Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Diana Rowland
by Lawrence M. Schoen
Diana Rowland takes the rubric "write what you know" to urban fantasy extremes. Her bio
acknowledges that she's worked as a morgue assistant, a detective, and a crime scene
investigator, and this experience is readily apparent in her White Trash Zombie series (My Life
As a White Trash Zombie, Even White Trash Zombies Get the Blues, White Trash Zombie
Apocalypse, How the White Trash Zombie Got Her Groove Back, and last autumn's White Trash
Zombie Gone Wild) and Kara Gillian "Demon" books (Mark of the Demon, Blood of the Demon,
Secrets of the Demon, Sins of the Demon, Touch of the Demon, Fury of the Demon, and
Vengeance of the Demon). She's an alumna of Clarion West and took home a first place slot for
the third quarter of 2005's Writers of the Future competition with her first entry. She's also a
member of a very exclusive club: female authors of Urban Fantasy who have successfully moved
a series from one publisher to another!
Schoen: You've had occasion to know--better than most authors--just how fickle the
publishing world can be. You've lived through every author's nightmare of having your publisher
drop your series in the middle, and you've come out the other side. These things are, presumably,
not personal, but rather reflect business decisions as editors come and go, imprints live and die,
and the folks in accounting and marketing contribute their own two cents. What was your
experience when you received word that Bantam was done with Kara Gilliam? And, just to bring
things back to a happier level, how did the news that DAW wanted her affect you?
Rowland: It wasn't so much that Bantam was done with Kara Gillian, but that Bantam was
done, period. This was part of the fallout from Black Wednesday, when the publishing houses
did a slash-and-burn of personnel, imprints, titles, and anything else that wasn't an immediate
and visible asset. Bantam got the ax, and any Bantam author who wasn't already a Big Name or
top seller simply didn't get another contract.
Now, there weren't any big announcements that no new contracts would be forthcoming. My
agent and I found out when we started wondering why we'd received no response to his nice,
"Hey, that first book sure did sell well for a debut. How about you buy another few in the
series?" query--especially since a no-reply was very out of character for my editor. After a polite
nudge, my (very upset) editor called my agent with the news about the imprint and told him that
she been fighting for the series, but in the end there was nothing she could do.
So there I was, two books into a brand spanking new series, and no publisher. (This was
before ebooks were anything more than an interesting but very tiny corner of the market, and
self-publishing wasn't an even remotely viable option.) I also knew that the chances that another
publisher would pick up a mid-list series mid-stream were slim to none. My agent had a few lines
he still wanted to tug, but I didn't dare pin my hopes on them. After a few bouts of wine and
chocolate, I allowed myself to face the reality that the Kara Gillian series was dead.
Which meant I needed to get my ass to work and come up with something else to write.
I brainstormed and dug through old notes and looked at the market then churned out chapters
and a synopsis for a YA steampunkish alternate world something-or-other. I emailed it to my
agent who soon emailed me back with the comment, "This doesn't knock my socks off" which
translates roughly to, "This really sucks ass, WTF."
So, I scrapped that proposal, then came across notes I'd made back when I was working at the
coroner's office about a zombie who worked in a morgue. Back when I first had the idea, I was
deep in the throes of writing the first two Kara Gillian books for Bantam, and had therefore
tabled the concept for the time being.
I read through my notes, and made more notes, and got more and more excited about it. Three
chapters came as easily as breathing, and I put together a fairly coherent synopsis for a book
about a white trash zombie then sent it to my agent.
His reply: "THIS knocks my socks off."
Now, in the meantime, he'd sent my first book to Betsy Wollheim at DAW since she'd been
interested in the manuscript when it was first being shopped. He went ahead and sent the white
trash zombie proposal to Betsy as well. Not long after that, she got in touch with him and asked
him if he could please not show the proposal to anyone else just yet?
Okay, I thought. Kara Gillian is dead, but maybe I can sell a book or two in this new series.
That would be pretty cool, right?
About a week later, I received an email from my agent that said (paraphrasing), "I told you
so," and went on to tell me that DAW was going to buy the next three Demon books . . . AND
three white trash zombie books.
From dead career to six-book deal.
There was more wine and chocolate involved after that, but in the very best of ways.
Schoen: In your Kara Gillian books you slip in various details about the honor of Demons,
which is a surprising and different take. What's behind this? Are you simply using this as a
device to explore the concept in human society, or to further separate the way you distinguish
your "monster" books from the more traditional vampire and werewolf fodder?
Rowland: Well, for starters, the demons in my books aren't "demons from hell." The
traditional demons from hell are evil because they are evil. They are demons. They're from hell.
Hell is evil. Therefore they are evil.
I dislike any story where the antagonist (or, in some cases, protagonist) is evil simply because
s/he is the Evil Ruler/Wizard/Homeboy/Whatever and it says they're evil right there in the script.
It's lazy writing. One of the overriding themes in the Kara Gillian series is that evil is often a
matter of perception. Many people who we might label as "evil" don't see themselves as evil.
As for my demons, they're actual characters, not simply monsters to throw into the mix when
things need spicing up. They have their own reasoning and motivation and, just like humans, they
have moral codes and standards of behavior. Rules of engagement, you might say. Or honor.
So, yes, I wanted to explore the concept in human society. And I also wanted to separate
myself from the more traditional vampire and werewolf fodder, but only because I wanted to
have plenty of interesting, multi-faceted characters. Even the monsters.
Schoen: You've mentioned in previous interviews that you had a pretty middle class
upbringing and didn't experience more disadvantaged populations until you spent time as a
blackjack dealer, but that the real consequences of privilege didn't hit home for you until you saw
it first hand in your time as a police officer. This has obviously been a great starting point with
your Angel Crawford books. But that's only part of their origin story. What else are you drawing
on, and trying to accomplish, with this series, or is your goal just to tell an entertaining tale?
Rowland: Obviously, telling an entertaining tale is the number one goal. But a lot of things
can happen along the way. Readers want to engage with the story, and when there's an issue or
subject they can identify or sympathize with, it adds to that immersion. The White Trash Zombie
series in particular deals with issues of class, addiction, mental health, and domestic
violence--all of which I witnessed or dealt with both in law enforcement and with the coroner's
office. Because I've seen the consequences and fallout, it resonates with me, and I try to pass that
on to my characters. We all know that perfect characters are boring. But at the same time,
characters who have shortcomings that feel picked out of thin air feel just as shallow and
uninteresting. A character's imperfections need to be intrinsic to who they are and how they react
to the world around them. Addicts will rationalize everything. Abuse will escalate. We know
these things because we've seen it time and time again. What I find fascinating is why and how
and what gets a person to that point. Basically, I enjoy writing Angel Crawford because she's
complicated and messy and fun as hell, and I hope to keep doing so for a long, long time.
Schoen: One of the things that fascinates me about your Zombie series is the use of the
metaphor of addiction. Am I reading into this? Was this something that you deliberately intended
from book one, or just something that your unconscious snuck in when you weren't looking?
Rowland: It was very much intended from the very start, but the challenge was presenting it
in a way that wouldn't be depressing. (I like to think I succeeded.) In book five, the metaphor
becomes reality, and Angel has to truly face her addictive nature.
The absolute coolest thing for me was when I'd get emails or messages from readers telling
me they had loved ones who were addicts and that reading Angel's story made a difference in
their own lives. That's the best award a writer can ever earn.
Schoen: Switching gears a bit, I want to return to your background, specifically, your
education. Back in my professor days, I used to tell my students that nothing is wasted, that every
class you take (whether in your major or not) feeds into your understanding of the work you want
to do. In my own fiction, I've found this to very true. According to one of your bios, you earned a
bachelor's degree in Applied Mathematics from Georgia Tech. Have you found any of that
filtering through into your fiction, either in terms of specifics topics or more generally in the kind
of perspectives that come from hanging with mathematicians?
Rowland: It's more like a perspective that comes from hanging with (and growing up with)
science nerds in general. My dad worked as an engineer in the space industry for close to 40
years, and my mother was an absolute whiz at math and had a deep love of science and science
I'd say the biggest influence that my math/science background has had on my fiction is that I
tend to be a little obsessive about having my worldbuilding make logical, consistent sense. While
logic and consistency is generally a good thing, it can be limiting if you're not careful. I've had to
stretch my brain at times to explain to myself that different worlds could easily have different
physical/quantum rules, and therefore stuff can be logical and make sense in different ways.
But the cool thing about science is that it's still, and will always be, an area of exploration
and discovery. And when you look at the world as a place that still has plenty of mysteries and
secrets, it's really easy to ask the "What if?" questions that form all stories.
Schoen: Given the many and varied occupations that have shaped you--and presumably
shaped your fiction as well--I have to ask what triggered the writing bug in you? Was there some
book, some film, some event that at a particular moment in time made you realize this was
something you wanted to do, something that you could do and could learn to do well?
Rowland: I've always loved to write, even from a tender age. I didn't know the first thing
about story structure or character development or setting, but I had fun writing the stuff in my
head. My notebooks in college had scene fragments or story snippets scrawled around my class
notes. (Which might have factored into why I had to take Real Analysis twice and Abstract
Algebra three times.) At some point in my thirties, I finally realized that the people who wrote
the books I loved to read were just people who'd buckled down to write good stuff and then gone
on to sell it.
So I buckled down and wrote--and finished!--a book. A sprawling, messy, 150K epic
fantasy that was so Mary Sue the main character's name was ZIANA. OMG. Oh, and it had ALL
the clichés and tropes.
But I'd written a novel. A big, silly novel, but still way more than most people had ever
accomplished. Of course I didn't really know what to do with it next, but that was about the time
the Internet was starting to become an actual, viable Thing. I found an IRC channel called
WritersCafe, and I learned all sorts of cool things, such as how there were workshops where you
could learn how to make your writing BETTER. I loved writing, so it seemed logical to get better
at it, right? I did Clarion West in 1998, filled my brain with more stuff than I could possibly
process, came back home and wrote some stuff, took a break from writing for several years and
filled up the ol' Well of Life Experience, started writing again, sent a story to Writers of the
Future and won, then wrote another novel: Mark of the Demon.
Schoen: What's the status of the new series involving a different homicide detective
(specifically in New Orleans)? There's no shortage of police procedurals in fiction--and no
indication that they're going away--other than the specific charms offered by the wonders of
Cajun cuisine and Mardi Gras, what separates this from the rest of the herd? Is this going to be
Urban Fantasy or more of a straight Mystery/Thriller?
Rowland: Ah, yes, The Good Man. Well, at the moment it's simply a stand-alone novel, and
it's going to be more of a straight Mystery/Thriller. Sort of. ::sly grin:: There are definitely a
couple of cool twists involved. I've had that book outlined since the Reno Worldcon, when
Daniel Abraham and I sat down for an extended breakfast to plotbreak it. A few years back I
wrote the first 17K and a detailed synopsis for the Rio Hondo workshop, where it received quite
the positive reception.
And I've simply had NO time to sit down and really dig into writing more. It's not the kind of
book that can be written in bits and pieces here and there in between other projects, and I also
don't want to try and sell it on proposal. I want to get the whole thing written the way I want to
write it without being rushed by a deadline.
Schoen: For the last few years, it seems like you've been flipping back and forth between
your two series. Is this simply a function of deadlines and publishing schedules, or a deliberate
choice that gives you a break from one universe so that branching out into the other is a welcome
Rowland: Definitely a function of deadlines and publishing schedules. When I sold the two
series to DAW, the original plan was for me to write the three Kara Gillian books under contract
and then move on to the three White Trash Zombie books. Fortunately all parties involved
quickly saw the many pitfalls to that approach, e.g. if I wanted to write more Kara Gillian books
after those three, I'd have to wait until I finished the three zombie books, thus losing any series
momentum. Therefore, we changed it to an alternating schedule with me writing two books a
year, which I firmly believe was the best plan.
That said, it's tough, especially after five years of it. (After that first six-book deal, I sold
another seven books to DAW--four Kara Gillian and three White Trash Zombie.) Writing two
books a year is difficult enough--especially while doing the whole wife and mom thing--but
flip-flopping between two series that have very distinct voices/tones has more than its share of
pitfalls. Yes, it's nice to get a break from a particular universe, but I also lose a lot of my series
"flow" each time I switch. Because of that, it takes me at least a month to recover from the last
deadline, reacquaint myself with the other universe, and sink back into the story. And with only
six months to plot, write, and polish the book, that means each deadline tends to be a grueling
crush to finish on time . . . or at least not too dreadfully late. It also doesn't help that the Kara
Gillian books have grown in complexity and length: Touch of the Demon clocked in at ~150K
while Fury of the Demon was close to 175K. ::whimper::
Fortunately, the people at DAW have been absolutely amazing and supportive. The (so far)
two times I knew there was simply no way I'd hit my deadline, they pushed my publication dates
back as far as I needed.
Schoen: As someone who has successfully managed five (or more) books in two separate
series, what do you see as the particular difficulties and purposes of different books in the
sequence? Obviously the first book has to grab a reader in ways that subsequent books don't have
to work quite so hard at, but what else have you found to be true? Is there some special role that,
for example, the third book in a series holds for you?
Rowland: I think book series fall into two different camps. There are the series where each
book has its own distinct story and there's not much of an overarching plot, or there's a plot that
sort of drifts along in the background and kind of vaguely ties the books together, or there's a
storyline that spans several volumes, but not every book. A TV series like Buffy is a good
example of that kind of storytelling. And then there are the series where each book has its own
story, but there's a main plot thread that's an integral part of the entire series, and where each
book drives that plot forward a bit more. Think Breaking Bad.
While White Trash Zombie is probably a hybrid of the two, the Kara Gillian series is
definitely the second type. It's going to be nine books total, and it breaks down very much like a
three act structure. The first three were very much setup, worldbuilding, introduce the characters
and the issues. Book four started really digging into the deeper mysteries and had things starting
to go badly. Book five was where everything changed, a lot was revealed, the real stakes were
laid out, and things went completely tits up. Books six and seven dealt with the consequences of
book five and started to establish the battle lines. Book eight brings the threads together, reveals
all the connections, and sets the stage for the final showdown. And, of course, book nine is where
everything comes to light, the big conflict happens, the princess is rescued from her tower and
the dragon slain.
Now I'd be lying through my teeth if I were to say that I knew all this from the very
beginning. While I have always known how the story as a whole resolves in the end, the getting
there has changed drastically in the eight years I've been writing this series, and it wasn't until
about book four that I had a vague understanding of how it all needed to play out. (Which,
coincidentally, is when I asked DAW if I could sell them books six through nine so I could do
what I wanted to do.)
Schoen: Your fiction is generally labeled as Urban Fantasy, but given the vagaries of
marketing you get lumped in with Paranormal Romance. And despite you having been nominated
for a RT Reviewer's Choice award, I don't tend to think of your work as romance. What are your
thoughts on the whole sub-genre labeling, and if you had your druthers, how would you like to
see your books positioned?
Rowland: Sub-genre labeling is both wonderful and awful. On the one hand, it makes it
mega-easy for fans of a particular type of book to find more like it. That's super fantastic for both
readers and writers. On the other hand, any popular sub-genre tends to get glutted very quickly
with authors and publishers trying to jump on the success train. As a result, more "just like
Bestselling Title but different!" books get put out along with the inevitable less-than-stellar
quality ones. Not only does that make it harder for the fans to dig through and find what they
want, but the sub-genre as a whole risks getting labeled as being comprised of nothing but the
worst and most derivative examples. E.g. "Urban fantasy is all bad vampire porn." From there
you get broad swaths of readers who proudly declare that they would never read anything in that
sub-genre because it's all so terrible and derivative.
Needless to say, the whole thing is maddening for every author who writes in that sub-genre
and does not, in fact, write bad vampire porn. And being labeled with the wrong unfairly
maligned sub-genre is even more frustrating, such as Paranormal Romance. For any book to
qualify as a romance, the story has to center around the relationship and needs to end with a
Happily Ever After (or at least a Happy For Now.) Whether or not the book has sex in it has
nothing to do with it. I flat out love reading romance (though I tend to gravitate toward Regencies
since they're SO different from what I write.) But I wince when my books are lumped in with
Paranormal Romance because they're not romances. It's flat out false advertising and bound to
frustrate and annoy readers who want to read a romance.
(However, regarding the RT awards, those are given out to a variety of genres besides
Schoen: We're coming to the end of the interview, and so in the spirit of endings I need to
ask how long you see Angel Crawford and Kara Gillian running for? Do you have an endpoint in
mind, and would you deliberately bring either series to a close, or would you rather keep writing
one or both of them as long as the readers are clamoring for more? And because even the end of
both of these series would hopefully not be the end of your writing, where do you see yourself
going next? What would you like to explore, what's the Diana Rowland long range plan?
Rowland: The Kara Gillian series will end at nine books, but there are a zillion other stories
that are clamoring to be told in that world, so I'm sure there will be more of some kind at some
point. The White Trash Zombie series is currently contracted through book six, and while I do
want to write more Angel Crawford, I don't want to wring her out until she's dry and boring. I'll
most likely take a small break from both worlds and work on other projects that have been
waiting in the wings (such as The Good Man). Right now, I'm not tying myself down to
anything. Mostly, I want to write the stuff I want to write and have fun with it (and hopefully
make money off of it, too.) After all, I think that's all any writer wants.