Having written the very successful Year of Yes, when we heard that Maria had a new Urban Fantasy trilogy featuring Cleopatra and the warrior healing goddess Sekhmet (the lioness headed one) we couldn’t resist getting the chance to know her a little better.
Here we chatted to her about everything from inspiration to writing and her own 20lb war cats…
Falcata Times: Writing is said to be something that people are afflicted with rather than gifted and that it's something you have to do rather than want. What is your opinion of this statement and how true is it to you?
Maria Dahvana Headley: It doesn't suck to be a writer, and it particularly doesn't suck to be a writer who manages to make a living writing. It may be a difficult career sometimes, but let's be real. There are "difficult careers," and then there are careers in which you crush rocks for a living. Writing is not the same as crushing rocks. I have an incredibly awesome profession. I make a living making up worlds. I'd never view the urge to write as somehow miserable. The urge NOT to write, particularly while on deadline, on the other hand...
FT: When did you realise that you wanted to be a writer?
MDH: When I was 16 or so, but back then I thought you just wrote because you loved writing, and then, if you were incredibly lucky, someone read it. I had no idea people wrote for a living. I'm from a small town in Idaho. I thought I was going to be a playwright, originally. I moved to NY, and went to school to study that. But eventually, things shifted and I started writing prose. I think that was the right thing, but who knows? Talk to me in ten years. I might have gone nuts, reinvented myself again, and be writing haiku, or songs. Basically, I like to tell stories, in whatever form.
FT: It is often said that if you can write a short story you can write anything. How true do you think this is and what have you written that either proves or disproves this POV?
MDH: Hmm. I don't think it's true that if you can write a short story you can write a novel, or a screenplay, or a play... None of these things are the same thing. I've done all of them. They're less related than I'd have thought, and the raw material is not the same. Novels are luxurious in comparison to short stories. You can develop and develop, and something can pay off 100 pages later. In short stories, that can't happen. For me, writing a short story is like having a fling. Maybe a fabulous, monthlong fling. Novels are a commitment. They're like marriage. You have to be devoted to telling that one story. It can be hard to stay so committed. In fact, there's one section in Queen of Kings where I have a story within a story - the character Usem tells the Emperor Augustus a long tale about his life and adventures - and I wrote it because I was going insane developing my huge novel plot. I was in the throes of writing a big battle, and I couldn't work out a plot point, so I took a break and wrote myself a little story. The story was related, but it was also a breath of magic in the middle of writing a violent section of novel. And now it's part of the novel.
FT: How would you "sell" your book in 20 words or less?
MDH: Cleopatra sells her soul to a chaos goddess, ends up bloodthirsty and immortal, and goes to war against Rome.
FT: Who is a must have on your bookshelf and whose latest release will find you on the bookshops doorstep waiting for it to open?
MDH: I'm a huge Neil Gaiman fan. Peter Straub, too. I love the writer Kathryn Davis (Labrador, Hell, The Thin Place) - her books are strange, perfect, and incredibly layered in the way that Angela Carter's are. I can't wait for my friend, lauded sci-fi writer Nicola Griffith's new one, which will be a wild and awesome shift from her previous work: ambitious, badass historical fiction about the 7th century character Hild of Whitby. Um, I read everything. All genres, from highbrow lit to dark fantasy, and everything in between. Actually, I particularly love writers who live in the in-between. Writers whose books contain both gorgeous sentences and page-turning narratives please me no end.
FT: When you sit down and write do you know how the story will end or do you just let the pen take you? ie Do you develop character profiles and outlines for your novels before writing them or do you let your idea's develop as you write?
MDH: Both. For this book, I knew the end, and I wrote it before I wrote the middle. I have a vague outline, which I thoroughly diverged from. This book, though, because it's got a historical spine, had some definite rules to be obeyed. There were certain things that couldn't happen, in terms of character death,etc. And other things that could. There's something that happens about halfway into the book, a really crazy something, in which we suddenly get a character back into the narrative, even though that character has died. I discovered that some glorious loopholes in history are possible, if you're writing a book that takes place in a world where there are witches and soul summoners. But that event? I didn't know it was going to happen until one day I wrote it. It was a happy surprise, and then, it totally worked.
FT: What is your guiltiest pleasure that few know about?
MDH: I'm never guilty about pleasure. There you have it, a guilty pleasure unto itself.
FT: Lots of writers tend to have pets. What do you have and what are their key traits (and do they appear in your novel in certain character attributes?)
MDH: Two Bengal cats. They are absolutely in Queen of Kings. There are tigers and lions throughout that book, and Bengals are part wildcat, very playful and warlike. I'm glad mine weigh less than 20 lbs. A 40lb version would be dangerous.
FT: Which character within your latest book was the most fun to write and why?
MDH: I had a great time writing Chrysate. She's a witch from Thessaly, and she's very very dark. I made her up out of all my worst dreams, and also out of Medea and a few other classical bad witches. I actually did a lot of research into classical magic for her character. She's also stunningly beautiful. I had fun writing a beautiful woman who is nothing but nasty underneath her skin. And maybe her skin isn't even her own...
FT: How similar to your principle protagonist are you?
MDH: Very. I totally lose control of myself and drink people's blood, and of course, I'm royalty. Well. Not really, in fact. My protagonist ends up turned into essentially a monster, entirely because of ill fortune, and probably because of hubris too. It was interesting to write a book wherein the protagonist does a lot of horrible things I'd never do. I did a lot of thinking about how to make those things not only plausible, but sympathetic, even when they're not. I had to give her really high stakes, and in this case, historically, they're already there. Her desire to save and/or rejoin her husband and children is what drives her actions. I can relate to that.
FT: Where do you get your idea's from?
MDH: Idea Store. That question, by the way, is one that almost all writers hate. We don't know where our ideas come from. They just come. They're a mixture of everything we've ever seen, read, eaten, drunk - and they just float up out of the darkness, for me anyway. Then we work and work until they are right. I have no idea where they come from. But when one shows up, I try to be ready.
FT: Sometimes pieces of music seem to influence certain scenes within novels, do you have a soundtrack for your tale or is it a case of writing in silence with perhaps the odd musical break in-between scenes?
MDH: Yes, I have tons of music which has influenced this book, and I'm writing a piece for Largehearted Boy's Booknotes which will give you the whole thing. (Should be up on May 12.)
FT: What can you tell us about the next novel?
MDH: I can say that I'm writing it right now, and that it's very different from Queen of Kings - though it's a sequel.
FT: Did you ever take any writing classes or specific instructions to learn the craft? If so please let us know which ones.
MDH: I went to NYU and trained as a playwright, and later I went to Breadloaf, where I did some writing workshops, but really, as far as novel writing goes, I just read a million books, and I write all the time. I think the best thing you can do for your writing is study the work of writers you love. Pay attention to how they're making things work. Figure out WHY you love them. That makes you a better writer.
FT: What are the last five internet sites that you've visited?
MDH: Twitter; an italian restaurant in Seattle where I'm going to have cocktails the day the book comes out; Wonders & Marvels; Ebay, where I visited a French pendant from 1850 with a wonderful "lover's eye" painting at its center and a serpent biting its own tail, along with acrostic carved gemstones that say "Crown" indicating the original owner was the queen of someone's heart. It's very pricy, though, and so, not mine. Also just visited YouTube, where the booktrailer for Queen of Kings is posted.
For more information on Maria and to keep up to date please visit her website.