A Chat with Lesley Conner about The Weight of Chains
Posted September 21, 2015on:
Today I’m thrilled to have my friend Lesley Conner visit Little Red Reviewer. Lesley is an author, the Managing Editor of Apex Magazine, and all around amazing person. A wrangler of slush readers and girl scouts, Lesley somehow manages to find time to write her own fiction. Her debut novel, The Weight of Chains, comes out today from Sinister Grin Press. A historical thriller of power, torture, and escape, The Weight of Chains is the story of Gilles de Rais and the woman who defied him.
Lesley was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about her new novel. Let’s get to the interview!
Little Red Reviewer: Congratulations on your forthcoming novel, The Weight of Chains! What can you tell us about the novel?
Lesley Conner: Thank you! I’m extremely excited!
So what can I tell you about The Weight of Chains … I could go the old boring route and tell you it’s an alternative history horror novel inspired by the crimes of Gilles de Rais.
That’s true, but it doesn’t really get to the heart of it.
The Weight of Chains is about power and control. Gilles de Rais is nobleman who has absolute control over every aspect of his life. He’s also a killer with very dark desires, and he uses his status and power to make sure that he can play out his every fantasy. It is a novel full of torture and death. It’s also one that examines what happens to the people who get swept up in that world, who have no control and no choice, but have to fulfill their master’s wishes for safety and security, or just to make it through one more day. But what happens if Gilles’s control begins to slip? What if another power comes into play and the carefully constructed life that Gilles has built begins to crumble?
The Weight of Chains is full of murder, deceit, magic, desperation, a demon, and a little girl who wants to figure out how to do more than just survive. She wants to be happy.
LRR: The novel takes place in medieval France. Tell us about some of the research you did to get the historical details just right.
LC: Gah! Research! By the time I was finished with the novel, I was to the point of telling any who would listen that if I EVER said I wanted to write another historical novel to smack me. And then I immediately got an idea for a novel heavily influenced by the 1920s New York speakeasy scene and fell right back down the research rabbit hole.
Researching a novel set in 1436, France was difficult to put it mildly. First, Gilles de Rais was a real person. I spent a lot of time reading about him, the crimes he committed, and the people who were involved. The facts of his life have been twisted – he really did hire a wizard named Prelati, but the real Prelati was very much a conman, whereas the one in my novel is a victim of Gilles cruelty – but anyone who knows about the historical figure will see little details that point to the real man.
Second, a major character in my novel is an eleven year old peasant girl. There is little detailed information about the peasantry at this time. So much what is out there seems to focus on nobility. Finding information about peasant children – girls in particular – was even harder. I wanted details like footwear and what they would eat to be as accurate as possible, so I ended up contacting some historical re-enactors. When all else fails, ask an expert! They were fantastic about answering my questions. Plus, they were always in character and would begin emails with “Dear fair lady,” which is kind of fun.
LRR: Without giving us any spoilers (if possible), what is your favorite scene in the novel?
LC: There is a scene where Jeanetta is serving Christophe a bowl of soup. It doesn’t seem like much, but something happens that makes her realize that life could be good, it could be more than the drudgery of moving through each day doing what needed to be done so she and her family could survive, she could be happy. It’s a very small moment and isn’t incredibly flashy, but it is integral to Jeanetta having the will and the strength she needs at the end of the novel. I don’t know that it’s my favorite scene (can a writer really pick a favorite?) but it always makes me smile because it’s a sweet moment, and I’ll be honest, there aren’t a whole lot of sweet moments in The Weight of Chains.
LRR: Is this a stand-alone, or do you plan to write more in this world?
LC: I recently had a conversation about this with my brother. Despite their enormous popularity, I’m not really a fan of book series. I like being able to read a book, fall in love with the characters, mourn the book’s ending, and move on to the next one in my to-read pile. There are too many amazing books out there for me to want to stick with one set of characters for 10 or 15 books. A trilogy is okay. You might get me to stick around for five books, but beyond that, you’ve lost me. And if I have my druthers, I really just want a stand-alone novel.
When it came to writing my own book, I very much wrote The Weight of Chains with the intention of it being a stand-alone. Then I let few friends read it and they asked about a sequel. Which kind of shocked me. The book ends in a very bleak place and there really isn’t an obvious direction that I could take it in a sequel, so my response has always been, “There isn’t one. What could I possibly do?” But when my brother and I were talking about it, he brought up a concept that I have to admit is intriguing. It’s still too early to say whether that nugget of an idea will become something workable, but you never know. If enough people want a sequel, then it’s possible Jeanetta may have another story and drag readers back to Machecoul.
LRR: What were the biggest challenges you ran into with The Weight of Chains? Any advice for authors who are completing their first novel?
LC: My biggest challenge? Myself. Self-doubt. Horrid criticizing thoughts of not being good enough, for being ridiculous for even starting, for ever imagining that I could write a novel.
It seemed as though every time I would get into a rhythm, that the words would be flowing, and the story developing, I would trip myself up. And I’d just stop, absolutely certain that I was wasting my time, that I was hurting my family by putting my energy into a book that would never be publish because there was no way I was good enough. Sometimes I’d go weeks or months without opening the Word doc. But the characters were still there, still whispering to me, and eventually I’d get started again. Tiny baby steps of writing, a few minutes here and few minutes there. The entire first draft was like that. Revisions were worse, because the closer it came to be being done, the closer I came to having to let someone read it. That’s the moment when all of my fears of not being good enough could be validated.
I managed to work through my own sabotage, but it wasn’t easy and it wasn’t pretty. I had to write when I didn’t feel like it, push past my fear and let others read my manuscript, and probably most difficult, I had to submit.
I know a lot of writers deal with self-doubt. It’s natural, especially for first time writers. Writing a novel takes a lot of time and energy and there is no guarantee that there will be a payout at the end. There’s no way to know while you’re in the process whether or not it’s any good. You just have to push through and keep going. My advice is simply persistence. Keep writing no matter what the vicious voice in your head says. Keep revising. And if you need to stop for a little bit, do it. There is nothing wrong with needing to take a breather. The important part is that you don’t give in and give up. Take a few days to gather your bearings, and then jump back in.
LRR: You’re a huge horror fan. What is it about horror stories that you find so irresistible?
LC: I love horror because, in most cases – I won’t say all, because the moment I do I’ll think of an instance when that’s wrong – but in most cases, it is very clear cut who is good and who is evil. Sure, there are varying levels of good and evil, but it’s easy to pick a side and cheer it on. (And yes, occasionally I do cheer on the side of evil, especially when I’m watching a good horror movie!)
For me, it’s fun. I like trying to guess from the first few minutes of a movie or the first pages of a book who is going to live and who’s going to die. I like dissecting every death and rating it on how believable it is. It takes me back to time when my brother and I were kids and we watched Joe Bob Brigg’s Monster Vision every weekend, or my best friend and I would rent a horror movie marathon and we’d stay up all night, eating junk food, jumping at the lame scares, and talking until the sun came up. Those were simpler times. I didn’t have kids to worry about, or an endless stream of negativity bombarding me on Facebook and Twitter. I don’t know if my kids will be able to grow up with the same sense of security that I did, a security that lets them laugh at the idea of a murderer roaming the streets or monsters terrorizing kids. Those things are too real now. But for me when I turn on a horror movie or crack open a horror novel, I can forget about all the real horrors in the world and just let myself grin and giggle through all the pretend death and mayhem. When a sliver of fear works its way into my brain, I can tell myself that it’s fake, I can stop the movie or close the book at any time, and knowing this pulls me in even further.
LRR: You’re also the Managing Editor at Apex Magazine. How did you get involved with Apex Magazine, and what exactly does a Managing Editor do?
LC: I met Jason Sizemore at a convention years ago. We chatted at the con and then kept in touch through Facebook afterward, becoming friends. He posted something about needing a blog editor for the Apex Publications blog and I applied. At that time, I didn’t get the job, but Jason did need someone to run the social media accounts. (If you chat with @ApexBookCompany on Twitter, that’s me!) My work with Apex sort of snowballed from there. I went from managing our social media accounts, to proofreading, to handling marketing, to selecting cover art and writing back cover copy for our books. And more. There are always things that need to be done when you work for a small press publisher and I was happy to do what I could, learn what I didn’t know, and step up when something needed to be done. Luckily, Jason has been willing to let me learn along the way and it’s really worked out for us. We make a great team.
Until about a year ago, I wasn’t doing a lot on the magazine end, but when Cameron Salisbury stepped down as the managing editor of Apex Magazine, Jason asked me if I’d be interested in filling the spot. He’d recently decided to fill the editor-in-chief role for the magazine again and we already knew that we work really well together. It was a wonderful opportunity, so of course I said yes.
As for what a managing editor does, the short answer is whatever the editor-in-chief needs them to do. The long answer is I can’t tell you what every managing editor does, because I’m certain it’s different based on the needs of each publication. For me and Apex Magazine, I’m involved in practically every aspect from managing submissions, to picking cover art, to marketing, and more. I work very closely both with Jason and our authors, and try to make sure that everyone has all of the information they need to keep production running smoothly.
LRR: I first met you at a convention a few years ago, and we’ve been close friends ever since. Why are conventions important to fandom? What do convention goers get out of the experience?
LC: Conventions are the perfect setting for making new friends, and if you’re a writer, establishing connections within the publishing community. As I mentioned, I met Jason Sizemore at a convention, which eventual led to my role with Apex. I also met J.F. Gonzalez at a convention. He was already one of my favorite authors, but after we met we became friends and eventually he became my writing mentor. Without him, I wouldn’t have written The Weight of Chains. Or at least not in the form it is in now. It would have remained an unpublished short story cluttering up my hard drive. So when you think about it I wouldn’t be where I am without going to conventions.
The important thing to remember though is going to conventions is not an instant recipe to landing a job with a publisher or finding a writing mentor. I never expected either of those things. I go to cons to meet other readers who love zombies as much as I do or to get the chance to tell a favorite author how much I love their work. I go for splash of inspiration and a kick of motivation for my writing. I go to hang out with people I work with, but who I rarely see in person. The other things are a nice bonus, but they aren’t the goal. The goal is to have a few days to totally immerse yourself in something you love and to be able to meet and talk to others who love it just as much, both fans and creators.
LRR: I heard that something you wrote for your high school graduation helped inspire you to become an author. Can you tell us more about that?
LC: Haha. Actually it was an underground student newspaper I wrote and edited with my best friend my senior year of high school, though it all ties in with the speech I wrote for graduation. Like many high school newspapers, the paper at my high school was … lackluster. No one read it. So my best friend and I decided that we could write a paper that people actually enjoyed. We hit up a few people to write articles (current events, sports, an advice column, horoscopes), wrote a few of our own, and put the whole thing together. Another friend’s parents let us run off 20 copies on the copier at their law firm. We topped the whole thing with a letter explaining what it was and asking people to pass it on for someone else to read if they enjoyed it. We expected a handful of our friends to read it. What ended up happening was a very low-tech version of the paper going viral. I had freshmen who I’d never spoken to telling me it was great and wanting to know when we’d have a new one ready.
Our English teacher, who happened to also be in charge of the school paper, was not amused. She had us pulled into a meeting with the principal and wanted to have me suspended because obviously I was the evil mastermind orchestrating a personal attack against her. After calming her down and having her step into the hallway, the principal asked if we’d used the school copiers to make our papers. When he found out we hadn’t, we were given a long lecture about how we’d hurt our English teacher’s feelings, and that we needed to apologize and could not make a second issue of our paper. I was pissed. People liked it. We weren’t saying anything bad about her or her paper, but because ours was more popular, we were wrong and had to be shut down.
English class was a little tense after that.
Fast forward a few months. It was graduation time and I wanted to give one of the speeches. Of course the English teacher who thinks I’m a bad element was in charge of them. Of course. I managed to secure a spot – honestly, I think it’s only because not that many people tried out and she had to have bodies – but she did everything possible to make it a horrible experience for me, including making snide comments about the quote I’d decided to use.
It was required that we use quotes in our speeches. Most of the other speakers chose several short, inspirational quotes or lines from popular songs, and peppered them throughout their speech. I decided to open with a selection from Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson (the paragraph ending with the sentence, “To be great is to be misunderstood.”). Reading the essay now, I’m sure she thought I chose that quote as one last jab at her, but I didn’t. I chose it, because it happened to be my favorite quote (still is) and it fit my thoughts and feelings about my graduating class (still does)
So how does all this bad teenage drama lead me to becoming an author? Years later I found that spoof newspaper in a box and it couldn’t have happened at a better time. I was depressed, didn’t know what to do with myself, and for the first time I was in a position where I could see writing as a valid career option. I read through our little paper, remembered how much fun it was to write, and decided that instead of just dreaming of writing, I should actually give it a chance.
So, thank you, Mrs. Scott, for running a boring paper, for pissing me off, and for making me feel like what I have to say is important and that, no matter the opposition, I should keep pushing and let my voice be heard.
LRR: We’ll end the interview with a fun Fill In The Blanks activity. Fill in the blanks: If you enjoy _____, _____ and _____, you’ve love The Weight of Chains!
LC: If you enjoy history, power hungry killers, and girls who can kick ass, you’ll love The Weight of Chains!