Wild West fan and author Jean Lee explains how she got into horror, fantasy and sci-fi, and why she writes pretty much what she wants to write…
Thinking back to when you started writing, were you always interested in fantasy, or have you dabbled in other genres?
While I was always drawn to fantasy and wrote adventure stories in the Otherwheres, I often dabbled in other genres, too. I still have a Sherlock Holmes mystery I wrote when I was 12. I distinctly remember toying with dark sci-fi for a while in high school—stuff along the lines of Matrix and Lawnmower Man, where murderous natures use technology as a means of escape. And then there was Rise of Ecclesiastes, some sort of…oof, I don’t know what. It was akin to Martin Amis’ The Rachel Papers, complete with a selfish antihero. Heck, right now I’m enjoying a chance to muck around with fantasy horror, sending members of an estranged family to the matriarch’s isolated mansion to break a curse that’s been secretly killing a member of every generation for two hundred years.
Fantasy encompasses it all, in its way—I love the freedom to build a world with elements of the impossible. I just enjoy mixing in other elements, too, be it adventure, mystery, or horror…or all of them. Why not?
In relation to ‘Night’s Tooth’ in particular, how do you approach dialogue and characterisation?
Lots, and lots, of watching A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More. 😊 So often the characters in that film spoke in two ways—with their words, and with their bodies. Yes, sure, everyone uses body language. But the difference with the bounty hunters was that the story their bodies told often didn’t jive with what the words told. You had to read the body language for the emotion, for the real feeling. Words were often a bluff, a front, a claim. I wanted Sumac to carry himself as Eastwood, sure of himself even if he’s unsure of the job. I also love how bounty hunters aren’t bound by mainstream morals. They’ll leave someone for dead, they’ll put kids in harm’s way, they’ll do whatever it takes to reach their goals, not the law’s or anyone else’s. At one point in Night’s Tooth, Sumac is ready to kill a child to trap train robber Night’s Tooth. It’s one thing to say a character’s willing to do whatever it takes; as a writer, that means I have to be ready to let the character go to those extremes.
Where did the inspiration for Middler’s Pride come from and why did you decide to publish it in serialised form on Channillo?
Middler’s Pride began as…a bet? I’ll call it a bet. A writerly “I betcha you can/can’t do X” sort of situation. Indie author Michael Dellert was working on an expanded universe for his Matter of Manred saga, and was looking to get readers and fellow writers to take on characters who populate his country and create adventures for those characters. He gave me a girl soldier, and…I had no idea what to do with her.
At the time I was knee-deep in Diana Wynne Jones reading, including her Dalemark Quartet. Well, this young girl-soldier made me think of those young characters of Dalemark, and ideas began to take shape of a girl who was a total jerk, who already thought of herself as a legend that no one’s bothered to notice yet because, in her mind, they’re all idiots. It would take some legit experience in boot camp for her to realize just how little she knows about a soldier’s life, and that it takes more than talent to be a legend.
I had originally published the series in serial form on Wattpad, so shifting over to Channillo wasn’t a huge change-up. I’m hoping to continue the series on Channillo with Beauty’s Price, but that requires time to write, which is, well, pretty hard to come by when you’re teaching for five different school districts.
Do you tend to write to please your readers or to please yourself?
You know…I used to think about the importance of pleasing readers, but the end, I find it too damn hard writing for readers. If I’m passionate about the story, then I find a way to make the story work. Writing for the sake of others want just puts this barrier between me and the story—a transparent barrier, yes, but a barrier nonetheless. I can see the story, but I cannot feel it, and if I can’t feel the characters or what they yearn, then I can’t help readers feel it, either.
What do you think about the differences between traditionally published books and the indie author route?
Fancy book covers? A marketing team?
I’d love a marketing team. 😊
Let’s face it: the calibre of traditionally published books is no longer a guarantee. Whether it’s riding a fad until it dies, plagiarizing previously published books under a recognizable author-brand, or unpredictable pressures from various social reader groups to conform or else, it’s hard to justify pushing onward down the traditional publishing road. On the flip side, there are MILLIONS of indie authors eager to publish anything and everything without any sort of editing filter. Readers can’t peruse the virtual bookshelf because they’re drowning in writing more equated to excited freewriting than carefully crafted stories. And if anyone’s tried to open their eyes under water, they know how hard it is to see what things really are until they’re an inch away…but who can hold their breath for that long for that kind of study?
So readers come up for air, and swim on.
I love the freedom of publishing on my own schedule. I don’t love sorting out book formatting stuff. I love writing the story that’s burning inside me. I don’t love having to work out all the marketing schemes.
Considering the troubles with royalty rates, rights ownership, and lack of control, I just can’t support the traditional route. Perhaps the next five years will see more change in the publishing realm, but until then? No thanks.
What were your favourite books growing up, and which authors do you like to read now?
Hmm. Well, The Chronicles of Narnia were a must. I’m an American girl, so at some point The Babysitter’s Club and Nancy Drew filled my bookshelves. 😊 Once I got into cozy mysteries by the likes of PD James, Agatha Christie, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, I didn’t really return to fantasy until…Harry Potter? I’d say the Potter books. Currently I tend to dip into whatever tugs my curiosity hardest—Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X trilogy is a good example. And then, oh, and then, there’s Diana Wynne Jones.
Seriously, Diana Wynne Jones saved my sanity. Smothered by postpartum depression, Jones’ fiction and nonfiction opened my eyes to amazing adventures helmed by quirky, flawed characters, all created by a woman who lived through hell and grew up to be a loving mom and warrior for literacy. That woman’s my hero, and I will recommend her to any reader young and old until I die.
Do you have many unpublished novels/stories?
As in, completed manuscripts that have yet to see the light of day? Hmmm. Well there’s one that has to do with trolls and human children. I wrote it shortly after my father died. It needs SOOOOOO much work, but I’d love to get it to e-readers someday.
How has your background and life in general impacted on your writing?
Ooo, I’ve talked about this before! You can scope out my Gifts of the Writing Spirit for a snippet of my life to understand why growing up in a house of faith made the impossible possible in my eyes.
What can we expect from Jean Lee in the future?
I’m going to keep on blogging, that’s for sure! This community of writers, readers, parents, and other creative kindred spirits means the world to me. I have the edits for my next Fallen Princeborn novel waiting for me to finish; while the chances of completing them before year’s end are increasing, at least I know I can publish Fallen Princeborn: Chosen next year.
I have a very, VERY rough outline for the novel Beauty’s Price—you can see my world explorations on my site. Lord willing I can work up a draft next year.
But before that, there’s this novella that’s been poking my brain for months. Just as Night’s Tooth came from my love for spaghetti westerns, What Happened When Grandmother Failed to Die is inspired by my love for cozy mysteries and The Twilight Zone, a story telling of the horrors that occur when foolish mortals gather where dark magic comes to roost.
I hope you’ll stick with me on my journey through these wild places—such spooky travels are always best when one’s got a hand to hold!
NB Since this interview, Jean Lee has published a new book. Check out my review of Fallen Princeborn: Chosen.