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Author Q&A: Steven Harper

Novelist Steven Harper (In the Company Mind, Corporate Mentality) discusses what sets writing supernatural fiction apart from other fiction writing.
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When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?

Weirdly, I didn’t really have a moment when I knew. I’ve been writing since I was old enough to hold a pencil, but to me, writers were people who lived in exotic places like Miami or New York or San Francisco. They didn’t live in backwoods Michigan, feeding one end of a horse and shoveling up what came out of the other. I didn’t learn until years later that many writers did live where I did and grew up doing exactly that. Even so, I didn’t know anyone who actually wrote for money, and I had no idea how to go about getting published. So I wrote for myself.

What was the first thing you ever wrote?

That would be a science fiction novel about a boy who was kidnapped off a sailboat by aliens living under the ocean. I was eight years old, and I worked on that book for two or three years. The manuscript has since disappeared. If I found it now, I’d probably both squirm with embarrassment and be charmed by this window to my past self.

If you mean the first thing I wrote for publication, I sold an article about raising rabbits to The Mother Earth News when I was thirteen years old, believe it or not. It started when I wrote a letter to the editor. I included my age under my signature, and the editor wrote back to say he was impressed with my writing ability and if I ever wanted to query him with something, I should. I was raising rabbits at the time, so I wrote a query letter (based on the editor’s helpful instructions). The editor gave the go-ahead for the article, which excited me hugely. I wrote the article in two weeks, and they bought it. Even so, I thought it was a fluke—I was only thirteen and didn’t think of myself as a professional writer, but in retrospect, I certainly was!

What are your five favorite books and why?

Jumper by Steven Gould: A great adventure story with an entirely empathetic, hugely likeable main character. You’ll want to be Davy’s best friend from the first page.

Wild Seed by Octavia E. Butler: Best. Book. Ever. Everyone raves about Kindred, but this one is much better. Octavia Butler is the master at yanking you into her story and never letting go, and then when you start noticing the themes and symbols, the story becomes more breathtaking.

The Catch Trap by Marion Zimmer Bradley: The best character novel I’ve ever read. It made me laugh and cry and ache and want to go into the book to live with these people. I slipped references to this into my book Trickster after Marion died.

From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain by Minister Faust: Most creative way to write a book in all history. How the heck did Faust come up with the idea of doing a self-help book for super-heroes? And how did he manage to work an intricate, character-driven plot into it? I stand in awe. You have to read this one, even if you’re not a super-hero fan.

Watership Down by Richard Adams: If you haven’t heard of this one, you spent your life in a cave on Mars. Go get it. Right now.

What piece of advice have you received over the course of your career that has had the biggest impact on your success?

Marion Zimmer Bradley impressed on me the importance of taking a professional attitude toward writing. This meant: 1) Writing every day. 2) Submitting manuscripts. 3) Listening to editor feedback. 4) Writing some more. This attitude has kept me going forward, even when I didn’t want to write, and gotten me to finish projects I wouldn’t otherwise have completed.

What do you think is the main thing that sets writing a paranormal or supernatural novel apart from writing other kinds of fiction?

The need to explain the magic. It’s the biggest challenge, really. It’s so easy to use big expository lumps, but that bores the reader. On the other hand, you can explore fantastic themes and ideas that other kinds of fiction don’t get to touch.

What message do you find yourself repeating over and over to writers?

Write it, finish it, send it out. You can’t get published if you don’t do all three.

What's the worst kind of mistake that new writers, freelancers, or book authors can make?

Paying someone to publish your book for you. Remember, the money flows toward the writer. No exceptions. This mantra will keep you free from 99% of all publishing scams.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Ha! I’m a single dad with three sons. I don’t get to have a typical day. I teach high school English, so I do that during the day, get home at the same time my boys do, supervise their daily chores, oversee homework, run them to appointments, sports, or music lessons, handle squabbles and other unexpected difficulties, and try to get a decent supper on the table. After dinner, the boys settle into their own thing, and I can get to my keyboard for a couple hours, though I’m regularly interrupted. I once set a timer and discovered that during a three-hour writing time, a kid came in every eight minutes, on average. I enforce bedtime rigidly because I can get an hour of interruption-free writing time once they’re asleep. Interruptions from my youngest taper off the closer to bedtime we get because he knows I might not notice the clock and accidentally late him stay up late.

What’s the one thing in your writing life you can’t live without?

My computer. I dropped my typewriter the moment PCs became available and never looked back. I’d cry if I had to give up my computer.

Name one thing you’d like to see change about the publishing industry.

I’d get rid of the return system. No other industry allows retailers to destroy unsold merchandise and get credit for it. Publishing started this in the 1930s because the Depression was hurting book orders, but those days are long over. There’s no reason to continue it today.

In what way (if any) has your writing/publishing life changed in the past 5 years?

Becoming a single father had a significant impact on my writing time. I’ve had to become even more efficient than I did after becoming “just” a father. Electronic publishing has also changed the publishing world enormously. I recently joined Book View Cafe (http://www.bookviewcafe.com), a co-op of professional authors who sell their work on-line. We offer our backlist electronically and have also published several original anthologies. The Internet has truly exploded into the publishing worlds in the last few years.

Do you have any advice for new writers on building an audience?

Write the most enjoyable stories you can, and keep going! If you land a series, remember that most people read multiple books because they care about the characters and want to know what’s going on in their lives.

What about advice for writers seeking agents?

Visit the web site for the American Association of Authors’ Representatives (http://aaronline.org/). Use their search engine to match yourself up with agents who represents your genre of fiction, visit the agents’ web sites to see what kind of submissions they want, and follow their instructions to the letter!

If you weren’t a writer what would you want to be?

I’d still be a dad and a teacher. I’d probably fill my writing time with more time at the harp, and play at weddings and parties again. I don’t do that anymore because I don’t have time!

Any final thoughts?

Octavia Butler said it best: Persist.

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