Literature

Will Warren Hammond and Carrie Vaughn Go Where No Local Sci Fi Writers Have Gone Before?

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Carrie Vaughn didn't grow up like everyone else. "I was born on Mather Air Force Base near Sacramento, but we moved around a lot," she says. "California, Florida, Colorado, North Dakota, Maryland, back to Colorado. It's part of my identity. When people ask, 'Where did you grow up?,' I'm like, 'I didn't grow up anywhere.' 'Military brat' wound up being my identity."

When she says "military brat," she does so with pride. Her father flew B-52s in the Vietnam War, and he graduated from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. He met Vaughn's mother, a Colorado College student, at a mixer on the Academy campus. Whenever her father's duties called for it, she and her younger brother would relocate along with their parents. Her family was close-knit, but her childhood wasn't always easy. "You're always the new kid," Vaughn says. "I had a few really bad years in school, just from not fitting in and being bullied. It was kind of brilliant being a military brat, though, because when you're in that kind of situation, you just think, 'I only have to hang on for another year, because then we'll move. It'll be fine if I can just get out of here.'"

Fortunately for Vaughn, her parents provided another form of escape: science fiction. "My parents are both huge science-fiction and fantasy fans -- I was fed it," she says. "It was a revelation to me to go out in the world later and realize not everybody loves science fiction." Her father brought home movies to watch on the VCR, classics like Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green and Logan's Run. Her mother preferred books and introduced her to the novels of such science-fiction masters as Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke; she took her to see science-fiction legends Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison when they came to Colorado Springs to speak and sign books. But it was Star Trek that made the first strong impression on Vaughn, when she was four: "I don't remember the name of the episode, but it was the one with the rubbery, flying manta-ray thing that stuck onto Spock's back. It was horrifying. I was scared off of Star Trek for a very long time.

"The other things that we watched a lot of were Wonder Woman and The Bionic Woman," she adds, citing shows about two powerful female characters that would help shape Vaughn's signature creation, Kitty Norville. "Linda Carter's Wonder Woman was one of my first heroes."

Her imagination charged,Vaughn began writing stories of her own. "In second grade we got a creative-writing assignment to just 'write a story,'" she remembers. "So I wrote a story, and apparently it was above and beyond the expectation of the assignment. It was called 'Sally the Horse,' and basically it was my feminist retelling of The Black Stallion, although I didn't realize that at the time, of course. It took up three whole pages, and my teacher lost her mind over it. If you got an A on your spelling test, you'd get an M&M. Well, for that story, I got a whole handful of M&Ms. That planted the idea in my psyche: 'Hey, I can get paid for writing.'"

With no other options open to her -- "I sucked at sports. I couldn't sing. I had no other talents," she says -- Vaughn plunged into writing. By the time she'd graduated from Lewis-Palmer High School in Monument, in 1991, she was determined to become an author of science fiction and fantasy -- despite a lack of encouragement. "People would always tell me, 'You can't make a living as a writer. You just can't do it. You need something to fall back on,'" she says. "So I kept expecting that I would find something else that I wanted to do, but it never happened.

"My parents were great, though," she continues. "They were super-supportive. When I told my mom that I wanted to become a writer in eighth grade, she came home the next day with a stack of books from the library about how to write and how to get published. My brother works in theater and I'm a writer, and that says something. They never said no. The joke in my family was, 'You can do anything you want to with your life, as long as you can pay the rent.' That opened up so many possibilities."

Along with possibilities came rejections -- a whole decade of them. As Vaughn studied English literature as an undergrad at Occidental College and then worked at the now-defunct McKinzey-White Booksellers in Colorado Springs, she wrote and submitted short stories. Relentlessly. Her targets were Analog Science Fiction and Fact and Asimov's Science Fiction, magazines that her mother had kept around the house while Vaughn was growing up.

"I was sending out a story a week to a different publication, so that came to about 52 rejection slips a year," she says. "And I did that story-a-week thing for years." Her resolve was hardened by a tough realization: As much as she loved studying literature in college, academia was not friendly to her love of genre fiction. "I took a writing class as an undergrad," she remembers, "and on the first day, the professor said, 'I don't want anybody writing science fiction or fantasy in this class.' I was like, 'Why?' I loved science fiction, and that's what I wanted to write. But here's this person saying, 'No, don't do it.' So I spent a semester writing this angst-ridden literary stuff that's still so fashionable in the academic world. And I was miserable. I was, like, sneaking ghosts into my stories."

In 1999, Vaughn found a more amenable environment for the writing she loved: She attended the Odyssey Writing Workshop in Manchester, New Hampshire, one of the country's handful of prestigious workshops that focus exclusively on SF/F. For Vaughn, it was a chance to immerse herself in SF/F before diving into her master's program at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "I'd been working in the bookstore, but it got to the point where I knew I needed to do something radical or I'd still be working there when I was forty," she recalls. But she had another motive for going to New Hampshire for six weeks of grueling, round-the-clock writing and critiquing: One of her childhood heroes, Harlan Ellison, would be an instructor there.

"He was kind and generous," Vaughn says of the legendarily cantankerous Ellison, "but in a workshop situation, he's of the mind that if he can scare you away from writing, he's doing you a favor. He came into class one day after we'd given him stories to critique. He picked up one story and ripped it to shreds. Then he picked the next story and said, 'Compared to that last story, this one is the Mount Everest of bad.' And it was my story.

"It was rough," she continues. "I just completely shut down. I locked myself in the bathroom and cried for five minutes. But I remember thinking, 'He's wrong, and I'm going to prove it to him.' So I came back the next day with our next assignment. I told myself I was going to write the best story I could. When it was my turn for Harlan to critique it, he picked it up and said, 'This is good. This shows talent. Good job, kid.' On the one hand, I was like, 'Yay!' On the other hand, I was like, 'You bastard.' But it worked. He got me to come back and write an awesome story."

Sure enough, Vaughn sold her first short story soon after returning home from Odyssey. Emboldened, she began focusing on novels, even while in grad school. One of them was about a werewolf named Kitty. That novel, Kitty and the Midnight Hour, was bought by Warner Books. And in 2005 -- after a series of unsatisfying jobs that included working at the Colorado Renaissance Festival ("I was a counter wench at one of the steak-on-a-stick booths, slinging sodas," she says), at a "soul-crushing" temp job grading the essay portions of standardized tests taken by public-school students, and at an accounting office -- she decided to take the ultimate leap: She quit her day job and became a full-time writer.

She couldn't have picked a better time. Just as Kitty and the Midnight Hour was about to come out, a handful of similar, supernatural-themed books were blowing up, most notably Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse series (the inspiration for HBO's hit show True Blood). The term "urban fantasy" had been around for years, but soon it was repurposed as a neat marketing tool for books, like Kitty, that dealt with paranormal activities in the real world -- usually with female heroes. "The industry had identified this genre of urban fantasy, and my publisher decided to push my book as part of it," Vaughn says. "I got a crash-course education in urban fantasy. I suddenly had to look up all these other writers I was supposed to be in a genre with. I instantly had to become an expert in this genre I knew almost nothing about. I was doing all these interviews and being asked, 'So, have you always been into vampires and werewolves?' And my answer was, 'No, but I am now.'

"I never saw myself as someone who would be writing a long series, let alone a long series about werewolves and vampires," she continues. "That just wasn't where my brain was. At the same time, I loved the character of Kitty, and as I read more urban fantasy, I felt like I had a mission with her. Kitty is quite a bit different from a lot of the other protagonists in urban fantasy. She's not in any kind of kick-ass profession. She's not a bounty hunter or a detective. She doesn't like using weapons. She's a radio DJ who hosts a talk-radio show. I wanted to her to be nonviolent, even though she's a werewolf, somebody who wants to build community, which I think is exactly in keeping with her being a wolf. I saw a lot of violence in urban fantasy, a lot of unthinking violence, violence mistaken for strength. So many people were talking about the need for strong women characters, but it seemed that all the strong women characters were the ones who pulled out an Uzi."

Although Kitty and the Midnight Hour was part of the urban-fantasy pack, it stood out just enough to distinguish itself and charted on USA Today's Best-Selling Books list. Vaughn's publisher asked for more Kitty books. She obliged, delivering a new installment once a year like clockwork. The fourth novel in the series, 2008's Kitty and the Silver Bullet, hit the New York Times bestseller list, as have all of the Kitty books since. "It took me ten years to sell a short story, and I wrote three failed novels before I sold one. I had gotten used to struggling," she says. "I was braced for just getting little-bitty advances for the rest of my life. I had been trained to expect that, but that's not what happened. I just had silly, ridiculous luck."

Vaughn's dream had come true, but at a price. As much as she loved sharing Kitty's adventures, werewolves weren't the only thing she could write about. The problem was, aside from the wide variety of short stories she still wrote and published, her body of work didn't reflect her range. When her publisher showed no interest in buying her other, non-Kitty novels -- including Discord's Apple, a contemporary fantasy with a mythic edge, and After the Golden Age, a story about the daughter of two world-famous superheroes trying to find her own place in the world -- she made a move that might have been brave or crazy or both: She left her publisher.

Vaughn explains, "I got into an argument with my original publisher. They wanted me to do Kitty and nothing else. I wanted to do lots of things, not just Kitty books." Still, her decision to leave didn't come easy: "It was traumatic. Trying to explain it to people was tough, because it didn't make any sense. This publisher got me onto the New York Times bestseller list. Why would I let that go? The answer was, I had to leave so that I could have the kind of career I wanted. I wanted to be Carrie Vaughn the awesome writer, not the chick who writes the Kitty books."

She transitioned to her current publisher, Tor Books -- also the company that put out Hammond's KOP books -- in 2009. Tor not only picked up the Kitty series right where it left off, but the company published Discord's Apple and After the Golden Age (and its sequel, Dreams of the Golden Age, which came out earlier this year). Meanwhile, Vaughn had started writing young-adult fiction with the teen-centric fantasy novels Voices of Dragons and Steel. One of her greatest accomplishments, though, was scoring a story in the Wild Cards series helmed by George R. R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass. Her short story "Chosen Ones" appeared in 2008's Inside Straight, the first volume of the revival of the anthology series, and it began an association with the series -- and Martin -- that has endured. "I was a fan of the Wild Cards series almost from the start," Vaughn says. "It was my soap opera in high school. I had the books and the role-playing game and even the comics. I wrote Wild Cards fan mail to George in 1993. He wrote back. I still have his letter, and he still has mine."

Kitty, though, remains Vaughn's bread and butter. Part of the series' lasting appeal to her is that she gets to write a series set in her back yard, more or less. "When it comes to writing about werewolves, Denver is perfect," says Vaughn, who now lives in Longmont. "All the urban stuff is right there, but the wilderness is an hour away. I have the best of both worlds." As for Longmont itself, she couldn't imagine a better home base for a writer -- especially one who grew up relentlessly uprooted. "It really is idyllic. Longmont is a great place to live. My life is surprisingly ordinary. I get up, walk my dog, check the e-mail. There's an amazing amount of bureaucratic nonsense that has to be done as a writer -- updating the website and social media and proofreading things. I usually do my writing in the afternoon. And I write at home. I know some writers who can't get writing done at home, but I love it. I love having my tea and my dog. I can wear pajamas to work. Home is a really happy place for me.

"I won't say being a writer is easy, but it's doable," she adds. "It's funny -- once you get your book in stores, people stop pushing back at you. The people who were like, 'You'll never make it as a writer,' are suddenly like, 'Isn't it great you did it?'"

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Jason Heller
Contact: Jason Heller