An Oath of Writers: Interview with Wendy N. Wagner

Welcome back! Today, I’m thrilled to feature author and editor Wendy N. Wagner. Wendy is an accomplished writer of both short fiction and novels. When she’s not penning her own stories, she also works as the managing/associate editor of Nightmare and Lightspeed. Earlier this year, Wendy was featured in my Women in Horror Month series, but I’ve never featured her in a solo interview before today, so I thought it was about time to remedy that!

Recently, Wendy and I discussed her forthcoming book, An Oath of Dogs, as well as the types of stories she seeks as an editor.

A couple icebreakers to start: when did you first decide to become a writer, and who are some of your favorite authors?

Wendy WagnerI was about seven, and I was reading the book Alanna, by Tamora Pierce. It was the first book I had ever read that shifted PoV characters, and it blew my mind. I suddenly realized that someone had decided to tell the story that way, and that books didn’t just sort of … happen. Before that point, I hadn’t really connected learning how to write at school with writing a book. I realized that what I was doing, making up little stories about unicorns and writing them down, wasn’t that much different from creating a book. It was incredibly empowering. At that moment, I knew I wanted to be a writer, and more importantly, that I could.

I love Pamela Dean. I re-read her novel Tam-Lin almost every year, because it somehow conveys everything I love about autumn and learning, and it’s just a beautiful book. I also really love Shirley Jackson. She’s my literary hero. Other people I really enjoy are David James Duncan, Sheri S. Tepper, Frank Herbert, and Octavia Butler. I’m also a huge fan of Stephen King.

You are an accomplished writer of both short stories and novels. Do you find that your process differs between the two? Is there one medium you find easier, and is there one you prefer overall as a storyteller?

There’s one big difference between my process on novels and short stories: With a short story, I usually just jump right in and try to write something, but with a novel, I drag my feet outlining and making sure I really want to write the story. Sometimes I think I have commitment issues!

I feel like once I get started on a novel that writing one is less stressful than writing a short story. All the hard work of building a world and sorting out the characters gets done at the beginning, so then I can just put my butt in my chair and produce words every day. Creating a short story means re-inventing the wheel every time. It’s exhausting. Also, I like having the space to play around inside a novel. It’s really fun to plant little seeds of events and reveals and have them blossom at the end of a novel. So yes, I think I prefer writing novels!

Congratulations on your new novel, An Oath of Dogs, that is due out this summer. What can you reveal about this book and the inspiration behind it?

An Oath of DogsThanks, Gwendolyn! I’m really, really excited about this book.

The novel is the story of a woman, Kate Standish, who, along with her therapy dog, moves to the first planet humans have colonized outside of our own solar system. Standish suffers from an anxiety disorder worsened by the view of the sky, and the new planet, Huginn, rains nearly year-round. The world seems like a great fit, but once she gets there, she learns her new company is involved with a massive corporate cover-up that includes the murder of her boss. The cover-up is also connected to the strange pack of wild dogs that is tormenting the town. To save herself—and her dog—she’s got to solve the mystery before the company gets her thrown off-planet … or worse.

One of the things I wanted to do with Oath was explore the complex relationship between humans and dogs. Today, most dogs are pets or working dogs, but in the past, wild dogs and humans could be enemies. Just look at our language, and you’ll see how we have mixed feelings about dogs—if you call someone a dog, it’s never a compliment. I find that sort of thing fascinating.

In addition to your writing, you’re also an editor at both Lightspeed and Nightmare. How do you balance the commitments of your editing with your workload as a writer? Also, what tips have you picked up from your editing work that have helped you develop your skills as a writer?

Luckily for me, editing and writing are pretty much my full-time gig, so I can really control my schedule. I don’t know if I could have done all of this when I had a day job! I like to spend my mornings working on my own projects—writing and promotional stuff—and then use my afternoons to handle editorial and administrative tasks.

When I started editing, I realized that as an editor, I was trying to approach the work with complete respect and trying to see what the writer most wanted from the work. I see my job as an editor as to bring that out in the work. I try to encourage writers to take their work and make it even more like the dream they had about it. Sometimes when I’m editing my own work, it’s easy to get frustrated with myself and be hard on my work, and when I catch myself doing that, I try to tap into my editor brain.

It’s funny, because when I first really got into writing, all the advice talked about writing drafts quickly to avoid “editor brain.” I know the people writing that advice really meant to avoid thinking too critically of your work so you didn’t discourage yourself. But the more I learn about editors and editing, the more I see that the job of an editor is to be an advocate for story, not a soul-crushing gatekeeper.

Since most readers of this blog are also writers—and since both Nightmare and Lightspeed are two of the most beloved markets in speculative fiction—I have to ask the question most of them have for you: what is it you look for in a story as an editor? Is it a certain feeling or a specific theme that hooks you? Or is it more the voice or the characters that draw you in?

It’s all about the characters.

A story, at its heart, is about a character having experiences. Those experiences are meaningless unless they’re filtered through the responses of a character. The character becomes my eyes, my ears, my heart in that world; I need complete, full access to sensation and emotion to enter the universe of the story. If I can’t access that, then the story is very rarely going to move me, engage me, or even interest me.

Out of your own published work, do you have a favorite piece?

Oh, it’s definitely An Oath of Dogs. I love the characters and the world, and I find all the jokes funny, and there are some spooky, suspenseful scenes that still get me on-edge. And there’s one scene that I cry every time I read it, even though I’ve now read it six or seven times.

What projects are you currently working on?

I’m finishing up a gothic novella about a haunted seaside mansion, and I’m outlining a dark fantasy novel that’s sort of an American Gods meets It kind of thing.

Big thanks to Wendy Wagner for being part of this week’s author interview series. Find her online at her author site!

Happy reading!