Gail Carriger

Heather: This is Circulating Ideas. I’m Heather Moorefield-Lang, sitting in for Steve Thomas. And my guest today is Gail Carriger, author to multiple New York Times bestsellers of adult and YA fiction with over a million books in print.

Thank you so much for joining us today on Circulating Ideas and taking time to chat. By the way I love your new office space.

Gail: Oh, thank you, thank you so much for having me. I am really excited because I have… just love libraries so much. So I feel I always feel particularly honored when librarians pay attention to me. It just seems it’s like, by heroes, you know so yeah. Very excited. 

Heather: I am very excited to talk to you today. When you’re interested in speaking on library podcasts, or what podcast folks are interested in hearing you on, I quickly messaged you or tweeted at you and I asked Steve if it was a possibility to interview you, I’m so excited that this all worked out. 

Gail: Yes, me too!

Heather: So my first question for you… or questions. I have questions that came from myself. I also have questions from young as well as adult readers from the field as well as librarians, so I have wide range of questions that I’ve gathered over the last few weeks.

So the first thing with this podcast being about libraries, what is your relationship with libraries and librarians in your work and your life?

Gail: So my very first job was as a library page so I grew up in a really small town and I was basically a latchkey kid because both my parents worked and we weren’t, we didn’t have very much money but I didn’t really notice that it wasn’t a burden or anything. There’s nothing about it because all I did was just immediately go to the library after school and I was a quiet self contained child, and I would just find a book and hide in a corner. And I thought that was like, a reward. Like, “Yay, I finished school, I get to go to library!” and it was such a small library that I basically sort of read my way through the entire collection and, so relatively young, I was already on interlibrary loans and stuff and so it kinda was a natural thing that eventually the librarians just started putting me to work shelving stuff. I still have bits of the Dewey Decimal system memorized.

Heather: We’re good at putting people to work. 

Gail: Yes, absolutely. But I’ve got like, a nonfiction book and I’ll be like, oh, cooking, you know, six eleven or whatever. So yeah so that’s it. And librarians have been… like, we had a fantastic school librarian. And then, like I said, I had, like, a very close relationship with my local librarian, just the one really. One room library.

Heather: Many of us are alone in our schools, librarians, we’re alone in our schools and our public libraries. So we’re, I’m excited to hear that you had excellent ones. 

Gail: So good. 

Heather: Awesome. Can you discuss the importance of research in the writing of your books? For example, have you had a chance to go up in an airship yourself, or any weapons, or combat training, or you have such attention to details with what people wear in your books for example.

Gail: So, yeah, I do research all the time and I use libraries a lot, although I will say not as much now, as I used to, because now, because I make money off of my writing, I feel like I ought to pay for books more. So especially a book that I’m going to consult a lot, like a research book for Victorian fashion or something. So I’ll often check them out of the library to see if they’re gonna be really useful for me, and then I’ll return them and buy it. So, I’ve given like, you know, I’ve supported an author and I have it all the time, and I’m not taking it out of circulation too frequently. But, yeah, so one of the things I did, I did it for my thirtieth birthday, I spoiled myself by taking myself on a hot air balloon ride but that was partly for research as well. And it was really fun and it was kinda hilarious because I’m that person in the hot air balloon with a bunch of strangers who’s like, “Tell me what would happen if you mounted a cannon on the edge and shot? How would the balloon react?” And the guy starts talking about how you lower it and I’m like, well, “That cord that’s supposed to lower it, what happens if I actually do pull that cord? Really, how fast do you drop?” And it was actually incredibly useful. I learned so much about hot air balloons and that sort of translated loosely to dirigibles but because they move laterally between airflow, so in order to go change directions, you move up or you move down until you find a breeze. That’s like, going in the direction you want it to go. I didn’t think about that. And also, they’re inside breezes, so it’s actually not windy at all in the hot air balloon. It’s very still because you’re just being carried along. So, your hair doesn’t, you know, so, and these are the things that I feel like as a writer, you could maybe find the research and read about it, but it’s really hard to get that just online, or even in research books like, you have to sort of experience some of the stuff.

Heather: What a wonderful experience.

Gail: It was great. 

Heather: What was the reaction from the other people you were riding with? 

Gail: You can imagine I eventually had to be like, “I’m a writer. I swear! I’m up here for a reason!” We writers always joke about our search histories and we’re pretty positive the FBI has a file that’s like, “Must be a mystery writer, not a serial killer.”

Heather: They’re not trying to bring down the balloon.

Gail: Yeah, the other thing I wanted to mention, which I think is useful for librarians to know, and it’s also something that if there are any authors listening should know if I use children’s nonfiction a lot for my initial research often. So, for something like, I like the Eyewitness books a lot, so Eyewitness Train is a really great example of something that I use, I use that book so much I ended up buying it because it just has basic schematics of a steam engine. And they’re really, really visual so they allow you as a writer to describe the thing as your character would see it rather than have to go read an article and then reinterpret it or try to imagine what… so yeah, children’s nonfiction is also something that I that I use a lot for the beginnings of descriptions and things like that. 

Heather: There’s such amazing nonfiction out there now, with the descriptions. There’s the series that’s available that I’m gonna forget the name, but it’s something along the lines of what would life be like, if I were a Roman soldier or what if I were, like, if I were a medieval Knight, along those lines and they have just amazing details. So that’s wonderful to hear. My friends who are public and school librarians would be really excited to hear that. 

Gail: Yeah. Don’t discount it. If an adult author comes trailing in, and is like, “Oh, I have a scene coming up!” you can be like, guess what? Like, I know this sounds weird, but let’s walk over to the children’s section because yeah, so useful. All the visual elements are so useful.

Heather: Well, it breaks it down for all of us because some of the more adult reads are just so, they’re just such tomes.

Gail: And their nonfiction can be really dense and an author is usually looking for just, like, a basic… what’s the basic layout of a Roman bedroom? That’s all I need. I don’t need to know all of the analysis that went into that, I need to know like, when I walk into it, where’s the bed located? Is it in the corner or what? That kinda thing, what does a bed look like the Romans?

Heather: Can you discuss, and this is taking a bit of a turn, but can you discuss reaching a diverse audience of readers through your work, the importance of that? Because you have such a wide range, you’ve got adult, you’ve got YA but now you have the 5th Gender series you’ve got, you’ve got so much, your LGBTQ series. Can you talk about that importance to you of reaching that diverse audience? 

Gail: Oh, well. I mean, maybe this is, I think, sometimes that I’m diverse and I try, I don’t know how to put this, but I’m a very pleaser author. I want to make my readers feel contented and happy, partly because the world isn’t great, and also, because I always read to escape. So, one of those things was seeing people like me and then people not like me, get happy endings and get found family and get friendships and lovers and all of those things. And so I guess I see that as my mission… I don’t know I really love that word… but I just want people to pick up one of my books and see themselves in it. And then also see themselves get good things out of life, and have fun and have hilarity and have adventures and all of those things. And it’s not that  don’t think other books that are kind of, I guess more honest to the experience aren’t important because they very, very much are. But, I think growing up cause, I’m quite queer and I think growing up and not having that just made me a little sad. I mean, I eventually figured out how to get it on my own. So I kind of want to put that out into the universe. I want to put that possibility. I want to write those narratives into existence. 

Heather: So, talking about the Parasolverse, your Parasol Protectorate and Finishing series is so popular among professionals in the library field and their patrons and their students. So, what was your impetus for moving, and I’m sure you’ve been asked this, but what was your impetus for moving from adult fiction  or back and forth from adult fiction to YA? And I know you go back and forth between the two. 

Gail: It’s been sadly a little while since I’ve been back in YA, which makes me sad, but hopefully, hopefully, I’ll be going back there in the future. So I am a huge admirer of YA. The first books where I started to see representation and where I started to see myself, even just as a strong female, main character, a bit bossy, going out there, you know, kicking ass, taking names, all that sort of thing, was Tamora Pierce and so I identified incredibly strongly with her and with her characters, and then moved on from there to Mercedes Lackey, which is dating me, you all know how old I am! So, that was sort of extremely meaningful for me. But when I wrote Soulless, which is my first book, it was not young adults, but I’ve always been very open about that I love recommending books to people. I love matching books with people even if it’s not my own, especially when it’s not my own. It’s almost more exciting to be like “I have the best book for you! It’s, it’s nothing to do with me. It’s way darker than what I write, but knowing what you love, like, here’s…” like, I probably should have been a librarian!

Heather: I was going to say, you should be a librarian! That’s what we do! I could interest you in a department and a program, we’re fully online. 

Gail: So I do a lot of book recommending just in my social media and stuff like that now. So, what I talked about it, I blogged about it very early on in my career, I would blog about my love of books, and often those books for young adult books. And a New York editor was a fan of my adult stuff, but was a children’s book editor, and she followed my blog. This was back in the day when editors had time for these kinds of things. And so I hit the New York Times and things started to go really well on that side of my career, and she reached out to me and she said, “Well, I know Gail is a big fan of young adult lit. Would she ever consider writing it?” And I was like, “Absolutely she would totally consider writing it!” I mean, the great secret of a lot of my books is I tend to use what amounts to a young adult chassis, which I see as sort of a bildungsroman, coming of age journeys,  but also finding yourself in the universe, finding your friends, finding your people, that kinda thing. I have a lot of found family in my stuff. And when I write adult books, I just have multiple point of views, and I like, expand them out and make it a little bit more complex, but I naturally tend to write the length and kind of tightness and breeziness of what I think YA is, so I naturally write YA. It’s one of the reasons novellas are also very comfortable for me because it’s basically an adult story at a YA length or even mid grade. So yeah, I think that’s kind of why I organically went to YA and fortunately, for me, she loved what I wrote, and I had a wonderful spate of career as a YA author for awhile there, which was exciting.

Heather: They are very well received. Have you been told about Battle of the Books, are you familiar? 

Gail: That definitely rings a bell.

Heather: Here in North Carolina, but as well as other states, there’s a program called Battle of the Books and they do it at elementary, middle and high. But I’m most familiar with middle school and typically, it’s like, twenty five to twenty seven books a year. You have kind of a knowledgeable team, and they have twenty seven books. The students read them, and then they have competitions against other schools, and their teams about those books. Last year, your first Finishing School book was on – typically, it’s a first book in a series – it was on the Battle of the Books list. And so some of my questions came from a young man who loved your series, because the first book was on Battle of the Books and that’s what got him started on. 

Gail: That’s wonderful. That’s so cool. I love it. I love it. What a great idea. I remember the book challenges as a kid, the librarian reading them, and I, eventually, I was banned from participating because I just read all of them too quickly. And I blew the curve and then they would waste all the prizes on me and I didn’t really need the prizes or want the prizes anyway. I just want to read the books. I just like winning and reading the book

Heather: It’s nothing but win.

Gail: Exactly. 

Heather: Thank you. Yes. What is different for you about writing for a YA audience compared to an adult?

Gail:  I do think it is harder. Much as I say I write it naturally, I think it’s harder. I think mid grade is even harder, because I feel like YA has to be very snappy and tight and short and and action packed, but also paced well and pace is something that often readers often think about plot and stuff like that, but authors should often be thinking about pace because pace is kind of like the heartbeat of the book. It’s almost the way you can control your readers breathing and how involved they are in it. And if you’re writing YA you have to be so good at that, and I think that the best YA authors are really good at pacing. So, for me, it is slightly more challenging as a writer. But also, I mean, it’s a completely it’s a different target, like you are writing for a different set of eyeballs and a different audience and you can never forget that. I happen to be really happy and content pretending I’m back in high school. I had a really good high school experience. So, and usually when you’re writing YA you’re writing about high school age protagonists for usually slightly younger than that, but or starting slightly younger. But so it was fun for me to kind of write for myself and my friends back when we were in high school. And that’s what I did basically.

Heather: You make a really great point about the pace because, I mean, middle schoolers, high schoolers, they want to get in there, they want to know those characters, they wanna like to them quickly, they want to, as you say, youre found friends, your found family, they want to know if these are folks that they relate to; that is very important. They don’t want that time wasted. 

Gail: No!

Heather: They want to get on in there and meet these folks quick. They want to get into that story, but once they’re hooked… 

Gail: Oh, yeah. 

Heather: There better be a series. 

Gail: More! They want more more more!

Heather: We all do but young YA really does. So, how can you decide to combine steampunk with paranormal? Because it really is an interesting mix of genres.

Gail: So I am a social scientist by academic background and training, and with a heavy emphasis on the science side of social science. I was an archaeologist. So, I really liked… I sort of started out when I was building my universe with a thought experiment about how history would behave if the monsters that they believed in were real at the time, and how the culture would react to that and interact and stuff like that. So I started off with this idea, What if vampires and werewolves specifically were real and accepted into Victorian English society and how London would sort of behave around that. And then I kind of went off from there and immediately because I have the scientific background, I was like, well, the scientists would be trying to analyze them, get away from them, figure out how to become immortal themselves. There’d be a whole reaction and so a short way of putting it is that my steam punk universe is the consequence of the injection of a supernatural or my supernatural creatures had steampunk consequences. And I kind of didn’t really know I was writing steampunk until I encountered the steampunk movement that happened right around the same time. And then I was like, oh, it’s so and I am an aestheticist – I’m object-driven, I’m an archaeologist – and so encountering this whole world of whimsy and fun and outfits and everything just added to the delight for me. And the joy in writing, sort of, the comedic side of that, because my mind immediately goes, if you’re gonna put vampires in Victorian society, like, naturally, their pale skin influences the culture in favor of very pale skin. Right? Everyone’s wearing high necked dresses, because they want to a) hide the bite marks or b) not invite the biting. So, the modesty of Victorians, the big hoop dresses keep the vampires away. You know, that kind of thing. Yeah, it just automatically goes into those kinds of arenas and, of course, if you have vampires and werewolves sort of bound to territories or areas on the ground, then you’re gonna want flight way, quicker and way more of it. And you want to move larger numbers of people so dirigible technology and stuff like that, and steam technology is going to morph into trying to get people off the ground and away from the predators.

Heather: Beautiful explanation, thank you so much. It was amazing. Many of your books that I’ve read now that just… it opens up so much. So, is it easier for you to write – and this comes directly from a YA reader – is it easier for you to write from the perspective of characters that are more like you are more, unlike you for instance, how similar are you to Sophronia?

Gail: Oh, well, I’m very similar to my characters, but I’m very similar to all of my characters, including the bad ones, and the evil ones and the ones that are not my sexual orientation, or my gender. It’s really funny, because I heard Pat Rothfuss say this better than me at some point, but essentially, he said, if you ask one of my friends if I’m like any one of my characters, my friends will usually go. Well yeah, sort of like them, but also sort of like them and also sort of like them. I think that’s just, you know, we’re writers, we naturally put a lot of ourselves into our books but for point of view characters or main characters, especially if I’m going to write a longer running series, it does help if I have, at least a point in my life that I very much connect to and can pull on that character with. So, like, Alexia, for me – my first character, my first main character in the Parasol Protectorate series – is very much like this experience of my late twenties, early thirties of trying to find a purpose and a reason, and a means to give back to the world in which I am moving through. And then Sophronia is very much my high school experience in terms of finding my friends and she’s way more observational. I was way less of an extrovert when I was in high school. Literally, she’s a spy, so she wants to figure out how to manipulate people. And that’s definitely something I think teenagers start to think about, like, social group interactions and stuff. So, yeah, there is quite a bit of me in all of my characters, but there’s also a lot of me in the side characters and vampires and then I do write characters now with whom I have not very much in common and that just requires a lot more research to make sure that I’m getting things right whether that is sort of psychological research, or just really stretching my imagination like, how would in an extreme introvert, for example, react to these sorts of situations? That’s not me, but I can go looking and see how other people describe that experience and try to imagine what it would be like to be an introvert encountering a vampire.

Heather: What would this be like? And going back to the research that also includes talking to people and interviewing and reading and all of the different types of things. 

Gail: One of the things I love to do when I’m building a character that isn’t like me is to give them quizzes, psychological quizzes or even quizzes, like silly, favorite tea time or favorite magazine or fashion cushions or whatever. But I take the quiz as if I were the character and to see what kinds of results the quiz gives me. I just think that’s a really fun way to sort of climb into another person’s point of view when you’re when you’re writing them. Especially, I did that a lot, especially when I was in high school, when I was first starting out on writing.

Heather: Yeah, that’s a good way to get a perspective different from yours. I like that a lot.

Gail: And and it helps you climb into the character’s point of view, because the question is being asked, and you have to say well, I would say this, but what would Colin say, right? Colin’s not me, what would he say, you know, that kind of thing.

Heather: Yeah, exactly. So when it’s time to write, what types of things do you find yourself doing instead, or getting distracted. As a person who writes, I know… 

Gail: You know.

Heather: I know the four apocalypse horses are distracting me. Anyway. What might stop you from writing, though I know you have a very specific goal of getting writing done. 

Gail: I do, but I will say, like, most authors I’ll do anything not to write. I think it’s just endemic to the breed. So I do, like I’ll get up and make tea, I’ll do a podcast interview, listen to podcasts, I’m a big podcast consumer. I’m also aforementioned scientist, so I really feel spreadsheets and data. So, I’ll do like, number crunching and stuff, like the demographics of sales data or whatever it is. And then I’m still to this day a truly voracious reader. There’s a lot of reading. I really try not to use reading to procrastinate, but I definitely bribed myself with reading. Like, if I just get my word count done that, I get to go back to that book, someone else’s book. So that’s… Yeah, but I do a lot of things to try and distract myself, but I haven’t let myself. I know some others will do things like start baking or knitting or pick up like a larger craft projects. And I, up to this point, at least I won’t let myself do that. I used to be actually more into sewing and costumes and stuff like that, but I feel like it does get… I put too much of my creative excitement into it then, and the book becomes way less shiny and the book needs to be the shiny creative thing that I want to do. 

Heather: Do you have a daily limit? I have friends of mine who write an hour a day, two hours a day? Or do you have a word limit?

Gail: I have a word limit. I work very good with specific project target goals, so, like, I need to do this many words every day  so Scrivner is my friend, because it has project targets and stuff like that.

Heather: Yeah, Scrivener’s amazing.

Gail: Yeah, so and mine is two thousand words a day usually. 

Heather: Oh, okay. Wow. All right, that’s amazing. 

Gail: And I don’t… I treat it, this is my job, I’m a full time writer, so I don’t write on the weekends and stuff. Like, I try to really treat it like it as a job. So I tend to… I don’t want to become… I don’t want to carve a groove of too much patterning in my writing. So, I don’t want to create a situation where I have to have my coffee mug here, and I have to be at my office and I have to da-da-da-da-da. So I do try to, like, sometimes I’ll write in the afternoon. I used to always write from two to six, but now I have a morning writing time on Wednesday so I try to ensure I’m not, I don’t have too many requirements in order to write. That’s kind of important for me, but I am learning… I mean, I’m ten years plus in and at this juncture and I’m still learning things about what my writing muse likes, but I can say that I am a coffee shop writer. I like ambient noise a lot, and I am a competitive writer. I do really, really well, if there is another writer or more sitting with me all typing at the same time. No talking. Nothing like that. Just the act of having someone else clickity-clacking the keyboards is like, oh, are they writing more than me? I must keep writing, but also I will get my flow. Like, if I just get over the hump of forcing myself to sit in front of the computer and opening the document. Once that starts, I usually, I’m pretty good about them getting those two thousand words down now. 

Heather: That’s amazing. I write in academic areas, you know, in my field. But writing is writing, and of course, you’re doing it full time, which is amazing and it’s just, you know, I mean, everybody’s got their way of doing it. 

Gail: Yes.

Heather: So it’s always very interesting to hear what folks are doing and it’s just so exciting to hear about how you go about your process.

Gail: Well, I have to say, I have a nonfiction book that I’ve written, which I hope to bring out sometime not too distant future. Yes, it’s the Heroine’s Journey for Writers, Readers, and [Pop Culture] Dilettantes. It’s because people talk about the hero’s journey all the time. And I also have a classics degree, and I was like, wait. No, wait, there’s a heroine’s journey, please. Please understand it. So I got really frustrated having there being no sort of basic breakdown out there, and so I finally decided I had to write it, but I have to say nonfiction is so hard. I was like, oh, my God I thought fiction was bad. Fiction, you just get to make it up, right? You just sit there blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, especially as I also write contemporary paranormal, which is basically set in the area I live in. I’ve tried to make it as easy for myself as possible, because I got tired of stopping to research stuff set in the Victorian era, but to go from that to writing non fiction, where you have to stop and research and cross check everything. Oh, my goodness. I don’t envy that.

Heather: I am very excited to read your book.

Gail: Thank you!

Heather: That’ll be great.

Gail:  I also did try to make it, like, me-ish so, light and fun and amusing and stuff like that. I want it to be enjoyable to read even though it’s nonfiction.

Heather: It’ll be great. 

Gail: Oh, thank you, thanks.

Heather: All right. So, how is your writing style reflected in your personal style because your clothes and your shoes and your bags are fabulous! I’ve been following you on Twitter for years.

Gail: Oh, you’re so sweet. I guess I often think about writing from a sort of fashion perspective, right? Like, you put the basics of the outfit on, that’s getting the rough draft down. That’s the hard part, picking what you’re actually going to wear, and then you get to sort of edit it and fix it up. And that’s like, putting the accessories on, taking the accessories off, putting on the make-up, that’s all the fluff. The makeup is, like, the cover art. So it is a little bit kind of like that. But I am an archaeologist again, so the aesthetics and the objects of aesthetics, like shoes and handbags and stuff, are very interesting to me as representation of sort of culture and identity and messaging. I mean, we message in what we wear. So yeah. So, I actually have a rant about authors dressing better for public appearance because it’s not so much what it says about you. It’s what it says about how you respect the readers and the bookstore, and the librarians, and everyone who’s shown up for your event. I’m kind of infamous for that. It’s had a very amusing side effect, which is, I can identify my signing line at a hundred paces. I’ll walk into WorldCon or ALA or something where there’s a bunch of authors doing a bunch of sidings, and you can see the lines for the different authors, and I’ll be, like oh, that one’s mine. Everyone looks adorable in my line.

Heather: They are looking fabulous.

Gail: It’s so cute. Yes, yes, because coming to see me is sort of an event. It’s also like, oh, gosh Gail will say something if I don’t wear a cute dress or a fabulous suit, and I’m like, Gail will not say anything, but she will say something if she sees a fabulous dress or the adorable suit, like, I do get very excited about a cute outfit in my signing line, I have to say.

Heather: Love it. So, my last question is, what are you reading now? Any YA or adult that you might recommend to our listeners?

Gail: Okay, this is really exciting. The title of the book is the House on the Cerulean Sea, and it’s by TJ Klune who is a favorite author of mine. He’s a great queer author. And this is basically the book that I wanted Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children to be. I blurbed it, and I described it as 1984 meets The Umbrella Academy with a little bit of Douglas Adams thrown in. It is charming and funny and touching and poignant and absolutely found family. It is technically an adult book, but I think it’s quite gentle. So, an advanced reader could probably take it, but as with everything I always advise people read it themselves first before passing along to children. And because of that I chose a YA book as well. I haven’t read this one yet, but it jumped to the top of my queue recently. It’s the Afterward by E.K. Johnson, and it’s a YA about lady knights, which is my bailiwick: lady knights, girl crossdressing to subvert the patriarchy, like sign me up, I will read that thing. So, I’m really excited about that one, and then I have a mid-grade, which is Jupiter Storm by Marti Dumas, which is another one that’s, like, strong powerful girl character takes on the world that always makes me happy. So, yeah, so those are my three, those second two are out, but it’s the House on the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune, The Afterward by E. K. Johnston, and Jupiter Storm by Marti Dumas with an “s”, “doo-MOSS”, at the end. 

Heather: You heard it here from Gail Carriger. 

Gail: Give them a try, please, yeah, they pretty much hit all my buttons. So if you like my stuff or or even if you don’t, give these books a try, please! House on the Cerulean Sea is so good!

Heather: Three that I’ll be adding to my list as well.

Gail: Yay!

Heather: So, thank you so much. Well, I want to thank you for taking your time this afternoon – your morning, my afternoon – thank you so much for talking to me today it has been an absolute pleasure to get to speak with you and see you and I hope you have a great rest of your week, and a wonderful weekend. So thank you so much. 

Gail: Thank you so so so much for having me. Again, it’s an honor to talk to a librarian.

Heather: To me, as well.