Last week the sad news came that Rachel Caine had died after her long, hard battle against cancer. Rachel Caine was a wonderful writer, and a wonderful woman, and she is sorely missed.
I first got to know Rachel Caine through her Morganville Vampire novels – fast-paced page-turners about what it’s like to go to college in a Texas town run by vampires. I worked at a bookstore then, and we had the great good fortune to have her come to a signing at our store.
In fact, I took one of the early calls setting it up. A woman on the phone asked to speak to my manager; well-trained, I asked who was calling. It was Rachel herself. “Rachel Caine! Rachel Caine! Rachel Caine!” I exclaimed, jumping up and down. Yes — I literally jumped in the air, and literally yelled in my excitement, right into the phone. Three times. Rachel just laughed her warm laugh.
She was just as warm and friendly in person – so down to earth, so fun to be around. We had the pleasure of hosting her twice. The second time was for Prince of Shadows, the story of Romeo and Juliet but also the story of Benvolio, Romeo’s friend and cousin, a master thief who becomes close with Rosaline, Romeo’s unrequited love. I loved Rachel’s Morganville stories, but this book is just a marvel. Told through Benvolio’s eyes, it immersed me in a Renaissance Verona that’s lush and gritty. The stories unfold from unexpected corners, and with surprising twists and turns and depths. It’s a gorgeous book.
Rachel’s writing, which I loved from the start, just kept getting better and better. I was hooked and grabbed by The Great Library series. She wove an entire world for this series, full of rich characters fueled their love of books, invention, and knowledge. The main character, Jess, is a book-smuggler in a society where it’s a mortal crime to own your own book. Because this world is run by a tyrannical Library which has absolute power over all books and all knowledge, and they enforce their law with terrifying automata – pitiless lions, sphinxes, and gods. The story moves from England to Egypt to the wild, rebellious America. I am not half doing these books justice. If you enjoy fantasy, especially with a steam-punkish edge, go, take a look yourself.
Rachel was a prolific writer, who wrote so much more than I have had a chance to read. There’s her Weather Warden series, adult urban fantasy about Wardens, “gifted with a supernatural ability to control the weather … sometimes. On a good day…But the Wardens—Earth, Weather, and Fire—work as much against each other as with, and their captive Djinn are on the constant verge of rebellion. Add to that a sleeping, but intelligent, Mother Earth, and this could get very messy.”* Outcast Season is a companion urban fantasy series about an outcast Djinn. These sound like books I have to explore.
And there are more. Stillhouse Lakeis the first in a series of adult thrillers. My husband and I started the audio book – it was gripping and intense. Too intense for us, honestly; it may be the audio format was just too vivid, or that we’re just not thriller people. The writing was excellent. If you like enthralling, chilling thrillers, go and check this series out.
There are even more fantasy, paranormal, and sci-fi novels and series to explore on her website. For anyone who loves great writing in these genres – go, have a look.
I got to know Rachel more through her Twitter. Even as she fought an aggressive cancer, she was warm, kind, passionate, and honest – an ally and advocate for writers and people in need in general. I learned still more about her through a tribute written by people who knew and loved her.
Rachel’s legacy lives on in the books she’s written and the lives she’s touched. It was my honor and pleasure to meet her, and to grow to know her in her writing. Readers and lovers of good writing, you can help keep her legacy alive. Find her books, and dive deep into new worlds.
You can find her books in bookstores, at Barnes and Noble, and at Amazon. Many of her ebooks are on sale now for a very good price. And you can watch her Morganville Vampire series on Amazon Prime.
I’m very pleased to continue my series of Running WildAnthology of Stories author interviews with Jenn Powers. Her story, “A Friend’s Text,” captured my senses with its vivid imagery and my emotions with the plight of the main character.
Gemma: Please give us a taste of what your story is about.
Jenn: My short story, “A Friend’s Text,” is about a woman who has an epiphany that helps lead her out of an unhealthy love affair with a married millionaire.
Gemma: Do you remember what the seed for this story was?
Jenn: Yes, I do. I fictionalized a similar relationship I had fallen into myself. During that relationship, I always felt like I was betraying my true self—the core of who I am. Once I decided to do the right thing and end the relationship, it was completely life-altering and empowering, even though the pain was immense. I think this scenario is, unfortunately, too common. I hope my story will inspire others to find it within themselves to do the right thing if they’re in an unhealthy relationship, which comes in many forms.
Gemma: That is truly a powerful mission, and I can see your story being a positive catalyst. Can you tell us a little about your writing history?
Jenn: I started journaling when I was 15 years old. It was a way for me to soothe my emotions since I was quite lonely and I didn’t have many people I could trust or open up to. Journaling turned into a survival mechanism. Being able to spill out my troubles onto the blank page became (and still is) very therapeutic.
Gemma: Writing can be such a healing process, and to be able to share that is a gift. I found out from your website that you’re an artist as well as a writer. Does art have a therapeutic effect for you like writing does?
Jenn: Absolutely. Whenever I’m being creative or out in nature, I lose myself. It’s very in-the-moment mindfulness. I’ve always struggled with anxiety, even as a child, and so, early on I found ways to tend to that. I figured out how to self-soothe with art and nature. I journaled throughout my teens and the writing sort of bloomed in different directions from there. I can say the same thing regarding art. Painting, drawing, photography. One feeds the other. And both feed me. It’s symbiotic.
Eventually, I played around with creative writing, such as flash fiction and short stories. By my 30s, I started to pursue it seriously and I got my first short story publication in 2012.
Gemma: I’d like to hear more about that.
Jenn: My first publication was in The MacGuffin in 2012, a short story about domestic violence. It’s titled “Some of Us.” I’m proud of this piece because it’s important to keep violence against women (and men) at the forefront.
Gemma: That’s truly something to be proud of, and a vital message. Can you tell a little more about your writing history?
Jenn: I kept at the craft, sporadically, while living life and working a multitude of jobs. Around 30 to 33 years old, I took writing more seriously. I wrote several days per week, and now, about eight years later, I have around 70 publications in literary journals. (Half art, half writing.)
Jenn: I earned an MFA in 2014 and I plan on applying to PhD programs this year.
Gemma: That’s impressive and exciting! What are some of your recent publications?
Gemma: Very cool to have so many stories published in so short a period! How has your writing changed over time?
Jenn: I’m continuously growing as a writer. It’s a constant learning process, and, for me, there’s no end point. I improve every year. And, like anything, the more you work at something, the better you get at it.
Gemma: What do you like best to write?
Jenn: Drama, thriller, mystery.
Gemma: What’s the biggest challenge for you to write?
Jenn: I tried writing in other genres, like romance. But it doesn’t work for me. I write about the dark stuff. I’ve experienced some crazy situations. I’ve been a victim many times over, but I’d rather call myself a survivor. As a survivor, I empower myself through writing, and I believe my past experiences have molded my style and preferences.
Gemma: And good stories, like “A Friend’s Text,” can empower readers in turn. When you get an idea for a story, what comes to mind first, the plot or the characters? Or does it vary from story to story?
Jenn: It varies from story to story. It might even be a feeling, a song, a landscape or place that makes me feel something. When I sense that dip of inspiration, I stop to explore where it’s coming from. Does it remind me of something or someone? Does it reconnect me with a lost emotion? My ideas come from the strangest places and my inspiration is super-fickle. I’ll sit there frustrated for hours, take a break and go for a walk or run, and an idea will hit me. Boom! Just like that. Easy-peasy. Taking the pressure off can stimulate creativity. And creativity needs to be organic, natural, flowing.
Gemma: I often get some of my best ideas walking, too. If nothing else, it can open up the channel and let the creativity flow, as you say. I read on your website that you have a fondness for botany and geology as well as music. I have a love of biology and botany that’s stuck with me since junior high, so that resonates with me! Do you have stories that particularly reflect botany, geology, or music?
Jenn: A driving force in my life is exploring nature, whether that comes in the form of hiking up Mt. Washington, driving solo cross country, or studying a birch tree throughout the seasons. Inevitably, this passion and interest has infused my life and work as a writer and visual artist.
Jenn: Growing up as an only child without too many close friends, I always found solace in nature. Early on, I’d collect pinecones and chips of Mica and bluets. I’d explore the forests and swamps near my neighborhood. I’d be outdoors as much as possible. I’d also draw, paint, and write since I was alone a lot. In school, ecology and biology classes felt very natural to study. It came easy, even though I majored in English and creative writing in college.
About seven years ago, I started studying botany. I love exploring the woods with a field guide to identify the plants, flowers, and trees. Mostly the New England area, and specifically, Connecticut. I like to observe how nature changes throughout the seasons. It’s like getting to know a friend. I focus on the anatomy, ecology, and taxonomy. It’s fun to nail down genus and species. It’s this entire plant kingdom that’s keeping us alive, and vice versa. A true symbiotic relationship. It amazes me how every little thing is connected. I just started getting into geology too—rocks and minerals of a particular location and the geological history of that location. For example, the plethora of rock walls crisscrossing New England.
So, as you see, this passion I have for the outdoors has formed a large part of who I am today as an adult, and, inevitably, it shows up in my work. I’ve used nature (or setting) as a character itself in many of my short stories. It’s a tool used to set the tone or mood. It can be used symbolically, metaphorically. It can literally be an extension of the protagonist or antagonist, or even a minor character. Mix that up with being a fan of nature writers, like Emerson, Thoreau, Muir, Dillard, Ackerman, and certain literary periods and movements, like the Romantics, Gothic, the Transcendentalists, the Beat Poets, and contemporary mysteries and thrillers, and that’s my writer-artist brain on fire. It’s nostalgia, melancholy, and the darker side of nature rolled into one.
Since I started writing a mystery-thriller in 2016, I’ve infused my novel with a lot of botany, and I believe it adds something truly special. I believe people want to feel that connection to earth, which is so easily lost in today’s fast-paced, superficial, materialistic society. They want real. They want to feel something that’s good for their soul. I also believe the more you know about a specific region, the better. You may not use all of that collected information but knowledge is never a waste.
Gemma: I totally agree – knowledge has worth for its own sake, and you never know what connections that will spark in your brain. You mentioned several authors before – what authors did you love most growing up? And what other authors have influenced your writing?
Jenn: Ironically, I didn’t read a lot as a kid. I loved being read to in school. I remember falling in love with the work by Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss. I liked the Sweet Valley High series too. I liked The Catcher in the Rye, The Outsiders, and Poe and Bram Stoker. But it wasn’t until college that my obsession with books began. As an adult, I’ve been most influenced by legends like Joyce Carol Oates, Flannery O’Connor, Truman Capote, John Cheever, Joan Didion, and Mark Twain. As for more recent authors, I read Gillian Flynn, Shari Lapena, Jennifer McMahon, Delia Owens, Janet Fitch, Karin Slaughter, A.J. Finn. I could go on and on.
Gemma: It’s a wonderful thing to have so many authors to love, and it makes it hard to name just a few! What are you reading right now?
Jenn: I’m reading several books right now. For fiction, I’m reading Burntown by Jennifer McMahon and Paint It Black by Janet Fitch. For nonfiction, I’m reading Kaufman’s Field Guide to Nature of New England, and, National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers (Eastern).
Gemma: I love reading field guides, too, and I actually use them sometimes even though I write fantasy! They really can help ground you in a place by learning about the other living things around you. Is there a place that you’ve lived that most influences your writing?
Jenn: Old New England. The snowy, gray winters. The green hills and rock walls. The homesteads and chimney smoke.
Gemma: Where I live in Pennsylvania has a lot in common, and the green hills, rock walls and centuries-old buildings are inspiring to me, too. Tell us a bit about what you are working on now.
Jenn: I’m writing a mystery thriller around 80-90K words. I’m in the rewriting phase. I should be done by spring and will be searching for agent representation. I’m also working on a collection of paintings/drawings based on the hometown in my novel. Here’s an example of where my passions overlap each other. Science meets art. Left brain meets right. I’m in love with nature, but I’m also in love with art. The fictional hometown in my novel is named Rockwall Springs, which is loosely based off Tolland, Connecticut, my own hometown.
Gemma: That is so cool! Will your artwork about the town be viewable by your readers?
Jenn: Yes, these photos and paintings will be available for anyone interested. I’ve had several photos of Rockwall Springs published in various literary journals. For example, three photographs were published in The Sandy River Review (September 2018) and one photo was published in Blue Mesa Review (Issue 39, 2019).
Gemma: What do you plan to work in next?
Jenn: As soon as I begin the querying process for this book, I will begin another mystery thriller. I would like to write them in succession. I’m also working on short prose, poetry, and art.
Gemma: It’s very impressive that you work on multiple projects at once. Will the next mystery-thriller be a sequel to the one you’re working on now, or are they stand-alones?
Jenn: That’s a good question. I’m open to either option. As of right now, it’s a stand-alone novel. But, I could definitely create more novels using the same characters and settings. If not, I’d like to write a mystery-thriller every two years or so. Once I find an agent and get a book deal, that’s my goal. I want to stay productive.
Gemma: How did you find out about this anthology?
Jenn: Honestly, I don’t remember. I am a subscriber to several outlets offering opportunities for creative writers. It might’ve been via Submittable. I am thrilled to have found this west coast press.
Gemma: How can readers connect with you and find out more about your work?