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Collecting Science Fiction

The Virtues of Hard Work
and A Thick Skin

by Timothy Doyle

#33, 27 December 2004

An Interview with Sheila Kelly

There are few joys in life to compare with discovering a new author, one whose inventive imagination, writing skills, and grasp of character combine to produce a fast-paced and entertaining book. Indeed, one of the few things I can think of to top that thrill is to find out that the author has written six previous SF novels. This was the predicament I was pleased to find myself in this month while interviewing S.L. Viehl and reviewing her latest book, Bio Rescue (New York: ROC, 2004).

S.L. Viehl is one of several pseudonym's employed by Sheila Kelly, who has released 26 books since her first novel was published in 2000, including seven SF novels as Viehl. And no, that's not a typo - that's 26 published books in four years. Reading Sheila Kelly's biography, I'm inclined to compare her with Janet Evanovich, a romance writer who has crossed genres into the mystery field with the very popular Stephanie Plum series. Both Kelly and Evanovich have created strong, capable and independent female characters who also make mistakes and suffer self-doubt. They are, in short, very real and sympathetic characters, even if they happen to be surgically enhanced hybrid albino aquatic aliens!

Sheila Kelly must be one of the thickest skinned and hardest working authors writing today. In the nine years prior to her first sale (the SF novel Stardoc; New York: ROC, 2000; PBO), Kelly wrote 14 romance novels and received over 1000 rejection letters. Interestingly, she attributes her early rejection and current success to the same reason: lack of contact with other professional writers. On the one hand, without professional contacts, Kelly's manuscripts inevitably wound up in publishers' slush piles - huge stacks of unsolicited manuscripts that are almost universally doomed to rejection. It eventually took a friend with contacts in the publishing field to get one of Kelly's science fiction manuscripts (as S.L. Viehl) in the hands of an actual editor, who immediately bought two of her novels.

On the plus side, Kelly's status as a self-taught novelist has freed her from the arbitrary limitations and conventions that many authors operate within - to "color outside the lines" as she says in an interview with Rick Kleffel

Kelly was absent the day they told authors to only work in one genre and only on one book at a time. Her work schedule often includes three or more different books in as many different genres.

Make no mistake - Sheila Kelly's writing will not appeal to all SF fans. Some have complained that her science sometimes falls short, others that her aliens are too human; and still others have characterized the books as SF-lite. Of course, SF readers are, by and large, highly opinionated, accomplished nit-pickers (present company included). Kelly knows the odds of pleasing all of the people all of the time and doesn't have time to waste on the attempt. She writes to please herself, and that's just fine with the growing number of her fans.

Following is my interview with Sheila Kelly.

TD: How do you see the relative importance of character versus plot in your writing, and does this change depending upon the genre in which you are writing?

SK: Personally I connect better with people versus events or circumstances; it's the same when I'm writing. My characters are the messengers and the message, while the plot is more like a vehicle for them and the reader. I love a powerful, fast-moving plot, and I work hard to make the ride worthwhile for the reader, but it's always the characters that make any novel come alive for me.

TD: In the four years since your first publication (Stardoc; New York: ROC, 2000), you have published 26 books under five names in five genres, including seven SF novels set in the StarDoc universe. While some of this output is explained by a backlog of books written prior to your first sale, this is still an impressive achievement. As an author, what are the risks and benefits of simultaneously working on multiple projects in different genres?

SK: The greatest risks to a multi-genre writer are probably mental exhaustion and an inability to maintain publication quality in your work. It's difficult enough to write and sell a single novel per year; you have to be wired a little differently to write and sell eight novels per year. If you can handle the speed and pressure, however, you generate a great deal more income - enough to quit your day job and write full-time - and you have a better chance of rapidly building a large and diverse readership.

TD: Is this diversification a deliberate part of your business model?

SK: Yes. As an aspiring writer, I saw that unless you're an overnight success and sustain that success, the single-genre approach doesn't work. With publisher advances and title slots dwindling, competition always increasing, and chain booksellers ordering to the net, a novelist now almost has to diversify to have a viable shot at a writing career.

TD: Another SF author I was reminded of while reading Bio Rescue (last comparison, I promise, and I'm not even going to mention James White's Sector General stories) is C.J. Cherryh, a favorite author of mine. Like Cherryh, you create believable and logically consistent alien phenotypes and cultures, and the cooperation among and conflict between these cultures fuels much of the plot. Even more interesting is the "nature vs. nurture' dynamic you introduce as individual characters run counter to their species stereotype. How important is the message that the individual has the potential to develop outside the boundaries imposed by the expectations of others in your writing and in your life?

SK: It's everything. In my life, it dates back to racial desegregation in South Florida, which started when I was twelve. I was on the front lines, and like my classmates, got caught between the white and black adults as they battled over us. No one thinks of the children at a time like that; they're too caught up in their own hatred and bigotry. It was a horrible time, and both sides did things that were unforgivable, but I think in the end it freed me and most of my generation from carrying on the burden of their hatred. It certainly had a profound affect on me as an individual and a writer.

Pushing and going beyond genre boundaries is very natural for me. I'm a self-taught novelist, and I never met another writer until after I was published. Back then I didn't know about all the genre rules and restrictions which most writers adhere to, and they still don't make much sense to me.

TD: 2005 will see the introduction of the Darkyn series, published through Signet NAL. Darkyn is conceived as a dark fantasy series built upon the premise that humans are the monsters and vampires the victims. In support of this, you recently launched the Darkyn Website which includes plot summaries of three novels to be published between March 2005 and August 2006. Do you typically plan out stories this far in advance?

SK: I usually plan out my writing schedule about two years in advance. I like mapping things out and being well-prepared.

TD: Will the Darkyn novels be tangentially related novels set in a common world, or will the relationship be more direct?

SK: The Darkyn novels will be more of a chronicle series, with the same world and ongoing conflict, but featuring new protagonists in each novel. The storyline is also very expansive and flexible, so I can develop it into standalones, spin-offs and crossover novels as well.

TD: Your hope is that the Darkyn series will "rescue vampires from the boudoir of immortality and let them have a life." Could you elaborate on this?

SK: These days the vampire fiction being published is mostly erotica or romance. I have nothing against it; I write romance myself. Yet somewhere along the way I feel that we've lost the mystery and eeriness of vampires and turned them into immortal boy-toys. When you consider how diverse and interesting vampire mythology is and what a novelist could potentially do with it, that's pretty sad.

TD: What can your SF readers expect in the StarDoc universe?

SK: Afterburn, the sequel to Bio Rescue, is presently in production and will be released in September '05. After that, StarDoc book six, Rebel Ice, and book seven, ClanSon, will be published. My patient readers have been waiting three years for the series to continue, so I know this will make them happy. All five of the original StarDoc novels are still in print, too, so I hope it will help some new readers discover the series.

TD: You have stated that you don't sign your books. Do you have a philosophical or moral objection to signing, or is there some more prosaic reason behind this?

SK: I wish I had a better excuse, but signing books makes me feel utterly ridiculous.

TD: Your hometown of Orlando was hit hard by three hurricanes this past summer. How much of an impact did this have on you? Any plans to incorporate this experience into a future novel?

SK: We had just moved into our new home one month before the first storm hit. The house sustained a considerable amount of damage, and water leaks destroyed two of my computers. That combined with the power outages forced me to write most of Afterburn on a battery-operated PDA. I will definitely be using the experience for a mystery series I'm developing and setting here in Central Florida.