Instructor Spotlight

Lee Thomas is the author of over 20 books, including, The German, (for which he won the 2012 Lambda Literary Award in the Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror category), The Dust of Wonderland, In the Closet, Under the Bed, and Ash Street, among others. You can learn more about Lee and his work by visiting his website.

Lee will be teaching a workshop for WLT on October 11, called “The Ones You Love to Hate: Writing a Good Bad Guy (or Gal).” Read the interview below and visit the class page to learn more.

 Lee Thomas small picScribe: What books and/or authors sparked your interest in writing in the horror and thriller genres?

Lee Thomas: I was a voracious reader when I was a kid. I read whatever was lying around the house. Among the first few “adult” books I came across were Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. I might have been ten years old, maybe younger. Most of the other books in the house were by Barbara Cartland and Louis L’Amour, and they didn’t grab me the way the Capote and Blatty did. Horror movies were also a big part of my childhood, so when I went to the library or had a few bucks of my own to spend, I looked for books that might recreate the thrill I took from those films. Salem’s Lot by Stephen King was one of the first books I bought for myself, because the paperback had this creepy, embossed cover, and I became hooked on his stories. A little later, I discovered Peter Straub and his brilliant novel, Ghost Story, which I read cover to cover three times before I sought out his other works. It snowballed from there. Even though my reading interests have expanded into the classics, crime/noir, and contemporary literary works, I still gravitate toward darker material.

Scribe: In your opinion, what is it about bad guys that’s so fascinating to write and to read?

LT: In general terms, bad guys operate with a level of freedom that heroes don’t. They have the power, whether through physical strength, cunning, or resources, to pursue their desires unimpeded by morality or law. For much of a story, the villain “gets away with it.” Whatever their plan, whether it’s Mr. Wickham from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or the titular character in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the bad guy is getting what he wants, and carries on all-but-unimpeded until the heroes become aware of his scheme.

Heavies aren’t confined by society’s expectations or rules, and that is frightening, but it’s also enviable. As readers, we love that they aren’t worried about the police or the FBI or cirrhosis of the liver. We also know they are operating against what we consider the societal boundaries that keep us safe, and as such, we expect them to be held accountable for their actions. Sometimes they are. Sometimes not.

I should also mention that a story’s heavy isn’t always a figure of evil. A villain’s motivation can range from the psychotic to the well-reasoned (but intensely misguided). An antagonist can be a good person with a bad idea and the power to push it forward. Whatever the motivation, villains are generally freer to pursue their impulses.

Scribe: Do you think it’s important that the reader feel some sympathy for the villain?

LT: No, I don’t believe sympathy is essential in the creation of an effective villain. It would be difficult for readers to find sympathy for, say, Hannibal Lecter, particularly early on. He can certainly be admired for his brilliance in both insight and calculation, but readers didn’t get a glimpse into his past, the incidents of brutality that helped form (or break) his psyche until his third appearance in print: Thomas Harris’s Hannibal. At this point in the series, Harris filled out the character and made him more sympathetic, but it came well after the character had been established. By then, Lecter was already an iconic villain having appeared in both Red Dragon and also The Silence of the Lambs.

Another example would be Anton Chigurh from Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. Chigurh is presented as unrepentant and unstoppable evil. Often enough, these kinds of characters are flashy but flat, never rising above the notion of Isn’t evil neat? But this is not the case with Chigurh. He is compelling not simply because he is cunning and vicious, but also because McCarthy elevates the character to mythic proportions through accounts told by secondary characters. In fact, Chigurh himself views his actions as mythic, believing himself an instrument of fate.

Villains have to be engaging and relatable to the reader. Granted, one way to engage the reader is by making the villain sympathetic, but it’s not the only way.

Scribe: Finally, who’s your favorite villain?

LT: My favorite villain ties back into my early influences. She/it comes from Peter Straub’s novel, Ghost Story. Alma Mobley/Eva Galli/Angie Maule (and others), is a shape shifting entity that appears at different points in the lives of the story’s heroes. This powerful being, described as a Manitou, might be otherworldly, but her motivations are drawn from a very human palette. After that, my favorite villain would be Iago from Shakespeare’s Othello. Though so many motivations are hinted at with his character, they are all subtle enough to be dismissed as the justifications of a guy who just likes to manipulate and mess with other people’s lives. There are a number of ways to interpret him, and it’s this complexity that I find interesting.

–Thanks, Lee!

To read about and register for our fall classes, visit our Classes page.

Instructor Spotlight

Michael Noll is the author of the novel Seven Attacks of the Dead and teaches writing at Texas State University. Michael will be teaching a class for WLT called “White-Knuckle Fiction: Creating Suspense in Stories and Novels” on Saturday, October 4 at St. Edward’s University.

You can find out more about Michael by visiting his blog Read to Write Stories. Read the interview below and visit the class page to learn more.

Michael Noll(1)

Scribe: What motivated you to be a writer?

Michael Noll: I grew up on a farm about fifteen miles from the town where I went to school—which meant that I had plenty of time to read on the bus. So, that was probably the seed of my desire to be a writer. I loved to read. But the moment that I realized I could be a writer came years later, in college, when I happened to read Tim O’Brien’s story “How to Tell a True War Story” in one of those fat, unwieldy literature anthologies. It was the most contemporary literary thing I’d ever read. To that point, I thought that it was a straight shot from Shakespeare to Hemingway to John Grisham and Michael Crichton. In other words, I’d only read dead people and genre writers. And then I read this thing that felt like it was written just for me. From that point, I knew I wanted to try to write something like that story.

Scribe: Who is your ideal audience?

MN: One of the interesting things about contemporary literary fiction (speaking broadly) is that it often includes genre elements. A couple of years ago, when the Pulitzer Prize committee ticked a lot of people off by not choosing a winner, the three finalists included a book about an alligator-wrestling theme park and another book that was about, in part, a girl raised by wolves. I think it’s fair to say that much of today’s literary fiction is not dry. Readers can come to it from many different directions and with many different tastes. I’d like to think that’s true of my work as well.

Scribe: What have you learned from your association with WLT?

MN: Every time I teach a class, I’m astounded at the level of writing talent just floating around in the world. This is especially true of Austin, and anyone who spends any time with the Writers’ League of Texas will be bowled over at the level of raw talent and enthusiasm in the members and students. It’s a fun organization to be part of.

Scribe: What author would you want to have a beer/cup of coffee with?

MN: Well, I’m teaching a class right now where the students are reading Plato’s Republic. In it, Socrates makes some decisions about the best kind of art. As a result of those decisions, he says that if Homer (the guy who created The Illiad and The Odyssey) showed up at the gates of Athens, the gatekeepers should tell him to get lost—not because Homer was a bad storyteller but because he was too good. Socrates was afraid that Homer’s stories about devious gods and heroes would corrupt the youth. So, if I could choose a writer to have a beer with, it’d be the blind guy whose stories got people so riled up that he couldn’t be allowed inside the city.

Scribe: What is your favorite work of “white knuckle”fiction? Why?

MN: Two recent books kept me up way too late at night. One was Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I’d read one of her previous books, so I knew she was good, but that book is almost ridiculously suspenseful. Another great book is Room by Emma Donoghue. It’s about one of those terrible situations where a man has kidnapped a woman and locked her away in his house. She ends up having a son, and the novel is told from the boy’s perspective. There’s a scene about halfway through the novel that was so tense that I had to read the rest of the book that night. I wouldn’t have been able to sleep otherwise. I’ll actually be teaching excerpts from both those books in this class.

–Thanks, Michael!

To read about and register for our fall classes, visit our Classes page.

MEET THE MEMBERS

Lisa Estus has been a member of WLT for eight years and is registered for one of WLT’s upcoming fall classes. She lives in Austin, TX.

Headshot_CR-High Res-Lisa_Estus-Fuschia

Scribe: In what genre(s) do you write?

Lisa Estus: I write fiction, poetry and essays. So far, my short stories and poems have been published in literary journals, but I haven’t produced a book-length work. A piece I’m currently working on is demanding a wider vista, which is my impetus for taking Margo Rabb’s class “Mapping Your Novel.”

Scribe: What authors would you like to have coffee or a beer with and which beverage?

LE: I would drink coffee with Seattleite Sherman Alexie, artisanal beers with Amy Hempel and Kazuo Ishiguro, and whatever beverage Mary Gaitskill cared to drink.

Scribe: If you were stranded on a deserted island, what book would you want to have with you to keep you sane?

LE: Certainly Tim O’Shei’s How to Survive on a Deserted Island, but for spiritual sustenance, new insights with each re-reading, and sheer heft, it would have to be Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Poisonwood Bible.

Scribe: What have you learned from your association with the Writers’ League?

LE: In times when I am fully engaged with writing, the Writers’ League of Texas classes inspire me and introduce me to wonderful people. In times when circumstances pull me farther from writing, WLT has been an anchor for me that I have used again and again.

Scribe: Where do you see your writing taking you (or you taking it) in the future?

LE: I’m in the process of applying for admission to Master of Fine Arts (MFA) programs, researching the ones most able to provide the creative support I need. I plan to use the protected time and intensive craft focus found in an MFA program to make the leap from part-time writer to full-time working artist and author.

Scribe: Is there anything else about you that you would like to share with the world? An opportunity for blatant self-promotion!

LE: Alas, I do not currently have anything to promote!

MEMBERS REVIEW

ARANSAS

by Stephen Harrigan

UT Press

Aransas SH

Reviewed by Mary Bryan Stafford.

Stephen Harrigan’s Aransas spoke to me personally. I lived in Corpus Christi for half my life, and Aransas let me go back to spend a little time in reverie. It seemed Harrigan and I shared the same memories.

The setting lived and breathed through the novel. Harrigan brings the Aransas area to our senses in its languid and oppressive atmosphere. “And the day was similar––the perfectly calm sheet of water, the early morning air that seemed to rest like a heavy gas in my lungs, the overwhelming corrosive scent of dead fish and salt.”

I loved the references to The Tarpon Inn, Lichtenstein’s, The Petroleum Club, Spohn Hospital (although he doesn’t name it) and all the old haunts of Corpus Christi and Port Aransas. But even to those of you who have never been to the coast, you will be transported.

Of course, I was completely invested in the dolphins, their anima, their empathy and connection with humans, and the lure of that connection that could be their downfall. I fell in love with them all over again. “…if I were standing now on a sand bar starving and naked, what creature might I invoke to help stave off that special loneliness of my race. Surely that, that thing so far out in the water that it showed nothing of itself, except that one fin, but whose benevolence was an innate belief in my savage mind, a constant like the warmth of the sun.”

Harrigan’s main character, Jeff, faces the quandary of wanting to be one with the dolphin, yet free him from the confines and demands of man. It is a dilemma the reader identifies with and struggles along with the decision Jeff has to make.

I’ve always been a great fan of Harrigan, but now I would love to sit and talk with him for hours about what brought him to write this book. I plan to buy my own copy.

 

 

MEET THE MEMBERS

Holly Webber has been a member of WLT for five years and is registered for one of WLT’s upcoming fall classes. She lives in Austin, TX.

HW photo

Scribe: In what genre(s) do you write?

Holly Webber: I write mainstream women’s fiction. I also write movie reviews!

Scribe: What authors would you like to have coffee or a beer with and which beverage?

HW: I’d like to have a cup of tea with Rosamunde Pilcher. She can tell me what it was like to write entire novel manuscripts on a Hermes typewriter.

Scribe: If you were stranded on a deserted island, what book would you want to have with you to keep you sane?

HW: It would have to be Letting Go by David Hawkins. He would help me work through all the negative emotions I’d have about being stranded :)

Scribe: What have you learned from your association with the Writers’ League?

HW: Writing can be such a lonely sport, but my association with WLT has reassured me that none of us are really alone. I still remember how, at my first agent conference, I realized that WLT writers were super-cooperative and supportive of each other, rather than competitive.

Scribe: Where do you see your writing taking you (or you taking it) in the future?

HW: I’ve seen several of my writer-buddies get published this past year, and their success has given me the encouragement I need to put my own work out there and see what happens. Up until now, I’ve kept my manuscripts to myself.

Scribe: Is there anything else about you that you would like to share with the world? An opportunity for blatant self-promotion!

HW: I would like the world to know that I’ve written over 120 movie reviews at Movie Reviews for Mere Mortals, and that I’m the new on-staff movie reviewer for FactoryTwoFour. I’m also the only female on their editorial staff!

MEMBERS REVIEW

THE BOOM: HOW FRACKING IGNITED THE AMERICAN ENERGY REVOLUTION AND CHANGED THE WORLD

by Russell Gold

Published in 2014 by Simon & Schuster.

The Boom

Reviewed by Catherine Musemeche.

The Boom: How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World, has a compelling message for those of us living in the energy gorging United States. There is a cost to harvesting fossil fuels and for too many years we have been blind to it. Fracking has ripped the blinders off because with this boom the rigs aren’t hidden in the Arctic Circle or the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico. They are sprouting, literally, in our backyards.

To truly understand the evolution of a technique, one must delve into the personalities of those who pioneered it and this is where Russell Gold excels. Gold, a senior Wall Street Journal energy reporter, is our tour guide to an adventure story that begins with Edward Roberts, a nineteenth century inventor who devised the petroleum torpedo, an improvised IED that could be snaked down a shaft to bomb stubborn oil out of stagnant wells.

Gold introduces us to a string of fracking buffs who never gave up on the technique even when industry mainstreamers saw little point to it. In the 1970s, when America’s domestic supply of oil and gas appeared to be tapering off Houston oilman George Mitchell built his fortune fracking in Wise County, just west of Denton, Texas, which has recently put a fracking ban on the November ballot. Aubrey McClendon, a former landman turned CEO of Chesapeake Energy, was arguably the most evangelistic of all natural gas enthusiasts and headlined the next generation of frackers in the 1990s. McClendon was the driving force behind the company’s lock down of leases in Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana and propelled Chesapeake to the top of American drillers in 2005.

Gold vividly details how North Dakota has recently been transformed into a massive oilfield that now produces as much oil as several smaller OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) members. In doing so he leads us to ponder the obvious question that follows. What will happen to the rough-rider state after all the oil is pumped out?

And therein lies the problem with fracking.

No one seems to know or agree on what will be left behind, in terms of soil and water contamination, poorly constructed wells that leak over time or, geologic disruptions that result in “induced seismicity,” i.e. mini-earthquakes.

The Boom presents both sides of the fracking debate. On the one hand the natural gas “boom” provides a cleaner source of energy than coal for decades to come, is relatively cheap and promises energy independence for the United States. On the other hand, however, it is American soil that is being mined, albeit underground, in close proximity to neighborhoods (as of 2013 more than 15 million people lived within a mile of a well that had been recently fracked) and the environmental costs are mounting.

Gold makes no attempt to apply lipstick to the fracking pig as he leads us through all the downsides. We learn that drilling rigs several stories high are built with little thought to the destruction of pristine landscapes and that underground water aquifers can be contaminated by wells lined with defective cement. We hear how the fracking infrastructure changes life as large trucks bearing massive equipment and loads of water (several Olympic size swimming pools worth just to frack one well) roll through Sullivan County in rural Pennsylvania. The relentless clang of construction and drilling along with noxious smells transform small towns into mini-industrial sites.

After reading The Boom, you will want to lower your hot water heater a notch, fling open your windows and take the bus to work because the true cost of fracking and the fossil fuels it bears may have less to do with money than it has to do with climate change and losing our habitat. Just ask the residents of Sullivan County situated in a region peppered with 10,000 wells. Their land and their lives will never be the same.

Catherine Musemeche is the author of Small: Life and Death on the Front Lines of Pediatric Surgery, Dartmouth College Press/University Press of New England, Fall 2014. She is a pediatric surgeon and she lives in Austin, Texas.

Instructor Spotlight

Deanna Roy is the USA Today bestselling author of the Forever romance series and Baby Dust. Her children’s book, Dust Bunnies: Secret Agents, was published in 2012 and she is currently working on a children’s series called Magic Mayhem.

She’s written numerous short stories and articles which have been published in 34th Parallel, Farfelu, The First Line, and The Writer. You can find out more about Deanna and her work by visiting her website.

Deanna will be teaching a class for the Writers’ League of Texas on September 27 at St. Edward’s University called “Self Publishing: Writing What You Love in Marketable Packages.” Read the interview below and visit the class page to learn more.

Deanna Roy

Scribe: Why did you decide to self-publish?

Deanna Roy: On my birthday in 2011, two prominent authors had a lengthy public dialogue about publishing that changed everything.

Barry Eisler had just turned down a half-million dollar deal with a publisher to do it himself, and he and JA Konrath decided to blow the lid right off self-publishing. After reading this, and considering the five years I’d been collecting rejection letters from agents, I decided to give it a try. It was a birthday gift to myself — be courageous. Be bold.

So I set out to learn everything I needed to know to transform my manuscript into a real book.

Scribe: What are some important things for writers to consider when deciding to self-publish vs. going the traditional route?

DR: The most important thing is to be honest with yourself about how much you want to learn. While you can hire out a lot of the tasks that might scare you — cover design, ebook formatting, paperback production — you still need to know enough to hire people who do a good job.

The temptation is just to hand it over to some company that will do it all for you. That’s a road to heartache and despair! Most services like this do not put the right sort of cover on your book, and without the right cover, you are sunk from day one. Truly excellent covers by graphic designers who put up “pre-made” covers between custom jobs are easy to find for $50. And those covers will ROCK.

But you have to know this. If you aren’t up for learning what you need to know to do it yourself, then you’ve already set yourself up to fail.

The second thing to realize is that if the summary paragraph in your query to agents isn’t getting them to request it, then using that same paragraph on a retailer site like Amazon isn’t going to make anyone fork over their hard-earned cash to buy your book. You still have things to learn.

If, however, you’re getting agent requests, even if they ultimately reject the book, you might be ready to give this a shot. Likewise, if you’ve gotten rights reversions to a bunch of previously published books, you are in the best position of ALL.

Scribe: What are some of the challenges and benefits of self-publishing?

DR: The biggest challenge is one people don’t think about: Am I cut out for this?

I see a lot of authors with one finished manuscript spending quite a bit of money to prepare it for market, only to become disillusioned right away when it only sells to friends and family. A truly successful self-publisher is not a one-hit wonder. The single home runs are as rare as the debut novelist who gets a six-figure deal. It happens, definitely, but it is the exception that everyone talks about, not the rule. Most writers won’t really figure out what they are doing, or have enough books on their shelf to run successful promotions, until they have three books, preferably related or in a series.

The benefits are enormous. I live my life the way I want. When I feel pressure to meet a deadline or if life gets in the way of my work, I can simply rearrange my schedule. When we realized this last August that the changes at Amazon were harming new releases, I delayed my next three titles. They are going out in October now and I took a little vacation.

I set my own prices and decide what to write, when to write it, and what pen name I want to use. I collaborate with other authors, trade beta reads, hang out with fans, and if I decide a book didn’t turn out the way I wanted, I just pull it off the digital shelf and keep it for a time when I want to revise and try it again. I have definitely had more clunker ideas than good ones!

None of this is easy, but neither is trying to write while you have a full-time job. I have weeks where I work 12-hour days, definitely. But then I have weeks where I do little more than glance at my daily sales and go shopping. I make my own rules, and I live by my own standards. It’s amazing. It’s the most incredible life I could have ever imagined.

–Thanks, Deanna!

Click here to register for the class