05 September 2011

Interview: Phoenix Sullivan

Some of you may remember Phoenix from when I was writing my query (read: whining incessantly about having to write one). She helped me a great deal with formulating the one I'm using now for Duality. Also I've been vocal about how much she's helped me and I know I've recommended her blog on more than one occasion.

Believe it or not, Phoenix is also an incredibly talented writer. In celebration of her newest release, a near-future medical mystery/ecothriller, Sector C, I've asked Phoenix to join me for a little Q&A.

Here we go, Phoenix! I'm excited about having you on the blog :)

Thanks for inviting me over. I looove what you've done with the place.

1. So far you have two books--Spoil of War, an Arthurian saga, and SECTOR C, a near-future medical mystery/ecothriller--available on Amazon, as well as the Extinct anthology you edited. First of all, congrats on the release of SECTOR C ! Why don't you tell us a little bit about your experiences writing it?

Well, SECTOR C was a bit of departure for me since I don't generally write contemporary anything. Although maybe I get a bit of a pass on that because it's actually near-future -- set a dozen years out. The following is a bit spoilery, but I can't talk about the process without somewhat spoiling the mystery half of the book.

The idea for SECTOR C was implanted a few years ago during a conversation with my brother and sister-in-law about whether using in vitro fertilization and surrogate mothers to repopulate endangered animals was a good idea or not. Was there a way to make money with the technology without exploiting the animals? After that marinated for awhile and designer animals such as lygers and tigrons starting popping up more frequently, I began wondering about theories for rewilding extinct animals. The mammoth genome has been mapped, genetic material taken from mice frozen for 12 years has been successfully cloned, and Japanese researchers now say an embryo cloned from frozen mammoth DNA is no more than five years away. Exciting stuff! But cool ideas need a plot wrapped around them.

Thinking about why mammoths and other Ice Age beasties became extinct in the first place, I latched onto the idea of disease, which hasn't been ruled out as a possible cause. But most diseases are either caused by external factors, like viruses and bacteria, or are host-specific, like cancer and diabetes - things that aren't transmissible. I needed something that's not only a genetic disease, but one which is transmissible across species and capable of causing a pandemic. Luckily (well, luckily for the story anyway!), I found a candidate.

Then I needed a way for a private enterprise to make money off the animals it produced. I figured that out too.

There were a few things I swore early on I wasn't going to do. I really wanted to create as accurate and believable a scenario as I could. But you know what? Stuffed-shirt science is pretty yawn-inducing when it comes to storytelling. I said no romance. Before I knew it the main characters - Mike, a CDC analyst, and Donna, a veterinarian - were falling for each other. Not in the "hot dude/hotter gal, gotta get into his/her pants NOW" kind of way, but in a "two ordinary people get thrown together into extraordinary circumstances and have only themselves to rely on" kind of way.

I also assured myself the beasties safe in their compound certainly weren't going to escape. A lot of money goes into building enclosures meant to, you know, contain animals. But really, where's the fun in that?

One thing I didn't back down from and that was to take a very balanced look at some tough ethical questions around animals as property and science as the fallguy. I have some pretty strong opinions around hunting (anti), exploitation (anti) and science (pro), but I worked hard to present the opposing view in a positive light too. So hard that I think I almost convinced myself to rethink my own positions around some of the questions ;o).

2. How did you research the different topics? Are you a Googler or do you use books and articles to inform your books?

Count me a Googler and a Google Mapster. I relied heavily on satellite images of the area in North Dakota where most of the action takes place as well as pictures of ranchland for sale in the area. I researched the native flora and fauna. I have a short scene where one of my MCs doesn't want to hike through some tall grass because of chiggers. One of my beta readers asked if North Dakota even has chiggers and I was proud that I could immediately point to the research that shows it does. I confess I have never actually been to North Dakota but I pored over maps and images and data to be sure I got it as right as possible.

While documenting all the bits and pieces about size of dairy herds in the Great Plains, methods the CDC uses to collect patient data, and all the other pesky topics that I didn't know off the top of my head was time-intensive, researching the mechanics of the disease was the most brain-intensive. After all, I was positing something that doesn't exist today but that could plausibly have existed 10,000 years ago, be cloned in a collateral damage kind of way, and be transmitted across almost any species. I was determined to get the science right. And getting the science right also meant no easy answers and no vaccine-in-the-nick-of-time ending.

Luckily, I have a head for biology and physiology so making the connections and understanding the lingo wasn't as difficult as it could have been. Some of that research winds up on the page because, well, the first half of the book is a medical mystery. There are enough details, I hope, to satisfy the geeks and not so many that non-geek eyes glaze over. It's always a delicate balance -- one that even the likes of Michael Crichton, Robin Cook and Daniel Calla struggle with to varying degrees of success.

3. You decided to take the "non-traditional" route of self-publishing. What factors influenced your decision to do that? As an author, do you foresee a greater amount of writing self-pubbing in the future now that there's not such a stigma?

The decision wasn't entirely in my hands. Both Spoil of War and SECTOR C made the agent and (some) publisher rounds to a lot of positive feedback. Both garnered over a dozen requests for the full as well as revision letters. Spoil made it to the acquisition table twice. I had agents apologize (and not in that fake, form-letter "it's a subjective business and some other agent may feel differently" way but in that gut-wrenchingly personal way that makes you want to rip your heart out) for not taking SECTOR C on as they were sure it would get picked up. That reinforced the idea that I had good books. I'm lucky enough that ebooks had started taking off and the process to publish was pretty easy and streamlined. The real decision I was faced with was to put these books in the closet or up on Amazon. Had I not received as much positive feedback from industry professionals, I would likely have closeted them.

There are still a lot of quality issues that need to shake out in the self-publishing arena. I do believe there are too many people wholly unready either from a skill level or a business sense to be out competing just yet. We'll see more poor-quality books before we see a strong rise in quality ones, I think. The ease of self-publishing and the lack of consequences for doing it poorly promises that. What some folk don't get, though, is that the distributors enabling the self-publishers -- Amazon, BN, Apple, Kobo, etc -- are still tweaking their models. They aren't done yet. And when they are, the landscape and rules will likely be much different than they are today and will certainly favor the needs of the reader far more than the needs of the author.

Which isn't at all meant to imply that there isn't plenty of quality out there right now. As venues for traditionally published books keep downsizing, more new authors who would have been picked up in the past will be turned away. More midlist authors will be getting their rights reverted and putting up their backlists. And more established authors who perform only marginally well by industry standards -- though not by their own personal standards! -- will be let go. These are the folk we're already seeing good things from on the self-pubbing front.

Like with the decentralized music industry, it'll be harder for the artists to get noticed but the consumers will benefit by having plenty of quality books to choose from.

4. How do you approach marketing and promoting your books?

Mainly with a lot of trepidation. I actually have a marketing and advertising background (*insert ironic laugh here*). I'm still trying to get the hang of social media in a way I'm comfortable with using it. Haven't quite found that way yet. I still wind up falling back on the old broadcasting approaches -- here's my book; come buy it! -- and I feel like slime when I do it.

Specifically for SECTOR C, I'm starting its promo run by tying it in to the "Contagion" movie releasing this week. They both are standard pandemic stories at their core. Where I think SECTOR C is unique is in the transmission route and in involving animals in the outbreak. Not only do you have a lot of people dying in the story but a lot of pets and other animals too. And since one of the MCs is a veterinarian, I'm tapping into the audience who likes animals (oh, I so cried when I had to kill two animals in particular). Next out, I'll be approaching mystery/thriller/science fiction review sites open to reviewing ebooks. And hey, bloggers, I'm available ;o)

I pitch Spoil of War as being in the tradition of Mists of Avalon. In fact, Marion Zimmer Bradley, who wrote Mists, was my first editor many (ahem,many) years ago. Since Spoil is a bit gritty and has some unpleasant violent bits as well as political manipulation, I advertised it for awhile as being the withdrawal cure for HBO's Game of Thrones and Starz' Camelot.

5. What topics are you looking forward to tackling in the future?

This question actually relates somewhat to the previous one. I have several WIPs in various stages of completion, but the project I'm most excited about now is a planned series of ebooks that fondly -- and sometimes not so fondly! -- recall the years I spent as a veterinary technician. Rather than try to imitate the fabulous James Herriot and his series that started with All Creatures Great and Small (because NO ONE can come close to matching those books and I'll take on anyone who says they can!), mine will be a series of bite-sized essay-stories (Tales), each less than 2000 words long. These tales will ultimately tie together to tell not just a series of funny and heartwarming anecdotes about the various animals I worked with but about the vets and my coworkers, and will reveal some of the hard truths and tough decisions that sometimes surface even when you think you're in your dream job.

I'm actually posting the Vet Tech Tales series to my newish blog, Confessions of an Animal Junkie, with a new Tale out each Friday. Since I also have stories and pictures about my farm on Mondays and invite others to share their own stories on Wednesdays, it gives me a chance to connect with other animal lovers now before I have anything to actually peddle.

Speaking of, I can ALWAYS use guest posts! If you'd like to spotlight your best friend in story and pictures, email me at phoenixsullivan @ yahoo.com.

6. What have you learned from writing SECTOR C ?

That I'm at heart a plotter. I've pantster'd a few stories in the past, but SECTOR C has several small side stories and a lot of cutting between characters and scenes to keep it pace-y. I really had to keep very detailed notes about who was where and doing what at any given time. The great thing about that was that I felt I was always in control of the story even when I had to figure out how to weave a romance into it or figure out a plausible way for the beasties to do their escaping. In fact, I think having the story thoroughly laid out help drive me to the best decisions for my plot and characters.

Thanks for having me by, Cate! Everyone's welcome to stop by my Animal Junkie blog or my main blog where I talk about writing and publishing and where there's an archive of line-edited queries and synopses you can pore through. I'd love it if you'd "like" my new SECTOR C Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Sector-C-Medical-Mystery/150265391728555?sk=wall#!. And I'm @PhoenixSullivan on Twitter. (Forgive me in advance for sucking at social media.)

Thanks again for stopping by, Phoenix!!! Peeps, check out A Spoil of War here and SECTOR C here. And please stop over at Phoenix's blogs! The Animal Junkie blog just makes me happy and is full of beautiful, wonderful stories about the little four legged things that make our worlds go 'round. And like I've said NUMEROUS times, Phoenix's writing blog has helped me tremendously. Stop in and peruse her awesomeness.


Chrystalla Thoma said...

This is a great interview and what I have read make me want to read Sector-C all the more (but, sorry, Spoil of War has precedence!) Thanks for sharing all this information and background with us!

lexcade said...

Chrystalla, I LOVED Spoil of War (and still need to review it, *le sigh*). I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

Phoenix Sullivan said...

Thanks for asking me by, Lexcade! These are always fun!

Landra said...

Love the interview and Phoenix you are as articulate as ever! I mean that in the best of ways.

Spoil was indeed a favorite of mine also. But I'm anxious to sink into Sector C as soon as I finish up other reviews.

I tend to fall in Phoenix's boat with self promotion and marketing. I too work in the marketing field, but despise the social media posts and subsequent slime feeling. Regardless I think Phoenix does a very good job of promoting and not coming off as overbearing. Plus a good product will sell itself.

lexcade said...

@Phoenix, thanks for sharing your time with me! You're welcome back here any time :)

@Landra, I agree. Phoenix does will with her promotion. Word-of-mouth will help greatly too. One of the best ways to spread book love is by word-of-mouth. <3

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