I’ve got a dynamite duo for you today, read writing pair Kirby Howell’s take on the authoring process below and join in with your own interview here.
Kirby Howell (we’re a writing duo: Jessica “Kirby” Alexander & Dana “Howell” Melton)
Tell us a brief summary of your book’s plot.
An apocalyptic plague sweeps the planet, leaving less than 1% of the world’s population alive. Among the living is Autumn Winters, the teenage daughter of a famous actress. When Autumn’s parents don’t come home and a dangerous faction takes control of her city, she goes into hiding with a small group of survivors. They’re led by a mysterious young man who harbors an unearthly secret, and with whom Autumn feels a deep connection.
Autumn in the City of Angels is the first novel in a series, followed by Autumn in the Dark Meadows. The third installment, Autumn in the City of Lights, will be released this spring.
What was the inspiration for this story?
Jessica: I had a terrifying dream one night about being forced to live in hiding in the subway tunnels of Los Angeles because of dangerous gangs roaming the streets after an apocalyptic event left practically no one alive. There was a mysterious doctor who seemed to have all of the answers and our group naturally gravitated around him. When I woke up, I realized that my dream had a beginning, middle, and end. (My dreams usually don’t make much sense!) I wrote all of the details down and my thoughts on adjusting it for novelization and sent it to my writing partner of 15 years, Dana. She loved the idea and we began work on the overall story arc for the trilogy. Several of the characters in my dream ended up on the page, though in different iterations, such as Autumn’s friend, Ben, and his little sister, Rissi. In my dream, Ben was a single father to Rissi, living across the hall from my apartment, and my feelings toward the mysterious doctor were made up of respect and curiosity, not romance or obsession.
Dana: I remember Jessica pitching me the idea over IM while we were at work one day, and I immediately loved it, but it was also really intimidating. The more we talked about it, the more we realized it was bigger than just a TV-length script or feature – which was what we were doing at the time. Jessica thought that we might be able to make this into a full-length novel, and while I’d always loved the idea of writing a book, the amount of work that went into it was daunting.
Do you have any writing habits you would like to tell us about?
Jessica: I think I speak for both of us when I say that we need sustenance to write and be creative! Chai tea lattes, regular lattes, eggs over easy and hash browns, chex mix, French bread and cheese, Girl Scout cookies, and coffee, coffee, COFFEE!!! We also appreciate stretchy pants while we write. (Though, this is probably due to the copious amounts of aforementioned ‘sustenance’.) I also need music to write. The type of music depends on what kind of scene I’m writing, though orchestral or ambient music is always a good default. My writing playlist includes bands like Balmorhea, Bon Iver, Canyon Country, Dustin O’Halloran, Eluvium, Hammock, Helios, Iron & Wine, Jose Gonzalez, The National, Nick Drake, Pink Floyd, R.E.M., Sigur Ros, Sufjan Stevens… can you tell my playlist is arranged alphabetically by artist?
What is the hardest thing to manage when you start writing?
Jessica: Each stage of the writing process has its own challenges – from breaking the overall story arc, to naming the characters (and the book itself!), to the actual writing. Personally, I find the story breaking to be the most difficult part because structure is not one of my strongest abilities. If I tried to write a story without Dana’s strong story sense, it might sound pretty but it would be aimless. Dana helps me to stay focused when creating the foundation the rest of the story will be built on.
Dana: For me, the hardest part is just forcing myself to sit down and get started. Whenever I set aside time to work, my mind will immediately start wandering to all of the little things that I should do soon, and it can get so distracting, that I can’t get into a creative place. But once I can push myself past that, then I’m usually able to get good work done.
Name the three books currently topping your To Be Read list?
Jessica: Wild by Cheryl Strayed; the new Ernest Cline novel, Armada; and The Martian by Andy Weir.
Dana: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters and The Godfather by Mario Puzo.
How important do you think a book’s cover is?
We would love to be able to say that a book’s cover isn’t as important as what’s inside… however we have to be honest. A great deal of decisions on whether to read a book or not happens just by looking at the front cover. It’s the book’s first impression, and a first impression means a lot.
Would you go into a clothing store to shop if the clothes in the window weren’t attractive to you? Or if the mannequins were dressed sloppily and the clothes were wrinkled? A bad book cover sometimes reflects a matter of poor taste, but sometimes it’s just shows a lack of caring or interest by the author or publisher. In either case, a potential reader might bypass a book they might otherwise whip off the shelf under better book cover circumstances.
That’s not to say that the entire book should be judged by the cover. Plenty of terrific books have lame covers – pretty much anytime a book is turned into a movie and the book’s cover gets a makeover with the movie stars cause a few people to turn up their noses! (We’re not saying if we’re included in that group or not…) That said, a book cover can be the book’s strongest marketing tool, but shouldn’t be the be all, end all decision maker of whether or not a book is good.
If you could collaborate with any author, who would you choose?
Jessica: Initially, I immediately thought ‘STEPHEN KING!!!!’ when asked this question, but then I reconsidered. I’d be WAY too intimidated to collaborate with him. Then I thought of my other favorite author, Laura Ingalls Wilder. But she was kind of a basketcase to work with, according to her uncredited, co-author (her daughter, Rose). So then the obvious answer came to me – I’d most like to (continue) collaborating with Dana “Howell” Melton. She’s been my writing partner and good friend now for 15 years and I can safely say that when it comes to writing, she’s the other half of my brain and I couldn’t write without her. (My saying this now puts her in the awkward (yet entertaining) position of trying to answer this question after me.) Mwahahaha…
Dana: I’m going to be honest, my immediate thought was also Stephen King. I’m about three decades or so behind the rest of the world and am just now reading The Stand, and I’m in awe. But, like Jes, I too would be far too intimidated to work with him. Working with Jessica is as natural and comforting as putting on a well-worn pair of socks and curling up by the fireplace. It’s what I’m used to, and what I like. So I’ll stick with my current partner. But if I HAD to pick someone else, I’d probably go George R. R. Martin – if for the only reason of trying to expedite the next book in the Song of Ice & Fire series. Ask Jessica, I’m a pretty decent task master, and love hitting deadlines.
Jessica: I’m a well-worn pair of socks!!!