- Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I think I always loved writing. I found a short story that I’d written in fourth grade about a time travelling stamp when my parents were moving a few years ago. I didn’t really sort of consider it as a career until I was over thirty. I did my PhD in medieval literature, and then I turned that into an academic monograph and then I worked as a journalist, so I was doing lots of nonfiction writing. I think most people think, ‘Oh, I could write a novel’, and I didn’t get serious about trying until I was around 29 or 30. And then I took a couple years of joining critique groups and kind of learning how to write a novel, because it’s very different from writing nonfiction, before I sort of took it seriously. I’ve always loved writing in some form, but I didn’t know I wanted to be a fiction writer specifically until later, it sort of evolved out of other things I was doing.
- What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
A lot. I’m definitely a plotter. And for the Sweet Black Waves trilogy in particular, what I did was I looked at all the different medieval versions of the Tristan and Iseult legend, which are mostly in old French and old German, and I looked at the Celtic source material. In those source stories, the women actually have a lot more agency. As the Middle Ages evolved, they sort of lost a lot of agency, so I wanted to look back at the inheritance. I had a big piece of construction paper, and I did a timeline of the recurring motifs from the different stories, and what incidents always happened in the different retellings. And I thought, well okay, that’s that legend, but if it’s from the point of view of this side character, who’s now the heroine, how would these events affect her? And I realized there was a lot of material, and that this was going to be a long story, to take from when Tristan and Iseult meet, to the end—which in all medieval versions, always ends up with the lovers dying. So I looked at the structure, and realized where the breaking points were in the plot, and I realized there had to be three books. It made it easier when I started writing, because I knew where each of the three books had to end and what had to happen in each book for my main character so that it still told the legend, but from her point of view.
- What was your process for coming up with cover of Wild Savage Stars?
So, the Wild Savage Stars cover was actually really easy. The Sweet Black Waves cover was really hard, because there were all these different themes you have to communicate. It was a really fascinating process, because as the author, you don’t have a lot of control over it. You’re working with your editor, and with your in-house designer to communicate the heart and soul of the book. It was a little bit of a journey, but I was really happy with the end result. It’s the same photographer who has done the Sweet Black Waves cover. What I loved about the Wild Savage Stars cover is that if you look carefully, she’s actually in the woods, but they darkened it, so you can actually imagine that she’s underwater. I love that, because the sea is so important to Branwen and to the story. And without spoiling anything, it really works. When you get towards the end, you’ll see that it’s a really good image of something that happens. That one was actually really easy, they got it right from the start.
- What was your hardest scene to write? Why?
In Wild Savage Stars—it’s a little bit of a spoiler— but when Branwen and Iseult are trying to figure out what they’re going to do about the wedding night, because Iseult has been brought over to to marry the King and they need to go through with the marriage for peace. They’re trying to figure out a way to keep the peace, but also not force either one of them into a situation where they have to sleep with a man that they don’t know. What I’m really sort of interrogating is the patriarchal system of women being exchanged by men through marriage for political or economic reasons, and really sort of fighting back against that. That’s one of my main points in this book—what the realities are for women in the medieval context when they’re forced into these sorts of situations. There’s a very poignant scene between Branwen and Iseult when they’re trying to decide which of them should be sacrificed. It’s very emotional, and I wanted to get it just right, in terms of the sacrifices women make for each other when they’re forced by the patriarchal system to make these impossible choices. That was the hardest one to get right, because it was so important to me to get it right.
- What does literary success look like to you?
I think for me, my hope is that I’ll still be publishing until I die. The publishing industry is kind of a roller coaster and nothing is given. So success to me would be like Stephen King—well, not necessarily making as much money as Stephen King, although I wouldn’t say no to that [laughs]—but just to be still in my seventies, and putting out a book every year or two. That to me, would be a success.
- What comes first for you, the plot or the characters?
It’s a combination. For the Sweet Black Waves trilogy, I’m working with a well-known legend, so some of the plot is already there, although I picked and chose what I wanted to use. So, it was very much character driven. Branwen, in the medieval legends, is the one who’s supposed to guard the love potion. And obviously she does a very bad job of that, because it’s drunk by the two people who it’s not supposed to be drunk by. And all the chaos that ensues is her fault, and I always really wanted to know what she felt and thought about that, because then she spends the rest of the legend covering up for the lovers and trying to make up for her mistake. And I just thought that was really compelling. You know, how do you go on after you’ve made a catastrophic mistake after you’ve endangered the people that you love, and endangered your kingdom? I always found her to be this really interesting character that was responsible for so much, but that doesn’t get a lot of screen time in the medieval legends. So I guess it was character driven—like how do you survive this and try to make it right? That core conflict was really what drove me.
- Did you base any of the characters in your book off of yourself?
I think there are definitely aspects of me in Branwen, and even a bit in Iseult. Iseult has known her whole life that her primary value is to be married off to somebody. That’s always been sort of a thing in the distance, but as she’s gotten older, now suddenly it’s a real thing. So of course, she is reacting in self-destructive ways and hurting the people around her, because she has this fate that she can’t avoid, and she’s trying to desperately find a way to deal with that. It doesn’t always look pretty. It can get messy, and she can be quite mean, and hysterical, and selfish. I definitely put some of my more dramatic impulses into Iseult. Branwen is much more methodical, she’s a planner. She tries to control everything around her, and I definitely have those tendencies [laughs]. But of course, Branwen has to learn that you can’t control everything and everyone around you, and when you try to hold on too tightly, everything can blow up in your face. I think I’ve definitely imbued my characters with parts of myself and lessons I’ve had to learn as I’ve gotten older.
- Are you working on anything at the present you would like to share with your readers about?
I’m in the final stages of Bright Raven Skies, so that’s what I’m working on at the moment. And I’d say that if you’re a Branwen fan, hold on to your hats, because there is a lot more to come for Branwen in book three, but I think it’ll ultimately be a satisfying ending.
- Who’s an author that you draw inspiration from?
One of my all-time favorite books that I read when I was in fifth or sixth grade is called the True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi. It’s historical fiction about a thirteen-year old girl who’s being sent back from England to the United States on a ship, and there’s a mutiny. She has to really come to grips with all of the injustices in her society, because she’s upper class. The captain is a pretty terrible human being, but he’s also upper class. And she realizes the people on the ship are right, and he’s a terrible person, and she ends up joining the mutiny. But it’s hard to confront all the things you’ve been taught and to realize they don’t work for you, and that those aren’t the values you have. So she was a real inspiration for me as a kid, someone who looks at everything they’re being told and realizes they don’t agree with it, and has the courage of conviction to live her life the way she wants to. She ends up running away from her privileged life, and joining this ship. That was really inspirational for me, the idea that you could be the captain of your own ship, even if you’re a thirteen year old girl. There’s definitely a little bit of Charlotte in some of my female characters.
- What advice would you give to a new writer?
Lots of things. But I think the first piece of advice is just to finish a book. Because once you know you can finish an 80,000-90,000 word book—even if it’s not any good, even if you just throw it in a drawer or delete it off a hard drive—it’s a real accomplishment and it’ll give you the confidence to keep going. Because most first drafts are terrible, but you just have to finish the draft, so you can have something to edit. So I guess that would be my advice, to get the words on the page, and don’t over analyze them too much as you’re going. Just get it done, and then you can go back and edit.