Interview: May 28, 2010
Katie MacAlister is the author of numerous historical, contemporary and paranormal romance novels, including the Dark Ones and Aisling Gray, Guardian series, not to mention the newly released LOVE IN THE TIME OF DRAGONS, which revisits the people and places from her previous titles. In this interview with Bookreporter.com’s Kathy Weissman, MacAlister explains what prompted her to begin this new chapter in the lives of already familiar characters and gives insight into how she creates the humorous tone in her work. She also shares her thoughts on the mass appeal of supernatural beings in fiction, reflects on the industry’s tendency to unfairly stigmatize certain genres, and describes the positive response her work has received from fans.
Bookreporter.com: LOVE IN THE TIME OF DRAGONS initiates a new series. Since you already have written a whole bunch of dragon novels involving many of the same characters, why the impulse to begin another? What’s different about it?
Katie MacAlister: I absolutely love my dragon characters and can’t imagine saying, “OK, I’ve written eight of them, that’s enough, time to turn my attention to something else.” Their world fascinates me --- everything from their sometimes archaic laws, to the lore, to the odd little quirks that make them differ from mortal beings.
That said, I also can’t imagine writing an infinite number of books using the same narrator. The Aisling Grey books had a bigger story arc than some of the other dragon septs, mostly because she was introducing a complex world, and it took that long to work out all the fussy bits of her story, and lay the groundwork for subsequent stories. So when I found that I was coming to the conclusion of her story arc, but not the overall arc of the dragons, I decided that I would continue telling it from the point of view of the folks who had the most stake in what was happening. In that case, it was the silver dragons.
When I was in the middle of writing the Silver Dragon books, I realized that the storyline was going in a direction I hadn’t originally anticipated, and that once it was (mostly) wrapped up, I was going to have to continue the next chunk of the dragon story with a sept that didn’t really exist.
So the short answer to the question is that as the story is unfolded, I go with whatever narrator has the next part to play in the story.
BRC: Why do your “dragon” characters appear mostly in human form rather than with the usual reptilian features?
KM: Dragon form, while cool and powerful, is pretty awkward in today’s world, not to mention would attract a lot of unwanted attention. While the dragons don’t exactly hide who they are, they don’t mix a lot with the mortal world and prefer to keep a low profile there.
They learned long ago that human form was where it was at, at least so far as everyday activities are concerned. Besides, opposable thumbs rock.
BRC: Romance novels often have a more euphemistic take on sexual encounters than yours. Why did you decide to make your love scenes so hot? What do readers think?
KM: I don’t really think of my love scenes as overly hot (at least, not compared to some that I’ve read), but I do let the characters drive them. If I have a couple that is in a situation where their emotions and arousal are ramped up pretty high, then they will probably have a steamier scene than another couple who is in a more settled relationship.
I try to not stick to a set formula, but consider who the couple are, what their quirks are, what they like, what they don’t like, their physical setting or situation, and then unleash them. I also usually include a bit of humor in love scenes, since my personal feeling is that all those pointy bits and slippery parts can be amusing when viewed in the right light.
BRC: Motherhood (Tully and Brom) is a big theme in LOVE IN THE TIME OF DRAGONS. Why and how did you introduce that element?
KM: Originally, I gave Tully a son because I knew it would be a major source of conflict between her and Baltic, and I’m all about giving my characters hell before I let them be happy. But as I started writing Tully’s story, I realized that she was a very maternal person naturally, and that drive would manifest itself even in her modern form. I also felt that she had suffered a lot, and I wanted to give her an anchor.
What surprised me was Baltic’s reaction to the fact that his beloved Tully was a mother. I fully expected to be able to explore the conflict between the two of them, but to my surprise, Baltic recognized that this was something he couldn’t fight, and what he couldn’t fight he had to accept. So rather than the boy being a huge source of contention between them, he served to show depths to both Tully’s and Baltic’s characters.
BRC: Jim, the dog/demon, is possibly the most amusing character you have invented. Was it modeled on a real-life animal companion or person, or some amalgam thereof?
KM: While I was plotting YOU SLAY ME, the first book with Jim, I happened to have a conversation with my friend Christine Feehan. She told me a story about one of her daughters who had a big galoot of a Newfie, and I decided that making Jim a Newfie would be a (very subtle) tip of the hat to Christine, as well as perfectly embody the exact opposite of the standard image of a demon.
The Newfie form also worked well with Jim’s personality of a snarky, wise-cracking sidekick. Why he would choose a gigantic hairy dog as his form says a lot about his character, while providing poor Aisling with much to endure. Jim wasn’t based on anyone in particular --- he was basically a counterpoint to Aisling, a responsibility that she actually grew to love, even when he drove her crazy.
BRC: You have also written novels featuring vampires. Do you have a theory about why writers (and readers) are attracted to supernatural beings? Why are you?
KM: I think it’s the sense of the forbidden, the dangerous, and the love in most readers for bad boys who are in serious need of redemption. There’s also the other world aspect of it, where anything is possible, and even the most ordinary person or object can turn out to be something different. A story about Bob, the clerk at a local grocery store, might be somewhat mundane, but what if Bob is really a shape shifter who uses his day job as a cover for exposing a nefarious group of shape shifter-hating grocers? For me, it’s the ability to immerse myself in a world that is much different from real life, from the mysterious, dangerous hero to the laws that govern his world.
Vampires in romances are traditionally dark, tortured individuals who quite obviously just need someone to love them, and that totally sucks the reader in me into the story. I don’t know if I’d feel the same way about a vampire who was completely happy, well-adjusted, and worked as a commodities broker. But put him on the fringes of society, give him enough angst to choke a horse, a dangerous mission or two, and I’m ready to do whatever it takes to make him happy.
BRC: You mix genres very skillfully, yet there is undoubtedly a tendency in the publishing world to ghettoize novels that are labeled “romance” or “supernatural.” How do you fight this, or do you?
KM: I generally take a laid-back attitude about that sort of thing, largely because there’s not a lot I can do to change the publishing industry, but mostly simply because I write books that make me happy. So long as my publisher and readers are happy with them, then I’m happy as well.
There will always be people who turn up their noses at romances, mostly because they have a misconception of what they are, or feel they’re nothing more than brain candy.
Well, that’s exactly why I write --- to entertain people. I don’t have deep, involved messages in my books. I don’t try to change people’s minds about subjects such as religion or politics, or even things like equality of the sexes. I do feel strongly about empowering women, but I do that by writing heroines who refuse to be victims, value themselves, and don’t really need a man to get by --- but when they find the one person with whom they want to spend their respective lives, they recognize that fact and do what it takes to make the relationship a reality.
There are also people who scoff at paranormals, but again, I don’t spend much time worrying about it. My books are intended to entertain readers, to make them laugh, to let them enjoy the thrill of watching a couple fall in love, and to explore a world that is a bit different from the one we live in. There’s not much I can do about the people, industry members or otherwise, who aren’t interested in those sorts of books.
BRC: Humor is a welcome aspect of your work, especially when so much fantasy is deadly serious and self-important. Sometimes you even verge on satire, as when Tully caters the ritualistic dragon sárkány, or when Baltic says, “I am the dread wyvern Baltic” and Tully responds, “You are the annoying wyvern Baltic.” Can you comment on your choice of tone?
KM: I’ve always had what I refer to as a warped sense of humor, and it tends to come forth most in scenes that I feel would normally be written in much seriousness. Usually, the more pompous and arrogant a character is, the more humor I throw at him. So when characters like Baltic get full of themselves, I just have to pop their egos. The same applies for situations that I know might tend to get a bit dark and intense --- I like to balance those emotionally intense moments with lighter ones, so as to give readers a break, and remind them that a sense of humor is an important trait, even in times of great stress.
BRC: Baltic is obviously a romantic hero --- masterful and gorgeous and all that --- but Tully manages to push him around quite a bit. Is this feminist element a sly way of reversing the usual strong-man/princessy-girl business in traditional fantasy?
KM: It has more to do with their past and the power of love than any feministic intentions, although I’m not adverse to the latter at all. In the previous books, all the readers saw was a villainous Baltic, one who was ruthless and didn’t give a damn about anyone. When it came time to tell his story, I wanted to bring forth the fact that he has suffered tremendously during his second lifetime, suffered almost beyond comprehension.
Because of that, he understands just how vital Ysolde is to his life, and he’s not going to risk losing her again. Everything he does is tempered by his love for her, period. So although Tully is strong in her own right, the pair of them aren’t really doing a role reversal...at least, I don’t see it as that.
BRC: There is an almost cultish enthusiasm for your work, as evinced by your website, dragonsepts.com. Did this loyal fan base happen almost immediately, or did it build over time? How does it support or inspire your writing?
KM: I think it started shortly after YOU SLAY ME was published, when I received the first letter that said, “OMIGOD, I love Drake!” I was a bit amazed at that, because Drake was very much an anti-hero. Although I liked his character a lot, I was taken aback that people absolutely loved him despite his (obvious) flaws.
When the second Aisling book came out and I started getting hundreds of emails a month asking if I was going to give Aisling and Drake a happy ending, I knew that something different was happening. I’d seen my fair share of letters asking for various characters in the vamp books to make a reappearance, but nothing like the copious demands for more Aisling and Drake, and more importantly, their happily ever after. They also wanted a whole lot of information regarding the dragons themselves.
Clearly, readers wanted to immerse themselves in the dragon world, but unlike more familiar vampire lore, didn’t really have enough information to do so. So I started up the dragonsepts site, and I created honorary memberships in the dragon septs. The response to both absolutely blew me away --- I figured that making people have to go to the trouble of sending me a SASE for membership would limit the response, but I’ve had thousands of letters asking for membership in the various Otherworld organizations, including the dragon septs.
The reader support has been phenomenal as well; usually people just want to say how much they like one character or another, but their support is what keeps me writing on those days when I’d rather be slacking off. They also buoy me up whenever I run across less pleasant opinions about my books, and sometimes, they touch me with stories of how much a particular book has helped them over a rough time.
All of that gets mixed up and smooshed around, and ultimately, put into my writing. I know that every author is grateful to readers, but I really do feel blessed with mine in that they all share my wacky sense of humor and love for a really smokin’ hero.
BRC: Did you like fantasy as a kid? What were your favorite “alternate” worlds?
KM: I was (and still am) a huge Lewis Carroll fan as a child. I think it was the fact that not only did he write really out-of-the-ordinary things, but he made up words as well. I remember being utterly flabbergasted that you could do that and immediately started making up my own portmanteau words.
I didn’t read a whole lot of science fiction or traditional fantasy as a kid, though. I had a passion for my mother’s old blue tweed Nancy Drew books, which led me to be a dedicated mystery reader. In later years, I tended to gravitate to books that ranged from some fantasy elements, like William Marshall’s Yellowthread Street mystery series, to more straight-down-the-line fantasies like Barry Hughart’s Master Li trio.
BRC: What are your main literary influences, both in the sci-fi/fantasy realm and in regular fiction (or nonfiction, for that matter)?
KM: I have a pretty eclectic reading taste, so it’s hard to pinpoint specific literary influences. As I mentioned, Lewis Carroll did a lot to open my literary eyes. It was his ability to manipulate words that led me to believe that English, as a language, is fluid, and I could make up words if they suited the situation.
I was also a huge Agatha Christie fan as a child, and that fueled not only my love of mysteries, but also of my appreciation of writers who are masters of misdirection.
Although I read some fiction, usually not in the area I write, I almost always have a stack of nonfiction books lying around the house. I absolutely love research, and I will quite happily dive into a book on medieval fortifications for one simple scene in a book. Right now, my research stack includes a book on interpreting rune stones, a sourcebook of Medieval culture and society, a book on root magic, one about the history of Paris in the Middle Ages, and a Latin grammar.
BRC: What’s next for you? Do you usually have several writing projects going simultaneously?
KM: I can’t write more than one book at a time, although sometimes I have to stop writing the work in progress to come up with a plot outline for a book that I’ll be writing next. Right now I’m working on the second light dragon book; after that will be another vampire book. Beyond that is a bit hazy; my editor and I are just about to plan my publishing schedule for the next few years, but it’s safe to say that the future will hold more paranormals for me, and hopefully a few other types of books just to keep things lively.
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