Alethea Kontis takes us to Haven, Kansas.
Posted November 5, 2016on:
New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Alethea Kontis is a princess, a fairy godmother, and a geek. She’s known for screwing up the alphabet, scolding vampire hunters, and ranting about fairy tales on YouTube. Her YA novels have won two Gelett Burgess Awards, and she’s twice been nominated for the Andre Norton award. She’s the author of Wild and Wishful, Dark and Dreaming, the AlphaOops series, the ongoing Arilland Fairy Tale series, and her short fiction has appeared in Apex Magazine, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Shimmer Magazine, Shroud Magazine, and various anthologies.
Alethea’s newest novel is Haven, Kansas. She was kind enough to let me in on all the behind the scenes secrets of how this accidentally humorous and on-purpose scary horror novel came about, her Traveling Sideshow, how she scored such beautiful cover art for this newest novel, and more. Learn more about Alethea at her website AletheaKontis.com, her Patreon site, or follow her on twitter @AletheaKontis.
And Alethea? If you’d like to place your next novel in Hell, here you go. While she’s brainstorming on that plot, let’s the rest of us enjoy this fantastic interview!
Little Red Reviewer: Haven, Kansas is first and foremost a horror story, but it’s also very humorous! Did you set out from the start to include funny lines, or did they just grow with the story as you were writing? What’s the trick to successfully mixing humor and horror?
Alethea Kontis: I’ve been writing regularly—and submitting for publication—since I was eight years old. Due to a genius-level aptitude for math and science (because: irony), I did not take a formal class on fiction writing until I was 27 (Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp). One of the things I learned in that class was, “Humor sells. But it is almost impossible to write, and write well, so just don’t do it.” So I didn’t do it. I didn’t even try. I wrote dialogue I felt was real, and true to my characters, and I moved on.
And then I started hearing back from readers. I mean, beyond the AlphaOops books, because they were supposed to be funny….but like, I remember one of the first reviewers for Dearest said how it was the most romantic and funniest novel I had ever written, and I was shocked. Really? Romantic, yes, but I didn’t write it to be funny! I just created a world that included seven brothers who talked smack to each other, like every bunch of guys I’ve ever hung out with. I felt much the same way when I started getting feedback about the humor in Haven, Kansas. Humor and horror? Who does that? But I’m one of those crazy people who will cry all the way up to a funeral and then almost burst out laughing in the middle of the ceremony. Humor and hurt and fear and love…they’re all feelings—true feelings—that we all feel, whether we have control over them or not.
Stand-up comedians will be the first to tell you: comedy is all about truth. I’ve studied quite a bit of stand-up over the course of my writing career, from George Carlin to Eddie Izzard, and I adapted the things I loved about them. (Like the “callback”—who doesn’t love a clever callback? I mean, Chekhov’s Gun is essentially the literary definition of a callback…but I digress.)
So, as it turns out, I guess I’m one of those people who can write funny, and write it well. SCORE! The down side? When I tell people that Haven, Kansas is “Lois Duncan meets Joss Whedon,” no one actually believes me. Heck, I probably wouldn’t believe me either. But there you have it.
LRR: Without giving us any spoilers, what was your favorite scene in write in Haven, Kansas? Which scene was the hardest to write, and why was it such a challenge?
AK: Goodness. Haven, Kansas really is the culmination of eleven years’ work and a LOT of revisions…the whole darned thing was the hardest to write. But I can definitely tell you this: First off, the original draft of Haven was a singular experience I don’t know that I could ever repeat. I wrote it over Fourth of July weekend in either 2004 or 2005, and I did it as a screenplay. I would write a ton, and then go lie down on the bed. Sometimes I fell asleep, sometimes I didn’t. And when I had the answer to the next part of the “movie,” I would jump out of bed and write some more. I did this for three days straight. And at the end, I had a 60-page script, which I ultimately used as the outline for the first draft of the book. But the whole process of actually creating the thing was just…magical.
The second thing I can tell you is about the scene that literally scared me to death as I was writing it. Of course, it’s the scene in the kitchen (the scariest scene in Jurassic Park takes place in the kitchen! What is it about the kitchen??). The moment I wrote first line of dialogue said by the creepy voice, I LEAPT off the couch and proceeded to turn on every light in my house because I was so FREAKED THE HELL OUT.
Much of Haven changed over the span of eleven years, but that one scene has been in every version since the very first novel manuscript (NaNoWriMo 2005, baby!). Because it was just too perfect from the get-go.
LRR: While Googling your new novel, I learned that Haven, Kansas, is a real town! What made you choose to place this particular story in a small farming town? And did they really burn a witch there??
AK: THIS IS A GREAT STORY.
So…Haven, Kansas was a town I invented. I thought, If I was a homesteader heading west…and I got tired and wanted to throw in the towel and just settle down…how far across the country would I make it, and what would I call my town? My answers were 1.) roughly about Kansas and 2.) Haven. It just made sense to me. Satisfied with this name, I then wrote the story in three days (see above).
Now, back in 2004-5, there wasn’t as much fun, juicy information floating about the internet as there is now. What we DID have was the Weather Channel. TWC had the most reliable, searchable database of real towns in America. Just for fun, long after I’d written that original screenplay, I punched “Haven” into the Weather Channel to see how many towns in America were called Haven. I figured three or four, anyway.
In the whole US of A, there is only one town named Haven.
And it is in Kansas.
You should have seen my face.
And then I went to Haven.
Talk about surreal. Like, seriously Stephen King-level trip.
When I went to visit my friends Mark and Tammy in Kansas, we discovered Haven was only two hours away, so they offered to drive me there for a visit. I couldn’t say no. Mark was originally from Kansas, so I spent the entire drive there and back interviewing him about his childhood (which informed yet another rewrite of the book). And visiting Haven…I’m not sure I can even explain what it’s like to physically BE in a place you thought you made up in your head. I took tons of pictures, and even more notes. (That’s also when I added the Author’s Note into the manuscript.)
But no. They never burned a witch there.
That I know of.
LRR: You’ve been playing with the idea for Haven, Kansas for over a decade. Tell us a little more about that journey from idea to finished novel.
AK: You have effectively just said, “tell us about ten years of your life.” I’m not sure your readers have that kind of patience! (But if they’re super interested, there are a lot of essays in Beauty & Dynamite about it.)
The idea came from this: Back in the day, I had this boyfriend who loved bad horror movies. BAD. Like, D-list horror films. The worse they were, the more he loved them. He would invite his friend Dave over to the house and they would watch this garbage and hoot and holler over popcorn. I—who never liked horror movies—would go in the other room and copyedit. (I did freelance work for Booksurge at the time. Want to experience some real horror? Spend a few years copyediting for a vanity press.)
This boyfriend’s idea of an original thought was to take every plot that’s ever been done and say, “But what if it was a woman?” (Yeah, I know. Not exactly the sharpest tool in the shed. I was a genius at MATH, remember? Calculus didn’t teach me how to pick a quality boyfriend.)
So one of the movies they watched was “Scarecrow Slayer.” (It’s terrible. Trust me.) It was so bad that I was groaning over the dialogue from the other room. At the end of the movie, my boyfriend’s brilliant insight was: “Oooh, but what if the scarecrow was a girl?”
Now that got my writer-brain thinking. Under what circumstances would someone create a female scarecrow? What purpose would it serve? And what on earth would compel it to suddenly go around and start killing people? I mulled over those questions for a couple of years, anyway. Kept them on the back burner. And then one Fourth of July weekend, long after we’d broken up, I wrote that screenplay.
Dave was the first—and I’m pretty sure the only—person who read it.
LRR: What’s your favorite thing about writing high intensity horror novels like Haven, Kansas?
AK: It’s the only one I’ve ever done, so…actually having done it is my favorite thing! Now, will I ever write more? I suppose that all depends on how well this one sells…
LRR: This book has some gorgeous cover art! I know something authors are invited to give input on the artwork, and other times not. Did you have any input on this beautiful and alluring cover art?
AK: One of the things I LOVE about having my own publishing company again is that I have full control over the cover art. After twenty years in the industry, I have a pretty good eye for it. I can’t seem to create it myself, but I recognize where the talent lies. And let me tell you what: Rachel Marks has got it. Not only is she an amazing YA author herself, but her eye for cover design is unparalleled. She’s designed every one of my books from Trixter (fantasy adventure) to Fish Out of Water (contemporary romance) to Haven, Kansas (horror). Her covers are works of art that capture not only the genre of the story, but the essence of the author as well. And capturing the essence of someone like ME is a major challenge.
Seriously. Just ask all my ex-boyfriends.
LRR: There are some fantastic photos on your blog of Princess Alethea’s Traveling SideShow from this year’s DragonCon. What in the world is the Traveling Sideshow? How did it come about? What’s one thing you wish more people knew about Princess Alethea’s Traveling SideShow?
AK: Princess Alethea’s Traveling Sideshow began in 2008, during my hour-long reading time slot at Dragon Con. I’ve attended Dragon Con since 1996. The only people I’ve seen pack a room for readings are Peter David and Peter S. Beagle. As my name didn’t begin with “Peter,” I figured I needed some sort of gimmick. What did I have? Well, 1.) a ton of industry contacts and 2.) a ton of writer friends who were talented in a myriad of areas other than writing. So I set it up like one of the impromptu variety shows I used to stage as a kid during the holidays for our next-door neighbors, or my grandmother’s Ladies’ Home Dem group, and I offered 40 tote bags full of quality publisher swag to the first 40 attendees.
That first year, we had dramatic readings and card tricks and Zombie Haiku…and standing room only. Since then we’ve had fire dancing and puppet shows and music and costumes, always costumes. Three years ago, Bev Kodak invited Princess Alethea’s Traveling Sideshow to have a permanent home on the YA Track Progamming. The rest, as they say, is history.
It is possibly THE MOST FUN I HAVE ALL YEAR LONG. And it gets better every year. This year I rewrote “The Little Mermaid” as a hilarious play and I got to play the Little Mermaid! I also got to be Hermione in Mari Mancusi’s “Hermione vs. Katniss” Rap Battle…I mean, come on. Wouldn’t it be YOUR favorite thing all year?
What I love most: that it grew out of something I used to do as a kid, just for fun. Because as much as I love writing, there are days when I really do miss being an actress.
LRR: You grew up working at your family’s movie theaters. Is there any connection between the hours you spent at movie theaters and the fiction you write?
AK: YES, ABSOLUTELY. It’s the dialogue. It’s all about the dialogue. I tell people that I get my dialogue from Jude Deveraux, and all the movies I watched growing up. My strength has always been dialogue. Dialogue has always come easy to me, because it’s what I’ve always known. Conversely, I had to work HARD at description. Incredibly hard. I still work at it. I don’t know if description will ever come easy. But dialogue? That’s just second nature.
One of the best writing tips I can give is to read a lot of books and watch a lot of movies AND PAY ATTENTION TO THE DIALOGUE. Stay true to life, and true to your characters, and everything else will usually fall into place. (See Question 1.)
Ha! How’s that for a callback?
LRR: Well played! Thanks Alethea!