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Underland Press’ Victoria Blake Talks Wovels and World Domination

By, Blu Gilliand

It isn’t taking long for Underland Press to make a name for itself.

The upstart publisher, the brainchild of industry vet Victoria Blake, burst on the scene a short time ago with an online-only novel by genre favorite Kealan Patrick Burke. Released in weekly installments with a unique participatory angle that gave readers a chance to determine the direction of the story, The Living was a hit. But it was just the first ace Underland held up its sleeve.

Already in 2009 Underland has rolled out two print publications: Last Days by Brian Evenson and The Pilo Family Circus by Will Elliot. Both books are dramatic breaths of fresh air for the genre, and prove that Blake has a tremendous taste for talent. With another online novel in progress on its official website and at least two more books scheduled to roll out by years’ end, Blake is making the most of her new imprint’s early years. Recently, Dark Scribe Magazine talked to Blake about Underland’s quick success.

Dark Scribe Magazine: Tell us a little about your background.

Victoria Blake: I came to publishing through newspapers and magazines. I’ve had some cool jobs. Most recently in newspapers, I was an art critic for the Oregonian, which was so much fun.

After newspapers, I became an editor at Dark Horse Comics, working on their prose books. I did the Alien and Predator books, plus the Lankhmar books, which are great. I worked there for three years before I looked around and said, yeah, now’s the time to move on.

Dark Scribe: When did you know you wanted to start your own press?

Victoria Blake: I knew I wanted to do it the moment I read Brian Evenson’s novella “The Brotherhood of Mutilation.” I was sitting on a wall in the sun, and I got chills from what I was reading.

But wanting to publish that book is different than being able to publish it. When I found out that Brian would take the risk on Underland and allow us to publish his book, that’s when I knew I would do it.

Dark Scribe: Why was now the right time to do it?

Victoria Blake: This is the perfect time! The big publishing houses, the houses that have controlled so much of the publishing industry for so many years, those houses are hurting. Space is being created in the market for independent presses like mine. I can’t imagine a better time.

Plus, everything in publishing is changing. Those who figure out how to lead the change, or at the minimum go with the change, will survive. Those who don’t, won’t.

Dark Scribe: Your first release was the web novel, or “wovel” as you call it, The Living by Kealan Patrick Burke. Why start out with this particular format?

Victoria Blake: I wanted to start people talking about Underland before our first book came out. And Kealan was down for the wovel format. He took it and ran with it. He did a great job.

As a result, we had a fully populated email list by the time our first book launched. Excellent.

Dark Scribe: The wovel was also unique in that it was participatory – much in the vein of those old “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, readers could vote at the end of each chapter to send the story in one direction or another. What went into the decision to do it this way?

Victoria Blake: There’s an important creative difference between the wovel form and the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. The CYOA books have a finite number of plot lines. The wovel is infinite. The only limitation is the author’s imagination.

What went into the format? I asked my web guys over, we sat around the table with some Oreos and some beer, and we came up with a long list of cool things to do online. The wovel was one of the ideas, the best. So I guess some Oreos and some Desolation IPA went into it…

Dark Scribe: Were you worried that it would be dismissed as a gimmick and not a worthy literary exercise?

Victoria Blake: That sounds like a leading question. Do you think it’s a gimmick?

Dark Scribe: Well, only in the sense that it's something different you're using a means to attract attention. I think it's a perfectly worthwhile literary tool, and I think you and the authors used it well, both as a means of getting people interested in Underland, and as a means of providing a good story. But were you worried that people wouldn't see past the gimmick and give the work a chance?

Victoria Blake: I admit that the name "wovel" is a little cutesy. But, besides the name, I think experimenting with forms is a completely valid thing to do. I'm a believer that content follows, or at least is influenced by, form. I don't think that we, as a writing and publishing community, have figured out how to write fiction online. Bloggers have figured it out. Fiction writers, no. I'm seeing the wovel as part of the larger experiment with fiction online: what works, what doesn't, and an intelligent analysis of why.

Dark Scribe: What was Kealan’s initial reaction to the idea?

Victoria Blake: Kealan and I had a dialogue about some of his limited edition work before I approached him about the wovel. I said, “You’re incredibly talented, you’re young, you understand the way the Internet works, and you write fast. Want to do this?” And he said, “Hell yeah!”

I think there were times in the wovel that he regretted his decision. The weekly schedule can get pretty grueling.

Dark Scribe: Was the concept and plot of The Living his alone, or was it a collaboration between you two?

Victoria Blake: I ask the wovel authors to provide me with a conflict summary. Usually, they give me a few to choose from. The idea is that unlike a traditional book, the plot turns of the wovel are less important, structurally, than the central conflict that needs to be resolved. Kealan had this great idea, this great world where the zombies were the good guys, fighting for the rights of the undead. I loved it. I still love it. It was a hell of a read.

Dark Scribe: Did he have certain cliffhangers worked out ahead of time, or did he just let the story take control?

Victoria Blake: I think he let the story take control, but I’m not sure. Knowing Kealan, he probably had a number of the situations worked out ahead of time. But one of the reasons he’s so great is that he was always up for throwing a wrench in the works and seeing what happened.

Dark Scribe: How successful was this as a launching point for Underland?

Victoria Blake: It was great. The first day we got 1,000 hits, largely because of a mention on Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow’s incredibly impressive blog. Now, we’re getting between 14,000 and 17,000 page views a week, depending on the week.

Dark Scribe: Any chance we’ll see The Living, or the current wovel (Firstworld by Jemiah Jefferson) in print? Perhaps in the same CYOA format?

Victoria Blake: Not in the CYOA format, which is copyrighted. (And, I’ve heard, the copyright holders are pretty strict about its uses). But yes, I’m considering Jemiah’s book for print. She would edit it as much as she wanted, of course. A novel in print is different than a wovel online, formally.

Dark Scribe: Will you continue to offer wovels, or is this something that is going to fall aside as your print publications take over?

Victoria Blake: Good question. I don’t know. I started the wovel as an experiment. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but it was worth trying. I’ll follow the line a little longer to see where it leads.

Dark Scribe: Moving on to your print releases, tell us about your first couple of books.

Victoria Blake: We did in fact print Brian Evenson’s Last Days, the book that launched this ship. It’s been out since February, and is doing well. He’s an incredible man and an incredible writer. I can’t say enough good things about him. We’ve been getting some great reviews, too. I love the blogosphere and how open / friendly the bloggers are to good work. Fangoria wrote about it, too!

Second out is The Pilo Family Circus by Will Elliott, which won all sorts of awards in Australia. That’s cool in itself, but cooler still is the breadth of awards it won—from horror to literary and back again. There are very few true crossover books. But Pilo is.

Then we have a kick-ass thriller called Chaos. It’s at the printer right now. It’s a psychological thriller, which is best kind, I think. And there’s some awesome plot twists along the way.

Rounding out the year is Jeff VanderMeer’s incredible fantasy-noir Finch. I just finished a second round editing of the manuscript. It’s incredible.

It’s important to me to love everything Underland prints. And I love these books.

Dark Scribe: How did you come to work with these authors?

Victoria Blake: I met Brian Evenson at a Book Expo. I was joking with him recently that it feels, in a way, that my fate was set the moment I bumped into him on the convention floor. Miraculously, I managed to convince him to write an Aliens book for Dark Horse when I was an editor there. He recommended his friend Jeff VanderMeer for a Predator book, which is how I know Jeff. Will Elliott and Escober, the authors of Pilo and Chaos, I have never actually met, though everybody is super nice by email. I picked up the foreign rights for the books at the Frankfurt Book Fair, almost two years ago now.

Dark Scribe: How important is your website in promoting your press and your authors?

Victoria Blake: Very, very, very, very, very important. And, as for the Internet in general, I have more faith in reviews online than I do in paper reviews.

Dark Scribe: You’ve already demonstrated a willingness to go outside of traditional publishing methods with your releases. Any new, innovative things we can look forward to from Underland Press in the future?

Victoria Blake: Yes. I’m about to do a test run on an emailed story, a very short story that will be addressed to recipients and sent to their inboxes. If you’re interested, you should sign up on the Underland web site. We’ll be starting it in a couple weeks.

Again, though, I don’t know what’s going to happen with the experiment. It’s a test run. I’m going to do it, and see what happens next.

Dark Scribe: What do you look for in projects that you want to publish?

Victoria Blake: Editors say they can judge a book by its first page. A lot of people get angry at that, but to a large extent it’s true. On that first page, I’m looking for a certain control over language. If it has that, I’ll keep reading.

Dark Scribe: What’s next for Underland Press?

Victoria Blake: Besides world domination…?

For more information about Underland Press and its authors, visit the company’s official website.

Posted on Saturday, May 16, 2009 at 10:32AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | CommentsPost a Comment

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