November 7, 2016

A Dark Tale over a Decade in the Making: an interview with Alethea Kontis, author of "Haven, Kansas"

About HAVEN, KANSAS by Alethea Kontis: 150 years ago, in Haven, Kansas, a witch was burned at the stake. This October, in Haven, Kansas, a boy plays a prank on his big sister.  Suddenly, crows fill the skies, a female scarecrow plagues the town, and teenagers are dying left and right. Amidst the violence, strange things keep happening. Lora Townsend discovers a secret room behind the wall of her bedroom, in which a dark and foul Book of Shadows has been hiding for over a century. The book belonged to an ancestor who documented the spells and stories of the strange woman he loved...a woman the town later killed for practicing witchcraft. 

There are whispers on the wind. The death toll is rising. And Lora and her family seem to be the center of it all. They must call upon Lora's small knowledge of magic to help them. Will they be able to take the town back from the witch, and can they manage it without losing their lives in the process?

Lois Duncan meets Joss Whedon in this literary slasher for the twenty-first century!

Gef: Haven, Kansas was over a decade in the making with its first iteration being a screenplay. What was the draw to screenwriting for you? And what made you decide to turn it into a novel?

Alethea: The first thing we have to do is turn the clock back. On the Fourth of July 2004 (or 2005, whichever it was), the only novel I had ever written was the one I started in seventh grade, then rewrote in high school and never finished. I had only taken one fiction writing course (my degree was in Chemistry). I had, however, spent years of my childhood as an actress on stage and television. I spent my college years running around with a Media Arts major boyfriend, helping him and his friends make all there student films (actual 16mm film!). I had also sold—in spring of 2004—a picture book (AlphaOops: The Day Z Went First) to Candlewick press. 

With all that I mind: the draw to screenwriting is because at the time I was just more comfortable with a script as a format. When I decided to attempt NaNoWriMo in 2005, I considered what sort of book I should write. Having the picture book sold (but not yet published) made me realize that, marketing wise, whatever I chose should at least be YA, so that I stayed in the realm of Young People’s Literature. And then it hit me: I already had a screenplay! It would make a perfect outline! 

Gef: One of those old adages you hear from some established authors and others in the industry is to trunk your first novel, but this has been something you've honed for years now with the help of some notable names. What was it for you that kept you coming back to Haven?

Alethea: They tell you to trunk your first novel, because you should. That first draft of Haven was maybe 36,000 words—not even enough to deem it a “novel” in some circles—and it had a lot of problems. But I worked in the publishing industry and I attended a lot of genre conventions (my first was Dragon Con in 1996), so I had a lot of great, experienced friends like Sherrilyn Kenyon and Tom Piccirilli and Toni Weisskopf, who never stopped encouraging me to be amazing. 

A trip to the real Haven, Kansas prompted one of the rewrites (I’d thought I made the town up, no kidding…that was surreal). Finishing my second novel (Enchanted) prompted another. Every beta reader I gave it to loved it but NY just never had a place for it. Sherri loved it. Pic loved it. The grumpiest, most critical teen daughters of my friends praised it. Even my agent loved it, so much that she hired someone to try and figure out what the “problem” was. 

What I came to realize was: the “problem” was NY. Traditional publishing likes to take on authors and books they know they can market. Joss Whedon was just a guy who wrote a bad movie and a cult hit TV series. And horror—especially YA horror—was never going to be an easy sell. Me in general—who dresses as a princess and writes all genres—I, personally, am not an easy sell. 

And then in 2014 I relaunched my publishing company, got a whole new team together, and started putting some of my stuff out there that NY wasn’t willing to take a chance on. (YA fantasy adventure novellas! Fairy tale/short story collections! A twitter serial graphic novel!) I finally remembered what JOY publishing could bring. And then, after another round of rejections for Haven, I thought…why am I still chasing this? So I brought it to my team and we did it up right, Alethea style. Haven, Kansas took exactly the time it needed to take, and is now exactly the book it always should have been. I couldn’t be prouder!

Gef: How important is setting for you? I mean, you were born in Vermont, calling Florida your home these days if I'm not mistaken, and the first book you ever wrote was set in Kansas. Any particular allure to that region for you?

Alethea: Setting should be important for EVERY author. So many times—especially in horror!—the setting is so important that it’s effectively another character in the book. And yet, it doesn’t occur to a lot of authors to pull that from their Bag of Tricks. 

I knew I wanted a setting in the midwest, so I asked myself: If I was a homesteader traveling West, how far would I get before I threw in the towel? And what would I call my town? The answers were: “Somewhere around Kansas” and “Haven.”

How the real Haven, Kansas USA got its name I don’t know…but that’s how I got mine. 

Gef: Witchcraft can be especially fun to play with in writing and world-building, but what would you say is the biggest misconception about it among readers you've encountered?

Alethea: The biggest misconception? That Magic/Witchcraft = Wicca. Or that Pagan = Celtic Pagan. I was raised in a Greek household, with all the Greek traditions—most of which are superstitions left to us by ancestors who never wanted to anger the gods. EVERYONE in Greece has the ability to do magic. ANYONE can curse with a word or a look…that’s why we wear evil eyes and we’re always spitting so as not to tempt Fate. My father sees the future in coffee cups and my grandmother has prophetic dreams. It’s not weird or anything, that’s just part of life. We don’t have spell books, but we light a lot of candles and there are a lot of rules you just learn to live with. 

This misconception is why I never introduce myself to anyone as Pagan. I don’t want to have to further qualify, “but not Celtic Pagan, actual old-school Eastern European Pagan, like Roma, but not Roma at all…” It’s already enough of a headache trying to explain myself to people when I tell them I’m a writer!

Gef: As a pen-wielding princess, you've done your fair share of speaking engagements at conventions, festivals, and such, but middle schools are your declared favorite venue. What's the most rewarding aspects of talking with students and readers of that age?

Alethea: I hated middle school. In fifth grade, I was a TV star and the most popular girl in school. In sixth grade, I went home and cried every day because I had no friends. But seventh grade was where I found My Tribe. I started “collecting misfits,” and I discovered that there are some really interesting people in this world! Found my bestest friend in the Whole Wide World. Had my first huge crush on a boy. Started writing my first novel. So, while middle school was a tragedy I would never want to relive, it is also where I found Myself. A very large part of me still lives in that world, and I think that is why I connect with middle schoolers…on a transcendent level. In that stage of life where you feel like no one understands you…I just get them, you know?

Gef: If I'm not mistaken, you've moved your blogging efforts from your website over to Patreon. What prompted that change and how have you found the Patreon experience so far?

Alethea: As I mentioned before, I’m a bit of a Renaissance woman—I do a LOT of different things in a LOT of different genres. And formats. Have you seen my YouTube “Fairy Tale Rants” series? Or listened to any of the stores I’ve narrated for various podcasts and magazines? The painting of me at the top of my website…I did that. And then there’s my publishing expertise…and my costume closets and the tiaras and makeup I’m famous for…

So few people Go To a Website and Read a Blog anymore. I used to blog all the time—now when I miss writing essays I just send them to Clarkesworld—but eventually I felt like I was screaming into a void. This past summer, I met with a representative from Patreon at the SFWA Nebula Awards Weekend. Patreon felt like the perfect platform for someone like me—not only could I appeal to all my fans, in all the genres, but their input could help me choose what crazy shenanigans I should get into next! It’s only been live a couple of months, so it’s still a small community (and we’ve broken Patreon a few times), but I have faith that it will ultimately grow into something that benefits us all!

Gef: How have you found your progression as a writer from when you first wrote that screenplay to now?

Alethea: I’m a lot better—a LOT better, like leaps and bounds better—and I’m a lot more confident. Confidence is just as important in writing as it is on the stage…and now, with all the social media, possibly even more so. 

Gef: Who do you count among your writing influences?

Alethea: I actually have a blog that lists my “21 Most Influential Books”: — it covers everything from Ogden Nash, Ellen Raskin, and Robin McKinley to Voltaire and David Sedaris. 

Authors who have influenced my career as friends and mentors: Jude Deveraux, J.T. Ellison, Sherrilyn Kenyon, Tom Piccirilli, Andre Norton, Jane Yolen, John Scalzi, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Orson Scott Card…to name a few. 

Gef: What projects are you cooking up that folks can expect in the near future, and how can folks keep up with your shenanigans?

Alethea: The sands are shifting SO FAST right now, and I have so many irons in the fire, I’m almost hesitant to say. Neil Gaiman told me once, “the next thing I do is…the next thing I do.” Right now, that seems to be the best answer I can give you! 

Thankfully, there are now some really great venues out there in which to follow your favorite authors. If you “Follow” me on Patreon (you don’t have to pledge anything, just hit “Follow”, then you will get all the updates sent right into your email. If you’re only interested in the book releases, “Follow” my author page on either Amazon or BookBub, and you’ll get those in your inbox as well. Plus there’s always my newsletter…and just about every single social media out there. Come find me and we’ll have some fun!

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