Over the course of this interview series, I have been pleased to include authors from across the English speaking world, the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, and New Zealand, even various islands in the Caribbean. For this installment, I am pleased to offer an interview with our first Australian author, Karen Miller. Like so many authors who finally make it into that special realm of The Working Author Who Gets Paid Regularly, Karen has a personal history that includes numerous previous lives. Her works include Star Wars and Stargate SG-1 novelizations, plus her own Kingmaker, Kingbreaker series, plus a secret pseudonym for other books you might have seen in bookstores (but you’ll have to read on for that).
KM: I suppose it started with my first university degree, when I majored in Professional Writing, Literary Studies, Film Studies and Radio Production. Everything I did at uni focused on story and storytelling, and while I didn’t actually produce anything substantial, I did get the right kind of encouragement to keep on pursuing this crazy life. It was at uni that I discovered I could make a stranger cry — and that was a powerful thing to learn. There was a very long drought after that. My first novel, a YA light romance, was published in 1990. I ended up doing 3 of those. They taught me I could tell a story and sell it. Another long drought followed, during which I got my MA in Children’s Literature and ran my own spec fic/mystery bookshop. That also taught me a lot. I was still writing on and off, during the drought. That was when I came up with the idea for the Kingmaker, Kingbreaker duology and the Godspeaker trilogy. I sold the Kingmaker, Kingbreaker duology to HarperCollins Voyager, Australia, late in 2003, and the first part came out in 2005. It onsold to Orbit and was published in the UK and US in 2007. Since The Innocent Mage, book 1 of Kingmaker, Kingbreaker, I’ve written 11 novels, with 3 more to come.
TH: What is The Story of Karen? Is it a novel? A short story? An epic fantasy poem? A limerick?
KM: ometimes I think it’s a joke!
TH: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How did you know?
KM: I was pretty young. Primary school. Maybe 7 or 8. My favourite part of school was composition. We used to have these activity cards, with grammar questions and comprehension passages and starting points for a story. I loved them. I fell in love with stories when I was young, and quickly found out I much preferred the world of fiction to the real world. Still do. *g* I learned then that I was happiest when I was playing inside my head, in my imagination. Telling stories.
TH: Of course, most writers want to have bestsellers or make some sort of artistic or literary impact. Is there some unrealized accomplishment that you’re striving for in the near future?
KM: Right now all I can think about is finishing the current project! That’s probably my most consuming concern, finishing what I started and not letting people down. But I’d like to write another play. I’ve had one play produced and performed, a YA project that toured New Zealand. That was enormously exciting. I have some ideas for plays rattling round in my head, and I do want to do some more playwrighting when my brain is less cluttered. As for the other stuff you mentioned, well, I really try not to think about that. Hitting certain bestseller lists, various writing awards — those achievements are totally beyond my control. They are external to me and the process, and I find that if you let yourself get too hung up on them you can end up getting in your own way. It’s the work that matters. All you can do is focus on the work, and be the best writer you can be. After that, it’s out of your hands. And letting yourself fall into the trap of judging yourself by those external yardsticks can be fatal.
TH: What are some of the things that inspire you?
KM: Music. Beautiful music touches me, and makes me want to communicate emotion in my work. Readers inspire me. Sometimes writing can be a tough gig. Like most creative endeavours it’s a magnet for self doubt. But then I’ll get a letter from a reader, they’ll let me know I’ve touched them or that they’ve simply enjoyed the work, and that keeps me going. Great stories inspire me. When I read a poweful book someone else has written, or watch a great movie or episodes of a great tv drama, and I’m moved emotionally or provoked into looking at the world in a different way, then I’m massively inspired.
TH: Do you actively use music to evoke emotional states in yourself as you write?
KM: Yes, I do. At least, I write to certain kinds of music because it helps me to access the emotional centre of my brain, perhaps open myself up to feeling things. Music is a powerful trigger, I find. Some pieces of music move me, some sounds, move me, on a very deep level. I don’t know why, I don’t know how that works, but music has the power to tap into the heart, for me. And given that a lot of what I write has a very strong emotional component, I find that music helps lay the groundwork for me to get there. I don’t pick and choose particular pieces of music to elicit a specific emotion — I’d never get any work done! *g* But I choose certain film and tv soundtracks to run in the background while I’m working. Soundtrack music is written to invoke emotion, so I find it’s a perfect match.
TH: What was the last book/story you read that really inspired you?
KM: The last piece of writing I read that whacked me upside the head is a column by fellow author Steve Saville. I’d be really grateful if you could link to it, here, http://www.storytellersunplugged.com/catharsis, so that anyone reading this interview can also read what Steve wrote. This column made me cry, and trust me when I say that’s a labor of Hercules. It’s sincere and it’s raw and it’s one of the most courageous acts of writing I’ve ever encountered. And I guess that’s inspiring because it’s a timely reminder of the power of words. I love writing, I believe and don’t apologise for the fact it’s entertainment. But you can entertain and provoke and move and challenge all at the same time, which is what Steve does here.
TH: What about the writing process most appeals to you?
KM: Well, my favourite part of the process is rewriting. I find the first draft process quite excruciatingly difficult and painful. But once I’ve actually captured the words and pinned them down on paper, then I start to have fun because I’ve got something real to work with. I can start to play, to explore, to capture the heart of what I’m trying to say. And as bizarre as it sounds, I really love being on my own, creating stories. It’s a joy and a privilege.
TH: What are the most successful ways you have used to promote yourself and your work? Are there any promising marketing avenues that you might yet explore?
KM: I don’t actually do a lot of self-promotion. I find the whole process profoundly discomfiting. I have a blog and a website, and I’ve done some videos for Orbit, and I’ve got a Facebook page, and that’s about it. I try and put my focus and energy into the work itself, and let it do the talking. Mind you, I’ve been wonderfully supported by my publishers and by booksellers like Waterstones in the UK and Borders in the US. They’ve done a lot of the PR frontwork for me, for which I’m hugely grateful. I’m just not terribly good at it! Plus last year and this year I’ve been so busy I haven’t had the luxury of time to do a lot. I might look at doing some videos of my own once my current projects are taken care of, and do some blogging with places like SF Novelists.
TH: Have you reached the point at which you realized that you had “made it” as a writer and author? If so, can you describe the milestone or circumstances where you had that realization? Do you recall how that felt? If not, what is the milestone you’re seeking?
KM: I don’t think so. I mean, in one sense I have ‘made it’ because I’m published. That’s the biggest hurdle any aspiring writer is looking to jump, and I’ve jumped it. Of course, there are other hurdles beyond that one — selling another book, then another one, receiving awards, making bestseller lists. But like I said, most of that is beyond my control. And I think the minute you let youself think ‘I’ve made it’ you run the risk of stagnating, of not challenging yourself, of getting complacent. The thought horrifies me. I can always do better. If I thought I couldn’t do any better, I’d be lost. Mind you, I’m about to go into hardcover release in the US and UK. That means something to me because I love hardcover books. They have a special quality. And what it signifies to me is that my publisher believes I’m worth the extra effort. Of course, I’m now beside myself with nerves because I can’t stand the idea that I might let them down.
TH: It has been said that a writers, each time they achieve one goal, such as publication, simply trade up to a succession of new sets of problems. At this stage in your writing career, how do your concerns differ from when you were just starting out?
KM: Well, being an aspiring author is in fact quite a simple, uncomplicated thing. All your energy is focused on getting the nod. That’s not to say it isn’t hard, because it is. It’s hard, it’s often disheartening and painful. But there’s a clarity of purpose to it. So before I was published, all I thought about was: Will I ever be good enough for someone to say yes?
Then someone said yes, you’re good enough, and that was mindblowing and wonderful and actually very empowering. As a result, here are the things I worry about now, in no particular order:
Have I got complacent? Am I repeating myself? Can I make my next deadline? Is this book an improvement on the last one? Will I disappoint my existing readers? Will I find new readers? Am I justifying my publishers’ faith in me? Can I deliver what I told them I can deliver? Should I be thinking about the next potential project? How long will it be before I can’t think of anything new to say? Should I be doing more blogging and stuff? Is there really a bias against women writers in spec fic or am I losing my mind? My new book’s coming out — is it going to bomb? Will everybody hate it? Will it finish my career? People are going through tough times, does that mean my life as a full time writer is over?
I have no idea if other writers worry about this stuff. I only know that I do, and sometimes I feel quite overwhelmed. *g*
Bottom line is, getting published the first time is the start of the journey, not the end. If you want a sustained career, you have to keep delivering the goods, over and over and over again. You have to keep on capturing that lightning in the bottle. Before you get published, the truth is you’re only writing for yourself. After you’re published, you’ve got a living breathing audience you’re answerable to. You’re part of a larger process, and you’re answerable to that too. Everything is a million times more complicated, after you’re published. It’s not just about you any more. Somehow you need to find a way to live with that, or it’ll grind you up and spit you out. Don’t get me wrong — it’s a wonderful position to be in. I’m not complaining. I got my dream come true, and I know it. But that’s not to say it’s without challenges. There are challenges. The trick is learning to deal with them constructively. And that’s another thing I’m still working on.
TH: How much writing do you have stuck away somewhere, the stuff that will never see the light of day but was instrumental in your path to publishing?
KM: Nothing, save for one short story I did at Clarion. Otherwise the work I did prior to professional publication was in fanfic, and all my fanfic got released, either in hard copy fanzines or on the internet. Fanfic was my lifeline for a long time. It fed my need to write, to tell stories, while I was figuring out how to do it, and finding courage and self-belief that I could tell my own stories. That took me a while.
TH: Some say that professional writers have to look at themselves as a business, a branded commodity. Do you take that approach? Do you write under any pseudonyms?
KM: I would agree with that to the extent that I think you need to remember that publishing is a business. Writing is a creative endeavour. The act of storytelling is an intensely personal and crazy process that often defies logic and predictability. But the process of turning that intensely personal story into a book that can be purchsed in a shop? That’s a business. And if you want to be professional writer, a published novelist, you can’t ever let yourself forget that. You need to educate yourself about the business aspects of the game. You must, to the best of your ability, remember that it’s not all about you. That many many people are involved in the process of publishing and that you can make their lives really unpleasant if you’re not careful. Publishers aren’t in the game to make your dreams come true. Writers and publishers have a common goal, and that’s to tell stories that a lot of people want to read. We’re on the same team. And that means authors need to be team players, and figure out where they fit into the big picture of publishing so they can reach that goal and everyone goes home happy.
I am writing under a penname at the moment, actually. K.E. Mills — with the Rogue Agent series. And that’s because while those books are still fantasy, they’re a)not epic historical fantasy, which is what the Miller stuff is (aside from the tie in work) b)it’s an ongoing series, like a mystery series, as opposed to a self-contained arc like a duology or a trilogy and c)tonally the books are quite different, in that there’s a much lighter vein in some sections. They’re not comic fantasy, as such, but there’s a lot of banter and some lighthearted escapades. There’s a significant shift in tone from Empress to Accidental Sorcerer, for example, so we thought it was a good idea to flag for readers that the Rogue Agent series has a unique flavour.
TH: How do you keep the business and creative sides of writing separate? Is it difficult to prevent one from overwhelming the other?
KM: Well, I’m pretty hopeless at it. I find it very hard to switch tracks, to leap between the business stuff and the creative stuff. When it comes to my writing I’m immersive — that’s what Karen Traviss calls it, and it’s an apt description. I need to dive in and not come up for air until I have to, until I’m almost finished. And being jerked out of that to deal with the surrounding business is quite derailing. I think that’s why I love writing at night, through the night. Because the world’s gone away and there are no distractions, and I’m in this dark bubble where it’s just me and the story. It’s a bit hard to do, though. I can’t quite make the switch over to being nocturnal. So I end up all over the place, and that doesn’t help either! It’s one of the aspects of being a pro writer that I didn’t really grasp before I had to do it, that I’m still wrestling with now. I’m trying hard to get better at it.
TH: What can readers expect to see from you in the near future? What are you working on?
KM: Bloody hell, right now it feels like a nervous breakdown. *g*
Okay. I’m currently polishing The Prodigal Mage, which is the first part of a two-part sequel to the Kingkmaker, Kingbreaker duology. I’m also working on my next Star Wars novel. Then I’ve got the next Rogue Agent novel, plus the follow up to Prodigal Mage and my final Star Wars novel. This is a very, very full on year.
TH: What is the most memorable moment (good, bad, or other) you have had in your life as an author?
KM: Getting reader mail from a front-line soldier in Iraq who said that my work helped make his tough job easier to get through. Single most humbling moment of my life.
TH: Is there anything else you would like to talk about that I haven’t mentioned?
KM: Well, since I know that some people who’ll be reading this are aspiring writers themselves, I’d say this:
Getting published is a crap shoot. 99% of this game is beyond the writer’s control. That’s what is so hard. You don’t get to call the shots. Other people decide your fate — agents, editors, acquisitions committees. The only thing we can control is the work, and it’s the work that must do the talking for us. It’s the work that gets us noticed, and published. And there is no shortcut there. Don’t focus on anything but the work. Pour all your effort and energy and passion into creating the very best story in you. Don’t go looking for magic bullets, because there aren’t any. It’s only ever about the work.