Welcome to the Saturday Spotlight. (Yes, I’m doing one this month) Today I have the privilege of interviewing Caryn Larrinaga, who’s debut novel just released, it’s called Donn’s Hill. I had the pleasure of getting an advance copy and reviewing it, and today, I get the honor to interview her, and pick her brain a little. Caryn and I have talked some on Twitter over the last year or so, and I bug her for advice about my monster book from time to time, because she knows her stuff when it comes to horror, but I’m not going to hold you up with introductions, let’s get to the interview.
Marty: Hi Caryn, and thanks for taking the time to chat with me a little bit here on the site. I love interviewing authors and picking around in their brain to dig out their secrets. So your new book is going to be coming out in March? Tell us a little about it.
Caryn: Donn’s Hill is cozy paranormal mystery about a young psychic who is trying to solve the murder of the poltergeist who haunts her apartment. My main character, Mac, is struggling to come to grips with some deep personal losses at the time her psychic powers re-emerge after many years of dormancy, so she’s got a lot to deal with on top of an angry spirit. Luckily she has a few friends to help her through it, including a tortoiseshell cat who sort of inserts itself into Mac’s life. The supernatural aspects were inspired by my mother’s own experiences with the paranormal, which have been more numerous than I think she’d like. I wrote it for oddballs like me: people who love ghosts, cats, and murder mysteries.
Marty: So, I have a question. It’s a little off topic, but I understand that you studied anthropology. How do you think that has influenced your writing?
Caryn: I think it’s actually the other way around… my writing influenced my decision to study anthropology. I was trying to get a degree in business when I took my first anthro class to satisfy one of my general education requirements, and I fell in love not only with the subject matter, but also with the exam formats. Not many math equations to battle, and not a lot of multiple choice. My exams were almost all essays! A writer’s dream. So I switched majors. Then switched again, for absurd reasons, and switched back later for better ones. But that’s another story.
Caryn: In the end, though, I think anthropology ended up helping my writing a lot. Learning about other cultures and seeing patterns emerge about the way people treat each other, and the things that scare us all no matter where we come from… it raises a lot of questions, and I try to explore those in my writing.
Marty: Your name isn’t typical for someone from Utah. Is that a combination of inventive parents and husband with a long last name? Or is it a pretty common name for someone of Basque ancestry?
Caryn: My parents were definitely inventive! They took a pronunciation of a name that they liked and put it together with an unusual spelling, because they didn’t like the more common spelling. I get called “Karen” a lot, but it’s actually pronounced “Kuh-RIN.” And you’re right, Larrinaga isn’t common in Utah. If you meet a Larrinaga here, I almost guarantee we’re related. My knowledge of my family history is limited (I intend to find more out soon about my ancestry) but I know that it’s a Basque name. When I meet other Basques in the wild, we can usually figure out our shared heritage from our last names.
Marty: Do you think your culture influenced your writing, or how you view the world? I’ve thought of the Basques as my kind of people, kind of stand-offish and self sufficient. But I’m a dolt who hasn’t studied them in depth. Maybe you could teach me something about that culture, and perhaps how closely you associate with your Spanish brethren.
Caryn: Ha! I don’t know how standoffish we are… especially when the wine is pouring… but I agree that we’re generally very self-sufficient people. And stubborn, at least in my family. I’m very proud of my heritage, and carry it with me everywhere I go in my name and in the tattoo of the Ikurrina (Basque flag) that I have on my back. One of these days, I’ll finally write that book set in the Basque Country that I’ve been meaning to write.
Caryn: The Basque Country is one of the autonomous communities of Spain, but the Basque language, Euskara, is very different from Spanish (very different, which I know all too well because I’m in the process of learning it and my minor in Spanish isn’t helping at all). Both are spoken within the region and some schools teach both as well, but many people living in the Basque Country don’t identify as Basque or speak the language. I could really de-rail this whole interview by going into Basque history and culture and linguistics, so instead I’ll just recommend that everyone travel there and check it out. It’s a magical place. Spend two weeks there, eat pintxos every day, check out the museums, and you’ll fall in love.
Marty: Cool. Well, I have to cut to the chase, because my readers want to know. What’s your secret? How did you find a publisher?
Caryn: A lot of patience and a little bit of luck. I started querying Donn’s Hill in January, and finally found a home for it in September. That’s actually pretty fast; it can take years to find that perfect combination where an agent or a publisher is looking for a book like yours at the time you submit it. I spent a lot of time crafting my query letter, and participated in some competitions like #QueryKombat and #pg50pit that really helped me figure out how to sell my story. I used QueryTracker.com to keep on top of who I submitted to and when, and researched agents and publishers on their websites, Twitter, AbsoluteWrite… it sort of took over my life. It wasn’t easy. Just when I thought I’d gotten desensitized to rejection, I got a couple of rejections on my full manuscript and those stung. But I got great feedback about the strength of my writing and the flow of my novel, so I kept pushing on, hoping to find somebody who loved the book as much as me.
Caryn: And then I got lucky. A new small press opened up in Utah over the summer, and their acquisitions manager posted in the League of Utah Writers’ closed Facebook group that they were opening for submissions. I checked them out, and lo and behold, my book fit their general criteria. I submitted that same day, and the acquisitions editor who read it turned out to be the person I’d been waiting to find. She loved it and recommended it for publication, which led to arguably the most exciting email I’ve ever received.
Caryn: I think it boils down to preparing for that stroke of luck. If I hadn’t spent all those months querying and refining my query letter, and months before that revising my novel and making sure the first few chapters were strong, I wouldn’t have been ready to submit when Immortal Works opened their doors.
Marty: How about your writing process? Do you tend to lock yourself in a dark room while writing, or are you more of an out-in-public writer? Do you write every day? Do you stick to novels, or have any other writing interests that you feel help with gaining experience as a writer?
Caryn: Oh man, I’m way to easily distracted to write in public. I’ve tried writing in coffee shops and libraries before, and I always just end up eavesdropping or pigging out on pastries. So I have a milk steamer and a kettle at home to make my own chai lattes while I work, which kind of gives me the best of both worlds. I have a little blue couch in my sunny front room and I do most of my writing there. I like to edit at my kitchen table. I do have a desk, but I use it for my freelance/day job and I feel like it helps me switch gears to “author mode” if I have a separate place for writing.
Caryn: I would like to say I write every day, but it’s really more in fits and spurts. I can truthfully say that I write at least a couple of days every week, and when I’m in the zone I’ll write every day for a nice long stretch, like a few weeks at a time. But I feel like reading is also important for writing, so if I’ve read something that somebody else wrote, I still consider it a productive day. I alternate between novels and short stories, and I’ll bounce back and forth if I’m feeling stuck in one or the other.
Marty: I’ve read on your bio that your house, and especially the tool shed are interesting places. I never knew a 12×24 storage shed could be interesting! What do you keep in there? Any heirlooms? Any ghosts? If I had a shed like that, I think I would be in it all of the time! I’m curious about this 90-year-old house and its history.
Caryn: It’s an odd little house. The top floor is 90 years old, and was originally built across the street from the Utah State Capitol. Then in the 1960’s, it was moved-by truck-to its current location to make way for some new construction, and they poured a basement foundation to match the layout of the top floor. So the upper level doesn’t have a single square corner, but it’s full of all of these classic features like arched doorways and mullioned windows. I love it. The basement feels much more modern, but by nature of being a basement is somehow scarier than the upstairs.
Caryn: This house doesn’t have any ghosts, but every once in a while all of my cats stare at the exact same spot of nothing in the hallway behind me and it gives me the heebie-jeebies. From the outside, though, it looks pretty haunted. I’ve been stopped a couple of times by little kids who pass by our house on their way home from school. They screw up their courage and ask if a ghost or a witch lives here. I always tell them no, resisting a strong urge to scare the crap out of them.
Marty: You have a couple writing group memberships. I like finding local authors guilds, but they can vary from place to place and even group to group. Do you get a lot of benefit from your memberships? Would you recommend other writers join clubs and groups in their area?
Caryn: YES. Seriously, I can’t stress this enough. Joining a writer’s group helped me grow immensely. Getting my work critiqued by other writers and critiquing their work back taught me a lot. I’m also lucky that the League of Utah Writers is so active and has so many chapters that are relatively close to one another, because I’ve popped into other chapter meetings when they have a guest speaker who is talking about editing or pitching. Plus, I happened to find my publisher from a posting in the LUW Facebook group. I also recommend going to writing workshops or retreats and writing conferences. Great for networking, making friends with people who share your passion for writing, and feeling like a member of a community.
Marty: How much time a week do you spend on social media? Do you feel like you should be devoting more time to getting your name out there? Or perhaps less time?
Caryn: I spend maybe an hour a day, split between Facebook and Twitter. I use Tweetdeck to help me navigate Twitter more easily. I like keeping up with my fellow author friends. There’s a lot of mutual encouragement between writers on Twitter and I love it.
Caryn: I do think it’s important to spend time on social media to grow your following and build that community if you’re querying to agents or editors. They almost certainly will look at your social media presence, because even with a publisher behind you, you’re expected to do a ton of your own marketing. Having an active profile and showing that you’re starting to build a following demonstrates to agents and editors that you take yourself seriously, and you’re willing to do the work to put your name out there.
Marty: Do you turn off the Internet when you write?
Caryn: Oh yes, I have to. It’s so easy to get distracted, and to justify spending a few hours “researching” murder weapons or the history of metalworking in central Europe for some reason. Research is important, but if I’m trying to finish a scene, I have to force myself to buckle down and focus. No internet, and no music unless my characters would be hearing that same music during the scene I’m writing.