INTERVIEW WITH AMELINDA BÉRUBÉ

This summer I participated in Pitch Wars—a competitive author mentorship program, which concludes with an agent showcase—and I was fortunate enough to work with Amelinda Bérubé as my mentor. Amelinda has a flair for crafting creepy stories and characters that will haunt your memory. She was kind enough to discuss a little about her writing process with me.

What is your favorite stage of writing, and why? Research? Brainstorming? First drafts? Revising?

Revising, absolutely. It’s so much less excruciating when the words are out there on the page and all you have to do is make them better! Research is a close second, though; it never fails to get me excited and lit up about a project, no matter how frustrated or stuck I am.

Are you a plotter, pantster, or both? Or does it vary throughout the creative process?

I’m an unhappy hybrid of the two, I think. Plantser? I would dearly love to be a plotter, because I need to know where I’m going, but I can only figure out so much before I actually start writing. Delilah S. Dawson once tweeted that writing a first draft is like running a race through the forest in the fog while being chased by zombies. I feel this on a deep and personal level.

What do you find to be the most important ingredient in creating stories that frighten at a deep, psychological level?

 I have a theory that the key to this is a combination of anchoring things in super concrete details and not explaining too much. Think CORALINE, for example: part of what makes the other mother’s black button eyes so uncanny is the way they put this highly specific and ordinary thing in a weird and terrible new context. And we never find out *why* the other mother has black button eyes. We never find out exactly what she is or where she came from. But she wouldn’t be as scary if we did. I find that nightmares have the same properties – vivid, concrete detail and events that seem animated by some sort of internal logic you don’t have access to.

Also, my experience has been that I do my best work when I put some of myself into my writing. I kind of feel like figuring out how to get some little piece of my heart on the page was a really important lesson, if a surprisingly scary one. You know that saying about “no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader?” I think the same goes for fear. If you’re working through or articulating something that genuinely scares you, if you’re taking a risk and making yourself vulnerable, I think that comes through in the story.

How would you define an “atmospheric” novel, and how does it tie-in to writing horror/gothic literature?

I call a book atmospheric when even insignificant moments are saturated with a certain feeling or flavour, when the prose evokes a certain emotion so vividly it’s almost like a smell. An atmosphere of mystery and dread are really key to a spooky book – so that you can *feel* the creepy things coming before they ever turn up. And part of “gothic,” as I understand it, is reflecting a character’s troubled inner landscape in their surroundings, so a really visceral feeling of setting is part of how we understand what’s going on at a deeper level.

What are some of your favorite and least favorite horror/gothic tropes?

 All things supernatural, especially when they collide with our modern ways of overcoming isolation and vulnerability. Misbehaving technology is something I really enjoy, even something as basic as a failing flashlight or a cell phone with no reception. I’m also bizarrely fond of zombies, whose grossness would usually not be my jam, but I love how they inhabit the threshold between life and death in this utterly gruesome and physical way. You can ignore a ghost, or be unable to detect its presence…but you’d by god better not ignore a zombie.

My least favourite trope is probably the virginal final girl, and all the accompanying implied punishments for sexual sins. Like, deep-seated fear of women’s sexuality is definitely a thing, but I’m convinced there are sex-positive, empowering, thoughtful ways to explore it while still being scary.

What are some of the most valuable things you learned during the writing of your first novel? Was writing your second novel a different learning curve?

 Some of the most significant lessons from writing the first one:

* Nuts and bolts: pacing, how much space character development should take, how to build romantic tension (and damn, that last one is *hard*, and I will never disrespect romance writers again)

* Sometimes when you think “oh man, I really don’t want to write about that,” you really need to – the stuff you’re afraid of is powerful, though it might take you several drafts to come around to facing it head on

The writing experience was completely different for the second one, mostly because I sort of knew what to expect this time and didn’t have to spend time dithering over whether it was done yet. I floundered around for the first 75 pages or so, but once I figured out where it was going, I blazed through the rest in an extended fit of cackling glee, and didn’t get scared until I was done (“oh…my god…WHAT HAVE I WROUGHT??”)

Who are some of your greatest literary influences and what have you gleaned from them?

I devoured books by Christopher Pike and Dean R. Koontz as a tween, to my teachers’ dismay. I don’t remember much about those books beyond a few standout premises, but there’s definitely a solid bedrock of weird and creepy there. I didn’t get into Ursula Le Guin’s fiction until I grew up, but her essays on fantasy and science fiction and fairy tales have really shaped my ideas about what SFF is all about and what it can do. One of the books that most inspired me was actually a middle-grade ghost story called STONEWORDS by Pam Conrad; it won an Edgar in 1991, and I first read it as a teenager. It’s lyrical, understated, dreamlike, and utterly haunting, and every time I re-read it I think OH MY GOD YES EXACTLY. I think that was the book that first really showed me that a spooky story could be so beautifully written.

I saw that you also make stained glass. Do you incorporate art into your stories, or vice versa? Have you made any stained glass images inspired by your stories?

Glass has kind of fallen by the wayside these past few years, unfortunately – I actually gave up on writing for a few years when my first attempt at querying fizzled, and glass was one of the projects I threw myself into in its absence. It’s a very satisfying and surprisingly forgiving craft. Most of my stained glass art was based on art nouveau and nature imagery. Now that the writing is back, it’s basically devouring all the time and energy I poured into glass, and I don’t even really miss it, so I think it was mostly a substitute. I should totally work it into a story at some point, though!

 

amelinda pic

 Amelinda Bérubé has spent the last ten years as a writer and editor with the Canadian public service, prior to which her career path meandered through academics, carpentry, and administrivia. Amelinda is a passionate fan of YA, SFF, and all things spooky. Her debut novel, THE DARK BENEATH THE ICE, will be published by Sourcebooks Fire on August 1, 2018. You can pre-order it here.

Learn more about Amelinda on her website: http://www.amelindaberube.com/ or you can find her on twitter @metuiteme

 

 

#PimpMyBio

*This post is part of #PimpMyBio by Lana Pattinson and #PitchWars, a twitter-based contest hosted by Brenda Drake in which authors seek mentors to help revise their manuscripts for a follow-up agent round. Even if you don’t have a manuscript ready for this season #PitchWars is still a great community to interact with, and provides a wealth of information and networking opportunities with other writers.*

I wanted to use this space to give more of a sense of who I am beyond just one manuscript, so I’m focusing more on my passions as a writer and less on my submission for PitchWars. But I will include the (very amateur) aesthetic for my YA Southern Gothic novel, THE VALLEY OF DRY BONES:

VALLEY OF DRY BONES.png

 

ACT I
THE BORING BIO

  • MFA in Children’s Literature
  • BA in Creative Writing
  • Certificate in Irish Studies (University College Cork)
  • Member of SCBWI since 2006
  • Critique partner (10+ years)
  • What I write:
    • YA (southern gothic/magical realism)<–my PW submission
    • MG ( WIP fantasy sequence inspired by the Welsh myth cycle: The Mabinogion)
    • Character-driven picture books
  • What I do when I’m not writing:
    • Sing: shape note, Appalachian ballads, Trad Irish and Folk
    • Hike near my Appalachian home
    • Contra dance (insanely fun Irish-mountain-hippie dance)
    • Critique for my CPs! I love developmental editing. Copyediting, not so much.

ACT II
THE FUN PART

My passion for storytelling started with film rather than literature. As an offbeat kid I loved the character- and dialogue-driven films of the 1940s and ’50s (while most of my friends preferred Chip ’n’ Dale and DuckTales). Those formative years spent watching Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey, Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, and Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds spar on the silver screen gave me a penchant for banter, tension, and comic relief, and ultimately set the tone and tempo for my storytelling voice today. I may write in a different genre than most of those films, (southern gothic, magical realism), but the scene structure, rhythmic dialogue, and relationship dynamics are very much inspired by them.

Writing is a cinematic experience for me. Had I a different disposition, I might’ve pursued musical theatre; but as someone with social anxiety, I chose the route of creator instead. I can be writer, director, and method actor all rolled into one. And nobody ever sees me. They see the story and the players while I work safely off-screen. Knowing this releases me into a special kind of freedom I have yet to experience “in real life.”

ACT III
These are a few of my favorite things:

Childhood favorites:

  • Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence
  • All things Madeleine L’Engle
  • Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain
  • Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game, The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel), and Figgs and Phantoms.

Current favorite authors:

  • David Almond feeds my soul. His novels haunt and move me. Finishing one of his stories is like emerging from this spell where I’m not sure whether I’ve been dreaming or having a nightmare. He’s a master at discovering wonder in the mundane and exploring humanity’s capacity to inspire both beauty and terror in others. And he does it all with such brevity and simple language. He is all that I aspire to be…and yet we write nothing alike. And that’s the way it should be, or else things could get creepy and awkward really fast. #I’mYourNumberOneFan
  • Neil Gaiman is the creator of the creepiest, most magical worlds and unforgettable characters. He’s a master storyteller in every sense of the word. Favorites: ANANSI BOYS, THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, and THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE
  • Maureen Johnson can always make me laugh—even within the first five pages of a Jack-the-Ripper spin-off with ghost serial killers. Her love of theatre and classic film, goofy physical humor and great character development make her writing irresistible to me.
  • Maggie Stiefvater. Need I say more? Maggie is as Maggie does. The Raven Cycle combines so many things I love: Celtic myth, rural Virginia, magic—oh, and her voice. ❤

Favorite films:

  • Clue, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and The Court Jester = my definition of comedy. I also love the playfulness of The Princess Bride and Stardust.
  • Wes Anderson = my spirit animal. There’s some critical debate over his style, but whatever it is, that thing that he does, it resonates with me. His films are quirky, visually stunning, hilarious in how deeply serious each character takes themselves, and features little pockets of unexpected sentimentality.
  • The Artist. One of my favorite films EVER.
  • Actor: Jimmy Stewart. He played all different types of roles: gunslinger, daydreamer, wide-eyed American boy-hero, lawyer, musician, journalist, Hickcockian sleuth…No matter what role, costume, or setting, he was fully himself and simultaneously fully in character. He had a style that nuanced every scene without ever being showy or upstaging others. That’s the closest I can come to describing how an author’s voice permeates everything she creates. You can flow from genre to genre and even change the tone of the narrator, but your storytelling voice—the way you structure, build, and arrange and reveal moments and emotions—that is what makes your writing both universal and unique.

Revision

TIPS FOR ORGANIZING YOUR REVISION…

revision

….AND MAKING THE PROCESS A LITTLE LESS PAINFUL

 

READING

STEP ONE: REST

After I send my MS off to CPs for review, I take a month away from it and read something completely different from my story—a memoir, short story collection, or nature book. This sort of cleanses my palate and helps me return to my MS with fresh eyes. I also use this time to brainstorm my next WIP.

 

STEP TWO: LISTEN

LISTENThere are many apps that can read your MS to you, but most computers have a built-in narrator, too. On my Macbook I highlight the text and press Opt + S. Narration speed and vocals can be adjusted in settings. This helps me concentrate on plot, pacing, dialogue, and character without being tempted to stop every three seconds to deliberate over line edits and grammar. I usually stop after each chapter and jot down notes, but that’s it. Also, this is how I get house chores and exercise done without losing time with my story. When I commuted 45-minutes to work, I’d buckle my laptop into the passenger seat and play my manuscript through an auxiliary cord.

OUTLINESTEP THREE: SYNOPSES

After listening to the MS, I make an outline from memory, concentrating on hitting all the points in my character arcs rather than summarizing each scene. I look for inconsistent, unrealistic, or unexplained changes in my characters. Then I do the same type of synopsis for plot. One of my personal weaknesses is the tendency to tug my character back and forth in regards to tension, rather than creating scenes and moments that gradually build on one another and mount toward the climax.

REWRITESTEP FOUR: Rewrite

If significant plot and character changes are necessary, I find it so much easier to rewrite (completely from scratch without leaning on the original text). It holds me accountable to making the difficult big-picture changes and not just rearranging words. Then I repeat steps 1-4 and before moving on to #5, I read through the MS several more times, focusing on different elements each time (character, plot, setting, details, etc.

STEP FIVE: REVISE

I make a list of any unanswered questions or loose ends I found in my MS and feather in the necessary details. Then I do a search for filter words, and finally look at grammar and punctuation. These five steps take me….an embarrassingly long time. Sometimes I get stuck at the “rewrite” stage for several months. When I finally get to step five, it’s a real watershed moment.

finished

Goals and Good Reads


This week I started reading The Curiosities: A Collection of Stories by Maggie Stiefvater, Tessa Gratton, and Brenna Yovanoff. These three Young Adult authors and critique partners (known as the Merry Sisters of Fate) committed to writing short stories and posting them on their blog. The posts made their way to publication in this awesome collection, along with handwritten notes, doodles, and commentary on the creative process. It’s been an inspiring and entertaining read–especially with Maggie Stiefvater’s awesome freehand drawings. I find writing short stories and flash fiction a really challenging but beneficial exercise in learning to get to the heart of a story in as few words as possible.

 

Three Minute Interview!

Lucy Christopher is the author of Stolen and Flyaway.  She has lived in both Wales and Australia, where she pursued being a nature guide and an actor, among other things, before finding her calling as a writer.  Currently living in Wales, Lucy spends much of her time lecturing, blogging, and reading books (when she’s not writing, of course).   To learn more about Lucy, visit her website at www.lucychristopher.com

 

1.  Nature and teens seem to be intrinsic parts of your novels so far.  What is the connection you feel between the two?

I think there are loads of connections between nature and teens.  Firstly, it’s a question of space … when you’re a teenager, there aren’t all that many places you can go to hang out, or to be private with your friends or your boyfriend.  Natural spaces, such as the local park or woods, are often used as social spaces for people growing up.  I know they certainly were for me.  So there’s that.  I also think there’s a subconscious connection between the ideas of growth and wildness and with the process of being a teenager.  The wildness of a natural space often works well as a writing metaphor to express the wild, loneliness of sometimes being a teenager.  In Stolen, Gemma’s growing appreciation of the natural world around her directly leads to a growing awareness of herself and an understanding of her place in the world. 

2.  Your book Stolen has a lovely, cinematic feel to it.  Having tried acting first, how do you relate to the idea of the ‘writer as actor?’

Interesting question!  I think I do approach my writing very much from the perspective of character – for me, character is more important than anything, and when I have my character right, my plot seems to flow much easier.  This focus on character and character-led stories may well have been inspired, or helped along by, my time as an actor.  I spent quite a lot of time learning about Stanislavski’s method, and perhaps that focus on character motivation helped too. 

3.  Who would you identify as some of your strongest literary influences?

Definitely John Marsden!  John is a fantastic Australian writer for teenagers and his books inspired me hugely to read, as well as write, when I was a teenager and beyond.  I love his series of books entitled ‘The Tomorrow Series’.  In terms of others, probably also the magnificent (adult) writer Tim Winton with his clever and evocative use of language, and the beautiful and lyrical David Almond.