Every author needs a debut. It doesn't matter what you've written before, or how long you've been doing it; your first novel is an awesome experience and should be celebrated. Locally, we're always seeing new books come out from first-time authors, ranging from children's books to erotica. On March 14, we'll see the official debut from Caryn Larrinaga, as she presents Donn's Hill
at Weller Book Works with a special live reading and book signing party. Before that happens, we chat with her about her career so far and writing this novel, as well as what she has on her plate coming up. (All pictures provided courtesy of Larrinaga.
Gavin: Hey Caryn, first thing, tell us a bit about yourself.
Hi Gavin! Well, I’m a writer who is finally seeing her childhood dream of becoming a published novelist come true. My debut novel Donn’s Hill
, which is a paranormal mystery, was released earlier this month. I write mostly horror and mysteries—anything with ghosts, monsters or magic/superpowers. I’m Basque (with a little Irish thrown in), and I’m very proud of my heritage and my culture. I live in Davis County with my husband and our cats, and I’m lucky enough to spend most of my time at home working with a cat on or near my lap.
What kind of books did you read growing up? Any personal favorite authors?
My parents exposed me to a good blend of books, and I can’t ever remember them saying “No” when I asked them to buy me a paperback or five at the bookstore. I remember reading a lot of Boxcar Children
, Baby-Sitters Club
comics. Then when I was in the fifth grade, I bought a copy of The Cat Who Went into the Closet
by Lilian Jackson Braun at the Scholastic Book Fair because it had the word “cat” in the title. It was about
a journalist in his 50s who solves a murder mystery with the help of his extra-intelligent Siamese cat. I was hooked. I bought and read every book in the series, and her books not only inspired me to try my hand at journalism (turns out I’m better at writing fiction), but eventually to write a cozy mystery of my own, Donn’s Hill
. My other favorite authors include Rita Mae Brown, Stephen King, Steven Brust and Kurt Vonnegut.
Prior to your writing career, what had you been doing both work and education wise?
I’ve wandered around a little bit, career-wise. While in college, I worked for a web design firm and then ran a small embroidery and screen printing business with my dad. I graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in anthropology, because I loved the courses and the subject matter. I didn’t have any desire to continue on to grad school and actually be able to get a job in an anthropology-related field, so I just got a job at an insurance company and bumped around in that industry for a few years. In 2015, I took a brief sabbatical from work to focus on writing, and during that period I wrote Donn’s Hill
. Now I do part-time freelance systems administration and write fiction with the other half of my day, and the balance works really well for me.
When did you decide you wanted to pursue a career as a novelist?
It started with some disappointing news at work: I found out I wasn’t getting a promotion I’d been working towards for over a year. At first, I was really bummed out. I started looking for another job to see if I could climb the ladder at another company. But I realized that no matter where I worked, I’d essentially be doing the same thing: I’d be giving most of my day and most of my energy to help further someone else’s cause and someone else’s dreams. I’d be coming home at night too mentally exhausted to finish any of my writing projects, and—at best—my pile of half-drafted and partially-written novels would just keep growing. So my husband and I cooked up a crazy scheme, socked away a little savings
and I quit my job to write full-time until the money ran out and I had to go back to work. It was worth it. I wrote and edited my first novel during that break, proving to myself that I could finish a project that size, and I started querying about the same time that I started doing freelance systems administration work.
What was it like for you first starting out and finding your voice?
It was challenging, for sure. At first, I was trying to emulate the sort of loftier voices of the fantasy authors that I was reading while I tried to write high and urban fantasy novels. Nothing I wrote felt right to me; some friends and I got together for a critique group a few times, and I think I threw the first chapter of a new, different project at them every single time we met. Then I beta-read a novel for my friend Mary Catherine Gebhard, and I loved the way that reading her book felt like sitting next to her on a barstool, listening to her tell me a story. That’s when the concept of “voice” really clicked for me. I finally understood that the book has to sound like the narrator is really telling you that story. Maybe the narrator is the main character, maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s Rod Sterling. But I started to form a picture in my head of that person who was the storyteller, and my writing stopped sounding wrong to me.
What was it like for you publishing Hide & Seek and Apocalypse Utah?
They were pretty different experiences. I self-published Hide & Seek
, so every inch of work on that one had to be done or managed by me. It was a slow process. But for Apocalypse Utah
, it was much more hands off. The team at Griffin Publishers handled the cover design, interior layout, distribution, etc. I really only had to worry about my own small piece—my short story “The Fishermen”—and work with the editors to make sure the story was publication-ready. I feel like I submitted my story, did a couple of rounds of editing with their team and was suddenly able to hold the anthology in my hands with my name among so many other great local authors on the cover.
You originally self-published, but then teamed up with Griffin Publishers and Immortal Works. What made you start off indie and then eventually go to a publisher?
After writing Donn’s Hill
, I was trying to figure out what route I wanted to take to get my novel out there. I spent a lot of time online in writing and self-publishing forums, reading the debates. There are people out there who are die-hard indies, who think partnering with a publisher is the dumbest idea ever, and there are people who claim the exact opposite, and then an entire spectrum of opinions in between. I’m a learn-by-doing kind of person, so I wanted to test the waters of self-publishing and see if that felt like the right route. I’d written Hide & Seek
while waiting for some editing to come back on Donn’s Hill
, and it felt like a good project to test. You can’t self-pub something and then expect a press to re-publish the same project, so I had to be okay with falling on my face and having zero success with Hide & Seek
. To my surprise, I liked it a lot. I’m kind of a control freak and I enjoyed overseeing every aspect of the project, from cover design to interior layout to working with the narrator for the audiobook version. I didn’t know what I was doing and I made a lot of mistakes, but I learned things that I think are important whether you’re going indie or working with a publisher, like how to market yourself. It was also a ton of work, and I decided I wanted to partner with someone who knew what they were doing—a publisher—on my debut novel. I started querying, and nine months later, I landed a contract with Immortal Works. It’s been a great experience, and I’m really glad I’ve been able to see publishing from both the self-pub and the small-press perspectives.
How did the concept for Donn's Hill first come about?
It was inspired by an experience my mother had with a poltergeist when I was a baby. We were staying in my grandmother’s old house, which I am convinced is haunted, and something tipped all of the kitchen chairs and balanced them against the table at a precarious angle while my mother was out of the room for a few seconds. There was nobody else in the house that could have done it. I love hearing about people’s scary and spooky experiences, and I started thinking about how cool it would be to visit a super haunted town, where paranormal occurrences are considered normal. I made a place like that up in my head and put that poltergeist who scared my mom smack dab in the middle of it. And thanks to the influence of Lilian Jackson Braun, the story naturally turned into a murder mystery.
What was the process like for you in putting the book together?
I wrote the first draft over about eight weeks. At first, it was just another project and I wasn’t sure if I could finish it. But then, just after I started writing it, our cat Striker passed away. She had lived to the impressive old age of 20 before getting cancer. It hit me really hard; we’d gotten her when I was 11 and she’d left the house with me when I got married. She’d been in my life for two-thirds of it, and losing her was as painful as losing any human friend would be. So I wrote her into the book, as herself, so that she could live on forever and keep having adventures and doing cat things. Her presence in the story really motivated me to keep going. Every day that I sat down to write, I got to imagine what she’d be doing in Donn’s Hill and how she’d be impacting the lives of the people there. That motivation got me through that tricky first draft faster than I ever thought possible. After that, I did two rounds of revision on my own. Then I sent it to a few beta readers and a developmental editor and revised some more based on their feedback. Once I felt it was strong enough, I started querying agents and then editors. Just when I was on the verge of giving up, I got the offer from Immortal Works to publish it!
What were some of the first reactions to it from people you showed it to?
Surprisingly good! I read every chapter aloud to my husband as I finished it, and he was very encouraging. Then in a moment of panic, I sent the first half to my parents, sure that they were going to tell me that it was horrible and I should just stop right now. Of course, they didn’t. They told me it was awesome and that I had to finish. But I remained full of self-doubt, suspicious that they all loved it the same way a parent loves every picture their kids draws of a lopsided house and smiley-faced sun. It took the positive feedback of a small army of beta readers to really make me start believing what my husband and parents had been telling me all along. Sorry, guys. I should never have doubted you, or myself.
Now that the book is almost out, what do you hope people take away from it?
Honestly, I just hope they enjoy the time they spend reading it. And that some people are willing to spend the time reading it at all! It’s a fun story with some dark undertones, and I had a great time writing it. If a reader turns the last page and thinks, “I’d like to visit Donn’s Hill,” that’d be awesome. Huge bonus if they read about a spunky little tortoiseshell cat and are inspired to rescue an animal from their local shelter.
On March 14, you'll be holding a release party at Weller Book Works. What will you be doing at the event?
I’ll be reading a short excerpt from the novel, signing copies and probably jumping up and down and hugging a lot of people. And crying. Definitely crying. We’ll also have a few prize drawings.
Without giving too much away, what are you working on next?
Right now, I’m editing my second novel, which is an urban fantasy. After that, I’ll start working on the sequel to Donn’s Hill
. I can’t wait to return to that little town in my head and continue the story of its residents.
What can we expect from you over the rest of 2017?
It’s going to be a busy year! I’ll be at my publisher’s table at FanX, hopefully selling some books and signing copies. I’ll also be presenting at the League of Utah Writers Spring Conference in April, attending Fyre Con in June, and really just trying to get out there and meet readers and spread the word about my published works. If all goes well with my second novel, it could be out as early as late 2017. I’m also hoping to get a few more short stories written and submitted to contests. Basically, I’m just going to keep working, keep writing and keep building on my successes. Readers can keep up with my convention and signing schedule at www.carynlarrinaga.com.