Q&A With New York Times Bestselling Author Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

by Vincent Salera 26 Oct 2018

Q: Your latest book is The Antiquities Hunter about a private detective named Gina Miyoko, who must go undercover in the Mexican jungle to hunt down a mysterious antiquities dealer. Can you tell us a little more about the story?

A: I can’t say too much without giving spoilers, but I will say that it all starts with Gina’s best friend, Rose—who’s a National Park Service agent—being stalked and threatened. Naturally, both women want to know why and suspect it’s because of the undercover work that Rose does to prevent cultural treasures from getting into the hands of unscrupulous collectors, dealers and even museums.

In the course of a sting staged to catch a dealer in looted Native American artifacts, Rose and Gina stumble across a much bigger and more lucrative network of thievery. Rose’s undercover unit plans a sting operation to smoke out a big time dealer who’s moving artifacts that hint at a previously unknown archaeological treasure trove in Central America, but things get dangerous and it’s Gina who ends up being the key player in the sting.

It’s very much a story about things and people not being what they seem.

Q: The Antiquities Hunter has Gina Miyoko as the female lead. Was the inspiration for her character due to the huge trend in female lead roles in TV and movies such as Wonder Woman and The Black Widow?

A: Not at all. I conceived the idea for Gina ”Tinkerbell” Miyoko over a decade ago and have been dreaming up adventures for her ever since. As with many of my characters, the seed inspiration for her was a dream that I barely remember.

There was also the fact that I was reading a lot of mystery fiction and noticed that most female P.I.s were almost tragically broken and/or abandoned people. V.I. Warshawski and Kinsey Milhone were both orphaned, for example. Stephanie Plum is destitute and alone after divorcing her cheating husband. Heck, even Nancy Drew had lost her mother.

Most of these wome were loners and had very little in the way of a support network—or at least failed to recognize their support network. They fit in nowhere. I wanted to create a female P.I. who had her family intact. They might be quirky and even strange, but they’d be there and she’d ”fit” with them.

She’d have had tragedy and trauma in her life, like people do, and she’d be bruised, but not shattered. I think the prologue of the book is really a thumbnail sketch of who Gina is.

Q: Can you please let us know more about your writing career journey from sketching science fiction comic books to becoming a New York Times bestselling author?

A: Phillip K. Dick said we should be ”content with the mysterious.” I flat out fell in love with it. That initial charge of adrenaline I got at the age of six when Dad let me watch The Day the Earth Stood Still and Outer Limits, transformed into a fascination with the mysterious.

When I was twelve years old, I was pretty sure that if Muhammad was right and everyone drew a ”quarter of the heaven to which he turned,” my heaven would be an infinite series of missions exploring the universe in the Starship Enterprise.

So, I’d been making up and illustrating stories since I was a kid and when I discovered science fiction, my comics shifted inevitably in that direction. When I was eleven or twelve I started writing prose versions of my little space comics. My first SF stories were written longhand in scented teal ink. In junior high, I discovered Edgar Allen Poe and fell in love with dark fantasy, too.

Then, in high school I swung a deal with my English teacher, Mr. Wilson, that instead of reading dreadful but allegedly profound books full of glaring symbolism, I’d write him three poems or a short story.

For one assignment I came up with a 6000 word dark fantasy / horror novelette, but Mr. Wilson informed me that no magazines bought anything over 3000 words. I knew I couldn’t tell the story I’d written in fewer than 6000 words because I’d done just what Poe recommended—taking out everything extraneous until the story would fall apart if I removed any more.

Depressed, I stopped writing for a time. When I was in my early twenties, I started again, inspired by the music I was listening to, that suggested story-lines to me. I even created a mix tape as a sort of outline for a novel that turned out to be 1100 pages long.

I only submitted it to one publisher and while they were intrigued enough to write back and tell me I had a good ”voice”, they felt the book just started too slowly. You can tell, I think, that I had a length problem. I still despaired of being able to write anything near 3000 words and figured I’d never get published.

Then I came across a box of Dell magazines at a flea market—Analog, Asimov’s, Ellery Queen and Hitchcock’s. I bought the whole box and read them and fell in love all over again, most especially with Analog and, through his editorials, its editor Stan Schmidt.

When I overheard my husband and father-in-law talking about the fact that Santa Barbara had made it illegal to be homeless within city limits, the idea for my first published piece of fiction was born. I finished it at 19,500 words and flying in the face of everyone’s advice, I submitted it to my favorite magazine, Analog.

I figured it might not be hard SF, but I knew Stan Schmidt would like the story. I was shocked when he sent it back with a three page letter telling me he was buying it. (Take that, Mr. Wilson!)

That opened the flood gates, and I started writing short fiction as if I needed it to live (which was not too far from the truth). It was all SF, but then one night I had a definitely epic fantasy dream and wrote it down and some time later came up with what I’d planned to be a novelette that morphed into a novel (The Meri), then grew into a trilogy.

When Marc Zicree (who wrote one of my favorite episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space 9) introduced me to Michael Reaves and we started writing together, Michael brought me into the Star Wars expanded universe and we did three novels together, including the New York Times Bestseller, The Last Jedi (No, not THAT Last Jedi. Our story is an original piece that was released in 2013 as the fourth book in the Coruscant Nights series.)

In that time, I’ve written alternate history, urban fantasy, magical realism, steampunk and mystery. I realize my taste in reading and food is similarly eclectic.

Q: What are the ingredients for a blockbuster story to you?

A: For me there are a number of key ingredients in a story that engage a reader.

I think the first are the characters—not just the protagonist, but the people you choose to surround that character with. I think this is why the loner detective doesn’t work for me: the stuff of story is in the relationships between characters.

Another key ingredient is a strong idea—an idea that’s unique in some way, and yet that gives the reader just enough familiar places or situations or concepts to allow them to get grounded between the moments that you throw them into alien territory or scare them into thinking reality has taken a holiday or whatever this particular story requires.

Then there’s the craft side. We have words like pacing and tempo and dynamics to describe some of the elements in a blockbuster or page-turner. And, yes, I realize that sounds like I’m talking about music. I’m also a musician so I really see the similarities.

Ultimately, I think a novel that engages the reader is like a roller coaster and it takes the reader through a ramping up of action and/or emotion punctuated by wild loops, rises and drops—reveals, horrific moments, defeats, victories.

Long story short: I think a blockbuster combines characters that get into the reader’s head and heart with a story of escalating stakes, action, and emotion, while artfully revealing things that the reader feels they simply must know.

In other words, I think most engaging fiction has a mystery buried in it somewhere that piques the reader’s curiosity. And it does this in an immersive way. The reader gets to live in the story and feel the characters’ emotions. I love to read that sort of story and I hope to write them.

Q: Do you have any advice to aspiring writers?

A: * Write what you love, then find a market for it.

* Know your tools—words. Mark Twain wrote that a writer should always use the right word, not its second cousin. Know how powerful words are and how to use them to achieve the effect you want. When you read a story that lights you up, dissect it; figure out what the writer did that made you feel that way, then see if you can do it.

* There’s no right method of writing. At the end of the writing day, Hemingway always stopped in the middle of a sentence. Doesn’t work for me—I just floundered like a beached whale. I jot notes to myself about where I’m going next, and read back what I wrote the day before. That may or may not work for you. Find your way of working, then be flexible about it. Every story may be different. I guess the real advice here is, know yourself.

* Shoot for the moon. Submit your story where you would most like to see it published. The worst thing they can say is ”no.”

Q: What story do you enjoy reading over and over again?

A: There are a couple: Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (ditto Zen and the Art of Writing which are his essays on writing). Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe.

Q: How would you increase literacy?

A: I’ve done it in my own family by reading to my kids since they were tiny and surrounding them with books. All three of them went through a phase in which they actually slept with books as if they were stuffed animals. Our schools need to do a better job of encouraging or even training parents to do this (which might make them read more themselves).

Books and the ideas in them are treasure. And while I’ve always felt that to the depths of my soul and taught my kids to think that way, too many parents and educators don’t. I think we need to frame reading as a reward and treasure, a way to visit strange new places, experience things you can’t in daily life. I had teachers that did that when I was growing up—a trip to the school library was a reward for a quiet study time or a speedily dispatched test.

When my older daughter was in fifth grade, the school had a reading program that gave the kids rewards for reading 100, 500, or 1000 pages over time. The teacher asked my daughter what she wanted as a reward for hitting 1000. ”Books,” she said. Her younger sister, who’s now a junior in high school, came home from a neighbor’s house when she was five or so absolutely horrified that the poor girl had no books at all in her home.

Forget a chicken in every pot. We need books in every home.

Q: What is your favorite drink while writing and/or reading?

A: Good, strong English tea. Not that wimpy stuff that gets sent to the States, but the real deal. You have to go to import stores like Cost Plus to get it here, though I’ve also begged my British friends to send or bring the store brand from Tesco.

My youngest daughter went to London with her high school marching band to march in the London New Year’s Day parade and came back with a tin of English tea just for me. I used the last bag yesterday, alas.

Q: What is your favorite genre of music?

A: Rock, broadly speaking. My favorite band right now is Silversun Pickups—their drummer is amazing—but I also love the classics: Pink Floyd, Blue Oyster Cult, Deep Purple, Rush—and everything in between.

Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews, Tool, Imogen Heap, Incubus. But I have to say, one of my favorite listens is Antonio Vivaldi’s Gloria mass in D minor. It’s a choral piece. Oddly I also love marching band music . . . .

Q: What is your favorite movie, TV show, superhero?

A: My favorite movie is Big Trouble in Little China. There. I said it. My favorite TV show . . . that’s harder. We watch almost exclusively science fiction and fantasy shows.

I guess if I had to choose from what we’re currently watching it would be Star Trek: Discovery or Doctor Who.

Q: What series have or will you binge?

A: We’ve binged on a number of shows. My faves have been Grimm (we got into the game late and had to catch up), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which we do every once in a while so the kids are thoroughly up to speed), and Bones.

Q: If heaven exists, what is the first thing you would like to hear from God when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

A: You were helpful and made people happy.

Q: What ice cream flavor would you invent?

A: Nutmeg. There should be nutmeg flavored ice cream. No cinnamon, nothing else, just nutmeg.

Q: What’s on the horizon for Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff?

A: Hopefully, more Gina Miyoko novels—I’m working on a second one now. I love this character and have a bunch of novels outlined to one extent or another. A couple of them are bouncing up and down squealing ”Pick me! Pick me!”

Beyond that, my marvelous agent has a number of novels in several genres out trying to intrigue publishers. And, of course, I continue to ghostwrite.

My husband, Jeff, and I are also getting songs together for another album. We have three original music albums and four parody albums out and just released the fourth, Schrödinger’s Hairball earlier this year (all available from CDBaby and Bandcamp).

You can get a copy of The Antiquities Hunter at AMAZON.com

 

Vincent Salera

Founder CEO/CCO @ World's Best Story™ amplifier of creativity & fun!