Chatting with Author Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire (pronoun-ced SHAW-nan), is like having a conversation with a tempest. She is certainly a force of nature in her own right…and often described as “a vortex of the surreal.” The first thing you learn about her—kind of like the first rule of Fight Club—is that you never ask a question about a subject if you don’t want the lengthy, detailed, and very graphic answer. Take the Black Death pandemic of the 14th century, for example. Seanan can expound on the specific gory characteristics of the spread of the various diseases associated with the event…and will do so while enjoying a friendly dinner with friends.

“Most of them have learned not to ask questions they don’t really want answers to,” she says with barely-checked laughter in her spritely voice.

Seanan is the author of a popular urban fantasy series published by DAW (the science fiction/fantasy publishing arm of the Penguin Group) featuring her protagonist, October “Toby” Daye, in a northern California world where characters that Grimm and Disney once found a lucrative focal point—faeries, gremlins, trolls, and the like—reside in carefully concealed areas in the San Francisco Bay area. Oh yeah, and they’re a lot more sinister and unfriendly than either Grimm or Disney ever dared imagine. The series thus far contains Rosemary & Rue (9/2009), A Local Habitation (3/2010), An Artificial Night (9/2010), Late Eclipses (3/2011), Ashes of Honor (9/2012), and Chimes at Midnight (9/2013).

The idea for the series began with a fourteen-page short story she wrote on a whim, and which was inspired by the Tea Gardens of Golden Gate Park. Her friends kept insisting about the main character, “Toby needs a novel.”

Seanan says, “Apparently, Toby gets what she wants.”

Toby is a cross between Joan Wilder (Romancing the Stone) and a kick-ass – and beknighted – version of Seanan herself. Not that Seanan really needs such an adventurous alter ego. Her web-bio states that many of Seanan’s personal anecdotes end with statements like, “…and then we got the anti-venom,” or “…but it’s okay, because it turned out the water wasn’t all that deep.”

Seanan doesn’t limit herself to writing only one series, or one form of creative expression for that matter. An accomplished musician, she records and releases original music. Her first release, Pretty Little Dead Girl, is described on her website as containing “a wide variety of messages from our alien overlords, cleverly disguised as a live recording of Seanan’s 2005 OVFF Toastmistress concert. We can’t promise that this CD holds the secrets to wealth, power, and beating rush hour traffic…but hey, we also can’t promise that it doesn’t. What we can promise is eleven tracks about the evil within, the dangers of vampire slaying, mad science romance and drag-racing ghosts.”

The title song Seanan describes as 1950’s era bubblegum pop. And while there’s certainly that influence in the music, the lyrics are something else entirely. Perhaps more akin to a George Romero film.

In addition to her numerous other talents, Seanan finds time to draw and post an autobiographical web comic titled “With Friends Like These…” that she does purely for fun. That’s when she’s not taking lengthy walks, blogging, maintaining her own website, or watching films with words in the titles like “blood,” “terror,” or “attack.” One gets the distinct feeling that she relishes her reputation as a sort of otherworldly character in her own life.

Seanan also has another alter-ego: self-proclaimed horror queen Mira Grant. Under this nom de plume, she writes a second fictional series that starts with Feed: (Newsflesh Vol. 1), a brutal post-apocalyptic creep-fest that will have you looking at social media in a whole new way. Seanan describes it as a “politically dystopian zombie thriller.”

“We won the zombie war…we had Twitter,” she says.

Feed was followed by Deadline, Blackout, and the first of a new duet titled Parasite.

At the age of eight, Seanan saw a re-release of Disney’s Cinderella and “loved [the idea of] it,” though she complained to her mom all the way home that “Disney got it wrong.” She didn’t connect with the happily-ever-after imagery. “Even Grimm cleaned up [their fairy tales] to reflect the times,” she said. It’s no surprise, then, that one of her favorite authors is Stephen King, citing King’s use of language as the most engaging part of his craft.

Seanan recognized her own obsessive-compulsiveness early on. “Owning my OCD was an exciting process,” she says with a girlish laugh.

“I wake up every day between seven and eight – or when the cats decide it’s time to get up.” Her Maine Coon cat, Alice, prefers the pugilistic approach by punching Seanan in the face. Seanan’s Siamese, Lilly, chooses simply to lick her owner’s nose. Repeatedly. It’s no mistake that her protagonist, Toby, also has two cats that play an interesting role in the series.

Seanan addresses first what she calls “administravia” that accumulates in her head through the night, then goes for a morning walk through her current town of Concord, California, to organize her day. Back home again, she goes to her checklist.

“I always try to have at least two things to work on in case I get stuck on one,” she said. Seanan works with story outlines to help her keep the stories interesting and the plotlines straight.

She trusts that most of her readership will travel with her cross-genre (the October Daye series being urban fantasy and the zombie series more obviously in the horror genre), though notes that Toby is more young-adult friendly and the other, “not so much. “

She calls her beta-readers The Machete Squad, and considers editing a “full contact sport.”

Seanan is planning to insert a prequel of sorts between volumes six and seven of her October Daye series. “Lots of readers want to know Toby’s story, about how she was knighted, and how she came to be with Devan (an important character in the first book).”

Of her reputation for bizarre behavior, she has what one could only call a psychotically healthy outlook. In short, she states proudly that she’s always been viewed as a sort-of Marilyn Munster figure. “I tend to appear at concerts and conventions in a fluffy pink prom dress and bloody evening gloves.” She imagines that it’s what the pretty little dead girl that lives inside her would wear.

She was originally inspired to begin writing by her fascination with non-fiction; specifically with the works of the late Catherine Briggs, an English folklorist, and with her personal interest in zoology. Those preoccupations certainly inform Seanan’s writing. Her writing is intensely and obviously well-researched.

For those growing their own writing careers, Seanan is quite forthcoming. Her agent, Diana Fox, didn’t feel that Seanan’s first novel, Rosemary & Rue, was quite ready to be published when she first saw it, but didn’t reject her cold. Instead, Fox worked with her until the story and the writing was where they wanted it. “I spent an entire year emailing with Diana before signing on.” She encourages anyone wanting to publish novel-length work to get an agent first.

Seanan also admits that she became a much better writer by simply continuing to write, a statement most writers hear over and again. She also warns against “writing for the market.”

“It’ll be two years before your book hits the stores, and by that time the market you were writing for is no longer current.”

As for self-publishing, Seanan says, “It’s completely valid, but only if you know what your expectations are.”

You can learn more about Seanan (and perhaps some things you are better off not knowing) on her website: www.seananmcguire.com

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