Paint us a quick picture of what a productive day of writing, research, or illustration looks like for you. Do you have a certain schedule that keeps you on track or is your creative output more spontaneous? Is there a specific location you like to work in or do you go from place to place? Do you work in small chunks or do you plow through large sections all at once?
On a productive day, I will have two sessions of creative work: one session first thing in the morning, and the other in the hours before I go to bed. I try to methodically complete tasks one after the other, so this usually means spending both sessions working at the same task, whether that is writing and editing text for a book, carving a wooden plate for a print, or inking a hand-drawn illustration.
"I try to methodically complete tasks one after the other, so this usually means spending both sessions
That said, I do sometimes have spontaneous bouts of work in the middle of the day, if I am struck by big-picture idea for a new project, or for the development of a current project; I’ll then stop whatever I’m doing and try to capture the idea before it’s gone. I rely on this kind of spontaneous inspiration in order to form the vision for my projects, but I rely on habit to bring the projects to completion. That habitual work almost always takes place at home—I like to have all my art materials nearby—and in small daily increments.
I have always had a great deal of respect for storytellers who also possess the skill to illustrate that which they see in their imagination. The first illustrator/writer that comes to my mind is Howard Tayler who co-hosts one of my favorite podcasts, Writing Excuses. How do your illustrations affect your storytelling process? Are they typically created after the written narrative or do your visuals inspire the text?
In an online interview with the Nanovic Institute for European Studies you describe a research trip you took to Europe ahead of your senior project. There you delved into the history of printmaking. Of course, the emergence of the printing press gave rise to a chorus of new political, social, and religious voices. Do you think the internet as a means of digital publication has had a similar impact on society or do you view this medium as distinctly different from the printed word?
Yes, I definitely think there is a similar impact! As you say, there are a host of new voices entering into the public sphere, and the shifts towards social disruption and globalization amplified by the printing press also seem to be happening today with the internet. You can even trace similar reactions from the public to this disruption. Multiple people in early modern Europe interpreted the sudden explosion of printed material as a sign of the imminent apocalypse, and you can read similarly dire interpretations of the internet’s effects today: that it’s the end of democracy, of human intimacy, etc. I personally believe that human culture will adapt to the change and continue to grow, just as it did with the printing press.
"Multiple people in early modern Europe interpreted the sudden explosion of printed material as a sign of the imminent apocalypse, and you can read similarly dire interpretations of the internet’s effects today..."
In one aspect, though, I think the internet is having an effect opposite to that of the printing press, in that it is bringing images to the forefront. In medieval Europe, at least, images seemed to hold a great deal of power as vehicles for complex ideas and cultural values, and the introduction of the printing press seemed to gradually demote images to mere decoration, especially when they were combined with text as illustrations. I think the internet is restoring some prominence to the powerful combination of word and image—whether that is through the social communication of Instagram, video essays on YouTube, or the visual humor of memes.
"I think the internet is restoring some prominence to the powerful combination of word and image—whether that is through the social communication of Instagram, video essays on YouTube, or the visual humor of memes."
The Book of the Enchanter is your riveting retelling of the rise and fall of King Arthur as told through the fictional character Bleise who records the tale at Merlin’s request. Complete with wood-block carved illustrations and printed in a style true to the early days of the printing press, it transports the reader to an age long past while remaining accessible to the modern reader. How did you manage to interweave your academic research and creative expression throughout this project as these two are often seen as quite distinct?
I find Arthurian literature especially inspiring in this regard, because of the way that different texts build on each other and innovate over time. For most of the history of the Arthurian legend, audiences responded to Arthurian literature by creating new Arthurian literature of their own; when I see this conversation playing out in the texts that I study, I naturally want to participate in it myself! I’m glad to hear that the book is accessible, because I think that is my biggest challenge when combining research and expression: I wanted to create a version of the Arthurian legend that could speak to people of my own time, just as the Arthurian authors I study were speaking to their cultural context.
As a writer who is inspired by the Norse Myths I often scratch my head at all the time I spend re-reading these stories from over one thousand years ago. However, I am continually drawn back to them and revel in re-interpreting the vivid characters and dramatic imagery. What is it about Arthurian legend that drove you to undertake such an immersive project as The Book of the Enchanter?
Maybe not all of us participate in a story as dramatic as that of Lancelot, but I think most people have experienced relationships with that same tangle of love and conflict. I appreciate Arthurian legends both for the veracity of the emotions that they portray, and the larger-than-life backdrop against which these emotions play out, which to me speaks to the intensity of emotional experience.
Your illustrations in The Book of the Enchanter are done in the style of historical prints from the dawn of the age of print. From an artist’s perspective, what is the value in imitating forms such as wood-block carving in modern work? Is it simply an artistic exercise or is there something to learn from the themes and styles of cultures from the past?
For example, studying highly structured medieval books like the Paupers’ Bible inspired me to incorporate a high degree of symmetry into my illustrations, even though I was also using more contemporary techniques, like the progressive visual narratives found in picture books. I believe that consciously responding to the art of the past in a new form allows me to create something special, a work that is more unique than what I would make if I never learned from artists outside my own period.
Where can readers find more of your work and stay up to date on your latest publications?
Recent updates can be found on my Instagram and more information about me and my work can be found on my website. Thank you for the great conversation!
Read more about Joan Becker's thesis project, The Book of Enchantments, on the University of Notre Dame website!
In the past few years you have published several books, been an active contributor in academic circles, and engaged a large audience through social media. Do you set a strict schedule to maintain this level of productivity or do you find other ways to sustain your work?
I have a bullet journal. It is not very decorative, but it is great for making checklists, and I like checking things off (yeah, I’m an overachiever). I read a certain amount of stories each day with my breakfast, and most of my blogging and social media posts are scheduled for specific days. It also helps that I do a lot of the storytelling research purely for fun. Sometimes I just feel like looking up folktales about a topic, or from a place, and I enjoy going down the research rabbit hole. It’s one of the things I do for fun.
"I have a bullet journal. It is not very decorative, but it is great for making checklists, and I like checking things off..."
Your work on folktales from around the world spans both continents and centuries. Is this work driven primarily by personal passion or do you hope that your translations become contributions to the ever evolving conversation on globalization?
It is mostly personal passion. I love learning about cultures through their stories. I started the “Following folktales around the world” reading challenge a few years ago, and I still have about 40 countries left to read folktale collections from! As for contributions: With my books I hope to bring Hungarian folktales to English-speaking audiences and storytellers, because they are not very well represented on the English language folktale market. On the flip side, I translate a lot of tales into Hungarian so that Hungarian audiences can have access to them as well.
"With my books I hope to bring Hungarian folktales to English-speaking audiences and storytellers,
One of your first books was Tales of Superhuman Powers: 55 Traditional Stories from Around the World. Today more than ever, North Americans are flocking to the theater to watch movies about superheroes and traditional story-telling media, such as comic books and graphic novels, are becoming popular again. Given your work in this field, what do you think draws people to stories about superheroes? Is it human nature? Is it a part of our mythos or culture? Is there perhaps something psychological at work?
"My personal favorite thing about these “superhero” tales is teamwork.
Earlier this year you released a book titled Forum-Based Role Playing Games as Digital Storytelling in which you describe an emergent form of digital storytelling facilitated through online platforms. Through this experience you discovered “a subculture of unbound creativity” as people wrote novel length descriptions of fictional characters and experience that they lived through these digital worlds. As a professional story-teller yourself, what drew you to engage with and study these emerging communities?
And the stories that come out of it stay online, and you can go back and read them for fun, or out of nostalgia. There are sites where I have been active for 8-10 years, and the stories still keep surprising and entertaining me. I love creating them in cooperation with others, rather than just writing things alone.
In your 2018 publication Dancing on Blades: Rare and Exquisite Folktales from the Carpathian Mountains, you translate the tales of Anna Pályuk, a Rusyn woman who married into a Hungarian family. I find myself challenged by the task of ‘crossing cultures’ as I work with Icelandic source material from a different culture and time. How did you preserve the essence of Anna Pályuk’s stories while translating them for a modern reader? Were there any guidelines or strategies that helped to guide your process?
Joseph Campbell believed that common connections existed between stories from many parts of the world and summarized some of the key aspects of those similarities in what he called the Heroic Journey. Do folktales from around the world share much in your experience or have you found them to be highly distinctive to the culture they were first told in?
I have a bone to pick with the Hero’s Journey. For one, it only fits a sub-category of folktales, usually known as wonder tales or fairy tales. The more one digs into different kinds of traditional stories, the less the theory holds up. Plus, as a storyteller, I tend to focus on how the story is embellished, rather than the basic plot. A lot of tales can be boiled down to “someone gets into trouble, then gets out of it”, but let’s be honest, that is not what makes one tale more compelling than another. There are tale types that exist all around the world, but I only ever really liked one or two variant of them and the rest just didn’t click, because of small details.
"The more one digs into different kinds of traditional stories, the less the theory holds up.
Where can readers find more of your work and stay up to date on your latest publications?
I regularly blog through my website and I have a professional Facebook page. You can also follow me on Twitter.
You are officially studying Egyptology at UBC but we bumped into each other during a fantasy reading event at White Dwarf Books in Vancouver. Of course, I do not find this surprising as most fantasy is inspired in part or in whole by history and mythology. As someone who studies these subjects formally, how does your academic background influence your experience of reading fantasy novels?
Well, I do read novels that are set in an Egyptian context now, as I can understand the obscure the facts, even though they are very much exaggerating the culture. Authors like Wilbur Smith, and Elizabeth Peters (Elizabeth is actually an Egyptologist). But when it comes to classical fantasy books, I don’t think it has really changed anything. Other than not having a lot of time to read novels outside of studying. So I would say that I tend to read more YA or Adult fantasy that isn’t a huge epic, just because I don’t have the time or brain power to “study” another huge story. Authors like George, R.R. Martin, or Steven Erickson are way too “intense”. Authors like Jim Butcher, Brandson Sanderson, Dan Brown, etc…are ones I tend currently to gravitate towards. I love fast paced adventure. Of course there is Tolkien! He is my ultimate favourite!
Well, I do read novels that are set in an Egyptian context now, as I can understand
Your studies in Egyptology and ancient cultures have taken you to many incredible destinations including Turin, Italy and Cypress in the Eastern Mediterranean. What is the next travel destination on your research list and what do you hope to study there?
"I went to the Chicago museum which is attached to their Art Institute, and it was amazing. But I didn’t know what I was seeing, till after I started studying art history and then it made those pieces understandable in a whole new context."
In your interview on The Tipsy Archives (a history podcast featuring just the right amount of wine) you mention that you have always been inexplicably drawn to Egyptian history and myth. I myself am drawn to the body of stories that make up the Norse myths and also have a hard time explaining what it is about them that I find so intriguing. Where do you think the power of myth is rooted and what about these stories makes them relevant today?
Ooh, that is a tough question, as we talked about briefly in person and via email, I too am also drawn to Norse myth, I have just academically studied Egyptian myth more. I think the power of myth lies in its ability to captivate a reader/listener because it is relatable. In myth, a reader can find hidden cultural gems of information that would otherwise have not been discovered. There is only so much that archeological evidence can tell us, albeit quite extensive, but nevertheless myth and story hold a culture’s “essence” or values. It is important I feel, for us to share and remember these stories cause then these cultures that do not exist in the same fashion as they used too come back to life and are remembered.
There is only so much that archeological evidence can tell us, albeit quite extensive,
In your essay The Portable Shrine of Anubis, you mention how the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb gave archeologists unparalleled access to information about Egyptian death customs which other fields of archeological study surely view with envy. As we come from a modern North American culture that does not like to dwell on death (but rather obsesses over a glorified version of youth), what strikes you as profound in ancient Egyptian beliefs about death?
"Most seem to think that they are a culture that is obsessed with death, and that they worship it (hence all the pop culture-egyptianizing) but they were in fact quite scared of death, and as such had all of their rituals around death so that they could keep on living in the next area they called The Field of Reeds."
Same like the grave goods, as you needed all of those items with you so that you could continue on. For the Egyptians, magic and death were literal. For example, if you drew a person missing an arm, then that person would have no arm in the next life. So you needed to make sure that once something was drawn, written, placed, that made it so. Death and life were interconnected to them.
In your research paper Soundscaping in the Ancient World: Weaving through the Writings of Time you discuss the importance of sound, as well as silence, in Egyptian language and culture. As my field of study involves the language Old Norse, sound becomes paramount because it was an oral culture with no official written language. However, today so much communication happens visually instead of audibly. What do you think we lose when we move away from auditory language towards text-based communication?
"I think we lose the emotions. We lose empathy. We lose our ability to become personal with people."
The ideological fanatics Nazi Germany in World War II seemed drawn to myths and sought to exploit them for their cultural power. Beyond the Germanic and Norse myths, Nazi archeologists tried, in a bizzare blending of fact and fiction, to prove that the Egyptian pharaohs were ancient Aryans. These bewildering notions still feature heavily in popular conspiracy theories. What do you think the role and responsibility of researchers and historians is in addressing such wildly inaccurate and potentially destructive ideas?
Researchers, historians and archaeologists need to publish their work!!! This is a real problem! There are many people out there who are doing amazing studies but that information never gets told to the public, and therefore stupid theories arise and you get Egyptomania and the misinformed meanings of symbols, be they Egyptian or Nordic.
"Researchers, historians and archaeologists need to publish their work!!! This is a real problem!"
As our role is to study the past, we need to do that in a professional, respectful way and to realize that it doesn’t matter where people come from or what they believe in, we are all here on this planet and we are here to keep our heritage alive. It is about cultural heritage. Educating and involving the locals about their own culture so that they can learn about what was lost to them as well as to us.
"It is about cultural heritage. Educating and involving the locals about their own culture
Where can Egyptology fans find more of your work and stay up to date on your latest research?
Ha! I will be uploading some of my essays, like the ones that you mentioned here, on my academia.edu page (once school is finished).
Find more of Larissa's work at academia.edu!
"I usually reach for the 1554 beer from New Belgium Brewery and drink Guinness on more special occasions."
One of the hardest things for any writer is to move forward with a story once it no longer feels ‘fun’, i.e., once the story is no longer flowing easily from your mind onto the page. What advice do you have for writers who feel like they are stuck in their narrative and are struggling to move forward?
I think that’s an issue that all writers struggle with at one time or another. We all want to write when we feel inspired, but bouts of inspiration can be few and far between. I follow some advice from Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird. Anne emphasises the importance of routine and of reaching a minimum word count no matter what. I’ve found that keeping a daily writing routine trains my creative muscles to work when I need them. I also aim to write eight hundred words a day, even if every sentence is a struggle. Once I get those eight hundred words down, I’ve usually broken through the wall and entered a good writing flow. If not, I can stop there and try again tomorrow. Repeat ad infinitum, punctuated with long walks and reading.
"I follow some advice from Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird.
I am always interested to learn about what else writers do for work as I find this has a significant influence on their writing. How has your work as a wildlife biologist informed your narrative and influenced the fantastic world you have created?
My training in biology makes it a point of professional pride to be accurate and precise in my descriptions of nature. No one else might notice if I confuse the behavior of hares with rabbits, but those are details that I care about. I spend an inordinate amount of time researching the life cycles of every flower, tree, and critter that I include in my book because I want my natural descriptions to be as realistic as possible.
"No one else might notice if I confuse the behavior of hares with rabbits, but those are details that I care about."
On the less technical side of things, my love of nature causes the natural world to loom large in my stories. Nature can be a setting, but it also influences moods, themes, and characters. I particularly love exploring how characters relate to nature because I think that is such an essential part of the human experience.
You and I are both avid fans of poetry in fantasy. I have enjoyed some of the poems you have posted on Twitter as well as those featured on your website, particularly The Road Goes Ever On. In the world of Kellen the Fey, what special role does poetry play in the context of the adventure?
I’m so glad you asked this question because it’s something I love to talk about. For Kellan, poetry begins as a gateway to an elder time full of daring heroes and magic. All the old stories were written in verse, and so that’s how he connects to them. When Kellan starts creating his own poems, it quickly becomes a driving force in his own legend. He learns that poetry is somehow connected to a very deep and powerful magic, but one that comes at a significant price. As Kellan matures into the legend himself, poetry becomes a medium through which he reflects on his journey. I think as the series progresses it will be really cool to see how the role of poetry, and Kellan’s relationship with it, changes from beginning to end.
"For Kellan, poetry begins as a gateway to an elder time full of daring heroes and magic....
As your site hints, there is a sequel to The Wind from Faerie which is tentatively titled The Many Antlered Crown. I am intrigued by the fact that we are both currently working on the second book in our respective series. I have personally found writing the sequel to be a vastly different experience than writing the first. In what ways has the process of writing The Many Antlered Crown been different for you compared to the first book?
When writing my first book, I was very aware of my word count. I knew that publishers and readers were more likely to take a chance on a shorter book, so I wanted my debut to be an approachable length. With this sequel, those concerns are completely out of the window. I’ve got a lot of room to explore the world, the characters, and some really exciting themes. The end result is going to be a book that is significantly longer than The Wind from Faerie, but will be better for it.
"With this sequel, those concerns are completely out of the window.
I also originally conceived Kellan’s story as one arc, but that has necessarily been divided into three books. The Wind from Faerie was just the opening act, an introduction to everything. With The Many Antlered Crown, I feel like I’m finally biting into the meat of Kellan’s story and it’s immensely satisfying.
I think it is fair to say that we both believe in the power of words. As you write, do you feel that there is something you want your reader to feel or do you write simply to tell a good story? Is there a specific message behind Kellen’s adventures or are they purely a narrative escape from our day-to-day reality?
Where can readers find you online and what can they expect to look forward to reading in 2020?
I have a website where readers can check out my weekly blog, see what I’m working on, and find links to my Twitter and Instagram pages. I hope to release The Many Antlered Crown in December of 2020, and the audiobook for The Wind from Faerie should become available early next year.
What does a productive day of writing look like for you? Do you write in your office at the university or do you prefer to write at home? Do you have a writing schedule or do you write around the rest of your professional commitments?
I ponder my writing practice quite a lot. I have no rigid writing structure, but as many others, I often write best first thing (which is not necessarily very early, as I am a night owl). If I am on a deadline I wake up and immediately start writing in bed (don’t tell my physical therapist). But of course I do have to write around other commitments. I usually do better if I plan writing slots and add them to my calendar, and best if I also specify to myself in some detail what to do in such a slot (e.g. ‘write one paragraph on houses as social technology’).
"If I am on a deadline I wake up and immediately start writing in bed (don’t tell my physical therapist).
I have a daily writing target of 500 words — which is not excessive. I am quite a slow writer and a ‘poor first draft’ sort of writer, meaning that I have to plan for time to revise the text to make the arguments click and, hopefully, make the writing both clear and evocative.
As a non-native speaker publishing mostly in a second language, there’s a separate set of challenges there — but English has been my academic language for such a long time now, that I struggle more to write academic text in Norwegian, to be honest.
A lot of people are really fascinated with the Vikings at the moment, but I think it is important to shed focus on the flip side of the traditional narratives of kings and warriors too — and talk about the lived experiences of the unfree populations, of being a low-status woman in societies with a strong ideology of violence, and uncomfortable topics such as infanticide. We are all fascinated with the past, but we shouldn’t glorify it.
"We are all fascinated with the past, but we shouldn’t glorify it."
As I talk to other writers whose work falls into the category of either historical fiction or non-fiction they often speak of the enormous amount of time they spend researching their areas of interest before sitting down to write. This is obviously a significant addition to the already laborious task of writing a book. Do you have any research tips for aspiring writers of historical fiction or non-fiction to help streamline their process?
I’ve never published fiction, but for my writing practice I often research and write simultaneously. Again, this means having to revisit and rewrite text as my thinking on a certain topic develops, but to me the two processes are entwined — I write to clarify my thinking — and therefore it is too artificial to divide the process into two separate tasks.
"I write to clarify my thinking — and therefore it is too artificial to divide the process into two separate tasks."
In 2015 you took up the role of editor for the publication Viking Worlds: Things, Spaces and Movement, which illuminated a variety of perspectives on exploring Viking history. As a writer of Norse-inspired fiction I am always fascinated by the reverberating effects of Norse culture across the world throughout time. What were a few of the most interesting conversations around current and future research in Viking studies that Viking Worlds raised for you?
Your most recent book, Architecture, Society, and Ritual in Viking Age Scandinavia, explores Viking culture through the lense of architecture with a special focus on the meaning and symbolism of doors. My brother happens to be a practicing architect on the East Coast of Canada and can read far deeper into physical structures than I manage to. How did you approach this study of culture through structural forms and what applications might this have for writers?
Someone once said that architecture is a totalitarian activity. By ordering space you are also controlling how people move, what they see, where they execute different activities, whether their bodies feel small and minuscule (as in vast cathedrals), or trapped and claustrophobic, how they view the world. Social space is social order.
"Someone once said that architecture is a totalitarian activity. By ordering space you are also
While several books and archaeological reports have considered the technical aspects of house building or the resource management of Viking settlements, I wanted to flesh them out as real people specifically through their use of architecture. Through a new compilation of houses in Norway, 750-1050 CE, I considered household size and structure, analysed movement patterns, the landscape placement of houses, their ideas of privacy, and the ritualisation of houses; which can be seen for instance in the practice of covering houses with burial mounds (accepted manuscript version here).
"I wanted to flesh them out as real people specifically through their use of architecture."
The implications of these approaches is to challenge some of our own assumptions of where meaningful social action takes place: it is not only on ships or on battlefields, and what happens in the domestic sphere is connected to, and also driving, larger socio-political structures.
Architecture, Society, and Ritual in Viking Age Scandinavia challenges the often male-focussed lense of Viking history research. How has Viking architecture contributed to our knowledge of the influential role of women in Viking society and what specifically do you think might surprise readers?
I also consider, based on others’ research as well as my own, whether placed deposits of particular artefacts in houses (so-called ‘house offerings’), may be a ritual practice linked with women — which may help explain why it is not recorded in the medieval written sources (which, obviously, were all penned my elite males).
What can readers look forward to next from you and where can they keep track of your latest publications and appearances?
I have some things in the pipeline: a book chapter will be coming out in 2020 about whether people in the Viking Age dreamed of houses (spoiler alert: they did); another entailing a new consideration of Bronze Age houses and households; and I am currently seeking funding for a larger project on the deposition of human remains in settlements in the first millennium CE, a topic on which I also have a journal article under review. Further down the line there are a couple of books under development. I always have (too) many writing projects going.
People are welcome to keep track of my work on my website or follow me on Twitter. (I must admit, I am still really bad at Twitter, but I try — perhaps a New Years’ resolution is in order?)
I mean, the woman got armored all up and marched to the gods’ doorstep to demand compensation
Some authors stick to strict writing schedules while others prefer flexibility when managing where and when they write. How have you managed to maintain productivity as you write short stories and novels? Do you have any tips for writers who feel that ‘there just isn’t enough time’ to write?
My advice to writers who feel there isn’t enough time is to give yourself a deadline and try to plan around it. Find a magazine accepting short story submissions and say to yourself, “This is the deadline for submissions; I need to have the story done by x date to have it ready to submit,” or tell your friends or beta readers you’ll have a story to them by x date and implore them to keep you accountable.
Find a magazine accepting short story submissions and say to yourself,
My other piece of advice—if you hate pressure and deadlines—is to just try staying inspired. Read books in your genre, do research on your subject matter, write your outline, or write drabbles to get to know your characters. If you’re busy, there’s no such thing as “making time.” But if you’re so invested in your story to the point where it won’t leave your brain until you get the words down, you’d be surprised how much you can accomplish even in a short amount of time.
I ended up taking her Norse mythology and Icelandic saga classes too, and co-founded the Icelandic Saga and Scandinavian Clubs with some like-minded geeks.
I think one of the things I love about Norse mythology is that every time I reread the Eddas, I come across something I didn’t realize before and find myself looking for an Old Norse version of the poem or paragraph and reaching for my Old Norse dictionary to look up certain words.
Plus every translation of the Eddas is slightly different, and there are also several different manuscripts that could be used as sources—and if you’ve ever seen pictures of them, you can see that there’s room for error in transcription. The whole thing is like one giant puzzle and you can’t take anything at face value, and I love it.
...every translation of the Eddas is slightly different... The whole thing is like one giant puzzle
You have now had two short stories published in fantasy anthologies: Beneath Yggdrasil’s Shadow and Between the Tides. Will you continue to write short stories now that your debut novel, The Witch’s Heart, has been signed for publication? Also, do you have any tips for writers trying to break into the fantasy publishing scene with a short story?
Even if your first published story isn’t in a huge magazine or famous press,
Signy Ketilsdottir versus the Sea (as featured in Between the Tides) is the story of a Viking woman living in a remote fjord with a grudge against Ran, the Norse goddess of the sea. Was Signy’s inspiration a specific historical figure, a character from the myths, or from somewhere else?
The anthology Beneath Yggdrasil’s Shadow highlights stories about lost or forgotten goddesses in Norse Mythology. Your piece Bright One, They Called Her, as featured in the anthology, tells the tale of wandering witch who offers a young girl named Eydis a chance to avenge her murdered family. Within the story there is a tension in framing the traditionally heroic Aesir (i.e. Norse gods) as far less than admirable. Did you choose this alternative perspective simply as a way to freshen up an old narrative or as a critique of the traditional view of the myths?
That’s a great question! I framed it that way because the wandering witch is Angrboda, who doesn’t necessarily feel the gods are all that great, since they took her kids and all. Her whole message to Eydis is about taking her fate into her own hands and not relying on divine intervention or the support of others for justice. Eydis also appears as the witch Heid (which is more of a title than a name) in Signy vs. the Sea and will appear again in Gudrun’s story, so there’s a bit of continuity in these tales.
Her whole message to Eydis is about taking her fate into her own hands
I am very intrigued by the topic of your upcoming novel, The Witch’s Heart, which sets the character Angrboda at center stage. A somewhat obscure figure in the myths, she is most famously known for her infamous offspring by the trickster god Loki: the world serpent Jormungandr, the ferocious wolf Fenrir, and the chilling half-corpse Hela who is queen of the Norse underworld. What was your approach and process for filling in the gaps of her storyline while writing The Witch’s Heart?
I am so glad you asked! You’re right that Angrboda is super obscure. She’s mentioned once by name in each Edda and both times in relation to Loki and their children together. In most retellings she’s either some sort of creature or just sort of…there. And a lot of people picture her as this fierce warrior women, which is totally cool and also I hope those people aren’t disappointed with me. (I happen to have one such depiction as a poster on my wall because it’s so awesome—just not the way I went in TWH.)
The angle I took with Angrboda was to explore the associations she has in common with or which are echoed in other female figures in the mythology, so I ended up writing them all as the same person. Sounds crazy, right? But Norse mythology abounds with multiple names for the same figure (Odin being the best example of that) so I just sort of took this idea and ran with it.
Sounds crazy, right? But Norse mythology abounds with multiple names for the same figure
Another giantess in the mythology who has associations with wolves, snakes, and death is Hyrrokkin,
And then there are the other seeresses: the Seeress from “The Prophecy of the Seeress,” who mentions Heid, the woman with the “pleasing prophecies,” who was once Gullveig, whom the gods burned three times and who was three times reborn near the beginning of everything.
So I ended up writing Angrboda as all of the above: Gullveig, Heid, Hyndla, Hyrrokkin, the Seeress, etc. and interpreting all their names as one name for the same woman, so the story just kind of flowed from there. My goal was to make this novel slip seamlessly into the background of Norse mythology—which meant not changing the myths themselves, up to and including Ragnarök. But my problem was that I’d given this one woman phenomenal cosmic power… what kind of person would she have to be not to use this power to save her children and alter their fates?
But my problem was that I’d given this one woman phenomenal cosmic power…
With all that said, I definitely took some liberties when writing the story, and I’m the first to admit that. For example, I made Jarnsaxa one of the Jarnvidjur (the giantesses who inhabit Jarnvid) and made Angrboda and Skadi’s relationship central to the story. There isn't any evidence for either of these things—they just sort of happened as I was writing!
Where can readers stay up to date on your latest projects and learn more about the upcoming release of your debut novel?
I’m still in the revising stages of The Witch’s Heart so there isn’t much to update at the moment. I recently got the first peeks at my cover and I am so thrilled because it’s absolutely gorgeous and I can’t wait to share it. Although I’m most active on Twitter, I’ll be updating Facebook and my website as my release date (early 2021) draws closer.
Describe your ideal writing space: Is it at home or out on the town? Is it indoors or out in nature? Do you prefer silence or are you inspired by music?
My ideal writing space is at a cafe with a unique/good atmosphere (not any chain place like Starbucks) with a good wifi connection, outlets, and not many people. A place that is open late or even open 24 hours is preferred since I get most of my writing done after 8pm at night. As for writing with music, it really depends on the story. In one WIP I’m working on, it’s of a more serious nature with a lot of action and dramatic moment, and I love writing it while listening to music. But my other WIP is more lighthearted with a lot of humor, and it’s easier for me to write that in silence.
My ideal writing space is at a cafe with a unique/good atmosphere (not any chain place like Starbucks)
Every writer gets to a point in their story where the writing process gets really tough. Maybe ideas aren’t flowing like they did or maybe other demands are being made of your time. What is the hardest part of writing for you and how do you manage to get through it?
I’m a creature of habit, so the hardest part of writing for me is having to do so in an unfamiliar place or when there are changes going on in my life. I don’t usually struggle with writer’s block but sometimes a new environment can throw off my inspiration and in those instances I do have to force myself. I know a lot of people say you shouldn’t force yourself if you’re not feeling it, but for me, I think it’s necessary under certain circumstances. Even if the outcome isn’t the best, it’s always something I can go back and edit. And I always feel better when I’m being productive, regardless of having to force myself or not.
I know a lot of people say you shouldn’t force yourself if you’re not feeling it,
Your story L’Ange de la Mort (The Art of Revolution) is a smashing success as a Wattpad 2018 winner with over 180 000 reads. Do you have any advice for new authors interested in utilizing Wattpad as a platform to kick-start their career in writing?
Join book clubs. Read works by other authors. Get involved with the forums. Enter wattpad user run contests.
Finally, take chances! I didn’t think I would ever get much attention for my story because historical fiction is not a popular genre on wattpad, but I posted anyway. I also thought I would never win a watty but I entered anyway, and ended up winning. This year, I entered a second book into the wattys thinking I would never win, and won a watty a second year in a row for that novel, too. So never self reject and take chances.
L’Ange de la Mort is set amid the splendor of Versailles, France in 1789. Young Gabriel de la Marche, a french courtier determined to protect his younger sister from the corruption of court life, encounters a group of assassins determined to level the aristocracy. What was your approach to weaving historical and fictional elements into this tale of deception and intrigue on the eve of the French Revolution?
Ha, this is something I still struggle with, but I like to think I’m getting a little better! I think especially for young adult (which is what I write) it’s important not to bog down your story with inconsequential details that have nothing to do with the plot or characters. I write for everyone, not just for people who are already fans of historical fiction. At the end of the day, my story is about the characters and their interactions with each other, and the historical setting is nothing more than the backdrop. I focus on my characters first and foremost and then weave in the information depending on my characters’ individual needs. There is tons of information I’ve learned with my research that I will never need or use simply because it isn’t relevant to the story. But this is something I am constantly working on to improve.
I focus on my characters first and foremost and then weave in the information
Few historical settings can rival the opulence of late 18th century France. While this is a feast for the reader’s imagination, it is also a daunting task for the writer. What sources did you find most helpful for period-appropriate dress and decor while writing L’Ange de la Mort?
First, I love watching documentaries. I’ve seen a ton on Versailles itself
Before writing The Gatewatch, a fantasy adventure inspired by the Norse myths and Icelandic sagas, I took a trip to Norway which radically influenced many of the scenes and locations in the story. You recently announced a trip to visit France to research for your next book. What locations are you most excited to visit and what sort of things will you be looking out for?
I’ve since been to Europe and had an amazing experience. I wasn’t able to go to all the places I wanted and will be going back within the next year, but unsurprisingly my favorite place I went was Versailles. I took part in a private tour of the palace which was pricey but 100% worth it, and then spent two days exploring and writing in the gardens which was magical! I also went to the Louvre and got a good amount of inspiration from walking around the town of Versailles itself. During that trip, I went to Amsterdam as well, which inspired a historical fantasy novel set in Amsterdam during the 17th century that I’ll be starting next year. I’m counting down the days until I can go back to Europe and do more hands on research!
...unsurprisingly my favorite place I went was Versailles. I took part in a private tour of the palace which was pricey
Where can readers find out more about the exploits of Gabriel de la Marche and how can they stay up to date on your latest books?
Right now, I’m only on wattpad but am actively looking for a literary agent and will most likely be making an actual author site once I have one.
Interesting first question for me, because I actually sort of hate sandwiches.
Writing beverages!! I could partake in any type of writing beverage and instantly be put in the typing mood. Coffee, hot chocolate, frappuccino, smoothie, apple cider, they are all on the same level of preference.
This is a tough quick-fire question! It’s hard for me to call any one character absolutely despicable, because there’s always something under that layer of not-niceness. I find villains are typically the most complex characters in a cast. There are so many layers to their backstory that made them into the monster they are. If you take a moment to step in their shoes, see the world through their lens, you may understand how they justify their actions. It doesn’t excuse them, but it does create sympathy, and how can you despise someone you pity? But if I had to choose one, I would pick Maven from the Red Queen series. I don’t want to be 'spoilery', but he did some really messed up things to people he had claimed to love and it made me really upset. I will say though, he has that complex backstory that makes you sympathize with him and some readers actually like him and ship him with the main character - he did not win me over that much.
I find villains are typically the most complex characters in a cast. There are so many layers to their backstory that made them into the monster they are.
What does a productive day of writing look like for you? Are you at home or out in public? Do you typically write thousands of words at a time or just a few hundred each session? Do you write on a schedule or are you flexible?
My writing schedule is controlled chaos. Working a full-time job and managing other adult life things makes it hard to designate specific time to writing. What I do is more of a general weekly writing goal of 5,000 words a week. I write during my lunch break, waiting for my oil change at the repair shop, waiting in a long line at the bank, when I have a free evening at home - you get the idea. Sometimes I don’t make that goal because life happens, but I don’t beat myself up for it, I just partition the extra words between the following two weeks to make it up. Right now I’m not following that schedule though as I’m focusing on short stories, so my writing time/amount of words on the page is even more sporadic than it was when I was writing Creatures Most Vile.
Little did I know I would soon fall in love with writing. One thing I have been my whole life is a lover of books, I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me until I was 21 that I might actually love writing books, too.
So now that I’ve caught the bug, I find I have lots of stories to tell. Stories about girls who find themselves misunderstood and ridiculed by society, girls who fight for their right to live their lives the way they choose, free of retribution.
You are in the process of querying agents and publishers. How have you found that process and do you have any tips for writers who may be getting close to finishing their current manuscript?
Querying is one of the most difficult things I’ve done to myself. I am willingly putting a piece of myself out into the world for strangers to judge and, in my case, reject. That is one of the hardest things to cope with during the querying process- people constantly rejecting something you love with all your heart and poured endless amounts of work into.
So my biggest tip for writers about to start querying is prepare your heart. Be ready for rejection and have some coping strategies to get through it. Most importantly, always keep in mind that rejection is NOT a measure of your talent or self. You’re work is amazing and you are amazing for putting yourself out there and taking this big step towards sharing your creation with the world. Don’t let the rejections define you or discourage you, no matter how many stack up.
My coping strategy is to turn that rejection into fuel to move forward. I have a rejection goals checklist, for every rejection I put a sticker on the board. My current goal is to reach 30 rejections by the end of the year. Those stickers show that I’m not giving up on my dream by turning my rejections into milestones, rather than failures.
Don’t let the rejections define you or discourage you, no matter how many stack up.
Your first novel, Creatures Most Vile, is a YA fantasy rife with terrifying monsters that stalk a young woman named Anora who is navigating the difficulties of trauma and struggling to support her family. Where did you find inspiration for this harrowing tale?
The initial inspiration came from a dream... When I woke up, I wrote the dream down and used that as my base for the story.
The suspenseful scary setting and monster inspirations come from my lifelong interest in all things horror. I'm a big fan of monster movies especially, because I love seeing imaginative takes on biology. Writing my creatures was my favorite part because I got to be the creator and brought my own imagined organisms to life on the page.
Writing my creatures was my favorite part because I got to be the creator and brought my own imagined organisms to life on the page.
Issues surrounding mental health have been given increasing attention in recent public discourse. Through Anora’s story are you trying to address any particular mental health concern or spark a conversation on a particular issue related to that topic?
Yes! The main theme and conversation I want to address is the downplay of mental health in society.
Anora suffers from PTSD and anxiety from growing up in a world constantly under threat of attack from voracious monsters. She has witnessed countless massacres, including her father’s death, and has nearly met her own grisly demise more times than she cares to count. When her storm-wielding powers are discovered and she’s expected to fight these beasts, her mental health is completely disregarded by society. They write it off as a simple fear she’ll get over with time and throw her right into the thick of training without a second thought.
When her storm-wielding powers are discovered and she’s expected to fight these beasts, her mental health is completely disregarded by society.
This is a problem that many people with any form of mental illness face. I suffer from anxiety and had situational depression in the past. I’ve heard comments like “You’re overreacting/ being dramatic”, “Just calm down”, or “Get over it” more times than I should. Downplaying and disregarding any form of mental illness needs to stop. Mental health is just as important as any other health measure, and should be a priority concern with how people treat others, regardless of the kind of monster that person is facing.
Mental health is just as important as any other health measure, and should be a priority concern with how people treat others, regardless of the kind of monster that person is facing.
In speaking with other fantasy writers I find that one of the most common difficulties in building a fantastic world is handling and defining the role and use of magic. How does magic work within Anora’s world and how did you define its boundaries and limitations?
Magic is very rare in Anora’s world. The only manifestation of magic is through rare, supernatural abilities. I’ve drawn a lot from my biology background to define the terms of this magic. It is something you’re born with, a specific gene mutation occurring in a small portion of the population that allows the person to manipulate specific aspects of the environment. In Anora’s case, she can manipulate specific elements: water and air. She can manipulate them individually or in tandem to create weather. Others are born with a manipulation of earth or energy, while others can manipulate more organic materials like muscles, nerves, and brain matter (IE mind control).
With the biological element to how these powers work, there is a finite well to their power that limits them from being super crazy powerful beings. The explanation behind how it works is super science-y and I won’t describe here (I don’t go into full detail in the book either, it’s mainly to satisfy my nerdiness).
There are no magical objects, but there is some imaginative tech developed to help people survive in this creature ridden world.
I’ve drawn a lot from my biology background to define the terms of this magic. It is something you’re born with, a specific gene mutation occurring in a small portion of the population...
Where can readers keep track of Creatures Most Vile on its march towards publication and where stay fans stay up to date on your most current projects?
Creatures Most Vile and I have a long journey ahead of us and I post updates on Facebook, Twitter, and my website. Thank you for your support and hope one day you’ll find Creatures Most Vile sitting on your shelf!
The poleaxe is such a versatile weapon, yet the longsword is arguably the most iconic piece of medieval imagery
This last question is driving me crazy! There’s so many people I want to choose… Vladimir the Great, William the Conqueror, Saladin, Alexander Nevsky, Edward III, Geoffroi de Charney… The list goes on. At the end of the day though, I think I would have to say Henry V. Aside from Shakespeare’s play, Henry V is the most iconic figure of the Middle Ages for me. He has such a thrilling story and it all leads to the Battle of Agincourt, which is my favorite medieval battle.
One of the most difficult things about writing is actually sitting down to write. As an independent author with three novels under your belt, do you have any advice for those who might struggle with just getting their story on the page?
The best advice I can offer is to sit down and write. Just write. Get those words onto the page. You can edit and perfect your story as you go, but you can’t do that when you haven’t written it yet. The most common complaint I get from friends and peers wanting to become writers is that they get stuck in the planning phases, or they have this great idea, but won’t sit down to do it. You can figure out your plans in greater detail as you’re writing. Your great idea needs to be on paper if you want it to go anywhere. Nothing happens if there aren’t words on the page.
Just write. The rest will follow!
Your great idea needs to be on paper if you want it to go anywhere. Nothing happens if there aren’t words on the page.
When it comes to world-building, I have two key pieces of advice:
First, study history. You don’t need to achieve a doctorate degree by any stretch, but having an understanding of the real world aspects of the setting you’re taking inspiration from is massively important. Knowing how people acted during certain events, how political bodies rose and fell, and the technology of the time and how it all worked together is a must-have for thorough world-building, in my opinion.
First, study history. You don’t need to achieve a doctorate degree by any stretch, but having an understanding
Second, always ask the question “Why?” when you create a new piece of the world. Why is this empire an empire? Why did these two nations fight? Why does this village exist where it does? Why did the people within the history of the world do the things that they did? The more you ask yourself that question, the more answers you’re going to come up with, and that is ultimately going to fill in the details of your setting.
Before we get to talking about your book series I want to bring up one of your hobbies: medieval re-enactment. With your hands-on experience in medieval combat techniques I’d really like to know what fantasy writers get wrong about medieval combat. What are the most common misconceptions you encounter in books and movies and how can they be fixed?
I would say, despite the many inaccuracies across books, movies, and video games, the most common incorrect portrayal is how armor functions. Armor is unavoidably such a crucial part of the Middle Ages and how the battlefield evolved - and that wouldn’t be the case if it was only mere costuming that wasn’t effective for protecting folks.
...despite the many inaccuracies across books, movies, and video games,
When we look at history, the bigger wars usually don’t happen because of something that occurred last week.
I would argue that recent blockbuster hits such as Game of Thrones have really whetted an appetite for complex, large-scale fantasy stories among the general readership. However, that type of fiction is not something one just jumps into. How have you managed to handle the long history of a large fictional continent? Do you have endless piles of notes? Have you compiled A Brief History of Aerothos for your own reference? Or do you keep the entire world locked away in your head?
I began with notebooks, but that was a bad move on my part. I lost too many scraps of paper and threw too many notebooks away! Now, I have all of my official notes on my computer, detailing periods of history, family lineages, and so on. But there’s a great deal of it that is kept in my head, since there’s really too much to formally write down (I’d probably never write books if I did!)
The Halryians themselves found their roots in Greco-Roman history, and some of that carries into the Chronicles with their successors, such as the kingdoms of Valtia and Arathen (very much so in a similar way as to say the Byzantine or Holy Roman empires and how they evolved from the end of antiquity and the fall of the western Roman Empire.) There are some other obvious comparisons in Aerothos as well, such as the Kingdom of Rovaskia being based on Scandinavian culture and the Kingdom of Rhodrien largely reflecting England, Wales, and Ireland.
While Aerothos is primarily inspired by Western Europe, I personally have a deep interest in Eastern European and Arabic history as well, which I try to pull a lot of inspiration from.
While I’m certainly inspired by other fantasy works, nearly all my ideas can find their origins in the real world.
What is happening next in Aerothos and where can readers find out more?
Right now I’m working on Part II of the Chronicles of Aerothos, which undoubtedly has a lot of work ahead of it still. I took a detour from Chronicles to write the Tales books, because I wanted to use those works to try new things and develop my writing. Now that I feel prepared, it’s time to return to the Chronicles and continue the epic story! Part II will be a much darker, gruesome story, as our heroes begin to face new challenges that come after the first season of war. The veil of glory and chivalry has been lifted, and now the true horror of war begins to fall upon Aerothos.
The veil of glory and chivalry has been lifted, and now the true horror of war begins to fall upon Aerothos.
I think James McAvoy would be an excellent Jordan Greer.
You have managed not only to balance work and home life, but also produce a steady stream of online content both on your social media platforms and on your website. Do you have any advice for newer authors who feel like they don’t have enough time to maintain an online presence against the demands of writing and of life in general?
That’s very nice of you to say, and my advice would be to not worry about trying to do everything at once. I love hanging out on Twitter and my website, but at the same time, Instagram is a completely different beast, and Facebook is difficult. There are many things to try and stay on top of when it comes to being engaging and doing marketing, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Focus on one thing at a time, and most importantly: write.
Focus on one thing at a time, and most importantly: write.
On your author website you host insightful reviews of books released by both traditionally published and indie authors. How do you feel the review process has affected you as a writer? Does it change your perspective on writing or make you more aware of what it takes to write a great story?
I started doing reviews because I figured, ‘hey, I’m reading all of these books anyway’, but also because I wanted to give back to the community I was becoming a part of (that’s the #WritingCommunity on Twitter). It definitely gives me lots of great inspiration, and it’s very motivating to read all these amazing stories. The best ones are those that make me almost a bit envious because they’re just so magnificent.
It’s easy to get stuck in a headspace where you think got to do what everyone else is doing, but reading indie books have shown me that everyone has a unique style and voice.
One thing I’ve learned from reading all these books, perhaps particularly the indie books, is that there are many ways to write great stories. Sometimes it’s about the words, sometimes it’s about the characters or the plot, and you don’t necessarily have to do it all. It’s easy to get stuck in a headspace where you think got to do what everyone else is doing, but reading indie books have shown me that everyone has a unique style and voice.
Also: reviews are important! If you find the time to write them and leave some stars online, you’re definitely making someone’s day better, whether you liked the book or not, as long as you’re honest.
The fact that it’s simply the dark side of humanity
What draws you to write about criminals and cold-blooded cases? Is it about the action and excitement or is it more about commenting on the dark side of human nature?
I’d say I’m less about the action and more about the excitement, if that makes any sense, and it’s definitely the dark side of human nature that fascinates me.
The plot for The Consequence of Loyalty came to when I was back home on my dad’s farm, tending his pigs. I asked myself how a crime story would play out if instead of wondering who committed a crime, the question was why? The Consequence of Loyalty is exactly this, because we know who the bad guy is from the beginning, we just don’t know why. I love delving into the human mind like that, shining a light on those dark corners in the back.
I asked myself how a crime story would play out if instead of
Not only did you successfully publish The Consequence of Loyalty independently but you have accumulated a host of good reviews for your debut novel. Do you have any sage advice for authors who are preparing to self-publish in the crime or thriller genres? Any pitfalls to avoid or expert tips for first-timers?
Take your time. If I could go back and do it again I’d hold back on pressing that publish button so quickly. There were a couple of things I had to go back to fix after the fact, and I learned a valuable lesson.
I’m taking my sweet time with book two now, which is nearly ready for the press, and I’ve written early drafts for several other projects while I’m waiting for beta readers and editors. At some point, yeah, you have to just go for it, but don’t rush yourself.
Take your time. If I could go back and do it again
The Consequence of Loyalty is the first book in The Columbus Archives. Can you give us any hints as to Agent Greer’s future operatives or what we can look forward to in the next installment of the series?
I’ve planned three books in the series. Number 2 and 3 are both written and book 2 is coming soon. Though they’re a series, they function well as stand-alones, and you’re not going to miss something if you read just one out of them, but there’s obviously going to be things that cross over through the series, particularly with Greer’s life and his career in the FBI. In the second book, another one of Greer’s friends are in trouble, and all I’ll tell you is that he’ll do everything he can to save them. Everything.