Interview with Christina Harlin

Today I’m delighted to share an interview with Christina Harlin, author of the Othernaturals series. Lucid, the second book in the series, is available now.

1.     Tell us a little about yourself:

I’m from Kansas City, Missouri.  That means I’m almost directly in the middle of the continental United States.  We get an interesting mix of everything here, including people, weather, and ideas.   I’m a fourth-generation Missouri gal and I love my home state!  Nearly everything I write takes place in Missouri or very close by.  We’re proud of our ghost stories around here.  If a town doesn’t have at least four good ghost stories attached to it, it soon will, and that’s a promise!

For almost 25 years I have been married to my better half, the wonderfully stubborn Bruce, who has been instrumental in keeping me going when it comes to writing.  We have a 21-year-old son Jake, my partner in ghost-hunting, who makes me laugh every day. My boys, as I call them, are the best things I have going for me!  I have a day job at a Kansas City law firm where for many years I have worked with terrific people who are like a second family to me.

For fun I play computer games, mostly role-playing adventures, and I watch a great many movies.  Each week I post two or three movie essays on my blog www.themovieorphan.com.  I’m pretty serious about my film fandom.

I fell in love with fantasy fiction in fourth grade, when our teacher read Madeline L ‘Engle to us, and I’ve been writing paranormal fantasy since then.  Paranormal fantasy isn’t all that I write, but there’s nothing I love writing more.

2.     What made you want to be a writer?

This compulsion to write was apparently something I was born with.  My mother tells me that before I actually knew how to write sentences, I drew stories in pictures.  I have a suitcase full of things I wrote as a child and teenager.  I wrote my first book – though I use the term loosely – when I was 12, on a spiral notebook in multi-colored magic markers.

I have always taken great pleasure in writing.  It’s one of my favorite things to do, and I would continue writing stories even if they were never to see the light of day.  In fact, that was the case for a long time! Simple fear kept me from making efforts to put my writing out in the world – fear of criticism, of rejection, of exposing too much of myself.  Eventually I realized that if I did not at least try to share my stories, I would someday regret it.  So about fifteen years ago, I put on the big-girl knickers and got serious about writing books.

3.     What’s your writing process like? Are you a plotter or pantser? Do you have a specific writing ritual?

Of the two choices, I am more a plotter.  I want to move through the story alongside my characters to see if they have any surprises in store for me.  Often they will insist on taking matters in another direction.   However, I have also taken the pantser-route when I was blocked.  Jumping ahead in the story is a great way to get “unstuck.”

My writing ritual, learned through many arduous attempts, is to have an ending firmly in mind before beginning.   Though a word-for-word ending is never set in stone, an ultimate story goal is a necessity for me.  Endings are my weakness.  Unless I am working toward an end goal, I’ll meander.  As far as the Othernaturals series is concerned, I realize the individual book endings are fairly open; the story doesn’t exactly conclude so much as pause.  But I have a definite goal in mind for the series as a whole, and everything is leading toward it.  I hope people will stick around to find out where we’re heading!

4.     The Othernaturals deals with supernatural creatures and phenomena – do you have a favourite element that you’ve included, or would like to include in the future?

Sally Friend, the only one of the Othernaturals who has no specific psychic power, has instead developed a clever way of dealing with the very real disability of her sun allergy.   Because Sally is the group’s self-proclaimed vampire (who feeds on psychic energy rather than blood), I have every intention of introducing a love interest for her – in the form of a self-proclaimed “werewolf,” so she can have a humorous version of the sworn-enemies love story.

As for the major story arc, there is a particular monster I’m looking forward to using.  In studying vampire history, I learned about legendary creatures called “preta.”  A preta is a revenant human spirit that roams the world in insatiable hunger (sometimes for human flesh!).  Some legends say that these spirits are being punished for a lifetime of greed, while others say they are meant to punish other greedy or gluttonous humans.  In my mind, they sound like less-gruesome versions of zombies, minus the rotting flesh.  I cannot wait to put the Othernaturals up against a horde of them!

5.     The latest instalment of The Othernaturals deals with dreams and REM sleep – did you have to do a lot of research around this? What drew you to the world of dreams?

The research came first, many years ago.  In graduate school, I studied psychology, moving particularly into areas like biofeedback, hypnotism and exploring different levels of consciousness.  I was amazed by these studies.  How I wished I was a better candidate for hypnotism!  I failed regularly at attempts.  My professor’s analysis?  I was trying too hard to be hypnotized, which is absolutely counteractive to the process.

These alternate levels of self-awareness, properly managed, have untold benefits to mental and physical health.  Awareness of altered consciousness has been practiced for centuries by yogis, swamis, and religions such as Buddhism.  The goal is to practice awareness during all states of consciousness without altering those states of consciousness.  Any philosophy that looks to meditation as a vital part of its practice will likely have a method that is in essence the same as lucid dreaming.  I found the idea so fascinating, it’s no surprise that lucid dreaming became part of a story I wrote.

In lucid dreaming, the dreamer becomes aware that she is in a dream, and at that point, may be able to stop, or even manipulate, the dream.  The notion caught my fancy at once, as it was something I had done myself, without knowing that it had a name.  I’m a victim of recurring dreams, not nightmares, but stressful and upsetting nonetheless.  After enough of these dreams had plagued me, I became able to recognize when I was having one.  Then, I could either awaken myself, or change the dream.  Practically speaking, lucid dreaming is an ability that can be taught (I believe that now there is even an app for it!) and is useful in therapy sessions or in promoting creativity and problem-solving.

In empirical science, lucid dreaming is considered worthy of study but is very hard to prove.  The debate is almost a comedy of semantics, full of sentences like, “Maybe you weren’t aware in your dream, but were just dreaming that you were aware in your dream.”  There is still so much mystery behind the purpose of dreaming itself that dreams take on mystical proportions.  Luckily, in fiction, one doesn’t have to be absolutely true to the research.  Proving whether lucid dreaming is reality isn’t my job!  Lucid dreaming happens to the Othernaturals because I say it does!

The same goes for another phenomenon that Rosemary and her crew undergo: not only are they lucid-dreaming, but they are sharing the same lucid dream as it is projected by an eighth person, their hostess Ivy Robbins.   Whereas lucid dreaming is sometimes scientifically supported as a reality, telepathic dreaming is considered almost pure fantasy.  That’s okay with me!

6.     What was the hardest part about writing The Othernaturals books?

I have trouble keeping control of Rosemary Sharpe!  I love her, I really do, but she will get herself into trouble one of these days and I won’t be able to stop it.  That young woman is willful to a fault, a bit entitled because she grew up rich and pampered, plus has quite a problem when it comes to impulse control.

First, she has considerable telepathic talent (that is, she can control the thoughts and actions of others, if she desires) and will sometimes use her ability for selfish or petty reasons.  I know that if I had her kind of power, I’d be tempted to use it constantly, so right now I’m glad she has a fairly kind heart and that she is proud of the successes and friends she has earned honestly.

Second, she’s so infatuated with Andrew Fletcher that I can hardly keep her out of his lap.  I keep reminding her that Andrew is gun-shy and mistrustful, and that coming on strong will only drive him away.  I appeal to her business savvy: the webshow she hosts and produces is of primary importance to her, so for the sake of her show, it’s better to keep things professional.  Thus far, she is cooperating in theory, but almost daily I find myself having to reel her back in.

7.     Your tie in website is great for getting a flavour of your work and finding more out about the characters. What gave you this idea?

At present, my books are only available in electronic format, so I thought, “Why not take advantage of that?”  Othernaturals is a fictional webshow created by Rosemary’s own small production company, and it seemed only logical that there would be a somewhat cheesy website to accompany it.  I try to make the site connect with the books without being intrusive – readers need only visit if they want a little extra fun.   It includes things like correspondence to the characters from their “fans,” and a couple scenes that didn’t quite fit in with a book’s flow but which add a little extra dimension to the story.

Www.Othernaturals.com is both what I imagine their show’s website would resemble, and promotion for the book series itself.  Some of it is meant as spoof, such as the ad page for Andrew’s bookstore.  Andrew would not actually advertise by touting the psychic aura of used books, but since that is a particular skill he uses, I thought it funny to imagine him catering his store to an all-psychic crowd.

Sometimes, the Othernaturals website is a bit of a meta-headache: the page that promotes the fictional book that is being written by Stefan, a fictional character who is writing in the course of my own fictional book, is one such example.  I often forget that no such story actually exists.

8.     What are your favourite horror stories?

My favorite author of horror is Shirley Jackson, who wrote what I consider the best ghost story I’ve ever read, “The Haunting of Hill House.”   I also love Ira Levin’s books “Rosemary’s Baby” (yes, I took the character name from him) and “The Stepford Wives.”  I read almost everything Stephen King publishes, but I got particular frights from “Pet Sematary,” and his more recent “Duma Key.”  “Let the Right One In” was a wonderful spin on vampires.  The two scariest books I’ve read recently were not horror stories so much as speculative sci-fi:  Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go,” and Charlie Huston’s fantastic apocalyptic tale “Sleepless.”

9.     Why do you think we enjoy a good scare so much?

Our bodies and brains enjoy that little kick-start of adrenaline!  Experiencing cathartic fright in a safe environment,  through a movie, a book, a roller coaster (well, relatively safe!), gets the blood pumping, sharpens the senses, feels sexy, turns us on, makes us creative, unites people with a shared experience, and opens our eyes to possibilities.

10. And finally, any tips for the aspiring writer?

Don’t let fear keep you from trying.  I’m still learning that one, because there remains that temptation to withdraw, if I see a less-than-stellar review or get yet another no-thank-you letter.  Bumps in the road – which you might view as failures – are actually valuable, once they stop sucking.  They can hurt like hell when they happen, causing anger, disappointment and the desire to chuck the whole idea of writing.  We tend to be our own worst critics, making these global, kneejerk accusations: I’m awful at this, I’ll never get anywhere, my life was easier when I wasn’t putting myself through this.

Give it some time, and give yourself a break.  Things that I once saw as the “end of the line” are now some of the more valuable lessons I have learned.

This is a surprising and rather brutal truth:  the formal publishing industry doesn’t really care about your talent or dedication as a writer.  Publishers want to know if they can sell your work to the public and make money off it.  That is the bottom line they are looking at, and though it feels cold, it’s not personal.  It’s just business.  It’s wonderful, if you can be both talented and lucrative – but there are a lot of writers out there, in competition for a limited amount of resources.  Once I fully grasped this, I stopped taking rejection quite so hard and moved beyond the traditional publishing paradigm.

Most important, remember that time can work miracles.  I tried, and tried, and tried, writing to please everybody:  my agent; an endless line of editors; the publishing companies behind them; some faceless person somewhere who had the power to nix an entire idea with the stroke of a pen.  I had a book contract, and I worked every day for well over a year, doing everything the publisher, editor and agent asked me to do, to prepare for the release.  As happens sometimes, the contract was cancelled, very late in the game and for reasons beyond my control.  Cancelled?!?I  It was yanked!  A bad dentist yanking a stubborn tooth couldn’t have yanked any harder than they yanked that contract! I was crushed.

But look here: it’s six years later, I’m writing what I love to write, getting to know smart creative people (like you, Liberty!), and that busted contract didn’t manage to kill me after all!

Thanks so much for stopping by Christina!

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