Anyone out on the Con circuit who has met Sara M. Harvey, attended a panel with her on it, or has participated in a workshop with her, can vouch for her enthusiasm, savvy, and creative insights. I first encountered Sara a couple of years ago in precisely such a setting, at the 2008 version of Hypericon. That is where I was introduced to Sara's writing as well, as I picked up a copy of A Year and A Day, a wonderful tale about angels living among humans in New York City.
Sara is a hard-working writer, who has a number of things released and in the works, from short fiction in anthologies to her gothic steampunk fantasy trilogy, which currently included Convent of the Pure, and the new release Labyrinth of the Dead, released by the award-winning Apex Book Company, one of the highest regarded small press publishers in the USA.
Without a doubt, Sara is an author on the rise, with a growing readership, and an increasing popularity on the Con circuit. I have always wanted to ask Sara a few questions, so I thought I'd visit with her on the heels of the release of Labyrinth of the Dead.
I think the answers bring forth her infectious personality, and I whole-heartedly recommend her to readers of speculative fiction.
-Stephen Zimmer for Seventh Star Press Blog, August 17, 2010
SZ: What were the foundational ideas and inspirations for your steampunk fantasy series?
SH: A dream I had many years ago.
It was a neat concept that needed a larger world to support it and it sat in my what-if file on my hard drove for years and finally found a great outlet! I tied my initial dream about a creepy boarding school full of magic users (this was pre-Harry Potter) and blended in some Biblical myth and set it in a really fun universe that I feel is just a step away from our own and about 100 years in the past.
SZ: All authors have a certain bonding to their characters, but are there any characters in particular that you have especially bonded with in this series, and why?
SH: I really love Portia. I think an author has to be a little in love with their protagonist to really made him or her shine on the page. I have ended up drawing some from some game characters I have played in the past to give her a certain dimension and details. She is a lot of fun.
This also means I have to be a little in love with Imogen, too, I suppose. But the character that stole my heart the most was Kitty Insinori who initially appears in the short story "Prelude to Penemue." Of course I couldn't just leave her there so look for our plucky engineer to make another appearance in book 3, THE TOWER OF THE FORGOTTEN!
SZ: The Nephilim, offspring of celestial beings and mortals who appear in biblical and other ancient lore, are a significant part of this series. What was your approach to their legends, in terms of deciding how to portray them in your series?
SH: I did a lot of reading of some fascinating essays and online articles that dealt with the Nephilim from both a scholarly standpoint as well as a spiritual one. So between reading all the Biblical accounts I could scrounge up in all the versions available, coupling with some books on demonology and the online information, I felt really confident in putting my own spin on it as well as adding in a dash of Anne Rice's Talamasca and Whedonverse Watchers with a dose of White Wolf's old vampire clan system. I think the amalgam really works for what I was trying to create: a secret society of supernatural creatures broken off into distinct houses with specific powers and responsibilities. The house we get to see believe their job is to guard humanity from the evils of the unseen world. But other houses may have slight different interpretations on their responsibilities.
SZ: Have you enjoyed working in the arena of steampunk fantasy? What things about it in particular appeal to you, in terms of setting a story in a steampunk type of environment.
SH: Oh I LOVE it! I love everything Steampunk and have since I was a kid. People think it's odd that a costume historian is into this kind of alternate and fantastical version of history but to me, this is the Good Parts!
There is a lot to love in the genre- the ability to make the history we know and tweak it (much less than one might think!) to fit events plotted in the story. It serves as a great jumping-off point to give a great foundation that the reader will find just familiar enough but allows for addition of fantastical elements.
SZ: It would seem that a dark, gothic, steampunk fantasy series would be very attractive to an author who is also happens to be a superb costume designer. Tell us about drawing off of your costume design background in your approach on the imagery of characters depicted in the story. Has your story inspired or spurred some new ideas and explorations in the area of costume design for you?
SH: The very best part about Steampunk is the clothes, I think! And I wanted to make sure the clothing was authentic and made sense for each character. Coming from a background in theatrical costume design, I love to use clothing to help define my characters. For example, Portia always wears sensible shoes. She's a fighter and her clothes have to reflect that. Not as "fun" as the fancy stuff, but she has to be dressed true to her character.
I definitely sketch and carefully consider clothing options for characters like Portia who end up developing a rather...peculiar... body type.
SZ: What were some of the things about Apex Publications that motivated you to bring your series to them in particular? (and tell us a little about your process in getting it published by Apex)
SH: I LOVE Apex and I have for years, even since discovering them when I moved to Nashville in 2005. My goal for years had been to get something published with them. Trouble is, what I write was never really on-theme enough for the magazine (this is back before the Cat Valente days when the magazine was in print and more strictly sci-fi/horror). But my work didn't go unnoticed and at Chattancon in Chattanooga, TN a few years ago Jason Sizemore, the big boss, approached me to pitch him a book for his budding novella line.
On a Friday I told him he'd have the proposal in his inbox on Monday. I spent the weekend busting my shapely behind to come up with something worthy to bear the Apex name.
I'd like to think I did right by them.
SZ: How has the response been from readers and reviewers on The Labyrinth of the Dead (and especially those that had given you positive feedback on the first book)
SH: Second books are always the toughest to sell and this one isn't any different. The start has been slow but I can see the momentum gathering as fall arrives. Reviews are getting out there and the fans are starting to take notice. THE CONVENT OF THE PURE debuted to mixed reviews, but I think people will really come away from this installment feeling a much stronger connection to the characters and the world. Overall I think this is the next step up from CONVENT in many ways and that readers are going to love it! I have heard from reviewers that one can hop right in at this book and still have a marvelous time enjoying the story.
SZ: Tell us a little about the cover art for both books, The Convent of the Pure and The Labyrinth of the Dead, which are both fantastic. Did you have input regarding the selection of the artist, and the images developed for the covers?
SH: I had the very best luck with the covers. Apex likes to have author feedback on covers and they employ a fantastic stable of artists from the Bielaczyc boys of Aradani Studios to my artist, Melissa Gay. I was familiar with Melissa's art style and have been a fan for years. I asked her if she would be interested in taking on the project and she said she'd like to look at the book first. The next time I spoke to her, not only was she done with the book, she already had a bunch of sketches done already! She was, and still is, SO EXCITED to be working with me on this. She lives about 10 minutes away and we get to meet up for consultations (and chit-chat!) if need be. I love being able to work with another artistic professional who is not only a friend but a big fan of my work. My favorite thing is getting to tell people all about her at cons because her work is so lovely and I am so very proud that my books bear her art!
SZ: Do you have these titles out in any of the eBook formats?
SH: Yes! All of my Apex titles are out in various eBook formats from Kindle through Amazon to various platforms through Fictionwise and DriveThruSciFi.com and of course through the Apex bookshop: http://www.apexbookcompany.com/apex-store/ebooks/
SZ: When is the next book in the series coming out?
SH: THE TOWER OF THE FORGOTTEN is just getting finished up currently and will be out in Spring of 2011
SZ: What else might you working on right now?
SH: Too many things!
I have an urban fantasy that takes place in Nashville and has been so much fun to write! The second project is a YA fantasy that has some Steamy leanings and has also been a blast! Not to mention the usual array of short works for anthologies (DREAMS OF STEAM from Kerlak is out now and I anticipate DARK FUTURES from Dark Quest Books pretty soon. Later this year find me in TRAFFICKING IN MAGIC/MAGICKING IN TRAFFIC from Drollerie Press).
SZ: On a fun note, what was your reaction when you first found out that your friend and fellow author Elizabeth Donald had named a main character Sara Harvey in her book The Cold Ones?
SH: I was honored! Elizabeth asked me first and wanted to immortalize my name in print (something she is fond of doing) because she thought very highly of me, my writing, my work ethic, and my fashion sense (I am the official fashionista of the Literary Underworld and do a lot of fashion styling for my fellow authors!). I love to give Elizabeth a hard time about all the terrible things she's doing to "me" in the book. Thusfar, Major Sara Harvey is alive and well. But she is working on a sequel....
SZ: How can readers connect with you online?
SH: I am everywhere online!
My website is www.saramharvey.com. You can find me on Facebook under Sara M. Harvey and on Livejournal and Twitter as saraphina_marie. I love to hear from fans of my work, so please ping me!
I first encountered Michael West in July of 2009, during my first trip to InConJunction in Indianapolis. I had already heard of him and his work, which spans a considerable number of publications and anthologies. I saw that he maintained a very active convention schedule, in addition to being a prolific writer.
When his single-author collection, Skull Full of Kisses, was announced, I was immediately interested in reading it. The publisher, Graveside Tales, is an excellent one, and I already had some of their books on my shelves. Steven L. Shrewsbury's Hawg, in fact, was one of my favorite reads of 2009. I had no doubt in my mind that this book would be very well treated in its release, and I ordered a copy direct from the publisher when it came out.
The book arrived, and, sure enough, was everything that I had hoped for. Some of my favorite book releases of all time were single-author collections, namely Clive Barker's Books of Blood volumes, and knowing that Clive Barker was an influence of Michael's, I was really intrigued to discover what kind of stories were selected for inclusion.
So, without further adieu, let's find out about Michael West from the man himself! My review of Skull Full of Kisses follows!
-Stephen Zimmer for Seventh Star Press Blogsite, August 9, 2010
SZ: When were the various stories written in this collection? Were some written specifically for the collection, are they stories that were released singly in other anthologies, or a mix of both?
MW: It spans about five years, from my first short fiction sale, "God Like Me," to last year's "For Her". Most were released in magazines like Shroud and APEX: Science Fiction and Horror Digest, but a few, like "The Bridge," were featured in themed anthologies. There are two new stories, written just for this collection: "Einstein's Slingshot," a tale of science gone horribly wrong, and the Asian inspired "Sanctuary."
SZ: In the case of a story like "Jiki," which was previously featured in an issue of City Slab Magazine, were there any major changes with the version that appears in Skull Full of Kisses?
MW: I had a wonderful editor for Skull Full of Kisses, Myrrym Davies, and she went over every story for the collection with me, even ones that had appeared previously in other works. The stories that had been edited before did not need much in the way of correction, but there were a few things that we did tweak here and there. Because of this, none of the stories are exactly as they've appeared before, but there were no major changes.
SZ: Tell us a little about the process by which this collection landed with Graveside Tales, and why you believed they would be a good home for your book?
MW: Anthologies (a collection of stories by various authors) are commonplace. Editors find big names to submit stories, to be the "anchors" that will help sell the idea to publishers. Publishers know that Stephen King and Clive Barker have fans who will buy the book simply because those writers are featured in it. Once the pitch sells, editors can invite lesser-known talents to join in the mix. A single author collection, however, by someone other than the aforementioned King or Barker, is a much tougher sell. There are few publishers willing to take a risk on new talent. Lucky for me, Dale Murphy at Graveside Tales was willing to take such a risk. I'd read their Beast Within anthology, so I knew they put out a quality product, and was familiar with their other authors, so I felt that I would be in good company.
SZ: What kinds of things were considerations or factors in determining whether a particular story of yours went into this single author collection? (How did a story "make the cut", so to speak?)
MW: I'm most proud of "Jiki", my ode to Asian Horror; "To Know How to See", my first real stab at Sci-fi Horror; and "Goodnight", which was named Best Horror Short Story of 2005 in the annual P&E Readers Poll. Those stories hold special places in my heart, so they were obviously going to be a part of it, and they really formed the tent poles for the entire work: "Jiki" opens the collection, "To Know How to See" falls right in the middle, and "Goodnight" closes is out. In between them, I placed works that were well received by my faithful readers, works that reflected my growth as a writer over the last five years.
SZ: As you mentioned, this collection spans a variety of types of horror(Lovecraftian, Asian horror, Sci-fi laced horror), is there a particular type of horror that tends to be your personal favorite? And if you do have a favorite type of horror, what about it lifts it to the top?
MW: I'm a sucker for a good monster story, but my favorite kind of horror is that which revolves around strong, believable characters. That's what makes a story stand out for me, creates something truly memorable. Slasher, Steampunk...I don't care what sub-genre you're working in, if the reader isn't emotionally invested in the people in your story, they're not going to read it. In my opinion, that's why a lot of movies made from horror novels fail. The filmmakers concentrate on the "Big Bad" alien, demon, what-have-you,and the characters get short shrift. When you really care about the people in a story, you get lost in the narrative and you feel things on a very visceral level. That's the type of connection I strive for in my own writing.
SZ: How has the response been so far to Skull Full of Kisses, both from readers and from reviewers?
MW: The response has been overwhelming. Reviewers have given it four and five stars and compared the stories to episodes of The Twilight Zone, which has been the ultimate compliment for me. I've loved the Zone since I was a child. Readers have sent me emails and gone online to talk about the stories and the collection as a whole. It always amazes me that everyone seems to have three favorite stories. "Jiki" is normally one, "Goodnight" is another (especially for those who've dealt with the loss of someone close to them), but the third story is always different. I think every story in the collection has been someone's favorite, and that's very gratifying.
SZ: Tell us a little about your upcoming novel. The plot, who's publishing it, etc.
MW: My upcoming novel is called The Wide Game. On the advice of his wife, Paul Rice is making plans to attend his 10th year High School reunion. Returning to his boyhood home of Harmony, Indiana, he finds that he is still haunted by memories of that time, memories of Deidra, his first love, and memories of the Wide Game. It was ten years ago that Paul and his friends watched their day of fun become a race for their lives, a fight for their very souls. Now, as he meets the survivors of that day once more, Paul makes a chilling discovery: the incomprehensible forces that toyed with them have yet to finish playing their own game.
The novel will be published by Graveside Tales on February 14th, 2011, and should be available for pre-order after the first of the year.
SZ: Can you give us a scoop on anything you are working on right now?
I finished a story for an upcoming anthology and am hard at work on another. I'm also mapping out a trilogy of books for a series that I'm calling The Legacy of the Gods. It's an epic story that blends elements of Horror, Urban Fantasy, Science Fiction and Action Adventure. The first novel, Poseidon's Children, is done and I'm working on outlines for the next two. I also have two novels set in Indiana that I hope will be out within the next year or so. There are always more tales to tell, and I can't wait to share them with new and faithful readers alike.
SZ: As a horror author, who are some of the main horror writers that you consider to be influences? Are there any authors not in the horror genre who were major influences on you?
MW: I'm a child of the eighties, so I grew up with Stephen King and Clive Barker. I also had a steady diet of what I consider to be the "Grand Masters": Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, and Rod Serling, and I think their influence is clearly visible in Skull Full of Kisses. I enjoy contemporary authors like Brian Keene, J.F. Gonzales, and Tim Lebbon, but Gary A. Braunbeck is the authors I admire most right now. His work is filled with an emotional reality that, in my opinion, elevates the entire genre. I was so thrilled that he was able to write the introduction to my collection, and so honored and humbled by what he had to say.
As for authors outside the genre, I'd have to point to David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars and Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha as being major influences for me and my work.
SZ: As the horror genre is often associate with the film world, what are some of Michael West's recommendations in terms of good horror films that those who like the genre should definitely see?
MW: Oh my, too many to mention here. I had a friend recently tell me that she'd never seen Creepshow, Fright Night, or Night of the Creeps, and those are some of my favorites! I threatened to sit her down and create a film festival for her. LOL If I had to pick my top five, it would be The Exorcist, George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead, and John Carpenter's Halloween, The Fog, and The Thing. The 70s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers would be in there, as would Re-Animator and From Beyond...But I could sit here all day and talk about horror films. If anyone really wants a recommendation, they can certainly contact me online and we can chat about it endlessly.
SZ: How can readers connect with Michael West online? And perhaps give a link or two where they can get your books and eBooks.
Skull Full of Kisses is a Collection Full of Gems-reviewed by Stephen Zimmer for Seventh Star Press Blogsite, August 9, 2010
Skull Full of Kisses (Graveside Tales, ISBN: 978-0980133882) is a real showcase of Michael West's horror writing. Containing 10 short stories, the book begins with a foreword by no less than Gary A. Braunbeck, something that will catch the eyes of any reader of the genre.
As this is a single-author collection of short stories, it is probably best to arrange this review into some thoughts and notes regarding each of the tales included in this collection:
“Jiki”, which is the first story in the collection, is a real gem, taking the reader into the shadowy underworld of Asian crime, and placing a very fearsome creature at the midst of the tale. While disturbing (in a good way), the end of the story really packs a punch, leaving you with a potent sense of dread. It is an excellent kickoff to the collection, drawing off the sub-genre of Asian horror, and giving the reader a good introduction into the kinds of tones and twists that are inherent to Michael West stories.
Another story in this collection bringing in an Asian-horror tone is “Sanctuary”, which has a brooding atmosphere and one heck of a twist at the end of the story. Michael sets it so well that I almost had to put a coat on, as you can really “feel” the bitter cold being endured by the main characters, a couple of Chinese soldiers working their way through a blizzard as they are being pursued by monstrous creatures that have killed the rest of their comrades. The story also involves a great application of mythological elements.
“Dogs of War” is very psychological in nature, and can be read in a few different ways, making it a very nice addition to this collection. Involving Gulf War veterans being haunted and oppressed by demonic creatures, is also a story that subtly invites a reader to become a bit more reflective on some of the horrors of our own reality, such as what soldiers undergoing PTSD and other similar ordeals have to endure.
“Einstein’s Slingshot” was one of my favorites, a tale that readers who enjoyed Stephen King’s The Mist will definitely find to their liking. It has flavors of the heroic, the apocalyptic, and a few dabs of science fiction blended very nicely.
“The Bridge” is, as Michael references in his notes in the back of the book, the substance of a great campfire tale. I can also see this one becoming the kickstarter scene for a very good horror-ghost movie with a primarily teenaged cast (and certainly much better than the teen horror fare gushed out by Hollywood nowadays.)
The story “Trolling” clearly brings out the Lovecraftian influence in Michael West. Visceral, and putting the erotic with the horrific in an effective association, it also finishes on an unexpected note. It is strongly recommended that readers are not eating when reading this particular tale.
Speaking of associating the erotic and horrific, “For Her” takes the reader into yet another part of the horror spectrum, as West draws upon the lore of South America to create something truly stomach churning. Kafka’s "The Metamorphosis" has nothing on this tale!
“God Like Me” is a very different kind of story, and is quite a sojourn into the realm of megalomania. This is a story that I also found to be laced with some good humor, showing yet another side to Michael's writing. The tale has a sweet, satisfying conclusion!
“To Know How to See” shows off Michael’s ability to tell a dark Sci-Fi tale. This one keeps you on edge throughout, and you really don’t know which way it is going to tilt. Is the main character’s experience rooted in delusion, and psychological in nature, or is he dealing with a real, existing threat? Michael does a very good job of keeping the answer hanging in the balance, all the way to the very end.
“Goodnight” is a story that brings Michael’s range to a level that is not so common in the world of horror writers. Horror, by its nature, tends to tilt towards darker themes, but every once in a while it serves as a great foundation for showing contrasts; the maw of the abyss contrasted with the beckoning lights of a a different horizon, one marking the boundary of something far greater. "Goodnight" is one of those kinds of stories. While not abandoning the horroric at all, it infuses a gentle compassion, wisdom, and a few rays of light to pierce the darkness. In this genre, this is a bold step to take, of a kind that carries some risks with it, but one that, when it is successful, delivers something particularly special. This story was a great note to end this horror symphony on.
As a whole, “Skull Full of Kisses” is testimony to the presence of a very imaginative and skilled writer, one who is well underway on what promises to be a very outstanding career, in whatever genre his imagination carries him to.