[ITW interview with Gwen Florio, upon the publication of Less Than a Treason in 2017. Edited.]
You are best known for your twenty-book series featuring Kate Shugak, an Aleut private investigator who lives in a fictional park in Alaska (we’ll get to the other three series in a bit). Let me repeat that: twenty books just on Kate, and now, after a break of three years, you’re writing the twenty-first. How do you keep Kate evolving, and come up with ever-new dilemmas for her?
I put her in real world scenarios—the deaths of family and lovers. I incorporate real Alaskan problems into her life, the discovery of commercial ore deposits in her back yard, the tension between the various kinds of fishers of salmon (subsistence, sports, commercial). Really, all I have to do is watch life as it is lived in Alaska today and I’ve got all the competing factions I need to build a plot.
In September, you’ll welcome the first resident at the Storyknife writers’ community you’ve started in Homer, Alaska. Can you please tell us a little about the project and why you chose to do that?
The first and best thing my writing ever earned me was a 1989 residency at Hedgebrook in Washington state, the only writers retreat for women in the world at that time. I was one of their first residents and it was the first time anyone ever acted like writing was a real job. Not to sound woowoo or anything, but everything good happened after Hedgebrook—selling my first book, selling my first series, winning the Edgar, hitting the list. I founded Storyknife as a sort of Hedgebrook North, in the hope of passing on my experience at Hedgebrook to women writers of the future.
In 2010, you made the leap into independent publishing, acquiring the rights to your out-of-print books and self-publishing them. You recently wrote about that process, and this phrase jumped out at me – “My income quintupled and … I paid off my mortgage.” Probably not going to happen with a debut indie author, or an author early in his/her career. Any advice for those writers?
I’d like to think that if I was beginning today, I’d publish independently from the getgo, but I don’t know. It was very difficult for me to decide to go indie. I know a lot of good people in traditional publishing (Kelley Ragland, my editor at Minotaur, was responsible for resurrecting the Kate Shugak novels from dying after Kate9. I will never cease to owe her, nor will the fans of the series whether they know so or not.). I don’t think traditional publishers are venal or stupid, I think they’re just scared. They’re making a ton of money on everyone’s backlist in e and their business model is so blockbuster-oriented that they’re terrified of sharing the e-royalties for fear they’ll go broke if their house doesn’t score that next blockbuster. Speaking strictly for myself, I just can’t agree to contract terms that are so weighted in favor of the packager/distributor, as opposed to the creator. But that’s my decision. Every writer is going to have to make their own.
Your work ethic is ferocious– More than thirty books in twenty-five years, plus short stories, magazine articles and a newsletter; creating the Storyknife residency; the labor-intensive indie publishing project, and going to conferences like Left Coast Crime (where, in 2017, you’ll be the Guest of Honor at Honolulu Havoc). When do you sleep? Seriously. How much coffee do you drink each day?
One cup. Two max. Doctor’s orders.
Along the same lines, can you tell us how you work? Morning writer, late-night writer, all-the-time writer? Home office, coffeeshop, anywhere? Finally, given that formidable workload, I picture you as the most disciplined of plotters. Any chance at all you’re a fellow pantser?
Pantser? As in seat of? I need at minimum a suspicious death to begin a mystery novel. I used to do outlines because they were contractually required but I almost never followed them. Kate21 was a difficult plotting proposition just because it was a hard transition from 1327 to 2016 but now I have not one but four bodies and no IDs on any of ‘em. Fun.
Daytime writer, although if I’m hot on the book I’ll write past midnight. When the muse knocks you get up and answer the door, or you’re not a writer.
You seem to like series; not just Kate Shugak, but the Liam Campbell (a Shugak series spinoff); the sci-fi Star Svensdotter series, and the Marco Polo-era Silk and Song trilogy. Do you have a personal favorite, and why? Any new series in the works?
I like to read series, so it follows I like to write them. I love checking in with old friends, and I deliberately left Kate20 in a place that would force me to address where Kate and everyone else went next. Big changes afoot, FYI.
Mutt, Kate’s wolf-dog, is a major and much-loved character in the Shugak series. North Wind, Johanna’s horse, plays a somewhat similar role in the Silk and Song trilogy. Do you have a pet? And if so, does it have a similarly dominant role?
No, no pets, I travel too much and it isn’t fair on them. I’d love to get to a place in my life where I had a cat to purr in my lap and a dog to walk on the beach, but I’m not there yet. And then there are the bald eagles everywhere where I live. One of them tried to take the neighbor’s dog right off their porch summer before last. Something that has to be considered in having pets. Oh, and not forgetting the yearling brown bear that was trashing everyone’s porches last summer. Momma had just kicked him out and he was hungry. Pets are just bear snacks when that happens.
You live in a bucket-list (OK, my bucket list) vacation spot. Where do you like to go on vacation?
I like looking at old things that were built to last, like the Pont du Gard and the Brooklyn Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge and Machu Picchu and the massive agricultural experimental station at Moray (also Peru) and Chartres Cathedral. I just came back from Panama, where I went specifically to transit the Canal. More than a century later, the same doors are opening and closing on the same locks, moving the commerce of nations safely and expeditiously from one ocean to the other. See what we can do when we keep our eye on the ball and don’t do stupid shit like invade Iraq? The biggest shame of the Boomer generation is that we have built nothing that will last beyond our expiry date. Where’s our interstate highway system? Where is anything we built that will be useful and/or beautiful (channeling William Morris here) to generations to come? I can’t think of a thing.
What’s your vacation reading like?
I often read science fiction while en route, evidently because I need to be traveling in more than one world simultaneously. When I was in Europe researching Silk and Song, I read Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life as We Knew It series (excellent reads, FYI).
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.