Interviewed by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel
Leah R. Cutter has always known that she wanted to be a writer. She just wasn’t sure how she was going to get there. So she sensibly went forth to explore the world, digging at an archaeological dig in England, teaching English in Hungary and Taiwan, and then bar tending in Thailand. Finally the kernel of a story demanded that she bring it forth—and she put a great deal of effort and several years into fine-tuning both the idea and her skills as a novelist.
At this point in time, she has a half-dozen novels out there, with more to come, and enough short stories to keep her readers busy for quite a while. Living in the Seattle area, she partakes of the culture, working in the computer industry, drinking excellent coffee, and swing dancing and quilting when the mood takes her. Most of the time? She’s writing!
1) From your web site I get the impression that writing fiction began for you with Paper Mage. Why did this particular story tip you over from “wanting to write” to “I must write”?
A.) I always wanted to be a writer. When I was living in Taiwan, teaching English, I made a great leap, and I figured out how to be a writer. I had stories that started dragging me through them, and I started writing every day. Before then, though I considered myself a writer, I hadn’t really figured out how to do it very well.
Paper Mage was the first novel I wrote and sold, just a few years after I’d made that initial leap.
2) You describe Paper Mage and Caves of Buda as “Companion books.” Not sequels, not even taking place in the same part of the world or with the same characters—but thematically linked. Why do these books belong together?
A.) The theme of Paper Mage is “Life is Choice.”
The theme of Caves of Buda is “Choose Again.”
Xiao Yen, the protagonist of Paper Mage, is very young (though the book is not YA.) The big life lesson that she had to learn was that she chose the life she had.
All three of the main POV characters in Caves of Buda have made choices when they were younger. Over the course of the novel, they all get to choose again, make different choices, become different people.
3) Have you decided yet what writing means to you?
A.) Like many writers, I can’t not write. I write to stay sane. There was a time recently when I’d stopped writing (health and other issues.) I got very squirrely, bitchy, and I started having nightmares.
Writing is life. If I don’t write, I’m not truly living.
Writing and publishing are different, though.
I write because I must, because it’s the only way to exorcise the voices in my head, because putting things down on paper (or the bright shiny screen) makes them live.
Some publish because they’re the entertainer, or the story teller. Me—I publish/share what I’ve written because I’m the tour guide. I’ve seen these strange, exotic places, and I want to share what I’ve seen.
4) The books of the Shadow Wars (The Raven and the Dancing Tiger and The Guardian Hound) have short stories that introduce this world—grim short stories, about peoples with strange powers, great responsibilities, and monstrous challenges. How did this world come to you? Did you write the short stories, and realize that there was so much yet to tell that you had to write novels instead? Did you write the novels, and then need the short stories to explain to yourself something in the history? Will there be more stories in this world?
A.) I wrote the first short story, The Third Raven, as part of the Baker’s Dozen challenge (13 short stories in 13 weeks.) I’d wanted to write something that was like a fairy tale, so I went looking through my fairy tale books, then onto Wikipedia, where I ran across the old song, “The Three Ravens” and its companions piece, “Twa Corbies.”
When I was about halfway through the short story, I realized that I’d created an entire world in my head, and that I could easily write a novel set there.
But I wasn’t planning on doing anything about that.
Then I had a writing assignment, for a class, to write a short story about a first date. It had to be set in modern day.
Almost the entire first chapter of The Raven and the Dancing Tiger is that short story. I realized just before the last scene that I’d committed novel, so I ended up writing that novel.
When I was about 2/3rds of the way through with The Raven and the Dancing Tiger I wrote two sentences, and the entire novel of The Guardian Hound sprang into my mind. This frequently is how I get novel ideas.
However, I had told myself that I was going to do another Baker’s Dozen challenge again—a series of short stories, one a week.
My muse had other ideas. Instead of these other stories, I ended up writing the short stories that became part of The Guardian Hound
There are other stories in this world—for example, the next short story that I’ll write will be about the great Raven betrayal. Plus, there’s one more novel in that trilogy, War Among the Crocodiles that I should write this spring, and should be available in Fall 2014.
5) 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 have no idea what the themes are in my work. I’ve asked other people, but they don’t know either. I know setting is always so important to me, and generally is another character in the work. As for Voice, I know some of my work has it. It does to have a Southern twang. But I’m still figuring out what my themes are. Maybe someone can tell me someday.
6) Zydeco Queen and the Creole Fairy Courts was inspired by the time you spent in New Orleans. Of all the stories swirling around New Orleans, why did the Creole heritage reach out and seize you? What about Zydeco music demanded a story?
A.) Zydeco Queen actually wasn’t the story that propelled me to New Orleans. That novel was Siren’s Call (out from BVC on 11/12) I was in bed, had turned the lights out, when my muse said, “Here’s the next novel. You need to go to New Orleans.” I was up until 2 AM capturing as much as I could.
Just before I went to New Orleans, I took a writing workshop. Zydeco Queen was a book synopsis I did as part of a writing exercise. But that book grabbed me, and I had to write it next. It didn’t hurt that I went to live in Louisiana the very next week.
7) Has anything in research surprised you? Changed the original course of the work?
A.) Constantly. I write until I need inspiration, then I research until I need to start incorporating all the really cool things I just learned about. It’s a constant cycle back and forth for me, between research and writing.
8) You’ve embraced self-publishing with a vengeance, learning reams of things about cover art, POD creation, ebook structuring, promotion—the full nine yards. What was it about this path that was so exciting to you that you threw yourself into it wholeheartedly? Have you discarded Big Six Publishing, or do you think you might move between New York City and your own publishing endeavors, depending on the manuscript?
A.) I relish the control I have with indie-publishing, from covers to formatting to publishing dates. It’s all new things for me to learn, and I love pushing myself. It’s quite a challenge finding the balance between writing and publishing, but even if New York came knocking on my door, I’d still continue to publish on my own as well.
9) What have you learned from your own writing? To what concepts, intentionally or not, do you think you’ve exposed your readers?
A.) I have a good friend who calls me “fanatically disciplined”—though I don’t think I am. I am, however, “fanatically driven.” I am going to write. I am going to publish. I am going to continue to explore and learn.
I hope I’ve exposed my readers to new and exotic places, to the concept that other humans who are not white and middle class Americans are potentially more alien than that bug-eyed creature on your TV.
10) Has writing taught you anything you didn’t expect?
A.) The most recent thing to surprise me was that I had thought of myself as a dedicated, serious writer. This summer, I realized that I was fooling myself—there was a whole new level of serious that I hadn’t learned yet. I’m still learning this new level of seriousness, and I still slip into old habits sometimes. I’m working harder than I’ve ever worked before, and yet I still feel like a slacker sometimes. There’s still so much for me to learn, for me to write, for me to do!