin Rita Gastreich