Princess of Prose: Alethea Kontis

Alethea Kontis
Alethea Kontis

My guest today is New York Times bestselling author Alethea Kontis. She co-wrote the Dark Hunter Companion with fellow New York Times bestselling author Sherrilyn Kenyon. Her short fiction has appeared in multiple professional publications, such as Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, and Realms of Fantasy. Not only that, but she’s published a children’s book titled AlphaOops: The Day Z Went First, with a sequel upcoming. Besides her fiction, her essays can be seen at several professional magazines and have been collected in book form, the first volume of which is called Beauty & Dynamite.

Check out her website at

David Steffen: I’m sure you answer this question all the time, but I have to ask: your name is so unique. Is there a story behind it?

Alethea Kontis: “Alethea” is the Greek word for “truth.” As all Greeks know, words have power. My name is as much of a curse as it is a blessing, especially when my grandmother continually reminds me to lie to her friends about my age. (Sorry, Nana!)

My mother discovered the name as the family settled down to watch “Kung-Fu” on March 15, 1973 — my older brother’s 9th birthday. (West is currently a 4th-degree black belt in Taekwondo.) In that particular episode, Jodie Foster played a precocious girl named Alethea Patricia Ingram.

I discovered the details of this event only a few years ago…after I had already been a buyer at Ingram Book Company for over six years. Oh, yes. Words have power, my friend.

David: You’ve written so many essays, and I’ve enjoyed the ones I’ve read. They flow so naturally that they’re effortless to read, yet at the same time are very focused on each particular topic. Do essay ideas just slap you across the face, demanding to be written or does it take a more concerted effort? How does essay-writing compare to fiction-writing?

Alethea: I was raised in a family of storytellers. And when I say that, I mean that we put most voice actors and stand-up comedians to shame. You only have as much time as everyone plans on sitting around the dinner table, and you only have the floor for as long as your voice carries over everyone else’s…so whatever you choose to impart to the group, it better be GOOD. Every time I sit down to write an essay, I imagine myself around that table. As long as I have the floor I’ve got to have a great beginning, I’ve got to keep my audience engaged, and I can’t take forever to get to the point.

Someone asked me once if one needed a diverse and interesting background to be a writer. I think everyone has a diverse and interesting background; writers just exploit theirs. Everyone has stories to tell; you step in them like puddles every single day. For whatever reason I seem to have this abnormally remarkable life — these are just the stories I step in.

David: Do you prefer to write by yourself or with another writer (like the Dark Hunter Companion). What sort of unique challenges or benefits arise when working together?

Alethea: The Dark-Hunter Companion is the only collaboration I’ve done to date. Sherri and I had a unique arrangement with the Companion that could have been as much a disaster as it was a triumph. I started out with a stack of novels, a notebook, a glorified outline, and an anticipated word count. I re-read the whole series (many for the 3rd or 4th time), took notes, and then wrote the entire encyclopedia as if I was just another smart-mouthed character in the Dark-Hunter universe. I handed the manuscript over to Sherri, who then pulled out some spoilers, put in some teasers, and altered a few things that could only be altered by She Who Keeps Entire Worlds in her Head.

When I got the manuscript back for copyedits, our writing style blended so perfectly I honestly couldn’t tell where my words left off and hers began. Everyone was pleased with the end result — the fans most of all. It was a fascinating experience.

David: What do you think has been the most significant event to advance your career?

Alethea: My life suddenly flashes before my eyes: My parents telling me I couldn’t major in English. My English teacher telling me no child would want to read my fairy tales. My friend Gail telling me to just write my picture book idea “so you can read it.” Orson Scott Card telling me to just write the novel. Tom Piccirilli taking me to task when he found out I hadn’t submitted a finished manuscript. Kevin J. Anderson slapping me in the face when I denigrated my own writing.

If I had to pick only one event, it would be the Baen dinner in the fall of 2003, where David Drake found out I lived only a couple of miles from Andre Norton and ordered me to go visit her. “She has no idea what she means to this industry,” he told me, and he was right. My correspondence and friendship with Miss Andre is something I’ll treasure forever.

David: What is your favorite thing about writing?

Alethea: Making my mother cry.

When I wrote stories as a kid, making my mother cry was a mark of excellence — I knew then that I had something powerful. My mother was always my first reader and (“get a real job” major aside) my biggest advocate — up to and including calling a particular university and bullying them to accept my application essay despite the fact that I was a few hundred words over the limit. (I was accepted to said particular university, but ultimately could not afford to attend.)

While at Boot Camp in 2003, I called Mom from the campus of UNCG and yelled into the phone, “ORSON SCOTT CARD SAID I’M A GREAT WRITER!!!” I could not have offended her more. There was silence on the other end, and then a very cold, “Alethea, we’ve been telling you that for years. So now you’re going to believe some guy just because he’s some big fat best-seller?” It was then that I officially realized my mother hadn’t actually been spoon-feeding me a load of crap, as most mothers are wont to do.

She forgave me. Six years later, she’s still my first reader. And she still tells me every time I make her cry.

David: Do you have a particular writing process you go through for every story, from story conception to drafting?

Alethea: Because I was raised a storyteller, I’m what they call an “Athena writer” — the stories all but spring fully-formed from my head. I mentally work through my plot points and dialogue and edit as I write. The words need to be in order, and they need to be the right words.

As a result, when writing fiction I average only about 500 words an hour and only a few thousand a day at my most productive. But I rarely go back and rewrite, and my first drafts are very, very clean drafts.

David: If you could only give one piece of advice to aspiring writers, what would it be?

Alethea: Do the thing that scares you.

David: What’s the last book you read? Your favorite book? Your favorite author?

The last book I read (all the way through): The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker, by Leanna Renee Hieber. (For the record, I loved it.) Favorite book and author — ha! I could no sooner choose a favorite star in the sky.

David: What was the last movie you saw?

Alethea: Last movie I saw: UP. I think I only cried more after seeing Big Fish.

David: I know you’re very active on the convention circuit. What upcoming convention appearances do you have planned?

Alethea: I’ve just finished six weeks of the heaviest schedule I’ve ever had (including Penguicon, Mo*Con, Hypericon, and BEA). The rest of 2009 is fairly light — I’ll be at Necon in July and, of course, Dragon*Con on Labor Day weekend.

David: What do you like best about conventions? Do you suffer from stage fright–if so, how do you get up there in front of all those people?

Alethea: I’m a raging introvert, but I have no problem with stage fright. My Aunt Ernestine (actress Ernestine Mercer) taught me how to say “TA-DA!” when I was a baby — a feat I had turned into a lucrative acting career by he time I was eight. I was on stage all through high school…which trickled down to only helping out on student films in college…and then after I graduated, the hermit took over and I slipped into borderline agoraphobia.

All it took was one panic attack in the grocery store for me to say, “NONE OF THIS NONSENSE, PLEASE!” From that point on, I concentrated on consciously participating in a healthy amount of social activity and pulling myself back out of my shell. I am definitely not the mealy-mouthed frump I was five years ago. Five years from now, people will have to put on sunglasses just to look at me.

David: Any convention stories to share? Strange people you’ve met?

Alethea: Ha! Plenty. There are…um…more than ten in Beauty & Dynamite alone. My very first convention was Dragon*Con in 1996. From the minute I showed up on the front steps, it felt like I had come home. And all those misfits I’ve met? They’re all as close as family now. I love every single one of them. Some of them even dubbed me their Princess, an honor I have accepted with all the appropriate grace and aplomb. I now have a collection of tiaras…but that I blame on Jill Conner Browne.

David: Do you have any newly published stories or soon-to-be-published stories that we should watch out for? If so, what can you tell us about them?

Alethea: This year, keep an eye out for “The Giant and the Unicorn” in Shimmer Magazine’s steampunk Clockwork Jungle issue. I’ve got “The Witch of Black Mountain” coming out in Apex’s Harlan County Horrors anthology and “The God of Last Moments” in Maurice Broaddus’s Mo*Con anthology. I’m also working on a piece for Doug Warrick and Kyle Johnson’s Nick Cave anthology…which I really need to get home and finish. And, as always, keep watching the blog for the next humorous installment in the Adventures of Lee.

David: Any exciting works-in-progress in the pipeline right now? What can you tell us about them? Can you give us any sneak peeks at any of them to pique our interest.

Alethea: I’ve just finished the unabridged, novel version of “Sunday”, my fairytale novelette that appeared in Realms of Fantasy in October 2006. If you’d like a sneak peek, the story is available on the Anthology Builder website.

David: I’m keeping a running “wish list” of guests for interviews. Is
there anyone in the speculative fiction industry you would love to see

Alethea: Ha! I’ve been interviewing folks for the Ingram Genre Chicks column for over five years now, so every time I think of the answer to that question, I just hunt down the prospective victim and interview them. Neil Gaiman? Charles Vess? Anne McCaffrey? Easy-peasy. What I love best are the interviews that surprise me. I go back and re-read Naomi Neale’s (aka Vance Briceland) or Joe Hill’s answers whenever I need a pick-me-up. Heck, Edmund Shubert’s still makes me laugh so hard I cry. I know I’ll never look at penguins the same way again.

Good times.

David: Alethea, thanks for taking the time to answer all my questions. It’s been fun. I’ve been meaning to make it to some cons this year. If I end up making it to Dragon*Con I’ll be sure to look you up on the event list. I would love to meet you in person!

A Dozen Story Ideas a Day: David Farland

Dave Farland
Dave Farland

<This has previously been printed on my personal blog:
And also on Fantasy Magazine:>

I’m delighted to introduce David Farland (aka David Wolverton), New York Times bestselling author who has published nearly fifty science fiction and fantasy novels, including the Runelords series (which I highly recommend). In addition to that, he’s served as the coordinating judge for the Writers of the Future Contest.

You might also know him from his email blog “Daily Kick in the Pants”, through which he gives motivational tips, insights on writing, and helps us see the ins and outs of the writing business from the point of view of a highly successful author.

You can check out his website at

David, thanks for stopping by.

David Steffen: You always seem to have the answers on how to establish yourself as a successful writer. Was there ever a time when you found yourself ready to hang up the typewriter? How did you handle it and get back on track?

David Farland: I’ve never felt in despair about my career. I love to write, nd I’ve always thought that if there was anything else in the world that I wanted to do, I’d just do it, too. For example, when I was young I went to school to study medicine. I thought that it would be fun to be a genetic researcher or a pediatric physician, then write my novels on the side. Unfortunately, I would have needed an endowment of stamina to do it. (For those of you who have read The Runelords, you’ll get the joke!)

Seriously though, I did go through a fit of depression a few years ago, and went through my “midlife crisis.” I found out that Prozac doesn’t help most men, but Welbutrin does.

David Steffen: You’ve given aspiring writers endless tips to help get their careers started. If you could only give a single piece of advice, what would it be?

David Farland: Be persistent. It’s your career. If you really want to be a writer, make time to practice, to hone your craft, and just do it.

David Steffen: Where do your story ideas come from? Do you see stories everywhere you look and you just have to pluck the ones that appeal the most? Or do you have to sit down and actively say “I’m going to think of something new to write today”?

David Farland: Ideas come to those who look for them sometimes, but other times they just hit you. A twist of a phrase, a powerful image, a news story, an insight from a child–anything can set you off. I have at least a dozen story ideas per day, I suppose. I can’t write even a hundredth of them. So I just siphon.

Yet even with all of that, I find that I sometimes have to go searching for good ideas to fit a particular story. In short, you never get to rest.

David Steffen: In particular, what was the first idea that came to you for the Runelords series? A character? An idea for the magic system? The world itself?

David Farland: With the Runelords, I knew that I just wanted to write a big fantasy at first. I wanted my series to appeal to medieval fantasy readers–the Tolkien crowd–but I also wanted it to be different from any other story. So I had a basic idea for the world. I knew that it was going to be medieval, and that it would have plenty of large animals and monsters. In short, it is covered with megafauna, much as the United States was twelve thousand years ago when dozens of breeds of mammoths and mastodons roamed here, along with cave bears and sabertooths and dire wolves and all of those other cool animals. So I knew that I wanted to make my world similar to other fantasy worlds, but there are no glorious elves in it, no dwarves or orcs. I wanted my own creatures.

But what really set me off was the magic system. I wanted to create a new kind of magic for my world, and I knew that it had to be different and mind-blowing. I spent months looking at various magic systems used throughout history, and then one day the whole concept of wizards drawing attributes from vassals–glamour, brawn, wit, grace, sight, hearing, etc.–just literally seemed to fall right out of the sky.

David Steffen: I find the endowment system in the Runelords series particularly interesting, where a donor or “Dedicate” can permanently grant an attribute to a recipient or “Runelord”, and that link lasts as long as they both live. Where did the idea for this system come from?

David Farland: Well, when I was researching magic systems, I knew that I wanted to write about one that had something of an economic base. There needed to be a price for the magic.

But you know, you can’t really tell where these things come from. I mean, I didn’t base it upon anything that I’ve seen. I pondered dozens of magic systems, and then one day it hit me. I think that I might have had an inkling of it when I was watching a show where a calf got branded. My mind went, “You know, they used to brand slaves like that, too.” And I thought at the time, I wonder if it would be interesting to write a fantasy novel where people got branded as part of a magic system.”

It was just a fleeting thought. I was in Scotland a few months later, traveling down a road past Innessfree, when a friend asked, “Could you imagine what this must have looked like 2000 years ago?” I recall reading from a Roman historian who complained that on one night, some 40 men were dragged from their beds and eaten by wolves. He said, “The only thing worse than the wolves are the wild Scotsmen themselves!” I was thinking about that, and suddenly my subconscious said, “Hey, I’ve got your magic system!” and the whole complex system–along with the first novel in the series–just popped into my head at once.

David Steffen: Do you have any guesses who the next big up-and-coming big name writers will be, from your recreational reading and from your role judging stories for the Writers of the Future contest?

David Farland: Well, in fantasy it will be Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss. I know some excellent new writers who are coming along, but they’ll have to get their books written and sold first.

David Steffen: What was the last book you read? Your favorite book? Your favorite author?

David Farland: I just listed my two favorite new authors. I don’t want to choose between them, since I like them both. I know I should have done it years ago, but I’m reading Eragon right now. My favorite living author right now is still Orson Scott Card, overall.

David Steffen: How about the last movie you saw? Your favorite movie?

David Farland: I saw the latest Terminator last night, but it wasn’t nearly as good as Star Trek. I need to go see Angels and Demons this week. There are a lot of good movies coming out this summer.

David Steffen: How did your writing career get started?

David Farland: Actually, I began writing heavily in college, and my career took off after I started winning writing contests. I entered my first short story in a little contest and won third place. When I was done, I thought, “Wow, I spent ten hours on this story, and I won $50. That’s $5 an hour. Maybe if I worked a little harder, I could win first place in a contest.”

So I spent some time thinking about how to win writing contests, and then wrote several short stories. I entered six different contests, and won first place in each of them, including the Writers of The Future. When we went to New York for the awards ceremony, a number of the judges had already gushed to various editors about how good I was (Thank you Robert Silverberg, Orson Scott Card, Algis Budrys, and Roger Zelazny). Half a dozen editors approached me, asking if I was interested in submitting novels. Not only was I interested, I’d packed a novel proposal in my suitcase! Within a week, I had a three-novel contract with Bantam Books.

David Steffen: What was the single most significant step you took to advance your career?

David Farland: You know, I realized after I’d written my second book that my real last name, Wolverton, always put my books on the bottom shelf at the end of the rack. That was terrible placement. So I decided to begin writing under a pseudonym. That was tough to do, given that I was hitting at the top of the bestseller lists for science fiction. But when I moved to fantasy, my publisher allowed me to do it. I think it was a smart move.

David Steffen: What convention appearances do you have planned?

David Farland: I’m trying to decide whether to go to DragonCon in August. I believe I’ll be at World Fantasy Con in San Diego in October, and then I’ll probably go to Life, the Universe, and Everything at Brigham Young University in February.

David Steffen: What’s your next publication that we should watch out for?

David Farland: My next novels are Freaky Fly Day, Book three of my Ravenspell series, which comes out in September from Covenant Books. I also have a historical fiction novel that deals with the Willie Handcart Company, in which Mormon pioneers crossed the prairie in 1856, facing tremendous hardships. Here’s a link for that one: I also have the eighth book in the Runelords series coming out in October, called Berserker Lord. You can see the cover in the art section at, and you can order a signed/numbered copy of the book by emailing

David Steffen: What are you currently working on? Can you give us a sneak peek?

David Farland: Yes, I’m actually reading galleys for Berserker Lord, and you can read the first couple of chapters on I’m going to put up a new feature on my site that I’m thinking about calling “Over my shoulder,” where you will be able to read what I’ve written recently, and I’ll explain why I made the choices that I’ve made.

David Steffen: How did you react to rejections when you started writing? How has that changed over the years?

David Farland: My reaction has always been the same. I try to figure out why I got rejected, and then I rewrite and try harder!

David Steffen: Do you tend to write in a certain environment? For instance, some people say they write better with particular kinds of music, or can only write if they have an hour or more of uninterrupted time, or like me, they tend to do their best in the morning just after they get up.

David Farland: I find that I do my best writing in the morning. It’s important to be comfortable, so I write with a laptop while sitting in an easy chair. I tend to like it to be perfectly quiet, but sometimes I write with music playing softly–instrumental soundtracks from movies like Lord of the Rings, or possibly some classical music. To tell the truth, that’s always difficult. I like to rock out.

But I write best if I have long blocks of time to focus. For that reason, I usually take writing retreats a couple of times a year. I like going to Mexico, but with all of the problems there lately, I’m thinking about heading off to Alaska in a couple of weeks.

David Steffen: David, thank you very much for taking the time out of your busy schedule for this interview. Now I need to catch up reading on the rest of the Runelords series so that I can be ready for the new release.

Also, thanks to everyone who assisted me in the interview process, including A.W. Sullivan, Jordan Lapp, and Joey Jordan.