Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions, SM. We are very excited and can’t wait to learn more about you.
Thank you! I must say, though, sending a big list of interview questions to a novelist and saying “take your time,” isn’t exactly a good way to save space…
Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
How far back would you like me to go? When I was a kid, my dad was a firefighter and my mom a school librarian. My mom was always reading, and of course read to me until I could read to myself. The library was eight blocks from our house, and I would stagger out of there with my backpack stuffed full and my arms loaded. Once I got home I’d lay them out on my floor and agonize over which one to read first. It was a big deal for me to stock up on library books before family vacations (typically by car), and I clearly remember my dad saying, more than once, “Get your nose out of that book so you don’t miss _______.” [insert Mount Rushmore, Rocky Mountains, all of Route 66].
I wrote a few short stories when I was 12 and 13. They were about teen pregnancy and teen domestic abuse – things I knew nothing about. They were hyper-dramatic crap, really.
At 14, I fell in love with a boy and wrote scads of terrible poetry. If they were ever published, the collection could be called “A Thousand Pathetic Poems to a Particular Boy.” Of course at the time, I thought maybe I’d publish them under the title “The Tears and Triumphs of Teenage Love,” with dramatic narrative in between poems. Ouch!
I majored in Social Work in college, although my advisor always wondered why I wasn’t an English major. I wasn’t an English major because they made English majors read things like Canterbury Tales, and I didn’t have the patience or attention span for any of that.
What was your first book and how long did it take to get it published?
I started writing DeVante’s Children in 1992, if you can believe that, and after a million rewrites it was published as an e-book by Torquere Press in 2009. I’m just finishing a revision of it now for release in paperback by Rebel Satori Press. I am so sick of that book I could scream. Seriously. I have it memorized. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lovely story and I think everybody should read it, but it was my learning novel, and every sentence has been written a dozen different ways. I almost changed the point of view to first person this time around just to spice it up for myself.
How many books have you written thus far?
I have three completed novels. Two books of the Vampire DeVante Trilogy, DeVante’s Children and DeVante’s Coven, and a stand-alone erotic novel called Above the Dungeon.
I wrote fifty-thousand words of the third vampire novel, DeVante’s Choice, for NaNoWriMo 2008. I also have a 60,000 word novel from NaNoWriMo 2007 called Assassin Jaxx, but everyone who’s read it feels it needs a few more chapters. Like maybe 10.
I have four other books in various stages, and several requests from readers for a sequel to Above the Dungeon. I can definitely keep myself busy writing.
When did you start writing in your current genre? What about this genre interested you the most?
I would enter my specialty here, except genre confusion has probably been one of my biggest barriers to publication. Do I write horror, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, gay fiction, GLBT fiction? Erotica? Gay erotica? Is vampire fiction a genre in itself? (Right now, in the thick of the Twilight craze, I would say yes).
Everybody wants a genre classification that fits into a neat little box with a cute little bow, but I have a lot of trouble with that. Ultimately I write romance. And believe me, when I discovered that (in a workshop at the Space Coast Writers Conference in early 2009) I gagged a little. I did not want to be a romance writer. Ew. But there it is – relationship fiction with mostly happy endings. Romance.
The description that I like best is “Character-driven fiction.” I start with a person who has a problem, and start writing about it, and generally that person with that problem tells me the rest. If that person winds up being gay, or being a vampire, or being a gay vampire, it’s not on purpose on this side of the keyboard. Sometimes the character and the book allows for explicit erotica, sometimes not.
In Above the Dungeon, Jeff and Roman, and Dare by default, are comfortable inviting the reader into both the bedroom and the dungeon. That’s their world, and the purpose of their world is to get people hard or wet.
But DeVante? Not hardly. He’s a mystery wrapped in an enigma kind of character, and he doesn’t ever want anyone to see him lose control. He’d rather be observed killing than fucking. Which doesn’t mean the Vampire DeVante Trilogy isn’t erotic. It has its moments.
Do you write full time?
I wish! I have enough work to write full time, for sure. But no. I am the carrier of the health insurance for the family, and as such, I work part time on a locked inpatient psychiatric unit. It’s an interesting job. I could tell you some stories…
Looking back was there something in particular that helped you to decide to become a writer? Did you choose it or did the profession choose you?
As I said in the background question, I starting writing short stories and poetry when I was young, so in that regard, writing chose me. I have always processed emotion and angst through writing.
But it was my husband who suggested I write a novel. I was crazy for Anne Rice’s vampires, and would wait a year (or more) for her next book in the 1990′s and early 2000′s when she was continuing her Vampire Chronicles. I’d rush to get the hardcover the day it was released, and devour it within twenty-four hours. And I’d kind of fall into a depression when I realized it would be at least another year before I could escape into that world again.
I was complaining about the wait when my husband said, “Why don’t you just write your own vampire book?”
Well, famous last words, and all of that. When I refuse to go to bed until the wee hours, I always remind him that this was all his idea.
On a typical writing day, how would you spend your time?
I wish I had a typical writing day. I am the most prolific when I write every day. Whether I have a schedule or not, the more I write, the easier the words flow. It’s like the story just continues in my head, and so long as I’m recording it regularly, it rolls out of me with no effort.
I write whenever I can free up an hour or two, whether that’s with a pen and paper on suicide watch at work, or at the keyboard at home. I prefer writing late in the night or early in the morning when every living creature in the house is sound asleep. Dog and cat included.
When it comes to plotting, do you write freely or plan everything in advance?
I create a character with a problem, and have a snapshot of the first scene and the last scene when I start writing. The character and story logic fills in the middle. And believe me, there are some crazy detours along the way. I’ll yell things while I’m writing, like, “Holy crap! Get this, Daniel’s GAY!” Or “Oh. My. God. DeVante was made by a woman!” My husband gives me strange looks and says things like, “Um, as the writer aren’t you in control of the story?” But no, I feel like I’m channeling way more often than steering.
Sometimes I run into problems that require a bit of plotting or brainstorming, but eventually the story itself reveals the answer. In DeVante’s Coven I had a dead girl but no idea who killed her until the rewrite. It drove me crazy for months, and wham! One day the characters let me in on the details. It’s very weird.
What kind of research do you do before and during a new book?
I use Google and Wikipedia for the small stuff – like what year Corvette Daniel smashed up, little details like that. With bigger stuff, I’ve been fortunate to find people willing to educate me.
How much of yourself and the people you know manifest into your characters? How do you approach development of your characters? Where do you draw the line?
There is definitely some of myself in every character. More of me in some than others. I don’t intentionally write myself or people I know into characters, but traits that I admire or hate in people in my life do work their way into my stories. Characters develop mostly through story logic, although if I need to get to know a character I’ll write a list of 100 things.
Line? Which line would that be? (Evil grin).
My first drafts tend to contain extended flashbacks or background information that later ends up on the cutting floor. I think a lot about character motivation and try to get a sense of what’s important to my characters, because that affects the decisions they make.
How long does it take for you to complete a book you would allow someone to read?
Allow to read? I beg for early readers. I love feedback, and I love having people pick out inconsistencies and such. I guess I’d like to have a few chapters finished so I have a sense of who these people are and where they’re going, but then I’d be happy to have readers along for the ride right from the get-go.
One of the huge things I’m lacking right now is a critique group.
If you weren’t sitting there right this very moment answering our book of questions, what else would you be doing?
Surfing the internet, setting up my week’s worth of tweets, playing with my child, doing dishes or laundry. Which reminds me, eek, laundry! Be right back…
Do you write straight through, or do you revise as you go along?
I do a lot of editing and revision as I go along. Usually I start my time at the keyboard reading and editing what I wrote the day before. I love writing longhand and later typing it all up in a rush, then going back over it to edit and smooth out the language.
Often I will concentrate on one story arc and write that from beginning to end in several sessions. Then I repeat that for each character or set of characters. Using DeVante’s Children for example… there’s a story arc for Daniel and Roderick’s relationship, and one for DeVante and Emily’s, and so on and so forth. I write each one separately to the point where all their stories merge. In the revision process, I cut and paste scenes into some logical order, like a jigsaw puzzle, all while trying to keep nights and days straight (not so easy with a mix of vampires and mortals). I try to order them so each scene is a cliff-hanger.
Writers often go on about writer’s block. Do you ever suffer from it, and what measures do you take to get past it?
I don’t suffer from writer’s block nearly so much as pure procrastination. I don’t know what it is, but sometimes I just can’t get myself to sit down and write. And I love writing. What’s tricky for me is more like writer’s ambivalence. I have so many exciting projects in the works that it’s hard to force myself to work on just one. And yet if I don’t make myself stick with one book at a time, I would never complete anything.
I participate in NaNoWriMo every November, which is a great way to try out a new genre and give myself permission to write something brand new.
Revision and rewriting always feels like something I don’t want to do, and yet once I get myself going, I remember it’s one of my favorite parts. Fitting everything together is where I get to take control of the story again and be God. In the first draft, the characters never let me play that part.
When someone reads one of your books for the first time, what do you hope they gain, feel, or experience?
I just want them to fall in love with my people and enjoy visiting the world I’ve created. Ultimately I’d like my readers to close the book and continue the story in their own heads.
Does the title of a book you’re writing come to you as you’re writing it, or does it come before you even begin the first sentence?
I always have a working title. So far the working titles have stuck. Although one of my current working titles is Dyke Detective, and I’m not sure I want that one to stick (grin).
How would you describe your sense of humor? Who and what makes you laugh?
I’m not funny. Inside my head, I think I’m hysterical, but I’m sort of that lame-trying-too-hard-to-actually-be-funny person. Fortunately I’m very cheerful and my normal state of mind is happy. I’m like a cheerleader, goofy and smiley to the point where people think it’s odd that I write dark tales of vampires and BDSM.
I appreciate the wry, dry, deadpan sort of humor. Someone with a cynical, snarky view of the world can crack me up to no end. It’s too bad that those kinds of people usually have no patience for my bright, sunny outlook. I’m like Pollyanna. For real.
In what order should I read the Vampire DeVante Trilogy?
Chronologically DeVante’s Children is book one, DeVante’s Coven is book two, and DeVante’s Choice is book three.
DeVante’s Coven was a grand prize winner of the 2008 Project: Queerlit contest. The grand prize was a paperback contract, so it is the first book of the trilogy available in paperback. Complicated? Yep. But I think it’s fine if people read Coven before Children – each book is more or less a stand-alone story.
People who know me socially always want how I can write explicit erotica, being that I’m so sweet and all. The only answer I have is that the inside of my head is a strange and scary place. And I love it there.
What are you working on now?
At the keyboard, I’m revising DeVante’s Children for paperback release. This revision involves writing an early story arc for the characters of Tony and Lily, who figure prominently in books two and three, but don’t exist at all in the e-book edition of book one.
What was the best piece of advice you’ve received with respect to the art of writing? How did you implement it into your work?
Ah, there are so many bits of good advice. Probably the most helpful for me was learning to recognize and eliminate passive voice. Passive voice feels dramatic when you’re writing it, but it’s annoying as hell to read. Eliminate adverbs. Don’t head-hop – pick a point of view and stay there. Write, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite again. The road to publication is perseverance, and perseverance is the only way to learn the craft. When you finish one book, start the next one immediately. If nobody wants to publish your novel, it probably needs more rewriting.
When it comes to promotion, what lengths have you gone to in order to increase reader-awareness of your work?
Egads, I suck at self-promotion. I had business cards printed and I hand them out whenever possible. I leave a trail of signatures on CafeMom when I have time to post in groups. I have several blogs and social network sites that I try to keep updated, but don’t have millions of followers or anything like that. I think I have all of one follower on Blogspot. I use HootSuite to update Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace simultaneously. Usually I post what I’m reading with a link to a review. My goal for social networking is to celebrate the success of other writers. Tweeting “buy my book” every other day starts to look like roadkill.
I’m thinking about taking out paid ads on porn sites. Okay, I’m mostly kidding about that, but the thought is there. I’m going to bring copies of my paperback to my class reunion, and hopefully share a table with a local newspaper at our PRIDE celebration over Labor Day weekend.
I try to go to a writers conference every year. So far my favorite is the Saints and Sinners Writers Festival, which is held in New Orleans in May. I’m planning to be there every year.
Marketing is really a trial for me. I’d much rather spend my keyboard time writing.
Writing is obviously not just how you make your living, but your life-style as well. What do you do to keep the creative “spark” alive – both in your work and out of it?
I have to make an effort to step away from the keyboard and engage in life. I forget to do that sometimes. I went to the Sturgis motorcycle rally last summer, and took a beginner’s motorcycle riding course this summer. I wasn’t good at it, in case anyone is interested. Horses seem much safer. I mean, if you get distracted for a minute on a horse, probably nothing bad will happen. It’s not like a horse is just going to fall over. Which I can’t say about a motorcycle. I’m a small, blonde hundred pound weakling, which means even a small motorcycle is really heavy.
I’m a little bit like my character Jeff from Above the Dungeon, because I tend to fall in love with people. I will always choose my husband over anyone else, but the rush of falling in love feels the same now as it did when I was an adolescent. Last year I fell in love with this amazing woman, and wow, talk about spark! The intensity of our friendship reminded me that the best parts of life are the moments of utter bliss.
The other day my daughter coaxed me to run through the sprinkler. Ah, memories of childhood summers. It was all very spur-of-the-moment. Let’s just say I hope my black bra and panties looked like a bikini, because I was wearing the amazing see-through-when-wet dress.
What pros and cons surround the e-publishing industry, and how do you envision the future of e-publishing?
The only real con to me is that, as an author with a lifelong love of books, nothing can describe the awe of holding my own novel in my hands and flipping through the pages (high quality crème paper – yay!).
Despite my love of paper, I do believe e-books are here to stay. They are cost-effective to produce, available for immediate purchase from almost any location, are being offered for check-out in many library systems, and, with an e-reader, are just about as portable as a paperback. More portable than a hardcover. And let’s not forget the privacy factor – for erotic reads, I think e-books will become the gold standard and preferred format.
And as a writer, e-formats offer me new avenues to publication. My editing team at Torquere Press takes their task seriously. They asked thoughtful questions and made great suggestions, and corrected a few typos along the way. I can’t imagine that they were “lesser” editors than what you find at the big publishing houses. Almost any avenue to get books to readers is a good thing.
I have a Sony Touch e-reader, and I like it fine. I’m not sure it will ever replace paper books as my preference, but I enjoy carrying multiple novels around without the weight or the bulk of multiple books. I did find that I worried constantly about dropping it or spilling something on it, and the one time I used it at work, I realized that keeping track of my e-reader distracted me from my job, and that is unacceptable. A normal book I can just toss aside in a crisis situation, and if it gets lost or destroyed, I’m out $25.00 at the most.
I want to mention Print on Demand (POD) publishing while I’m here. POD is a lovely way to get books out in paperback without the huge expense of “print runs” of thousands of books. It’s kind of a pre-order deal. You order a book, and then the printer prints and ships it. Not as immediate, but it gets a book out there in paperback, and for about $12.00 a year, your book remains “in print” for as long as your publisher exists. POD is one of the reasons small publishers can take risks on unknown authors.
What kind of books do you like to read?
I love reading Young Adult fiction. To keep the attention of kids, YA authors have to suck the reader in fast and make them care about the characters immediately. I’m not talking Twilight or Harry Potter, I’m talking mid-list or first novel writers for Tweens and Teens that are writing awesome books about pretty normal kids. Anyone who follows me on Facebook or Twitter will get updates about what I’m reading.
What is your favorite TV show?
Current favorite would have to be the United States of Tara. Or maybe Big Love. Or The Real L Word. My all-time favorite show, hands down, is Queer as Folk, particularly the first 3 seasons.
What is your favorite fast food restaurant? Just thought we’d throw that in for fun…
I like the chicken bacon ranch salad at McD’s… but since I hate cooking (and I’m diabetic) I have to avoid fast food pretty much altogether because it’s way too easy.
Without getting up, can you tell us what’s under your bed? (yep, another sneaky question.)
LOL. I can, actually. There’s a wooden tray from my hope chest. There’s also a bottle of lube (well, you asked). And our new (and very first) cat hangs out under there. I think he’s hiding from the dog.
If you weren’t a writer what would you be?
A basket-case. Definitely.
When it comes to the covers of your books, what do you like or dislike about them?
I love the covers of my books! Above the Dungeon is a black and white close-up of a leather belt with a chrome buckle, and it’s just exactly the style I envisioned. The Vampire DeVante Trilogy covers feature elements of the stories — an ankh, and different bridges. My publisher, Sven Davisson, and his partner, Nate, designed the paperback cover for DeVante’s Coven, and it just blew me away. The bridge on the cover of DeVante’s Children is a major landmark in my hometown, and I took the photo that will be on the paperback edition. The graphic designers at both Torquere and Rebel Satori are kick-ass.
Aside from writing, what else do you enjoy doing?
Reading, naturally. For total indulgent stress-relief, I do some scrap-booking while listening to The Bob and Sheri Show (syndicated radio) on podcast. Listening to them feels like hanging out with really funny friends.
I’m not exactly an outdoorsy-wilderness-exercise kind of girl, but I love riding horses even though I don’t get to do it very often.
Any special projects coming out soon we should watch for?
The revised edition of DeVante’s Children will be coming out in paperback within the next few months from QueerMojo, an imprint of Rebel Satori Press.
New writers are always trying to glean advice from those with more experience. What suggestions do you have for new writers?
Keep writing! And eventually stop writing that first novel, stuff it in a drawer, and start writing the next one. You don’t figure out how much you’ve learned until you write your second book. And you also won’t know how to fix the first book until you write the second. At least that’s how it worked for me. It took me 10 years to write my first book and 18 months to write the second. Talk about a learning curve.
Can you please tell us where we can find you and your books on the Internet?
Above the Dungeon and DeVante’s Children are available at Torquere Press http://www.torquerebooks.com/
DeVante’s Coven is available in paperback at http://www.rebelsatoripress.com/
Follow me on Twitter DeVante9901, or my Facebook fan page, SM Johnson Writes. I’d give links, but I don’t even know where to find them.
Visit me at LiveJournal http://devante.livejournal.com/
Be the 2nd person to follow my blog at http://smjbookteasers.blogspot.com/
If you snoop about blogspot enough you might find a passel of newspaper columns I wrote a few years ago.
You can also find old, snarky blogs on MySpace www.myspace.com/sweet_writer
And last but not least, send fan mail to firstname.lastname@example.org