Mur Lafferty is the author of The Shambling Guide novels, as well as the host of her podcast, I Should Be Writing.
JMW: Hello, this is Jean Marie Ward for BuzzyMag.com. With me today is Mur Lafferty, the award winning author of “The Shambling Guide” series and the long running podcast, I Should Be Writing. Welcome, Mur.
Mur Lafferty: Thanks for having me.
JMW: Our pleasure! I gotta ask, what was the inspiration behind “The Shambling Guide” series? They’re so much fun.
Mur Lafferty: Oh, well thank you! It has a sort of darker origin because I’ve always been a huge fan of “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and didn’t realize how much that had infiltrated my hind brain. But it was during the aftermath of Katrina in 2005 where some game writers and I were trying to figure out what we could do to help with all of the madness down there. So we thought we would write a role-playing game book about New Orleans and have the proceeds go to the Red Cross for relief efforts.
And for some reason, I just had this idea of a young tour guide who loved her job so very much that when she died she wanted to keep doing it. So she just kept doing her job as giving tours around New Orleans, only she did it to monsters instead of to humans, and it was just a 4,000 word short story but it stayed with me. And so I started working on the same concept, slightly for New York, and I worked on that novel on and off for a couple of years. And then for the second book I was able to go back to New Orleans and expand my original idea a great deal. So it started out kinda dark but most of my stuff runs to humor anyway so I was able to lighten it up a little bit.
JMW: And the heroine of the story, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the series heroine is actually a living human.
Mur Lafferty: Yes, yes.
JMW: A little bit different than the concept.
Mur Lafferty: Well, you know, it’s the whole fish out of water story. You got to throw somebody into a situation so you can introduce the whole alien world through the eyes of someone who knows about as much as the reader does. And, you know, it’s always fun to throw a human at monsters to see how they react.
JMW: On both sides.
Mur Lafferty: Yes.
JMW: What role did your podcasting play in the development and marketing of the series, or did it?
Mur Lafferty: Not so much in the development. I mean, I wrote a lot and released a lot via podcast in the past, gosh, eight years. But “The Shambling Guide to New York City” was written with the hopes that it would be published traditionally, but we did get it in the contract that I would be allowed to podcast the final audiobook. So I was able to use that as a marketing tool to podcast the first book, and the second book is just in like the sixth episode or something right now of the podcast. So you can still get the second one for free. The first one, I took it down after a couple of months as requested by the publisher.
JMW: And these are on your website?
Mur Lafferty: Yes.
JMW: Okay, good. You know, this raises a question for me. How does telling a story for the page, you know, and for the eye, differ from telling a story for the ear as you do in podcasts or does it?
Mur Lafferty: Well, it’s funny you say “for the eye” because I am not a visual person. It’s one of my great failings that I find things like picturing a scene and description, I find it very difficult. That’s the hardest thing about writing for me, so I don’t consider writing on a page “for the eye” but for me it’s the pacing. The pacing’s very different when you write specifically for audio than when you write for the page. When I tried to write my afterlife series, I wrote it with the specific goal to release episodically.
So I tried to do a contained story every week. And then when I collected that and tried to sell it, most publishers said this runs too episodically. And that was one of the reasons they didn’t want it. And then, of course, recently John Scalzi managed to do quite well with “Human Division” doing that same thing. So I don’t know if they’d say the same thing today as they did several years ago, but it’s mostly the pacing. I don’t worry about things like description or ear vs eye. It’s more, “Do you feel satisfied at the end of the chapter you just heard?” that it was a contained story, or “Do you feel a great need to keep reading?” That kind of thing. So mostly it’s about the pacing.
JMW: How do the different modes, you know, the pacing, the self-contained module, if you will. How do the different modes of writing, doing that, then going back and writing something like “The Shambling Guides” where you have a hook at the end of each chapter? How do the two reinforce each other?
Mur Lafferty: I don’t know! That question’s too smart for me.
JMW: Hey, it’s a valid answer!
Mur Lafferty: Well, I don’t know. I really just like to think that everything I’ve learned up to now from writing by myself and then writing running the risk of great public rejection or worse, utterly ignoring when I put stuff out on my podcast. Everything I was doing was experience and leading me up to being better at what I do. And so I like experimenting with different kinds of storytelling whether it’s … And, you know, I didn’t even realize how much I was influenced by Douglas Adams until I was done with the first book. Which is probably for the best because I might have quit writing it because I would have been afraid someone would accuse me of being derivative or whatever.
But you know, one of the things I loved about “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” is when they went into the snippets from the book, the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” So I wanted to do that kind of thing for mine, and I don’t know, I just like to play around and I don’t really think of why. Maybe I should examine myself more closely.
JMW: As long as the work …
Mur Lafferty: Now you’ve made me introspective …
JMW: No, no! You were introspective enough! You’ve just gone and you’ve become all academic on us! And you went and got your Master of Fine Arts in Popular Fiction! Oh my God, isn’t that an introspection enough? All kidding aside, how did the process of getting your Master’s affect your writing and your podcasts or did it?
Mur Lafferty: Oh, it affected a lot. I got a whole lot out of what I wanted to out of the Master’s program. You know, it’s Popular Fiction so I’m studying with people who not only embraced but helped me fine tune the science fiction and fantasy aspects of my work. The timing of my book deal and my Master’s was perfect because I was able to use the “Ghost Train to New Orleans” as my thesis.
JMW: Oh, wow.
Mur Lafferty: So that was helpful. I got to mentor with James Patrick Kelly for a good part of the semester where I wrote “Ghost Train to New Orleans” and so he helped me look at it. I run the risk of making urban fantasy fans angry here, but I kinda had something more literary in mind for my thesis. And then when the book deal came along, I had the very enviable problem of, “Well, I want to write something more serious, but I kinda have a book due,” and Jim told me, “Look, whatever you have to write we will make it the best it can be.” So he said, “If you have to write an urban fantasy book, we will make it the best urban fantasy book you can do.” And he really challenged me and a lot of people have told me that the first book was nice and fresh and unexpected and funny but that the second one was crafted better.
And that is hugely validating for me and the work I put toward my Master’s, and makes me more grateful to Jim Kelly than I was before because clearly it did. I can see that I improved, and so it was definitely worth it for me.
JMW: Cool. Cool. What are you working on now?
Mur Lafferty: I don’t have a work in progress contracted, so I’m actually doing a number of proposals to send to publishers and they’re a variety of things. There’s a sort of surreal detective story. There’s a clone murder mystery in space, a YA cannibalism story and a real world story.
JMW: Oh my.
Mur Lafferty: So I’m doing all sorts of stuff, just sort of doing the shotgun approach to see if anything sticks.
JMW: Oh cool! Well, we’ll look forward to all of them.
Mur Lafferty: Thank you.
JMW: Thank you. Is there anything you’d like to add?
Mur Lafferty: I don’t think so! You can find out more about me at murverse.com and that’s about it.
Jean Marie Ward writes fiction, nonfiction and everything in between, including art books, novels (2008 Indie Book double-finalist With Nine You Get Vanyr), and short stories such as WSFA Small Press Award finalist “Lord Bai’s Discovery” and “Personal Demons” in the award-winning anthology Hellebore and Rue. Her videos include author interviews and tutorials.