Interview with Jess and Keith Flaherty, authors of Always Darkest – Book I in the Arbitratus Trilogy

Who are you?

Keith and Jess:  We are one of those married couples that sitcoms never get right. We’ve been married for twenty years and still can’t get enough of each other’s company. We’re lucky enough to live in the beautiful mountains of Vermont with our two children, three cats, a dog, and an immortal guinea pig.

Jess: I’ve worked in newspaper and art publishing, freelance writing, cake decorating, and at the moment, in addition to my writing, I work as a special education teacher and professional editor. I enjoy playing the ukulele badly, reading, and binge-watching unhealthy amounts of TV.

Keith: I spent many years as a chef and business manager and now I run a quaint country store. In my free time I enjoy writing poetry, reading, or cooking something that my family will think is amazing.

Keith and Jess: We love to cook together, go hiking, and spend time together and with our boys. Of course, we also love writing together.

What is your most recent release?

Jess and Keith:  Our novel Always Darkest, which is the first in a planned trilogy, came out on June 21, 2017. It’s the story of Ronoven, a demon dreaming of an escape from Hell. He finds an excuse for an extended vacation on Earth, where he pretends to be a young drifter called Ben. Everything is going great – until he meets Chris. This unassuming teacher is using an assumed identity, too. Cursed with immortality and named in a prophecy Ben thought was fake, Chris becomes an unlikely friend. Together the two of them discover the main subject of the prophecy, Mal, a young woman not only fathered by an angel, but also the last in the direct line of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Mal learns her true identity but is determined not to be forced into a corner by circumstances or some ancient scrap of paper. Falling in love was never part of Ben’s plan, but together he and Mal are drawn into conflict that could destroy them. Slippery ancient gods, as well as angels and their fallen siblings bring to bear all of their power to force Mal to their side. With the help of a small band of allies, Mal tries to shake free of the cage of prophecy and end Hell’s hold on Ben. It’s a story about a coming war, about choosing sides, about good and evil. And more than that, it’s about remaining who you are even when you are faced with things that are that much bigger than you.

What makes this particular genre you are involved in so special?

Keith: Fantasy in some way, shape, or form has always been my favorite thing to read, regardless of the subgenre involved. It’s an escape, to a degree, a place where you can leave the world you know behind for a while. I’ve always wanted to be a part of that.

Jess: I’ve also been a fantasy fan my whole life. The first book I remember reading on my own was The Hobbit and no matter what else I’m doing, what phases I’m going through, I always come back to fantasy. I’m particularly excited about dark and urban fantasy because it takes the mundane things of the world we live in and makes them something new.

How important is research to you when writing a book?

Keith and Jess: It’s tremendously important. We can get a little obsessive. There’s no name, no symbol, no mythology in our books and stories that doesn’t have some grounding in real history, mythology, or art. We take creative license with all of those things certainly, but for us that grounding in the real world is so important because our story is contemporary, and features mythological and historical characters, so it has to ring true, to feel familiar.

What works best for you: Typewriters, fountain pen, dictate, computer or longhand?

Jess:  I have an ancient desk top with replicas of various space craft from some of my fandoms on it. I like to sit at my desk in my beat up old office chair in the dark and clack away on my keyboard, usually with music much too loud in my earbuds, or if I’m home alone, on the big speakers from the TV.

Keith:  I’m a paper and pen kind of guy. I like to sit on the corner of our couch, when it’s quiet, or as quiet as a busy household ever gets, and write long hand, preferably with a clicky-topped pen. I can write without the clicky top, but being able to fidget with that always helps me think.

Keith and Jess: We do a fair amount of collaborating aloud, in addition to passing our written work back and forth. So sometimes our writing process involves long conversations in our favorite chairs in our living room, but the real meat of the work has us separating to actually write, albeit in vastly different ways.

Do you think writers have a normal life like others?

Keith: What’s normal? I don’t think I’m abnormal. I tend to prefer more quiet, more time alone, than a lot of other people, but I do what the people do; go shopping, out to work, return phone calls, play with my kids. And I’m happy. Whether it’s normal or not, doesn’t really matter to me. We place too much of a premium on normal.

Jess: I’ve never aspired to be normal. Well, that’s actually not true. I was never much like other people my age, was considered strange, overly quiet, intellectual, and I was always scribbling in a notebook. And knowing that I wasn’t ‘normal’ bothered the hell out of me until I was in my twenties. Then I realized that all the people all admired, all the ones who had done things I considered great, weren’t normal either. And the ones who wanted everyone to be the same, to create a homogenized world were the bad guys. So, maybe I’m not normal, but I’m pretty sure I’m one of the good guys and that’s enough for me.

Do you read much and if so who are your favorite authors?

Keith: Both of us read all the time. I think we have a lot of favorites in common, too. I love Tolkien, David and Lee Eddings, Piers Anthony, Terry Brooks. But I love a great spy novel or war story, too; Tom Clancy for example. And I read a fair amount of non-fiction; I always enjoyed Richard Ketchum in particular for historical writing. I tend to read a mix of things for pleasure and to learn, particularly about military history.

Jess: We are definitely people who always have books at hand. I usually have one going in every room of the house and my Kindle in my purse when I’m forced to leave it. We share a lot of favorites in common, definitely all the fiction writers already mentioned, and Neil Gaiman, Patrick Rothfuss, Douglas Adams, Lovecraft. We pass books back and forth a lot. Harry Potter was on a scheduled rotation when Book Seven came out. I’m a pretty big fan of Stephen King, too, myself. I admit I’m not one for The Classics, as they say, or anything too lofty. I’ve read all of the expected titles over the course of my academic career, but I don’t enjoy it, with the exception of Shakespeare, which I love. I read to have fun or to fall into a different world and see it though the characters’ eyes.

Do you proofread and edit your work on your own or pay someone to do it for you?

Jess: I’m also a professional editor, so it’s very much part of the fabric of how I work. And I proofread and edit a little obsessively. However, I cannot overstate the importance of having a professional editor (who isn’t you) look at your work. It’s difficult to be objective about something you love, and it’s also easy to miss mistakes you made because you know what you meant.

Keith: It’s also critical to have beta readers who aren’t afraid to be honest with you about the work, and to take their feedback seriously. If you want to show the world your best work, sometimes that means going back over it more than once.

What is your take on the importance of a good cover and title?

Keith and Jess: A good cover and title are critical. They are the first way your readers meet your book, their first glimpse of your world. The cover and the title are that smile and handshake that either gets you the job or they don’t.

Have you ever designed your own book cover?

Jess and Keith: We did the concept art for the book cover of Always Darkest, but we put the final cover design in the hands of a professional cover artist through our publisher who took our very rough visuals and written explanations and brought them to life in a way that surpassed our imaginations.

Do you believe a book cover plays an important role in the selling process?

Keith and Jess: A great cover is like a great movie poster. It stops you, makes you wonder about what inspired it. Nobody is going to open their wallet, or their heart for that matter, when their first impression wasn’t a positive one. Like we said before, it’s all about that first meeting. If you want to sell it, people have to want it.

Do you have a day job other than being a writer? And do you like it?

Keith: I do have a day job. I’m a general manager and chef for a little country store in southern Vermont. As to the second part of that question … Yes and no. There are aspects of the job that I like a lot, and I really like who I work for, but my ultimate goal is to be able to work with Jess and write full time.

Jess: Outside of writing and editing, I’m a special education teacher. One the one hand, that’s great because it’s important work and I’m good at it. I also get to do a lot of project based learning and since I am a passionate science nerd that means fun stuff like dropping things off the roof and making enormous messes, which is always fun, classroom or not. But, on the other hand, my real passion is writing. It has been for most of my life. I look forward to a time when writing and working with Keith is my day job.

Does your day job ever get in the way of your writing?

Jess and Keith: Always. Time is always at a premium.

Is it true that anyone can be a writer?

Keith: I’m not sure if anyone can. Not everyone has a talent for expressing themselves and communicating through the written word.

Jess: And not everyone is willing to do the work to develop and refine that talent.

Keith: Like any profession you need talent, then application, then practice, then the ability to keep going back to it, even when it’s not going great.

Jess: Writing is also one of those professions where it feels personally risky, emotionally anyway. To succeed you really have to put yourself out there.

Keith: It’s definitely a ten thousand hours kind of a thing.

Is it true that authors write word-perfect first drafts?

Jess: Is bwahahahaha an acceptable answer?

Keith: Anyone who tells you their first draft was perfect is lying to someone, either you, or themselves.

Jess: There’s a quote from Terry Pratchett that sums this up. “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”

Keith: Exactly. If you want anyone else to read it, you better take a second look and set your ego aside.

Did any of your books get rejected by publishers?

Jess and Keith: Boy did it. That’s writing though. You’ll get a lot of rejections. Stephen King’s first book was rejected over thirty times before it got picked up. I think we were somewhere around that lofty number as well. But what we did with that is took the feedback people were willing to give us, reworked the novel, changed our pitch, and just kept at it.

Do you enjoy book signings?

Keith and Jess: We absolutely love meeting and talking to our readers in person.

Do you reply back to your fans and admirers personally?

Jess and Keith: We definitely do, as much as possible. That’s one of the wonderful things about social media. A reader doesn’t have to travel or stand in line or find an event we’re doing to talk to us about our stories. A tweet, Facebook message or post, an email, and we can have a conversation.

They say books die every time they are turned into a movie; what do you think?

Keith and Jess: That’s nonsense. Universal statements with ‘every’ and ‘always’ are treading dangerous ground. There are plenty of lousy movies supposedly based on books that have only passing similarities other than maybe the title or possibly some imagery. Then there are others that are faithful adaptations that bring fans even further into that world in wonderful or surprising ways.

How did it feel when your first book got published?

Keith: Not much is up there with your wedding day or holding your firstborn in your arms for the first time, but publishing a book makes the top five, for sure.

Jess: There was a lot of singing and dancing around the house on my end. That can randomly happen anyway, but this was a particularly joyous bout of it. And I don’t think that will diminish over the course of my career. We’ve had a few short stories come out since and it’s the same feeling of elation.

How big of a part does music play in creating your “zone”?

Keith: I find inspiration in music quite frequently, but for writing I prefer silence.

Jess: I’m a music person; I sing, play some instruments with questionable skill. So music is part of how I think. I like to be inspired by it and to write to it, even if it’s just way too loud in my earbuds.

Keith and Jess: Florence and the Machine played a huge role in writing Always Darkest and it continues to be some of our musical inspiration as we continue to expand our universe; although Warren Zevon, Hozier, Langhorn Slim and the Law, Devil Makes Three, Nathaniel Rateliff, and even Johnny Cash have all had at least guest appearances on our creative playlist.

Have you ever written a character with an actor in mind?

Keith: The one character we talked about an actor in conjunction with as we developed him was our character Cain. He’s ancient and full of secret knowledge and magic, and we just liked the idea of him not coming across that way. We wanted sort of an affable cowboy whose obviously a lot smarter than he lets on. Woody Harrelson, who we are both real long-time fans of, was who we kept coming back to as we wrote Cain.

Jess: I had a moment where an actor sort of leapt off the screen at me as one of our characters, after we had finished the first draft. We were taking a night off from revising and just watching a movie. We’re both X-men fans, and X-men First Class was available On-Demand so we rented it. Neither of us were overly familiar with the cast. The minute the audience is introduced to Alex Summers – Havok, my jaw absolutely dropped. Other than his eye color, Lucas Till, who I had never heard of before seeing him in First Class, looked so much like I pictured our character Ben it was almost scary. I’ve become a bit of a fan as the result of that.

Do you encourage your children to read?

Jess and Keith: Always. When they were small we read aloud to them every night. Actually that went on until not all that long ago. We always make sure they have access to books, magazines, comics, whatever keeps them reading. And when we are out shopping, books are the one thing we just never say no to. Not only are they both still avid readers as teens, but our eldest is even one of our beta readers.

Do you have a library at home?

Keith and Jess: Our whole house is sort of a library. There isn’t a room where there aren’t books spilling out of or stacked on top of something. In addition to that, we have an entire closet (a big old fashioned hall closet) entirely stuffed with books and board games.

What is your view on co-authoring books; have you done any?

Jess and Keith: Co-authoring is kind of what we do. Not that neither of us are interested in pursuing our own projects, but we find we write really well as a team, with both of us bolstering the other’s strengths and shoring up weaknesses. It makes for a great story and a lot of fun.

Do you enjoy discussing upcoming ideas with your partner? If yes, how much do you value their inputs?

Keith and Jess: Collaborating is invaluable. We talk endlessly about our books and stories, ideas, research we are doing. It’s how we start and end every day.

 Can you tell us about your current projects?

Jess and Keith:  We have a few things going on. There are a number of anthologies that we have stories coming out in from our publisher, Crimson Cloak Publishing. One is called Something’s Gotta Give and it’s a story about out character Ben years before the events of Always Darkest. We are putting the finishing touches to that and it will be coming out in a charity anthology called Tides and Tails sometime soon. Another short we are polishing up is called Fare Thee Well and it’s going to be coming out in an anthology called Crimson Endings later this year. That one is about Mal’s parents and the events leading up to her birth. We have really been enjoying doing some world building through our short stories, just giving readers more of the characters they are responding to that wouldn’t necessarily fit with the main series. And of course we are working on the rest of the series in which Always Darkest is just the first part. The sequel Before the Dawn will be finished by the end of the summer, the first draft of it at least. That’s when the real work begins; getting it ready for our readers!