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Interview with Chris Howard

Chris Howard is about to offer his baby up for criticism. His first novel, SEABORN, just became available on July 21. It isn’t his first venture into print, though. Chris cut his teeth on the short story form, and is one of those rare individuals who not only crafts prose but can also create art to accompany his words.


He took a few moments out of his busy schedule to talk to Fangs, Fur & Fey about writing, art and his career.


Why do you write urban fantasy/paranormal romance? What drew you to the genre? And, how important is the fantastic/paranormal element in your stories?

I think it started with loving Norse and German myths when I was a teenager--still do.  I couldn't read enough about Odin/Woden, valkyries, Ragnarök.  I even thought about how cool it would be to be Wodan's undead sidekick.  I'd go on weird missions for obscure reasons, but ultimately all in order to feed One-eye's wisdom about the bad things that are going to happen at the end of the world.  And of course, my incentive was to be on the winning side in the end.  This idea became an early character of mine, Aldred, a Saxon in post-Roman Europe who's brought back from the dead and goes on all kinds of strange and dangerous missions across Europe and the Middle East for his master.  I think that’s where it started, with the idea of magic going on in this world—even historically—and the desire to make it feel real.


Less concretely, for me there's something very attractive about myth--the struggles in and against nature, shadowy powerful beings, magical creatures--in our world.  They're here with us.  Although I love new worlds and worldbuilding, I prefer our myths to entirely made-up worlds and folklore, even when most are very obviously based on real historic this-world stories.  We live in a wonderful world, a modern world with cars, computers, glass towers, but it just takes a stir of the imagination to see the old stories in every building's shadow, in the dark water under the piers, along any winding park path, in the buzz of fluorescent lights.  We just have to wonder about them to bring them to life. 


What kind of urban fantasy/paranormal romance do you read? What really makes a story stand out for you?

I like a good story, dark humor, and when some of the characters aren't alive.  Authors like Neil Gaiman, Caitlín Kiernan, Kelley Armstrong.  I also read YA urban fantasy: Holly Black, Cassandra Clare, Justine Larbalestier.  My daughter Chloe constantly recommends books.   Characters that are tough, witty, hurting--usually from the inside out--make a story stand out for me.  I like epic battles, arm-wrestling, and bar fights as much as the next guy, but I'm really a fan of internal struggle plots.  I like magic, prefer a restrained use of it, but when it's used I like it to be costly, creative and deadly--not a big fan of wands and lights.  In general, I like magic in our world and sign me up for anything undead.


When did you decide to be a writer? When did you get serious about it?

My mother was an actress, author, and artist, and I wanted to be one or both of the last two since I was a kid.  I’m a total introvert, and never wanted to be an actor.  I had been writing on the side for years, but it really came together, moved closer to the front of my life, about six years ago.  I made up my character Kassandra in 2003, and just finished her entire story--over three books--a few months ago with SEABORN's sequel, SEA THRONE.


How about the artist part? When did you begin that? Any formal training?


I draw and paint in order to write, mostly scenes, character studies, story ideas, creepy visual things that spring into my head.  I’m a visual sort of thinker, and the character studies help me control character description--I know exactly what they look like, I don't need to put more words on the page about it.  Painting also works for inspiration.  It's a way for me to go back and get into the story without having to re-read the first fifteen chapters.  I can take ten minutes to explore a scene sketch, catch the mood, and get right into the groove.


I've always loved to draw, and if you count one or two college art classes along the way as “formal,” then...maybe.  I still have a "joke" book I collaborated on with my sister when we were both somewhere less than ten years old.  The jokes are awful and the illustrations aren't any better.  I do remember thinking at the time that I could "really draw Hippopotamuses good."  Never was much of a market for it though. 


What is your favorite part of writing?

Typing.  I love the typing.  No, actually I'm a terrible typist.  I like waking up at four in the morning, heart racing with a scene unfolding or character doing something dangerous, and I have to get up and write it or lose it forever.  It's like having a good nightmare loaded with ideas and story motion.  That's my favorite part, closely followed by completing a story.  Okay, and then when you hear from an editor that she likes your book.  Damn, that’s pretty great, too.  I like it all.


What is the biggest challenge for you as a writer?

Time--never enough time to write.  No end to ideas to explore, but I never seem to have enough writing and thinking-about-writing time.


If you could go back in time and give your younger self some advice about writing and/or publishing, what would you say?

I'm a newb, and SEABORN is my first novel, but from where I'm standing, I would say it's a lot more difficult than I'd have ever thought, but all the writing, time, and rejection letters are worth it.  Keep writing, younger version of my self.


OK, let’s talk about SEABORN. First, give us a short synopsis of the book.


SEABORN is about the loss of freedom.  There are two heroines.  One, Corina Lairsey has just lost all physical control, and her story is about how she fights, convinces, bargains with the evil inside in order to get her self back.  The other is Kassandra, who is from the sea but has grown up in Nebraska in exile.  She has the opposite problem Corina has.  Kassandra’s one of the most powerful things from the sea, but she’s the product of others’ manipulations, following a path to the throne she’s not sure she wants to take, struggling to be certain that any motive in her head is really her own.  SEABORN is one part of Kassandra’s story that continues into the sequel, SEA THRONE. 


How did you come up with the idea for the story?


I started with the Corina Lairsey storyline, which began with the idea of her breaking up with an abusive guy, and I thought what if she couldn’t break up with him?  What if he became a part of her she couldn’t walk away from, couldn’t turn off?  What if he was in complete control?   What would she do and how far would she go to cut him out of her life?


Now, you’ve also done some short stories. About how many have you had published, where, and how did that prepare you for writing a novel? Which form do you prefer?


Definitely prefer writing novels.  In some ways short stories are more difficult to write, and in others they seem so limiting.  Many ideas, though, are just made for short work, and when I get those, I write them.  It’s just not as often.  Not counting the Heinlein Centennial contest win, my short fiction has mostly appeared in a handful of online zines like The Harrow and Ultraverse.


Talk to us a little bit about the submission process for SEABORN. How did you get an editor or agent interested in your work?


I finished the manuscript in the winter of 2007, and submitted queries and chapters to several agents.  After buying and reading a few books off the Juno list, I submitted there.  I knew I was close because I was getting great feedback from agents, requests for fulls, a note from one prominent agent letting me know that she loved it but had just signed an author with something similar.  I’d sent a query for SEABORN to Jack Byrne of Sternig & Byrne Lit because I read and love several of the authors on his list, including Sarah Monette and Kelly McCullough.  And he handled both mainstream F/SF and YA, which is very important to me.  Jack asked for the full in April, and--days apart--at the end of May, I heard from both Paula Guran, editor at Juno Books and Jack Byrne.   What’s crazy is that a few days before, I heard from the coordinator of the Heinlein Centennial Short Fiction Contest, and my story “Hammers and Snails” had won (amateur division—I had no pro sales).  Looking back, I can’t believe how accessible, approachable, and helpful agents are.  So many good ones, and they blog, they talk about what they’re looking for.  I have very little experience at this, I have one foot in the door, my first book published, but it really seems like the perfect time to be a writer.


It looks like you’re going to do some interesting things to promote your novel. Can you tell us about the trailers, art, etc.?


I love to goof with technology as much as writing and painting.  (By day, I’m a software engineer).  I’ve made three different video book trailers for SEABORN (search YouTube), made with different styles and services.  I hand animated one (very short).  Another I built with Animoto.com—video, music, composition, one of the coolest services to come along in a while, and it’s free to use. 


I’ve built a good starting website for the books, SaltwaterWitch.com, with a bunch of free stuff like wallpaper for your computer and iPhone, a character list, essays on cool mermaid things like hearing and breathing and how crying/tears work and look underwater. 


I have a bunch of art, everything from quick sketches and speed paintings to something close to finished works.  I had quality prints made from some of these, giveaways for the launch, signings, anywhere I go to promote SEABORN.


I’ve written a short story called “The Gatherer” which will go up on SaltwaterWitch.com next week, and tells some of the backstory of one of my evil Seaborn sorcerers.  I’m putting this online under a Creative Commons License that allows derivative works (with share alike), hoping to get readers and creators out there to translate it, podcast it, build on it.  


What or who were your early influences? How did that lead you to urban fantasy/paranormal romance?

I grew up reading Tolkien, McCaffrey, Le Guin, Lovecraft, a subscription to F&SF, and remember in my late teens discovering Hugo and Dostoevsky.  I think some combination of these—and many other fantasy and SF authors—gave me a love of fantasy while keeping me grounded in this world.


What kind of reading experience are you hoping to create for your readers? What do you want them to come away from your books saying, thinking and feeling?

Don’t go in the water...or maybe, in the abyss no one can hear you scream...no, no, that’s not it.  SEABORN is about fighting for freedom, and hopefully there’s something inspirational in the words I’ve put down.  It’s dark, even tragic to some extent, and no one comes out the other end in one piece.  HEA is okay, but with me at the keyboard you won’t be the same character you were when the story started.  I’ve also put a lot into this world, into these characters, and I hope readers will see that depth.  The ocean covers 71% of our planet with a mean depth of almost 4000 meters.  We live on an ocean world, not in it, but that is where I think we should be.  I would hope to kindle a love of the sea in some readers out there.  Ultimately, I want readers to want to read more.  Come on, there’s a sequel out next year!


It takes a lot of mental and emotional fortitude to write. What do you do to get through the tough spots?

I paint.  I draw and paint when I’m stuck, when I’m depressed, when I can’t see the next scene, when I’ve lost track—or never really had a clear picture—of an important character.  I even think all writers should try sketching more.  It sure helps me.


How do you structure your writing time?

Not very well.  I write whenever I can.  Early in the morning.  By happy chance my wife and kids are late night types, while I have no problem getting up at five in the morning.  Cup of coffee and quiet house is all I need.


What are you reading right now?

At the moment, I'm reading GREYWALKER by Kat Richardson, but I've also been doing a lot of re-reading lately.  I recently went back to PAPER CITIES, a great short story collection edited by Ekaterina Sedia, Richard Morgan's WOKEN FURIES, and Jacqueline Carey's KUSHIEL'S DART.


If you could be one urban fantasy creature/person/ magical thing, what would you be?

Definitely someone from the sea.  The sea is three dimensional, it’s hydrospace, and swimming is the closest thing to flying.  Give me the ability to go anywhere in the 1.3 billion cubic kilometers of seawater on earth and not feel the pressure or temperature.


When you're not a writer, what are you doing?


I also paint, but I really see that as supporting my writing.  By day I am a software engineer architecting and developing cool new products for publishing and content licensing.


If you could be one of the characters in your book for one day, who would it be?

Kassandra.  Her story ends with the sequel to SEABORN.  It's been tough to move on and not have Kassandra in a story.  She has problems that I really wouldn't want to have to deal with, like not being able to block out an empathetic fear when anyone drowns in any ocean in the world.  She feels that.  But she has powers I'd definitely like to have for a day, like being able to travel “between the water.”


Tell us something secret about your book or character.


There are several I can think of, but I don't want to give everything away.  There is a line of Greek in the book--reworked from a line in Aristophanes' Knights--that I purposefully left untranslated.  (I'm not referring to the words and short phrases here and there.  I figure I don't need to explain when Kassandra calls someone, "proktos!").  I’m not going to tell you what the line is either.  You have to figure it out on your own.


How can readers best contact you?

www.SaltwaterWitch.com is the main Seaborn web site.


I blog at http://theophrast.us and you can find me on Facebook, Twitter, a bunch of other places.  Email me at chrishoward.author@gmail.com


Tell us about your upcoming book: title, release date, publisher, and etc.

SEABORN will hit the stores the week of July 21st. 



Chris Howard

Juno Books

ISBN-10: 0809572818

ISBN-13: 978-0809572816


How about signings, readings, etc. What’s planned for the near future?

Everything kicks off with Readercon, July 17 – 20, in Burlington, MA, just outside Boston.  You’ll be able to get SEABORN at the Prime Books table there on the 18th.  Count on a few signings in New England and along the west coast.  I’ll be posting dates on SaltwaterWitch.com.


What future project are you working on–what do readers have to look forward to?


The sequel to SEABORN is complete and with my editor, and with fair weather and good sailing, SEA THRONE will be out next summer.  I’m currently working on another Seaborn book, but in the mid-1800s, along with a YA fantasy about food and magic.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 31st, 2008 07:35 pm (UTC)
I just read the excerpt. Man, I love your language. And the art is amazing. What a cool way to keep yourself in story world even when you can't produce words. Your brain must be very well integrated. Lacking enough artistic skills, I make a collage from magazine clippings (I know, very preschool, but satisfyingly preschool) before I start my stories. Having your finished work as contest giveaways is especially awesome & unique, just like the writing.
Jul. 31st, 2008 08:34 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Jessa! "I love your language."--wow! I'm going to print out your comment and stick it on my wall.

As far as the art, I think I need it to write. I suspect many authors think it's all about the words and neglect the visual side of things--or just try to keep it all in their heads, something my brain isn't equipped to do. I don't think it matters where the visuals come from, how they're kept, magazine clippings, scribbly sketches--which I do all the time. Wen Spencer ran a panel at Boskone a couple years ago in which she showed off a long fight scene she'd first done entirely in stick figures, stick swords sweeping, red ink dripping, stick bodies tumbling. It worked. I think I need to really see the characters in action--imagined or even better, on paper--in order to be comfortable moving through a scene with words.

Aug. 1st, 2008 03:41 pm (UTC)
Chris, what a great interview. Good luck with the book.

I have to agree with Jessica. I love your language, too.
Aug. 1st, 2008 03:55 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Carrie!
Aug. 5th, 2008 10:27 am (UTC)
What a great interview! There's so much depth to your writing and it's not surprising to find you (especially Greek). it's great reading about writers using other artistic/creative methods to help them get into their worlds. I think there are a lot of us who do that but feel silly when we do because it's not thought to be 'real writing'. I collage too and sketch a little too and though I rarely get close to what's in my head I do believe it helps the process - and it concretes my research too, strangely enough!

You obviously have a poet's touch when writing and I can't help but think that your artistic approach to story development helps with that too. What I've read so far is rich and amazing. Looking forward to more urban mermaids!

Congrats on pursuing a very different idea in UF and in achieving with such a unique 'voice' with your first book. I wish you every success and will keep on the lookout for more of your work.
Aug. 7th, 2008 06:30 pm (UTC)
Thank you, Gypsy!

I've posted a few things, but I really need to blog more about combining arts. I think it's important.

I'm sure there are musician-authors out there who write musical themes for their written work, and think in terms of the mood and motion in sound when putting words on a page. Actually, I'd love to know of an example of this. Anyone?
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )


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