A Conversation with Delilah S. Dawson About Her New Novel, 'Wake of Vultures'
The way I judge a book is, am I putting things aside to squeeze in a few more pages? Skipping lunch? Missing my stop on the train? Those are the books I live for. And Wake of Vultures by Delilah S. Dawson is one of those books. Written under the pen name Lila Bowen, it's smart and fun and exciting and a very promising start to what I hope will be a long series.
Nettie Lonesome is biracial, bisexual, gender fluid, living like a slave in the Old West—in short, things for her are not so great. And then she kills a vampire. That opens her eyes to a secret world of monsters, and it just so happens she's got some special qualities that make her very well suited to hunting down and killing said monsters. So she hooks up with a group of cowboy/monster hunters to track down one of the biggest bads in the land: Pia Mupitsi, the Cannibal Owl.
It's as awesome as it sounds. And along the way, the book has a lot to say about racial and gender politics, without ever getting preachy.
Delilah wears many hats—writing in multiple genres, doling out rock-solid advice on social media, self-publishing geeky erotic fiction, teaching for LitReactor. Given the length of her CV, I figured it was time for a more in-depth chat.
Right off the bat, I'm curious to know why you published this under a pen name.
Well, all my other books are with various imprints of Simon & Schuster. Wake of Vultures is a new series in a new genre with a new publisher, Orbit, which is part of Hachette. I write in so many different genres that I always assumed I would have multiple pen names, so it wasn't unexpected. I told them I was willing to do whatever would help the book sell, including writing as Dick Manly and having author pics taken with a fake beard.
I am going to be really upset now if you don't use Dick Manly for something.
It was the dudeliest name I could think of.
This morning I saw you mention on Twitter that there are fans of yours who don't realize you've got a book coming out under a different name. Are you concerned about your ability to reach them? Or do you think it'll even out as time goes on?
There's a fine line between spreading the word and annoying one's fans. I'd rather err on Not Annoying and hope they'll figure it out. ☺ I'm grateful to have a nice social media reach, but we all know that folks check in and check out all day, and it's easy for posts to go unseen. It'll be harder to miss as we get closer to release week.
I think the debut's exposure to new fans will also be a boon.
Can I ask where the name "Lila Bowen" came from?
Sure! Lila is the back end of Delilah, which means I'll answer to it if someone calls me. Bowen is one of my family's old names in our home town of Roswell, GA. I always liked the sound of it.
Nettie Lonesome, the main character in Wake of Vultures, is biracial, bisexual, gender fluid... what was the nexus point of writing a character like her?
Er, it was one big table flip, basically. I've loved Lonesome Dove ever since I saw the miniseries as a kid, but... there are only two women and one black person in it, and they are far from positions of power, safety, or happiness. I wanted to write a character who had every single disadvantage possible but still managed to triumph. Nettie was a strong character from the beginning; her voice came on easily, and her decisions and motivation were crystal clear.
How did you approach writing a character like that, whose life experience is different from yours? Personally, I was hesitant to write women for a very long time, because I wasn't confident enough to write in a different gender.
It's definitely not something that could've been my first book. My first heroine was very much like me, and as I gained confidence and writer chops, I began to explore lives other than my own, including different races and sexuality. It was scary, and I expect to be criticized in some circles. I tried to take my own feelings from being an outsider as a kid and amplify them while incorporating historical research. In many ways, I made it easier by having Nettie kept away from society. If you're not living under societal laws, you don't have this inner monologue of what's right or wrong or good or bad. If Nettie's never heard of gender fluidity or homosexuality, she doesn't have someone else's thoughts or negativity attached to that. She is what she is, and she doesn't have to be afraid of it. She lives, in many ways, outside the law.
I'm not incredibly familiar with YA, but I can say that in crime fiction there aren't a great number of characters like this. Is there a good representation of different life experiences—or is that something you're hoping to contribute to?
I probably shouldn't say this, but the last alt-Western I read was The Gunslinger. I've heard westerns and paranormals are both a hard sell right now, but I had to write it anyway. Although Nettie is a teen, it's not technically a YA and is being sold as straight-up fantasy. But! Since announcing the sale, I've heard of several alt-Wests that I can't wait to read. Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman, One Night in Sixes by Tex Thompson, Walk the Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson, Silver on the Road by Laura Anne Gilman.
If we're talking about her sexuality... all I know is that publishing is still very straight, very white. But it's changing. My dealbreaker with Servants of the Storm was that I wouldn't whitewash Dovey, and no one tried. My dealbreaker with Wake of Vultures was that I wouldn't whitewash *or* straightwash Nettie, and no one tried. I like to hope that if the story is powerful enough, the book will find a home. Readers deserve to see themselves reflected in their books. "Buck the binary" has become the book's slogan, for me.
That's a good example of not writing to trends. I know a lot of people get concerned that they shouldn't write a thing—like a Western—because it's a tough sell. But a good book is a good book, and with the long path to publication, it doesn't even really matter.
I know a book is worth writing when I ask my agent if it's a good bet, and she says NO NO WRITE SOMETHING ELSE, and... I have to write it, anyway.
The premise of the book—there's a secret world of monsters and here's the special person who will kill them all—is a familiar one. What is it that's so fun about that idea?
As a kid, I felt like a weirdo born to very normal people, like I didn't belong. My favorite books started with a normal kid who didn't feel like they belonged who then found a fantastic world in which they were special. I wanted a cabinet to Narnia or a Phantom Tollbooth. So my books are about that, too. There's something powerful and intoxicating about that honeymoon period in a magical new place. For Nettie, of course, it's not all talking fauns and never-ending candy. But I'm always going to be a fan of the idea that there's someplace special, hidden, where I would not only belong but be a star.
One of the things I really liked about it was that it's this big, fantastical world that still feels grounded and realistic. Which is the true test of these. As our world-building instructor (shameless plug) where do you start on something so big and broad, so that you can make it feel lived-in?
Personally, I like to base my magical worlds on real places. The Blud books (Wicked as They Come et al) are based on an alt-Victorian version of England and Europe. Servants of the Storm is based on Savannah. Wake of Vultures starts with 1800s Texas with most of the place names flipped to their original names. You want to give the reader something familiar and attractive while changing it in ways that are complimentary to that particular place. The Old West was a rough place where you could die a hundred different ways—just play Oregon Trail for a great reminder. It's not that far of a hop to turning vaqueros into chupacabras. For me, it's about reality plus logical upgrades.
Speaking of advice-giving, you've turned into a go-to source for writing and publishing—what is it that attracts you to doing that? Do you see the need for it, or is it about paying back?
I didn't write my first book until I was 32, and I learned everything I know about publishing from the internet. As I navigated good advice and bad advice and outdated advice, I felt very alone and confused. Who could you trust? When I almost fell for a predatory vanity publisher, I realized that anyone can fall for bad advice. Writers are the most giving, fun people I know, and becoming friends with my colleagues is one of the greatest gifts of this career.
People helped me get where I am, so I feel like it's my duty to pay it forward if I can. Since I have social anxiety and am terrified of long emails, Twitter seems like the perfect way to interact. I really love answering questions there or going in depth on a topic all day and then packaging the tweets for my blog. Publishing isn't easy, but it shouldn't make you feel bewildered, alone, or preyed upon.
In terms of criticism, you mentioned before, opening yourself up to criticism with Wake of Vultures. And I know you've written some groovy posts about promotion that people have braced you on (the one about not promoting yourself, and then they complain you promote yourself). Do you ever feel like the engagement isn't worth it? Or are you able to brush it off at this point?
I'm definitely more careful than I used to be about what I say and how I say it. That Please Shut Up post on author promotion received over 200 comments, three of which called me the C word—and got summarily deleted. I learned that I get to curate how I interact. I can ignore behavior I don't like, block behavior I *really* don't like, and delete posts that draw unwanted attention from the wrong crowds. I realized that I'm not obligated to answer email or acquiesce to demands. I unfollowed people on Facebook whose every word made me cringe.
As a polite Southern girl, it's been a hard road to putting up these boundaries, but it's helped me get the space I need, emotionally, to have an online presence. For some reason, certain people just hate a woman telling them what to do and especially what not to do. Haters gonna hate, as TSwift says.
What's next for Nettie? Do you have an endgame or a set number of books—or will fate decide?
Fate (and sales numbers) will decide! ☺ Orbit bought two books, and when I presented two ideas for book two, they chose the one that was my favorite. That'll be Horde of Crows, out next year. I have infinite ideas for Nettie and would love the opportunity to write more in this world. She's basically like Buffy the Vampire Slayer—she's got a posse, and she'll keep killing what needs to die.
Last question: Given your hopes and expectations for this series, is there anything you wish I'd been clever enough to ask about?
Well, I will tell you three interesting facts about this book: 1. The soundtrack is all songs by Gangstagrass, the band that did the theme song for Justified. They're a great crew, and I'm seeing them in concert again next week. 2. If you pre-ordered and email your address to whimsydark (at) gmail (dot) com, I'll mail you a signed bookplate and swag 3. You can always ask me questions on Twitter, @DelilahSDawson.
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