Sarah Avery Interview, Paranormal & Urban Fantasy Author
JMW: Hello.This is Jean Marie Ward for BuzzyMag.com With me today is award-winning author, Sarah Avery. Welcome, Sarah.
JMW: Glad to have you. Your mythopoeic award-winning “Tales from Rugosa Coven” is composed of three interlinked novellas. How did that come about?
Sarah Avery: It was an accident, a happy accident. Though, at many times, I was frustrated that that was the way it was shaping up, I started out trying to write a 7,000-word short story. Though I’m not a horror writer, I saw an interesting call for submissions from a horror magazine looking for psychological horror tales of the life interrupted. And as a post-modern, neo-pagan, I thought, what would be the most horrifying thing for…to interrupt one’s life? And it seemed to me that for a person in my demographic, the most horrifying thing would be discovering that some new-age embarrassment idea, like the existence of Atlantis, were true and then having to say so to a new-ager would be truly horrifying. And, of course, I was already now out of the realm of psychological horror and into comedy of epistemology, completely unsaleable, never call your book that, but that’s what it was.
And I just had a character who was so compelling. I followed her voice and I got to 25,000 words. And then I sighed because there were all of three markets all of which declined because I wasn’t famous enough to get away with 25,000 words. And I thought, well, now I’ll go back to my secondary world, epic fantasy, which I was working on at the time. And a few months later, one of my best friends from high school lost his father, who had been quite old and a hoarder, and so as I was helping my high school friend clear out his late father’s house, we found all kinds of pet food, cat brushes, bird seed, and the old man had never had a pet. And it seemed to me that this had to have made sense because he’d clearly been at it for a while. It must have made sense to him somehow. But as a fantasy writer, all of the ways I could come up with in which it might have made sense were fantasy story beginnings.
And pretty soon, I had the story of the Wiccan whose parents will not leave him alone after they have died. He wants to miss them but they will not go away because they want him to burn the house. They’ve been acquiring grave goods. And I thought, well, now I have another lovely 25,000 word novella which also I will not be able to sell and also I was not able to sell it for a long time until I found a tiny, tiny press, which did not last long. But it published the novellas separately as e-books. And then when that went under, I was already working on a third novella, because if you have three novellas now then you have a book. So I was working on a novella that was from the point of view of the comedy relief character who turned out to have a rather tragic inner life. Why was my professional fortune teller character so fixated on all of her forms of divination?
And the answer turned out to be that she was closeted with a case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. I had postpartum OCD and it was very, very, hard to live with. So I put together a sort of whole secret life for her to be living as she’s being seen as comic relief by all of her coven mates and found out why it was that she wasn’t telling the truth about her life. And it turned out, I think, to be possibly the best of the three. And after that first tiny press went under, I found a slightly larger tiny press and they put the book together. And it was one of those strange things that had great things about it and very difficult things about it. It was a tiny press that started going under or at least experiencing very hard times almost immediately after the award nomination.
By the time the award was announced, they were in really difficult straits and I was so concerned that they were going to go into bankruptcy, which they didn’t, but it…getting one’s rights…
JMW: You think about that, yeah.
Sarah Avery: Getting one’s rights tied up in bankruptcy is a nightmare that lasts decades for some writers. So when my contract expired, I decided not to renew it. So now that book is homeless. My shiny young agent is looking for a new home for it and the award is making a lot of people willing to take a look at it, who would otherwise never have been willing to look at a single author collection of novellas by someone who doesn’t already have a novel. I would never recommend to anyone that they start with a novella collection to try to launch their career. On the other hand, this is a book that has also opened a lot of doors for me at the same time as its format made it very hard to get it through doors at the beginning.
JMW: “Tales” was traditionally published.
JMW: Even though it was with a small press. Having won this award, which would open you up to agents, why did you choose to crowdsource your next project “The Imlen Brat?”
Sarah Avery: Well, there were…there were several reasons that came together at once. One was that I knew there were some people who were having such great success with crowdsourcing and with self-publishing that I wanted to find out if I could do that and do it well. Another was that the works that I had were “Tales From Rugosa Coven” which I was withdrawing but then hoped to get back out there, and a sequel, which structurally was going to be another single author collection of novellas, possibly a hard sell even with the award for the first one. And my first novel, the first novel that I’d finished, which was, you will all laugh, 300,000 words long. You’ll laugh because it’s funny. It’s George R. R. Martin length. It’s crazy but I thought, “What am I going to do while I wait for something to happen with the novellas and while I try to figure out what on earth I’m going to do with this behemoth of a book?”
Well, I have this lovely novella. I had sold it to John O’Neal at “Blackgate.” I’d been blogging for “Blackgate” for ages. They were…my first professional sale was one of the shortest stories I ever managed to write. I…long form is just my thing. What can I say? But “Blackgate” was getting out of publishing fiction. Once they went from being a paper magazine to being online, the readers were more interested in reviews, nonfiction, essays about writing craftsmanship. The readers just weren’t going for the fiction and John O’Neal said, “It kills me that I can’t pay you what the story’s worth and it kills me that I can’t give you readers. So, even if you just self-publish it, I am certain that you will be able to do better for the story than I could do for you, but I’ve been so glad to have it.” So there I was with this story, with this lovely blurb from John O’Neal.
And I thought, well, it’s a novella. It’s also the beginning of a longer unfinished novel that’s going to take me three years of research to get right. I discovered I was accidentally writing military fantasy about a cavalry officer, which wasn’t what I had thought I was writing when I started that project, and in order to write a book that did not suck, I was going to…and I still have to do a great deal of learning, but one what am I going to do with the beginning of the story which hangs together beautifully as it is? Character’s age seven, hasn’t been on a horse yet. So I can do something with this. Besides, it’s got ghosts and I always write about ghosts.
So I thought, well, I’ve already sent it to every market that looks at novellas and they all said, “This is lovely but you’re not famous enough for a novella.” I might as well see if I can put together a crowdsourcing project. Meanwhile, I had been watching for artists who might be good for cover art and I had my Pinterest board, “Belongs on a Book Cover.” So Pinterest would often suggest things to me that were relevant to book covers and the kinds of art that I’d been tagging. And it sent me this image from an artist I thought was some lost master from the golden age of illustration, somebody from the ’30s. Her work looked like Erté and Aubrey Beardsley had a lovechild and sent it off to be raised by Michael Whelan.
And I thought, “That’s perfect. Who is this lost genius from the ’30s?” And it turned out she was some kid just out of art school. So I had that in the back of my mind, and so I started corresponding with her. And during the time between when I first contacted her and when we finally did the book, she had her big break. And so she’s now like doing album covers for bands you’ve heard of and has a mural in the Ashmolean Museum. I mean, she’s like…she’s the stuff. But she was small enough when I contacted her that she was willing to consider a self-publishing project from a no-name writer. And we had a really great time. We had a really great time figuring out what moments from that story to do illustrations from and what moment was the moment to put on the book cover. It’s so beautiful. And I should probably dig it out of my bag and show the camera in a moment.
JMW: Oh, I can’t...
Sarah Avery: But, anyway, so I really wanted that book, that art, to be the face of that book. I went to the World Fantasy Convention and heard Betsy Mitchell, much admired editor, talk about how she had retired from publishing, from being the Senior Editor at Del Ray, to do self-publishing editing for established authors who wanted to have a sort of hybrid career. And I thought maybe I can snag Betsy Mitchell, and I did. So now I had the editor of my dreams. I had the artist of my dreams. My friend, Clair Cooney, C.S.E.Cooney, just won a World Fantasy award this past fall as a writer. For her day job she’s an audio book narrator and she owed me a favor, so between those two things I was like, “What would it cost for you to be the audio book narrator for a 17,000-word novella?”
And she quoted me a price so low I cannot say it here, and I thought, now I have a crowdsourcing campaign. So that was what I did while I lingered in agent slush piles waiting for somebody to say yes to “Rugosa Coven” and the 300,000-word behemoth that I’m in the process of splitting.
JMW: Because you found an agent.
Sarah: Because I found the right agent who fell crazy in love with that big book and for years people had been saying, “Well, you either split it in half or you cut it back,” and I was like, okay, great. If I can find someone who has the experience of being an industry gatekeeper, who will actually read the book and express a preference for one of those processes over the other. Because to do it right could take a year. I’m not going to spend a year on that and then find out later that I picked the wrong option. But I lucked into because of “Rugosa Coven” an agent who fell in love with the big book, too, and then I was able to say with someone…work out with somebody who really cared what happened to that book, what the best course was to make that book a book the industry would be able to say yes to more broadly. So that’s what I’m working on right now.
JMW: Cool. So we are coming up against the end of the interview. Is there anything you’d like to add?
Sarah Avery: Actually, yeah. I’m doing a little side project writing for Medium. They’re going to put it behind their paywall but a lot of people are checking out Medium trying to decide if they want to look behind the paywall. Writing a series called “Confessions of a Left-wing Prepper,” about emergency preparedness from a progressive perspective. I was living in New Jersey during Hurricane Sandy and everyone on my block was basically rescued by the right-wing evangelical emergency preparedness family across the street who didn’t care that I was Wiccan, didn’t care whether the Brazilian neighbors were legal immigrants or not. They didn’t care about the interracial family down the block. They took us all in, put our perishables in their fridge, invited us to wash our laundry in their machines and shower. They had hot water. Their living room was our internet cafe for a week while everybody’s houses got cold.
And I thought, I can learn something from these people, and the more I started trying to learn about, you know, not homesteading and taking up, you know, dairy goats but just being ready for the kinds of emergencies that I think climate change will bring us, I realized people with my worldview think about emergencies on the policy level. We don’t like thinking about it on the level of, what do I have in my 72-hour evacuation kit in case, like, I have a two-week long power outage? And although I’m a beginner at this, I realized that I…in trying to learn more and do more, I had a journey I could take readers on that might really help people and could save a life someday, so. Plus, I really needed some money for car repair and Medium was willing to pay me 37 cents a word, so.
JMW: Whoa…I…sounds like a great market.
Sarah Avery: Nobody tell them how little we’re willing to work for as writers of short fiction in fantasy and science fiction, right?
Sarah Avery: It’s fun.
JMW: I can’t top that so I’m just going to close.
Sarah Avery: Okay, I’m having a really good time right now in my life.
JMW: Good, good. We’re so glad we could have you at this time on your life, Sarah. Thank you for being here, and thank you for BuzzyMag.com.
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.