Author Q&A: Livia Llewellyn

Livia Llewellyn is a writer of dark fantasy, horror, and erotica, whose short fiction has appeared in over forty anthologies and magazines and has been reprinted in multiple best-of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s The Best Horror of the Year series, Years Best Weird Fiction, and The Mammoth Book of Best Erotica. Her first collection, Engines of Desire: Tales of Love & Other Horrors (2011, Lethe Press), received two Shirley Jackson Award nominations, for Best Collection, and for Best Novelette (for “Omphalos”). Her story “Furnace” received a 2013 Shirley Jackson Award nomination for Best Short Story. Her second collection, Furnace (2016, Word Horde Press), received a 2016 Shirley Jackson Award Nomination for Best Collection. You can find her online at liviallewellyn.com, and on Instagram and Twitter.

TBL Author Q&A Series: Livia Llewellyn

This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!

How would you say your writing career began? Was there a certain event, person, intuitive impulse that guided you to forge your own literary path?

Well, I’d been acting for over twenty years, and I’d just hit 40, and had to face the rather demoralizing truth that I was never going to have a career as an actor – or even a fulfilling, part-time life as an amateur. From the very start, I had the wrong body type (short, round, and red-headed) and the wrong goals (all theatre! no film or TV!) to succeed. As a last resort, I entered a grueling and highly-acclaimed conservatory program – it was an amazing program, and I studied with some of the best teachers of acting, movement, and voice in America and the UK. But because I had a full-time day job, I didn’t qualify for a scholarship, so I was placed in the evening program. I remember after the graduation party and agent meet-and-greet for the day program, I asked one of my teachers if he or any of the other teachers – or the program director – were going to have any kind of acknowledgement of the evening program students, who had gone through the exact same curriculum as the day program students but hadn’t been allowed to meet agents or participate in the acting showcase. This was his response:

“If we thought for a second any of you were serious about acting, we’d do the same. But you’re in the evening program. Clearly you don’t have the commitment or the talent to be an actor, because you didn’t quit your job. The evening program isn’t about you becoming an actor; it’s about you playing it safe. We accepted you for your money, to subsidize the day program – and please don’t even pretend to be shocked or upset. You paid us to pretend you had a future, and you got your money’s worth, and now it’s over. Now go home.”

I went home. He was wrong about my talent and my commitment, but he was right about everything else – I wanted art, but I wanted safety, and those are not mutually compatible in the world of theatre. And I knew I wanted to be an artist and have an artistic life, but unlike most actors I had options other than theatre, options that would allow me to create art without having to rely on the permission and support of others. Acting is a communal art form – writing is a solitary act, and mine to control completely (publication is communal, and a whole other process). And so, a few weeks later I put all my theatre books and papers and headshots into storage and began to write.

By the way, I still see that teacher, on old episodes of “Law & Order” and other New York-based shows. He’s an excellent actor, but I’ll always be most impressed by his ability to be a complete dick.

You’ve been published by literary magazines, anthologies, and independent publishers. What can you tell us about the publication process? How would you evaluate your own experience with getting your work printed? How has that shifted over time?

I think my answer would be a lot more interesting and complex if I’d published a novel – I don’t think the publication process is very interesting from the POV of a short fiction writer. There’s really very little to it, other than signing a contract, dealing with last-minute edits, handing in a biography – that’s pretty much the bulk of publication work from my end. I’d say the editor and publisher have much more interesting and complex views on the process. The only change that’s come about lately is that I’ve had two books published by Italian presses, so I’ve had to work with translators who sent me questions about word choices and why they decided to make different choices and interpretations based on what works best in Italian.

What should writers look for when choosing what publishing houses and journals they should trust with their work?

I think it’s always best to do as much research as possible about whatever market or publication you’re trying to break into. Read as widely as possible and then decide what markets are the best fit for the kind of fiction you write, and concentrate on publishing in those specific markets as your goal. Read the submission guidelines and take them seriously – don’t think that you’re going to be the one writer who’s able to somehow charm the editors by how many rules you break. You will not be, I guarantee it – your fiction is probably not that good, and the editors are not going to take you seriously if they feel you don’t take them seriously. If you’re submitting to anthologies, find out what other publications/books the editors have worked for, and read up on the kind of fiction they’ve accepted in the past. This isn’t about trying to trick them into accepting you because you’ve mimicked a specific subject matter or style – it’s about making a genuine effort to send them something you feel is worthy of their consideration because it’s the best attempt you’ve made to give them what they want. You can give them the story that they’re looking for, and do it in a genuine way – you can be business smart plus original and artistic all at the same time. And also, read what the writers have to say about their experiences with editors and markets. If there’s a general consensus that editor X is abusive or that market Y doesn’t pay their authors, then at the very least, go into the submission process with the knowledge that the same may happen to you. If you read that a number of editors have started steering away from working with certain publications or houses, take heed and submit with caution, or hold off until you find a press with a better reputation. I know it feels wonderful to get an acceptance, but I also know how shitty it feels to be told “sorry, we’re not paying you, ever” or “we don’t care that you didn’t get your author copies.” No publication credit is worth being treated like crap.

What was the hardest part of breaking into the publishing industry and why?

As far as I can tell, I haven’t broken into the publishing industry yet! For me, there’s really been no one single external hurdle to overcome – the hardest part has been having enough patience to not freak out and quit because it’s taking me longer than pretty much every single writer I know to achieve some measure of success. It’s sometimes demoralizing to be slowly eking away at my stories over the years while watching wave after wave of writers appear on the scene and get the kind of critical acclaim that I’m probably never going to achieve. But the industry rewards fast writers, and I’m an extremely slow writer, and that’s not going to change. So my rewards are always going to be small in return, and I just have to accept that. I have to be at peace with the fact that I will never actually break into the publishing industry – I’m always going to be somewhat at the periphery, watching as everyone else walks through the doors.

Like in your short story collection Furnace, your fiction tends towards the dark and evocative. Can you discuss where you gain inspiration for your stories, as well as topics that entice and inspire you most? In what ways has your writing evolved throughout your career?

I don’t want to answer this question with too much detail – I think it’s obvious that my childhood and teen years living in the Pacific Northwest is a big inspiration, as well as my time in the New York area, but beyond that, I’d rather that the inspiration for my darker themes be somewhat obscured from public view. The less readers know what events and topics inspired my fiction, the more they’re able to bring their own inspiration into the stories – there should always be as much room for the reader’s imagination and speculation as the writer’s.

What do you look for in good writing? What qualities or characteristics must it have?

The definition of good writing is so subjective and so personal, I don’t think I can answer that question in any kind of satisfactory way. Everyone has a different opinion of what’s good – basically it’s whatever you like as a reader, or as a writer, or as both. My favorite works of fiction span every imaginable style, length, genre, subject matter – and there’s no one unifying theme that they have in common with each other. I like great works of fiction and non-fiction, and I like commercial doorstoppers. It’s probably easier to tell you what I don’t like: derivative, sloppily-written crap that passes itself off as original and daring when it’s anything but. Fifty Shades of Grey, I’m looking at you.

What is your particular writing process? Do you start with characters, plot, or the world? And how do you tackle the revision process that eventually creates the final piece?

Actually, I start with the title – it’s the first thing that will pop into my mind. I tend to just let it alone, knowing that eventually bits and pieces of plot, characters, and world-building will attach themselves to it. I only start writing in earnest when I get a good sense of the ending, and even then it’s very piecemeal – I write scenes, many out of order, and then slowly stitch everything together like some kind of Frankensteinian monster, hoping it will come to life. The revision process is entirely different, and it depends on what each editor wants. My first draft tends to be my last draft, so edits and revisions are more about clarification and fixing continuity issues more than anything else, but occasionally I’ll be asked for a very deep and extensive rewrite. Those are much more difficult to execute, but like anyone else, I slog through.

Is there a particular achievement or experience that has opened up the most opportunity for your writing?

I’d say that to date the most important achievement for me has been publication in anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow – not just the “Best of” anthologies, but her various themed anthologies as well. Ellen is one of the best genre editors in the English-speaking world, and she sets an incredibly high bar for inclusion in her books. To even be given an “Honorable Mention” by her is a badge of honor, and it’s one that’s recognized not only by writers of genre but by readers as well. Getting my first HM’s were important, but inclusion in her anthologies really opened doors for me – it signaled to other editors that I was no longer an unknown quantity, and that I was an author to be taken (somewhat) seriously.

What/who are some of your greatest literary influences?

My sources of literary inspiration are varied: Clive Barker, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Laird Barron, the French Decadents, David Lynch, David Cronenberg, H.P. Lovecraft, Silvina Ocampo, Jack Kerouac, late 19th century horror, and early 20th century erotica, Shakespeare, the translations of Greek tragedies by Robert Fagles, Christopher Fry. I’m influenced by a number of visual artists as well: H.R. Giger, Leonora Carrington, Louise Bourgeois, Mark Ryden, Eugene Atget.

What guidance might you give to fledgling writers?

I feel very strongly that there’s an overabundance of writing advice, guidance, and “rules” out there in the world (thanks to the internet), and it’s not going away anytime soon. So I don’t believe there’s any necessity for me to add to it – I can’t think of any advice to give that hasn’t already been given before. And I also think that each writer has their own very unique way of approaching writing, both as an art form and as a business, so I don’t think I could make some sweeping statement(s) about writing that might speak to the majority of tyro writers. I guess the best advice is to say find what works for you, find what inspires you, use those rules and tools as long as they’re useful to you; and feel free to recalibrate and change your routine when the old one no longer works. Every year you’re a slightly different person than the year before, so it makes sense that how you approach writing should be as dynamic, evolutionary, and changeable as you are.

After having successfully accomplished so much, what are your goals? What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication?

My goals have shifted considerably over the past couple of years. I used to be very unfocused, just going from one short story project to the next, and in particular trying to get as many anthology invites as possible. It was a good tactic for creating a foundation of published work and making something of a name for myself as a horror and weird fiction author, but since getting a literary agent, I’ve realized that I need to focus completely on long fiction. My goal is to someday become a full-time professional writer (realistically, this probably won’t happen until I’ve retired from the day job), so it’s imperative that I spend the few free hours I have every week working on novels. I’ve also drastically reduced the number of short story invites I’ve accepted – I have three that are due over the next eight months, whereas before I would be sending off a story a month. It’s made for a much more frustrating writing experience, because I’ve had to train myself to accept working in a different timeline, with knowing that novels won’t be finished in a month (or three – or twelve!), that the submission process will be lengthy, and that the editing and publication process will be equally long. But again, this is foundation building – a new foundation for a new phase of my life. I’ve learned a lot from living in a megacolony of ants: you adapt or you die.

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