Interview with T. E. MacArthur, author of “The Volcano Lady”

A common misconception entwined with authors is that they are socially inept, how true is that?

I suppose it depends – many of the authors I know, including myself, tend to want to watch crowds for ideas – you know, for inspiration such as character studies or strange non-sequitur comments.

Do all authors have to be grammar Nazis?

Oh heavens, I hope not! It’s one of my biggest weaknesses. I have editors who wag their fingers at me regularly. I tend to be artistic in my grammar and spelling, as well as descriptions.

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

I honestly didn’t know what Steampunk was when I first heard about it.  Yet, I’ve been a lifelong fan of Jules Verne, who is now considered the great grandfather of Science Fiction and Steampunk.  I actually prefer to describe my work as Victorian Science Fiction.  I am an historian by nature and education, and always have been drawn to SciFi.  How could I miss by combining them?

The challenge is putting them together in a way that speaks true to the reader.  I start with real events and a handful of real people, then work the fiction.  I know that I can’t go crazy with the technology, because there are some limits, yet, just how far can I push?  That is the fun.  I adore research too, but one really has to be careful not to get lost in the research, to the point they stop actually writing.

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

All of the above, except for dictating. I am not overly fond of my own voice and sometimes feel much too concerned about someone overhearing me. I have fountain pens and love each of them. It takes time to find the right one: does it fit your hand, look narrow/full enough, flow well? I think I probably have about 20 half used notebooks all over my apartment. And – I genuinely miss the old manual Corona I used to write on, back in High School. My mother would bring home mimeograph paper that didn’t print properly. The back side was still clean and blank, even when the front side was a smear of purple ink. Doesn’t that date me? I could use the paper to write and write and write.

What inspires you to write?

We all have a story, or twenty, inside of us. Music can key it off. Something you overheard in a café can trigger it. Just the slightest action can make us daydream about things beyond our present moment. What finally pushed me to write a Victorian Science Fiction novel was a comment a friend made to me. I was invited to join an acting group that was portraying Vernian characters, like Captain Nemo. So, I started reading Steampunk to get more into the modern take on his writing. Book after book was full of stories written by boys for boys. Little was there for me, a woman, to latch onto. This was fairly early in Steampunk’s development. Some of the books were so clearly dismissive of female characters in general that I was becoming angry. Then, Jay Davis – my friend and special effects artist – said, “well, why don’t you go write a book yourself? Write what you would want to read.”
He was spot on. Authors need to write what calls to them, and to write what they would like to read. There are so many opinions and preferences that no author can write to satisfy them all. So, how do you decide? You follow the wants of the one, guaranteed reader you know: you.

How often do you write?

I used to be a morning person, and in some ways I still am. If you are going to write, you need to learn what your brain and body want. My best times are between 8am and 1pm, then 7pm and 10pm. I make it a goal to write something every day. 500 words if possible. And if that is still too much, then whatever flows no matter how little.

How hard was it to sit down and actually start writing something?

The desire is definitely there, every time. However, the energy, inspiration, and focus aren’t always. I have stared often at that proverbial blank page. Social Media can be an inspiration killer too.

Writers are often associated with loner tendencies; is there any truth to that?

Yes. We don’t set out to be alone – certainly that’s not my intention – but the act of writing is one you do with intense focus. Anything taking from that focus will prevent you from writing. Rather than think of authors as loners, perhaps one should think of their work day being single-focus, non-team-based work. The rest of the time, we’re just human and always need our friends, lovers, and family; even when we don’t have too many of the above.

Do you think writers have a normal life like others?

No. I’d say we don’t. For one thing, what we do gets so poorly paid that we have to do something society values enough to pay the rent. 99% of the authors out there can’t make a living by their work. That makes us highly creative people often trapped in corporate, dull, boxed-in jobs. It’s a soul killer. It can sap your imagination. It can be very, very frustrating. And sad. We have to, instead, put our time at the typewriter to the best use and to live our creative lives inside of each page we write.

Do you set a plot or prefer going wherever an idea takes you?

A little bit of both.  I start with a scene I’m just dying to write.  Or, with a character development that must happen (or I’ll bust!)  Then I work out the notion of what could lead up to that moment and where it will go.  You can’t simply throw your thoughts down on the page.  Readers, of which the author is one, need to see the journey, need to have their emotions touched, need to feel their heart race or break.  That takes some planning.

That said, I often veer off the outline when I find a chapter suggests a different ending.  Or I get a crazy idea I hadn’t considered before.  I don’t fall into that “characters write themselves” business – I don’t believe that’s a recipe for a good story.  Writing is a craft.  While a sculptor may allow the stone to speak to her, she still knows to put the bend in the statue’s elbow in the correct spot, to use finer chisels in delicate areas, and to not work in an area that has a natural crack in the marble.  The author is the same.  A journey goes from point A to point B, and no reader wants to suddenly arrive at point B without knowing how they got there.

Have you ever experienced “Writer’s Block”? How long do they usually last?

Every darn day! It can last 5 minutes to 5 weeks. Happily, there are many generous authors out there who share, via blog or book, some of their ideas for overcoming writer’s block. Thanks to the internet and expanded printing, we’re sharing more and more.

Any tips you would like to share to overcome it?

Ritual.  I’m not kidding.  Develop a ritual.

We do them all the time, even if we don’t attach any religious significance to them.

Several lady authors I know have a tiara by their desks.  They put on their tiaras and write.  The whole point of it is to create physical, repeatable, actions that signal to your brain that a shift in approach is happening.

For me, the tiara was fun but not practical.  What I do – and you make think I’m crazy now – is: I pack up my shoulder bag with my laptop, notes, etc.  I then explain to the cat where I’m going and why.  She usually looks at me with annoyance and then starts grooming.  I walk down to one of two coffee houses where I’ve made friends with the owners (and they allow me to stay much longer than other customers.  I buy coffee and food – it is their business and I support it.)  I set up my laptop, notes, phone, and headphones at a table.  On my iPhone, I have a playlist of music for writing.  This music has no words in it and is generally not fast paced.  It supports me but does not distract me.  It blots out the world around me.  I often don’t realize I’m listening after a bit.  The music also helps me block 20 – 45 minute sets.  Every 20 – 40 minutes, I stop writing and stretch.  This is important: people who don’t take a break will wear themselves out.  When I’m done for the morning or evening, I go ahead and brag on social media.  There is nothing wrong with telling your friends that you have been creative.  Let them cheer you on.

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

I do both.  I write the draft on my laptop.  Then I print it out once the first draft is done.  This is important because one sees computer type and physical type differently: you react to the words differently.  I also read it out loud – to the cat – who appears indifferent but is really riveted.  After I’m happy with my work, then I engage an editor.  Anyone who ever wants to see their work in print must get someone to proofread in the minimum.  It’s essential.  It will be what sets your work aside, either to the readers who know it is self-published or to a potential publisher.

An author’s mantra should always be: “My editor is my friend.”

Have you ever designed your own book cover?

I participate in the book cover design, but ultimately there are elements that must be present for a cover to be successful for drawing in the potential reader.  Those elements also change over time, so it is vital to keep up on the latest.  For example, I’m turned off by covers with 15 year old girls in cheap, knock-off Victorian gowns.  When I started the Volcano Lady series, I did so knowing that my protagonists are not younger than 35.  And, I admit freely, I am a clothing snob – I hate it when books or movies get it wrong.

I’m very blessed to have a creative cover artist/photographer, SN Jacobson.  He is knowledgeable and he has a great eye for bringing old fashioned elements together in a modern way.  He’s also fun to work with.

Do you attend literary lunches or events?

Yes. Because my genre is Steampunk, I attend conventions. This is my chance to meet with readers; to learn what they want, what they like, what they dislike. While I can’t and shouldn’t write to their tastes exclusively, I can still learn so much. This also allows me to extend my gratitude to them. Yes, I would write even without readers, but much of what an author does is share the craziness in their brains with the greater wide world – what we have inside must be released into the universe or we burst.

Do you read and reply to the reviews and comments of your readers?

Yes and no. I read them all. Even negative reviews can be helpful. Responding is a tricky thing. I would much rather discuss comments directly with someone. Responding to negative reviews can take you down a dark path you won’t like. There are people out there who write negative things because that’s what they do. They are looking for your reaction. Stay professional. Stay open to possibilities.

Does a bad review affect your writing?

The painfully honest answer here is yes. When you write, and then put it out there for all the world to make use of, you are being precariously vulnerable. Authors are artists: our books are our babies. They are us: exposed and fragile. A thick skin is necessary but hard to obtain. I received a terribly damning review once for a short story from an author/editor I respected highly. I felt crushed. Eventually, I crawled back out of the hole and learned from what she was saying underneath the harsh wording.

Which book inspired you to begin writing?

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne.  I kept wondering why he didn’t have any women in it.

Then I read Wraiths of Time by Andre Norton.  I loved the lead character: she was a time traveling archaeologist trapped in ancient worlds.  It was heaven.  I remember imagining myself as her.  That’s what I want from my novels, to give a reader a place to lose themselves in or a character to become.

Do your novels carry a message?

Steampunk, like Cyberpunk, has that “punk” element – something that points to social norms and says, “this isn’t me,” or “this isn’t right.” As I focus on Victorian times, the role of women back then was one of oppression – and we’re still fighting Victorian notions about what a woman was and wasn’t. The under-current message I make is that we cannot go back to treating groups of people in the horrible way we treated women. We must continue, as a society, being open to change and accepting that what we once held as true might not be.

How much of yourself do you put into your books?

I am in every character, in one form or another. And if I’m not a part of their personality, then they are characters I would love to love. I confess that I’m head over heals in love with one of my main protagonists: Tom Turner. I create his actions and thoughts around what I’d want a dream lover to do and think. Very Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers.

Are there any books that you are currently reading and why?

Darn near any writer’s advice book by Chuck Wenig. You’ll laugh, you’ll cringe, and you will learn some great habits – and some interesting swear words. I’m always poking around Anne Perry mysteries, especially her Charlotte Pitt series.

Is there anything you are currently working on that may intrigue the interest of your readers?

As I am a fan of comic books and Saturday morning cliffhangers, I’m working on a story that started out as an entry in an anthology.  This uses one of my minor characters, Miranda Grey, and follows her adventures.  I wanted to give an 1890s adventure a mix of the Avengers (British TV series) flavor with less fantastical technology and more thrills.

Of course, I’m about to release Volume 4 of the Volcano Lady series.

And … there may be a modern, paranormal thriller on the horizon.

Who is the most supportive of your writing in your family?

My father.  He is one of my beta readers.  As a retired school teacher, he nit-picks his way through each draft, calling out inconsistencies and problems.  He’s also one of my best cheerleaders.  They say a writer should not go to friends and family for reviews, because they’ll say it’s great even if it isn’t.  But that’s not the case here.  My father wants it to be good, too.  He may not give me a harsh, negative review, but he won’t hold back if there is a place I need to improve before publication time.

There’s nothing wrong with going to people you can count on to have your back, as they say.  You can’t let them be your only source of editing or review, but we should feel confident about surrounding ourselves with positive reinforcement.

Writers are often believed to have a Muse, your thoughts on that?

Fall in love with at least one character, so that you can spend time day dreaming about them. You’ll gain so much by it. Tom Turner, from the Volcano Lady, is my current muse.

Do you like traveling or do you prefer staying indoors?

It is hard to write outside of my routine, but I do try to accomplish things in new places. I wrote quite a bit in Iceland when I visited. But, ultimately, when I stick to my writing ritual, I am more successful.

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