Alisa Kwitney is writer who I have respected since her days as an editor and writer at Vertigo. So a few months back, while visiting Kwitney’s website to see what upcoming projects she had, I contacted her for an email interview. She was kind enough to accept the offer. We cover a range of topics in our exchange, but first a snippet of her official bio: “Alisa has written some half a dozen novels, two coffee table books, and assorted comics and graphic novels. Her novels, which have been described as ‘romances laced with satire and a mainstream flair’ (Library Journal) have been translated into Russian, German, Japanese, Norwegian and Bahasa Indonesian. She also writes dark fantasy/paranormal romance and science fiction under the name Alisa Sheckley.” My thanks to Kwitney for her time and damn fine sense of humor.
Tim O’Shea: Why do you make a divide between your work as Alisa Kwitney and Alisa Sheckley?
Alisa Kwitney: It actually wasn’t my idea – I was asked by my agent and encouraged by editors to publish The Better to Hold You and Moonburn under a different name. But I did think that they made a good point when they said it might confuse readers of my more realistic novels to discover that I had werewolves wandering around in these books.
O’Shea: Do you consider the two identities to have separate writing ”voices”?
Alisa: Well, in some ways, no. I think my voice, my sense of humor and my themes come through pretty consistently, whether I’m writing about scuba divers and driving instructors or shapeshifters and mad scientists. And I would argue that some of my Kwitney novels actually contain a fair amount of darkness and angst, while my Sheckley books have some Fawlty Towers style romantic farce – the whole man/dog dichotomy really lends itself to absurd situations. On the other hand, I did let myself go darker with the Sheckley books, because I was playing in the horror side of the playground.
O’Shea: Have you ever started writing a project as Kwitney and realized it would work better as a Sheckley project or vice versa?
Alisa: I select the project first, then decide on what name goes on it later. Confusing matters, so far, all my comics writing has been as Kwitney – and some of it has been dark fantasy.
At the moment, I’m writing a New York ghost story which I’m pretty sure will be published under the Kwitney name, even though there are paranormal elements, and Edgar Allan Poe will probably be making an appearance. Like all my books, it’s a hybrid, but I think it falls on the Kwitney side of the divide. Labradoodle, instead of Poodalab.
O’Shea: Both of your parents, Robert Sheckley and Ziva Kwitney, were writers. Did either of them or neither influence your interest in writing?
Alisa: Both my parents influenced my writing, although only my mother raised me. My mother introduced me to poetry and taught me how to edit myself; the books my father left behind after the divorce, (mainly great fifties and sixties science fiction) and the books he later gave me, shaped my tastes and my imagination. He also told me that talent didn’t count for much, because the hardest part of being a writer was writing.
O’Shea: Do you think your skills as a writer benefited from the years you spent as an editor?
Alisa: Absolutely. I learned more from editing than I did from Columbia’s MFA program, no question. One of the things I learned is that writers, myself included, don’t always see that they’ve created a great story opportunity. People often think that editing is all about telling writers where they went wrong, but my favorite part of the job was pointing out where writers could take a seed they had planted and grow it.
This fall I’ve been teaching a Graphic Novel Writing course at Fordham, and I’ve been remembering how much fun it is to analyze what makes stories work, and consider all the different choices available.
O’Shea: Do you think writers who are native New Yorkers like yourself are predisposed to be more effective urban fantasy writers than say a writer who grew up in the Midwest, or does it have no bearing at all?
Alisa: There are so many different New Yorks. There are New Yorks where people go around wearing high fashion and New Yorks where people live underground in the subways. There are New Yorks where everyone goes around conspiring against the government and New York where women agonize over preschool applications. You don’t need to live in the city to write about it, but I do think you should live in some city (in the Midwest is fine) in order to capture the specific flavor of urban life.
O’Shea: When creating a lead character who is a veterinarian (like Abra Barrow is in your novels, The Better to Hold You and Moonburn) did you do a great deal of research about vet medicine?
Alisa: I was an unqualified veterinarian’s assistant once upon a time, and spent a day at the Animal Medical Center years ago when I was researching the book. But I love doing research. Anything to avoid writing, really.
O’Shea: With Moonburn, this is your second round with the group of characters. Had you always intended to write the second book even before writing The Better to Hold You?
Alisa: I wrote The Better to Hold You years ago, and didn’t really think about it as a series until then Ballantine editor Liz Scheier asked about the possibility of a second book. I mulled it over at first, and then started to get excited at the prospect, since I’d never done a series before. So I went ahead and wrote the sequel, and then went back and tweaked the original so that it all fit together. I hate staying in my comfort zone, and there’s something invigorating about formal writing challenges.
I also wound up having a lot of fun doing Moonburn. There’s something very pleasurable about writing a book in a world you’ve already created.
O’Shea: Any plans to write more songs inspired by your novel, as you did with The Better to Hold You?
Alisa: I’d love to do a song and a book trailer.
O’Shea: How did you come up with the idea to share some of your thinking in writing your books, with the section called “Read Between the Lines“? Are you ever afraid you might influence a reader’s take on the book with this candor?
Alisa: I enjoy talking about the craft of writing, both as an editor and teacher. And I don’t think I’ve said anything too off-putting in my column. I haven’t said that I tend to write in a bathrobe with a cat on my lap, for example, or mentioned the fact that the cat has an infected eye which he likes to rub on my sleeve.
That’s not true, by the way. I always write in a café, dressed like Audrey Hepburn. And my cat’s eye is much better.
O’Shea: Speaking of Read Between the Lines, what has been the response to the question you posed to your readers about Moonburn: “Which side does Moonburn fall on, PR (paranormal romance) or UF (urban fantasy)? I say squarely on the border between, but I look forward to hearing what you think.” Did any response sway your thinking on the book to either side of the border?
Alisa: Lately I’ve been drifting toward terms like “hybrid” or “mash up” fiction, since it’s like saying you’re making casserole, as opposed to lasagna. People get upset when you mess with their lasagna, so it might be best not to raise lasagna expectations. I also like “interstitial fiction”, even though it reminds me a little of the term “interstitial cystitis,” which is not as nice. Interstitial refers to things that fall into the spaces between – good as regards fiction, not so good as regards the urethra.
O’Shea: Sadly the Minx line is no more, but before it ended you were able to collaborate with Joelle Jones on Token. Is there any chance you two might team up again?
Alisa: I’d love to work with Joelle again. I hope to keep writing graphic novels as well as prose.
O’Shea: On the horizon, what can you tell me about your next Vertigo project?
Alisa: I have a twisted fairy tale about the angel of death coming out with the incredibly gifted artist Rebecca Guay. There are a lot of other amazing folks involved with this project, but it’s still top secret.
O’Shea: Anything you’d like to discuss that I neglected to ask about?
Alisa: I’ll be reading at KGB at the Fantastic Fiction Reading Series in New York on Wednesday, Nov 18.