Writer's Corner

Meljean Brook

February 6, 2008

Meljean Brook not only made my top ten list for 2007, she topped it. I described her debut novel Demon Angel as a thick, meaty, dig your feet in and hold on tight kind of novel with adventure, sex and an epic quality. I advised readers ‘if you read one novel this year, read this one.’

Then I cursed myself for using up all my superlatives before reading Demon Moon.

Brook graciously agreed, on very short notice, to take time out of writing her fourth Demon book and answer questions on her influences, her very funny blog, and the magic, mythology, and sex that makes her novels so unforgettable and that have catapulted her into the upper echelons of paranormal romance.

--Kate Cuthbert

 

Meljean, thanks for stepping in on such short notice. We know you are very big on comic books and superheroes...how does that influence your writing?

Comic books and superheroes influence me tremendously - although it’s a chicken-and-egg type of influence. Do I read about superheroes and write my own version of them because I’m naturally drawn to these types of larger-than-life characters, or do I write about them because I’ve enjoyed superheroes from an early age, and they helped form my idea of characters and, essentially, what a hero is? I really don’t know if I’m just wired that way, or if comic books wired me.

Either way, I do see the similarities. One thing that I love about superheroes and comic books that I try to capture in my writing is how, even when the characters are using incredible powers and fighting against seemingly insurmountable odds - at times even saving the universe - superheroes are relatable on a personal level. It’s always the human interaction and relationships that make us care about Batman, Wonder Woman, or the X-Men. Their powers are awesome and intriguing, and we want them to save the world, no question; but it’s the human drama that sucks me in as a reader, and discovering how they live and fit into a society where they are so different from anyone around them. How do they negotiate those differences, how do they embrace them? To me, these are endlessly fascinating questions.

I understand you used to write Batman fan fiction on Fanfiction.net and that led to your "discovery". Please tell us about that, and also, what do you think about fan fiction in general, particularly when readers write fan fiction based on their favorite books?

I used to write romantic fan fiction about Batman and Wonder Woman, and my editor did discover me after reading those stories. At the time, I’d already moved on to original paranormal romance (what became Demon Angel) so I had something to show her when she sent me an e-mail asking if I’d been working on anything.

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Although I’m not as active in comic-book fandom as I once was, I still enjoy fan fiction. For readers and fans of a series, it serves as instant gratification or a way of exploring possibilities that won’t be addressed in canon. As a writer, I found it was an enormous confidence-builder, and it allowed me to practice my craft in a community that was both critical and supportive.

I wouldn’t have any problem with a reader who wanted to write fan fiction based on my series. I wouldn’t want to see it, for both legal and personal reasons (at this point, I wouldn’t want to be influenced by an outside vision of my universe - once I’ve finished the series, I might take a look.) From my perspective, fan fiction is incredibly flattering; the idea that my world and characters have inspired someone to write their own stories - even if they take characters in directions I never would have considered - just blows my mind.

There are authors who don’t see it that way, however, and have requested that readers don’t post any fan fiction online. I think that should be respected. For those, like J.K. Rowling, who have said “play at will,” it allows a fun and enthusiastic community of fans to interact with the fictional world they love. For an author, that can translate into publicity and sales, so it’s a win all around.

Of course, sometimes the more rabid members of a fan community can have a negative effect on an author’s sales or reputation - but that issue is not just limited to fan fiction.

Your books feature a very complex mythology. How did you come up with it, and does it sometimes even confuse you? <g>

Some of it is pulled in from other sources (the story of Lucifer’s rebellion, for example, is so completely not mine), and some of it I just made up, either to finding explanations for how things tie together, or I’m inspired by other sources and twist them to fit.

The core of the world-building is all about human free will, so there are rules (and Rules) that demons and Guardians have to operate under - even the transformation of a human to vampire is dependent on free will. And - just because I’m the way I am - I have to know how everything connects and functions. It’s not enough for me to say “magic” and explain something away; even the magic, I know how it works, though my characters really don’t. The important thing is that I adhere to and work within the rules I’ve set for myself; I’ll admit that can be frustrating at times, when I don’t want to have to deal with a vampire’s bloodlust, for instance ... but I’ve set the rules in place, so I have to use them.

The rest of the world-building is just me being completely sadistic. I make everything as difficult for my characters as I can. The harder they have to work for their HEA, the happier the end makes me.

I don’t get confused - but then, I have the advantage of knowing everything, even though I can’t reveal all of it.  

Can you share with our readers the genesis of your series, of angels/demons, Heaven/Hell, and a vampire legend? Also, how does religion influence your writing?

I blame Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, John Milton, DC Comics, and a slew of other sources for the origin of the idea. I loved Good Omens [by Gaiman and Pratchett], and was fascinated by the idea of a demon and angel who were friends, and both opposed to seeing humanity wiped out by Armageddon. I absolutely love Paradise Lost and many of Milton’s other works, and was taking a graduate seminar on Milton about the time I began writing the story. And I had originally intended it to be a fan fiction piece, but the story and universe just became too large for the characters - I needed to create my own. The vampires came in because I’ve always been fascinated by vampire mythology, and I wanted a group of supernatural beings who could be the outsiders and who didn’t serve either Heaven or Hell.

Does religion influence my writing? Yes ... and no. I’m not personally religious, but I think that just because I’m using the concept of Heaven and Hell, where there is a creator in Heaven (and I use capital letters when I reference that being) some elements of religion are inescapable. But I don’t adhere strictly to the Bible - I consider Paradise Lost my jumping-off point, and I view it as an epic mythological poem, while at the same time grabbing freely from other mythologies (for example, Lucifer has a three-headed hellhound named Cerberus.)

And there is also a concept of Good and Evil - evil humans go to Hell, and good ones go to Heaven. But although there are some easily drawn lines between Good and Evil (serial killers and child molesters go straight to Hell, as far as I’m concerned) I am not interested in determining what a sin is, but exploring individual morality and ethics. In my world, Lust isn’t bad; it’s what my characters do when they feel it that determines whether it is good or evil. A rapist is probably going to Hell.

But I also try not to preach in any way (because nobody wants to read that.) If anything, the books reflect more of a general humanist morality than abide by any specific religion, and each of my characters has a different code of ethics. All of my heroes and heroines will throw themselves in front of a bus to save a little kid or someone they loved; but, like whether molesters and serial killers go to Hell, that’s the easy question. Would my heroes and heroines throw themselves in front of a bus to save an adult? What if that adult was their mortal enemy or a drug dealer? What if the drug dealer had seven children who loved him and depended on the money he brought home, and in all other ways was a fantastic father? All of my heroes would have different answers ... but no answer is right or wrong. They just help me define my characters.

And I’m not interested in telling morality tales. For example, in Demon Angel, my heroine Lilith is a liar - the best liar in the world, essentially. It’s her greatest strength and it allows her to survive; but because she also lies to herself, it’s her greatest weakness. In a morality tale, she’d save the day by telling the truth (or die when she couldn’t learn to do so) - but at the end of my book, she defeats Lucifer by telling a lie. I’m not trying to say anything by that; I’m just trying to be true to the story and to the characters. Readers are free to make their own judgments about whether one of my character’s actions is right or wrong, and whether they can respect the decisions my characters make.

You’ve quickly become a rising star among online romance readers with your Demon series. Your blog, a must-read for several on our staff, predates your being published; do you think it helped create a ready readership once you were published?

Instead of a star, I think I’m more like a slowly ascending ball of gas in the blogosphere - my presence is hard to avoid seeing, and it’s difficult to determine whether I’ll explode into something bright and shiny, or just emit a horrid odor and a squeaky noise.

I did receive a lot of support from online readers when I was first published, but no one has been shy about telling me they didn’t like my work, or that they would prefer to read a book with more of a humorous flavor. That was one of the misconceptions I had to overcome, too - many of my blog readers assumed I was writing chick lit or contemporary comedy, and it was a surprise when I put up my first excerpt and my hero was stabbing his sword through my heroine’s heart, then weeping over her dead body.

And I’ve been really lucky that many online readers who became aware of my books through my blog seem to enjoy and look forward to them, considering that my personal blogging voice is so different than my authorial voice. I’ll admit to being surprised by how well they’ve been received - it’s not just that I don’t expect everyone to like them, but a part of me is shocked that anyone does. So when I see a new reader posting that they’ve enjoyed the series, I still have to pinch myself.

I also firmly believe that my sales have been decent for a debut author because of the online buzz readers have created; my website and word of mouth is about the only advertising I get, so it’s been invaluable.

Your blog can be LOL funny...will you ever translate your humor into a lighter work of fiction?

A lighter story, perhaps, and probably only a novella - I doubt I could write a novel-length comedy. I think comedies are probably the hardest types of stories to write well. Humor is so subjective, and to carry humor through a book without devolving into complete ridiculousness ... I just don’t know if I could do it. My personal style of humor is silly at times, bordering on absurd (and crossing over) - it’s irreverent and self-depreciating at others. I’m a total dork, don’t take myself too seriously, and actually like to make fun of myself. But if I wrote a character like that, she’d irritate the hell out of me. I’d kill her by the second chapter.

And I have a lot of fun with my stories now - there are many instances of humor, from the dry and witty to the silly and absurd, depending on the character and the mood of the scene. Joss Whedon once said, "'make it dark, make it grim, make it tough,' but then, for the love of God, tell a joke" - and I think it’s true: those moments are necessary to balance the darkness and the angst, so I try to give at least a couple of laugh-out-loud moments to my readers.

How important is blogging to you, and why?

On a business level, it’s just handy. I can run contests more easily, and I can make announcements without changing my home page.

But otherwise, it’s there purely for my entertainment. I work from home, and when I am around other adults, very few of them read or have the same interests that I do. So the blog gives me a place to say whatever I’d like to say (to someone other than my husband, the poor guy) and its readers can either take it or leave it. And I love the online reading community. Like many others, I started here at AAR and when I finally set up my own blog, I couldn’t wait to talk about romance novels. I threw in superheroes and my dorky life, and it clicked with some people. But even if it hadn’t, I’ll still be doing it. It’s great fun for me.

We’re having a really tough time classifying your books, which is in turn playing a part in our annual reader poll. Fantasy, paranormal…what’s the difference in your estimation, and how do you see your books classified? Since we're deciding on how to reclassify many "monster" and "woo-woo" books, your opinion would really help.

I think of them as “urban fantasy romance.” “Urban fantasy” alone doesn’t really fit, because the romance is, and always will be, the backbone of my books. Paranormal romance fits them, but I understand how the category is so broad as to be almost meaningless; but “vampire romance” or “angel-like romance” is just too narrow, particularly when the hero and heroine are different species.

I resist the straight “fantasy” classification, just because I consider fantasy as taking place on an entirely different world - or an alternate-history Earth that might as well be another world (such as Middle Earth, or the Earth of Novik’s Temeraire series.) When there are modern, recognizable cities in a book, even if those cities are populated by demons, angels, valkyries, vampires, werewolves, and so on - I consider that urban fantasy.

But if a review site doesn’t have an “urban fantasy romance” classification, the next best option is just to fit them in the same category as similar, hard-to-classify books - such Angela Knight’s Mageverse series, Kresley Cole’s Immortals After Dark, Marjorie Liu’s Dirk & Steele series, Jacquelyn Frank’s Nightwalkers, Eileen Wilk’s Lupi series (just to start).

I think that as long as there is some consistency assigning categories, readers will know what to expect when they see a certain classification ... even if that means they’ll know to expect any combination of demons, witches, vampires, and psychics - or anything else.

Speaking of that annual poll, we're currently in a bit of a crisis because this year we broke out out one paranormal-esque category into two; one for SF/F & Futuristic Romances and the other for Paranormal and Time Travel Romances. The result has been some level of confusion and vote splitting for certain books - including some by authors you mentioned above, and also Nalini Singh and yourself - that may affect the outcome. What is your advice on this dilemma?

I’d let it stand. Once new categories have been assigned and established, it will be simpler to say: Please check the review to see how this book is categorized - and those splits hopefully won’t be an issue. But now? There’s just not much you can do, and letting it stand seems to be the fairest option.

Your writing can be quite “hot”; in our DIK review of Demon Moon, it was rated “burning”. What level of sensuality do you prefer to read? Is it across the board or more focused on one end of the sensuality spectrum?

For paranormals, categories and full-length historicals, I typically prefer the hotter end - simply because I don’t want the bedroom door closed. If there isn’t any sexual and emotional tension leading up the scene, however, it doesn’t matter if it’s closed or not. I burned out on sex-for-sex sake during my fanfic days. I’ll take emotional tension over sexual tension, every time (but I prefer books that have both.)

And I love trad Regencies, even if they never go beyond a soft kiss.  

Who are your favorite romance writers?

I like Nora Roberts well enough, but I’m a J.D. Robb fangirl. Kresley Cole (paranormal and historicals), Julia Quinn, Lisa Kleypas, Gena Showalter, Teresa Medeiros, Anne Stuart, Carla Kelly, Laura Kinsale (though I feel inadequate when I read her) are all autobuys. Marjorie Liu rocks my world, and if Nalini Singh doesn’t hit a bestseller list soon there’s no justice in the world. I’d kill for Katherine Kingsley to return to publishing. Recently, I fell in love with Elizabeth Hoyt, and Joanna Bourne’s debut - it’ll take a lot to knock her off my autobuy list. 

FYI, Joanna Bourne's The Spymaster's Lady is apparently not her debut; an earlier book was published back in 1983.

What authors, whether within romance or outside of it, influenced your writing?

Anne Bishop, for the darkness and the incredible world-building, and for characters who made me want to turn away but didn’t let me. Peter S. Beagle, for his incredible prose and for redefining a hero’s journey for me. Stephen King, for scaring the shit out of me, and then for his On Writing, which is the only writing book that has resonated with me. Neil Gaiman, for his freakily brilliant imagination. China Mieville, for the weird and wonderful. Alan Moore and Garth Ennis, for their graphic novels. And pretty much every dead white guy (and a few dead women) I read from high school to graduate school ... especially Milton.

Your next book, which is also a part of the Demon series, is just about to come out. Tell us about it.

When I was writing Demon Night, I was certain that I was going through some sort of karmic payback for all of the torture I’d heaped on my characters in the other books. Demon Moon just flowed, but this one, I had to fight and rewrite and scream over every scene. So when I was done, I put it aside for a couple of months, afraid to look at it again. I thought for sure it’d be just as painful and disjointed as the writing process had been.

But it wasn’t, at all. I was so worried that Charlie, my heroine, would come across as weak compared to my other heroines, but I think she might actually be the strongest of them so far. She was an opera singer and alcoholic who lost her voice after she wrecked her car, and when the story opens, she’s spent years putting her life back together. That’s when she’s first threatened by a trio of vampires - who aren’t interested in her at all, but in using Charlie to get to her sister, Jane. Jane’s a scientist who is in love with a demon - though neither of the sisters knows what he is.

And then there’s Ethan McCabe (Drifter) a Guardian who had been an outlaw in the Old West. He’s been atoning for his history for a long time, and is willing to stand in to protect Charlie, but he recognizes and is a little repulsed by the neediness and dependency he senses in her.

At the same time, he’s fighting off vampires, demons, tossing pickup trucks out of the sky, trying to keep Lilith’s hellhound from taking a bite out of his ass, mentoring a novice Guardian who’d rather be looking at porn than training, and running into a new threat that’s stronger than any demon he’s ever encountered - and a lot stronger than himself.

So it’s all good fun. <g>

Demon Night is the third full-length book in the Guardian series. It opens up the second story arc in the series (I completed the first in Demon Moon.) Charlie is an outsider, so we learn about the world through her eyes, and new readers will probably be able to hop on a little easier than they might have the first books.

You have a novella in another anthology later this year, and beyond that, another single title. How long will your Demon series extend, and do you have any plans beyond it?

I anticipate this series to end on the eighth full-length novels. There will be novellas that explore areas of the mythology that I can’t address in the main books, filling out the universe, but they won’t be necessary to follow the primary storyline. 

 

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