Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Kelley Armstrong on borrowed birthmarks and why she doesn't do villains

The fantasy and mystery writer answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Kelley Armstrong is the author of the thriller City of the Lost. (Random House Canada / Kathryn Hollinrake)

Kelley Armstrong has levelled up with her latest novel, City of the Lost. The thriller was originally published as a six-part serial on Kobo, and with every instalment, Armstrong ratcheted up the tension. Before long, the tale of a talented detective and the lengths she'll go to protect a friend became the e-reader's bestselling serial of all time.

Below, Armstrong takes the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A. 

1. Erin Bow asks, "Do you love your villains?"

I don't often have what I consider villains. I have antagonists, and I have characters with 
questionable motives (which may also include my protagonists!) I like to give the antagonists as much depth as the focus characters, though. If I've done my job right, I should enjoy writing both equally.

2. Rachel Cusk asks, "Name some of the rituals or habits you indulge in while writing."

I usually have coffee at my side, on a coffee warmer because I'll be there long enough for it to 
go cold. Ideally I work in a recliner with a laptop. A busy schedule, though, means I've learned to work almost anywhere, under any conditions.

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3. Heather O'Neill asks: "What's the strangest thing you've done while researching a book?"

There's a caving scene in City of the Lost. I love amateur caving, but a mild case of claustrophobia means I usually sit out when others go through an optional squeeze. I did one while writing the book, though, because I wanted that sense of the character experiencing it for the first time.

4. William Deverell asks, "How much faith do you put in bestseller lists?"

I won't lie. I'm fond of seeing "#1 NYT Bestselling Author" on my books. But I'm also very aware of exactly what it means, only that I write the kind of books that have enough readers waiting for an installment that they buy it on release week. Another book can ultimately sell more copies, but just not in a brief enough timespan to hit a list.

5. Shyam Selvadurai asks, "Writers often use their own life as a springboard for fiction. Could you relate a real incident in your life and then tell us how it got changed into fiction?"

When I travelled to the Yukon to research City of the Lost, we hadn't even quite left Whitehorse when a bear ambled onto the road, and I swear it slowed down as it glared at us, as if saying it knew we'd wait for it to cross. It was such a perfect image of arriving in the north — where humans are at the mercy of nature — that I used it in the book for the main character's arrival. 

6. Rudy Wiebe asks, "Why do you write?"

To entertain. I grew up as a voracious reader and for me that just naturally led to writing. I started telling stories to entertain myself and learned that they sometimes entertain others, too. That's my ultimate goal: to tell a good and entertaining story.

7. Russell Smith asks, "Have you ever stolen someone else's idea?"

I may have inadvertently borrowed an element. I'm still not entirely sure that's where it came from, but I prefer to admit the possibility rather than deny it. In one of my YA novels, the main character has a pawprint-shaped birthmark. On my daughter's second read-through, she remembered another book we'd both read where the main character has a pawprint-shaped tattoo. It was so close to publication — and it was such an important plot element — that I couldn't change it. 

A couple of years later, I was on tour with that author and confessed. She laughed. 

8. Nazneen Sheikh asks, "Have you ever been frightened by what you write? How and why?" 

Never. Considering I've written horror, that's probably the wrong answer. Or it explains why I'm well suited to writing horror.