ERICA CROCKETT: THE INTERVIEW
I met Erica Crockett the same month we received our official LLC as Mystery House Comics. I was jazzed. We were officially a business. Shivertown was on schedule to release in October. I had my first BUSINESS CARD. The first ever Boise Library Comic Con was positioned perfectly for us. We had set the date the for our Shivertown #1 release party the week before and were only just now ready to tell people what day they could actually come see the fruits of our labors. We set out with butterflies in our stomachs to meet our future peers in the creation of comics. With that mission and those business cards I still never let myself dream of the prospect of making FRIENDS.
Then I met Erica Crockett.
My girlfriend (at the time) acted as my agent at that particular convention. She wandered two or three tables ahead of me, shaking hands, and letting people know her boyfriend was about to publish his first comic. By the time I got to Erica Crockett she seemed excited to meet me. "Keep her. You've got a winner. She's a great manager." I let her know what I was about and she mentioned possibly working together in the future. I was so flattered. I couldn't believe someone would offer to work with me already. She mentioned an anthology. Why... Shanae and I had been discussing an anthology ourselves. It seemed like fate.
Erica and I worked together for two and a half years editing and co-publishing 6x6, our annual anthology showcasing Treasure Valley talent (2016's edition releases August 27 at the Boise Library Comic Con). I was proud to be privy to a preliminary draft of her novel The Ram: Cycle One of the Blood Zodiac. That novel is now being made available FOR FREE online which makes this the perfect time to introduce her to you, the readers of Mystery House Comments. While I've worked with her for a long time there's a lot I never thought to ask, so I'm looking forward to this as much as you are!
Since we have to start somewhere, I always like to start here: What's the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?
I wish I could say it's something spiritual like meditation or something seedy like, well, yeah. But typically the first thing I do when I wake in the morning is wish I could sleep longer. So then I sleep longer if possible. When I wake up, I pretty much immediately go back to sleep. Are you gathering I'm not a morning person?
Got it. Not a morning person. How long have you been writing? When was the first time you looked at yourself in the mirror and saw a writer?
I've been writing since I was in grade school. I loved my mom's old electric typewriter. But the first time I really saw myself as a writer? I think that would be in high school. I got a wild hair and decided to submit a fiction piece to a local literary rag out at the time, Faster Than Sheep. They accepted my story about feminism and the Cassiopeia constellation. And here I am, years later, still writing about strong women and the stars that blaze above our heads. Back then, I knew I wanted to be a writer. But I was still very type A and very interested in a "professional" career. I was thinking law or botany. Now I just think, write, write, write. The type A residuals help me finish my work and get it out into the world, but I had to let the messiness of my type B side come into bloom.
A vs. B. A battle I know well. You live here in Boise, Idaho. I love seeing artists and creators find success without picking up and moving to the biggest metropolis they can afford. How long have you lived here? What compels you to stay in Boise? What does the city offer your writing and your career?
I've been in Boise since I was three weeks old, give or take about nine months my family lived in Colorado and the months of my life I've spent abroad. I'm a Boisean thru and thru. We're a rare breed; most of my friends are transplants to Idaho. I love Boise. I've been to twenty-three countries and each has their charms and frustrations. Even the cities I adore, like Amsterdam, Budapest and Bangkok, don't make sense for me. Boise provides a quality of life that matches my goals of writing full time. My family is here and my friends are accessible. No planning months ahead to fight hours of traffic to meet briefly and catch up. Relationships are very close at hand and easy to cultivate. I need that support system and the high quality/low cost of living in Boise to stick to my writing. Besides, as a writer I have it easier than a lot of artists. I can get someone in New York interested in my books without being there. I don't need to be present to entertain. Though I do like a stage.
I've known you for a few years now and never thought to ask: What was your education as a writer like? Did you pursue a formal education? Any mentors?
I went a little wild in college and thought, "I'm going to do all the majors." I scaled it back eventually and received my BA from Boise State University in Philosophy and English with emphases in Linguistics and Creative Writing. Basically, I wanted to be super employable. Ha. So yes, a formal writing background was had. I toyed with the idea of going for an MFA, but my predilection for literary fiction has transformed into a passion for high-concept, heavily plotted stories. Maybe in the future I'll revisit the idea, but for now I'm content to let my literary fiction background flavor my works without overpowering them. I get the lit side of me out primarily in my short stories now. I took great upper-division workshops from Anthony Doerr and Alan Heathcock. Both authors taught me a lot about the craft and I'm grateful for the experience. I get jazzed every time I read something from Alan Moore or Garth Ennis or reread Flannery O'Connor. Grant Morrison, as a creator, just continues to floor me. Stephen King's On Writing is great motivation. But the real mentors reside in my head. The voices. I write what the voices tell me to write. They told me not to write that, but sometimes I ignore their commandments.
On Writing is a big inspiration to me as well. It's something I eventually recommend to every writer I know.
You mentioned your goals of writing full time. What does your writing schedule look like right now? I'm sure it varies, but how does that translate to output? Are there any rituals that are part of your writing routine, like a cup of coffee or special fuzzy slippers?
I'm very goal-driven in my approach to writing. I firmly believe that labeling oneself as a "writer" is a lot less important than the actual action of writing and the product, the written work. So I put these aspects at the forefront of my days and then let my hours be dictated by what needs doing next. There are days where I spend hours on editing, or marketing, or website tweaks. And while these things aren't directly part of the writing craft, they are the necessary additions and responsibilities that come with the path. The time of day when I write varies and I predict will continue to change with each project. Chemicals was written pretty exclusively between 10 and 3 at night. My current series has me writing frequently during the afternoons. On the days when the muses are being kind, I can put in a solid four to six hours of writing. I think the most words I've clocked in a day hovers around 11k. Most days, I'm content with 5k or so. And this is absolutely necessary, this outpouring of words. They aren't all good. It's not 11k of solid gold. But it's all part of the process. I'm writing to write well. Writing to access cleaner, more evocative words and stories. As far as rituals go, I've got plenty. It really depends on what I'm writing and if I feel I'm channeling the story or not. I must have a computer to write on. Poetry is the exception; for that I side with sheaves and graphite. My truest ritual is the feel of well-worn keys under my fingers. I get lost in that tapping.
I say that all the time! I get addicted to the sound of the keys and it drives me forward, hoping to hear more of the little finger tap dance! A big theme in everything I do and write is discipline, and it comes up in every interview. I firmly believe it's as important or more important than natural-born talent. Do you have any thoughts on that? How do you maintain a healthy writing schedule? Do you have any mind-hacks that have helped you get to your current output?
Discipline is everything. Talent is far down the list on all things that should matter to a working writer. I say working because there needs to be a distinguishing between those who really dig the idea of writing, and those that truly take the task in hand. What separates the groups is clear: discipline. Often, I don't feel like writing. There are days I sit in my office and it's an onslaught of demons and emotions. I'll end up on the floor with damp cheeks or pacing the room nodding my head. My resistance to the writing usually plays out physically. But when the tremors and ticks pass, I'm back in my chair. Why? Because I have stories to tell. And there is no one to keep me on track telling them other than myself. When I knew I had to write the twelve books of The Blood Zodiac, I was under no romantic illusions. It would take me years of my life to see it through. The only way I'd succeed would be via cultivating "stick-to-it-ness." I don't waste much energy anymore on when I write or exactly how much I produce. That whole can't see the forest for the trees thingie. I want to see the forest. I want to put that forest in someone's hands and have them read it. So the trees, day in and day out, I stay flexible with them. Sometimes I don't write anything of substance for days on end. Other times I'm up until four am, bursting with energy, words bubbling up quicker than I can handle them. Mind hacks to help with output: don't attach to the idea of being an author, just keep writing. Take days off. Be kind to yourself. Understand that even if you aren't writing words down, often your brain is at work.
It sounds like you're usually focused on one project at a time, like Chemicals or the first Blood Zodiac book, but do you juggle more than one project at a time? If so, how do you balance the workload?
I think I'm just a champ of compartmentalization! I juggle many different projects at the same time, but I have to be careful. I have the tendency to pile on the work and then wonder why I'm exhausted, scatterbrained and apt to forget things. While the bulk of my focus is on The Blood Zodiac series, I still have many literary balls up in the air. I'm currently handling editing on book three of the series, The Twins, finishing first edits on the fourth book, writing the tenth book, and working on marketing plans for the series overall which includes interviews, photo shoots and videos. All the while, I'm prepping humor books like What Weeds Are Thinking for editing and publication and figuring out the upcoming first issue of Subterra with the amazing Mike Dreher. If all goes according to plan, I have more than four novels to release over the next year, up to three humor/picture books and one comic. Wow. I'm tired just writing that out. I balance the workload through sheer determination, meditation practice, keeping my body and mind healthy, caffeine, and learning when I've had enough for the day. Getting out to socialize or travel helps me return to my desk with renewed interest and my productivity tends to skyrocket.
This March marked the release of your latest novel: The Ram: Cycle 1 of the Blood Zodiac. I'm sure it's old hat at this point, but would you mind describing it for these readers, both as a series and a standalone novel?
Of course! The Ram kicks off my ambitious occult serial killer thriller mythological character-driven romp of murder, mystery, ritual, sex and deification. So basically, the twelve books are going to cover some ground! Set over a calendar year, I stick close to two characters: Peach Barrow and Riley Wanner. The first book, The Ram, introduces Peach and Riley and the reader watches them as they grapple with turning points in their lives, their desires, and their connections to others. The forefront of their preoccupation is a stripper named Nell. What each character desires from her is part of the mystery. Each book has a standalone plot but furthers the plot for the entire series. Elements of story that appear in book one may not be wrapped up until book twelve. This weaving and closing of circles has been challenging but infinitely rewarding.
How long has this project been in the works? Were there other forms and incarnations before you settled into what it has become?
I always knew The Blood Zodiac would be twelve books. It was important to me for each zodiac cycle to have an entire book all its own. So I knew every four weeks of this fictitious year would need to be encapsulated in a book. I enjoy this lengthier pacing; it's quirky to adjust to, since our modern storytelling has fifty-seven dastardly or riveting plot turns happen in the span of a day, including changes in alliance and romantic partners. I wanted this year for Riley and Peach to be feasible in a lot of ways. As much as fantasy and reality-bending have a place in this series, I also wanted some of the mundane aspects of life to show up, because the everyday works as an excellent springboard for dramatic effect and it gives a grounding element to pacing. To date, I've been working on this project steadily for a bit longer than three years. I released The Ram three years to the date after I wrote the first words in the draft. It hasn't been three years devoted to just the first book of the series. I've been writing and editing this whole time and working on entirely different projects. I'm smack dab in the middle of the rough of book ten right now. Overall, the scope and packaging of the story hasn't changed since the original concept. I'm just trying to do it justice and keep up.
I'm sure a project with such a large scope requires a lot of planning before you write the first chapter. How much research and outlining went into this?
In one word: tons. I still am researching the books I have yet to write. A lot of the info out there on astrology and myth contradicts. Some people insist a certain birthstone for a sign or backstory about Orion's origin myth is correct while others report completely different sources. I've had to just go with what I like best and what fits the flow of my stories and my characters. At some point, I just have to say "enough is enough" with the research. Those savvy in Mediterranean mythology and Western astrology will see the layers in the series. But I never want the research to distract from the story, just compliment it. No exposition. No, no, no. Outlining is my lady and mistress. Without it, I might still be back on book two or three and editing would give me conniptions. I have a very detailed outlining and preparation process. Once I have my research done, I keep notes detailing all the little dangling cords from other books, red herrings, things that must be addressed and new and old characters who appear or disappear. When I get my head wrapped around what needs to be in the book, then I'm free to let the story emerge into what I want it to become. I take notes, write down scenes that will need to exist, etc. Pages and pages of notes. From here, I break down what needs to happen into a rough three acts. And from this list I organize until the bones of my plot emerges. Then it's in-depth flushing out of each chapter of the book. With this macro view, I can see plot holes and places that need padding. Only then do I begin the rough draft.
I may have control issues.
You released The Ram digitally first, then in print a couple months later. In my experience it can be really tricky marketing digital-only content. Do you have any tips, tricks or advice?
Yes, the modern age of indie publishing is certainly golden in a lot of respects but ruthless in others. I think digital-only content works well in specific genres. Since my primary focus for The Blood Zodiac puts me in thriller/mystery/suspense territory, I already have fertile ground in terms of electronic content as a foundation in that genre. A lot of readers of thrillers and romances really move through material at a fast pace and dig ebook options. Comics are a trickier beast. Having something vivid and in hand really matters to that audience. As to my literary fiction, I know I've got to forget about pure digital releases. It's still the realm of bound paper which is fine by me. My advice is to study and understand the genre you write in and work within the publishing patterns people expect. And by all means, if you're great at hand-selling, get physical copies and hold events to put those books or issues directly in the hands of readers. It's a slower process with minimal profit, but play to your strengths. Reviews are important for digital content as they stand as social proof for your product. Run promos to draw attention to your work and if you work in a series, consider giving away free bonus material or even the first book or issue in the series.
You mentioned traveling, which I've noticed you do a lot of. What are some of your favorite destinations, and how have they affected your writing besides rejuvenation?
Traveling is a great love of mine. If I had the money and location flexibility, I'd like to be on the road about six months out of the year. But I'm working toward that goal. Some of my favorite destinations are pretty much anywhere in south east Asia, Turkey, and Romania. I loved Amsterdam, Budapest and Bangkok. I think my exploration into different lands and cultures really colors my work. I have worldly characters. Adventurous locales and cultural customs really crop up in my short fiction pieces which have a more literary bent to them. I like dipping into those worlds and playing with the perspectives and realities potentially found there. Each of my trips inspires story lines touching on my own experiences or sensations from traveling. It's the only time I really heavily draw from my life and fictionalize it.
You have a solid social media presence that's always been an inspiration to me. When I got started publishing, I relied on a lot of tidbits you'd drop about self-promotion. You've had a lot of experience since that time, and I'm curious what the most recent lessons you've learned are.
Well thank you and glad I could help! Social media is a tricky one. If you listen to so-called experts, they'll tell you it's possible to conquer your field with X number of followers on X platform. This is hogwash, of course. It's there to be complementary to time and effort put in on good work. I like to think of it as a useful side experience which could lead to sales or connections, but not necessarily. If it's a choice between social media promo and more creation, pick creation every time. Because ultimately, unless you already have the fame or the popular, proven product, social media doesn't pull its weight and you can collect data yourself to prove that fact. Don't dilute your efforts. Pick a couple of platforms where you think your audience has pull and focus your attention. I tend to use Facebook for general updates on my work and connect with friends. Twitter is golden for meeting people within your field and crafting alliances. I'm scarce on Instagram but working on making it fall in line with my goals. Do what works for your goals but don't dump tons of time into it. The payoff isn't there, no matter what the experts say.
You've done great work in comic books, most relevant to this audience as an editor and co-publisher on the first two volumes of the 6x6 anthology. You also contributed a short story to the inaugural edition of that book. How would you compare the craft of drafting a comic script vs the narration of short stories or long-form prose? What's the relationship like in your collaborations? What comic book projects do you have coming down the line, and how much can you tell us about them?
I think the differences really play out dependent on the type of writer you are. For me, I'm very visual when I plot. Meaning each story that comes out of my brain tends to display a cinematic quality; I see the scenes taking place and describe them with the written word. So the writing process between comic scripts and more traditional prose is pretty similar for me. I find scripting easier because I keep my descriptors of the setting or characteristics pretty sparse and practical. I prefer to give the artist plenty of space in which to find their own creative spark within the elements of the story. I adore writing dialogue. Being able to really pay attention to the character's voices makes writing comics a pure joy. In terms of collaboration, I'm about as easygoing as it gets without appearing comatose. I have a structure and tone in mind for the stories and lists of particular traits characters need for the story to work, but otherwise everything else is open. I go with my gut and let artists show me what they like, and usually, I dig it as well. Currently, the phenomenal artist Mike Dreher and I are working on the first issue of Subterra. Think Inner-Earth Conspiracies, Westerns, action-adventure, chickens and a lot of humor.
I'm in a stage where I'm exploring and getting to know the writer I am today, but the time is fast approaching that I'll have to throw myself some intentional challenges to prove to myself I'm growing, and to teach myself a new skill. What are ways you challenge yourself as a writer and keep yourself moving forward?
I find challenge in the changing of genres and form. For many years, I was tirelessly holding up a sign proclaiming Lit Fic or Bust. But then I wanted to see what could be done in the thriller and suspense genre with a few stylistic tweaks. I really let the avant garde flow in my short stories. First person narration is fertile ground for me trying out new voices, perspectives and plots. Change and challenge keep me striving and keep my work fresh. After The Blood Zodiac series, I have more humor pieces in the works. The next novel in the queue will be historical occult fiction with several narrators, humans in the minority. And screenplays, that's happening soon as well. Never get bored with your work, because other people will, too.
I'm impressed by how clearly defined the characters in Chemicals and The Ram are. They're three-dimensional and complex. Occasionally they surprise you as a reader, but with time you come to realize where their behavior is growth and where it relates back to who they've always been. They're so fully realized I have to ask how much you base your characters on loved ones and people in your life. Do you have any examples of where you pull the jigsaw pieces that compile an individual character?
For the most part, they are their own beasts. I pull a bit from "real" life, but just small traits. A mysterious character in The Blood Zodiac series has some of the same physical traits as my own father. But I've never been a writer that gets to know someone and then puts them in their work, changing their name just a bit, and bam!, character out of a box. If anything, my characters are snippets of my own psyche. Peach Barrow and Riley Wanner of The Ram chime in regularly on how they're portrayed, what they want to do next, etc. Trust me, my office is small, but sometimes it feels downright crowded. Aberdeen Childress, the main character of Chemicals, has a lot of elements I took straight out of me, myself and I. Asthmatic, people pleaser, adventurous side pressing against the confines of society and home. Check all of those boxes for Aberdeen and me. Sometimes, I meet people and think, you're just like so-and-so character I constructed at such-and-such time. I like that odd synchronicity. One of my characters who is a true jigsaw puzzle of people I do know, is Patti Lewsky in The Blood Zodiac series. She's equal parts my paternal grandmother, the mother of my best friend in 6th grade, and the generic bitchy stepmothers in fairy tales. Crafting characters is one of the best joys of writing!
It’s been a pleasure swapping stories with you, and I look forward to Subterra and the next eleven books in The Blood Zodiac series.
Keep up with Erica at ericacrockett.com where you can sign up for FREE secret chapters from The Blood Zodiac series. And because she doesn’t want you miss out on her epic occult suspense series, she’s put The Ram: Cycle 1 ebook up for FREE download on Amazon, Kobo, Nook and Google Play. If you enjoy it, cycle 2, The Bull, is available on Amazon. Chemicals is available on most online book vendors. Happy Reading!