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Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Cherie Priest
    by Lawrence M. Schoen

Cherie Priest reminds me of Carl Sandburg's poem "Fog" because when I think of her books I easily imagine her sitting for a while, looking over harbor and city, and then moving on. Except somewhere in there she throws in zombies, or vampire thieves, or alien-spawned freaks, or axe murderers. She writes steampunk and YA and horror and gothic tales, and always with a mix of real world events and historical people just to keep readers on their toes and blur the lines of what is fiction and what is not. She's been a finalist for the Nebula and Hugo awards, won the Locus award and the PNBA and the Lulu Booker Prize. 

Schoen: In the course of preparing these questions, I've read many other interviews you've done. I've noticed you do not suffer foolish questions, so I will strive to be a bit more on point than some of my predecessors. Let's begin with Boneshaker and its sequels, which have earned you the title of "Queen of Steampunk" and which, as you mentioned to me last month, bought you a house. Once upon a time, this was how readers found you, but you've diversified into so many other styles of storytelling in the decade or so since that book that more and more people are discovering you through your YA endeavors (e.g., I am Princess X) or your gothic horror (e.g., Maplecroft) and only afterwards learning of your steampunk works. Is this diversity a result of wanting to expand your repertoire and write other things, to avoid being typecast as the Steampunk Queen, of simply writing what you knew you could sell, or some innocent combination of all three?

Priest: All of the above, really. I enjoyed writing the steampunk books and I'm proud of how that series turned out, but it was clear to me that the market wouldn't support too many more of them, at the time. For another thing, I'd found the stories' logical conclusion. It was time to put it down and move on to something else, I suppose. I no longer have the house I bought in Tennessee, as my husband and I recently moved back to Seattle--where our mortgage is much, much larger--and I've got these four animals to feed, so. . . I am happy to work for money, let me put it that way. But there was definitely also a desire to branch out and/or return to horror and mysteries.

Schoen: One of the things I enjoy most about your fiction is your habit of blending historical events and real people with your fictional creations. Which brings up the question, which comes first for you? Do you seize upon a figure or two out of history and say to yourself "I'm going to put this person into a story, hmmm, what story can that be?" Or do you begin with the story idea and research time and place until a likely suspect or three present themselves and all but cry out to be included in the world you've made?

Priest: Honestly, it varies. Sometimes it's as simple as an anecdote, or a fun name. Sometimes I'll get wind of some wacky historic footnote, and I'm off to the races. It's really just the age-old game of, "Okay, but what if. . . ?" What if Lizzie Borden did it? What if there was a good reason? And so forth. I joke about my creative process being more Katamari Damacy than the more traditional "architect vs. gardener" designations. I get a seed of an idea and see what sticks to it, and what shape it takes, and where it rolls off to.

Schoen: We have only a limited time and space, so I'm going to follow your own example and bounce around a bit. So, on to southern gothic tales, or more specifically, ghost stories. The Family Plot is such a great use of the haunted house that in hindsight I have to ask why haven't I seen it before? On the one hand, this feels like a natural kind of book for you to write (given your earlier Eden Moore novels), and yet it is also very much its own thing. Is there something of the southern gothic flavor that is just naturally in all of your work from your years spent in Florida and Tennessee, or do you actively work to make this happen?

Priest:  I always wanted to write a straightforward southern gothic, and a proper haunted house story. Why not both at once? Two great tastes that taste great together! When I started on The Family Plot, I was living in an old house in a historic district (at the foot of Lookout Mountain, Tennessee), a neighborhood that was overflowing with ghost stories and great old houses. By the end of that book's production and publication I was aware that my husband and I would probably be leaving within another year or two, and I was right, as it turned out. But I'm glad I had time to really soak up the place, and tell a story about it. I still have a couple of southern gothic projects I'd like to finish and produce one of these days, but it's frankly a little harder when I'm so far away. I start to lose the feel for how people talk. 

Schoen: I like to think there's a checklist that authors adhere to which dictates what they must write at some point in their careers. There's the obligatory cat story, the story set in a bar, the story with the predestined hero, and of course the one about the vampire. This last is perhaps the hardest because it's so hard to find something fresh to do with bloodsuckers (sparkling notwithstanding). You manage this amazing well in the Cheshire Red books by injecting humor into the voice as well as plot elements that aren't dependent on vampirism at all. Given the added challenges of trying to come up with something new for the subgenre, what led you to write about Raylene Pendle, and how much of that decision is reflected in your toning down many of the traditional powers of literary vampires while at the same time remaining true to the basics?

Priest:  Aw, thanks--I was always fond of those books, and sorry that we stopped at two. But the truth was, they just didn't sell that well, so the publisher passed on doing any more of them. That said, I get probably two or three emails a month (even now!) from readers asking if there will be a third. My editor and I used to joke that if all these people had actually bought the second one, we could've easily done more. Anyway, to answer your question--I just had one of those moments where I realized how OCD so many of a traditional vampire's quirks appeared. Can't pass crossed lines, have to stop and count grains of sand and rice, etc. etc. etc. Serious OCD runs in my family, so I actually have a fair amount of experience with it, and thought it might be interesting to play it straight. Okay, here's a vampire with clinical obsessive compulsive disorder. How would that affect her life, her afterlife, and her relationships? Everything for both Bloodshot and Hellbent grew out of those questions.

Schoen: Let's talk a bit about your involvement with George R. R. Martin's Wild Cards universe. You started with Fort Freak, and wrote the tie-in narrative for that volume, giving some of the best storytelling to the Jokers that have generally had to take backseat to the superhero Aces that have dominated the series from its beginning. What did you find most challenging about weaving together the various stories of such a wide and talented range of authors? How did that experience shape your subsequent work in the series (and perhaps everything else beyond)? 

Priest: Every single thing about Fort Freak was a challenge, and I don't regret a moment of it. I learned more about writing from spending a year on that project than I did in four years of college and three of grad school. It was very much like learning at the feet of the master--extra complicated because George had been told that I was a fan of the original books. . . when in fact I'd only read most of one of them at the time. (Long story.) Obviously that's changed now, but at the time I had a LOT of catching up to do. I learned on the fly, listened to George, and did my best to produce a story that was worthy of the canon. Since then, I've gained confidence and experience with the world setting at large, and I've written several more pieces for the universe. (One just appeared in Mississippi Roll, and one is upcoming in the next year or two.) It's a great deal of fun, and both an honor and a privilege to participate.

Schoen: Let's switch gears again and talk about "message." Some authors are writing purely to entertain, others to create a soapbox from which to proclaim, with most of us somewhere between these poles, and too it's not uncommon for an author to be less than consciously aware that they're offering instruction. What's your take on this phenomenon in your own work? Are there social or political themes that you've knowingly woven into the fabric of some or all of your novels, and if so, do you find this more prevalent in the early books or the later ones of a series?

Priest: Well, since all stories are political in some fashion or another, sure. I very often write working class characters, for one thing--and often choose characters whose perspectives might be (or have largely been) otherwise ignored. That's probably the most consistent element I use, and with it comes a lot of baggage about money and who earns it, as well as voice and who has it.

Schoen: From the formative effects of the American Civil War on Mercy Lynch in Dreadnought to Tomás Cordero's nightmares of trench warfare in World War I, you've used war to cast vivid backdrops for some of your protagonists.  What is it about war that you find so appealing as a contextual element in your fiction? 

Priest: I was an army brat, and my dad is a Vietnam war vet--though it's not something he talks about much. My great uncle was a WWII vet who did the North Africa/Italy/France tour and never got tired of telling stories about it. (My grandfather was too young to serve.) I guess my answer would start there? Not sure where it would end, though.

Schoen: Your work seems to involve multiple books per year, coming out from multiple publishers, from Tor to Scholastic to specialty publisher Subterranean Press and beyond. Any tricks you'd like to share for how you (or your agent) juggle multiple projects, deadlines, and the requisite slavering editors? Do you tend to write more than one book at the same time or lay them out serially and try to keep on a schedule? Or is every new project its own thing that mocks the way you managed the last one?

Priest: The only trick I have to suggest is, "Don't, if at all possible." I'm actually pretty burned out right now, and I'm in the process of dialing everything back. It's been exhausting, because there's no real way to keep up that schedule without working yourself half to death. (In my experience. Your mileage may vary.) I vastly prefer to work on one book at a time, and my inability to do that for the last decade or so has really taken a toll. I'm trying to get better at saying "no," and not making decisions out of fear; but I am a work in progress, and so is my career. 

Schoen: I usually like to end these things by asking either what you're planning to write next or what you'd like to explore in the near future to push yourself. As you compose your answer, keep in mind that there's probably a mostly silent (but surely vast) group of readers out there who'd welcome you writing a space opera. A grand, southern gothic affair, with a nightmare-driven starship officer, a haunted engine room, some very cool tech, maybe a mutant or two, and a few characters from modern times who somehow got pulled into the whole affair. If you're already working on this, now's the time to leak the news. Also, who do I talk to to get an advance reading copy?

Priest:  Ha! I'm not sure I'm the best person to write a space opera - it's pretty far out of my wheelhouse--but thanks for the suggestion. At present, I'm in production on another young adult book for Scholastic, The Agony House--a haunted house story set in New Orleans, with a comic book element. I'm also in production on another book for Tor, this one a very rural southern gothic horror piece called The Toll. After that, I'm not sure. I suppose we'll see!

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