Part 1 can be read here.
AA: Caitlin, you were just sharing some of the writerly angst which came as quite the learning experience between Nocturne and London, and it can only make you better as a writer. Hopefully, other writers can learn from you, too, to spur their own growth. I’m always keen to share, or push, new books and stories with nieces and nephews to show them that they really can be anything they want to be when they grow up, and their options are unlimited. What are some things that I can point to in Luna Wilder from Nocturne City, and Aoife Grayson in Iron Thorn, as a role model for them?
CK: Oh gosh, Luna’s not a very good role model at all actually. She’s got the worst temper and is just so stubborn. I wanted to smack her a lot when I was writing the books because she just has this tunnel vision and refuses to see anything except “her way or the highway.” I would say the anti-list that they can take from that is that you know especially if you’re growing up and especially if you’re a woman in a profession that is not necessarily female-oriented or you know in that kind of world where things are challenging because of who you are, because Luna’s world is very challenging because of who she is because she’s a werewolf and she’s also a police detective and you know it’s very hard for her to exist in the world of the books and be who she is.
I’m just saying you have to stay true to who you are but you also have to be willing to accept input from the outside world. Not just the bad but you have to know the difference between good and bad input and don’t let it change who you are but maybe consider other people’s opinion once in a while. Don’t like just go off and yell and rant if someone says something you don’t like because that happens a lot in Nocturne books. People were often saying “Oh, she’s such a typical angry urban fantasy heroine,” and I saying “Honestly, if you were her, you would be angry too. Come on. I know she’s angry.” Then they’d ask, “Well is she like you?” and I’d reply, “No, I don’t generally fly off the handle and punch people in the face.”
For Aoife, I think she’s probably a better example because she starts out basically with nothing and being very afriad, and very, very invested in the status quo because she’s an orphan and she’s a scholarship student at this fancy government-run school. If you step out of line in her world, you disappear and you’re never heard from again. She’s an orphan and having a mother who got sent to a mental institution and having a brother who’s on the run from the government. There’s a lot of pressure on her in the beginning to tell a lie and don’t make waves, and she learns through the course of the “Iron Thorn” that sometimes you have to make waves in order to do the right thing and the right thing isn’t always the easy thing.
The over-arching message for her and the thing she had to learn in the “Iron Thorn” was that sometimes you’ve gotta make waves and doing the right thing can be really scary and difficult and going against your peers is scary and difficult, but you know what the right thing is. You don’t have to look externally to try to figure out what it is. And you don’t have to listen to your totalitarian government regime or your friends or anything like that. Chances are, when it comes to that kind of hard decision, you will know what the right thing is, and you have to be able to say, “Ok, I know what it is, now I have to do it even though it’s not easy.”
She has to leave behind everything she knows and she becomes a wanted criminal. Terrible things happen to her in the course of the Iron Thorn, but it works out alright at the end because I didn’t want to just punish her and punish her and not reward her at all as a character.
I think that’s Aoife’s real lesson is not so much learning how to do the right thing but learning how to know what the right thing is and learning that sometimes what’s accepted isn’t the right thing and sometimes you have to look outside your particular status quo, or your particular peer group, to figure out who you are and figure out where you belong in the world. Aoife is a lot more like me than Luna is. She’s very like me at 14 or 15.
AA: My nieces and nephews will have plenty to think about when they read these books! You mentioned that you make music playlists for most of your novels. Is that to set the mood while writing, or more of the soundtrack for the novel? How does music influence your writing?
CK: Oh, I love music. I’ve been playing and listening to music since I can remember actually and so I couldn’t imagine writing without having stuff playing in the background. When I make playlists, a lot of times it is just to evoke mood and kind of get me into the right mindset to work on the specific book because my books are vastly different in tone, so I can’t just flip from one to the other as easily as some might be able to.
At least in the Black London books list the ??street magic and demon bound?? and all that the male main character Jack is actually an ex-punk musician so I have a lot of stuff that I actually thought he’d listen to on the playlists. I thought that really helped a lot with the writing and with the mindset. I reference a lot of music that they’re listening to in the text, so if I reference a song in the book, I try to put it on the book playlist and I put them up on my website and people really seem to like it.
For the other music, it’s more just for me, it’s more stuff I think reminds me of a character or a particular scene or particular situation. I actually listened to the soundtrack for Sweeny Todd on repeat while I was writing the Iron Thorn. There’s no cannibalism in the story, at least not by people. People do get eaten but not by other people, more by monsters. But there’s just something in the mood and tone that’s just perfect. It’s very grim and gritty and kind of industrial, dark, lots of strings and building music and songs about baking people into pies. It struck just the right dark note.
I also listened to a lot of early 50’s pop music, like a lot of Buddy Holly and stuff like that just because I was writing about teenagers in the 50’s. There’s still a lot of pop culture even if it’s slightly less like drive-in’s and dinners pulp culture, and little more like pulp magazines pop culture. I’ve listened to a lot of the pop music from then, because pop music from any era is a great insight especially into the youth of that era and I got a lot of ideas for how people talked. Especially for Aoife’s friend, Calvin, because he’s a total pop culture nerd. I hesitate to say he’s the Ducky from Pretty in Pink, but he is one of those guys who wants very much to be popular but doesn’t know how to do it, so he makes a lot of missteps. It was nice to have a bit of comic relief after all the satanical monsters, and government regimes and what not.
That was kind of an odd combination but those were my two playlists for the Iron Thorn – the Sweeny Todd soundtrack and then a lot of Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly and that kind of stuff.
AA: Very different selections to create very different moods. Your books are young adult fiction. What guidelines do you have in writing scenes with sex, violence and language, and what challenges did you have to overcome?
CK: It varies from editor to editor and from publishing house to publishing house, but my YA editor actually told me I could make my love scenes raunchier if I wanted to in my YA book. And I said, “Well, Aoife is still very new to all that, and I don’t think that’s going to happen at least in the first book,” and I wanted to deal with it in a sensitive way obviously because teenagers are going to be reading it. They are full of hormones and they get crazy about that stuff at that age so I didn’t want to just go off and have some like crazy Twilight-esque vampire love scene. At least not in the first book.
There’s some stuff I write, particularly in the London books that I wouldn’t put in a YA book just because it’s extremely, extremely dark. I found out about that stuff when I was a teenager but I found out about it from adult novels as well, and if teenagers really want it they’re going to find it. If the Iron Thorn had gone that dark naturally then yeah, I would’ve gone there and my editor would’ve said, “Tone this down,” or “This is fine,” and we would’ve gone back and forth.
But it just, it never quite got there. There are horrific scenes of people getting eaten by monsters in the Iron Thorn but a lot of the horror in that is less of its role and is more psychological because I find totalitarian governments totally horrifying. That’s the scariest thing to me in that book, the regime that everyone lives under until Aoife breaks out and goes on the run. That’s totally the scariest part for me when the fact is that everyone’s lives are so controlled by this small group and that if you dare speak out, you disappear, or get tortured. That they can make up an excuse just to drive you out of the house and never be seen again. That’s always been scarier to me than monsters popping out.
AA: It borders on a lot more realism. What could happen has happened.
CK: Right, and then in the Black London books, they’re very gritty, kind of pulp horror based, so there’s a lot of more seedy stuff going on. Like there’s a scene in the first book that I actually laughed myself to death writing which I don’t know what that says about me, but it’s set on an underground porn set. It’s like supernatural porn, and they go to talk to one of the guys who works there and it’s just like a scene dressing but some of the stuff I wrote in that scene just cracked me up, and obviously that wouldn’t go in a YA book but it was played for comedy. Because it was an adult book it could be played for comedy, and so I got away with it.
There are horror-esque novels and there are dead bodies and bad stuff pops out, but again I think some of the most frightening stuff in those books are people who are just human. There’s a group of religious fanatics in the Black London books called the Order of the Malleous and they were built by Cotton Mather back in the 1700’s. They were all over the world; they were witch hunters. They’re just normal dudes but they’re religious fanatics and they want to kill you and pull out your finger nails if you do magic. They were way creepier to me than any of the monster characters in the London books, and I had fun writing them too. They were not played for comedy; they were played as “Hey kids, religious fanatics–probably not your friends.”
AA: For the aspiring writer, what lessons did you learn about having an agent, their feedback, and your writing?
CK: I wouldn’t be a professional writer if I didn’t have an agent because I don’t possess the wherewithal to try to go out and get a publisher on my own. I think I would just collapse in a heap and cry and eat a block of cheese and decide that this all wasn’t worth it. My agent is my total sanity check and I believe for an aspiring writer in your first outing you should probably need to find an agent before you try to go at this alone because it’s an incredibly complex and unforgiving industry, at least on the commercial publishing side.
When you’re with a big publishing house, and even with some of the smaller presses like Subterranean Press and Nightshade press, it does behoove you to have an agent to deal with them. You don’t have to have one, but I think it’s a better idea than trying to do it on your own. My agent’s great. I love her, and she used to be an editor so she gives me good feedback and tells me when I’m on crack and that this probably won’t work, and always in a nice way. But when you do get an agent, you do want one who’s not afraid to criticize you. I will say that also, with your agent, you don’t want one that will just blow smoke and tell you everything’s wonderful because then you probably won’t get the best deal you could have with the best book you could have written. Some agents don’t give a lot of feedback but some do, and I personally would want one that does.
You have to decide what works for you, but I think at least try to get an agent before you go it alone because you will pull your hair out unless you have a law degree and have specialized in contract law. Looking at a publishing contract will make your eyes cross and there are some terms in there that aren’t necessarily abusive but are very unfavorable to authors, and an agent can get that changed for you. Every publishing house has what they call a boilerplate which is their standard contract, and then it’s an agent’s job to negotiate something more favorable, and if you don’t know, then you can’t negotiate. For that reason alone, my agent earns her 15%. So, yes on agents.
AA: How did you find your agent?
CK: Oh, just a query letter. Just a total standard slush pile story. I sent her a query letter and a sample chapter; she said, “I’d like to see more.” I got a phone call a couple weeks later, and said “Hey, I’d like to represent your book.” So there’s no trick. I did not employ any tricks. I did not know anybody. I did exactly what everyone else tells you to do. So, take heart, if you’re querying, it can be done.
We’ll take a break here in our interview with Caitlin Kittredge.
Join us next time when Caitlin shares her thoughts about Team Seattle and story rejections. Until then, read more at her website.
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