|Rachel Caine: Will the Real Roxanne Longstreet Conrad Please Stand Up?|
In Ill Wind, Roxanne Longstreet Conrad introduced readers to a whirlwind new fantasy series and a new authorial alter ego: Rachel Caine. Readers greeted both "Rachel" and her story of magical Weather Wardens out to save the world from a terminally pissed Mother Nature so enthusiastically Conrad's publisher signed her for three additional Weather Warden novels before the second book in the series even appeared on bookstore shelves. But then, what's not to like about a series featuring a sharp-witted woman with a thing for high heels, hot cars and even hotter djinn?
But Rachel Caine tells only part of the story about Conrad, a professional musician with eight novels, numerous short stories -- and fan fiction -- to her credit. Conrad recently talked to Crescent Blues about her adventures in mystery, horror and lederhosen, and provided major spoilers about Ill Wind and its July sequel Heat Stroke.
Crescent Blues: What prompted the transition from "Roxanne" to "Rachel"?
Roxanne Longstreet Conrad: There's actually a very simple explanation for my identity change, which doesn't involve wanted posters (really, that doesn't look like me at all): it's the same reason that (long ago) I decided to leave my home town of El Paso and go to college in a town I barely knew, to a university where no one knew me at all.
I wanted to leave behind expectations of who I was and what I could do.
I'm sure everybody's familiar with that. You end up with a lot of baggage after a certain period of time. Mine came with tags like "vampire writer" and "horror author," neither of which were helping me write about something new. There are only so many "future of vampire fiction" panels you can stand to be on, at conventions... The great thing about publishing is that you can, at any point, stick on a new name tag and go write something completely different, without anyone imposing preconceptions about what you're going to do.
In order to write fantasy, I felt like I needed to start fresh. Be somebody else, with cool designer luggage instead of the unmatched Wal-Mart specials I'd been hauling around for the last ten years. It's the writer equivalent of getting a makeover.
It isn't that I'm ashamed of what I've done -- far from it! -- but I did want to do something different, and changing things let me accomplish it in the best way. Not just from a business standpoint, but from an imaginative standpoint as well. "Rachel" has different ideas, different interests. That sounds a bit bizarre, but hey, whatever works!
Crescent Blues: Brian, the "bad" brother on the television show Wings, used to say: "A 'Rachel' is a keeper." He was talking about potential dates. Did that connotation play any role in your selection of the name?
Roxanne Longstreet Conrad: (Laughs) No, I'm afraid I didn't know that, but I'm definitely going with it. Actually, the first name was taken in honor of a very old friend of mine, Rachel Scarbrough. I met her for the first time when she ran into me with a tuba. That does make an impression...
Crescent Blues: What prompted you to focus on weather as the basis of a fantasy series? (Did living in Texas have anything to do with it?)
Roxanne Longstreet Conrad: As everyone knows, the Texas climate is balmy, temperate and perfectly well mannered.
Ignore the fact that in certain parts of the state that little "tornado" symbol comes on in the corner of our TV screens and stays on for, oh, five months of the year. Also, I went to college in a town famous for having its downtown completely leveled by a tornado just about 10 years earlier, so it was a constant topic of conversation, mostly with my parents anxiously asking if I was sure I wanted to stay there. And I clearly recall sitting in the dark on the seventh floor of my dorm in college at the giant picture windows, watching lightning storms for hours. (That might explain certain of my grades.)
Ill Wind's original concept featured a woman who was haunted by a storm that never went away, that followed her from one place to another. This eventually evolved into Joanne, who had power over the weather, and the concept of the Wardens, who were kind of like the IRS, only with Djinn.
People tell me I'm strange.
Crescent Blues: Ill Wind gives the impression that there is more to the world of Joanne Baldwin and the Weather Wardens than Joanne and her colleagues guess. How many volumes do you think it will take to paint the complete picture?
Roxanne Longstreet Conrad: Heh. Trick question. How many will the readers buy?! Seriously, I have no idea. At least six, I think, but Book 6 may be an open-ended resolution, too, I haven't gotten that far with the story arc yet. We're certainly going to find out a lot more about the Wardens and what they're all about in books 3 and 4, I can tell you that much!
Crescent Blues: Which came first -- the notion of supernatural weather controllers or the idea of djinn involvement in human affairs?
Roxanne Longstreet Conrad: Weather first, Djinn second. In fact, the Djinn were sort of an accident -- one of those happy ones that make writing so much fun for me. I tend to write in a kind of stream-of-consciousness state, and when something pops up sometimes it's a dud, and sometimes it's a keeper; the concept of Wardens and Djinn just clicked for me, the instant that I wrote my first encounter with one. And then Rahel showed up, and I was in love with them. They were amazingly fun to write.
Crescent Blues: What attracted you to the mythology of the Djinn as the basis for a fantasy series?
Roxanne Longstreet Conrad: I'm afraid I haven't been all that faithful to the traditional mythology of the Djinn; I've done the research, but I wanted to reinvent them as something a little off-center.
As to why I picked them, well, I loved the idea of wild magic, and creatures born out of it who were just barely tamed. Who could either help or hurt you, depending on how they felt at any given moment. Who could love recklessly and hopelessly. Part of what fascinated me about the research I did was that the mythological Djinn existed in their own "reality" exactly as humans did -- they had homes, families, lives. Being plucked out of that to serve a mortal didn't make them the most reliable of companions.
It had a certain energy that matched the wildness of the storms I was writing -- the same kind of wild, unpredictable passion.
Crescent Blues: Can you tell our readers anything about Joanne's next adventure?
Roxanne Longstreet Conrad: Heat Stroke will be out in stores in July 2004, and Joanne's essentially starting from square one: no longer a Warden, no longer even human. She's having to learn to exist in an entirely new body, with new rules and new powers. Also, of course, new enemies, problems and severe risks. She and her new Djinn-beau David have some serious consequences to face for their actions, not the least of which will be some disapproval from a very old, very powerful friend of David's named Jonathan, who's sort of the King and Lord High Executioner of the Djinn. Oh, and there are plenty of human problems, too, including a Warden with an obsession about claiming David and using him for ends that just aren't too savory.
Also, there's a major Frederick's of Hollywood crisis.
Crescent Blues: Does Joanne's fashion sense and taste in cars reflect your own?
Roxanne Longstreet Conrad: Don't I wish! Alas, I have neither her budget nor her figure, but I'm loving the research. Gives me a great excuse to go window-shopping at Neiman Marcus and test-drive hot cars. See, that's the secret to a happy life. But let me emphasize, for the benefit of any IRS agents out there, that I don't deduct my wardrobe as a business expense. Ahem.
Crescent Blues: A lot of research goes into your fantasy novels. The Weather Warden novels, for example, display a thorough grounding in meteorology, physics and classic cars. How do you balance the background and the action?
Roxanne Longstreet Conrad: If I knew, I'd tell you. I don't think of them as different things, exactly -- it's all integral to the story. Joanne needs certain tools to get her job done, which translates into meteorology and physics and magic (and by Book 3, certain elements of quantum mechanics). She needs the car stuff just because, well, it's character as opposed to plot, and it makes her real and understandable to me. But I wouldn't say that it's a conscious balancing act.
I try not to use info dumps to convey things, although sometimes she does have to explain a little, for clarity's sake. I have a short technical attention span, so when I get bored, I know it's wayyyy too much. :)
Crescent Blues: You've been very involved in the Internet almost since the beginning. How has the Internet affected your writing?
Roxanne Longstreet Conrad: I know a lot of writers who shy away from the Internet, but I think it's an absolutely awesome tool. Granted, it's the world's largest porn magazine, and it's chock full of misinformation, but for broad-spectrum, fast-access research, it's amazing. If I have any question that I used to have to highlight and take to the library, I can now Google it and solve it in seconds, from the voltage of a lightning bolt (as high as 100 million volts, if you're interested) to the correct way to spell "Manolo Blahnik." It speeds my writing tremendously, and it makes it more fun, too.
It also makes it far easier for me to connect with people -- fans, friends, writers, editors, everybody. Granted, I spend a lot of time on email, since I have to correspond at work, and under three different "identities" at home, but it's very worthwhile for me. It's a far cry from the way things worked when I started publishing in 1990, where conventions were the only way to connect with people. I still love that face-to-face contact, but email and websites help me keep in touch outside of the venues as well.
Crescent Blues: Your fiction shows a tremendous range of subject matter and treatment. As a writer trying to develop a "brand identity," have you found this to be a blessing or a challenge? Is the creation of "Rachel Caine" a response to this? Can we expect to see more new identities in the near future?
Roxanne Longstreet Conrad: I wish I were clever enough to have a strategy and a brand; I'm working toward it, with "Rachel Caine," which is lovely, but I think it was also largely accidental for me. My approach to writing has always been very simple and straightforward: I write what interests me, and I don't write what doesn't. Unfortunately, I have a lot of ideas, and they don't fit neatly within the genre categories, which has been a handicap.
But overall, it's been a good thing. I've kept working, I've learned a lot. I've worked with a surprising number of editors and publishers, and it's turned out to be a great experience.
As for new identities...hmmm. Possibly. I never say never, but I don't think my email box can handle any more names. (Smiles.)
Crescent Blues: Exile, Texas marked something of a departure for you -- a straightforward mystery that started life as a movie script. What prompted you to take up scriptwriting? What prompted you to turn the script into a novel? Any plans for more scriptwriting -- or mystery writing?
Roxanne Longstreet Conrad: As you might guess, Exile didn't start life as a straightforward mystery. In fact, it was an old-fashioned ghost story, and Meg (the main character at the time) was haunted by visions of a murdered girl. But as things evolved, the ghostly elements seemed to distract from the plot rather than help it along, so it naturally mutated into (for the first time!) a neatly-labeled mystery novel.
The script was done with my actor-friend Glenn Rogers, because we wanted to enter the then-brand-new Greenlight competition. Just because. We had two weeks to do it, and we did; we even made it to the (I think) third round. The nice thing is that we took the script and entered it into a couple of other contests, including the Texas Film Institute and a big national contest, and ended up finishing high in both.
But then we lost focus. It's hard to maintain both novels and scripts; you have to get out and make a whole bunch of new connections for screenplay, and honestly, I ran out of time and energy. The novels occupy my time pretty fully. Not that I won't try it again -- I might -- but not with my current deadline schedule.
Crescent Blues: What's the longest amount of time you've ever gone without threatening to quit writing?
Roxanne Longstreet Conrad: Well, as you know I threaten to quit writing during every single project, because damn, it's hard. Especially close to the deadline.
2004 has been a really good year so far. I've only felt moved to sell off my computers and take up some less stressful occupation about a dozen times so far, and although I was very sincere about it, I never got around to listing things on eBay, so here we are.
My favorite saying: Quitters never win, and winners never quit, and if you never win and never quit, you're just obsessive/compulsive.
Crescent Blues: What got you started writing?
Roxanne Longstreet Conrad: The embarrassing truth is: Space 1999. At age fourteen I had no concept of what constituted writing an original story versus fanfic [fan fiction], so I wrote a story that included two of the characters from Space 1999 as well as original characters, and then I rewrote it without the Space 1999 characters because they didn't add anything. So I guess I entered and left fanfic in the same story, and it didn't occur to me to go back there.
I went on and started writing short stories that I gave to friends. Sometimes they paid me in chocolate bars. The high point is that I went to a pretty dangerous high school, and before long, the tough gang girls were asking me write their romantic fantasies about a hunky heart-throb sweeping them off their feet in the cafeteria line. They didn't pay me, but being the romance writer to the gang girls was a pretty good survival tool, verdad.
Professionally, it was a combination of luck and kindness that got me started, which is really the story of my entire career. I was put in the right place by kind friends -- this happens to me all the time -- and lucky enough to make it pay off. A friend of mine bought me a ticket to a convention because he was tired of me writing things that I never sent in, and forced me to go and meet some writers. And I sold my very first book based on that contact.
Crescent Blues: How do you develop a story? For example, do you start with plot or characters? Do you outline?
Roxanne Longstreet Conrad: I hate outlining. I bitch about outlines, I agonize over them, and in the end, I almost always depart from them at some point and strike off into the unknown. I start with characters, always, and a general idea of what I want to happen, but I'm more comfortable when I let the characters discover things than try to walk them through a predetermined sequence of events. The downside: it's chaotic, and sometimes it flat doesn't work. The upside: when it does work, it has a certain energy and adrenaline rush that seems to translate well to the readers.
Crescent Blues: Do your characters ever surprise you or take the story in an unexpected direction? I couldn't help wondering if you planned to have Joanne die and be resurrected as a demon or if it was something that developed into a necessity after you got to a certain point in the story.
Roxanne Longstreet Conrad: All the time. That's why I hate outlines so much; when I try to stick to them, I think I miss the opportunity to take the road less traveled. It's hard for me to imagine up front what the characters will be thinking and feeling two-thirds of the way through a book, and quite often, that influences critical decisions and actions. Maybe my character might want to give up. Maybe he's reached his breaking point. Maybe he'll unexpectedly sacrifice himself. I just like to keep the options open, and be daring enough to leap off the cliff if one presents itself...
And yes, Joanne's death and resurrection as a Djinn was one of those moments. In the outline, she survived the fire based on some rather lame plot point. But honestly, it felt right to me to jump off the cliff and do something unexpected. For me, that's what makes a story fun. The WTF!? moments. (I won't spell that out. Ask your mother.)
Crescent Blues: How do you balance all your deadlines and a full-time job?