We are Jack Cactus and Mina Harker, a romantic fantasy author duo from the United States. We met on a collaborative creative writing forum in early 2015 and have been making literary magic ever since. One day, we realized that our writing told a very unique kind of story, and we knew that it needed to be shared with the world.
Tell us about your latest book.
Our latest (and inaugural) publishing effort is a penny dreadful serial called Bienvenue. It's a soft steampunk supernatural Victorian romance starring a headstrong female steam engineer, Adela Wyss, and her arranged marriage to a sickly French aristocrat with a dark past. We've published 4 episodes of the series so far, with many more to come!
What do you have coming out in the future?
Obviously, we'll be publishing more episodes of Bienvenue (even Harker and I don't know if/when it ends), one episode a month. We've also got a slew of other projects in development, including spin-offs starring some of the other characters from Bienvenue, a sci-fi story, and several medieval fantasy type stories. Stay tuned!
Is your book a stand-alone or a series?
Bienvenue is a penny dreadful serial. We're currently publishing one episode a month.
Why romance and what makes your particular brand of romance special?
Why romance? Because we're both big old marshmallows. Because romance is fun to write, and we hope fun to read. It's just what we gravitate towards, for whatever reason.
Our brand of romance is special in many ways. Our protagonists are nothing like your typical romantic leads. In Bienvenue, the female lead is a rebel, a total dork with a smart mouth, and her love interest is a chronically ill recluse, fifteen years older than Adela, who has albinism and writes poetry. All of our characters are pretty atypical, and we think it's important to tell their stories. One of the companion projects to Bienvenue features a gay Swiss cowboy and a transgender woman.
Is romance the only genre that you write in or do you write in other genres? If so what other genres do you write in?
Well, even though our stories are definitely romances, we also tend to blur the lines between genres. Bienvenue is a Victorian novel, but it's also got monsters and steampunk. We have some more traditional fantasy projects in the works, like I mentioned earlier, and a sci-fi project that also blurs the lines between sci-fi and fantasy. I'd like to think that the Cactus and Harker magic transcends genre.
Cactus: Everywhere. It varies from day to day. I'm inspired by the beach, by artwork, by nature at large, by people in my life. I talk later in the interview about literary influences, so some non-literary influences, in no particular order, are: David Bowie, RuPaul Charles, Richard Simmons, Caitlin Doughty, the beach, skulls, Paul Koudounaris, Alphonse Mucha, Todd Browning's Freaks, Quentin Tarantino, my dad, Victoriana, vintage/quack/patent medicine, Wikipedia, kittens, rainbows, plague doctors.
Harker: I draw a lot of inspiration from my own past, the pains and joys of the women of my family, and the people around me today. Music and art are also quite inspiring to me but they tend to tell stories all their own.
Do you ever base your characters on real people in your life?
Cactus: I certainly don't consciously model characters after people I know. I actually find that my characters tend to be projections/exaggerations of aspects of my own personality. I never realize it when I'm writing, but I look back at something I wrote a few weeks or months ago and go, “DAYUM, so that's what was going on... huh.”
Harker: In a way. It's more like taking a piece from this puzzle and a piece from that puzzle and putting them together to make something new.
What authors inspire your writing?
Cactus: My literary influences are Stephen King, John Steinbeck, Anne Rice, and J.D. Salinger. The Dragonlance books by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman also have a special place in my heart. I think that was the first time I came across a disabled/chronically ill character in fiction and that (obviously) has heavily informed my work as a writer, and gave me the courage to write characters with disabilities. I wanted to read more stories with more characters like Raistlin Majere, and as far as I knew they didn't really exist, so I started writing them. I even named a character in one of our other projects after Raistlin.
Harker: Tamora Pierce. The Song of the Lioness series is especially important to me as Alanna was one of the first chapter books I started reading all on my own. It pulled me back into loving books and stories again at a time in my life when I was learning to hate reading at school and was being teased about my learning disabilities. My mom actually read the first half to me before I started just living for the books and Tamora Pierce. Of course, after I finished Lioness Rampant, I was a bit spoiled. I had already grown up on Andrew Lang's Fairy Books and Wrede's The Enchanted Forest Chronicles. So I was used to interesting plots, magic, adventure, and between Wrede and Pierce, I was positively disdainful of ditzy female characters. Be a three dimensional person or be nothing. In my search I found Terry Pratchett who authored Thud!, Monstrous Regiment, and the Tiffany Aching stories; and Kara Dalkey who did the Water Trilogy, which is an absolute must for anyone who likes Merlin or King Arthur myths. Of course, because I'd been so spoiled by these fantastic wordsmiths, when I couldn't easily find other works, I began to write my own.
How have your real life experiences influenced your writing?
Cactus: Absolutely. My life experiences are the reason I write. The stories I tell are all parts of my story, just different facets and different perspectives on it, exaggerations and projections, fantasies juxtaposed with ugly truths. We sell our stories as “penny dreadful romances” but for me it goes much, much deeper than that-- that's just the best way we thought of to make it consumable.
Harker: Life has taught me that you can never really tell what's going on from the outside. It makes me love the morally grey. In my life I've been surrounded by demons dressed as heroes on great steeds and angels dressed as grumpy old bridge trolls. Real life isn't color coded, it isn't foreshadowed, and there are no helpful soundtracks to help tell when the villain has entered the room. The pale man with slicked back, raven locks and beady black eyes, dressed dead to toe in black is probably just really into the goth look. Or maybe he just doesn't give a shit. I'd be more worried about the handsome blond smooth talker with the sparkling blue eyes dressed in his shiny suit of Armani, honestly.
What was your road to publishing like? Tell us about it.
Cactus: I think it started as sort of a joke... back when we first started writing together I made jokes about our story being on the New York Times bestseller list. We haven't quite made it there yet, but that's what got us started with the notion of publishing. Harker was the one who kicked us in the ass and got the ball rolling, though. Bienvenue would definitely not exist in its present form if it weren't for her!
Harker: D'aww. Cactus' marshmallow is showing. Cuteness. Honestly, since we didn't bother with trying to find a publishing house that would want to publish our special brand of fiction—I honestly think we would still be dicking around with mailing transcripts out instead of selling books as we are now if we had gone down that road—our road to starting up wasn't too crazy. We spent a few months getting our contract worked out and then when 2016 rolled around, since I was in town for the new year, we printed off copies, dropped by a notary, and then got to work. Since Cactus does all of the editing, I tried to take on finding a cover artist. That was... a trial. In the end Cactus made that, too. Which, as it turned out, was probably what we should have done in the first place considering how completely awesome it is.
How did you come up with the title of your book?
Do you read romance or do you prefer other genres?
Cactus: I don't think ever read a whole book that would be considered categorical “romance.” Traditional romances bore me. That's why I write what I do.
Harker: I love, love, love fantasy. I especially love sword and sorcery type fantasy, told in the third person with at least one female character with an IQ over 50, at least two dimensions to her name, and at least mild autonomy. As far as romance, I adore sprinklings of it in pretty much any genre but as a genre all it's own, if I read it at all, I generally skip around like crazy. If I'm reading a romance, it's probably closer to erotica than anything and I'm totally reading it for the sex. Portable porn you can read with complete social acceptance and don't have to mute for the neighbors or family lurking about? Umm, yes, please. Unfortunately, the characters in lady porn—while more impressive than those in internet porn—are pretty dull and the chicks nearly always irritate me enough to rage quit the book if I read past the sex scenes. Other romances that are less steamy usually have rather cookie cutter plots complete with weak willed girls possessing no command of their own life or choices with none of the fun sexy bits in between their bouts of stupid.
What celebrity would you chose to play the main character(s) in the movie rendition of your book?
Cactus: I think this is a not if, but when the Bienvenue movie is made, the actors will probably have to be unknowns. I can't imagine any well-known actors who would really fit the bill. Although if they could make Adrien Brody look like he had albinism, he might be a close fit for Vincent. There's also this model with albinism, Stephen Thompson, who is just gorgeous, I don't know if he acts, but I would hunt him down and do a screen test before I considered anyone else. It would be really important to me to have as many actors with disabilities as possible portraying the people with disabilities in the story. Why would we get an actor to pretend when there are millions of talented undiscovered actors with disabilities?
Harker: I have to agree with Cactus 100%. I want Stephen Thompson to play Vincent so bad. I also really want to have as many actually disabled actors as can be managed. Hollywood is bad enough at white washing and having veritable clones as their go-to actors for things, I'll be pretty pissed if they try to work around our disabled characters.
What is the hardest part of the writing process for you?
Cactus: Promoting and marketing. I suck at it, I have no head for it. It was kind of rude awakening, actually, when we first published Bien because I realized that people weren't going to just magically telepathically know it existed. Generally, I do a lot of the editing and production stuff. Harker has totally grabbed the marketing bull by the balls.
Harker: Editing. As far as I know, it's some sort of Cactus magic because I just can't wrap my head around how they managed to take what we write and turn it into what we publish. My year actually got off to a pretty rocky start besides the hugely satisfying start of Bienvenue so I didn't get to do nearly as much work with promoting as I would have liked to get us started but now that I'm slowly getting things in my personal life together, I'm getting our social media and promotional work together. Cactus is also selling themself a bit short as they write pretty much every blurb we use for our releases from the summary we use on GoodReads, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble each episode of Bienvenue to the premier release omnibus blurb we posted on our site and social medias.
What is the easiest part of the writing process for you?
Cactus: The, um... writing part?
Harker: Plotting. I love plotting. I'm terrified to actually write it down. Unless I am extremely tired, the first 90% of my process of putting words to page is just staring at a blank page with my hands hovering over the keys thinking “omg omg omg I am the biggest idiot to ever idiot and this will all be 100% stupid and cliché and every trope to ever trope.” After like an hour of that, the other 10% kicks in and I just straight up lie to myself. “Don't worry, bro. No one will ever read this crap.” And that's how I trick myself into widely available literature.
Which of your characters is your favorite and why?
Cactus: Oh my god this is the worst question. I love them all. They are all very special to me. Vincent and Rene probably have the most depth and have been explored the most, I don't know if I can strictly say they're my favorite. Vincent might come close... he's almost like my imaginary friend right now. It's a little bit creepy. They're all my imaginary friends, really, but I have had moments recently where I can almost see/hear/touch Vincent as if he were a real person.
Harker: Agreed. Worst question. Too hard. In Bienvenue, it's a bit easier for me as most of the characters I developed are side characters like the majority of the Wyss family. Adela is obviously awesome. She has a lot of my little sister in her so I love writing her but, in the same turn, that makes her a bit of a pain in the ass sometimes. I also really enjoy writing Luke, though he can be a bit terrifying to write for sometimes as he has some darkness in him. I'm also a huge fangirl for Rene. Dude is just balls out crazy. However, purely based on character and not my own personal trials writing them, I have to say I've got a four way tie going between Rene, Niklaus, Adela, and a character that has not yet been introduced.
What is your preferred writing environment?
Cactus: In my living room, on my big red couch, with my laptop on my lap, and it's raining and about 45 degrees outside and I have nowhere to go for the next day or two and plenty of coffee and chocolate in the apartment to tide me over.
Harker: Anywhere that's freaking quiet. Not silent. Silence sends my ADD into overdrive. I need somewhere comfortable to sit (floor, preferably), ambient music sans lyrics, and a cat sleeping somewhere near by (but not on my laptop).
How would you describe your writing style?
Cactus: Florid, natural, and lively. I have an intuitive sort of grasp on the mechanics of the English language so I usually know what's right and what's not, and I don't mind breaking rules for effect. I'm a very visual person, so when I write, I'm usually describing a scene playing out in my head, and I actually feel pretty much everything the characters feel. I love communicating those feelings and scenes. I don't really believe in economy of language, either, it takes as many words as it takes.
Harker: Hmm... Perhaps, “meant to be read aloud.” I grew up listening to my mom read aloud and listening to books on tapes and listening to the librarians telling stories at our local library. To me words on a page are more like notes. If I put them together in the right order, the story comes alive and whoever reads those words can sing the same song that hums in my head. Because of that, I sometimes agonize over my wording of things so I can convey what I want. It does, however, mean that I abuse the crap out of italicizing and bolding things. Another reason I'm very glad Cactus takes care of the editing so that that craziness doesn't make it to the publis.
Do you have a careful plan when plotting your stories or do you just go with the flow?
Cactus: HAH! To say that our plotting process is “organic” would be a gross understatement. We riff endlessly about the plot and sometimes forget what we've planned. When we try to plan what we're going to write too deliberately, the characters rebel, take over, and kick our asses.
Harker: We actually have a pretty intricate outline that's a bit... well, I tried to make a digital mind map of plot points and it turned out looking like Sherlock's string web of conspiracy in the second movie. So we have an outline but we're not neurotically following a script. Our characters really just don't stand for doing what they don't want to do.
What is your favorite quote?
Cactus: What other people think is none of my business. If you don't love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else? I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggonit, people like me. One day at a time. Nothing happens in God's world by mistake. Write drunk, edit sober.
Harker: “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” “If I can stop one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain.” “Go as far as you can see, when you get there you'll be able to see farther.” “They might not need me; but they might. I'll let my head be just in sight; A smile as small as mine might be Precisely their necessity.”
Do you have any advice for other writers and what is it?
Cactus: Don't think too hard about what you're writing, initially. Just let it flow. Don't judge. The judgment part comes with editing and the second draft. I really think a lot of people are held back by judging what they write before they even write it. To me, “Write drunk” just means to write without inhibition. “Edit sober” means wait until you've written it to clean it up.
Harker: Start with a small goal. Terry Pratchett had a goal of 400 words a day before he started writing full time. It's a reasonable goal and it can spark you into much more. Allow yourself to love your work. It doesn't matter if you wrote “slfksjalkfjs” and nothing else had the courage to make itself known to you. Look at that scribble of words and be proud. Look at how cute those letters are! Look at the mountains and valleys and curves. No one else can smash keys with such skill.
Wild Card Question.
As an author, what is the one question that you wish people would ask you, but no one ever has and what would your answer be to that question?
Cactus: There are hypothetical questions about Bien that I... wouldn't say I necessarily wish people would ask, but questions I'm afraid of people asking. I'm afraid people are going to ask why I write about people with disabilities. My answer is that characters with physical disabilities tell my story in a way that I never could. My disabilities are invisible and hard to articulate, but I struggle profoundly in my everyday life in ways that most people do not, and by writing about characters with different disabilities, I've found a way to express and explore that part of myself. It's very empowering, actually, but I'm afraid of someone trying to say I shouldn't be writing this way.
Harker: I want them to ask about the great love of Niklaus and Regula but I think that's not really something that can be answered in less than a few hundred pages.