Thursday 22 October 2009

INTERVIEW: Nicole Peeler

Having written and read as an academic, it took one book from the Urban Fantasy Genre to help Nicole find a voice for her fiction. Now, with her first book released by Orbit, she can be found on the shelves of a bookstore near you enticing the readers into her own little world, where myth and fantasy blast into the modern day world. We just had to chat to her about it and how she found her way to fiction although we were warned to watch out for the hips (she's a belly dancer) as well as to make sure we had a good supply of Bruichladdich as like any good storyteller, their throats get very dry and need liquid refreshment. Thus armed we sally forthed into unknown territory, where gnomes, vamps and selkies dwell...

FT: 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 you opinion of this statement and how true is it to you?

NP: Hm, that’s interesting, and I’ve never heard that before. I don’t really have an opinion of the afflicted/gifted . . . I feel neither, really. But I definitely agree with the do versus want idea. You can want to be a writer till the cows come home, but the fact is that being a writer is a lot of work. And a lot of the work is boring, fiddly, and repetitive. It’s not just getting an idea and creating. It’s getting an idea, creating, then going over and over that idea, and that idea’s grammar, and that idea’s word choice, and . . . it never ends. It’s repetitive work and an almost obsessive attention to detail that makes a writer.

FT: When did you realise that you wanted to be a writer?

NP: I always had vague notions I wanted to be a writer, but never pursued it. And I’d entirely given up on the idea for the years right before I wrote the book. I was doing my Ph.D. in Edinburgh, being an academic, and totally engaged with that. Then I had all this time on my hands, after I sat my viva and before I started my job. During that time I read a very different type of UF book that made me think “Ya know, I could do this kind of voice.” So I sat down and wrote Tempest Rising. It’s been a short, intense trip for me, but in other ways my whole life consisted of all the things other writers do, self-consciously, to become writers. I read all the time. And I wrote, all the time, as an academic. I guess it just all came together for me, finally, when I was ready.

FT: It’s 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 your POV?

NP: I’ve never written a short story, and the idea terrifies me. I would definitely agree with that statement, in theory. I teach an intro to fiction to class that is almost entirely short stories, and they are so small and they have to have so much weight. They’re so heavily loaded. That said, I talked to a short-story writer, who said the exact opposite - that she’s terrified of the idea of writing a novel. So maybe it’s one of those things where we are intimidated by what we don’t do.

FT: How would you "sell" your book in 20 words or less?

NP: Tempest Rising is comic hor-mance, with a side of sass. It’s about the girl next door who turn out to be half seal. I’ll clean your house if you read it. Wait . . . I totally won’t. But I will refrain from eviscerating you in fiction.

FT: Who is a must have on your bookshelf and who's latest release will find you on the bookshops doorstep waiting for it to open?

NP: On my Fun bookshelf is Charlaine Harris, Charles de Lint, Mercedes Lackey, Katie MacAlister, all of my fellow writers down at the League of Reluctant Adults and lots of others. On my Serious bookshelf is Philip Roth, Don Delillo, Martin Amis, Kingsley Amis, D.H. Lawrence, William Faulkner . . . tons of others. I’ve lived my whole life with a book attached to my face. Nowadays, the only thing that’s changed is that sometimes it’s a book I’m writing. As for what I’m looking forward to, I’ve got Charlaine Harris’s, Katie MacAlister’s, and Gail Carriger’s new books all on pre-order at the Amazon. And there are tons of others that are on the list.

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

NP: I’m a total plotter. I have my whole series plotted. My characters are plotted, and I do a short development piece (or a “where are they now” piece) before I sit down and start a new book. Then I outline the books. I plot everything. I’d plot you if you sat still long enough.

FT: What do you do to relax and what have you read recently?

NP: I never relax. Really. No, I do, sometimes. I relax by listening to a Podcast (usually This American Life from NPR), watching a crappy 14-year-old-boy film (I’ve seen Transformer’s like fifteen times and I CRY, every time), and by reading. But I only “relax” for about an hour or two a day. I have a very busy teaching schedule at my university, and I have three books on the go: I’m writing the third, editing the second, and now I’m doing publicity for the first. Anyway, I’m swamped. I’m tired. I need a vacation. So I can work more. ;-)

FT: What's your guiltiest pleasure that few know about?

NP: Hmmmm . . . I’m one of those people who publicly riffs on all of my flaws and faults and guilty pleasures immediately, so no one can have power over me by knowing them. I’m like Cyrano de Bergerac: I’ll make fun of myself or admit to something sordid, thus making such things harmless by incorporating them into my daily schtick. There may be a few things kept in reserve that are so dark and seedy even I don’t admit to them. But those aren’t going on the internet.

FT: Lots of writers tend to have pets (mainly cats.) What do you have and what are their key traits (and do they appear in your novel in certain character attributes?)

NP: I have nothing except commitment issues. Seriously. I don’t even have a houseplant. Houseplants expect too much of me. I hate owning a couch because it’s too big to put in a suitcase. I’ve traveled and lived abroad for a very long time, and I’m used to being portable. I’m uncomfortable with my new existence as “settled” here in Shreveport. Even the teeny tiny roots I’ve put down here make me nervous if I think about them. So no, no pets.

FT: Which character within the book is the most fun to write and why?

NP: My first two books each have one super fun scene that is mostly for kicks. I mean, they serve a purpose in that I’ve set a big bunch of exposition into the scenes, but I could have done them without the setting and the character housed in that setting. The first book has a succubus, who becomes an important character in her own right. The second has a hairdresser. They were pure fun and sooooo great to write. But I really, really love all my characters and I have this weird hippie notion that they exist outside of my noodle. So sitting down to write is more like sitting down with friends for a chat than it is a self-consciously creative process. In fact, sometimes when I have to make an editorial decision (I’ll start writing a scene and realize I should have taken it a different way for it to be stronger), I’ll feel a sense of surprise that I have that much control over my characters. I remember I’m actually their author, not their biographer, and that realization always has an edge of surprise.

FT: How similar to your principle protagonist(s) are you?

NP: She shares my sense of humor, although she’s less aggressively social than I am. In a fit of complete self-indulgence, I gave her an English degree so I could make lit jokes. But other than that we’re nothing alike. Jane is strong, and gentle, and much nicer than I. I am a coward. I would cry if someone told me there was a killer after me. While I cried I’d curl up in a corner and wait for death. Jane is more of what I would like to be, than who I think I am. I am well aware that she’s a much better person than I am. Oh, except we do both love ourselves a tuna melt.

FT: What hobbies do you have and how do they influence your work?

NP: My incessant reading is obviously my biggest influence, as a hobby. I think that’s really it. I don’t really have hobbies, unless you count drinking and talking shite. I’m really good at those two things. They are directly related.

FT: Where do you get your ideas from?

NP: Coming up with my ideas has been very organic. They’ve each started with what I would call my kernel question: What kind of protagonist am I writing about? So for this series, I started with the “idea” of Jane True. She had to be utterly normal, except for something that made her absolutely abnormal, in a supernatural way. I’ve read mythology, fairy tales, and fables all of my life, and some had more resonance for me than others. One such resonant myth was that of the selkie. I’ve always loved these myths, partially because of the pathos of being torn between two worlds. Selkie mothers with human husbands are torn between their human lives and family, and their lives in the sea and their sea husbands. I’ve always been ambitious, driven, and unwilling to compromise, so I have no doubt it’s all very Freudian. Anyway, the selkie myth has always been in the back of my mind, and it made perfect sense to ground Jane in that myth. What if she was the daughter of one of these selkie women and had no idea?

She could be absolutely normal, and yet have this secret heritage that could be revealed with a bang. The new series I’m developing are also based on these kernel-characters. There’s a protagonist who is the polar opposite type of character, in many ways, than Jane. That series is ready to start. On the very back burner, is a character whose kernel is to be entirely human. She gave me difficulty. But now I’ve got her essence and I’m ready to pin her down on paper.

FT: Do you ever encounter writers block and if so how do you overcome it?

NP: So far, I don’t sweat writer’s block. I’ve been writing for so long, for academia, and I’ve learned that you have good days, and bad days, and just to write through it. Take a day or even a week off, if you absolutely have to, but normally the trick is to muscle through it. Sometimes the product of such muscling ends up being good and I use it. Sometimes it’s really crappy stuff and I erase it the next day, but it got me out of my rut. I talk about my writing like it’s a hippie dippy mystical process, and writing my first book kind of felt like that. But I also recognize that I’ve learned really good writing practice from all of my professors, mentors, and supervisors. For a year, I lived with Saul Bellow and his wonderful wife, Janis, who is a good friend of mine. He got up every day and sat at his desk and wrote. And that’s what you have to do. Just sit there and write, no matter what you feel like. It’s not about inspiration, so much, as work.

FT: Certain authors are renowned for writing at what many would call uncivilised times? When do you do write and how do the others in your household feel about it?

NP: I have no household, so there’s no one to offend. And I also have no one to please. I don’t have to pack lunches or whatever. So I write in a very orderly, structured way. I write first thing in the morning, always. I work until I feel done, then I take a walk or run errands. Sometimes I can come back and work more, but other times I’m sapped so I just read or whatever. I learned this practice, again, from Saul. I would go to the gym after breakfast when I lived with them, and he told me, “Always work first, before anything else. Write when your mind is fresh. Everything else can be done with half a brain, but not your writing.”

FT: Sometimes pieces of music seem to madly 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?

NP: Oftentimes I do write in silence. I need to be able to talk to myself and hear myself talking, to hear the words. That said, there’s always something I’m listening to at the time that gets bound up in my writing. I usually go for a long walk or to the gym around midday, and that’s when I listen to my iPod. Whatever is on there is usually what I think of as the soundtrack to my book. Both of my books have very clear soundtracks for me, especially the first. For this third book, in which Jane is really growing into her own, I’m listening to a lot of Lily Allen. I hear Jane’s own transition in the change I hear between Lily Allen’s first album and her second, which is much darker, much more mature.

FT: What misconceptions, if any, did you have about the writing and publishing field when you were first getting started?

NP: I had no conceptions, whatsoever, as this whole process came to fruition for me so quickly. One of the things I was surprised at, however, was just how subjective everything is, when it comes to finding an agent and an editor. In academia, your ability to publish is based, I think, on your CV, your scholarly potential, on what the journal editors think is novel, etc. But everyone responded to my fiction queries with, “I like it, but I don’t love it,” until, finally, someone said, “I do love it.” So the publishing world appears to think with their gut first, and then other considerations come into play. Whereas I think in academia, publishing is more brain, first, and guts are lower on the totem pole.

FT: If music be the food of love, what do you think writing is and explain your answer?

NP: Writing, to me, is like the Stairmaster of the soul. Books strengthen, work out, even change your “essential” beliefs and values. My reading absolutely changed who and what I am. I wouldn’t be this Nicole Peeler, had I not read what and how I did when I was a child. I feel so sorry for my students who were never introduced to reading at a young age; were never opened up to fiction. Reading has given me so much, in terms of personal development, empathy, experience, sensitivity, passion . . . I could continue. I think more, I feel more, and I not only question more but also appreciate more, because I read.

FT: What can you tell us about the next novel?

NP: Tracking the Tempest is so much fun. It’s set just four months after Tempest Rising, and it’s about reality setting in for Jane, in terms of her new life as a creature from fantasy. It’s set in Boston, where I did my undergraduate degree, so there’s lots of my fave places throughout the book. Jane and Ryu are still feeling each other out (and up), but they’re also being harried by a lunatic halfing named Conleth, who teaches Jane that there’s nothing “halved” in halflings. Finally, there’s a lecherous Lebanese hairdresser involved who promises, ominously, “First I cut you wet. And then I cut you dry.”

FT: What are the last five internet sites that you've visited?

NP: Falcata times, natch. To be honest, after a brief stint my freshman year of college, when I was addicted to the internet, I haven’t really done anything besides order books and read the newspaper on my computer. But now, because of the books, I Facebook, and I Twitter. And I’ve got my website,, and I also blog at the League of Reluctant Adults. But other than that, I still don’t spend too much time on the net. I try to keep up with friend’s websites, but I fall behind. The two full-time jobs thing is killing me, I tell you.

FT: Did you ever take any writing classes or specific instruction to learn the craft of writing a novel?

NP: Yes and no. For shits and giggles, I did take a creative writing elective in high school, and one in college, but other than that, no. That said, my whole life as an academic has been dedicated to reading and writing. Talking with all of my friends who have self-consciously embarked on “becoming a writer,” and have done all the courses, and workshops, etc., I’ve realized that a Ph.D. is actually perfect “writerly” training. I learned to organize/structure a large project, I learned to get over myself and approach writing as work rather than inspiration, I learned how to approach style as something that is learned and honed rather than merely created, I learned to edit, and, most importantly, I learned to divorce myself from my work in order to see it as a project to be finished rather than a magnum opus to be nurtured indefinitely.

FT: How did you get past the initial barriers of criticism and rejection?

NP: I got over that barrier years ago. As an academic, my life has consisted of criticism and rejection. I’m telling you, academia is perfect, if slightly roundabout, training for the publishing world.

FT: What are the best and worst aspects of writing for a living, in your opinion?

NP: I don’t write for a living, and at this stage of the game, I can’t see how I could live off my writing. I live off my teaching salary and the money I’m making on the books I call my “girlie shit allowance.” But I honestly don’t know how people do live off their writing. There’s no insurance, no retirement, and the money is paid out in weird chunks. I think the only way you could live off it is if you either lived like a hermit or had a partner to bring home the bacon on an everyday basis.

FT: Did you get a crush on your male protag or hero? if so, what do you find hot about him?

NP: I haven’t gotten a crush on any of the male love interests I’m developing. I think it’s because they’re already claimed by my protagonists, and I’m nothing if not loyal to my girls. Sisterhood Unite! And, again, they’re perfect for my female protagonists, but I’m not them. So what Jane would define as her perfect man is very different from what I would want. Not that I know what I want, anyway. But the answer is that while I used things that I do find attractive to build the male protagonists, they’re built for my heroines.

FT: Do you listen to music when you write? If so, what would be the playlist for TEMPEST RISING?

NP: There’s definitely a soundtrack for Tempest Rising, and that will be a feature of my “real” website when it’s up. It’s pretty obvious, actually, as there are a lot of mentions of songs playing in the background of certain scenes. And it all kicks off with R.E.M.’s Nightswimming, natch.

FT: Are any of your protag’s experiences drawn from real-life experiences of your own?

NP: None of Jane’s “serious” experiences are mine. I am not part seal, nor did my mother abandon my father and me, etc. But tons of the little things are from my life. Like there’s a scene in the beginning of the sequel where Jane figures out that the “Prada” purse of her nemesis is a knock-off. The joke at the heart of that scene is from my real life. My friend had a knock off that I admired, and she was like, “Yeah, I bought this from a street corner in Hong Kong,” and showed me how I could tell. I’ve been blessed with knowing some of the coolest, smartest, funniest people ever, and they’ve given me joke fodder for about the next thousand years.

FT: What’s your favorite thing to do (besides write)?

NP: Travel, travel, and travel. I’m a city traveller, however. No Peruvian jungles or what not for me. I can’t wait to go back to Istanbul, and I loved Reykjavik. Italy warms the cockles of my heart, especially Amalfi. I lived in Granada for a while, and going there is always like going home. Obviously I miss the UK very much as well. I was last in London in January, and can’t wait to go back.

FT: If you could have chosen any other career instead of being an author, what would you have been?

NP: Writing is my second career, I’m really a professor. Both are my dream jobs, so I’ve been incredibly blessed.

FT: Do you share your first draft with anyone? What kind of input or support do you get from other people when you write?

NP: I’ve got two beta readers, both of whom went to University of Edinburgh with me. They’re Dr. James Clawson and Christie Ko. My former High School English teacher, Mrs. Judy Bunch, also read TR and walloped my grammar for me. Recently, I’ve become critique partners with Diana Rowland, who wrote the fabulous book Mark of the Demon. She’s been awesome and she’s fierce. She reminds me of my supervisor at Uni. My manuscripts are also all read by my wonderful Agent, Rebecca Strauss of McIntosh and Otis and my friend here in Shreveport, Dr. Mary Lois White. She teaches stats and is very pedantic. She also had never read UF until I’d given her the Charlaine Harris books, which she loved. So she’s a perfect reader in that she calls me out on the sci-fi/fantasy short hand I use that would throw a reader like her, someone unfamiliar with the genre, who is exactly the kind of writer I want to reach.

FT: Do you have a set routine when you are in writing mode? Music you listen to, a favourite tea/coffee/adult beverage, a special mug you use? Tell us your superstitions

NP: Again, I don’t have any superstitions. I write everywhere, anywhere. I wrote TR in Edinburgh, Istanbul, the Lake District, and about fifteen airports. If you give me a place to sit where I can plug my computer if I need to, I’ll write. Again, I think it comes from being an academic. I see this is work, not indulging my muse.

FT: WHERE do you write? Do you hide in a dark closet(like the offices in Bronson Hall) or do you have a sacred place? If so, tell us what that place is like?

NP: I never, ever work in my office at Bronson Hall, here on campus. It IS a dark closet. I spend as little time there as possible. I usually work in cafes, wherever I’m at. In Shreveport, I like to work in a Starbucks on Line Ave that has comfy couches and stuff. In Illinois, when I’m visiting my parents, I work at Caribou Coffee on Randall Road. Most of TR was written either in my flat in Leith or down the street at the Bean Scene on Commercial Quay. The only other weird thing I do is I don’t have a desk chair, I sit on a huge pilates ball. If you’ve ever seen me vlog, it’s why I’m bouncing just a little. A lot of people can’t get over the ball, but I’m telling you, they’re fabulous. Although I do occasionally get excited and roll off of it. I’m not the most graceful of people at the best of times.

FT: How important is it having an eye catching cover for your book?

NP: I think having an eye-catching cover is very important at first, when you haven’t earned a reputation, yet. Eventually, I think it becomes less important. I adore my cover, and it’s been quite controversial. It was criticized very harshly by a particular blogger, garnering it a lot of attention. It doesn’t look, at all, like a typical UF cover, but my book isn’t typical UF. If we dressed Jane up in leather and daggers, she’d laugh at me. Then poke me in the eye. She’s not a warrior woman; she’s part seal. She swims, naked, and not in any kind of saucy mini dress. She doesn’t have any tattoos. She rarely, if ever, looks suggestively over her shoulder at the camera. Jane is Jane, and the cover reflects her, and the tone of my book, beautifully. I think that once more people have read it, they’ll get it, and understand why I was so happy with Orbit’s choice. It’s like they read my mind getting the amazing Sharon Tancredi to do Jane’s art.

FT: When do you write (first thing in the morning? late at night? whenever you are really pissed? etc.) and why then?

NP: I write first thing in the morning, for about four-six hours. I write then because my brain is fresh and there are fewer distractions. When I’m teaching, however, I write whenever I can. My schedule at LSUS takes up a lot of my time, allowing me very little time to write during the school year.

FT: Can you give some advice to other ambitious and brilliant young novelists out there looking for help on the process of getting their ideas written/published?

NP: First of all, it’s not enough to have an idea, unfortunately. Writing, as I’ve discovered, isn’t about the ideas. It’s about getting those ideas on paper. That’s the difficult part of the process. So if you only have an idea, then my advice is to work on the craft of writing, the practice of writing, before anything else.

If you do have a manuscript, I’d get a few people you trust to read it. You don’t want people you know will like it; you want people who WILL criticize it. If you’ve already taken your manuscript through such a process, then you’ve got different options. I went the old fashioned, agent route. I queried agents till I found one who would take me on. That said, I had no idea what I was doing when I started. I was sitting in Leith with NO guidance. So I googled, “how to publish my manuscript.” There are TONS of resources on line. Do your research! Everything I needed to know I found by Googling.

FT: Talk about your thesis situation and how you overcame all those obstacles and then realized you didn’t always HAVE to write high-brow lit-ra-ture (read with British accent). In other words, talk about how you found the joy of writing fantasy.

NP: Writing fantasy is a joy. It really is. And I think I was meant to do it, now that I’m here. Fantasy is what really gripped me when I was a child and a young adult and I took a lot more from it than just dragons and sword battles. I think I learned a lot about my values, and my idea of heroism, and bravery, and friendship from these books. I also learned a lot about tolerance. A constant sub-theme in most fantasy (I can’t speak for sci-fi, because I didn’t read it often, but I’m sure it’s probably similar) is that difference is good. I was raised by super progressive parents, so it’s not surprising that I’m so liberal, but those values were definitely reinforced by my reading fantasy.

As an adult, I study cultural and gender studies, alongside all of my “serious” literature. The irony is that it’s our popular literature that has the biggest impact on a population and a culture. Furthermore, the themes that dominate “real” literature all trickle down into popular culture. The only difference is that people actually read popular literature, so in many ways its more radical and has more influence than literary fiction.

That said, the real reason I don’t write literary fiction is that I can’t and won’t. When I tried to write literary fiction it was terrible. And I mean terrible. I think part of the problem is that I don’t like revealing myself, or publicly probing my personal human condition for the world to see. So I write about half-humans who bonk vampires and learn magic powers from gnomes. And I find it very satisfying to do so.

Finally we'd like to point people to Nicole's website where she currently has a competition on the go called "Hunt the Selike." For more details go here.

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