Please welcome Holly Messinger to The Qwillery as part of the 2015 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. The Curse of Jacob Tracy was published on December 1st by Thomas Dunne Books.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Holly: I started getting ideas for stories almost as soon as I could write independently. I remember in the second grade, watching The Apple Dumpling Gang on The Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday night, and getting this brainstorm of how I could continue the story. I stapled together a little book, started writing in my laborious 7-year-old handwriting, and then the teacher took it away from me because I wasn't getting my seatwork done.
Like most young writers I wrote to amuse myself, and insert myself in my favorite stories. But I always had a proficiency for language, and I love the rhythms and patterns of it. I love words and I love the structure of a good scene and I love trying to capture a moment in words. One of my favorite movies when I was twelve or so was Willow, and I got so mad when I read the novelization of it because it didn't match what had happened on the screen! So I rewrote the love scene between Sorcha and Madmartigan and tucked the typewritten pages into the book. And that incident is sort of exemplary of the way I still write: I see scenes in my head and I try to capture them in words as accurately as possible.
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
Holly: I'm a hybrid. I either start with a character and build a situation that will put him through the maximum amount of torture, or start with a situation and build the type of character who would be more likely to suffer under the circumstances.
Once I have the character, setting, and conflict in place I can hammer out the opening scenes, establish the mood and start exploring themes. Usually additional conflicts will present themselves and that keeps things interesting. But I periodically hit points where I have to stop and brainstorm again, to look at the plot threads I've laid down and extrapolate where they will lead. Sometimes more research is required. Very often my brain will toss up these—let’s call them premonitions of scenes—the high-tension moments in the story where there is a revelation or a power-shift or some other major event (screenwriting manuals call these pinch-points or tentpole scenes). I write these scenes out and use them as signposts to write toward. These drafted scenes rarely make it into the final version—at least not in their original form—but they always contain critical plot points that get used one way or another. To me it feels more like a topographical map than an outline. I know where I'm going but not necessarily how I will get there.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Holly: The challenge is always getting it done versus keeping it fun. Like most creative people I have my fingers in too many pies, and I get resentful really fast if I start thinking I must work on this story. So I try to maintain that feeling of writing to entertain myself, and to do that I have to make it my leisure time, no exceptions. Luckily my husband and I are both independent as cats and he can amuse himself while I work. He likes to read, too, so sometimes if I haven't written anything in a while he'll nudge me, "Go write some more good words for me to read."
TQ: Who are some of your literary influences? Favorite authors?
Holly: Toni Morrison, pre-90’s Stephen King, Mary Balogh, Octavia Butler, Barbara Michaels, Charlaine Harris, Joss Whedon. I tend to value storytelling over beautiful prose. Style should be transparent, in my opinion, which is to say, a writer should have enough mastery over language to convey exactly a mood or feeling that will make me nod and go, "Yes, that's what that feels like," but not in such a showy way that I’m admiring the writer’s turn of phrase instead of empathizing with the character. I won't read books where the supposed appeal is the writer's clever imitation of someone else's style, because it always feels like a filter between me and the action, akin to having a head cold.
TQ: Describe The Curse of Jacob Tracy in 140 characters or less.
Holly: Cowboy tries to maintain his bromance in the face of his burgeoning psychic power & the intriguing English witch who wants to exploit it.
TQ: Tell us something about The Curse of Jacob Tracy that is not found in the book description.
Holly: I’d want to assure hesitant readers that while this may be a western, it’s not your grandpa’s western. There are no sinister Mexicans in this book, or wise spiritual Indians, or whores with hearts of gold. There are Jewish farmers, and Chinese rail workers, and French Acadian trappers and various and sundry other people just trying to make a living and get along with one another. And I tried to represent that without passing judgment on any of them. Trace is more like Bruce Banner than the Lone Ranger; he's driven to help people but he never swoops in and solves a problem on his own. I wanted to write the kind of hero who would bring people together instead of applying paternalistic “solutions.”
TQ: What inspired you to write The Curse of Jacob Tracy? What appealed to you about writing a Historical Fantasy/Western/Horror novel?
Holly: In the most cynical analysis, you might say Westerns and Horror are an obvious fit, because Horror stories are all about fear of the Other, and Westerns are all about the Other being conquered by the Norm. What difference does it make if your (white, straight, male, Christian) hero goes around shooting Indians or zombies? The difference is reflected only in our current collective fear. It’s not a coincidence that both the western and horror genres are outgrowths of the 19th century, with its legacy of colonialism, genocide, and paternalism. And it’s not surprising, given that context, that both westerns and horror are fraught with racist, misogynistic tropes.
I never set out to write a “revisionist western,” but I did want to get away from the clichés. For one thing, I am constitutionally incapable of writing a story without a dominant female character. And since I’d already written my share of ass-kicking warrior women, this time I went with a sickly, manipulative little harridan. And I saddled my hero with self-doubt and an egalitarian mindset. Trace’s arguably anachronistic attitude toward people beyond his ken makes him more sympathetic to a modern reader, but it also makes sense to his character: he was part of the establishment and it failed him. But he’s smart enough to step back, examine the values he was taught, and re-calibrate for himself.
And the monsters, too—rather than have the monster be the “other,” that is, a thinly veiled metaphor for some foreigner—I was thinking in terms of the monsters being very intimate: Trace’s religion, the color of Boz’s skin, Miss Fairweather’s illness. And the tangible monsters they encounter are often metaphors for those personal demons. Of course there are examples of “imported” monsters, as well, like the keung-si (Chinese “vampires”) but I tried to always twist those imported monsters, as a dual symbol of cultural appropriation, and adaptation of immigrants to the new life they found in America.
That was the challenge and satisfaction of these stories; vivisecting the tropes until they screamed. I learnt that from Miss Fairweather.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for The Curse of Jacob Tracy?
Holly: All of it. And by that I mean, I had to get into every aspect of my characters’ lives, from the clothes they wore to the food they ate—and how it was obtained, which is something few of us have to think about these days. The specifics of travel was a recurring frustration: Wikipedia will tell you the trans-continental railroad was completed in 1869, but it won't tell you how fast the train traveled or how much tickets cost or how sleeper-cars worked or how many days were lost on side-tracks or to breakdowns. Things like that. I spent a lot of time and money acquiring maps, and then identifying landmarks that still exist today, so I could map them on Google and calculate out the distance between two points, just so I could figure out how long it would take Trace and Boz to travel from Miss Fairweather’s neighborhood at the north end of St. Louis, to Carondelet township at the south point of the city.
One of the funnest parts of research was learning to shoot. I learned to shoot a single-action Colt .44 revolver (replica, of course), as well as a .22 rifle, a .50 cal deer rifle, and assorted shotgun loads. Shooting a long-barrel revolver is nothing like shooting a semi-automatic pistol. The recoil is completely different, the grip is different, the amount of time it takes to reload is significantly longer.
TQ: Your bio says you're a costume designer. Has that affected your writing?
Holly: I hate to admit this, but the original reason Curse was set in 1880 is because that's my favorite sartorial period of the 19th century. The bustle went away, but skirts became very narrow, even tied behind the knees. Sleeves became so tight a lady could hardly raise her arms. Wearing those dresses was yet another form of research and really helped me get into the head of Miss Fairweather, to understand how her clothes could be both armor and fetters to her. Throughout the book Trace notes her fine clothes as indicative of the distance between them, and a subtle reminder of the power she exerts over him, in terms of money, magical knowledge, and social influence. In fact the only moments of real honesty between them are when she is sick and in her dressing gown, or in her work apron.
From a completely different perspective, sewing has shaped my writing in terms of seeing it as a process. When you make a dress you start with a pattern, and the more precise the pattern the less you have to alter the assembled garment. So it is with fiction: the more you plan ahead, in terms of research and plot, the less rewriting you have to do. Writing is more difficult than sewing, in part because the “pattern” is so amorphous, but it helps to see the story as a thing constructed of parts, because then it can be pulled apart and made-over. It’s a pain in the ass to rip out stitches, but you have to do it until the dress fits correctly and all the plot holes are closed up.
TQ: Who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Holly: Boz was easiest, because he’s the simplest. He knows who he is and so doesn’t do the waffling and whinging that Trace does. He has to be the rock and the voice of reason throughout the book, so that makes him predictable in a reassuring way.
Sabine Fairweather was and continues to be the most difficult, because she’s so complex and volatile. From the beginning I didn’t know how good, bad, or ugly she would prove to be, or how she actually regarded Trace, whether she had any respect for him or simply saw him as a tool to be used and discarded. I’m writing book three now and I still feel she could go either way.
TQ: Which question about The Curse of Jacob Tracy do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Holly: It’s not a question so much as a temperature reading—I’m always curious to know what readers think of Miss Fairweather. Do they admire her? Do they trust her? John DeNardo at SFSignal said Trace and Sabine’s relationship was “beautifully uncomfortable” and that struck me as about right.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery lines from The Curse of Jacob Tracy.
Holly: There’s a bit about halfway through where Miss Fairweather basically calls Trace a sanctimonious prude, saying he only cares about the helpless and pious. But he’s changed too much by this point, he knows he’s not the altar-boy he used to be, and he replies,
“I gotta confess, these days I find myself inclined toward the worldly and sinister.”
“Sinister?” she echoed, amusement in her voice. “Is that how you see me?”
“Well I know you ain’t pious,” he said, “and if you claimed to be helpless I’d be lookin for the knife in my ribs.”
He could tell she took that as a compliment. “What a relief, then, to know I needn’t play the damsel in distress. How tiresome that would be.”
“Wouldn’t suit you,” he agreed, and won himself a wry gleam from those cool blue eyes.
If you took that conversation out of context of the rest of their relationship, you’d almost think they were flirting (like Bond and any good supervillain!). And I love these little moments of jousting between them. This is a battle of wills between two very strong and stubborn individuals.
TQ: What's next?
Holly: Well the second book is with my publisher, and I’m hacking out the third one, to finish off the main arc. I’m also working on peripheral pieces, to flesh out the world and bring some of the supporting players front and center. Boz, in particular, has his own story to tell, because at the end of Curse he’s no longer quite as sure of things as he was in Chapter One.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Holly: My pleasure! Thanks for having me.
The Curse of Jacob Tracy
Thomas Dunne Books, December 1, 2015
Hardcover and eBook, 320 pages
St. Louis in 1880 is full of ghosts, and Jacob Tracy can see them all. Ever since he nearly died on the battlefield at Antietam, Trace has been haunted by the country's restless dead. The curse cost him his family, his calling to the church, and damn near his sanity. He stays out of ghost-populated areas as much as possible these days, guiding wagon trains West from St. Louis, with his pragmatic and skeptical partner, Boz.
During the spring work lull, Trace gets an unusual job offer. Miss Fairweather, a wealthy English bluestocking, needs someone to retrieve a dead friend's legacy from a nearby town, and she specifically wants Trace to do it. However, the errand proves to be far more sinister than advertised. When confronted, Miss Fairweather admits to knowing about Trace's curse, and suggests she might help him learn to control it—in exchange for a few more odd jobs. Trace has no interest in being her pet psychic, but he's been looking twenty years for a way to control his power, and Miss Fairweather's knowledge of the spirit world is too valuable to ignore. As she steers him into one macabre situation after another, his powers flourish, and Trace begins to realize some good might be done with this curse of his. But Miss Fairweather is harboring some dark secrets of her own, and her meddling has brought Trace to the attention of something much older and more dangerous than any ghost in this electrifying and inventive debut.
HOLLY MESSINGER lives in a bohemian town in eastern Kansas, where she writes in coffee shops and sews costumes for a living. Her costumes have appeared at some of the world's biggest cosplay events, including Hulu's launch party for "The Awesomes" at San Diego Comic Con. She also appeared as a judge on the premiere season of SyFy's "Heroes of Cosplay." Holly's short fiction has appeared in Baen's Universe and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. The Curse of Jacob Tracy is her first novel.