Q&A with Kelley Armstrong, bestselling fantasy writer
When Kelley Armstrong published her first volume of fantasy fiction in 2001, one reviewer wrote: "The plot is that of a thriller, and it's a little shaky: there are too many villains and they are cartoonishly sinister." Nonetheless, Viking and Plume sold more than 100,000 copies of "Bitten," whose protagonist is a female werewolf with superhuman strength and a very active sex life. The book turned out to be the first of what is to be a 13-volume "Women of the Otherworld" series. Books five through 11 of the series made various bestseller lists (as did each of Armstrong's "Darkest Powers" YA trilogy) and the 12th entry, "Spell Bound," publishes this week. Her books (there are 19 in total) have sold more than 1 million copies.
The name "Kelley Armstrong" doesn't trip off the tongue like, say, Anne Rice or Stephenie Meyer, who propelled vampires into the pop-culture pantheon. Armstrong does write about vampires -- and necromancers and witches and demons -- but her heart seems to belong to the lycanthrope.
Her werewolves are a fairly sophisticated lot, working as journalists, anthropologists and artists. They drink scotch, drive hot cars and many of them seem to live in fabulous homes in New York state. Occasionally they venture into Canada -- a territory Armstrong knows well. She was born in Ontario and currently lives there with her family (which includes three children, ages 19, 11 and 10). Alice Short talked to Armstrong by phone.
Jacket Copy: How do you make time to write? Do you have to rise at 4 a.m. and hope for three hours of quiet?
Kelley Armstrong: When I sold the first book, my daughter was 7 and I pregnant with my second [child]. I had to make do with very little time. Now it's much easier because they're all in school full time ... [although] I'm still up at 6 or 6:30 and getting in an hour of writing before they get up. ... Now I have a corner office in the basement, so unless it's important, they are not going to bother me in there.
JC: Many of your novels number 400-plus pages. How long do they take to write?
KA: I've developed a process over the years. I write a very fast first draft, 10,000 words a week. For an adult novel, I'll be done in three months. The actual editing process takes longer than the writing. That first draft I'd never want anybody to see.
JC: Talk about your fans. Surely, most of them are women?
KA: For the adult books, the target age range for women is 18 to 35. ... I also get male readers, thankfully. Sometimes I get younger readers ... too young for the adult [books].
JC: Has a fan ever inspired you in terms of plot or characters?
KA: I definitely listen to what they say. And they have a LOT to say. It might not always follow the path I want to go.
Some fans do not like who I've paired Jeremy [the Alpha wolf] up with, and they will give me detailed descriptions of whom he should be paired with. ... I'm pretty sure it's someone just like them.
JC: Your work is classified as fantasy fiction. What would you say to readers who don't relate to its rise in popularity, who don't understand the attraction of werewolves or vampires?
KA: When I started this, I was coming at it from a horror background. Then I read Anne Rice and got the idea of doing it from the point of view of the monster. What would it be like to be able to change into a wolf ... to experience life as a wolf? It's just so much fun. It can be a thriller, but you can throw in so many genres. The only one I haven't thrown in is the western, and I swear I'm going to write a werewolf western.
It is fantasy from a woman's point of view. Of course there is a romance. But that's not all of it. We put in action, [and] women are treated equally. You don't tone down the male characters, but you are making women their equal.
KA: Not yet. When I was first writing them, the sex was more graphic compared to what was out there, but not now. As [I've gone] on, I get more complaints that I don't have enough in there. Because I [write] YA, I will go into middle schools and I will see "Bitten" in there and I will see where kids have dog-eared the pages. It's me usually saying, "I'm not sure that belongs in there."
JC: Your children are fairly young, but someday they'll want to read your adult fiction. What will you say to them when they want to read it?
KA: My witch books ("Dime Store Magic," "Industrial Magic," "Waking the Witch," "Spell Bound") have a younger protagonist and less sex, and my daughter started to read [them] at 15. I told her she couldn't read the werewolf books until she was 16. She skipped over the sex scenes. No kid wants to read what their parents have to write about sex.
JC: What do you like to read when you're not writing?
KA: I don't read much of what I write because I worry about unintentionally borrowing something. I love thrillers. I love history to romance to YA to nonfiction. I'm reading "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" and "The Gangs of Chicago," which is nonfiction.
JC: You have achieved commercial success; how do you feel about literary success?
KA: Way back when "Bitten" [was published], it was reviewed in the New York Times. ... I think it was fairly mediocre, but it was a big deal to be reviewed in the New York Times. Reviews are great. I can read negative reviews and say, “You know that point they made ... they were dead on.”
JC: Do you have a favorite book from your works?
KA: My favorite is the one that I just finished. The honeymoon is still on.
-- Alice Short
Photo: Kelley Armstrong. Credit: Curtis Lantinga