I’m so pleased to welcome Rhode Island author Heather Rigney to Book Club Babble today! I met Heather through ARIA (the Association of RI Authors) and was immediately intrigued by her debut novel Waking the Merrow. It’s a dark, historical fantasy featuring a drunken funeral director, a vicious mermaid, and fascinating tidbits of Rhode Island history. Heather’s writing is at times snarky, laugh out loud funny, and horrifically bloody. I loved it so much I invited her to speak at both of my book clubs!
Tabitha: Heather, thank you so much for stopping by. Nothing says “dark historical fantasy” like a centuries old family of man-eating, bloodthirsty mermaids. Where did this idea come from?
HR: Thanks for asking me to be here, Tabitha! It’s a pleasure to be featured on this site and I am so excited for your debut novel!
To answer your question, I was asked to be part of a mermaid anthology and I thought: What do we really know about mermaids in history? We know they liked to crash ships, but why? What did they do to the shipwrecked sailors? My answer, they ate them. What else would they do with them???
Tabitha: I was hooked on Waking the Merrow from the start, and I think it was Evie’s voice that did it. She’s a messy, insecure, alcoholic working as a funeral director and trying to figure out this whole motherhood thing. Yet she rises to the occasion when danger strikes. I love her and I love that she isn’t the typical “heroine.” Talk a little about how Evie was born.
HR: I’m flattered that you enjoyed the book. Thank you!
Evie IS a hot mess. I’ve always enjoyed stories that included a sloppy narrator. None of us are perfect. Seeing a character rise from the ashes of their own bonfire is always fun, it gives me hope for myself. Evie is me—if I let myself go unchecked. She’s the voice that tells me things like: You don’t need to go food shopping! Have a beer and chips for supper! Or I love my kid, but if I set the Candyland game on fire, wouldn’t life be better? When I first wrote the book, I read it to my husband. Evie was just a mousy mom, new to the neighborhood and she was SO boring. I thought, let’s make her a funeral director, then, let’s make her an alcoholic! I couldn’t stop laughing at this notion, so I ran with it, allowing the devil on my shoulder to speak through my writing. Sometimes, after a hard day, I wish I could call Evie and gossip over a glass of wine.
Tabitha: I know you’ve planned a Merrow trilogy, so you must have the major plot points of the series worked out. Are you an outliner? And if so, to what extent?
HR: I’m an outliner. I use the writing program Scrivener. It’s amazing and I’ve gushed about it on my blog . It’s a wonderful tool when planning out a novel. I make chapters in the corkboard section, which look like index cards on cork. I write quick ideas on the cards, a simple synopsis consisting of a sentence or two, then, when I start a project, I grab an index card, look at the synopsis, then go. Later, I can reorganize the cards into a more natural flow, tweaking them to fit together.
Tabitha: Let’s talk research. There’s plenty of local history woven into the story. How much time do you spend on research? And related, do you do most of it up front or as needed?
HR: I spend the first third of my time on a project dedicated to research. On the second book, I freaked out, thinking I was spending too much time researching, but I realized, nothing I was doing was a waste of time. For me, the process is similar to cooking. I gather my ingredients, maybe more than I need, then I look at it all and see how the items fit together. Do they belong in the meal? Should I set something aside? Then I let the ones I want to keep intermingle. The ingredients then inform me as they sit on the shelf in my mind. For Book 2, I spent a whole day in the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s research library. I read an entire ship’s log, taking vigorous notes. Do I have a whaling ship in Book 2? No, but I do have a ship’s log, and I feel that it’s a much truer account of actual day-to-day life on a sailing vessel.
Tabitha: You’re a visual artist as well as a writer. In fact, I know you designed your own cover art (which is fantastic by the way!). If you had to choose between painting and writing…?
First, thank you! Doing my own cover was a gamble, and I did NOT want to do it. But, in the end, I’m happy with the results.
I am such a Libra. I balance both. When one grows stale, I pick up the other. It’s always been that way. I think my painting fuels my writing and vice versa. I think it’s a healthy thing. In my humble opinion, writers should have another creative outlet to keep our minds active and our ideas fresh.
Tabitha: Who are your favorite authors and how have they influenced your writing?
HR: Margaret Atwood – Her speculative fiction (or social science fiction) inspires my thought process in terms of how I go about world-building. Oryx and Crake, After the Flood, A Handmaid’s Tale—all beautifully crafted tales that offer the same sentiment: We could let this happen... and if we did, then what? She answers the question in her writing, and you believe her. Yes, this could happen. I like to take my reader to the brink of fantasy, but when I do, I need to have a bridge, backed by science, that allows the reader to come with me. She taught me this.
Angela Carter – This writer introduced me to the world of feminist-based, magical realism with her collections of short stories. I highly recommend The Bloody Chamber. She was never afraid to explore women as sensual, powerful beings and she blended this concept with a fairy tale quality that I found very alluring.
Zora Neale Hurston – Probably my favorite book of all time – Their Eyes Were Watching God. The language and the descriptions in this book are so visceral, you, the reader, are transported, in the moment, living the character’s life. Gorgeous.
Tabitha: Can you give us a sneak peak into Hunting the Merrow?
Hunting the Merrow will hit the shelves on December 3. If your readers would like a sneak peek, here are a few links to the first chapter of Book 2 in The Merrow Trilogy:
Thank you so much for allowing me to visit with you today, Tabitha! I wish you much luck with your debut novel, Horizon!
Tabitha: Heather, it’s always a pleasure!