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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 fiction.

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 breather?

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 romance.)

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.

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