EM Kaplan, award-winning mystery and fantasy author, carved a moment out of her busy life to talk to us about her life and work. This former 80s kid grew up reading Agatha Christie and Edgar Rice Burroughs in Arizona, accompanied by rolling tumbleweeds. Perhaps she got tired of the scorching heat because she now lives in the cold north with her husband (author JD Kaplan) kids and dog.
When did you first realize that you wanted to be a writer?
In the early 80s, when almost every family was mailing duplicated, dry Christmas newsletters—the ones that listed their year’s highlights, ad nauseum—I wrote our family newsletter. I was maybe 10 years old. I told everyone I was working on my Ph.D., that my sister was going up in the space station, and that my family had gotten lost in the Mexican jungle during summer vacation, some of which was true. The overwhelming response was thumbs up.
You’ve written 4 books in two years. That’s pretty impressive! How do you stay so motivated and on track?
Other than maternity leave, I’ve been working full-time as a technical writer non-stop since the late 90s. I also recently became certified to teach dance fitness, and I had thyroid surgery in the summer. The honest answer is…I don’t know where the motivation comes from. If I want to do something, I find the time for it. So please don’t look at my kitchen right now. It’s a mess.
You write in several different genres—mystery, fantasy, and young adult—do you have a favorite? What draws you to these genres?
It’s taboo to say which of your kids you like the best, but I really love writing Josie Tucker mysteries. With fantasy, world-building takes necessary time and space in the narrative flow. It’s wonderful to read fantasy, to immerse yourself in a new world and to learn its parameters—its norms and limitations—but the characters are what make it bright for me. With Josie, who is in our world, I relax and let the snarkiness roll.
Who do you read when you’re not writing?
I read widely and indiscriminately. I’m like one of those filter-feeding fish that swims around with its mouth open. For my book club, I’m currently reading The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. Next in my stack, I have a humor-horror book called Bill The Vampire by Rick Gualtieri. I just finished the latest romance by Jill Shalvis…which might explain my inability to stick to writing one genre.
Josie Tucker, of your Josie Tucker Mystery Series, is a snarky, mystery-solving, food critic. What is the inspiration behind this character?
With Josie, I was interested in having a character who is not easily identifiable as any particular class, race, or social group. I saw one of those Internet photo montage things that made a mock-up of the average young woman on earth as of right now. Dark hair, dark eyes, and medium skin color. That’s what I wanted her to be. Outwardly, she’s anyone. Inwardly, she’s 100% piss and vinegar in terms of her personality. Every good story needs conflict—she’s conflict personified. According to many readers, she’s me—but I don’t think so. The food part is me. I’ll admit that much.
How difficult is it to write a good mystery? Do you plan it all out, starting with the solution and working your way backward, or do you take more of a pantser approach?
I definitely a pantser. Well…maybe one foot in the seat-of-my-pants metaphor. I like spontaneity while I’m writing, but I usually have an idea of the opening and climactic scenes before I start. The conversations and lilypad scenes (you jump from one to the other to get where you want to go) are what I improvise. But now, I’m mixing my metaphors and my story-writing frog is wearing pants. Probably lederhosen.
You also write a young adult fantasy series called, The Rise of the Masks. How is writing for young adults different from writing for older audiences?
The first draft of Unmasked (book one in that series) was R-rated. Seriously George R. R. Martin level debauchery and violence, and while that’s good for pay-channels on cable, it’s not so good for getting into high school libraries. So, I toned that business down. What I didn’t compromise was the language. I don’t believe in dumbing down the grammatical construction or vocabulary, especially now that many readers have Kindles. If you aren’t familiar with a word, you just touch it and see a definition. That said, I don’t believe in the language getting in the way of enjoying the story either. It’s the same as when I’m talking to my kids or their friends–I don’t change my pitch or my words. Kids are people, too.
What do you think is the most important part of a story?
Characters are it for me. Looking at beautiful scenery is fantastic in real life, but if I’m reading words, I want to hear a distinct voice—and I want that voice to entertain me. I want to know how a character would react in a situation and then be happily surprised when he or she does something unexpected.
What lessons have you learned the “hard” way?
The single most important lesson—I’m still trying to learn—is that you can’t please everyone. Negative people, reviews, and experiences are what supposedly builds thick skin, but do we need to be walking around with all this scar tissue? Can we each find the path to success without mountains of adversity? Facebook keeps showing me pictures of the frozen bodies that are stuck on the climb up to the top of Mount Everest. “Green Boots” is the nickname of one of those unfortunate souls. Identified by the color of his shoes, he’s a landmark for other climbers. Can I use his experience for a higher purpose and, perhaps, understand that I’m not meant to climb Everest? Yes, I can.
This is a muddled musing, but what I’m trying to say is, learn from other people’s experiences so that you achieve some measure of success (measured by your own ruler) without killing yourself or being irreparably altered by the naysayers or constant obstacles. You can’t please everyone, but how much importance you place on their opinions is ultimately up to you.
How was the publishing experience for you? Did you go it alone or did you get help?
I tried for about ten years to get an agent and go the traditional route. My husband, author JD Kaplan, was the first person I knew who self-published. I was like the John Rhys-Davies character in Raiders of the Lost Ark, staring at self-publishing as if it were a chamber of wriggling, writhing snakes: “Asps, very dangerous—you go first.”
But then I saw how painless it was and took the leap. Unfortunately, you don’t realize what all you don’t know until you know it. For example, marketing—all of marketing. Big learning curve.
What have you found to be the best way to market your books?
The most effective marketing is advertising through email services such as BookBub, BookGorilla, and others. Twitter, Facebook, and word of mouth can get you only so far. I haven’t seen anything better than those email services—although some are very competitive, very hard to get into. I notice that even traditionally published authors use them.
How do you handle rejection or negative reviews?
I eat a lot of cookies. No, I’m kidding—but I’m not immune to bad reviews. I try to see if there’s legitimate criticism in them that might help me improve. Otherwise, I shrug it off and move on with my life. I’m definitely an optimist, a glass-half-full person. If I see someone driving erratically on the road, I think, “Wow, I’d drive like that, if I had crippling stomach cramps, too.” Or if I’m in a store with a really horrible clerk, I think, “Wow, it’s really nice of this store to employ a person with such limited abilities.” Is this really my running internal monologue? Yes. Minus the cussing.
How do you find your courage? A lot of new writers are scared of putting themselves out there to be judged. So much so, that many of them never even take the first step. What advice would you give to them?
Is it courage? Or self-delusion? I haven’t decided. How about this…you’re here for such a limited amount of time. Nothing should dissuade you from writing if that’s what you want to do. If you have stories to tell, tell them. Life is short. Eat the cookies now.
What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
Each year, I write one Josie Tucker book, then one Rise of the Masks book. This year my plan is to write two Josies. I have ideas for both. And fake covers—one of the first things I do is make a mock cover for the book, just to give myself a feel for it. And to have fun.
Is there anything else that you’d like to share with our readers?
I have an active blog (www.JustTheEmWords.com) on which I’ve put some background material for my books as well as spotlights on other writers. I’m usually on Facebook (emkaplan.author) and Twitter (@meilaan) every day, so I’m very easy to reach if you’d like to say hello. I’m amassing a collection of funny Tweets I’ve gotten. I may write a blog post about it soon.
Thanks for chatting!
In the words of EM Kaplan, “eat the cookies now.” What an inspirational interview! We hope everyone out there took something away from this interview, like maybe “write if you have stories,” or “do what you love, because life is short.”
We wish Kaplan the best of luck on all of her current and future projects!
Don’t miss Kaplan’s latest release, Unbroken, from the Rise of the Masks series out today on Amazon!
Mel and Ott are back in this continuing epic adventure in which they travel from the frozen north all the way to the red desert and the great sea.
Monsters, feuding warlords, and the very elements themselves have forced apart two sisters. Can Mel and Ott help to reunite them, to keep at least one promise remain unbroken?
If you’d like to take a glimpse at the first chapter, check out this reading by EM Kaplan on Youtube: