Monday, November 2, 2009

Some Sacred Questions: The Alison Janssen Interview

By Steve Weddle

If I had known Alison Janssen was this smart and funny, I would have asked better questions. I mean, I knew she was smart and funny. Just not this smart and funny.

When Joelle Charbonneau told me about her trip to Bouchercon last month, she said she’d met this really cool chick called Alison Janssen and was going roller derby-ing with her. I said, “Hey, I know that really cool chick.” This summer I’d ordered a box of novels from Bleak House Books, where Alison had worked. In addition to the books, she’d included a hand-written note about how she’d put in a hardback instead of the paperback of a book and hoped I enjoyed them. A hand-written note. Like ink on paper and all. Like going to some trouble for a dork like me. Anyway, I thought it was super cool.

This summer she and Ben LeRoy left BHB to found Tyrus Books.

I caught up with her via the electronic mailing system to ask her about the new gig, ebooks, and roller derby.

SW: Of course, I know everything about roller derby because I’m really cool. But let’s say I have a friend who doesn’t know anything about it. You got a quick crash course on what he’d need to know? Sport? Entertainment? Wagering?

AJ: Well, I can certainly direct you to helpful Web sites, like, and But the basic gist is two teams, each fielding 5 players at a time. 4 of those players are blockers (and pivots), and they skate all together to form the pack. 1 player from each team is designated as the jammer, and she scores the points for her team. She does this by lapping the pack as often as she can, and scoring one point per opposing player whom she passes legally. So, jammers sprint and juke and blockers ... block.

Makes total sense, right?! Game play is broken down into jams, each of which can last up to two minutes (but often they are shorter). Skaters are simultaneously playing offense and defense -- as a blocker, it's my job to help my jammer and hinder the opposing jammer.

And there's hitting, obviously.

When I first started skating, there was quite a large entertainment aspect, but as the years have gone by, we've focused much more on the sport. It's really a fascinating mix, because we enjoy our team themes, and our derby names (though there seems to be a real-name trend happening now in parts of the nation), and we enjoy the training and the strategy and the many different ways to play the game. It's so great to see the Regional and National tournaments, because the style of play really varies, and you can learn so much.

And as for wagering ... this sport changes so quickly, and is developing as I type this, so it's pretty impossible to find a safe bet on any team. And I don't know of any roller derby bookies.

SW: Bookies. Books. There oughta be a joke in there somewhere. Crud. Well, since you started out six years ago as an intern at Bleak House Books and are now senior editor at Tyrus Books, do you see yourself as a role model for the underpaid, overworked interns of the world?

AJ: Yes, yes I do. I mean, I guess so? I was actually paid well in trade at Bleak House -- I got free books, and if I stayed in the office late enough, I'd often get Glass Nickel delivery. So I think the FTC would count that as compensation these days, right?

SW: Speaking of books and late nights, in August I waited outside the Barnes and Noble for a few nights. People would ask what I was waiting for. “The Deputy,” I said. Eventually a nice man from the sheriff’s office came by and helped relocate me. So, like, THE DEPUTY. Soon, right?

AJ: Soon! In fact, the official release date is April 2010, but we'll have review copies at the end of November. And I bet we'll run some kind of contest-y thing for people to win one or two of those advance copies. Stay tuned to our Web site, or subscribe to our newsletter, or follow us on Twitter, or that kinda stuff.

But thank you for your interest in The Deputy. Is it mean of me to tell you just how freaking fantastic it is? Because it is.

SW: GAK! Well, I'm happy and sad and anxious all at he same time. [Takes drink.] So, BHB offered the Evidence Collection, as well as a debut author collection and an autographed books collection. First, those were sweet. Second, what does Tyrus have planned?

AJ: Oh, I'm glad you liked them! Tyrus is running a subscription program right now, which you can check out on our Web site. It's basically our entire Spring 2010 line for 10% off cover price, and you can choose to receive the books as hardcovers or as paperbacks. The books will be autographed (in the case of short story collections, we'll do our best to get contributors, but we can't promise they'll all be in there), and they'll ship from our offices before they hit bookstores. So it's a great program if you know you want to read our full line (or read most of it and gift some of it), and they'll just show up periodically on your doorstep.

We're still thinking about some other special edition offerings for Tyrus Books. There are lots of ideas floating around, and it's just a matter of nailing them down and making them a reality. No doubt we'll start tooting some horns if we launch any new programs.

SW: I have to disqualify any BH Books and Tyrus Books. Also, any books by authors you know personally. Also, um, any by relatives. From the remaining books in the world, what’s the next thing you’re looking forward to reading?

AJ: Really, disqualifying authors I know personally? What if I don't know them very well? Like, for instance, I've only met John Hart once, but I am so in love with his writing because of The Last Child that I've gone back to get Down River (which I also liked) and King of Lies (which I haven't gotten to yet). Or Derek Nikitas, who I have spoken with at two separate Bouchercons, and whose The Long Division is BLOWING MY MIND. In all caps, seriously.

But let's see, I'll get up and check the rest of my books pile ... Ok, I see The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery, The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke, and some other books that you've disqualified because I know the authors (Ken Bruen's Priest and Blake Crouch's Abandon, haha, I snuck them in anyway!). Also, I was reminded the other day how great Franny and Zooey is, so I want to reread that (but I can't find my copy, sadface). Oh, and an awesome librarian recommended The Knife of Never Letting Go (by Patrick Ness) to me yesterday, so I think I'll have to check that one out, too.

SW: While we're on books, Tyrus Books, like BHB, publishes a specific type of book – crime fiction with regular folks who get caught up in crazy situations. So, how many submissions do you get and how many of those are still young adult fantasy?

AJ: Gosh! Well, to be honest, I'm not sure anymore. We have interns who do the first round of sifting, so I often don't open the submissions myself and don't have any stats at hand. I think, though, that since Tyrus is new and not yet listed in all the Writer's Guides and whatnot, that we are getting fewer submissions overall, and so the number of YA fantasy subs is probably down as a result. :)

SW: In addition to those collections BHB offered, one of the things that was so cool about the books you folks worked on was the quality of the physical book – the cover art, the binding, just the feel of the book.

Do we lose that when these rotten kids just want to read books on their fancy little cell phones? Isn’t the real answer just to outlaw all electronic reading devices? Maybe we just give them goofy names like “Kindle” and “Nook” so no one wants one. Isn’t that a good idea? Seriously, ink on paper is over, right? Why am I doing all the blabbering here? Jump in at any point.

AJ: Ink on paper is not over! I feel so emphatically about that that I'm using exclamation points!

I really think that the ebook and the actual book need not be mutually exclusive. This is a thing I could ramble unscientifically about for awhile, with no real data to back me up or anything, so I'm not sure how useful it will be to your readers.

I'm not gonna lie and say that I don't want an ereader. Oh, lord, how I want an ereader. But I want the so-far-only-imaginary Apple tablet -- I want something with more functionality than only reading ebooks. I'd like to be able to edit on it, and also listen to music on it, all of that good stuff. I downloaded the Kindle app to my iPhone, but I haven't actually used it yet.

Frankly, though, what I really want is the PADD from ST:TNG. A touch screen display unit that's lightweight, easy to use, and durable.

And Captain Picard still read actual printed books on the Enterprise, so, I rest my case.

SW: What band should people be listening to now? (Relatives aren’t disqualified, so if your cousin is in the Pixies, you can totally
mention them.)

AJ: My cousin isn't in the Pixies, but I do like to think they wrote a song about me. As did Elvis Costello.

Hm, what am I listening to? Today I've had "Breaker" by Low in my head all day. I think because it's raining. I also love me some Girl Talk, and a band called Cougar. But lately, I have been playing this one, non-stop. It's Carl Sagan, auto-tuned. Yes, I am serious about that.

(Which brings me to: Please, someone auto-tune an audiobook. IT WOULD BE SO FUNNY.)

SW: So that Bouchercon thing was cool, huh? What’s that all about? I hear there was bacon and alcohol.

AJ: There was bacon?! I wasn't aware of that. I did have some steak, and chicken fingers, and a couple slices of pizza. And yeah, alcohol.

Bouchercon was (as always) great fun this year. It's so heartening to spend time with committed, passionate crime fiction writers and fans. And there are always memorable moments of hilarity. It's like Mystery (Late) Summer Sleepaway Camp!

SW: What’s your favorite room in your house?

AJ: Wow, um. My first instinct is kitchen, actually. I live on the third floor of an old Victorian, and the kitchen windows are low, and open onto a really beautiful tree. My table is right there, and that's where I set up to work in the mornings. It's where the coffee happens. Also, I hung a shelf not too long after moving in, and it's in the kitchen, and I'm inordinately proud of it. I used a DRILL, you guys. BY MYSELF.


See what I mean? Smart and funny. She blogs weekly and is moving from Sundays to Thursdays. She also makes with the funny on the YouTubes. So go buy some books.

In case you're interested in ST:TNG or BSG or ST:DS9 etc etc, we're geeking it up over here.

Oh, and here's the Carl Sagan. Enjoy.


John McFetridge said...

Thanks, this is a good interview.

I really like the subscription idea.

It would be cool to have some kind of book club addition to it, maybe just a discussion forum on the website or something and maybe with a little author or editor participation - especially because every subscriber will receive the same book around the same time.

Maybe some exclusive subscriber extras - short stories or interviews or something. Could be very cool.

Alison said...

John -- Yeah! We're totally talking about some value-added incentives for subscribers. In the past, we've sent them ARCs of the books before they're available in stores, so they get to read them early AND they don't have to crack the spines of their collector's editions.

I love the forum idea, too. Because I could pretty much talk about books all day long and be really happy about it.

And hey, DSD bloggers, thanks for having me around. This was a fun interview for sure. (And Steve, the link to the Elvis Costello song about me = brilliant.)

Mike Knowles said...

Great interview. Roller Derby and a sweet Captain Picard reference that almost never happens.

Steve Weddle said...

Great ideas, John.

I think signing up for the year on subscription and having ARCs come in and then the signed hardbacks, well, that's pretty cool.

A publisher's book club with forum. Brilliant.

Alison, thanks for stopping by. A pleasure.

Mike, I'm putting roller derby and a starship captain in my next story.

Jay Stringer said...

Another good interview there, Steve.

I like the subscription idea too. When Lucero's previous album came out they did a special deal; if you pre-ordered it through their website you got an advanced digital download of the album before the hard copy was released. Might be something in that for publishers to work with.

And a roller derby star ship captain? Sounds like exactley the sort of story the world needs.