Thursday, August 12, 2021

eSpecs Books Focus #5: Ef Deal

I've got a special treat for you this month and next month. I'm going to devote Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays to writers from eSpecs Books. They're a great bunch of folks whom you need to get to know. 

Next up, Ef Deal!

Tell us a bit about your latest work.

Esprit de Corpse is the first book in a series featuring the Twins of Bellesfées. Jacqueline Duval is an engineering genius in 1840s France. Her sister Angélique is a virtuoso pianist, a former protégée of Sigismond Thalberg. She’s also a shapeshifting wolf who lives a dissolute, bohemian life, constantly forcing Jacqueline to bail her out of trouble, until one day in the summer of 1843 on the railway home from Paris, the train is brought to a halt by a rogue automaton powered not by steam, but by a spirit borne in the skull placed inside it. As Jacqueline tries to unravel the mystery of the skull, Angélique pursues the brigand who tries to steal it back from them, uncovering a plot to build an army of automatons powered by the spirits of the skulls of the Paris Catacombs.

I love this story because where most steampunk is Victorian England or New York, this is set before the great railroad surge and before the taming of electricity, but all the groundwork is there for Jacqueline to discover and use.

I also love it for the relationship between the two sisters, one of whom has been so lost for the past five years and who finally finds the strength within herself to take responsibility for her own life.

It features an evil count trying to take over Russia, a mysterious janissary combatting a necromantic sorcerer, a dashing rogue, a French spy, a hilarious automaton, Charles Baudelaire, and a magnificent airship. Plus, Paris!

And I’m especially excited because this is coming out from eSpec Books. I’ve been a fan of Danielle McPhail for ages, and I’m thrilled she picked up Esprit de Corpse for publication.

What happened in your life that prompted you to become a writer?

I learned to read at a very early age, and after finishing up the entire children’s section of my local library, I wandered over to the fiction section where I found Alfred Hitchcock anthologies. The librarian noticed my choices, and she steered me to more horror and supernatural, then science fiction. I was only ten years old when she had me get a note from my mother to read F&SF— as if my mother cared what I read. I finished reading a few of them, and I said to myself, “One day, I’m going to publish a story in this magazine.”

I had a younger sister and three younger brothers I had to babysit, and in those days, radio after 10pm was nothing but ’50s oldies, and television went off the air at 11:30, so I took out my mother’s Underwood Royal and began typing stories.

What inspires you to write?

I have no idea. Stories just keep coming, and I have to write them. As the meme says, “I’m a writer; I make the voices in my head work for me.” Characters form, and the characters make the stories. It’s almost as if they’re telling me their stories, and I’m just recording them.

What are the themes and subjects you tend to revisit in your work?

My primary continuo is women overcoming abuse, especially young women. The inequality women face, the prejudice against them, the stupidity of the patriarchal paradigm, the outright hatred of women manifested in our entire social system infuriates me. So, I write about women who can rise from the ashes.

I also play around with bifurcation—the half-elf, the royal peasant (or peasant royal), the black-and-white. I believe that all of us have another half inside us that gets sublimated until some great crisis forces it to surface.

What would be your dream project?

I would love to turn the Twins of Bellesfées into a film or television series. The Loire valley, which inspired the setting, is absolutely enchanting, and who could argue with Paris? It’s the France of Alexander Dumas, both père et fils, but before Jules Verne. Chopin and George Sand were romping or fighting, Franz Liszt was at the top of his game, and Ada King, the Countess of Lovelace, was about to publish her foundation of the modern computer program. The King of the French Louis-Philippe had just lost his son, and in another few years would lose his throne, but in the meantime, he survived eight assassination attempts (nine if you count the one in my books). Frankenstein had been published, but werewolves and vampires had yet to make it into print, although they do invade Bellesfées. Seriously, doesn’t that sound like a great project?

What writers have influenced your style and technique?

First and foremost, Gregory Frost. He’s a master of metaphor and I am in awe of his work. We were in a writers’ workshop together, and every session was like a master’s class for an MFA, but Greg has a way of seeing the story you want to tell and helping you tell it. As for the stories he tells, they are gorgeous tapestries, even—or especially—his horror.

As for my style, I’m not sure any writer has influenced it. Much of it is from conversations around the dinner table with my husband and my two sons as they were growing up. We are all punsters and love wordplay, which plays a huge role in my style. We’re all great readers and viewers, so allusions to the most obscure facts come naturally to us, and that’s made writing historical fantasy a lot of fun.

I began writing florid high fantasy, heavily influenced by Jane Yolen and CJ Cherryh, Lord Dunsany, Tolkien (naturally), but Lester DelRey told me my strength was in my characters, and I should let them take the lead, which is where I get my style now. As I said, the characters come to me, and I let them tell their story.

If you have any former project to do over to make it better, which one would it be, and what would you do?

My husband wants me to make over my first novel, the one DelRey really liked but ultimately rejected. I, being naive (pronounced “stupid”) thought that meant it was no good and I shoved it up on a shelf; but it was good, and I’m sorry I didn’t know that at the time and pursued publication elsewhere.

However, I have a series of novels and novellas featuring a misanthropic spellcasting musician, Gwynna Lionshadow, and I love her. Her whole saga is wonderful, but she’s got such a chip on her shoulder and fear of intimacy that no publishers liked her. I would love to take time to examine her from a distance now and see where she can go.

Where would you rank writing on the "Is it an art or it is a science continuum?" Why?

Writing is an art. There’s no real “why” about it. There are varying degrees of art, so if a writer simply follows a formula to sell something no one will remember in two years, that’s no less art than a coloring book page you put on your fridge or the clay mug your kid brings home from school. Writing is creating, and any form of creativity is art. My younger son is an electrical engineer, specializing in lighting. Engineering is a science, but what he does with it is art. Visit the rotunda of the Franklin Institute (featured in book three of the Twins of Bellesfées, by the way) and tell me that isn’t artfully lit.

What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?

The physical pain of sitting at the keyboard for hours on end. I’ve had osteoarthritis in my feet, knees, hands, hips, and back since I was twenty years old. When a story takes hold of me, I have no trouble putting “AIC” and writing. But when the arthritis sets in, and no painkillers can do anything about it, it takes me out of the process, and it’s difficult to get back to that place, that pace.

The second most difficult part is writing characters who are smarter than me, or more evil than me. It’s like any RPG, when your character has an 18 intelligence and you can’t figure out how to open the puzzle box because you only have a 12 yourself.

How do your writer friends help you become a better writer? Or do they not?

Back in the ’90s, the AOL message boards featured a lot of writer interaction and discussion—Harlan Coben, CJ Cherryh, Patricia Wrede, Jane Yolen, all dispensing advice and guidance. CJ even recommended my misanthropic minstrel novel to her agent. But the best part was the collaborative tales a bunch of us novices began putting together, and one fellow, Tom Holzwarth, taught me the power of details in body language and the senses, not just what you sensed, but how that sensation revealed itself in a character’s actions. He would also challenge me by putting my character into impossible plot twists and force me to think my way out of them. Tom never saw publication, and he should have, but he was a gem.

Nowadays, just talking about writing makes me want to write more. I’m in the Bucks County Writers Workshop right now, and many of my colleagues from the nameless workshop in Philadelphia are still close friends—notably Greg Frost, Sally Weiner Grotta, John Schoffstall, Lawrence Schoen. We talk about our projects, commiserate over blocks or plot hangups, and discuss publishing plans. I learn from them. We learn from each other, I think.

I met Wendy Delmater Thies at Lunacon a few years back, and I’m now her assistant fiction editor at Abyss&Apex online zine, an award-winning publication. Reading through the slush pile has been a huge education, and launched my freelance editing career as well.

And Danielle McPhail, my editor at eSpec Books. Just reading her Bad-Ass Fairies or Bad-Ass Moms will give you an idea of how much we think alike, and that helps shape my work as well.

I’m always looking to learn, and my writer friends are such great writers, I can’t help but learn from them.

What does literary success look like to you?

It’s book twenty-two of the Twins of Bellesfées series, or all nine of my minstrel Gwynna Lionshadow novels in print.

Well, that’s a dream success. But seriously, literary success means people coming up to me at a con and telling me my work meant something to them, that what I created inspired someone else in some way. It’s writers I respect as mentors telling me I "done good."

Any other upcoming projects you would like to plug?

Book 2 of the Twins of Bellesfées, Femmes Fatales, in which Jacqueline is stalked by a lesbian vampire while assassins try to take out her guest, the King of the French Louis-Philippe, during Angélique’s wedding celebration.

Book 3 of the Twins of Bellesfées, Les Fleurs du Malheur, in which Jacqueline and her four protégées are dragged across time and the aether to solve the riddle of a locomotive haunted by the children of the Husker coal-mine tragedy.

Book 4 of the Twins of Bellesfées, Wails’ Tale, in which Jacqueline honeymoons at Angélique’s great house in Wales, and as the Rebecca Riots plague the roads, a ghost plagues the twins.

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