“Robert Kirkman can have love triangles, sex scenes, etc, and he’s still considered a gritty horror writer. If a woman includes those story aspects, she’s writing a Harlequin novel with zombies.”
The job Rhiannon Frater’s held prior to her current occupation as a successful novelist sounds like something she might have invented for one of her characters – governmental consultant. The gig required that she traverse the vastness of the Lone Star State, leaving her fetid imagination unfettered to run wild during the long stretches. It was during one of these trips that she conjured up the idea of As the World Dies– based on two women fleeing into the Texas hill country in an attempt to survive the zombie apocalypse.
The story took on a life of its own, growing from simple chapters posted online into a sprawling three novel series she later self-published at the request of her rapidly growing fan base. The books were eventually purchased by Tor and went on to sell like proverbial hot cakes. Since then Rhiannon has written over a dozen more novels, most featuring vampires and zombies, and earning a string of impressive accolades along the way. As The World Dies earned her a coveted starred review from Publishers Weekly. Her novel The Last Bastion Of The Living was declared the #1 Zombie release of 2012 by Explorations Fantasy Blog and the #1 Zombie Novel of the Decade by Barnes & Noble Book Blog. Lit Reactor declared her novel As the World Dies: The First Days one of the top 10 novels to read, listing her among other heavy weights like Jonathan Maberry and Carrie Ryan.
Despite seeing success with small press publishers like Tor and Permuted Press, Rhiannon continues to publish both independently and through the traditional system. That tenacity, it would seem, is finally paying off. Earlier this year, Permuted announced the creation of a Platinum line to be distributed through Ingram into brick and mortar bookstores worldwide, including highly sought after shelf space inside the dwindling number of Barnes and Noble stores. Her newest release, The Mesmerized, has just been released in hardcover from Permuted as well. Set in Las Vegas, the story focuses on a woman vacationing with her family who witnesses the start of the apocalypse, when humanity is transformed into mindless drones by a terrifying supernatural event only she appears immune to.
I had the chance to talk at length with Rhiannon about her work, her journey to full time writing, her love of Texas, and what kind of vampires work the best.
Devan Sagliani: Most writers can only dream of writing something so good that it goes from being self-published to being in bookstores worldwide. Tell us a little about what it’s been like and how you feel the process has changed who your writing?
Rhiannon Frater: Well, it was surprising. I didn’t expect to transition from Indie Author to Hybrid Author. I truly believed that my niche was in the self-publishing world. I turned down several publishing offers before I acquired an agent and seriously pondered shifting As The World Dies to a traditional publisher. I decided that my criteria for letting As The World Dies go to a publisher was an advance that would allow me to go full-time and it to land at a well-respected publishing house. When my agent called to tell me Tor had a solid deal on the table, I was mute with shock. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. To a lot of writers in genre, Tor is the Holy Grail. I was in shock for a few days, then I did a happy dance and started planning my exit from the day job.
Of course one of the advantages of being with Tor was having a senior editor with over twenty years of experience help me revise the story I had written for fun while traveling on the road into a much tighter, better read. I learned so much from her notes and the trilogy -and my writing as a whole – definitely benefitted from her expertise.
I remember when I saw The First Days on the shelves of my local Barnes & Noble and I felt a great sense of relief. It was like “At last…”
Devan Sagliani: Having done both do you feel it’s better to self-publish or to going through a traditional publisher? What are the advantages or disadvantages of both?
Rhiannon Frater: I’m a Hybrid (a combo of Indie Author and Legacy Author) because there are advantages and disadvantages to both processes. I’m still experimenting to see what works, and what doesn’t work when it comes to publishing.
I’ve been with Tor since 2011 and Permuted Press since 2013. My next novel from Tor, Dead Spots, won’t be released until 2015. I wrote it three years ago, but the road to publication in the Big 5 houses can be long. If I had waited for my next Tor release, my fans would have gone without a book from me for three years. I don’t have control over much when it comes to my books from Tor. Marketing, release dates, covers, etc, are all aspects I don’t have a say in. I am glad that Tor is changing the initial cover of Dead Spots to better reflect the story. The original looked like a memoir or New Adult novel cover, yet the story is creepy, scary, and something akin to Silent Hill. I hope to see the revised cover soon. If Tor had decided to go with the original there isn’t much I could’ve done other than just deal with the disappointment.
When I got wind of the big changes with Permuted Press, I was interested to see how they’d grow the house. After a long talk with the new owner, I knew I wanted to shift some of my self-published work to Permuted Press as an experiment. They picked up my modern horror series Pretty When She Dies (featuring dangerous vampires, necromancers, and zombies), The Midnight Spell (my YA supernatural novel with co-author Kody Boye), and a brand new novel called The Mesmerized. Since my self-publishing editor, Felicia Sullivan, already works for Permuted Press, it made the transition a lot easier. Also, Permuted Press loved my covers and commissioned my cover artist, Claudia McKinney of Phat Puppy Creations, to do a new cover for Pretty When She Dies (she hadn’t done the original cover) and the cover for The Mesmerized. I’m very excited to see how the books do in the bookstores.
I now have a very solid self-publishing team and we can put out quality books in a timely manner. I have a lot of ideas bouncing around in my head and not all of them are going to be a good fit for publishing houses. Tor passed on two novels just because they felt the themes were similar to something they were already publishing. I went ahead and wrote both of those novels anyway. One received a slew of accolades and brisk sales, and the other is just now hitting the digital bookshelves to rave reviews. Self-publishing allows me to write what I want to write and get those stories into the hands of my readers more quickly than if I went the traditional route.
Devan Sagliani: Plenty of people say both zombies and vampires are played out genres that no one is interested in anymore. Yet, you continue not only to write compelling new fiction in these genres but to also win over fans, critics, and most impressively of all, your peers. What’s the secret to writing well in a genre that has literally seen it all?
Rhiannon Frater: Well, I did write As The World Dies from 2005-2006. That was a time when there wasn’t really any zombie genre literature. There were a lot of forums with original works. I remember reading some, but finding that they always followed the same sort of storyline. There were a slew of surly, moody lone gunmen (former soldiers, criminals, or police officers) wandering the zombie wastelands, but nothing about every day folks. I never dreamed I would write a zombie novel, but I was inspired one day and took the plunge. The rest, as they say, is history.
My approach to As The World Dies was to write about real people in a terrible situation. I also wanted it to be realistic and did a ton of research on how people respond during natural disasters, wars, and other high stress situations. Since I was working on disaster relief programs, I also talked to a lot of people who survived terrible events. I learned a lot from the experience of writing the story online. Readers told me what my writing strengths and weaknesses were and I improved my craft on that original forum feedback.
One thing readers have told me over and over again is that my characters feel like real people. So no matter what monster I’m writing about, I always concentrate on making the characters vibrant, living creations. If you care about the characters, then it heightens the suspense of the story. You worry about if they live or die. It’s a deeper emotional investment if you care about all the characters.
I’m also told by the readers that my stories are very different from others in the genre. I tend to take the untrodden path. It’s not a conscious choice on my part. I just write the story that’s in my head and do the best I can. As The World Dies was self-published in 2008, and reissued by Tor in 2011. So I believe I had the benefit of writing the story before the genre was big and developed distinctive tropes.
Devan Sagliani: What is your zombie outbreak survival plan?
Rhiannon Frater: I’m in Texas. We’ll be fine.
Devan Sagliani: What would be your ideal weapon of choice in the apocalypse?
Rhiannon Frater: Aluminum baseball bat for melee. Beretta for firearm (I’m really good with headshots). Also, my husband’s brain. He’s awesome at planning stuff. And if I turn zombie, I can eat it!
Devan Sagliani: Do you have a bug out bag or other supplies stockpiled in case of the apocalypse?
Rhiannon Frater: Not really. I used to worry about it a lot more, then realized with my luck I won’t be at home when it goes down. I did talk to people in natural disasters and mostly they grabbed loved ones and pets. When shit is getting real, you grab what you love.
Devan Sagliani: Do you feel your experience with writing about the end of the world will come in handy when the apocalypse finally arrives?
Rhiannon Frater: Not really. I’m writing about fictional apocalypses. If we were to encounter a real one, it would be so vastly different from anything writers imagined. I’d rather an apocalypse didn’t happen. I like humanity. I’d like for us to stick around and make it to the stars.
Devan Sagliani: Have you always loved the supernatural?
Rhiannon Frater: Yes and no. Throughout my childhood I was terrified of anything remotely scary. I grew up isolated in a very religious community, so things that didn’t scare other children absolutely left me in a panic. But, like a lot of writers, I learned that by writing about the monsters, you can contain them. To this day I write about what I fear. I learned to love what used to terrify me. Maybe that’s why I have an original take on the creatures of the dark.
Devan Sagliani: Do you believe in spirits or ghosts? Have you ever had any supernatural experiences of your own?
Rhiannon Frater: I do believe in spirits. I did have a visitation from my horror-loving grandfather when I had first moved to the Texas Hill Country. I was sleeping and dreamed he was speaking with me, encouraging me. When I woke up, I found out my mother had seen him standing in the doorway of the living room smiling at her. It’s a lovely feeling to know he’s looking after us. I wish he could have lived to see the publication of my first book, but I’m comforted by the thought that he has some awareness of it.
Devan Sagliani: How are your vampires different than other vampires?
Rhiannon Frater: I love old-school vampires. The ones that are seductive, but will rip your throat out. Beautiful monsters scare me quite a lot. The concept of evil hiding behind beauty is very intriguing to me. So my vampires may be pretty, but they’re sadistic predators. In Pretty When She Dies, Cian is trying very hard to be more human when Amaliya shows up in his life. She’s newly created and volatile. It’s through mentoring her that he comes to understand he is not human and returns to his dangerous vampire ways. I liked upending the tropes. I like my vampires to be bloody.
Devan Sagliani: If you were given the chance would you want to become a vampire?
Rhiannon Frater: If the vampire was like my own creations? Maybe. I’d give it some thought.
Devan Sagliani: What are the benefits and draw backs to being an immortal in your opinion?
Rhiannon Frater: Well, I definitely think you’d end up a lot more paranoid about possibly dying. Living that long would alter how you regard everything. Time would have no meaning. Your life and that of your immortal companions would be your only constant. But it would also be fascinating to see the world changing.
Devan Sagliani: If you could write in any other genre what would it be?
Rhiannon Frater: Science fiction. I’ve already dabbled a bit with The Last Bastion of the Living, and its sequel, The Last Mission of the Living. And, to some degree, The Mesmerized.
Devan Sagliani: Did you always want to be a writer? If not what did you think you would be doing for a living when you were still just a kid?
Rhiannon Frater: I’ve known since I had conscious thought that I wanted to be a writer. I also felt strongly at a young age I would be published by a Big House and be a full-time writer. I didn’t know how’d I’d get there, but I knew it would happen. Then I wrote a zombie story online for fun and to stave off boredom while traveling…
Devan Sagliani: Who are some of your favorite authors that inspire you and push you to take things to the next level?
Rhiannon Frater: Neil Gaiman. Ray Bradbury. Stephen Millhauser. Agatha Christie. Charlotte Bronte. I rarely read in the genre in which I write, so my influences are not in horror.
Devan Sagliani: Can you take us through your process of how you move a story from idea to full creation? Do you rely on outlines? Where do you draw your inspiration from?
Rhiannon Frater: Well, I dream my books. I don’t look for inspiration. It finds me as I slumber. I write down the idea if it stays with me when I awaken. And if it festers in my mind, adding layers, and growing bigger, I know it wants to be a book. So then I turn on the movie in my head and write what I see on the screen. I don’t outline. I don’t plot. I follow the images in my head.
Devan Sagliani: What scares you?
Rhiannon Frater: Clowns. Freakin’ clowns.
Devan Sagliani: Who do you admire in life and why? Who are you heroes?
Rhiannon Frater: The people who run toward the disasters to save other people. Those are my heroes. And there are a lot of them.
Devan Sagliani: What’s been the biggest surprise for you so far in your journey as a writer?
Rhiannon Frater: How long it can take to publish a book.
Devan Sagliani: What do you like to do for fun?
Rhiannon Frater: Video games (on the PC), binge-watching shows with my husband, occasionally going to the gun range, going to dinner with friends, traveling, etc…
Devan Sagliani: What do you feel your biggest accomplishment has been so far as a writer?
Rhiannon Frater: Doing it full-time since 2011. I’m still amazed by that.
Devan Sagliani: Do you feel it is harder for female writers in the horror genre?
Rhiannon Frater: It’s better than it was when I started. A lot better. And we don’t have it as bad as the women in science fiction. I still get comments like “I was really surprised at how much I like your zombie books because you’re a girl.” Or “Is this a romance novel with zombies?”
We’re judged on a different level, that’s for sure. Robert Kirkman can have love triangles, sex scenes, etc, and he’s still considered a gritty horror writer. If a woman includes those story aspects, she’s writing a Harlequin novel with zombies.
I’ve learned to ignore the naysayers. I want to write about real people. And real people sometimes fall in love. Have sex. Break up. Make friends. Make enemies. Have families. Lose families. I want to address the whole gamut of what it means to be human in horrific situations.
Devan Sagliani: You’re a big advocate of your State. What do you love about Texas? What makes it so amazing in your opinion?
Rhiannon Frater: The people are terrific (as a whole). We have an awesome history. We have a lot of pride in our accomplishments. We’re tough. We’re kind. We’re friendly. Our government sucks, but that’s because we don’t vote.
My writer friends who attend Texas Frightmare Weekend in Dallas are always amazed at how nice Texans are. We greet each other with a smile and a hello. And if the zombies rise, we’re armed to the teeth and ready.
Devan Sagliani: Do you have any pets? What’s your favorite kind of animal?
Rhiannon Frater: I have furry babies that are spoiled and naughty. As for favorite animal, I love bats. I wish I could have a fruit bat, but they’re a bit stinky.
Devan Sagliani: What are a few of your favorite quotes?
Rhiannon Frater: Davy Crockett’s “…you may all go to hell and I will go to Texas.”
Devan Sagliani: What cheers you up when you are having a bad day?
Rhiannon Frater: My Chihuahua tap-dancing at the sight of me. He’s my biggest fan.
Devan Sagliani: What kind of music do you like?
Rhiannon Frater: I’m a Goth girl, so give me post punk, industrial, and old-school goth. I also love POE and PJ Harvey.
Devan Sagliani: What’s a typical day like for you as a professional writer?
Rhiannon Frater: I don’t have one. It changes from day to day.
Devan Sagliani: Do you think there is hope for the world or do you think humanity is headed towards an unavoidable ending as a species?
Rhiannon Frater: We’re survivors. Look at our history. We survive as a community and will continue to do so. I know the news likes to harp on all the negativity, but as a whole we’re a tough species.
Devan Sagliani: What’s your favorite zombie movie?
Rhiannon Frater: Night of the Living Dead by George A. Romero.
Devan Sagliani: What’s your favorite vampire movie?
Rhiannon Frater: Dracula with Bela Lugosi. It’s just so beautiful.
Devan Sagliani: Who is sexier? Edward Cullen or David from the Lost Boys?
Rhiannon Frater: Hello! David! Now he’s my kind of vampire!
Devan Sagliani: How do you feel about the series finale of True Blood? Don’t hold back!
Rhiannon Frater: I have yet to see it. We’re about three seasons behind.
Devan Sagliani: Many authors dream of being able to do what you’ve done. What advice would you give them about how to make it as a professional writer?
Rhiannon Frater: Keep writing. Don’t give up. Don’t measure your success against other authors. Just keep going. And write. Write. Write. Write.
Devan Sagliani: What’s one thing that no one knows about you?
Rhiannon Frater: I control the Spice. *wink*
Devan Sagliani: Anything else you’d like to plug?
Rhiannon Frater: Please check out all my books. There is something for everyone! And make sure to pick up The Mesmerized at your local bookstore on September 30th!
Rhiannon continues to live in Austin, Texas with her husband and is now a full-time writer. She is represented by Hannah Brown Gordon of the Foundry Literary + Media. Visit her official site, rhiannonfrater.com, for information about her rapidly expanding number of novels. Follow her on Twitter.