Part three of my interview with Barbara

Today is part three of my interview with Barbara Friend Ish and we’re discussing the future and some books. Part one of this interview is here and part two is here.

Amy: Barbara and I discussed this first question a bit in this post, which actually led to this interview.

Amy: As we’ve chatted about briefly in blog comments, change is never easy but a necessary part of life. What are you looking forward to most in 2014?

Barbara: To finally having a healthy creative life. If I very nearly broke my creativity over the past few years, the experiences I’ve had and the things I’ve learned have taught me so much about the business that I no longer feel I must bring the business stuff into my creative space. I don’t worry about those things any more; they’re a job I know how to do. And after so many years of putting the needs of others ahead of my own creative work, whether as a parent or as a publisher, I finally have the opportunity to put making art in the center of my days.

I’m also looking forward to increasing creative work with my most recent business partner and creative collaborator, Rachael Murasaki Ish. By 2014, all the work we do will be our individual projects, joint projects, or the business stuff involved in bringing our creative work to market. We’ve spent the past several years getting the kinks out of our professional relationship; now we’re ready to have fun.

Amy: I love sneaking a peek at people’s bookshelves. What are you reading right now and is there a book you can’t wait to get to?

Barbara: I just finished reading Scott Anderson’s brilliant Lawrence in Arabia, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. As a public-school kid I got far too little 20th century historical education, and it has made clear a lot of things that were fuzzy to me. That has led me to pick up T.E. Lawrence’s The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which is much richer for that context.

As for reading I can’t wait to get to: I missed out on a lot of fiction, particularly genre fiction, during the past few years. There just wasn’t time for pleasure reading. I am very much looking forward to the leisure to read for pleasure again.

Amy: OK, I can’t let you leave here without asking a most important question. What is your favorite book? And yes, it can be more than one.

Barbara: Oh my! So many favorites. Novels that are special to me include Patricia McKillip’s lovely Riddle of Stars series, which finally came back into print a couple years ago; Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, in part because Pynchon sees your genre definitions and just doesn’t care; and Dan Simmons’ Hyperion. I remain in love with my personal memory of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, because I read it when I was still a young enough reader that it couldn’t make Editor Brain twitchy. As so often happens, my memory of that series is more pleasant than the experience of re-reading.

Nonfiction that lights me up includes Campbell’s venerable The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Hughes’ Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, and Fred Allen Wolfe’s Parallel Universes. Really, I could go on. Are we friends on Goodreads? You can find me here

Thank you so, so much for inviting me to chat! It’s always such a treat to talk with you.

Amy: And thank you for taking the time to answer these questions for me. It’s been so much fun working with you on this little project. Now, I have to go find my copy of Lawrence of Arabia on my shelf, google a few books…if you need me, I’ll be reading. 🙂


Talking with Barbara, Part Two

Today is part two of my interview with Barbara Friend Ish, author of The Way of the Gods series and publisher over at Mercury Retrograde Press. Today, we’ll be talking about her books. Part one of this interview where we talked about the writing process, is here.

Amy:  I enjoyed The Shadow of the Sun immensely and I’m looking forward to the second book in The Way of the Gods series. Can you tell us a bit about The Heart of Darkness? Anything interesting we have to look forward to? What’s Ellion up to, or should I say, what kind of trouble is he in now?

Barbara: Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed the ride, and it’s truly kind of you to say. The Heart of Darkness picks up roughly an hour after the end of The Shadow of the Sun, and all hell breaks loose in short order. This time there are four points of view: Ellion, Iminor, Letitia, and a new character, Leahy. Ellion is still arguing with—well, pretty much everyone. Iminor is unbelievably mad at Letitia. Along the way we’ll encounter traders, pirates, wizards and a variety of unsanctioned practitioners of magic, smiths, priests, shapechangers, and gods: some of whom we’ll meet in the underworld. And Nechton, of course.

You may be surprised by the number of people trying to kill Ellion. Then again, you’ve met him, so you may not. 🙂

Amy: Can I just say, PIRATES! I can’t wait. Thanks for sharing that tidbit. 🙂

Amy:  The first book in The Way of the Gods series is a very vivid story — characters and landscapes that I picture very clearly. Have you ever thought about making it into a graphic novel?

Barbara: I think that would be a really fun project! But I’m not particularly handy with a pencil, so someone else would have to do the drawing. I get the sense from artists I’ve spoken with that a graphic novel is such a huge enterprise from the visual side that anyone capable of drawing one would rather be drawing her own work. Maybe I just haven’t encountered the right artist yet… 

Amy: The business of writing. I hear people say this a lot, some in respect to the habit of writing itself (writing as if it were a job) and the actual business stuff that goes along with writing, like taxes, etc. For you, it’s been a much different journey, especially in your role as an independent publisher. Can you talk about the experience of being a writer and a publisher and what led to your starting Mercury Retrograde Press and the decision to close the press in 2014?

Barbara: Writing is a business—but first it’s an art. I think showing up in the study every day is an important practice because it keeps the creative juices flowing, but to expect to hold an artist to production schedules is destructive, and results in lousy art.

That being said, once a project is in the can, it is a product, and selling it is a business. Also, and I am far from the first person to say this, an artist is a brand. (Ugh. But it’s true.) And that brand must be managed and promoted, and those too are business activities. These activities on the business side of the writing life absolutely should be managed as business; it’s appropriate to set goals (though for your sanity and the sake of your creative life, it’s important to set goals that are within your sphere of influence) and schedules and budgets. But it’s important to do all of it with the understanding that, when those business practices come to have negative impact on the creative side of the operation, the business is slitting open the golden goose.

Where did this albatross around my neck come from? Ahem.

You’re right, though: I’ve had a different business journey in this area than most writers. For years I was a writer and an editor—first as a freelancer, then as one half of the consulting team of Be Mused Author Services, a company dedicated to providing education and services to self-publishing authors and small press publishers. Be Mused was a long time ago: before Kindle and CreateSpace and Smashwords had even been conceived. We all still thought Amazon was a benevolent entity. Independent publishing was a wilderness, and my business partner and I spent a lot of time trying to teach publishers and self-publishing writers how not to make a complete hash of what they were attempting. And I spent a lot of time editing novels over which I had no control, because I was just an independent contractor.

It used to make me crazy. Anybody who has seen a Mercury Retrograde Press book knows my standards are, um, high. And here were all these self-publishing authors pulling the plug on the editorial process long before those books were ready for market, whether because they were tired of the editorial process or for reasons I can’t imagine. I still shudder to think of my name being associated with some of those projects.

Meanwhile, of course, I had long since become convinced that independent publishing was the future; watching mainstream publishing implode in the nineties and analyzing what had gone wrong made it clear to me that the only way to do art was at smaller scale. I had reluctantly concluded that there was not likely to be a match between the work I wanted to do as a writer and the sort of risks big publishers could afford to take for years, possibly decades, to come. So the question of what my ideal publishing house looked like was already rolling around in my head.

Finally these two sets of frustrations came together: I realized the only way I was ever going to be satisfied by the work I was doing as an editor would be if I was the publisher as well: if I was the one who got to say when a work was or was not ready for the world; if I got to say when I was prepared to put my own name on it.

It was far from my first start-up business; it wasn’t even the first time I’d been one of the principals. It was, however, the first time the vision of an enterprise was wholly mine.

I never doubted that the work I was doing mattered. Mercury Retrograde became a safe port for high-risk projects and writers, and I was happy and proud to create that haven. Throughout Mercury Retrograde’s life I was continually engaged in troubleshooting the problems of small press publishing for participants on both sides of the desk—and the problems of artists trying to operate in a business setting. Year by year we improved what we were doing; by this year I had absolutely cracked the code on how to operate a publishing business that could be healthy for everyone involved, in a way that could be sustainable long-term. The only flaw in the plan was that it required a full-time publisher, not a part-time one. And I knew I couldn’t live that life, because I am a writer first.

It made me very sad to realize I needed to shut Mercury Retrograde down. And it also saved my life. Artists can’t thrive if they can’t do their best art. Running the best publishing house in the world is doubtless someone’s best art, but as passionately as I loved the idea, it wasn’t mine.

Amy:  What was your most memorable moment as a publisher? What will you take away from the whole experience?

Barbara: Oddly, my most memorable moment as a publisher had to do with the publication of my own work: the day we started taking wholesale orders for my novel. The two halves of my professional life had collided in those orders coming off the fax: as a publisher, I had a book that was exceeding expectations before launch; and the book in question was mine. It blew my mind.

There are so many lessons and blessings I will take away from my Mercury Retrograde years; I’m profoundly grateful for the experience, and for the support of the people—notably my husband and family—who made it possible. All the things I learned from Mercury Retrograde will make it possible for me to move forward with the business side of my writing life with confidence, and they have made me a better editor as well. More than anything else I’m grateful for the friends I’ve made on the journey. I know so many writers who go to conventions and book festivals to work. I get to go see my friends. I may work my tail off while I’m there and come home exhausted, but I do it in the context of a community to which I belong. Any geek can understand how profound that experience feels.

Amy: Join us on Sunday the 29th as we wrap up part three of this interview with some talk about the future, and of course, books.

Interview with Barbara Friend Ish – Part One

An interview! A first here at Just Book Reading — I promised changes and this interview is the kickoff in that new direction.

First, I want to thank Barbara for taking the time to answer a few questions for me. She’s been incredible generous with her time and I very much appreciate her participating in this little experiment.

Before we get to part of one of the interview, a few words about Barbara. She’s the founder of Mercury Retrograde Press, an entrepreneur, writer, businesswoman and incredibly creative person. Barbara is the author of The Shadow of the Sun, the first book in The Way of the Gods series. Her second book in the series, The Heart of Darkness, is in the works. Her full bio is here and I encourage to head over to Mercury Retrograde Press and take a look around as well.

Part one of the interview will focus on the writing process. And, we begin!

Amy @ Just Book Reading: Let’s start with the writing. Every author has a different approach to the writing process. Can you tell us how you prepare to write and a bit about your process, if there is one? Is it different for each book or do you have a system you try to follow?

Barbara Friend Ish: To call how I proceed a system would be to over-glorify it. I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer by nature; as I’ve developed my craft, I’ve leaned to do more with planning, but I will never be the sort of writer who outlines before writing and then sticks with the outline. I’ll never be at all efficient.

I generally start a project with a question. These questions aren’t always intended as story fodder; sometimes they’re just mysteries that intrigue me which eventually find their ways into story. The series I’m working on now, The Way of the Gods, began with questions about the nature of godhood: If gods (note the plural) exist, where would they come from? What would be the source of their power? Once I’ve got a question knocking around in my head, I start reading sources that I hope will provide answers. I begin to work on theories. I suppose you might consider this activity worldbuilding, in the sense that I’m working out the rules and frameworks within which my story will play out.

Meanwhile, the things I’m reading and thinking about begin to suggest characters to me. As writers we know that the protagonist of any story is the one who suffers the most at the hands of the story problem; so the characters and the story problem, which may or may not be the same issue as the question that began this mess, evolve simultaneously. Bits of plot and conflict erupt like popcorn thunderstorms in my fevered little head. Finally I reach the point where I’ve got so much half-formed idea in my head, so much sketched-in plot, that I conclude I know what the story is about and where it’s going to end up, and I start thinking about the place to begin. Once I’ve got that, I jump in and start writing.

I generally write approximately two drafts. I say approximately because I write a first draft, a discovery draft, in a way that seems to be pretty normal: just writing forward, telling myself the story. When I finish that draft, I know what the story is really about, so I sit down and do in-depth analysis and plot planning, and then write a second draft.

My second draft process is not normal. I write generally forward rather than skipping around, but I tinker endlessly with what has already been written. By the time I get to the end of the second draft, I’ll have been over a given scene multiple, sometimes dozens of times. At this point each scene will be as developed as I can make it without input from other eyes, so I don’t do another edit pass at this point. I go to review: my first readers, who typically have already seen chunks of the novel during development, and then my beta readers.

These early readers are invaluable. They allow me to see the story from other angles, detect story flaws and missed opportunities and places where the words just didn’t work the way I thought they did. I take in all their notes and objections, make whatever changes are necessary, and then the book goes to editorial.

Believe it or not, this is a very condensed version of the lunacy. Rather than take over your blog I’ve gone into more detail on my own, here.

Amy: Go read. We’re going to discuss more about the writing process over at Barbara’s blog. We’ll be here when you get back with more of the interview.

Amy:  What inspires you as a writer and how do you nurture your creativity?

Barbara: Nurturing creativity is not something for which I should be held up as an example. I’ve done a rotten job of it for myself in the past few years; an ironic contrast to how hard I worked to create a safe environment for creative folk at Mercury Retrograde. All the rules I made there seemed to apply to everyone but me, and that’s no one’s fault but my own.

So, do what I say, not what I do.

What I know I need to nurture my creativity is pretty much the opposite of how we are told professional artists should behave. I’ve participated in workshops for writers that consciously cultivated a boot-camp attitude. The Next Big Thing for writers is the idea—and associated practices—of producing ten thousand words a day. I have great admiration for writers who are able to create art under those circumstances. But those practices are not for everyone, and it is possible to be a thriving professional without them. Productivity does not presuppose misery. For me, the periods of greatest productivity have happened when I’ve put no pressure whatsoever on myself to produce. When I’ve actually been happy, and have viewed the work as a sort of serious play.

Serious play? I will try to explain. I need—I think most people, and creative people especially, feel this too–to feel the work I’m doing is important; that it matters. It can verge on a spiritual practice. All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I view what I’m doing, on both sides of the desk, as art: not entertainment to be consumed and forgotten, but work that will have impact on the people who receive it, that will stay with them long after they set down the book. The ideas I’m exploring matter to me—and, conversations with readers suggest, to people who enjoy my work as well. This sense of making art, of doing something that matters, is for me the first prerequisite of a healthy creative life.

Other needs include a quiet, safe space in which to work (though early in my career I wrote at a desk in my children’s playroom, wearing headphones and listening to ear-bleeding alt-rock to drown out all but the noises that required my attention)—and the sense that I’m not stealing time from someone who needs it more. I go to great lengths to create the feeling that the world can’t see me when I’m in my writing space. I need that sense in order to be able to write true, without worrying about what this person or that will think about the story as it evolves. Because the minute I let those sorts of concerns into the room, I must abandon making art, because art stripped of unflinching truth is popular entertainment. And the big-box stores are full of that already.

What inspires me as a writer: questions; mysteries. All the things I can’t quite understand, and that includes topics ranging from the grand unified theory of physics to the inner workings of my husband’s mind. My ideal story includes both those topics, which is why I work in speculative fiction: this genre has been described as the literature of ideas, and in many cases it’s only through the tools available to us in genre that I can get at the ideas I want to explore.

Amy: Into every book goes a bit of research. What type of research do you enjoy the most and what’s the most interesting fact you’ve come across?

Barbara: When you work in spec fic, more than a bit of research! They used to say in Department of Defense contracting (and maybe they still do, but I don’t know) that the plane wouldn’t fly until the documentation weighed as much as the aircraft itself. At least for me, every paragraph on the page is the result of at least the same amount of research material read.

I love the research that lights up my imagination. There are people who delight in digging into original source materials to find the least atom of data; I prefer broader sweeps of information. I like to put totally unrelated ideas together and come up with unpredictable results; I like to read history or science or esoteric literature or any of a dozen other topics and follow the little sparks of ideas that emerge–into story ideas that not only will no one else ever have, but which I wouldn’t have at any other point in my life.

It’s hard to isolate a single most interesting fact, because there are so many. I think my favorite ideas are tied up with the word egregore, which is an esoteric concept signifying a thought construct: literally, something that never existed until someone thought it up, and which would cease to exist in the absence of people’s belief in it.

Modern currency is an egregore. Those pieces of paper we exchange for food at the grocery store are worthless, except that we all agree they have value. The electronic currency that threatens to replace it is more esoteric yet.

I can’t be held responsible for what will happen to your mind if you follow the concept of the egregore through its various applications to its logical conclusion. But I can guarantee it’s an unforgettable ride, and that’s why it’s arguably my favorite.

Amy: I know you have a few pets, cats, I believe. While I don’t have any cats myself, I know a few with very strong personalities. Do any of their personality traits ever show up in a character? Also, do you have pics to share? I’m a sucker for pet photos. 🙂

Barbara: I am a cat person. I cannot recall a period during my adult life that was longer than a couple weeks during which I didn’t do the bidding of at least one cat. Presently I am slave to two cats: brothers and littermates Fergus and Niall.

Fergus and Niall office

Fergus and Niall Xmas

(Fergus is fluffy; Niall is not.) Because I live in the part of Atlanta that is frequented by coyotes, their idea of the great outdoors is my second-floor deck. But they spend their days protecting me just the same.

I’ve known writers who reincarnated their pets as characters. I’ve edited books in which that happened, though I’m not going to out those writers here. But for the life of me I can’t draw any substantive connection between any cat I’ve ever known and any character I’ve ever written.

For what it’s worth, it’s the same with the humans in my life. Although I know people who would tell you they were the inspirations for certain aspects of certain characters in my work.

Amy: Thanks, Barbara, for talking about your writing process and sharing photos! We’ll be back on the 27th with part two. Join us on Friday.