Let’s start with the basics. Who are you?
Tell us (briefly) about you…
…and a bit about what you’ve written…
…and what you’re working on right now.
I’m Elizabeth Donald, and I write stuff. By day I write for a daily newspaper on a variety of topics ranging from education to politics to crime. By night I write about monsters and zombies and things that go chomp in the night. I started writing fiction for publication a few years into my journalism career, though my fiction habit really dates all the way back to childhood. My first novel was published in 2004, and I’ve since written maybe 13 novels and novellas, depending on how you count the ebooks.
Right this moment, I’m working on a short story for an anthology about tragic love in speculative fiction. I’ve recently finished a collection of short stories titled Moonlight Sonata that I hope will see print next year, and waiting in the wings is a space adventure titled Banshee’s Run. I also have a few projects waiting in the editing queue and preparing to take my photography work to the next level. Other than that, I’m not too busy.
What are your earliest book-related memories?
My mother replaced the Berenstain Bears with Nancy Drew when I was a young girl, and Nancy led me into what we would have called “young adult” fiction if that term had existed. I started falling into historical drama and mysteries as a ‘tween, but then Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered and I was a science fiction fan for life.
What are your three favorite books?
You’ve just broken me. My favorite novel is probably IT by Stephen King, whose entire bibliography ranks among my top re-reads in my ridiculous library. Peter David’s Imzadi is one of the best tie-in novels I’ve ever read, and for more recent work, I’m desperately in love with the Newsflesh series by Mira Grant, particularly the first novel, Feed.
How many books to do you read at any given time? What are you reading now?
I used to devour a book a night – up to three nights if it was a real epic, like The Stand or Gone With the Wind. Then I had a child, and I discovered the desperation of sleep deprivation. I usually read one fiction and one nonfiction book simultaneously, since they use different parts of my brain, but then I also read a copious number of blogs, articles and assorted nonsense for work. Currently I’m reading The Day She Died by Bill Garrison, and just finished Book of Shadows by Alexandra Sokoloff. In nonfiction, I have a stack of books on the influenza epidemic of 1918 – research for future misbehavior.
Finish this sentence; when I curl up with a book, I ___
…want to fall through the hole in the paper.
To re-read or not to re-read, that is the question.
I love re-reading. It’s territory I’ve scouted before, but if the writing is strong enough, you can fall through again and be transported to a place you really enjoyed visiting. I have this wild idea to reread Stephen King’s entire bibliography in the order he wrote them, and see what I can learn from the evolution Master of Horror. All I need is an extra three hours in the day.
How likely are you to read a book that’s been recommended to you?
Very likely, if it’s a premise that intrigues me. I have certain authors that are an auto-buy for me, of course: Jonathan Maberry, Mira Grant/Seanan McGuire, Gillian Flynn, Joe Hill, Julia Spencer-Fleming and of course the big names like Stephen King and Harlan Ellison – John Grisham if he’s in familiar territory, the courtroom. All of them have demonstrated the ability to send me through the hole in the paper, and that’s what I’m really after. If someone I trust recommends a book, I’ll give it a try, which is probably why my to-be-read pile is so high.
How likely are you to recommend a book (that isn’t yours)?
I recommend books all the time, and try to keep up with reviews. I used to write a review column for the newspaper, and when it was canceled, I launched it as an independent blog. Unfortunately, time constraints mean I don’t post all that often, but I know the importance of good reviews for a book, and try to do so.
What do you look for in a good book?
Story and dialogue are key; if I’m not interested in the events unfolding or the people are speaking in voices I can’t really hear, I’m bored. Bored means I’m falling asleep, and I don’t get enough sleep anyway. So keep me awake with smart people and crackling dialogue, then give them something interesting to do. I don’t want extensive descriptions of his smoldering eyes and her lovely gown, and for some people that’s the kind of thing they really want. To each his or her own, as in anything this subjective.
Why do you write?
I write because the voices in my head told me to. I write because it’s what I was made to do, how my mind was constructed. I write horror because the things I see in the real world are so much more awful and yet mundane that I’d rather see something fantastic and terrible. It’s cheaper than therapy. But I have been writing ever since I could pick up a pencil, and probably before, making up stories in my head to entertain myself when I’m bored and telling stories to my little sister at night to help her sleep. You might as well ask why I breathe.
If you couldn’t be a writer, what would you be?
I can’t imagine a circumstance where I wouldn’t write. If I lost my job and my publishing career, I’d write my novels and bury them in a trunk for someone to uncover someday. If I were stranded on a desert island, I’d make up the stories in my head and sing them to the canaries. If I suffered an injury or illness that robbed me of my mind and my ability to create, to form words… well, I think then I’d rather be dead, but that’s rather dramatic, don’t you think?
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
Schenectady. There’s an idea service there that sends you a six-pack of ideas every week. That smartass answer is to be attributed to Harlan Ellison, who uses that answer every time he’s asked where his ideas come from. As he says, “Aristotle can’t answer that question.” They come from the ether, from Neverland, from the place between awake and asleep. I believe that just about everyone gets inspiration – those random creative thought-balloons that float through their minds when they’re stuck in traffic. The trick isn’t getting ideas. The trick is grabbing hold of them when they come, winding the ribbons around your hand and letting them carry you off to Neverland. When you learn how to harness ideas and turn them into stories you can share with others, you’ve become a writer.
What has writing taught you about yourself?
That I will never stop learning, and that I cannot ever do just one thing at a time.
How do the people in your life seem to view your writing career?
My husband is also a writer; we met first through a mutual friend twelve years ago, and later re-met when he published his first book and began the tour circuit. It is a wonderful blessing to share my life with someone who understands the insanity. My son is wholly unimpressed, since he’s grown up hanging out at book signings and helping to carry boxes of books. I think the rest of my family is waiting for me to set aside these vampires and zombies and write something in the real world!
Are there any stereotypes about writers that you don’t think are true?
No. We’re all poverty-stricken, insecure drunkards. Well, at least it helps… In all seriousness, just about every stereotype has a writer or five who confirm the stereotype. Probably the only real misconception is the one perpetuated by Richard Castle: being a novelist means you’re a gazillionaire. Unless you’re James Patterson or John Grisham, you’ll be lucky to make a living. And when I say “make a living,” well… the last statistic I read said that fewer than 3 percent of authors make $10,000 a year or more on their books. So “poverty-stricken” is pretty much assured, as is the day job and/or the spouse who works for a living and has health insurance. As for insecurity and alcohol… let’s just say I’ve poured drinks for most of the small-press authors in the Midwest and the South.
What do you see as the biggest challenge today for writers starting out?
Their biggest challenge is internal: impatience. The ability to toss a book out onto the internet the instant you type THE END has given a lot of aspiring writers a fast-forward button, and the temptation to skip all that bothersome editing, submission and working with a publisher is very real. The problem is that most aspiring writers have a lot to learn, and they learn a great deal from that process, including rejection and wrestling with a recalcitrant editor over a comma. Skipping that process is the biggest mistake they can make, and so many of them do. Patience, grasshopper. Good writing eventually finds a home, and at the end of the marathon, it’s going to be a book you’ll be proud to call your own and a launch to a writing career.
Have you made any writing mistakes that seem obvious in retrospect but weren’t at the time?
If I’d known how wildly popular my zombie novella The Cold Ones would be, I wouldn’t have killed off so many characters! I’m famous for offing people in my books – c’mon, I’m a horror writer – but I did get especially bloodthirsty in The Cold Ones, because it was supposed to be a standalone novella. Then it sold out its initial print run in 48 hours, and by the end of the weekend I had a deal for two sequels. But even that I can’t really count as a mistake, because I count Blackfire (the sequel) as one of the finest books I’ve ever written, and I’m really looking forward to completing that trilogy.
Is there a particular project you would love to be involved with?
I’m already up to my eyeballs in work as it is! I’m wrapping a space adventure that’s probably the pulpiest thing I’ve ever done, and just completed another short-story collection that follows up to my first print release, Setting Suns. After that I need to finish the Blackfire series, and then there’s the continuation of the Nocturne series, and there are three other standalone novels standing in line. I don’t need new projects, I need more hours in the day.
How do you deal with your fan base?
Fans are wonderful! I am always grateful and humbled when someone tells me that my work reached them. Stephen King says in On Writing that writing is the closest we’ll ever come to telepathy: I have an image or a character in my head, and I have only this clumsy mechanism of words to share it with you. The better I am at replicating that image in your head, the better writer I have become. So when someone tells me that my work made them cry or throw the book across the room, I’m delighted.
Finish this sentence; my fans would be surprised to know ___ about me.
I’m shy. Yes, really. I was a very shy kid, and I still have that wallflower tendency. I speak in public often and spend a great deal of time in large crowds, cocktail parties, panel discussions, and it takes a tremendous energy to overcome a natural introversion that tells me to go hide in my hotel room. But this is key: it can be overcome. It takes energy and knowing your limits. But if the girl who didn’t speak outside the house for days at a stretch can moderate a panel at Dragoncon… you can do it too. I swear.
Anything else we should know?
I run the author cooperative Literary Underworld, and several of us will be guests at Archon in St. Louis on Oct. 2-4. Guest of honor is Harlan Ellison, whom I have met once before. I hope to repeat my streak of not drooling on his shoes. If you have the means, do stop by the Literary Underworld booth and say hello!
Elizabeth Donald is a dark fiction writer fond of things that go chomp in the night. She is a three-time winner of the Darrell Award for speculative fiction and author of the Nocturne vampire mystery series and Blackfire zombie series, as well as other novels and short stories in the horror, science fiction and fantasy genres. She is the founder of the Literary Underworld author cooperative; an award-winning newspaper reporter and lecturer on journalism ethics; a nature and art photographer; freelance editor and writing coach. She lives with her husband and her son in a haunted house in Illinois. In her spare time, she has no spare time. Her latest release is Nocturne Infernum, a trilogy of vampire mysteries set in a dark alternate Memphis.