This series is my excuse to satisfy my curiosity about what makes writers tick. The hope is that by exploring how writers got to their craft, how they interact with books and their process, I might learn a little more about my own.
It’s high time we had another installment in this series. The seventh author who’s kindly volunteered to talk with me about reading and writing is the illustrious Rebekka Leber, Inkshares author and host of the Drinkshares: Last Call podcast. Rebekka’s book Proxy is currently funding on Inkshares, so make sure you head on over and get yourself a copy while you can.
About Rebekka Leber
Fledgling writer, social studies teacher, feminist, socialist, nerd, quirkiness enthusiast, and 1/4 of the podcast Drinkshares: Last Call.
- What are you currently reading?
The Chronicles of St. Mary’s series by Jodi Taylor. I found the first book, excellently entitled “Just One Damn thing After Another” this weekend, and I would like to know where they have been hiding this series from me? It’s about a group of Time Traveling historians, which is like my secret-not-so-secret dream job (aside from being the historical and cultural liaison for earth on the first interdimensional/intergalactic ambassadorial space mission).
2. Ereader or Traditional?
Trick question- where am I reading? I read every night before bed, and I don’t like messing up my eyes with the backlight of a device, so I always have a stack of books handy on my bed stand. I buy a lot of series on ereader at first though because there is nothing better than finishing a book I like and being able to download the next installment without having to peel myself out of my reading nest where I have coiled myself in a pile of blankets and pillows and cats on my big circle chair. (My cat, Rigby, really appreciates not being disturbed from his twelve hour nap. Plus, who wants to put on pants to buy books anymore? Pants are the tool of the oppressor.) I mix it up. I buy cheap books from BookBub often, but I also love going to the library and used books stores.
3. What is your favorite book?
Hands down, Fool by Christopher Moore. Both it, and the sequel the Serpent of Venice are crossover fiction of several Shakespeare plays. I’ve read Fool three times. Moore is my writing hero. I adore his style of mixing irreverent humor with history, fantasy, and classic lit. One of my favorite ideas in writing is taking old stories or history, and bending them in new ways. Moore is a master at that. Plus, Fool is full of dirty, hilarious jokes that make me laugh so hard I blew snot once.
4. Why do you think reading is important?
Okay, I’m going to answer from a teacher perspective and not a writing perspective on this one: Reading is important for the same reason I encourage my students to write by hand. When you handwrite, you activate more areas of your brain than when you type or text. That’s why I make my students hand write their notes (plus, I’m also a monster!). The more synapses you can get to fire- the motoskills required to move your hand and make the shapes, retrieving the memory of the letters and the words, reading what you have written and are copying- make the material more retainable. That’s learning. If you just take a picture and read the words later, it doesn’t work. That’s memorization. Reading is the same way- when you watch TV or movies, you get the same satisfying escape, but you don’t process as much information. That’s why people who read are better problem solvers than people who don’t. Writing by hand and reading literally make your brain better, stronger, faster.
5. What is the one book (other than your own) that you would recommend to others?
I tell anyone who will sit still long enough to read The Night Circus. That is the book I wish mine could strive to be. Much of the way Erin Morgenstern writes is similar to my own style, which is probably part of the reason I loved the book so much. The story is told through multiple perspectives in nonlinear order, so the entire story is one unwinding, woven fabric of multiple stories that come together in the end. And, the feels in that book! It’s a roller coaster of elated joy straight into traumatic emotional damage, and I adored it!
- What made you want to become a writer? 2. Why do you write?
Both of these questions have the same answer- because I love stories. No matter the medium- books, graphic novels, movies, television, audio drama- you name it, I love a good story that I can escape into and get lost. The natural evolution of that was creating my own. I was always a very creative, artistic kid. There were stories in my head, and I had to get them out.
3. What was the first thing you wrote?
The first thing I ever wrote was in 4th grade, and it was awful. It was part of an assignment to write a short story which the teacher helped us make into bound books with folders. It was about two rival princesses fighting for control of the kingdom when they are forced to merge. The evil princess kidnaps and abandons the good princess in the woods to die, but the good princess is helped by a talking bear who helps her save the kingdom. And then, a surprise to no one, the bear is a cursed prince and they live happily ever after.
Word of advice- don’t read stuff you wrote as a kid unless you really, really want to feel good about your ability as a writer today. Just… yikes. It was that bad.
The first thing I ever wrote to share were fanfictions. Writing fanfiction actually taught me a great lessons in my strengths as a writer. My favorite fanfiction I wrote was a crossover between Buffy and Supernatural where the only reason Buffy went to heaven and Dean went to hell was because the Angels had to keep them apart to prevent a prophecy that would ruin the Angels plans. I got so many compliments on my ability to capture character voice, and I loved the challenge of weaving the two stories together through the similarities. Those are two strengths in my writing I learned from starting with fanfiction.
4. Which writers inspire you?
I have my favorites of course, but they all have the same qualities, so rather than list the names, I think it is more helpful to list what qualities in writers inspire me. A) Not just creating a story, but an entire universe in which that story lives; B) Making me laugh and cry in the same book; C) Torturing the characters to the point where I am begging for them to catch a break, and bleeding from my heart with empathy, and still throwing more at them to make it impossible for me to figure out what is going to happen next; D) Unveiling a story in layers, or separate pieces I have to put together, so it is always like solving a mystery; and E) Blending genres to the point it’s impossible to categorize, because that is what makes truly interesting stories interesting to me- multifaceted dimensions.
5. Are you a planner or a seat of the pants writer?
I’m a plantser. I have to plan the bones, or I am lost. I need to figure out the plot points and beats of the story structure, and then I can pants the rest. My best stuff comes organically, but I have to have the bones to create limitations for the scenes. I write non-linearly as ideas come (whether I am going to use them or not), and I organize the points non-chronologically. I put a scene in when the reader needs to know the information- not when it works in the sequence of events. It seems disjointed at first, but as the story wraps up it gives the reader those AHA! Moments, and I love those too much to deny anyone that pleasure. But, I have to make sure that I know the goal I have to accomplish by the time I hit the plot point or the beat, and I make my scenes work up to that.
6. What are you currently writing?
My current primary labor of love is called Proxy, and it is currently funding through pre-order on Inkshares.com.. If I had to categorize it, I guess you could call it snarky Historical Urban Fantasy. It takes place throughout time because many characters are immortal. The idea for Proxy was inspired by my World Religions class freshman year of college, and a discussion about Hinduism. As a western kid, raised Christian beginning to lean decidedly Atheist, I was fascinated by reincarnation in the Eastern world religions. During a discussion about the inception and destruction of the universe by the gods of the Trimurti, I was struck by the idea that all of existence is created and destroyed over and over, infinitely. If that was the case, did that mean all the souls that would exist in that universe, the ones that would cycle around repeatedly, come into existence when Brahma created each universe and die out when it was destroyed by Shiva? And, if that case was the case, did Brahma factor in overpopulation when he built his stunning little ant farm? What would happen if he didn’t even fathom it? If the number of human beings- thanks to evolution, technology, and modern medicine- began to outgrow the number of available souls, would people be born without souls? What would people be like without souls?
That eventually evolved into a history of the world where the ancient gods were actually highly evolved beings, and souls were parasites that were the reason human beings die. The ancient gods, or Primes, were humans that adapted harness the energy of the soul, and that gave them immortalities and abilities. With those abilities, they created the religions of the world to keep control of the mortal humans. Then, it all fell apart. The story starts in 2012 with a spunky, alcoholic woman named Max who discovers that she is one of these evolved people.
7. Why this particular genre?
I have always gravitated towards speculative fiction. As a history and education student I had to read soooooo much non-fiction. Speculative fiction was like a cure for balancing out the boring. I know many people who say they won’t read or watch anything that isn’t “real”. That’s bleak, man. The real world is the worst. That’s the scary stuff I want to run away screaming from! So, I don’t like reading stuff that’s too “real”. I need some element of the magical or the fantastic or the scientific because this is my way of escaping adulting.
8. From where do you glean ideas for your writing?
I write the adventures I want to go on, so it’s kind of selfishly motivated. I get weird, random ideas all the time. I have no idea where my brain cooks up these things. They come to me in dreams, in the shower, while I am driving… which explains why a lot of my characters have names based on streets. I don’t have a good answer for this- I just have a really vivid, problematically over active imagination.
9. What advice would you give a fledgling writer just starting on the path to building their own novel?
- Find a community where you feel comfortable, and do it right now! Make it your first priority! Writing is insular, because it all comes from your own head. Make friends (a.k.a connections- you’ll need those later) and get as much feedback and help brainstorming as you can.
- Throw every idea you have at the wall and see what sticks. Write everything you think of, and never throw stuff away (that’s why Google Drive is my best friend!). I cannibalize from myself all the time.
- Stay humble in the end. It’s the readers you answer too, and they will make or break you.
10. A new writer is suffering with writer’s block. What advice would you give them to break through?
- Research has always helped me. If I can’t write a scene, it’s probably because I don’t have enough context for what I am writing about. Build a well of information, and when you run dry, you’ll have something to tap.
- Storyboards saved Proxy from the Recycle Bin on multiple occasions. Another problem I have when I can’t write is that I can’t “see” the story. One day, I say down, and make a 7 point character arc with colored note cards for all my important characters. Once I had written the scenes that were all their important plot points, I found all the holes I needed to fill and realized which characters needed complete story arcs and which ones didn’t. I wish I would have done with from the beginning. It would have saved me a couple of years, I’d bet.
- Prompts have never helped me- I always have too specific a problem when I am blocked, and prompts never fit my story. They are great for new idea generation, but when I am good and stuck, they are useless. One really weird thing that does work is random word association, or more fun, modernist poetry. I either write down all the words I can think of or ideas I need to express for the scene until something clicks, or I just write strings of nonsense words- whatever pops into my mind and form them into lines of poetry. One night I had a particularly wicked block, and after writing about ten minutes of writing nonsense poetry, I cranked out twenty pages. Modernist poetry creative writing exercise- trust me, google it!
On your Book
1. Tell the readers about what makes your book unique.
At face value, Proxy isn’t that unique of a concept. A woman is special, people make her use her special. Not exactly the cusp of originality here. But, what I think makes it work and feel unique are the characters. They are people that remind you of people you know- good people, bad people, annoying people, toxic people, funny people, people people. The groups in the story have strong bonds. The women drive the story, and have distinct purposes and personalities.
My book does have controversial ideas though, and that will ruffle people’s feathers. It asks a lot of questions about human rights, religion’s lasting impact on society, and what is right versus what is necessary. I would like to say I did it tactfully, but I’ve met me. Hopefully, what is unique about this story is that it is a nerdy fantasy story than makes you think about what you believe, maybe even squirm about it?
2. What do you love about your protagonist? What do you hate about them?
Sometimes, the characters do stuff that makes you want to punch them, especially Max Lucas. Other times, you just want to buy her a drink and give her a hug. She’ll take the drink, and pass on the hug. But, I feel like she is the most genuine character I have ever written. She is destructively flawed, mind you. But, she owns it. Like me, she is bold and speaks her mind, and acts when she knows what needs to be done. Unlike me, it usually works out for her (unless you’re talking about those times it didn’t), and for that I am kind of envious. She is funnier than me too. That’s not cool. I’m funny, dammit!
3. Who would you want to play your protagonist in the movie adaptation of your book?
When I saw Jena Malone portray Joanna Mason, I knew she would be a great Max. But, any actress that could pull off playing a Joanna Mason/Jessica Jones/Kenzi Malikov type character, they would make a fantastic Max.
4. Are you planning on continuing the story with a sequel and/or series?
I think Proxy needs to be a stand alone. I do see the possibility of being able to pull off stories from others characters and times in the book, and create a “Clockwork Century” by Cherie Priest kind of series where each book is a different character, but I think any story that comes before or after the events in Proxy has to be told through new sets of eyes.
5. Is there anything else you want readers to know?
SOOO MUCH! But, I struggle with giving away too much and not giving enough away. Max starts the story, but she is not the only protagonist. Many stories come together to reveal the whole in Proxy. Just like in real life, and in history especially, to know the whole truth you have to observe every angle, perspective, and voice. This starts as a story about a woman who as special, but it certainly does not end that way.
Here’s a summary of what happens in Proxy:
Max Lucas only ever worried about one thing- how she was going to score her next bottle. She’s not proud, but it’s the only thing that ever gets the voices to shut up.
When a horrific murder lifts the veil on her mysterious ancestry, she finally learns the reason why she can hear the thoughts of an entire city and why she can move objects with her mind. She’s a Preternatural.
Now, the ancient Preternaturals who once ruled the world as gods need her help to keep safe the most precious of human resources: the human soul. The entirety of human history has been written on the back of a conflict between the Preternaturals and the Vapids, an enemy that could upset the natural balance by profiting from the removal of human souls. Max will learn that hard way that the version of history you read about in textbooks is always written by the winners, and until now, that has been the side she’s chosen.
To protect the human soul, Max agrees to become the only weapon that can fight against the Vapids. But, right now…she just needs a goddamn drink.
Excerpt of Proxy
A shrill repetitive beep tore Max from a very lucid dream starring Dean Winchester, set in the back of his Impala. Another perfectly good dream, needlessly ruined by the fact she had neglected to switch off the alarm before passing out, face down, on top of her sheets. She groped blindly for the button to silence the insufferable machine. Unable to locate the clock, and completely incapable of removing her face from within the pillow where it was firmly implanted, Max resorted to other means to end the obnoxious beeping.
With a flick of her dangling wrist, the alarm clock lifted off the red milk crate nightstand, smashing against the opposite wall into a dozen fragments. The noise ceased as the shattered plastic parts collected in a mess on the floor below, but sun was creeping in between the split in the curtains. Even through her eyelids it was bright enough to give her a headache. Max moved only to slide under the sheets, drawing them over her head, creating a warm, soft hangover cocoon. Within seconds she was drifting back, imagining hazel-green eyes, black leather, and a bad ass smirk that said, “Yeah, I got freckles—they’re fucking adorable. Wanna fight about it?”
“What hell was that?” Ridley’s voice came muffled from the other end of the apartment.
“Did you hear that crash?”
She sighed heavily, fighting in vain to hold their image in her mind. “No…”
“It sounded like something fell.”
“Weird…” she mumbled from the recesses of her lumpy pillow.
Ridley rolled his eyes. “C’mon, get up and eat something.”
“I’m fine, thanks.”
“Have some coffee at least.”
“Can’t you see I’m sleeping?”
Yanking away the protective sheath, he tossed the sheets to the floor, evoking a noise that could only be described as the moan of a dying pterodactyl, followed by a desperate flail to shield her body from the light that landed her on the floor.
“I could have been naked!” she cried, hanging her body on the edge of the bed like she was clinging to it for dear life.
“Yeah, like naked Max would be something new for me? Get up, or I am opening the curtains.”
“You are officially King of the Asshats.”
“Then, as your King, I demand that you get your drunk ass out of bed.”
“I think I have vertigo,” she whined, climbing to sit on the end of her bed, dropping her head into her hands.
“Look, enough dicking around, Max. Your shenanigans kept me up past three this morning, and I have rounds in…” Ridley peered at his watch, “thirty-two minutes. I am not leaving until I know you have something in your system besides alcohol.”
Unsteadily, Max rose and drug her feet to the dresser where she pulled out a hooded sweatshirt, and tugged it over her pajamas. Ridley switched on the light illuminating the room.
“C’mon, Ridley,” she groaned. “That was completely unnecessary.”
“Get moving, Lush.”
Squinting her eyes, she exited the bedroom with Ridley on her heels. The apartment was unpleasantly bright. With an errant motion of her hand, the blinds and curtains closed. Nauseas from what little movement it had taken to get from the bedroom to the kitchen, she collapsed her head onto the counter.
“Here,” Ridley said handing her a TARDIS mug full of freshly made coffee, “Drink this.”
Through some unexplained mystery of physics she managed to lift her massive feeling head. Grasping the square, blue mug with both hands, she took long inhales of the hearty smelling steam to jumpstart her much resistant body. Fighting the urge to yawn, she set the mug down on the counter and opened her new box of cereal. After the effort required to pry refrigerator door from the vacuum seal, she stood there, blinking, trying to remember why she had opened the door in the first place.
“Milk,” Ridley spoke.
“Right…” she nodded. “Milk,” and, located it as if for the first five seconds it had been invisible.
Once she had successfully navigated pouring a bowl of cereal she managed her way to the couch. Ridley followed behind with the roll of paper towels, cleaning up the splotches of displaced milk that landed on the floor.
“Have you seen the remote?” Max asked.
“Look under the coffee table,” he said from behind the couch where she had climbed over the back, unlike any normal human being, spilling a bit on the floor behind her. “That is the last place I saw it.”
Under past issues of magazines and sketches on scraps of paper, she found the remote exactly where Ridley had predicted. It was underneath a doodle she had sketched few nights ago, but had angrily abandoned in lieu of her wine glass when she intercepted an argument over finances from the couple downstairs. Ridley could lecture her until kingdom come about the dangers of alcohol abuse, but he was not the living emotional lightning rod. She depressed the red circle at the top of the remote, and the screen snapped on with a static zap. Leaning back into the couch, she spooned a huge bite of Cini-Mini Crunch into her mouth. As she chewed, she cruised through the channels trying to find something acceptable to watch.
“Max,” Ridley called from the kitchen.
Her eyes did not break from the television, nor did she respond.She was too engrossed in the looping images of carnage sprawled across the screen- there had been a train accident in New Jersey.
Memories rolled through Max’s head like a forgotten old movie— mangled bodies, sparking wires, fire, and the faceless man with an infinity tattoo on his forearm who had pulled her from the flames. The sounds of buckling metal and horrified screams were vivid in her mind. For a second, she could almost again smell the mix of smoke and melting plastic.
It was strange to Max what memories the mind held onto in traumatic experiences. Oddly, newsreels of fresh carnage and tragedy always recalled Shel Silverstein. His books had always been her favorite as a child, and Where the Sidewalk Ends had been the book her mother reading to her when their train car broke from the tracks and splayed its content across the countryside. She could still feel the lurching of her stomach from the inertia of the crashing cars, and then banging around the cabin as the car toppled, rolling partially down the hill.
Dropping the spoon into the cereal bowl with a plop and a clatter, her fingers found their way to where her head had banged against the ceiling, knocking her unconscious for the rest of the tumultuous ride. When she had finally regained consciousness, the pain in her chest was excruciating and she was being carried away from the wreck by a man who was not her father. Her face was pressed against his chest as he ran away from the flaming mess of blood and metal. A scarf wrapped around his head to protect his lungs from the searing smoke prevented her from seeing his face. But, his ripped sleeve exposed the tattoo just below the elbow crease on his left arm. Being five years old at the time, she recalled thinking that it was the number eight.
“Max?” Ridley touched her shoulder.
Unconsciously, she jumped, splashing milk across her lap. The color had bleached from her face, and the glimmer of held back tears lined the bottom of her bloodshot eyes.
“Sorry. You forgot this on the counter.”
Ridley held out her forgotten coffee, gingerly placing it side table. Max growled, and walked to the bathroom closing the door behind her in his face. She grabbed a towel, wiping the milk from the front of her clothes as Ridley spoke through the door.
“Maybe we should go visit them this weekend?” Ridley suggested, voice muffled by the wooden door.
“You can’t visit the dead, Ridley, you can only throw cheap flowers on forgotten graves.”
The door swung open at a fierce speed.
“I thought you had to work? Have a good day. Don’t kill anybody,” she said flatly, hoping her would take the hint.
Ridley half-heartedly smiled, and nodded before slipping out of the reflection of the mirror, then she heard the heavy slam of the door.
Throwing the towel at the shower, it made a thick, wet smack against the stained tile before plopping into the tub. The motion triggered acrobatics in her stomach. She placed both hands on the edges of the porcelain sink, and vomited a little into the basin. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, and looked up to face her own reflection.
Thin, stringy strands of her brunette hair clung to her face and fell in tangles to the sides. Her skin was pale, translucent almost, but covered with rosy blotches, and deep violet crescents that weighed down her eyes. She whipped her shirt over her head to expose her chest. An ugly, malformed aberration marred her skin just under her clavicle. The scar rose up from her skin in a pattern like deformed lace. She ran her fingertips over the place where a scalding hot, broken luggage bar had impaled her. The Infinity Man had removed it while she was still unconscious, and plugged the gushing wound with his own ripped sleeve.
Gabe and Diana Lucas had told their daughter they were going to visit her grandparents, but even at five she knew something was amiss. She had racked her brain a thousand times, trying to justify why they were on that train, and the only, yet seemingly ridiculous answer she had come up with was that they were running. The anxiety in her mother’s voice, the forceful way in which her father had rushed them out of their Chicago apartment– they were both terrified of something.
He can’t really expect me to believe he’s working late again? Does he think I am an idiot?
What? These pants fit last week. I absolutely hate my body. I’m disgusting.
Next time he pulls that “You’re not my father” crap, I’m going to knock the smirk of his face.
She hated her neighbors, and she hated their incessant, superficial problems.
“I need booze.”
There was nothing that made her feel guiltier than stealing money from Ridley, but she did not really have a choice. She had to finish this painting today, and get it posted on her Artsy account. She could pay him back when she sold it. And, she would. For all her abrasive, alcoholic failings, Max was one hell of an artist. She even kind of had a following—she would sell a painting within days of posting it, for hundreds of dollars. Once, she even broke a thousand with a particularly large piece she had been commissioned to paint. The problem was most of the money went right into her liver, and within a couple weeks she was stressing to finish another piece to pay the bills and buy her quiet juice.
Do not forget to set the DVR tonight.
Shit! Did she say 12:30 or 1:30 for lunch tomorrow?
The voices of passerbys on the street were loud and plentiful, but at least they were mellower and more streamline than the cohabiters of her apartment building. Thoughts like these were fleeting. They were calm and easy to dismiss as quickly as they came
Milk, laundry detergent, condoms …
When the hell did they raise the price of stamps?
She liked these passive thoughts–they were peaceful. They were not riddled with emotion like so many others that penetrated her head. They did not pain her to process, they did not excite her senses, in fact they barely fazed her. She imagined this was the closest she would ever have to normal. These silly thoughts that came and went like a gentle breeze– in, out, gone forever.
Oh my god, look at that dress! I wonder if it comes in a size ten?
Is this 13th or 14th street?
I’m starving. God, a hot dog sounds-
A wicked, inhuman scream rent her mind silencing all the other voices surrounding her. She was stricken with a wrenching pain in her chest near her heart. She had never been infiltrated by such a searing raw emotion. It reeked of terror and torment. Amid the throngs of moving people, she fell to the cold concrete splitting the crowd like a busted melon. Onlookers froze in shock, gawking as she writhed in torture on the ground. She held her head so tight her nails embedded in her scalp. The last image she registered was of an older, gray haired man leaning down and yelling to the crowd to call 911.