Blogs by L.T. Suzuki
An Interview with Tamara Sheehan
11/9/2009 9:29:01 PM
An Interview with YA author Tamara Sheehan
Today’s guest blogger is the talented and effervescent sci-fi/fantasy author Tamara Sheehan. I first met this gifted author on Oct. 3, 2009 in downtown Vancouver during VCON 34 where we were both panelists taking on questions about the challenges of writing for a YA audience. Tamara, I’d like to begin by having you share a little information about yourself with our readers.
TS: I’m a twenty-nine-year-old Canadian who grew up in a very small town in the British Columbia Rocky Mountains. One day when I was very small and whining about having no one to play with, my mom said, “Well, honey, sometimes you have to play by yourself. Why don’t you use your imagination?”
My next memory is my mom telling me that if I kept telling friends that I didn’t want to come over and play, they would soon stop asking. Since then, I spend most of my time trying to maintain a balance. I’m afraid I prefer being in my own head to being in reality, but there are things, like friends and loves, worth coming back to reality to see occasionally.
LTS: With the YA novel ‘The Tenth Man’ and ‘The Mediocre Assassin’s Handbook’ in print and more books in the works, has writing stories always been a part of your life and becoming a published author a life long dream?
TS: I've wanted to be a professional writer for just about as long as I can remember (except for a short time when I thought I would be an artist on the strength of my unicorn-drawing ability).
I grew up on stories, so it feels very natural to want to write them. I remember hearing about my great grand dad who went down to the butcher's for bacon and died of a heart attack while waiting in line. Apparently, when my great gran heard the news she said, "It was the price of bacon that did it." I grew up on stories like that, tidbits that illustrated people I had never met and would never meet, but stories that made them real.
LTS: Your latest novel, ‘The Mediocre Assassin’s Handbook’ has a very Asian flavor, or am I leaning this way because I’m of Asian descent?
TS: I wanted to write a fantasy novel, but I'm not equipped to write a western fantasy novel because I've got no background in medieval European history. I've got a degree in Greek and Roman studies, but doing a Roman-era novel would feel too much like homework, or like a weird attempt at my Masters or something.
I spent a very little bit of time in South Korea, and I've been studying martial arts for many years, so in the course of my training, I've read a little about Asia, particularly Japan in the late 19th century. It's a fascinating time, everything was going crazy - it's the end of the samurai, the beginning of intensive industrialization and urbanization, mythology and magic are still very, very real. It’s the perfect place to have an adventure.
LTS: What is the inspiration behind this story and can you tell us a little bit about your protagonist, Jao?
TS: I had just read Warren Ellis's Crooked Little Vein and wanted to write the biggest, most over the top absurd story I could. I sat down on the floor with my laptop and wrote, 'The samurai, you can't miss them…' (which is what I thought when I saw the huge shoulders on the samurai in the movie Ran for the first time). I looked up from the screen four hours later with a crick in my neck and a book started.
I was having a great time writing Handbook, but I didn't think anyone would be interested publishing it. Honestly, a noir mystery set in 19th century Japan with magic and, oh, a foul-mouthed queer assassin main character to boot? So I just wrote whatever I wanted and when it was done I thought, oh, hell, I might as well submit it as have it sitting here on my computer. So I did. And to my surprise, Shawn at Prizm really liked it.
LTS: Without giving away too much, can you reveal what’s in store for the readers when they crack open ‘The Mediocre Assassin’s Handbook’?
TS: I always describe it as a pulp-mystery bad-history fantasy novel, which probably isn't helpful to booksellers, but describes Handbook pretty well. Jao is an assassin. He's in trouble with his boss, a guy who doesn't care much for people who can't do their job, so he's strong-armed into, well, essentially baby-sitting a too-good-to-be-true kid. It should be an easy gig, but Jao has terrible luck, and nothing works out like it should. Well, not much does anyway.
LTS: What style of martial arts do you study and has it influenced the way you write?
TS: I started off studying Shotokan karate when I was in high school, and then, in Korea, I had the opportunity to learn a little Tae Kwon Do. When I came to live on Vancouver Island, I started training a family style called Wa Ki Ryu. Then I got the opportunity to learn a bit of Kobudo. I've been studying that for a while and then decided maybe I could do some Taiji and some Qi Gong too. I like to be busy.
Martial arts contributed a lot to my books, and that’s one more reason why Asia was the natural place to set the stories. It drives me bonkers when I read a book where it's obvious the author has no idea what they're talking about when it comes to fighting, so, in order to not be that person I hate, I had to use a fighting style I'm familiar with. Give me a sword and I’d be hopeless. That means we're in Asia, and Jao is a low-class nobody.
I didn't write fights with weapons at all in Tenth Man, but in Handook, Jao uses knives in a couple places, and in the sequel to Handbook, Field Guide to Assassin's of Muromachi Street (out this December), there are more weapons, and there's more throwing, because I'm learning that stuff now too.
LTS: The road to publication is difficult at the best of times. Was it difficult for you to land an agent? Do you have any advice you’d like to share with the author struggling to find representation?
TS: Ha ha. It'd be like taking swimming lessons from a chicken, if you took advice about agents from me. I haven't got one. I want a particular agent in a bad way, but I still haven’t had any luck convincing her she wants me. Maybe next year.
LTS: Becoming a published author is truly a difficult road to travel, so we’re always pleased when a fellow writer is plucked from relative obscurity to land a book deal. Can you share that moment when you sold your story to Prizm?
TS: It was funny, because it came after a long string of problems. Tenth Man, my first book, was orphaned at a small publisher, and, feeling like it was better having a finished book in the mail rather than on my desk, I sent it off to this small press I'd heard about called Torquere.
They sent me a rejection and an acceptance all in the same email. They said the story didn't fit their list so they couldn't accept it for the parent company, but they were starting a YA imprint called Prizm, and would I like to be published there?
I did a small and intense chair dance, then emailed back in my most professional voice, 'sounds interesting, please send me a contract,' and then had a little freak out.
LTS: I’m curious about your writing style. Are you one of those disciplined writers who must dedicate a certain time each day to producing so many words, or are you more relaxed and tend to write when it strikes your fancy?
TS: I write in ridiculous bursts. The first draft of Tenth Man was a seven-day event. The first draft of Handbook was written over the course of June 2008. I spent long periods doing nothing; then have bursts of frantic activity.
I think I write like that because I'm really pressed for time (I hold down a day job and train a lot). I can wrangle a week off here and there, or a couple months of really, really part time work, but I never seem to have enough time. So the books have to happen fast. It's something I'm trying to get control of. I'd like to be able to take more time. Hopefully, next year I'll be able to.
LTS: Plotter or pantser? The readers would like to know if you tend to plot out your story line in great detail or if your writing is more organic with the characters and events unfolding as you write.
TS: For the mysteries, I plot. I read somewhere that Allan Moore used huge sheets of paper to plot out Watchmen. Apparently he plotted every single panel. I could never be that thorough, but the paper, well, I think that's a great idea.
When I'm doing a mystery, I roll out these big kraft paper rolls and sit in the middle of them and write all over them (you can see some of them on my flickr account). I do one for themes, one for events, one for a character’s progression, and then I do a big one so I can be sure the plot makes sense after Jao's got all the information.
With my other books, Tenth Man and Stormy Bamboo, I was a pantser. They're organic. They just happened. Tenth Man follows a classic, simple two-plot story line, and Bamboo is in homage to samurai movies of the 50s and 60s, so it runs in essentially the same way.
LTS: With the anticipated release of the second Jao book, ‘A Field Guide of Assassins of Muromachi Street’ and ‘Stormy Bamboo’ to be released by Prizm and Drollerie Press, respectively, where do you find your inspiration?
TS: It looks like I'm writing my butt off, but I’m not. I wrote Bamboo in 2007 and sat on it through a few incarnations. Tenth Man was written in 2005, I think. It looks like I've been busy, but I haven't really.
As for inspiration, well, I read like crazy. I tried to keep track, but it was harder than one might suspect. I think, though, that I read on the order of a hundred and fifty books a year (but not all of them are new, some are old faves).
I write lots of dud stories that will never see the light of day (or even be finished), but I think they’re a good way to explore an idea or a setting (I wrote four or five little stories set in the world of Tenth Man before I actually did the book). And I watch movies thoroughly. When I started watching samurai movies the winter of 2007, I watched everything in town by February. I get obsessed. Once I get obsessed, I start writing books, so I feed whatever obsesses me. It’s probably unhealthy.
LTS: Some authors meditate, others need to fuel up on coffee or listen to music. Do you have any rituals, ones that can be shared with the readers, that you must do before you hunker down for a writing session?
TS: I have Raynaud's disease, which essentially means I get cold fast and don't warm up easily, so I usually grab something warm to snuggle up with, otherwise, I don't do much. I used to, but I think there's a tendency to ritualize a writing session, and I think that's because there's so much invested in it.
The fact is, everything one does before sitting down to write just wastes writing time. Pre-work rituals are a great way to not have to look at the story and deal with either creating it or killing it. If one's essential needs are met, then there's no reason not to sit down at the computer. If I find I don't want to, that's usually the sign of a story in trouble, or dead in the water.
LTS: At one time or another, most writers hit the wall and their work stalls because of the dreaded writer’s block. What do you do to get around or over this mental wall to resume writing?
TS: I think there's a huge amount of pressure on creative people to create to a schedule and I suspect it's going to the well over and over again that makes it go dry. I haven't had anything like serious writer's block, but I think that might be because I'm not facing a deadline on a contract. That means if I'm not writing, I'm not writing and that's OK. I can wait while the well fills up again.
In between books, I used to panic and think it was all over and I'd never be creative again, and I'd have to go back to school to become an accountant or something, but it always comes back. I’ve stopped panicking. I’m trying to cultivate patience.
LTS: Who is your favourite author and how has he/she inspired you to write or influenced your writing style or choice of genre?
TS: Oh MAN! Seriously. Seriously? Urg. My favorite author changes with the wind. Right now I'm mad in love with Pat Rothfuss, who is writing the most amazing American fantasy. But I also love Richard Morgan, for what he's doing with good and evil, and his hostile lands. And I love Hal Duncan, for his unadulterated crazy and his lack of interest in linear plot. He's an incredibly brave writer, and I wish I had his guts.
Anyway, those three are on top right now. Tomorrow, who knows?
LTS: What is the most profound discovery you’ve made in terms of your writing and how it has touched the lives of others?
TS: I don’t really know. I’ve been a published novelist for not quite a year now, so I haven’t got a lot of experience to draw on. I think the thing that’s most amazing is how much everyone wants new novelists to succeed. Readers are excited to read new titles, and they’re quick to get back to you and say, “Hey, this part of your book mattered to me,” which is absolutely mind-blowing.
LTS: What is the most important lesson you’ve learned on the road to publication?
TS: Pigheadedness + willingness to learn = publication.
Oh, and it never hurts to be extra polite.
LTS: What are you reading now, and how did this particular book make it onto your to-read list?
TS: I keep more than one book on the go. Right now I've got:
Once and Future King, by TH White - Recommended reading for beginning fantasy writers on the Viable Paradise webpage (http://www.sff.net/Paradise/)
Me, Chi and Bruce Li, by Brian Preston - a cool martial arts book by a local dude
Monkey Beach, by Eden Robinson - suggested by a friend who's helping me with research for a future book.
The Gunseller by Hugh Laurie - borrowed from a friend who promised me humor, and delivered.
LTS: What do you foresee in your future over the next five years and do you hope to branch out from YA sci-fi/fantasy into other genres? Can your fans expect a trilogy from the Jao novels in the near future?
TS: I've actually decided to focus less on the stuff that eats up my writing time (like blogging) and try to get more work done. I'd like to write longer books with better writing. I really admire authors like China Mieville and Michael Chabon, who can play amazing games with language. I'd like to focus on learning those skills in the next five years.
I'd like to publish at least one more Jao book (called Hitori's Guide to Haunted Onsen). It's almost complete, and I'm pretty fond of it, even though it's not quite done yet. And I want to do something huge and absurdly epic over the winter, but what I have no idea.
LTS: Thank you so much for taking the time to share in your writing experience, Tamara. Maybe next year at VCON 35 we’ll do a workshop on writing fight scenes and supplement it with a martial arts demo of armed against unarmed opponents or how to use everyday items as a weapon?
TS: I'll bring my laptop and my mouth guard! But let's get a room that's not all glass next year, OK?
For more information about Tamara Sheehan and her novels check out:
Follow Tamara on Twitter: .tamarasheehan
Where to buy the book: Amazon.com, http://www.drolleriepress.com/books/, http://www.prizmbooks.com/zen/
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