We sat down with Vicki recently to discuss her writing process, the genesis behind the Celestial Blues trilogy and the power of a timeless romance.
LS: Welcome to LitStack, Vicki! We’re thrilled to feature you and your wonderful Celestial Blues series all month long. First off, can you tell us a little bit about the genesis of the series. How long had you played around with the idea of an angel shepherding souls off to the hereafter?
Celestial Blues was inspired by a short story I wrote right before I sold the Signs of the Zodiac series. Though initially just for fun, the story stayed with me through the writing of my first series. I literally could not shake the idea of Griffin Shaw, a mortal-turned-angel, whose job it was to assist murdered souls into the afterlife. However, what made it compelling was his obsession over his own untimely and violent death.
Yet it wasn’t until Kit showed up with her retro, rockabilly aesthetic that Grif made sense in our modern world. Once my modern-day girl reporter clashed with my old-fashioned mid-century PI, the story clicked and I knew they’d be able to find out together who killed him fifty years earlier.
LS: The rockabilly culture is so lush and vibrant. What made you decide to use it as a backdrop for your series?
In addition to being a fun element that I hadn’t seen before in fiction, Kit’s love for all things rockabilly makes a great contrast to Grif’s flat, single-minded view on the world. He’s obsessed with finding his killer, he’s literally consumed with death. Kit, on the other hand, is obsessed with life – laughter and music, friends and finely made objects – clothing, cars, homes – from Grif’s own era. We worked hard to show their contrasting views with the cover art. He’s always featured in monochrome colors while Kit is in full-on Technicolor. Yet if you look closely, he’s touching her in the final cover. It’s a visual signal: Kit has actually taught him how to live again.
LS: I get the feeling, like me, Sam Spade has a special place in your heart. Did these noir/crime novels influence you when you were writing the series?
Absolutely, but I came at it backwards. I fell in love with the classic lone wolf P.I. through modern crime fiction, starting with Michael Connolly’s Harry Bosch, but solidified and stamped on my mind with Dennis Lehane’s Patrick Kenzie series. It was only after coming up with the idea of a man solving his own murder that I had an excuse to go back and read books like The Maltese Falcon and The Last Good Kiss, and call it a good day’s work.
LS: The overall arch of the series is Grif’s death and uncovering who murdered him. Second to that, what do you hope readers find most compelling in the series?
Although Grif’s quest is what drives the whole of the series, none of it would work without Kit. Over the years it’s become apparent that one of my driving literary obsessions is to question what it means to be a woman in a man’s world, and to explore the ways a woman can navigate that world.
For example, Joanna Archer, from my first series, was very martial. Hers was a hard world, so she resolved to be the hardest thing in it. But a woman’s strength takes many different forms and unlike Joanna, Kit’s strength comes in her refusal to give in to the darkness. She fights it with optimism, and belief in what’s good and right, and in the certainty that she’s deserving of a good life, a good man, a good love. While Joanna focused on the evils of the world and tried to right them, Kit focuses on what’s good, and tries to bring the world into alliance with that.
LS: If Kit hadn’t been immersed in the Rockabilly culture, would Grif have done a double take the first time he saw her?
I like to think that theirs is a timeless romance. I loosely based them on one of my favorite onscreen couples of all time, Katharine Hepburn (Kit’s name is a nod to her) and Spencer Tracy. Talk about a couple who couldn’t stay away from each other. Their love was obsessive, and their chemistry was palpable even through the big screen. That’s always how I envision Kit and Grif – pulled back to one another no matter what life, or death, throws at them.
LS: Did you always know how the trilogy would end? If not, how did the story change as you wrote each book?
I always knew the answer to Who killed Griffin Shaw? I always knew the relationship arc as well. The only thing that changed were the modern-day mysteries, which I ripped right from the headlines. I call it a para-noir trilogy because the evils threatening Kit and Grif come as much from the real world as the supernatural. So the book’s focus is more mystery-slanted, yet it still retains that great paranormal remove that I find so useful in speaking intimately and specifically about modern-day issues.
LS: A few writing questions, if you don’t mind. How has your personal history informed your writing?
Like any writer, I’m constantly mining my waking day. Every thought is fodder. Every conversation can be turned into text. Every headline is a potential story. It’s all filtered through the storytelling lens, but as for me personally, it’s that previously mentioned literary obsession: what does it mean to be a woman in a man’s world? Who are you beyond the person everyone else is trying to tell you to be?
All of my female characters answer that question in their own way, as do we all. I’ve now written a stand-alone thriller and that character comes up with her own answers, too. It’s fascinating to explore. It makes me love and respect women, and all our varied nuances and facets, all the more.
LS: What is your writing process and has that changed much over the years?
I don’t know — is ‘hot mess’ considered a writing process?
Obviously I’m always trying to improve, and I never want to write the same story twice. That’s why I keep pushing my work in different directions technically with different voices and povs, moving from straight fantasy to paranormal crime fiction, to a pure chase book in the thriller. Yet that’s just me keeping myself interested, pushing boundaries.
The writing process itself has changed very little. Find the hook, the what-if, world-build enough to know the beginning and end, outline knowing that I’m going to have to change the whole damned thing every fifty pages or so, and then set a word count goal. All the time, I work to remain open to the emergence of new ideas as they come. A closed mind results in a lesser story.
I guess the only thing that’s really changed over the years is that I don’t freak out when things aren’t moving as quickly or well as I’d like. I’ve been here before, I’ll be here again, I just have to keep writing.
LS: What is your opinion of the shift in publishing, specifically with the popularity of the ebook and the influx of self publishing authors?
I think it’s similar to what happened first with social media. When I started writing there was really very few ways to connect personally with readers, and then it exploded. Now there’s almost too many ways, and you really have to cherry pick in order to protect the work. Choice in publishing is the same way. I think there’s a way to embrace both as long as the focus remains on the work. What’s going to make this into the best book possible? The answer is going to be different for every author, but I will say that I’m glad the choice wasn’t there when I was learning to write. I needed that time to grow and mature and find my voice, and self-publishing might have been irresistible, even (or especially) when I wasn’t yet ready.
LS: What’s your idea of career fulfillment?
My dream remains the same as the first day I put a pen to page with any sort of intent: 1) to continually push myself and improve and 2) to connect with readers by writing commercial fiction that’s empowering, and that stays with them beyond the closing of the book. If you still think of my stories and my characters in odd moments, if they seem like real people to you, or even friends, then I’ve done my job.
LS: Finally, what’s next for you?
I mentioned above that I’ve written a straight thriller, but I’ve also turned my mind some new world building that has me pretty obsessed these days. So expect to see my twin loves, crime fiction and fantasy – though separated this time – on the page again very soon.