Author Interview: Anthony Lee Collins Discusses Serial Fiction, Creating a World and Writing for an Online Audience

Happy New Year’s Eve, everyone! I’m pleased to share a special Seven Questions interview with you today by the most frequent commenter here on this blog. He leaves insightful, thought-provoking remarks, which often trigger ideas for new blog posts, and it’s an honor to feature him today. 

Anthony Lee Collins’ fiction mixes contemporary speculative and supernatural elements with a classic, elegant style. This hybrid of old and new resonates throughout his novels and stories.

Even the way he offers his work to the world—as serials—references old-fashioned forms of entertainment while using his website to deliver the content.

Anthony’s novels and stories take place within U-town, a technology-free community that has splintered off from the rest of society and lives by its own rules. U-town feels like it exists in the future, but the laws that have developed (and especially the ones that haven’t) give the place a compelling wild west flavor. The mail is delivered each day to the bridge that marks the beginning of the community, for instance, and from there an irascible girl named Ron pedals it to its destinations on her bike.

The Jan Sleet Mysteries, a collection that Anthony is currently posting online–one story at the start of each month–features the cool-as-a-cucumber detective Jan Sleet, who regularly solves inscrutable mysteries while wearing a well-tailored suit. The narrator Marshall tags along, reporting on Jan’s feats with dry humor, pithy insights and plenty of affection.

“My employer was wearing a snugly tailored black three-piece suit with a yellow silk shirt and a black tie,” Marshall notes in a story that Anthony has since edited out of the collection. “The yellow handkerchief in her breast pocket was folded to display three sharp points, and her glasses and cane were polished. Six feet tall and thin to the point of emaciation, she was a striking and unusual figure anywhere (or at least anywhere we’d ever been, and we’d been to a lot of places since I’d started to work for her), but especially so in U-town, where it sometimes seemed as though people were issued a T-shirt and a pair of jeans when they crossed the bridge.”

Anthony’s work is well-suited to the Internet. It’s plot-driven entertainment featuring carefully crafted characters with strong personalities. The Jan Sleet Mysteries take the best of the hard-boiled detective genre, while updating it for modern-day sensibilities. The stories, which feature a novel-like arc, are full of strong women, unconventional relationships and people being whoever they want to be because U-town imposes fewer societal constructs than the outside world.

Anthony’s novella, Stevie One, is available online through his website, as is his novel A Sane Woman.

Welcome to the Seven Questions Series, Anthony!

Thanks for having me. I am stepping into illustrious company here, I know.

1. Tell us about The Jan Sleet Mysteries.

Anthony's first full-length novel, A Sane Woman, is available online.

Anthony’s first full-length novel, A Sane Woman, is available online.

Well, Jan Sleet is an amateur detective. She was in my first novel, A Sane Woman, which was a mystery but not a conventional mystery (though she does get to gather the suspects at the end). Then she was a major character in U-town, my second novel, but that wasn’t a mystery story.

So, I thought it would be good to give her a conventional mystery to solve. I thought she’d enjoy that. So, I wrote her a mystery story.

A couple of things about that experience surprised me. One was that it was a lot of fun. The other was that working in the form of a mystery story enabled me to write a short story, which I’d never been able to do before. Until then, I’d only been able to write novels.

So, I started to write more Jan Sleet mystery stories, and as I went along they started to connect to form a longer story, too, since novels are what I’m used to writing.

2. These stories are narrated by Marshall, Jan’s level-headed assistant. His steady presence as the narrator helps pull the individual pieces together so they form a cohesive collection that could even be considered a novel-in-stories, as you mentioned. Was that your intention? And why did you choose Marshall–instead of Jan Sleet, for instance–as your narrator?

I’ll try to keep this brief, but there are three answers to that question. 🙂

The short answer is that Jan Sleet is smarter than I am, and I don’t think I could pull off writing her in first person.

The longer answer goes back to the nature of fictional detectives, who, in very (very) general terms, fall into two categories: leg-work and brain-work. With leg-work detectives–who are often professional investigators–you can do first person quite well. But with the brain-work ones, the eccentric smarty-pants like Nero Wolfe, Philo Vance, Gideon Fell, and Hercule Poirot, you always show them from the outside, either in third person or through the eyes of a Watson. Part of the fun is the theatrics of gathering all the suspects and revealing all at the end (and not before the end). And Jan Sleet is very much an eccentric smarty-pants detective.

The real answer is that I kind of stumbled into it, as usual. As I stumbled into the novel-in-stories aspect of the series.

3. Your fiction always takes place in the same location, U-town. Do you consider it a dystopian or utopian society? Tell us a few ways U-town differs from the rest of the world.

Seven Questions LogoI have seen a couple of different definitions of “dystopian” (one is more general, that it’s a really bad and oppressive place to live; the other is more specific, that it’s a failed attempt at a utopia). I’m not sure which is the correct definition, but U-town is neither of those.

On the other hand, it is not a utopia either. In fact, it’s a joke quite late in the novel U-town that somebody points out to the woman who founded it that “U-town” is very close to “Utopia.” This comes as a surprise to her, as it had to me when I’d figured it out myself earlier that day.

This is why it’s difficult to write characters who are supposed to be smarter than I am. They miss things that they should see, because I miss them.

U-town differs in several ways from from the world we live in. There are no computers or cell phones (and almost no landline phones). No Internet. No cars or trucks.

The part I enjoy in particular about writing this way is the lack of computers. I like writing on computers, but I don’t like writing (or reading) about them. If I’m reading a story and the characters spent a lot of time and energy tapping on computer keyboards, I quickly lose interest.

It’s also a bit of a comment on how some people these days can’t imagine how anybody lived before computers and cell phones. As is shown in the movie Moonrise Kingdom, which takes place in 1965, people wrote letters. It worked really well.

4. Some of your U-town stories involve supernatural characters or events. What made you decide to keep the mysteries more realistic? Did that choice cause any difficulties in terms of avoiding certain situations or characters?

The key thing is that you can’t ever have supernatural elements affect the mystery and its solution. For example, you can’t have a locked room mystery and then reveal at the end that one of the suspects can teleport. So, there are characters in the mysteries who may not be human, but their special abilities, if any, aren’t relevant to the mystery or the solution.

5. Why did you decide to publish online serials? Were you inspired by any particular old-fashioned print ones?

I started publishing online serials because I was already publishing serials (on paper, in chapbook from), and then I discovered the world of BBSs (dial-up Bulletin Boards Systems) in the early 1990s. So, again, I sort of stumbled into it.

My enthusiasm for serial stories mostly doesn’t come from literature (as my inspirations in general mostly don’t come from books–I’m far more influenced by movies, comic books, and old-time radio drama).

I think my passion for serial stories probably started with Dark Shadows, a daily Gothic soap opera that definitely warped my brain when I was an impressionable youth. It had the same effect on Johnny Depp, Tim Burton, and Michelle Pfeiffer, which is why they did the movie version recently.

Later on I discovered old radio serials, and some other things like Stephen King’s The Green Mile. I was at the bookstore waiting for each installment when that came out. And when I started reading comic books they were moving more and more to serial stories covering several issues, as opposed to the self-contained one-issue stories which had been more standard before.

6. You have been writing and publishing serial fiction online for more than twenty years, Anthony. How does the knowledge that you’ll be publishing online affect the content of your work, its length and your creative process in general?

The content is exactly what it would be if I published in another form. And the length is the same as far as the overall length of the work goes. A Sane Woman was around 42,000 words. U-town was around 170,000 words. I let stories be as long as they need to be.

What is very different is the pacing. With a serial, you have to reward the readers on a pretty regular basis to keep them on board. A good analogy would be that a conventional novel is like a movie. Once the audience is in their seats, they’re unlikely to walk out of the theater in the middle. But a serial novel is like a television show, where every commercial break is a chance for your readers to wander off. So, for each break you need a hook, to make them want to stick around.

This does not mean a cliffhanger. I read that once in a very authoritative-sounding blog post from someone who had never actually written a serial story. That’s the old Hardy Boys formula, a cliffhanger at every chapter break, and it was annoying even when I was a kid.

A hook can be a lot of things. A cliffhanger, a joke, a tender moment, a surprise, a challenge, a kiss, or a detective saying, “Gather the suspects.”

7. Any advice to those who aspire to publish serials in terms of not writing oneself into a corner? Do you ever go back and revise your work after posting it online?

My only advice is to plant things for later, even if you don’t know yet what they will grow into. In Joss Whedon’s commentary for the pilot episode of Firefly, he pointed out a few elements that he placed in the story because he knew he’d use them in later episodes (though he had no idea yet how). That’s about how it works.

As for rewriting, again there are a few different answers.

Typos always get fixed, as soon as I become aware of them.

As I’m posting a story, I’m always going over the parts that have already been posted, making sure things fit together. If I see problems as I do that, I fix them. This is referring to problems with words and punctuation–significant plot points are never changed once they’ve been posted.

Only once did I ever have to make a plot adjustment, and that was pretty minor. There were people reacting to something they couldn’t have know about yet (some things get more difficult when nobody has phones), so I had to create something else for them to react to. I doubt if anybody ever noticed the change. It didn’t affect the overall plot.

Right now I’m going through the Jan Sleet Mysteries, one per month, fixing some things (most small, a few medium-sized) based on some feedback. No significant plot points are being changed. One minor character was removed from one story. That’s about it.

Thanks again for having me, Laura.

Thank you, Anthony, for participating in the Seven Questions Series and for being such a vocal presence here in this online community.

You can read his blog and learn more here. His most recently completed novella, set in U-town, is Stevie One. Read The Jan Sleet Mysteries here. Or check out A Sane Woman, also featuring Jan Sleet, which is available online and for free on the Kindle. And finally, here’s Anthony’s novel U-town.

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
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18 Responses to Author Interview: Anthony Lee Collins Discusses Serial Fiction, Creating a World and Writing for an Online Audience

  1. Thanks for having me, Laura. As I said at the beginning, I feel honored to be included in the Seven Questions series. (Plus it was a lot of fun. 🙂 )

  2. Wonderful interview, Anthony and Laura! I always love learning more about you, Anthony! 🙂

  3. Carrie Rubin says:

    Interesting take on using first- or third-person narrative for different types of detectives. Hadn’t thought of this before.

    • As I say, I’m talking in very general terms, and a lot of detective characters are a bit of a mixture (Sherlock Holmes had pretty much all of the attributes of both groups, for example). I think detectives are a particular instance of the general fact that storytelling is the art of selectively revealing and concealing information. I’ve learned a lot about that from watching Hitchcock movies. He was master at controlling what the audience knew and when.

  4. Great interview, Laura. I have nominated you for the 2012 Blog of the Year. Happy New Year.

  5. Maggie says:

    I liked your answers, Anthony! I’m also confused by people who can’t seem to imagine what life was like before computers/cell phones.

  6. annewoodman says:

    Laura, I write a lot of Q&As, and this was an especially interesting one! Thanks for sharing it with us. I really liked Anthony’s answer about “leg-work” detectives and “brain-work” detectives. I’ve read a lot of mysteries but have never written one, and I guess I never considered the first-person narration (in mysteries) in quite this way. The way he described it made a lot of sense.

    I hope you have a very Happy New Year!

    • I read very few contemporary mysteries so I’m not sure how it divides out these days, but in the 1920s through 1960s the difference between the two schools was pretty obvious. One of the many things I love about the Nero Wolfe mysteries was the way they had both a street-wise leg-man and a reclusive smarty-pants and had them work together. That could have been a gimmick, of course, but it wasn’t.

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