Interviewed by Phyllis Irene Radford October, 2013
Shannon Page is Book View Café’s newest member. Her collection of short fiction, Eastlick and Other Stories, marks her debut with us.
1.) You burst into the writing community only a few years ago with collaboration short stories, I’ve edited a few for you. How does collaboration work for you? What have you learned about yourself and your writing by sharing the vision of these stories? What determines who you choose as a writing partner?
A.) I’ve been writing pretty much all my life. When I was younger, it was a very private pleasure—diaries, awful poetry, story stubs I never showed anyone. Abandoned novels. The usual. In the last ten or so years, though, I’ve been taking my writing much more seriously, working to improve my craft. This naturally led me to join critique groups, where I not only got incredibly helpful feedback, but I also found I really enjoy reading the work of others, figuring out what might improve a story which isn’t quite working. And in the last few years, I’ve begun editing professionally—another enormous pleasure.
To me, collaboration combines the best of all those activities–writing, critiquing, editing—with an interesting and engaged partner. Writing can be a lonely task. With collaboration, you’ve got two people working together, challenging and helping one another to do something that neither of us could (or maybe would) do on our own. I love the interplay of working with another author, one whose strengths and weaknesses are not my own. The best collaborations are where we both learn from one another. And I’ve found that a collaborator keeps you honest in a way that no one else can–not a first reader or a critique partner or even an editor. With their name on the story right next to yours, they have to be 100% on board.
As for who to collaborate with—well, proximity is a big contributing factor. When you date another writer, it’s natural to want to create something together. Or, I guess I should speak only for myself on this; my partner Mark [Ferrari] and I were hanging out with another writer couple just last week, and they expressed astonishment that we could write together. They don’t even critique each other’s work, much less collaborate.
I haven’t always collaborated with romantic partners—just usually. My good friend Chaz [Brenchley], sweetheart though he is, is “only” a friend. And I wrote most of a really creepy ghost novel with a good friend and fellow critique-group member in San Francisco before we both got too busy to finish it—he and his wife had a couple of kids, and I moved away. I still hope we’ll finish that novel some day. Maybe when the kids are in college.
I think besides proximity, all you need is the desire to write together, and the willingness to let someone else have at your words. Everything else—writing habits, voice, style, even the vagaries of English vs. American spelling—can work itself out.
2.) You don’t collaborate on every short piece. How are your solo works different? Do you think your “voice,” the thing that stamps your writing as uniquely yours, changes from book to book, story to story–or can you already see themes that reoccur in your work?
A.) I can definitely see themes I revisit again and again—and some of them change over time. When I was putting the Eastlick collection together, I noticed that several of my favorite stories come from a time of great upheaval in my life, when I was leaving a long marriage, moving away from my home state, and starting a new life full of promise and fear and excitement and uncertainty. Jumping off the metaphoric cliff. So not just the story called “Home” but several others deal with displacement, the search for home, and the heartbreak and disillusionment that comes when an important relationship ends.
Also, I’ve noticed that many of my characters enjoy a drink. Make of that what you will.
3.) You are clearly committed to short fiction. Do you have longer works? How do different lengths help you develop a story, character, theme? How do you know which length a piece requires?
A.) Short stories are marvelous little morsels of creativity, but long fiction—the novel—is actually my natural length. My first works were novels; because that’s where I was busy learning how to write, my short stories were the ones which ended up getting published first. At last, though, I do have two books coming out over the next few months. Eel River is a standalone novel being published by Morrigan Books this fall. It’s the story of an idealistic hippie family in the early 1970s who move “back to the land”… never dreaming the land itself doesn’t want them there. The Queen and the Tower, coming next spring from Per Aspera Press, is the first book in the Nightcraft Quartet. It’s an urban fantasy following the life of Callie, a young San Francisco witch who is just looking for a little more autonomy and fun in her life when she gets caught up in a witchkind struggle dating back centuries.
I do love the freedom and span of a novel; I’m a character-focused writer, most comfortable when I can explore a character fully. It’s true, though, that some stories are only so big, and so the shorter length works for that—though I still like it if the world is much bigger than what ends up on the page. My story “By the Sea” is one of those: you get the sense of Elizabeth’s past and personality from only a few telling details.
4.) Some people jump into fiction, taking a character or an idea that interests them and simply start writing. Others research like mad before they start, and still others have a character tap them on the shoulder, and then they start researching. How do you approach your writing? Does it change from story to story?
A.) Oh, I am a total pantser. I just dive in, no research, no world-building. This doesn’t always serve me well; if you’re writing a fantasy series, you need to have the world figured out! So in the Nightcraft books, I’ve been doing a ton of retroactive world-building as I edit and revise. But the character of Callie was strong and definite from the start.
Actually one of the ways collaborative writing has helped me is by giving me a chance to work closely with writers who do plan and plot more comfortably than I do. It’s very instructive to see how it’s done. But I fear it will never be my natural place.
5.) Why writing to communicate your vision, and not art, drama, etc?
A.) I’m a reader, plain and simple. I grew up with no other media besides books, and not even a lot of people around all the time. I was an absolute bookworm all through childhood and adolescence… well, okay, I’m still one. I don’t have a TV even now, and though I enjoy movies and plays, they are definitely far behind reading for me. So when it came time to create, writing was the obvious venue. I never gave it a second thought.
6.) If your creative brain told you tomorrow to “take a sabbatical” what would you do other than write? If this was a long sabbatical, would you enter a new profession? If so, what? If not, would you return to what you did before you wrote fiction?
A.)I think I could enjoy being an editor for a good long time, if writing decided to take a hiatus for me—or even if not, frankly. I actually work best when I have a variety of different kinds of projects going at once: novel revisions, a short story draft, editing an anthology. I also proofread and copy edit, which I find tremendously enjoyable work. My ideal pace is to spend an hour or three on a certain project, then switch to another one. That keeps my brain fresh and keeps life interesting.
If I had to leave the writing world altogether, I would be very sad. Even the day jobs I’ve had have involved working with words at some level—I transcribed and edited oral histories for UC Berkeley, and even when I was a grants analyst in a molecular biology lab, I edited the scientific papers and grants the doctors created.
7.) Has writing taught you anything you didn’t expect?
A.) Thinking about what makes a successful, believable character (even if she’s a witch who can live a thousand years) has given me lots of insight into my own psychology, I think. And it’s helped me understand my relationships much better as well—both romantic ones and friendships. That’s been a marvelous surprise, though it probably shouldn’t have been; they are both the process of learning what makes people tick, after all.
8.) Do you live in your fiction? Is it a refuge, a delight—on some works, just a job? (You can close a book cleanly—a life, not so much.)
A.) When I am deep in novel-drafting (or revising), the story does come alive in my head, and starts moving and breathing without my even being conscious of it. That’s how I know it’s working, actually. When writing feels like ‘just a job’, that means something’s gone wrong, and I need to pull back and find the life of the story again. Which sometimes means setting it aside—for a time, or for good.
9.) Has anything that you’ve learned about writing surprised you?
A.) Hmm. I’m not sure there’s all that much about the process of writing itself (beyond what I said above, about characters and their relevance to real life), but certainly the process of getting published hasn’t gone the way “they” said it would. I worked on my craft, I sold short stories to tiny publications and then to larger, better-paying ones; I even had an agent for a while; but we parted ways without her having sold a novel.
I kept thinking I’d get a different agent, but it hasn’t worked out that way; I haven’t actually tried to, I’ve been too busy. And then I sold Eel River and the Nightcraft Quartet on my own, and a collaborative novel as well (which is bogged down in months of negotiation—amusingly, my collaborator’s agent is the holdup!). I’ve got an unsold novel that’s going to be oh so spectacularly awesome after I find time to make just one more round of deep edits… but now there’s Book View Café, so I doubt I’ll query that one either. I think the whole model of publishing, of being a working writer, of finding your audience, is changing dramatically. We don’t know what the future holds or where we’re going to end up. It’s exciting, and a little scary. And not at all what I’d expected.
10.) You had an unusual childhood. How has that experience affected your writing?
A.) I spent my elementary school years living on a back-to-the-land commune in northern California. That experience gave me the setting for Eel River, and some of the details (though the monster, not to mention the story itself, is totally invented).
The biggest part of that, as I mentioned above, was the lack of TV, or really anything other than books. We did have a radio in the car, and eventually a small tape deck in the house which ran on a car battery; but mostly, we had to make our own entertainment. And, country life being what it is, my parents and the other adults were often very busy. My brother is a whole five years younger than me, so while he’s a great friend now, he was a fairly unsatisfying playmate when we were children. We had two board games (Monopoly and Scrabble), and a deck of cards.
So basically I read. I read everything I could get my hands on—from school, from the library, a few very precious books I was privileged to own, magazines my parents certainly didn’t know they’d left where I could find them—and I told myself stories. I played out in the meadow with tiny ceramic figurines (small enough to drive around in Matchbox cars), who all had names and stories and personalities and histories. I had a vivid imagination and a rich fantasy life. I was a weird kid at school—didn’t fit in at all with the farmer’s kids, who had electricity and telephones at home, and got to eat meat and processed foods, and spend the night at each other’s houses. I was chosen last for PE teams and first for spelling bees. What else could I become but a writer?
11.) How did you become involved with Book View Café?
A.) Several friends had already joined and told me about it—Chaz Brenchley, David Levine, Mindy Klasky, and you, Phyl! J It sounded like a great idea, though at first I wasn’t sure it was a good fit for me, as I don’t have a backlist of novels which want republishing. But one day Mark pointed to my “brag shelf”—my pile of two dozen anthologies and magazines where my stories have appeared—and said, “What about a collection? I’ll do your cover.” So I sent a note to Judy Tarr, and the group was gracious enough to let me in.
12.) What do you hope to see in your writing next year, in five years, as far ahead as you care to envision?
A.) My biggest writing task right now is to finish revising The Queen and The Tower, and then write the next three books in the series. I talked above about being a “pantser”, about my lack of world-building; this is where it’s coming back to bite me. Fortunately, being a four-book series, all the work I’ve done to get this book figured out is going to be there for the next three, so I’m hoping they will go quickly and smoothly. But I’ve got a lot of revising and rewriting to do before I can even begin drafting book two. (And I do have the whole series mapped out, plot-wise, at least in broad outlines. The details? I’ll discover them when I get there!)
Beyond that—I just want to keep busy. I’d love to do more editing. It would be wonderful to bring some original novels to Book View, like Hobgoblin (the fae-changeling story which is going to be marvelous if I can just get the time to work on it) and Demonhead (a post-apocalyptic urban fantay about symbiotes).
There will probably be fewer short stories. I’ve only written one this year, a collab; I’m spending far more time on the novels, and the auxiliary work.
Though even saying this, I’m remembering what I envisioned for my writing career, versus what’s actually happened. How do we really know? I’m open to all possibilities. So much that’s wonderful about my life right now I never saw coming. May there be much more of that.