Death’s Excellent Vacaction by Charlaine Harris and Toni L.P. Kelner
By Jamie Rush
Toni Kelner and I had a great chat about the exciting new anthology of (lucky!) thirteen deliciously dark tales, all by different authors. InDeath’s Excellent Vacation, editors Charlaine Harris and Toni L. P. Kelner bring together a stellar collection of tour guides who offer vacations that are frightening, funny, and touching for the fanged, the furry, the demonic, and the grotesque. Learn why it really can be an endless summer-for immortals.
So of course we want to know about the new book, Death’s Excellent Vacation. What’s it about and why do you love it?
Death’s Excellent Vacation is our take on the beach book. We asked our contributors to write about supernatural creatures on vacation–that was our whole pitch–and Charlaine and I were just amazed at how many different takes on that simple theme people came up with. I love how each story is both wonderful and wildly different from the others.
I see that this is the third anthology you’ve put together. I’d love to know how you and Charlaine came up with the idea to collaborate on this kind of project in the first place.
Frankly, I was drafted. Martin Greenberg at Tekno Books was the one to come up with the idea of Charlaine editing a vampire anthology. I wasn’t there, but I’ve imagined the conversation going something like this:
Marty: Charlaine, we want you to do a vampire anthology.
Charlaine: But I’ve never done any editing before.
Marty: You’ll be fine.
Charlaine: Can I bring in a co-editor?
Marty: That’ll be fine.
Charlaine: How about Toni L.P. Kelner?
Marty: She’ll be fine.
Then she e-mailed me and asked if I was interested. I did not say, “That’ll be fine.” There was a lot more hooting and hollering involved.
You’ve had a birthday theme and a holiday theme. Now it’s tour guides. How do you come up with the themes? Can you tell us a little about how you two work together through the process?
With the first project, we started out with “vampire anthology.” But we wanted more of a theme. We thought about Southern vampires, given both Charlaine’s and my accents, but decided on birthdays instead. I believe that the birthday idea was Charlaine’s, by the way.
When everybody involved said we should do another, we decided that since “supernatural critter” and “holiday/occasion” worked out so well, we went with werewolves at Christmas for Wolfsbane and Mistletoe. For Death’s Excellent Vacation, we opened it up to any supernatural critter, and we’re sticking with that for the next anthology.
Charlaine and I brainstorm the themes, and take suggestions from the folks at Tekno Books and our agents. Then we present a list to Ginjer Buchanan, our editor at Ace. She’s open to us trying just about anything, which is wonderful. Our next theme is home improvement because every time we mentioned it, people laughed. That seemed like a good sign.
What are the challenges of editing a multi-story anthology? And what are the fun parts?
Speaking for myself, I was way nervous about editing stories from contributors who are much bigger sellers than I am. Fortunately, nobody ever said, “What do you know? I’ve sold more books than you’ve ever seen!” We pick professionals, and I think it shows–they’re open to suggestions.
Coordination can be tricky. Everybody we work with is either writing novels on deadline or working day jobs or both. But again, our contributors are pros. And most of them are much better with deadlines than I am.
The fun part is… Most of it is fun, actually. Picking the contributors is like writing a letter to Santa, and when the stories start coming in? It’s like Christmas every day. And at each stage of the process–manuscript turned in, cover designs, galleys, reviews–I’ve got a built-in crew of people to send the word to and we celebrate those milestones together. Plus I’ve had so much fun getting to know authors I’ve never met before, at least by e-mail.
Charlaine and I are also proud to be prospective godmothers for three novels. Two of our contributors have written novels based on their stories, and they are in the hands of their agents. And another contributor is thinking mighty hard about writing a novel based on his. We couldn’t be happier.
Do you enjoy the editorial role? How much editing and guiding do you do? Are you a tough editor or a softie?
Honestly, I was surprised to find how much I enjoy editing, and I really get into coordinating the stories and dealing with the authors and so forth. I never liked group projects in school, but this is different somehow.
Tough or softie? Well, I’m aiming for polite but firm. I’ve always read/edited my husband’s writing, and he does mine, too. Then Charlaine and I started trading manuscripts, and soon added our pal Dana Cameron to the loop. So my editing is much like the workshopping we do. Light on corrections, heavy on suggestions.
The amount of editing I do depends completely on whether or not I think I can improve the story. And by “improve” I mean make the story closer to what the contributor intends, not closer to anything I’d write. One of the stories we got for Death’s Excellent Vacation had a really strong implicit theme, and I made suggestions that would make the theme explicit. The contributor liked the ideas, and went to town with them.
Which isn’t to say that we haven’t disagreed with contributors on their stories. Charlaine and I had a lot of suggestions for one contributor to Many Bloody Returns, and the author replied very politely and thoughtfully explaining why he’d made the decisions he had. Charlaine and I talked it over, and let him keep his story the way he wanted to. And he was absolutely right–the story was much stronger his way.
How do you choose which authors contribute?
It’s a juggling act. First off, we have to have several big names in each book–that’s what sells anthologies. But there are plenty of lesser-known writer we adore, and we invite up-and-comers, too. We use a lot of urban fantasy and paranormal romance writers, of course, but also mystery and thriller writers because we know so many. Ginjer has often said how impressed she is by the writers who’d never done anything supernatural in their careers–they really step up to the plate.
And of course, we pick people whose work we like and that we can work with.
You also write single title mysteries. You obviously have a fangy/furry side to you as well as a more traditional mystery side. Is it difficult to transition?
Not really. I do a lot of short stories in general, and I love trying on new hats for them. It’s just that in these anthologies, my hats have fangs and fur. As it turns out, most of my stories end up being mysteries anyway. “How Stella Got Her Grave Back” in Many Bloody Returns was intended that way, with a pair of vampire sleuths. With “Keeping Watch Over His Flock” in Wolfsbane and Mistletoe, I’d thought I’d finally written a non-mystery. Then it was nominated for a Macavity award. I guess that shows how much I know.
You write both short and full length stories. Is it hard to go back and forth between them? What’s the best part about writing either format?
I really like alternating. After spending months on a novel, it’s almost relaxing to write a short story and get it done in just weeks. The only problem is that I seem to need nearly as much down time after a short story as after a novel, which hardly seems fair.
The best part about writing a novel is the complete immersion in the world, and constant discovery of themes/ideas/characters that I hadn’t planned on. For short stories, it’s the intensity and the challenge of creating a world and character in as few words as possible.
What’s your best reader comment? The funniest?
I love it when readers say, “I bought the anthology for the Charlaine Harris/Jim Butcher/Kelly Armstrong/Patricia Briggs story, but I really fell in love with the story by Dana Cameron/Bill Crider/Sarah Smith/Alan Gordon and I’m going to track down their books.” Or when they like an author’s one-shot story so much they assume there must be a whole series of history supporting it–that shows how much world-building is possible in just a short space.
The comment that never ceases to amuse me, and maybe exasperate me, is, “I thought this was a Charlaine Harris book and there are stories by other people in here.” We’re not hiding the fact that it’s an anthology–we have lots of other names on the cover, after all.
Have you ever done a multi-author signing for the anthologies? I’ll bet that would be interesting!
We have, and they’ve been tremendous fun.
With Many Bloody Returns, the publicist at Ace set up five different signings around the country, with contributors going to the one closest. Christopher Golden and I did one in our area, and Charlaine was in Texas with a couple of contributors, and I forget where others went. The signings were advertised as birthday parties, and we had a birthday cake for the book at each signing.
For Wolfsbane and Mistletoe, the debut date was very close to Bouchercon in Baltimore, which a lot of us were planning to attend anyway. So we had a signing with five or six of us at a local bookstore, and then there were seven of us on a panel about the anthology at Bouchercon.
What’s next for you, Toni?
I’m finishing up Blast from the Past, the third in my “Where are they now?” series about a freelance entertainment reporter. Then will come my excellent vacation, just as Death’s Excellent Vacation is released. And when I get back, Charlaine and I will be working on the stories for the next anthology, tentatively titled Home Improvement: Undead Edition.
What’s the best way for reader’s to get in touch with you? Do you Tweet/blog/etc.?
My website links to my blog and e-mail, and I spend way too much time on Facebook.
Thank you, Toni, for filling me in on your latest book. Can’t wait to read it!
For more on Toni’s books, anthologies, and short stories, visit her website at:http://www.tonilpkelner.com
More about Toni: Toni L.P. Kelner multitasks. In mysteries, she writes the “Where are they now?” series. Who Killed the Pinup Queen?, the second, came out in January. In urban fantasy, she and Charlaine Harris co-edit, including Death’s Excellent Vacation. In short stories, she had her first noir story in Carolyn Haine’s anthology Delta Blues, and a paranormal courtroom drama in Charlaine Harris’s Crimes by Moonlight, and a geezer noir in Bill Crider’s Damn Near Dead 2. Kelner lives north of Boston with author/husband Stephen Kelner, two daughters, and two guinea pigs.
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