A humbling thing happened to me today. I arrived at the hotel and then dashed back out again to Charing Cross Road, the road of bookshops, the road of my heart. I happily told one shop lady that I was visiting from Ireland. She eyed me coldly, in a way that told me she disapproved of people who told fibs. 'No you're not,' she said sternly. 'You're here all the time.'
Obviously, I am totally unconvincing as a glamorous jetsetter.
I meant to post before I left, but St Patrick's Day and other things which must for now remain secret occupied me. St Patrick's Day in particular completely overset me.
You see, I like the jesters in the parade. I like their hats with bells on. I like a man who makes me laugh. I'm kind of a jester groupie. This means that I was tired out after all the jester-related excitement of St Patrick's Day, and did not expect my phone to jangle in my ear in the early hours of the next morning.
MAMA: Holly Blood's on television!
SARAH: Whuh? Who? Who's that? ... Is she a vampire? Would vampires even show up on television? Wait, vampires aren't even real!
MAMA: I tell you she's on television!
SARAH (severely): Mother, it is very early in the morning and you are raving. There are no vampires on your television. Good day to you!
MAMA: You are not listening, it's that girl you know.
SARAH: I don't know any vampires. Well, I don't think I know any vampires. I am sure I would spot it. Given time.
MAMA: Just turn on your television!
SARAH: Oh cool, Holly's on television. Holly Black, Mother. Not Holly Blood.
MAMA: Blood, Black, what does it matter? One of those good old vampire families.
SARAH: ... Mother, do you know any vampires?
But what, you may ask, am I doing in London? I am going to Eastercon. It's my second convention where I get to meet other people who write and will talk to me about writing and fantasy and during which I will try to hide behind pillars, people and glasses much less than I did at my first convention.
You see, I am shy. This is not immediately obvious on meeting me. It is not immediately obvious on getting to know me better. In fact, sometimes I tell my friends I am shy, and then they start laughing and pointing hurtfully at me.
When I was a solemn bespectacled eight years of age, I was sitting on some stairs and reading a book at a party. And it occurred to me that if I went in to the party, I might utterly shame myself, but at least that would be entertaining. This is the thing, you see: I have a terribly short attention span. That's why I read so much and I write so much and I talk so much. Otherwise I get bored. Even in the short time it takes to brush my teeth I sometimes get bored, so bored that I make up a story to amuse myself and then I get too into it and I forget what I'm doing and then I realise five minutes later that I am chewing my toothbrush. (True fact: I go through a new toothbrush every two weeks.)
I really like people. I think they're terribly interesting. So even though I have horrible fears about meeting new groups of them and I often end up saying embarrassing things, well - it's still a lot more fun than not meeting them. So wish me luck: I promise I won't sit on the hotel stairs.
I am also very, very much looking forward to being with writing folk again. My Irish friends are incredibly patient with me as I sit with them and talk about covers and popular trends and they even listen when I do small dramatic re-enactments of stories I have read or stories I'm thinking about writing. But I love being told stories back.
And after Eastercon, I shall not be done with writing folk yet, as I carry two of my favourite writing folk, Holly and Cassie, back with me to write in an Irish cottage in the countryside. It should be great fun, though I fear they may look to me as a Native Guide.
I can read Irish road signs. I can tell them all about the history of the cairns nearby. It's just... I have this fear of cows.
I am a city girl who reads a lot. When I was young, I read a lot of pony books. Then I was taken to a farm. I looked at the cows in the field. I did not think they were so different from ponies. I decided it was time to tame a noble steed!
... It all seemed perfectly reasonable at the time. I still think that the whole herd of cows over-reacted.
I've been suspicious of cows ever since. I think they are plotting their revenge.
So, in summary: I like jesters. I do not know any vampires, but my mother might, and I will be at a convention and in a tiny Irish writing retreat, so I will be scarce around these parts for a little while.
However, if I am not back by April, presume the cows got me.
Since I won't be posting for a bit I thought I'd also put up this interview I did with my friend Sinéad for her college paper: it doesn't appear online, and I wish to share eeeverything. As ever, if you guys wanted to see interview questions asked that weren't, ask away!
Sinéad: Did you always want to be a writer? How long did you work on The Demon's Lexicon, and what was your path to publication?
Sarah: I wanted to be a writer from the time I was five, but I have to admit that my commitment has not been lifelong: before that I passionately longed to be a ballerina.
I came up with the idea for the Demon's Lexicon in summer 2006, and I finished the book in January 2007. Of course that wasn't the end - in March I signed with my agent, who I found - uh, from her blog on the internet (www.pubrants.blogspot.com) and queried in a late-night fit of impulsiveness which I bitterly regretted the next morning and have not regretted since! We revised the book for a few months and then it was submitted one Tuesday in July. I was all prepared to wait for ages (publishing is a slooow business) so of course, life being what it is, I got an offer Thursday. That turned into a bidding war between four publishing houses, though, so I did end up waiting a month. But for a very nice reason!
Sinéad: What kind of research did you do for the book?
Sarah: I made wikipedia my slave. Ahem. No, I did find out Sumerian beliefs about demons (that demons were made from fire and humans from earth, for instance) from the internet, but I also clawed through lots of dusty books. And I try to take a trip to the places where I set my book. I had to do a pub crawl through Salisbury (for purely literary purposes I assure you!) and I was mistaken for a health inspector.
Sinéad: Do you write every day? Tell us about your daily routine.
Sarah: Uhm, some days I must confess that when it's raining, I spend most of my morning writing in bed. It's totally work - albeit comfy work in my pyjamas. I am always dressed with errands done and word counts to show my flatmates when they come home, because otherwise oh how ashamed I would be!
Sinéad: Do you usually base your characters on real people, at least initially?
Sarah: No, I'd be freaked out people would find out and never speak to me again! Ahem. No, I make them up so I can get properly fond of them. (Plus, I add far more attractive gentlemen than currently exist in my life - and attractive ladies too, just to be fair.) I do give characters real people names sometimes. I have a character named after a friend in The Demon's Lexicon who died in the first draft, and who got a reprieve in the revisions. I think she was a bit relieved about that...
Sinéad: What advice would you give to aspiring writers? I know that you have a M.A. in fiction writing — what are the benefits of pursing a degree? Are there any down sides to it?
Sarah: I would tell aspiring writers not to give up, because they will write a million bad words before they will start consistently writing good words. (I wrote about four million bad words, myself...) I enjoyed my MA because workshopping stories with other writers is valuable and I got a lot of wonderful advice on prose and structure - but I have to say some people involved in my MA had a dim view of fantasy. Their loss, of course.
Sinéad: The Demon's Lexicon was sold as a trilogy. Do you prefer to work with recurring characters or are you interested in single narratives?
Sarah: Well, my characters are like my children - I want them to go away and shut up, but sometimes they don't. No, I'm kidding. Working with recurring characters is great because you can get fond of them and the readers can too, but recurring characters only work if you have other stories to tell about them. We've all seen books where the writer goes on because the series is popular but obviously has no more new stories to tell, and in that case definitely best to go for new characters in a new story! I'm certainly interested in single narratives as well.
Sinéad: Fantasy is ofter overlooked as a genre. How do you feel about that?
Sarah: I don't know how overlooked JK Rowling feels, for instance... Lots of genre fiction is looked down on, though, it's true - and it's an enormous shame, especially since Dickens and Shakespeare were not at all literary and highbrow in their day! (And Shakespeare for one often wrote fantasy!) The most important thing is what the readers enjoy and not what the critics say, but sure, it'd be nice to see genre fiction get the recognition I think it deserves.
Sinéad: What would you consider to be the most rewarding part of an author's life?
Sarah: That would definitely be the mornings in bed. Uh, no, I am avoiding the sappy answer, which is the true one. I love writing more than anything else in the world, and getting to do it for a living (at least for a little while) is the most fantastic thing I can imagine. Plus, it leaves you flexible enough to travel - you can write anywhere! The most rewarding part of my author's life is simply getting to be an author.
Sinéad: How much do you think the author should be involved in the road to publication? Are you happy to let your publisher decide everything from dust jacket to age bracket or do you feel that the author still has a role to play at that stage?
Sarah: The author definitely has a role to play and should get a say, I think - if their cover induces seizures, this should be prevented! Still, the publisher is not only the one paying but the one with the expertise and experience selling books. So while it's nice for them to listen to the author a bit (and I might get a chance to help choose my cover model for the UK and Irish edition at least) I do think the final decision should rest with them. If a writer ever violently disagrees with her publisher (hasn't happened to me yet...) usually her agent can be used as a bridge over troubled waters to work out a compromise!
Sinéad: Do you think there are ever reasons why good books don't get published? Did a number of publishers really not see the potential of the Harry Potter series or were they unwilling to take a risk on a boy wizard because the genre or age group wasn't selling well at the time?
Sarah: Well, what's good is subjective. In the end it's just one editor's view of a book, and nobody knows what will hit big next. I do think that is people had realised the potential of fantasy earlier Harry Potter would've been snapped up, but it worked out pretty well for JK Rowling this way.
Sinéad: How do you feel about movie adaptations? Should a story be changed just to bring it to the non-reading public?
Sarah: I love some movie adaptations, and of course things have to be changed when a book is made into a movie - it's simply a different medium. That said, sometimes movies go much too far. Susan Cooper's excellent series The Dark Is Rising was made into a truly horrible movie last year, which mysteriously featured an evil twin in a snow globe.
Sinéad: Are there particular books and authors who have influenced you?
Sarah: I love Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope, though perhaps their influence may not be immediately apparent in a fantasy novel! The thing they have in common with fantasy authors that I love, like Diana Wynne Jones, is that their characters are very real, that they can make everything believable and that they are funny and seem to have a clear-sighted but ultimately positive view of people.
Sinéad: Do you think the editing process is as fastidious as it used to be? Are errors getting through because of tightening publication deadlines?
Sarah: I think editing is very important, since a writer gets so close to her work that an impartial and professional eye is worth more than said eyeball's weight in gold. That said, I am not sure how the editing process has changed over the years, and as for publication deadlines - I know some people have horrific deadlines, and I don't think any writer should have to cope with them, but mine are very generous and all the editors I know are committed to getting the books into the best shape they can be.
Sinéad: Do you think it's easier to write once you're established? For example, perhaps getting greater access to people for research?
Sarah: That certainly might be a difficulty for historical or memoir writers, but for myself I have access to places, books and the internet, so my research is sorted. It definitely is easier to find an audience, and to be sure your next novel will be published, which I imagine would be a tremendous relief and make it easier to write without occasionally having the vapours over possible failure. Uh, I wouldn't know from personal experience, though. I am a long way from being established. (Excuse me. I need to retire to my fainting couch for a moment.)
Sinéad: Do you think aggressive marketing is a good or bad thing? Should books still be sold on merit alone?
Sarah: Well, marketing will usually be given to a book that publishers think is good and likely to sell well, and I like marketing because people are more likely to read a book when they've heard of it. That said, it's a terrible shame when a really good book isn't marketed much because it's in an unpopular genre or someone takes a dislike to it - but I love that if a publishing house thinks a book is extra good it gets an extra push. That means more good books for the general public - which includes selfish, selfish me, and I love a good book.
Sinéad: How do you feel about writers becoming celebrities in their own right?
Sarah: Weren't writers the first celebrities, really? Byron was a rock star before they were rock stars, and he got all the fame, luxuries and wimmin that actors and rock stars get today. I think that's wonderful, and if someone decides to pile me with fame, luxuries and wimmin, I will have no objection at all. (On second thought, I might generously let someone else have my share of the wimmin...)