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Interview with Donna Maree Hanson

by Ian McHugh

With the (then) impending release of her new novel Shatterwing, part one of Dragon Wine, I interviewed Donna Hanson about her long-time passion project. Because I’m a slacker, Shatterwing is now out in the world and the sequel, Skywatcher, is on its way on October 9. The blurb for book one and the interview with Donna are below this rather striking cover art.

Dragonwine

Shatterwing (Dragon Wine #1)

Since the moon shattered, the once peaceful and plentiful world has become a desolate wasteland. Factions fight for ownership of the remaining resources as pieces of the broken moon rain down, bringing chaos, destruction and death.

The most precious of these resources is dragon wine – a life-giving drink made from the essence of dragons. But the making of the wine is perilous and so is undertaken by prisoners. Perhaps even more dangerous than the wine production is the Inspector, the sadistic ruler of the prison vineyard who plans to use the precious drink to rule the world.

There are only two people that stand in his way. Brill, a young royal rebel who seeks to bring about revolution, and Salinda, the prison’s best vintner and possessor of a powerful and ancient gift that she is only beginning to understand. To stop the Inspector, Salinda must learn to harness her power so that she and Brill can escape, and stop the dragon wine from falling into the wrong hands.

– – –

I asked Baxter if he squeed like a schoolgirl when he sold his Alex Caine books and of course he didn’t because that’s not something us men do. A squee hardly seems like it’d be an adequate response for selling Dragon Wine, given its history. How did you react when you found out you’d sold it?

I was stunned actually, caught between disbelief and excitement. I mean after all this time and within a couple of weeks, wham bam, somebody wanted it. I can’t even tell you if we drank champagne or not because it’s all happening so fast. I had to do some work, develop at blurb, then the edits came and they were good edits that took time to think about and address. I’ve got other stuff going on too with work and travel arrangements, that I almost feel panicked. I’m just getting to the part where I am realising that people are going to read it and that’s a bit scary as it’s been my baby for so long.

Yeah, it must be quite scary. Of course, it’s something we all have to deal with anyway if we want to show off our writing, but I imagine this one’s harder than normal. You’ve had enough other stories and novels published, is this one harder? How are you coping?

I’m coping quite well, I think. I’m still at bit over excited, checking for reviews etc. I was in the UK when Shatterwing came out and I had Loncon3 and edits and had to choose to stay home and write etc. I think it is slightly harder because the Dragon Wine series has been my baby for so long and it means a lot to me.

So this story was  – what? – nine years from first writing to publication, and has been your passion project throughout. For those of us who are, hypothetically, say, five years and seven months into our seemingly unfinishable and interminable passion project: how did you persist? What kept you going?

That’s an interesting question. I believe the first idea for the story was a short story, but it didn’t work. I was growing grapes too so  I was immersed in the setting out there with the grape vines. I kept getting feedback that it was a chapter one. So I wrote more and more. I think what kept me going was being long listed by Varuna a few times so I thought maybe this is good. I’ve had feedback from others that said it had something so I kept going. I had an amazing rejection from Dionie Fiford when she was at Hachette that read like praise rather than a rejection. So those things helped me not give up. I’ve also sought feedback when it was rejected and tried to address any comments. I also put it away for a while, cut it back, revised etc. So what I started with is not what I have now, if you know what I mean. Some bits I cut felt like I was cutting my heart out. They were to my mind, the best of my writing, but they are gone. (my perception at the time, not reality I suspect)

Mm, that’s another question I’ve been asking people, whether there were any darlings that they had to murder in writing their books. Given Dragon Wine’s long gestation, I couldn’t imagine there wouldn’t have been darlings killed along the way, so I already had a slightly different question lined up for you: what was the hardest darling for you to kill in bringing Dragon Wine to its final form? How long did it take you to realise that this darling had to die and what made you realise?

Yes, quite right. I had darlings. The main one for me was as I tinkered I wrote more, so I wrote some scenes where Brill and Danton follow the wine and in doing so they explore more of the world (or the reader does). It had some good stuff in there, some of my best writing (I thought), but I had feedback that said:  kill the quest element and we don’t need to see how they get to point X, it’s about what happens at point X. I had to cut down the manuscript so I could submit to some slush piles and an agent I had submitted to said I didn’ t have a chance to sell a first book of that many words. So I cut and I’d grown to love those bits. I also cut out the bad guy’s point of view. But! I put him back in so Dragon Wine 2: Skywatcher will have Gerecomo’s point of view. I also cut out a lot of world building and description. I’m hoping that the hints that are left do the job. The cutting back made it tighter and faster paced. I’m happy with that result.

Getting back to that personal element, what makes Dragon Wine a passion project for you? Is there something in your formative experiences of stories or of life that it ties back to?

The story of Dragon Wine is quite dark. It deals with what’s dark about humans and what there is about us that’s worth saving. These last few days remind me of those thoughts that went into the creation of the story. Now we have the shooting down of flight MH17 and the accompanying posturing and war in Gaza and the rest of the world stuff so much so I don’t want to see the news. The world was like that when I started writing way back when. Then it was Iraq and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. I remember seeing a girl on the front page of the paper with a prisoner on a leash. She looked so innocent, so sweet that I was totally blown away with how appearances could be deceiving and then also about the shocking torture and abuse that happened there. Dragon Wine has some confronting elements in it but that comes from real life. So I believe that not giving up is because this story is me trying to deal with that, dealing with the world and the bad things. I don’t have the answers but I’m working through it as I work through the story. It’s probably the most serious thing I have ever written. Mind you some of my short fiction can be dark. It’s certainly a world away from any paranormal romance I write under my pen name.

It must be a big change of mental gears to go between your two writing personas. Do you find that the two are complementary, or do you have to put some space between them? Do you ever catch yourself being the wrong writer for the story you’re working on?

Writing wise it’s not a problem really. Each project has its own character, own voice, own motivations. Going back to the Dragon Wine series after such a big break was hard, but it wasn’t long before I was back into the world and loving it. The two personas are hard in the social media/promotion area because it’s literally twice as much work: two blogs, two Facebook accounts: Two Twitter accounts. I don’t confuse the two at all. The other me writes paranormal romance and the Dragon Wine series is the most unromantic story ever.

A book needs a good elevator pitch. What was your pitch for Dragon Wine? Or, if you didn’t pitch it, how would you sum it up in 25 words?

I didn’t really pitch it as such, although I have done. My agent calls it Post-apocalyptic dragons. For me, it’s more like:

“A world on the edge of extinction. Humans are at their worst. Is there anything or anyone worth saving?”

I’ve been asking other people what aspects of their story were new for them compared to their previous work, but since this IS your previous work: what are the most important storytelling lessons that you took from writing Dragon Wine that you’ve carried into your subsequent work?

Dragon Wine was a breakthrough for me at the time. I remember considering my work to date and thinking about what was missing. I knew I had the characters, the story  and even the writing right but there was something I was missing. I also thought hard about what I liked in fantasy. For example, I loved the back story in the Wheel of Time rather than the front story. I was interested in what happened before, the technology etc, the vast civilisation that had gone into decline. I love Stephen Donaldson’s world building and the subtext of Glenda Larke’s work so I consciously tried to put things in the story that appealed to me. The turning point for me was letting my precious characters get hurt, letting them die if they had to, because it’s the story that’s important. I was being too nice and with Dragon Wine that changed. Also I  didn’t really understand back in 2005 what was good about my story and so the years after that were me learning about that and developing further.

Yeah, it’s that advice from Kurt Vonnegut: “Be a sadist.” I think hurting your characters is the hardest thing to do as a new writer. You mentioned worldbuilding as well in terms of killing darlings, but worldbuilding and, particularly, finding their own distinctive version of the fantastical is another thing that takes most spec fic writers a while to develop. Did the worldbuilding for Dragon Wine change much over time or did your original vision of the world hold together as you redrafted?

The worldbuilding stood up over many redrafts. Thankfully. Maybe less detail and maybe some firming up of the orbit of the moons in the actual text. Don’t ask me to explain the orbits! I have written more in the world for future books so I have delved quite deeply so there’s lots of history and geography to explore as the story moves on.

Did you make use of a real-world mythology, or build your own for Dragon Wine? Or both?

I don’t think I can separate this out. I did build my own mythology for the dragons, but I can’t deny that I have to be influenced by our own mythology. This is another planet so I’m using the word dragon as the equivalent to what they would call the creature. The dragons breathe fire, but there’s more to them than meets the eye. They are alien. They just appeared on the planet. How and why are questions the future story will explore. The essence of magic to them is sort of scientific in a way, a biological symbiosis. They are so grand, so powerful that even their excrement can give energy to the plants grown in it, which in turn helps keep humans alive. I’m having fun exploring them. But I’ve not read a lot of dragon fiction (deliberately) so I don’t know if these dragons are similar to what anyone else does.

There’s a certain point when a writer is kicking around an idea for a story that they start to get excited about it – when they know they have a story – and in my experience it doesn’t always happen right away. What was that moment of excitement for you with Dragon Wine?

Mmmm that’s hard. I made the Varuna long list with 25,000 words down. I had to quickly write more. So in that moment. When someone else valued what I’d done. Then I think when I finished the draft of the story, I knew I had something special, something that was dear to me. However, rejection can cure some of those feelings. Yet, I had some good feedback with the rejections so I guess the excitement stayed with me.

Yeah, I think the frequency and sheer quantity of rejection that you’re going to encounter, even once you’re moderately successful, is something that you just have no idea about when you start writing. Most writers have their own special ways of coping with it and/or tricking themselves. What’s your trick?

Oh that entirely depends on my mood. Sometimes it takes so long that I’m ready for it and I shrug it off. Other times it cuts deep and I’m wounded and upset, but I get over it. My trick though is to keep writing. Just either revise the rejected story or start on something else. I never throw anything away and I never give up entirely. I have been known to stop submitting to certain publications that reject me. But that’s because I’m a coward. Getting accepted can also be quite unnerving but in a much nicer way. People like you have really opened up my mind about submitting and being rejected. I like that you encourage us to keep submitting and count the number of rejections for short story. Go rejectomancy!

Two related questions: Who is a writer whose work you admire because it’s so completely alien and different to what you do? And, what’s a style or genre of story that you’ve not written but want to have a crack at?

There are writers whom I’d admire, but I’m having serious memory issues right now. I know China Mieville for starts! I don’t think I could write like him and nor would I try but I like what he does with words and ideas. I’m thinking the Perdido Street Station kind of thing. The City and the City was awesome too but for different reasons. It was the idea in that one and not the language so I liked how he did that. There are a number of others too but I don’t have room to go into them. But you know the kind I mean. You read them and you want to give up, because you’re never going to be that good.

I’d like to try crime and historical romance. Crime is a bit alien to me but I love reading it. I’m an Agatha Christie diehard. I don’t think I could write that gruesome true crime stuff, but I like science so I do like how crimes are solved using evidence and clues and intellect. Historical romance- I love Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, Elizabeth Gaskell and even some Dickens and I’m a sucker for a story about a man in a kilt so it’s Regency romance and Scottish Historical romances that I want to try. I have already written a young adult Victorian gothic horror/romance/steampunk meld and my agent Alex Adsett is trying to sell that right now.

Heh, you must be loving the Outlander adaptation.

Oh I haven’t seen it. It started when we headed overseas. I’ll get it on DVD in due course and avoid writing until I’ve watched it through. I’ve read the series by Diana Garbaldon (the first four or five books) a number of times.

Thanks Donna! 

– – –

Donna Maree Hanson is a Canberra-based writer of fantasy, science fiction, horror,  and under a pseudonym paranormal romance.  She has been writing creatively since November 2000.

She has had about 20 short stories published in various small press and ezines. In 2006, she won a Varuna Long Lines Fellowship for her novel in progress, Dragon Wine and was also shortlisted for the Varuna Manuscript Development Award that year. Donna has also had two of her short stories receive honourable mentions in Datlow’s years best horror.

In January 2013, her first longer work,  Rayessa & the Space Pirates, was published with Harlequin’ s digital imprint, Escape (link here.) This novella length work is a young-adult, science-fiction adventure/romance (space opera). A sequel to Rayessa & the Space Pirates will be out with Escape in early 2015.

Dragon Wine is out from Momentum (Pan Macmillan Australia’s Digital Imprint) in two parts, Shatterwing and Skywatcher, in September and October 2014. See Donna’s my books page for more details about Dragon Wine.

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