Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff
Interviewed by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel
Welcome to the multi-tasking world of author and artist Maya Bohnhoff. Whether writing, composing, painting or any other corner of creative life, Maya has laid claim to a section of more than one artistic community.
Q.) Looking on your website, it seems that your musical work with your husband, musician Jeff Bohnhoff, is mostly parody and filking, that favorite typo of Science Fiction fandom. Your original work Manhattan Sleeps and Mobius Street are a big switch, storytelling set to music that wanders from folk to jazz with a few stops at pop and rock. I noticed that “Moth” was written in the mid-eighties. Have you been singing this song all along, or did you recently put together old lyrics and new music—or vice-versa?
A.) I’ve been singing “Moth” and other songs from that era all along. Every time the band membership changed, we’d just rearrange. We did a cassette release years ago that had “Moth” on it, but neither of us was happy with the arrangement or the recording quality. (You could hear rain falling on some of the tracks because we were in our garage with no sound booth.) Finally, when Jeff set up a professional home studio and we started recording albums seriously, we rearranged and rerecorded “Moth” and also “Persian Rose.” (Which was mixed in a marathon all-nighter to hit our release date.)
Q.) Has your writing ever inspired a new song? Or the reverse—a song suggests a short story or even a novel?
A.) Music and writing to me are inextricably linked. My very first attempt at writing a novel had characters and plot elements suggested to me by the music I was listening to at the time: Pink Floyd and Rush mostly–I even created a mix tape of the songs in story order. But I went through a looooong drought in my song writing and what busted me out of it was that I was listening to my friend Michelle “vixy” Dockrey sing a song that was based on a short story written by a friend. I had a “doh!” moment. As in, “You write short stories, you ditz. You’ve got a built-in idea pool.”
Q.) Do you play any of your original music for fans at conventions?
A.) You bet. We usually mix our sets about 50/50. When we do really long Guest of Honor sets, we may do an all parody set and an all original set, but usually we mix it up. We sell more of the parody CDs to that audience, but the original ones do quite well too.
Q.) Some spouses work well together or near each other (like they’re in the next room.) Sometimes this causes creativity to flourish—sometimes (like one friend) your spouse talks loudly and paces while on the phone. She works in ear plugs. You work with your husband on a lot of projects; the music is very important to you both. Has this settled into a good thing, or are there days you are actually together too much? Do you schedule quiet days where you kiss good-bye at breakfast and don’t talk to each other until dinner?
A.) Well, since he’s got a day job and I write and edit all day (when I’m not trying to trick the BVC website into obeying me), we usually find we don’t spend enough time together. We get to have days where we work in the studio all day, but unless we’re comping (that’s studio geek for choosing which performances to use out of a variety of recorded tracks) or mixing, he’s in the studio behind the mixing console and I’m in the sound booth (mooing in the box, as my youngest daughter calls it). I wish we got to work together more.
Q.) How did you become involved with the Star Wars universe? At one time that was looked upon as the best Hollywood connection a writer could pick up, in publicity as well as offering a small percentage of royalties.
A.) When I lost my day job (huzzah!), Marc Scott Zicree (who conceived the Magic Time series (for which I wrote volume 2: Angelfire) was determined to help me get writing work. Within a week, he had me working with Michael Reaves who, due to ill health had accumulated a backlog of contracts he needed to fulfill. Michael and I started working together and he asked me to collaborate with him on an original novel (Mr. Twilight from Del Rey). I was honored in the extreme. Then he asked me to help out with a Batman novel (Batman: Fear Itself) and finally, asked if I’d collaborate with him on Coruscant Nights Iii: Patterns Of Force. The next project he pitched to Del Rey/LucasFilms was Holostar, and I became his collaborator on a novel finally released as Star Wars: Shadow Games. Del Rey then approached us about writing another based on an email pitch Michael made. That one was published in 2013 as The Last Jedi, which, since the last set of movies were released, is labeled a Star Wars “Legends” novel.
Q.) When the idea for BVC started bouncing around, why were you so excited about it? What could BVC give you that would be easier than working with your personal web site? I know we all thought showcasing multiple people would make our site a bigger draw and attract more attention—the biggie in web marketing, being seen in a sea of content. But did you have special projects in mind for BVC?
A.) It was something I’d been thinking about for a while, actually—would a writer’s co-op work? I mean, we were discussing all the same problems in the female SF writers’ list: publishers wanted us to be writer/editor/marketing maven/publicist/booking agent and artful schmoozer. I’m a writer and an editor. I am painfully shy when it comes to self-promotion despite Kevin Anderson’s best efforts to train me. And while I can do a presentation on the craft of writing at the drop of a hat, or hold my own on a panel, I am clueless when it comes to organizing all that other stuff and it’s soul-destroying for me to try. When I was trying to do it, I wasn’t writing—the muse went into a corner and sobbed hysterically.
So when I wistfully sent out an email with the sighing subject line, “What if there were this online Bookshelf…” Sarah and Sue and Phyl and Vonda and a whole bunch of others said, “Yeah. I was getting ready to post my stuff on my site, but what if we did it together?”
What was most exciting to me was seeing that we were going to be able to do together what none of us could do alone. It wasn’t just creating a website, it was creating a community. A pro-active community of writers with contacts for all of us that no one of us could have gotten on her own.
And the thrill of being part of this amazing group of writers, pushing each other along, picking each other up—working as part of a co-operative team—that’s the best thing of all.AND we are developing (gasp) clout as a team that we wouldn’t have as lone rangers.
Q.) You have done so many things as a writer. Did you ever worry that jumping from fantasy to SF and back would keep you from finding a following?
A.) In fact, it did. And it lost me a book sale or two as well. I published all of my early short fiction in Analog, but when I finally had a novel ready for publication, it was fantasy. I did not set out to write fantasy. I had no intention of writing fantasy, but I dreamed a fantasy plot line and therefore, I had to write it. It never occurred to me NOT to write it. So, it formed the basis for my first novel, The Meri and the two sequels, Taminy and The Crystal Rose.
After I’d released four fantasy novels, I wanted to do SF for a bit, but I quickly realized the two audiences don’t cross over as much as I’d hoped. When an editor at Avon wanted to buy my first SF novel (Laldasa, a BVC original), his marketing director said, “You can’t do that. She’s a fantasy writer trying to break into SF. It’ll never sell.” For some reason my agent didn’t respond by pointing out my popularity as an Analog regular and member of the Analog MAFIA (Making Appearances Frequently In Analog).
But here’s the thing: I gotta write what I gotta write. If I’m ghostwriting or working in a shared universe, I can write to order, but when I’m writing from scratch, I have to go where my heart is, or the book won’t be any good. Heck, it’ll never get finished! So, I’ve written SF, fantasy, detective fiction (check out “Tinkerbell on Walkabout” and “Tinkerbell and the Storybook Murder” on BVC and The Antiquities Hunter (Pegasus Books), magical realism (“The White Dog”) and alternate history (“O, Pioneer”).
Bottom line: Writing is exploration for me. It’s my way of being Copernicus or Magellan or Buzz Aldrin. Gotta go where the terra incognita lies.
Q.) You are a working writer who pays the bills with your work. Does this ever slow down your creativity? How would you advise would-be, full time writers to compartmentalize their work and have time for everything?
A.) It does sometimes keep me from working on “my stuff” as much as I’d like, and I find myself expending a lot of energy ghostwriting that would go into original work. Editing doesn’t use the same part of my brain apparently, and actually ramps up my creativity. But ghostwriting (if I’m doing it right) sucks up creative energy.
What works for me is to schedule my own work as part of my weekly process. I set deadlines for myself: write a new story for Analog by September 21, finish a story by X date, outline a new novel, or work on the one I’ve got going now.
Q.) What’s your absolute favorite thing to write?
A.) I looove to write magical realism and alternate history. I love the ambiguity of magical realism (did something fantastic happen or was it all in the mind of the character and/or reader?), and alternate history lets me rewrite events the way I’d like them to have turned out.
I love building characters, too, which for me means writing dialogue. No matter what the genre, I can safely say that I enjoy writing dialogue more than just about anything.
Q.) You have close ties to your faith, including playing music at the San Jose Baha’i Center. How much of your spiritual life makes its way into your writing?
A.) Lots of it. In fact, I have a whole collection of short fiction (I Loved Thy Creation, Juxta Publishing) that centers around Bahá’í themes and/or features Bahá’í characters such as the time-traveling Jones family of “Home is Where… (published in Analog)”. And of course my first series of novels, The Meri, Taminy, and The Crystal Rose, deals on an intimate level with the whole concept of a progressively revealed religion. I drop in on my protagonist at the moment the deity speaks again in a rather unexpected way—in this case, through a woman.
Q.) What does “Mystic Fig” mean?
A.) Well, it was actually a misunderstanding on my husband’s part. In the early days of the Bahá’í Faith in Persia, the Muslim clerics came up with all sorts of reasons why good Muslims should not listen to the words of the Founder of the Faith, Bahá’u’lláh (Arabic for “the Glory of God”). One of the tales they told to explain the expansion of the Faith and to warn the faithful against it, was that the Bahá’ís had a magical way of gaining converts. When they would share the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh with a crowd of people, the listeners’ mouths would fall open in awe at the elegance and beauty of the words and the Bahá’ís would then toss enchanted dates into their open mouths that would cause them to convert.
My husband was certain the fruit in question was a fig, rather than a date, and by the time he realized he was wrong, he’d already set up domain names and such (That’ll teach him not to check with me first.) He thought about changing it to Mystic Date, but well, you can see where that might end up. So Mystic Fig stuck and I was faced with trying to come up with a logo. I never really succeeded.
Q.) Did Laldasa make its first appearance on BVC, or is this bringing back an out-of-print book? If this is new, did you plan to serialize a novel on-line to draw new readers, or did NYC publishing have no clue how to market the book, and did not make an offer for it?
A.) This is Laldasa’s first appearance anywhere. As I noted earlier, I came close to selling it to Avon, but there was that weird labeling thing that made it impossible for their marketing guru to see me as anything but a fantasy writer trying to “break in” to SF. I changed agents and, as luck would have it, my new one did not like the lighter side of my work and wanted me to concentrate on magical realism and off-the-wall fantasy. I love to write these things, but not at the abandonment of other types of fiction. So Laldasa sat in a file folder until I decided I wanted to try again. It got lost at Dorchester (literally) and when I finally got around to considering what to do with it again, there was Book View Café and a bookshelf with my name on it.
Q.) Are you thinking about a sequel, or will this tale stand alone?
A.) I’m always thinking about a sequel to anything that I liked writing, or people liked reading. Heck, Taco Del (BVC) is the result of my agent loving the novella so much that he begged me to expand it into a novel. So, if people like Laldasa and would like to see more of Jaya and Ana and their cohorts, I’m happy to write about them. God knows their respective planets still have lots of problems to work on.
Q.) If you could only write in one area, what would you choose? Why?
A.) Wow. That’s a toughie. I guess I’d have to pick fantasy because it’s got the broadest range of possibilities. This is odd because I didn’t aspire to write fantasy—the ideas just refused to stop coming.
Contemporary fantasy is especially intriguing to me—I love bringing magic and the mundane together in perplexing and interesting ways. Looking at the mundane 3D world through fantastic 4D lenses is more fun than doing barrel rolls in an airplane.