THE DIAMOND CONSPIRACY debuts March 31st!
(Book Four in the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series)
How did you start your writing career?
PIP BALLANTINE: It was strange really, but I have an ex-boyfriend to thank for this. I know, that seems crazy, but I’d just gone through a really bad breakup and everything seemed very bleak…yet at the same time that devastation also gave me an opportunity and the blind bravery to try things I’d always wanted to do.
Thanks to that, I sold my first book within a year. It was e-published in Australia (back in 2002 when that was cutting edge…guess that makes me a hipster self-publisher) and then my second and third book I got published with Dragon Moon Press, an independent publisher in Canada. From there I got Laurie McLean of Fuse Literary as my agent, and sold my first book to Penguin’s Ace imprint in 2009.
Looking back, I am still amazed, and wonder if maybe I should send that guy a thank you card!
TEE MORRIS: My first published work was at James Madison University where, during my semester abroad in England, I covered London’s Poll Tax Riots for JMU’s newspaper as it was happening. Breeze. I dabbled in writing while pursing a career in acting, but it would be at the Maryland Renaissance Festival, where I would not only seriously look at my writing, but where Rafe Rafton, the lead character of my debut novel, would take shape. I was published with Dragon Moon as well, just several years before Pip. Then things just took off from there.
Tell us about your current release.
PIP: Sure, but for anyone who hasn’t read book three in the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series, Dawn’s Early Light, SPOILERS AHEAD!
The Diamond Conspiracy picks up where Dawn’s Early Light leaves off. Wellington and Eliza are preparing for what they believe to be a mobilizing of the troops against the Maestro, whom they now know to be the Duke of Sussex, Peter Lawson. They know approaching the queen with this information would be a real risk as Lawson is very close to Her Majesty. What they don’t realize is that, while in the air and without their Ministry-issued rings, the Ministry enacted Phantom Protocol. The Queen has been compromised and has deemed the Ministry an inconvenience to the Crown. This sends Wellington and Eliza underground while Doctor Jekyll continues to manipulate Sussex as well as the Queen.
TEE: Safe to say, a lot is happening in this book.
Do you plot out a book in advance, or just dive in with an idea of what story you want to tell?
PIP: I’m a discovery writer. When I start I know where the story is going to end, but I never know the bits in between. It’s like setting off from New York, knowing you are going to Washington DC, but not knowing the roads you’ll take. For me, it is the best of both worlds. I have the security of that end, but I have the spontaneity of the journey. I love finding things out as I go.
TEE: I tried to plot a book once, and as “method actor” as this sounds, the characters were going “No-no-no, you have to go this way!” So, much like Pip, I latch on to an idea, know how I want to end the story, and then figure out how to get there. Being a discovery writer may explain why I enjoy editing so much. The basics are covered in the early drafts but when the edit happens, all the details, nuances, and motives sharpen. In edits for The Diamond Conspiracy, Pip and I surprised each other quite a bit!
Do you have any bizarre writing habits?
TEE: My favorite way to write is to put on a soundtrack or a score and then write. In many cases the melody directly affects the pace and the tone of what I write. My favorite scores to write to are presently the soundtracks to House of Cards, Penny Dreadful, and the video game Destiny.
PIP: I need a cat next to me, or at least in the same room. I call them my little furry muses. They call me a warm lap and tin can opener.
What books have most influenced your life?
PIP: Watership Down. Although my Dad read Lord of the Rings to me, I remember the characters in Watership Down made me laugh, cry and demand more. It started me off on the path of character-focused writing, and if I can make people cry at the end that is just a bonus.
TEE: I remember devouring Choose Your Own Adventure titles when I was younger, and then in high school diving deep into Terry Brooks’ Shannara series. That’s when I started writing not-so-short short stories of my own.
What do you think makes a good story?
PIP: It is all about compelling characters. If I don’t like or find interesting the people I am going to spend a whole novel with, I will give up quickly. I want them to be flawed and relatable. They don’t always have to make the best decisions…in fact it’s better if they don’t.
What do you think has been resonating with readers? What is it about the Ministry that people love?
TEE: Spies are cool. Period. Whether it is James Bond, James West and Artemis Gordon, or the Kingsman, spies click with audiences. It could be the gadgets. It could be the action and adventure. It could be the intrigue and the lifestyle, but there is something about spies. There’s a reason lines are usually long at the International Spy Museum.
You have allowed many authors to share in your universe in the “Tales from the Archives” and “The Ministry Protocol” anthologies. How have these stories influenced your canon, or served as inspiration in your novels?
TEE: We owe a lot to one author in particular — Jack Mangan. Jack was the author who created the Agents of O.S.M. (pronounced “Awesome”), which he did as part of the whimsical nature of his short story, “Night’s Plutonian Shore.” Both Pip and I knew we wanted to re-visit O.S.M. and so we did in Dawn’s Early Light. In The Diamond Conspiracy many agents from the short stories are making appearances.
PIP: The fourth book is a lot of things, but it really is a love letter to all those who have written in our universe. As this is our world, we regard the short stories of both Tales from the Archives and Ministry Protocol as canon. It’s our job as the editors to make certain guest authors stay within the parameters of our world, and what our colleagues have created has been a real delight for us and for fans of the series.
Do you draw story ideas or characters from history, and if so how are these reflected in your series?
PIP: Playing with history has always been something that we’ve done in our works. I first drew inspiration from Shakespeare in Chasing the Bard while Tee set Morevi in King Henry’s court and The Billibub Baddings Mysteries in 1920’s Chicago. With steampunk, the incorporation of history is seamless, but we really didn’t start reaching to the historic celebrities until The Janus Affair when we featured Kate Sheppard, leader of women’s rights in New Zealand. Unintentionally, we’ve got an all-star cast of historic inventors in Dawn’s Early Light, but we are thrilled at how well it all works.
Are the Ministry novels part of a larger story arc, or are they written as stand alone adventures?
TEE: The opening two novels are stand alone adventures with Dawn’s Early Light being a lead-in to The Diamond Conspiracy. Our sinister sub-plot introduced in Phoenix Rising reaches a head when Books and Braun comes to America and then concludes with The Diamond Conspiracy. You could try and pick up the series with The Diamond Conspiracy, but it would be like picking up Harry Potter with The Goblet of Fire. You will miss out a few of the details featured in earlier books. The good news is when you finish any of the novels, you have a wide collection of short stories to explore, and then you can re-read the novels and catch hidden-in-plain-sight references to the anthologies.
A bit about the business of being an author — what is your professional style for author appearances?
PIP: When it comes to how we dress for success, it really does depends on the venue. When we were guests for James River Writers’ The Writer Show we dressed on the more formal end of business attire: slacks, stylish shoes, and the like. At conventions, we always make one day a “punk-up” day. A good corset is a beautiful thing, even for Tee who looks quite stunning in his. When we attend conferences and signings, we try to look our best in professional gear, saving the last day as our “relaxed” look.
TEE: We try not to make our relaxed look too relaxed, but I usually go with a nice pair of jeans and a sharp “fan” shirt. For example I have two “service station attendant” shirts in reach, one from Aperture Labs (from the video game Portal) and another from Dogfish Head Brewery. I usually have that look reserved for the last day; but for the beginning and middle of the convention, there’s a lot to be said for pressed slacks and a nice button up shirt. We can’t get too formal at conventions, though, primarily on account of the go-go-go nature of these events; but speaking engagements we try to make the best impression we can. Those details make an impression. They matter.
Thank you, Pip and Tee. The fourth novel in the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, The Diamond Conspiracy, debuts on March 31st. If you like rip-snorting Victorian spy adventures, pick up a copy at a bookstore or online venue near you.