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 now Mobius 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 in 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. 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. I had a “doh!” moment. As in, “You write short stories, you ditz. You’ve got a built-in idea pool.” I broke out of the drought with “The Nature of Things”—a song based on the novelette of the same name that was published in 2006 in Baen’s Universe and then reprinted in The Best of Baen’s Universe, 2006. The song is on the Harmony Heifers CD, which is a trio composed of myself and two other ladies (heifers) who sing an eclectic mix of music. Jeff is the token “bull.” 🙂
There are a couple of songs Jeff has written and that we perform that have inspired story elements. “Seven Cities” from Mobius Street became Jax Pavan’s theme music as I was working on the last two books of the Coruscant Nights series (Star Wars: Patterns of Force, and The Last Jedi). And the title cut of Manhattan Sleeps inspired a scene in Magic Time: Angelfire (Book Two of the Magic Time trilogy). It uses snow fall in Manhattan as a metaphor for… a number of things, actually.
One of our songs—”High Desert” (Mobius Street)—has inspired work in two other mediums. Our own Phyl Radford (in her PR Frost persona) put a scene from the song into her novel Moon in the Mirror.. And Vixy did a gorgeous colored pencil sketch of the same image: a caravan of cars that gathers to drive together across the HIgh Desert. (Yeah, it’s a metaphor for life 🙂
Q.) Do you play any of your original music for fans at conventions?
A.) You bet. We usually mix our sets about 60/40. 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. Some of the originals have become fan favorites and if we don’t do them in a concert set, we get requests in the evening song circle.
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, 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.
I’m the first one he plays new music for and he’s the first one who reads my stories, so we have a good thing going there.
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 five years ago (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, which was published in 2011 as Star Wars: Shadow Games and we went from there to The Last Jedi—which, I’m thrilled to say, hit the New York Times Bestseller list at #11. So, it was a series of fortunate events and good friends.
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. I have zip brain for business, but Sarah’s got that covered. (Sarah Zettel was our first Managing Director until she got slammed with deadlines. Now Pati Nagel fills her shoes.) I can’t promote for beans, but you and Sue can. Vonda and I together make one pretty shrewd geek squad. Chris Dolley is a freaking mensch when it comes to finding us opportunities like getting into libraries through Overdrive. I could go on and on. We work beautifully in teams and as individuals and if something goes pear-shaped, we figure out what went wrong and move on.
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. I get so jazzed just thinking about it. When I’m feeling punk, someone else is on a roll and that picks me up keeps me going until I can refocus. AND we are developing (gasp) clout as a team that we wouldn’t have as lone rangers. I mean, heck, we’re a publisher now!
Q.) Your “Padawan” posts have been very popular. Was this solely to have a regular blog feature for fans, or does this clarify and distill for you important things about the book you are building?
A.) It’s both. As an attention-getter for the site, we realized that Star Trek and Star Wars are big draws. I’d no sooner released the first installment and gotten comments that I realized the value as a development tool. Not only did my research for the blog and my chatting about the Galaxy Far, Far Away help me crystallize ideas, but the conversations genuinely help me explore concepts and get a feel for the fannish community. Plus, I notice that we’re getting traffic and comments on other posts from the Star Wars base. They’re reading other blogs and commenting and reading our fiction. Not all that many, for sure, but some.
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. 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.
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. I saw this at signings when people who’d read my SF brought me copies of Analog to sign and fantasy readers brought me books. The two never crossed except for a collector I knew. When an editor at Avon wanted to buy my first SF novel (Laldasa: Beloved Slave, a BVC title), 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 (member of the MAFIA—Making Appearances Frequently In Analog).
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 (“Tinkerbell on Walkabout” and “Murder In Quotes”), magical realism (“The White Dog” and others) and alternate history (“O, Pioneer”)
Bottom line: Writing is exploration for me. It’s my way of being Galileo or Magellan or Buzz Aldrin. Gotta go where the terra incognita lies.
Q.) Is there any type of writing you’ve done that you’ve asked your agent to be on the lookout for more in that field?
A.) I really enjoy doing Batman and Star Wars and shared universe stuff. I’m an avid Star Gate fan so I’ve asked my agent to keep an eye out for Star Gate gigs. I mean, that’s a kiddie’s dream to write for your favorite universe.
But beyond that, I’ve got three novels making the rounds that I’ve proposed as Book One of a series. That’s what I’d really like to sell because I want to tell those stories. One of them is detective fiction (Tinkerbell and the Fourth God from the Left) one is tween fantasy (that will also deal with mysteries of an arcane kind) and the most recent is straight SF with a bit of a mystery (Pilgrim’s Passage).
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.
To give you an example of what my weekly rotation looks like: Monday is blog day. I write my two blogs, then I lay out my schedule very loosely by simply listing what I want to get done in the other days of the week. My current projects are: ghostwriting a contemporary fantasy for a couple who wants to use novels as a platform for a TV series; ghostwriting a science fiction trilogy for another client; finishing Accidental Wizard—Occasional Witch (an original fantasy novel) and outlining the second book in the Pilgrim series.
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 as I did in “O, Pioneer” (published in Paradox magazine and posted on BVC) where I indulged myself in a much more satisfying version of the hoary Columbus “discovers” America tale.
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…” Since I write about the future, I like to project the central ideas of the faith—which revolve around the idea that there is one God, one progressively revealed religion (that we’ve managed to divide up) and one human family—onto current trends to project where they might end up.
So, “Hand-me-down Town” (Analog, BVC) sort of juxtaposes Bahá’í principles with the reality of a California tourist town that “outlawed” homelessness. And in “Heroes,” (Analog) I projected an end to the Cold War and the normalization of relations between Russia and the US and had readers asking what I’d used as a crystal ball. One reader simply asked “Are you a Bahá’í?” (Gosh, how’d she guess? :)) “The White Dog” actually uses a vignette from the life of a central figure of the Bahá’í Faith to illustrate the protagonist’s philosophy. And of course my first series of novels, The Meri, Taminy, and The Crystal Rose, (now available as eBooks from BVC) 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.
Now the surprising thing to a lot of folks I talk to is that I’ve “gotten away with” writing about these things in SF stories as if somehow SF and religion ought to be mutually exclusive. Apparently not.
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 audience’s 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. Epic fail. We are still logo-less.
Q.) Is The Mer Cycle trilogy (The Meri, Taminy, The Crystal Rose) making its first appearance anywhere, or is this bringing back an out-of-print series?
A.) The Mer Cycle books are reprints of my very first trilogy. In fact, The Meri was my first published novel. Oddly, Baen, who did a wonderful job on promoting The Meri, didn’t market the books as a series which confused everybody and caused some reviewers (and reader too, I bet) to scratch their heads. The first book did really well for a first novel and went through two printings, but no one knew that Taminy and The Crystal Rose were books two and three of a series.
For the BVC rerelease, I decided to rectify that. I also made some changes to the beginning of the third book since I didn’t have to try to give the whole backstory of the first two books. Much better!
Q.) Are you thinking about writing any more books in this world?
A.) I have a 600 year history of the country (Caraid-land) the trilogy takes place in and would love to write both prequels and sequels. Hopefully, readers will motivate me to do that. 🙂
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.