Interviewer’s Note: Laura Gayle is the pen name for Shannon Page and Karen G. Berry
SHERWOOD: One of the pleasures of this series is the setting. The author(s) do such an excellent job of evoking the different pace of life in northwest island living, as Cam, our main character in this series, discovers how the islanders all know everyone else—which can call for some accommodation. Which brings me to another pleasure: the characters. There’s quite a variety of interesting individuals, whether or not they turn out to be suspects.
Cam’s particular narrative voice immerses the reader in the round of daily activities, whereas another writer might sum up with “After my usual morning routine.” I noted that I read mysteries with closer attention to details in the sense of trying to remember them, which can lead to frustration. I don’t want to miss a clue, which might be buried in a description of baking, or feeding animals. But once I let myself go, I discovered that the leisurely pacing gradually accelerated to quite intense climactic sequences—while never losing the well-established island feel.
Which brings me to the third pleasure: how the fantasy element is integrated. Though Cam is not an islander by birth, she fits in so well. Hints of magic arise out of the setting in such a natural way I’m ready to believe this island has one flipper in the next world over. Cam’s chameleon ability is so interesting, not always convenient or even comfortable, and so much a part of her. I’m eager to see where it all is going.
KAREN: I just want to say at the outset, we’ve decided to speak in our own voices for this interview, but in the books, we speak in one voice. If anyone wonders, Shannon created Cam’s voice. As a marketing writer who writes to many different audiences, I’m a natural mimic, and I just caught Shannon’s tone and ran with it. If my brother and her husband can’t tell who writes what, that means I’m doing my job. But here’s a hint: I’m in charge of writing anything violent or terrible, like the discovery of a dead body. I’m not sure how that got to be my job but I love it.
SHERWOOD: The Pacific Northwest setting, so vividly evoked in these books, especially cries out for magic. The magical element that you chose to use is unusual–I don’t think I’ve seen it before. How did that come about?
SHANNON: Ideas are the easy part, for me. I don’t even try to come up with ideas, they just barge in uninvited and tromp into my living room and put their feet up on my furniture and drink my wine. They ambush me. I have several new book ideas in my head even right now and I’m not letting myself write them or even make notes because I NEED TO FINISH THINGS! I don’t get to start a new book till I finish at least drafting a) the final Chameleon Chronicles book, which I’m working on right now; b) the final book in my Nightcraft Quartet, and c) the sequel to Our Lady of the Islands.
And now for the embarrassing admission…I honestly didn’t remember coming up with the specific magical element. Karen and I talked a lot about the books before we started writing—in fact we talk about all the books we write, together and separately—and I just…didn’t remember which one of us came up with that idea.
KAREN: You don’t remember coming up with the magical element? Shannon, that was all you. As I remember, you explained that it was based on your own feelings of silence and erasure. It was always part of her character. Originally you seemed to want her to overcome it, like, to have it go away at the end of the series. I wanted her disability to morph into a supernatural power that she could use at will, not a supernatural disability that she learns to work around and occasionally harness. The latter is way more interesting, so I’m glad your vision prevailed, but at this point I think Cam is stuck with her supernatural disability forever. So we will see.
SHERWOOD: I’ve discovered that collaboration methods can vary as widely as single writer processes. What is your collaboration method for this series?
SHANNON: What I do is take the idea—the one that ambushed me—and run with it till I get stuck. Then I hand it over to Karen and she unsticks us.
KAREN: The process, as I see it, is that Shannon writes out a draft that’s usually about 25-30K words long. She sends it to me and I fuss with it and rewrite parts of it and add to it, then send it back. Each pass adds maybe 5K words until we hit a “done” length. I’ve only widely diverged from Shannon’s plot in one book, when she had Cam doing something that I thought was completely out of character. So I had to rework that part. But aside from that Shannon has always set up the major plot points in her drafts, except she really doesn’t do the ending. No ending. Never an ending.
SHANNON: It’s true. It’s the thing I love the most about collaboration: I’m terrible at endings. I have no idea where my stories are supposed to end up. Now, I could probably work on it and get better at this—but it’s so much easier, and so much more fun, just to find a collaborator who is good at endings. Well, good at plot, because that’s what this really means. Karen is being generous when she says I set up the major plot points. What I do is set up the problems, then turn to her and shrug.
KAREN: Okay, you’re right, Shannon. I do work on the plots, but sometimes I feel like more of a housekeeper. I worry over things like, is Cam too distractible? Is she forgetting what she’s supposed to be doing? Is she flustered over too many men? Have too many people died? How many people actually have died? Have the pets been fed? Have we mentioned the giant vegetables of late? I make sure her family is mentioned, things like that. We’ve developed this huge group of characters and I want them to have a throughline so that when they reappear, the reader hasn’t forgotten all about them. It’s sort of like keeping the pantry organized so you know what to cook.
SHERWOOD: One of the elements I particularly enjoyed was the addition of the theater group, which runs orthogonal to the masks people are wearing–and the secrets some hide. Was that a deliberate move in your planning, or was it serendipity?
KAREN: I’m surprised that you see the theater company as orthogonal to the plot, firstly because I had to look up the word “orthogonal”, and secondly because it implies a divergence. Is that what you meant? The actors have emerged as more a part of the action over the course of the books, but they were there at the inception. The theater company appears in the first conversation Lisa and Cam have. The actors have always been in the pantry.
SHANNON: I didn’t know really anything about where the theater company was going to end up in terms of the story—including turning out to be a huge part of the action in the final book—but it’s true, they were always an element there. But yes, the doubling of the themes of masks/secrets/playing roles/et cetera has just gotten richer as we’ve written. My husband says I’m far more clever than I know, that I put this kind of stuff into the beginnings of my stories because I doknow what I’m doing, I know what the ending is even if I’m not conscious of it—but then, he would say that. He’s my husband, after all.
SHERWOOD: I’ve heard as many Oh No! stories about collaborations as I’ve heard about successes. How do the two of you make your collaboration work?
KAREN: The collaboration works because neither of us has a bunch of ego about this project. We set aside our writerly vanity and let the other one write all over whatever we’ve written. We change stuff without asking, but we do ask about anything major–and occasionally one of us will go to bat for something, and it will stay in with minor or major revision. I find this remarkable, because I have PLENTY of ego about my other projects. I guess what I’m saying is that the ease of it surprises me. I can’t imagine collaborating like this with anyone else.
SHANNON: It’s true, the ego part. I have a lot of heart in these books—I can relate to Cam, and I initially got the idea because I wanted to write about Orcas Island, a place I fell in love with so hard that I eventually had to move here—but I am so not precious about the words. Really not precious at all. Karen and I don’t even use “track changes” when we send the manuscript back and forth. Because I do live here, I get real specific on the details of island life (including some real places and some places which are so “island” that they should be real); Karen is better at paying attention to character traits and details, as she mentioned.
KAREN: I’ve wanted to collaborate with Shannon since I read an early draft of the first Nightcraft Quartet book. I originally approached her about another collaborative project. My mother and father ran bed and breakfasts on Bainbridge Island for decades, and my mother wrote a suspense novel about an innkeeper before she died (Inn Sight, Elizabeth Berry). I approached Shannon about continuing that as a series because she and Mark had innkeeping experience. Shannon just lit up with the idea of a series, but she wanted it set on Orcas. And she had this cool idea about the chameleoning that she wanted to use. She wrote a first draft in about fifteen minutes and sent it to me and I loved it, so we ran with it. We sent a first draft to our first editor and he very politely let us know that our crime novel was missing the crime aspect.
SHANNON: Ha, that’s right, I forgot that part too. (Have I mentioned my terrible memory?) We got so caught up in the “cozy” part of our cozy mystery—the food, the flirtations, the jokes, the adorable weirdness of a small insular community—we forgot the “mystery” part.
KAREN: The goal of the books has always been fun. Just, the fun of collaboration with a beloved friend whose writing I admire, a fun story, a fun place. Orcas is an incredibly fun place to visit, and we wanted to tell a story that would take the reader around Orcas and share a lot of the landmarks.
SHANNON: And incidentally, the books are gratifyingly popular at the little bookstore on the island here. I’d like to take credit for being the kind of marketing genius who creates a book series set in a popular tourist location for mercenary reasons…but nope, I just love the island and wanted to share the love.
SHERWOOD: That is seriously cool about the island bookstore! Last question, any hints about the next book?
SHANNON: Well, it’s called Orcas Intermission, and the play that Cam has written is a major piece of the action. Beyond that, since we’re planning—hoping!—that it’s the last book in the series, we need to wrap up ALL the mysteries that we’ve introduced along the way. Wish us luck.
KAREN: Shannon wrote 50K words during NaNoWriMo and she won’t let me see them yet, so I’m as in the dark as you are, Sherwood. No, I’m kidding, I honestly do know the answers to all the Big Mysteries, because we’ve worked on those together. And since I sketched out the play for Shannon before she started, I’m excited to see what she did with those notes; it’s going to be hilarious. But for me, now, the biggest mystery is not what Lisa is or isn’t up to, or what nasty business Derek is involved in, or what motivated Sheila in the first book. It’s whether or not Cam finally goes to bed with someone. It seems to me, that’s been a long time coming.