The publishing industry has changed so much in the last decade and in today's interview, I talk to Danielle Trussoni about how her writer's life has shifted — both in what she writes, how she publishes and how she reaches readers.
In the intro, I talk about the UK ending VAT on ebooks [BBC], why self-publishing changes everything for everyone in publishing [Orna Ross on the ALLi blog], a weird 45th birthday week, and my new mini-course/lecture on Multiple Streams of Income.
Today's show is sponsored by Draft2Digital, where you can get free ebook formatting, free distribution to multiple stores, and a host of other benefits. Get your free Author Marketing Guide at www.draft2digital.com/penn
Danielle Trussoni is the multi-award-winning and international bestselling author of horror novels, including Angelology, and memoir, including The Fortress. She is also a horror columnist for ‘The New York Times' and a podcaster. Her latest book is The Ancestor, described as modern gothic.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.
- On writing memoir and then shifting to fiction
- Do genre categories matter as they once did?
- Where faith and belief fit into writing horror
- On handling success and what defines it
- How the love of creating can smooth the rough edges of a tumultuous time
- On the difficult process of choosing a title
- How the business of being an author has changed
- New expectations for traditionally published authors
- How to make a living as a writer
- Writing a companion audio drama to a novel
You can find Danielle Trussoni at DanielleTrussoni.com and on Twitter @DaniTrussoni
Transcript of Interview with Danielle Trussoni
Joanna: Danielle Trussoni is the multi-award-winning and international bestselling author of horror novels, including Angelology, and memoir, including The Fortress. She is also a horror columnist for ‘The New York Times' and a podcaster. Her latest book is The Ancestor, described as modern gothic.
Danielle: Hi Joanna, thank you for having me on your show.
Joanna: I'm super excited. And as I said to you by email, I have been a fan of yours since Angelology, which is over a decade now and I'm very excited about your new book.
First up, tell us a bit more about you and how you got into writing.
Danielle: I've been writing for about 15 years. My first book was published in 2006. Before that, I went to the Iowa Writer's Workshop, which is here in the States, it's an MFA program. You're in Bath, right?
Joanna: Yes, correct.
Danielle: There's an MFA program in Bath, I believe, that's really well-known, or a writing program. My first book was a literary memoir called Falling Through the Earth. And then from there, I'd gone into writing basically because I had that one story to tell.
I always say that I taught myself how to write in order to tell that one story. That was the memoir, which was about my relationship with my family.
And when I finished writing that, I was at this point where I said, what should I write next? Because I don't want to be one of those writers who write the same book over and over and over again. I looked into my own reading habits, what I love to read, and I started writing about mythology and science and mystery.
You mentioned that they're categorized as horror novels, and they are in some degree horror or gothic, but more along the lines of Frankenstein, I would say, or something that the Brontes might write. Horror is a broad term that I'm often trying to redefine in my column. I'm choosing books that walk the line between genres.
But anyway, so I embarked upon writing my first novel Angelology, just throwing out everything I had learned about writing or thought that I knew about writing and trying to invent something different. So that came out in 2010 and then there was a sequel, Angelopolis.
And then I wrote another literary memoir and here I am again. I'm about to publish a new book called The Ancestor, which has been described as literary horror, but is also very much like Angelology, something that mixes historical fiction with science fiction, with mythology and mystery and sort of packages it all up in one book and there it is. It's not a real genre, but they're categorizing it this time as straight-up literary horror.
Joanna: Literary horror.
Did you know that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein here in Bath?
Danielle: No, I didn't. I knew she had the idea in the Alps.
Joanna: Yes. And everyone always remembers that bit. But she wrote it here in Bath, and that's what we're famous for, apart from Jane Austen. [The Guardian]
Danielle: Amazing. I'm going to have to make a pilgrimage.
Joanna: Absolutely. I agree with you. I think what's so interesting with horror is that there is this kind of literary horror idea where many horror works are literary. Frankenstein obviously in there, and putting your books there.
I wondered about your thoughts are on this genre because I must say I definitely write supernatural books and your books are supernatural as well, but the word supernatural can often be misconstrued, although I think it's an important part of horror.
In an era where someone like Stephen King, 25 years ago was considered kind of cult and now would be moving into a literary giant phase:
What are your thoughts on the lines between literary, in genre horror, or fiction in general?
Danielle: Personally, I don't really believe in genre, I believe in good writing.
I get dozens and dozens of novels every month for this column that I write for The New York Times. And I can pick up a novel that I think I would love. It has all of the elements that I would love that can be defined as horror meaning dark fiction, maybe some kind of creature, a set up that's very scary or something that's very suspenseful, and I can open it and read a couple of pages and if the writing is bad, I will put it down.
So for me, that's the definition of what I love in any genre. As far as literary conventions changing over time, I think we're in this moment partially because traditional book reviews are fading away and people are finding literature online, either through podcasts or through Goodreads.
All of these genre distinctions that were really created by the publishing industry and by booksellers and librarians to categorize books so that people could find them are just being thrown out the window.
I think that someone with the staying power, for example, of Stephen King, is really just because of number one, he's so prolific, but number two, he's so persistent. I don't think his writing has improved over the years. I think that a literary critic would probably find the same flaws in his writing that they found 30 years ago.
But he is, I guess you could say, the stars of the horror genre. And also he's reviewing more mainstream literary fiction in ‘The New York Times Book Review' sometimes as well. So he really has moved over. But I think that that is a more of a testament to his staying power and the fact that so many people grew up reading him.
The snobbery around genre fiction, in my opinion, is a shame. I grew up reading everything. I would walk into a library and I would walk out with my arms full of books of every kind and I would read them. And that pleasure of just reading without those distinctions is something that I strive to do in my books now. Creating that experience for someone else.
Joanna: Fantastic. And obviously, you've written about angels. We don't want to give too much away for the new book, but also I read in The Fortress your memoir, there is mention of a ghost that was in this quite gothic French place you lived in, French chateau, The Fortress you describe in the book.
It sounds like these dark undertones are sort of a part of your life and your work for a long time. I have it too. I'm not a Christian, but I have elements of supernatural that I believe are in my life.
Where do you think that attraction to the supernatural comes from and how do you incorporate aspects of faith or belief in your writing?
Danielle: It really did happen in my life in that I was in Catholic school as a child. My family, my father's family was Catholic, Italian-American Catholic. And I was in a school where we went to church every morning.
I remember zoning out and what my eye would gravitate to would be the angels and the unnatural things and creatures, I mean if you call angels creatures, that were on the walls of the church. I became more and more fascinated with what it means to be human in relationship to these beings that are not human, whether that's angels or ghosts.
In the new book in The Ancestor, there's…I don't think it's saying too much to say that there is a kind of non-human creature that shows up.
But the way that I love to write about these experiences of supernatural or superhuman phenomena is very realistically that I find that if the world that I create is very, very researched and realistic and you walk into it as a reader feeling like it's literary realism and then something gradually shifts and suddenly you're in a world that you didn't know that it existed or that you didn't think you were walking into.
I think that that creates a really intense experience and a believability that makes the fiction interesting. The books that I've loved have always been that kind of book, whether it's a literary novel or horror novel or whatever. And I've tried in my own work to create that experience.
Joanna: I've got to ask a selfish question; is there another angel book coming?
Danielle: There is. I'm asked this almost every week by my readers. And I am going to be writing more of that series.
What happened with that series is something that I call a hazard of the publishing industry. It was traditionally published in 2010, Angelology. And when I wrote it, I hadn't planned on writing a series, but the novel was such a success that my publisher bought a second one.
As I was in the middle of writing that, my editor left and I was stranded in my publishing house and there wasn't a lot of interest in continuing the series after that editor left.
So I finished that book and then I didn't really have anywhere to go, so I did something else. The problem being that I have a lot of people who love that series and I love that series. I'm considering actually writing the third book and self-publishing it.
Danielle: I think that that would be a wonderful experience in terms of me being able to control all sorts of things around the publication and I wouldn't have that problem with being stranded and then feeling like I was in a publishing situation where people weren't excited for another book.
And then it would just be me and my readers, right? And I could be in touch with them directly. It just, there's a lot of reasons why I think that that would be the best option.
Joanna: As I said, I've been a fan since that first book and there are authors who you remember and you go and check in on them now and then. Over the years I have checked in to see if there was another book in that series. And it was like, oh, it's not there. Maybe it'll be there at some point. I bet you that there are other readers like me, around the world. Have you read, Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor?
Danielle: No, I haven't.
Joanna: Well, that is a wonderful book and there is an angel in that. And it brought to mind your work and that book has been huge.
Danielle: What's the name of it? I'm sorry, I don't know it.
Joanna: Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor and people listening as well, I love that book and Laini's fantastic. It's meant to be YA, but it is so much more than that. She's a fantastic writer. I think you'd enjoy it.
Danielle: I'm sure I would. I'm fascinated with the genre shift between YA and adult and how people are moving back and forth. I think that that's a really fertile place to be writing in.
I think a lot of my readers actually in the Angelology series were young adult readers and adults as well who wanted a sort of more supernatural and playful experience. I think it would be a good idea. I have to learn how to do it. I haven't self-published before.
Joanna: You have friends over here.
Danielle: I may need to ask for some help. But that's something I'm going to be doing this year is writing that book.
Joanna: Fantastic. Well, coming back to, Angelology, and as I said, I've just finished your wonderful memoir, The Fortress. And in it, I read this sentence so I'll just read it out for people,
‘When success arrived, it cracked the atmosphere of my life like a sonic boom, knocking me off balance.'
You talk in the book about having so many rejections and all your hard work and yet the success seems like a real mixed blessing. I wonder if you would address what happens with success and how you would handle it now.
Danielle: Sure. Let me give the listeners a little bit of context about what happened.
I had written one book before Angelology, and it was, as I mentioned, a literary memoir that was very well-reviewed. It was chosen as one of the best 10 books of the year by ‘The New York Times.' And it did very well in a literary way.
But as we all know, literary success and commercial success are often very different. And so when I wrote Angelology, I wasn't quite expecting it to be published in the way that it was. It was sold at auction. There were seven editors bidding. The film rights sold before the book sold, if you can imagine that.
So my agent sent a manuscript to producers in Los Angeles, and then it sold in 33 countries, I think, like all within 3 weeks.
Danielle: When I say ‘sonic boom' in that quote, it really just happened so quickly. And also, all of that was sort of behind the scenes. It hadn't actually gone out into the world yet. So I didn't know, is it a success because people are betting on it being a success or is it a success because my readers are going to love it? What defines success?
And so when I say that it threw me off balance, it really did. I wasn't quite sure how to handle it. I wasn't sure, but I had no idea about how to promote my work in such a large way that would be necessary for a book like that.
I also wasn't sure how to interact with my readers. And, it was 2010. The book sold in 2009 and it was published in 2010 and it was a really rapidly changing world in the publishing industry then too. So, I think that we're often trained or we train ourselves to write and we train ourselves for rejection and negative reviews and that sort of thing where like, okay, I can handle it.
But then when something overwhelming happens in the opposite direction, we have to scramble to figure out how to continue writing on a daily basis and living our lives in a way that we can continue to write. We have to learn how to do that.
Joanna: And, of course, you have kids and it was all a busy time of life as well. It wasn't just you straight out of your MFA, we should say. You had a lot of life going on.
Danielle: Right. And also, as I detailed in the memoir, The Fortress, my marriage that I was in at that time was not working. So there were many, many aspects to me feeling off-balance at that point in my life. Luckily, I just love writing, so I continued to write books and I found this new, wonderful stability in writing every day and continuing to publish.
If you love the work I think that everything will be fine in the end.
Joanna: I love that. And then I think Elizabeth Gilbert also talks a lot about that. People have said to her after Eat, Pray, Love, ‘How does it feel knowing that your biggest work is behind you?' She's like, ‘Well, just carry on.'
Danielle: That's so unbelievable. It's basically like cutting off half of her writing life. She has a lot of life left ahead of her where she could write something amazing, right?
Joanna: Exactly. And J. K. Rowling as well here in the U.K. People say, ‘Why doesn't she stop and let the rest of us a have a go?' But she continues to write because she's a writer.
Danielle: Right. Because then you really have no choice at the end of the day. It's something that for me anyway, it becomes a kind of meditation that I need to do that every day, otherwise I feel like something's missing in my life.
Joanna: I wanted to just pop back to The Ancestor because I was listening to your Writerly Podcast back in June 2019, you discussed the evolution of your title.
Now, you've mentioned that you might consider self-publishing because of control. I'll link to this in the show notes, but this episode was so interesting because you had 25-plus options for a title and were having a very difficult time.
Can you tell us about this process of choosing a title with a traditional publisher, why it was so difficult?
Danielle: It's just ridiculous because the original title for the book was The Ancestor and the title that it's going to be published under is The Ancestor. But of course, in the publishing world, editors and marketing people, in this particular instance, I believe it was the marketing people at my publishing house who said, ‘The Ancestor is not a very sellable title. It's not a title that's going to sell books.'
So then, of course, my editor came back to me and said, ‘Listen, we need to find a new title.' And I said, ‘What?' I said, ‘I really love The Ancestor. I don't think that there's a better title for this.'
For those of you listening, when you read it, you'll see that The Ancestor, that concept of ancestry and our ancestral connections to home and family and all of the things that ancestry means now and in the past is very much at the heart of this book. So removing ancestor from the title was really like shocking to me.
I spent a lot of time, I came up with a lot of titles. I even posted these titles, not all 25, but I think maybe 6 or 7 on Facebook and had a video, like shopping the titles, like, ‘Which one do you like?'
Overwhelmingly, the two top choices were The Ancestor or ‘Ancestral.' ‘Ancestral' was a second finalist.
Finally, after me presenting a million ideas and the publishing house not being able to come up with anything better, they said, ‘Okay, well, we don't love it, but let's keep it.' So here we are, right, after all of that time.
Joanna: You did say that you came up with a whole load of titles.
I can hear people listening and they're saying, how do you do that? How do you come up with so many titles?
Danielle: I think in the podcast, we discuss that a little bit. My co-host on the podcast, Panio, may have said that he often goes to poetry and will look in poetry.
But for me, I knew the parameters of what I wanted the book to express, and that was the book is very suspenseful, it's very gothic, there are a lot of elements of horror, and I wanted it to be something that when you look at the cover and you read the title, you know what it is. So I really veered more toward the gothic and horror side.
And then actually the publisher didn't like that because then that also limits sales in another way, apparently. Obviously lesson of all of this, the moral of the story is that the marketing people at the publishing house and oftentimes your editor are thinking about how it's going to sell. They're not thinking so much about the aesthetics of what you're doing.
Joanna: I know independent authors have just as much trouble deciding on a title. In fact, three books into my first series, I re-covered, re-titled, re-genre-d those books. Same stories, just re-titled, re-covered…
Joanna: Yes. Into another genre and they worked a lot better. That is one of the great things about being indie, you can just go, ‘Do you know what, that didn't work, I guess I'll try something else.'
Danielle: Did you have readers that bought both?
Joanna: Well, I made it clear. You can say, ‘Previously published as…'
Danielle: Okay. Amazing, what freedom. I love the freedom that you have to do that. I've been really longing for that.
Joanna: I wonder also because your ‘Writerly' podcast, it says it's about the intersection of writing and business.
How do you think the business of being an author has changed since you've been a professional writer?
Danielle: Oh, completely, 100% changed. When I began, as I mentioned, my first book was published in 2006 and that was the era when essentially if you had an agent and you had a book published, you were told to sort of go away and write your next book. ‘Thank you very much for the manuscript. We may need you for a book tour. We may need you to do some interviews, but other than that, please go away and write.'
That's just unheard of now. Authors are expected to have a platform. We're expected to be in touch with our audience. We're expected to be able to generate interest in the book outside of what the publisher is doing.
And now, there really are no book tours. Sometimes it happens. With The Ancestor, I'm going to a few places, but it's really what's happening. It's the internet, right? It's that everyone is either finding books or interacting with their favorite authors online, and books are being reviewed on Goodreads rather than in newspapers.
This revolution has left a lot of writers scrambling. On the other hand, something that I find really interesting is that there's this whole opportunity for writers who want to do it their own way and do it outside of the publishing industry. And it's feasible in a way that that was never possible when I started.
Self-publishing was considered something that maybe you would do in your garage. And that you would sell some copies on a stand at the market. At that time, that wasn't something that could be done and that people could actually not only earn a living but find their readership, which is what we all want is to find our readers.
That change is a revolution. I think of it as it's as big as the printing press for me.
What's happening now, the freedom we have and the ability to reach each other. It's just a whole other world.
I know of a lot of older, traditionally published authors who are really scrambling and struggling in this environment because they're just not used to it.
Joanna: I know some of those people and it's almost like everyone wishes the old days were still here; the six-figure advance every year like clockwork.
You mentioned having a platform there. Do you think that is expected even if you write a literary novel, for example?
Danielle: I think so. Even if you write a literary novel, I think that the marketing people are googling you before they figure out how much they're going to offer.
Literary novels, okay, they've never sold a lot of copies, but now it's worse than ever. And this is just my opinion. I really believe that everyone who is writing and who wants to have a readership needs to connect with that readership online.
I don't want to cut it off with millennials either, but older people who are retired, for example, are online and finding writers too. So I would say everybody has essentially changed their way of finding what they're going to read, how they're interacting with the authors. And yes, so I would say that even a literary novelist would need to have a platform.
Joanna: And it's interesting because you mentioned the book tour there. I think this is a book tour. You're on a podcast tour.
Danielle: I'm on a book tour, that's right. Now, it's so much more fun. I can be in my pajamas if I want.
Joanna: You can reach people all over the world, which is fantastic.
If people do want to make a living as a traditionally published writer these days, do they have to supplement that with teaching or do you think that it is possible?
How do you think that people should make a living with writing?
Danielle: The people that I know that are making a living with writing are doing a number of things, especially if they're traditionally published. As you mentioned, they're teaching. They're publishing maybe a book every other year. Their advances may not be big, but with teaching and other things, they can make it.
Television is becoming a viable way for writers to make a living, but it's another art. It's another craft. And to write for television, one has to really learn a new set of skills and also be willing to relocate. You have to be in Los Angeles or sometimes in New York. And you have to also be willing to take lots of notes and take lots of instruction and collaborate in a huge way. So, that's one option.
Self-publishing, you self-publish, a lot of people listening self-publish. I haven't done that yet. And I find that a fascinating possibility.
What I've been reading is that the way that readerships are moving and the way that writers, the direction writers are moving into, is that we will have a personal relationship with our readers in a way that publishing houses used to.
For example, here in the States or maybe in England too, you would see the imprint of a certain publisher and you say, ‘Oh, that's the kind of book that I love.' And I would say, ‘Oh, it's FSG,' or, ‘It's Faber & Faber,' or whatever, Serpentine. And you'll buy that book because you know that the taste of the editors and that publishing house is fabulous.
Now that's disintegrating, People don't know the publishers. Those brands are gone. And now, it seems to me that writers have to develop that presence themselves and bring their readers with them wherever they go.
Joanna: The author brand, indeed. I know what you mean about that shopping by imprint, but as you mentioned, when you got stranded, when you got orphaned with that second book, a lot of editors move. That's their day job. They have a salary and a lot of editors move on, a lot of turnover and publishing houses. That changes things. But you mentioned writing to TV.
On your website, I found an intriguing link to CryptoZ, an audio series collaboration.
Danielle: Yes. I did mention that. That's another exciting form that I've been exploring. So I'll tell you the whole story.
I wrote The Ancestor, which is the novel that's coming out and it was very long. I tend to write long books. Angelology I think was about 500 pages and The Ancestor was originally that length as well. With my editor, we ended up cutting about a hundred pages out of it.
A lot of that material was material around the subject of cryptozoology. And for those of you who don't know what that is, cryptozoology is the study or the scientific investigation into animals that are not documented by science. So, for example, the Lochness Monster would be a cryptid studied by cryptozoologists, and the Yeti, and Bigfoot.
But then there are more normal animals too like there's a large medusa jellyfish that, for centuries, people were reporting that they saw this jellyfish in the Arctic. And finally, scientists did find it.
So anyway, I became fascinated with this kind of search. And while I do have a cryptid, a creature, in my book, we didn't need all of that information. So I took it out and I wrote a 10-part audio drama series with the material and some of the characters that got cut.
I worked with a director and a producer and we cast 15 voice actors, and we hired a sound designer and we created this fantastic audio experience of cryptozoologists hunting for creatures. The way that we think about it is as a companion to The Ancestor novel. So we're going to release the first episode on the day that the book is published, April 7th, 2020.
Joanna: What platforms will that go out on?
Danielle: Apple Podcasts. It's going to be available everywhere. It's being produced by a company called Euphony, which is a narrative podcast company.
It's free. For those of you who haven't listened to narrative audio podcasts, it's a totally different experience than nonfiction podcasts that we're all used to. You slip on your headphones and you're just immersed in an audio bath of experience.
There's sound design. So when you're in the forest, you're hearing everything in a forest and then you're hearing the actors as they move around and talk. So it's really a very kind of sensual 3D feeling experience.
Joanna: Wow. I'm excited about that. I had thought maybe you were selling that because I listen to a lot of audio drama on Audible. I've just finished listening to one this evening about an AI thing and this kind of audio drama is becoming a thing.
It used to just be BBC drama and radio stuff. But now, as you say, it's fictional podcasts and audio dramas instead of audiobooks.
Is there an audiobook of The Ancestor coming out at the same time?
Danielle: There is. But it's produced by Harper Collins. So this is also the difference why I think that audio narrative, audio dramas, and narrative podcasts are really exciting is that it's such a new territory that authors can keep the rights for that and just do it themselves.
This is the first time, as far as I know, that an author has taken part of a book and made a companion audio drama and is releasing it at the same time.
The ones that you're listening to on Audible, and there's some on Spotify, I think, and Gimlet obviously did a number of audio dramas, those were produced and they're owned by those larger companies. And the writers actually are paid a fee. So they don't have the ability to, for example, take the intellectual property and create something else with it.
But because this is linked to my novel, I kept all of it. And we paid for the audio drama ourselves and we did everything ourselves, so we own it. And that gives us huge leverage after it's out if it's a success because then we can sell it elsewhere.
Joanna: You write memoir, you write full-length novels, I think you have a novella up as well that I've seen. And then you've got audio drama. It's a very different form.
How different was writing the audio drama?
Danielle: It's all so different. I love, obviously, pushing myself into different genres. It was very different.
But what was very freeing about this process is that I didn't have any expectations about what I would produce. I also, in the beginning, wasn't sure if it would ever be heard. I just wanted to play with this idea and I said, ‘Oh, I'm just going to write one or two episodes and see what happens.'
I ended up writing three episodes and showed it to some people who ended up being my collaborators and it just worked. I think because I put no pressure on myself and I let myself get a little bit weird with it. I just let myself go in weird places without expectations. It did turn out to be a really fun, spontaneous-feeling podcast and it was fun for me to write.
Joanna: Yeah. And then you did mention the film rights earlier of Angelology.
I have looked into this, but I've got to ask what's happening with that?
Danielle: It's actually quite exciting because the film rights reverted back to me in 2016, I think, 2015, and I've been trying to get a television show made from Angelology, from the book. And we do have actually someone, a studio, interested in doing it.
There are some complications behind the scenes because Sony pictures originally purchased the rights outright. And so this new studio would have to pay them back. And so there's some negotiating going on behind the scenes. But once that's taken care of, it very well may happen.
Joanna: I'm excited. It sounds like it's all happening.
Danielle: Yeah, it's bubbling, right? It's like bubbling, bubbling, bubbling. I feel in the next few months it is going to all happen, but right now we're in the simmering stage.
Joanna: I'm excited for you too. And as a fan of your writing, I'm looking forward to all of it.
Tell people where they can find you and your books online.
Danielle: I have a website. It's danielletrussoni.com. I'm on Twitter, of course, at @DaniTrussoni. And Instagram, just my name, Danielle Trussoni.
Everything is on my website. You can find me there and you can link to all of my social media.
I send out a newsletter every week and that's been the most fruitful way for me to communicate with people. I have people writing back to me almost every week, actually. So, if you're interested in joining that community, the best way to do that is to just write to me directly, and my email address is danielle AT danielletrussoni.com.
Joanna: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time, Danielle. That was great.
Danielle: Thank you. It was a real pleasure.