THANK YOU to author, Melanie Cossey for taking the time to give us such thoughtful responses to our interview! Take a look!
1. What inspired you to write this book?
Answer: Believe it or not, the story was born from a stick bug incident. In 2011, my fourteen-year-old son and his then girlfriend decided they were going to make money by buying 100 stick bugs from a woman on craigslist and then selling them to turn a profit.
Once my son had the bugs home and set up in a habitat, we began researching them and found out is illegal to sell them. We also found out they are an invasive species and can’t be released into the environment, oh, and they breed like crazy. So here, we had these rather scary looking insects that we couldn’t legally, morally, or ethically get rid of, and who, might take over the world as they bred out of control. That left us with a very sick feeling in the pit of our stomachs—a what have we done!? feeling. Of course the writer in me went, “hmmm that might be a great concept for a story. What about a guy who has acquired a “horrible creature” that he can’t ethically or morally dispose of? What would he do?” And thus, the premise for A Peculiar Curiosity was born.
2. Can you tell me about the book?
Answer: A Peculiar Curiosity is a gothic horror novel that takes place both in London 1865 and in 1990. The synopsis is as follows: Anthropology professor Duncan Clarke must get a handle on his anxiety disorder by the end of Christmas break, or risk losing the position to which he has tirelessly devoted himself for decades. When Clarke intercepts a box of macabre curiosities intended for the university, he discovers a travel journal from 1865 containing the frantic scribblings of Edward Walker, an eccentric Victorian curiosity dealer. Tucked within the journal is a disturbing drawing of a young boy, "Specimen Z", the apparent victim of a Haitian Vodou witch doctor. Desperate to salvage his professional career and to discover the fate of the mysterious boy, Clarke follows clues left by the gruesome relics of his predecessor's collection to discover the dark secret Walker kept in his basement, and his connection to the brutal crimes that terrorized London. Clarke's holiday pastime becomes an all-consuming obsession as he begins to understand the chilling implications of the journal and the horror that ties his fate to Walker's-for Clarke will stop at nothing to discover the truth, even at the cost of his career, his family, and his very life.
3. What is your writing process like?
Answer: I usually write my first drafts during contests with strict deadlines, like NaNoWriMo and 3-day novel contest. I outline my drafts in the briefest way possible and then write the first drafts very quickly. Then I spend months taking them through the editing process. I also write poetry and short stories in between the novels. I go through periods where I’ve very productive, followed by rest periods of low activity. After the long journey writing, revising, and working with a publisher on A Peculiar Curiosity, I’m currently in a rest period, but gearing up for another active period.
4. What did you learn when writing the book?
Answer: How incredibly hard it is to write a historic novel. I swear, my first novel was one of the hardest types of novels a person could write. It has duo timelines that cross and it is deep in history and facts of the Victorian age and the underground curiosity trade. I also learned a lot more about the Victorian age that I didn’t know before, although I consider myself pretty well studied on the subject. There is so much to know and learn. I suspect I’ll be writing from this setting/time period for a long time to come.
5. What surprised you the most?
Answer: How mentally draining it is to keep track of everything you’ve written in your book—all the little details that have to be consistent from one chapter to the next. I filled three notebooks full of notes as I went through my revisions. Three notebooks!!
6. What does the title mean?
Answer: It comes from my Victorian Curiosity dealer. It refers to the young boy he recues from the Voodoo bokor after he has been made into a zonbi. As a curiosity dealer he is used to viewing curiosities, and he considers the boy a most peculiar curiosity. But the title also refers to the anthropologist who finds the journals and in it, the drawing of the zonbi, as he also considers the drawing to be a peculiar curiosity. The story, after all, is about two men’s obsession, so the title itself crosses timelines.
7. Was the character inspired by a real person? If so, who?
Answer: As for the character of Duncan Clarke, no, not really. Not in personality, anyway. I did fashion his look and way of speak off of Jeremy Irons, though. Edward Walker is not inspired by a real person either, just some character that appeared to me at random.
8. What do you think happened to the characters after the book ended?
Answer: Well, we know what happened to one of them, but I’m not going to give it away. Duncan Clarke will go on but first he needs a long period of rest and relaxation. As for Henri, well, he’s a survivor. I have no doubt he’ll be alive and well.
9. What advice do you have for writers?
Answer: First of all, write, get your story from your head to the page. After that, read craft books, attend writer’s conferences, workshops, crit groups. Learn everything you can about writing well, but don’t lose your unique voice. Be open to allowing others to help shape your voice as a writer, but never let anyone alter it or take it over. It is unique to you.
10. Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Answer: A little of both actually. When getting a novel to the point of publishing, it can be rather exhausting, especially if you are up against deadlines. But at the same time it can be exciting and energizing. There are days when it is very difficult to muster up the energy for edits. That’s why it’s good to write fresh material, where you can freely express, while in the midsts of the really grueling editing. You have to balance the work with the play, or you will burn out.
11. What are common traps for aspiring writers?
Answer: I think being too hung up on what others think of your writing. Another hard one is taking critique too seriously. Critique is good for seeing where your writing is lacking, but it’s just a tool. Not everything that is said about your writing will be correct. As a writer you have to develop a keen understanding of what makes a piece strong, and if you do that, you’ll have an easier time of wading through helpful critique vs. harmful or useless critique. For instance, if you have a good understanding of what makes a strong, well-imagined and well-developed character and someone points out that your character is lacking in, say, reader sympathy, then you will be able to see it too. But if someone tells you something about your character that’s completely off the mark, and you are really too green to know if what they are saying is correct, you’re likely to follow the bad advice, changing what may have been good already. So in a sense, crit can really help you if you are able to understand conceptually, how what you wrote can be improved. But if you are a new writer, and all these well meaning, but perhaps not well studied, people are coming at you with ‘advice’, the more you learn the easier time you will have of cutting through the BS.
12. What is your writing Kryptonite?
Answer: Distractions! Especially social media. It can be a great thing in this lonely career called writing, when you are suffering for socialization, but the flip side of that is that it’s way too easy to while away precious writing time with scrolling through feeds, jumping from one platform to the next. It’s hard to balance book marketing, blogging, submissions etc. (and hey, let’s not forget my work as a freelance editor!) with actually writing.
13. Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?
Answer: I’m actually considering it now! Lol.
14. Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?
Answer: I write for me. I know there’s a following for what I do, but ultimately, I write the books I want to read. I think you can be original and still appeal to readers. I know when I look for material to read, I want something that is unique. Not the same ole, same ole.
15. Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?
Answer: I think this is where I might have a problem. I write in many different genres. This might make it hard for fans of say, my gothic horror, to want to follow me through into my magical realism, for instance. I’m not really a series writer, at least not yet. But I’m considering something that could be divided into a series. I’m not sure yet if I’ll pursue it.
16. How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
Answer: This is a great question! As writers, we always have a secret folder of unfinished or permanently abandoned work, don’t we? I think I have about six or seven first drafts or partially finished first drafts in my bag of tricks.
17. What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
Answer: I research the Victorian period, especially the less than desirable aspects of it, the dark underground stuff, like curiosity trading, grave robbing, quack medical cures, asylums, crime, punishment, disease… all that terrible stuff. I learned the hard way not to do research before writing the book, or you’ll never write it, as you will keep stopping to look up things. By now, I have a good working knowledge of the Victorian era, so I just write the book. Afterwards I go back and do deeper research, adjusting facts I may have got wrong or adding more layers of facts. I find that much more productive.
18. How long were you a part-time writer before you became a full-time one?
Answer: I actually used to write a lot more than I do now. Twenty years ago, as a new mother, I used to write a lot of content for the web. I was doing that every day for several hours around my children’s sleep and school schedules. Now I write part time and edit for others part time.
19. How many hours a day do you write?
Answer: That depends on my active periods. Under deadline, I can write for eight – ten hours a day, until my back and neck can’t take it anymore (chronic pain problems). When I have a more relaxed pace, usually two or so hours a day.
20. What period of your life do you find you write about most often? (child, teenager, young adult)
Answer: I think teenager. The emotion of that time seems a lot more raw and unhinged. Things seemed more impactful so I try to tap into that and bring it to my writing. I also take experiences from my adulthood. It’s hard to say, really, because other times I’m writing characters that have nothing to do with me or my experiences, as is the case with Duncan and Edward, well except maybe Duncan’s anxiety and depression, something I’ve battled with for most of my life.
21. What did you edit out of this book?
Answer: The things my editor told me to, lol. But I can think of one example. I had Edward looking for the zonbi for three days, but my editor felt it went on too long so we cut out a day of his searching. It was a bit hard to make the journal days line up after we removed that day but we did it.
22. How do you select the names of your characters?
Answer: Sometimes they just come to me, other times I look in my book of baby names. Sometimes I like to select names whose meanings have something to do with my character’s personality.
23. If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?
Answer: Well, I’m a freelance editor. I’m also an artist and private art teacher.
24. What was your hardest scene to write?
Answer: Probably the last scene in my book. My publisher and I couldn’t agree on an ending for the longest time. I wrote several different endings before finally deciding on the one that made it into the book.
25. What is your favorite childhood book?
Answer: Depends on the age I was, but Pippi Longstocking is high on my list. It taught me two valuable lessons: little girls can be anything and do anything, and imagination is not only completely awesome, it will take you far.
26. How long on average does it take you to write a book?
Answer: A month or two for a first draft and then long grueling years afterwards to edit it.
27. Do you believe in writer’s block?
Answer: Oh Absolutely. Writers can get burnt out. We are not machines. I’m just getting back into writing regularly after a bout with it. Sometimes you can power through it and force yourself out of it, sometimes you can’t. You can sit down every day but it’s a struggle to get words on the page. My question is, why struggle? Look for the inspiration you need to write. When you find it, things will go much better.
28. What works best for you: Typewriters, fountain pen, dictate, computer or longhand?
Answer: Computer, laptop, and exercise books on park benches or in coffee shops.
29. When did it dawn upon you that you wanted to be a writer?
Answer: When I was five years old and inspired by a Richard Scary book.
30. How hard was it to sit down and actually start writing something?
Answer: Simple. I didn’t even think about it.
31. Do you aim to complete a set number of pages or words each day?
Answer: When I’m doing NaNoWriMo, I aim for the minimum 1660 words a day, but otherwise, no. I’m more of a “by the hour” writer.
32. Do you set a plot or prefer going wherever an idea takes you?
Answer: I write a loose plot, hitting all the plot points, and then I just write, giving myself some room for if characters want certain things to happen.
33. Do you read much and, if so, who are your favorite authors?
Answer: Absolutely! Reading is essential to writing. It’s how you study craft. It’s how you know what you like. It’s how you model and then break new ground. All masters study under master who came before them. I do not understand at all writers who say they don’t read. Does not compute.
34. What is the most important thing about a book in your opinion?
Answer: the power to break the status quo. The power to break a person out of their echo chamber. The power to raise people up. Books are life. They can change the way we see the world, other people. It’s so important for where we are going as a society.
35. How would you feel if no one showed up at your book signing?
Answer: I’ve done many book signings and luckily, that’s never been the case. But when people you don’t know come by your table, it’s a great opportunity to turn on a new reader to your work.
36. Do you recall the first ever book/novel you read?
Answer: Not specifically, but some of my early novels were Little House on the Prairie, Wizard of Oz, and Pippi Longstocking.
37. How much of yourself do you put into your books?
Answer: It depends what I’m writing. There’s a little of me in everything I write, of course. If I’m writing a woman’s novel then you can pretty much guarantee there’s a fair bit of my experiences in there.
38. Who are your books mostly dedicated to?
Answer: My husband and kids.
39. Who is the most supportive of your writing in your family?
Answer: I’d say my husband. He works so that I can write. Hopefully some day it will be all worth it.
40. Writers are often believed to have a Muse, your thoughts on that?
Answer: Absolutely. I feel there is something there, whether you call it a muse, inspiration, the collective consciousness, or just the gift of imagination. If we say ‘the muse’ most every writer has some experience of what that means, so I think it’s a definition that works.
41. Another misconception is that all writers are independently wealthy, how true is that?
Answer: Oh yes, people think we get rich from our books. If that was ever true, it certainly isn’t the model now. It’s a struggle, and no, we can’t afford to give our books away for free, so don’t ask us.
42. Is it true that authors write word-perfect first drafts?
Answer: Of course not. Thus the term “draft.” If, as a writer, you don’t know the meaning of the word draft, then you aren’t doing it right.
43. Did any of your books get rejected by publishers?
Answer: Of course! That’s part of this whole journey. No matter how brilliant you are as a writer, not everyone is going to dig you. Rejection is a part of the process. A part you can’t avoid.
44. What is your view on co-authoring books; have you done any?
Answer: No, I never have, but it works for some people.
45. Is writing book series more challenging?
Answer: I think the hardest part would be keeping a character arc going over many books. I’ve never attempted a series, but I can see its challenges. I admire writers that can do it. They have great imaginations to be able to write the same characters year after year and make it interesting. Me, I’m just wanting to explore other concepts, other characters, other worlds, rather than staying in the same one over many books. But I can also see the allure. Frankly, I miss the characters from A Peculiar Curiosity.
46. Does it get frustrating if you are unable to recall an idea you had in your mind some time earlier?
Answer: I’ve never had that happen. Of course, writing down ideas helps.
47. Have you ever destroyed any of your drafts?
Answer: No on purpose.
48. Can you tell us about your current projects?
Answer: I am working on the edits for a novel about a Victorian woman who is sent to an asylum for attempting to claim her sexual agency. It’s really a story about the loss of friendship. I’m also working on a novel about narcissistic abuse, and another gothic horror that takes place in the ‘dirty 30s in Chicago.
49. Had any of your literary teachers ever tell you growing up that you were going to become a published writer one day?
Answer: Actually, one of my writing teachers sent my haiku to Japan and it was published there. So I guess I went one step beyond being told I was going to be published, she actually saw to it that I was published.
50. Were your parents reading enthusiasts who gave you a push to be a reader as a kid?
Answer: Yes. My father read to us regularly and recited poetry to us. Both my parents immersed us in every aspect of the arts, from literature, to art, to live theatre, and opera. We were very blessed.
51. Do you enjoy discussing upcoming ideas with your partner? If yes, how much do you value their inputs?
Answer: Yes I do. I always tell him when I’ve got a new idea and I love to bounce things off of him. He may not say much about my ideas, other than encouragement, but he’s a very good listener, and he’s also a history buff, so he will help me with facts. I’m blessed to have him.
52. Have you ever turned a dream or a nightmare into a written piece?
Answer: I think maybe a short story once, but not a novel, no.
Melanie Cossey’s love of the Victorian period combined with her penchant for impactful, unsettling stories nurtures her desire for creating troubling tales of gothic horror.
Melanie’s debut gothic novel A Peculiar Curiosity was recently published by Fitzroy Books. Her story The Blackwood Article was published in the Poe anthology, Quoth the Raven. Melanie’s fiction has been shortlisted in numerous contests. She is a member of the Horror Writer’s Association and is an SFU certified editor, actively seeking clients.
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