This week we have an interview with poet and novelist Deborah L. Davitt! Born in Washington state, she spent the first part of her life in Reno, Nevada, eventually graduating first in her class from the University of Nevada, Reno in 1997 with a BA in English Literature. Her focus was medieval and Renaissance literature, and in 1999, she received an MA in English from Penn State. These days she lives in Texas with her family.
Davitt has taught composition, rhetoric, and technical writing, and created technical documentation on topics ranging from nuclear submarines to NASA’s return to flight to computer hardware and software. Her accolades include Pushcart and Rhysling nominations, and she has appeared in over twenty journals; her short fiction has appeared in InterGalactic Medicine Show, Compelling Science Fiction, Silver Blade, Altered Europa and The Fantasist. Her critically-acclaimed Edda-Earth novels are available through Amazon. She’s also known for the well-received, 3.5 million word fanfic called Spirit of Redemption that exposed her to a global audience. She was also a formidable participant in the very first SFPA Poetry Thunderdome at Comicpalooza this year. You can visit her online at https://www.edda-earth.com
Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get started as a writer? What was one of the hardest things for you to learn?
I got started as a writer young, and by fits and starts, as most people do, I suppose. I loved reading, and I’d write stories for classes. Sometimes, around age nine, I’d start longer, more ambitious things at home, and would get stymied by the question of “what happens next” by the bottom of the college-ruled notebook paper. By age ten, I was telling stories out loud at recess to an audience of kids who didn’t want to play hopscotch or jumprope, and I’d pattern them around the Choose Your Own Adventure model, giving them a choice between the dark woods or the easy, wide road that led to town, that sort of thing. And I only just now realize that that made me a participant in oral story-telling tradition. Kinda, sorta, anyway.I started submitting stories to magazines in my teens, which got me rejections. I wrote my first, really bad novel at 18, in the summer between high school and college. I re-read it a few months later, realized how meandering and derivative of what I’d been reading it was, and it’s thankfully long since been lost to computer program upgrades and hard drive failures and everything else.
I didn’t write much fiction during college–I had writing-intensive course-load in terms of papers. I did take a single creative writing course during one summer, and that’s where I came to grips with writing engaging dialogue for the first time. It didn’t come naturally for me, because I talk largely the way I write–very quickly, in complete thought streams, and I’ve never met a polysyllabic word I didn’t like. That doesn’t come across as natural to most readers. But that’s not what taught me engaging dialogue.
Fast-forward many years, and I would up in a lot of online, play-by-post fantasy RPGs. I wound up as the DM, or game-master quite often, largely because no one else wanted all the work! But that is where I got my early practice in holding together a long, overarching narrative with smaller subplots, and in creating engaging characters through dialogue–characters with whom my players wanted to interact. Between that and my training in rhetoric (which is what I wound up teaching in grad school), I’m unabashedly audience-centric. How will they see this? How will they react to this? Do they need more reference or framework in order to understand this thing in the way that I want them to?
What’s your writing process like these days?
That greatly depends on what I’m writing. For poetry, it can range between “I woke up with a word in my head instead of a song this morning, and I have to get rid of that word by passing it on. First, let me go look up what deliquescent means, and next, I’ll write a poem with that word in it” to “I have assigned myself the task of five poems this morning. I can use a random word generator to provide seeds around which I’ll write them, I can do some reading on new science articles and oh, hey, they’ve found plumes of ice bursting off of the moon Enceladus. Let me write something about that moon, then.” Or it could be “I’ve never written a than bauk poem before. Let’s see if I can do it, and what fits in that form,” or “hmm, I haven’t written a sestina in a while. Let’s come up with a list of line-ending words that fits this tiny story idea, and see where the form winds up taking the story.”
Because, really, sometimes the form changes the story you intended to write. Then I let them sit for a couple of days. Sometimes I tinker with them, sometimes I send them out exactly as I wrote them.
For short stories, there’s usually a submission call that revolves around a loose theme: “death by water” or “talk to us about trees. Trees have to feature in this somehow.” And then I stew on that for a bit, or might Wikipedia specific types of trees until something kicks loose–a character, a premise. And then I jot down a few notes about the characters and the setting, and off I go on a first draft. Let it sit for a couple of days, see if anything else kicks loose. Sometimes I put it up for critique on a pro writers’ forum of which I’m a member, and I get good feedback. Sometimes, I don’t.
For novels and other longer pieces, I write by what I call a signpost system. I have a list of “signpost scenes” I want to get to. I’m not married to that outline. Far from it. Because when the characters wake up and tell me “No, I would never do that, that’s stupid,” it can change the events of how I get to the signpost. And sometimes, the signposts along the way can change as a result of their decisions. Sometimes, my characters are smarter than I am. 😉
What’s a poem you usually suggest for a reader who wants to read you for the very first time?
Hmm, that’s actually a tough question for me, because I write in a variety of modes, moods, and styles. And again, I tend to believe that everything really should be audience-centric. So let me answer like a sommelier recommending a good wine:
If you’re looking for an aperitif, something to sip with your appetizers, may I recommend “The Colors of Time,” a tanka of mine? http://tankajournal.com/issue.php?id=8&issue=5, though you’ll have to search for it by my last name.
If you’d prefer something more along the lines of a cocktail to sip before the meal begins, there’s “Lo Shu’s Magic Square.” http://www.snakeskinpoetry.co.uk/237magicsquare.html Some people might not even recognize it as a poem!
If you’re a reader who’s looking for a crisp science fiction blend, may I recommend my Rhysling-nominated “Storm Miners?” It’s available in either audio or written presentation, and you can find the written form here: https://www.edda-earth.com/rhysling-nominated-poems, and a link to my audio presentation of it on that same page.
If you’re a reader with more of a taste for a dark, rich fantasy red with complex form, may I recommend my sestina, “The Banshee’s Embrace?” https://zeteticrecord.org/2017/02/the-banshees-embrace/
And if you’re a reader looking for a dessert wine that pairs well with sweet dishes but provides a palate-cleanser, too? “Russalka” brings you back to the modern world, with a dark twist. https://devilfishreview.com/issue-nineteen/russalka-by-deborah-l-davitt/
Who do you look up to as your literary heroes and heroines?
I don’t think I have heroes, per se. There are writers whose work I admire, and whose works have shaped mine, but I don’t really have the fandom gene, or if I did, it’s been worn out of me.There are authors that I always come back to, and I always find something new in their works; I love how Terry Pratchett can simultaneously tell a riotously funny story, that’s a murder mystery, that’s also a dead-on, highly-pointed critique of modern society’s foibles, without ever once being preachy. Talk about mastery of tone. I love how Cliver Barker can write a terrifying tale that’s simultaneously a touching love story and an interaction with history, society, and mythology. I like authors who are multivalenced, I suppose you might say.
What inspired you to write the Edda-Earth saga? What was the most challenging part of the process for you as you were doing your research?
A very long time ago, someone told me that if Rome hadn’t fallen, and the Dark Ages hadn’t occurred, we’d already be living on Mars. That notion percolated for a very long time, and then I was reading an article about the practices of one specific Native American tribe–when someone in the tribe had a dream about the Morning Star, they’d ride out, capture a young girl from another tribe, and shoot her full of arrows in replication of the Evening Star’s kidnapping/rape/marriage to the Morning Star. You know, the recapitulation of mythology, just as is seen in many other cultures over the course of history. And that ritual linked itself up with the persistent notion of “what would the world look like if Rome hadn’t fallen? If they’d sent ships across the ocean centuries ahead of history’s schedule?”
The result was, as I’ve told others, the world’s best game of Civilization. I sat down and plotted out a different course of world history. If the Romans had gotten with the Germanic and Gallic tribes and exported their most obstreperous types to the Americas (which wouldn’t be called that), and if they’d sent two-masted ships further than India, which they’d already reached by ship in the first century AD anyway . . . what happened when they reached Japan? Would Japan have had any reason to become isolationist? Maybe not. What would East Asia look like with regular, consistent trade with the West established directly and without colonialism, centuries ahead of schedule? What would the map of the world look like? What languages would exist? (Because, brother, English wouldn’t.) The most challenging part was also the most fun for me, and that’s the research. The internet made these books possible in a way that twenty years ago, I’d have . . . still been writing the first part while waiting for interlibrary loans to show up with specific articles and research books. All hail the interrawebs!
Where would you recommend someone travel to find inspiration as a poet?
Hah. I don’t think you need to travel to find inspiration. If you’re reading this, you have internet access. Go look up stuff. Explore the world from your desk. If you’re spending vast amounts of money to travel in order to “get inspired” . . . . eh.
Do we have an hour or two to talk about this? Because there are a lot.No? Don’t have an hour? Okay, two things, in a nutshell, then:
1) There have been literally centuries of highly-political Christian writings that posit all of Roman society as decadent and corrupt. I call this the Ben Hur fallacy. It’s a deliberate effort to make Rome look bad, in order to make themselves look good. Don’t buy into it, please.
2) People who admire Roman culture and history have an equally annoying tendency to assume that everyone in the era crapped marble, spoke in mellifluous BBC-accented tones as they spontaneously orated eloquently, and every building, statue, and toga was pure and pristine white.There is a balancing point between focusing on the effluvia running through the gutters and the high ideals of a culture. That balancing point is called society, and we all live at that balancing point. So did they. So did every other ancient culture. The only actual difference between them and us is that we’re alive and studying them, and they only have their writings and artifact left to speak for them. Listen to the whole message, not just the carefully-curated bits presented by people on either side with axes to grind.
Huh. That sort of sounds like my approach to living in society today, too. What a coincidence!
If you could have any creature, fantastic or real, for a traveling companion, what would it be?
Bwahaha. Well, curbing my immediate impulse to shout DRAGON, because, honestly, one the size I imagine would crush my house . . . I’d go with an Anne McCaffrey fire-lizard. So long as my husband could have one, too.
Tea. I haven’t had coffee since 2005, and I don’t miss it. It’s a long story I don’t want to get into here.
What’s your advice for beginning writers who want to write poetry?
Funnily enough, I never thought of myself as a poet. I still don’t; I think of myself as a writer who happens to write a lot of things, among which happens to be poetry. I only started getting serious about poetry in 2015, when a writing friend showed me that there are actual markets for it.My advice is . . . don’t get hung up on trying to determine how “good” each individual poem is, or on making it a perfect literary masterpiece. Make it as good as you can, naturally. Focus on being clear–too many people think that poetry is about being abstruse and indecipherable to the ‘common folk,’ which is a really condescending attitude that harms poetry overall. Say what you think needs to be said, and then . . . submit. Submit it again.Submit it as many times as it takes to sell/publish it, because if you’ve written the most magnificent and meaningful poem in the world, it means absolutely nothing so long as it’s stuck on your hard drive, unread by other people.
“Only connect,” E.M. Forster said, is the goal of most people. If your poem never connects with anyone else, if it never makes them think or feel or consider another point of view, what good has it done anyone?
In speculative poetry we see many different ideas at work and some recurring themes. Is there any uncharted territory you feel we could be exploring at the moment?
I see a lot of people covering–skillfully, mind you–topic areas already well-mined and well-explored. Lovecraft gave us an awesome mythos to play in, but it’s his playground. Can we engage with cosmic entities and cosmic horror that *isn’t his*? Can we find different critters, beyond vampires and werewolves, to use as metaphors for how we become disengaged from society?
What’s coming up next for you?
I have a book of poetry sitting at one publishing house, waiting to be evaluated. In the meantime, I’ve just released my next Edda-Earth novel, Children of Tiber and Nile, https://smile.amazon.com/Children-Tiber-Nile-Rise-Caesarions/dp/0986091642, and I need to work on edits for the third book in that particular series. In and around short story work, writing more poetry, and taking care of my son.
Busy, busy, busy. Pretty much how I like it. 🙂