Fun fact: Kelli says, “I was an editor and reviewer for over a decade, until they found out I was writing on the side—then they all fired me and told me to work on my own fiction. They were right.”
SR: Practice pitching: tell us what your new book is about in 50 words or less.
KO: In TEETH, I completely reinvented vampires—making them real and explaining all previous beliefs or behavior with science, fact and history. As part of modern society, they endure all the prejudices and problems any minority faces. Add a serial killer, who may or may not be a vampire, and stir well.
SR: Was there a specific issue or incident that really motivated you to write this particular story? What was the prompt?
KO: Originally it was a conversation that led to a dare between me and another writer—one of us writing vampires, the other werewolves. We shelved the ideas and forgot about the dare. But vampires had crawled into my muse’s peripheral vision and I found myself debating the fang gang on a number of occasions. For over a hundred years they had remained basically the same, so what could I possibly do to make my vampires different?
And again, I moved it aside and went on to other novels. During that time, I dabbled in podcasting, where I vented weekly about the injustices and insanity that I saw in our society and smeared all over social media. And two years after that initial dare, the muse said, “Oh hey, I have an idea…”
SR: Is your protagonist more likely to go insane or end up in prison?
KO: TEETH has an ensemble cast of characters. There are several teens dealing with the prospect of becoming a vampire—one is afraid of losing friends, one has a parent who hates vampires, and one is well-adjusted and fine, mostly. Then we have the cat and mouse of our serial killer and the detective, weaving in and out of the various storylines. For the purpose of this question, I’ll answer for the detective.
Detective Connor Murphy would absolutely end up in prison first. He’s very open-minded and perfectly fine with the idea of vampires, even standing up for their rights. But if something were to rattle his psyche, I’m fairly certain he’d react with action rather than snapping mentally.
SR: What’s one thing that you and your protagonist have in common?
KO: Much like me, he would never judge an entire group of people, but rather the individual. A minority committing a crime doesn’t make a guilty race or gender, but rather an issue, a criminal, on a personal level. I was raised that way, Connor was written that way.
SR: If you were the right gender could you have a romantic relationship with your protagonist? Why or why not? Would it be a good relationship?
KO: Connor is a stand-up guy, a loving husband, a good cop, and an all around great human. We could totally date based on that. Would I do well as a cop’s wife? (Note: I literally drew a breath through my teeth debating that question.) I’m going to have to be honest and say it would depend on what department he was in and where we lived. Small town detective where things usually don’t happen? We’d be fine. Larger city with more crime? I think I’d worry too much.
SR: What’s your protagonist’s greatest fear? Why?
KO: Something happening to his family. As a detective, he’s used to crime and criminals, and he is generally the one to deal with them and get them off the street. But he also knows how very real that danger can be before caught. The idea of it touching his family, affecting them in any way, would likely give him sleepless nights and a need to do his job even better. Off the record if need be.
SR: Is there something you hope the reader carries away with them after they’re done reading? An insight or philosophy that you wanted to come through in your work?
KO: Actually, yes. While I don’t generally have any type of lesson or moral, TEETH absolutely has a social statement written into it. In my opinion, the reasons for the prejudices and problems that minorities face in this country every single day can be reduced to fear or ignorance, or both. So much hate is based on not knowing the facts, so much is because the minority in question is outside the wheelhouse or knowledge or personal experience of the haters. If we could just open up a little. If both sides simply took two steps toward the center, they may be close enough to listen. Not necessarily agree, but at least they could listen. No one said you had to agree with everyone, but being able to listen to an opposing view and accept it as its owner’s, is part of being an adult, and it’s vital to a sustainable community.
Social media was supposed to unite us. Ignoring the advertisements and celebrities, it was meant to make the world a smaller place for people, to bring us closer together, to make distance unimportant. But sometimes, it seems all it’s done is curl hatred into a cone, which can be used as a megaphone of hate or fear or lies to the masses. We should get along better. Or at least try.
SR: If hell was watching one movie over and over and over again, or listening to one song over and over again, what would the movie or song be for you? For your protagonist?
KO: Probably an unpopular opinion, but my hell would be the movie A Christmas Story. My ex father-in-law was a big fan, and actually watched the weekend marathon once. I don’t mean it was on the television while he went about doing other things, I mean he actually watched it. Over and over and over. Fourteen times one year was enough to ruin it for me forever.
My protagonist would probably be drenched in torture if forced to watch Mall Cop or some other comedy, which makes fun of the uniform he proudly wears.
SR: Roadtrip. What’s on your protagonist’s playlist? Yours? (changed slightly from karaoke because I couldn’t pinpoint it)
KO: Connor was in high school in the 90s and while he may be a police officer now, he once thought he’d be something else. Anything else. He’s got an entire backstory that never hits the pages, but I can tell you he still listens to industrial and grunge, with a strange blend of Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails and everything in between.
I on the other hand, am very eclectic, though most believe I’m a metal head. Yes, I loved rock before it was segregated into the double fistful of subgenres, but it’s more than that and can includes anything from Mötley Crüe to Linkin Park, Chris Cornell to Breaking Benjamin. And just when you think you’ve figured out my tastes I’ll pull out The Avett Brothers, Pink, or maybe Fleetwood Mac. I do have links to playlists on the sidebar of my website—8tracks.com let’s you listen to the playlist I listened to while writing a particular piece of fiction (playlists are titled by book).
SR: What’s the first book you remember reading that had a huge impact on you? How did that story affect you? How do you think it shaped your desire to be a writer?
KO: Frankenstein. Always and forever. I was in kindergarten and brought home the little kid’s watered-down version. It immediately struck me as sad because the monster wasn’t the monster. My teacher explained that’s how Mary Shelley wrote it and a lightbulb went off in my head. I’d heard you could be a doctor or lawyer or fireman, but writer? That was a thing you could actually choose to be? Done.
How I ended up the darkened path that separates horror from thriller likely started there as well. Beyond that, my mother enjoyed horror movies, and my father’s bookshelf was rife with fodder for a darker imagination—introducing me to both Koontz and Lovecraft, which sent me searching for everything in between. My parents never told me to read something lighter or nicer. They never frowned on me asking the scarier questions or my “what if” scenarios. And I’ve been chasing the idea of the monster not being the monster since that day in kindergarten.
SR: What detail in your writing do you obsess over the most? Character names? Locations? Description? Dialogue? Research?
KO: My first thought was research, because I would never want someone in the character’s profession to tell me I did something wrong. But that’s not an obsession, that’s just required. Locations, on the other hand, oh my.
I’m freakishly methodical about the locations I use. It’s born of the idea that everything must be logical, and ring true, and never pull the reader from the world I’ve created. So I’m always extremely careful with the physical layout of the story—the locations of action. I’ve drawn maps for imaginary towns. I’ve printed Google maps for actual towns. I’ve clocked how long it takes to get from A to B. And I’ve made several of those locations important to the story itself, such as in FLOATERS, with the location of both the graveyard and the burial grounds on Wisconsin Point. In TEETH, I simply had a drawn map for my town, so I knew where every single thing I described was, but also everything I didn’t mention but may have needed—just in case.
SR: What do you think the hardest emotion to elicit from a reader is? Why?
KO: Happiness. Happiness is so personal and so internal, it’s almost impossible to elicit that full, deep, warmth in fiction. You can scare someone by triggering their fears. You can make someone uncomfortable and nervous with atmosphere or anticipation. You can make someone laugh with a good joke or big personality. But to make someone actually feel happiness? Sure, if you propose marriage to them in writing maybe. But as a story? As an outsider reading a story? Even a happy ending isn’t happiness, it’s just relief—being content or glad for the characters.
SR: Did you set yourself a specific writing challenge with this book? What was it, and what was the reason?
KO: As I mentioned above, the driving questions for me was, “how do I make my vampires different?” Once I had that figured out, the story needed to portray that within the confines of its own challenge, which was to present the current social climate from a neutral ground—showing the extremes of both sides of various topics. I believe I succeeded on all counts, and I’m thrilled and humbled that my novel is receiving wonderful reviews due to the characters, world building, and yes, the vampires who are very different than everything that’s come before them.
SR: Are you drawn to things that are really popular or wary of them? Do you find it helps you to market your work if you’re familiar with what’s currently selling or do you ignore all of that and focus on what you’re interested in?
KO: It’s not that I ignore what is popular, because I do pay attention to what’s going on out there. Back when I was starting out and everything was print, no ebook, and publishing houses, no self or vanity publishing, there was an 18-month rule. In general, if something became popular (say vampires), you were warned off of trying to get in on the wave, because by the time it was written, submitted, accepted, edited and published, it would be 18-24 months later and the popular craze had likely moved on to something else by then.
The advent of ebooks and self-publishing makes it much easier to jump on the current fads and bandwagons of genre, trope, or metaphor, but years of ignoring those have been burned into my soul. So I tend to write the stories my muse needs to tell. Those stories are not always delivered by the monster of the week, or even carried by the metaphor of the month. And when they do seem to fit what’s going on around them, it’s purely accidental. My stories tend to be about the people rather than the issues they face—the situations only test them, teach them, or otherwise help them grow.
SR: Is there something you’ve experienced that’s affected your view of life? Tell us about it and how it changed you.
KO: Absolutely. The death of my father.
I was unable to do anything creative for quite a while after we lost him, finally forcing myself out of my cave by acknowledging he wouldn’t want me to wallow. My view on a lot of every day things has changed in the shadow of his memory, and my ability to deal with certain dark aspects of life have been tainted by the touch of real death.
Do I still write thrillers and horror? Yes. There’s just a slight turn on my dial, which I don’t even know if my readers can see or if it’s only noticeable to me.
SR: If you have to live in a potential natural disaster zone, would you pick blizzards, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes or volcanic eruptions? Why? If you had to describe your protagonist as a weather system, what would they be?
KO: HA! I grew up in northern Wisconsin. On that big old temperamental body of water we call Lake Superior. I’ve suffered the extremes of blizzards and forty below (before windchill), and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But that doesn’t mean I would choose any of those others over it. I at least know how to deal with the blizzards, so I’ll stick to those.
My protagonist? As a detective, he’s methodical but flexible. If he were a weather system it would be the lava flow after the volcanic eruption, the flooding after the hurricane. Something calm and predictable, after something more violent and unforgiving.
SR: It’s the zombie apocalypse. You have to pick a weapon from what’s currently within 10 feet of your present location. What will you defend yourself with?
KO: I’m all good! I actually have swords and a blow-dart gun within reach. My office, affectionately referred to as The Morgue, is decorated with bookshelves, horror movie memorabilia, Universal monster trucks and horror Hot Wheels, Living Dead Dolls, scary and/or creepy knickknacks, and yes, a sword rack with a katana, two wooden practice swords, and a blow-dart gun on it. I’m going with the sword.
SR: How long will you survive in the zombie apocalypse? How long will your protagonist survive? Why?
KO: While there are weapons near me, I will be handing those off to someone else. We’ve had the zombie apocalypse conversation in our house. My job is to think outside the box, plan, prep, deal with food and wounds, and stay inside—out of danger. I’m a klutz, and the idea of me getting hurt because I tripped on grass is just too funny to allow it to become truth. Though even inside I’ll be armed, albeit with a more manageable weapon for indoors. Hint: it’s a lovely little clawed weedkiller that’ll take care of those undead brains no problem!
My protagonist? As a detective he’ll be armed and well prepared for such an event. But as a good guy with a big heart, if anything takes him down it will be trying to help someone who is beyond his aid. Until that point, he’ll do great.
SR: Everyone needs an outlet to help them recharge. What hobbies do you have outside of writing?
KO: I’m going to ignore the obvious answers of “reading” and “conventions” because all writers should do and list those. They are powerfully magical for the muse. Instead, I’ll move right on into the fun and bizarre.
For downtime, to recharge, I’m a super nerd. I play both “Magic the Gathering” and “Dungeons and Dragons” (long enough that in my mind it’s D&D, not AD&D—the other nerds will get that), as well as any number of board and card games. Interaction is good fodder for the characters in my head.
When I’m working on something and need to reboot, I’ll work out the logistics of a scene or issue I’m having while loudly playing Guitar Hero. Note, loudly. I complain if they turn the movies up too high, but you can bet my Guitar Hero is growling out on at least 75 on the televisions 100 max volume setting—and on expert no less, because there have been many scenes to work out over the years and I’ve actually gotten good at it.
SR: You strike it rich. What charity are you going to create or support?
KO: I already give to a couple specific charities and if anyone wants in feel free—scaresthatcare.org and stjude.org. I would absolutely up those amounts, but to create something new?
A health insurance fund for writers.
I’m not sure whether or not it would just take care of medical bills or would perhaps pay a portion of their insurance (because the cost of insurance in this country is ridiculous). I would have to bring in, create, and discuss with my panel of experts (who could become the board of directors). The sheer number of times I’ve seen a writer struggling with medical bills or medical surprises is boggling. If given a bottomless wallet, I’d like to do something to alleviate that situation.
SR: Now for fun, if you were stuck on a deserted island and found that magic lamp with a genie and the genie had the power to bring any character in any of your books to life to be your companion, who would you pick and why?
KO: Mark from WHITE PICKET PRISONS. He’s a truly good guy with a solid heart and loving soul, and we’d get along great. Just as important, he’s capable. I’m on a desert island? I don’t just want a companion, I want some I can talk to, play with, but who can also build shelter, hunt, and help us look way better than any of those couples on Naked and Afraid. I’d like to succeed, survive until that freighter goes by and sees our S.O.S. signal, so Mark is definitely my choice.
SR: And if the genie would only bring characters from works by another author to life who would you pick to spend eternity on that deserted island with?
KO: Stu from Stephen King’s THE STAND, and for almost the exact same reasons. The only additional thought would be that I didn’t write him, so I don’t know him. It would give us lots of things to talk about as we get to know a stranger’s memories.
SR: Do you have any special events coming up? Where can people catch up with you in person or on a podcast?
KO: I actually just shut down my podcast, The Buttercup of Doom, but the episodes are still available to my patreons. In general, I can be found on kelliowen.com — and from there you can find my Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Patreon. With the death of the podcast, I’m going back to blogging more often on the website, and have recently created a Facebook group for my readers and fans to get insight, goodies, and enjoy random conversation. I’m out there, all over social media, and easy to find. Come find me!
Born and raised in Wisconsin, Kelli Owen now lives in Destination, Pennsylvania. The author of over a dozen books, she’s attended countless writing conventions, participated on dozens of panels, and has spoken at the CIA Headquarters in Langley, VA regarding both her writing and the field in general. Her works include the novels TEETH, FLOATERS, and SIX DAYS, novellas WAITING OUT WINTER, WILTED LILIES, and FORGOTTEN, more of both, as well as her collection BLACK BUBBLES. Visit her website at kelliowen.com for more information.