Kat Richardson is the national bestselling author of the Greywalker paranormal detective novels. Yours truly ran into her last fall at the World Fantasy Convention in San Jose, amidst floating schools of writers and publishing industry professional. One meets the most interesting folks in hotel bars, particularly at industry conventions (long-time readers of BtM may notice a repeating theme…). How many people have you ever met that live on boat?
TH: Can you give a brief arc of your career as a writer/author?
KR: It’s kind of a steep and bumpy curve leading who knows where, at this point. I had never successfully published any fiction before Greywalker, except for a work-for-hire job for a game company and an unpaid fan-developed computer game. Prior to that I’d done magazine journalism—writing and editing for trade magazines and educational groups—technical editing for Microsoft, and some general articles and blogging long before “blog” was a common term. I’ve always written stories; my family and schools all encouraged my wordy-streak, but it wasn’t until I was heading for college that I thought I might be able to do some word-juggling as a career. I picked Journalism, because I figured I could always get a job, even if it was not as much fun as fiction, that would pay the bills. Given the state of professional journalism these days, though… maybe I should have just gone for a vocal music degree instead…. Good thing someone bought my book, right?
TH: What is The Story of Kat? Is it a novel? A short story? A dark and gritty urban fantasy?
KR: The Story of Kat is one of those annoyingly dull literary novellas that meanders around doing not much interesting until the heroine suddenly decides she thinks this book sucks and jumps out of the stupid thing to go do something more fun… like join the circus. I decided to throw over my business career and move to Seattle, go into business for myself, learn to ride a motorcycle, keep ferrets, live on a sailboat, and send in the damned manuscript, already! I’m not done with this story, but I think it has a happy ending.
TH: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How did you know?
KR: I think it was one of those “oh… duh” things. My dad was an English teacher, I started reading at a very young age, wrote stories for myself and my classes from about age seven or eight and always got off easy academically because I’m good with words, so writing was kind of there all along and I didn’t think it was something everyone didn’t do. When I started thinking about what I wanted to do for a career it kind of snuck up on me that… “well, duh!” I like writing! It did take me quite a while to finally get off my duff and do something about it, but once I did….
TH: It sounds like that at some point you had a sort of epiphany that necessitated motorcycles, ferrets, and a literary life. Was there a moment like that?
KR: Not one particular moment, but a series of them, really. First there came a point, living in LA, when my now-husband and I just decided we’d had enough of the corporate jobs, the crowding, and the expense. We didn’t have any real reason to stay, so we left and moved where our friends had moved to: Seattle. We tried working for ourselves at a series of other occupations, but they didn’t work out, so we went back to working for others. Our first ferret was a wedding present and then we needed another to keep that one company, and another when one died, and then another to keep them company… we have had four total, though no more than three at one time. Sadly, our last ferret passed away in May of 2009 and we haven’t had the time to devote to properly bonding with and caring for a pet since then, so we currently have none. I’m starting to have a pet jones though….
We decided we preferred to own our home rather than rent and since I’ve been sailing off and on since college, we decided to buy a boat and live aboard. It’s not for everyone, but we like it and the cost is reasonable while giving us a lot of flexibility about where we choose to live since we can always just move and take our home with us. It’s a bit cold and damp in the winter, but I have an office now, so I’m no longer stuck working in frigid conditions all winter as I used to be–we used to have to heat the place by baking pies and roasts while I did my printing since the electric service to the boat is only 20 amps–about what most people have for a single room in their house–and I’d have to turn the heater off to run the printer.
The “literary life” thing just happened to happen because I’m lucky enough to have made decent money from the first three books. While I was contracting for Microsoft as a technical editor, I started thinking I really needed to get some fiction published or I’d have to stop calling myself a “writer” and admit I’d failed at that. So I pushed hard and did get published. About the time POLTERGEIST came out I was able to support my bills with the money from the books–though it was pretty tight and we were lucky my husband was making a steady income with benefits. Since then, the contracts have gotten larger and there have been a lot of foreign sales, so I’m now 100% self-supporting as a writer. It’s not the money I was making as an editor, but it’s good enough and I get to what I love full time.
Motorcycles was a different kettle of fish entirely. My husband has been riding since he was a kid in England, and while we were making our ends meet in Seattle, we couldn’t afford a car, so we were using public transit–which isn’t bad here–but it’s not always convenient when you work swing shift. So my husband got another bike and used that for work.
I thought it would be smart of me to know how to use the bike if I needed to. At first, he didn’t want me to learn, since he worried I’d be hurt, but I put my foot down and said he had to trust me. Eventually he agreed he was being overly protective, but he did insist I take a proper safety course and learn to ride from a professional. I really liked it and I’ve now had two bikes–both older Hondas. I don’t ride as much now I’m traveling a lot in the summer, but I still like to get up on the Hawk GT and blast around when the weather is nice. It’s tons of fun and I’d like, some day, to take a trip across North America on the bikes.
TH: Every writer has things they would like to accomplish, e.g. first sale, next sale, first novel sale, first bestseller, etc. What accomplishment are you striving for right now?
KR: Oh my… on the totally-pie-in-the-sky front, I’d like to make the NYT bestseller list, or make the short list for an award someday. I think I stand a better chance of the former than the latter, though, since my genre is kind of in limbo and no one knows what to do with it. And I’m not that good a writer yet, anyhow. I’m also hoping nibbles from the TV/Film industry might turn into something bigger than nibbles, but… I don’t want to count any chickens there. Realistically, I’d be happy just to get a new contract right now. I want to keep on writing for a living, more than I want anything else.
TH: Do you have any writing stuck away somewhere that will never see the light of day, but nevertheless helped you build your skill to publishable?
KR: Tons. Okay, it’s really about fifty pounds, but it feels like a short ton. I have every spiral notebook, yellow legal pad, loose sheet manuscript, and floppy disk or CD I ever put a story, idea, or excerpter on. I wrote three novel-length pieces as well as hundreds of bad short stories before I did Greywalker. They stink, but doing them and actually completing and editing them helped me learn to write better. Early drafts of Greywalker are also lurking about in storage being embarrassingly bad, but they might actually peep out if I ever want to show off just how bad my first book could have been.
TH: What are some of the things that inspire you?
KR: Weird bits of history, interesting buildings, strange science reports, talking to fun people about whatever crazy idea takes us. I really like to play the “what if” game with myself. I also like word games and mysteries—real and fictional—and old movies that send my mind off into strange directions or conjunctions of ideas. Almost anything could be a story, so I try to see them everywhere.
TH: What about the writing process most appeals to you? What is the most fun?
KR: I like telling stories and I like being my own boss. I like being able to dig around in obscure research and read weird books. But the most fun thing is seeing a book of mine on a shelf someplace I didn’t expect it. Like coming off a plane in Salt Lake City, or in the back of a taxi cab in Port Orchard. Those serendipity moments give me a thrill.
TH: Have your 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?
KR: When I attended my first mystery convention—Bouchercon in Toronto back in 2004 I think it was—I met a writer named Victor Gischler who said most people figured you’d know if you’d made it about the time your third book came out. If it sold well and if someone you’d never met or knew through some third party came to tell you how much they liked it, then you’d made it. If you could quit your day job, then you’d made it big. I got to quit my day job when Poltergeist came out. So I beat the milestone. Though I have to admit, as cool as that was, the best moment ever was being called back by my agent for the first time and being told “send us the manuscript!” It was even better than “I’m gonna be published—for money!” which was damned sweet—but by that time, it was obvious someone was going to buy it, even if the money wasn’t huge.
I still get excited every time a new book hits the stands, though, and every time someone I never met before tells me they like my books. I don’t think that thrill is ever going to wear off. I hope not.
TH: What was your agent search like? Long and arduous? Quick and painless?
KR: Pretty quick, but not so painless. I’d started badly about a year earlier by sending individual queries and then waiting for each reply, but that was painful and slow and a lot of the time I’d sent a bad query or sent to the wrong agent. So I changed my methodology. I did a LOT of research before I sent out more queries. I know I probably didn’t write a great query letter, but I did my best and I personalized it for each agent. I also took a lot of care to query only agents who handled both Science Fiction/Fantasy and Mystery and who’d had recent, good sales in those markets. I checked the usual references to get lists of agents, then I started vetting them through their websites and places like Preditors and Editors. Then I sent out queries in batches to the top picks, then the second picks, and so on down the priority line. I’d send them out in bunches of six every Monday. I got the famous phone call on a Tuesday, a week after mailing the query. But it took 2 months of research and legwork and quite a few individual rejections before I go to that point. I think I queried 35 agents total before I got the word from JABberwocky that they might be interested.
Many of the outstanding queries from the other batches never received a reply at all, even though I sent SASEs. This was back in the pre-email query days though, and paperwork had a way of slipping through cracks.
Now that queries are done online most of the time, it’s even more important to do the research and query individuals with specific, targeted material that meets their specs. Otherwise, it’s even faster and easier to get rejected by email.
TH: Some say that professional writers have to look at themselves as a business, a branded commodity. Do you take that approach?
KR: It is a business and you do have to bear that in mind, act professionally, and make compromises in order to have good, long term working relationships. But I don’t like the “branded commodity” approach or the “build a platform and sell yourself” approach. Books aren’t just a product and neither is the writer. Books are also artistic expressions and good books aren’t just business proposals and marketing compromises. Writers aren’t only business people; they are also tellers of tales and crafters of art—if they are really good. That’s why we have agents: because most authors aren’t very good at the selling end and their time is valuable at writing table, more so than the negotiating table. Sometimes, you’re better off to hire a pro than try to do it all yourself. Do consider the market and the desires of your fans, but don’t put that ahead of writing a good story—and a better one each time you do. Because the one thing no one else can do as well as you, is write your book. You do have to be nice about it, though.
TH: What are the most effective ways you have found to promote yourself?
KR: Honestly, I think I suck at promotion. I mostly do what my publisher suggests and try to be nice and accessible to booksellers and fans because I think sincere word-of-mouth is the most effective thing you can have. After TV. And since I doubt TV is going to come along anytime soon… I’ll stick to fans and booksellers.
TH: Is it important for unpublished writers or new authors to attend events like World Fantasy Convention? Why or why not?
KR: Oh yes! Professional writing conventions and genre conventions are great places for observant, thoughtful writers to network and get to know the industry better before they start sending out queries. They can make personal contacts, learn what an individual agent or editor will respond positively to and what will turn them off, get tips from successful peers, and get a better feel for the business in general. They can also meet writers who might be willing to blurb a book from them in the future, as well as meeting other unpublished writers who can become great friends and supporters during those hard, early days and beyond.
The key is to be observant and friendly, but not pushy. I wish I’d gone to more before I started querying: the process would have been easier, faster, and less-terrifying. As it is, I still have great friends I made at my earliest conventions, like Richelle Mead and Caitlin Kitteridge, whom I met at Surrey International Writers Conference when my first book was a brand new baby and they were both on the cusp of publication. We were all scared and nervous together and now we’re best friends! I never regret a convention. Only the amount I drank or what I missed.
TH: What can readers expect to see from you in the near future? What are you working on?
KR: Oh my, I’ve got so much I’m working on or trying to get to work on right now….At the moment, I’ve just finished revising LABYRINTH—Greywalker #5—and am doing research and taking notes for Greywalker #6 (which doesn’t have a title yet). I’m also writing a short, straight-mystery piece for DAMN NEAR DEAD II, a collection of short “geezer noir” stories that is being published by Busted Flush Press and edited by Bill Crider.
I have a couple of other non-Harper projects cooking on the back burners and I’m working on proposals for: a YA novel about a wannabe-superhero librarian and her geeky teenage sidekick who would like to grow up to be a Sith Lord; a Western steampunk novel about a traveling show featuring mechanical puppets who might, or might not, be gaining sentience and are certainly causing problems; and an SF forensic thriller featuring a detective who is his own forensic lab on legs, fighting to solve an “unsolvable” mass-murder on a resort-planet rife with corruption and ethnic strife.
Oh yeah… I’m finishing up a redesign on my website and I’ve just joined the League of Reluctant Adults online as well. I’ll be out doing a few events with them in 2010 as well as the rest of my usual running about, as well. Both the site and League will have giveaways and fun stuff for fans to grab, read, and do and I’m looking forward to it all!
TH: Can you recall a moment when a two or more influences or inspirations came together and smacked you with a cool idea? (For example, the Western steampunk puppet show.)
KR: That happens a lot. I start off thinking about one thing and then something will come along out of the blue and I’ll think “oh, that would be really neat with this!” Greywalker was one of those; I wanted to write about a PI who works for ghosts and monsters.
TH: What is the most memorable moment (good, bad, or other) you have had in your life as an author?
KR: Moments of denial and the moments of awe. Like a bookstore customer disbelieving that anyone actually got paid to be published and arguing with me about it. And the first check I ever got for a book. And the first time an author I admire told me they liked my book—I almost cried. Actually I still do.
But the most memorable was being stuck in traffic, sitting on a bus and listening to my voice mail on my cell phone after work—I couldn’t use my phone in the building, so I would turn it off during the work day. There was a message from someone at JABberwocky in New York, but the environment was so noisy I thought I wasn’t hearing correctly. I kept trying to listen to the message that seemed to be from someone asking me to submit the complete manuscript and please get it to them by Friday, but I just couldn’t believe that’s what it was. I kept trying to listen, but I couldn’t get anywhere quiet until about eight o’clock at night. All the way home on one bus after another, standing on street corners, waiting in traffic, running to get home… I just couldn’t believe I was hearing what I thought I was and I was scared to find out what the message really was. When I finally heard the message properly I started screaming and jumping around, which is kind of dangerous on a sailboat. But I did calm down enough to call and leave a reply—even though it was eleven o’clock in New York, saying I’d send it immediately. My husband worked swing shift and I stayed up all night waiting for him so I could tell him what had happened. It was wonderful and terrible and I think it’s probably better I never did hear that message properly while I was still sitting on a bus stuck in traffic. Wouldn’t the other passengers have looked at me oddly if I’d started shouting and jumping about?