Poppy Watt talks to author Mitzi Szereto about her life and passions in the world of literature.
Where were you born and raised?
‘I was born in the northeast United States and grew up in hot, muggy, buggy South Florida. As a youngster, my interests then were much the same as now—books and art. As a child and adolescent, I was always drawing and painting as well as writing stories and poetry. I also went to the beach a lot, which is probably to be expected considering where I lived.
Did you always have a desire to write?
‘I’m not sure if you can call it a desire; it’s more so a compulsion to write. As I mentioned, it began in childhood, but I put the writing on hold while studying for a career in art, since art was an area I felt even more strongly drawn toward. I got back into writing after completing a journalism degree, which I undertook for practical reasons since artists have such a hard time of it. Mind you, so do writers and other creatives!
‘Once I began to look at writing as a serious career pursuit, I launched into the most logical avenue for me—novels. I wrote three in a row and tried hard to find agents and publishers for them. I came close a few times, but ultimately nothing came of it. My first real publishing break happened in a random way. A chance meeting with an aspiring writer at a party in San Francisco led to the erotic fiction route. This fellow was telling me all about how he was trying to get published in the genre and I listened politely, as you do. Then not long afterward I started to get an idea for a book. Even though erotic fiction wasn’t an area I’d considered, I felt I needed to run with it. I ended up selling a number of erotically-themed books, including short story collections and several anthologies, many of which were more so multi-genre fiction, such as combining gothic or sci-fi/fantasy or speculative fiction with erotic themes.
What inspires your writing?
‘It’s usually some random thing that sets me off. You hear about these writers who swan off to India or Bali or wherever to find inspiration for their work. Hey, I’d love to head off to some exotic location for several months and let the inspiration happen, so if anyone wants to help fund that pursuit, drop me an email! On a more realistic note, I can get a story idea in the pattern of coffee grounds in the kitchen sink. As a matter of fact, I wrote a psychological thriller that was inspired by a crack in an old teacup. Unfortunately, I had to set the novel aside due to other projects taking precedence, but I do plan to start shopping it around to publishers in the near future. If it finds a home, you’ll know that it all happened because of a cracked teacup in Sheffield, England.
You have a strong bond with Teddy Tedaloo – how did this relationship develop and what does he mean to you?
‘Teddy will be so pleased you asked about him! He found me when I was living in Seattle. I’d not been doing well following surgery and suddenly he showed up at my front door with flowers. There was something very special about him—a cheeky little spirit and personality inside that smiling furry exterior. We became more and more bonded as time went on. Three years later he moved with me to the United Kingdom. We’ve done a lot of travelling together and he accompanies me on my residential writing workshops and other literary events. The one time I didn’t take him to an event—it was the Miami Book Fair International—everyone kept asking me where he was. I felt awful, not to mention extremely guilty!
Teddy and I are also a professional partnership. A few years ago we began collaborating on a series of cosy mysteries novels The Thelonious T. Bear Chronicles. So far we’ve written two books in the series: Normal for Norfolk (The Thelonious T. Bear Chronicles)—set in Norfolk, England—and Rotten Peaches (The Thelonious T. Bear Chronicles), which is set in the American South. The main character is very much Teddy’s brainchild. Thelonious T. Bear is a British bear from London who lives in human society, though he’s not too chuffed about it, especially since he struggles with being so much smaller than everyone else. A photojournalist by profession, he drives a specially equipped Mini Cooper with a Union Jack on the roof and loves jazz music, especially Charlie Parker. He can be a bit of a grumbler sometimes, much like Teddy, in fact.
What is your latest project and what inspired this?
‘My latest book is an anthology entitled Ladies of Gothic Horror (A Collection of Classic Stories). I liked the idea of focusing on female gothic horror writers from the past and having their work together in one volume. I researched the lives of these writers so that I could provide biographies to accompany each selection. Much of what I found was quite eye-opening, particularly with regard to the challenges these women faced. Granted, it’s still difficult for women writers today, but when you consider how things were when the women in my book were alive, it’s remarkable they accomplished what they did.
‘I’m also putting together a true crime anthology featuring original new material. The Book of Extraordinary True Crime: Serial Killers will be my first venture into true crime, though I’ve worked in crime fiction before. The anthology will be international in scope and include serial killers many people may not have heard of. The aim of the book is not to sensationalise, but rather to offer some fascinating reading about some of the world’s most heinous criminals both contemporary and historical. The Book of Extraordinary True Crime: Serial Killers will be published in November 2019 and is already listed for pre-order at Amazon.
What advice would you give to enthusiastic writers trying to find their way?
‘First off, I’d advise them to think carefully as to whether they truly want and need to be a writer, because it’s harder now than ever to get noticed, let alone published, to say nothing of being able to pay your bills. Second, I’d advise them to be very coldblooded when it comes to evaluating their own ability and talent. Thanks to DIY publishing, everyone is going around calling themselves an “author.” I’m all for taking control of your own product—bands have been doing it for years, but too many people are publishing work that shouldn’t see the light of day and it’s dragging down the profession. Perhaps that sounds harsh, but a lot of people need a serious reality check.
‘So if aspiring writers have passed these self-evaluation tests, then it’s time to grow a thick skin and jump in with both feet. Read, read and read some more. Look at how authors craft a story and what styles they use to tell it. Develop your own voice. Experiment with your writing; try something you never thought you’d be any good at. The thing I noticed with my creative writing students and also participants on my writing workshops is that when I gave them a writing task that was out of their comfort zone (or something they had no interest in writing about), they often came up with something brilliant. By doing this, you might discover a talent in an area you never considered. Keep writing and refining your craft, no matter how many doors are slammed in your face—and there will be plenty. Keep in mind that editors at publishing houses and literary agents are not gods, despite the fact the industry has placed them in the position of being so. There are many examples of rejected books that went on to be successful when someone finally did publish them. Oh, and don’t listen to that nonsense about if you aren’t published by such and such an age it’s too late. I’m sure that comes from the same jackasses who say women over thirty shouldn’t wear jeans! I’ve met authors whose careers didn’t even begin until an age when many people are retiring. So stop listening to people telling you where you should be in your career and just WRITE!’