MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today I’m pleased to interview Michele Lang, who writes all kinds of speculative fiction, and has also practiced the unholy craft of litigation in New York and Connecticut. LADY LAZARUS, her latest release, is a historical fantasy, the first of a series (Tor: September 2010). DARK VICTORY, the next book in the series, releases January 2012.
MICHELE LANG: I don’t know that I’ve ever gotten a “big break” exactly, more like a bunch of sweet serendipities that have led me from project to project. My first book, MS. PENDRAGON, was published by a now-defunct e-publisher; I pitched the executive editor at an online workshop run by an online romance writers group, From the Heart.
My first NY contract was with Chris Keeslar, who I met on the plane back from Romantic Times in Daytona in 2006. Now that was a lucky break! Chris is a wonderful editor, and I enjoyed writing NETHERWOOD for his Shomi line. Because of that contract, Lucienne Diver agreed to rep me as an agent, and Lucienne sold the LADY LAZARUS series to Jim Frenkel at Tor.
VENTRELLA: Do you believe that anyone can be a fiction writer or is the ability to tell a story more of an innate thing?
LANG: I think storytelling is part of what makes us human. I know many fantastic storytellers who cannot convey those stories in written form, so writing ability is not exactly correlative with a storytelling gift.
The most important factor, I think, in becoming a fiction writer is sheer determination. I know many talented writers who have broken through, but they didn’t break through because of their talent. They became published, and stay published, because they refuse to give up in the face of rejection and difficulties.
VENTRELLA: I recently blogged about “plowing through that first draft” and you wrote similarly about the “salami list.” What tricks have you found that help you personally get your work done?
LANG: To be honest, a contractual deadline does the trick better than anything else! But, aside from sheer panic, I have found some little tricks that help me to get work done.
The best is to have a daily goal. It can be humble, and probably should be, but most important it must be tied to your long term goals.
Start with a vision – what do you want for your writing life? Tie that vision to a goal you can achieve through your own efforts.
Try to get your daily goals done at the beginning of the day, before life sinks its teeth into you. Maybe this is only a tip for the morning people of the world, but it definitely is helpful for me.
Expect resistance and the termites of daily life to attack these goals. But dedicate a daily time to pursuing your goals with passion and consistency, and your dreams won’t be denied.
I try to write every day, though with a bunch of small kids in the house that is not always something I can achieve. I have time dedicated to writing: right now it’s 5:30-6:30 a.m., weekdays. I try my best to tack on another hour during the day, but that is not always possible. But I’ve done my best to make a habit out of the 5:30 hour.
That said, when I’m on deadline all bets are off. I write every minute I possibly can, then. The house goes to hell, but my immersion in the project overwhelms all resistance. I love writing 24 hours a day against a hard deadline – it’s so primal and exhilarating.
VENTRELLA: When creating believable characters, what process do you use?
LANG: I try to listen. When I am deep into a story, I can hear the characters and they tell me what they do and why. They often surprise me too.
If they go off and do something I don’t expect, I follow them and try to figure out what they are doing and most importantly, why. I try mightily not to impose my own judgments and expectations of what they should be doing – when I do that, the writing gets very dull and safe. And that’s death for the story.
When I’m rewriting, I try to climb inside my characters and see the story from their perspectives. And I try to make sure the story reflects their truest natures, whether they are villains or heroes or some combination of the two.
VENTRELLA: Some of your work is hard to categorize. How do you see yourself?
LANG: The stories that come out of me end up in the genre aisles, the romance and fantasy shelves. I think that’s a wonderful destination.
But before that, I am simply a writer. I write the stories that demand to be written, the ones that I have no choice but to write. I write the stories that I wish already existed inside a book.
I might find WATERSHIP DOWN in the fantasy aisle, or FULL DARK, NO STARS in general fiction (or at the front of the book store in its own special dump), but the books I love the most transcend category for me. They are just wonderful stories.
To keep writing, it’s important to understand the marketplace, to respect the daunting job of the sales department and marketing department to get books into stores and into the hands of readers.
However, I figure if I write the best book I can possibly write, there will be a place in the market for it, especially now with the rise of ebook distribution and its long, long tail.
VENTRELLA: How does your latest fit into this dilemma? Is this giving your publisher problems with promotion?
LANG: LADY LAZARUS is a historical fantasy, but one with werewolves and vamps. My editor calls it historical urban fantasy, but it’s pretty epic in scope, too. The pacing doesn’t match a standard urban fantasy, but it does get pretty explodey by the end, and the next one, DARK VICTORY, picks up speed and ends up blowing up a good chunk of Eastern Europe and our history of World War II, besides.
Tor’s been great about promoting the books. I went to BEA last year, NYC ComicCon and I just got back from the Empire State Book Festival too. I think the urban fantasy market is very, very crowded but LADY LAZARUS is not quite an urban fantasy, so its out of the box status might actually help set it apart.
VENTRELLA: We met at Lunacon a few years ago; do you attend many conventions? Do you find them worthwhile?
LANG: I only started attending SFF cons after I sold my first book, and love them. I love meeting readers, and so I also find cons a great source of inspiration and new ideas.
I attend as many local cons as I can, and wish I could travel to more. I did get to go to World Fantasy last year and it was wonderful. But the local ones are great too.
VENTRELLA: Tell us about the plotline and setting for LADY LAZARUS.
LANG: The series is set on the eve of World War II in a magical Budapest, and tells the story of Magda Lazarus, a witch with the power to return from the dead. In order to avert her sister’s horrifying visions of the impending war, Magda must battle SS werewolves, wizards, and demons, including the one who has possessed a willing Adolf Hitler.
VENTRELLA: How did you get the idea for the story?
LANG: This idea went and got me, I often say. My parents are both Holocaust survivors. This book is the ultimate what if – could my family have all survived if they had magic on their side?
The title comes from the famous Sylvia Plath poem, “Lady Lazarus.” She uses the idea of a Jewish girl returning from death as an extended metaphor for her own suicides. I am very literal-minded — when I read this poem for the first time I thought the idea of a murdered Jewish girl returning from the dead to kill Nazis was awesome. Wanted to read the story, so I wrote it!
VENTRELLA: Do you find short stories to be a good way for aspiring authors to get noticed?
LANG: Yes, absolutely, though that is not the way I came up in the writing world at all. Short stories are becoming a bigger and bigger market, and I think that’s terrific. The form is going to get more popular, I think, as people’s reading habits continue to change.
Aside from getting noticed, it’s a great way for published writers to promote their longer work, and also a great place for any writer to audition settings and characters for longer stories.
VENTRELLA: Amazon is reporting that e-books are now outselling traditional publications. What effect will this have on the publishing industry?
LANG: Hah – by the time I gave you an answer, it would be out of date, things are moving so fast! I’ll just say that it’s an amazing time to be both a writer and a reader. I write stories, my readers read and enjoy them. The more ways I can get my stories to readers, the better.
VENTRELLA: For beginning authors is this a good thing or a bad thing?
LANG: I’m not sure…it is definitely a confusing thing! The NY publishing route is no longer the only way to achieve financial success as a writer. The best way for a new writer to go forward is to get educated about their rights (read the Copyright Handbook for a start), read any publishing contract very carefully, and go forward boldly.
You will make mistakes – all writers make business mistakes at some point, or have bad luck. But then we start again. As I said above, stubbornness is the key to the game, more than luck or talent.
VENTRELLA: And finally: You’re like the fifth author I have interviewed who was an attorney prior to giving it all up to write. (I’m still practicing, though…) What is it about lawyers that make us want to write fiction?
LANG: I could say something witty here about lawyers and the truth, but I just won’t 😀
Actually, most lawyers I met during my practice were ethical and decent, and many of them were brilliant. I was a litigator, and I can say that the ability to convey a narrative is essential to winning jury trials. Also, to be a good lawyer, you need to be able to read a witness, tell when they are lying, get to the bottom of their motivations, etc.
The other great thing about being a lawyer is you learn to endure. It sounds like I’m joking around again, but I’m not. Generally speaking, litigation is like trench warfare – whoever hurts the other side the most, wins. That stubbornness, again – you need it to be a successful lawyer, you need it to be a pro writer.
Coincidence? Not in my case. Being a lawyer toughened me up for being a writer.