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A Chat with Cherie Priest
by Catherine Book
January 4, 2013
Cherie’s first book in her Clockwork Century series, Boneshaker, won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award, the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, and was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Novel.  It was followed by Dreadnought and Ganymede and, most recently, The Inexplicables which came out in November of last year.

Cherie and I were supposed to get together while she was touring in Arizona last November.  Unfortunately, our meeting was a casualty of her tour schedule; such things happen.  But Cherie was most gracious, offering to do a phone interview at a later time.  Holiday schedules finally behind us, we recently found some time.

Her website started as a blog so that’s where we started.  She’s been blogging since late 2011.  Initially, her blog was very important to her budding career as she was ‘discovered’ by an indie publisher through her live journal.  That indie press brought her first book deal her way.  It went poorly but it put her ‘on the radar’ and she ended up going with Tor.  Blogging became important to her because her writing tended (as it does for many) to contribute to a sense of being cut-off from people.  The internet became a way to connect to others who liked to do what she liked to do. 

But it wasn’t the first thing she ever wrote.  Cherie’s been telling stories to anyone who would listen since she was five.  It’s, literally, all she’s ever wanted to do.  In her high school yearbook, she wrote “save this until I’m a rich and famous writer and it will be worth some money.”  As she laughingly put it, it was either this or marry well.  She did, she chuckled, marry well just not well-thy. 

At the time of her ‘discovery’ she was working at the Chattanooga Times Free Press, producing advertising but when her career really took off, she was working at a local tech company that did online warehousing software.  She’s had other jobs here and there but it’s been eighteen months without a day job; which was just as well as she and her husband just moved from Seattle back to Tennessee.

So, basic question:  what were her influences?  Mostly 19th century gothic stuff.  Interestingly enough, Cherie didn’t grow up reading a lot fiction.  Her mother only allowed Christian fiction in the house but her father found a little work-around in that she was allowed to read fiction by deceased authors.  So, she was exposed to for Edgar Allen Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle and, amazingly – Lovecraft.  College gave her the freedom to read more broadly. 

And how does she actually write?  Does she have a routine?  She laughed and said that had someone told her a few years ago that a day could be eaten up just doing the ‘business’ of writing – without actually writing anything – she wouldn’t have believed it.  But now, sometimes whole weeks get eaten up.  She’s past the need to quit a day job to make time for writing and is now in the position where she needs an assistant so she can make time for writing.  But she praised her agent who keeps her sane by handling all the paperwork.  Even her email can suck up large amounts of time.  Oh yeah, and then there’s book tours and conventions… but when she’s home she tries to spend the morning dealing with household stuff and paperwork in the hopes that the afternoon will be free and clear to write.  But on a good day, she can write for five or six hours. 

I asked her if she had a specific approach to her work.  Yes, sorta…she equivocated.  While she’s not an author who will write a 500-page outline for a 300-page book, or one who can write totally by-the-seat-of-her-pants, she does keep notebooks.  She does loose sketches of characters or storylines or lists and keeps them on clipboards.  And while she might write up a proposal for a publisher it often ends up …kinda looking like the same thing but not quite.  So sometimes she goes off the rails but she credits her Tor editor for watching out for her and being forgiving.

And what’s most important in her stories?  Plot, characters, setting?  She felt it depends on the story.  For example, she related, she’s seen great short stories that were basically character sketches and ones that were puzzle-plot mysteries.  It depends on the story you’re trying to tell, she told me firmly, she didn’t feel there was one right answer to that question.  So, if that’s true of Cherie, did she feel that she focused on different aspects in different stories? What would be her strengths?  Well, she allowed, if there was one thing she did tend to focus on, it would be characters.  She loves people and loves talking to people and she felt she was pretty strong on dialogue but she doesn’t always have chatty characters so that doesn’t help.  A balance, she finally said – the writer needs a balance of all those elements.

So, how about research?  How did she fit that in – all up front or ongoing?  Some up front, of course; but the Internet is always there.  How the hell did anyone do research before the Internet, she wondered?  As it turns out, Cherie confesses to being a really big nerd for local history.  It tends to be, she asserts, more weird than anything she could make up.  Sure, there are always big books that cover strange stories but the weirdest are the little stories that are still talked about in small towns.  Those are her favorites and she loves to collect little regional ghost stories from small presses.  She can get really great ideas from them.  And what’s really amusing is when her fans come back to her with comments about how she really went too far with an idea or story and that it just couldn’t have happened that way.  But it did; that part was the real part.  As she put it:  stories have to make sense but history doesn’t.  A really fun challenge for her is to take that history and force it to make sense.

Can she work on multiple projects?  In a perfect world, she would prefer to work on one thing at a time and because she can work quickly she can often get away with it.  But life has a way of piling things on top of one.  She recalled that a couple years ago, while she still had a day job with a video game company, she had to travel a lot and had book contracts at the same time.  That was an incredibly stressful and miserable time trying to get it all done.  There are just times when one doesn’t have a choice.

Cherie wrote three urban fantasy books early on:  Four and Twenty Blackbirds, Wings to the Kingdom, and Not Flesh nor Feathers (Tor, 2005-2007).  I was curious if she ever planned to revisit that series.  The first two were written in Chattanooga, she related, and the third in Seattle.  They were just recently released in the UK and are getting good reviews.  She said that while they hadn’t sold well in the US, if the UK sales are good enough and there’s a call for more, she would ‘totally’ go back to them.  She describes them as ‘monster-of-the-week’ stories.  Cherie has never been a fan of epic series, she prefers her little ‘monster’ stories.  She felt the move from Tennessee to Washington really hurt the series.  They were a southern-gothic series and she wasn’t in the south to promote the second and third books.

And what about her steampunk stories?  She really likes steampunk and thinks it’s a lot of fun.  She grew up on Victorian stories (remember Poe?) and she has lots and lots of fun twisting history to suit herself.  Steampunk has been very kind to her and, as she says, she’d be a fool to walk away from it.  So, as long as her fans enjoy reading them, she’ll continue to produce them.

Gentle readers:  you might not know this but Cherie was a contributor in George R.R. Martin’s Wildcard mosaic books.  Now, these books are a genre of their own:  comicbook heros and antiheros in books put together by several authors where the reader does not know where one writer’s contribution ends and another’s begins.  But how on earth did a Tennessee girl transplanted to Washington ever hook up with a New Mexico writing team?  Cherie related how one day she received a package from Martin himself – a copy of Inside Straight and letter that explained he was looking for new talent for the Wildcard consortium and she had been recommended to him.  So she was invited to pitch characters at him and eventually she badgered him into letting her write the interstitial story for Fort Freak.  I had to go look up that word:  interstitial.  In this context it pretty much means filling in the spaces between other people’s stories.  Cherie mentioned that it is usually given to a more established member of the group.  I’m impressed that George gave it her; he obviously liked her concept.  She thinks she just wore him down.  She really wants another chance; the next book will not have her because she was involved in her move when it was coming together.  But she has a short story in Martin’s lap right now and she’s hopeful that it might be included in the future; she definitely wants to pitch for the book after that.

I asked her if she had a favorite story or character.  As most do, she demurred, saying it would be like picking a favorite child.  But she relented and related that her favorite story is a lesser-known story published by Subterranean Press, “Those Who Went, Remain There Still” which is still available as an e-book on their site.  It was loosely based on a family legend from her mother’s side.  It was a ghost story with a haunted cave, Daniel Boone’s ghost and some other weird crap.  It’s written with three points of view, around the turn of the century (20th, I’d guess); it’s a monster story, it’s a ghost story, and it’s a little weird and dear to her.

Aside from that, what is she most proud of?  Fort Freak, interestingly enough.  She got to write about a cop in his sixties, and credits GRRM with teaching her how to write a mystery.  She laughed and said that if there were a way to hold that story by a magnet, it would be up on her refrigerator.  It was the project of a lifetime and immensely challenging.

What’s in her future?  Any particular project she wants to work on?  Oh sure, she said: having the ideas is never the problem.  Having the time and energy is always the problem, she sighed.  The next steampunk story is coming out in late fall or early winter of 2013; the title is “Fiddlehead.”  There’s so much up in the air right now, some of which can’t yet be talked about.  She’d love to get back to ghost stories – she’s a huge fan of ghost stories.  Since she now lives in an old Victorian house, there must be stories to tell from that.  This is not a lifestyle for someone who values stability.  But what fun there is!

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