Annie’s Book Stop of Worcester is happy to shine our Friday spotlight on Speculative Fiction author Vivian Shaw. The first thing I always ask our authors is to tell us about themselves and their writing, and this was Vivian’s wonderful response:
I write about monsters, machines, disasters, and found family; my short sci-fi/horror fiction has appeared in Uncanny and Pseudopod, and I’m the author of the Dr. Greta Helsing trilogy (STRANGE PRACTICE, DREADFUL COMPANY, and GRAVE IMPORTANCE). I’m originally British, but have been here most of my life, first in Baltimore and now in Santa Fe.
I’ve been writing my whole life. I wrote my first novel at 11, because nobody had told me kids couldn’t do longform; it was a pretty terrible novel because I was 11, but also the kind of weird achievement that is immediately and completely addictive; I couldn’t stop. I finished what turned out to be my first urban fantasy trilogy at 13 and promptly went on to create several more fantasy worlds, each a little more sophisticated than the last. Until I went away to college and discovered the wonders of long-form fanfiction, there wasn’t really a year when I wasn’t either planning or in the middle of some kind of original fantasy work – encouraged by my mentor and dear friend, Laura Amy Schlitz, a librarian and author who would go on to win a Newbery Award in 2008.
Where can people find your work? (Besides Annie’s Book Shop of Worcester–though they should totally check here first!)
https://www.vivianshaw.net/books collects links to several retailers in the UK and US.
How can we follow your work and share your awesomeness?
I’m on Twitter and Instagram as @ceruleancynic; you can check out links to my short fiction, sample chapters from the trilogy, Varney the Vampyre recaps, book designs, and jewelry on my website at https://www.vivianshaw.net/
What kind of research went into writing Strange Practice? What is your favorite research story? What cool facts and findings didn’t make it into the book, but you loved discovering?
What became STRANGE PRACTICE was originally a NaNoWriMo novel I wrote back in the dim dead days of 2004, called THE UNDERGLOW, the conceit of which was “how many characters from classic horror literature can I shove into one story while also getting to write about London’s subterranean infrastructure and the cool and scary things down there in the dark?” In its initial form the research was spotty; I spent a long time designing the weaponry and looking up medieval warrior monks, but not enough poring over a map of London to see if my scenarios were actually possible.
While rewriting it into its current form, however, I took full advantage of Google Street View to see exactly what my characters would have seen on their way from one place to another – including inside the British Museum. (I would go on to do the same with the Paris Opera for the next book. Try it! You get to see the lake!) But the most dedicated and difficult and time-consuming research was, eventually, not to make it into the final draft: the sewers.
London’s sewer system is largely Victorian and famous for its glazed-brick architecture and complex arching intersections among the kind of urban explorers who specialize in sneaking into sewers and drains, sometimes known as drainers. I haunted drainer websites, reading their photo essays and marking the paths they took on their explorations, and after a while I could recognize a specific intersection or overflow chamber from a single photo. Through this, and an enlargement of the sewer system map circa 1931, I worked out a way for a character to get from Crouch End nearly all the way to the St. Paul’s tube station moving solely through the sewer system. All of which, in its loving detail, ended up being cut.
I’m okay with that: I got to do the fun part, which was looking it all up and making it work (and in doing so, acquiring a pretty decent understanding of the network of sewer tunnels north of the Thames). Knowing things is always better than not knowing them.
What character did you love or hate the most while writing? And why?
I get asked this a lot, and the answer’s “it depends,” which isn’t helpful. It’s not Greta, although I do enjoy writing her a great deal; she’s human, can only do what humans do, and it’s much more fun to write characters who can do things like tie lamp-posts in knots and shapeshift. My favorites are (in no particular order) Fastitocalon, Ruthven, and Samael. I love Sam. He wears white silk suits with no shirts under them and smokes Sobranie Cocktail cigarettes and can turn into an enormous white snake with red-pupiled black eyes and no real concept of personal space, among several other forms. Writing Sam is all competence porn and charisma, both of which are entirely my jam, and also why Ruthven is so much fun to write. He’s got the effortless vampire style thing, he’s extraordinarily beautiful, classy, rich as hell, and sensible on top of it. He’s a philanthropist and a homemaker and now, spoilers for book three, he’s finally not alone.
Fastitocalon is different. In the first book he suffers from chronic ill-health and is consistently this close to going totally broke, and grimly bears it until others step in to offer help. We’re not quite sure what his deal is – he’s ever so slightly grey, and when he’s angry his eyes take on a faint orange luster, and he can apparently teleport himself and others when called upon to do so, but it’s a little while before the reason for all this weirdness becomes clear. Fastitocalon is stoic and wry and ironic and determined, despite the host of challenges ranged against him, and I do so love writing people who don’t give up.
What piece of advice would you want to share with other writers?
What Laura told me, all those years ago: don’t stop. If you want to write, then write. That is the fundamental reason that this trilogy is in the world: Laura – a published author! Who read my dot-matrix–printed manuscripts and made careful pencil notes in the margins! – told 11-year-old me not to stop. So I didn’t.
What are some of your writing-related hobbies, crafts, addictions?
Like a lot of authors I have a mild to moderate fountain pen problem. (I blame Elizabeth Bear for this; she gave my wife and I our first pens and ink several years ago.) For a while I was not just collecting vintage Sheaffer Balances but actually using them daily, but these days I have my lovely old pens on display to preserve them and am running with modern equipment instead. Between us we have enough ink to float a very small battleship, and we still go nuts whenever one of our favorite ink manufacturers comes out with something new. (Do not even ask me how many notebooks we own.)
Thanks so much for taking the time out of your very busy day to answer our questions, Vivian!