An Interview with Justine Musk
In the words of Poppy Z. Brite, “Justine Musk is a talented, vivid writer and a voice we’re going to be hearing for a long time.” Along with those qualities, Musk’s two published novels are about bonds between people and how those bonds are tested, or even enhanced, by otherworldly darkness.
Her first book, Bloodangel, offers addictions and demons in equal measure. It’s a hypnotic work that goes in unpredictable directions, an assured take on horror -- confident and lush even though it skips gore formulas in favor of a gripping alternate reality.
Uninvited covers some of the same ground while also taking impressive steps forward. With a smaller cast and a more intimate stage, her new novel is about family, love and sacrifice. When her characters make difficult decisions and accept painful consequences, it hurts. Like any great writer of the supernatural, she uses her themes to circle back and explore human nature. In Bloodangel, and perhaps even more so in Uninvited, her characters and the complications of their magic are as believable as can be.
In an entry for your blog, moschus writes, you wrote, “Maybe it's the rain, or the fall-out from an intoxicating weekend in South Beach, but today I'm feeling a bit intimidated by the brutal realities of the publishing industry, and a little frightened that I won't be able to write another publishable novel, let alone sell it.”
With your second novel now being released, how are you feeling?
Annoyed that I haven’t revamped my site yet. Confident that I can sell book number four, if I didn’t just jinx myself by saying that, but ask me again next month. If I’m writing well, then life is good and the future is, if not filled with rainbows and unicorns, at least not apocalyptic. If the writing isn’t going well, then I’m looking up Britney on perezhilton.com or blogging on the “realities of the publishing industry.” Neither of which indicates I’m in a good mental place. No wonder I went drinking in South Beach.
Your new novel, Uninvited, had a working title of Stranger. What led to the title change?
My editor hated it. Uninvited was supposed to be a temporary title while we waited to see if we could think up something better. Except then I got this e-mail: “Uh, it turns out the publication process is a bit further along than we thought…”
As it turns out, there’s another YA novel with the same title coming out from the same publisher -- Amanda Marrone’s Uninvited, which was supposed to come out the same month as mine but got pushed off to November. This has caused some confusion, unfortunately. But her book involves a vampire, and my books make people think they involve vampires when actually they don’t at all. So you can see how they’re radically different.
Could you describe Uninvited and its characters?
My first book was a multiple-perspective epic kind of thing -- or would have been epic, if I’d managed to write the entire book that was in my head instead of merely most of it -- and so I found myself wanting to write a shorter, much more streamlined story, the kind of book you could read cover to cover without having to sacrifice too much of your social life or an episode of Top Chef or Heroes. And maybe because the characters in Bloodangel are all orphaned and displaced in one sense or another, I had this urge to write about what it means to have a home and be part of a family that’s certainly screwed-up but still warm and loving. And I wanted to use a setting much more like the place I’d grown up in. And I wanted more warmth and humor.
Having said that, the book is a supernatural thriller about what happens when a teenage girl’s idolized older brother returns home after a mysterious absence. She fights to save him from the supernatural entity who follows him in order to collect his soul, not realizing her role in the bargain he made for it.
I wanted Kelly, the protagonist, not to be a social misfit, or the child of a broken home, or any kind of character who might be confused for the heroine of a YA problem novel. So she started out popular and happy and well-adjusted. Which cut against the actual story I was trying to tell -- which is an urban fantasy one -- which has its roots in the noir genre, about people on the edges who become privy to a kind of secret, destabilizing knowledge that most people can never access. So Kelly had to get out on those edges.
Archie, my Big Bad, was inspired by everything from the movie Lost Boys to "the mad conductor" performances of Marty Casey on Rock Star: INXS to the young Jack Nicholson. (I met Marty Casey at a club once and actually told him I’d based a "fallen angel" character on him. He looked at me like I was nuts.) He’s your basic supernatural sociopath who doesn’t even realize he’s the bad guy; he thinks he’s the misunderstood victim of circumstance who wants to help the very people he traumatizes.
In writing about American high school students, how much had to be translated from your Canadian school experience? Is there much difference between the high schoolers of the two countries?
I’ve taken stuff from my own high school experiences for both my books -- like the fact that the popular kids were called "the lobby crowd" because they congregated on the benches beneath the lobby skylight. The Canadian high school experience seems very similar except that, as Canadians, we’re very aware that most of the TV and movies and popular fiction we’re consuming is American, to the point that when I was a kid I was confused as to why I myself was not American. I spent much of my childhood wondering what the hell a Ding-Dong was, since so many kids in the books I was reading seemed to be eating them. Canada and Canadians seemed to be referenced only when Americans were making fun of us in some way -- which they do so often it strikes me as a kind of kneejerk reaction, never maliciously intended or anything, just a sign that America as a whole doesn’t take our country seriously -- or talking in this very weird way that I eventually realized was supposed to be an imitation of a Canadian accent. It’s our university system that runs along slightly different lines, and applying to university or college -- there’s a major distinction between the two in Canada, where "college" usually means a trade or technical school -- is a different experience than here. Or at least was, when I was a high schooler. I never had to take the SATs, for example, and the government automatically subsidized a huge portion of my tuition. Although, as a child of the middle class, I still found it bloody expensive and relied on an academic scholarship to get me through. But what Americans pay for the equivalent of the kind of university I went to just stunned me. Stunned me.
You’ve said that it took you years to figure out what kind of book you wanted and needed to write, as opposed to the kind you thought you were supposed to write. You grew up reading horror, even Splatterpunk. What did you think you were supposed to write?
I don’t think I really knew. I just had this vague sense that the kind of book I wanted to write wasn’t really the kind of book I was finding in bookstores. And I was always in bookstores. I had this love for horror and thrillers and fantasy, and I had this love for literary fiction, and I had a strong academic streak, and I was also aware of myself as a female writer who is comfortable with men and writing about men, but on some visceral level relates a lot more to Margaret Atwood or Joyce Carol Oates, then, say, Paul Theroux or George R. R. Martin or Guy Gavriel Kay or Neil Gaiman, who are all on my list of favorites. So I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to piece it all together -- a woman writer in such a male-dominated genre, who wanted to write complex strong female protagonists -- Anne Rice and Poppy Brite favored male protagonists -- and also as someone who honestly didn’t understand why genre and literary have to be so separate from each other, to the point where the practitioners of one are constantly bashing the practitioners of the other. Not that I could have articulated this back then. I just had this idea that I wanted to write “cross-genre fiction,” which I picked up from a Dean Koontz interview I read at way too impressionable an age.
And Splatterpunk! John Skipp -- and I’ve told this to him -- and Michael Slade and early Poppy Z. Brite just so skewed my frame of reference. I was honestly surprised when some people would comment on the violence in Bloodangel. I was like, “You are kidding me. You’ve obviously never read real hardcore horror.” But the thing is, they haven’t. They’re coming from much more of a post-Buffy, Laurell K. Hamilton kind of direction, which isn’t the same thing at all.
The rise of torture porn in the movie theatres has really disgusted, disturbed me, so how to write even the minimal level of violence which my genre tends to require -- it’s not like demonic entities will offer to settle it all over a nice game of backgammon -- is something that I’m still wrestling with.
Both your sister-in-law and your husband have produced films. Have you ever played the dream director game for your books? Is it Joel Schumacher circa Lost Boys for Uninvited? Have you imagined some of the casting?
Dream director? Now that you’ve asked, my mind leaps eagerly to someone like David Fincher or Christopher Nolan. Someone intense and gritty with compassion and a sense of humor. And at some point it did occur to me -- rightly or wrongly -- since you couldn’t escape his damn song on the radio last summer -- that Justin Timberlake would make a good Jasper in Uninvited. I do the mental casting thing to help me find my way into a character who’s proving kind of slippery for one reason or another -- when I just don’t have that sense of how they move or dress or what their voice sounds like. I did this much more with Bloodangel. I saw a photo of a lounging Jennifer Connelly and said to myself, That’s Jess. And I saw a moment on some MTV awards show and Johnny Depp came out to present something, and he was so dressed-down and indifferent and obviously not wanting to be there, that I said to myself, that’s Lucas. And I was having a real problem with Archie in Uninvited until Marty Casey proved so unwittingly helpful.
On the spine of Roc’s Bloodangel, it clearly says “horror.” Lately, most publishers substitute words like “urban fantasy” or “paranormal romance” for marketing reasons. Do you know how your “horror” happened or whose choice it was?
My agent and I saw the book as dark fantasy, along the lines of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, which is what she compared the book to when she was shopping it to editors. Roc deliberately positioned it alongside Caitlin R. Kiernan and early Poppy Z. Brite. I was a bit uneasy with the label just because I thought hardcore horror fans would pick up the book and be disappointed, that in a way it might be false advertising. My contract described the book as “edgy urban fantasy” and I thought that was just perfect. Now, of course, urban fantasy, even dark urban fantasy, has come to mean paranormal romance, or what my old editor termed “post-Buffy fiction” -- wisecracking heroines in black leather having sex with vampires and werewolves, told in straight-forward, first-person narration. And because I loved Buffy as much as anybody, and I grew up being influenced by many of the same things the other writers were -- like wondering where where WHERE were the female Jedi Knights, the cool action heroines -- because we got Ripley and Sarah Connor and then, for a long time, we got nothing, not even on TV, which is hard to imagine now.
But I completely missed out on the whole Buffy thing while it was happening -- I came to the DVDs after the show was already over, after my book had already sold. In my mind, I was writing genre much more in the tradition of King or Koontz or Barker, and to me, "dark urban fantasy" still refers to a lot of what they were doing -- fantasy elements set within a contemporary world, characters confronting some darker, hidden reality within a so-called normal reality -- a lot of grit, psychological realism, moments of horror, multiple perspectives, different storylines weaving together -- and although the characters were constantly falling in love and having relationships, you never would have thought to refer to any of those authors as "paranormal romance." So even though I fit within that post-Buffy realm -- or at least overlap it -- I think I’m a lot more old-school than many of those other writers, at least in terms of what "dark urban fantasy" still means to me and the direction I’m approaching it from. So now I think the "horror" label helps clarify that, especially since it hasn’t been the horror-genre fans so much as some of the paranormal romance fans who have been a bit taken aback by the book.
Both of your books have motorcyclists at raves, characters doing strange drugs and mentions of coyotes. Any idea where those resonances come from for you? How about otherworldly non-humans with wings?
The motorcyclist thing in Bloodangel was to solve a very real plot problem that I won’t go into here. As for Uninvited -- I like to tell people, “It’s like Lost Boys, except really, really not.” My dad rode motorcycles and took me on lots of rides that freaked out my gently suffering mother. I had a boyfriend at university who rode one, and his friends did as well -- they all appeared beneath my dorm window one night, gunning their engines. Prep school boys getting bad-ass on motorbikes. It probably did damage me in some way. As far as coyotes go -- I love Los Angeles for the coyotes -- I love that scene in Michael Mann’s Collateral where all the action just stops, the characters just stop, to watch coyotes cross the road, their eyes glinting in the dark. The urban wild.
As for rave culture -- yeah, I had a real fascination with that. I was hitting a lot of clubs and concerts just before I wrote Bloodangel. And what interests me now is that a lot of my generation doesn’t seem to actually be growing out of it, like I somehow assumed we would. We’ve dragged it up into mainstream adulthood. We buy expensive tickets to go to New Year’s multiple-DJ events at hotels. We rent RVs and drive out to Burning Man. We’re not trying to prove anything with it anymore; it’s just entertainment now, so we want, and can afford, the bigger production values.
You’re one of the many readers who are blown away by China Mieville’s work. What is it, especially, about his writing that does it for you?
I love his audacity, his ambition, not just in his storytelling but his culture- and world-building. Perdido Street Station made me fall in love with genre all over again, made me get excited about it. It’s a wonderfully overstuffed book that remains absolutely compelling throughout, and I am so very glad it came out in England first -- an American editor probably would have streamlined it. Also, he’s not afraid of language, he has a feel and flair for language. Basically he inspired me in a way no writer has in a long time -- not because I haven’t read a lot of great writers, but because China somehow took this vision of what I wanted to do and exploded it. Which was just this awesome feeling.
Fair warning: this question’s a complicated two-parter:
One: Bloodangel has a character with the same name as an author who blurbed the book and Uninvited has a minor character named Cairo who is almost certainly based on another of your faves. How do such references tie into your creative process?
They’re meant as a kind of fun homage -- my way of saying to the readers who pick up on them, look, I know you’ve read a lot of the same stuff I’ve read and this is what I loved and what influenced me. I mean, readers know these things anyway -- it’s not like you can’t see the huge influence of Stephen King on a book like Bloodangel -- which is why my book’s first line is a direct reference to him (and the last line of the book I actually wrote, very far into the publishing/editing process). Uninvited is an extremely different novel from Perdido Street Station, yet the latter was such an influence in its own way that it felt good and honest to acknowledge that. And they’re not bizarre references; they make complete sense within their contexts.
Someone told me that they saw a copy of Bloodangel on the shelf of one of the writers for Heroes, and someone else told me that elements of the premiere episode of that show seemed to bear an uncanny resemblance to elements of my book, expecting that I’d get outraged or something. My response was, God, that would be so great. I’d be so proud. It’s not like those ideas truly started with me in any case; they get passed around, they get changed.
And sometimes it just amuses me. Uninvited has a reference to Richard Dawkins, a line a character says about flying toasters. Your average teen is hardly going to pick up on that, but I get a kick out of knowing it’s there, and if I ever meet Dawkins again I’ll certainly tell him about it.
Two: You also do it with people (and even a chocolate chip bread pudding) you know from the real world. All writers do it, but how do you, specifically, fictionalize someone? Is it like creating a memoir, simply a namecheck or a bit of both? Are they kernels that you build on?
Sometimes it’s just a matter of details -- you need something, you reach into your memory, and you pull out chocolate chip bread pudding.
Whatever fascinates me, I want to write about, kind of like a bird who likes to play with shiny things. I’ve been in LA for five years now and known some people here for longer, since there was a bit of a migration south from the Bay Area after the dot.com boom, and my husband and I were part of that migration. So some of those fascinations with that world, those people, are just starting to surface in my fiction, and because these people tend to be larger-than-life, with such unique accomplishments, they are a lot easier to recognize inside the characters they’ve inspired. This actually is going to be one of the issues with Shadow Hill, the book I’ll be finishing after the new draft of the Bloodangel sequel, and I’m not quite sure how I’ll resolve it, especially when there really are bits of dialogue and incident that I’ve lifted directly from real life. I can only be as fair as possible, make sure there’s no malice, make sure that everything truly does get filtered through imagination.
The blog is a lot different, obviously, and I am very aware of what I can and can’t write about, especially since some of those individuals tend to be well-known within their fields or even outside of them. But the blog is also meant to be light, diverting reading; I’m after amusing moments, anecdotes, meant to illustrate not the personalities involved so much as this particular kind of Los Angeles milieu we’re living in.
You’ve taken and taught fiction workshops. What have you taken from those experiences?
Ego really gets in the way. You can tell a lot about how far an aspiring writer is likely to get just based on how he takes criticism. People talk about how the sensitive insecure ones can get crushed in workshops, but I’ve seen a lot of the other kind -- writers with a bit of talent and intelligence who are just too arrogant to learn what they need to learn, because they don’t see the point, they think the fault lies with the readers who don’t understand them or a marketplace that’s just not noble and daring enough for them. Which is an incredibly paralyzing attitude. If you think you’re being rejected because you’re just not good enough yet, you go back to your craft and learn and improve. If you think the fault is not with you but the world, you just get bitter.
There’s no way around it, you’re in a different tax bracket than most young writers and spend some time in a jet set version of la-la land. How does it affect your creative work? Does it get in the way or is it something you embrace fully?
I’m still working that out, actually. There’s this idea out there that, if you fall into a certain kind of existence, it’s automatically less authentic in some way, it’s not "real." I don’t believe this -- I don’t believe that the people in my hometown, say, had a more valid claim on being "authentic" or "in touch," any more than the people around me now have on being "happy" or "self-aware."
I fell in love with a brilliant and struggling young entrepreneur who went on to sell his first company, and then his second. So we started out living one kind of way, and ended up living another, and it is bizarre and surreal. For a long time I didn’t know how to incorporate it into any sense of myself as a person or a writer, except to feel guilty. I would sit in my fiction workshop in San Francisco in my jeans and boots and listen to the people around me express some of their views -- including the guy who had spearheaded a little movement to drive yuppies out of the Mission District by vandalizing certain types of cars (including one that turned out to belong to my brother-in-law, whose girlfriend lived in that area). I liked him a lot, actually, and we seemed to get along. He had no idea that he was fraternizing with one of the enemy.
So it really cemented my idea of myself as a kind of alien. Someone who’s always fallen outside the usual structure of things. First it was all about place, and now it’s more about the normal, shared, day-to-day reality of things, which is very much a middle-class kind of reality. When you’re no longer part of that, the culture in general is no longer speaking to you; it’s speaking about you, and usually not in the most accurate or flattering of terms, because it tends not to trust or like you that much. So my husband’s success made me even more of an observer, especially since I was living in his shadow for so long. I was the wife. One thing I noticed was that people who met me in that role would never ask me “What do you do?” because they’d just assume that I didn’t do anything, and so to ask that question might embarrass one or both of us.
The move to LA was a boon. I embrace my life in LA. It is such a colorful world here, and we’re all just kind of making it up as we go along. There’s no weight of tradition here. Which means you encounter people who have the means, the freedom, and the yes-men and yes-women to craft an entire little reality for themselves, and they do, and it’s weird and disturbing and sometimes tragic, because delusions end up having a very real impact on other people. I feel a bit like Alice, in that I’ve landed in a world I don’t quite recognize -- bits and pieces of it seem familiar, from movies and TV and magazines, but LA tends to get presented in a limited number of ways. It’s bigger and deeper than many people seem to think, and weirder. And I do have a kind of close-up access to parts that writers tend not to, that most people tend not to, and I have the viewpoint of someone who’s involved in these various spheres, but not of them or from them. I’m the one on the edges who gets to uncover these other, hidden little worlds of experience. So I feel like I have something to write about, over years, in a way that’s connected to a sense of place that my previous writing has not been. And I have always wanted that.
You’ve worked on a sequel to Bloodangel, called Lord of Bones, for years. Is there anything you can say so far about the plot or is it too soon to let salient details slip?
I took time out from it to write Uninvited. And then I wrote two drafts of the sequel and neither one worked, partly because I still didn’t really know what I was doing.
Now I think I’ve finally got it. The book has to do with the arrival into this world of one of the “original evils” who taught the first book’s villain everything she knew. This book will explain the dream-link between Jess and Lucas that never got addressed in Bloodangel. Jess also deals with the consequences of her relationship with Kai, her emerging power, and conflict with the other Summoners as she heads in an increasingly haunted direction. Ramsey gets involved with an underground resistance network that disguises itself as a kind of floating club scene, and Lucas has the chance to redeem himself but will pay an extremely high price for it. There’s a lot more information about Summoner culture and Summoner magic, and about the evolution of the demon-human hybrids who appeared at the end of the first book. And of course the demon hunting. You have to have the demon hunting.