As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Trouble in the Wind gets released on 13 December, a week from tomorrow. I’ll be running a number of extra interviews this week from authors who joined James Young and I in the anthology. This one is Monalisa Foster, who is as interesting as her name suggests, in part because she emigrated to the US from Romania in 1978.
Interview: Monalisa Foster
What is your quest?
My goal is to write science fiction with heart. That means I concentrate on human drives rather than hyperdrives. No matter the genre (and I’ve written not just alt history, but hard SF, mil SF, and space opera), my goal is put the reader inside the story so they can experience the emotions of the characters I’ve created and the wonder and delight of the world I built for them. It’s a kind of magic and I particularly enjoy practicing this part of my craft.
Since I learned English by translating Heinlein’s juveniles (not as a job, but as a way to teach myself when I was nine), I was heavily influenced by his ideas. It took me about two years to attain fluency and I remember reading about a novel a day every summer. It wouldn’t be untrue to say that my body was merely life-support for my eyes and my brain because it was pretty much all I did every summer. I devoured everything the library had, both in the juvenile and adult sections. I wish I’d have kept a list of everything I’d read, because it would be a wonderful resource for answering questions like this. Most of it was science fiction. Very little of it was fantasy, although I did read some.
Over the decades, my reading tastes have changed substantially. I discovered Bujold and fell in love with her Vorkosigan Saga. In fact, I used to read the entire series from beginning to end every year. And I love stories heavy on romance, but not necessarily the Romance genre itself. One of the reasons I wrote Ravages of Honor was because I couldn’t find what I wanted to read.
I remember the first time I put something up for someone else to read. I posted it on a critique site and then rushed to the bathroom to throw up. It was horrible. The writing, to be clear.
So, it became apparent, very quickly, that reading all my life had not prepared me to write well. And I’d done it professionally before, but that was non-fiction and technical/scientific writing, both of which are altogether different beasts.
Think of it this way. You’ve been watching your parents drive for sixteen years. That doesn’t mean you can just get into a car and drive, unless you’re a very unique individual. I was not that individual.
The first thing I had to accept was that I had a lot to learn, both about the craft and the business of writing. And being me, I threw myself at learning both my craft and the business before I unleashed my writing on the world. And I wouldn’t have had the freedom to do what I’m doing now if it hadn’t been for my husband’s support.
What is the average flying speed of an unladen paint brush?
One of the most frustrating things about the craft is that you don’t know what you don’t know. I thought that I could study what others had written (see above) and emulate it. But the truth is that what worked 10 or 30 or 50 years ago, doesn’t mean it’ll sell today. You’d need a time machine to go back and sell that stuff. Or you’d have to already have a made name.
I think in some ways, we’ve all experienced this. You buy a book because it’s on the best-seller list or because your friend loved it, and you either can’t finish it or you force yourself to, and you go, “Wait? This is a best-seller?” No thank you.
So, you have to figure out some things. Is it taste? Is it the target audience? Is it marketing? It is something you have no clue about? This is the most frustrating aspect of the business for me, in addition to marketing, because there are no right or wrong answers. There are just the answers that work or don’t, for you. What may work for one author will not work for you. What works for one audience won’t work for another. You have to figure out who you are writing for and why. And then you have to figure out how to reach those people. And sometimes that is far more work than what’s involved in your craft, your creative process, and the actual stuff you end up writing.
Fortunately, I’m a vicarious learner. This is a very good thing because it means I learn from other peoples’ mistakes, not just my own. And the number one thing I’ve learned, is that if it doesn’t pull me in and hold me, it’s not worth studying. It can be the best-selling novel of all time. It can have sold millions. If it’s not my cup of tea, it will teach me nothing. On the other hand, if it draws me in and holds me, I will pull it apart and figure out why and then I will incorporate that into my own writing. Doing that can be its own challenge, and the execution takes time, but it’s worth it.
What are the powers of your personal Holy Hand Grenade?
My go-to techniques, the two absolute things I will fight every editor on (Wyatt’s Torch, as in I will burn it down rather than give in), are depth and viewpoint. Now, that means different things to writers, so let me explain what it means to me. I write inside-out, rather than outside-in, about 90% of the time. It can’t be 100% because there are some scenes where you can’t do that, but 90% of the time I absolutely can and will.
Imagine you are a camera. There are five characters in a room. When you are floating outside all of those characters, moving anywhere you want, you are writing outside-in. Some people do this very well. But when it’s not done well, the writing is dry and thin because the camera can’t put the reader inside the character’s head.
Now imagine that the “camera” is inside a character, right behind his eyes. You can only see what he sees, hear what he hears, feel what he feels. Your viewpoint is limited. It is filtered through one person at a time. When it’s well done, you’re inside the character’s head and you stay there throughout one scene. The reader only knows what that character knows, when he knows it. That is inside-out writing. I work very hard at putting the reader inside one character at a time so they can experience the world through that one character.
The depth part has to do with the richness and thickness of the details. It has to do with evoking emotions without having to tell the reader that the character is sad or happy or angry.
I know I have successfully done my job when readers tell me that I touched their heart with something.
For example, when I wrote Cooper, a reader sent me a PM thanking me for the story. I had made him cry because the story was about him and his step-dad. When I wrote another story (which I’m not going to name because, spoiler incoming), I got a similar PM (gotta love FB, right?) which sounded rather angry at first. It was along the lines of “How dare you make me care for this character and then kill him/her?” And nothing topped getting a PM from one of my publishers going “That’s a helluva story” when I thought for sure he’d find it too un-military and too touchy-feely.
I’m not former military. I have no credentials to speak of. So I do my research and I work on making my characters real to the reader. I work on the emotional draws and the emotional beats. I do it knowing that it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s okay. But if it is your cup of tea, I make an awesome cup of what you do like.
- Favorite Muppet? No clue. Didn’t grow up here. Sorry. (Rob’s Note: We have got to get you some of the Muppet Show DVDs)
- Best Thing From the 80s? The music and the movies.
- Your Wrestler Name? She-who-uses-metal.
- And Signature Wrestling Move? Package check.
- Favorite Weird Color? Slaughter-red; iron-enriched of course.
- How Will You Conquer the World? If I told you, I’d have to kill you.
- What Cartoon Character Are You? Queen Tyr’ahnee of Mars
- Best Present You’ve Ever Received? American citizenship.
- What Do You Secretly Plot? The end of communism. Forever. Okay, not so secret, but there it is.
- Brought to you by the letter ___? This is a cultural reference I don’t get. I say that a lot. Ask my friends.
- Favorite Sports Team? Any and all of the BASEketball teams.
- Cake or Pie? Dobos Torte.
- Lime or Lemon? Oranges, because I will not be limited by your lack of vision.
- Favorite Chip Dip? Whipped cream.
- Favorite Musical Performer We’ve Never Heard Of? Mark Seibert. I’m not kidding. Oh, and he’s mine. Hands off.
- Whisky or Whiskey? Whatever my friends will force upon me as long as I get to sip it.
- Favorite Superhero? Count von Krolock (Tanz der Vampire).
- Favorite 1970s TV show? Before my time.
- Winter, Spring, Summer, or Fall? Summer. In Texas. Or Arizona.
- Favorite Pet? German Shepherds, Pibbles, Great Danes. Standard Poodles.
- Best Game Ever? I opt to exercise my Fifth Amendment rights on the grounds that my answer might incriminate me.
- Coffee or Tea? Coffee as long as I can’t taste the coffee part. Jasmine tea.
- Sci-Fi or Fantasy? Seeing as my favorite level of tech is “science indistinguishable from magic” I’m going to deny the false dichotomy of your question.
What question(s) would you like to ask me?
How many languages do you speak? Is one of them German?
Rob’s Answer: I would say I can’t actually *speak* any language but English fluently. Mostly that’s because I don’t get much opportunity to practice. I took a goodly amount of German, Latin, and Old English. Old English is the one I use the most, but it’s less about talking and more about reading.
My best spoken language is probably Old English. I have performed stuff in Old English, like chunks of Beowulf and the Wanderer. Nevertheless, I don’t do that enough to prevent having a wretched accent. It’s better than my horrible French accent, which I butcher whenever I have need.
I have a moderate level of reading ability in those three languages as well as French. The ability to read them is more what I need than the ability to speak as I’m reading through historical sources. I’m also discovering that I can muddle my way through some Spanish because of the Latin and French providing cognates and the grammar being Latin that got lazier and lazier over the years.
In general, if I can separate the words spoken to me, I can generally grasp the structure of the sentence, but my practical vocabulary is minimal because I routinely have references handy.
Tell me again where we can find your stuff?
- I have a blog, although I’m not much of a blogger, but it’s a good starting point and I keep my publication list up to date:
- Rarely used, but www.twitter.com/HouseDobromil
- And https://www.instagram.com/monalisa_foster_storyteller/
- I post pictures that inspire my writing here: pinterest.com/m2foster
- Follow my author pages if you’d rather:
- If you’d like to sign up for my newsletter, click here: https://forms.aweber.com/form/07/209156807.htm
And where can we find you?
- My favorite con is LibertyCon.
- I also go to DragonCon. These are the two I strive to be at every year.
- Locally, I attend FenCon.
- I did LTUE and SpikeCon in 2019, but probably won’t be doing so regularly.
Do you have a creator biography?
Monalisa won life’s lottery when she escaped communism and became an unhyphenated American citizen. Her works tend to explore themes of freedom, liberty, and personal responsibility. Despite her degree in physics, she’s worked in several fields including engineering and medicine, but she enjoys being a trophy wife and kept woman the most. She and her husband are living their happily ever after in Texas.
Final question for you: What should I have asked but did not?
You should have asked me why milk chocolate is better than dark chocolate? That way I could answer because it contains a higher amount of fat and fat is flavor. Also, bacon makes everything better when milk chocolate is not available. (Rob’s Note: So right!)
Thanks to Monalisa for taking the time to answer my questions.
If you have any suggestions or comments about this interview format, let me know so I can keep tweaking it.
Also, thanks to you for reading. If you’re interested in any of the other interviews I’ve done, you can find them all here: http://robhowell.org/blog/?cat=326. If you are a creator, especially an independent creator, and you want to be spotlighted in a future interview, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Finally, if you want to join my mailing list, where I’ll announce every interview, as well as what’s going on in my life, go to www.robhowell.org and fill out the form (Name and Email Address) or drop me an email and I’ll add you.
Have a great day.
Author of the Shijuren-series of novels
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