From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Princess of Prose: Alethea Kontis

My guest today is New York Times bestselling author Alethea Kontis. She co-wrote the Dark Hunter Companion with fellow New York Times bestselling author Sherrilyn Kenyon. Her short fiction has appeared in multiple professional publications, such as Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, and Realms of Fantasy. Not only that, but she’s published a children’s book titled AlphaOops: The Day Z Went First, with a sequel upcoming. Besides her fiction, her essays can be seen at several professional magazines and have been collected in book form, the first volume of which is called Beauty & Dynamite.

Check out her website at www.aletheakontis.com

DS: I’m sure you answer this question all the time, but I have to ask: your name is so unique. Is there a story behind it?

AK: “Alethea” is the Greek word for “truth.” As all Greeks know, words have power. My name is as much of a curse as it is a blessing, especially when my grandmother continually reminds me to lie to her friends about my age. (Sorry, Nana!)

My mother discovered the name as the family settled down to watch “Kung-Fu” on March 15, 1973 — my older brother’s 9th birthday. (West is currently a 4th-degree black belt in Taekwondo.) In that particular episode, Jodie Foster played a precocious girl named Alethea Patricia Ingram.

I discovered the details of this event only a few years ago…after I had already been a buyer at Ingram Book Company for over six years. Oh, yes. Words have power, my friend.

DS: You’ve written so many essays, and I’ve enjoyed the ones I’ve read. They flow so naturally that they’re effortless to read, yet at the same time are very focused on each particular topic. Do essay ideas just slap you across the face, demanding to be written or does it take a more concerted effort? How does essay-writing compare to fiction-writing?

AK: I was raised in a family of storytellers. And when I say that, I mean that we put most voice actors and stand-up comedians to shame. You only have as much time as everyone plans on sitting around the dinner table, and you only have the floor for as long as your voice carries over everyone else’s…so whatever you choose to impart to the group, it better be GOOD. Every time I sit down to write an essay, I imagine myself around that table. As long as I have the floor I’ve got to have a great beginning, I’ve got to keep my audience engaged, and I can’t take forever to get to the point.

Someone asked me once if one needed a diverse and interesting background to be a writer. I think everyone has a diverse and interesting background; writers just exploit theirs. Everyone has stories to tell; you step in them like puddles every single day. For whatever reason I seem to have this abnormally remarkable life — these are just the stories I step in.

DS: Do you prefer to write by yourself or with another writer (like the Dark Hunter Companion). What sort of unique challenges or benefits arise when working together?

AK: The Dark-Hunter Companion is the only collaboration I’ve done to date. Sherri and I had a unique arrangement with the Companion that could have been as much a disaster as it was a triumph. I started out with a stack of novels, a notebook, a glorified outline, and an anticipated word count. I re-read the whole series (many for the 3rd or 4th time), took notes, and then wrote the entire encyclopedia as if I was just another smart-mouthed character in the Dark-Hunter universe. I handed the manuscript over to Sherri, who then pulled out some spoilers, put in some teasers, and altered a few things that could only be altered by She Who Keeps Entire Worlds in her Head.

When I got the manuscript back for copyedits, our writing style blended so perfectly I honestly couldn’t tell where my words left off and hers began. Everyone was pleased with the end result — the fans most of all. It was a fascinating experience.

DS: What do you think has been the most significant event to advance your career?

AK: My life suddenly flashes before my eyes: My parents telling me I couldn’t major in English. My English teacher telling me no child would want to read my fairy tales. My friend Gail telling me to just write my picture book idea “so you can read it.” Orson Scott Card telling me to just write the novel. Tom Piccirilli taking me to task when he found out I hadn’t submitted a finished manuscript. Kevin J. Anderson slapping me in the face when I denigrated my own writing.

If I had to pick only one event, it would be the Baen dinner in the fall of 2003, where David Drake found out I lived only a couple of miles from Andre Norton and ordered me to go visit her. “She has no idea what she means to this industry,” he told me, and he was right. My correspondence and friendship with Miss Andre is something I’ll treasure forever.

DS: What is your favorite thing about writing?

AK: Making my mother cry.

When I wrote stories as a kid, making my mother cry was a mark of excellence — I knew then that I had something powerful. My mother was always my first reader and (“get a real job” major aside) my biggest advocate — up to and including calling a particular university and bullying them to accept my application essay despite the fact that I was a few hundred words over the limit. (I was accepted to said particular university, but ultimately could not afford to attend.)

While at Boot Camp in 2003, I called Mom from the campus of UNCG and yelled into the phone, “ORSON SCOTT CARD SAID I’M A GREAT WRITER!!!” I could not have offended her more. There was silence on the other end, and then a very cold, “Alethea, we’ve been telling you that for years. So now you’re going to believe some guy just because he’s some big fat best-seller?” It was then that I officially realized my mother hadn’t actually been spoon-feeding me a load of crap, as most mothers are wont to do.

She forgave me. Six years later, she’s still my first reader. And she still tells me every time I make her cry.

DS: Do you have a particular writing process you go through for every story, from story conception to drafting?

AK: Because I was raised a storyteller, I’m what they call an “Athena writer” — the stories all but spring fully-formed from my head. I mentally work through my plot points and dialogue and edit as I write. The words need to be in order, and they need to be the right words.

As a result, when writing fiction I average only about 500 words an hour and only a few thousand a day at my most productive. But I rarely go back and rewrite, and my first drafts are very, very clean drafts.

DS: If you could only give one piece of advice to aspiring writers, what would it be?

AK: Do the thing that scares you.

DS: What’s the last book you read? Your favorite book? Your favorite author?

The last book I read (all the way through): The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker, by Leanna Renee Hieber. (For the record, I loved it.) Favorite book and author — ha! I could no sooner choose a favorite star in the sky.

DS: What was the last movie you saw?

AK: Last movie I saw: UP. I think I only cried more after seeing Big Fish.

DS: I know you’re very active on the convention circuit. What upcoming convention appearances do you have planned?

AK: I’ve just finished six weeks of the heaviest schedule I’ve ever had (including Penguicon, Mo*Con, Hypericon, and BEA). The rest of 2009 is fairly light — I’ll be at Necon in July and, of course, Dragon*Con on Labor Day weekend.

DS: What do you like best about conventions? Do you suffer from stage fright–if so, how do you get up there in front of all those people?

AK: I’m a raging introvert, but I have no problem with stage fright. My Aunt Ernestine (actress Ernestine Mercer) taught me how to say “TA-DA!” when I was a baby — a feat I had turned into a lucrative acting career by he time I was eight. I was on stage all through high school…which trickled down to only helping out on student films in college…and then after I graduated, the hermit took over and I slipped into borderline agoraphobia.

All it took was one panic attack in the grocery store for me to say, “NONE OF THIS NONSENSE, PLEASE!” From that point on, I concentrated on consciously participating in a healthy amount of social activity and pulling myself back out of my shell. I am definitely not the mealy-mouthed frump I was five years ago. Five years from now, people will have to put on sunglasses just to look at me.

DS: Any convention stories to share? Strange people you’ve met?

AK: Ha! Plenty. There are…um…more than ten in Beauty & Dynamite alone. My very first convention was Dragon*Con in 1996. From the minute I showed up on the front steps, it felt like I had come home. And all those misfits I’ve met? They’re all as close as family now. I love every single one of them. Some of them even dubbed me their Princess, an honor I have accepted with all the appropriate grace and aplomb. I now have a collection of tiaras…but that I blame on Jill Conner Browne.

DS: Do you have any newly published stories or soon-to-be-published stories that we should watch out for? If so, what can you tell us about them?

AK: This year, keep an eye out for “The Giant and the Unicorn” in Shimmer Magazine‘s steampunk Clockwork Jungle issue. I’ve got “The Witch of Black Mountain” coming out in Apex’s Harlan County Horrors anthology and “The God of Last Moments” in Maurice Broaddus’s Mo*Con anthology. I’m also working on a piece for Doug Warrick and Kyle Johnson’s Nick Cave anthology…which I really need to get home and finish. And, as always, keep watching the blog for the next humorous installment in the Adventures of Lee.

DS: Any exciting works-in-progress in the pipeline right now? What can you tell us about them? Can you give us any sneak peeks at any of them to pique our interest.

AK: I’ve just finished the unabridged, novel version of “Sunday”, my fairytale novelette that appeared in Realms of Fantasy in October 2006. If you’d like a sneak peek, the story is available on the Anthology Builder website.

DS: I’m keeping a running “wish list” of guests for interviews. Is there anyone in the speculative fiction industry you would love to see
interviewed?

AK: Ha! I’ve been interviewing folks for the Ingram Genre Chicks column for over five years now, so every time I think of the answer to that question, I just hunt down the prospective victim and interview them. Neil Gaiman? Charles Vess? Anne McCaffrey? Easy-peasy. What I love best are the interviews that surprise me. I go back and re-read Naomi Neale’s (aka Vance Briceland) or Joe Hill’s answers whenever I need a pick-me-up. Heck, Edmund Shubert’s still makes me laugh so hard I cry. I know I’ll never look at penguins the same way again.

Good times.

DS: Alethea, thanks for taking the time to answer all my questions. It’s been fun. I’ve been meaning to make it to some cons this year. If I end up making it to Dragon*Con I’ll be sure to look you up on the event list. I would love to meet you in person!
🙂

David Steffen hails from the frozen north, the land of ten thousand lakes and ten billion mosquitoes, where he lives with his wife and two dogs. He is a writer, a gamer, and all-around media enthusiast. Watch for his writing in the upcoming weeks of Fantasy Magazine. In the meantime you can check out his blog, Diabolical Plots: www.steffenwolf.blogspot.com

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