An Unreal Interview with Ilona Gordon

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Ilona and Andrew Gordon are best known for their Kate Daniels series, published under the pen name, Ilona Andrews.  Their books have featured on multiple bestseller lists, including the New York Times and USA Today.  This summer they published Gunmetal Magic (reviewed here), a novel in the world of Kate Daniels, with Book #6, officially titled, Magic Rises, scheduled for release July 2013.
The West Coast Journal of Contemporary Fantasy had the opportunity to interview Ilona Gordon on Kate Daniel’s captivating world of a post-magic apocalypse and on their particular brand of authorship that has captured so many readers.

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1) Given that your Edge series has been successful at building new stories around previous secondary characters, were there still some things you had to consider on releasing Gunmental Magic, a full-length Andrea spin-off, rather than continuing the canon of the Kate Daniels series?

There are always reservations when you change the status quo.  For my husband and I, writing isn’t only a creative pursuit, but also the sole means of financial support.  When we gamble with our books, we gamble with our livelihood. But we really wanted to tell Andrea’s story.  I think every writer comes to the point where he or she has a choice: to experiment or to keep going along the established route and abandon rocking the boat.  I was taught that a writer had to be daring.  So we dared.  🙂  It just so happened that GUNMETAL MAGIC found its audience was very kindly received.

2) Andrea is a very different character from Kate, although they share many of the same personality traits. Did you have to be very careful about separating her narrative voice with that of Kate’s?

Since both stories are in first point of view, and both women are driven, efficient, and stubborn, we had to pay a lot of attention to the narrative voice.  I found that when writing a character, it helps to figure out for yourself what that character is about.  Once you have a good sense of who the character is, the tone of the scenes follows almost subconsciously.

If our books were a game and I had to pick a class for Kate, she’d be a bounty hunter.  While she holds to her own strict code of ethics, that code isn’t necessarily in line with laws and most people’s morality.  Her voice reflects that sharp edge.  She is also very honest with herself about her strengths and weaknesses: she knows that she’s an excellent fighter, but doesn’t have a lot of investigative training, so she relies on tenacity, intuition, and making herself into enough of a problem until the guilty party tries to make her go away.  She is a wildcard, but even when she appears to fly off the handle, she is in control.

Andrea is a cop.  She was taught to do things properly, and she relies on procedure and being thorough.  As she says in Gunmetal Magic,  “Crimes were rarely cracked by the super-brilliant detectives in a blaze of intellectual glory. Most of them were solved by the patient and the meticulous grunts just like me.”  She is that ultimate by-the-book cop: she doesn’t jump to conclusions, she methodically moves through the investigation, and she misses nothing. But, unlike Kate, Andrea has suppressed a part of herself.  She is a werehyena and she has managed to pass for a human for years by holding her every emotion and urge in a steel grip.

You can’t deny who you are forever. For Andrea, GUNMETAL MAGIC is the moment when her careful control snaps, and the sky comes crashing on her head.  She has to reboot and find a new point of balance.  So while she is more stable and predictable than Kate in her professional life, her emotions are swinging wildly and she is definitely not in control of herself.

Urban fantasy can come in many different incarnations.  In Kate’s case, her story is more of a sword-and-sorcery, while Andrea’s story is more of a police procedural.  The tone and the flow of the plot were slightly different.  Sometimes readers pick up on and sometimes they don’t.  We had a wide variety of responses, from “this is just a clone of Kate” to “I loved Andrea, she was so different from Kate.”  So at least it worked for some readers and we’re happy with that.

3) What is your method on developing secondary characters throughout a long series? I noticed that many of your background characters, such as the Lonescos or Barabas get larger roles as the series progresses or even their own short-stories, such as Andrea or recently, Julie in Magic Tests, which was released this September.

When I was a kid, I watched a movie about a castle and some bandits.  It was some sort of medieval story similar to Robin Hood.  The movie’s hero was in love with this girl, and it was all very dramatic, but I couldn’t care less.  I really thought the hero’s giant best friend was funny and that the heroine’s friend was hilarious, and I watched the movie for them.   It was a turning point: I realized that it wasn’t enough to just have an interesting hero.  That hero had to be surrounded by interesting people.

Both Gordon and I read a great deal, and it’s often the side characters, who become our favorite.  So when we ended up working on a series, we thought it would be fun to have a persistent cast of characters.  The trick to keeping them from becoming stale is to remember that each side character is a hero of his or her own, independent story.  Their lives don’t remain static, but evolve independently of the protagonist.

We don’t make any complex character sheets and we don’t deliberately sit there and write out what the side characters did in their time off screen.  The process kind of happens organically.  We have a general feeling of a character and sort of develop their story scene by scene, as the narrative demands.

Since I used the word organically, I should probably clarify that our characters are not separate entities.  They don’t exist outside of our minds. Sometimes writers like to pretend that such and such character is just being a pain and demands that a certain scene must be written, completely ruining their plans.  Sometimes readers ask us if that’s what happens.  No, that’s not really how it goes.  When an author says that a character is “taking over,” it’s usually authorial shorthand for the author becoming fixated on a particular character. Some characters are easier to write than others, but all of them are figments of author’s imagination.  The danger with fixating on any particular one is that when the author only writes the easy scenes, the narrative overall drops in quality, because instead paying attention to plot, tension, and story development, the author is playing with their favorite toy. 🙂

4) Inevitably when I introduce your work to other people and mention that you are actually a husband and wife writing team, I get the reaction of, “Team?  How in the world can you write a cohesive novel as a team?”  I’ve also enjoyed several of the Curran-POV snippets written by Gordon featured on your site, but I am curious on how you phase each other’s writing into what’s eventually published.  What kind of process do you use to delineate the writing between the two of you per novel?

I’m the designated first draft writer.  We develop the plot together.  Usually there is a general idea of a story.  Something along the lines of: Hero is a waste disposal manager.  His trash-eating dragon escapes.  He must find the dragon before he gets fired.  Turns out that the dragon was stolen by an assassin who tried to feed a body into it.  Now the hero is a target and is on the run. Stuff happens here.  Final fight on skyscraper. Hero wins. The stuff happens part is very important as it usually covers 75% of the book.

Having a very rough outline helps us stay on track.  Then we write a slightly more detailed outline, plotting a chunk of scenes until a crucial plot point.  These get written down on a dry erase board.  Then I sit down to work through the scenes.  We sit about six feet from each other and constantly discuss dialogue, scenery, and so on.  Then Gordon edits the primary draft of the scenes.  Then I edit it.  Then he edits it.  If you read it in a book, it’s the result of a compromise. Contrary to people’s expectations, we don’t have giant fights over the fate of characters or break dishes over each other’s head.  We do have occasional spats, but usually get over them quickly.

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