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Monday, October 31, 2011

Author Interview: Sarah Zettel

Sarah Zettel is an award-winning science fiction and fantasy author.  She has written eighteen novels and multiple short stories over the past seventeen years.  She has begun a new paranormal cozy mystery series called the Vampire Chef Mysteries - my review of "A Taste of the Nightlife" is here (click here).  We are offering a copy of her new book in the Spooktacular Blog Hop giveaway (posted last Monday). I am ecstatic to interview her.  Please give a warm welcome to this accomplished author (the crowd goes wild, whistles and howls reverberate.)

- Do you start your next mystery with the killer, the victim or a plot idea?

Generally, I start with a scene.  It can be anywhere in the plot; an opening, something from the middle, or even the very end.  Then I'll fill in around it, asking myself; how did these people get here?  Where are they going next? 

- Do you outline the plot or some variation of that (a little/a lot of detail, a strict 3 act structure etc) before sitting down and writing?

I am not one of those tidy writers, even when it comes to mysteries.  When I embark on a new project, I do have an outline, in part because my editor usually asks for one, and also because it does help me solidify a starting point and a kind of flight plan for the book.  By about page 100, though, that outline is generally completely gone, except for the broadest details and I'm making things up as I go.  Along the way, I'll sketch new outlines, taking into account the new turns I've given the plot.  These are more to help me to keep track of what I'm doing and ask myself questions than anything else. 

- What is your process for developing a character? Do you use pictures, a worksheet or just let the character(s) tell you about him/herself as you write?

I've never been able to use the worksheet method.  I know people who do it, and it works very well for them,  But because my books change so much while I'm writing them (see above), I have to give the characters the freedom to evolve with it.   If I tried to work them up before hand, those sheets would most likely end up out the window with the outline.

-  There have been chefs, ghosts, even pets as sleuths, but as far as I know this is the first Vampire chef as a sleuth.  What drew you to such an unusual combination? 

I so wish I could take credit for the idea, but it wasn't mine.  What happened was one day the late, great editor and publisher Marty Greenburg walked into his office and said "Vampire Chef, why has nobody done this?"  And everybody in the office looked at each other, and said "Why has nobody done this?!"  And started looking around for an author who was willing to try to take the idea and run with it.  I hurry to point out this is NOT the way these things usually happen.  They first offered the project to humorist/fantasy/YA author Esther Friesner, but she had a deadline at the time, and referred them to me. 

-  Were you a big vampire fan all along (fan of Brom Stoker and devoured The Historian) and what research did you do?

I have always been sort of lukewarm on vampires.  I was a teenager when Anne Rice hit, but never liked them, and so I sort of sat out the many, many romantic vampires that followed.  When Buffy the Vampire Slayer came out, however, I was a huge fan of the series, and I've never lost my sentimental fondness for the original Bela Legosi "Dracula."  So, I found it a little odd to be immersed in the middle of a vampire series, but I'm having a lot of fun with my vampires out of the coffin in NYC.

-  Do you have anything special you do before writing, particular music or a special room/location that helps you get in the zone and write?

I can write just about anywhere, and I've been known to do it, too.  This is part habit, part luck.  Most days, however, find me at a "co-working" space in Ann Arbor.  Co-working is a concept where a group of freelancers go in together on office space, internet, etc. so they have  a dedicated work and meeting place, instead of having to work out of the isolation of the home, or the chaos of the coffee shop.  I go in each morning, grab a desk, set up my table and lap top, grab the day's hot caffeinated beverage, and get down to work. 

- What is your work schedule like when you're writing and how long does it take you to write a book?

I keep office hours, more or less.  For someone whose creative process is fairly chaotic, I like to have a defined schedule where my main focus is getting the heavy lifting of the writing work done.

- What in your background prepared you to write mystery novels?

Well, I was always a reader, and more than a bit of a nerd.  That meant I got to Sherlock Holmes and Poe, et. al. early.  From there, my grandmother introduced me to Agatha Christie.  My father was a huge science fiction fan, and I read mountains of the genre growing up.  There is a very strong mystery component to a lot of science fiction and a lot of cross-over between the two genres. 

-  Who is your favorite Mystery character?  Who is your favorite paranormal character?

Wow.  That's a tough one because there is such a range of possible answers.  I love Tony Hillerman's Jim Chee, I love Smila in Smila's Sense of Snow.  I love Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Whimsey, Sherlock Holmes, Nick and Nora Charles, and Richard Castle.  As for "paranormal"  I'd almost have to go with Buffy Summers, at least in the first 3 seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

-  Which author has influenced or inspired you the most?

Oh, boy.  There are a lot of answers to that.  Ray Bradbury tops the list most days.  Ursula K. LeGuin, Georgette Heyer, Terry Prachett, Tony Hillerman,  Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck, Charlotte Bronte... how much more room have you got?

- How did you get your first break to getting published?  Was it at a writer's conference or mailing a query letter?

I decided I was going to be a writer fairly young, and once I made the decision I didn't seriously consider doing anything else.  I got very lucky in high school, where I was able to take a class called "Writing for Publication," where I learned how to research markets, format a manuscript, keep a submission record for the stories, etc.  I got my first rejection in that class.  After that, however, it became a matter of slogging through; write a piece, finish it, send it out, start the next piece, rinse and repeat.  Eventually, I started selling to small magazines (and I do mean _really_ small), and worked my way up the chain. 

- What are you currently reading?

Lemme check the pile.  The Art of the Heist, by Myles J. Connor; Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, by Daniel Okrent; The Good Thief's Guide to Amsterdam, by Chris Ewan, Chicago, a Biography by Dominic A Pacyga.  I think that's all, currently.

- What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?

My most interesting quirk is that I'm pretty non-quirky.  Like I said, I deliberately set out to be a writer, and as I worked the problem at some point decided that quirks were going to hold me back from being able to make a serious living at it.  So, I practiced writing steadily, daily, finishing what i start, and cultivating new ideas on a regular basis.  I've got the usual run of problems; imposter syndrome, self-confidence, etc., but nothing truly special, unless you count never seriously wanting to be anything but a fiction writer as a quirk.

-  If your Vampire Chef Mysteries were to be made into a movie, who would you cast in your character's roles?

That's always a tough one to answer, because I don't know that there are a lot of actors out there who actually look like Charlotte, at least famous ones.  She's short, she's solid and she's curvy, the kind of build that hasn't been in fashion in Hollywood since Mae West. [I thought of Kate Winslet potentially here] I'd almost have to use time travel to really do it; Anatole would be a young Robert Redford, Brendan a young Christopher Reeves, or possibly Pierce Brosnan, Chet, a young, skinny Leo DeCaprio, and Charlotte...a young Janeane Garafalo, if she would die her hair.  

-  Do you have anything you would like to share about your next book in the series? 

In Vampire Chef #2; LET THEM EAT STAKE, Charlotte is brought in as an emergency pinch hitter to cater a problematic high-society wedding -- as her friend the wedding planner puts it "witches. vs. vampires to the tune of five hundred thousand dollars."  What she doesn't know is the witches are the Maddox family, the vampires are a set of undead con artists, and the original celebrity-chef caterer is about to turn up dead.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ 
THANK You Ms. Zettel for that great interview!  It is always great to meet other Buffy fans :-)  The Mae West image was great and I just had to throw in a picture.  Whoever came up with the idea for the series, I like what you have done with it. Perhaps because you have not been enmeshed in the Vampire genre you were able to bring a fresh take on the idea.  I am fascinated by the co-working space concept too.  

It wouldn't be Halloween without The Monster Mash!  Have a safe one.

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