Lucky 13 Blog Tour: An Interview with Die Booth

Die BoothMy old friend Die Booth has recently released his wonderful steampunk-supernatural novel, Spirit Houses.  I’m thrilled to have the chance to interview Die as part of his Lucky 13 Blog Tour.  Spirit Houses is out now; get your copy now or stay tuned to learn more about the book after the interview.

LCH: Introduce yourself!  Tell us a bit about yourself!

DB: Hello, I’m Die, I live in Chester which is a very old city in the North West of England, which might account for how much I love old things and ghosts, which are the subjects of a lot of my writing. There’s debate whether Derby or Chester is the most haunted city in England – of course, I’m biased (it’s Chester.)

LCH: What inspired Spirit Houses?

DLB: Well, I do think living in Chester had quite a lot to do with how Spirit Houses turned out. I think there’s a distinct sense of place in a lot of my work and Spirit Houses is no exception. The locations in it are loosely based on places close to me. The University Hospital in particular is based on The North Wales Hospital which is a huge and sadly empty Victorian asylum complex in nearby Denbigh. We’re right on the Welsh border here – maybe that’s a subconscious reason that I’m so interested in the liminal, the line between physical and spirit, the veil between planes. I dream a lot about that stuff – I dream often, and have since childhood, of an alternate plane that I called The Negative for reasons that are made obvious in the book – and I frequently use my dreams as inspiration for my stories. Lots of stuff in Spirit Houses are just written directly from my dreams, which I suppose is cheating a bit, but I think it works. I think a little of those bits as ‘canon’ and the consciously written stuff as ‘fictional’! A lot of things inspired Spirit Houses; it’s an amalgam of a real pile of stuff that I’ve been collecting in notebooks for a decade.

Spirit Houses coverLCH: Who’s your favorite character in Spirit Houses?

DB: Oh good grief, you can’t ask that! Fix. Fix is definitely my favourite; I’ve known him the longest. As to the others, I’m not sure… it’s kind of like having a group of friends. You love them all, even though some of them do your head in, and you get on better with one person on certain days than others; another day, you’ll hang out with someone else more. I think Ray is the person I’d spend the most time with. He’s considerate, easy-going, just a really nice guy. That said, Alex is secretly a little bit my favourite because I find him hilarious and he’s always up for partying.

LCH: And how would the other characters feel knowing you’re playing favorites?!

DB: I don’t think any of them would be surprised if I said I liked Alex best – they’re used to him being popular, I don’t think they’d mind. Daniel would be put-out though, those two really don’t get on. Daniel’s definitely the hardest to get along with, although I wouldn’t say I dislike him by any means. I can never understand writers who seem to hate some of their characters: you created them, how can you not love them? I don’t think I could even hate a real villain if I’d written them myself.

LCH: You went through a lot of titles before you settled on Spirit Houses. Titles are something I waffle over and grapple with constantly.

DB: Choosing a title was one of the most difficult things about this book. I think that’s how titles go – either you start with an amazing title and then hang the story off it, or the title just won’t happen and you have to wrack your brains at the end. It’s such a vital element though, it has to have that hook to it, to draw people in immediately, entice them, but also sum up the book somehow even if it’s just in flavour.

LCH: What other titles did you try that you liked? 

DB: I had ‘Embedded’ as the provisional title for ages, because I couldn’t think of one and my mum came up with that one for me. She’d read the whole thing in segments as it was being written and thought that was a good summation, which it was. It was so very nearly called ‘Embedded’ but something just didn’t feel quite right. I think if I recall I Googled that as a title and there were a few books with that title and I was a bit iffy that it didn’t really get across the nature of the book.

LCH: What made you choose Spirit Houses?

DB: ‘Spirit Houses’ I think is quite multi-layered – it can refer literally to the spirit houses featured in the story (which in this context are containers that you invite a ghost into, to provide it with alternative accommodation if it’s haunting your house) or it can refer to whatever houses the human spirit, which is a really central notion to the story. Plus, it gives the reader much more indication that the contents of this book are supernatural.

LCH: We’ve both been thinking and chatting a bit about gender in fiction, especially in horror.  In light of that, what are some of your favorite portrayals of women in speculative or horror fiction? 

DB: Eleanor in Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House’. I just adore that book; I think it’s the absolute number one shining example of what horror should be – gorgeously written, subtle, understated but utterly, check-under-the-bed terrifying. Eleanor as a character is so beautifully observed and so real, her claustrophobia and frustration with her situation, her paranoia. She’s a really sympathetic character who I think most readers can identify with; in that way she transcends her gender if that makes any sense. I think a lot of female characters are female first and characters second – whereas she’s a protagonist who happens to be female, human weaknesses and all.

I’d also highly recommend The Ghost Drum by Susan Price. It’s a children’s book, but is exquisitely written – far more so than most adult fiction – and it’s very unsettling in places indeed, I think everyone should read it when they get the chance. The lead protagonist, Chingis, in a lovely break from the norm, is the witch who rescues the prince (or rather, the Czarevich) and she’s a proper badass. I defy anyone reading that book not to wish they were her a bit.

Chuck Palahniuk’s ‘Invisible Monsters’ as well – I’m not sure if it can be classed as strictly horror, but there are some truly horrifying elements to it and the female protagonists are beautifully twisted, yet entirely sympathetic (to me, at least!)

LCH: How about in your own story? 

DB: Well, pretty obviously, the lead protagonist of Spirit Houses is female. It was always Manda’s story, so it’s quite focused on her experience. I’d like to think that it wouldn’t have made much different what gender she was, that if you swapped the gender of every character in the book it would be pretty seamless and still work – that they’re more than just caricatures, I hope, more than just shaped by stereotypical behaviour. But I’m not sure that’s entirely true – I’m not sure you could write even quite a feminist story and have that be true, because to be realistic, you have to be aware of the often quite sorry state of the world. Spirit Houses deals a lot with prejudice. The overriding prejudice against Manda comes due to her medical condition, but there’s a little gender prejudice bubbling under the surface too I think, despite the fact that the Spirit Houses universe is quite equality-aware, there’s still a marked difference in the way the girls and the boys behave.

In terms of favourite female characters though, in Spirit Houses, I have to state my fondness for Matron Tagfalter. I had a little character sheet for each character in my notes, and one of the questions I asked for each of them was “Given the choice between saving one loved one, or ten strangers, which would they choose?” and the answer for Matron T was “She would come up with a plan to save everyone and she would not fail.” I think that sums her up.

LCH: I sometimes write scenes that concern me a little but that feel necessary for the story, but then I fret a bit about reinforcing negative situations or stereotypes.  Did you ever face this situation while writing or revising your novel?

DB: I started writing Spirit Houses a long time ago, before I became so super-aware of and concerned with every-day, institutionalised sexism. So when I came back to edit the main story, I started fretting a lot over all sorts of things. The core storyline, being the relationship between Manda and Daniel and what goes on between them; I started to worry a lot that it made Manda seem too stereotypically weak – because she really, really isn’t. I worried that Daniel would come across too manipulative and therefore Manda would seem easily manipulated. I even agonised for the longest time about showing Manda crying. But in the end I had to sit down and think, well – anyone, regardless of gender, in that situation, would show signs of stress, would cry: it’s not female weakness, it’s human emotion. I think that’s shown when Ray and Daniel both show the same kind of emotion, but obviously it’s more apparent with Manda as she’s the focus of the book. The temptation to make her super emotionally-strong was there, but I think her character would have suffered for it: she would have been less real, less easy for a reader to identify with. I still worry a bit that she has stuff ‘happen to her’, that she has situations forced upon her, but I think that she copes with it better than most people would.

I did change a few things in the edit though. I found myself noticing where I’d unconsciously put ‘default’ male characters in (presumably because I identify more with male characters). It’s something I’ll watch out more for in future work. It’s so easy when you have a ‘bit part’ character to automatically cast them as male, so, for example, I ended up changing the male surgeon Brother Halstead so they became the female surgeon Sister Halstead. I think that we need to become more aware of ingrained stereotypes and try to undermine them, to flip them – then maybe attitudes in society might eventually start to change.

LCH: If you could write anything you wanted, regardless of audience concerns, what your mom would think, what your inner editor would think, what’s the most ridiculous, self-indulgent story you’d like to tell someday?  The one you’d squirrel away under your bed and cackle gleefully while writing?

DB: I have so much of that stuff under my bed already that it presents a serious fire hazard..! To be honest, I’m really quite bad for writing what I want to, regardless – which is probably why so much of my stuff isn’t very commercially marketable! If I wanted to write something that I’d rather keep from, or to, a certain audience, then I’d just use a pen name. But to answer your question properly – hmmmm… let me think… I reckon it’d have to be zombies, some kind of B-movie zombie survival tale. That’s not really very self-indulgent, is it? Maybe set in the English Civil War, with a ridiculously dashing protagonist. And lots of mild peril. And some giant flying piranhas. Oh dear… I think I want to write it!

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Find out more about Spirit Houses and Die Booth over at his blog, diebooth.wordpress.com or at maddocsoflit.com!  Or you can buy Spirit Houses at any of the following places:

ISBN 978-0-9926400-0-2

Ebooks

Paperback

Knock, knock.

Is this thing on?  Yikes, it’s been a while, hasn’t it?  Over a year.  Real life carried me away a bit; I have always been an introvert, but recent changes at the day job have meant I’ve had to be far more socially forward than an I prefer to be, and that really showed me how much of an introvert I am.  I came home wanting to do nothing but shut down and play video games, watch TV, or otherwise do something brainless.  I continued to submit to markets and pick at projects, but without much heart.

But sometimes it’s weird things that lead to good ones.  My sister got me into co-op gaming through Mass Effect’s multiplayer mode, and from there I got sucked into MMOs, specifically The Secret World which I, personally, think is a marvelous MMO for writers.  The story is just wonderful and interesting and strong, the world building quite lovely.  But more than that, it got me to be good friends with Liz Neering, who dragged me into another form of social gaming–a shared world horror RP. Think journal-based, written-word collaborative storytelling.

(Tangent: To be honest, I was hesitant at first to talk about the RP as there is a kind of stigma around it, similar to that of fanfiction (yes, there’s bad fanfic.  But there’s also some fucking amazing fanfic that’s as good as or better than published work, and it’s not as small a proportion as detractors suggest).  But then I figured–we’re all geeks here, and many of us are geek ladies, and it’s high time to be proud of our geek-and-predominantly-lady diversions. (isn’t it funny, though, how so many female-dominated fannish activities are openly mocked?  But that is a rant for another time.)  We are creating, and as Wil Wheaton says (and I have long believed) “Get excited and make things!”)

RP is a wonderful diversion for writers, I think; cooperatively written scenes done in tiny bits with another person, it can be both infuriatingly out of control and wonderfully, creatively chaotic.  You might think that I learned a lot about characterization during that experience but to be honest, I actually learned most about plot.  And I learned that I’m not as bad at plotting as I think.  It’s very easy, in RP, to have scenes that are nothing but two characters chit-chatting, and it became a fun game for me to try to think of ways for my scenes to be more than that.  And then, because Liz and I had become moderators of our little RP, to think of ways for the entire game to be more than that, to engage and interest the players. 

I’m telling you that story for two reasons–one, the RP recharged my love of writing and restored the creative energy that work had sucked wholly from me. And two, because our RP was filled with people who were passionate and talented and interested in writing fiction. 

So on a whim, Liz and I asked them if they’d be interested in playing around with doing a little self-published fiction project.  Something to experiment with and to further explore our shared world and writing.  And several of the members said yes. 

From that grew a little anthology that we will be releasing this Halloween, and that I will talk more about soon.  But I am absolutely excited for it.  And more than anything, I am glad to be writing and revising and editing again.  It feels good.  Even when it’s infuriating, it feels good.