I am a huge fan of T Kingfisher’s books and was super thrilled when she agreed to take the time to do an interview with me! If you like fairy retellings with smart, relatable heroines mixed in with some wry humour and a drop of darkness too, you’re bound to love T Kingfisher’s books. I pretty much devour anything she reads within a couple of days and found especial comfort in disappearing into The Raven and the Reindeer, which is based on The Snow Queen, when I was going through a difficult time this year. (And by the way, we all love Frozen, but I feel this is a far truer adaptation!)
When she’s not writing as T Kingfisher, she is also Ursula Vernon, a Hugo and Nebula-winning children’s book author, artist and illustrator. So in fact, she is all the things! To find out more about her and her creativity process, just read on.
Your latest book, The Raven and the Reindeer, came out earlier this year! What can readers expect from it?
It’s a retelling of The Snow Queen, focusing on the characters I always thought were the most interesting—the robber girl, the talking raven, the reindeer, and the old women that help the heroine along the way. The romance takes a very different turn in this one, focusing on the robber girl and Gerta. There are some very dark elements but it’s also in some ways one of the sweeter books I’ve written.
As T Kingfisher, you specialize in fairytale retellings. One thing I love is how well you bring through the ghoulish factor from the original tales – for example, the malevolence of the House and the roses in Bryony and Roses, and the atmosphere of Lord Crevan’s manor in The Seventh Bride (in fact, there seems to be a running theme about spooky manors!) I’m a huge admirer of writers who can make suspenseful writing seem so easy and natural. What’s a good tip for writers looking to do the same?
I’m flattered that you found it suspenseful! Honestly, the truth is that I’m never sure if I’m doing it right, but what I try to do is think “What would scare me?” I read somewhere not long ago—of course I’ve forgotten where—that the secret of horror writers is that they’re much more frightened than you are, and they’re trying to share their fears with you. So when I do a story (and the Gothic quality of the houses in fairy tales is indeed a thing I dearly love!) I just try to write what would scare me.
Pacing the spooky bits can be tricky, though. I think we all know in horror movies by now that when the music is scary and then the heroine sees a cat making the noises and is suddenly relieved and the music stops, that’s when the serial killer shows up behind her. There’s a rhythm to it. You can’t spend the whole book keyed up at fever pitch or it becomes exhausting to read.
You’ve mentioned that Robin McKinley’s Rose Daughter was a large influence on Bryony and Roses (and in fact, I was first introduced to your books by Amazon Kindle, which kept telling me that they would be a good fit, given I own so many of Robin McKinley’s books!) Besides McKinley, where else do you get your inspiration for your work?
Oh, heavens. Everywhere, I think! The world is full of endlessly fascinating things. I love fairy tales, but also gardening and bugs and the history of potato farming and the old colors of paint they used to make that were full of arsenic and if you painted the parlor green you dropped dead and the cure for eggbound hens (you soak the hen’s rear in warm water and Epsom salts for twenty minutes) and hookworms and failed attempts to domesticate zebras and Wild Man costumes in Eastern Europe and…yeah. My brain gets very cluttered sometimes. I think I write books so that I can offload some of the strain.
From what I understand, you mainly self-publish under the T Kingfisher name because you felt the books didn’t fit the traditional publishing market. (Congratulations, by the way, on having Seventh Bride picked up by a traditional publisher!). Could you tell us a bit more your self-publishing experience as T Kingfisher and what you learned from it?
My opinion of self-publishing has changed—I like to think evolved!—over the years. Once upon a time, it seemed like a pretty bad idea for books outside of certain specialty ranges. Then the market opened up and the rise of ebooks suddenly made things a lot more viable for authors in a certain sales range. And my primary trade publishing work is as a children’s book author, and sadly, that’s still a field where self-pub has almost no inroads. (You can’t get into school book fairs, for example, and that’s where a huge slice of the sales are.) I keep saying that this will change when they make an indestructible e-reader that costs $20 and that you can hand to an eight-year-old boy without fear, but it hasn’t happened yet (which kinda surprises me, honestly.)
Anyway! There I was with some books that just were not selling. My agent told me “Look, editors like them, they’re funny, but they don’t know how they’d market them.” So I decided to give self-publishing a go. And it’s really been a wonderful fit for me, because a lot of my books will reliably sell five or six or seven thousand copies, which is totally worth it for me to write them, but not necessarily worth a big house getting in and pushing them. It’s a great niche in the market for those of us who are writing weird books that sell, but not in enormous numbers?
What was your marketing strategy like for your self-published books, as opposed to the traditionally published ones?
I said “I wrote a book” on Twitter. And Tumblr. Several times in one week, even!
Errr…that’s it. I’m really really bad at marketing. Fortunately I have really incredible fans who do amazing word of mouth, but I’ve never learned how to market anything much.
Did you design the covers for the T Kingfisher books? What was the design process like?
Well, I drank heavily and cried a lot…
This sounds glib, but it was entirely true. Graphic design is a wildly different field than illustration. There are beautiful paintings that would make horrible covers and bad art that makes great covers. So one day I set out going “I Shall Learn Graphic Design If It Kills Me” and I started reading design blogs and buying books like “Graphic Design For Absolute Idiots” and so forth.
This would have been awesome if I’d done it before I wrote the first couple books. But I didn’t. I started out by looking at what was selling, not just on the shelf but in the little widget in the browser, then doing about five different mock-ups in the course of two days, until I settled on the current design. I wanted a template that I could plug future books into, so that they all obviously went together.
These days, I might change a few things, but they’re so unified as a set and people praise the fact that they all go together and ask if they can buy a book cover design template like that, so I stick to it!
(Side note from The Salonniere: The covers we are referring to in this interview are the ones T Kingfisher designed for her self-published books such as depicted in the above image of The Raven and the Reindeer. The cover of The Seventh Bride, however, is the one her traditional publisher’s in-house design team created with input given from T Kingfisher. Just thought I’d pop this in to clarify!)
Besides the T Kingfisher books, you’ve also published children’s books, comics and graphic novels. Is it difficult transitioning between one medium and the next, or do you find they complement each other well?
I actually really like the transitions—I get bored easily (or at least distracted.) The joke is that I do the first painting to see if I can do it, the second as proof that it wasn’t a fluke, and I abandon the third painting halfway through to go do something else. So as long as I am constantly moving between different kinds of projects, doing a kid book today and an adult book tomorrow and doing illustrations the next day and making some weird necklaces in the evenings, I don’t start to get itchy to do something else.
What’s a regular day like for you?
I sleep probably too late, honestly, my sleep schedule is badly out of whack. I get up, fool around on the internet for a bit, answer e-mail, eat something, go to the coffee shop and write. I have to get at least a thousand words done a day on some project or other (it doesn’t always matter what one—I usually have four or five books going at any given time) or the system collapses. Then I run errands, come home, take a nap, garden a bit as weather permits, and spend the evening working on illustrations for children’s books, or a podcast or jewelry or whatever’s on the plate for the evening.
What are you currently working on?
Oh lord! Too many things. I have a horror novel in the works, and a retelling of Tatterhood and another of Sleeping Beauty. And I’m putting out a book as a web serial, just to see how that goes, called Summer in Orcus. There’s a lot of things going at any one time, I’m just never sure which one is going to turn out to be the next one!
Finally, as one sushi fan to another – what sushi is your favourite?
Anything with eel sauce (except eel, oddly enough.) I would eat a brick with eel sauce on it.
I have to agree that eel sauce is simply the best!
Thank you, T Kingfisher, for coming onto The Salonniere’s Apartments and sharing your writing journey with us! For those who want to find out more about T Kingfisher and her books, you can check out her official website here. And to find out more about her work as Ursula Vernon, check out this link.