Friday, November 26, 2010

Going supernatural wth Dana Cameron and Toni L. P. Kelner

Werewolves, vampires, and ghosts have become almost as common in mystery novels as PIs and cops. Mystery authors Toni L. P. Kelner and Dana Cameron are dipping their pens in the the supernatural and hitting it big with multi-award nominated short stories.

While Toni writes the delightful “Where Are We Now” series for Berkley Prime Crime, she also is writing short stories and co-editing urban fantasy anthologies, including "Death's Excellent Vacation" which debuted at #8 on the NY Times Bestseller list. Her multi-award nominated short stories feature pirates, werewolves, and vampires.

Dana, who wrote a great series of mysteries featuring archaeologist Emma Fielding, has been having a huge success with short stories, too, including her “urban ‘Fangborn’ fantasy” titled “The Night Things Changed” (in "Wolfsbane and Mistletoe") which won Agatha and Macavity Awards.

JRW: Toni, Dana, are you having fun with the supernatural and urban fantasy?

TONI: I really am, a lot more so than I expected. There seems to be more rip-roaring adventure in the paranormal stuff than I end up with in my mysteries, and maybe a bit more drama and emotion. It's refreshing.

DANA: I'm amazed at how much fun I'm having, and how much I'm learning about writing in general by doing it. I get to play with the conventions of the supernatural story, and it's also a chance to tackle huge issues (morality, justice, prejudice, faith, etc.) on an operatic scale. While my werewolves and vampires are basically folks trying to do the right thing, you can really amp up things by throwing them into conflict with pure evil. Emma Fielding never had to worry about the fate of humanity.

JRW: What do you think is it that makes urban fantasy and supernatural so appealing to mystery readers, and are they actually broadening the audience?

TONI: I think they like the sense of the stories being "larger than life," adding a bit of mythic power. But I'm not sure about broadening the audience, actually. The paranormal crowd will read paranormal romances, mysteries, or whatever, and of course people who are Charlaine Harris fans and Dana Cameron fans will follow them no matter what they write. But then there are plenty of hard-core mystery readers who won't touch anything where the paranormal is involved.

I am, I think, broadening my own audience. The paranormal stuff sells a whole lot better than my straight mysteries, and I think people who read the anthologies Charlaine and I do are sometimes convinced to try out my novels. That's what I'm hoping for, anyway.

DANA: Toni's right; some mystery readers wouldn't go near the supernatural, but à chacun son gôut. For those of us who read across subgenres, it's a great opportunity to have a mystery with a new sort of detective. Through the years, sleuths have had all sorts of skills and powers, from inquisitive old ladies and amateur sleuths to PIs and police detectives to superheroes like Batman or Superman. In that context, the introduction of vampires and werewolves doesn't seem so much a stretch. And I think it has the terrific side-effect of introducing supernatural readers to mystery writers they might not already know.

JRW: Vampires, werewolves, fairies... which most suit your fancy?

TONI: I'm a sucker for vampires. (Also for puns, needless to say.) I like werewolves, too, but they don't have the same mystique for me. Maybe it's because I'm a woman--a monthly change is no big deal for me. I've never done anything with fairies, though I do enjoy reading some of the fae books.

Vampires are just so darned useful as metaphors. Bram Stoker used them as a metaphor for sex in Dracula, Joss Whedon used them as a metaphor for the horrors of high school and fear of sex in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charlaine uses them as a metaphors for gays and other so-called outsiders, romance writers use them as a metaphor for the demon lover... And of course I use them as an excuse to make puns.

DANA: I was waiting to see how long it would take Toni to make a pun.

As far as reading goes, I have no preference, it depends on the writer and the world. As far as writing them myself, I've been basing my supernatural world in science (admittedly, as-yet-unexplained science) and world mythologies (traditions of shape-changers are nearly universal). While there are plenty of mythologies about fairies, fae, and the like, I haven't found them in my Fangborn world, but I never say never, anymore.

JRW: Does it feel completely different from writing a ‘traditional’ mystery, or not so much?

TONI: Actually, it's not that different, at least not for me. A lot of what I do with mysteries, particularly with short stories, is explore different milieus. I've set mysteries in the rural South, in a carnival, on pirate ships, in a circus, at a science fiction convention, and around show business. Those may sound like a wide variety of settings, but what they have in common is the introduction of a new "world," often with unique word usage and slang. With the paranormal, I do the same thing.

It's just that instead of reading about circus lingo or consulting my mother about Southernisms, I'm making up the world and the language. It doesn't matter if the realm is real or imagined, the techniques for explaining them to the reader are pretty much the same.

One other thought. Whether or not I'm writing paranormal mysteries or straight ones, I try to make the story dependent on the setting--a crime that could only be committed and/or solved in that milieu. So the way my carney catches a murderer in "Sleeping With the Plush" would only work in a carnival, and the motive for murder in my forthcoming book Blast from the Past only applies to people in show business. So again, I do the same thing with paranormal mysteries. Only a werewolf could solve the crime in "Pirate Dave's Haunted Amusement Park" and only a vampire could commit the crime in "Taking the Long View."

DANA: I agree: writing supernatural is similar to traditional mysteries is a balance of the characters' skills and shortcomings against the conflicts they find themselves in. If you give them superpowers, you need to give them super conflict, and also, super disadvantages to trip them up. It's fun to figure out really cool ways (unexpected, at the same time, obvious) for them to use their powers to solve a seemingly impenetrable mystery.

So far, I've been lucky to write in a number of subgenres: amateur sleuth, historical, supernatural, noir. I suppose I could add "PI" because Gerry, in addition to being a werewolf, is a PI (though it's not the focus of the stories). In each case, there's a different set of conventions, so the idea of switching conventions is just the challenge of being a writer, not specific to writers of supernatural fiction.

What I have noticed is how much I relate to the characters (no, no, I'm not admitting to being a were or a vamp). Obviously, writing Emma Fielding drew a lot from my academic life. I relate strongly to Gerry and Claudia Steuben, because their background and attitudes are similar to mine. I have more in common with them, on some levels, than Anna Hoyt (from “Femme Sole” in "Boston Noir"), who is about as far from supernatural as you can get. So I guess I really don't see a major difference in the characters among subgenres.

JRW: Thank you so much! Toni and Dana will be checking in today so please welcome them and join the conversation!


  1. Great interview ladies--thanks for stopping by JR! I have to admit that the huge vampire craze still puzzles me. I shouldn't be surprised to hear you say that supernatural stories sell better than straight mysteries, but why are they more appealing to readers? Does it have to do with getting away from reality in our difficult world?

    Also liked the discussion of paranormal as just another kind of setting. I suppose the challenge in any kind of book is figuring out a way to show the world, instead of telling the reader about it.

  2. Welme Toni and Dana. I wish I'd been at Crimeback to hear your panel.
    I certainly had fun with the whole vampire theme in Royal Blood. We had a discussion on my other blog and we concluded he's the ultimate bad boy, the one your mother won't let you go out. You know he's danger but you still lust after him!

  3. Thanks for the warm welcome, Roberta and Rhys!

    Roberta, I read an article (I wish I could find it) showing the vampire "craze" has actually been going on for decades (if not centuries) in popular culture. To me, like any genre fiction, supernatural fiction is another way of looking at life's big issues. I think Toni hit the nail on the head when she spoke of metaphors.

    And the ultimate bad boy is attractive, experienced, and all-consuming, Rhys!

  4. Hey ladies!

    Roberta, I don't know that supernatural stories sell better in general--I only know that my urban fantasy anthologies sell buckets more than my mysteries. And that's mostly because of the high profiles of our contributors and my illustrious co-editor Charlaine Harris. If I ever write an urban fantasy novel, I'll have more of a basis for comparison.

    Rhys, you're absolutely right. The vampire is the ultimate bad guy. I think it's all part of the Harlequin Complex, as explored by the eminent psychologist Dr. David McClelland. He did a study of people's conceptions of death and found that men tend to picture that bony guy with the scythe while women tend to think of a sexier image, the demon lover. That all feeds into the fascination with vampires.

  5. Excellent interview! I want to know what you ladies think of the Steampunk genre that seems to be getting a lot of attention lately. Do you think it could be the next big thing?

  6. Ruth, I'm the last person to ask about the next big thing!

    Seriously, I'm more familiar with steampunk's roots in cyberpunk. The connections between the late Victorian era and high tech are very strong, so I can see how compelling those familiar/different those worlds would be, and I have enjoyed the art I've seen.

    ::scurrying to add to my TBR pile::

  7. Welcome Toni and Dana,

    Great interview --you both make a great case for the supernatural.

    I'm not a big vampire fan - probably because as Rhys said vampires are the ultimate bad boy and I've just never been attracted to the bad boy. Bad boys scared the crap out of me.

    BUT I do love the supernatural -- especially ghosts and devils. And I'm guessing that in your two capable hands, I might even come to like vampires a bit more. (And will have to give the werewolf consideration as well)

    Congrats on both of your success!!

  8. Ruth, I had a discussion with my editor about steampunk, and she made an interesting point. Steampunk is more an art thing and a cosplay thing that it is a literature thing. In other words, it's so wonderfully visual that people play games with it without reading anything in the subgenre. So it hasn't been a huge seller, though if the right author writes something wonderful, that could all change.

    Jan, if vampires don't float your boat, there are lots of books starring angels (Metal Angel by Nancy Springer) the fae (Seanan McGuire's series), weather manipulators (Rachel Caine's weather warden series), witches (Kim Harrison's books), wizards (Jim Butcher's Harry Dresen novels), and all kinds of supernatural critters.

    And Ruth and Jan, you might try Gail Carriger, who has written three steampunk urban fantasy books that are oddly reminiscent of Elizabeth Peters.

  9. HI, fascinating! And you guys are hilarious, thoughtful and provocative, as usual.

    I'm so interested in the first step into paranormal. YOu know? It has to feel so--genuine. And that's such a skill.

    happy day after, everyone. I'm thinking, what special holidays would vampires have?

  10. Thanks, Dana & Toni. Toni, I will try Gail Carriger. Have a great weekend.

  11. Hank, the first step is to pretend it's all real. Then ask yourself questions. If there were vampires, would they be hidden or "out of the coffin"? If they were hidden, how would they hide? If they're known about, how would other people see them? How much of the stuff in DRACULA is true? And just go from there.

    As for specific holidays, Charlaine and I have done anthologies about paranormal folks during holidays. (Though WOLFSBANE AND MISTLETOE featured werewolves, quite a few vampires snuck in.) But the only vampire-specific holiday that showed up was Dracula's Birthday, in Charlaine's story in MANY BLOODY RETURNS.

  12. Jan: Toni'll steer you right!

    Hank, the first step for me was... remembering I could make things up! I wanted to address a lot of the traditional conventions in the context of my Fangborn world, so I found "rational" explanations of why vampires and werewolves would be at crime scenes, etc. Even in the fantastic, you need to find the logic.

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  14. Oh, I have the next captcha word and it's: forkedry.

    I think I may have the beginning of my new paranormal story.

    Certainly it has something to do with Thanksgiving...and wizards.


  15. Dracula's birthday! HIlarious. (YOu can see I'm way behind in my reading.)

    You know, that'd so instructional--to "pretend it's real." And make it logical. That's exactly how I think about my non-paranormal stories. I ask myself: what would really happen? So it would be a fun step to think about: what would really happen" and "what would be logical" in a completely made-up world. Or a--sort of made up world, might be more fun...hmmmm.

  16. "Forkedry" sounds like a Hogwort's prank, Hank! "Harry kept Ron from enjoying the pumpkin pie by employing the "forkedry" spell, which made the bites disappear."

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