Wednesday, December 16, 2015

I was on the talk radio! You can listen to the podcast

Here's the link to the Red River Radio show that I was interviewed on for an hour (the other guest had an emergency, so I just kept talking when she didn't show up!)

Here is a SORT OF transcript of the show, or at least what I meant to say on the show. Some of this I said, and parts of it I didn't, but I thought it might be amusing for you. She didn't ask me all of the ten questions I prepared at the end, oddly enough. . . .


I've been writing since I could hold a crayon.

Stories (or what passed for them) since I had chicken pox the second week of first grade (ruining my perfect attendance record) and Daddy brought me Robin Hood and Toby Tyler and other books from the library that he'd read as a child, and told me for the first time that books didn't drop from the sky fully formed like the Bible and the CRC Mathematical Tables had, but were written by mortals. However, Mama said that "storying" was "lying" ("storying" was one of her Southern words for lying) and it took her a long time to approve of fiction. Basically, until I was well into my thirties. Meanwhile, she told the child me that my plots and ideas were too juvenile, so I launched into a study of English grammar and usage and of literature that has stood me in good stead. My father, a mathematics professor and rocket scientist, died when I was fifteen, so by the time I was ready for college, my family told me I must major in a scientific field so I would have something to fall back on and MAKE MONEY.

Born here in Dallas and lived in Houston while Daddy worked at NASA and then back to Dallas where he taught at UTD and worked at defense contractors.

I graduated from Southern Methodist University a National Merit Scholar (how else could I have afforded it) with bachelor's degrees in computer science and in mathematics (with a minor in English); you'd have to look under Donolda Denise Gerneth, because that was before I married into the famous Welsh Weeks family. So my teachers from elementary school through high school who had such high expectations of me, this is how I turned out. For many years, I worked as a software engineer in defense and telecom. But I was always "really" a writer. All the while I was scribbling, scribbling.

I'm one of those two-headed authors--not two-faced--I write under two names, using a pen name for YA fantasy.

I play the piano and have tutored math. Used to belly dance and as a kid was a baton twirler (but no fire batons ever again, by order of the Fire Department)

Amateur radio operator call sign N5UTI (UTI! You women are laughing because you're a woman and you know what doctors mean by that, but in Morse code UTI is a palindrome and I have an affinity for palindromes. I prefer University Trained Idiot or, as one fellow ham came up with, Usually Talks Incessantly.)

Until last week, I was the sole caretaker of my 85-year-old mother, who has been disabled for years but was diagnosed with dementia last January and has spiraled down quickly. She can no longer stand, and has serious confusion and panic . . . they wouldn't let me bring her home from her Thanksgiving Day hospital visit. The doctor insisted on sending her to a nursing facility, and it has been an agonizing adjustment for both of us. I hadn't realized how difficult and all-consuming it has been taking care of her. She required every moment of my time and I could write and clean house only in stolen moments. She wouldn't talk to me when I called to tell the facility staff to listen in here, by the way. She's angry with me for not coming over to pass along my viral bronchitis and sinus infection to all the residents. But oh well.

My husband and I have been married *bleep* years and live in a northern suburb of Dallas, Texas, with our beloved yappy Pomeranian, Teddy.

I wrote my first book when I was four. It was a coloring book with captions. Pictures of a bug, our car, our house, and even God. (You couldn't see anything because He was behind a HUGE cloud, so all you saw was the foot of the throne under the cloud and the crown sticking up over the top.) Taped together. Made of that old onionskin typing paper. My mother had this up until a few years ago when her house burned down.

My dad had a home office (which was not standard in 1964 when I did this) and I would go in there to type stories on his blue Royal portable. A favorite name for a hero was "Werty." Look at the keyboard and guess why. By third grade I was sending my typed poems and short stories to the New Yorker. I'd get them back with sweet little scribbles from their interns who surely knew I was nine, then twelve, and they were very encouraging. I was on an Archy and Mehitabel kick for a while (you should read those books if you get the chance), and then I wrote these depressing Southern gothic flash fiction things. Not what you see in today's New Yorker. Still, that kept me convinced that I could do this.

The first non-juvenilia novel I ever finished was high fantasy, PALADIN SPELLBOUND, about a preteen girl in a totalitarian medieval walled city who was coming into her healing powers by laying on of hands--"Alyncia," a COOL name I made up. DAW wrote to say they loved the first three chapters, but there wasn't an entire novel at that time to send to them. My famous first non-juvenilia trunk novel. It really didn't deserve its fate as a trunkie. But it just grew and grew and I didn't know how to keep every secondary character from jumping in and grabbing the reins and taking us in yet another subplot direction. Oh, well.

Agents--I had an agent for a year, but we parted company over issues of changing MY book into HER book (without editorial decree--these were things SHE thought would make the book sell, such as explicit erotic scenes, gory violence, and what they call "torture porn," which didn't fit my artistic vision. But over the years, many MANY times I came THAT close with various books and various agents. As Agent 86 used to say, "Missed it by THAT much." Some agents were lovely to me and I still keep in touch with them. Still, they never believed that my earlier work was commercial enough. Often I would do revisions for a particular agent, but ultimately I couldn't spend my time doing revisions on spec.

(As Heinlein said, never revise except to editorial letter AFTER the contract.)

I had a health scare that was pretty scary a few years ago, and coincidentally the Kindle and small press publishing were just taking off. Everyone was publishing. So I decided that I'd take my next novel down the new path rather than starting over with agents and waiting up to a year to hear back at all.

That's when I went with Muse Harbor Publishing and Oak Tree Press and Pandora Press. I do not think of Oak Tree Press as a small press, by the way. Pandora is a TINY press with four authors, but OTP comprises fifty or more, and they're prolific. Still, New York publishing sees all of us as indie or small press.

Let me tell you, I was pretty frightened, because I had always been told that it would mean I'd never be taken seriously by New York houses, and that I would be a pariah. That situation has definitely changed. New York is no longer the ONLY place in the world, apologies to the New Yorker.

First public appearance as an author was in Borders bookstores, signings of DULCINEA, my first published novel and a YA fantasy. I also appeared at several conferences and spoke on panels and at schools.

Most high-profile was at 2014's Left Coast Crime in Monterey CA where we launched APRIL MAYBE JUNE and I got to meet my brilliant Muse Harbor editor and the lovely publisher of Oak Tree Press, as well as several wonderful fellow authors. I didn't get to do as much as I had planned because I suffered an outbreak of shingles two days before we left on the trip, and it hung around. I mostly stared at the ocean waves hitting the rocks and thought about how Poseidon would love to get me down there in Davy Jones' locker where they keep all the Monkees memorabilia.

Awards--Golden Rose for APRIL, MAYBE JUNE, first prize and publication for NICE WORK, lots of minor readers' awards--I have found that awards seem to have little influence on sales at my level. Perhaps if I won a Macavity, Hugo, Nebula, Pulitzer. But down here, readers don't take the bait.

Influences: C. S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, Harlan Ellison, Phil Dick, Shakespeare and Shaw, Jane Yolen. The Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew series, which I read starting around age four or five. I can't remember when I couldn't read. My dad sat around reading and writing on his mathematical proofs all the time, so that's what I did, monkey see. An only child back in the sixties didn't have a tablet and smartphone to make up for having no playmates.


1. I see that you write both fantasy and mysteries (including romantic suspense). What do you enjoy about both genres? What do you find difficult?

A mystery is at heart like the old morality plays of the Medieval church. It shows that justice will be done, and exposes the trouble that someone can get into when he gives in to temptation or acts rashly in his own self-interest. In a mystery, the reader is shown a crime being solved and the perp caught and (presumably) punished, and thus the imbalance (of the murder) goes away and balance is restored. All's right with the world. At least until the next installment of the series! I want to spend time in a universe where villains can’t hide forever, where right prevails, and where struggle is rewarded as a sense of order is restored. You don't often see that in the real world. With a mystery, I have to do a little planning so as to plant clues and red herrings. It has to be more logical and things must be believable in the context of the story, even if it veers into the paranormal, as MURDER BY THE MARFA LIGHTS does, and as LOVE IS THE BRIDGE explores in more depth.

Fantasy also has to be consistent within the rules of the game that the author has set up. Fantasy has its own magnetic vibe; as the story opens, it invites us to play the game. Enter into the imagined world. "What if?" A willing suspension of disbelief. A curiosity about what might happen if an untrained teenager got hold of an ancient magical item, and then the magic got hold of her. What might happen if two preteen girls were summoned (magically!) by their outlaw cousin because the cousin says she needs to be rescued, but then the tables are turned on them and they must figure out how to use the villains' own magic against them. In APRIL, MAYBE JUNE, technology comes into play as well when April must figure out how to summon help with no bars on her cell phone. In DULCINEA, a semi-peasant girl, daughter of an apothecary in a rural town, discovers a new kind of magic altogether and gets dragged into sorcery, intrigue, and saving the town when her father gets a new apprentice who is not what he seems. In both books (and in my other fantasy such as my Kindle shorts), the rules are laid out and followed, even if they include being able to turn people into toads or fly on magical dragons. So the fun part is that anything can happen as long as you have the reader's sense of wonder engaged and their willing suspension of disbelief, and you don't break any of the internal rules that you have made apparent in the story. That last bit can be a challenge.

2. Why do you use a pen name for your fantasy novels and your real name (for whatever value of "real" there may be out there) for your mystery/suspense and mainstream works?

As the man said in "The Graduate"--a great film, holds up well, by the way--"I have one word for you. BRANDING." Author branding. Readers expect to be able to pick up a Shalanna Collins novel and have it take them on flights of fancy. They expect a read accessible to smart/advanced middle grade to YA to adults.

In the same way, readers expect to see realistic or mainstream mystery/suspense from Denise Weeks. Even if there are paranormal elements, the books will be aimed at adult readers. It's like Nora Roberts writing as J. D. Robb. Works for Joanne Rowling!

3. Why do you write both young adult and general fiction for grown-ups?

I can't remember who I'm quoting here, but they say, "Get 'em while they're young and you got 'em for life!" I read all of C. S. Lewis because I loved the Narnia stories so much as a fourth grader. I also enjoy reading a lot of young adult fiction--look at Harry Potter and how it has universal appeal. Twilight, The Hunger Games. My DULCINEA and APRIL, MAYBE JUNE are both called "Young Adult" novels, but adults have repeatedly said they read and enjoy them, just as they read and enjoyed Harry Potter. Both books are the first in a series.

I get all sorts of ideas from the Muses. The way I start. I get a character first, standing unsure on the threshold, and then his or her situation/dilemma comes into focus. The story question is raised and the character's emotions come through to me. I generally get the entire first chapter and a fuzzy idea about how the book will progress and end right there. You could call that the song of the Muse. It might be a grown-up tale, it might be YA, or it might be a sequel to one of my current works. I don't know until I start writing.

I think that the more advanced YA novels and series can be enjoyed by adults, the same way the Harry Potter series engaged the world and the way Twilight and the Hunger Games have captured adult imaginations.

On my website at I have published several study questions intended for a reading group or for classroom discussion of that book. Some readers enjoy that and book groups and schools use them.

4. When did you first determine to be a writer? (Somewhat a rehash of what I opened with)

At age six, when I had chicken pox and missed the second week of first grade. My dad had brought home several books for me to keep me occupied, including Howard Pyle's Robin Hood and the original Peter Pan. (I don't remember when I learned to read, but it was around age four, WAY before school; I got into trouble at school because I already knew how to read. But anyway, this was 1965.) He was talking to me about books and I discovered these tomes had not fallen from the sky like the Bible and the CRC Math Tables, but were written by mortal men and women. At that moment I determined I would figure out how to tell my stories, the ones my stuffed animals and dolls and I acted out during the lonely-only-child days before the Internet and cable teevee. It didn't hurt that writers at the time were considered public intellectuals and got lots of respect . . . unlike now. LOL!

5. Why are you spending your life writing books, when most people today prefer video or videogames and aren't as into text as they once were?

Books are important. My dad believed that, my teachers believed that. Books should be worthy of your time, and most of them have something to teach you. Stories help us make sense of life through illumination of the eternal human condition and showing us how to cope with situations we see vicariously (or how not to do it, in other books.) Good stories will feed your soul. That's why I am spending my life writing them.

Art is supposed to motivate us toward higher ground and model "right action" for your life (even if the author or director does this through an antihero, showing her mistakes and their consequences). My work generally asks the questions, "What is right action? How should we live? How can we live morally in a world that has lost its moral compass?" (But not asked straight out!)

Readers exercise their imaginations. They must enter the vivid, continuous dream in which they create the backdrop, the characters, the atmosphere of the tale. This, I believe, is a more fulfilling and helpful vicarious experience than that of watching a movie or attending a play, although all of those activities beat video games for me. I can't engage with videogames at all--never could.

6. How many books have you written?

Not counting the ones I constantly refine and am never quite satisfied with (LOL)? I have several still in revision. I have new books slated for Christmas release on Christmas Day, when people will have their new Kindles and be sick of sitting around the tree with the family, LOL. A new and controversial YA is THE DARKNESS AT THE CENTER by Shalanna Collins, which I hope to have as a Christmas/New Year's release.

Actually in print are 4 as Denise Weeks (my mundane identity). I have two traditional mystery series. NICE WORK is the first in the Jacquidon Carroll Snoop Sisters series and won the 2011 Oak Tree Press contest. MURDER BY THE MARFA LIGHTS kicks off the Ariadne French mysteries with a somewhat paranormal take on things. If you want something with supernatural or mystic overtones that is actually FUNNY and rollicking and full of character-revealing events, try LITTLE RITUALS, a screwball literary chick lit story of a grown woman's coming of age through exploring ritual and luck. LOVE IS THE BRIDGE is a techie ghost story romantic suspense that investigates the nature of reality and asks whether anyone is truly safe on the Internet (and being so dependent on technology.)

3 books from Shalanna Collins--as Shalanna, I write YA fantasy/adventure. APRIL, MAYBE JUNE is a Golden Rose Grand Prize Winner about two genius-girl preteen sisters who undertake a journey to rescue their rebel cousin . . . but things are not at all what they seem. It investigates the question of what family is, and what is an appropriate sacrifice to keep family safe. CAMILLE'S TRAVELS is the story of an abused runaway who finds even more trouble on the road in the form of a magician who is pursuing her. She and her companions hide in a Renaissance Faire, on a freight, and at the National Hobo Convention (yes, there really is one.) But they're actually just searching for the safety of a home. DULCINEA is a more traditional fantasy novel like the works of Jane Yolen or Diana Wynne Jones, about an apothecary's daughter who discovers a completely new kind of magic and gets pulled into saving the town. I also have several Kindle Shorts up, one called THE SPLATTERFAIRIES, a fantasy about naughty fairies who cross the Veil to our human world once a year. One is a Christmas memory that's fictionalized--A CHRISTMAS MEMORY (oddly enough), by Denise Weeks. It should go up as a free download around Dec. 24th.

7. What's your favorite movie?

A tie between It's a Wonderful Life and To Kill a Mockingbird. If you insist on COLOR movies, how about the original Parent Trap and Trading Places. The original Parent Trap, NOT the remake!

8. What would you caution young or new writers about most strongly?

Aside from plagiarism, I think the worst danger is dumbing down your individual voice after you take all the workshops and go to critique groups. I see writers whose work becomes vanilla after they do all the things that everyone suggests. Use your judgment. Some things people say will simply be wrong for you and your work, although if more than one critiquer mentions something, it's probably an issue.

Don't bombard social media with news about your book every day. People will stop following you. I learned that asking for reviews was a good way to be banned from groups!

9. What do you think makes a good story?

There must be an original spark and the main character must be engaging and intriguing. Otherwise, it's just a rehash of stories that have been told over and over until no one can stand them. A good story is one that YOU would like to read, but can't find on the shelves, so you end up writing it yourself.

Whether a story is "slow-moving" or "gets right to the shooting," there must be a purpose or else the reader gets to the end and the book hits the wall--you feel you've spent all this time and then there was no closure, no fulfillment. People like to learn something when they read, even fiction.

10. What is something about you that might surprise people?

I was one of eight finalists in the Scotch Brand Most Gifted Wrapper Contest in 2008, back when the finals were held at Rockefeller Center. We wrapped various odd-shaped objects, including a baby grand piano! I won a prize in the Robert Benchley Society essay contest when Bob Newhart was the judge. He wrote me a congratulatory note, which I framed. I was a National Spelling Bee multi-county semifinalist back in the day and we were on WFAA-TV channel 8. I used to belly dance. I have been a finalist in the Dallas News Christmas Cookie contest.

Follow the blog of NICE WORK's main characters, Jacquidon and Chantal Carroll: