You mention on your website that if you didn’t write fiction, you wouldn’t be able to breathe. That’s a pretty strong statement, especially considering that you’ve had a whole career writing nonfiction. When did you start writing fiction and how do the two types of writing coexist?
I’ve always loved to write—both fiction and non-fiction—and I majored in English in college. After school, I became a journalist and wrote feature stories on all sorts of subjects. But I didn’t get serious about fiction writing until several years later when I took a summer writing course at Yale. My professor gave us lots of independence in our work but when he commented, he directed us rather than just criticizing. He really encouraged me to continue with fiction, which I did, studying craft, writing all the time and reading constantly. I also worked as a copyeditor—I still do—which was hugely helpful in my writing, seeing other people’s work, learning from their mistakes, and honing in on the craft of writing. So you could say I’ve been writing all my life, both nonfiction and fiction, but tending more toward fiction in the past several years, especially since my novels, Night Sea Journey and The Dazzling Darkness have been published.
How specifically does the nonfiction experience help your fiction writing?
It helps in a variety of ways, but mainly one in particular, which is research. To be a professional journalist or copyeditor, you must know the subject you are writing about/editing and be absolutely accurate with your facts. Good research grounds a story and convinces the reader that it is worth their time. Everyone seems to accept that about nonfiction, but it’s also true about fiction. Even though our stories are not about real people, they are based in places, times, and situations, which are founded in reality. In fiction, every bit as much as nonfiction, we must know our subject better than our readers do. I happen to love research, which is good because my books require a ton of it. My first book, Night Sea Journey, which developed from a dream I had, features a Jungian therapist who believes dreams are sources of alternate energy. To make this character believable—and to make the novel interesting—I spent weeks researching Carl Jung and his teachings, as well as all sorts of material on dreams, nightmares, and intense night terrors.
How do you approach research? What sources do you use? How much is too much?
Readers are smart and well-informed and they love to catch us. It’s our job not to get caught, to be obsessive researchers, absolutely confident of the validity of our facts. Research material is everywhere, and writers all have their favorite websites and other sources. I’ve found that acknowledgements in books I’m using for research often put me onto a terrific expert source. I also try to attend events at libraries, museums, universities, and town halls as these often have subject experts, people in professions that my characters share, and whole bodies of knowledge about a topic I might be writing about now or might become interested in writing later. One specific piece of advice about research in general, which I think is crucial: get out of the house! The Internet, libraries, and interviews with experts are all important and necessary, but there is a wide world out there full of information, ideas, and inspiration. We writers should be working all the time, even when we don’t know it. Everyday shopping, exotic trips, a friend’s dinner party, art exhibits, a new town, a trip to the mailbox (is there still such a thing?), are all sources of research. I find I will see something—a teapot in a gift shop, a bird in the woods—in the most unlikely place and make a connection. It will fit into what I’m currently writing or it will spark an idea for a wholly new topic. I also tell people what I’m writing and have found so many new sources that I would never have known about on my own. I’m talking here about research in the broadest sense; not just establishing accuracy, which is vital, but also opening up to new ideas, finding inspiration, turning our own beliefs on their heads. Research is hard work, no question, but it is essential to establishing ourselves as believable writers and it is an endless source of ideas. It really isn’t possible to do too much—unless you miss a deadline!
Both of your novels, Night Sea Journey and The Dazzling Darkness are classified as supernatural or horror. How did you decide on this genre? Has it always been an interest? What is “soft horror”?
I’ve always been interested in the supernatural and the other side of physical reality. I’ve loved ghost stories all my life and have read so many of the classic authors—Chekhov, Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain—who’ve written wonderful supernatural stories. I’m naturally drawn to write about this extra layer of existence because it seems so normal to me. People ask me if I believe in ghosts, and I answer that there are presences in my life, and I believe that some spirits transcend our world and the next. I’m also inspired by the transcendentalists, and by Ralph Waldo Emerson in particular. In his essay, “Nature,” Emerson wrote a line which intrigued me: “…even the corpse has its own beauty.” When I read more about it, I became fascinated with the whole concept of “dark doesn’t necessarily mean bad; what appears to be negative can actually be positive.” The Dazzling Darkness is about some of those themes. What is dark becomes light, secrets are revealed, and everything and everyone is not how they appeared. “Soft horror,” by the way, is what I write—supernatural, with all the mystery and secrets, but none of the violence. No blood-spatter in my books!
You mentioned Willa Cather’s definition of voice as “a quality that is exclusively the writer’s own, individual, unique.” When did you find your voice, and how would you describe it?
I think we are all always finding our voice when we are writing. I’m working on a new novel now, and I can sense that it’s different from my voice in my two previous novels. More than any other craft element, I think voice is constantly developing, hopefully improving and getting more and more real. The voices that appeal to me—Susan Hill’s in A Woman in Black, for example—are, more than any other quality, convincing. Hill is an interesting example because she uses some pretty serious clichés—a ghost in a rocking chair, for example—but her story is so atmospheric and specific that I believe it. I believe the story is honest and that the writer believes in it. We’re talking about fiction, of course, so I don’t mean the story needs to be based in fact. I mean the writer has to believe in the truth of the story. Voice is what you believe and how you say it. My guess is that my voice would be described as spiritual because I believe so strongly in the spiritual world and the truths that come out of it.
The age-old question of how you write, what is your creative process, is always interesting to writers. Could you describe your process—not what kind of coffee you drink or whether you wear pajamas all day, but how you go from a blank piece of paper to a published novel?
I don’t do a plot outline, let me say that first! I tend to write from an idea that comes to me often in small stages. The impetus can be a visual image, a conversation, something I’ve read. It will strike me and then the idea will begin unraveling, developing, and linking to other bits. I don’t manage the creative process; it manages me. For example, The Dazzling Darkness began when I was walking in a cemetery in New Canaan, Connecticut. Characters often occur to me early on. In this case, Elias Hatch, a cemetery caretaker and a transcendentalist, began forming in my imagination. This led naturally to thoughts about Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose work I had always admired, but which I really delved into for this book. That led to a study of crystals and so on. I began writing with these linked ideas in my mind, and then in the process of writing, my story began to develop. For example, I knew Elias would have a secret in this novel. I knew he would be mysterious, but I didn’t know how until I began writing. As it turned out, nearly all the main characters had secrets and much of the plot is about others discovering them.
Do you think your process is specifically geared to supernatural writing or does it just work for you?
This process definitely works for me, no matter what I’m writing. I believe other writers in this genre have various approaches, but there are certain challenges specific to supernatural writing that make choosing the right process vitally important. In supernatural writing, besides the elements of all fiction writing—setting, character, mood, diction, plot—we need to present a power that is outside physical reality, and which runs throughout the story. This external force must keep showing itself as the story progresses and it must drive the plot forward. This is an entirely separate, extra layer, which we must integrate into the story and make both entertaining and believable. Also, in supernatural writing, the general belief is that the action needs to happen very quickly, in the first few pages, so introducing that layer and making it compelling will often determine whether your reader stays with you or not.
What about character development in supernatural writing? Are there specific techniques for developing characters who have these extraordinary experiences? I notice you don’t over-describe your characters. Is that because there is so much otherworldly activity?
I think good character development fulfills similar qualities in all types of fiction. I always try to have my character integrated into the action, never standing alone. You’ll notice in both Night Sea Journey and The Dazzling Darkness that I describe my characters as the story progresses, often from another character’s point of view. My aim is to give just enough detail to create the image and then I hope readers will fill in from there, using their own imaginations to enrich the experience. Another important point about characters is that they must exist always in service to the story. In a story with several subplots, like Night Sea Journey, it’s important to check the characters periodically, see if they are advancing the plot and if not, then they should fade away. The main characters, those the story is really about, continue for the entire novel.
What is the hardest part of writing for you, either specifically supernatural writing or the craft in general?
Sex scenes! Fortunately, I don’t need to write a lot of steamy prose, but I do find writing about physical intimacy to be tricky. The lines between subtle and obscure on the one hand, and realistic and raunchy on the other are difficult to keep in balance. The task I face regularly, though, is integrating that layer of the supernatural world onto the earthbound story. The world of lost souls is so compelling to me, and feels so natural, that I genuinely love the challenge. And the process I have developed—letting the ideas lead me to my story—feels right for the world I live and write in.
Paula Cappa’s novels include Night Sea Journey, A Tale of the Supernatural, and The Dazzling Darkness (Gothic Readers Book Club Award Winner for Outstanding Fiction and Readers’ Favorite Bronze Medal Award), published by Crispin Books. Her short fiction has appeared in Dark Gothic Resurrected Magazine, Whistling Shade Literary Journal, SmokeLong Quarterly, Sirens Call Ezine, Every Day Fiction, Fiction365, Twilight Times Ezine, and in anthologies Journals of Horror: Found Fiction,Mystery Time, and Human Writes Literary Journal. Cappa’s writing career began as a freelance journalist for newspapers in New York and Connecticut. She writes a weekly blog, Reading Fiction, Tales of Terror. http://paulacappa.wordpress.com/