Author Interview: Shannon Page
Interviewed by Phyllis Irene Radford
Shannon Page has been a member of Book View Café since 2013. Her collection of short fiction, Eastlick and Other Stories,https://bookviewcafe.com/book/eastlick-and-other-stories/ marked her debut with us. Since then, she has published several solo novels; an essay collection, I Was a Trophy Wife; https://bookviewcafe.com/book/i-was-a-trophy-wife/ and a collaborative series of cozy mysteries under the pen name Laura Gayle. She’s also edited a handful of anthologies, with more on the way.
1.) You burst into the writing community with collaborative short stories; I’ve edited a few of them. 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 twenty or so years, though, I’ve been taking my writing much more seriously, working to improve my craft. In some early critique groups, 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. This eventually, naturally, led to 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 each other 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 each other. 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 or marry another writer, it’s natural to want to create something together. Or, I guess I should speak only for myself on this; my husband Mark [Ferrari] and I have other writer-couple friends who have express astonishment at the very idea. One couple we know don’t even critique each other’s work, much less collaborate.
I haven’t always collaborated with romantic partners. My good friend Chaz [Brenchley], sweetheart though he is, is “only” a friend. 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. My biggest collaboration so far has been with my friend Karen [Berry], on our “Chameleon Chronicles” cozy mystery series set on Orcas Island. Four books are out now; book five should arrive later this year.
I think besides proximity, all you need is the desire to write together, and the willingness to let someone else have at your words. Don’t be precious. Karen and I don’t even use track changes when we send the manuscripts back and forth. Our voices blend together so well, neither of us are even sure who wrote which words by the time the books are done.
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.
What really surprised me was when I began writing personal essays a couple years ago. I’d been a lifelong fiction writer (though I also kept a diary); but then I heard about this new website called Medium, and I further heard that they paid writers, so I was totally in. Essays began pouring out of me, so many that I collected them into a book, I Was a Trophy Wife (and Other Essays). In these essays, I grapple with radical honesty and full disclosure, sometimes to the point of discomfort. It’s been amazingly freeing—wild, scary, fabulous. The firehose of essays has kind of slowed down at the moment, as I work on finishing a few bigger projects, but I know there’s more of that work in me. Maybe even a memoir…?
One other theme with me, in both fiction and nonfiction: I’ve noticed that many of my characters and subjects enjoy a drink. Make of that what you will.
3.) You are clearly comfortable with both short fiction and longer works. Do you have a preference? 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. Due to both the random timing of things and to heeding the career advice young writers used to be given about breaking into the short market to make your name before trying to shop novels, my short stories got published first.
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 a 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. J 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 my Nightcraft Quartet [published by Outland Entertainment, add link], I’ve had to do a ton of retroactive world-building as I edit and revise. But the character of Callie was strong and definite from the start. She’s hardly changed a bit from how I first envisioned her, even if nearly everything else about the story and the world has.
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 didn’t have a TV for decades (and didn’t miss it); 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 have never been a full-time writer; I am not one even now, nor do I aspire to be one. I love my editing work, but the bulk of my income comes from freelance proofreading and copy editing (i.e., getting paid to read books all day)—work that I just love. I function best when I have a variety of different kinds of projects going at once. 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 for decades, and even when I was a grants analyst in a molecular biology lab, I edited the scientific papers and grants the doctor-researchers 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, or a young woman who literally vanishes when she gets scared) has given me lots of insight into my own psychology. 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.
Writing a hundred or more personal essays over the course of a couple of years was like a deep dive into auto-psychotherapy, too; one that I’m still digesting.
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 (which is what led to my editing the anthology The Usual Path to Publication—because there IS no usual path). 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 didn’t work out that way. I sold my first novel, Eel River, and the Nightcraft Quartet on my own, as well as the collaborative novel Our Lady of the Islands—which did pretty well, garnering not only a starred review from Publishers Weekly but was named one of their Best Books of 2014, which was a pretty huge thrill.
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, 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 farmers’ 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—first Chaz Brenchley, then 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 didn’t have a backlist of novels which wanted republishing. But one day Mark pointed to my “brag shelf”—at that point about two dozen anthologies and magazines where my stories had appeared—and said, “What about a collection? I’ll do your cover.” So I sent a query, 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.) This year is about FINISHING things. Karen and I have a nearly-complete draft of the fifth and final Chameleon Chronicles book, Orcas Intermission; I hope to release that this fall. My final book in the Nightcraft Quartet, The Empress and The Moon, is due to my publisher this fall as well, and will release next year (book three, The Lovers Three, comes out October 11). And Mark and I are contracted to write a sequel to Our Lady of the Islands—which was always intended to be a two-book arc. We love writing together, and are so looking forward to starting this—so far, it’s just been lengthy discussions and brainstorms, but oh, it’s going to be good.
Beyond that…I really don’t know. There’s a literary novel that’s poking at the back of my brain, exploring some of the themes from my Trophy Wife essays, but definitely fiction, so I can lean into intriguing stuff without having to be factually accurate. Karen and I want to collaborate on a new series, perhaps about bed-and-breakfast owners on Bainbridge Island; Mark and I dream of starting a collaborative fantasy series, but so far we’ve both been too busy to take the idea much farther than “we want to write something big together.”
Though even as I write 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.