"A Candle Loses Nothing By Lighting Another Candle" - Father James Keller

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Interview with Jamie Booth & Kit Zheng

For those who may not be familiar with them, Jamie Booth and Kit Zheng are (in their own words), "a pair of rogues who are best known for stealing the shoes off homeless people and occasionally trying to cause mayhem in the boys' clubs of sci fi, fantasy and horror. Results have been mixed thus far, but that's not stopping them."

Wit and modesty aside, both are talented authors in their own rights. Most recently, they teamed up on "The Tale of Tom Katt & Martin Rue," a novella that appears in the cat shapeshifter anthology Here Kitty, Kitty (Torquere Press).

What was it like working together on this?

Jamie Booth: I think we worked together really well. It seemed to happen quite easily. At first we discussed possible methods of working—as we’re basically living on opposite sides of the globe, it seemed like it could be a challenge with time differences and so on if we wanted to, for example, do dialogue by IM as we did discuss at one point. But once we started writing, we just passed it back and forth and the whole thing fell into place very naturally.

Kit Zheng: It was a lot of fun and Jamie always came up with the freshest ideas for things. Originally I was trying to go it solo and I was stumped, so I was just chatting with Jamie about some ideas... and next thing you know, we'd started to build a mythology together. Things just grew out from there.

It sounds like the process was an organic one, which is always great—but maybe even more important when you have to coordinate with someone else. What turned out to be the greatest challenge for you?

JB: I’d say the time difference was probably the biggest challenge, and the fact that we were both so busy with personal business when we took the project on—trying to co-write a novella and move house at the same time isn’t something I’d recommend to anyone!

KZ: Yeah, the time difference and our schedules were definitely the biggest challenge. Originally we wanted to map out everything via IM conversations, but that never happened because life had sort of exploded and all plans sort of fell apart.

JB: It was definitely a lot of fun, though.

That's a great segue to my next question: What were the rewards or advantages of working together?

JB: Working with another writer whom you really gel with is incredibly rewarding as you always have someone to get enthused over your storyline with you, to bounce ideas off and generally keep each other motivated.

KZ: Writing with someone else is like having a built in audience, collaborator, [and] cheerleader as well as, of course, a co-creator, so it's much easier to keep motivated. I also think a cowriter challenges you to get out of your comfort zone, and to break some of the bad habits that we've all got ingrained in us. You're just so easily confined by what you know and a cowriter brings their own experiences and knowledge to the table, changing everything in a good way! Jamie definitely did this and made the story something it never could have been with just myself alone.

How did your individual writing processes change, and what (if anything) stayed the same?

KZ: I never work from an outline, especially not from a detailed one, and we totally had to for this, especially once it became apparent that we weren't going to be able to do any real-time collaborative writing. And for once that was liberating, to have that guide, rather than [being] constricting. The process worked out very differently than I'd pictured, but I think it made the story grow in a way that I'm not sure passing dialogue back and forth might have done.

How interesting! That puts me in mind of a roundtable interview I read years ago with some fairly successful film directors who had started doing straight-to-video projects on the side. One of the questions was why they'd choose to do such a thing, and a couple of them said that the restrictions and requirements of the generic formula actually freed them up to be creative in other ways they might not have thought of otherwise.

In your case, of course, it was the structure of your outline rather than the genre, and the way that outline was called for by this particular collaboration. Has your experience been that every collaboration is different, or are there commonalities?

JB: This is the first time I’ve written in collaboration with Kit, although we’ve read over each other’s work and discussed plots and so on together for years. It’s definitely been a different experience than collaborating with other writers who I’ve worked with. I think for me, the deadlines have been tighter on this one so there was definitely more motivation, out of the desire not to let Kit down.

KZ: I found this quite different than other collaborations as well. My other collaborations have always been for nothing in particular, careless fun; so yes, the deadline changed a lot—added a level of stress which I think would have led to a lot more conflict if we were two different people.

I guess the one thing in common is that when collaborating, we tend to take ownership of certain characters—I mean, I'll still write some of Jamie's character and Jamie will write some of mine, but we were sort of "in charge" of coming up with their initial design/personality/etc... That seems to happen with every collaboration I've been in. I guess it's just easier to split it up like that—maybe keeps the characters more consistent?

That makes sense. I've done character creation that way as well in collaborations, though it my case I think it came from a roleplaying background. On a related note—you've touched on this a little, but I'd love to hear more about how you divided the writing on this.

JB: Initially, we each came up with our own character to write. The original idea behind this was that we could IM each other for more realistic dialogue and then write scenes around that; but in the actual event of writing, we ended up writing alternate chapters, passing the story back and forth, and then just adding or editing each others chapters as we saw fit. There weren’t really any hard and fast rules we adhered to. It worked well doing it that way,.

KZ: Yes, we each took certain chapters. At first we wrote almost independently on those chapters. Again because of the whole scheduling madness, we just wrote this in an entirely counterintuitive manner. Like writing out a rough version, almost a sketch, and passing it off and the other coming in and changing whatever, fleshing it out more and more with each pass. I remember there were bits where I was writing things like, "Character says something to the effect of X here," then write a response, and Jamie would come in and write up the line. And sometimes it'd work with what I'd written as a response and sometimes it wouldn't, and so on the next pass I'd fix that or smooth it out, and Jamie would do the same. In a way I think that turned out more integrated and more controlled [or] coherent than if we'd been [writing in] real-time, passing it back and forth line by line, if that makes any sense. It was very organic, but in a sort of structured way. Like growing vines into a shape over a wire skeleton.

Makes perfect sense—and that's a great image. So, getting into the story itself: "The Tale of Tom Katt & Martin Rue" appears in a shapeshifter collection, Here Kitty, Kitty. Shapeshifter narratives most commonly are associated with the paranormal genre, and those elements certainly are present here—but it's by no means straight genre. To what extent were you deliberately blending fairytale, paranormal, and romance, or was that a natural result of the story you wanted to tell?

JB: The blending was pretty deliberate as there was a certain atmosphere that we initially wanted to create.

KZ: We definitely wanted it to be a blend of those three things. Definitely set out with the fairytale-esque atmosphere in mind. It was sort of... I know that modern interpretations of the were-(insert animal here) are all—bring to mind a certain kind of thing like (oh god) Underworld or whatever, shiny and slick and Hollywood to the max, but that whole thing is so much older. You find shapeshifting animals in so many stories across so many cultures. I like that we tried to bring some of that "old school" back. I mean, the concept of a werecat is a little silly anyway, so how do you bring some legitimacy to that? We tried looking at what's come before, steeped in tradition and folklore.

I love that you wanted to call on older traditions, too. In fact, as I was reading and thinking about the story afterwards, it seemed to me that in this marvelous blend of genres, the most dominant is not the paranormal but the fairytale. From the dark edges of tone and atmosphere to the structural tropes (the journey, the riddles), and perhaps most of all the clever meta-narrative interludes—the tale told within the tale—there's something classically fairytale about this. Insofar as it's possible to identify a starting point, did you begin with the characters or with the plot?

JB: We came up with the mythology behind the characters before we thought up the plot. We were researching and looking into cat mythology in regards to legends and folklore – traditional ideas such as cats sucking the breath from sleeping humans – and it all built up from there. We wanted to try and get a new spin on the idea of cat shape-shifters. Our initial thoughts were ‘werecats’ as opposed to ‘werewolves’ but then we hit upon the fairytale angle and we both got really sucked into the idea. We were basically trying to take existing traditional folklore and re-tell it in our own way, with our own characters –

[After coming up] with the background mythology for our cat boys, we then each created a character. Discussing Martin and Tom as characters and how they’d react (and clash!) with each other played a large part in developing our plot.

KZ: It's fun to look at our old emails... how we sort of got all excited about the world/mythology and then by the boys.

Without giving anything away, I love the solution to the third riddle. Did you always know what it was, or did you—like Tom and Martin—have to work towards it?

JB: When we initially came up with the plot we had a vague idea that this is what we were working towards, but the finer details definitely took time to form and work through.

KZ: I think we were sorting out the riddles, etc. even midway through the story. And some stuff just happened. I remember the bit about the twine: I think I'd sent the initial riddle-game bit to Jamie with some sort of note [that] there needed to be more to that scene but I couldn't think of anything. And Jamie sent it back, and there was that delightful scene where they're playing with the twine. It was like magic. Suddenly the thing worked. I think I'll start sending Jamie my stories whenever I'm stuck.

More of that organic process at work. Well, it looks like our time is nearing an end, so I'll wrap it up with the old standby: What can we look forward to from each of you after this? What are you working on now? Any plans to collaborate again?

JB: I’m currently being kept busy writing a paranormal genre novel, and I’m due to have two micro fictions published in a biannual UK magazine called Flash this October. We’ve got no immediate plans for future collaboration, but I’d certainly be up for writing with Kit again, maybe something more paranormal or horror oriented?

KZ: I've got a mystery/thriller/eroromance novella that's been picked up, but I don't know when it'll be out. Other than that, I'm working on a sci-fi noirish mystery novel, a fantasy novel, and a zombie/family drama short story, all of which ought to be complete in oh, 2099 or so. I'd love to work with Jamie again. I think we should go all out horror this time. ;) That's sort of the genre that brought us together.

Sounds like you've both got a lot to look forward to on your plates. On a personal note, I'm really happy to hear you're thinking about the possibility of working together again (and I bet I'm not alone!). Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today, and best of luck with your stories.

~ interview by Mallory Path

"The Tale of Tom Katt & Martin Rue" appears in Here Kitty, Kitty, available now in print and eBook from Torquere Press.

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