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.


The Lies of Locke Lamora Read Along – Part 2

We’re in the second week of The Lies of Locke Lamora Read Along. I’m loving the book so far so if things feel a little gushy today, it’s because they are. Since there are no spoilers in this read along, this will be short and to the point. By the way, I love spoilers so you have no idea how hard this is for me. J

More info at the Little Red Reviewer and questions this week were supplied by Dark Cargo.

1 – Do you think Locke can pull off his scheme of playing a Midnighter who is working with Don Salvara to capture the Thorn of Camorr? I mean, he is now playing two roles in this game – and thank goodness for that costume room the Gentleman Bastards have!

First, the costume room is awesome. I so need a closet like that. Okay, maybe not exactly like that, but you get the point.

I have started to wonder how long he plans to keep this one going, but from what I’ve read, Locke has convinced me he can pull it off. And the badge is so cool that if that doesn’t convince anybody what will! I don’t think Locke will do anything to jeopardize the scheme but I think something else might. This is the time when I want to read ahead but I’m not. It’s just a suspicion and as soon as I’m done writing this, I’m back to reading to find out.

2 – Are you digging the detail the author put into the alcoholic drinks in this story?

YES! Does that answer the questions sufficiently? 🙂 No really, the detail is wonderful. As I said last week, and read on blogs of others participating in the read along, the details make you see Camorr — all its scars and bright spots. It’s just enough for you to picture it clearly but not enough to overwhelm the story. It’s such a fine line and Lynch is amazing me with how he’s walking it.

3 – Who is this mysterious lady Gentleman Bastard Sabetha and what does she mean to Locke?

I wish I knew because the suspense is killing me. From what I can tell though, she’s taken Locke’s heart, ripped it from his chest, stomped on it, ground it to powder under heel of her shoe, and kicked the rest in the water. I could be very wrong about this though.

4 – Are you creeped out over the use of Wraithstone to create Gentled animals as I am?

Yes, although I find the idea of Wraithstone fascinating. It’s back to details though. Camorr is a rough place and would the animals get freaked out and be unusable there is they weren’t gentled? I don’t really want this to sound like an endorsement of this particular use of Wraithstone because I don’t like it at all. Let’s just say I saw the point and appreciated the use of the Wraithstone but I didn’t like it.

5 – I got a kick out of child Locke’s first meeting with Capa Barsavi and his daughter Nazca, which was shortly followed up by the story of Barsavi granting adult Locke permission to court his daughter! Where do you think that will lead? Can you see these two together?

Nazca with her steel heeled boots and drunk — two things you have to love about a child. She’s an amusing character but I particularly liked the description of her as a child. You can picture her running her father’s enterprise too. Let’s face it, she already feels comfortable telling the guards what to do.

I can’t picture Locke and Nazca as a couple. Would they work well together though? Probably, umm, maybe. Locke’s hiding too much from Capa and I’m not so sure he could keep up the game if he really did fall for Nazca. I don’t know how he plans to get out of it though. That will be an interesting scene.

6 – Capa Barsavi is freaked out over rumors of The Grey King and, in fact, us readers are privy to a gruesome torture scene. The Grey King is knocking garristas off left and right. What do you think this means?

I didn’t need to be privy to the torture scene, mostly because I was eating lunch at the time. Uck.

Moving on. I’m looking forward to The Grey King’s appearance. Another dark character with designs on being in charge, bring it on.

7 – In the Interlude: The Boy Who Cried for a Corpse, we learn that Father Chains owes an alchemist a favor, and that favor is a fresh corpse. He sets the boys to figuring out how to provide one, and they can’t ‘create’ the corpse themselves. How did you like Locke’s solution to this conundrum?

This shouldn’t have made me giggle but it did. Locke is really too smart for his own good. In the end, it was a brilliant decision to the problem of obtaining a fresh corpse with minimal damage. However, what about buying one? Too obvious I guess. The extra little scheme was so Locke too. His mind was way too active for a boy that age and way too morbid as well. Then, that’s why I’m enjoying this book so much.