Merry Shannon interview from May 21, 2006 edition of L-Word Literature.
By Lynne Jamneck

Tell us a bit about yourself—what made you want to become a writer?

I was a voracious reader as a child.  In fact, my mother tells me that when I was four years old I actually taught myself to read, because I got tired of waiting for my parents to read to me.  I loved books and devoured everything I could get my hands on, but my favorite genre was always fantasy.  I loved The NeverEnding Story, The Chronicles of Narnia, etc.  By the time I was seven I was writing my own stories, and by the time I was thirteen I'd finished a full-length fantasy manuscript that I called "The Silver Dagger."  I used to walk around with a notebook hanging from a piece of yarn around my neck so I could write whenever I had a spare minute, and my room was always cluttered with a huge collection of journals containing bits and pieces of various stories.  So I guess you could say that I've always been a writer at heart!

Which authors, past and present, would you consider to have had the biggest influence on your own writing?

I'd have to say my childhood favorites Frances Hodgson Burnett for her strong, young female characters, and C.S. Lewis, for his richly imaginative world-building.  I also have to mention B.L. Miller, as it was her Josie and Rebecca: The Western Chronicles that I first found online when I realized that the world of published lesbian romance actually does exist.  Also Radclyffe, Jennifer Fulton, Jane Fletcher and Cate Culpepper for all of their brilliant works, respectively.   Radclyffe in particular is someone I have learned so much from over the past year; her enthusiasm for crafting good romance stories is contagious and her writing is always an inspiration.

Tell us a bit about the process of writing your first book, Sword of the Guardian.

I started writing a few scenes work one day because the characters from an old childhood story of mine were running through my head.  When I was about eleven, I'd penned a bit of fantasy involving four sisters who were princesses – Shasta, Aleria, Brie and Qiturah – and a slave boy named Talon who helped them lead a civil war to abolish slavery from their kingdom.  As it took shape, Sword of the Guardian became something quite different from my original childish ideas.   Talon was not just a slave boy, but a young woman who'd taken on a male disguise to protect her two younger sisters.  And Shasta, originally the warrior-princess in my first draft, softened into a spoiled, childish character who had to grow into her regal birthright.  The romance between Talon and Shasta took on many additional facets as well, with the secret of Talon's true gender constantly hanging overhead.  And the politics surrounding the kingdom turned into a complex spiritual war between the gods.
The entire book took me about a month and a half to write; the characters literally took over my head so that I couldn't sleep and would barely remember to eat.  I sat at my computer obsessively for hours on end, typing like a madwoman.  When it was finally completed, the manuscript was over 170,000 words … almost twice as long as the generally suggested length for a novel.  But I remember being very proud of myself; I have a terrible habit of beginning massive stories that I never finish, and this was one of the first that I'd actually had the self-discipline to see through to the end.

What did you look for in a publisher once you decided to submit the manuscript?

Someone who would be willing to review a 170,000+ word story!  *grin*  It was very difficult to find anyone who did not have a strict word limit posted on their site.  I got very lucky in finding Bold Strokes Books, because they've been amazing to work with and did an incredible job of helping me pare down the manuscript to make it a tighter, cleaner novel that would also be short enough to be marketable.  I found in Bold Strokes a wonderfully supportive group of professional writers who didn't just critique my work, but also encouraged me to learn from their comments and suggestions.  I feel like I've grown so much as a writer in the past year.

What type of research did you do in preparation for the book?

In this particular story there wasn't a lot of research necessary, since the fantasy world was my own invention and generally, whatever my imagination came up with was the book's reality.  I do remember researching a lot of wounds, injuries, healing times and medicines, however, because poor Talon is constantly getting hurt and I had to fit her healing periods into the story.  Many of the details, however, are things I made up; for example, I couldn't find a real life poison that could do all the things I wanted, so I invented "Miner's Bane" and its antidote for one key plot element. In the editing phase there were also some adjustments required to little details that seemed incongruous with the setting; for example, there was a piano in one scene that we took out, because it didn't fit the otherwise medieval atmosphere of Ithyria.
I also went through a lot of careful charting of the timeline, the Ithyrian calendar, various characters' birthdays and ages, and so on.  I spent many hours working on tables and timelines to make sure all the characters were the right ages at the right times and that all the months and seasons were mentioned correctly.  I even created a map of the Ithyrian provinces, because I needed to be able to describe the geography consistently throughout the story.

What specifically attracts you to the Fantasy genre?

I think it was Coleridge who coined the phrase "the willing suspension of disbelief," and that's what I love most about fantasy – it's a wonderful escape from all things practical and logical, where your imagination is not limited by one reality.  I love the incredible artistic freedom of creating a fantasy world where anything is possible.  And I love reading about the fantasy worlds of others… it's almost like entering the landscape of someone else's mind, in a way.  Certainly I can say that when readers follow Talon and Shasta into Ithyria, they're entering a very special part of my own psyche, an imaginary world where I've spent a lot of time playing myself.  Through the book I hope to share that world with others, and I hope they'll enjoy it as much as I do.

What are you currently working on?

I'm so glad you asked!  My current project is a pirate novel that I'm calling Branded Ann.  It has a slightly gritty, sultry feel, and in that way I think it's quite different from Sword of the Guardian.   Branded Ann is a pirate captain with a score to settle who ends up abducting the beautiful Violet Watts from a merchant vessel.  Unbeknownst to the pirates, Violet's sweetly innocent face and pious manners hide a dark past, and as Ann gets to know her captive she finds herself losing control not just of her emotions, but of her ship and crew as well.  I'm having a lot of fun writing this story as it's quite an adventure.  I consider it more historical fantasy than a true picture of what life was really like for a pirate in those days—Ann's  a much larger-than-life character.  The current story is a little more than halfway done at the moment; after a hiatus I've finally picked it up again and I'm hoping to make steady progress over the summer.

What is your work atmosphere like when you're writing?

Usually I'm lounging around in bed typing on my laptop, with my cat curled up somewhere nearby trying to sneak his way into my lap, and some sort of instrumental music (right now it's the Memoirs of a Geisha soundtrack) playing in the background.  I drink a lot of tea, too.  Most of the time I do my writing after I get home from work.  It's a nice, relaxing way to spend an evening. 

What do you do to ease the pain when writer's block hits?
Procrastinate.  *laugh* And after I can't excuse myself from doing that anymore, I sit down at the computer and force myself to write anyway.   Usually writer's block doesn't strike because I don't know where the story's going to go, but rather because I'm just not in the mood to write, or because I can't figure out how, exactly, to get the plot where it needs to go.  Sometimes it's because the section of text I need to work on doesn't hold as much interest for me as the "good parts."  I do allow myself to step away from it for a while, because having a break is important, but it's also important to have the self-discipline to make myself push through the block.  I figure, if I don't like what I write because I'm forcing it, I can always go back and rewrite it later.  The important thing is to keep the momentum going so that I don't drop the project entirely.  

Tell us something about Merry Shannon no-one else knows…

I often hold dialogues between the characters out loud in my car or whisper them to the ceiling as I'm falling asleep at night.  Sometimes these dialogues involve ridiculous, tacky, delightful song-and-dance numbers.  Since music has always been a powerful influence for me, I often find myself envisioning entire music videos to a pop song that's playing on the radio, as if the story were a movie that someone had made clips of and then set them to the music.  And every now and then, one of these little visions will appear (in a heavily altered form, of course) in the story itself.  *wink*

What do you consider to be your best and worst attributes?

*laugh* My best attribute is probably also my worst.  I'm a Gemini, which makes me very dual natured at times.  I'm an expert at seeing both sides of a situation equally clearly, at being able to put myself into someone else's shoes and really imagine what things look like to them even when I disagree with them entirely.  I think this makes it easier for me to create characters with many different kinds of personalities.  However, it also makes me very indecisive… most of the time I can see the pros and cons of all options so clearly that it's very hard for me to make decisions!

What are some of your favorite books from 2005?

Force of Nature, by Kim Baldwin – lots of adventure and romantic angst.   
Innocent Hearts, by Radclyffe – I'm a sucker for a good old-fashioned western, and… well… Jesse is really hot!

Protector of the Realm, by Gun Brooke – I love Star Trek, and this is sort of like a lesbian version, only I think the plot's better. 

The Celaeno World Series, by Jane Fletcher – Well-written lesbian romantic fantasy is like the Holy Grail of my quest for good books to read, and these books are some of the best.  *grin*

Is there something, in terms of lesbian fiction, that you'd like to see more (or less) of?

I'd love to see more speculative fiction, particularly fantasy stories, as it seems to be such a small corner of the lesbian fiction world, and oh, how I do love a good romantic fantasy.  I'd also like to see the fantasy stories get even more fantastical – perhaps including elves and fairies and magical creatures and so on.  I have a few ideas for such a series myself, in fact, but I think I'll have my hands full with the Ithyria books for quite a while first. 

Is 'I'm a writer' a good pick-up line?

*laugh* I wouldn't know, I haven't tried it yet!  But I'll certainly keep it in mind and let you know...  I'm pretty sure it would work rather well on me, at least.  *grin* I definitely have a weakness for women with imagination and good communication skills.

What's the biggest challenge for you personally about being a writer?

Finding the time to do all the things that I want to do.  Since I also spend a lot of time with my friends, a lot of time at work, a lot of time working on big complex costuming projects, and a lot of time working on internet website projects, I usually find I don't have enough hours in the day to write as well as do all the other things.  It's often difficult for me to prioritize, to set aside certain nights for writing and certain nights for other projects.  So sometimes I crank out multiple chapters at a time, and then several weeks will go by before I can actually touch the story again.  Since I have about… I'd say at least ten different novel ideas I'd love to work on, this gets frustrating because sometimes it seems the writing process is too slow! 

What advice would you give to aspiring writers trying to get their break in publishing?

Be able to take criticism—it's vital to the life of your work.  Write as much as you can, and finish the projects that you start.  If you can't finish your projects you won't have anything to submit to a publisher!  Pay attention to spelling, grammar, and vocabulary; these are so important not just to your publisher but to your editor and readers as well.  Once you have a finished manuscript ready for submission, research several possible publishers before picking the first one you're going to submit to.  Don't let rejection discourage you too much; if you can, try to see if you can get them to give you a reason they're turning you down, something you can work on and learn from and use to make your story the best that it can be.  Read as much as you can from the genre you're interested in writing, because you can learn a lot from other successful writers in terms of style and what readers seem to be looking for in a good book.  Most of all, just keep writing.   The more you do it the better you'll get, and the better you get the more likely it is that some publisher will recognize your skill and want to publish your work!

Reprint of article in May 21, 2006 L-Word Literature.