"It Was Possibly the Worst Urban Fantasy Novel Ever Written": Seanan McGuire Talks about Toby Daye, Her Inexhaustible Work Ethic, and Three-Tier Cakes

Seanan McGuire - Amazon Book ReviewSeanan McGuire knows how to write. She won the John W. Campbell award for best new science fiction and fantasy writer in 2010, and she hasn't looked back since. With multiple book series in play plus intriguing standalones hitting shelves throughout the year—including her most recent book from Tor.com, Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day—it's a wonder she had time to talk with us about how she juggles everything. But she graciously let me come visit her in her home, where her massive (and massively friendly) Maine Coon cat, Alice, purred throughout the interview.

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Amazon Book Review: You write several series: the October Daye books, the InCryptid series, Newsflesh… What do you consider to be your main series?

Seanan McGuire: I would say the Toby [October Daye] books. Book twelve comes out in September, and that was the series that allowed me to establish myself in a very real way.

Rosemary and RueMira Grant—because I'm also [writing under the name] Mira Grant—Mira Grant outsells Seanan McGuire on a book-by-book basis, but I was able to put out the first three Toby books in six-month intervals because I had three books written when I sold the series. And that had the combined fascinating effect of giving me an instant backlist—yay!, because as soon as your series starts to roll, you start making royalties—and giving me absolutely no "she's new, let's make allowances for her" window. My first book came out in September 2009, and by May 2010 people were calling me one of the "usual suspects," when one of the awards recommendation lists started to circulate. [I heard], "Oh, she's always on there." I hadn't even been doing this for a year, guys!

I just hit seven years of actively publishing this past September, and the same month I had my seven-year anniversary, three different blog sites wrote articles about how for over a decade I had been doing things.

In 2010, you won the John W. Campbell award for best new science fiction or fantasy writer. What were you doing writing-wise before your first books were published?

Fanfic. So much fan fiction! Just a disgusting amount of fan fiction. I mostly worked in Buffy the Vampire Slayer for a long time, with excursions into Veronica Mars and a few obscure Disney properties. And that is how I learned how to write, by doing fanfic. When you're doing fan fiction, some of the heavy lifting has been done for you. The creation of characters and that initial step of getting an audience invested in them…that step has already been handled, so you can focus on things like, How do I write dialogue? How do I come up with a plot that is interesting and compelling? And you will have people tell you when your characters are out of character when you're writing in fanfic, and that's a really big deal. Most of the fanfic authors turned professionals that I know—and there are quite a few of us—don’t get offended when people say, "I felt like your main character was out of character here." We think, "Oh shit, I slipped." Because we know that's a thing that can happen. I meet some new authors who think that fanfic is beneath them, and they came up through this MFA program or whatever, and they say, "Oh, I had this beta reader tell me that my character was out of character, but that's not possible. I'm the author. I am God!" You know what? No. It's entirely possible that because you're the author, because you're God, you're trying to force the plot through as hard as you can. That can bend character reactions in a way that doesn't work for them. A good character should feel like a person moving through a scene, not like a doll moving through a house.

So I wrote Rosemary and Rue. It was my first novel. I wrote it when I was eighteen. It was terrible. It was possibly the worst urban fantasy novel ever written. And so I rewrote it. I rewrote it a couple more times. It became less terrible, which was great, at which point I wrote A Local Habitation, which was the sequel. And writing another book let me look back at Rosemary and Rue and see all the places it was still terrible! So I went back and rewrote [Rosemary and Rue]. And this cycle continued for more than a decade. I eventually [wrote] a third book and then wrote half of a fourth book. And I was rewriting and rewriting and trying to get to a place where they were good.

Feed I wrote Feed as Mira Grant during that period, and Feed was almost accidental. It was about the ecology and the animal behavior of a post-zombie world, and it sort of grew a plot in self-defense. And I kept writing buckets and buckets of fan fiction. When I did finally reach the point where I was producing publishable work and could get an agent, I had four books ready to go and outlines for the next three Toby books, and I clearly had my shit together. My first book came out in September 2009. I was nominated for the Campbell award in April 2010. Feed came out in May 2010, and A Local Habitation came out in September 2010. So by the time I went to WorldCon, I had three books out. I think I probably won [the Campbell award] because of Feed. Feed has a very passionate following. But I was definitely nominated because of Toby [in Rosemary and Rue], which meant a lot to me. My foster mother, Kathryn Daugherty, was the Hugo administrator for several years. [The award ceremony in] Australia was the last year [she went], and she got to give me the Campbell. So there are pictures of us on stage together. She passed away shortly thereafter. That meant a lot.

That's interesting about how important fan fiction has been to your career. I think that everybody gets inspired by other people's work, whether they're a writer or another kind of artist.

The definition of fan fiction versus professional fiction is a modern definition. Shakespeare was writing fan fiction. The Odyssey is fanfic. Dante's Inferno is fanfic. People are magpies. We are meant to tell stories. We are meant to take archetypes that make sense and were important to our parents and grandparents and repurpose them into our own languages. Remakes aren't just about going back to a cash cow. They can be, but they can also be about making sure that that story stays with us. That’s what's we've done with Shakespeare continually for the last several hundred years. As it's gotten harder to take in new archetypes, and as more things get locked up [because people think], "Well, is that someone trying to take over a new archetype?", we're going to start running into problems.

You're incredibly prolific. How do you write so many books every year?

I write every day. Then I go play a lot of Overwatch. [Laughs] I do that in part because of fanfic. People say you can be fast, you can be good, or you can be cheappick two. In fanfic, you have to be fast, good, and free if you want to acquire any sort of readership. So what I learned to do was write very quickly because you frequently have deadlines that are set by the community you are in. If you're not good, no one will read your stuff. I learned a work ethic based on the idea that I had to produce the work by my deadlines, I had to produce a certain number of words a day, and if they weren't good words, then no one would ever read me. So that is what I do.

It helps that this is my full-time job. I was able to leave my desk job thanks to the Affordable Care Act. So I'm terrified right now. And I don't have children; I have cats. I don’t get accused of animal cruelty if I fill their bowls and shut the bedroom door. If I had children, that would be a problem.

You write books, you perform music, and you create web comics—

Very intermittently.

But you can! Is there anything on your to-do list that haven't done yet but that you want to do?

I really want to learn how to make those fancy two- or three-tier cakes. I have a Wilton decorating kit and a couple of cookbooks, and I just have not taken the leap into destroying my kitchen.

What's on your to-be-read pile right now?

ItMy current to-be-read pile weighs more than you plus me plus this table. It's ridiculously large. I just got the new Anne Bishop book, Etched in Bone, in ARC [advance reading copy], and I've read that. I just got the new Alien Nation, which is by Gini Koch. They're fun. They're like bonbons but very thick bonbons: They take a while to chew through. I've been reading Esther Friesner's Majyk for Nothing series, and I'm about to start my yearly rereading of Stephen King's It. I read It every year, because when I don't, it makes me squirrelly. [Laughs] It makes me very happy.

 


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Comments (2)

Nice interview! Thanks!

Posted by: Mp | Thursday February 2, 2017 at 6:49 PM

I was also able to start working for myself because of the Affordable Care Act.
You have such talent. I hope the ACAs threatened repeal doesn't interrupt your writing like Coleridge's unwanted visitor did.

Posted by: Bob Terry | Sunday February 19, 2017 at 10:58 PM