SFFWRTCHT: A Chat With Author-Artist M.C.A. Hogarth
M.C.A. Hogarth is the daughter of two Cuban political exiles and was born a foreigner in the American melting pot. She has had a fascination for the gaps in cultures and the bridges that span them ever since. She has been many things: web database architect, product manager, technical writer and massage therapist, but is currently a full-time parent, artist, writer and anthropologist to aliens, both human and otherwise. Her fiction has variously been recommended for a Nebula, a finalist for the Spectrum, placed on the secondary Tiptree reading list and chosen for two best-of anthologies; her art has appeared in RPGs, magazines and on book covers. Her current focus is new business models for artists and independent marketing and distribution innovations. Her first crowdfunded fiction project kicked off in 2004 before the word was even coined. M.C.A. has experimented with everything from “choose-your-own-adventure” style serials online to kickstarting creative projects. Her adventures include stories of The Eldritch: Space Elves and Space Opera in the Universe of the Pelted and stories of Kherishdar: Civilization and the Role of the Individual, and The Jokka: Gender and Loss Among Aliens, amongst others. She can be found online at MCAHogarth.org, on Twitter and on Goodreads.
SFFWRTCHT: First things first, where’d your interest in SFF come from?
MCA Hogarth: My parents are both fans of science fiction (and my dad of fantasy also). They were always reading at home. Plus, a lot of fantastic kids’ books are SF/F…even in the dark ages before YA was a term, when I was growing up.
SFFWRTCHT: So true. Pre-genre labeling, or at least so much emphasis on it anyway. Who are some of your favorite authors and books that inspire you?
MCAH: Oh, hmm. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Lloyd Alexander… The Fountainhead helped me survive art school (seriously). Anne of Green Gables! And Meredith Ann Pierce, who is under-recognized. I loved her Firebringer trilogy. And Clavell’s Shogun is probably one of my favorite books ever.
SFFWRTCHT: A thousand times yes! I adore that book. Amazing!
MCAH: I re-read it every few years. Great first contact story.
SFFWRTCHT: You know, I never thought of it as first contact, but you’re absolutely right! I need to revisit that more often. Who are some favorite Latin American writers or non-Western who have influenced you?
MCAH: Wow, fantastic question… and amusing, because I read few! My parents learned to read in English and gave me English authors!
SFFWRTCHT: When did you decide to become a storyteller and how did you get your start?
MCAH: When I could pick up a pencil. My mother complained about me leaving papers all over the house all my life. I have more sympathy for this complaint now that my kid is doing it to me. I wrote my first novel in grade school…keep thinking I should shake all the good bits out and recycle them for a children’s book.
SFFWRTCHT: How’d you learn craft? Trial and error? Formal study? Workshops?
MCAH: Mostly the former. And one book I remember well: Damon Knight’s Writing Short Fiction. I was lucky in that during the formative process I got more support than critique. Critique would have shut teenaged me down. I needed to have more confidence before I could make use of it.
MCAH: In 2000, when Strange Horizons bought my first Jokka story. Yay! People buy stories without humans in them! I was so gratified by that. A little disturbed too, at the implication that I wrote aliens better than people.
SFFWRTCHT: Heh. Well, you know, someone has to be more than humancentric. It keeps it interesting. What was your path to publication like? Long and arduous? How long did you struggle until your first sale?
MCAH: I write mostly aliens. But I’ve gotten better at people, or so I’m told. I guess “truncated by the revolution in publishing” is a good answer? I sold four or five short stories in 2000, wasted almost ten years trying to place a novel, after having two books orphaned (these are my tears!), and then the kindle arrived. I bought the first one as a business expense, for research, and thought ‘this changes everything!’
SFFWRTCHT: You’ve been published both traditionally and in nontraditional outlets. What are the advantages of each?
MCAH: Oh, I suppose it’s sometimes a relief to let other people take care of all the administrivia for you. Unless you’re a control freak, or you write too fast (like me). The revolution came just in time to save my sanity. I am too business-minded to let other people handle the details all the time.
SFFWRTCHT: Let’s talk about some of your settings. Eldritch, long-lived humanoid espers with the sensibilities of elves?
MCAH: Oh yes. I observed elves never seem to do any work in fantasy. So I posited a real world version and extrapolated. The result: beautiful people with dying cities and crumbling infrastructure, but too proud to ask for help. Seemed like an interesting idea. Makes it sound like I don’t love them, but I do. They just need help, like all of us.
SFFWRTCHT: Anti-elven, how dare you?! And you have several books in that setting correct?
MCAH: That’s right. It’s all in my space opera setting, the Pelted Paradox.
SFFWRTCHT: They live with the furries?
MCAH: Yes, they live with the furries. And aliens, also. I like animal people, and aliens. I write a lot of aliens, did I mention that? Kherishdar and the Jokka are my big settings there. The Jokka were my first sales, trigendered aliens with a chance to switch sexes twice in their lives. And the caste-based Ai-Naidar of Kherishdar, where I write about the virtues of civilization.
MCAH: Oh, Kherishdar pushes buttons about how much individuality you’ll give up for harmony. People either want to move to Kherishdar or are deeply disturbed by it. I think I did my job well. It generates discussion.
SFFWRTCHT: How did the Three Jaguars come about?
MCAH: Oh, the Three Jaguars is my business column/web comic about business for right-brained types. Came about because I wanted to share what I knew with other artists. Maybe save them some trouble! It’s at http://threejaguarscomic.net/.
SFFWRTCHT: Let’s talk about your big controversial work: Spots the Space Marine, a cookie baking mom slash kick butt marine?
MCAH: Oh yes. My Games Workshop-offending work. I love space marine stories, but kind of wanted a space marine story about a middle-aged woman/mom. And with complicated aliens. Written as a serial, in a quasi-script-like format; makes the action more tense and the story flow faster. No non-essentials.
SFFWRTCHT: Not sure if you can talk about it but my understanding was a title was too similar to one of theirs for their comfort?
MCAH: Less that and more they wanted the word ‘space marine’ out of the title. Because all our space marines belong to them, or something.
SFFWRTCHT: The SFF Community seemed to rally around you, which must have been encouraging.
MCAH: I still get a lot of website traffic from the articles about it! The gift that keeps on giving. Deeply gratified by the people who bought it for the legal issue, and went on to say ‘I really liked this!’
SFFWRTCHT: I read a review that talked about the unique format. So like a tv and movie script format then?
MCAH: A little yes! But with a touch more description. Not too much.
SFFWRTCHT: And then you asked: Can a Jesuit, a demon, an angel and two high school kids stop the Apocalypse? Urban fantasy with a Catholic flavor.
MCAH: Right, A Rosary of Stones and Thorns. Which fails as urban fantasy because it’s too sincere. I am bad at snark, which seems to be an urban fantasy trope.
MCAH: My own uncertainty, I’m afraid. I write to address things I don’t understand, and am not sure of. To test my own beliefs, a lot. To make sense of the world. I just like to dress my people in wings and tails and put them in spaceships and give them swords. It makes it easier to consider the deeper issues when there’s already some distance between the reader and the characters.
SFFWRTCHT: Well, they say writing is a journey… Sounds like it’s no cliché for you.
MCAH: Oh boy. The novel that made me cry while writing it because it taught me I thought about going to med school? Left field there.
SFFWRTCHT: So how many books are in each series? You have quite a few I know.
MCAH: Yikes. There are a lot! I have about fifty titles up! I have a reading order… http://mcahogarth.org/?page_id=3461.
SFFWRTCHT: That’s helpful, thanks. How about: Outliner or pantser?
MCAH: Pantser. I have a notion of beginning, end and some midpoints, but I write to find out how they happen. For the person who asked about art earlier: I often draw the scenes to come. My online art database is full of spoilers.
SFFWRTCHT: So you’re an artist, too. Do you illustrate your books? do the covers yourself?
MCAH: I do a lot of them myself, but I also hire artists. I just got the fabulous Julie Dillon to do my last!
MCAH: I think it’s all a form of storytelling for me: art and writing both, an attempt to communicate.
SFFWRTCHT: You said you write fast. How long do your novels typically take to write?
MCAH: I write two styles: serial and direct-to-market. For the former, one-two years of leisurely updates. For the latter, between two-four months. Depending on real life. My last one took me one and a half months. It was about 450 pages.
SFFWRTCHT: Wow. I think I hate you. What’s your usual wordcount for a novel?
MCAH: My typical novels are between 110K and 200K. Average is 140K. When I get going, I don’t stop. Not always good for my health since I work full time/have a five-year-old.
SFFWRTCHT: Okay, okay, I’ll forgive you. Do you have any writing rituals or tools? Scrivener? Word? Something else? Do you write to music or silence?
MCAH: Not really? I am scared to ritualize writing, because then I might not do it if everything’s not perfect. I write in coffee shops, at home, standing up, sitting down. I write in rec centers and during work breaks. I prefer silence, but that’s because I like to pay attention to the rhythm of the voice I’m writing in. I do a lot of first person stuff. Everyone’s got a cadence. Music can impose its own cadence on yours. But I do make soundtracks for my books. I listen to them while driving/exercising.
SFFWRTCHT: Heh. I use soundtracks because lyrics derail my focus. I want to sing along.
MCAH: I am an inveterate singer. Can’t have that while writing.
SFFWRTCHT: You write serials, and you’ve written shorts. Other than being an avowed pantser, any differences in your process?
MCAH: No–serials taught me to trust my subconscious, and to let the characters move me toward the right ending. I often write serials the day I post them! So I’m learning the story at the same time as my readers.
SFFWRTCHT: Wow, how do you keep the discipline to get it done every day without having a “cushion” of serials done in advance?
MCAH: I just don’t want to disappoint my readers. I hate feeling like I’m failing them.
MCAH: Marketing. Mmph. I do not have a routine yet that I am happy with, results-wise.
SFFWRTCHT: So what marketing techniques have worked best for you? That’s always a challenge for writers.
MCAH: Kickstarter has actually been good marketing. So have the serials. They’ve been a big draw to my e-books/audiobooks/print. Basically every crowdfunding risk I’ve taken has paid off for me. I wrote an entire book about running Kickstarter campaigns, there’s so much I’ve learned. In the past year and a half, I’ve run six campaigns, and all six successfully funded. Condensed, my advice is: keep it small and nimble, don’t overestimate your fanbase, and deliver on time. Then do it again…and again and again and again– I love Kickstarter! It tripled my income last year!
SFFWRTCHT: Do you do all the videos, etc. yourself? Book layouts? Design? etc.?
MCAH: I do my own videos, yes, God help me. I’m horrible at it, but people forgive me because I am apparently cute when embarrassed. But I have a fantastic book designer who does my interiors. I do my own cover layout/design. And I have teams of loyal copy-editors and format-checkers. They are awesome.
SFFWRTCHT: I’ve heard people say Kickstarter is like taking pre-orders, just a little further in advance.
MCAH: As long as you’re good about calculating your expenses…it is like taking pre-orders. Capital equals good! Artists so rarely have it.
SFFWRTCHT: You’ve also written nonfiction. Like the Kickstarter book and what else?
MCAH: I write nonfiction about my observations as a mom, too, but those are mostly blog-only. Someone told me to collect them and publish them. I might do that if I ever get some spare time. (Hahahaha)
SFFWRTCHT: What’s the best and worst writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
MCAH: Best advice: live life, really feel it. That’s where your ability to write believably comes from. Worst: Give up if you can’t find an editor to buy your work. (For serious.)
MCAH: I don’t know. Writer’s block is so individual, sometimes. For me, it’s often about me avoiding something. If I’m stuck, it’s because I’m afraid of moving forward with a story that’s upsetting or scaring or making me sad. So I eat chocolate and tell myself it’s okay to be scared, see if it goes away. If I calm down, I write. If I don’t, I tell myself it’s okay to table that story and work on something I’m ready to handle. So I guess my advice about block is: always have lots of stories that need to be finished.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you ever find yourself working on one story but another keeps calling?
MCAH: Oh yes. And if another story is calling strongly, I write it, usually. I have five? Six? settings right now that need sequels or Books three, four, whatever. Choosing the right one to finish can be hard.
SFFWRTCHT: What future projects are you working on that we can look forward to?
MCAH: What am I not working on… A sequel to Spots for my space marines; more Kherishdar for fans of my fantasies of manners. Kherishdar has some of my most devoted fans, so it’s important to me to revisit it often. This year is my Pelted year; I am finishing up the Earthrise trilogy and the Dreamhealers duology. Last year it was my Jokka year. I finally finished a trilogy that’s been in the works for ten years. Good to get that done! Earthrise is my space opera trilogy, about a merchant captain who ends up rescuing a space elf from slavers. Hijinks ensue! Mindtouch starts a duology about two xeno-therapists (they’re psychiatrists for aliens). How they met in college. My excuse to write a college novel with aliens and a cool major. That one is also my asexual/bromance sort of book.
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