We are thrilled to welcome Vera Kurian to The Debutante Ball this week! NEVER SAW ME COMING is a debut thriller about Chloe Sevre, a young college student, and a psychopath, who has been recruited to take place in a secret university program to study psychopathic behavior. But when students at her university turn up dead, and when Chloe realizes she’s being targeted by the killer, Chloe and the other members of her program must find the killer before they become the next victims. Keep reading to learn about her new interest in songwriting, her reading habits, and her path to publication. Share or comment below for a chance to win a copy of her book.
Vera Kurian is a writer and scientist based in Washington DC. Her debut novel, NEVER SAW ME COMING, is forthcoming from Park Row Books (US) and Harvill Secker, Vintage (UK) in Fall 2021. (more on that here). Her short fiction has been published in magazines such as Glimmer Train, Day One, and The Pinch. She was born and raised in the mid-Atlantic region, before stints in NYC and LA returned her to her rightful home of DC where she’s lived for most of her adult life. She has a PhD in Social Psychology, where she studied intergroup relations, ideology, and quantitative methods. She blogs irregularly about writing, horror movies and pop culture/terrible TV. She enjoys existentialism and puppies.
Which talent do you wish you had?
The ability to sing. I am one of those people who just can’t make my voice follow where the notes are, no matter how hard I try. When I was in grade school I played flute, saxophone, and piano at different time points and I was terrible at all of them. I’ve never found reading music to be easy, which is strange because it really is just a form of memorization and I have no problem memorizing vocabulary or historical events, or even the dialogue in movies, but the notes would always swim in front of me, I would lose my place, and just pretend to play when I was in band. But in having to sing in music class or in church as a little nonreligious child in Catholic school, sometimes the experience was transcendent. I’ve always been terribly envious of people with beautiful voices or who could play instruments. Here’s where the story gets weird: during the pandemic myself and a friend of mine, Steven, who is a professor of musical theater, starting working on a musical together and writing various standalone songs. He has been playing the piano since he was a very young child and has an encyclopedic knowledge and understanding of musical theater. Our initial partnership was to have me help him with lyrics, but somehow we just clicked and not only have we written a bunch of songs, but they are legitimately good (in our humble opinion, anyhow). It’s funny that it works because sometimes our working sessions are me saying vague, nonmusical things like, “can it sound more floaty?” and Steven will just intuitively understand it. It’s such an amazing feeling when we get vocal artists to record the songs and I can hear a beautiful voice singing a song I co-wrote even though I’m not really musically talented myself.
The road to publication is twisty at best–tell us about some of your twists.
I never wanted to be a novelist—I wrote literary short stories and never wanted to write a novel. But I wrote a short story once that had ten chapters that you could read in any order. Whether or not that was actually pulled off, who knows, but someone in my critique group said, No, this needs to be a novel. And as it turns out, I already had the ten major beats figured out. I wrote this novel, thought it was pretty good, and over a very long period of time, queried something like 200 agents. I had a few embarrassing moments where I got meetings with agents at prestigious conferences but the agents I had been assigned to had already rejected my poor novel. Then I wrote a fun, tropey military science fiction/ space opera and started to query that with some success. But then I got a revise and resubmit from an agent that made me realize I had made a pretty critical plot error that I needed to fix. Instead of fixing it, I got the idea for Never Saw Me Coming, which I wrote ridiculously fast. And everyone who read the draft did so with similar speed—I knew there was something viral about this book. I thought, if I can’t get an agent for this book in particular, there is no book I can get an agent for and I will go back to writing short stories only. I signed with Rebecca Scherer at JRA in November of 2019 and started to work on revisions for NSMC. I finished them the first week of March 2020 and sent her an email like, “Um this coronavirus thing is getting pretty bad…?” We were ready to go on submission to editors but decided to wait until Rebecca felt like the editors would actually be biting. I remember feeling disappointed—that because of timing my book might not get a chance—and I remember feeling petty about being disappointed because a global tragedy was unfolding. I was also living under strict quarantine at the time, socially isolated in my little apartment while mass protests were occurring in DC. Rebecca and I talked on the phone about who would be on our first round of submissions, our top choices, and I asked her, “What do we do if we go through every round and everyone says no?” She said, “Don’t even think about it.” We went on sub on a Thursday, had offers on Monday, and quickly went to auction. We were then aggressively preempted by Vintage in the UK and very aggressively preempted for film/TV rights by John Davis for Universal TV. Four of my other foreign rights deals were auctions. It’s easy to look at deals like this and think about how lucky the person was, but you’re not hearing the story about the hundreds and hundreds of rejections, the hours and hours spent on reading, writing and rewriting, and learning about how the business works. Part of why Never Saw Me Coming has that viral sort of feel to it is that I really understand the market because I read and analyze a lot of books. I think there was a hole in the market and I exploited it.
What first inspired you to start writing?
Probably boredom, to be honest. If I am not literally having a “flow” moment, odds are my attention is split between multiple things: watching TV + scrolling through Reddit, lifting weights + listening to a podcast. Grade school was often incredibly boring for me and I am a constant daydreamer. I don’t know at what point I started writing but I think it was third or fourth grade, first longhand, then using our old-fashioned typewriter. I was really into Greek mythology and was writing some sort of dark horror with Greek gods. Then I moved on to vampires, as one does. Ultimately what drives it all is my love of books, stories, and characters. Once you’ve been doing it long enough, you want to write the stories that aren’t already in the market just so you can fill those holes.
In what fictional place would you most like to spend a day? What would you do?
Skyrim. Start the morning off with a sweetroll, of course. Say hello to my spouse Vilkas. I had previously been married to his brother Farkas but accidentally killed him by summoning a storm that repeatedly struck him with lightning until he died. Head to the general store and steal everything that isn’t bolted down then throw it into the town square along with some gems to see what happens. Mount my apparently immortal horse Shadowmere and ride around the beautiful countryside. I could kill some dragons, but really at this point it bores me, so I just yell at them until they become docile. I spend a lot of time in the countryside, looking for butterflies and flowers that I can use to make poison. For dinner: thirteen cheese wheels.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
This is going to sound cheesy, but books, and you don’t even need to spend money on them because you can get them for free at the library. If you want to be a writer, reading is actually more important than writing. If you are a writer, you should be reading very promiscuously—and that includes both literary fiction and genre fiction. You could never workshop and still be a good writer, but you could never be a good writer if you don’t read a lot. You should be reading books of your genre so broadly that you have an acute understanding of where the market is, where it has been, and where it could go, how are tropes being used and how could they be played with in new ways. This is why agents say not to comp books like Twilight or Harry Potter—it’s not just because they were wildly successful, but because it indicates that you haven’t read more recent books and probably don’t understand the market. It always puzzles me when I hear of writers who don’t read a lot, or who don’t read in their genre because they’re worried about it affecting their own voice—I would say you need a stronger voice if reading somehow taints it. Read. A. Lot. Books outside your comfort zone too. Books bookish people recommend to you. Books you find at the airport. Literally everything you can get your hands on.
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