Starving Interview: Ash Gray, Author of The Thieves of Nottica

With a fresh review, we also serve up a fresh Starving Interview today! New to the Starving Author Kitchen is Ash Gray, the chef behind The Thieves of Nottica! Enjoy!

Please introduce yourself to my literary foodies!

Hello, literary foodies. I’m Ash the dragon, speaking to you through a tin can on a wire directly linked from my cave. Please keep in mind that the tin can doubles as a donation can. Feel free to drop in coins on the other end. Can never have enough coins in my hoard of treasures.

Do you do any work outside of the writing kitchen?  Any non-work interests?

I’m a wanna be artist. I’ve been drawing and painting for years, mostly digital, but I’ve never quite gotten good at it. I plan to publish print versions of my books one day with my own horrid paintings inside. I kinda like my work, even if it’s bad. I also want to take a crack at illustrating my own children’s books . . . but just the covers.

What is your latest dish to be served up?  Are there any past pieces of literary cuisine you think we should take a bite out of?

The Seaglass Stair is a fantasy novel I put out recently (more coming, stay tuned!). Whenever people ask me to describe it, I kind of stumble because it’s so cliché on the surface. I originally wrote it about ten years ago when I was still finding my own voice as a writer, so it very much follows the Hero’s Journey: girl discovers she’s magic, girl’s learns to use magic, girl’s mentor dies, girl saves world. Oh, yes. Very cliché. But still an amusing read regardless (I hope). After all, many stories follow a formula and still manage to amass a huge following.

What made you want to put on the chef’s hat and whip up your own books?

I’ve always loved stories: books, tv, movies. Just loved, loved, loved them even before I could talk. I started writing when I twelve. My aunt had passed away, and because I was always a very quiet person, I was going to talk about it. My mother handed me a journal and told me to write about it. I did. And I didn’t stop.

I’ve been trying to break into the publishing world for many years. When I first started, I’ll admit I wasn’t ready to be published. Like all writers, all my early writing was crap. I needed to take time to get better. But even after I took that time and got better, I still had to keep shopping around a book that no one seemed to want. That book was The Thieves of Nottica. I know it’s a tough world and the publishing business is hard, etc. But it got really difficult hearing over and over that there wasn’t an audience for my book, people couldn’t connect to the characters, the story was too bizarre to have a place in their agency, etc. I realized it was depressing me and that I was wasting time trying to convince someone my book was worth reading when I could be spending that time writing more books (of which I have a lot to edit, format, and publish)!!! On top of that, I realized these agents and publishers only cared about money and that I did not. I don’t care about money. I care about writing stories and having someone read them. There is nothing else that makes me happy, so I gave the finger to the Hand (ha ha . . . little inside joke for us) and decided to find readers for my book myself. And I don’t regret it at all. It’s put me in touch with other readers and writers and a whole world of indie publishing I didn’t even know existed. I really love being on Goodreads and talking to people, as shy as I am (talking to people actually makes me really nervous so approach with cookies and milk or I may hiccough fire out of sheer nerves). Goodreads is the only place on the internet where I’ve ever felt safe (ha ha) or comfortable talking about books. If I knew self-publishing on Kindle could be this fun, I would have done it years ago.

Do you have a genre of specialty or do you dabble?  Why?

My favorite genre is fantasy fiction, the sort with dragons and fairies and magic, magic, magic. I love it because I am a shameless escapist. I think a lot of people who read to escape have crappy lives, and I did. As a child, I had one of those cliché lives you might read about in a Roald Dahl book, where I was a child who everyone hated and treated like crap, even adults plus other kids, emotional abuse galore. I was very sad and very alone and books were my friends. I spent long hours each day reading about distant fantasy worlds and the more the better. My Goodreads profile says I’ve read 62 books but I’ve actually read much more. As a child and an adolescent, I spent my life in dreams because I was helpless to escape the nightmare of my reality. As an adult, I spend my life in dreams to help other people escape the nightmare of their reality.

Style!  Every literary chef aspires to have their own unique one!  What do you think sets yours apart and why?

I don’t feel like I have a distinct voice or style, which could be a legitimate reason why so many agents have rejected my work over the years. It’s like I have split personalities. Each one of my books has a different voice depending on what I was trying to accomplish or say. The Thieves of Nottica was something I pulled out of a dark, dusty corner of my computer when I was sad and depressed and needed to cheer myself up. I wrote the whole thing to be a laugh, to work out my anger at the world, and that’s exactly what it did for me. I haven’t been really depressed since I wrote it. A person who goes immediately from reading The Thieves of Nottica to The Seaglass Stair will notice the immediate shift in style and tone. The Thieves of Nottica is written like a lark, while The Seaglass Stair is written with more of a “classical” fairy tale type voice, almost as if you could sit down and say, “Once upon a time, there was a girl named Wareska, and she was an utterly selfless fool.” Which she was, but that’s beside the point.

Even the best of us find inspiration is the dishes of others.  Do you have any literary inspirations, heroes, and influences?

Well, given the fact that I practically own my own personal library, I would have to say yes. Yes a thousand times. When I was an adolescent, my favorite writer in the world was Anne Rice. I devoured her vampire chronicles. She had a magnetic narrative voice that pulls you into her worlds. The really wonderful thing about her books? She made the real world an utterly fascinating, beautiful, all-consuming place to be. That’s a big deal for an escapist like me. The world is a savage garden indeed. What’s really ironic, though? She’s my favorite author and yet I don’t write horror or vampires (I would like to try one day, I’m just not that good at it, though). My other large influences include Mercedes Lackey, Storm Constantine, and Frank L. Baum. (Yeah, the guy who wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.) I also love Ursula K. Le Guinn and Daphne du Maurier.

Let’s get into the meat and potatoes: the art and craft of writing itself!  Do you have a preference of points-of-view when you write?

Well, because my narrative style is all over the friggin place, so is my point of view. I love playing with different methods, though. In some books, I am the narrator. In other books, the character is the narrator (which limits your ability to really tell a story – one of the reasons many authors have to change point of view at some point if they’re writing a series). I love writing point of view chapters, where I get to put on the mask of each character and tell the readers about the world through their eyes and their voice. Originally, The Thieves of Nottica was a point of view story, with chapters being split between Rigg, Morganith, and Hari. Then I realized that would actually blow the story, as part of the story depended on Rigg being ignorant about what was going through the minds of her friends (thus the revelations toward the end regarding Arda).  It’s really fun to do point of view chapters that way, though, and not unlike acting in a sense. One novel that I’m working on right now, called Dreamweaver, is a point of view novel divided into three parts. Two parts are from the perspective of the main character, while a third part is from the perspective of her lover.

Tl;dr point of view writing is hella fun.

Sparse or wordy, how do you like your descriptions served up?  Are you a Hemmingway man or do you like some saucy adjectives with your nouns?

I can be a bit long-winded. Because I am a wannabe artist on top of being a writer, I love aesthetics, so I stop and take my time trying to paint the world with my words (in the hope that it doesn’t come across as flowery purple prose). In Thieves of Nottica, for instance, I would sometimes stop to describe the characters at length — even characters who aren’t that friggin important, such as the “tax collector” in Coghurst — because painting with words is important to me. I believe Brian Jacques said something once about the beauty of painting with words. I took his advice and ran with it because I agree wholeheartedly. It’s good to let readers imagine, of course. The hard part is finding the balance between describing things for them and letting them fill in the blanks. There’s the rub.

Picking off the menu of base literary conflicts, what’s your favorite and why?

Alright, here’s hoping I didn’t totally misread this question. My favorite conflicts in stories are those that explore what it means to be human and what it means to be alive, beyond simple black and white, good and evil (not because I think gray morality is “edgy” but simply because I enjoy the pondering that comes with it – black and white is so simplistic and people are rarely simple). Every person’s journey toward purpose and meaning, this is what interests me. So I love robots for this reason and I love writing about robots (I actually have another steampunk novel planned, but I see it being published in the distant future). Lisa (or Nanny Mech No. 916) goes through a slow transition throughout The Thieves of Nottica. She goes from sadly accepting her fate as a subjugated slave to angrily defying it. She follows Rigg’s example, for being a Keymaster is all about living in defiance of subjugation. The Hand would have Rigg slave under the city in boilers the rest of her life, but she does exactly what she wants to do instead, because freedom is worth the risk of her own life. Lisa admires this and views it as incredibly brave, and through knowing Rigg and her friends, she begins to understand what it means to be alive. Submission is death, defiance is life. People who submit to oppression do not really get to live, they get to exist (usually for the benefit of a higher class), and as Lisa takes hold of her existence and starts living, instead of existing, we see emotion come into her voice. She starts shouting and using contractions, she wants to pick her own clothing to express herself, she wants to live. She runs away from Evrard, her tormentor, in the first place because meeting Rigg in the first chapter of the novel is what wakes her up and makes her want to be alive. So . . .  long story short, my love of philosophy leads me to explore the nature of existence in almost everything I write, and I love trying to create conflict around it: if the Keymasters were not struggling to have their own freedom, none of the conflict with Evrard and Pirayo would have happened.

What do you think is more important to your recipes, plot or characterization?  Why?

About five or six years ago, I shared this story I’d written with some internet writing buddies of mine. I was worried that the plot was bad (and it was. It was utter garbage) and this one friend of mine gave me some really great advice. She told me not to worry about the plot and instead focus on developing my characters, because the plot would be driven by every decision that sprung from their personalities. She and I have since lost touch, but I always kept her advice in mind because she was right. When I focused on developing Rigg as a character, for instance, it drove the entire plot. Rigg is a brave, compassionate, and forgiving person. If Rigg hadn’t been compassionate, it would have drastically changed the end of the story regarding a certain scene on a rooftop with a lockbox, and the conflict with Governor Evrard would probably have continued, culminating in another scene with him. . . . and probably a longer story. So what’s more important to me? Building my characters first. Characters are what make the plot happen.

We all know that the first taste means the most!  What do you do to get that first bite hook with your readers?

I am very sad to admit this (but hey, I don’t mind laughing at myself) but The Thieves of Nottica originally had a really, really bad opening. My first mistake? I opened the story with a prologue /hears the collective groan of readers everywhere/ My second mistake? The opening line was kinda crass. The original opening was about Arda (the missing Keymaster the others keep talking about) and how she died at the hands of Crows. The first line was something about Morganith slapping Arda’s ass and telling her to come on, unaware that she was injured and dying . . . Yeah, let’s just say that my hooks are really bad. I still don’t quite have a hold on how to snag a reader’s interest. As I was shopping Thieves of Nottica to agents, I wound up changing the beginning entirely to be a description of how Morganith was drunkenly slouched at the kitchen table. If the reader keeps reading, they learn why and it stops being funny. This snagged the interest of a few agents, who . . . turned the book down regardless because they /sigh/ still couldn’t connect with the characters.

The most important of questions: Cake or pie?

Cake. Definitely cake. I’m not that crazy. Unless this is some sort of euphemism, in which case I will have to say pie.

Finally, if you could give one piece of advice to aspiring literary chefs out there, what would it be?

Do what you think is right for your book. If you think it should be traditionally published, do it, and don’t let anyone stop you. If you think indie is the way to go, do it, and don’t let naysayers stop you. You can do whatever the hell you want to do, so long as the egg timer is on your side (but unfortunately, time is on no one’s side). Also, be sure to always, always give the finger to the Hand.

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