Indie Interview: Ryan Casey

As a follow up to my review of his book Killing Freedom last week, today we’re being visited by Ryan Casey! I was impressed on a few levels with his book, and so I invited him to come here for another interview. As usual, my questions are in bold, his answers in regular text. Enjoy!

1. One thing that impressed me about this book is the amount of research you must have put into it. Can you tell us about your research process?

I’m going to throw an immediate spanner in the works and admit that I’m probably the worst researcher on the planet. Researching tends to bog down my first drafting process, and sucks the life out of the details. However, you’re right — I did have to research Killing Freedom, mainly because of a lot of technicalities with regards to all sorts of upbeat things, such as the correct lifting of dead bodies, and such.

That said, all of this research tended to come later in the process. After I finish a first draft, I go through it and make notes on areas that I know I need to elaborate on. Something I did have to try and account for was how Jared had managed to evade the police for so many years, but I think with the gang/government overarching narrative, I did a pretty decent job on it.
So, yes. Research can be a pain, but I think it’s about finding what works for you as a writer, then sticking with that.

2. Jared is a great example of how a character shouldn’t rely on the plot–his occupation is a convention that could be changed without damaging the character. Which came first–the moral conundrum or the story?

It’s the old ‘chicken or the egg?’ question, reframed for a twenty-first century audience! But that’s interesting because with Killing Freedom, I knew I wanted to write a hitman novel of some form, but I wasn’t initially aware of the dilemma. It was only when I started digging into Jared’s backstory — asking questions, writing down stream-of-consciousness thoughts — that I understood his dilemma. I think any character with a strong enough dilemma is enough to create a good story. Jared’s dilemma is that he wants to be free, but he can’t be free because he’s a career hitman. The main source of transformation in the book, without spoiling too much, revolves around Jared reframing his relationship to that goal of freedom, which hopefully makes for an interesting read. I don’t always write my books like this, but it definitely worked in the case of Jared. He’s a fascinating character.

3. There were some moments in this book that seemed inevitable, but were still shocking–one character’s fate in particular. Are the twists and turns in your writing planned, or do they surprise even you? 

Thank you — that’s one of the biggest compliments I can receive. I always try to surprise readers, but I keep it within reason. I love creating suspense around the inevitable, if that make sense? As for that particular moment (slight spoiler alert) I was a little worried I’d make a villain out of Jared, but I think there’s something so sad and tragic about that scene too. Initially, it was a little bit lengthier, but I like ending the scene on that image of the indentation in the long grass on the horizon. It’s a really sparse, really lonely moment, and I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written. I teared up writing it, I’m not gonna lie. It’s sinister, but it’s so, so sad, because that moment is Jared realising that everything he’s ever wanted is impossible. I’m pleased it worked for you, as a reader.

4. This book is violent, but never seems gratuitous when it easily could have been. Where do you draw the line between violence for the plot and violence for it’s own sake?

Thanks. I was worried Killing Freedom might go a little over the top in terms of violence because I was watching a lot of films like Drive and some Grindhouse stuff at the time. The reason I didn’t make the violence gratuitous is because I actually believe that it’s the smaller, more relatable pains that affect us more, as readers. If I wrote a scene where loads of people blew up in an explosion, then sure, that’s violent, but we can’t relate to that. However, our skin being cut by a sharp knife, or some rusty scissors? That’s real. It’s domestic items causing a lot of pain. The sequel (which I’m working on at the moment) also has some violent scenes, and again, I’m trying to find that line between necessary/unnecessary violence. I like to think that all violence should have a purpose — to advance the plot. I like to think that in Killing Freedom, it really does.

5. Everyone loves an anti-hero–what’s it like getting inside the head of a killer?

A lot of fun! Jared’s an interesting character because the sense is that deep down, he’s not all that bad a person. He’s sympathetic, despite all the terrible things he’s done in the name of somebody else. Killing Freedom really explores Jared’s relationship with killing for somebody else, and his realisation of whether he is truly comfortable with that. The sequel will explore another emotion, that I don’t want to go into too much yet, but it’s the natural and logical progression from book one.
And there we have it. If you haven’t had a chance, you can pick up Casey’s newest novel here. And of course, you can find him online at his blog, and on Twitter. Stay tuned for more reviews and interviews coming up!
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Women in Fiction, Part Two

On Monday, I posted an interview with one of my favourite Indie authors, Lindsay Buroker. The focus was women in fiction, and when I first wrote up the post, I thought of dividing it into two posts so I could comment on it without making it too long. But Buroker was so great I didn’t want to break it up–so we’ll discuss the ideas today instead.

There were some great comments in the last post, so let’s look at those first. The common theme was that Buroker’s lead character, Amaranthe, is able to stand out as a strong woman despite being surrounded by men. In fact, there are fewer female characters in the series compared to men, which is reflective of the society/World Buroker has built.
I’m of two minds about this: on the one hand, being surrounded by men and rising above them as a natural leader helps make Amaranthe a strong character. There’s a juxtaposition that works very well to highlight her qualities, and it’s mentioned several times that she lives in a male dominated society (though it’s obviously changing). In this sense, having a strong female character means something more–she’s strong in the face of patriarchy, in spite of it.
The flip side is that this juxtaposition only works because of the generally male oriented society in which we live. Amaranthe stands out so well because we don’t always expect a strong female character. In a real world example, it’s often news when a woman is elected to public office, because it’s normally men who fill that role. But the fact that it’s news is bothersome to an extent, and shows the inequality of the system. Highlighting a woman’s strength of character because one would normally expect a man in that role betrays a certain prejudice–we shouldn’t need that opposition to celebrate a woman’s strength. But it’s a double edged sword: if we don’t highlight that comparison, people won’t necessarily take note of it, and nothing changes.

I don’t mean this as a critique of Buroker’s characterisation of Amaranthe, of course–it’s not the author’s fault, and as noted in Monday’s interview, the character wasn’t written as an explicit feminist commentary. And, really, this is where Buroker should be applauded most: Amaranthe isn’t a strong female character because that’s a statement the author wanted to make–she’s strong because that’s who she is. I think that is the kind of strong female character we need in fiction–books, movies or otherwise. Strong women who are written that way without pretence, who are paragons just because they are. I think there’s a certain “societal expectation” sometimes that women should be  vulnerable or emotional and that men should be stoic and heroic, but those are imaginary lines that should be crossed more often.

Another great example of this kind of characterisation is J. M. Ney-Grimm. Her Norse-flavoured tales feature many strong women, and in fact the main culture portrayed in the books is a matriarchy. Again, it’s obvious that this isn’t done to make some sort of feminist statement, but because that’s what Ney-Grimm wanted to write. The genuine intent for both authors was to write the story they wanted to tell, and the fact that they end up with such strong female characters is just icing on the cake.

I think this is the kind of characterisation of women we need more of in literature and entertainment. Which brings me to my next point: the way women are generally portrayed in fiction. As Buroker says in the interview, strong characters often come off as bossy or super-heroic–there doesn’t seem to be much middle ground. The polar opposite–as seen in the new Star Trek movie–are women who are ostensibly powerful or intelligent, but end up needing to be saved by the male protagonists. Or, worse, women treated as sex symbols. There’s a particularly gratuitous scene in Star Trek where Carol Marcus is shown in her underwear for no reason (except to demonstrate that Kirk is a lascivious womaniser). J. J. Abrams has admitted that the scene was unnecessary, attempting to defend it by pointing out that Kirk is shown barely clothed as well. The missed point is that this contributes to Kirk’s character, while it does nothing at all for Marcus. This kind of sexualisation “for the sake of it” is rampant in entertainment, enough that it’s not always seen as a problem. Of course, this is a generalisation, but I don’t think it’s too far off the mark.

In the end, this is a very large issue with many layers and ramifications. I’m by no means an expert, and couldn’t pretend to come to any conclusion here–but I think it’s certainly worth the discussion. I think that writers like Buroker and Ney-Grimm are well on track in the way they represent women, and should be seen as examples to follow. And, really, that attitude should extend to homosexuality, race, age, and what have you–people are as they are, and their differences shouldn’t be the reason for their character, nor exploited as a statement. Of course, it’s a lot more complex than that, but it’s a start.

So, what do you think?

Women in Fiction, with Lindsay Buroker

So, I’m a huge Star trek fan–and of course, I loved the new movie. I thought they did a clever job with the material, the characters…but this isn’t a review. I wanted to touch on an issue that several blogs have picked up on: the way women are presented in the movie.
Star Trek has always had (relatively) strong female characters–Uhura is an excellent example. But although the two female leads in the new film have a decent amount of screen time–and they’re set up to be strong and confident–they come off as “damsels in distress” (to quote the above articles). It’s unsettling…and it got me thinking.

When I saw the film, I was reading Lindsay Buroker’s Beneath the Surface (reviewed last week). Buroker has always impressed me with her strong female characters; it’s refreshing to see women portrayed on the same level as men, something you don’t see in a lot of fiction. Generally–and yes, this is a generalisation, and likely a controversial one–it’s my experience that women in fiction tend to be represented as people to be saved, helped, or pursued. Even strong women characters like Uhura or Beatrice from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing* tend to play second string when a strong male character comes along. We could debate the whys and hows of this, but it’s an enormous topic–and I’ll freely admit that I’m not well versed in it. But I did want to get Buroker’s perspective, so we had a brief interview. My questions are in bold:

Your books tend to have very strong female lead characters, something not exactly typical in popular fiction. Was this an intentional choice (i.e. filling a perceived gap), or did it grow organically (it’s just the way you like to write)?
Thank you. I’m glad they come across that way. 🙂

I didn’t set out to make any statements or try to say, “This is how you write strong women, peeps–pay attention!” For the most part, I just like to write protagonists who drive the action. Even if my heroines are kidnapped and tied up in an enemy warship bound for who knows where, they’re going to try and take charge of their destiny rather than simply waiting to see what the world drops in their laps. I think those wilful types of people who make things happen have a tendency to be seen as strong characters. They’re naturally leaders instead of followers.
It is something of a challenge to make those kinds of people likeable–women in leadership roles are often seen as bossy or bitchy, even by their own sex–but by being in the character’s head, it’s possible to show all their vulnerabilities as well as their strengths. That goes a long way toward humanizing someone, and it’s a shame we can’t look into people’s heads that way in real life to see where they’re coming from.What would you suggest in ways to improve the way women are represented in fiction?

I actually think there are quite a few people writing “strong women” for television, books, and movies, but what gets to me is that these are often one-dimensional Xena-like-characters with superhuman abilities to kick everybody’s butts. I don’t know about you, but I know plenty of strong women and none of them do that. 😀
A lady I know always comes to mind for me during these types of discussions. She’s the middle child of 8 or 10 kids, paid her own way through school, built up a successful business from scratch in a male dominated field, ran a marathon after kicking breast cancer’s butt, and is fair and generous with everybody. That’s the kind of “strong woman” I’d like to see more of in fiction, and I think these are the kinds of role models young women need when they’re growing up.

I tend to see stronger female characters in Indie Fiction than I do with traditionally published books and entertainment (in general). Is this your experience, and if so, why do you think this is?
I have to confess that I haven’t read nearly as much independent fiction as I should have (I’m getting most of my “reading” done via audiobooks these days, and it’s still mostly traditionally published authors on Audible), so I’ll take your word on that. I’d guess, though, that indies don’t have to get past gatekeepers who tend to play it safe by buying more books like the ones that are already selling. Hey, those urban fantasy novels with the warrior women kicking vampire butts sell. Let’s print 50 more this year!

Can you point to other writers/artists that serve as an example of strong female characters in fiction that were inspirational? 
Lois McMaster Bujold always has strong female characters, and they’re rarely those brawny butt-kickers either. 😉 (I am realizing that I’ve used variations of kicking butt at least four times in this short interview… I assure you that such words rarely come up in my fantasy novels–maybe that’s why I’m unleashing them so often here!)
On TV (warning: I am a geek who has many SF series on DVD), I was always fond of Samantha Carter from Stargate SG-1. Sure, she’s a Mary Sue, but I loved that she was an astrophysicist and that her smarts were often critical to plot (I confess that one of my pet peeves revolves around characters who are described as smart but who never actually do anything smart :P).Thanks, Lindsay!

I’d considered breaking this interview into two posts, but thought better of it and posted the whole thing. I’d like to follow up with some discussion and thoughts on Wednesday, and I’d welcome your input–leave your thoughts in the comments!
In the meantime, I’ll invite you to check our Buroker’s work–it’s a great example of how women should be presented in fiction. And they’re just plain good books! Find them here on Amazon, and on Kobo. You can also check out her blog, Facebook and Twitter.
*Edited to correct my own mistake–I got the wrong play!