Interview with Monalisa Foster

Published 2018-11-01.
Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
Yes. I was about twelve years old (I think) and I submitted it to a very small newsletter called The Plutonian Society. It was very short (what today we'd call "flash fiction") and I think I got $5 for it. I was very excited because that was more than the money I was making babysitting the neighbor's baby and because I got paid with (gasp!) a check. It was a vignette about an astronaut's dying thoughts as his spaceship was about to crash. I don't think I'd write anything that dark or depressing ever again. I like happy endings and heroes winning.
What is your writing process?
In "the trade" it's called "pantsing," as in "writing by the seat of your pants" mostly because it's not outlining. While I've worked off outlines, I don't start with them. Usually I start with either a setting or a character or a problem. I rarely sit down without any idea of what I'm about to write (what some would call "discovery writing), although the few times I've done it, it has resulted in some good pieces.

Most of the time I've lived with the story, in some form or another, for awhile. I've either thought of or about either the character, the setting, or the problem and written out bits of conversation or summary paragraphs. At some point I know I'm ready to expand on these bits and pieces and bring them together in a cohesive story.

I marvel at the process because as I flesh out the story, I come up with the most marvelous details, things that would never come to me if I had written myself an outline. I know I'm solidly in a character's head when the words flow. Sometimes the character wants to take me in a different direction than what I originally had in mind, and for the most part, I let him.

Imagine watching a film that starts out in black and white, out of focus, grainy. Then, as the story goes, pieces fall into place, bringing rich, thick, detail and emotion. The character grows a personality, a voice, a mind of her own. The setting flows from black and white into rich color. The focus sharpens and the resulting image is no longer grainy but highly detailed, like you can touch it. You, the reader, are inside that character's mind, feeling their feelings with them, experiencing the world through their eyes. Creating characters and worlds that are that real is my goal when I'm writing.
Do you remember the first story you ever read, and the impact it had on you?
It was Journey to the Center of the Earth. And it wasn't a kid's book. It was a Romanian translation of the original. It made a very profound impression on me because until I read it (it was contraband) I had not read anything but material approved by the Communist Party under Ceaucescu's regime. So the only things I'd read until then were stories written by Soviet and communist officials, all designed to teach us how wonderful government was, how glorious our leaders were, and how evil capitalism and the West was. Every story was a parable that made the communist man or woman a hero to all. Essentially, I had grown up reading nothing but communist propaganda. So to read something as wonderful as a real story with real heroes, with adventure, well, it was amazing. I must've read it five or six times in a row before I had to give it back. And I read it in my hidey-hole in the cellar by candlelight and when I put it away I wrapped it in sack cloth and hid it under a loose plank.
How do you approach cover design?
Genre, genre, genre. I like for my covers to scream genre to the reader. I want them to know what they are getting with one look.
What are your three favorite books, and why?
1. I've read Lois McMaster Bujold's Barrayar again and again, to the point where the spine was coming apart. In fact, I think I went through at least three paper versions of that book. I love Cordelia and Aral. They are the perfect love story. And it's not just a love story, it's a love story in a science fiction setting with feudal flavorings added in. I loved the Russian and Greek elements because they echo my own heritage. I loved the idea of counts and emperors in space. I loved the politics and the dynastic entanglements. But most of all, I loved that Cordelia didn't have to be the meanest, toughest, smartest person in the room. That's one of my pet peeves with female characters today--they are written not as women, but as men. I think this sends a very bad message: that only masculine qualities have value. I disagree. We each have our own strengths and we should savor those differences.

2. I've read John Ringo's Ghost almost as many times as I've read Barrayar. I fell in love with Michael Harmon, the anti-hero protagonist because of the inner struggle Ringo portrayed so skillfully. Harmon has a dark side he reins in. He can be a monster, but chooses not to be. He has no illusions about who and what he is, nor about what he does. He does what's needed even at great personal cost and he's not afraid if it costs him his soul, because someone has to do it. His choices, his actions, leave the world a better place, even if eventually they condemn him to Hell. THAT is the definition of a true hero.

3. Friday by Robert Heinlein was probably the first book of his that I read as it came out. Up until that point I was immersed in his juveniles, teaching myself English by translating them. It came out at a time in my life where I identified with Friday Jones. I too was an alien. I too was different, not speaking the same language, still learning what it meant to be free. And I was fascinated by the politics of a balkanized United States. At the time I could not imagine such a country. As time passed, Heinlein proved, once more, to be a visionary like no other.
What do you read for pleasure?
Mostly I read science fiction and fantasy, preferably with strong romantic elements. I'm far more interested in human drives than hyperdrives, in tactics and strategy having to do with how we deal with each other rather how we fight a war. I do admit to NOT liking pure, fluffy romances. I find the characters vapid and no amount of bodice ripping will make up for it. In other words, I will read romances, but they need intelligent characters in interesting worlds and situations.
What is your e-reading device of choice?
I love my iPad. In fact, I've become so dependent on it that if a book is only available in print form, it's not likely to get read, which is probably why I have this huge stack of them (mostly non-fiction) doing an impression of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It's a particular anguish of mine that so much of what I'm researching is not available in ebook form.
Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
I was born in and escaped from communist Romania. One of my favorite quotes is Ronald Reagan's "How do you tell a communist? Well, it's someone who reads Marx and Lenin. And how do you tell an anti-Communist? It's someone who understands Marx and Lenin." As someone who understands Marx and Lenin, my writing reflects that understanding. I often tell people that I've won life’s lottery, because I have. I escaped communism. I had the opportunity to became an American citizen--an unhyphenated American citizen. This distinction is very important to me because while I was born a Romanian, that is not who I am. I had no hand in where I was born. It was beyond my control. To say "I'm Romanian" would not only be inaccurate, it is nothing to brag about because I didn't earn it. To say that "I'm an American" however, is an honor. It is meaningful because I've earned it. It is my doing, not the result of fate or circumstances, not something bestowed on me by the luck of my birth. This is why my works tend to explore themes of freedom, liberty, and personal responsibility.
When did you first start writing?
I think I was about ten years old when I started filling notebooks with stories. I continued dabbling in writing throughout my teens but was too terrified to ever let anyone read what I wrote. During my college years I produced two novels which I never sent out because I couldn't afford the printing or postage costs. While I had entertained thoughts of becoming a writer I was far too practical to think I could make a living at it. Having been born poor behind the Iron Curtain, having spent my childhood in ration lines, I knew that an education was my only way out of a live of drudgery and toil. Writing continued to be a hobby until about three years ago when with my kids mostly grown I could start indulging the storyteller that had been living inside me all along.
What's the story behind your latest book?
Promethea Invicta (my latest story, a novella) started out as a short story for a contest I didn't win. It was on the back burner for couple of years. I kept adding bits and pieces to it as I realized it was just a small slice of a much bigger pie (or cake, if you'd prefer). After it won a Silver Honorable Mention from Writers of the Future, I decided to self-publish it. During those two years that it was sitting there, slowly morphing from an 8000-word-limited short story into a novella, I had also written a much shorter story that served as a prologue (Dolus Magnus: The Great Hoax). That short story did get published and will soon be available as reprint, a prequel of a sorts. Due to demand, I'm planning on a sequel to Promethea, perhaps even a series.
What motivated you to become an indie author?
Technically, I'm a hybrid author (I have several pieces coming up that are traditionally published). The part I like most (and is also the scariest) about self-publishing is the autonomy. I get to tell the story I want to tell the way I want to tell it. I get a say in the cover. I get to write the blurb. My failure or success is 100% on me. It's terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
When "Cooper" a short story in "To Be Men" came out, a reader contacted me through Facebook and thanked me for writing it. The story had touched him because the story is about the importance that a father-figure can have in a boy's life and it reminded him of his love for his step-father, a man who had, in every sense of the word, saved him. To know that my words had touched someone so deeply...well, it's beyond words.
When you're not writing, how do you spend your time?
It seems like I'm always writing or thinking about writing. Or doing research for writing. Or griping about writing. Yeah, it's a full-time obsession. When I'm not actually typing, however, I'm being a wife, mother, and wrangler of dogs. To clear my head I do cross-stitch and needlepoint. I also swing a sword (yes, a real one), shoot (yes, guns), and plan world domination. Doesn't everybody?
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