Please welcome Mishell Baker to The Qwillery as part of the 2016 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. Borderline was published by Saga Press on March 1st.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
MB: My sister taught me how to make the alphabet when I was four years old, and the very first thing I did was ask for a blank book so I could fill it with stories. At the wise old age of six I announced my intention to become a professional novelist. Thanks to the loving support of my parents and every possible advantage, the process only took me thirty-four more years. I guess you could say I was the exact opposite of a writing prodigy. That leads to the "why" - it's simply been a lifelong obsession, something I couldn't give up no matter how hard I tried. There was no persistence or work ethic involved; I wrote because I couldn't get through life otherwise.
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
MB: I'm a plotter, all the way. I make pretty detailed outlines before I even write word one of the first draft. That's not to say that I don't discover things along the way. There is no outline detailed enough to cover every quip a character might make, or every impulsive thing she might do in trying to achieve her objective in a scene. For example, there's a moment that ends a chapter in a train station in Borderline - heavy spoiler; you'll know it when you get there - and that moment was most definitely NOT in the outline. It didn't change the plot as I'd planned it, but it gave added weight to everything that came after. I can't imagine the book without it now.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
MB: Outlining. Honestly, by the time I sit down to write the first draft, the hard part is over, and I can breeze right through. I put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into my outlines, pacing and talking to myself and making sure every twist in the story works and bears the load I want it to bear. I try to visualize settings, get a feel for characters, and layer subplots in the outline stage so that by the time I sit down to write prose, all I have left to figure out is what words to use to describe the movie that's already playing out vividly in my head.
TQ: What has influenced/influences your writing?
MB: A whole eclectic mess of things. I'm fascinated by 19th-century Russian literature, the vividness of the people, the intricate observation of human psychology. But I also studied screenwriting, and some of my most profound influences at a certain phase in my development were television writers like Aaron Sorkin and Joss Whedon. This shows in my dialogue, I think. In addition, I play a lot of story-driven video games, such as the great stuff from Bethesda and Bioware. This kind of epic, immersive, emotional fantasy has changed the way I view story, made me very conscious of character choices and the endless ripples of consequence that can fan out from them. In some ways, modern storytelling media have spoiled me, made me impatient, and my writing reflects that. I don't tend to linger lovingly over landscapes; I feel driven to keep moving, to tie everything to conflict and emotion.
TQ: Describe Borderline in 140 characters or less.
MB: A cynical, disabled filmmaker must hunt down a movie star who's gone missing in Los Angeles and who happens to be a noble of the Seelie Court.
TQ: Tell us something about Borderline that is not found in the book description.
MB: One of the things that I enjoy about Borderline is its bizarre approach to sex and romance. Eroticism permeates the book, but an indirect way. Millie is such a passionate person, and yet so long isolated and so uncomfortable with the changed landscape of her body, that she's all but exploding with sexual frustration. Even as she keeps herself at arms' length from everyone, she's still desperate to make a physical and emotional connection, and so she ends up having inappropriate fantasies about just about everyone she meets.
TQ: What inspired you to write Borderline? What appeals to you about writing Urban Fantasy?
MB: The inspiration for the story really comes from my experiences in Los Angeles, a city I love, but which at times seems so far removed from any other reality that it's almost a fantasy setting in and of itself. I had played around once with writing a thinly-veiled memoir about my experiences in the city, something more mainstream or literary, but it just didn't take. My true love has always been fantasy, and it was only when I made the connection between fairy glamor and Hollywood glamor that I knew I had a story I could actually write. I had not read any urban fantasy at that point -- I'd grown up on traditional fantasy -- and I had to do some research to make sure I didn't reinvent the wheel. I quickly realized that what I was writing was different in some awkward ways from the gold standards of the subgenre, but I didn't let that stop me, and as it turned out the differences ended up being strengths.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for Borderline?
MB: I did some driving around and location scouting, just as though I were planning to shoot it as a film. Because I have weak eyes, I don't have a very strong visual imagination, so it helps me to actually look at the settings I'll be writing and note down details to use later. I also looked into some of the realities of daily life for those with lower limb prosthetics, and I grilled my husband and people he knows in the entertainment industry for little secrets and anecdotes of film production.
TQ: Who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
MB: Caryl Vallo was the easiest character for me to write, because she was actually repurposed from another story that died very early in the making. She was so vivid to me, and I identified with her so strongly, that I never could quite let go of her; she had to find another home. The hardest character to write was probably Brian Clay. I'm not even sure why, but it took about three drafts before he came to life for me. Even for a minor character, a lack of personality is unacceptable to me, and so I kept beating my head against a mental brick wall until a personality slowly started to emerge for him. Now he's one of my favorites, and -- well, I can't say more without massive spoilers.
TQ: Why have you chosen to include or not chosen to include social issues in Borderline?
MB: The social issues that Borderline tackles are so deeply interwoven with the narrative that it's hard even to think of them as "included" in any deliberate way. I wrote about mental health because that's what I know. I wrote about disability because that was part of my character's history and so I had to learn about it in order to depict her life accurately. And you can't write about Los Angeles without writing about racial diversity, any more than you can write about Los Angeles without writing about sunshine. You just have to depict what you'd see in a setting, if you want to do your job as a writer. But with the possible exception of mental illness, I didn't go into writing Borderline with any consciousness of putting across a message or trying to make a point. And the only point I really wanted to make about mental illness is, "People who have it are still people." Not exactly revolutionary, or at least I hope it isn't.
TQ: Which question about Borderline do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
MB: "I'm a collector of signed hardcovers! Is there a hardcover edition of Borderline available?" Why, yes there is! I collect signed hardcovers as well, and so to celebrate our shared hobby, if you mail the hardcover of Borderline to me to be signed, I'll mail it back to you on my own dime! You can send your hardcovers to me at PO Box 78760, Los Angeles, CA 90016. If you write me a letter along with it telling me about yourself, I'll sign the book to you nice and personally (and we may even end up pen pals; I'm eccentric that way).
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from Borderline.
MB: Probably my favorite quotation from Borderline is this one: "Suicide is not a way of ending pain; it's just a way of redistributing it."
TQ: What's next?
MB: Why, Book 2 of The Arcadia Project, of course: working title Phantom Pains. I'm also simultaneously at work on another fantasy series that I'm keeping mostly under my hat for now. But The Arcadia Project is going to have at least three books, and given the response to the first one so far, I can certainly see writing more after the first trilogy has reached its big finish.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Book 1 of The Arcadia Project
Saga Press, March 1, 2016
Hardcover, Trade Paperback and eBook, 400 pages
A cynical, disabled film director with borderline personality disorder gets recruited to join a secret organization that oversees relations between Hollywood and Fairyland in the first book of a new urban fantasy series from debut author Mishell Baker.
A year ago, Millie lost her legs and her filmmaking career in a failed suicide attempt. Just when she’s sure the credits have rolled on her life story, she gets a second chance with the Arcadia Project: a secret organization that polices the traffic to and from a parallel reality filled with creatures straight out of myth and fairy tales.
For her first assignment, Millie is tasked with tracking down a missing movie star who also happens to be a nobleman of the Seelie Court. To find him, she’ll have to smooth-talk Hollywood power players and uncover the surreal and sometimes terrifying truth behind the glamour of Tinseltown. But stronger forces than just her inner demons are sabotaging her progress, and if she fails to unravel the conspiracy behind the noble’s disappearance, not only will she be out on the streets, but the shattering of a centuries-old peace could spark an all-out war between worlds.
Mishell Baker is a 2009 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, and her short stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Redstone Science Fiction, and Electric Velocipede. She has a website at MishellBaker.com and frequently Tweets about writing, parenthood, mental health, and assorted geekery at @MishellBaker. When she’s not attending conventions or going on wild research adventures, she lives in Los Angeles with her husband and children. Borderline is her debut novel.