Cornelia Grey, Badassing Her Way Through Jungles And Pyramid Mazes and Angry Mummies. Or Not. It Might Just Be A Dream

Thanks so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to be with us today, Cornelia. Will you begin by telling us a little bit about yourself and your background?

Thank you for having me :).

I’m currently in my final year of a Creative Writing degree in London, UK. Although I’ve been living in London for almost four years now, and I’m more and more in love with the city and its energy, I’m from a small town in the Italian hills. So you can usually find me complaining about missing Italian sunshine and food :).

I studied fine arts for a long time, and the history of art still remains one of my greatest interests. I have a soft spot for the Italian Renaissance and I will shamelessly drool on anything by Michelangelo; I also love the expressionists, especially Van Gogh and Egon Schiele.

Theatre is another passion of mine. I performed in a theatre company from the age of 13, and even nowadays I run to see performances whenever I can afford it. The latest play I saw was the ‘Frankenstein’ at the National Theatre, and I’m still jittery with the sheer intensity of it.

I listen to plenty of music, and while I listen to pretty much anything according to the day’s mood, I favor good ole’ rock from the 70s (give me Jimi Hendrix any day!) and the blues.

I’m a little random and constantly hopping from one interesting thing to another like a hungry grasshopper. I love pizza and coffee, I can’t help petting any animal that crosses my path (and that doesn’t chew my hand off if I try), and, of course, love cats. I’ve had Brouty, who’s red and white and basically rules the house, since I was eight, and he’s currently in the loving hands of my mother waiting for me to go home for the summer. And by the way: today is the day I hand in my last two assignments before freedom begins. Celebrate with me :)!

Was there a defining point in your life when you realized that you wanted to be an author? Did you choose the profession, or did the profession choose you?

I’ve always loved stories. When I was a child, and basically up until I was 16, my father used to make up all sorts of funny adventures for me. As I grew up, I started adding my own bits to the stories, until we got to the point where we’d drive around aimlessly while telling each other episodes of our adventures. I still cherish the random (sometimes plain off the wall) and light-hearted feel of those stories, and I hope I’ll manage to recreate them on my own sometime.

However, while I’ve pretty much always been telling stories, reading and writing, I’d never seriously considered the possibility of being an author. Mostly because of the Italian attitude toward authors and the publishing world in general: it’s not seriously considered, it’s simply not a job option. So I fought against it, took other routes. By the time I had completed my first year of university, I was miserable, and it became clear to me that if I wanted to be happy, I just had to stop resisting and do what I wanted to, not what I thought I should.

It was only after I moved to England and became familiar with the international writing scene that it dawned on me that yes, I could indeed be an author, and that would be taken seriously. So I suppose the profession had chosen me long ago, but it took me a long time to accept that.

What was your first book and long did it take for it to be published?

My first solo release was the novella ‘The Mercenary’, that was released by Samhain Publishing inMarch. It’s an adventure set in a post-apocalyptic England, with steampunk elements. It was accepted in June 2010, so it was about 9 months before it was released – a period of gestation in many ways. This first foray in the world of editing long works was thrilling to say the least, and taught me a lot.

To date, how many books have you written?

Not many – I’m still a newbie after all :). I’ve taken part in a few anthologies (the latest of which, ’Wild Passions’, will be released in June by Storm Moon Press), and my solo works so far are ‘The Mercenary’ and Apples and Regret and Wasted Time, out today
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My works are gradually growing longer as I become more confident with the English language. This summer I will tackle my first novel-length manuscript, which will also be my final project for university.

Is there a particular sub-genre in which you enjoy writing more than others? (i.e. paranormal vs. historical vs. contemporary)

Absolutely. I have a passion for Steampunk and Post-apocalyptic, usually in an urban setting. I love the settings of great dystopian metropolis, and love to go see how their underdogs live, how they survive in the underworld, and how they fight to change things. My heroes always tend to be the underdogs, the forgotten – I believe in their strength.

How long does it generally take for you to finish a manuscript?

That depends on the length. I used to be much slower than I am now: I’m a born procrastinator and a multi-tasker, so I find it hard to focus for long on the same thing. But I’m working on that: I’m learning to use the adrenalin-kick reaction I get from deadlines to accomplish more. I create deadlines and my stubbornness does the rest: I can’t give up, I can’t miss them, even if no one would reproach me for it. I would know I slacked off, gave up, and ultimately I’m the one I have to answer to.

Lately I managed to half-bribe and half-train myself to write at least 1,500 words a day, which are slowly increasing. Sometimes I feel like I’m dealing with an obstinate mule. Let’s see who cracks first.

How much creative input do you have in the cover design for your books?

I only had two experiences of this so far, and they’ve been brilliant. I was worried the editors and artists would find me too intrusive – as I mentioned, I come from an artistic and graphic background, so I had lots of ideas and inputs.

But they were very open to my suggestions and preferences, and I’m very thrilled with the results.

Do you write full time? If not, how many hours per day do you attempt to dedicate to your writing?

I’m a student, so my main concern is focusing on coursework: luckily, most of my coursework consists of writing :). I used to write at ungodly hours of the night, but that has gradually changed. I take advantage of term time to write all afternoon – I hole up in the IT tower at university and type away with a couple of friends.

When I’m back home, I work and dedicate more time to my boyfriend and family, so the amount of time I can dedicate to writing decreases dramatically.

Do you typically outline your plots before you begin the writing process, or do you write in a more freestyle fashion?

I’m definitely a plot person. I guess it depends from the way I imagine the stories – suddenly something strikes me, a scene or a visual, and ideas start tumbling down too fast and within a few minutes I can roughly see the whole story. Not in detail, clearly, but I know all the main points, the chain of beginning – trouble – climax – ending. I don’t do it deliberately, it’s just the way stories come to me.

So I rush to jot everything down, before I forget – summaries of each scene hastily scrawled, bits and pieces of dialogue and description. Then the process of the actual writing is more a fleshing out of this rough, rough draft, in which I expand those garbled first impressions into full-fleshed scenes, and expand on them.

What has been the most difficult topic you’ve ever approached in your writing?

Well, I come from Italy, and there GLBT-oriented writing in general is still sort of taboo, very controversial to say the least. It is very difficult to be openly active in this area over there. But I am determined to contribute to change this attitude. I’ve approached an independent Italian publisher (who has published the only few m/m books available there) and I’m organizing an anthology project that would, hopefully, give a voice to the GLBT fiction authors who don’t have an outlet. I bet many don’t know how widespread that genre is abroad, how normal and accepted it is and should be, and I want to spread awareness of this. I have no intention of backing out in front of prejudice.

Of all the characters you’ve created, do you have one in particular who stands out among the others as a favorite? If so, who and why?

I find it quite hard to choose. At the moment, I’m very invested in the characters of ‘The Mercenary’, which has a sequel in the works. They are very different men, and I love them both for different reasons. Asher is a mercenary, apparently cold and detached, rejecting affection: but he’s a good man, fiercely loyal and protective, even though he isn’t quite ready to admit that, even to himself. Gabriel instead is extroverted and reckless almost to a fault, strong and stubborn and at times just exasperating, who has no problem in laying himself open for everyone to see. I love them for the way they try to hide their vulnerability, their fears and weaknesses, either under a stone silence or a relentless chatter.

I’m also especially fond of the mysterious protagonist of ‘Apples and regrets and wasted time’. He’s in a suspended situation, which could disintegrate as well as explode in his hands at any time, and he’s got a tough tightrope to walk. During the editing process, I realized I’m in a similar situation at this point in my life, and his silent struggle touches a special chord.

Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? If so, do you have any routines or exercises you use to get beyond it?

I used to succumb to writer’s block quite often. But I recently came up with a new system that seems to be helping. I think, for me, blocks mainly come from a performance anxiety – I have to be in top-notch shape, everything I write must be engaging and well-structured and basically perfect. I can’t see the scenes in my head well enough, therefore I convince myself there’s no way I can translate them into words, and then I get stuck.

But now I’ve learnt a trick. If I can just push myself to begin typing (and boy, how much procrastination time goes into coaxing myself to do that), then I’m allowed to ramble. Just jot down basic ideas, snippets of dialogue, not worry about spelling or punctuation and capitals and just get something on the page in one way or the other. While I do this, I’ll slip in the flow and the scene will kick in inside my head, and I’ll be able to carry on with more ease. By the time I’m done I have a good-sized chunk of mildly unreadable prose, but the facts are there. Then I can go back and tidy everything up in proper sentences.

Maybe for many writers this is an usual approach. But for me, actually convincing myself that I didn’t have to get it right and all ironed out at the first try was a big, big achievement.

When someone reads one of your books for the first time, what do you hope they take away from it?

I’ve never really stopped to think about this. I hope they enjoy the ride, and take the characters’ struggles and challenges at heart. I hope they can worry about and be happy for and even get angry at the characters, who are ultimately the leading force of my stories. They are the ones who set things in motion and the ones who have to deal with the consequences and sort things out: the world in which they live is continually shaped by their actions and emotions. I hope the readers can somehow connect with them.

Are you surprised by the ever growing female fan-base of Male/Male fiction?

Absolutely not. M/M fiction is something I’ve been passionate about ever since I was barely a teenager, and I’ve always known lots of women who shared my passion. The genre and its fan-base have been part of my life for so long – it’s just normal.

When did you begin writing in the Male/Male genre? What about it interests you the most?

Like many others, I first approached M/M from the fanfiction angle. I remember clearly how it started. I was 13, and had just started reading manga. There were two male characters that had a wonderfully complicated relationship, and I found myself thinking that all that conflict and tension and suppressed feelings would make for such an intense love story. So I started writing it, because I wanted to read it.

I have been trying for a long time to understand exactly why the M/M genre appeals to me so much. I remember having long conversations about it with my father (who used to listen to all my ramblings about plots!). I find something incredibly compelling in two strong, stubborn men fighting and struggling to figure out their relationship. There is also the conflict with society, which creates countless challenges for the characters. I suspect I might be a conflict junkie.

Of course, the same dynamics could be applied to characters in any gender. But for some reason, it’s the conflict between two alpha males that intrigues me the most.

What was the best piece of advice you’ve ever received with respect to the art of writing? How did it change the way you approach your craft?

Show, don’t tell.

I know it’s a trite mantra in the writing community, but it was one of the first things my (very frightening) writing tutor told me, and it’s stayed with me ever since. It’s one of the reasons why none of my characters talk much, and when they do talk, they’re usually saying things they don’t really think. What they do is a whole different story, often in direct contradiction with what they’ve said, and that’s what the readers should trust.

Will you share three things you’ve learned about the business of writing since your first publication?

- The essential thing is to actually put yourself out there. I see many of my writer classmates get lost in wishful thinking and end up not acting on it: maybe for fear of rejection, maybe because taking the actual step to make something real is always hard to take. But it’s important to power through that gap.

- Rejection isn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Ultimately, I got to spend hours figuring out and writing a story that I loved, I had fun with the characters and along their adventure. Of course I’m happy if I get validation and other people get to enjoy the story too. But I had my share of the fun, and it’s time to jump in the next adventure and enjoy that too rather than brood.

- Editors are great teachers, especially for someone like me, who is writing in a second language. Even though I’m attending university in the UK, no one ever takes the time to check my sentences and pinpoint that this word is used incorrectly or that sentence structure sounds too Italian. Having someone explain to me things I still don’t know is priceless, and it’s helping me get constantly better.

If you were to offer a word of advice to a new author just starting out, what would it be?

Well, I still am rather new to the whole author thing myself :). But honestly, the attitude I write by is: have fun, and don’t take yourself too seriously :). It’s about enjoying it, and if the balance tips toward angst and drama, where’s the fun?

Do you generally have the titles of you work planned before you begin writing, or does that occur later on in the writing process?

Ouch. Titles are my Achilles’ heel. I am always, always left staring at the finished story and wondering how the heck I’m going to find a decent title for it.

I also have the reverse process. I think of a title that strikes me as just perfect… too bad I have no idea what story it’s supposed to accompany :).

Do you have any new projects coming up that you’d care to share with us?

I plan to take advantage of the summer break to pick up a few projects I’ve had to set aside to focus on coursework. I’ll be working on ‘The Traitor’, sequel to ‘The Mercenary’, which will reveal a little more about life in post-apocalyptic England. I’ll be finally completing a novella about a samurai and a kitsune (a fox spirit), set in Medieval Japan, that’s been waiting to be finished for almost a year. And, most importantly, I’ll be tackling my first novel (which of course still doesn’t have a title…) which will also be the final project for my degree.

I’m also in the planning stages of a project with an Italian M/M comic artist, but… still too early to tell :).

When it comes to promotion, what lengths have you gone to in order to increase awareness of your work?

I must confess I’m pretty clueless when it comes to promotion. My editors have been wonderful and helped me a lot. I’m currently trying to learn from more experienced authors, but I have a feeling promotion will never be my forte.

Digital media—the e-reader/tablet computer/Android apps—is changing the way people access and enjoy books. What pros and/or cons do you see surrounding the business of e-publishing? How do you see digital media evolving in the years to come?

I love actual paper books, and I think nothing will ever be able to replace them. But I love the e-publishing industry too, and I believe it will keep growing and spreading. E-book publishing is what gave me the chance to get published, after all, and I’m sure the same is true for many authors. Not to mention the practical side: I have to carry around a bag full of books whenever I travel, because I read fast, and e-readers are a blessing for travelling avid readers.

When you have the chance to sit down and enjoy some quiet reading time, what sorts of books are you most likely to pick up? Who are your favorite authors?

Currently, I have a pile of books waiting to be read: I buy new ones faster than I can catch up with the pile :). At the moment, I’m particularly interested in Steampunk books. However, I like the genre with a twist – not strictly adhering to the blueprint but with random elements, mocking of the tropes, unpredictable choices. An example of this that I read recently and utterly loved is ‘The Somnambulist’, by Jonathan Barnes: I honestly can’t remember the last time a book conquered me so utterly before the end of the first chapter.

Some of my all time favorites… Italian author Primo Levi (‘If this is a man’, ‘The truce’): his narrative is lucid and ironic and strikingly powerful in its plainness despite the weight of the topics treated. Then Italian Stefano Benni, with his wonderful adventures, that mix of randomness and humor with strong emotions and a satire that portrays Italy perfectly. I also love Kafka for his dystopian tales, Vonnegut, Rushdie, Orwell, Rohald Dahl, Neil Gaiman (‘Neverwhere’ is my favorite), Terry Pratchett for his irony… the list goes on :).

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

Well! At the moment I’m a student, and I have a feeling that deep down I will always be one. Apart from that… I was a theatre performer for about seven years, and I’d love to continue with that. Or, when I was a kid, I desperately wanted to become an archeologist, and I would still love that. Or I’d love to work in the anthropology section of some big museum, studying human cultures and artifacts forever. But of course, my secret dream will always be to pull an Indiana Jones, badassing my way through jungles and pyramid mazes, possibly facing angry mummies…

Aside from writing, what else do you enjoy doing? Do you have any hobbies?

Maybe too many :). Throughout middle school and high school I used to perform with a theatre company. We toured mainly with English comedies, like The Odd Couple and Blythe Spirit. I had to quit the company when I moved to England and, although I go to the theatre as often as possible, the stage nostalgia raises its head every now and then.

High schools in Italy are divided according to the main focus of studies (Maths, Literature, Fine art, Mechanics…) and I attended the Fine Art one. I sucked big time at sculpture and architecture, and I loved painting, especially watercolors, and real-life drawing. I don’t have much time to paint anymore, but I do miss it a lot.

I also toy with photo editing programs, build websites, and sew handbags. And I spend way too much time in museums and at the theatre. The world is chock full of interesting things to try, see, explore, and I only regret not having enough time to give a try at everything.

If time travel were possible, what time period(s) would you most like to visit? Why?

First stop, Renaissance, hands down. I’ve studied fine arts for years and I’d give anything to be able to see Florence in its splendor under the Medici family. Just be around and breathe that climate of sizzling creativity and palpable genius.

I’d also love to visit Victorian London, partly because I’ve always been fascinated by it, and partly because I’d like to see the reality of it – which I’m sure was for the most part not fascinating at all, but rather gruesome. I’d also love to see Hellenistic Greece, Japan in the Edo period, China under the Tang dynasty and of course ancient Egypt – I’ve had a soft spot for that one ever since I was a child.

If you had the opportunity to sit down to dinner with one famous person, either past or present, who would you choose and why?

Hard question! There are so many people I’d like to meet – mainly to thank them for what they’ve given to humanity, be it their ideals, or beautiful artworks, or books I love. I think I’d love to have an actual conversation with Leonardo DaVinci, ask about his theories and research, absorb some of his infinite curiosity. I’m sure it would be endlessly fascinating.

If we were to look around the desk where you sit to write, what would we find there?

Well! I’ve never actually had a writing desk. Living in random student accommodations, desks become a commodity. So I’m used to writing sitting in bed, surrounded by a couple of empty tea/coffee mugs, piles of pens and paper, clothes I’m supposed to be folding away and whatever latest pictures caught my attention from magazines or leaflets. Otherwise, I’m up in the IT tower at university, wrapped in a coat because the vents are always blowing icy cold air and it feels like a trip to the South Pole.

Also, always, always headphones and music – I have a one-song soundtrack for each scene, which goes with the mood I want to establish. For example, ‘Apples and Regrets and Wasted Time’ was mostly written listening to ‘Blinding’ by Florence and the Machine, and a touch of ‘Chemicals between us’ by the Bush.

How would you describe your sense of humor? What makes you laugh?

I laugh very easily, and I smile pretty much most of the time. I have no time to waste being gloomy or bored with life. Nothing is too silly for me: just the other night, me and my flat mates were watching old Bollywood music videos and dancing, trying to imitate the dances, in front of the webcam. To define the results embarrassing is an understatement. We laughed until we couldn’t breathe anymore. Shall I show you my perfect rendition of Igor, from Frankenstein Jr. with complimentary Italian accent? :)

Do you have an all time favorite fictional character?

I change every now and then :). My current favorite is, I’d say, John Watson.

I’m never too fond of protagonists, the ones who always lead the show: I tend to prefer the sidekick. The one who wasn’t born with extraordinary talents, predestined to save the world or whatnot, but struggles and learns and doesn’t give up until he does what he believes in. Watson isn’t the designated hero, the one who’s naturally predestined to shine. And yet he’s strong and loyal and brave and never backs down, and his constant presence keeps the shining hero together. His strength is so much greater, and I love him for it.

What’s your biggest pet peeve?

My pet peeves generally have to do with dialogue. I don’t like when characters exchange long speeches, in which they explain in detail how they feel and why, in a perfectly rational and organized way. I don’t think people do that. My characters stutter, get tangled in words, and end up saying things they don’t even mean, or just plain lying – not always for a rational reason. They aren’t comfortable talking about feelings, certainly are too wrapped up in them to analyze them rationally.

I also have an issue with overblown love declarations. I like actions, even just little details, to show that two characters love each other: even if they sternly refuse to say it, it will come across more powerfully than if they simply repeat the words at any given time.

Do you have a favorite personal mantra, quote, or saying that describes your outlook on life and the way you approach each day?

I once read a quote by George Bernard Shaw that says: ‘If you can’t get rid of the skeleton in your closet, you’d best teach it to dance’.

I love that. I’m still fairly inexperienced in life, but I’ve already gone through some hard moments. That pain can never go away, so I have to employ it in the most productive way I can. Make it teach me how to enjoy life; make it push me to write more, achieve more, laugh more, love more. Grab it and force it into something positive: make that skeleton dance. I’m a very happy and positive person, and maybe I wouldn’t be if I didn’t have that pain to push me.

Do you speak more than one language? If so, which one(s)?

My mother tongue is Italian, and I am very fond of that language. I find there’s a great deal of difference between writing in Italian and in English – it’s not just a matter of learning new vocabulary. For example, the sentence structure is very different – I lost count of how many times I’ve been reproached for my long and convoluted sentences, which sound perfectly normal in Italian :).

For this very reason, I find it impossible to write in my mother tongue and subsequently translate into English: it just ends up sounding weird. Same goes for whenever I read an English book that has been translated in Italian – the sentences aren’t wrong, but they sound… odd.

Living abroad, I’ve become more and more attuned to the direct and incisive quality of the English language. I find it very powerful and… sexy, in a way. That’s not to say I don’t occasionally miss the longer words, the Mediterranean connotations of Italian prose. I have two instruments now, with different qualities, each best suited to say some things rather than others. I often wish I could use both of them in the same text, switching according to which word, inflexion or expression I desire. This is something I’m exploring in poems, which allow for more experimentation.

Of all the modern conveniences, which one would you most likely say you couldn’t live without?

I would definitely say all the modern communication links. I love the fact that I can travel outside my native area without spending five months on a horse-drawn carriage. (Although I have to say a long trip on a steam train across Europe would be tempting!). While I wouldn’t mind going back to a world of handwritten letters, the fact that I can talk to my family and boyfriend on a webcam is wonderful. While maybe the easy access to the world has taken away some of the magic we associate with exploration and discovery, the possibility to learn about so many different places and cultures without embarking in a lifetime pilgrimage is wonderful.

Thank you again for spending some time with us, Cornelia. Will you tell us where we can find you on the Internet?

I have a blog at http://corneliagrey.blogspot.com or http://corneliagrey.livejournal.com . I’m also active on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads. However I must confess they aren’t strictly book-centric – I’m always a bit all over the place, so expect updates on London randomness, Italy, museums and artists. I look forward to having you pop to say hi :).

And we’d love if you’d share a favorite excerpt from one of your books with us.

Excerpt: Apples and Regret and Wasted Time

“Three years and the only reason you came to see me was because you needed a shower, idiot?”

I shrug. I close my eyes, letting the water wash over my face.

“You left the window open,” I say. He doesn’t reply.

When I turn around to face him, his hands are tucked in his pockets, his face tilted down, half-hidden in the shadow. He looks at me with quiet, dark eyes. I can feel my body tingle under his intense gaze, a shiver running down my abdomen and to my cock.

His eyes flicker down for the briefest of moments.

“You left the window open,” I repeat. It sounds almost like an accusation.

“That didn’t mean you had to come in. I didn’t put any sign saying Idiots welcome, let yourself in,” he retorts. I can glimpse the flash of a smile on his lips, but it disappears too quickly.

I can feel the memories stir in the back of my mind. His smile always made my blood pump faster. I can feel my face heating, and I hope the shadow is enough to hide it. “Maybe I was feeling nostalgic.”

“Right.” He unclips the holster and pulls out his gun, checking the safety before reaching to lay it on the sink. My knife is just out of sight, on the rim of the tub. It’s never out of my reach. I don’t move my hand toward it, don’t even look in its direction. I know I won’t need to use it.

His voice is tight when he says, “What are you doing here, really?”

It’s the city, that’s what it is, messing with my head. My nerves are rubbed raw.

“I don’t know,” I snap, harsh. “I’m just having a damn shower. Leave me alone. What do you even want?”

His arm shoots out, and he grabs me by the nape, hand clenching in my hair a fraction too hard. The water is quickly soaking his sleeve, staining it dark, spraying on his chest, his face. He doesn’t seem to notice.

“I want you to get out of here,” he says, voice dangerously low. “I want you to leave. I want to never see your face again.”

I wonder if he’s aware of how tightly he’s holding onto me. I wonder if he realizes that, while he’s telling me to go, his body is screaming don’t you dare move. I wonder if he even knows he wants me to stay.

His eyes are a sharp blue, mere inches from mine. Too close. They give away things I suspect he’d rather keep hidden.

Slowly, I reach to wrap my fingers around his tie. I pull him forward, pull him in. He has to brace his hand against the tiles in order not to fall, leaning awkwardly over the tub, the water now streaming down his face, soaking his shoulders.

I can see the anger fade from his eyes, washed away, leaving only a too-heavy weariness.

He doesn’t pull back when I lean forward and press my mouth to his. I trace his lips with my tongue, let it slip inside. I feel damn near intoxicated when he gives in to the kiss, tilting his head to the side to gain better access to my mouth as his tongue tangles with mine, sliding hot and wet between my lips. He tastes like apples and regret and wasted time.

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