C. S. E. Cooney Talks Saint Death's Daughter (Part 2)
This is part two of my interview with C. S. E. Cooney about her publishing journey for Saint Death’s Daughter, featuring questions from my patrons. You can listen, or read the transcript below, and in case you missed it, part 1 of this interview is here!
If you have not already devoured Saint Death’s Daughter in one day, like I did, I encourage you to check it out! It’s available as a printed book, an ebook, and an audiobook, and Claire does her own narration for the audio version!
Welcome to the OMG Julia Podcast, where we talk about creative lives and processes. This is part 2 of my interview with C. S. E. Cooney about her journey to publication with Saint Death’s Daughter. We’re picking up this conversation after Claire told us about how she loves to read her first drafts aloud.
I love that about you! I love working with you, because I've done work at the same time and place as you, and even if I'm not super productive during those times, I always love hearing what you've come up with. Because I feel like I've gotten a lot out of just talking through plots with you, even if I haven't been writing.
I Do. I Love that part. Yeah.
Because I think that writing is a lot of different things, and some of that is getting the words actually down on the page, but some of it is actually just being in a place where you can think through story structure, and what is actually happening. And one thing that I've learned about myself over years and years and years of basically feeling like I must be broken because I don't write x words every day… Which, there is so much advice out there that's like, “You're not a writer if you don't write every single day.” And I don't. I don't write every single day.
Yeah, it's so harmful. Oh my gosh.
I have to have a long period of time usually before any project where I just kind of like think about it. And now that I've learned that this is how I work, it really has made a huge difference for me. Because I know that if someone has asked me to write a story for an anthology or something, I can tell myself very clearly, “You know we have to write a story for this anthology. So, let's start thinking about that.” And then I go about my business doing other things, but I'll be working through the problem in the back of my mind. And I will do research and I'll do other things, but the whole time, what I'm really doing is the hard brain work of invisibly creating something inside my head that I don't even necessarily really fully understand until I actually start writing. And I won't be ready to start writing until it's ready.
I feel like I do that process, but I do it in drafts rather than in my brain first. But I draft a lot, like 4 to 8 drafts sometimes, so it's like I write before I even know what I want to write, before sometimes I have an idea. And that makes a whole draft before my draft starts, but sometimes it's just like this vague, you know, itch. Or a character, or even like a feeling between two characters. Like, what is that? How do you make that?
Like, I wanted to write a theater story and I knew what the theater troupe did. And I kind of knew the world they did it in but I didn't have characters you know like the troupe was almost like an entity but somebody still has to tell the story. There has to actually be a plot. And these elements of this theater troupe that does this thing in a world that does this thing… those were like the tensions grinding against each other. So I had the 2 major tensions, but what are the pieces at play within those tensions? And I didn't know that until I started, you know, wrote the first line, which came out of nowhere.
And then I figured my way through from there. But it's funny how much you can do with 2 grinding tensions.
I mean, yes, as the actress said to the bishop. You can count on me for that 12-year-old humor.
LOL. Anytime, Julia Rios.
No, but I find that for me, I used to be the kind of person who writes a zero draft that's not a first draft. It's the draft where I try to tell myself what I'm even writing, and it's a giant mess and completely often unsalvageable. So I have many, many old stories languishing on hard drives that are just like a complete mess. It doesn't do anything for me, and many of them are such a mess that I've never come back to them. It's like, it's not worth it. Now that I know that I kind of have to do this percolating thing, my drafts come out a lot cleaner. Which isn't to say that I don't end up having to change them and edit them. I do! It's just that my rate of unsalvageable muck is lower.
That's cool. You can actually work on it because you're not shuddering away from it.
And because there's something to work on. I literally, because I tried to do NaNoWriMo many years, and I had so many attempts at it that just came out as just a mess. Not a mess that you're like, “Oh, this could turn into a good story!” Just like, what is even happening here? No one knows.
Have you over have you ever tried to do a NaNoWriMo where you've spent all year thinking and prepping for it the way you do for a short story for an anthology?
I think, yes, I have, and that's probably the one that came the closest to actually being decent. This was many years ago, though, and I say close to being decent, by which I mean, like, had a full story arc.
And I don't think I finished the word count during NaNoWriMo. I definitely didn't finish the novel during NaNoWriMo, but I had been thinking about it a lot before I started it, and I did do a big chunk of it during NaNoWriMo. I don't remember if I did 50,000 words or if those 50,000 words ended up staying.
I think I still have that saved somewhere, possibly in a Google drive. But it's the kind of thing that also it was so long ago. I haven't attempted NaNoWriMo in many years because I finally figured out that like, hey, you know what? Trying to push myself in that particular way isn't actually productive for me.
Yeah, that's what Ellen Kushner once called the cult of word count, which, I have to say, I mean, all these years later: Saint Death's Daughter! But it is not really the story I wrote in NaNoWriMo, though there are many elements… Like, you could see the origins there.
I don't think it's a cult of word count. I think that it's a really useful tool for some people. I think it depends a lot on what kind of writer you are.
Yeah, I always wanted to do it again.
I know people for whom they have a great time and they come out of it with something that they enjoy. And I know several self publishers who, like, a lot of the people who really are successful in self publishing can just crank out stuff and they are very prolific. They have an idea of what they want to do and they just sit down and do it, and they do that over and over again. And if you're really fast, doing something with a bunch of other people and knowing that everybody's doing it at the same time can be a very powerful tool.
I've always wanted to do it again, and I never have, and I wonder why. It was like that 1 year in Chicago, and, I mean, I was commuting an hour both ways to the bookstore that I worked at. I'd come home and I remember that I would read a chapter of Jane Eyre (which I've read an umpteenth billion times) right before writing, because I couldn't get started without having read something, but I couldn't read something that I would get into too much, because I didn't want to lose all my time to reading something that I found super fascinating, but it had to be really good. Because it had to feed the writing itself.
So Jane Eyre was the book of choice, and I would set a timer. I'd read for a half hour, and then I would try to do 2,000 words, and it was really interesting, and it created a lot of cool things. And I feel like I was like, “This is cool. This works.”
If I did that every month, oh boy. What a writer I would be! And it made it feel possible to to be that kind of writer, and yet I've never been able to duplicate it.
Well, the other thing I wonder is, for you, if that isn't the kind of thing that you can sometimes do in a sprint, but can't do in a marathon setting. And often when you're writing as a career, you're doing a writing marathon. You're not doing a writing sprint.
Yeah. Yeah, maybe I'll do it this year, though who knows? It would be cool.
You know, it'd be cool if I wrote the next two drafts of Miscellaneous Stones —sorry, of Saint Death's Daughter. I still do call it by its old title, or just by her name, really— if I did both drafts as NaNoWriMo to start with, to give myself, like, starting time motivation. You know, like, here's the seed… and maybe if I start out with 50,000 words and I don't give myself 12 years, it won't turn into almost. 200,000 words. Maybe I could just kind of keep it in… But, you know, usually a second draft doubles. So like 100,000 words is not bad for a novel, you know. We could maybe keep it at that that.
So you mentioned NaNoWriMo, and you said that this is what came out of it. Was this actually your NaNoWriMo novel?
It was, but it wasn't the beginning. The beginning is further back than that, though I often count the first draft of Saint Death's Daughter as the NaNoWriMo. I think it was 2006.
But, before that, was a short story in Phyllis Eisenstein's science fiction class at Columbia College, where there was the idea of a girl raised in a family of assassins. But it was a sci-fi story, and the butler was not a housekeeper, and it was not undead. It was a robot, a robot butler named Graves.
So, before that, though… Several years before that, either I was just in college or just before college, my friend Kiri took me out shooting in the Arizona desert. We were both raised in Arizona. She said, “You're going to be a writer. At some point you probably will have to write about guns, so you should definitely shoot a gun sometime during your life, and I want to be the one to take you to shoot a gun.”
So we went out to the desert to shoot guns, and we had noise canceling headphones and everything, but either mine weren't working or my ears are very sensitive or bullets are just that loud, but it was so loud that after the first shot I was getting heart palpitations and my hands were sweaty because I didn't want to hear that sound again. I was like, “Oh gosh, if this had a silencer on it I'd be a badass assassin, but it doesn't and I'm afraid of the sound. Wouldn't it be interesting if there was a character who was supposed to be an assassin, but was allergic to violence?”
That was the idea, and I remember when it happened, and it didn't show up in a short story for several years, and it didn't turn into a NaNoWrio novel. But the idea has always been appealing, especially throughout all the media and books I've read, and still am reading, where violence is such a problem solving tool on a micro and macro scale. There are so many TV shows where, if you don't agree with someone, you punch them in the face, which is not how my life works at all.
And then like on an epic fantasy scale, if you don't agree with someone, you invade their country and you kill all of their orcs or whatever, you know? And I just thought like what if she doesn't have that option? What else can we do if you don't have that option? How many workarounds does somebody have to figure out in their life? In a world like ours that's full of violence, but you're incapable of it? Not that you don't want to sometimes, but that even wanting punishes you?
I mean, I still think it's an interesting idea. Thank goodness, because it's still enough of an idea to create two more books out of, I think. And then trying to turn it and look at it from a different point of view. What does violence mean? What does history mean? What is, like, not only the violence of a physical violence, but the violence of your own history? The lies and the biases and the prejudices you've been told? The violence of your own education? How seeing the world and growing a little older and thinking about things differently, and learning another language changes your mind, you know? So, I mean, I still think that's interesting.
Yeah, I mean I think it's very interesting. I think that you really do dive into a lot of those questions, and it's very cool to see Miscellaneous Stones exploring them.
Yeah, I think this leads into… This is a good place to dig into a question from Francesca Forrest.
Oh, I Love her!
That's because she's delightful! So, she says, “I know Claire's journey with this novel is very long. I'd love to hear what the most important differences are between the novel now and the novel she started so long ago, and which things have remained the same or very similar over all the years.”
The first novel, that was 50,000 words almost exactly, was very cheeky. It's very lighthearted, and the violence is cartoonish, and the consequences are surface. It's as funny as I could have made it at the time, which isn't very.
But what has happened since then? Well, many things. Many drafts, many years, and also Carlos. And one of the wonderful things about Carlos—so he caught me at about draft four, so he's been with it for more than half the book, more than half of the drafts. It was about eight full drafts till it hit the agent and went on submission, and then a couple more drafts from the editor.
So, Carlos did many, many things for me, but the three things that stand out are:
The child, Datu
The father, Mac
The Scratches, the Scratch family
So, in the original, the child, Datu, is like one of those anime 6-year-old genius serial killers. Do you know what I mean? Like, cold stone killer, acrobatics, dance on the edge of a leaf. Really funny and witty, but also six years old. And he was like, “She's a child. She's six years old. She may have been trained. You know, like, you see children gymnasts who are capable of amazing things, or children Broadway performers, or child actors who've won the Academy Award, and they are amazing. They're still children, and that level of savant genius has a toll, generally.”
He kept being dissatisfied. He's like, “We've seen cartoon death child already. Like, what else have you got?”
So, I think Datu’s really different.
Mac, the father, really different. Because he's one of the only nurturing, moral male characters in the in the novel. And I think Carlos was just like, You know, give me more than brooding male / potential love interest.”
Earlier drafts, he definitely was Lanie's love interest, and I've moved far away from that. Because it is more interesting. Satisfying romantically is one thing, and what I kind of like to read and am inclined to write. But what is more intellectually and emotionally interesting now is different.
And he's like, “I don't think if one's sister has enslaved a man, got her child upon him, abused him in many ways, that it's very likely that that man will end up falling in love with you, unless it's super traumatic and ugly, you know?”
Like, he was just so repulsed by it in a way that was so different from every romance novel ever that takes a damaged man and puts it with your protagonist and by the end he's not as damaged because love has saved him, or whatever. Like all of those tropes that I grew up with.
So he kept saying that. He kept being dissatisfied. And, you know, his best friend Maggie once told me, “You have too high of an opinion of his high opinion.”
But the truth is I do want his high opinion so badly, and it tells me something when I can make him cry or laugh. Like, it's working. That's what I want.
And when I make him make a certain face like, this just isn't right! This doesn't feel good. “Give me something. Mac has to be better than that. You have to make him better.”
So he really turned into, in many ways, a moral center. He's wrong sometimes. But he thinks about it, comes back, and says, “I was wrong about that.” You know, he's actually capable of growth. He has such an interesting internal life. And he and Lanie become like brother and sister, true brother and sister almost in spite of everything that happened to them. Consciously, to make this decision to be family, that’s something that is a huge difference from brooding man who turns into a falcon, totally damaged, awesome, scarred, so hot, ends up being the love interest that lightheartedly, coyly flirts with you at the end sort of thing. I still have that Mac inside of me, but he doesn't fit anywhere in the future of Lanie Stones.
What does fit in is an increasingly interesting intimate. Not sibling the way she and her sister are siblings, but like, will be there for you if you need me. Always, and in both physical and spiritual ways.
And then, the Scratches…
There's like the huge major villain, which is the Blackbird Bride, which, I actually am a little in love with her, and I feel deep pity for her. But she's also, like, she just needs to be shaken some sense into, and she's not capable of being shaken sense into. She was not born that way.
But the Scratches are the villains on the ground, or at least the antagonists. They are definitely working against the Stoneses, for reasons that are both apparent and mysterious. There's the front reason, like, you owe us money. And then there's the deep-seated, like, your family versus my family a hundred years ago, feudal reasons.
But the nature of the scratches… They were very much like cartoon villains, and in the first draft, by the end, Lanie had turned them into like neon colored bunny rabbits. That was what her magic did. They ended up being a bunch of neon bunny rabbits that she sold to a circus or something like that. That was that story.
It is not that story anymore. There's no magic that turns anybody into neon colored bunny rabbits, and there are severe consequences to the Scratches doing things the way they do. Which is, you know, sometimes with violence, and sometimes with arrogance, or with coldness, or with an uncompromising vision. And not everybody survives that.
And the Scratches, once they have enough power to do so, change their name back to their true name, and they start to live by their own standards. They'd been sort of subsuming themselves for so many years, but like the nature of of culture and language again like they kind of represent a lot of that and they are very reasonable and and yet have been part of a people who have been very oppressed and downtrodden for. Hundred years so like there's a there's like they occupy a whole different space. So I would say those are the 3 and I blame Carlos for all of them but also just like living in the world a little longer than 27 years Ah also helped.
Yeah, I mean, I'll say one thing that I noticed a lot, reading the final version versus the the draft that I read so many years ago… because I think it was probably ten years ago that I read a draft of this.
For me, some of the things that stood out were just how much more real a lot of the world felt. And I don't mean like I could imagine being there, because I feel like you always have drawn worlds that I could imagine being in. They're very vivid. And your writing voice tends to draw people in that way. So it's normal to think, “Oh, I'm reading something by C. S. E. Cooney and I feel like I could just walk into this world.”
But the realness was more of this sort of like… The sense that all of this frivolity was happening in the harmony and contrast with oppression and suffering and what those things specifically meant and how they tied into each other and fed each other on multiple axes. And I don't know if part of that is just your deepening life experience or part of that is having feedback from different people. But I think, like, you were talking about the character of Mac, and how he changed from being just like a hot scarred hawk guy and into someone who has become in a lot of ways a moral center, and I think that I noticed that with Goody Graves as well.
In the draft that I remember first reading, Goody Graves was just sort of like a loyal retainer who was always there and liked Lanie. And that's great and cool, and it's also you know, unexpected that your loyal retainer is going to be an undead, stone, statue person. But in this draft you you learn a lot more about who she is and her backstory and what she is capable of doing or not doing, and it makes it feel that much more real and rich because you have a lot more — there's a lot more to chew on, I guess.
Yeah, Amal said when she read it —this will always stay with me, “It’s like I can see your stretch marks.” You know like she's read so much, like you, I feel like she can see all the layers. I don't think she ever read an earlier draft.
And I'm very aware of the draft you read, because you were the one who gave me the language of the many gendered god of fire, and I remember changing that because of how you were very gently like, “I don't think we use those words anymore.”
And then I started thinking about gender in a different way, because, at some point in our lives, we have to start. You know like if you don't know something, there's a point where you learn it, and that was the point where I learned like, oh, a fire god, a many-gendered god of fire makes it much more interesting and open and like less like, “Oh, I don't want to touch that…”
You know, like, you gave me my god of fire, Julia.
Oh, that's so nice! I love the way that worked out, by the way. And I really love that the inn that she sort of ends up working at has a history of having been a brothel at one point, and it's still actually there and informs the present of it today. And I love the character that's clearly Patty Templeton.
Dread! Yes, I want to write the novella that's mentioned in the footnote about Havoc Dreadnought. Havoc: the life and times of Havoc Dreadnoought, and how she… like there's a huge footnote about it, and yeah, I want that to be the title of a novella someday.
I guarantee you you will have a built-in readership for that.
Yeah, I love the school. So there's an inn, and on top of the inn is a bakery, and on top of the bakery is a school, and the the school part had been a brothel, but they leave a lot of the brothel trappings to sort of, the footnote says, to lure people into higher education. To lure the unsuspecting into higher education.
I feel like some of the cheekiness of the first draft, when I really just wanted to be Terry Pratchett and failed constantly. I'd lost a lot of the humor in many of the drafts to come, and then I just missed it so much that, very late in the drafting process… There was so much world-building and backstory that I wanted that didn't fit into the narrative flow, and so many jokes that I wanted to make that delighted me, so that's when the footnotes happened.
I was like, I have to cut all this, ooh, but I could put it in a footnote and then make it even funnier! So that's what I did and I feel like Jasper Fforde, Terry Pratchett Susannah Clarke, you know, I think they sort of give you permission to do footnotes.
And when I was younger, if a story had footnotes in it, I would actually not read them. It just didn't occur to me to do so. And I feel like if a younger person, or somebody who hates footnotes, read Saint Death’s Daughter through, they'd still get it without having to read the footnotes, but the footnotes are the parts that made me laugh out loud. And I don't easily respond to my own writing like that. But some of the footnotes still make me laugh.
And I have to say that's what Carlos says. When he's writing, if he can make himself laugh out loud, he knows it's working, because it's like tickling yourself. It's a lot harder to do.
Yeah, I 100% agree with that. Okay, so last Patron question is, “I would love to find out what it was like finding an agent and how your agent helps you in your career.”
Okay, yeah, it's so hard. I thought when I was first setting out to find an agent, I'm like, “I'm going to submit to an agent a day. No, five agents a day!” It's a numbers game —everybody says it's a numbers game— if you can get to a hundred submissions, your chances are so much higher than if you do ten submissions, but so is dating, they say. I don't know how similar or dissimilar they are, but what I found when I was submitting….
First of all, it's sort of like the cover letter and the synopsis takes a lot of eyes and brains. You definitely want to get some friends on it, especially friends who've already gone through the process. For doing the synopsis, if you have three friends who've read your book, basically what I ask them is, “Could each of you write your version of a synopsis of my book and send it to me?”
My friend Caitlyn is really good at that. So I think Carlos maybe did, and Caitlyn did, and I had my synopsis. And Caitlyn's really good at making my book sound like something somebody would want to read. I wrote a very stilted like, “And then, she very formally did this thing in an elucidating sort of way, and you know there was a villain…” or whatever. It just was very stiff, and she'd be like, “Kapow! Kablam! Exclamation point!”
I mean it all felt like an exclamation point. It felt like an actual back of a book, and by reading her synopsis, I saw what was important or what stood out, or like, “Oh that's what it feels like to write a compelling synopsis. I think she left a few important things out which I will slip in and try to do it more in her style…”
And then again if you have a third view, it's even better because then you can have a pretty hefty, true to the story synopsis in a way that you, as a writer, may be too close to write initially.
So I say cover letter, synopsis… And cover letter is much like a cover letter for a submission for a short story, where you give your credits. So you have to make yourself look like you're worth reading the first chapter of, I guess. Which doesn't necessarily mean that you have to have a bunch of credits to your name, but you just have to, I guess, be confident, or know who you are, or at least be polite and professional.
So anyway. All of that to say that I set out with this very what Caitlyn calls Big Book Energy. You know, I'm going to do all of this because it's a numbers game!
And I found that like after submitting one, I had this terrible headache. My stomach was a mess. I had to go lay down, and the whole day was shot, and I was like damn it this is not how you win a numbers game! But I couldn't, emotionally, make myself do more than one a day, very rarely more than one a week, so it was a very, for me, slow process. I Still don't know, if I have to do it again, how would I do it. Because it would just… I'd hope I'd be tougher now. And I'd hope I'd make better lists and do things better, but actually I think it will always be hard, and it's what mood people are in how overwhelmed they are, how much they might like the thing that you're writing. And, boy, like books are so personal and so intimate.
So I would say that I sent it out to a lot of people. I got very few responses. Some of the responses I got quick were just, “This is not for me. Didn't catch my interest.” And you try to think, “Ah, I didn't catch their interest. I am boring. Nobody loves me.”
Eventually, I got a great response from one of the submission editors at New Leaf, I think they're called. I loved every single agent bio that I read, I loved their mission statement, I was like, “Oh, these people! I want these people to read my book and love me!”
And it got to the submissions editor or agent, the one who reads things before they send it up to the main agent, like kind of to get you past the slush pile, and she just wrote back with such enthusiasm! And she's like, “I'm going to set it up to my boss right away!”
Even just that stage, even to get any kind of feedback of that tone of voice that I'd been waiting for… I want the people who represent me to have that tone of voice! And it did get passed up to her agent, and I think she even was reading it, but I think she had a baby and a lot of things.
And in that interim, when she was reading it and having a baby and life was happening, Markus Hoffmann at Regal Hoffmann & Associates also read it. And he was a suggestion of a writing friend, who said, “This is my agent. I really like him. just tell him I sent you.” So that was a kind of a Who You Know moment. It was Audrey Niffenegger, who I had met once at Columbia College Chicago. We were on a panel together. She had been a teacher there and I had been a student. She wrote The Time Traveler's Wife.
So we were Facebook friends, but we had had literally no interaction since that one panel we were on, where we were on a panel but didn't really talk to each other, we just talked with each other. And she saw on Facebook when I was like, “Oh, this agent quest, it's such a slog.” You know, how one does when one's on an agent quest.
She private messaged me and she said, “Try Regal Hoffman. I didn't know you didn't have an agent.” You know, like, tell him I sent you…
So Marcus got back to me and he wrote an email. He said, “I quite like the first 50 pages. May I see the rest?” And then he wrote an email saying, “I would love to talk to you to tell you about this agency.”
When I talked to him, I just loved him immediately. He said all the right things, and in such a tone of voice, very European. He's German, and just gentle and warm and really incisive, and had great questions, and… It's like that kind of person you want on your team, that he'll be the editor before your editor gets to you. He'll be the editor who makes the draft that makes the the publication happen. So just on all of those levels, I really clicked.
So I wrote to the people at New Leaf, who still had my manuscript. I was like, “I'm sorry, I'm going with another agency.”
And that agent had just read it and said, “Oh, I just finished it! I was about to write to you.” So I feel this very warm radiant feeling toward New Leaf, and I think I feel like if I had gone a little further in the process, maybe would have not been so emotionally wrecked by it, I would have gotten better at it. I would have gotten a tighter and tighter synopsis and cover letter. You know, it might have taken 50 or 100 more, but I think eventually it would have happened. That it happened this fast, I think, was due to the shortcuts of going to conventions, being on panels, that whole networking web that happens that you think will never happen that it's really hard to make happen on purpose.
But Gene Wolfe once told me, “You know, all networking means is making friends.” And you don't really make friends with this cold eye of calculation of what your friends will do for you someday, you just sort of make friends who all love the things you love writing and reading, you know, and then sometimes somebody knows somebody who knows somebody, and that's one way to do it. But I think the other way also works. It just takes longer and has a toll.
So I would say, working with my agent is amazing. I sometimes like think of him as like a ninja elven prince. Yeah, that's the space in my brain he occupies. He's sly, he likes things like talking up my book, and making deals, and like, going to parties. Things that I don't really know how to do, and don't really want to know how to do. he has people who do the contracts like, “Markus, can you look at this contract because it's scary?” And then he'll look at it, and he does things that I can't. I don't have the tool set, and I'm so, so grateful.
And as Carlos and I have done some collaborative projects, It's been really fun, because Carlos's agent is DongWon Song and mine is Markus Hoffmann, but they used to almost work together at one point. They knew each other! And they met at a house party at our house, and they're like, “What are you doing here?” So they get to work together sometimes on mutual contracts and it's really nice that they already had a kind of warm, friendly relationship.
Oh, that is nice. So how long would you say it took from the time you started sending queries out until the time you ended up with an agent?
It's it's really hard to say because, like at one point I had sent it to an agent and he suggested these edits, so that took me six months to make the edits and turn it back in. He suggested more edits, and at that point, I thought, “Ooh. I liked the first round of edits a lot, but the second set of edits sounds like the book he wants is not the book I want to write.” And so I gently backed away very amicably and then started submitting again.
And then there maybe comes a time where it's like, “Oh, I can't believe I ever thought that draft was worth submitting. I think I need to just sit down and rework it.” You know? So it was a lot of stops and starts, and it was years. I think I started submitting it at the fourth draft and it wasn't until like draft eight that it got an agent. That's at least a draft a year, so I would say maybe four years for that one.
Some people don't ever start submitting until they are totally sure they're done. Me, I'm like totally sure I'm done after my first draft, and then two weeks later I'm like, “What was I thinking?” And you know then twelve years later it's ready…
Okay, well thank you so much for talking to me about this. We didn't talk about your career as an Audiobook narrator at all, which is a sort of a separate thing from your writing career. Except for when you narrate your own books.
Yes, thank goodness.
And so I want to close this out by asking how was the experience of narrating this novel as a narrator who is also the writer of the book? Did you always know it was going to be you? Did you really want it to be you? And what was the whole experience like?
That's a great question, and it has a complicated answer, so forgive me beforehand. So, if I could have gotten a world class, phenomenal, powerful narrator like one of the ones I listen to all the time, like Kate Reading, for example. Or who's the really famous one? Simon Vance. You know, somebody of that caliber. Then I would totally have wanted somebody else to narrate my audiobook.
But most narrators are like me, where we're pretty good. We make a living, or we would make a living if we lived in a small town and had two roommates. But since I'm married to Carlos, you know, I make a living as far as I'm concerned, but not like a New York City living. Anyway, so if somebody is just going to be very good, and I know I'm pretty good, and I know how to pronounce all my made up words. So that part of my narrating writing brain is like, “I should probably do it unless they get somebody extraordinary.”
Which sounds… I don't know how it sounds, but that's how my brain works.
Now, Carlos, and my mother, and a couple people who love me very much have agitated strongly from the beginning that no matter if they got Kate Reading or Simon Vance, I should still be the one to narrate it, which I fight against because there's a part of me that is not arrogant enough to think that that my text couldn't be improved upon by somebody else. I would be eager to listen to a different interpretation. It's easier to listen to somebody else's voice than my own, even though I like my voice just fine.
All of that to say, when we made this deal, Rebellion seemed very excited. They like having authors narrate their own work and that had been kind of a handshake agreement. And earlier this year, as we're getting closer to publication, it ran into some snags. Like, it's pretty expensive to hire a US narrator. They have people in-house. They have deals going on. So it was almost that I couldn't narrate it and they had some pretty good narrators lined up, and I was like, “Okay, well just make sure that they call me so I can give them the pronunciations of the words I made up.”
But I was unhappy, I think, in that moment because I had been looking forward to it. for two years I'd sort of had it in my head I was going to do it. I'd been prepping for it, and so that felt like a little like, “Oh it's not going to happen. Okay.” And I had to readjust my thinking.
But over the pandemic, instead of commuting to Connecticut to do my studio recording for Tantor Audio, they have a working relationship with a small studio that's just three miles from me, which I can walk to. Three miles is a big difference from a three hour commute to Connecticut and staying overnight for three or four days, which is what I'd been doing for the two or three years since I'd moved here before the pandemic.
So I told my agent and Rebellion. I was like, “Well, there's this little studio I work with. They do all this amazing professional production work for all of these different companies. Here are their rates. Here's their email. Maybe we could work something out.”
And the next thing I knew, they're like, “Okay, you're recording next week.”
So whatever they worked out, whatever my agent did, and whatever all of the powers that be… Because of the pandemic, and because of this relationship, and maybe because I wrote the right email at the right time, all of this worked out so that I could I could actually record my audiobook.
So it was a bit of a roller coaster right at the end, and it was right up at the edge of time of when we could record it to have it out concurrently with the book. All of which to say that I didn't have as much prep time as I had wanted, and yet I have been prepping for twelve years at this point.
I wanted to make every day in the studio more than usually special. I really wanted to say this is the end of a very long journey of many drafts and many despairs and a lot of leveling up.
And yet it felt like another day. If I didn't pay super close attention, it would just be another grinding week at the studio, and I didn't want that. So every day I dressed up to match the section of the book that I was going to be recording. I wore like a different little perfume that had a note of citrus in it because citrus is the smell of necromancy in my book, and I wore a piece of jewelry that usually a friend or a loved one had given me that had to do with the book.
I really tried to make it not just a recording, but a celebration of a decade and a half of work. And it was a blessing, in that sense, to record my work, and to look at it in its final form, and to say, “Ah, well, this was a thing, and this is what that thing looks like, and now it's in my mouth, and it's for you in your ears for all of posterity.”
And that's something, because you know we still listen to W. B. Yeats at the beginning of the twentieth century reading his work in his own voice. There are probably better actors to read his work, but it is something to have his poems and his own voice. And so now we have this work in my voice, and I feel that in this human pageant, it's something that is super special. Very pleased.
I think it's great. I loved it, and I think you're a wonderful narrator. I think you're not giving yourself enough credit.
Oh, but not British, Julia!
Well, no, you're not British, but you are someone with a huge background in theater, and training, and also a large amount of experience at this point in narration, and you know your stories better than anyone, because you did spend all of your twelve years refining this particular book.
That's what Carlos says, so you and Carlos… if you and Carlos say it, I know that you're both more right than I am because I trust your brains.
I thought it was a wonderful experience listening to you read it, and if you're listening to this podcast and you like listening to things, go ahead and pick up the audiobook of Saint Death's Daughter, because it is really wonderful. If you like to read things on the page, the text is also there for you, and that is also wonderful. But if you like listening to Claire's voice, get that audiobook.
Thank you Claire and, thank you so much for taking all of this time to talk to us and answer all of our questions.
Thank you so much. Julia.
I hope everybody goes out and reads your wonderful book, which is full of horrifying things, and also great bits of humor, and wonderful humanity.
Thanks so much for listening. If you want to have the chance to ask your own questions, or request specific kinds of posts from me, consider joining my patreon which is at patreon.com/juliarios, or my substack, which is at omgjulia.substack.com All patrons and subscribers get early access to every piece of creative work I commission from other creators in my Worlds of Possibility project, and your pledges and subscriber fees go directly to help pay for those stories and poems, and for the cost of my equipment and my labor, because recording these interviews, and then editing the transcripts and editing the recordings and making them podcast-ready for you takes a lot of time and effort!
I am a little later on this one than I had intended to be because I got COVID again! Oops! So that’s why my voice sounds a little hoarse right now. Luckily, I was able to get antivirals, so that is fine, and I am doing better, but it kind of threw a wrench in things and it really made me realize how much time and effort this kind of thing takes. It takes a lot!
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And I’m in the middle of accepting all the pieces I am going to accept for this wave of Worlds of Possibility, and I have some GREAT stories to share with you, so I can’t wait to get into that, too.
Thank you for listening, and I’ll catch you next time!
Thanks for listening, and I’ll catch you next time.