This year I’ve had the fortune of discovering the writing of Kelli Owen. In my review of her debut novel “Six Days” I called it “a claustrophobic cocktail of unease and uncertainty” that I found to be “refreshing in a very Chianti and fava beans sort of way.” Recently, I had the chance to review her new novella, “The Neighborhood”, and found even more to like. In that review, I said:
The comfortable and effortless style Owen imbues in her prose, her ability to make the ordinary both familiar and frightening, and the sensibility she brings to her storytelling are all reminiscent of “It” and Stephen King at his best. The ability to instantly connect me to a new world in a single sentence that first made me a King fan then, is the same thing that’s made me a Kelli Owen fan today.
Having made such an impression on me, I really wanted to pick Kelli’s brain a bit and see what makes her tick. She was kind enough to take time out of her day to answer a few questions recently.
The Word Zombie: I’m working on the “I Am” challenge you posted on your blog last week. The challenge is to write 5 pages about yourself, with each sentence starting with “I”. It’s very enlightening, and a bit more difficult than I anticipated. You wrote that you had completed yours. Can you share a few choice bits with us – give us a little insight in to Kelli Owen?
Kelli Owen: It was tougher than you expected, wasn’t it? Sure it starts easy enough—I’m short. I come from the bloodline of an exiled Bohemian gypsy. I once worked for Miss Cleo.—but when you run out of what you know, or what you share with others, it turns on you. Which is the point…
Mine included (not necessarily in order or even near each other in the exercise):
I have asked the moon for advice and let fortune cookies decide my fate.
I believe in nature, the unknown, and tomorrow.
I have forgiven more than I’ve forgotten.
The Word Zombie: Horror is sometimes given a short shrift by the “literary set”. I think that mindset comes from an unwillingness to look at story and characters first, then genre second. What drew you to the horror genre, and what keeps you coming back to write more of it?
Kelli Owen: I’d first like to comment on the beginning of this question—I think the mindset comes not from genre but from experience and assumption. Most people that don’t like horror will tell you either a. “Oh I didn’t like “Fill-in-title-here” and they think all horror is like that. Or b. “I don’t like scary things” lumping all stories, topics, etc. together rather than learning that “scary” is awfully hard to define across the board. And “scary” can often be no more than “uncomfortable.” There are many books in other genres with “scary” moments, so I find presuming the fear-factor and/or all-horror-is-the-same is not only a shame, but prevents the person from discovering either a writer or a sub-genre they may really like.
That said, I’m a dark twisted little girl. In my pre-teens, while most girls were reading Judy Bloom, I was reading Edgar Allan Poe. While they were ordering horses and butterflies from the Scholastic (et. al) bookclubs, I was begging mom for the ghosts, monsters and haunted houses—or as one teacher put it, “the boy books.” Lately, I’ve actually started stories out without a horror element, but my muse tends to go back there eventually. Every time. I’m an optimist, but my muse is a horrible pessimist. My imagination sees something on the street and twists it to ask “what if?”
The Word Zombie: I compared you to Stephen King in my review of “The Neighborhood”. Your style is very comfortable and you find a way to make the ordinary both frightening and yet still recognizable. How would you describe your writing voice?
Kelli Owen: I actually write much like I think, though not necessarily how I speak unless I’m telling a story. I tend to give more details to the things that will affect the reader (the shadows, the blood trail, the taste of fear at the back of your throat) and be general with the things that would differentiate the character from the reader to try and let them fill in the blanks to find themselves or someone they know in the story. I write very tersely. I like small sentences for action and emphasis. I’ve actually been told that I write like Wrath James White and Jack Ketchum had a love-child and let Geoff Cooper babysit it. I’m okay with that comparison, though I think the Wrath element is more topic matter and less style.
The Word Zombie: When you write, either short story or novel, do you begin with the end in mind, or do you find out where the characters are going along with the reader?
Kelli Owen: I always know the end—usually before the beginning. Then I find the beginning. I know basics of the characters that will be traveling the path. How I get from the beginning to the end depends entirely on the characters as they come to life. The characters becoming real and my muse purely channeling them is my favorite part of the writing process.
The Word Zombie: “The Neighborhood” reminded me of “It” in many ways, and in my review I said it contained the seeds of a great novel. Do you agree with that assessment? Do you think you will revisit the town of Neillsville and its inhabitants again in greater detail?
Kelli Owen: I know that characters from The Neighborhood will be seen again, as I tend to pull characters and events from other stories into current ones. My universe crosses over itself several times. But the town itself? You’re not the first to ask, and I’ll answer the same way: I hadn’t thought of it until asked. There are other stories to tell there, they just aren’t cemented in the playbook yet.
The Word Zombie: You have a great quote on your blog from Anne Rice – “To write something, you have to risk making a fool of yourself.” Is it hard for you to put yourself out there on the page? To open yourself and your creative output up to both compliment and/or criticism?
Kelli Owen: Not anymore. Once upon a time it was very difficult. They say “you have to grow a thick skin” in this business and it’s true. Why? Because they don’t say “you have to grow confident in your work.” Which is good, because I may never be confident in what I’m putting out there, but I am willing to put it out there and see what happens. With age, I’ve found I actually prefer to have someone question a character’s motives or dislike some twist (with explanation of course) than to tell me it’s all shiny and wonderful and perfect. Shiny is nice, but it doesn’t help me improve, and I’d like to think even if I never have confidence in what I’m doing at the time, I’ll always be confident it’s better than the last thing I did.
The Word Zombie: Your first novel “Six Days” was part of the inaugural Maelstrom release from Brian Keene through Thunderstorm Books (Readers can find my review of it here). How did you get involved with Brian and the Maelstrom release?
Kelli Owen: Actually, there’s a word for that: Serendipity. Six Days was actually under contract at another publishing house, but after schedule and economic issues pushed the release date past the contract, I got the rights back on a Tuesday. Wednesday, Brian called to ask if I knew anyone that had a finished novel because he was working on this idea (Maelstrom). I laughed and said, “Yeah, me.” Long story short, Six Days found a new publisher the second Paul Goblirsch read it.
The Word Zombie: Like so many writers, you hold down a full-time day job to pay the bills. What advice do you have for those, like you, who write as a passion and work for a living?
Kelli Owen: If you want to keep a day job and just dabble here and there, it’s a hobby, not a career. If you’re a writer then it’s with the mindset to become a professional, fulltime writer. I am a writer. My advice to those that want a career: have a plan.
To the outside observer, it may seem like I’m just doing what everyone does in this field, but it’s all very coordinated. It always has been. I’ve had the writing portion of my career mapped out since I pulled up my big-girl pants, grew thick skin, and took this serious for the second time in my adult life. I have plans, short term and long term. As of right now, I have 3,567 days to hit the short-term goal: houseboat. In order to quit the day job and move onto a houseboat to write fulltime (after the youngest graduates high school), I have to have achieved a certain portion of my goals. I have a countdown clock on my computer that reminds me how many days I have left—and it kicks me in the mental buttocks to get in gear when I’m being lazy.
The Word Zombie: Stephen King once said – “If you don’t have time to read, then you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” What do you like to read in your spare time and what do you have on your “to read” pile at the moment?
Kelli Owen: Lately I’ve been cruising iBooks free selection on a nonfiction kick. A lot of philosophy, historical, scientific, essays, and of course, there’s always the search for the next gypsy research book. Fiction-wise, my current queue includes Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (great book - readers can find my review of it here – TWZ), Deep as the Marrow by F. Paul Wilson, and God’s Debris by Scott Adams. Depending on what I’m working on, or thinking about, or see a tidbit of in the news, my TBR pile can get quite eclectic.
The Word Zombie: What can we expect to see next from Kelli Owen?
Kelli Owen: Next, I’m going to make this elephant disappear! Sorry, I’ve been serious for far too long in this thing—needed to throw my whimsy out there. Coming up yet this year (details soon) I have a short story in a Flying Spaghetti Monster anthology endorsed by Bobby Henderson himself. Next year I have my first collection, Black Bubbles. I can’t give many details yet, but I can say that there is interior art from my 8-year-old stepson, and cover art from GAK. Also in 2012, my second novel, White Picket Prisons, will be released—again, can’t give much for details yet. But I tease and taunt and will eventually spill all the proverbial beans on my website…
The Word Zombie: What’s the one terribly insightful and hard hitting question I should have asked you, but didn’t? How would you answer said question?
Kelli Owen: Where do you get your ideas?
Did something happen to you as a child that made you this way?
What’s it like to be a woman in the horror genre?
Every writer starts out dreaming of hitting it big and being a best selling author. Is there anything about the reality of that dream that frightens you?
Why yes, Daimion, there is! The Change. It’s like menopause for writers. The hot flashes are referred to as White Rabbits. The sleepless nights are actually restraining orders. And the dead libido is seclusion. Stephen King doesn’t do cons, JK Rowling can’t go in public, and Brian Keene is paranoid and untrusting of almost everyone. I don’t want to become like that. I’m a people person. I love hearing what people did or didn’t like. I love hearing who else they’re reading. I love the interaction, whether it’s about my works or just books in general. And I cannot imagine a time where I would be afraid to go in public, would shut down my social networking to anything other than friends and boring blogs about writing news and nothing else, or fear strangers on the street and checking my mail. Sure I want to hit the lotto, but I’d like to remain me when I do. My fear is “is that possible?” Can I be the anomaly that isn’t affected by menopause? I sure hope so.
The Word Zombie: One last question. Once the zombie apocalypse occurs – and I think we can all agree it’s a matter of when, not if – will you be going it alone, or looking to join up with a ragtag group of survivors? Also, do you prefer long-range weapons (guns, flamethrowers) or melee weapons (classic baseball bat) when dealing with a zombie uprising?
Kelli Owen: We’ve actually already planned this event on the green couch, as science continues to play in areas they have no business even discussing, it is definitely a “when” not “if” situation.
There’s a select group of people invited to hole up with us, all of which have pre-assigned duties during said apocalypse. I’m in charge of the kitchen with Dave, mostly because our friends enjoy seeing this with or without an apocalypse. Bob Ford is in charge of scavenging, thieving and recon. We have our firearms expert/sharpshooter, a medic, a tech-head, the built-in babysitter to keep children occupied and away from danger, etc. The neighborhood teenagers wanted sanctuary but were quizzed as to what they would bring to the party. If they answered incorrectly they were told they were not only banned, but could be shot, unless we decide to use them for either firewood or bait (One in particular, when asked “what is the first thing you’d do in a zombie apocalypse?” answered with “take a shower?”—firewood.) We all know our strengths and weaknesses, and therefore understand the group dynamic is the best chance of survival. Plus, I can’t kill a friend/family member if they become a zombie, so I need someone else to do that for me (unless I’m alone, in which case I will gladly put a smiley face of lead on their forehead).
Which leads directly into my weapon of choice. I’ll take a gun any day—kill ‘em before they’re close enough to cause problems. A pistol rather than rifle is preferable. I’ve always hated scopes because of my glasses, so I hate long-range. And I’m deadly with my Springfield XD. If they’re too close for a clean headshot that won’t spatter me in infectious zombie bits and brains, then I’m going to have to go with “the club”—the heavy fiberglass handle of an old ax I have—that will easily smash the hell out of zombie brains.
My thanks to Kelli for taking time to chat with me. “The Neighborhood” is available in a limited edition from Thunderstorm Books. You can find Kelli online here, on Twitter here, and on Facebook here.
© 2011, The Word Zombie. All rights reserved.