The Horror Tree Presents… An Interview with Marlena Frank
Selene – Welcome to The Horror Tree, and thanks for agreeing to this interview. First, tell us a bit about yourself.
Marlena – Thank you so much for having me! My name is Marlena Frank and I’m a YA Fantasy/Horror author. I’ve been writing short stories in both horror and fantasy since 2010. Last year I released my YA Horror novella, The She-Wolf of Kanta, through Aurelia Leo. It made a splash for a month on NetGalley and got some fantastic reviews on Goodreads. Just last month, my debut novel, Stolen, was released through Parliament House Press. It hit the Amazon Bestseller list on release day! I was super thrilled as you can imagine!
When I’m not writing or thinking up stories, I’m an active member of the Atlanta cosplay community. I’ve also recently become active in the HWA Atlanta chapter. I also own three goofy cats.
Selene – You mainly seem to write in the fantasy and horror genres. What about each appeals to you?
Marlena – Sometimes the environment of my horror pieces, especially the really gritty worlds, can feel like going underwater for a bit to get hold of those characters’ perspectives. Those worlds need to be dark, but once I’m done with a piece like that, I tend to lean toward lighter works. Now note, my fantasy is hardly light, it’s just less gory and intense. I write some pretty dark fantasy, as has been noted in several reviews in Stolen. I simply lean toward a darker edge.
Selene – You also work a lot in YA literature. What are some differences between writing for a younger audience, and writing for adults?
Marlena – When I’m writing for YA literature, I really try to dive into that perspective – into the action and into the moment. For that kind of fiction, I think that’s very important. It’s a very in-the-moment kind of writing style. Not to say that there isn’t reflection and change, I just mean that most teens won’t see the warning signs that an adult might. They may be caught up in the moment, or in their head, or on that conversation a few pages back. An adult may be pulling on their own experiences to help them determine what to expect and how to react. A teen is more instinctual.
Selene – You have a new book out as of January 2018, Stolen. Tell us about it.
Marlena – Stolen is the first book in a YA Fantasy series coming out from Parliament House Press. It features Shaleigh, a sixteen year old teen, who struggles to deal with her father’s delusions. She struggles with frustration and anger because she misses out on what most people her age are doing. She feels like her father holds her back, so instead explores empty buildings with her friends and takes photos. When she gets kidnapped and taken into another world with flying bicycles and minotaurs, she finds herself fighting to get home.
In the kingdom of the Garden, Shaleigh must prove that she’s the reincarnation of a long-dead ruler, not because she believes it, but because it’s her only chance to survive. With the help of a trespassing faerie, a stoatling, and a living statue, she hopes to outwit her captors. Only things don’t quite turn out the way she plans.
Selene – I haven’t had a chance to read Stolen yet, but going by the Amazon blurb, you’ve created an interesting world. How do you approach world building, since it’s so important in the fantasy genre?
Marlena – I spent years on the world-building in Stolen, and during that time spent a lot of time on world-building forums. I realized that when building a fantasy world, it’s possible to spend all your time doing just that and never have time to write. So there’s a trick I learned during that time that it’s best to only build the piece of the world as it becomes necessary in the story. Sure, there are concepts of places that exist throughout the world, but the details don’t get pinned down until I need them. This prevents me from just building the world forever.
Selene – I noticed there’s a lot of crossover in your work, as well. It’s not just a fantasy, it’s a detective mystery in a fantasy realm. It’s not just a vampire story, it’s a vampire western with a werewolf protagonist, etc. How do you approach plot with so many plates spinning?
Marlena – With my crossover stories, I usually start with a certain flavor in mind. When I wrote the fantasy noir short story, “The Mysterious Disappearance of Charlene Kerringer”, I made it as kind of an homage to the noir style that I enjoyed and just mixed in my fascination of trolls. I wrote Night Feeders, a supernatural western novella, in a spark of inspiration. I’ve actually got a book and a half continuing forward with those characters on my to-finish list. It’s simply part of the world that comes to me. It was the same way in The She-Wolf of Kanta when I considered how a werewolf problem may be turned around for an energy solution, and then gave it a feminist twist.
I don’t see it as a lot of juggling, I simply see it as part of the story that came to me as a package deal. Colton Fen, my werewolf detective in the Old West, couldn’t exist in any other world. Just like Mercy Pinkerton, the daughter of a werewolf hunter in The She-Wolf of Kanta, could exist in no other way.
Selene – You have some short stories that build on and add to the worlds created in your novels. Why revisit the characters for other adventures?
Marlena – I was a fan-fiction writer for many years before I started writing original stories. I wrote those stories, several of them easily book-length, because I wanted to see what happened to characters I loved. Sometimes I wanted to see them in different settings, or I wanted to flesh out something that happened in their history. I see my short story extensions of my novels to be the same way, fleshing out those characters so that readers can learn more about them.
Mawr, a living library statue in Stolen, is regretful of what happened in the past. However he wasn’t always the sad, lonesome lion, and I wanted to share that with my readers. I wanted them to get to see what he was like before those events occurred. “Beach Trip”, a short story posted up on Parliament House Press’ website, is a bittersweet addition, but I think it really helps to flesh out who he is. Considering how many people have commented either in reviews or directly to me how much they love him, I felt like it was a kind step to take as an author. I love my fans, okay?
Selene – Here’s a funny coincidence. I know someone whose teenage children are named Colton and Teagan, two of the same names as your characters. How do you choose your character names?
Marlena – What are the odds of that! I love it!
So my method for coming up with character names really depends on the book that I’m working on. Colton is my werewolf detective protagonist in Night Feeders. For that book, I generally wanted authentic names for the time period. Those events happen in the late 1880s to early 1890s in the Old West. To come up with Rennick’s name, for example, I looked up a listing of famous cowboys in the Old West, and Rennick was a middle name that I really liked. Colton’s was different. Years ago I adopted a smoky gray, long-haired kitty. We named him Salem, but his original name was Colton. It didn’t suit him, but it suited Colton just fine!
In Stolen, the world’s mythology is very Gaelic inspired, so it was important for me to choose a name that spoke of that influence, especially for the Faeries in that world. Teagan’s was a difficult name because I wanted it to have some similarity to another character’s name in the book. It’s meaning is “little poet” and I think it makes a good bit of sense for his character!
Selene – Other than just the names, how do you develop a character, their traits, and what motivates them?
Marlena – I usually start with the protagonist and work to get a handle on them. With Shaleigh in Stolen, this was the hardest part for me because I didn’t have a full grasp of her character in early drafts. I had to rewrite the opening at least three times before I started to understand her voice and what makes her so unique. Then as I add characters, I get a feel for their personality and their voice. Basically every character has their own way of speaking, their own approach to things (good and bad), and you have to take that into account.
Selene – In your bio, you mentioned an obsession with monsters of all types. You’ve written about werewolves in The She-Wolf of Kanta, and vampires in other stories. These are well-known and well loved creatures, so how do you keep these monsters fresh and interesting?
Marlena – I work hard to make my “classic” monsters unique. I’ve written fiction where they’re in the classic style (check out my short story “Against Our Better Judgment” for that), but I know how those stories go and I know how those characters feel. I usually sit down and consider what new ways they could be part of a story or a world. In The She-Wolf of Kanta, werewolves are used as a power source. In Night Feeders, vampires are victimized and tortured by a bloodthirsty sheriff. I usually make my monsters sympathetic. Even if it’s difficult to do, I usually put some piece in there that makes them somewhat relatable, because even the worst of monsters have their reasons.
Selene – A standard horror author question: Where do you get your ideas? Is there something in real life that inspires you?
Marlena – One YA Horror novel that I’m currently querying, The Seeking, had a full scene that came to me in a dream. I scribbled it down in my journal, but then over the next few days, I started piecing together how that scene could fit into a bigger, darker world. For my darker horror pieces, the inspiration usually comes from a dream. I have some pretty weird nightmares that used to terrify me as a child, but now I see them as opportunities.
For my lighter fantasy pieces, I usually get a particular scene in my head that just won’t go away. It’s either from a picture prompt (like Stolen was), or from a book or series that I love. I have a habit of taking something I enjoy and palming it back and forth in my brain until it turns into something else.
Selene – Another standard “author” question. What writers do you consider an influence on your work?
Marlena – I’ve had several books that have really heavily impacted me over the years. It’s hard to point at a particular author because I read so widely, but there are books that have really left me stunned with what can be done with a story or with words. Here are a few:
- The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle – This book is just beautiful imagery from beginning to end, and I remember having to put it down occasionally just because it was daunting as an author to see someone write so beautifully. How do you possibly come close to that?
- Bird Box by Josh Malerman – This really made me see my love of dystopian novels in a whole new light. I was almost in tears when I read scenes from this book (some of which didn’t make it to the show unfortunately). I’m a big fan of Lovecraftian horror, about fearing something that isn’t completely understood, and there are scenes in this book that capture that wonderfully for a modern audience.
- The Dark Tower by Stephen King – I was blown away by the abstractness of this book when I first read it. I loved the western feel mixed with the science fiction vibe that it had, and was fascinated by the horror undercurrents.
- Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke – Again back to not only abstract work but also to a magic system that isn’t even fully realized at the start of the novel. Then you have a fascinating take on Irish faerie magic woven into it and it’s really just a unique book that I immediately wanted more of once I finished, but couldn’t find much that matched its strangeness.
Selene – Your two most recent blog entries are about writing intense and emotional scenes. What’s the saddest or most emotional scene you’ve had to write?
Marlena – Death scenes are some of the hardest pieces to write about. It doesn’t matter if it happens “on screen” or “off screen”, it still hits hard and the impact doesn’t leave for the rest of the book. It leaves a heavy feeling that can’t be shaken off. It’s a game changer in a novel and reverberations from it can be felt throughout the rest of the piece, sometimes through the rest of the series. I can’t give any more detail than that, but I do feel like I come out of a fog when I’ve finished writing dark scenes like that. That’s when I know that it’s good.
Selene – In addition to the release of Stolen, you have some upcoming events in 2019. Tell us about those.
Marlena – I have a lot of events coming up in 2019! I’m going to be a panelist at the Alabama Book Festival in Montgomery, AL on April 13th. I’m going to be with several other amazing YA Fantasy authors so I’m really looking forward to that! I’m going to be doing signings around McDonough, GA throughout the year, and then in June I’m headed to BookCon up in New York City. Some of my Parliament House Publishing author friends got together and we all pitched in. We’re going to be manning a booth and selling/signing copies. It’s going to be a blast!
Selene – Do you have anything planned for the rest of Women In Horror Month?
Marlena – By the time I’m finishing up this interview, the month’s done, so I don’t. However I do have plans for next February. I’m working on the sequel for Stolen right now and it’s going to be a much darker novel compared to the first. It’ll definitely be in the Dark Fantasy novel, especially with the inspiration from The King in Yellow and the creatures of Irish mythology together. I’ll be venturing into some abstract horror territory and I’m excited about that! I also have my YA Horror novel that I’m querying currently, The Seeking, which is an isolated dystopian world protected by disturbing tree creatures. Again, a very dark fantasy vibe. Hopefully I’ll have more info out about those next February and be giving some sneak peeks!
Also I tend to celebrate horror year-round since I’m part of the Atlanta chapter of the HWA. There are some absolutely incredible authors in our quickly growing group, and there are always events going on with them. So expect to see those year-round too!
Selene – Speaking of WIHM, and writerly influences, during this month I like to get lists of other writers’ favourite women authors (horror especially). Some of the most popular YA authors (Suzanne Collins, JK Rowling, etc.) are women, as well. Who are your favourites?
Marlena – I would be a terrible person if I didn’t include Shirley Jackson on this list. I first read The Haunting of Hill House in 7th grade and I vividly remember loving the book. Every assignment we had on it I absolutely enjoyed, even though my classmates didn’t always like it or appreciate the ending. Between that book and “The Lottery”, I’m pretty sure my love of dystopian novels and horror was born with her work.
I also have to mention Anne Rice’s early Vampire Chronicles novels. Those I would read voraciously all through High School, really loving the tapestry of the world and the uniqueness of the characters. The imagery of those novels and the sorrow expressed in them have stuck with me for years.
I started writing original work through short stories, and had the pleasure of finding some amazing female horror authors that way. One of the most incredible stories I read was “Soft-Walker” by Christine Morgan, published in Not Your Average Monster Volume 1 by Bloodshot Books. It features skin walkers and a society battling against the gods of plague and famine brought to life by her beautifully vivid writing style. I had to get a copy of her book, White Death, when it came out. Especially since it covered the Great Blizzard of 1888, and the fantastical monster the wanageeska that caused it. Her work is woefully unrecognized.
Selene – What advice would you give someone who is just starting out?
Marlena – The most honest advice I can give is not to give up. This can be a difficult industry to build a following in, especially today when there are so many other things vying for a reader’s time. It took me nine years of toiling away before my first book, Stolen, was published. Yes, I had several short stories published during that time, but I had countless rejections too. My short stories have been rejected, so have my novellas, and my novels. I’ve had many books shelved because they were rejected so many times that I gave up on them, but I never gave up on writing. Even when I tried to give up on it, I simply couldn’t. Some of those books I gave up on are now getting some interest, so maybe it just wasn’t the right time, or maybe I just didn’t have the skillset that I do now. Just don’t give up, because otherwise you’ll never have that wonderful moment of your friends debating a scene in your book, or getting messages out of the blue from someone who adores your characters. It’s a wonderful feeling, but it takes a lot of persistence to reach it.
Selene – Thanks again for taking some time for this interview. Do you have anything else you’d like to talk about?
To check out more of my work or to follow the progress of my current WIPs, check out the links below!
Facebook Street Team: http://facebook.com/groups/227178644681622
Mailing List: http://MarlenaFrankAuthor.com/mailinglist
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Selene MacLeod is a night operator and sometime writing hobbyist. She holds a BA in Communications from Wilfrid Laurier University and resides in Kitchener, Ontario. Her work has appeared in several horror and crime fiction anthologies, most recently Shotgun Honey, Drag Noir (Fox Spirit Books); and the upcoming Freakshow: Freakishly Fascinating Tales of Mystery and Suspense (Copper Pen Press), and Tragedy Queens (Clash Media).She’s most excited about editing a charity anthology for Nocturnicorn Books called Anthem: A Tribute to Leonard Cohen, due out late 2017.