Author Interview: Lia Habel on Dearly, Departed

Lia Habel is the debut author of one of my favorite 2011 debuts. Dearly, Departed is a zombie steampunk romance with lots of action and adventure. It’s a lot of fun and has a really clever spin on quote a few things. Lia Habel is on the blog today to answer some questions about her exciting debut.

Miss Print (MP): Can you tell us a bit about your path as a writer? How did you get to this point?

Lia Habel (LH): I really stumbled into publishing. I still feel like I have no right to be in it, at all – like I have no skill, very little talent, and a sort of “buh?” look on my face 80% of the time. (In fact, I think I come across as a little standoffish at events, but it’s only because I’m actually terrified!) I wrote the first draft of Dearly, Departed for fun, to amuse my friends and distract myself from a dark time in my life, and I can’t believe it’s gotten me this far.

Even as a child, I loved to write to entertain myself, and I was always skilled when it came to academic writing – English was my best subject, and the written word was always my area of strength. But for some reason, I never thought of translating my skill into publishing or writing. My inherent shyness might have something to do with it.

But, long story short – after writing Dearly, Departed as a joke (and I wrote the first draft in about 45 days, give or take), I was encouraged to see how far I could take it. I ended up with an agent a short time later, and a publishing deal a year after that.

MP: What was the inspiration for Dearly, Departed?

LH: I tend to think in terms of positive and negative inspiration for Dearly, Departed. On the positive side of things, I wanted to create a story that was more than a romance, a story that featured interesting teen characters, strong female characters, and a lot of action. On the negative side, I think I was actively rebelling against some of the trends that I’d seen as a reader – the brooding hero who’s so hot that the heroine is within his thrall within two pages of meeting him, the dull heroine who serves as an avatar for the reader, etc. And yet, most of all, I was just having fun. I threw in everything but the kitchen sink for that precise reason – I was writing for fun, no one was judging me, and I had no idea the whole thing would be published.

Furthermore, I just love monsters. Love ’em. I can’t imagine writing a story that doesn’t involve monsters of some sort – and I’m actually working on a few now. But I’m glad I started with the zombies, and was able to effectively convey my own feelings about that particular type of monster to readers.

MP: Dearly, Departed is the first book in a series.  Do you have a set arc for Nora and Bram’s story or know how many books will be in the series?

LH: I don’t know how many will be in the series – I’d like at least five or six. I don’t have an idea of the overall story arc – I prefer to wander when I create – but I do have a rough idea of where I want everyone to end up. It’s just a matter of getting them there!

MP: Dearly, Departed is narrated by five different characters all with their own parts of the larger story. How did you keep track of the different story threads and tie them all together? How did you decide which characters rated a narrator role?

LH: Instinctively. I hate to answer the question that way, but that’s how it worked! I knew I wanted to shift perspective, because I find staying in one character’s head extremely boring (and yet, I’m doing just that with a few side projects now, so go figure). Furthermore, the decision was based heavily on location usage, because I had all these different places to go and I needed “representatives” from each. So we got Nora/Bram at base, Pam in the city, Victor in the desert and a touch of Wolfe because I wanted to convey the experience of the “bad” guy.

That tradition is continuing into book two, where we have six narrators – Bram/Nora again, Pam again, Vespertine and Michael, and a new zombie girl.

MP: I’ve been describing this book as a “steampunk zombie romance” to people who want a quick summary. But steampunk is a many-splendored thing with lots of different varieties. How do you define steampunk? What does it mean to you?

LH: Exactly – I’ve often felt like I shouldn’t call myself steampunk, because I’m not “pure” steampunk. Then I started hanging out with more steampunks in real life, and realized I’d been thinking quite foolishly. Steampunk’s an incredibly diverse concept, and many people spin it their own way. And everyone else is okay with that!

To me, steampunk is any interesting intersection of Victorian aesthetics, mores, or history with technology. This is a pretty broad and workable definition, I think – it encompasses the steampunky aspects of actual Victorian history, reimagined-past narratives, Victorian-future narratives…there’s room for everybody.

MP: This book is set in 2195 in a world where the USA and most northern countries are uninhabitable and society has migrated south, in addition to adopting Victorian mores and ideals. How did you approach writing a story about such unique future? Did you start with a specific scene or place? Was a lot of research involved?

LH: It came to me on the fly. I decided that in order to get to where I needed to be, I needed complete social upheaval, on a global scale – so I basically decided to throw every disaster I’d ever read about at the planet, and figure out things from there. If any research was involved in the creation of the basic global situation, it was simply reading newspapers and watching bad History Channel documentaries!

I did a lot more research when it came to scientific aspects of the world – technology, prions, etc. Then I used a combination of actual scientific articles, science websites, emailing pathologists (which was awesome), and quizzing knowledgeable friends.

Yet, there are still holes in my knowledge – and some amusing ones, really. For instance, in book one I vaguely noted that Allister’s nature preserve was in “northern Nicaragua.” I literally pulled that out of thin air. In doing some mapping for book two, I found this empty area in northern Nicaragua that I couldn’t Google Map my way through. “What is this dead zone getting in the way of my chase scene?” I fumed.

It was a nature preserve. Right where I said it’d be. I swear I did not know that when I wrote book one.

MP: You mention your love of zombies and zombie movies in the acknowledgements of Dearly, Departed as well as on your website. Do you have a favorite zombie movie? Did any film play a role in shaping your vision of the zombies in your novel?

LH: Oh gosh, I have far too many. Fido, Zombieland, Day of the Dead, Dance of the Dead (the MOH episode)…I could go on. I love any zombie film where the zombies are treated either compassionately or as people of emotion and interest, not just enemies to be blown apart. I don’t think any particular film made it into the book in a large way, but there are tons of references sprinkled throughout – again, I started out writing the book for fun, and I think a lot of both tongue-in-cheek and overt references made it through editing. For instance, many street names are taken from pivotal zombie figures – George Street, Halperin Street. This trend is continuing in book two, and the other day I realized that in theory, these films did exist at one point in my universe, so if any copies have existed, maybe someone will come up with a wild conspiracy theory…

MP: Since your novel features zombies I am obligated to ask your opinion on the key debate of our time: Zombies vs. Unicorns. Thoughts?

LH: Hmm. I’m immediately reminded of the fact that my one zombie girl died a virgin, so I’m wondering how that interaction would go down. In truth, I think she’d squee and want to make the unicorn her pet, not eat it. The unicorn might have other ideas. (And with all the mythology and religious weight behind the idea of dying a virgin, who’s to say that a zombie virgin doesn’t ping a unicorn’s radar as, like, Das Uber Virgin? Why would the unicorn fight that?)

…I can’t believe I’m considering these concepts.

MP: Can you tell us anything about your next project?

LH: I’m working on the sequel now, Dearly, Beloved, and a few other unsolicited books. They involve monsters, that’s all I’m saying!

MP: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?

LH: Seriously – write what you love. Don’t stress over the industry, marketing, writing to trend, all the things I see everyone fretting about on their blogs every day in my feed – just write what you want to see, and don’t worry about everything else. At some point these concerns will become paramount, but before that you need to create – in fact, that’s your main job. I always cringe when I hear some important agent or editor saying things like, “Oh, nobody wants dystopian anymore, that’s SO over.” I can’t help but imagine an aspiring writer somewhere sighing and shelving their dystopian manuscript, convinced that it won’t sell – and that book was the most brilliant dystopian work since Brave New World.

Thanks again to Lia Habel for a great interview! You can also read my review of Dearly, Departed here on the blog and visit Lia’s website for more info about her and her other books.

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