Eyeballs and Angel Blood: A Talk With Local Fantasy Author Sara M. Harvey

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Sara M. Harvey
  • Sara M. Harvey
I had been saying, half-jokingly, "I'm going to interview every sci-fi/fantasy/horror writer in Tennessee." Pause. "OK, I interviewed Elizabeth McClellan; my work here is done."

But it turns out that there are published sci-fi/fantasy/horror writers other than McClellan working in Tennessee and that some of them live right here in Nashville — for instance, Sara M. Harvey. My introduction to her was the last installment in her "Blood of Angels" series, The Tower of the Forgotten, which was released last year.

Harvey's life seems well suited to a fantasy writer. She is a clothing historian by day — she told me that she has a lecture on the history of underwear that is very popular. And she used to be a tour guide for The Nashville Ghost Tours.

This background shows in her work. The Blood of Angels books feature ghosts as well as women in elaborate steampunk costumes. Even before I knew her background, I noticed that when she writes about clothing, rather than focusing on how squished and prominent women's boobs look in corsets — if you read a lot of fantasy, you know what I'm talking about — she talks a lot about how it feels to move in a corset. It's just a small detail, but it's one of those things that sets her apart.

After our interview, I read Harvey's novel Seven Times a Woman, her take on old Japanese kitsune legends. If you want to support her as a local author but are nervous about tackling a whole trilogy about ghostly Nephilim with grody eyeball issues — though I will warn you that if you skip it, you're missing out on a delicious villain — Seven Times a Woman is a lovely book that even Nashvillians who aren't big fantasy fans will enjoy.

Join us below the jump for a discussion that ranges from The Hunger Games vs. Battle Royale to promoting yourself — and oh yeah, the aforementioned grody eyeball issues.

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You've written a trilogy (The Convent of the Pure, The Labyrinth of the Dead and The Tower of the Forgotten) that I read and then had to prevent my mom from running off with over the Easter weekend. In each book, there's some horrible eyeball thing, which I cannot even think too much about without getting the heebie-jeebies. Your books contain Nephilim and angels and demons and magical children, so I want to call them fantasy, but there's creepy eyeball yuck and enough tentacles to make H.P. Lovecraft feel at home. So do you consider yourself a fantasy writer who just rummages through horror's cabinets and borrows ingredients as needed, or do you see yourself as maybe sitting more squarely on the line between fantasy and horror? Who and what are your influences?

I'd say that were I to qualify myself, it would be as a fantasy author. Only because fantasy is so broad. I have read interviews and reviews and such that call me a horror author and I cannot disagree, though. But it is not how I think of myself, exactly. I certainly can and will rummage in anyone's cabinets, closets, laboratories, coffins and pockets, be they horror, sci-fi, romance, or mainstream fiction.

As for influences, I read the original Grimm's fairy tales as a child, complete with eyeball-pecking and toe-hacking and red-hot-iron-shoes-wearing. I was pretty much ruined after that. Couple this with watching Fantasy Island and The Twilight Zone where fantasy, sci-fi and horror all intersect frequently, and you can start to see how I got to be a genre-bending type of writer. As a teenager I read Stephen King, Anne Rice and Francesca Lia Block passionately and obsessively. I grew up to be an enormous fan of Jacqueline Carey and Neil Gaiman. I am currently really fond of Cherie Priest and Catherynne Valente.

So while I naturally tend towards really plush writing more in the mode of Anne Rice and Jacqueline Carey and Catherynne Valente, I use the spare make-every-word-count influences of Stephen King, Neil Gaiman and Cherie Priest to keep me honest, so to speak. I'd like to think that I hit a happy medium: sensual, catch-you-up-in-the-moment writing that doesn't overwhelm.

Also in that trilogy, I aimed for a single scene in each book to be a gross-out moment that I could hardly stand to write myself. And eyeball trauma is a phobia of my friend, Elizabeth Donald (who categorizes herself as a horror writer). So those scenes were my way of getting back at her/thanking her for naming the main character of her zombie series after me.

Since we're talking about genre, can you say a little something about what attracted you to fantasy? Do you find working within a genre with such well-established tropes and constraints makes it hard to be creative, or is there something about the structure that makes being creative a little easier, since there are all those tropes to play with?

Fantasy is such a broad category. I have heard mainstream fiction types blow it off because "you can make anything up," but that is simply not true. There are very strict internal rules, both within the larger genre itself and also within the framework of the specific story. For me, a story is hardly interesting without magic (unless it is historical fiction and then it isn't interesting without costumes). I like to take the established and tweak it. For example, I loved taking a magic system based on Catholicism and saint worship, putting it into a steampunk setting, and using it in a traditional fantasy quest-type plot. For me, the rules are meant to be bent and/or broken.

I used to try and shy away from the tropes, but then I realized that was stupid, that these tropes are part of what make fantasy what it is. The reason tropes become cliches is because people take them for granted. A clever author and a skilled one can take established plotlines and scenarios and turn then around, add a new accessories and come up with a whole new look. Those tropes are still there, but they are being approached in a new way.

And what draws me to fantasy is the magic, is the supernatural, the unknown that might be right beneath our noses if we just ever bothered to look. I turn to fantasy to make people wonder and look twice at the world they live in. And that's something mainstream fiction can't accomplish, not in the same way.

Speaking of fantasy tropes and archetypes, this is my very favorite review ever — an essay deconstructing The Convent of the Pure via Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces. It is a thing of beauty. ^_^

When we met for coffee, I asked you about Richard Kadrey's Sandman Slim series, in which the main character, James Stark, is a Nephilim with a dead girlfriend he rescues from the realm of the dead and who ends up getting an angel grafted to his soul, which, though they are very different characters in very different books, is pretty good description of your main character, Portia Gyony. Both first books came out at the same time and you guys don't know each other; it's simply impossible that either of you somehow "stole" this from the other. We talked a little about how this is one of the drawbacks to writing in a genre — that people come up with the same ideas. I was glad to have read both series because I thought it was really cool to see how two very different writers approached the same premise, without knowing it, and ending up in two very different places. But you said something in passing that I think my readers would find really interesting. You said that this experience of learning about Kadrey's character has changed your mind about the Hunger Games/Battle Royale controversy. Could you say a little bit about what you meant by that?

So everyone's talking about the whole Hunger Games/Battle Royale thing and how Suzanne Collins swears she never read or even heard of Battle Royale and how NO ONE BELIEVES HER. Me among them. Until you start telling me about this Sandman Slim thing and I'm like "Oh, it's kinda like my series but urban fantasy...whattaya mean there's angel soul-grafting???????????" And I have not read these books, I had never heard of Kadrey before, and yeah...wow. Somewhere someone was on the same page as I was ... the exact same page, as the similarities are eerie. They are still vastly different books, though, which is also true for The Hunger Games and Battle Royale.

And that was really, REALLY eye-opening. If I can come up with a Nephilim headed to the underworld to rescue a dead girlfriend and getting an angel soul melded on in the process and so can Kadrey, then I am 100 percent positive two people can separately come up with teenagers killing each other in the world's most brutal reality TV series. It's one of those weird synchronicity things that everyone dismisses as impossible, until it happens to you.

Now, if only I were as famous as Richard Kadrey ... or even half as famous as Suzanne Collins.

Could you tell us a little about your process? Do you work a story out in your head before writing? Are you an outliner? Or are you one of those folks who starts to write in order to figure out what they're writing about?

I do both. I generally have a rough idea of where I want a story to go and I sometimes will make basic outlines. These outlines rarely resemble the finished product, though. I really need to write to get the flow going, let the story unfold as I go. It's all inside my head from word one to "The End," it's just a matter of getting it out on paper. Sometimes outlines harm more than they help, they can hold me back if things start to take another direction and I feel like I have to stock to the outline I created. The only times I will definitely outline something is if I have a wonderful idea that is several projects away and I'm afraid I will forget too much if I don't commit it to writing somewhere. I have one of those right now, and I need to outline it because it got away from me once already and I don't want that to happen again.

One of the things I really love about these particular books is how you build your world. We're dropped into this story after it's already started and we're kind of running to catch up and figure out what's going on. But you do such a nice job of making that world rich, even though there's no Tolkien-esque moment of, "And here's the whole history of everyone even remotely involved in my story, going back 9,000 years." How did you do that? I mean, I know that's kind of a big question, but the world feels big and rich without feeling cluttered, and I wonder if that's intentional.

The cop-out answer is, "I just do." It's hard to explain in a paragraph or two. I come from a theater background, so I am a very visual writer but also a very physical one. We talked about my descriptions of how people move and what things feel like. I have also done a fair bit of playwriting where all one has to work with is dialogue and basic stage directions. I think every good author should write plays or comic books for a little while: it really makes for a tighter, lighter touch in descriptions.

That's not to say I don't love me some sweeping Tolkien-esque descriptions now and again. But as I have matured in my writing, I have found that isn't as necessary as I once thought it was. (Please note, I am not calling Tolkien or his writing immature — but for me, I had to grow a lot in my craft before I realized that not every single thing I was working on had to be a grand, sweeping, epic fantasy with long paragraphs of descriptions that went on forever. There is a time and a place for Tolkien-esque writing, but it took me a little while to realzie that "on every page" wasn't it!)

So using my drama background, I really try and think about how actors establish a scene — body language and other non-verbal cues, dialogue, monologue/soliloquy, and that sort of thing. I try to incorporate that type of sensory awareness into my writing, because a lot of it goes unnoticed by the conscious brain but creates wonderful world-building in the subconscious brain. As a reader, you are automatically relating to experiences and imagery without realizing it. It's sneaky and psychological, and I am so glad it works. I can't adequately explain just how I do it, but that is what goes on in my mind when I am writing.

The illustrations! Wow. What a really lovely treat! How did that come about, and can you tell us a little about the artist?

My artist is the wonderful fellow Nashvillian Melissa Gay. I met Melissa through the convention scene here in town and we hit it off immediately. So when I was asked for input about my cover art, I offered Jason Sizemore over at Apex Publications my short list. It had one name on it: hers.

The good news is that Melissa had worked with Apex before and that she was a fan of my work. I asked her if she had room in her schedule and if she was interested; she said yes. I asked Sizemore if he'd be okay with her as my artist; he said no. Before he even got a chance to discuss it further with either of us, Melissa already had her preliminary concept sketch for The Convent of the Pure in his inbox. He pretty much had to say yes at that point.

Another reason I was really adamant about Melissa is that she is equally talented with richly detailed and colorful acrylics as she is with black-and-white ink drawings, and we wanted interior art with each book. So each novella has four illustrations included. This is the main advantage to buying the paperbacks as opposed to the ebooks. Ebooks do not come with pictures! This is one of the drawings Melissa did, but that didn't fit into book two, The Labyrinth of the Dead.

Melissa has a magic ability to see exactly what I see when I imagine what I am writing. I do not know how she does it, but I am so very glad that she does!

What are you working on now?

I am bouncing between two projects. The first a YA fantasy series that I call a cross between American Gods and The Golden Compass with some Dune and Lovecraft thrown in. The other is a more "standard" urban fantasy set in Nashville.

We hear a lot about the importance of self-promotion, especially online. Do you have an online strategy? Is an online strategy inherently corny?

My online strategy is to be as awesome as possible so folks will want to buy my books. I try to be funny, witty, pithy, and one of the cool kids on Facebook. I have no idea if I even come close, so I generally just be myself and hope for the best. The trick with online promotion is finding that balance between "This is who I am" and "Buy my books." No one likes that author who has nothing to contribute to the Internet but sales pitches. I try not to mass invite *everyone* on my friends list to book signings, I don't use birthday messages as advertisements for my work, and I certainly have never tagged all my more-famous-than-I-am author friends on my book-cover uploads in hopes that it'll post to their walls and generate buzz. I have had this done to me (more than once ... more than twice, actually) and it's amateurish, not to mention rude. Pro-tip: DON'T.

Just be yourself, talk about the stuff that's relevant to you, and don't clog the airwaves with nothing but sales pitches and you'll be all right.

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