Interview: Jess Frankel
This week’s interview is with prolific author, Jess S Frankel. We sat down and talked about why he decided to traditionally publish his books, what success looks like to him, and what makes a good story. We even got him to tell us two of his phobias. They’ll definitely surprise you.
Jess: I was born in Toronto, Canada, a long time ago, grew up there and worked for three years. In 1988 I moved to Japan and I’ve been here ever since. Married a lovely lady from Osaka, and we made our home there. I teach ESL when I can and write at night.
CJ: That sounds like a very exciting adventure. What kind of cultural issues did you have when you moved there?
Jess: At first, it was the language barrier, naturally. But there were other things, mainly the sense of ‘otherness’, the sense of being an outsider which figures prominently in my novels. The word for foreigner in Japanese is ‘gaijin’ which literally means ‘outside person’ and that sense of being the ‘other’ has never really gone away. It never will. Just the way things work.
CJ: You have quite a few books published. Have you self-published them all?
Jess: No, I haven’t self-published, yet. The bulk of my novels are with Devine Destinies, a mid-size publisher in Canada. I have a few with Finch Books, and one with Regal Crest.
CJ: What made you decide to traditionally publish?
Jess: Then, as now, it was the rep that self-publishing had and still has, to a large degree. I’ve been fortunate enough to have read several fine self-published novels, but the vast majority have had several issues that made them somewhat sub-standard for me. I’m NOT against self-publishing; I AM against poor writing, and the number of self-published novels out there that are, in my opinion, not good, hurts the industry. With a traditional publisher, they handle the ISBN, the cover, and the editing. I’m fortunate that my publisher excels in all of those departments!
CJ: Sadly, that does tend to be the way self-published authors are looked at. There are so many that are amazingly written, edited, and packaged, but even one poor example can ruin the entire group. I’m glad that you had a good experience with your publishers. Would you mind giving us some information on the process you went through to secure a publisher and then through getting your books out there?
Jess: Sure. First, I asked around to see who was reliable, and a friend recommended Devine Destinies. I sent them a copy of Catnip, my first novel with them, and about a month later, they got back to me and sent me a contract. After that, they assigned an editor, Laura McNellis, who is GREAT and who’s taught me a lot and I still work with her, and we worked on the novel together. After that, we got the cover nailed down, done by Carmen Annette Waters, and the book came out about six years ago.
With publishing, traditional or not, the writer still has to do most of the advertising themselves. Gone are the days when the publisher would do everything. With so many books on the market, you have to advertise, so I do, mainly through Twitter and Facebook.
CJ: I see that Catnip is a series. Tell us about it.
Jess: Originally, I wrote it as a standalone, but a few people who read it and liked it said, “You’ve GOT to write a sequel!” And, to be honest, I left the ending of Catnip 1 open-ended, so doing a sequel wasn’t that difficult. I write fast, and once I get an idea, I run with it!
CJ: What was your inspiration for the storyline?
Jess: At that time, there was an article on the Internet about a young British lad who wondered why his brother was a redhead. It made me think about DNA and why we look how we look. My older son and I watched an animated feature where one villain is a cat-woman. So, the two ideas came together, and I ended up with Catnip.
CJ: You’ve got books other than your Catnip series. Are they standalone stories or parts of another series?
Jess: They’re both. For example, in terms of duologies, I have The Undernet, and Azrael: The Undernet 2 (These are VERY dark). The Titans of Ardana trilogy. The Just Another Quiet Little Place trilogy. Master Fantastic and The Return of Master Fantastic, a duology. The Associate and The Sindicate, another duology.
Standalones: The Incredible Aunty Awesomesauce, Ether, Picture (Im)perfect, and a few more. Upcoming standalones are Dating Mara Lontez, The Tower, The Hundredth Floor, and Iris Incredible.
CJ: With these stories published, at what point do you consider yourself a successful author?
Jess: There are different ways of defining success. Some would say if you’ve earned a lot of money, then you’re a success. By that definition, sadly, I fail. On the other hand, by putting out novels that are read and enjoyed and the very fact that I got published, then perhaps that’s a success. I think I’ll go with the latter definition.
CJ: I think that’s a great idea. What is it, do you think, that makes a good story?
Jess: I think it’s several things. The idea doesn’t have to be new. Most ideas aren’t. Vampires, ghosts, horror, terrorists, romance, knights, fae, monsters. Nothing is new. It’s what the writer does with it, how they twist and subvert it, that counts. You also need pacing, a tight narrative, and a good balance of narrative vs dialogue. All that, plus character development. Are they relatable or not? Are they likable? That, to me, makes a wonderful story.
CJ: Keeping all of that in mind, what do you find the hardest topic to write about?
Jess: Hm, good question. I have had no trouble writing about a topic per se, but then again, I haven’t explored every topic out there. For me, in my writing, if there is a sex scene, and I don’t always include them, then it’s difficult for me to write them without sounding pornographic! I have written about rape, murder, Internet crime, and child trafficking. That was in Azrael: The Undernet 2, and the research I had to do made me ill. It was necessary, but it was horrifying. I’d never do that again, and I would never go back to the Darknet again.
CJ: Yeah, that sounds rough. I’m sure that took a toll on you emotionally. When you have to write something like that, what do you do to get yourself back to normal?
Jess: I immediately get off the Internet and do nothing for a couple of days. I read books or watch lighthearted movies. The mind needs a break, and that’s how I relax.
CJ: It’s important that we keep a balance in our lives. How supportive has your family been?
Jess: My family understands why I do what I do. My wife is not a native speaker of English, although she speaks English well enough. She thinks my books are cool. My older son is twenty and speaks English quite well. He likes my books. My younger son just turned seventeen, he’s not interested, really. But they’ve said nothing negative about my writing endeavors, and I’m grateful for that.
CJ: Having a supportive family is important for success, I believe. So tell me, what comes first for you, the plot or the characters?
Jess: Plot first. Always plot first. The characters I fill in as I go along. Their quirks, tics, foibles, faults, whatever they get filled in along the way. But if I don’t have a story, then I’ve got nothing. You need a base and the plot is that base.
CJ: How long does it typically take you to write a book?
Jess: Most of my novels are short, roughly 67,500 words. The first draft takes me about three weeks. Seriously. At that point, it’s readable but not publishable. After that, I go through everything, weed out any plot bunnies, fix the grammar as best I can, etc, and that takes another two to three weeks. Then I send it off.
CJ: If you didn’t write, what would you do?
Jess: I’d probably keep teaching ESL and continue on with my editing sideline. It would be tough, but I’d make do.
CJ: We are just about out of time so I have one more fun question for you. Do you have any phobias or ticks?
Jess: You would have to ask that, wouldn’t you? One I used for Master Fantastic. It’s trypophobia. It’s not as severe in me as in some others, but it’s there. [Editor’s note: Trypophobia is an aversion to the sight of irregular patterns or clusters of small holes or bumps.]
The other is eggplant. Can’t eat it, can’t look at it. Even typing out the name makes me ill. Superman had Kryptonite. That’s my Kryptonite!
CJ: LOL! Well, those are very interesting. Thank you so much for sitting with me tonight, Jess. I really enjoyed myself.
Jess: Thank you so much! I had a great time.
You can connect with Jess via these avenues: