Sunday, February 16, 2014

Diversity in Our Writing Projects: Umbral Heretic

Introducing my good friend, Erica, and her novel in progress, Umbral Heretic. The following interview is conducted by me, Nicholas Mena.

Your work in progress is titled Umbral Heretic. Where did this story come from for you? What was your inspiration?

I've enjoyed making up characters and stories in my head. They've occupied my daydreams since I was a kid, and at various times, I've tried writing stories about them. But I'd never gotten through a novel-length work or written anything I considered good enough to submit anywhere.

This all changed one day when I was walking my dogs along the river, and I got this image in my head of a healer in a fantasy world finding an almost dead man down by a riverbank. I started wondering who these two people were, why things had happened the way they did, and what they were going to do about it. It grabbed onto my imagination, and I decided I had to write their story down. As I am a pantser, not an outliner, it has certainly taken some unexpected twists since I started, but the notion that these characters were each going to be outsiders with things in their past they were ashamed of has been a constant.

While you’re setting is reminiscent of what can be considered an older era of Europe, there are many facets of it that don’t make it typically medieval. Would you mind elaborating?

A big difference that monotheism hasn't taken over, and there isn't one religious institution that dominates the entire continent where my novel takes place. The conflict between two different religious traditions is part of the story, and it's part of what has driven my protagonist from his home country.

Another difference is that the current level of social organization and technology is more analogous to the Renaissance, or even the very early Enlightenment in many ways, though I've tossed in plenty of twists based on general differences in history and geography, and of course, the presences of magic.

The geography of my world is also different. There are only three large continents, none as large as Eurasia, and the continent that spans the equator is actually the largest in the east-west axis. Borrowing the notion (from Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel) that the large size and orientation of Eurasia (and not the superiority of any given culture) contributed to its ascent as the largest colonial power, I have a world where no one civilization has held sway over the others historically.

The men and women in your stories (as well as your other humanoid races) don’t often stick to stereotypical gender roles. Those of us who know you well know this is a big issue for you. What were some of your reasons for having such diverse roles for your people in your society?

I don't know about often not sticking to traditional roles (the characters I've focused on are not typical members of their societies in many ways), but men and women do fall along a spectrum in many of my world's cultures. My favorite modern fantasy writers include Lynn Flewelling, Robin Hobbs, Glenda Larke, Kate Elliot and so on. They all have fantasy societies where women are doing most of the same things as the men, so I never thought that was an unusual approach in modern fantasy. My world is no utopia, but I wanted to write a story set in a place where men and women can both aspire to a variety of roles, where they're free to mingle socially, and where they have similar levels of autonomy.

I can't say why this is so important to me. Some of it's because I'm a woman, obviously, and I get pretty tired of reading stories where women can't participate fully in the story's events (or worse yet, lack motives and goals of their own). For me, traditional gender roles always felt like shoes that pinch my toes and rub blisters on my heels, especially when I'm told I must or mustn't do something because of my sex.

You seem to have two prominent protagonists in your story. Can you tell us a bit about them both and some of the challenges they face?

Jarrod is a dark wizard who is "cursed" with a conscience. In my world, umbral magic is pain driven, and it's addictive, so it's a serious problem for someone who gets woozy at the sight of blood. He's deeply ashamed of what he's become, and his attempts to bury his past and deny what he is, drives much of the conflict in the story.

Tesk is a healing student who has no interest in heroics outside of the infirmary. Pursuing her craft required her to sever ties with her own family, so she's learned to trust rationality, not her emotions. When she saves Jarrod's life and they become friends, she's very conflicted. He's got problems that would lead any rational person to turn tail and run, but her instincts are telling her that he's a good person who needs allies if he's going to undo the harm he's wrought.

Why are including new, less standard, and more diverse tropes and themes so important to you, particularly when it comes to the fantasy fiction you write?

I can't say exactly why, but it's something that's been evolving throughout my life. I was a strange, awkward child who never really got sucked into what passed for mainstream culture in 1970s-era Southern California. Maybe this has allowed me to relate more to people who are treated as outsiders in larger ways than I ever was. At some point, I just started to notice how one-dimensional many of the standard fictional tropes were and how they didn't usually reflect the world that was out there.

One thing that's always bugged me about classic fantasy is how homogeneous cultures are within their worlds. It's so common to see descriptions like this in fantasy novels: "The "men" of such and such a land are tall and fair, with booming voices and an appetite for mead. They mistrust magic and are quick to anger when slighted." Even as a kid, I thought it was strange that all the citizens of a country would be so alike in appearance and demeanor, when I knew darned well real people weren't.

Umbral Heretic takes place in a part of my world that resembles Northern Europe in some ways. But I've tried to make it clear there's a wider world out there. Each of my pov characters (and the important support characters too) are outsiders in one way or another. Each of them has been a victim of prejudice, whether it's based on their land of origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or social class, and this is what provides them with the perspective they need to resolve the main conflict.

What are your own personal aspirations for Umbral Heretic? What would you like your future and present readers to take with them from your story?

I'm in the process of polishing it up for submission to agents, and would dearly love to see it trade published with a pretty cover and sitting on the shelves of bookstores next to the works of some of my favorite authors. It would be amazing to be in a waiting room somewhere and to see someone reading this book and to have them turn to me and comment on how wonderful it was (without knowing I wrote it, of course). I suspect that's a dream many writers have for their first novel. Silly, but there you go.

As far as what I want my readers to take away from it? Whatever they want, really. My ultimate goal is to be entertaining. But if the readers think that my characters are interesting because they're more complex and filled with internal conflict than your typical fantasy heroes, then I'll be especially happy. If there's any overarching messages, they're that suffering can make people more, not less, empathic, and people can fail at things but not be failures.

Any final comments or questions?

The only other comment I can think of is that the story has a dog, and no, at the risk of making a spoiler, she's not going the Old Yeller route. I adore stories with cats, horses and wolves, but for whatever reason, I've always noticed that these species seem to be very well represented in fantasy. Dogs, for whatever reason, are thinner on the ground. So (at some urging from my test readers) I've decided to give the dog who found Jarrod by the river some other roles in the story, even though she's just a normal dog and not magical.

(A question for the interviewer) As a question for you, Nick, I know you've said you usually don't gravitate towards traditional secondary world fantasy, but you enjoyed many things about UH when you test read my first draft. What sorts of things would you like to see writers of secondary-world fantasy stories doing more often?

 Yes, secondary world fantasy is not my regular cup of tea, but I'm usually not one for outright exclusion. In fact, that is something I like to see in my fantasy, a fair amount of inclusion. I like boundaries pushed or even ignored. I like a bit of controversy and going against the grain. I'm one of those who used to be in the "Popular Things Suck" Club until it had too many people in it. I'm also a fan of old tropes breaking old stereotypes. Give me dark elves living in the swamps, but only because they are amassing forces for guerrilla warfare against the tree-elf overlords. Give me a venomous, black hydra who wishes he were mauve and had a beefcake wyrm hubby to grow old with (and not be killed off for his forbidden love in the third act). Give me knights in shining armor slaughtered by a killer bunny. You can do the same-old same-old when it comes to fantasy, but please do something different with it too.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Diversity in Our Writing Projects: Spire City

Up next is our good friend, Mr. Daniel Ausema and his series, Spire City.

Spire City is home to mighty machines of steam power and clockwork, and giant beetles pull picturesque carriages over cobbled streets, but there is a darker secret behind these wonders. A deadly infection, created by a mad scientist, is spreading through the city, targeting the poor and powerless, turning them slowly into animals. A group of those infected by the serum join together to survive, to trick the wealthy out of their money, and to fight back.

The first four episodes of season 1: Infected are available from Musa Publishing, with a new episode coming out every three weeks, through August, 2014. Season 2 will follow, and I'm currently writing the rough draft for a proposed season 3. For more information, you can visit

Your work in progress is titled Spire City. What was your biggest inspiration for this story series?

Hmm, it was almost six years ago that I began dreaming of this series, and there were so many different sources of inspiration. I guess the main thing that drove the story from the beginning was that central concept of the infection. Here is a deliberate attack on the city's powerless. A lab-created disease that most of the people in the city ignore, and if it's brought to their attention, they react violently. Its effects are tragic, but because the disease is often very slow but not always, it leaves its victims with an unknown span of time to come to grips with it, and each of the central characters reacts to it in different ways. At one point Chels calls it a death sentence with an uncertain expiration date. I find that resonant in many ways.

You’re building quite a reputation for developing these uncanny settings, particularly these cities that resemble something from a dream. Tell us about “Spire City” itself. Where did some of your ideas for this place come from?

When I was a child, the nearest public museum had a section called “Gaslight Village,” which recreated a small section of what the city looked like in the 1880s. I enjoyed the animal dioramas and other things in the museum, but that was my favorite part, and it definitely influenced how I pictured Spire City.

But, that was a very small city as such things go back in the 1880s. Spire City also draws from a couple of visits I made to Barcelona when I was studying down the coast from there. I loved the architecture of Barcelona and would have gladly spent more time exploring its streets. Of course it's much different today than it was a hundred-plus years ago, so I looked at photos of what it was like then. And I added in many things from other Victorian-era cities as I learned about them here and there.

Other things came purely from my imagination. The beetle-drawn carriages are a nod to Kafka and various other works, and just fit what I think of as cool. The singers on the spires are a mark of the city's cruelty. Both of those first appeared in a loosely related short story and then got incorporated into the other ideas I had for this serial project because they seemed to fit thematically.

You seem to often feature people who would typically be described as outcasts. Your protagonist and other featured people with her are beggars, urchins, prostitutes, immigrants, the unemployed, and members of the lowest caste. Why have you now chosen and so often choose to tell their stories?

Yes. Call it a reaction to all the high fantasy I read growing up, but I have no interest in writing about kings and princes and the powerful in society. I'm much more interested in the people scrambling to get by and those who find some sort of success without being the child or descendent of anyone famous. And in steampunk, specifically, a lot of works focus on the high society of tea and fancy soirees, and...that just doesn't interest me as much. Certainly I've read some great stories that involve such things, but as a writer I'm not interested. There are philosophical/religious/political-type implications there, which I'll let my biographers someday tease out Wink

But it must have been around the time I was doing the first draft of the first season that Catherynne Valente, one of my favorite writers, posted something lamenting the way steampunk too often forgot the punk part of its name. Now I'm too young to have any strong feelings about the original punk movement, and I was too oblivious growing up to pay much attention to the punk-influenced strains of alternative music at the time, but the themes she teased out of it rising from the powerless and suspicious of authority, that fits well with Spire City. I was already writing the story, so it wasn't an inspiration as much as an affirmation that what I was doing had a place in the world of steampunk.

Your protagonist is an interesting, young scamp. Please tell us more about her (without too many spoilers, of course).

It's worth noting that I see the Spire City series as having a sort of ensemble cast, so at various times in the episodes ahead others are central. But Chels is the protagonist of the first episode, and her full arc is really the backbone of the story as a whole. So she is a second-generation immigrant who grew up within a community of immigrants in Spire City. When her mother died a year or two before the series starts, she didn't feel like she belonged there. Her mother never told her the name of her father, but she's always assumed that he wasn't a part of that community, and that's how she's been treated as well. So she tried to make her way on her own. Without much success. But then she found a group of outcasts who had banded together. Most of them are infected with the serum that the scientist Orgood engineered, but when the story begins she is not infected. She's not well educated—most of them in the band aren't—but she's clever, and her position as neither Spire City native nor immigrant herself gives her a unique perspective on things.

What is it about your stories that you feel separates them from the din? How do they stand out from the usual fare we see so much of on the bookstore shelves (real or digital)?

Hmmm. I guess I'll answer with what it is I value in a story, and what people have consistently mentioned in reviewing my stories. I like a high sense of imagination. I want readers to think, “Wow, that was out there, but really cool.” I want each story to be different, to surprise readers, keep them unsure what to expect next, but anxious to discover it. People often comment on the settings of my stories as being almost characters themselves, places that come alive and make the whole story seem to take place in a real place (surreal or bizarre as it may be). I also value writers with a poetic sense, writing that revels in its cadences and sounds. I'm not talking about purple, dense-to-follow prose, but writing that shows care for how it sounds and how it flows. Spire City is meant to read fairly quickly and has a lot of momentum throughout, but I hope readers find that it achieves this without sacrificing at all the beauty of the written word.

What is the big, final message of Spire City? What do you hope we’ll come away with once we’ve read the series?

I'm leery of stating a specific message. I'm currently reading the beautifully illustrated writing book Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer, and it includes an essay by Ursula LeGuin on this very topic. So to quote her, “The complex meanings of a serious story or novel can be understood only be participation in the language of the story itself. To translate them into a message or reduce them to a sermon distorts, betrays, and destroys them.” In other words, the story is the message, and you have to read it to experience whatever message that is, which will inevitably vary from reader to reader. So what will readers come away from Spire City with? It will be different with each one, but hopefully a sense of the real world around them, a sense of engagement with it on the grounds of this—and in response to this—otherworldly story of steam engines and beetles and mad science infections.

Is diversity something you intentionally planned on or worked towards in your story? If so, how did you accomplish this?

Spire City is intentionally a diverse city. It doesn't correspond one-to-one with any real-world people groups, but it does bring in people from many backgrounds (ethnic, religious, linguistic) living together. The tensions between groups and the ways different people react to such things are an integral part of what makes a setting come alive. Without that you're left with a cardboard backdrop that never seems real.

Really, one of the things that draws me to write about the industrial era (I don't only write steampunk, but I do find it an interesting style to write in), is those very dynamics. The new technology brings together people who might not have interacted before, whether it's the country peasants coming to the city to work in the textile factories or the merchants, aspiring to a higher class, who still live side-by-side with the workers who keep the city boilers running or the people from more distant places who come to the city for its growing reputation as a place to make a living. There's so much going on in such a place that the stories can resonate in surprising ways.

One thing I've done, also, is to make sure that no one person is seen as the ultimate representative of any group. So Chels is not the only one from her mother's people. Another from their group of outcasts, Sairen, is an immigrant himself, one who came at a young age quite recently, and his perspective is very different from hers. And the same goes for the other groups in the band. Women and men, Spire-native and peasant-born, factory worker and born-to-privilege. Each of them is an individual as well as a person who could be grouped in many different ways.

This has been an excellent interview. Thank you so much, Dan. Please check out his link in the beginning of this post.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Diversity in Our Writing Projects: The LadySmiths

It’s February which is traditionally Black History Month in the US. In the past I have made special series of posts commemorating authors of color in fantasy including some of close friends.

This year I thought it would be poignant to post a series celebrating authors who have taken an active approach to include diversity in their fantasy writing. I’ll be focusing on authors currently working on their projects for two reasons: 1) So that the rest of us can see, firsthand, how writers are incorporating more diverse settings, people, and themes into works they are presently writing and revising and 2) So that the authors interviewed can take a moment to take an analytical look at their stories regarding diverse motifs.

First is Ms. Chelle Rhys and her Novel in Progress, The LadySmiths.

Your work in progress is titled The LadySmiths. What was your primary inspiration for this story?

The current title and the original first glimmerings of an idea came from the name of a band I used to like when I was younger. Ladysmith Black Mombaza. 'Ladysmith', I thought one day. 'I wonder what that might be.' And some magic that only worked for female blacksmiths came sneaking into my mind.

The setting of your story is an atypical one for most fantasy and is reminiscent of some older era of Africa. What pulled you to this setting? Did you draw from any actual places to create this world?

To be honest, my original intention was to be different from the standard medieval European fantasy setting by moving to the Renaissance era. But a friend of mine was heading to Ethiopia to teach, and the more I read about the history there, the more fascinating I found it. And, of course, Ladysmith Black Mombaza was an African band.  So I moved the novel, lock, stock and barrel, before I'd even started writing it. And I'm really glad I did. Ancient Ethiopian history (what we know of it) is fascinating.

My physical setting was also inspired by Africa, though it's not identical to it. I liked the idea of there being a sea, but not a wide one, between my people and another nation; and I liked the thought of a higher, cooler land butting up against a desert. I invented a miles-long cliff dividing the two. The Ladysmith School is dug wholesale out of rock. There are many examples of this in our world in different places around the globe - Italy, Myanmar, India, Turkey, Jordan, Bali and Ethiopia. I saw a picture of a temple once, where they explained how it was excavated down from the top rather than being built from the bottom up, or even carved out of the face of a rock, and so I incorporated that idea, too.

Your people are also not your standard fantasy fare. I’ve personally noticed a rich cultural heritage for every main person in your story. Did you draw on any real world cultures when you were developing your people?

To some extent. The cultures are an amalgamation of my own imagination, what little is known about ancient Ethiopia, and some real-world African traditions. I am trying to keep a flavor of Africa, while still making it clear that it's my own world, and not ours. But I did use some African folk-lore and traditions as springboards for my own; for instance, the idea of blacksmiths in general holding a prominent and powerful position in their town or village is a wide-spread one among African tribes. And I borrowed fairly freely from African languages for names, though I generally try to change them a little along the way.

Can you tell us a bit more about your main person, who she is, what she wants, what she must do, some of her obstacles in the story?

Shennafi d'Ab'hoi is a young woman who has wanted to be one of the fabled Ladysmiths and learn to wield their magic since she was a child. Her father, who is the blacksmith of Ab'hoi, wanted her to stay home and eventually become his successor, and was initially unwilling to let her go to Ladysmith School. One of her main motivations throughout is to make him proud of her.

She intends to come home when she is finished with her schooling and work with her father. But she is also living in a time when her country is torn by internal conflicts and facing external enemies. The king is making unpopular policies, including selling some of his subjects as slaves to pay for soldiers to bolster his own army.  Shennafi finds herself caught up in both the more minor war at home, between those who support the king and those who think he has gone too far, and the major war when her country is invaded. She faces obstacles that range from people in her village, to her own conflicting desires and loyalties, to the king, to the gods themselves.  In the end, she discovers for herself what things in her life are worth the price required to gain them.

The roles that women play in the society you have created seems to be a significant theme in your story. Would you care to elaborate on that?

It sort of came about organically. I didn't decide one day that I was going to write a novel about the roles of women in society. But if you have a group of magical blacksmiths who can only be women, you end up writing a lot about women. I chose not to turn things entirely around and make women take the place that men tend to have in many of our world's cultures and putting men into the subservient role instead; but I did want to show women taking positions of strength and power, and to write about a world where a girl can grow up and not feel that many dreams she might have are barred to her simply because she is female.

Of course, the people in Shennafi's world are a varied lot, just as we are, and there are those who think women shouldn't do anything but take care of the men and the babies and the fields, but I have tried to portray a culture where generally speaking, men and women are seen as equal citizens. I have a feeling that somewhere out there is a male-only Ladysmith equivalent; I just haven't run into it yet.

For those of us who have already fallen in love with your tale and those who haven’t had the privilege of reading it so far, would you share what you hope your readers will ultimately take away from your story?

That's a good question. Every time I read it, I came up with a different answer. I certainly hope people will enjoy a setting filled with different traditions and myths than the traditional European fantasy arena, and that some of them might be inspired to learn more about different cultures from their own. Perhaps especially Africa, which in my history classes was shown mostly from the angle of the European nations who colonized it.  And I'd like it if people who read it felt empowered to reach for their own dreams, whether in a traditional area or a nontraditional one.

But mostly, for me, it's a story about choices. What's important to me, and what am I willing to do in order to achieve my goals? Does the end justify the means? Can I find a way to be true to myself, and still fulfill my responsibilities to those around me? You know - minor questions like that. Smile

Thank you very much, Chelle, for a fascinating interview.