Of Tigers and Twilight: YA Bestseller Colleen Houck Tells Us How She Did It
Writing was never part of the plan for Colleen Houck—let alone writing four bestselling YA paranormal romance novels in four years.
The author of the Tiger's Curse series was born and raised in Tucson, AZ, where she attended community and University of Arizona classes to be a teacher. Eventually Houck's passion turned to sign-language interpreting, which took her on a mission trip working with the deaf in California and Oregon, where she now lives with her husband and, as her book jackets are keen to point out, a "life-sized white stuffed tiger."
But Houck didn't get into writing until 2008, when a book changed her life. Can you guess what it was?
"Yeah, it's another one of those Shades of Grey things" Colleen admitted to SparkLife in a recent phone chat from her Oregon home. "I don't know what it is, but my sister originally bought me the first Twilight book…so I read the first one in like a day, and I went to the store the next day and got the next two and finished those. Book four wasn't coming out for like 7 or 8 months, so I looked for the author online."
What Houck discovered (besides a release date) was that Stephenie Meyer was just a stay-at-home mom "who had a dream about a sparkly vampire and decided to write a book about it." Around this same time, Houck watched a documentary about J.K. Rowling, and encountered a similar story of a stay-at-home, welfare-funded mother writing the next great multimedia YA game-changer on a cafe napkin. Absorbing the two success stories, Houck had a revelation.
"I started thinking, well, maybe regular people can write books, too."
Houck got to writing the day after she read about Steph Meyer, and over the next eight months crafted Tiger's Curse, the globe-trotting lover's odyssey of Kelsey, a lonely Oregon teenager, Dhiren (or just "Ren"), a centuries-old Indian Prince cursed to live all but 24 minutes a day as a white tiger, and the dark and magnificent magics that follow them through India and beyond. In a weirdly symmetrical twist of fate, Colleen finished the final chapter of her first novel the same day that Breaking Dawn hit shelves. Her self-published foray into the YA world was soon picked up by an agent, four more books were planned, and here we are with another stay-at-home success story, expanding the house that J.K. built.
Tiger's Destiny, Colleen's fourth novel, came out a few months ago, bringing Houck's love-struck battle between good and ancient evil to a fiery climax. SparkLife recently helped me get some phone time with Colleen—who had just finished speaking at a NanoWriMo event at the coolest Oregon high school ever—to chat about the DIY author's inspirations, literary crushes, and chronicles of supernatural love yet to come...
SL: How did you settle on a white tiger shape-shifter as your love interest?
Colleen Houck: I turned to kind of a Beauty and the Beast theme for the book, and I knew right away that I didn't want to do vampires or werewolves or anything like that. So I needed a beast, and I started making a list of cool animals I thought would work. I thought about a bear, about a bird, a lion…but there's something already magical and special about a white tiger. So that's what I chose. I thought I'd set my book in Russia, because that's where I thought white tigers came from. Then I started researching and found out that the white tiger comes from India, and all the white tigers in the world are related to one cub that was caught in the 1930s. All the white tigers can be traced back to that one ancestor.
There are some great descriptions of India in the book. Have you ever been there?
Before I wrote this I had never been to an Indian restaurant. But when I started researching tiger myths and legends and I found the story of Durga riding her tiger into battle, I thought it was such a compelling story, and that's what I wanted to tell. I also wanted to layer the fantasy world right beneath these real Indian landmarks, to give the feeling that these things did exist, but were hidden just below the surface. So even though I was a little scared of the mythology and this culture that was totally foreign to me, I decided to go for it.
Are there any cool myths you wanted to include but didn't have room for?
I don't think so (laughs) I think I got in pretty much everything I wanted to. During my research I came up with a whole list of cool myths from around the world that I wanted to work into the story. For example, the Test of the Four Houses is a Mayan myth, and it was actually about two Mayan Gods who had to navigate—I think theirs was five houses, and they had the house of pain, and the house of daggers, and the house of jaguars…I just though the concept was cool, so I took that out and figured out how to adapt that into my story. I tried to pick monsters and demons and stories and creatures that fit into the theme of beauty and the beast. I tried to keep it more in the Asian field, but if I find something good I'll use it (laughs).
It's interesting that your hero, Kelsey, finds herself in a world where Goddesses, demons, and dragons are very real, but then she goes home in book two and celebrates a traditional Christmas. Does Western religion and mythology have a place in this world, too?
I think so. In book one Kelsey and the gang sit down at the Temple of Durga and talk about their beliefs a little bit. Kelsey was raised Christian like I was, Ren says his dad was Hindu and his mom was Buddhist, and Mr. Kadam believes in reincarnation. Everyone has their own certain way of seeing the world that's not necessarily at odds with all the weird magical stuff that happens to them. He feels comfortable embracing a certain aspect of life, and I wanted each of the characters to have their own spin and their own take on the world.
OK, so could Kelsey ever walk in on Durga and Jesus playing cards together someday?
I don't know! That's a hard one. You know, Noah's Ark and Shangri-La come into the story in book two, and there are lots of different cultural interpretations of these myths. I didn't even know that Hitler believed that Shangri-La was the real birthplace of the Aryan race, so he actually sent men into the Himalayan mountains to find it. Indiana Jones can mix up those myths of the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail in a modern context and not be offensive to Christians, so I tried to go for that with my myths, too. I wanted to have something for every culture and every religion to feel comfortable with.
Have you received any feedback from Indian readers?
Yeah, actually! An Indian family who lives across the street from me had relatives who were visiting for the holidays. On Christmas day a big group of their teen cousins showed up at my door, saying "We loved this book! We want to be in the movie!" It was so cool.
Have you read any Tiger's Curse fanfic?
No, I know people write it, but I haven't had a chance to read it. Did you find anything good?
Yeah, there's a HUGE forum of the stuff! My favorite synopsis is: "Tigers Destiny NEVER happened! They have not broke the tigers curse. Lokesh has kids. Could one of them be Kelsey's?"
(laughs) That's funny. I think a lot of people are trying to make predictions about [upcoming fifth book] Tiger's Dream, whether or not any of the previous books actually happened, and it's funny to read people's ideas. Some of them have actually come pretty darn close! I don't tell them if they're close or not…but we've got some good little guessers. I get the same questions over and over after they read book four. Everyone wants to know about the tiger bones. And I get a lot of people wondering if Kishan is Phet, which is an interesting concept. It's really cool to see what people have to say.
Lokesh is such a creepy villain. How did you create him?
He was actually inspired a little bit by Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon, but there's little bits and pieces of all the villains that I love in him. He's got little pieces of Darth Vader, a little bit of Hannibal Lecter—I mean, he kind of likes to torture. In Tiger's Destiny we actually have some deleted scenes that are pretty intense as far as the bad guy goes, but my editor (Cindy Loh) wanted to take them out because she thought it was too "bad guy reveals himself to Batman," so we reworked pieces of that into little dreamscapes that Kelsey has in the front of Destiny. There's a lot of information about this fella that even the reader hasn't gotten to see yet. We're getting ready to do the next Young Adult Scavenger hunt, and this time I'm gonna release a chapter that was cut from book 4 called "Diwali," and some more bonus material coming out later in the year.
Where else did you draw inspiration for your story?
My brothers have been very very helpful, too. Every time it gets too romantic they'll be like "Add a car chase!" (laughs). The motorcycles were requests from my brothers because they wanted some man action in there. The martial arts were brother things, too. Every time I needed a cool weapon or a cool battle my brothers helped me by showing me their World of Warcraft stuff. So it's kind of a mash-up of everything I love—Indiana Jones, martial arts, cool weapons, myths, magic…everything I love.
Speaking of love…let's say you and your husband can go on a double date with ANY literary couple. Who do you invite out and why?
Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara (chuckles) I would just like to sit there and talk to them. I think they'd be an interesting couple to talk with. And I'm always jealous of her clothes.
Now let's say you have 5 minutes to have a conversation with J.K. Rowling. What do you say to her?
Oh, man…I would probably just gush about her work. I would ask her if she had any pressure to write another Harry Potter when it was over. And how did she decide to write the next book that she wrote, and why that story was so important to her. How she felt about her publishing journey, probably.
What's your geekiest habit?
I'm a huge science fiction fan. I'd love to go to Comic Con, and I'd probably dress up (laughs). But something I do all the time? I play a game of Age of Empires every day—the Native American expansion pack. My brothers are into World of Warcraft, but I'm just scared if I try that game then I'll be doing it all the time.
Do you have a go-to culture that you like to play as in Age of Empires?
You know, that kind of fits. What can we expect to read from you next?
I'm working on two pitches for a new YA paranormal romance series. I always put romance in because for me if a book doesn't have romance I just don't want to read it (laughs). I found a picture of a Greek model to inspire a character from what I'm working on, so that's the clue. We're skewing into a little more Greek right now. I'll probably always have some kind of paranormal element to it too—I don't think I'll ever write a non-fiction. And it's YA—because that's what publishers want right now.
Love Colleen? Check out her books here!