Monday, November 21, 2011

Interview With Caprice Hokstad

I have two main types of writer friends. Those whose writing is outside my preferred genre / personal taste, but I happen to find them to be really cool people. The other group includes those whose writing I fell in love with first, and that led me to respect them as writers. That respect eventually grew into genuine friendship--because they're really cool people. The latter is the case with Caprice Hokstad.

Caprice and I are both published by Splashdown Books. I was honored to originally do artwork for her first novel, The Duke's Handmaid (the key on the cover is mine). After reading the novel, I was doubly honored. Her books are original, heady, and left me contemplating. They read smoothly, and her characterization is one of her (many) strong points.

Today, I'm jumping inside her head a bit. I find some of the concepts in her book fascinating--and controversial. This is not the standard, "So, when did you start writing?" kind of interview....

The key on the cover is my artwork.
K: Caprice, Your books take place in a kingdom where slavery is the norm. It's not in general depicted as a "good" thing, but it is depicted as completely acceptable. And your main character actually *chooses* to become a slave in order to "better" her life. This is a very unusual idea, especially these days, and could be considered pretty controversial. Can you explain why you chose to write about a society with slavery? And why make Kee *want* such a life?

C: Most of us ARE enslaved to one degree or another. We just don't use that term. Example: How many people can just walk into their place of employment and tell the boss he is an A.H. (and I mean saying the actual words)? We can't. Why? Because we NEED that job. Without income, we lose our house, our car, our means to buy food. Okay, so we could get a different job (good luck on a character reference if you actually DID call the boss an A.H.). But we can't just decide not to work at all. (Let's not cloud the issue with welfare bums). You have to trade your nice warm bed and sleep every morning for a paycheck. You have to hold your tongue and adopt certain attitudes and habits. You may have to follow a dress code or wear a uniform. That's just reality.

People in our world are trapped in less-than-ideal circumstances by lack of education, poverty, place of birth, skin color, and the list goes on and on. Very few people are truly free to do only what they want all the time.

So my Kingdom of Latoph is not as different as it may seem. Let's look at Kee's options: when her mother dies, she leaves her daughter a henhouse and some chickens. That's it. No home to live in, because it was burned by marauders. Kee tricked an Elva farmhand to teach her to read, but if she stays a chicken farmer, she'll have almost zero opportunity to read. She doesn't like chickens. She gets scared thinking about having to protect them from wolves. Just getting water to them every day is a huge pain in the butt because she has to haul it up from the stream in buckets. By herself.

She can sell the chickens and move into town and hire herself out as a seamstress. She has no shop or start-up money to buy fabric, so she has to work for someone. Ooops, there it is. Working for someone. She actually plans to do this during her mourning period, using sale of her chickens to pay rent. But then she has to react to another event and that puts her on a different path.

When the duke put her up in his guest house during his "posse", she saw more luxury than she's ever seen in her life: running water inside the house, a flushing toilet, tasty and plentiful food, beds with feather mattresses, glass windows, carpets, and books. The duke's slaves wear clean, new-looking clothes and they eat well and they're very kindly treated. Yes, to us, the treatment looks more like how someone should treat pets, but to Kee, it looks like affection and with her entire family gone, that's appealing. And of course, she's got a crush on Duke Vahn.

Maybe I should answer your question with another question. Why do people in our country join the military? Voluntarily even! They have to give up lots of personal freedom and even some of their rights. And the pay is terrible. Why would anyone do that? I'm sure the answers vary. Some do it for love of country. Some for promise of an education. Some just love the job and can't find anything comparable in the private sector. (How many other employers will pay you to drive a tank or pilot a fighter jet?) Yet we respect those who join the military, those who set aside their freedom to don a uniform and serve something bigger than themselves. Why is it any less virtuous to give up some rights and devote oneself to serving an important governing figure in my fantasy setting? Oh yeah. Because she's scrubbing floors and bowing instead of shooting guns and saluting.

K: That makes sense. Kee's life doesn't offer her much and I can see why she would see that slavery in the Duke's house would appeal to her. Instead of tromping through chicken crap and bathing in the stream (where she is likely to get attacked anyway) she can scrub the floors of a mansion and *live* in that mansion. 

What things did you struggle with in trying to make Kee's life choice seem like an honorable one? Have you gotten opposition from readers? Maybe grief for presenting a female MC who isn't all female warrior and secret ninja like so many female leads today? (Did your inner editor scream at my use of the word "female" three times in that last sentence?)

C: My inner editor has the day off. I don't think I've gotten "opposition" as much as just indifference. I think the subject matter does bother people and rather than start a controversy or question it, they just decline to read. And that's their right. I, myself, am a very picky reader. I don't like the majority of fantasy out there because of those very things you mention. Why must a female pick up a sword and act like a man to be worthy of interest? I don't relate to that. Women are strong all the time without becoming warriors or sex objects or damsels in distress. Why can't fiction show women like that?

I don't know if I succeeded in making Kee's life choice seem honorable to readers. I think she's brave and selfless. I find that honorable, but I'm sure others would disagree with me.

As for opposition... would someone PLEASE ban my book? Hold a burning? Denounce it? I could use the publicity.

K: Hah! That would be great publicity, wouldn't it? 

You've answered in other interviews (such as the one at NAF) about the lack of overt Christianity in your novel. I know the whole thing is kind of a thorn in your side. You are a Christian, but your book was never intended to be labeled as "Christian fiction." You were writing a story that appealed to you. I've read both The Duke's Handmaid and Nor Iron Bars a Cage. I haven't seen anything in there that would keep it out of the general market. Maybe not "mainstream" since it's technically genre writing, but definitely not pigeonholed as "Christian." BUT, Grace Bridges, who happens to own a Christian spec-fic publishing house, is the brave soul who took a chance on your novels, and I know you are happy with her and her publishing. So...what has been the biggest obstacle presented by this relabeling of your novels as "Christian" (or at least seemingly directed at the Christian market)?

C: The biggest obstacle is explaining. Whenever I see it labeled "Christian Fiction" I try to clarify because there are way too many definitions out there and my fiction doesn't fit a lot of them. In my books, there's violence. (YOU write a society that uses swords for defense and keep the blood out!) There's seduction of an underage slavegirl. There's raping and pillaging. There's cursing. It's NOT sanitized to CBA norms. It's not meant for a YA audience, like the vast majority of fantasy available in Christian Bookstores is. It's allegorical. It's set in a different reality where they call God "The Nymphs" or "The Heavenlies" which sounds polytheistic, but think about it, we call God "The Trinity". Genesis 1:26 says "And God said, Let US make man in OUR image, after OUR likeness..." [emphasis mine] Hmm. Plurals. Yet, we consider ourselves monotheistic. Imagine that.

I don't label my work "Christian Fiction" and I discourage others from doing so without a CLEAR definition of what they mean. But so far, my work has been so obscure and ignored, that I haven't really had to do much defending. My biggest problem is finding the readers that might be interested in my book and coaxing them to try it. I've had fans who are Wiccan, Mormon, and atheist. I'm not trying to preach to them or to anyone else. I'm not a preacher. I'm just a storyteller.

And the shackles on this one, too.
K: I mentioned in the last question that your book is "genre"--falling into the category of fantasy. Yet, your books are not traditional fantasy. There is a pointy-eared race, but they are not "elves" in the traditional sense. You have no other races or creatures commonly found in most fantasy novels. (No dwarves, orcs, unicorns, dragons, etc.) The books actually, in many ways, to me at least, seem rather literary. They certainly are heavy on characterization and social issues. How exactly do you personally classify your novels? Are there specific genre labels you would place on them--either already existing or terms you have made up? What other books/authors do you most associate your "genre" with? (And just to be difficult, I'm going to make the rule that you must leave out Lewis and Tolkien, since you mentioned those in the NAF interview. Mwoohoohahahahaha.)

C: I call my books Sword Opera. I made up that Fantasy sub-genre to differentiate from "Sword and Sorcery" since I have no sorcery and "High Fantasy" which is usually about a quest. It is meant to be analogous to "Space Opera", which is commonly applied to Star Wars to differentiate it from "Hard" Science Fiction. I have never tried to lump any other author into my self-applied label. I'm not sure anyone else would want to be there.

I do use a few science fiction-y elements. Byntar (the name of my world) is not just an alternate Earth. It has two suns and two moons. It has some "fantastic" creatures, but they aren't mystical or magic. Koopchucks are strong draft animals that look like shaggy hippos and have especially smelly dung. Zupwolves are like miniature wolves. Think of being attacked by shelties instead of German shepherds. Still not fun, but conceivably survivable. I kind of regret not putting in dragons, because that might have helped me market the book, but then the dragon-crazy would probably complain that I cheated them. I don't dislike dragons, but I don't understand the whole ga-ga over them either. I'd probably only be putting them there to unfairly lure readers who would cry bait-and-switch when the story isn't about dragons at all.

Literary, huh? No one else has ever told me that. I'd never intended it to be anything but fantasy-adventure, but I suppose as a catch-all, it could apply.

K: I like that term: Sword Opera. I think it fits well. And I tend to think of "literary" books as those that have me pondering when I put them down, and yours did so for me.

What books are you drawn toward reading? What is it about a book that grabs your attention and/or makes you fall in love with the story and/or characters? And if you were the reader of your own books, what would those things be in them?

C: First off, I read to escape reality. A writer must give me a better reality to escape to. This is why dystopias don't generally interest me much. However, I have been known to find plot devices within certain dystopias that offset the bleak setting. For example, in Frank Creed's Flashpoint, I dislike the state of the world, BUT when he gives the Christian "Underground" what amounts to spiritual superpowers via "re-forming", then I can set aside the bleakness of the rest of the world. I could enjoy living there if I could also get re-formed.

Of course, in my own books, I made Latoph a place I'd love to visit or live in. Authors  spend MUCH more time imagining themselves in their settings than the readers probably ever will.

It also helps to give me characters I love or love-to-hate. Please do NOT make the main protagonist someone I'd avoid in real life if we met. Please do NOT make the protagonist someone I want to slap upside the head either because they're monumentally stupid or whiney. I have children. I get quite enough of whiney in the real world, thanks.

And most of all, do not depress me. I want to feel BETTER after reading fiction, not worse. I'm not saying there can't be sad events, although keep the gut-wrenching, bawl-my-eyes-out scenes to a minimum, please.

Beyond that, I gravitate towards science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, and suspense. I don't typically read the romance genre, but I don't mind romance as part of a plot that includes other things. I think I already covered how my books have lots of elements in them from romance to adventure to mystery.

K: Who is your favorite side character (as in not Kee, not Vahn) and why? (You know my answer on this! Blackthorn!)

C: Well, if I can't choose Vahn, then it would probably have to be Blackthorn. Blackthorn is sort of a Vahn-surrogate in the first book. In the second book, he has to train the duke as a slave and that made for a very interesting situation. By the third book, I have him really reaching outside the box and becoming a "landlubber admiral". He's the guy whose path to knighthood got cut short, who had to figure out another way to make something of himself. He's the "everyman" who can achieve great things by working hard.

K: Maybe that is why I like him so much, too. I felt I could really relate to him--he seemed very real, genuine.

Let's jump ship now (pun intended--read on, readers). Besides your Latoph novels, you also write fan fiction. Sea Quest fan-fic, to be specific. (Get the pun now, readers? Yes you may roll your eyes.) I'm not going to ask you to recap all your reasons for writing fan-fic. You've posted about it on your blog in detail, and anyone who is truly interested can read about it there. But the whole fan-fic thing to me is interesting. I've never personally been drawn to it. I suppose it is because I consider it sort of treading on sacred ground. If I adore Harry Potter, I don't want to muck around with the story and characters. I love it because of how the author wrote it and don't feel comfortable stepping into her shoes. But I *can* see how one would want to be a participant in the world, and how that would lead to writing fan-fic. Or, as in your case, a writer for the show disappointed you and you felt compelled to "fix" the episode. So, let's ask some questions. 

C: Wait. Before you ask, let me touch on one of your points. I don't see what I do as quite the same as Harry Potter fanfiction would be. I'll tell you why. Harry Potter was ALL J.K. Rowling. She didn't collaborate with anyone else. It was all her baby. SeaQuest is NOT any one person's "baby". Yes, it was created by Rockne S. O'Bannon. But after he created it, he did NOT write all the episodes or even most of them. Spielberg had a LOT of writers contributing to the show. Three authorized novels were published and even the first one (which is basically just the novelization of the pilot) is listed as authored by Diane Duane and Peter Morwood, just "based on" O'Bannon's TV script. The other two published books are by David Bischoff and Matthew Costello. So if to use Mr. O'Bannon's created universe is "stepping into his shoes" then lots of others did it long before I did, and they got PAID to do it.

Another point would be that, unlike the continuing franchise of Harry Potter (Rowling still sells a LOT of books, plus DVDs, merchandise, not to mention a theme park), there is NO continuing franchise for SeaQuest. All the books are out of print. I had to get them used. They had a teeny bit of merchandising back in the 90s, but nothing new is being produced. Only the first two seasons are available on DVD. I also seem to remember that Spielberg once said he considered the show a failure and an embarrassment. I have a hard time seeing my writing as "treading on sacred ground" when the creators have dissed it and abandoned it. I'm giving the poor, unwanted orphans a new lease on life.

K: I definitely see the distinction there.  

Have the unique challenges of writing fan-fic--such as trying to stay consistent to an existing story world that you did not create--helped you with your writing outside of fan-fic? In what other ways has it either benefited or hurt your writing? And by that I mean craft, not success of.

C: Fanfiction brought back the joy that had been missing for a long time. I go into the particulars of that in the blog, but suffice it to say that it has helped all my writing to have that back. It also helped me see that my natural writing speed was not so bad. Just because I cannot write 50,000 words in the month of November does NOT mean I'm a failure or "slow".

I'm not saying my fanfiction couldn't benefit from a round of critique and editing, but you know what? The chapters I have posted without it (because it was for FUN, not for publication to be sold) are not that bad at all. In fact, some of it is my very best writing EVER. I constantly self-edit. I get it closer to right the first time because I feel more experienced and my confidence has soared because of fanfiction and the readers there.

My third original book, God willing, will be written, critiqued, edited, revised and polished to publication-ready status in under eight months, start-to-finish. Maybe others can get a book out faster than that, and if you can, more power to ya. I may not be the fastest writer around, but I no longer feel inferior with regards to speed.

K: For a while, you tried to keep your novel writing and fan-fic separate, even using a pen name for your Sea Quest writing. What was your reasoning behind separating like that? I'm curious because my writing spans a rather odd gamut between inspirational nonfiction, fantasy, and horror. I also thought of using separate names but chose to write everything under my real name because I like the idea of being seen as, well, odd in that I write so diversely. Did you find the separation to be help, hindrance, or neutral? Would you change it if you could go back and do so?

C: (the site where I posted my stories first) requires people to make up a "handle" to sign in there, like most places on the internet do. I used CF Vici because I know it's generally not taken by someone else and I didn't know what kind of weirdoes might stalk around the place. I did eventually share my real name on my profile, but after building a "following", I certainly didn't want to confuse anyone by changing the name they were used to seeing. If I ever got permission to publish the fanfiction as authorized (and yes, this is one of my far-fetched goals) I would probably use CF Vici, but I'd also be open to using my own name if anyone thought it would be useful or advantageous. I've heard good and bad for both sides of the argument. It does help with reader expectations if you've previously been writing fantasy to give you room to write science fiction in a different style. I'm not sure I have much value in "crossover". Most people who like my fantasy aren't interested in the sci-fi and vice-versa. But I don't have a big fanbase to really worry about. I don't think the name matters much, to tell the truth.

K: Thanks, Caprice, for letting us tromp around inside your head a bit. I know as a fellow small press author, getting people to consider your books is a difficult task. I, for one, am truly glad I found them! And I hope everyone here sees that they are *not* typical, in a good way. 

So, dear readers, if you want to read something that's adventurous, with rich characters and a well thought-out story world...

The Duke's Handmaid: available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords

Nor Iron Bars a Cage: available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords

Caprice's blog:

Caprice's SeaQuest novels (read for free):


Caprice Hokstad said...

Thanks so much for having me on your blog, Kat! These were really good questions and gave me a chance to go deeper than usual. Looking forward to seeing what kind of drawing you do for my next cover, which will be soon (we want the eBook out by the end of Feb, if possible).

Kessie said...

This was an intriguing article. I'm always glad to see authors come out of the fanfiction closet, since I'm a fanfic rat myself (my poison is Sonic the Hedgehog). I hope your books get a little more exposure, Caprice! They sound really interesting. :-)

Kat Heckenbach said...

Caprice, you're very welcome! I enjoyed asking you these questions and reading your answers. I like the "depth" :).

And thanks for stopping in, Kessie!

Rehoboth said...

I was very pleasantly surprised by Caprice's Latoph novels.

Tymothy Longoria said...

I really enjoyed this interview, especially this question, "You've answered in other interviews (such as the one at NAF) about the lack of overt Christianity in your novel..." and it's subsequent answer.

I have answered similar questions more than once, though honestly I could always find time to answer them. I've said I'm a Christian who writes, not a "Christian writer" and there is a difference.

In my book, He is called the Logos and at one point two characters are discussing how a certain type of creature was created.

I also appreciate you saying you discourage others from calling their works "Christian fiction" without a clear explanation what why.

This was refreshing and again, thanks to Kat and Caprice for sharing!

"I'm a storyteller, not a preacher."

Alan O said...

Nice interview, Kat & Caprice. This one line in particular jumped out at me: "You have to hold your tongue and adopt certain attitudes and habits."

This may not be a fair question to ask (publicly), but how do you see that applying to the "job" of a published writer? What aspects of the whole publishing "thing" do you learn to keep silent about, because "that's just reality." ?

(Of course, by answering, you're *not* holding your tongue, so I realize it's a Catch-22 :)

Caprice Hokstad said...

Alan, I was thinking more along the lines of the type of jobs where you have a supervisor or boss that sees you every day or would at least hear about anything you might do/say while on the clock (especially dealing with customers or clients). McDonalds employees probably should NOT extol the virtues of being vegan to the guy trying to order a super angus burger.

Writers have a little less to worry about in this respect, but I could not go on Facebook and start posting negative things about my publisher if I expected that publisher to consider my next book. And if I was super crass about it, I suspect word would get around and even OTHER publishers would not want to consider that next book either.

Sure, the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, but just because I won't be arrested for saying something doesn't mean I can say anything I want any time I want. Words and actions have consequences.

Frank Creed said...

Glad to hear you'll be published again by the end of Feb! Congrats