R. Lee Smith is the author of epic length science fiction and fantasy novels, with strong romantic plots. Her combination of speculative worlds, horror, and unique style has given her a devoted fan base. Her SFR novels include HEAT, COTTONWOOD, and THE LAST HOUR OF GANN. COTTONWOOD was a selected for an SFR Galaxy Award (2014) and THE LAST HOUR OF GANN was selected as a 2014 DABWAHA finalist.
RK: What made you decide to become a writer?
RLS: Ah, I well remember that day…
I was fourteen years old and sitting in my Social Studies class during Career Week. As part of the curriculum, we students had to research the qualifications for various careers that interested us. Ostensibly, this was to give us a reality check as to how important a good education really is and how, despite what Mr. Rogers and your mom might have told you, not every boy or girl can, in fact, be an astronaut or President of the United States just because they want to. I thought the whole exercise was fairly stupid, because I was fourteen, which you may remember as the age when everything was fairly stupid, which is only true because fourteen-year-olds are themselves inordinately stupid, the aura of which hovers around them and stains everything they see. So while other kids in my class were researching how to be a doctor or firefighter, I wrote out a ridiculously detailed plan of attack for how to be A) a mortician, B) a sex surrogate therapist, or C) a ninja. I did not get a very good grade, as I recall.
The point of all this is that even in the above examples, the necessary education, skill and training were so intimidating that I was completely disenfranchised with the very concept of working. When I said as much to my sister, Cris, she informed me she was going to be a writer because they didn’t have to work. Well, I had no idea that was even an option and I decided I, too, would be a writer. Heck, I liked to read books; how hard could it be to write one?
It is worth noting here that my parents fostered special needs children for all the years of my life, so when it came to me getting a job, I naturally started working as a care provider for disabled children. This was a job that kept me at home for long chunks of time and necessitated maintaining a quiet environment with a well-established routine. A large portion of my day was spent just sitting by a hospital bed, watching someone sleep and holding a little hand so it couldn’t pull out an important tube. Writing was cheap entertainment and I was even able to sell a few short stories to supplement my meager paycheck, but mostly I just wrote for fun, never intending that anyone should see my stories except my family and a few close friends.
After ten years, I injured my shoulders and could no longer do the physically demanding work of caring for children, so I suddenly had to make money another way. My initial experiences with submitting my books to a publishing house were not encouraging (too long, too dark, too weird) and I balked at writing the happy-bunny crap they said would sell. Fortunately, by this time, the internet was a thing, and the self-publishing market was just making itself known to people like me. With my considerably more market-savvy sister’s help, I started publishing my own books and today, a mere twenty years after I decided not to be a sex ninja working at a mortuary, I am proud to say I am a writer.
RK: How do you create your alien heroes- such as in COTTONWOOD or GANN?
RLS: I begin by creating the alien, not the hero. The hero-ing bit can pretty much take care of itself. What matters most with any character is capturing the essence of who he/she is and understanding how much of his/her personality should be culturally derived, so when I get serious about writing a book, the first thing I create is not the character, but the world. Once I get a solid grip on where my hero comes from, I can start to understand who he is. And to begin with, I don’t worry so much about making him relatable. Too many paranormal/sci-fi books these days have completely human characters masquerading as aliens/fae/vampires/whatever. Blah blah superpowers blah blah stripes blah glowing eyes, but in every other respect, in all the ways it matters, they think, talk, and especially act just like a contemporary Western twenty-something human. I believe that aliens should be alien. Focus on the ways they are different so that when you finally start to bring your humans and non-humans together, it means something
RK: You write many epic length novels rather than the current trend of shorter series style (except for LORDS OF ARCADIA). How have readers responded?
RLS: The length of my books is one of the first things just about every reader mentions, but overwhelmingly, the comment is that they are SO long, not TOO long. Many of my readers have told me that being able to sink into a story for a whole weekend (if not a whole week) is one of the best things about my books. The fact is, as a reader, I like long books. And as a writer, I believe the book should be as long as the story takes to tell. Period. Plus, I’m a terrible judge when it comes to predicting how long a book will be. When sitting down to start The Last Hour of Gann and Cottonwood, I made the portentous remark that there wasn’t a lot of story in Gann and it would probably be the shortest thing I ever wrote. It turned into the longest (to date). Whereas Cottonwood came in at half the size I thought it would be.
RK: Do you have an inspiration for your novels?
RLS: Oh gosh, name me a novel, I’ll tell you the origins. And yes, most of them have more than one. My dreams provide a lot of inspiration for specific scenes. I’m a very vivid dreamer and many of my dreams come “complete,” with cohesive plots that continue to make sense even after I wake up. Once in a while, I’ll even have a dream with opening and closing credits (I watch a lot of movies). Beyond that, there’s a certain element of ‘What if’ that motivates me to write. The origins of Olivia are rooted, believe it or not, in The Creature From the Black Lagoon. Specifically, the scene wherein said creature absconds with the limp dishrag that is supposed to be the love interest. I remember watching that and thinking, ‘Why? What possible reason could he have to abduct her?’ And the more I thought about it, the more sympathetic he started to be to me, and then I had to imagine a whole bunch of Creatures, an entire lagoon’s worth, so to speak, all of them as desperate and driven as he. The Lords of Arcadia books are riddled with scenes and characters that came out of old dreams, but the entire series owes pretty much everything to an offhand comment my mother once made, in which she remarked that as a child, I would often set off in search of monsters, and that she was always a little concerned as to what would happen if I ever found one. The Last Hour of Gann and Cottonwood both were born from a rebellion against the terrible way we depict aliens in movies and the laughably heroic light in which we portray ourselves as we rage/slaughter them on their own planets. Now that I think about it, most of my books contain at least one scene that began with the words, “Just once, I’d like to read a book where they don’t do that.”
RK: What attracts you to SF romance?
RLS: Is that what I’m writing these days? I always thought it was horror erotica…
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post in which R. Lee Smith will talk about upcoming projects plus a sneak preview of the forthcoming book.