YVONNE NAVARRO: Gazing at Ground Level
It always comes down to the characters for me. What's interesting isn't really the monsters, it's how the people deal with them. What sometimes make the monsters interesting...is that they retain a bit of their former humanity.-- Yvonne Navarroby Paula Guran
May 1997 (Originally published by OMNI Online)
Yvonne Navarro is a native Chicago area author whose writing has appeared in over fifty magazines and anthologies since 1984. Final Impact, her third original novel, was published in February by Bantam.
Her first novel, AfterAge, was published in September, 1993 and was a finalist for the 1993 Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a First Novel. Her second novel, deadrush, was published in October, 1995 and was nominated for a Stoker for Superior Achievement in Novel form.
She novelized the MGM movie Species, as well as novelizing Chet Williamson's Dark Horse graphic novel, Aliens: Music of the Spears. She is also the author of The First Name Reverse Dictionary, a reference book for writers published by McFarland & Co., Inc. and now in its second printing.
Navarro also has an new electronic project that bears watching. AfterAge, her 1993 apocalyptic vampire nevel, is now once again available -- this time as a book on a computer diskette. Unavailable since 1994, Navarro and a partner have converted the text into an easy to read, low-cost, screen-only book -- you won't be able to print it out. Every word of the book is the same, only the format is different.
I first met Von in 1995 in Rhode Island at NeCon 15. (She'll be one of the writer Guests of Honor there this year, along with Chelsea Quinn Yarbro.) Since then we have hung out some and written each other about a billion words of email. I've interviewed her before, too. So, when I got down to doing the questions for this interview, it was harder than I thought. I wanted you to know the Von, I know -- smart, goofy, hard-working, fun, sincere, solid, slightly warped, trustworthy, talented...hey, she's starting to sound too good to be true. Guess we'd better get at it and let you decide for yourself.
YN: First let me tell everyone that I forced Paula to say all that nice stuff about me, and specifically told her not to go into how cranky I can be or how I grouse about everything all the time.
DE: I whine, you grouse, but since you brought it up -- you were cranky all the time while writing Final Impact. Sheesh! Were we glad to see it finished! You write about humanity going crazy, the destruction of the planet, death, pain -- Did you get depressed from "playing God"?
YN: Nope, I don't get depressed dealing with death, pain and destruction in my books -- they're make-believe. When I pull off a good scene, or an emotional upheaval, I'm exhilarated, energized, elated. What made me grumpy was not really knowing how or when the thing would end, and a little scared that it wasn't going to come together -- but I think it did.
DE: I think so, too. Final Impact is a "good read." It deals with a rogue planet -- I love that phrase --that ultimately impacts Earth. While writing it you had this big map of the U.S. in your office with everything delineated on it. I also remember all the work you did getting the astrophysics in the story correct.
YN: Final Impact was an immense project, with more characters and research than I've ever had to deal with before. The phrase "rogue planet" came from Richard Marasas, Jr., the astrophysicist. I had an idea about what I wanted done to the planet, and Rich did it -- all of it-- for me, including accurate time tables, speed and date calculations, weight, mass, you name it. Given the exact set of circumstances (which is unlikely) what happens to the Earth in Final Impact really could occur.
In addition to the science, Rich also helped me in terms of speculating what the planet might be like after the impact. My job was to take these characters, put them smack in the middle and see if they could survive.
DE: Oooooo! I'm glad you brought up characters. You really populate this book with characters the reader is interested in and cares about. They've got depth. Where do you get these people?
YN: I make them. From scratch. A pinch of this, a pinch of that.
YN: Seriously, I work a general idea of what I want out of a character into a real person, using a five page fill-in-the-blanks character form. And then I write notes, notes and more notes: they have favorite colors, addresses, religions, phobias, cars you may never see them drive. Bad memories, good memories, dreams and fantasies. Each person reads their own kinds of books (or not), listens to what they like to listen to (not to be confused with what I personally like). They decorate their apartments according to what they like and how they were raised, they love or hate their parents for a thousand reasons. I mix these people up from bits and pieces and parts of people I know or have known -- the character Simon Chanowitz, for instance. Easy going (with a very rare temper brought out only by his father), patient, wonderful with children, funny and personable. A big chunk of him was based on a young attorney I worked with for four years. The son of a high-profile Chicago Alderman, John was one of the nicest people I've ever met -- he never raised his voice, he never lost his temper or got nasty. No matter how bad the situation was, no matter how angry or upset he may have been inside, he just shook his head and dealt with it, and most of the time with quiet good humor. Simon's sense of patience and general ranking as a "good guy" was based on John (but he looks nothing like John did!).
A lot of times a character will start out in a predictable way and then take off on me, do what's natural in the course of the story even though it's not at all what I had planned. That's when you know they've really come alive for you.
DE: Good characterization is something all your books have in common. But Final Impact seems different from your earlier books...
YN: The book was a departure from AfterAge and deadrush mostly in the sense of pure size -- the finished manuscript was 740 pages long. The amount of scientific research done for Final Impact was clearly the most, but I did quite a bit of research for AfterAge, except then it was in the realm of biology rather than astronomy or environmental aspects. [In AfterAge the world has been taken over by a plague of vampirism. To defeat the vampires, the surviving humans learn to destroy the vampires using a bacteria.]
In Final Impact there were more characters actively involved in what was going on, and things got a little sticky. I like to be sure that there are reasons, either physical or emotional, for characters to be somewhere or be a certain way personality-wise, so that things don't just happen coincidentally. Thus sometimes I'll plot backwards to make sure something happens in the past to put the character in a specific place in the future. I did this in particular with AfterAge, and the entire prologue of Final Impact is the groundwork for why the four main characters act the way they do for the rest of the book.
Sometimes this fetish for keeping track of people and dates can be a real pain in the tush. I end up with maps and markers and print-outs of calendars from twenty years in the future. I work in WordPerfect and can easily end up with 100 or 150 footnotes peppering the document, all reminders of questions to be answered, locations to be filled in, mileage to be checked, references to go back and add. Still, a footnote in your document is much better than a Post-It note that gets lost -- the same one that should have reminded you that your character was supposed to be in Carlisle, Illinois...not Grosse Point, Indiana.
Using footnotes was something I started doing with Species and it worked so well it's become standard operating procedure.
DE: So what was the worst part of writing it?
YN: Final Impact was almost frightening to me when I realized how big it was going to be...it just kept going and going. With both AfterAgeand deadrush I had a clear picture of what I was headed for; I literally had the last line for AfterAge before I'd written twenty percent of the book, and I knew the ending scene for deadrush almost from the moment I created Carissa. Trying to finish Final Impact was a horribly stressful thing -- I spent months in a state of near panic over it.
DE: Actually your state of near panic is Illinois and you use Chicago as a locale a lot. In FI, sure enough, we're in Chicago a lot of the time. Any particular reason you stick so close to home?
YN: Because it's much easier to write about what you know. The better you know your location, the more involved your reader will feel, whether or not they've ever been there. I was born and raised in Chicago-- in Illinois Masonic Hospital, the same hospital in deadrush -- and I understand it. I know the good parts and the bad, the glitz of the Gold Coast, the opulence of the North Shore, the poverty of the housing projects. Under all of it is a quiet sense of slow decay. Chicago is like so many other cities in that everything looks new or grand or majestic -- until you lower your gaze to ground level. There you see the reality of everything, the cracked foundations, the sinking concrete, the weeds, the trash, the people.
I wanted that same sense of knowledge for Species, but I've never been to Los Angeles. I was lucky that I had friends I could turn to, Amy and Kurt Wimberger, and they went on a sort of treasure hunt for me. I gave them a numbered list that planned a specific route matching the one in the book and they followed it, taking notes about everything from greenery to gas stations to billboards and what the neighborhoods smelled like by certain landmarks. They were great.
DE: As long as I've known you, you've talked about moving to Phoenix. If you ever move there, can we can expect your books' settings to move, as well?
YN: I'll probably always have stories with Chicago as the backdrop, although moving to the southwest will enable me to expand my area. I already have extensive notes for a sequel to AfterAge, this time set in Phoenix. I feel somewhat comfortable writing about Phoenix because I've been there a number of times. I love Phoenix so much that every place I've been is practically burned into my memory cells. There's nothing like a firsthand visit somewhere to really embed a story with a sense of the place. I think this shows in the scenes in Final Impact that take place in New Orleans, where I visited for the World Fantasy Convention a few years ago.
DE: With each of your major novels you took what could have been a hackneyed theme --vampires for AfterAge; zombies for deadrush; millennial disaster, colliding planets and psychic powers in Final Impact -- and turned out something fresh.
YN: I never said, "Okay, now I'm going to write a vampire (or zombie, or whatever) novel. Now what do I want to do with it?" I wrote AfterAge because I wanted to write about trying to survive in a world completely overrun by vampires. The medical twist -- destroying the creatures using a bacteria (not a virus, as so many people keep incorrectly saying) -- was completely logical to me. Could a handful of survivors reclaim the world by running around with wooden stakes when the place is populated by millions of vampires? I don't think so.
deadrush started with a one-sentence idea about sucking death out of dead people and just grew from there. I was tired of mindless zombies running around munching on people. And why the heck can't anyone ever outrun these creatures who are shuffling along at basically the speed of a turtle?
It always comes down to the characters for me -- I'm writing about interesting people, and the things that happen to them. Monsters, celestial disasters, supernatural events, are all just the circumstances around them. What's interesting isn't really the monsters, it's how the people deal with them. What does sometimes make the monsters interesting, as in AfterAge and deadrush, is that they retain a bit of their former humanity. This isn't to say that they're all basically good in their hearts, they wouldn't hurt a flea, or any of that dull nonsense.
The monsters in my books, just like the monsters in real life, can fight what they are or they can revel in it. In Final Impact normal people fight against what they are, human monsters immerse themselves in what they've become, characters you care about struggle to survive when everything they know has been completely obliterated.
DE: How did you get started writing and who influenced you?
YN: I never dreamed I would grow up to be a writer. I was always a reader. I used to go to the library with one of those pull-behind-you grocery carts. One of those kids who'd get so totally immersed in the reading hour at school that someone would have to shake me and tell me the teacher was calling on me. Which is a really funny position to put a teacher in -- they want you to pay attention to them, but are really reluctant to criticize you for concentrating!
What I was reading as a young girl wasn't very exciting, and certainly nothing like the stories I always had going on in my head. Those usually involved some beautiful heroine being rescued from a monster by the most handsome man alive, unrequited love finally coming through at the end, etc., etc. Romantic mental comic books nurtured by the trashy romance magazines my mom used to read. I was always drawing comic books and scenes to go with the stories and never would I have considered writing down the words -- I always thought I'd grow up to be a commercial artist. To me, at ten years old that meant I would spend the rest of my life drawing either cartoons or models in newspaper ads.
I think I might have done just that (well, maybe not the cartoons, but you never know) had it not been for a vindictive vice principal in eighth grade and what I realize now was my mother's truly tragic ignorance of what was going on. I was pulled off the admissions list for a technical high school where I was supposed to major in art and instead sent to a normal neighborhood high where art classes were only an afterthought. The rest is, as they say in situations which are a lot more dramatic than this one, history.
The stories in my head were always there, but back then writing was limited to long, rambling letters when I had something extraordinary to complain about. I mean, who ever heard of writing a five-page letter complaining about back-ordered fabric in a sewing shop? But I did it.
When my mother moved out of state we traded letters that were sometimes ten to fifteen typed pages long. As sad as it was to lose that art opportunity, my mother made up for it in 1981 by suggesting, after reading a book I'd recommended to her, that there was no reason in the world that I couldn't write like that. I thought she was nuts, but the seed had certainly been planted.
Early influences were people like Rick McCammon, Stephen King, F. Paul Wilson. The monsters were fun, but it was the people they wrote about that I loved so much. It doesn't have to be a horror book if the writer can draw me in with the characters -- mystery, mainstream, romance, whatever. I'll read anything if I fall for the people. Who cares if there's a big lizard running around snarfing down people as a main course if you won't miss the meal after it's gone?
DE: How do you feel being known as a "horror" writer? I notice that Final Impact is being marketed as "fiction."
YN: I have mixed feelings. Horror is what I like to read the most, what I like to write the most-- almost everything I write ends up turning that way. My agent once told me you could always tell a horror writer because they never write happy endings; perhaps the survival aspects of Final Impact are what made Bantam feel it could be marketed as straight fiction. Unfortunately the horror label has some drawbacks. The worst is that most foreign publishers aren't buying straight horror... and I am definitely perceived as a horror writer. As a result, none of my solo novels have sold anywhere but in the States.
The horror label is also a strike against me in the area of promotion. Because everyone is preconvinced that horror won't sell, Bantam does little to promote the books. Even Final Impact, which should really be riding this terrific wave of apocalyptic-asteroid interest, is on its own because of my horror history.
DE: I agree that Final Impact is a book with a lot of crossover appeal. A think a lot of folks would buy it and enjoy it immensely -- if they were aware of it.
YN: It's a bittersweet thing, because I'm writing what I want to write and selling it -- but not moving forward in my career.
DE: Well, "they" -- agents, publishers, whoever -- say that "horror isn't selling."
YN: Good horror novels sell just fine-- if the publisher promotes them There's the key. Yes, the contents matter, but the publisher has the power to make a book a bestseller if they choose to. Unfortunately they usually don't.
DE: Other than this publishing game -- what scares you?
YN: Real life and non-fiction: books in the true crime section that tell stories about real people who murdered real victims, then go into detail about how destroyed the victims or the families were. The newspaper and the news reports about real people who were murdered or killed in disasters -- you can't close the book and forget about them or laugh with relief that the disaster is over in real life. I could never be a reporter or a police officer or a coroner, because I can't get past the undeniable fact that the person who's dead on the table or in the photograph or in the story was real, someone whose life was stolen from them by another person or by circumstance, and who can never, ever get that life back again.
DE: So why do you like reading horror?
YN: Because when the story is good, really good, it's a physical rush that you just can't get if you don't have a little bit of fear-induced adrenaline running through you. Horror is an up and down, emotionally satisfying, terrifying, I-can't-put-this-book-down type of thing. And whatever the resolution, good or bad or otherwise and even if you're crazy about the characters or devastated that your favorite one just got pulverized, it's pretend. At the end of it all you're grinning and happy and talking about the people in the book and how good a tale it was and you can't wait for the next one by the author.
DE: Back to the realities -- I know you still have the day job as a legal secretary. What's it like being an author these days? Tom Monteleone mentioned last issue that the average writer in this country makes maybe $6000 a year and he felt lucky to make a living at it.
YN: Yes, it's that's old reality thing again, which is exactly what keeps me at the day job. Reality bites big time -- with a mortgage payment, utilities, big heating bills in a bitterly cold climate. I'm probably more paranoid than most because I still have not-at-all-fond memories of a time when I ate canned refried beans for three days because there was no other food. Memories like those-- as well as seeing what trying to go full time has done to a few of my friends-- are like concrete shoes that keep me stuck at the day job.
Checks are late just because contracts don't get read in a timely manner or someone's out of town or just too busy. One of my novelizations got caught in limbo between two publishers in a fight over the trademark rights. Guess who had to wait months to get paid? Had I not had the day job, I really don't think my mortgage company would have said "No problem, we can wait a few months for you to make your payments."
An even nastier slap from reality is a decent book that's selling just fine... but gets yanked out of print after only fourteen weeks by some number cruncher in a back office who doesn't bother to notify the editor, much less the author (so you can buy some of the books before they're pulped). Then that bad news is followed by another pointed reminder by your agent that "the average shelf life of a book is fourteen days." So even though you're pretty sure you've written a book that a lot of people would enjoy if they got to read it, they'll never be able to buy it.
But people still perceive authors as...well, here's an anecdote that says it all: A person at work once told me he saw one of my books in the candy store in my building's lobby and mentioned to the clerk that he knew the person who'd written it. Her response: "Wow, she must be a millionaire!" Now that'sfunny.
DE: When will you feel you have "made it"?
YN: When I make that million?
Seriously, I suppose the material aspect of having "made it" is to be in a position where I can finally write full time, make my move to Arizona and get my female wheaten Irish Wolfhound puppy.
As for the emotional aspect, I think I'll feel like I've accomplished something when I see a total stranger reading one of my books on a commuter train or a bus.
DE: Hey, I saw somebody on a plane reading deadrush once. Next time I'll try to take a picture for you. I live to see you emotionally fulfilled.
Meanwhile, I think we probably covered everything here except stuff we'd better not cover in public.