Today’s victim in the hot seat is Hayden Thorne, writer of young adult fiction, specializing in historical, folk, and gothic themes though modern fantasy themes finds their way into some of her stories, too. Her debut with Prizm Books includes three novels, all aimed at gay teens (and everyone else, for that matter) who enjoy historical fiction as well as contemporary fantasy.
Welcome to our interview spot, Hayden. How long have you been writing? What made you begin?
I was in a writing club for a couple of years in grade school, and we did mostly stuff for the school newsletter. I didn’t write fiction till I was a graduate student at Cal State Hayward. I wish I could give you a clearer account of what, exactly, made me go for fiction. It’s one of those weird, dreamlike sequences that just happen. Something just clicks, an epiphany takes place, and you simply go with the flow.
In short, I was watching the animated movie, The Nutcracker Prince, and decided that the ending was a bit…meh. So I decided to write an “alternate” ending that was – wait for it – all tears and heartbreak and swoony romance till the deus ex machina moment when Hans and Clara were finally reunited.
I’d go over my first attempts at writing fanfiction for Sailor Moon involving a terrible, terrible Mary Sue character, but I think it’s best to quit while I’m ahead. My first attempt at writing GLBT fiction was after I saw the BBC presentation of Clarissa, and heaven help me, I got inspired to attempt my own sentimental epistolary novel, this time involving a young man who moves in with his richer relations, and, Clarissa-like, is seduced by the Byronic friend of his cousin. I never finished it, thank God. Then I was introduced to fandoms and fanfiction, and it all snowballed from there.
Describe something great and something not so great that has happened to you in the writing career to date.
The great thing was seeing my novels published to help launch a new GLBT YA imprint of an e-publisher. I’d had a few (read: about four) short stories published under their adult fiction imprint as well as half a dozen others picked up elsewhere. However, I found that I wasn’t very comfortable writing adult romances or sensual romances, so my submissions stopped, and I couldn’t sell another short story to other publishers if my life depended on it. Receiving an email from Prizm, though, asking me if I were interested in submitting a YA novel to help launch their new imprint, was a godsend. It came at a time when I was really down about my writing and was wondering if I should just quit altogether. As it turned out, I was writing in the wrong genre all that time.
The not-so-great moments? Oh, dear. Let me say that my expectations regarding networking were sadly newbie-ish. People don’t cross over easily, depending on the genre, or at least it seems to be easier for YA readers to cross over to adult fiction than it is for adult fiction readers to cross over to YA. To what extent common misconceptions about YA have anything to do with some people’s dismissal, I can’t say. Even within the YA community as well as the GLBT YA community, genre GLBT YA fiction is still a tiny, ghettoized niche. If I want to see this market expand, I need to work doubly hard to get attention for my books. M/M fiction, at least, enjoys the benefit of slash fans moving on to published works for reading material. There’s a ready audience, and there’s a wealth of published stories in different formats to attract more readers with. I’ve only got three mainstream books that I can claim for my corner of the fiction market: Perry Moore’s Hero (superhero fantasy), Steve Berman’s Vintage (ghost fiction), and David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy (romantic fantasy). Prizm Books, bless ’em, encourages genre submissions, but being a small indie outfit, they get lost in the big, bad world of book sales, with larger publishers enjoying greater marketing clout.
Do you have any particular writing routine? What about superstitions?
My writing days are usually Mondays and Fridays. In between them, I kick back and read. As far as my routine goes, I’ve become a devotee of Write or Die, which I use to freewrite each new chapter. I do this the night before my main writing day. I save the gibberish I manage to spew out in an hour, then open the file the next day, and sift through the drunken jumble of words, which I transfer to my WIP and then spend the rest of the time expanding and polishing everything into a brand spankin’ new chapter. I find that approach very, very helpful in forcing me to ignore my inner editor, which I blame largely for my recent string of false starts and blocks. Freewriting also raises all sorts of new plot directions that I’ve never considered before, and so far it’s done my story a world of good, turning a pretty straightforward narrative into something more complicated.
I go crazy if I don’t write an average of two chapters a week, but that’s not superstition. It’s fact. Just ask my husband.
You’ve often blogged about being unsure about which particular genre you’d like to write – are you still undecided? Do you think it’s necessary to stick to one genre? If so, why?
I’ve wibbled over that for a while, yeah. I read articles and blog posts regarding authors’ brands, i.e., that authors need to settle into one genre in order to make it easier for the publisher to market the books as well as to help define audience expectations.
To be honest with you, I chafe at being limited to one genre (or, rather, subgenre). Creatively, alternating between contemporary fantasy and historical fiction really helps keep me on my toes. I don’t feel burned out, and I’m always fresh with new ideas whenever I switch back and forth. However, I also understand the need for an author’s brand. If I want to find a larger publisher through whom I can release my future books, I do need to play by their rules. Right now, being published by a small indie press allows me more freedom, but down the road, I certainly would like to see my books picked up by a mainstream press.
In the end, I’ve decided to pursue historical fantasy. It’s a good compromise for me, melding two genres I enjoy writing, and it also allows me wider berth when it comes to addressing issues pertinent to young readers, while also offering some crossover appeal to adult readers. I’m not done with superheroes, though, and I will write sequels to my trilogy when I get inspired. Those books will be submitted to Prizm since my superhero series is contracted with them.
What’s your publishing history?
I wrote short stories, mostly romance (some erotic), under another pseudonym, and they were published by Harrington Gay Men’s Literary Quarterly and Atria, among others. That lasted less than two years. Unfortunately, burnout came hard and fast. I was contacted by Prizm in the late spring, I think, of 2007. They contracted three books with me, (Masks:Rise of Heroes, Banshee and Icarus in Flight) in addition to the second and third books of my superhero trilogy. Masks: Evolution, the second book, was released on Christmas Eve, and Masks: Ordinary Champions, the third book, is set to be released in the spring of 2009.
Which of your story characters do you like best and why?
I enjoyed writing those characters that challenge me or catch me by surprise in some way or other without driving me crazy. Most of them ended up more complex than what I first planned, and it was because their stories demanded that I let loose and allow the characters to “guide” the writing. I ended up taking so many different directions with them, which all turned out well in the end.
My ultimate favorite is Eric Plath, the 16-year-old hero of my Masks trilogy. Since the entire series is told from his POV, thinking like a teenager proved to be a pretty fun experience (not to mention cathartic). Frederick Wakeman, Nathaniel’s father in Banshee is another character I enjoyed writing. His story resonated with me, and while I first wrote him out to be a bully of a father, his character resisted the mold, and he ended up being a somewhat tragic figure. I’d go on and on about other characters, but there isn’t enough time. You’re certainly free to wander off to my blog and check out my ongoing “alphabiography” on my books, in which I discuss, in quite a bit of detail, my current published works, including my favorite and least favorite characters.
Who inspires you?
Fringe artists (writers, musicians, etc.) inspire me the most. Anyone who believes in his vision so strongly and who’s passionate enough to go against the grain and continue to hold his ground despite small sales, little exposure, or outright condescension and dismissal from the mainstream or status quo. I admire their guts and their grit, and I always wish I had the balls when it comes to my own challenges in publishing and marketing. There’s quite a bit of negativity toward small publishers as well as YA fiction coming from many writers, agents, and reviewers. It’s pretty frustrating functioning in that environment for anyone who hopes to see his or her writing career move forward and up. Maybe I’m biased because I live in the Bay Area and work in Berkeley, which is a haven for fringe culture. At any rate, I tend to look to them when my confidence wavers, which tends to be fairly often.
You are writing a series of books, your Masks trilogy – Are you nervous over reader reaction for the sequel to Masks Evolution?
It hasn’t come to that yet, but I’m sure it will soon, especially when the books get posted at larger online bookstores. I certainly hope that they enjoy reading the series as much as I enjoyed writing it.
How much does reader response mean to you over your books? What do you hope readers get from your books after they read them?
My books are my babies, so reader response is pretty important to me. On the whole, I find that I can weather criticism pretty well (then again, I braced for it even before my books were released, so I guess I was mentally prepared). I try to take into account any objections alongside praise, so I can work on my weaknesses next time around. I’m sort of in the unique position of having three different books published simultaneously, so it’s been a pretty interesting (not to mention surprising) experience seeing which book sells well, which receives more good reviews, which appears to be better received among a certain group of readers, etc.
On the whole, I write to escape, and I hope that readers find themselves completely transported for a while when they read any of my books. I like writing in shades of gray, in a manner of speaking. I want readers – especially young readers – to see that nothing’s ever black and white. Good intentions fail, and innocents suffer for it. Even villains turn out that way because of parents’ misguided ambitions, or they suffer from plain bad luck, like Katherine Ellsworth in Icarus in Flight.
How long does it take to write a book for you?
It really depends. Romance is a genre that I tend to have a very difficult time writing, so it took me about a year, maybe a little more, to finish Icarus in Flight. The end result was around 120,000 words that I ended up cutting down to 75,000 to meet the publisher’s length requirements. I was high on inspiration when I began Masks, so the first book in that trilogy took me about a month and a half of non-stop writing, though the editing bit tripled the time. Banshee was more of the slow-and-steady project for me, and that took at least a couple of months to write. I’m trying to remind myself not to rush through any given project now, so I’m taking my time with my WIP, though from the looks of things, I can see it done by the end of January. This one is taking me roughly four months to write, which is a good pace for me.
Do you outline, or just make it up as you go?
I always start off with a very general outline of a new story. I’ve learned early on not to depend too much on it, though, and my ongoing use of Write or Die has taught me to just let go and trust what comes out when the inner editor is temporarily shut off. On the whole, I try to stick to the outline, no matter what happens throughout the story. As long as the characters reach Point B from Point A, everything else in between is fair game.
How do you research? As you go, or doing it all before you start?
I tend to research as I go, but I got into historical fiction with a basic knowledge of 19th century English culture, etc. The day-to-day details kill me all the time, and I always end up spending way more time researching on, say, a certain rug pattern common in Victorian households, when all I need is a quick reference to it in one sentence. It’s insane. Historical fiction writers are born masochists with our own personal floggers hot glued to our clammy hands.
Are you in control of your characters or do they control you?
It’s half and half, by and large. Those characters I pretty much “know” right off the bat tend to keep within the lines I draw for them. Those who start off pretty vaguely shaped in my head usually “rebel” or evolve till I’m forced to go back and revise earlier scenes to accommodate the changes they need. I certainly know better than to ignore them or fight back, though.
Can you tell us anything surprising you’ve found in your researches?
When I first found out about it a long time ago, I got pretty depressed. It was about how clothes among Victorians were passed down and recycled from rich to poor till the clothes literally fell apart on someone’s body after so many alterations and uses. By the time the poor got their hands on them, they were in tatters. It depressed me in the sense that it said so much about people’s circumstances back then, from the desperate wish for respectability to plain, brain-numbing poverty.
What particular challenges do you find writing GLBT YA Historicals?
Finding more information about Victorian teenagers other than school and hard work, depending on social class. Even then, whatever information I can find regarding teens in schools is pretty limited to curricula and what comes after, i.e., university. Nothing about behavior or expectations or anything that can give me a good idea of how teens lived back then. Even the non-fiction books I have barely have anything to say about Victorian children and absolutely nothing about Victorian teens. Maybe this is part of the reason why most teen historical romance fiction tends to focus on the upper-class. The idle rich are easier to keep track of, and they feed us all sorts of romantic fantasies about their lifestyles. These YA books pretty much mirror their adult historical romance counterparts, especially if you’re looking at non-GLBT Regency romances. Not that I blame them. If that were one of the reasons for the skewed preferences toward the rich, I can see why. I’ve been tearing my hair out looking for simple, basic information for teenage middle-class characters and keep coming up short.
What I know about anything relating to day-to-day life of Victorian teens comes from schoolboy fiction published during that century. Even then, I’m quite aware that much of what I read has been embellished by the authors, so I can’t even rely on them for purely factual stuff.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about YA fiction?
That it is, by and large, dumbed-down, teenybopper EMOlit. Just like all other genres, YA is represented by a wide range of books, many bad, many good. Some fit the EMOlit description I gave, but many don’t. There are a number of crossover titles (think Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman, Peter Cameron, Cory Doctorow, among others) that appeal to both adult and young readers. Recent articles posted at different online publications illustrate those misconceptions pretty clearly: I’m YA, and I’m OK, What Girls Want, and Book Bench Reads. I read an article written by a sci-fi fan months ago in which she talks about how she despises YA and that it should never be a part of the Sci-Fi market. I’d try to go and look it up, but I’ve already taken too many heart pills.
Tell us why you are passionate about GLBT YA fiction.
I can only lead you to a great article that Cory Doctorow wrote some months ago regarding YA and science fiction. That article accurately sums up why I love writing YA fiction: Nature’s Daredevils: Writing for Young Audiences. The gay angle comes from my very unpleasant (and much-needed) kick up the pants with regard to GLBT issues: Matthew Shepherd’s murder. The more I read up on hate crimes against members of the GLBT community, the more I also learned about teenagers and their experiences in school or with their families. I recently enjoyed a very nice chat with an editor of an online gay publication, and he’s very passionate about homeless/runaway queer teens. He showed me links to one local place he supports and even organizes charity shows to raise money for shelter. It was eye-opening and plain gut-wrenching.
Because I’m straight, I honestly don’t consider myself the best person to write coming-out stories for queer teens. Considering how vulnerable these young folks are, coming to terms with their identities during a pretty crazy period of their lives, I can’t write about something I’ve never experienced before. The issues are too delicate and too important for me to try to handle. I leave it to better-qualified writers, i.e., queer writers who’ve been there before and can share their stories with the next generation, to offer these kids the kind of wisdom that I don’t have.
I’m the outsider looking in. The best thing I can offer them is an escape, writing stories with characters who’re their age and who are also gay, fighting costumed bad guys or falling in love in victorian England or being haunted by a ghost in the Isle of Wight. They might not offer kids struggling with the fear of rejection or homophobia the comfort they need or the answers to their questions, but my stories, hopefully, give them a chance to forget about their problems for a little while.
What are you working on now? What plans do you have after that?
I’m currently working on a new novel (currently titled The Twilight Gods but may change to Penelope’s Web), which is a historical fantasy. It’s a reinterpretation of a Native American folktale called “The Girl Who Married a Ghost”, which I set in Victorian England during the Great Exhibition. It started out as a novelette, with my focus being nothing more than the main character falling in love with a shadow-person type, which was a different angle to take with regard to his coming to terms with his homosexuality. The novel version is more complicated than that, and I decided to make use of the current debate about gay marriage to help shape the plot.
Another book that I’m working on – or, rather, it’s been set aside for the time being – is called Minstrel, which is set in 19th century Germany during Christmas. It’s currently the proverbial albatross around my neck as I’ve had so many problems with it since the get-go, but I just need to go back and rethink things and then see where that takes me.
I’ve got a rough outline for a novel that’s set in the Spanish-colonized Philippines, and it takes place during the last days of Jose Rizal, the country’s national hero. I’m not sure when I’ll be working on it, but it’s at least crudely laid out in my journal.
I’m no longer writing short stories, and I’m definitely hoping to submit my WIP, once it’s nice and ready, to agents for represenation.
Can you please give us a sneak peek at any of your upcoming books?
My most recent release, Masks: Evolution, is currently listed only at the publisher’s site, and it should be available elsewhere in a few weeks (hopefully!). More information can be found here. The third book of my trilogy, Masks: Ordinary Champions, is set for a spring release.
What five books would you have to have with you on a desert island?
Oscar Wilde: Complete Short Fiction, Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories by M.R. James, Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman, Shamela by Henry Fielding, and The Carnivorous Lamb by Augustin Gomez-Arcos.
If there was one thing you could tell the publishing industry and have them take notice, what would it be?
Am I cheating if I lift something straight from one of my posts?
If big, mainstream publishers of GLBT young adult fiction would recognize this – the fact that a queer kid’s experiences or identity-shaping can go well beyond modern high school borders – then we’ll see this minority group better represented in genres outside contemporary realistic fiction. Homophobia, bullying, rejection, first love, first sexual experiences, peer acceptance, etc. – these can be just as easily and effectively explored in a fantasy world or a space colony or a pirate ship or Bath in Georgian England.
Adjust the rules and the parameters accordingly as dictated by each specific genre, of course. A gay teen in Victorian England will have less freedom than, say, a gay teen in the Kingdom of Ballantyria (unless the fantasy writer decides to make Ballantyria a police state of some kind, but by and large, he’s still got much more elbow room to dictate rules compared to us historical fiction writers, who have to adhere to facts). But in the end, the reading experience can be just as amazing and rewarding as finding oneself in a lonely teenager’s high school ordeals.
Where can the readers find out more about you?
I’ll be gorging on chocolate over here: http://www.haydenthorne.net/
Thanks, Hayden. Your blog is unmissable, as far as I’m concerned.