I’m so excited today–my good friend Claire Russett has a new release, Catalyst, with Dreamspinner Press! To celebrate that fact, she’s allowed me to interview her here today and ask all kinds of thinky questions. 🙂 Do leave a comment or ask a question of your own–one random commenter will be selected to win a signed print copy of one of her anthologies (winners restricted to the UK) or the reader’s choice of an e-copy from something in her backlist (outside the UK).
Hello! Welcome to my blog, Claire! Thank you for answering my nosy, I mean discerning, questions! I have to admit, I’m looking forward to the release of Catalyst, the first in the Argo series. I love the cover art. What made you decide to go with something along these lines, rather than the traditional ‘headless naked torso’?
Hi Sarah! Thanks so much for inviting me. It’s so exciting that ‘Catalyst’ has finally been released and to have the prospect of a whole series to play with and enjoy.
Isn’t the front cover brilliant? I love it, too. LC Chase is so talented and she took what I could only clumsily describe and created something even more beautiful than I could imagine. As to why I chose not to go the ‘headless naked torso’ route, as you say, I guess it all boils down to how I view the story. Yes, it’s a M/M romance, but I hope that the novel is also more than that. The stories I love to read, and those which inspire me to write, are not only about sex and romance (of which there is plenty in ‘Catalyst’), but also ones that go into what happens to get the characters together in the first place. I’m a big fan of science – both real and fictional – and I wanted to have that reflected in both the novel and its cover. I won’t give too much of the plot away, but this particular novel was initially inspired by watching a particular episode of David Attenborough’s brilliant series ‘Life in the Undergrowth’.
Tell us a bit about Catalyst.
Well, like I said, ‘Catalyst’ is a sci-fi romance. It tells the story of Rick Tennant and Jason Finely who both serve upon the space station Argo. Rick and Jason are friends and the story follows their lives as their relationship changes. Given the setting, I really got to indulge my imagination and have some fun creating scenarios which would challenge the characters feelings for, and views of, each other, but which would also leave them having to work out what they really want and need.
Where do you get the inspiration for your stories?
Pretty much everywhere! I’m an academic researcher by day, so I’m used to picking up odd bits and pieces and trying to see how I can fit things together in a way that makes sense. As I said, ‘Catalyst’ came about from watching a natural history documentary about invertebrates. I work in health research, so I come across neat ideas all the time there. My husband is a theoretical physicist, so listening to him and his colleagues talk about their work is also a great source of inspiration. I love reading popular science magazines such as ‘New Scientist’ and ‘Physics World’, which always have articles that I can use as inspiration. Plus, of course, I love watching sci-fi series on TV – the various incarnations of Star Trek, the various Stargate series, both versions of Battlestar Galactica, Blake’s 7, Dr Who, Torchwood, anything by Terry Nation and Joss Whedon. I could go on endlessly, but I’m sure you get the picture! So, yes, sources of inspiration for stories are pretty much everywhere! Now, if only I had the time to indulge…
Please tell us a little about yourself and the kinds of stories you like to write. Would you say there is an underlying theme behind your stories?
I work in a university as a research fellow, so I’m surrounded by scientists on a regular basis. Given that, it’s not surprising it makes it into my stories. I’m also a romantic – I like happy endings, even if there has to be a fair amount of angst and danger before the characters get there. So I guess that’s really what I love to write about – science fiction and fact, love and friendship, nerve-wracking adventures and happily ever afters.
How long have you been writing? Did you write as a child or is it something you developed a passion for later in life?
My earliest memories of creating stories are of using the stuffed animals on my bed. I think most of them were Care Bears, although there might have been the odd rabbit in there too. As for stories that I actually wrote down, that came a bit later – when I was a teenager and became obsessed with Star Trek: The Next Generation. It makes me cringe to think of it now, but I did have a rather large notebook full of stories about Jean-Luc Picard and the Enterprise NCC 1701-D…
Of course, writing took a bit ofa hiatus as I went to university and into research proper. I rediscovered my love of it via the joys of the internet, fan forums and, ultimately, fan fiction. Like so many, I had no idea that other people were inspired the way I had been as a teenager to write about their favourite characters and settings. I also discovered M/M romance this way, via slash – which was a bit of a shock at first, but something that, obviously, I soon embraced wholeheartedly!
What gave you the courage to submit your first story to a publisher?
To be honest, people like you, Sarah! 🙂 I had been writing fan fiction for quite a few years and really loving it. It was seeing other authors take a chance to have their original work published that made me start to consider that I might be able to do likewise. The fandom in which I was most active was slowly fading and I became increasingly curious about whether a publisher would consider my work.
The first story I actually submitted was a short for an anthology published by Dreamspinner Press. The call was for stories set in universities or other academic institutions and the anthology was to be called ‘Higher Learning’. Of course, as a researcher myself, I couldn’t resist. I wrote a rather a smutty little piece called ‘Inspiration’ about the late night escapades of a physicist and an engineer. When I worked up the courage to finally click the send button, I immediately wanted to call the email back as I was so nervous and, quite frankly, embarrassed by the story’s content! Thankfully that wasn’t an option as, to my surprise and delight, it was accepted.
That experience gave me the courage to write more stories. I did a couple more for anthologies – a contemporary story about old flames being united called ‘Reconnecting’ for the ‘Two Tickets to Paradise’ anthology and a sci-fi story called ‘Prototype’ for the ‘Men of Steel’ anthology. When ‘Prototype’ ended up being over 20,000 words, I decided it was probably time to try my hand at a proper novel.
I see you write M/M fiction. Would you characterize your stories as M/M romance, erotica, or something in between?
Hmm, tricky – I’ve never thought to classify my stories in that way. I guess they’re probably a bit of both. Everything I’ve had published to date does have sex scenes, but I would also say that they are romances too. It’s the whole relationship between the characters – including the sex – that I love.
What draws you to the M/M genre? Have you written in other genres?
No, I haven’t written fiction in other genres. Like I said, I’m a romantic, and so I do love the romance and erotic side of the stories I create. I imagine that anything I write in the future will encompass both these aspects. As for why M/M rather than any other genre, I’m not sure how to explain it other than to say it’s simply what appeals to me. Much has been written about what draws women to M/M, but, to be honest, I don’t think it’s actually that complicated on an individual basis. We like what we like and it’s as simple as that.
What kinds of books do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors?
I think I’m actually quite simple in my tastes. I read for pleasure and escape. I want to be transported by both the plot and the characters and, of course, I long for a happy ending after the dust settles. I’ve always loved the classic romances – authors like Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, George Eliot. Early on, I fell hard for romantic heroes of Mr. Rochester, Heathcliffe and Mr. Darcy. But I also regularly devour popular fiction, usually novels with a sci-fi and/or adventure theme – authors like Michael Crichton, Wilbur Smith, Michael Cordy, Dan Brown. I do also love Sebastian Faulks’ work – with ‘Birdsong’ being one of my regular re-reads along with ‘Jane Eyre’. I love it when I discover a new author and usually read their entire back catalogue. It’s because of this tendency that I also own everything ever written by Diana Gabaldon and Anne Rice!
When it comes to the M/M genre, I have to confess that I’m relative newbie to professionally published work (other, of course, than the Lord John stories by Diana Gabaldon). With my background being what it is in fan fiction, most of what I read in this genre comes from various fandoms and the authors that have gone on to publish professionally from that starting point. The anthologies in which I’ve been lucky enough to publish have also been a fantastic way to get to know other authors in the M/M genre.
“Writers should write what they know.” What does this statement mean to you as an author?
It means I’m excited and fascinated by my plotlines and do a lot of research to try and stay as close to science fact as I can. It’s a process I love.
Are you a panster or a plotter? Do you outline extensively or write your story as you go along?
I’m somewhere in between. I don’t write extensive outlines, but I do know before I begin both the romantic story I want to tell between the two protagonists and the action plot I want to happen over the course of the story. I don’t plan out individual scenes, but I do have a general idea of what bits need to happen when and how I ideally want the story’s various plotlines to flow together. I tend to write from beginning of the story to end, but sometimes I’ll get half-way through a story and a clear picture of the very final scene will emerge, so I’ll pause to get that down. That’s actually what happened with both ‘Catalyst’ and the novel I’m just in the process of finishing, the next in the Argo series.
Which comes first, the story idea or the characters?
It all depends on the story really. In the case of ‘Catalyst’, it was definitely the story idea. I was watching an episode of ‘Life in the Undergrowth’ and was suddenly inspired by one of the scenes. It was then a matter of working out how to mesh the initial idea with the characters. However, with some of my other stories – ‘Reconnecting’ in particular – it was the characters. I just knew that Sam and John had once been lovers, but that John had left Sam heartbroken. It was then a matter of trying to figure out how to get them back together.
Do you have a favorite character that you’ve created? Why does this character resonate with you?
I love my scientists best of all, I think – Jason from ‘Catalyst’, Sam from ‘Reconnecting’, and Robert from ‘Prototype’. I guess it’s probably because it’s with them I identify most strongly – partially because of my own personal interests, but also probably, if I’m being very honest, because my husband is a scientist! 🙂 That said, I do still love a good, old-fashioned romantic hero, so characters like Rick from ‘Catalyst’ and Zach from ‘Prototype’ are appealing to me as well: men who are tightly controlled and always do what is right, but who let loose completely when the right person comes along and passion overrides their control.
Of the stories you’ve written, which one do you like the most? Which one would you recommend a new reader begin with?
That’s a tricky one! Can I pick 2? My personal favourites would have to be the two longer ones I’ve written: ‘Catalyst’ and ‘Prototype’. I have a preference, as a reader, for longer, plottier stories. Also, ‘Catalyst’ and ‘Prototype’ both take place in a science fiction rather than a contemporary setting, which again is something for which I have a preference.
What are the three most important things in your life—the things you can’t do without?
Good question! Well, in my author bio I claim they are my daughter, husband and laptop, but that may have to change soon as I’m due to have another baby on December 7th. So, maybe I’ll just re-phrase and say my children, husband and laptop! 🙂
If you could have one super power or magical element from popular science fiction movies or literature, what would it be and why?
To be able to fly. Hands down, no question about it. I love the few flying dreams I get, so to be able to do it for real would be amazing!
Do you see your writing as a hobby or is it your goal to be a full time writer at some point in the future?
Although I love the idea of being a full time writer, I don’t see it as being a real possibility. This is partially from a financial point of view; I don’t see myself ever being able to become financially independent on writing alone. But it’s also because I do genuinely love my job and wouldn’t want to give it up entirely.
What advice would you give to someone who aspires to be a published author?
To just go for it. Seriously, as long as you have the drive to finish a piece of work that you’re happy with, take the chance and try to have it published! There’s nothing worse than looking back and regretting not at least having had a go.
Most authors admit to feeling uncomfortable with the degree of self-promotion necessary to be successful. Are there some aspects of social media and self-promotion that make you more comfortable than others? Are there some you avoid like the plague?
Self-promotion is definitely something with which I struggle. I think, for me, it really all comes down to time. I have a job, a toddler, will soon be having another baby, and also try to make time for myself. When I do get some time to myself, what I want to be doing with it is the actual writing, not anything else loosely connected to it. I think it’s something with which a lot of writers struggle, especially as many of us have busy jobs and lives around which we have to fit our writing.
How often does your real life experience figure into your story telling? Do you base characters or stories on your actual experiences?
I think it’s only natural that real life experience plays a big part in any writer’s storytelling. Even when writing science fiction, the characters’ reactions and emotions are something with which we can all emphasise. That goes for their characteristics as well – I couldn’t write them effectively if I didn’t have some degree of understanding of their motivations and emotions, although the extent to which I do obviously differs between characters.
Research: love it or hate it?
I love it! Which, given my day job, is a good thing.:-)
Editing: love it or hate it?
Definitely hate it. I love beta reading other people’s writing, but absolutely loath doing it to my own.
How much do you think that a good blurb and good cover art figure into the success of a story?
A huge amount, I’m sure. After all, the cover and blurb are what people see first of all and if the story doesn’t catch their attention from that small snapshot of the overall story, then of course they’re not going to read it. I think that reviews and recommendations also play a huge part. Our little niche genre is growing by the day and the competition for readers’ time and money is doing likewise.
Have you ever been intimidated by reviews?
I’m most certainly intimidated by the prospect of reviews. To date I have been lucky with their actual content. I’ve read reviews of the anthologies in which I’ve published with my heart in my throat, but so far they’ve always been complimentary of my particular story. I expect my nerves will only get worse when it’s my novel being reviewed. I’m not sure what I can do to prepare myself other than accept that people’s tastes are going to differ and not everyone is going to like what I write. Nevertheless, I can also hope that most people do!:-)
Sex scenes: love them or hate them?
What makes a sex scene hot to you?
I think there are several different aspects that contribute to making a sex scene hot. First and foremost, for me at any rate, it’s the emotional connection between the characters. I want to know about their backgrounds and what draws them together. Is this their first time together or are they long-time lovers? Is the encounter the culmination of a long, slow courtship or are they being overtaken by lust and giving in to their impulses?
After the background, for me it’s all about the descriptions and language used. When I read a sex scene, I need to be able able to picture precisely what is going on. It’s the same when I’m writing them – I have the scene playing out in my head as I write and try to describe it exactly as it appears in my imagination. I want to almost be able to feel what the characters are feeling, so using really viscerally, descriptive words are a must.
Do you listen to music while you write? If yes, do you find what you listen to influences the story at all?
No. I can’t listen to music and concentrate properly – I’ve never been able to have music on when I’m working. At university, I had friends who could study with music playing and I’ve never understood how they could.
Do you miss your characters when you come to the end of their story? Do you find ways to write sequels for them or do you become entranced with a new set?
I think it depends on whether I feel that the particular characters’ stories are finished or not. With ‘Catalyst’, for example, I feel like I’ve left Jason and Rick in a good place for the moment. However, that’s not to say that I haven’t already seen possible pitfalls for them in the future. That said, and to my surprise, it was actually two secondary characters from ‘Catalyst’ that I found it hardest to let go when I’d finished the novel. As a result, the next novel in the Argo series will be concentrating on their story. That’s something that I love best about storytelling – when inspiration comes from places you don’t expect.
As for my other stories, I do know that there’s more to tell about the characters in ‘Prototype’. I spent quite a lot of time world-building for that story and have numerous ideas I’d like to play with in that world – one which has genetically engineered their own brand of hero. There’s definitely a much longer story to be told there, in which I know Zach and Robert play a part.
Do you have a hard time coming up with character names or story titles?
With character names, not so much. I think having had one child and expecting another soon means that I’ve had lots of recent experience with coming up with names! I feel I have a good pool of possibilities from which to pull new ones. With story titles, however, it’s a different matter. I do struggle and try my best to come up with something simple that encompasses the major theme of the story. That can be a struggle, but I am very happy with the titles I have so far. In fact, I do believe that you suggested the title for ‘Catalyst’, Sarah, so thank you! 🙂
Is there anything you wish that I’d asked you, but didn’t?
Not any that come to mind.
🙂 Thank you so much for having me on your blog, Sarah.
Thank you so much for coming here today, Claire, and congratulations on the release of Catalyst! I can’t wait to see how this one turns out–I love your work–especially how you torture your boys a bit before you let them find true happiness. 🙂