The Big Idea: Kat Richardson
Posted on August 5, 2010 Posted by John Scalzi 12 Comments
Hey, you know what’s really scary? Kat Richardson does — and what she thinks is scary forms the basis of her popular “Greywalker” series of paranormal novels, of which Labyrinth is the latest installment. While Richardson’s heroine Harper Blaine explores the thin grey line between fantasy and reality, Richardson herself is here to explore what in us makes so many of us believe in what we can’t see or explain — and what that belief says about us.
What I wanted to do with the whole Greywalker series was explore the idea that we make our own nightmares. All the books have relied on the idea what the human mind brings forth is more powerful and dreadful than anything outside ourselves—we are potentially the worst monsters—while that same power of imagination and will offers the only hope of regaining control or improving our lives. The titular Grey of the series title—the thin realm of magic between the normal and the paranormal—is infinitely manipulable by human belief, manifesting in our world as magic, monsters, and horrors usually recognized by only a few normal people. The heroine has the ability to see and manipulate parts of that world to do her job as a private investigator to the ghostly and undead. The newest book wraps up a lot of long-developing issues which rely heavily on these themes.
So, I write about ghosts and monsters and a private investigator who does not sleep with them. I’ve never allowed the protagonist, Harper Blaine, to literally embrace the bizarre, even when she comes to accept it as a part of her life. Her role as a detective is fixing the breakages between the normal and the paranormal; it would be inappropriate for her to become personally attached to one side or the other. Separation with understanding is not only a challenge for Harper, but an opportunity for me to show that essential conflict while the she finds answers to her clients’ freakish problems.
I have always liked stories of the strange and unexplained, shiver-inducing ghost stories told by campfires, and weird science. I’m kind of a weird-physics groupie at heart, too. So I mixed all that stuff together in my writer sandbox to create the world and characters of the Grey. I like to find strange stories and odd bits of real history and see what I can make of them, because that’s my idea of fun. Then I take the reality that is stranger than fiction and drop it on my heroine like a load of bricks. If I can, I like to throw in a social issue or two, like homelessness or racism. But I’m not interested in hitting the reader over the head with any of my themes; I want the the tougher concepts to percolate in quietly. If I write an entertaining story, the reader can swallow the hard parts easily and, if I did a good job, they will think about those issues later.
I usually start a new book with two ideas: a character development goal and a creepy story I want to explore. I build the plot like a mosaic, taking bits of real history, myth, legend, and current fact to form the picture on the surface and use the character development needs, continuing cast, and social issues as the mortar that holds the story together while the reader watches the story-picture develop. I try to have a solid outline when I start, but that’s just a roadmap, not the journey. If I find some really cool fact or monster I can use, I’ll throw that in, too. Because writing should be fun for the writer as well as the reader: this job doesn’t pay well enough to hate.
Why did I choose to tell my stories this way? Well, I consider myself essentially lazy: I’d rather use the real world and real history, or stories other people have been telling each other for millennia as the pieces of my mosaic than have to make it all up myself (because that’s really hard, God-like work), which was another reason the idea of things just out of sight, and history that lingers appealed to me. I do sometimes wish history and reality weren’t so slippery in the research phase. Once in a while I just can’t find the piece I need and I have to make things up. Luckily for me, fact is often stranger than fiction. And library chairs are more comfortable than I remembered. But the premise that people are the worst monsters has continued to be—sadly—a fertile ground for stories.
When I started on this series, I thought I’d like to write a detective novel about a PI with ghosts for clients. That’s all I wanted. But as I worked on it, I discovered that the “why” of the situation was as interesting to me as the “what.” I wondered why a ghost or a vampire might need a detective and how the world is affected—haunted—by catastrophic or horrifying events. What residue is left behind, intangible but effecting us whenever we think of the event? Why do some places or people make us uncomfortable for no reason we can pin down?
Why, in the face of science, do we cling to belief in the numinous and how are we not simply overwhelmed by our complex and contradictory world? Is there something just out of our sight that explains it all? I kept coming back to the idea that there is a lot we don’t examine. That we define ourselves and redefine our world at a manageable size and let the rest go. It’s when we’re forced to confront “the rest” that we rise to the occasion or fail. And if that “rest” was the manifestation of our own collective fears, hopes, and beliefs that might explain a lot….
So, that was my “big idea:” rise or fall, face the strange or hide our eyes, it is our own minds that make a situation a nightmare or an adventure.
Labyrinth: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Read an excerpt. Visit Richardson’s LiveJournal and her group blog. Follow her on Twitter.
Who did the cover art? It reminds me of both the cover for Sanderson’s Mistborn, and Anderson’s Bitter Angels. See here: http://ministryofpeace.com/blog/?p=408
And the cover woman looks like she might the young actress Lindsey Shaw:
So, I write about ghosts and monsters and a private investigator who does not sleep with them.
Really ? Cool. I was kinda interested in the early Anita Blake stories until the later ones devolved in to plots about “my vampire boyfriend vs. my werewolf boyfriend.” :P
Mystery ? Fantasy ? Great. A romance novel wrapped up in a black opera cape ? Meh. Not my cuppa.
I picked up the first book in the series on a whim, urban fantasy (if that’s what these stories are,there is some debate in my mind on that) not being my usual thing.
Devoured it. In a span of about 4 hours. My wife, knowing how I get when I’m this involved, put a cup of coffee and a sandwich down by me and quietly left the room.
I live by Seattle, but the identifiable landscape is only a small part of why I love this series. The concept of the “Grey” seems to fit how the supernatural creeps into the world around the edges, just out of vision but seen peripherally. That totally works for me.
I’ve been waiting, somewhat patiently, for this one. Glad it’s here
Regardless of who the cover woman is, tell her to learn some trigger discipline. Take her finger off of the trigger until she’s ready to fire.
Gary: Maybe she just dispatched a R.O.U.S.
Chris McGrath is the cover artist. Have to fly, but I’ll be glad to respond to other comments when I’m back in a still location.
Very much enjoy the ‘Labyrinth’-ish way you develop a somewhat complex story line, weave it together well, but don’t get us lost in any stupid detail.
You are a very gifted writer. I read authors, not books. Don’t try and change who you are or how you do it. The long wait for Labyrinth was worth it. Thx, Lonnie.
@Mark: Don’t you know soda and my keyboard don’t mix? Well, they did on this occasion. That’s the third time this week.
Sadly, as a gun owner myself, I’ve been unable to convince any artist that trigger discipline is a good thing to depict. Alas, only the Polish cover artist got it right. It’s the wrong gun, too, but… heck, I’m happy I got any input on the covers at all.
Love this series. Can’t wait to read this one.
“So, I write about ghosts and monsters and a private investigator who does not sleep with them.”
Having read Greywalker and enjoyed it, I’m glad that this has been established for the series, and it will likely keep me picking up books in the series (unlike the Anita Blake series, which quickly turned into a very different type of story, the sort that has me trying to scrub my brain of imagery I really don’t want to have in my consciousness). The idea of romantic involvement with supernatural beings gives me the creeps (…Team Undead vs. Team Different Species? I think they both lose.) So, thank you for that. I really appreciate it.