Michele Lee writes horror, science fiction and fantasy from the relative safety of her haunted house in the oldest section of Louisville, Ky. When she isn't writing she reviews for The Fix, Monster Librarian, Dark Scribe and her own review blog, BookLove. When not thinking, reading or writing books she gardens and cares for her autistic son, precocious daughter and her #1 fan, her husband.
- Michele, how did you get started? What's your background in writing?
Growing up writing was always sort of “my thing”. Most people knew me as a constant reader, which as I grew up began to transition to writing. At first I wrote horrid, copy cat stories largely centering around Mary Sue-type characters. Then in high school I got into a series of classes (Freshmen and Senior English and Latin all four years) with a teacher who not only encouraged me and expected a lot from me, she also was an avid contest-enterer which finally gave me a reason to push my writing out of muddling about and trying to connect with a reader.
I won a few essays and writing contest thanks to Mrs. Willis, including a Latin storytelling contest, where I wrote a myth-like story entirely in Latin. (I couldn't repeat the feat today, but I am incredibly proud of myself for that particular accomplishment.) And thanks to another high school teacher, my theater teacher Mr. Prince, I also learned to always explore new kinds of writing and storytelling, when he offered a play writing class and my plays ended up performed my final two years of school. Both teachers helped turn a hobby into a passion.
Once out of high school I knew I wanted to write genre fiction, but my tastes went through a lot of maturing and without the direct guidance I meandered aimlessly a bit, not sure what to do. That was the last large step toward being (or trying to be) a professional writer that I had to take, learning how to motivate and shape myself.
- Might as well get the subject of genres and labels over with. Why horror and S/F? Ever dabble in mystery or romance? Thinking about a change in genre in the future?
First, why not? Who doesn't love Star Wars and The Princess Bride? Of course there are people who don't. But I'm not sure I understand them.
I love all fiction that speculates, which includes mystery and romance, because they all come initially from a what if. It might be “What if you were trapped on a hostile alien planet?”, “What if you found a portal to a magical world?”, “What if your high school sweet heart was murdered and you were the one who had to find the killer?” or “What if you had to marry a man you didn't love because your family made you?”
I like exploring all kinds of what ifs. I have written and been published in the horror and science fiction fields. I have a few fantasy stories that have been well received but haven't found a homes yet, and this past summer I released an erotic romance novelette centering on a riding stable I wrote for fun as a free serial.
The plot comes first and then I sit and wonder what genre it should be, which comes down to which aspects of the story should be the strongest. It's all about the approach to the story, because most stories exist outside genre boundaries and just translate into reader and marketer expectations.
- You're a prolific writer who's been writing for 10 years; you must know yourself pretty well by now. Is meeting your schedule of 2-3 K getting easier? Have you ever suffered from writer's block? How do you get over it?
This has been a horrible year for my writing. Well, not entirely because my zombie novella Rot came out this year and has been received very enthusiastically. But there have been a lot of personal distractions and upheavals in my life this year which have made it hard to focus on the writing and actually sit and get it done. I thought that when both of my kids were in school there would be more time for writing, but somehow it hasn't turned out that way.
It's not getting easier, especially when I get into a rut of feeling dismal about progress so far. The thing about writers is sometimes we can look at our accomplishments and be proud of ourselves and sometimes we think we should be in a better place (more sales, higher profiting sales, more critical acclaim) and get hard on ourselves for not pushing harder. It's real easy to forget that timing and chance are a big part of going from writing to published.
It's this feeling of discouragement and frustration that sometimes leads to Writer's Block. In my opinion Writer's Block is primarily a lack of enthusiasm for the project, or for writing in general. There are days when you don't want to sit and try to make the words come out, and sometimes we all just need to take a break to recharge a little.
It's important to me that I remind myself that I'm a reader first, that other people inspire me with their stories and art. If I didn't love the whole process of the story, the way it comes together whether I'm reading it or writing it, I couldn't keep doing this. I don't think anyone could.
So to get past Writer's Block I take a few days to read, or catch up on movies. I reread favorites, or browse deviantart.com. Then when I'm not feeling as dismal I sit down and I force the issue with the story that's troubling me. Sometimes that means rambling about it to my husband, or to myself, writing my thoughts down and trying to get to the bottom of what I need out of the story and why I'm not getting it. And sometimes I have to just remind myself that the important thing is to get the first draft out, and rambling, weak and really bad bits can and will be edited out later.
You're an advocate for bringing Autism to the public's eye and distilling stupid notions like "lack of spanking" causes autism. You can't fix all those ignorant claims. How do you maintain a balance and keep your sanity? Is that where writing comes in?
I do channel through a lot of emotions, like rage and sadness and frustration by attaching my emotions to the characters in my stories, even if their stimuli isn't the same as mine. It helps the emotions, and therefore the agitation, feel like they serve a purpose (other than irritating me.)
Mostly I just try to stay away from people like that. Many times you can't change their mind, no matter what. My family, my son and myself aren't helped at all by me being agitated over what someone said online, or even how someone else lives their life.
Having my own “space” helps. I can rant, lecture and snark all I want on my blog and get my opinion out there without getting wrapped up in flame wars and trolls who just like to start trouble. Because you never know whether someone really believes that sort of thing, or just claims to to get attention via fighting.
My 5 year old daughter gives me enough of that kind of behavior, and she I can help to be more open minded and intellectual.
- Can you tell us a little bit about Rot? Where did you get the idea? What drove you to write this novella?
I didn't used to be a fan of zombie fiction. It all seemed the same to me, even more derivative than the thousands of romance books I saw my aunt and grandma read as a kid. (They are huge category romance fans, the kind who buy every Harlequin book each month. I always loved that they were always reading and there were books everywhere at their home. But I don't understand the single-minded nature of their reading tastes.)
Then I read an anthology called History is Dead, edited by Kim Paffenroth and I realized that zombie fiction could be new, even if the fans didn't realize it. Not long afterward an online friend joked on her blog about herding zombies for their milk. The concept of Rot just came to me in a flash, with the visual of a line of zombies being led around on light “daily activity” walks around the manicured grounds of a nursing home.
A friend of mine is badly diabetic and over the years has spent a lot of time in long term care facilities, namely nursing homes, even though he's only in his early thirties. The nursing home visual came from my experiences visiting him in building that look perfect, but are really very disturbing inside.
It was important to make Rot disturbing, because I think zombies have lost their disturbing over the years. They aren't really scary anymore, now they're like supernatural action movies instead. So I paralleled the feelings of all those people, even my friend, being shut away out of more active people's lives, almost as if they were inconveniences, into the plot of Rot.
A lot of elements came together, including my desire to write a really emotional, but still completely masculine, male lead. Again, I wanted to show that men in horror don't just have to be the rough and tough caveman style emotionless defenders.
- Who were your mentors when you were starting out, Michele, and why?
My direct mentors where the two teachers in high school who encouraged me to take my fiddling and try to do something with it. And, believe it or not, Ann Rice. I only met her once, at a signing for Servant of the Bones. While she was signing my books I asked her if she had any advice for aspiring writers and she said “Courage! Don't let anyone else tell you what to write or how to write it.” And she signed my book with “Courage!”
I know that's not the traditional idea of mentoring, but it did turn out to be a great piece of advice.
Since then I haven't had much luck with mentors. My college creative writing professor told me I'd be a great writer if I stopped writing genre stories, which clearly showed me he wouldn't be much help to me.
Since then I've developed a lot on my own, in part because of bad luck, and in part because I do write so many genres and most people tend to be more traditional than I am and they don't always know what to do with me.
- Have you ever reviewed anything that stood out as outstanding or ahead of its time?
Without a doubt Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow. Its a strong, very visual werewolf novel, written in verse. It's a beautiful story that boils writing down to the absolute vitals (it proves that not all parts of a sentence are needed to tell a strong story.) It's dark, but the horror genre almost completely ignored it.
Also Polly Frost released a collection of SF/F/H short stories called Deep Inside that were very explicit in nature, but also extremely smart. There was a deeper meaning to them, beyond the sex scenes. But from what I've seen a lot of people didn't bother to look past the explicit nature of the stories (or maybe it was the blurb from Ron Jeremy that made them nervous.)
I've read some real stinkers, and a lot of good but not spectacular fiction, thanks to my side career reviewing. But I've also been lucky to read some amazing, clever tales that changed how I thought about things and encouraged me to write better myself.
- What do you think is the biggest mistake writers make today? New or old?
I think the biggest mistake all authors make comes down to confidence, either having too little or having too much. Dealing with someone who always needs their back patted and to be complimented is exhausting. I understand the need to be reassured that you aren't just imagining that you have a good book, but constant is the key word there.
Likewise some authors, whether they mean to or not, come off as self important. Constantly posting links to buy your work, or links to reviews (unless we're talking about your personal blog, Twitter feed or message board, because then you should post those things. But not on general boards where people gather for a wide array of discussion.), constantly inviting people to fan you on Facebook, or putting everyone you have a positive interaction with on you news mailing list—whether born out of a desperation to find an audience or believing that you're just that important it turns readers and fellow writers off.
New authors do it more often, but experienced authors do still fall into that trap.
- Do you have any words of encouragement for those yet to be published?
Do your best and keep trying to make your best better. Because if you're in it because you love writing, the craft and improving your own skills then, despite the difficulty of luck and good timing, you will be published.
- Thanks for taking time to be interviewed, Michele. It's been great talking to you. Before you go, are you working on anything new? Any plans for the future?
I am currently working on a high/urban fantasy novel that has been a lot of fun to write. As for future plans--well world domination of course.