J. Lincoln Fenn has been a storyteller since childhood. This love for storytelling inspired her to write POE. This novel was so well received that it won the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award for Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Horror and became a bestseller. Fenn’s latest novel is Dead Souls. Wanting to learn more about work and her career, Fenn allowed me to interview her for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: When did you know that you wanted to become a writer? Was there a story that pushed you the most in this direction?
J. Lincoln Fenn: I was a fanatical reader growing up – I read everything. Horror, fantasy, classic, sci-fi, plus the magazines we’d get, Newsweek, Time, National Geographic. My world was a small New England town, population 5,000, and reading was a portal. I actually wore the fabric out on our couch from sitting on it, reading. I didn’t think about being a writer until I took my first fiction class in college. I loved it, but I just wasn’t convinced it was possible as a career. After college I tried very hard to do other things, because I knew that the odds of ever being published were low, and part of being raised in New England is that you have a very pragmatic outlook on life. But I couldn’t shake that desire.
So I kept at it, joining a small local writing group, then trying my hand at writing long form, then moving on to a novel. Submitting to agents. Getting rejected. I think I became a writer when I decided that I was going to do it anyway, whether I was ever published or not. Then I felt free to write what I really wanted to write. And ironically, that book, Poe, won the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award for Sci-Fi/Fanatasy/Horror.
Yanes: You grew up in New England and now live in Seattle. Both of these areas are known for having a rich history of writers and creative professionals. How do you think these environments shaped you as a writer?
Fenn: It’s definitely nice to be in a city that supports writing and writers – I’ve been in Seattle just about a year, and there’s this respect for genre writers in particular that’s refreshing. Where I grew up in New England, you’d go on field trips to writers’ houses. I remember visiting Emerson’s house, and Louisa May Alcott’s place, and I worked during the summer for a theater company based in Edith Wharton’s estate called The Mount. You’re literally surrounded by the history of early American literature.
I’ve also lived in Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Hawaii. There’s something about throwing yourself into a new place, or culture, that reveals what’s the same about people, and what’s different. My next novel, The Nightmarchers, centers on a remote tropical island, and I’ll be drawing from my experiences in Hawaii for that.
Yanes: Your website describes you as an “Amazon bestselling author.” How important do you think Amazon has become to building a career as a writer?
Fenn: Well I was very fortunate to have one of Amazon’s publishing imprints, 47North, pick up Poe for publication, and their reach launched it into bestseller status. Just as important though was going through the development and editing process. I learned so much from the crew there and Poe is a much better novel as a result of their input.
Yanes: You leveraged your Amazon published work into a book deal with Simon & Schuster’s Gallery Books. What advice would you give to other authors to help them mirror this accomplishment?
Fenn: Because of Poe, I was able to land an agent, and she suggested I develop a couple of book proposals based off of two short stories I sent her. She connected with Gallery, and I feel amazingly, tremendously fortunate to have gotten a two-book deal from those proposals. My editor there gave me more freedom than I was anticipating with a traditional publisher, and he also helped me to look deeper and find themes that added another dimension to Dead Souls.
What I’ve realized along the way of being published is that you need a team that gets you. Everyone’s looking for that one big break, and that’s wonderful, if you get it I will stand and applaud, but a more manageable goal is to focus on your next break. And your next break might be a small magazine publication, or a new, relatively unknown agent that’s hungry for clients, or a contest, or self-publishing. You have to engage with the industry to learn about it, and eventually you’ll find people who understand, and want to support, your work.
Yanes: Your most recent novel is Dead Souls. What was the inspiration for this story?
Fenn: Dead Souls is a novel about the way in which we can sometimes be our own, worst enemies. There’s a Buddhist idea called ‘klesha’, which is basically when you misunderstand something because of your own negative view, and then you make a decision based on that view which leads you to an outcome you didn’t want, which you then can’t extricate yourself from.
For example, you’re at work, your boss says something to you in a curt way that upsets you. You decide to get back, maybe drop some gossip in the break room. Only you find out that your boss is upset over something personal that has nothing to do with you – and now this little bit of insidious gossip is out in the world, and you can’t take it back. Real damage has been done, and it’s because you leapt to a negative conclusion, then acted on it.
The main character in Dead Souls, Fiona, sees something she doesn’t understand, and then because of her abusive background, assumes the worst. The only reason the Devil can enter that picture is because she opened the door with her own negative thinking.
Yanes: There is a rich history of stories that follow people who make deals with the Devil. Did you pay homage to any of these narratives?
Fenn: My all-time favorite deal with the Devil story is referenced in Dead Souls, “That Hell-Bound Train” by Robert Bloch. I read it in high school, and it’s stuck with me ever since. It really gets you thinking about the nature of happiness. It’s one of the things I love about fantasy. You can explore bigger themes without being preachy.
Yanes: You set Dead Souls in Oakland. What was the reason for picking this city?
Fenn: I wanted an urban setting, thought the Bay Area would be perfect, and I’d lived for a while in Marin County, then Oakland. Oakland has a rich history, and I knew the kind of building I wanted Fiona to live in, and there’s a great cemetery there, and the gentrification resonated with other themes in the book. It’s a city with stark economic extremes, which is reflected in Fiona’s own personal history.
Yanes: When writing Dead Souls, was there a character that took on a life of its own?
Fenn: Oh they all wanted their own book and were quite convinced they were the true protagonists. I think the strength of the characters in the Dead Souls support group took me by surprise. They were so unique that they worked their way into the plot more deeply – in the outline they were minor characters, just a blip on the screen, then gone.
Yanes: When people finish reading Dead Souls, what do you hope they take away from the story?
Fenn: I’d like a person to wonder if they’re thinking their own thoughts, or the thoughts of someone else who has an agenda that’s not in their best interest.
Yanes: Finally, what are you working on that people should look forward to?
Fenn: Right now I’m working on The Nightmarchers, which is about a remote, tropical island that’s taboo to visit, a botanist who died there under mysterious circumstances in the 1930’s, a cultish Church, a mythological army of the undead, and a present-day journalist trying to make sense of the threads that connect it all for a story that could salvage her career, and life. Plus it has big centipedes. Really big, ornery centipedes. I was bit by one and am still traumatized.