AUTHOR INTERVIEW – Kennedy Quinn
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INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR
What initially got you interested in writing?
That’s a really interesting question. At the heart of writing is storytelling and I was telling stories before I could I actually write. I always wanted to be somewhere other than where I was, even as a very young child, and storytelling was my way of escaping. And I didn’t just have imaginary friends, I had entire imaginary worlds that I lived in, often creating whole new personas for myself. I would be the princess hiding dragons from the evil king, the Indian maiden leading villains away from my village, or a lone starship captain landing on a new planet for the first time. I even recall trying to get my family to call me “Rose” when I was in elementary school because Rose was an alien princess who could fly. Perhaps predictably, that didn’t get much traction.
I first started writing and trying to get published in high school. I and a friend self-published our own science fiction/fantasy/horror magazine. Now, this was long before the concept of self-publishing was a thing, so people thought we were absolutely insane. But we wrote our science fiction and fantasy stories and even did some poems and art work. We were publishers too, paying a whopping $5 a story to classmates who wrote for us. I remember this particularly strange kid who wrote prose pretty well, but all his stories ended up with things like axes flying off the handle and killing people. He’s probably Stephen King’s biggest fan, today. This was also long before the internet and home computers, so we literally had to find a printing shop with one of those humongous barrel-bodied printing machines to print the magazine for us. We gave him every cent we had from chores, babysitting, lawn mowing or anything else we could do to earn money. I remember the tangy smell of the purple ink we chose (I do not remember what led to that odd color choice) and the loud clomp-clomp sound the press made every time it slammed down on paper. I was so excited I could barely stand still as page after page slid off the roller an onto the tray. We went around to local bookstores and newspaper stands and begged owners to take a couple of copies to sell at something like 75cents a copy. We made a few “pity sales” and maybe a few people were genuinely interested, but sadly there was no volume 2. It may not have been a business success, but I still remember how grown up and daring it made me feel. I still have a copy of it too. It’s at the bottom of a box of memorabilia that I’ve told people to destroy when I pass on. I smile when I look at the amateurish line drawing of alien fighting a monster, ala Star Trek, on the manila colored cover. The purple ink still smells a little bitter and it’s just glorious.
Right about that time, though, I had to make a hard choice. My love of creating was tied intimately to my deep desire to explore the world around me. So, while I loved to write, I also had this bone-deep longing to be a scientist. I desperately wanted to go to college to study physics. But I had grown up very poor and at the beginning of women’s lib. The prevailing wisdom of the time was that women weren’t smart enough to be scientists and “poor white trash” like me never amounted to anything anyway. In fact, my own father thought educating women was simply as waste of time and my wanting to be a scientist was just another of my silly fantasies. The bottom line was that no one was willing to take a chance on me with a scholarship. So, I took my future in my own hands and enlisted in the military to get enough money to go to college. In fact, I ended up getting several scholarships under their auspices, but it still took years of going to school at night while working full time to realize my dream of getting a PhD in physics. I kept writing, of course. Most of it was technical, but I did manage to bang out a couple of novels in my *ahem* copious amounts of spare time. It wasn’t until I had my Doctorate, though, that I finally turned my attention back to trying to get published. I never showed anyone my first novel. It was pretty horrible. But the second got a bit of interest, at least for my style of prose. It wasn’t until I completed my current novel, my third, that I got any serious interest. That took years of submissions, rejections, rewrites and resubmissions before it was finally picked up. And that’s how I got here today.
What genres do you write in?
I write mysteries. If I had to shoehorn them into a subgenre, I suppose it would be “chic lit”. But my protagonist is a scientist/female MacGyver, so there is a strong science/technical component. Also, I use her dream sequences to help her pull out clues from her intuition. So, there is also some surreal aspects in the book.
What drew you to writing these specific genres?
While most might think that, as a scientist, I might naturally gravitate to writing science fiction, I write mysteries instead. Part of the reason is to put a little separation between my “day job” as a researcher and my writing career. As much as I greatly enjoy being a scientist, I also still like the idea of exploring different venues. Part of the reason is that there is great similarity underlying both mysteries and science; both are about hypothesis, investigation and discovery. But I suppose a very large part derives from the fact that, as a child, I devoured the Nancy Drew mysteries. I loved that Nancy was always beating the boys to the clues and especially how good she was at defying authority figures. This, of course, all ties back to my own childhood. As a bit of a backstory, I had been raised with six younger brothers in a world where a boy-child was infinitely more valuable than a girl-child. Further educating girls was considered a waste of time; for me homework was expected to take a back seat to cleaning my brother’s rooms, or doing the dishes or other “girls chores.” So, it’s not a great surprise that stories of girls solving crimes ahead of the boys and overcoming adult interference and censure, would appeal. Basically, I put all of this together in the creation of my protagonist, Madison McKenna. She is a gifted scientist, but also someone who is too restless and contrary to settle into the future people expect for her. So she sets out to be a P.I. like one of her great ancestors. But, despite her intelligence, she is continuously dismissed by law enforcement and other professional investigators and basically told to go home and get out of the big boy’s way. I give her the opportunity not only to use her science in various MacGyver like ways, but she gets to beat the men to the clues and defy authority figures at the same time. Who said writing isn’t good therapy?
How did you break into the field?
As I mentioned above, I spent years writing on the side while working full time and while getting my science degrees. So, there wasn’t a lot of time to write. But I finally got established enough in my career that I could start putting real effort into trying to get published. Unfortunately, I had a few misadventures along the way. Sadly, there are some real predators and pretenders out there who promise new writers help end up taking money while handing out abuse instead. I’d caution new writers to choose classes/mentor/agents extremely carefully! Like any other endeavor, take care in what you believe and in whom you believe.
However, after having learned some of these painful lessons, I was fortunate enough to be recommended to a publisher by a friend. The lesson learned here is that networking is very important. That said, I’m not really certain that I could even consider myself as having “broken into the field.” I’ve just published my first book and it’s likely going to take quite a while before my series catches on.
What do you want readers to take away from reading your works?
Mostly, I want readers to have fun. I had a blast writing this and I’d love to share that enjoyment. Honestly, I didn’t set out to write the Great American Novel. Rather I wanted to write something that might teach people a little about science and human nature while simply being an enjoyable read.
At the same time, though, I deliberately set out to create a counter-stereotype of a female scientist. There is still a general perception that women scientists are humorless, boring and unfeminine. And that really have played a role in discouraging young girls, in particular, from going into the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) disciplines. (I have more information on this on my website.) As such, I wanted to create a protagonist who was sassy, sexy and downright feisty to counteract dated and inane stereotypes of female scientists. So I hope people take away a more modern and more accurate view of women in the sciences from my book.
What do you find most rewarding about writing?
The creative process is the greatest reward. I still haven’t gotten over my childhood predilection for inventing new realities and I absolutely love sitting down creating new worlds where interesting people do outrageous things. I also love it when humorous situations or dialogue just pop into my head. It makes me want to run out the door and tell someone. I don’t even mind that I have to read them 50 pages of backstory in order for the bit to make sense; I’m willing to make that sacrifice.
I even love it when my characters take over my story from me and move the plot in a whole new direction. One of my protagonists love interests, for example, was only intended to make a one-time appearance as a red herring in the first book. But during a scene in the middle of the book, they started groping each other and I could not make them stop. I rewrote the scene a half a dozen times, and each time they ended up in a clutch. I finally gave up and completely reimagined the story arc and now their relationship is one of the best elements of the entire series. I suppose the lesson learned here is that characters know best.
What do you find most challenging about writing?
The first draft is the toughest. Now when I first plot out my book, I’m very excited. But when I start trying to capture raw thoughts onto the page, it’s pure agony. The writing is ugly and awkward and I convince myself that I’m totally talentless. I don’t know if anyone else goes through the same process, but until I get that first draft done, I’m in a constant state of doubt. I worry whether or not the story makes sense, whether the mystery is complex enough or too simplistic and if the characters are the least bit interesting. But then I begin rewriting, polishing and refining my prose, and it all seems to come together. I think of working the first draft as being like a sculptor turning a lump of marble into a vaguely bird-shaped lump of marble. And rewriting is like chiseling out elegant upswept wings before finally adding delicate and intricate detailed feathers.
What advice would you give to people wanting to enter the field?
Just write. No matter what you have to do to squeeze it, just write. I’ve banged out a chapter edit after having staid up all night doing homework with only a few hours to go before I had to leave for work. I’ve written on the kitchen table with the dinner dishes waiting to be cleared. I’ve written in dentist’s and doctor’s waiting rooms and outside of garages waiting for my car’s tune up to be finished. I’ve written waiting for family to arrive for Thanksgiving while the turkey is cooking at my elbow. I’ve written on business trips and on airplanes. In fact, once I almost missed my ride outside Bangkok’s main airport because I was sitting on my luggage finishing up a chapter on my laptop while the person sent to pick me up was circling the airport looking for me to flag her down. Sometimes you can only write a few paragraphs at a time, but it that’s what it takes, that’s what you have to do.
Also, manage your expectations. Writing is a slow and difficult process. You will doubt yourself. You will be disappointed. You will feel lost and you will feel hopeless and discouraged. You will meet unpleasant and downright nasty people. But…it’s completely worth it. Because you will also meet wonderful, helpful and imaginative people. You will create something unique in the world. When you are “in the zone” with your writing, it’s bliss. At those times, you will not care about what others think and you will be proud of what you’ve done. You will be filled with hope and ready to take on the world. Writing is life encapsulated and amplified. Yes, sometimes it sucks. Don’t let that stop you. Grit your teeth and push past the hard part. Because you are creating something that no one in the universe but you can create. Write. Just write.
What type of books do you enjoy reading?
I’m a really eclectic reader. On one hand, I love classics. One of my all-time favorites is Shirley Jackson’s “We Have Always Lived in The Castle”. Who can’t get behind an eight-year old orphan who thought “with any luck at all” she should have been born a werewolf? Actually, anything by Shirley Jackson is worth multiple reads. Her plots are as psychologically complex (and disturbing) as Stephen King’s, and her pitch-perfect pacing creates the exquisite suspense of Hitchcock at his best. And you really owe it to yourself to read her “The Haunting of Hill House.” If you saw the 1963 version of the movie you have only a fair idea of how good the book is. Sadly, if all you saw was the dismal 1999 remake, entitled “The Haunting”, you have no idea how superbly this gifted author sculpts her characters. Although I write mysteries, I dream of being able to craft suspense into my writing with half the elegance and effect of this incredible writer.
Then there is Raymond Chandler’s “The High Window” or, actually, any of the Philip Marlowe mysteries. You can practically smell the whiskey and Camel cigarettes when you open any of the novels featuring Chandler’s iconic gumshoe. These books might have had their roots in the pulp fiction of the 1930’s, but Chandler’s talent for turning a phrase is worthy of the finest literary masters. Be prepared if you’ve never read Chandler before, though, for his works to seem heavy on the old chestnuts. His characterizations are so complete, settings so evocative, and plots so compelling that multitudes of authors and screenwriters have tried to copy him. So reading him today is reminiscent of the joke about the woman who tries to read Shakespeare only to give up because his work is full of clichés. While I won’t even pretend to match Chandler’s skill at creating characters, I did create my protagonist’s boss in homage to his wise-cracking, hard-bitten Philip Marlowe.
As I’ve mentioned, I’m a scientist. So it should come as no surprise that one of my favorite reads of all time is George Greenstein’s absolutely wonderful book entitled “Frozen Star: Of Pulsars, Black Holes and the Fate of Stars.” Primarily written for the layperson, it outlines the fundamentals of space-time, cosmology and astrophysics regarding black holes in an approachable format. As it was written in the early 1980’s the science is a little dated, but still accurate enough for the non-scientist. Moreover Dr. Greenstein’s prose and imagery is as elegant as it is literate. I can’t imagine anyone not being moved by it. Even if you’re not intrigued by the subject, I strongly recommend you find a copy and read chapter 7 entitled “Fire and Ice: The Time Machine”. This nine-page tale of the Sun collapsing into a black hole—which is not actually possible as it doesn’t have enough mass—was a deliberate fiction meant to evoke the sense of scale and power of black holes and is told with great poignancy. I read the book for the first time in the 1990’s and the imagery still haunts me. I long to write such eerily evocative scenes.
Okay, I’ll admit it, I read urban fantasy. Many of my science colleagues would look askance at my enjoying books about wizards and werewolves and the like, but the works of Molly Harper, Darynda Jones and Jeaniene Frost for example, have highly entertaining plots and really interesting and gritty protagonists. They are fun reads that don’t pretend to be anything more than a good time. But one series in this genre really deserves accolades and that is Jim Butcher’s, “The Dresden Files.” Told in first person, Butcher’s protagonist, Harry Dresden, is sympathetic, complex and vulnerable. And yet, when besieged by overwhelming odds and unrelenting attacks, Dresden’s daring, reckless, often boorish antics make him seem like a completely different character to the world around him. It’s a unique and well-crafted spin on a Walter Mitty paradigm, and I continually strive to give such complexity to my own characters.
Is there anything else besides writing you think people would find interesting about you?
As I mentioned above, I had a very difficult path to becoming a scientist. But I did, eventually, make it. So, I’m trying to give back by trying to help young people, especially women, minorities and the economically disadvantaged, pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Despite advances since my childhood, many economic and societal barriers still stand in the way of would-be scientists achieving their dreams. I’m using my author’s website, http://kennedyquinn.com to advertise a small scholarship program of $200/month, that I’ve created for high-school and college students in the STEM fields. I’ll be starting it in May 2016. Please, check it out and pass it on to anyone you think might be interested.
Also, because the protagonist of my series is a female MacGyver, I liberally sprinkle gadgets and escape devices throughout, all created out of whatever is lying about the plot landscape at the time. I painstakingly build and test the devices, as much as is practical, to ensure their viability. Admittedly, that has proven to be fiscally and physically costly. There was the time that I had to repaint my home office after I tried to test a weapon I made from condoms and car keys. I missed the calendar on the wall, at which I was aiming, and subsequently discovered that lubricant doesn’t wash off paint. Also, I still have a scar on right palm from when the cat leaped onto my work table while I was jury-rigging a disposable camera to create a home-made stun gun, causing me to flinch and complete the connection too soon. Fortunately, I’ve spent enough time in the lab to know to ground myself well. But it still caused a painful burn. No one said writing was safe.
What are the best ways to connect with you, or find out more about your work?
Please check out my website at www.kennedyquinn.com and find me on Facebook as well.
ABOUT THE BOOKS
Not many people could save a man’s life with lip gloss, car keys and three cinnamon-flavored condoms while under gunfire. But Madison McKenna can. And it’s not the least of the devices the sexy young physicist-turned-detective kludges together in The Last, Best Lie, first in the Chicago-based McKenna Mystery series. Blending wit, sensuality and science into a unique and exciting new format, this female-MacGyver uses counter-top technology and fierce determination to solve the attempted murder of her boss, Jake Thibodaux. It won’t be easy; science-savvy she is, street-smart she isn’t. Worse, Jake’s powerful ex-partner, Hunter, is determined to freeze her out of the investigation, and the local police would happily toss her in jail to keep her out of their hair. As Jake clings to life, Madison and her helpers—a charming bull-rider and his prize calf, Spinal Snap, a pair of bickering cops, and Jake’s hard-bitten mistress—delve into Jake’s past, revealing a man very different from the one she thought she knew. Even her subconscious comes to her aid, infusing her dreams with tantalizing, surreal, clues. Driven by need, Madison and Hunter form a steamy, antagonistic, partnership; until she learns that he his own motives for murder. As even more allies fall under suspicion and innocents are killed in her stead, the increasingly-desperate Madison uses science, cunning and doggedness to find the killer. And she’ll continue to school all around her in the power of technology, fueled female ingenuity, as this distinctive new series evolves.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kennedy Quinn has a Ph.D. in Physics and Master’s in Nuclear Science and is a director of research by day. But this scientist-turned-administrator didn’t get there the easy way. She enlisted in the Air Force immediately after high school and served as an aircraft mechanic before achieving an officer’s commission and earning her multiple degrees. After a diverse military career, she retired to federal service where she continues to lead research on a wide array of science and technologies. By night, she grows roses in Northern Virginia with her family; they’re owned by two rescue cats.