Interview with Merrie Destefano

Please Welcome…Merrie Destefano

(*Originally posted June 2010)

This month our interview guest is Christian speculative fiction novelist Merrie Destefano.

Currently a full-time novelist under contract with Eos/HarperCollins, Merrie Destefano’s first novel, Afterlife: The Resurrection Chronicles, is scheduled to release in October, 2010. She also co-authored two art books this year with artist, Michael Butkus: How To Draw Zombies and How To Draw Vampires from Walter Foster Publishing. In a previous life, she was the editor of Victorian Homes magazine, founding editor of Cottages & Bungalows magazine, and contributing editor of Romantic Homes magazine, and as such, she wrote for a combined circulation of approximately 250,000.

With more than 20 years experience in publishing, Merrie has worked for a variety of publishing/broadcasting companies that include Focus on the Family, The Word For Today, and PJS Publications. She recently won The Writer of the Year award at the 2010 Mount Hermon Writer’s Conference.

Back when Merrie was in that other life, she contributed a number of free subscriptions to those magazines, which we gave out as prizes in the big Marcher Lord Press launch event in 2008. I first met Merrie at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers’ Conference a few years ago. Back then she was this sweet magazine editor with an excellent fiction voice and a terrific story idea about people who can live forever. Now look at her!

Okay, let’s begin the interview.

WhereTheMapEnds: Catch us up with you. What have you been up to lately?

Merrie Destefano: I’ve been editing and editing and editing. I recently signed a two-book contract with HarperCollins and ever since that I’ve become your typical writer, scrambling to meet my deadlines. Both of my books were basically finished when I signed, so for the past seven months I’ve been trying to get them ready for publication. My first book releases in October of 2010.

WhereTheMapEnds: What is your favorite speculative novel of all time (Christian or secular) and why is that your favorite?

Merrie Destefano: Oh, boy. I love so many books. As a teenager I really connected with Red Planet by Robert Heinlein and then later with The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. There were other stepping stone books along the way that deepened my love for the genre, books like The Time Machine by H.G. Wells and Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick. More recently I’ve fallen in love with The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger and Tithe by Holly Black and Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr and Mr. Shivers by Robert Jackson Bennett. Pick one? That’s like Sophie’s Choice. My soul would wither if I had to choose only one.

WhereTheMapEnds: What made you want to write Christian speculative fiction?

Merrie Destefano: I don’t think I ever set out to write Christian speculative fiction. My goal was to write the best books that I could and I happened to already love science fiction, fantasy, romance and mystery. I’ve loved writing as long as I can remember, but in eighth grade I felt like I needed to choose between writing and art (I still don’t know why I thought I had to chose), and at that point, I chose art. I studied fine art in college and later pursued a career as a graphic designer and illustrator. It wasn’t until much later, when I developed carpal tunnel and had to give up my career as an artist, that I returned to the other love of my life: writing.

WhereTheMapEnds: That’s the first time I’ve heard of someone turning to writing because of carpal tunnel syndrome. Usually that’s what gives it to people. Well, I’m very glad you can write! So, what’s your favorite speculative genre to read? To write? If they’re different, talk about that.

Merrie Destefano: I love a great story with fantastic writing. And I love it when the writer will take me somewhere I’ve never been. White Oleander by Janet Fitch isn’t speculative, but the writing was poetic and the twisted dynamics between the mother and daughter were compelling. I loved that book. But I much prefer it if the book has some fantasy or futuristic element in it. The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen was just lovely: there was just enough fantasy to satisfy my hunger and the writing was delicious.

When it comes to my own writing, there needs to be a new universe for me to explore or there needs to be a dark twist in the story. I doubt that I will ever write a traditional women’s novel.

That said, I think a book without a dash of romance can be boring. Love really does make this world go round. It makes us eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches because we don’t care that the man /woman we love doesn’t make a six-figure income. It makes us stay up late because we’re worried why our teenager hasn’t come home yet. It makes us use up all of our vacation days to visit a sick relative in the hospital. And the love story in a book doesn’t always have to be between a man and a woman. It can be between a father and his daughter, or between a woman and her dog, etc. One of my favorite love stories was a tale of love/friendship between a human and an alien marooned on a mining planet: Enemy Mine.

WhereTheMapEnds: How would you characterize the current state of Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing?

Merrie Destefano: Tough question. You are the King of Tough Questions. I think the problem is much larger than Christian speculative fiction or publishing. Every business is struggling right now. That said, publishing houses continue to deliver fantastic books. Despite this recession, I haven’t had to stop reading. I’ve been able to fulfill my need for new books on a regular basis. I think the writing needs to be excellent and I think the author needs to be actively involved in marketing his/her books. And from what I’ve seen from conferences I’ve attended lately, I think that CBA houses may have narrowed down their list of speculative fiction, focusing on a few tried-and-true authors. The bottom line is always sales. Are the books selling? Then the publishing house can probably acquire more of those. My recommendation to authors who want to write in this market is to consider writing something like The Sugar Queen. Make the fantasy/science fiction elements a smaller portion of the story. Focus instead on the mystery or the romance or some other part in the story instead

WhereTheMapEnds: Great advice. When I was running the fiction line at NavPress I would seek to acquire 50% straight women’s fiction, 5% full-on speculative fiction, and 45% stories that were mainly straight fiction but had a speculative twist. A good example of this is The Reluctant Journey of David Connors by Don Locke. Sort of like It’s a Wonderful Life for our day.

Have you seen anything that encourages you about Christian speculative writing and/or publishing?

Merrie Destefano: So many young people are craving fantasy. And so many people of all ages are writing fantasy. Eventually this will affect the market—in my opinion. In the interim, more people will become better writers of the genre, and at the same time, more young people will begin buying those better written books. But I think CBA needs to focus on YA fantasy. That’s so hot in the general market. It almost consumes some bookstores. And it is SO well written. I buy YA books all the time because the writing is fantastic. You’ll find books there with deep themes and stunning literary prose like Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. And I love Carrie Ryan’s zombie books: The Forest of Hands And Teeth and The Dead-Tossed Waves.

WhereTheMapEnds: When I teach classes on the prospects of publishing Christian speculative fiction, I say that this current generation of young people is the generation that will save us. They all love fantasy. They’re all writing fantasy. And in about 8-10 years they’re going to be running Christian publishing companies. And will they be wanting Amish fiction? Um…not so much.

What have you seen that discourages or frustrates you about Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing?

Merrie Destefano: Writers need to be avid readers. Of everything. If you expect to sell your book, you need to know the market. And that isn’t just the market inside CBA, it’s the general market as well. There are so many sub-genres in fantasy and science fiction that no CBA publisher is ever going to be able to satisfy all the readers. A publisher might take a chance on an urban fantasy, but then the gritty nature of that genre might offend readers. That same publisher might then decide to try a historical fantasy and again, receive lukewarm reviews and sales. And in both these instances, the writing could have been stellar. If that same book had been written for the general market and picked up there, I think the sales would have been better because the market is so much larger. Needless to say, after both of these attempts at publishing a fantasy series, that publisher will probably quit publishing fantasy.

WhereTheMapEnds: Christian publishers shouldn’t be publishing fantasy or SF anyway, in my opinion. Yes, they should try to reach the young reader. But the core fiction demographic is nice grandmothers and Sunday School/soccer moms who want bonnet and buggy fiction. Trying to sell them novels about mutant alien vampires is just bad business. Give them what they want and stop trying to give them what they’ve said again and again they don’t want. Then it’s up to indie houses like Marcher Lord Press to find the Christian fiction readers who do want mutant alien vampire stories…and give it to them.

So, what would you like to see changed regarding Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing?

Merrie Destefano: Writers must continue to think outside the box. Don’t look at what has succeeded already, imagine what might succeed in the future. Write your passion and realize that your first two books probably won’t sell. Those are your practice novels. Writing is like going to college. You pass the class when you finish Novel One. You pass the next class when you complete Novel Two.

Each step—going to writer’s conferences, joining writer’s groups, reading agent blogs, reading books on writing, listening to the critiques you receive when your work is rejected—leads you closer to publication. So I would like to see writers become more serious about their craft. And I would like to see them realize that the person who might best be able to help them could be anyone along the journey, another writer, an agent or an editor.

What would I like to see change in CBA publishing? I actually think publishers and editors are working hard to make every book they acquire succeed. I don’t think anyone deserves to have arrows shot at them. They might need to be a bit more creative on their part to reach a new audience, like the YA and MG market. But most of the large publishers are already doing that. I think change is in the wind and we will see some new things soon.

WhereTheMapEnds: I agree that change is in the wind, Merrie, but I don’t think our bigger CBA houses are going to be able to adapt. Developing new markets? Finding new audiences? Ack. There is so much resistance to that it’s hard to explain. Most of them simply don’t know how to look for, much less find and develop, new audiences. No, I predict that our current big Christian houses will get much smaller but will continue doing what they’ve always done. It will be the small houses that come in and reach the new audiences.

That said, what do you think Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing will look like in three years? Five years? Ten years?

Merrie Destefano: Oh, scary question. Do you really want to know what I think? I think most of it hinges on the Christian bookstores and I think they are eventually going to become stores that sell a bit of non-fiction and Bibles, but focus mainly on other items. To survive, I think CBA publishers will need to find a way to fit in with the general market. Maybe they will become inspirational lines within their larger parent publishers.

Honestly, within ten years I think CBA as we know it today may not exist. But you have to realize that it didn’t always exist and there were fabulous books written before it existed. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien did not write for Christian publishers. Stephen Lawhead writes books for both CBA and the general market.

I truly believe that a good book is a good book is a good book. If the story has a universal theme, if the characters are deep and fully drawn, if the writing is good and compelling, then who’s to say where that book should be published? Could Peace Like A River have been published by a CBA publisher? Absolutely. Why wasn’t it? I don’t know. I don’t know the path that book took toward publication.

WhereTheMapEnds: What advice would you give to someone who aspires to write and publish Christian speculative fiction?

Merrie Destefano: Read great books. Read a variety of genres. Write as often as you can. Join a critique group where you will be reading your work aloud and hearing what others think of it. When you have time, begin a blog and join the online communities: Facebook and Twitter. Always, always, always be kind in your words and deeds, especially online. Do what you can to help other writers along the way.

Remember that writing is a journey, not a goal. You will never “achieve” the goal. It will always elude you. And I don’t mean that you will never get published, rather that once you achieve one goal, another will materialize on the horizon and you must pursue that one as well. Realize that marketing your work and self-editing your work are crucial. Never submit a manuscript before it sparkles and captivates.

Attend writer’s conferences when you can afford them. You can begin with local conferences and work your way up to the larger ones. I really recommend Mount Hermon and ACFW. Also, you can always build your own conference by buying MP3 recordings online at VW Tapes.

WhereTheMapEnds: I love this thought: “Remember that writing is a journey, not a goal.” That’s so true. I’ve had six of my novels published, had four non-fiction books published, have edited books that have won numerous awards, and now have my own successful publishing company, but I’m still on the journey. There is, however, a sense of being on the other side of “just starting,” so there is a feeling of accomplishment that comes with achievement. But it is all still a journey.

Given that, what’s the best book or seminar on fiction writing you know?

Merrie Destefano: I have two seminar favorites. One is a fiction class that James Scott Bell often teaches at Mount Hermon. I bought the MP3s after attending that series of lectures and I keep them on my iPod. I listen to them every time I start a new book. And my other favorite lecture was the speculative fiction class taught by you, Mr. Jeff Gerke, at the 2010 Mount Hermon Writer’s Conference. When I got home from that conference, I spent two days typing up all of my notes from your class. It really helped me put together the plot and the characters for my third book. Plot is my weakness. My brain just doesn’t think that way, so I’m always scrambling for help when I’m plotting my stories.

As far as books go, I love Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg and Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell. And, since I’m an intuitive writer, often the best teaching device for me is just to read a fabulous novel. I learn so much about structure and pacing and character just by reading a well-written book

WhereTheMapEnds: [blushing] Thanks, Merrie. You may also want to look for my new book, which will be published in October by Writers Digest Books. It’s called Plot Versus Character: a balanced guide to writing great fiction.

So, what do you think is the best part about writing and publishing Christian speculative fiction?

Merrie Destefano: Since I’m not writing or publishing Christian speculative fiction, I think I may have to draw a blank here. But I can say that writing books with substance, books that look into the deeper issues of life, have the potential to last longer—both in our minds and on the bookstore shelves. Maybe it comes down to that elusive thing called high concept. If you can write a book with deep meaning and high concept, then I think you might have the power to change people’s lives with your words. I can’t think of a better outcome.

I know that Sharon Hinck, a writer that I dearly love, has written a book where a character struggles with depression and I know that Mary DeMuth, another awesome writer, has written books that deal with sexual abuse. Through their books, both of these women have been able to touch and encourage people who have struggled with similar issues. Isn’t that one of the best things that we can do with our writing? Help someone that we’ve never met when they’re going through a difficult time in their life?

I read a light-hearted book by Stephen Bly, Paperback Writer, when I was going through a tough time and that book lifted my spirits and made me laugh. I carried it with me every day and read it over my lunch hour. I have no idea what Stephen’s intent was when he wrote that book, but for me it was a precious gift. I have it on a special shelf in my library, alongside other books that have deeply affected me and my writing journey.

WhereTheMapEnds: I know your novel is not being published by a Christian house, but I know it still has Christian content. I’m thinking of futuristic world in which everyone can live multiple times, thus cheating death indefinitely—and the group of rebels—the “one-timers” who for religious reasons feel they should live only one time and then die. Strong Christian themes there.

What writing project(s) are you working on now?

Merrie Destefano: Right now, I’m finishing up my edits for my second book. My deadline to turn it in is June 15th, but my agent needs to see it before we submit it to my editor. My agent, Kimberley Cameron, is really awesome about letting me know where the rough spots are in my manuscript, although I never pass anything to her until I feel like it’s completely done and ready.

WhereTheMapEnds: What’s a cool speculative story idea you’ve had lately?

Merrie Destefano: One thing that I’m really encouraged by is the fact that anthologies seem to be coming back. I’ve seen several really awesome compilations of short stories out lately and I’ve always enjoyed short stories. So I had a wild idea the other day, while listening to music, that I’d like to do a book of short stories where each story is based on a song. Whether I actually do a whole book or not is a complete unknown at this point, but I just love the fact that I can be inspired by the weirdest things. And of course, my short stories would either take place on another planet or have supernatural creatures in them.

One idea I had was, what if Death was married to Life? I mean, men and women are so different anyway, the whole analogy could play itself out pretty organically. We’ll see if I get around to writing those short stories or not, but I think I could squeeze one or two in between other assignments.

WhereTheMapEnds: Okay, so, what’s the best speculative story (Christian or secular, book or otherwise) you’ve encountered lately?

Merrie Destefano: I’m not sure whether it was speculative or not—probably more of a mystery with eerie undertones—but I just Loved-with-a-capital-L the book, Origin: A Novel by Diana Abu-Jaber. The way she blended her lush tropical memories with the harsh winter landscape of Syracuse, New York, was just magical. Throughout the book there is this unwinding of the secrets in her past and, layer by layer, you are discovering more about the main character while at the same time, the main character is unraveling a series of mysterious deaths—and it all connects in the end. Simply marvelous.

WhereTheMapEnds: What else would you like to say to the readers of WhereTheMapEnds.com?

Merrie Destefano: Read more books! Really. Widen your horizon. Expand your mind. Read. More. Books. Stories rule! And listen to industry professionals if and when they take the time to critique your work. The book of mine that is coming out later this year might never have been written if I hadn’t listened—with an open mind—to a critique I received from you. Critiques, and rejections, can be extremely painful, but they truly are the path we must travel upon if we want to become the best writers we can be. It’s one thing to become a published author, but I believe that it is another thing entirely—and worthy of pursuit—to become the best writer you can be.

And Jeff, thank you so much for the interview. I really appreciate the work you’re doing at WhereTheMapEnds and Marcher Lord Press.

That’s All for This Time

What a fun interview! Thanks to Merrie for spending some time with us. Be sure to visit her online.

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