Steph Post’s new novel, Miraculum, is the mystical tent at the edge of the carnival: part mystery, part supernatural thriller, part love story, all expertly woven by Post’s magical storytelling. With her latest novel, Post proves she can write about whatever the hell she wants, in whatever genre her imagination chooses, and it will be brilliant. I sit down with her today to talk about her latest work, fitting into (or out of) genres, research, social networking, and the process of creating a novel.
Kevin Catalano: So, Ms. Post, when you first revealed on Facebook that Miraculum was being published, you suggested that this novel was a long time coming and very dear to you. Can you explain a bit more about the special place in your heart where Miraculum resides?
Steph Post: I’ve become somewhat “known” for writing about Florida, particularly about Florida crime families and stories that are very rooted in where I come from and how I grew up. Miraculum is a departure from this — while still being written in a gritty, realistic style, there are many elements that, um, defy realism — but it’s a much clearer reflection of where my interests truly lie. In Miraculum, I was able to incorporate so many elements of mythology, folklore, and fairytale structures and taboos. These are subjects I’ve written about academically, but you’ll only find hints of them in my other novels. The Lightwood series definitely represents a side of me, but Miraculum represents a part that readers haven’t seen before.
I really admire that, after publishing three crime novels, which firmly situated you in that genre’s community, you went in a very different direction with Miraculum. I certainly don’t criticize authors who stick to a single genre, but I see it as both brave and natural to follow your imagination when writing rather than sticking with what’s expected of you. How do you explain your shift in subject matter with Miraculum?
So, Miraculum was actually written three years ago, after Lightwood, but before I wrote Walk in the Fire, the final book in my Florida crime trilogy. I finished it before Lightwood was even published. At the time, I didn’t think of myself as a crime writer and hadn’t become part of the crime community yet. I’ve always been more surprised that my author career went in the crime fiction direction — part of that, I know, stems from the fact that the crime fiction community is one of the best around. I so fully embraced the people and the community. But my writing has always jumped back and forth between genres. The book I’m working on now is back to historical / fantasy / literary. Someone “in the business” told me a little while ago that if I wanted to be successful, I was going to need to pick a genre and stick to it (and at the time, this would have been crime fiction). I say that’s bullshit. I see the logic in such a move, of course, but at the end of the day, I have to love what I’m writing more than anyone else in the world. More than any reader, any reviewer, any publisher. So I’m going to write what I want and trust my instincts when it comes to genre.
Did you meet any resistance when submitting Miraculum to your agent and / or publisher, given its difference from the Judah Cannon books? I imagine both were excited just to get another manuscript from you, no matter what it was about.
Miraculum had a bit of a rocky journey, and I’m just going to skip over all that for now. I will say that Jason Pinter at Polis has been beyond supportive of the book. It’s really a wonderful thing to have a publisher who unconditionally trusts you and your work.
I’m curious about your research process, how you immersed yourself in carnivalia to make the novel’s details so rich and vivid. What kinds of films or documentaries did you watch? What did you read?
HBO’s infamous show Carnivale was the original catalyst for writing about carnivals, and though I didn’t go back and rewatch the show while I was writing — that whole “anxiety of influence” thing doggedly haunts me — it was essential in providing a backdrop of ideas.
For actual research, I had several go-to nonfiction books that I relied upon, including Joe McKennon’s Pictorial History of the American Carnival, which was essential in writing about carnivals with as much authenticity as possible. Janet M. Davis’ The Circus Age: Culture and Society under the American Big Top was another book I filled with notes and highlighted until it looked like a spilled bag of Skittles.
I imagine that, when researching a novel, you can’t include everything that you discover, no matter how tantalizing. Was there anything that you couldn’t use in Miraculum that you wish you could have?
With carnival lore there’s so much to choose from! Oftentimes, I wanted to use things but was worried they’d be perceived as too outlandish or unbelievable. While a lot of Miraculum drifts off the spectrum of realism, it’s grounded in a very real setting and time period, and I wanted to make it as believable as possible.
I did a lot of research on the history of Voodoo practices in America, and I would have liked to go into that further. Also, the history of Storyville, the red light district of New Orleans. I really wanted to write a scene in that setting, but just couldn’t make it fit. I love the research aspect of writing, and I think that nothing is ever wasted. It either flavors the work in some distant way or gets put on the back burner for later use. There are several ideas that I had to leave out of Miraculum, but which are worming their way already into my current work-in-progress.
As we all know, promoting work on social media is a tricky tightrope to walk. You do it very well, though: You’re humble about it, you don’t overdo it, and yet you effectively expose your work. Do you have a formula or strategy for self-promotion that you follow that the rest of us can use?
Support other authors, always and continuously. This was something veteran authors passed on to me even before my first novel, A Tree Born Crooked, came out. Self-promoting is hard. I have that awful Southern-woman-guilt-thing still, where I feel like I shouldn’t be bragging, shouldn’t accept compliments, shouldn’t tout my own work. But supporting other authors not only helps them, it helps me feel better about pushing my books, as well. I think it’s also important to remember to support other authors all the time, not just when you have a book coming out. And really, we’re a community — when one of us is successful, it raises the water level in the whole pool. So we should be excited for each other and shouting about it.
On a slightly different note, I also try to promote myself in different ways, just so that people won’t get bored or irritated or, frankly, pissed off and so tune me out. We all scroll right by any tweet that says “99 cents, buy my book, etc!” But I love looking at books showcased creatively on Instagram. I love looking at pictures of dogs, of chickens, of brilliant artwork. So I’ve tried to incorporate some of things I love into my promotions. It’s not just doing things differently, it’s doing them as a reflection of who I am. Hopefully, readers will get more that way.
Anyone who follows you knows that you’re always working, always producing pages, which is also evident in your publication history (four novels in four years!). Could you walk us through a typical writing day or week?
A typical writing day goes something like this: write, let the chickens out, write, feed the dogs, write, yell at the dogs to stop digging holes in the yard, write, chicken snack time, write, yell at the chickens to quit flying over the fence, write, dogs, chickens, dogs, chickens … up and down the stairs a million times a day … endlessly. …
That’s what it feels like, but I don’t think that’s what you’re asking. So, I get up super early every day because, well, dogs and chickens. On a typical writing day, I’m in my studio by 9 a.m. and write until at least noon. If I’m working on a first draft, this is where I’ll usually stop for the day. I can only work for about three hours a day on a first draft. The afternoon is then for research, book reviews, promotion, etc. Everything but writing. During the second and third drafts, the writing time is extended — I can usually go five to six hours on the book. I think I’m actually a pretty slow writer, but I’m driven. I’ve always been that little terrier that will work at a thing endlessly until I can finally make it happen.