Behind the story “Catalyst”

Alondra's Experiments coverMy husband Mason offered to take me to Prague for my birthday one year. I didn’t know much about the city beforehand, except that absinthe was legal there and could be drunk in bars, rather than smuggled back from Spain and shared with friends in my living room. You could say I was on a mission.

As I researched in advance of our trip, I became fascinated with the history of alchemy in Prague. Once we arrived in the city, we discovered that one of the rooms in Prague Castle was full of dusty beakers and copper tubing and a stout furnace said to have been used by John Dee to try to transmute lead into gold. John Dee is a special fascination of mine: a multilingual spy for Queen Elizabeth I who was considered the most learned man of his age and who believed he could communicate with angels through special crystal balls.

new-jew-kafka002After we explored the Old Jewish Cemetery in the Prague Ghetto, our guidebook encouraged us to visit the grave of Franz Kafka in the New Jewish Cemetery. We visited on a glorious October day, when birch leaves collected in golden drifts in front of the dramatic black granite gravestones. Kafka’s monument is pink granite, standing near the cenotaphs to his sisters, who disappeared in the Holocaust.

The New Jewish Cemetery really did have a crotchety Czech caretaker who shouted at us in words we couldn’t understand. In our case, he wanted Mason to put a yarmulke on before we came into the cemetery.

We really did drink one night in the Shot-Out Eye and the story of the monkey and mule who became highwaymen came from our guidebook. That was the first night we drank Hill’s Absinth (no e, although Alondra doesn’t mention that in the story). Like her, we tried to drink it in the French way. No one corrected us until the afternoon I had a glass in the Globe Bookstore Bar, near the art museum. Then a British ex-pat showed me how to manage the matches and spoon. Alondra’s vision of herself as an elephant on spindly legs, like Dali’s Temptation of Saint Anthony, came from one of my absinthe adventures in Prague, as did the headache like a guillotine blade she suffers the next morning.

Traveling in Prague was the first time I realized that I could combine my love of traveling, my enjoyment of traveling writing, and the kind of fantasy stories I loved. I spent an afternoon sitting at a sunny table in the Mala Strana jotting down notes for Alondra’s adventure there. I even picked out the building where her lab would take up the whole upper floor, its mansard roof pierced by skylights where the moon could peep in.

When I started to write, I didn’t know how Alondra was going to solve the Philosopher’s Stone when so many learned gentlemen had not. Her inversion of the dominant paradigm struck me as so audacious that I had to write it down and see if I could get away with it.

“Catalyst” first appeared in issue #44 of the magazine Not One of Us in October 2010. It’s republished in Alondra’s Experiments, now available as an ebook on Amazon.

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5 Questions for Laurel Anne Hill

Laurel Anne Hill for EWL Back Cover I met local author Laurel Anne Hill at the first Horror Addicts reading I went to. Since then, we keep running into each other at our local cons.  I’ve been fascinated by her award-winning steampunk novel, The Engine Woman’s Light.

Laurel’s description of it:

Spirits watch over Juanita, but who is she? A mystic in love who holds life sacred? Or a ghost-possessed railroad saboteur?

A mystical vision of an airship appears to fifteen-year-old Juanita. The long-dead captain commands her to prevent California’s thrown-away people—including young children—from boarding trains to an asylum. That institution’s director plots murder to reduce the inmate population. Yet to save innocent lives Juanita must take lives of the corrupt. How can she reconcile her assignment with her belief in the sacredness of all human life? And will she survive to marry her betrothed?

Juanita sets out despite inner trepidation to sabotage the railroad. Her ancestor Billy, the ghost of a steam locomotive engineer, guides her. Bit by bit, she discovers the gut-wrenching truths her ancestors neglected to reveal.

Come visit Juanita’s world—an alternate nineteenth-century California—where spirits meet steampunk, where both love and anger emanate from beyond the grave.


Did something in the real world inspire The Engine Woman’s Light?

A dream in the early 1990s provided my initial inspiration. In that dream, an elderly woman—condemned to euthanasia—escaped from a death train with an abandoned infant girl in her arms. She walked at night toward a distant light and safety. The resulting short story I wrote never worked. Subplots burdened its structure, all of them failing to address the destiny of the rescued child. I had a novel on my hands, a book that would take me twenty years to complete. The fictional world I created in the process reflects a number of my personal experiences.

For example, The Engine Woman’s Light contains two scenes where spirits hide inside of clocks. I own an old wind-up alarm clock that used to belong to my grandmother. I bought Gran a new Baby Ben—which was easier to wind—around 1988 and kept the old one for myself. The old Baby Ben stopped working about the time Gran died in 1989. Regardless, I continued to keep the timepiece on the shelf of my bed’s headboard. A terrible and unknown illness hit me a couple of years later. My back muscles went into non-stop spasm for six weeks. The pain was excruciating. I didn’t know how I was going to cope. Would I spend the rest of my life as an invalid? At my rock-bottom mental low point, the broken Baby Ben started ticking. The minute hand advanced. Encouragement from Gran’s spirit? Several minutes later, the clock stopped, never to run again.

What is your favorite scene in the book—and why?

Probably the second half of Chapter 23, the violent and gritty confrontation between my hero, Juanita, and my antagonist, Antonio. Writing the scene drained me emotionally, but the end product is exactly what I strove to achieve. I’m also particularly pleased with the opening scene in Chapter 20, where a naïve Juanita—guided by a spirit—tries to seduce her current love. Again, I achieved what I wanted to advance the story. That’s all I can reveal without shouting “spoiler alert.”


What was your writing process like as you wrote the book?

All wrong. I’d never written a novel, couldn’t tell a story arc from Noah’s ark. When I finally completed the initial draft, the first third of the manuscript felt disjointed, as if I’d written a series of short stories instead of a novel. In fact, throughout the manuscript, chapters didn’t flow from one to the next. I had too much backstory and an overabundance of point-of-view characters. Plus I failed to keep the fire of purpose lit inside of Juanita’s belly. Juanita had become a secondary character. After twenty-plus drafts, the input of several writing groups, five professional edits, a stack of rejection slips, and the death of the agent I finally procured, I was the not-so-proud owner of a “Frankendraft.” I set the book aside.

Over the ensuing five years I saw my novel Heroes Arise published, along with more short stories. I won some writing awards, as well. But the clock of my husband’s life was ticking toward its finish line. We’d done so much research for the The Engine Woman’s Light together, even learned how to run a steam locomotive! I didn’t want David to die without being able to hold my book. And I didn’t want to die with my literary music still inside of me. I went through the manuscript and brought it up to my current level of craft. I found a fantasy story editor with decent credits to his name—Derek Prior—and shelled out the bucks. Then, months later, when we’d completed the first round, I made a big realization. My protagonist, Juanita, needed to narrate in first person. Any other POV character needed to be in third person close.

By then, I was also in contact with Sand Hill Review Press, who suggested changing the order of a couple of my chapters. The total result was amazing. I ran the result though Derek again, to tidy up odds and ends. Sand Hill Review Press accepted my revised manuscript. Did some more editing. My husband David held my book before he passed. And I read it to him. 

The Engine Woman’s Light has won four awards and has been nominated for two more. Never, ever, throw away a failed manuscript.

What is the best thing that happened during the promotion of your book?

I held the launch at the amazing Borderlands Books in San Francisco on February 4, 2017. My beloved husband, David, was able to attend via FaceTime. Nothing, even the subsequent book awards, could ever beat that.

What do you have planned next?

In 2005, I started work on the first draft of a fantasy/magical realism novel set in 1846 in California. After all this time, I’m only 40,000 words into the story, currently titled Plague of Flies. The story is a good one. It’s time to get serious.

Laurel Anne Hill’s Bio

Laurel Anne Hill grew up in San Francisco, California, with more dreams of adventure than good sense or money. Her close brushes with death, love of family, respect for honor and belief in a higher power continue to influence her writing and her life. She has authored two award-winning novels: Heroes Arise (Komenar Publishing, 2007) and The Engine Woman’s Light (Sand Hill Review Press, 2017), a gripping spirits-meet-steampunk tale. The Engine Woman’s Light received the 2017 Independent Press Award (steampunk category) and a Kirkus star. Kirkus has included the novel on its list of the best 100 indie books in 2017 and top six indie teen books. Chanticleer Reviews has shortlisted The Engine Woman’s Light for its Ozma and Dante Rossetti Book Awards.

Laurel’s published short stories and nonfiction pieces total over forty and have appeared in a variety of anthologies and journalistic media. The fans of elected her “Most Wicked” in 2011 for her steampunk-horror podcast: Flight of Destiny. She is the Literary Stage Manager for the annual San Mateo County Fair in California, a speaker, writing contest judge, and editor. And, by the way, she’s a former underground storage tank operator and has run a steam locomotive. For more about her go to

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FogCon recap

My home life is still…complicated. My kid’s headaches are still out of control and the weeklong treatment at UCSF in January only seems to have made things worse. Getting away to FogCon last weekend was the first break I’ve had in months.

Processed with VSCO with hb1 presetThe Horror Writers Association event that I hosted went pretty well.  Most of our audience were writers, so I talked about StokerCon, the promotions the HWA has done, the upcoming anthology, and the weird truth that horror writers are among the nicest people I’ve ever met.

Then E. M. Markoff read from her prequel to The Deadbringer.  I followed her by reading two of the ghost stories from 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die. She read a lovely, atmospheric bit of The Deadbringer. I read the bloody bit of “Valentine,” one of the Alondra stories in my Alondra’s Experiments chapbook.

I’d prepared a bit of The Dangerous Type, too, but it seemed like too much, so we ended the event early.

20180309_213037Directly afterward was the Broad Universe RFR, hosted by Rebecca Gomez Farrell. Each of us read a 5-minute excerpt in two rounds, so the evening moved along quickly.  Becca read a short called Hobgoblin, followed by a taste of her novel Wings Unseen. Liz Green read two pieces from her novel 11/11. Sarah Grey read from her story “The Ballard of Marisol Brook,” which was published in Lightspeed. (You can read it here.) L.S. Johnson read from her collection Vacui Magia (I think — I forgot to write it down!).

I read the initial seduction from Lost Angels, which was fun.  I haven’t read enough of that book live. In the second round, I read the beginning of “Catalyst,” another Alondra story from Alondra’s Experiments.

We adjourned to the bar, but one glass of pinot noir chased me off to bed at midnight.

I spent the morning lazing luxuriantly around the hotel room, editing interviews for this blog, working on my next HWA column (I’m swapping with Rena Mason for the April issue, so I want it to be good), and picking at a new Alondra story.  Mostly, I enjoyed a selfish morning where I didn’t need to nurse or worry.

After a great lunchtime conversation with James Beach, I ran down to the Dealers Room.  Jude from Borderlands asked me to sign the copies of 199 Cemeteries she had on hand, which is always a great feeling.

Then it was time for the Strange California reading.  I didn’t get the initial invitation to it, so I asked at the last minute if I could join.  I’m so glad I was able to!  Co-editor J. Daniel Batt outlined the Kickstarter process, talked about the editing, and threw out some fascinating questions.

Screen Shot 2018-03-12 at 4.26.32 PM

Juliette Wade read her charming children’s story, “If It Were Meant to Last.” Laura Blackwell rocked a segment of “The One Thing I Can Never Tell Julie.” Marion Deeds read a taste of “Magpie’s Curse,” a Russia-flavored fairy tale that was my favorite story in the book. K. A. Rochnik read the start of “The Panther Lady’s Incredible True Tale of Horror,” which I love because it captures the flavor of the Bela Lugosi version of The Island of Dr. Moreau. I read, then Marion read the beginning of Ezzy Languzzi’s “Naranjas Immortales,” a story about migrant workers and blood-thirsty elder gods. Then Chaz Brenchley came up out of the audience to perform the beginning of his story, “Uncanny Valley.”

I was glad I didn’t go last. I read the necromancy scene from “Guardian of the Golden Gate,” which isn’t the grimmest in my attempt to grapple with all the suicides off the Golden Gate Bridge, but still was the darkest moment of the reading. People laughed at Clement and his Ninja motorcycle, so that was good.  And I remembered to put a trigger warning in my introduction, so that was good, too.  I didn’t notice anyone leaving, but I would have totally understood it.

Screen Shot 2018-03-11 at 9.48.42 AMAfter the reading, I was relieved that someone else suggested we sign each other’s books, because I really wanted to ask that, but was too shy.

I really hope we get together again to read at Borderlands or WorldCon.

After the reading broke up, I was feeling guilty, so I headed home.  Still, getting 24 hours away recharged me.  It was great to catch up with my friends and meet people whose work I am deeply inspired by. I was really grateful to be able to share some of Alondra’s stories with audiences that seemed to enjoy them. Those stories have been living in my head for so very long.

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5 Questions with E. M. Markoff

EMMarkoff_authorpicI’m not sure when Eileen and I first met in person.  Was it at the Bay Area Book Festival in Berkeley last summer? I know for certain she came to the SFinSF reading I did with Dana Fredsti and Erica Mailman and I remember being highly impressed by the skull hanging from Eileen’s throat. Some people you just know are kindred spirits.

E.M. Markoff is a Latinx writer who was raised on a steady diet of Mexican folklore, anime, Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe films, and unrestricted access to comics and books. Growing up, she spent many days exploring her hometown cemetery, where her love of all things dark began.

Upon coming of age, she decided to pursue a career as a microbiologist, where she spent a few years channeling her inner mad scientist. Her debut novel, The Deadbringer, is the first book in The Ellderet Series and won a Finalist medal in the Fantasy category in the 2017 Next Generation Indie Book Awards.

She is a member of the Horror Writers Association.

I got to hear Eileen read for the first time this weekend at the Horror Writers Association event at FogCon.  She read a taste of The Deadbringer and its prequel, To Nurture and Kill. I can’t wait to have her tell you about them.


The ashes of the Purging lie cold, and the next dance is about to begin in the Land of Moenda. Kira Vidal, a Deadbringer boy of fifteen, has escaped the fate of the rest of his kind, living peacefully with his uncle in the northern city of Opulancae. But then a strange man knocks on their door and a band of the Ascendancy’s fearsome Sanctifiers appears, hunting for Kira, and nothing will ever be the same.

The Deadbringer, the first book in The Ellderet Series, is a story of damaged heroes and imperfect villains, of a land scarred by ancient wounds that never truly healed. As Kira and the Sanctifiers approach their final confrontation, hunter and hunted alike must confront dark forces that threaten to overwhelm them all . . .

E.M. Markoff weaves together epic fantasy, surrealism, and elements of horror to spin an intricate web of darkness.

The Deadbringer won a Finalist Medal in Fantasy from the Next Generation Indie Book Awards in 2017.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000040_00005]Did something in the real world inspire The Deadbringer?

Life, mostly, though I have always enjoyed writing short stories. (I have X-Men fanfic that will never see the light of day!) There was a lot going on in my life when I started writing The Deadbringer, but the biggest influence came toward the end of my mom’s life—the decisions that you have to make are painful. There’s a sense of loss that certain characters experience and their loss became my loss, their words my words.

Another factor that inspired me was that feeling of not knowing whether you belong, not being able to be close to people. E’sinea, one of the Sanctifiers in in The Deadbringer, suffers from this. But there is also hope in the real world, through friends or a partner. I wanted to show that as well.

And to not end this question on a doom-and-gloom note: my mom was a huge fan of older horror movies and shared that love with me. She also had the most amazing Mexican folktales to tell, which to her bordered on real. That most definitely had a positive influence in my life by showing me that the dark can be beautiful. It can have much to show and offer.

What is your favorite scene in the book—and why?

My favorite scene is toward the end, when things start to fall apart. Bad decisions come back to haunt certain characters, and it’s interesting to see how everyone reacts. The repercussions have carried over into the sequel to The Deadbringer, so I’m looking forward to further exploring them.

What was your writing process like as you wrote The Deadbringer?

There are two things I need to write: coffee and music. Music is such an inspiration for me. As long as I have those two things, I can write pretty much anywhere.

What was the best thing that happened during the promotion of the book?

The best thing that happened was when I got a few emails from readers asking what life was like for Eutau when he had to care for the infant Kira. How did he manage to care for an infant whose touch rots and who could recall souls? It blew my mind that people cared enough about my characters to email me. I remember getting crazy excited. Even now, the memory makes me smile. Those readers made To Nurture & Kill happen.

The other amazing thing that happened—and I attribute this specifically to the book—is that I made friends with a few of the book bloggers who read and enjoyed it. Having them in my life has made it fuller.

Oh, and there was that favorable Booklist review that picked up and pointed out the Mexican influence I injected into The Deadbringer. I think that was the first time I saw a review that explicitly stated that. That means a lot to me because, yes, The Deadbringer is fictional, but it was and is important to me to include my culture in the narrative.

What do you have planned next?

I’m currently working on the sequel to The Deadbringer, with expected publication later this year. After that’s published, I want to switch gears to another Ellderet Tale—this one focusing on Lyse and Daemeon. I also have a fairy tale in mind. As certain characters in my book are fond of saying, “Only Fortune knows what the future holds.”

You can buy a copy of The Deadbringer from Amazon.

Follow E. M. Markoff:


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FogCon: 2018

This weekend is my first convention of the year.  I’m looking forward to going back to FogCon in Walnut Creek, California. My schedule is light this year, but high quality.

Friday night at 8 pm, E. M. Markoff and I will represent the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Horror Writers Association for an event called The Spectrum of Horror.  Here’s my description of it:

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein combined horror with science fiction. Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde blended social commentary with the horrors of addiction. Members of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Horror Writers Association will read from their own works to illustrate all the genres included under the mantle of horror.

My plan is to read the opening of The Dangerous Type, one or two of the ghost stories from 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die, and parts of “Valentine,” from the new Alondra’s Experiences chapbook.

Directly following that will be the Broad Universe Rapid Fire Reading. Broad Universe is an international non-profit organization dedicated to promoting, encouraging, honoring, and celebrating women writers and editors in science fiction, fantasy, horror, and other speculative genres. Members will read selections from their works.

bu rfr 2018 2

I expect to read a snippet of “Catalyst” from the new Alondra’s Experiments chapbook and a scene or two from Lost Angels, the first succubus novel.

Finally, at 1:30 on Saturday afternoon, I’ll join some of the contributors to the Strange California anthology to discuss…well, let me quote the description: “Strange California, released Aug 2017, is filled with fresh and imaginative stories that go beyond the expected collection of an anthology—these stories explore, reflect, and reveal the state, its history, its secret history, its legends, and its many mythologies. California inspires and invites the imaginative, both weird and wonderful. This anthology celebrates that inspirational quality—the state and its people as muse—through 26 distinct stories. This panel will explore the genesis of those tales and reflect on a cultural consciousness inclined to the speculative–a physical and geographical region fueled by the commerce of story. From the point of conception through the Kickstarter process, this panel will explore the unique creation of Strange California and the State it highlights.”

The other panelists are Laura Blackwell, Marion Deeds, Karen Rochnik, and Juliette Wade.

I hope to read a little taste of “Guardian of the Golden Gate.” It will be the first time I read that story in public.

Borderlands will have my books in the Dealers Room.

I’ll be wandering around, so please say hi.


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