RLM: What would you say are your greatest strengths as an author?
DP: Well, I started running Advanced Dungeons & Dragons way back in the 1980s, which taught me how to construct detailed storyworlds, complex political relationships, and internally logical magic systems.
RLM: Any weaknesses?
DP: I love worldbuilding, but I’m afraid I can get carried away, sometimes — my writing group keeps reminding me to spend more time exploring my characters’ emotions and relationships and less time describing some interesting little social custom or architectural quirk.
RLM: Along with writing, you are a university professor. How do you balance your work at the university and your writing?
DP: I wish I did! I’d be lost without summer break. I can edit and polish what I’ve already written while I’m working, but for real, original composition, I need long blocks of focused writing time that are really hard to find during the semester.
RLM: Writing can be a lonely and draining process. How do you keep spiritually strong and your mind well-oiled?
DP: I’m an introvert, so I can tolerate a lot of alone-time before I start to crave company. I try to keep my mind disciplined through meditation and martial arts; the former reminds me that most of my “problems” are only thoughts, and the latter reminds me that sometimes it’s best to stop thinking altogether. That’s not an easy thing for a professor to do, by the way — I can’t tell you how often I’ve gotten smacked in sparring practice while shuffling around overanalyzing the situation….!
RLM: I love learning about other writer’s processes. Tell me about yours, from first inspiration to completed manuscript.
DP: I usually start with a particular image or character I want to explore — for Clockwork Heart, it was a mental image of a young woman with mechanical wings flying through giant floating gears. Then I work backwards, figuring out what kind of culture needs to exist in order to support that image or concept, and what conflicts are likely to arise in such a culture. After I’ve determined the culture and conflicts, I can zero back in on that original image or character to figure out what’s going on.
I’m terrible at outlining novels — at best I have a general storyline worked out, but it’s liable to change as soon as I begin to write. I try to write my first draft with minimal backtracking — National Novel Writing Month has taught me to plow forward and simply make notes wherever I need to go back to fix something, rather than getting hung up on one scene after another. By the time I’m done with the first draft I usually know a lot more about my world and characters than I did when I started, so the second draft involves building in detail and backstory and tweaking the plot for better pacing and characterization. I usually write several drafts before I’m ready to show my manuscript to anybody else.
RLM: Your Clockwork Heart Trilogy is an intriguing mix of steampunk and outright fantasy. What led you to set Taya’s adventures in a world of your own making rather than the typical steampunk setting of the Victorian era?
DP: Early steampunk was very much a gritty, realistic alternate-history genre, but I didn’t feel like retconning the entire history of Earth just to tell the story I wanted to tell! Overthinking academic that I am, I would have tried to make everything as historically accurate as possible, and the novel would never have gotten written. Plus, I wanted to feature a female protagonist (almost every early steampunk protagonist was male) without having to deal with real-world prejudices. Creating my own world allowed me to focus on the story without all the distractions and problems that arise when you write alternate history.
For the record, though, genre-bending is a marketing headache. When Clockwork Heart was first published in 2008, steampunk pretty much equaled Victorian England, fantasy equaled monsters and magic, and romantic steampunk didn’t exist. So a steampunk romance set in a magic-free fantasy world? My first editor really had her work cut out for her! Today, of course, none of that is unusual anymore.
RLM: Taya’s story has a romantic element running through it. What, in your opinion, is key to creating a convincing and satisfying love story?
DP: I expect everybody has a different idea of what makes a love story convincing and satisfying. I like cute romances with mismatched individuals who eventually discover common ground, rather than angsty romances full of misunderstandings and drama. It seems to me that in real life, the couples who stay together over the long term usually do so because they’ve become close friends who respect each others’ quirks and differences, rather than because they are constantly overwhelmed by some torrid passion that sweeps them along powerlessly in its wake….
RLM: You also do quite a bit of horror writing. How does your approach to writing horror differ from fantasy?
DP: I really love dark fantasy — it’s the best of both worlds! I suppose I lean more toward writing fantasy than horror, though. Let’s face it — cell phones are the bane of contemporary horror. How often does a writer have to resort to the cliché of cutting off or blocking cell phone coverage, or supernaturally draining their batteries, in order to set up a scary situation nowadays? Being able to take and share a monster’s photo with the rest of the world and instantly get texts and tweets back from cryptozoological experts removes a lot of the fear factor. Since fantasy offers more freedom, my horror stories usually have a strong fantasy element and are often set in some alternate history or world. My completely contemporary horror novel An Agreement with Hell does end up mentioning college students uploading videos of the monsters to Facebook, though; I just couldn’t see any reason why they wouldn’t, if they lived long enough!
RLM: So, you once served as editor for an ezine called The Harrow. What was the impetus behind that ezine?
DP: Publishing has always been my backup career choice; there’s something almost as satisfying to me about editing and publishing somebody else’s work as in seeing my own work in print. I created The Harrow (after Kafka’s machine) in 1998 after grad school, while I was working on a trade magazine and looking for a teaching job. The Harrow allowed me to combine my love for horror and fantasy, my grad-school experience with peer-reviewed journals, and my interest in website design all in one place. The zine lasted eleven years, and by the end we had a great staff of all-volunteer editors and reviewers who provided detailed feedback on every submission and encouraged promising new writers to revise their work until it was accepted. I still love hearing that one of “my” writers has sold a new story or novel! But eventually running The Harrow became more work than fun. We closed it down in 2009 and two of us spun off The Harrow Press for a few more years, which published several horror anthologies before being shuttered.
RLM: Do you believe it will ever come alive again?
DP: I really enjoyed working on The Harrow and The Harrow Press, but right now my academic responsibilities and my own writing projects are taking up all my energy. I can’t imagine that changing for at least the next four years, which is when I finally rotate out of my position as department chair.
RLM: What do you want to have accomplished in your career when it’s all said and done?
DP: I’ve accomplished my childhood dream — ever since I can remember, I’ve wanted to write a novel and see it in print, and now I have. Every book since Clockwork Heart has just been icing on the cake! I don’t have any grandiose career ambitions; I just want to share my worlds with other people, and I hope they enjoy what they find there. That’s enough.
RLM: What can we expect next from you?
DP: Right of Rule is a political fantasy set in a world of genetically reinscribed humans and biotechnological saurian overseers. The three main characters are a lovesick state executioner whom everybody fears and shuns, a bad-tempered young temple initiate whose father the executioner executed years ago, and a flustered lord mayor who’s trying to keep the capital city together while factions fight over the nation’s throne. You can find the list of dramatis personae, a city map, and some conceptual drawings up at Right of Rule. I think I’m on the hundredth draft or something right now, but I’ve sworn a sacred oath to finish it and get it to my agent by the end of the summer!