Monday, October 4, 2010

Interview with Krista Ball

Krista Ball is an Edmonton speculative fiction author. Her short stories have been published widely in anthologies, magazines, and fan favourite collections; and she is one of the pioneers of the digital generation's movement into e-publishing and self-publishing. She is also a regular contributor to Merge Magazine (Edmonton). Her most recent (October 1) release is the paranormal historical fantasy Harvest Moon from MuseItUp Publishing. This interview is part of her virtual book tour to promote the launch of Harvest Moon.

Krista will be making in-person appearances at Con-Version (Calgary) and Pure Spec (Edmonton) this month and will also have a vendor’s table at Pure Spec, where we are told there will be copious amounts of free chocolate.

Robert: Your latest work, Harvest Moon, is based on elements from aboriginal culture. Why aboriginal culture?

Krista: I worked at a homeless agency in Edmonton’s inner city for three years. I wrote Harvest Moon while there, in fact. Edmonton’s homeless has a large aboriginal population and, thus, you end up being exposed to their cultures, traditions, and even language just as part of your day-to-day living.

Robert: Do you ever worry about charges/issues of cultural appropriation?

Any charge against culture appropriation would be valid and invalid at the same time. I am white (nearly translucent white, in fact). However, several members of my extended family are Métis. I feel that I am writing a family story as much as a historical fantasy. On top of that, I think it’s important to be able to write about different kinds of peoples, cultures, and traditions. It would be no different if I wrote about the ancient Greeks, or Jews during WW2.

Robert: Some of your work has some pretty violent imagery in it. How have audiences reacted to that?

Krista: Right now, I have a fantasy novel for consideration at a publisher and another science fiction novel nearing completion. Both are quite dark and violent. My beta readers (and, even slush readers) have commented how they felt the violence always fell on the edge but never went into the “gore porn” that some pieces fall into.

But here’s the interesting thing. Out of my published and unpublished works, I have had far more stink kicked up over sexual orientation, sex, and alcohol use. In “Space Sucks” (a short story in Bardic Tales and Sage Advice II), I had several people tell me that they didn’t like that a woman was an alcoholic in the story — “women don’t drink like that.” Others have commented on Bearclaw in “Harvest Moon” being bisexual, saying that bisexual people didn’t exist before the modern era (clearly, they’ve never read ancient Greek poetry).

Robert: You're kidding me! People actually said that? Because a lot of plains cultures had quite specific, culturally acceptable roles for gays, so bisexual is hardly a stretch. Indeed, there's a lot of cultural anthropology to suggest that bisexuality was only problematic to a minority of Western cultures. So it's hard to think anyone would object to that in a story about pre-contact native cultures.

Krista: The total amount of bisexuality talk in "Harvest Moon" consists of probably 30 /11000 words total. Two of my reviews have already put a “bisexual references” warning. Then, I get an email who said that he was very bothered by the fact that one of the character was not straight. He also said it was a really good story, other than the “gay thing.”

It’s odd that brutal, graphic violence decapitation of toddlers and having them nailed to a doorpost is fine; but anything outside of rigid gender roles and expectations are not. It’s weird.

However, nothing has made me as happy as the first piece of hate mail arrived last week. I still show it off proudly and think I might frame it. It was like being in high school again, only with better fashion sense.

What do you hope readers will take away with them from reading your work?

I really just want people to forget their lives for a few hours and sink into the worlds that I’ve created. For the light-hearted stories (i.e. "Flying Kite, Crashing Ship"), I want to make people laugh. For the more serious works, I want people to feel that they could live another person’s life for a few hours. I don’t want anything more complicated than that, really.

Robert: What do consider the best piece you've ever written?

Krista: This changes all of the time. I generally like a piece when it first gets submitted and, after several rounds of content or line edits, I want to rip the work to shreds and never read it again!

Anything you now regret?

Krista: I sometimes say that I wish I hadn’t stopped writing when I left high school. Between 18 and 30, I barely wrote. At the same time, I wasn’t in a place to be producing the kind of work that I do now, dealing with the business end of things, and the other parts of being a full-time writer that people don’t realize. I honestly thought after I’d publish a couple magazine articles and a book, I’d be living like Danielle Steele and wearing mink coats (eww! What was I even thinking?). There was no way I could have handled the business side.

Now, I have enough corporate conditioning behind me that my writing is a career, a job, whatever you want to call it. I get a rejection and the story is back out the door somewhere else in under 3 minutes. I couldn’t have done that when I was younger. So, perhaps, it’s just as well I stopped when I did.

Do you read a lot of SF, or do you read a range of genres? If I were to ask you what you read in an average month, what would I find on your bookshelf?

I read or have read pretty much everything. In September, I read a romance novel, a light horror short, a m/m erotica novella, a m/m/f erotica novel, a mystery short, and four books of a fantasy series. And a Star Trek novel because I read one of those a month.

Robert: Star Trek? What do you think makes that series such an enduring read?"

Krista: My favourite is Deep Space Nine, where it combines the alien worlds and customs with everyday people. Even the aliens had crappy days sometimes. I like that a lot. It combined the wonder of space with the mundane everyday.

I remember that I discovered John M. Ford from his two ST novels. Who are your favorite ST authors?

I found David Mack from his ST novels. He writes other tie-ins and also has his own work out. I love his writing and would never have found him otherwise.

Robert: Any genre you don’t like/read?

I can’t read most horror. I’ve tried, but I either end up with nightmares or rather nauseous. I generally read more short stories than novels these days. I like the shorter time commitment with them. Also, with an e-Reader, I can purchase all different lengths of works and enjoy as I see fit.

Robert: Who are the big influences on your writing? Who are the SF writers who’ve had the greatest impact on you / your writing?

Krista: Here is a confession – I hated speculative fiction for most of my life. I loved science fiction on TV but I hated most of the books that I picked up. The only ones I liked as a teenager were Star Trek novels and a military assassin series (I can’t remember the name of them). I wanted so bad to read about girls like me slaying dragons and invading planets, but I couldn’t find those stories. They always had boring girls (if they even had girls) and it was the guys that did everything. I hated it. So, I gave up on the genre.

Skip a decade and I began to find so many new authors that I love, who write the works that I wanted to read as a kid. Jim Butcher, Diana Pharaoh Franics, Elizabeth Moon...Then, the world of ebooks opened up an entire new world for me, where I could find all lengths of books on all kinds of things that I’d never find in a store.

In the end, I began writing what I have because I didn’t like what was out there for most of my life. I write the works that me at sixteen was desperate to read.

Robert:As a Canadian, do you see your writing as particularly Canadian, or is your fiction more accurately described by genre labels?

Krista: Oh, I could go on and on about this one. I am genre-based, but I make it a point to be as Canadian as possible (and as Newfie as possible without needing to provide a dictionary and footnotes). I’m sick of stories set in New York City or LA. I’m sick of governments and laws all being based on US systems. Canadians do things differently and I want to include that different point of view.

For example, I created a First Nations tribe in Northern Alberta for Harvest Moon. Some of my beta readers are American and were really confused by the “six month winter.” They had just assumed the story was based in the US. I went back and edited a scene early on where Dancing Cat actually pinpoints where the story is taking place, without actually saying it (since “Alberta” doesn’t exist yet in the book).

Robert: Have you noticed a difference generally in the reception your stories receive from readers/reviewers/editors from outside Canada?

Krista: Most of my beta readers are American. It can be really annoying when basic things like weather, culture, socialized medicine all need to be presented in an American manner or else you are told it’s “wrong.” I’ve even had my spelling corrected by beta readers; one told me that I needed to learn to spell “colour” before I could ever hope to become published.

I’ve been lucky in that most of my editors have been Canadian or British. However, even Americans have told me that my stories have challenged them to not assume the stories are American-based. I take it as a compliment, as I never want people to assume anything when they start reading my work.

I'm always interested in a writer's process. Some writers write by just sitting down at the keyboard and letting things develop as they may; at the other end of the continuum are those that don't set pen to paper until they have a completed outline, a white board filled with timelines and thematic analysis, and a stack of index cards detailing each character, his/her growth, and their interaction with every other character.

I have used all forms of outlining, including no outline! I generally write out a paragraph about what the story is about and go from there. Usually, I stop halfway through, re-evaluate and either start over with a basic point-form outline or finish to the end because the logic is working already.

Robert: You mention rewriting one chapter nine times. How can you tell the difference between necessary revision to get the story right, and obsessive polishing to stall from tackling a piece of a project you've been avoiding?

Krista: If I’m at the stage where all I’m doing is line edits, I stop. For me, if I’m still adjusting plot, character development, setting and texture, then the story isn’t done. If I’m merely fiddling with words, the thing is done.

Robert: Is writer's block ever a problem for you?

Krista: The cure for writer’s block is to write freelance. You learn pretty quickly that either you write or you starve.

Seriously, though, sitting my butt in the chair and writing even when I feel “blocked” is the key. Because, really, I’m not blocked. I just want to be doing something else. I don’t want to write the difficult scene, I don’t want to write myself out of the hole I’ve dug, I don’t want, I don’t want, I don’t want. That isn’t a good enough excuse for me. I write for a local magazine who give me monthly assignments. I might not always feel like working on an article but flaking out isn’t an option. I have to do my work.

I see my fiction the same way. I have a responsibility to treat it with the same professionalism.

Robert: You've described novels as long term relationships, and short stories as affairs. It's a fun analogy, but do you prefer one format over the other? Does one come more easily than the other? Is writing a novel the same as art as writing a short story, or is there a difference besides simply one of scale?

Krista: Without short stories, I would go insane. Without novels, I would get bored. For me, the short stories give me a chance to write on a small scale. Basic character compliment, tight setting, one plot, one conflict. It really gives my brain a break. I can be naughty and silly in short stories. My novels right now tend towards the dark. The stories give my emotions and brain a release of tension. They are a different skill set, though. Novels require a well-developed plot that can withstand several bouts of conflict, characters in and out, etc. Short stories are smaller, taking only a snapshot in time.

Robert: So why do you post stories for free? Is it a marketing thing for your more major works?

Krista: A lot of my published work is non-fiction articles (i.e. I am a regular contributor to Merge Magazine in Edmonton), so people who don’t read the local Edmonton works don’t really have a sense for my writing style. Also, non-fiction and fiction read rather differently. The free stories offer people a chance to see if they’d like my style without having to pay.

: You have pretty decent blog/website. Did you design it yourself?

Krista: Thanks! I’m sleeping with the webmaster ;) We used a basic template and then my partner customized it for me.

Robert:How important do you think it is for an author to maintain a presence on the web?

I believe that authors need a web presence, depending on what works best for them. If you are really new, it isn’t that important. I think blogs are a good idea for new writers simply because it gives them practice on how to blog and figure out what kind of blog they want. I went through a couple of blogs before I settled on my current one. It was better to do that early, as opposed to now.

But, if an author hates blogging, I recommend just setting up a website and posting news every couple of months so that there is updated content whenever it’s available.

I also freelance on top of fiction, so I do try to keep an active blog and website. It does help keep readers up to date – and they get to hear me rant on a regular basis.

Robert: Do you think blogs and virtual tours and so on are effective? Or are they losing their novelty?

Krista: I am rather concerned about the growing trend for unpublished authors to have extensive blog tours, guest visits, “my book is debuting in 2011” (meaning they will be hopefully done writing it, not that it’s been published), etc. I think they should be focusing on writing.

Robert: How does keeping your blog relate to your writing? Does it relate, or do you see these as completely separate activities? Is it strictly a promotional tool, or is it part and parcel of your writing? Do you ever use blog postings as a kind of ‘warm up’ activity before starting in on the day’s fiction writing? As a ‘cool down’ exercise? As a coffee break when ‘blocked’?

Blogging is just another part of my writing days. I usually blog first thing in the morning or really late at night. There’s no reasoning for that, other than that’s usually when it comes to mind. As for the why I do it, it’s mostly as a means to keep me connected to people who enjoy my work or writers just starting out who want to follow someone who is also just starting out.

Robert: Some authors have told me that they use their blogs to vent, so that they keep whatever this week’s hobbyhorse happens to be out of their novel — that without the blog, they find their characters suddenly holding forth about the importance of table manners or the War in Iraq or whatever, whether or not it actually fits the book. Have you consciously used your blog this way?

That wouldn’t work for me. If something needs to be vented about, I am quite happy to either include it in a current work or slot it for another work down the road. Short stories are often my way to vent about the world.

Robert:I notice on your website you have progress counters to track how many words you've written on your next novel, or whatever. And I was struck by the fact that you've formatted that as X number of words out of 90,000. But how can you know how long a story/novel will be before you write it? How can you possibly know it will take exactly 90,000 words?

Krista: Doing freelance writing work really forced me to learn how to write for a specific word count. Add into that mix my history degree, where I had to write mountains of research papers, all with specific page counts. I discovered that fiction could be approached the same way. When I figured that out, my “waste” writing (i.e. the 3 chapter tangents that do nothing to progress a novel) vanished. Now, I only write paragraph-length tangents!

Generally, I can estimate within 10% of the final word count. I decide the type of project first, be it novel, flash fiction, short story, whatever. Then, I take one of my idea that will fit that word length. I make a couple of notes of how many scenes I think I need, what the risk will be for the story, and I start writing. My first draft will be significantly shorter than the final count. When I go back and edit, I add the texture of the world, clean up the plot, clarify things, and flush out the scene transitions. And lo and behold, I’m close to my target writing count.

It isn’t a huge deal if it goes off, though I rarely do. It’s mostly a tool I use to focus my writing so that every scene is focused on addressing the risk of the story. Keeping that in my mind and being mindful of the target length of my pieces really help focus my writing.

Robert: Thanks very much for agreeing to this interview!

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