Friday, October 26, 2012


I’m currently editing my latest novel, which partly takes place in an office building in downtown Chicago. It’s drawn loosely from my work experience from 1995-2000, when I was the receptionist for a Chicago philanthropist and investor.

I’ve been unemployed for twelve-and-a-half years, since shortly before our first son was born. And sometimes my time in the world of the employed seems like ages ago, another life. That’s not to say being a full-time mother isn’t work. (If you tire of mothers talking about how difficult mothering is, look away). Because motherhood is the strangest, best, always changing, most relentless job ever. It gives you certain freedoms while granting you almost no time to yourself. There are no regular hours; kids feel quite entitled to wake you at any hour, to impose on you any occurring whim.

My parents were self-employed when I was growing up, so I’ve never had the delusions some have about working for yourself. The fact is, self-employed people usually work longer and harder than anyone else, because there is no time clock at the end of the day, no one else to take accountability. Now that I count writing as a career, I can definitely say self-employment has benefits but unique stresses too.

My first job was at the fast food restaurant Carl’s Jr. I was sixteen years old and those who know us know that my husband Jason and I initially met there. Aside from this propitious event, I learned much from my time flipping burgers and dipping baskets of fries into sizzling oil. It was hard and tiring and required teamwork. I learned about customer service and gender inequality in the work place. Our manager often promoted boys before deserving girls. I learned how little a minimum wage, part-time salary would buy.

For a few years, I worked in the hardware department at Sears. This included hand tools, manual and electric, also, paint and paint tools, lawn equipment. Of all my jobs, this one probably had the most practical results for later life. I still know a thing or two about which type of paint to use where, about types of wrenches and hand drills.

I worked at a credit bureau, answering questions about consumer credit reports and resolving disputes; also, we put together mortgage reports for potential home buyers. I learned people will say almost anything when they want a house, and they’ll lie about credit matters if they think they can get away with it. This was reinforced even more when I transferred to the collection side of the bureau and became a bill collector. 
This may surprise you, but people are not always friendly to bill collectors. Many of our accounts came from local hospitals, so I learned a little about insurance and the countless things it will not cover. Of all my jobs, I return to this one most often in dreams. It was my first experience on a computer, with my own cubicle and work load. In my dreams, I’m trying to get through the debtors in my “queue,” desperate to make enough phone calls to keep up with the new accounts pouring in.

During college in Denver, I had a couple part-time gigs. I manned the front desk at a local Radisson hotel. Many college kids worked there, most of them several years younger than I was, so I suppose this was my last foray before college ended and adulthood really stuck. It was a fun job with occasional excitements (police called because a man had barricaded himself in a room, the night shift recounting a celebrity sighting), but it was a job I was happy to quit. For a short time, I had a heavenly job at a used book store. It was housed in a strip mall, books stacked everywhere, rarely a customer. I wondered how they stayed in business. Day after day, I propped my feet up behind the counter and worked my way through a list of “500 Books Everyone Should Read.” Guess which job was my favorite.

By the time I started working at the office in Chicago, I’d had lots of experience with low-paying, barely above menial jobs. But they’ve all taught me something and remembering them makes me thankful for the jobs I have now. They are tough, but I could be doing worse things.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Q&A with Dawn Finch, author of the new Authonomy release, Brotherhood of Shades

This week, a third book was published under HarperCollins' new Authonomy imprint. I am rarely tempted by the fantasy genre, but this one looks fantastic. It’s called Brotherhood of Shades and the author, Dawn Finch, has agreed to field a few questions from a fantasy novice such as myself. The book is also classified as YA but like much YA, it will appeal to adults as well. Here’s the book’s description:

From the chaos of Dissolution rose a secret order, a Brotherhood formed to protect the world of the living from the world of the dead.

Adam, a streetwise homeless boy in modern London, knows nothing of the fantastic and precarious world that exists just beyond his reality until he dies cold and alone on the streets of London, aged 14. But he is important and the Brotherhood needs him. His recruitment to their Order takes him on an adventure that spans the worlds of both the living and the dead, traversing time itself as he and a living girl (14 year old witch Edie Freedom) battle to solve a prophetic riddle and save the world. This thrilling and macabre fantasy is set in London, from Tudor times through the Great Fire of London and up to today.

And Dawn’s bio from her website:

Dawn grew up on a London overspill council estate and spent much of her time in libraries. Books were important in her family and she used them as a means of escape and became an obsessive reader. The careers officer asked her, aged twelve, what future she would like. Dawn she said that she wanted to work as a writer and a librarian. She was told to "stop pointless dreaming or you'll only live to regret it.” A typing course was recommended together with a future in a typing pool.

In an academic publishers in central London, while sorting the unsolicited submissions, Dawn learnt something about how not to prepare a manuscript. Later she worked at St Albans Cathedral as a Research Assistant for the Education Office. This essentially involved taking school children for tours of the Abbey whilst dressed as a Benedictine monk. Dawn later began working in public libraries and helped to establish a large library at her daughter's school...soon the head teacher convinced her to leave public libraries to run the school library. Since 2003 Dawn has been School Librarian for a large and buzzy primary school taking care of 10,000 books and the children who love them. She also works as a library and reader development consultant and is a member of the London and South Eastern committee of the School Libraries Group and the Society of Authors.

Dawn, congratulations on your first published novel! You seem to have worked a variety of jobs, many of them book-related. Have your employment experiences affected your writing? Will writing become your main job now?

Thank you, it's all very exciting and still doesn't feel quite real yet! I suppose when you've dreamt of something for so long it is a bit hard to take it in when it finally happens. My past jobs have indeed affected my writing a lot, especially my time working at St Albans Cathedral. A good proportion of Brotherhood of Shades is set there during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the sixteenth century, and so I have drawn on my personal experience of the building. I always knew that I wanted to be a writer and so have aimed to stay employed in related occupations. One of my first jobs was as an office go-fer in an academic publishers and this taught me a lot about how not to submit a manuscript as I was the one passing them on to readers and editors.

I love working in libraries and have worked in them for almost twenty-four years. Just under a decade ago I moved from public libraries to school and never looked back. I love working with children and it is very rewarding working with an age group that is just finding its feet in the world of books and reading. Spending time with a reluctant or less able reader, and helping them to jump the hurdles to become a happy and enthusiastic reader is the most magical thing.

It would be wonderful to just be a writer and to be able to spend all of my time doing that, but I feel that I would probably miss being around the joyful and enthusiastic kids that I work for.

Who are some of the authors who have influenced you? What are you reading now?

When I was a child I was a huge fan of authors like Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, Joan Aiken…and I still am! I read a lot of gothic authors like Poe and Stoker and they have influenced me a great deal as I do love a good spooky story. I am a total fraidy-cat with what most people would call “real” horror and I don’t read (or watch) anything along those lines, but I do love a ghost story with plenty of suspense and jumpy moments. As a children’s librarian I tend to primarily read children’s authors as I’m not comfortable recommending books that I have not read… that and they are generally better (no offence!). My current favourites are Marcus Sedgwick, Chris Priestley and Joseph Delaney, and I do enjoy Rick Riordan too for the historical thrill-ride! I read grown-up books in the holidays and was recently bowled over by Alice Hoffman’s Red Garden (I’ve read all of her books and can’t fault her, she’s just amazing) and Mal Peet’s Life: An Exploded Diagram (which is stunning).

As a writer who deals mostly in “realistic” settings, I’m intrigued with the nuts and bolts of the writing process when you create a completely new world with different rules. What were some of the challenges and benefits of working outside an entirely realistic setting?

Ah, working outside reality, now there’s a question! Well, the main thing is to set rules for your world and keep them. I have a style sheet that tells me exactly what my Shades can and can’t do, and that is my bible. This means that no one suddenly ups and does something that will make the reader say “hold on, in chapter four they couldn’t do that!” The beauty is that they are my rules, I can bend them, never break them, but I did set them in the first place!  For example if I have a good reason why my character can't travel over water, then I’d better not put them on a boat in chapter seven unless I've invented a solution in chapter six.
The benefits are that if I want to conjure something dramatic up that is beyond the bounds of reality, I can, however I also work in an historical setting and so I have to weave this into a realistic fantasy world without actually changing history!

Brotherhood of Shades seems to have a historical fiction aspect to it as well. How did you research the book?

I have a great passion for history and have grown up in an area rich with history stemming all the way back to the Roman occupation of Britain. I was taken to castles and ancient sites right from babyhood and it has stuck with me.

My job title at St Albans Cathedral was research assistant and I helped to write and research educational material for children (as well as running workshops dressed as a Benedictine monk!) and so I honed research skills there. It is part of a successful librarian's job to know how to conduct research and to know how effective research is carried out and to impart that knowledge to others, and so I've had a lot of practice.

What do you think attracts readers to fantasy, to other-worldly scenarios, to super-human elements in stories?

I'm not a huge fan of sword and sorcery type fantasy and so that does baffle me a bit (I always forget who everyone is with all the mad names!). Personally I prefer to read and write about the world out of the corner of your eye - the secret world that might exist without us knowing about it.

I think that younger readers are drawn to these stories because they still believe in a world where anything is possible. Even when they feel quite grown-up they still have a glimmering little part of their mind where something magical could happen. I think a lot of us grown-ups have that too. 

What’s next for you? What are you working on now?

I'm currently working on a dystopian teen book with a co-author, but I can't say much about that at the moment as our agent has us under a strict shush-code! I'm also working on the last bit of the sequel to Brotherhood. It is set on a remote Scottish island and has a distinctly Steampunk feel to it. I have always wanted to write something featuring glorious Victorian engineering but with a macabre twist, and so that is at the core of Brotherhood 2.

I'm hoping to be doing a lot of lovely festivals and school visits in the coming year and am currently in the process of confirming the first of those.

More information about Dawn Finch and her books can be found at Brotherhood of Shades is available for purchase at a low introductory rate from Amazon US, Amazon UK, iTunes, and anywhere else ebooks are sold.

Authonomy has released an eclectic selection thus far, with Dawn's fantasy offering, the farcical comedy More Tea, Jesus? by author James Lark, and of course, my own The Qualities of Wood. Keep your eyes peeled for upcoming releases.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Man ex Machina: A Halloween Story

            As he did each morning at five o’clock, Richard flung an arm over the damp pillow and pressed the button on his alarm clock. The piercing staccato stopped. He let his fingers rest on the cool surface of the nightstand, as he always did, and stretched his legs.
            In the kitchen, the winter seeped in, black and still, until the fluorescent light cut through. The yellow glow seemed to vibrate. He pushed another button for his single cup of French Roast, the dispenser filled with water the night before, the plastic cup of pre-ground beans snug in its receptacle.
            The coffee was ready and still hot when he returned from his shower. Two pieces of toast were browned to level seven on the toaster. He’d eat again later at the store, either a yogurt with granola or instant oatmeal if he still felt cold.
            Stiff-legged, he walked into the living room to get the car keys from their place atop a small table. He glanced at the red-numbered display on the cable box, the only other timekeeper in his one-bedroom apartment. Five-thirty.
            And yet, every morning for twelve years, Richard followed the same routine and left the apartment at five forty-five. It was always the same—coffee, shower, toast at the chrome-rimmed table for two he and his mother found at a garage sale. Nothing was different. So why was he ready so early?
            In the bedroom, he walked around clumps of dirty clothes and newspapers in origami mounds. The alarm clock was digital but shaped like an old-fashioned clock. Round with two non-functioning bells on the top, a rectangle of black instead of a face and hands. He picked it up and pushed the alarm button on the side. The numbers changed to four forty-five. He had set the alarm for five o’clock, he always set the alarm to five o’clock. In fact, he hadn’t changed the alarm time for many years. But it was set to four forty-five.
            He tried to think of any reason he had to be at the convenience store early that day. He was the morning manager; if anything out of the ordinary was scheduled, he’d know about it. Nothing came to mind.
            The next morning, the alarm emitted its high-pitched tones and Richard rolled over and pressed the button. He left his fingers grazing the nightstand and stretched his legs. A memory intruded. Two weeks ago, coming home from a rare evening shift. The night manager was at the urgent care center with a broken toe after dropping a case of Pepsi on his foot. Richard agreed to fill in until another worker could be reached. Around ten p.m. on Route 42, headlights jagging crazily through the night mist, a dented hood jutting into the road. He parked behind the car, which had come to rest on its side like a tired dog. The smell of gasoline and rubber. A crumpled form against the window and as he rounded the car to get his cell phone, one white sock peeking from the brush near the embankment. An open mouth, teeth glistening like mercury. A blue dress. Small hands.
            Richard’s eyes snapped open. He picked up the alarm clock and waited for the red jointed numbers to come into focus. Four thirty. He sat up, searched the corners of the room.
            The night before, he had returned from work, had watched television and ordered a pizza. And, he had definitely changed the alarm clock back to five o’clock. And now the stupid thing had woken him up at four-thirty. He set it down. The bells on top winked in the dark.
            He went through it all—the coffee, the shower, the toast—and he paced around his apartment. He wondered if someone was playing a joke, if a malfunction was to blame. A weight in the room, a feeling of foreboding. He doubted himself.
            When the alarm sounded the next morning, Richard was awake instantly. He ran through the events of the previous day. He most certainly had reset the alarm to five o’clock. Eyes closed, he remembered his last dream, a mobile alarm clock circled with teeth, biting and snapping. He looked. Four fifteen.
            Throwing back the soggy blanket, he stood up. He circled his apartment, forgetting his coffee, his shower, his toast. A voice descended from the rafters: I had to get up at four-fifteen on the days I helped him. A story, crystallizing. His mother, eleven years old, assisting her brother with his newspaper route, until the day he had rheumatic fever and she volunteered to do the job alone.
            She never saw the automobile before it plowed into her bicycle. She didn’t remember being dragged a full block before the man, coming home in the wee hours with whiskey breath, noticed sparks in his side mirror. Three surgeries and months in the hospital. Metal pins in one knee, a ball and joint in her shoulder, lingering pain in cold weather and a mechanical hitch to her step.
            He’d heard the story many times and had often imagined his mother, bed-bound, her small limbs bandaged and vulnerable. He paced and paced. Thirty-seven years old, he told himself. Too young to be senile, too old to be afraid. He went to the kitchen, made the coffee. At five o’clock, he called his mother.
            “What’s happened?” she said instead of hello.
            “Nothing,” he said. “Just checking on you.”
            She blew her nose next to the receiver. “Checking on me, are you?”
            “Well, yeah.”
            “Black as sin outside,” she said. “We’re early birds, aren’t we?”
            He poured liquid creamer into his coffee. “You can’t sleep in?”
            “Never,” she said. “Up at five, rain or shine.”
            “I was thinking about your accident,” he said.
            “Oh, Lord,” she said.
            “Who took over Uncle Roger’s paper route?”
            She snorted. “My father. Got up before work. You’d think they’d give it away, me in the hospital and Roger still fevered up at home. But they wanted him to have it.”
            “I was thinking about that girl, too,” he told her.
            “No, Ma, the other night.” He shook his head. “The car.”
            “Poor Genevieve,” she said. “I can’t imagine what she went through.”
            “I don’t like to—“
            “You would’ve married that girl,” she said.
            Richard touched his hair, recently thinning in the exact way his father’s had, baldness encroaching from both sides, over his temples. “We broke up, Ma.”
            “I remember that day,” she said. “Those pictures of the airplane, all twisted metal. Where was she going?”
            Philadelphia,” he said.
            “That’s right,” she murmured.
            “I gotta go,” he said. “Running late for work now.”
            “Alright, Richie. You go.”
            Richard had a hard time concentrating on anything at work. A display of cracker boxes fell to pieces at his feet; the register was short twelve dollars at the end of his shift. The apartment wasn’t much better. He watched television and flipped through a magazine, all the while stalling his bedtime. He slept in short jags, tossing and getting the sheets twisted around his legs.
            The alarm jabbed with its shrill notes. Richard fought it at first, sinking into the dark comfort of sleep. But it was too strong, too loud. He reached over and pressed the button. And when he opened his eyes, he knew beforehand what he’d see on the black display: four o’clock.
            He thought of the girl, her legs splayed and the blue skirt of the dress with its lacy, scalloped trim. He remembered the quiet of the night, just the white noise of insects and an occasional distant car. The girl, apart from the car as though unconnected from the horrible incident. A coincidence.
            Richard raced to the kitchen and dialed his mother’s number with shaky fingers. It rang five times, six, seven. She always turned her answering machine off when she was home.
            “What?” she answered.
            “Ma,” he said, throat clenched. Suddenly, he felt foolish.
            “Richie. For God’s sake, what’s happened?”
            “I’ve been thinking about that accident, Ma. Her dress.”
            “Let me get my robe,” she said. “It’s a refrigerator in here.”
            He listened as she set the phone down and in a few moments, picked it up again.
            “Why aren’t you sleeping?” she asked. “Did you have coffee after dinner?”
            “No,” he said. “It’s just, the girl. Remember that photo, Ma, when you played Alice in Wonderland?”
            “The school play,” he said, gripping the telephone. “The photo of you in the blue dress.”
            “It was just the one time,” she said. “I’m no actress.”
            “Her dress,” Richie whimpered.
            A long pause. The house, humming.
            “It’s the same every year,” his mother said in a low voice. “The anniversary. You pretend you don’t remember.”
            “Genevieve!” she barked. “We loved her.”
            Richard pressed the receiver against his ear, where it buzzed and seemed to emit tiny charges against his skin. Through the machine’s tiny holes, a sound started and grew, rose and sharpened. A screech, a crash, a foreign, final sound.
            “Sweet Jesus,” his mother said.
            “Ma? What was that?”
            Boards crackling, something mechanical spinning, an insistent ticking.
            “Still here, Richie,” she rasped. “I’m still here. It’s a car. Another car.”
            “A car?”
            “Someone drove into my bedroom. Right up the yard and crashed into the house.”
            “If you hadn’t of called me, Richie—“ she coughed. “The car is in the bedroom.”
            “You’re okay?” he asked.
            “Yes, I’ll call the police. It’s alright.”
            “Get out of the house, Ma.”
            “The neighbors are coming now,” she said. “Thank God I have my robe on.”         
            “I’ll call you back,” she said.
            Richard listened to the dial tone and heard a distant sound over its drone. A staccato, a warning, a call. From its usual position on his nightstand, the alarm clock sounded. Slowly, he went to shut it off.
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka