Immortal’s Penance Release Day – Interview with L.A. Alber

Happy Halloween. Today on Shadowspinners, I have the privilege of interviewing author Lisa Alber on the release of her fourth novel, Immortal’s Penance, the latest in the Labyrinth of Souls novels.

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The story takes place on the remote Isle of Man, where archaeologist Malone Wolfe has made a discovery that will ensure his reputation for years to come: a bog man of gigantic proportions. Buried in peat for millennia, the ancient man—or creature?—also comes with warnings from the locals not to disturb the faery tree that guards the site. Malone scoffs at the local lore until he is dragged into the other world of Celtic legend and condemned to a treacherous journey through a realm where faeries sting, trolls talk in riddles, bloodsuckers seduce, and nothing is what it seems.

Battered, tortured, and hunted by the bog man, Malone must face his dark past and make a harrowing choice if he hopes to survive.  Little does he know that even if he passes the four trials of the Immortals, his reward may be worse than the punishment.

Congratulations, Lisa!  This is a marvelously dark and mysterious tale.  It immerses us in a mythic place where we meet Celtic goddesses and magical creatures—and not all of them are friendly to humankind.  I was familiar with some of them, but some were new to me.  Where did you get the idea for this novel?

The idea developed organically.  I have always loved Celtic mythology and as part of my research for my mysteries, which are set in Ireland, I read up on Irish mythology. I was excited when I realized how perfectly that research could weave into and inform this novel.  I knew that I wanted to have my protagonist, Malone, endure Odysseusean-style trials in the underworld. As luck would have it, pieces of the Celtic myths seamlessly wove into the story I wanted to tell. The trials provided a great structure upon which to hang my story.

I loved the ending, by the way. It was very satisfying and totally unexpected. 

The brain is a mysterious thing. When I began, I didn’t know the exact ending, but somehow by the end, I achieved the inevitable ending—the only possible ending for Malone. That’s such a good feeling and hard to achieve.  I have a natural inclination towards mystery, and in this story, as in most mysteries, there’s a twist at the end.  When I write mysteries, I’m more interested in the “why” done it than the “who” done it, and that is true in this story too.  We don’t know why Malone is going through the trials until the very end.  I can’t get away from my mystery-writing roots, I guess!

I was fascinated by how you integrated the Tarot cards from the Labyrinth of Souls game with the Celtic mythology. It made perfect sense in the context of the story. 

Thanks! I love symbols—might go along with a love of mythology, I don’t know—and the Labyrinth of Souls cards are rife with meaning and symbology. I thought about how the four trials that Malone suffers could be symbolized by cards. The Wheel of Fortune, for example, is all about fate and this fit in perfectly with one of the trials. The Moon was another one—symbolic of the female. Malone has trouble with females in my rendition of the labyrinth, hehe.

Malone is a complex character. I like how you slowly reveal his past.

When I start the story development process, the first thing I do is develop the characters.  I want to know everything about them—understand their pasts, their motivations, what they love, what they hate, and how they respond under stress.  Then when I know the character inside and out, I am able to reveal these elements gradually as the story progresses.

You write mysteries, as you’ve mentioned. Was it challenging to write in an unfamiliar genre?

Oh, heck yeah! I learned so much. There’s definitely a difference between mystery and fantasy.  I had to learn new rules.  My experience with mysteries helped with crafting how the story ends and in bringing out the background slowly over the course of the novel, but in the first drafts the beginning was too opaque.  You want to be opaque in a mystery and not tell the reader what is really going on, but in this story, the purpose and rules of the game Malone is forced to play have to be explicit so that the readers know what’s at stake for him.

Were there other challenges?

This novella is shorter than what I usually write—less than half of my normal novel length—and I wasn’t sure how to do that when it came to the pacing. I ended up rushing the beginning and had to go back to slow it way down so that readers can get to know and care about Malone.

Another problem arose in the middle of the story, during the second trial. That trial was a puzzle and challenging because of the nature of the creature involved: a shape-shifting hobgoblin with a nasty temper and a tendency to lie. For me, stories are easy to start and easy-ish to end, but I often get caught in a muddle in the middle. There’s no real solution to that except to push through even if you know what you’re writing is dreck. You can revise later.

What a great adventure.  Thank you, Lisa and congratulations on the release of this book! Immortal’s Penance is available here.

About the Author

L.A. Alber is the author of three previous novels— Kilmoon, nominated for a Rosebud Award for best first novel; Whispers in the Mist; and Path Into Darkness, a finalist for the Spotted Owl Award. Winner of an Elizabeth George Foundation writing grant and a Walden Fellow- ship, and a Push Cart Prize nominee, you’ll most often find her lounging in bistros with red wine, laptop, and a tiny terrier at her feet. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

Discover more Labyrinth of Souls Novels here.

Showing Up On The Page

By Lisa Alber

Exactly two months ago I wrote a ShadowSpinners post while sitting vigil for my dying mother. In that post, I wondered about my writing—whether I’d ever feel like writing fiction again, whether it mattered.

And now, here I sit again, clacking away. The past few months have been a blur of grief, dealing with trustee drudgery related to Mom’s living trust, and skimming the surface of the “have tos” of life. Last weekend I spent three hours scouring the bathrooms. At long last I cared enough to spend energy on that task. I thought, Well, maybe I’m doing better because I cleaned the bathrooms.

A Sikh friend recently commented that Americans don’t do grief. We allow ourselves a few days and then get on with it, as if that’s all that’s required. As if compartmentalization as a life strategy works when it comes to sorrow. I’m trying to do grief better this time than I did when my dad died in 2001. Feel the feelings, acknowledge them, and try not to squash what burbles to the surface.

One way I pay attention is by journaling—A LOT. It had been years since I’d journaled regularly because fiction took priority. Not these days. You’d be correct if you guessed that I haven’t written much fiction in the past few months.

This is going to sound contradictory, but I forbade pressuring myself to write fiction at the same time that I promised myself I’d show up on the fiction page each day. Showing up means opening up the manuscript—that’s it. Read a few pages—that’s it. Sometimes I’ll noodle with a chapter and take some notes. If this occurs, great. My only goal is to show up each day.

Somewhere within me, I must have faith that showing up will get me back into my writing routines. Hopefully this is true, but the other day it occurred to me that since I’m naturally lazy, I might be using the grieving process as an excuse not to write. We can use any excuse to procrastinate, right? Grief seems like as good an excuse as any …

All that is to say that there’s a slippery slope between taking it easy on myself and milking grief for procrastinatory reasons. The fact that I’m aware of this is probably a good sign, eh?

Writing a Labyrinth of Souls Novel

By Lisa Alber

You may have noticed that every once in awhile one of us ShadowSpinners will mention “Labyrinth of Souls” (LoS), which is a Tarot-inspired solitaire card game with a role-playing aspect to it, created by our own Matthew Lowes. “Labyrinth of Souls” also refers to the companion novels that most of us are writing or have written already. I signed on during the summer, and I’m nearing the end of my first draft—it’s been a blast. And highly educational for me to step out of my usual genre.

I chose a bad-ass beauty, the Queen of Wands, as my inspiration/theme. My novel will be called “The Bog Queen,” and is also inspired by Celtic/Irish lore–and bog bodies!

I write crime fiction. Dark fantasy is new, new, new to me. I find it liberating to write in a world that doesn’t need to be grounded in reality, a world that includes mythological creatures and adventures that can defy the basic laws of nature. The sky can be permanently reddish. My hero can accidentally pollute a stream because of his very humanity. Ravens can turn into a triad goddess. My imagination crackles along in the most fun fashion.

Recently, a bunch of us LoS-ers spent a writer’s retreat weekend on the Oregon coast. For me, part of the purpose was also to ground myself in fantasy—i.e. to ask for advice. I was reminded that in terms of storytelling, these stories are pretty straightforward. I don’t have to worry about planting clues and red herrings, as I would with a mystery. My hero’s on a journey, and the outer journey through the labyrinth reflects his inner journey toward some kind of change. This isn’t so different from any story, but with mystery you have an extra-added whodunnit? puzzle layer.

Instead of the mystery layer, I’m wrestling with the world-building layer. Wow. Just wow. I’ve always admired the imagination that fantasy writers wield, but now I truly get it. Halfway through writing my first draft, I realized that I’d have compartmentalize the world-building writing aspect since I’m coming at this skill as a newbie. So the first draft is all about figuring out the world and the challenges it poses to the hero along the way. This is the plot, essentially.

I normally start with character, so starting with the plot is an interesting twist in my usual writing process all by itself. For my second draft, I’ll return to character and deepen the internal plot line, add more description in some places, and so on.

Questing Beast makes an appearance in “The Bog Queen.”

It feels strange not to have mystery elements to fall back on as the scaffold for the story. Instead, I have the equivalent of a ticking clock. My hero will be annihilated if he doesn’t figure out his shit and defeat the challenges the labyrinth places in his way. It’s a thriller, basically, another type of story I’ve never written before.

I’ve now read the LoS novels that have already been published, and what I love about the project is how different our versions of the labyrinth are and how different our stories are. Check out the other Labyrinth of Souls novels here.

The Art of Creative Frittering (and Creative Napping too)

By Lisa Alber

On July 1st, I began writing a brand-spanking hold-your-horses new first draft, and it was a little painful, to be honest. Wait, what, I need to use my right brain now? But I want to analyze my idea to death into foooorever … It takes me awhile to disengage from the left brain and just start. It’s like wandering off a cliff; we’d all resist that, wouldn’t we?

Luckily, I’ve walked off this cliff enough to know that I float rather than fall. Or maybe I fall a little, but I never do the Wiley Coyote kersplat. Writing first drafts ends up being a wild ride, that’s for sure, but I always survive.

I have to give myself a hard start date, whether I feel ready or not. Hence, July 1st. I’m calling the draft “The Shadow Maiden.” My goal is 1,000 words (about four pages) per day for July, and then I’ll pause to engage my left brain in a little analysis: Does the story have chops? What have I learned about the story, characters, their motivations, and so on? What adjustments should I make now so I can continue in a better-thought-out direction?

That will be fun, but right now, I’m Little Miss Right Brain with my brainstorming novel notebook and Kaizen creativity tiny steps and pints o’ beer to help lube the wheels. (Not every day, but, yes, sometimes.) I’ll revise the shit out of anything, and I’ll do it with focus for hours, but first-draft writing? Some days it goes smoothly; other days I spend all day to get my 1,000 words.

ALL DAY. I’m not sure why this is. To an outside observer, I probably look addled. Walking around. Sitting down at the laptop again to tap out a hundred words. Unloading half the dishwasher and wandering away. Staring into space while scratching my dog’s tummy. Spacey. Distracted. It’s not relaxing, per se, because I can feel my brain inside my head (like, literally, man), heavy with unconscious processing.

I call this creative frittering, and it has a different feel from generalized putzing or procrastinating or being lazy.

Summer is my best season for writing first drafts because gardening provides a perfect outlet on creative frittering days. In fact, I’m proud to say that Manolo, the man who helps me out a few hours a month (big yard), always comments on how good the yard looks, especially the weeds — or lack of them, I should say. Yep, that’s me on creative frittering days, doing his job for him. But the garden does look pretty darned good, if I do say so.

Is there an art to creative frittering? I think so. It’s waking with the intention to write that day, but then, oddly, giving yourself the time and space to “be” without striving for the end outcome. Most of us don’t have much time to spare, and that’s true for me too. Yet, my creative process orders me to allow space for creative frittering anyhow. Mind you, it’s not every day. Maybe once a week at most. Maybe my brain needs to fill up its well, I don’t know. And sometimes, nothing works, and I don’t get my 1,000 words in, and I have to be OK with that because I’m only human.

The art of creative frittering also includes the art of creative napping. Straight up, no joke, scout’s honor. TRUTH. Here’s a great example: Last Saturday, I was particularly restless, not knowing what to do with the current scene or with myself in my body. Even gardening didn’t work. Then I realized I might as well do the exact opposite, lie down. Weird realization: The reason I couldn’t sit still to write or do much of anything was because I actually did need to rest awhile. I was so relaxed on the couch with Fawn, my eight-pound little nugget pup, nestled against me, picturing the characters in the scene, dozing off … And then, A-HA! followed by a mad dash to find my novel notebook before I lost my brilliant idea.

See? Napping, the next best thing to frittering.

I hope you enjoy these pictures of my garden, the end result of last year’s creative frittering while writing PATH INTO DARKNESS (out in a month!) and this year’s.

What say you to creative frittering, or just frittering? Do you get impatient with yourself or go with the flow?