Interviewed by Jeremy Billingsley
Called “Canada’s answer to Anne Rice” by Fangoria, Nancy Kilpatrick is a veteran horror author with forty-plus years of experience in writing and editing award-winning fiction, attending conventions, and dealing with publishers of all kinds. Nancy’s a master of the craft and knows what it takes to be a successful author, and for this issue’s Q&A, she kindly shares with us some of the valuable insights and pro tips she’s learned.
Nancy Kilpatrick is the author of 21 novels, one nonfiction work (The Goth Bible), more than 220 short stories with 6 collections of that short fiction. She has scripted comic books, a graphic novel, and has edited 15 anthologies. Her work has been translated into seven languages thus far, and can be found in brick and mortar stores, online, and in all formats, including e-books. A Horror author, she also describes her works as Dark Fantasy, Mystery, Erotic Horror, and Sci Fi. She has won numerous awards. Today, we’re going to sit down and get inside her head, and find out what drives her.
You currently reside in Montreal. Are you from there originally? Can you tell us a bit about yourself, your background?
I was born in Philadelphia and lived briefly in Virginia and again briefly in Louisiana, then went to San Francisco for the better part of six month and finally ended up in Chicago for a year and a half. I came to Canada for a weekend trip and decided I liked it here. I’ve lived in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal where I now reside. I have a wandering spirit and to keep me from moving every year or so I travel a lot to satisfy the wanderlust.
How did you get into writing?
When I was about 8 years old, my grandfather, who doted on me and brought me gifts all the time–I was pretty much the only child in the extended family for several years–gave me a portable manual typewriter, on which I pecked out turgid poems. When I was in high school, I moved into non-fiction essays. I showed some of my essays to my then boyfriend who was 1st year at university who showed them to his English prof who deem me as ‘having talent’. That was the first encouragement I had. Eventually, I wrote a vampire novel which, after sending a query letter to 35 publishers, wasn’t received with open arms. Slightly discouraged, I then moved into short fiction–I love the short form!–and managed to get quite a few pieces published over the year. That novel, by the way, was eventually published years later in 2000. BLOODLOVER became the 4th book in a vampire series. Initially I’d written it around the time Interview with the Vampire came out. It was a futuristic story set in 2006 with moving sidewalks, cryonic suspension, beta computers and such. By 2000 all that was everyday, so I reset the story in the 1960s as a flashback novel in the series.
What drew you specifically to write about the Gothic and Gothic Romance?
I’ve always had a love of Gothic literature. And I adore supernatural fiction. The two are easy to combine. I’ve read a lot and not just in those arenas but all sorts of books and it’s actually surprising how much overlap there is between Gothic elements and commercial fiction, including literary.
You’ve had a lot published. You’ve won a number of awards. Your work has been translated into several languages. You’ve worked as an editor on a number of anthologies. Do you feel like you’ve made it?
Absolutely not! No writer ever feels they’ve ‘made it’ because there’s always something just out of reach. That painting of God and David extending hands to one another but not touching. That’s life. One of the great things about writing is that there’s always something new to learn, so it’s a life-long endeavor. Another great thing is that there are always new readers who discover my work and who humble me with their responses.
Can you tell burgeoning writers about what it means to market your own work?
Marketing is a LOT of work, at both ends. It takes time away from writing because most people are trying to earn a living and that means some sort of job, full or part time, plus family and other things that make up a life. For most writers but for the handful who have made wild amounts of money, writing time is limited and that is frustrating already. Add marketing to the mix and because it takes so much effort and work, it cuts into the writing even more.
Publishers used to do some promotion but not everything, except for the best-selling authors, and that’s a handful of writers. Now, most publishers do little promo and it all falls on the writer. Whether publishing with a major house, a tiny small press, or self-publishing, writers can expect to spend at least half their available time trying to sell their books to readers.
And when it comes to trying to sell a work to a publisher, that, again, is a huge time investment and a waiting game. There are agents, but acquiring an agent seems to be as difficult as getting a publisher. And sadly, today, young writers are bombarded with businesses offering to publish their work, meaning, the writer pays money, sometimes a lot, and the company–which of course calls the writer a genius!–is happy to ‘edit’ your work (barely, from what I’ve heard), put it into ebook format, do a cover, get it onto Amazon (which anyone can do themselves and Amazon also offers such services) and then there you are, having spent thousands and now competing with thousands of writers in your genre to get attention for your book. It’s actually a horror story. There is a reason that publishing houses have vetted works in the past. For the most part, they know what sells and they have the distribution channels to get the books into stores as well as online for sales, and have connections for reviews. Now that anyone can be a writer, there are a lot of young people who will be severely disappointed in the future because their efforts will be rewarded with .0001% success. False hope faces the majority. Even the best-selling authors do not sell the numbers they used to so an unknown writer, even with a brilliant book, will sell to family and friends and maybe a couple of people at the mall where they are allowed to sell books. It’s a bleak business today and I’d encourage everyone who wants to write to first try to find a real publisher and save yourself a lot of dollars, time and general agony. I’ve talked to many young writers who after having a book on Amazon for a year have sold only 2 copies. That’s not right. It’s creating a generation of young people that will become jaded middle-aged people who don’t believe efforts pay off. There are already a lot of middle-aged people now who feel that way who aren’t even working in the arts.
What conferences, conventions, or readings do you commonly attend? What does it mean for a writer to “attend” such a public event? Can you offer insight into your own experiences? For instance, how do you transport your print copies to the conventions or readings you’ve attended?
I wouldn’t say I normally attend any but I’ve been to many of these: World Horror Convention, World Fantasy Convention, Ad Astra, Bouchercon, a few Stokercons, Worldcons, Horrorfind, the ABA, and a lot of smaller conventions once or twice. I regularly go to Fan Expo (there are many in the US and Canada) and have been to Comicons. I’ve been a guest of honor 6 or 7 times at conventions and other events like the ones I’ve mention and also have just attended as a writer or even just an attendee. It’s beneficial.
Conventions and conferences are crucial for writers. This is the only place you’ll meet editors and agents and publishers face to face where you can pitch your work. There are often panels where you can see these people and hear them speak about what they are looking for. And sometimes you can sign up for a 5 minute pitch session with an agent or editor one-on-one.
I attended Bouchercon years ago, which is a mystery convention. I’d written a mystery story that was one of the winners of a contest and published in a small publication in Toronto. I wanted to hear the forensics expert’s talk but that room was packed beyond SRO so I looked in the schedule and went to the short fiction panel full of publishers and editors. Ed Hoch, a well-known editor from the U.S., was on that panel and said he edits the Year’s Best Mystery stories and to let him know about any mystery stories published anywhere. After the panel I went up to him and mentioned my story and he said send it to him. Unknown to me at the time, Ed was on the committee for the Arthur Ellis Mystery Writing Award and he submitted my story on my behalf. My story was short-listed and I was flabbergasted. Ed put me in the Year’s Best as an Honorable Mention but didn’t buy the story for the antho. But because one thing led to another, I ended up winning that award in the Best Short Story of the Year category.
Going to conventions pays off. And you’re also with peers, which is invigorating and encouraging. As to books, unless you have a major house sending books on your behalf, it’s BYOBooks.
Do you have any tips for writers with regard to attending conventions?
Be selective. Think about the type of fiction you want to write and research conventions because it’s expensive to fly and stay at a hotel and also pay the convention fee. All the genres have conventions. For literary fiction it’s more workshops and retreats that take place usually in the summer, and often have a major writer working with new writers.
You need to be assertive and have confidence in yourself and yet not be too pushy. Also, if you approach an editor or agent or publisher, or even another writer, respect their space and time. Keep any pitches SHORT! The elevator pitch is just that. You’ve got 5 floor to travel together in an elevator, say what is important about the plot in 2 or 3 sentences only.
The publishing industry has changed quite a lot lately. What are your thoughts on the Print On Demand v. traditional method of press running? How did you handle the free copies the publisher sent you, and has a shift in printing affected this at all, either negatively or positively?
Print on Demand is a good way to go in one regard. Publishers pay more per copy but they are not forced to print thousands of copies as with the old web presses. I knew someone who represented the Espresso Book Machines and this person had also edited an anthology in which I had a story. He did both a traditional press and the Espresso printing. I was there and saw the Espresso Book Machine in action. It really cranked out a book in 5 minutes, bound cover and all. Print and POD side by side, there was a slight difference in the cover coloring but that he said could be altered. The binding was similar (not stitched, of course, but no one stitches paperbacks). If you did not see the books together, you wouldn’t know the difference. Having said that, there are choices of paper quality for the interior and the cover stock thickness and style. Depending on how much the publisher wants to spend, you get different qualities. Also, how the text is laid out, that determines how the book looks to the reader. Sometimes choices aren’t the best, but it saves money, like with everything in life.
Most review copies now are ebooks. Publishers provide ebooks to give to reviewers and to people willing to write a blurb for the cover. Again, this often falls on the writer to find these people, unlike in the past where publishers had a list of reviewers they automatically sent a print book to in advance of publication (known as an arc).
Not only with book publishers, but magazines have shifted focus, with a number only printing online or doing limited print runs. For writers of short stories, there used to be a stigma about getting published online as opposed to getting published in print. Is that stigma still there? Has the line moved? Are certain online mags okay while others should be avoided?
There’s no stigma anymore that I know of. The only issue is rights and that’s determined by what the publication asks for and what the writer is willing to sell. Sometimes having a story online means it is seen as a reprint by a print anthology of original fiction and hence the print sale is lost. Writers determine what rights they are willing to part with and where they want to sell their work. Personally, I only sell reprints online and also to very small print anthologies that pay peanuts. Since it’s a reprint, the story has been published in a more major publication and I’ve already been paid, but it’s nice to have it reprinted which often draws new readers to my work.
How active are you on social media? How has having a social media presence impacted your professional career?
I’m on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. I have a blog and a website. That’s enough! I love having the encouragement and that sort of support from social media. I’m not sure how much, though, that translates into sales. It’s very easy to be happy for someone on Facebook, for example, and say you can’t wait to read their book, but then don’t actually buy the book. ADD is rampant these days!
How important is having a social media presence to the author, do you think?
I don’t think anyone knows. Some people say it’s crucial. Others say it’s a waste of time. I have no clue. I just know I enjoy posting, for some strange reason, and I like to read about other people’s lives, and posts about the careers of other writers and their newest books.
What content should be covered, do you feel, in the social media posts? Does it differ from your professional writing career? What do you choose to reveal to your followers, and how did you make that choice?
I reveal some personal information on social media but the people in my life that I love dearly and am close to are the ones who know what’s really going on and the nitty-gritty of everything. Frankly, I’m astounded by how open some people are on social media. I suspect there are many extraverts who need that. I’m more introverted but have learned to develop my extraverted side (we all have both, or at least most of us, in some percentage). Basically, I tend to post a lot about my writing, but also some of the things that interest me in life, so that people who read my social media outlets have a sense of me as a human being.
In going over your books, and having just read Revenge of the Vampir King, erotica is an important convention in your work. I know that there were some graphic scenes in the novel, especially early on. Meanwhile, you seem to be a bit more conservative with graphic violence (though that can be there, too). As a horror author, how do you determine how much graphic sex and violence you’ll show the reader? As an author, is one more important than the other? Why?
First of all, let me say that this new series Thrones of Blood, will be 6 books only. 1, 2, 3 are out and 4 will be out January, 2019, 5 and 6 to follow. These are vampire novels. The way I see vampires is old-school. Vampires are NOT human. They may have been once but are now a different species. There is little or no love between vampires and mortals. Vampires see humans as humans see ants–a much lesser species that is easily eliminated without much thought. Vampires can be sensitive and kind to humans but not when a human tries to harm them. You don’t want to get on the wrong side of a vampire.
This series is Vampire Novels for Adults. It’s not young adult. It’s not Twilight or The Vampire Diaries. No one sparkles. Two species with enmity between them will produce violence and I’m amazed you read the book seeing only some graphic violence–I’d suggest that gouging out a heart with the bare hands is pretty violent! Adult content means that this is material adults can handle. My work is not politically correct because vampires are not human and we cannot judge them by human standards. We can, of course, do that but it makes no sense. Do we judge an ant by human standards (although we often anthropomorphize animals)? We don’t insist that ants be politically correct and we can’t insist on vampires being PC either.
I also want to say I’ve had erotic elements in many of my books, to a lesser or greater extent, and various types of eroticism. I’m not prudish. I see eroticism as part of life and people who don’t shouldn’t read my books–these works are not for them. Erotic scenes and violent scenes can show something more to a reader because I think most people have experienced both and, sadly, sometime both at the same time. With the fantastical and supernatural realms I write in, and using a psychological base for characters, I like to write about truth. If you don’t believe there is violence in the world, you are sheltered because it’s a violent world. If you don’t believe that people have all sorts of sex on this planet, again, you are sheltered. I’m not creating what doesn’t exist, just the scenarios in which these things appear within a fantastical context. And I think today readers are sophisticated enough to understand that violence of any sort that leads to something else makes sense.
I believe in transformation. One of the things my writing is known for is the turn-around. As one reviewer/interviewer asked me when Revenge of the Vampir King first came out: “How were you able to make us root for certain characters who early in the story committed horrible acts and then later, we saw them as heroic.”
My answer: I’m a writer; that’s my job.