Welcome Laken! Thanks for taking some time to chat about writing. First, a few quick-fire questions: Coniferous or Deciduous? Spring or Fall? And if you could spend a weekend away in any forest in the world, which one would it be?
I love this question. I do appreciate the beauty of the changing colors with deciduous trees; there is something magical and natural in the way these trees mark the passage of time for us humans. However, I prefer the presence of coniferous trees. I like the way they smell. I prefer cold weather climates. I’m fortunate in that the forests here in New Hampshire tend to have both. But if I had to choose one, I would prefer to live in a colder climate in the presence of coniferous trees.
"I do appreciate the beauty of the changing colors with deciduous trees;
I love the changing seasons. Winter is my favorite. Summer, my least favorite. So difficult to pick between Spring and Fall… If I had to, I would say Fall. There is something peaceful, quiet, and magical about Fall. Perhaps it's the presence of Samhain or a time when the veils grow thin, but I’m definitely cognizant of that shift during this time of year.
I feel a strong call to the boreal forest which is spread across parts of Canada and the arctic circle. Back when the continents were connected, this was all one forest, but it is spread across multiple continents now. Traces of boreal biome can be found in New Hampshire, but really need to be a little further north to experience it.
I’m always keen to talk about the reality of a writer's life as many people imagine us sitting up in some ivory tower drinking tea while songbirds flit around us. That is certainly not my experience! What is your writing life actually like? Where do you write? How long are your writing sessions typically? Is it really structured or flexible to fit around other commitments? Do you set goals or do you progress as ideas come naturally?
Yes, it’s so easy to idealize writing. My “writing life” is often divided between actually writing/editing a WIP and also reading other writer’s work, marketing/promoting my current novel, learning my craft, and keeping up with social media writer friends. That last one is important. People shun it or say it's extraneous, but it’s not. Having friends to share the writing journey with is priceless.
So the time I spend just writing during a day is maybe one to three hours. I write at the same time each night, 10:00pm after my son is asleep and I’ve set him up for school the next day, the laundry’s folded, all that home stuff is done. Then I sit down to write uninterrupted. I put my phone on silent and just write for at least an hour. Sometimes it’s two or even three hours. It’s amazing how much I can get done in that uninterrupted time.
"Having friends to share the writing journey with is priceless."
Sometimes I have time to write during the day, but if I do it’s usually only for an hour or so. I often take notes during the day as pieces of the story come to me, but I don’t have the ability to sit down and just write. I wrote the ending of my current WIP at a traffic light the other day. I saw it in my mind, like a film playing out. So I jotted it down at the next light and then put it in my manuscript later that night.
In terms of goals, I’d love to get to a point where my writing is sustainable. I don’t need to be the next big name in fantasy, but if my books are making enough money that I can afford to just focus on writing them, that is what I am working towards.
A big congratulations to you on the publication of The Chrysillium Tree! As of September 2021, readers can find their copy online and get lost in this adventure rife with ancient lore, sacred trees, and found family. I know that the ‘post-book’ blues can be a thing and many debut authors are unprepared for it. For authors with upcoming debuts, what strategies or practices helped you to manage the many ups and downs of your debut book launch?
Thank you so much! I was really fortunate to have many published writer friends from Twitter before I published my first novel. I learned from them. So I went into this knowing not to have bloated expectations. I think it’s the expectations that get us.
I try to keep a practical, realistic viewpoint around sales. I kept my expectations low. Not because I don’t believe in my book. But because I’m realistic about my situation. I chose to be a self-published author. I didn’t even bother to query. I have good reasons for this decision - maybe a conversation for another time - but I knew that with this decision would be the problem of reach. I could have the best novel of all time, but if I’m not getting it into the right hands, who would ever know? I know this is my greatest challenge. Honestly, it would still be a challenge if I traditionally published. It is the challenge of all debut authors. How to get my unknown name and my book out there? How to find my readers? I look at it like that. I am still finding those people. It’s a process. It’s going to take time and probably more than one book.
"I was really fortunate to have many published writer friends from Twitter before I published my first novel. I learned from them. So I went into this knowing not to have bloated expectations.
Having said that, I was very surprised with how well The Chrysillium Tree is doing. The numbers far exceeded what I had thought possible. In this first month, it has reached a number 400 ranking three times in the top fantasy reads section on Amazon which is a massive genre. And the sales numbers have reflected this. I seem to have established a base of readers who are genuinely interested in my novel and the sequel I am currently writing. I am so grateful for this! This is an accomplishment. This is the beginning. Am I rolling in money? Of course not! I’m not even near enough money made to cover the cost of publishing the second novel. I have my worries. I have my concerns that I won’t make enough money selling my book to cover the costs of creating a new one, but I don’t dwell in that place. There are people out there who love this story. It touched them. They care about what happens next. This is what matters.
The Chrysillium Tree has been praised for its incredibly in depth world and its mesmerizing imagery. What inspired this world and what was your process in building it? Did you spend a lot of time building before you began writing or did it come into focus as you wrote the narrative? What tips do you have for writers who are just at the beginning of building their fantasy worlds?
That’s a difficult question. I’m not sure if it’s something that can be easily explained or learned. I’m an imaginative person. I have multiple worlds living in me and when I go there, I’m fully there. I can see, smell, taste, feel, all of it. To write immersively, I think a writer needs to immerse themselves and when writing fantasy that has to be through imagination. I think many world-building techniques can actually be a hindrance to this idea. Because they are so concrete they pull a writer out of the important part - the imagining. When I’m imagining, I can feel.
That’s not to say the more concrete world-building techniques aren’t important. They are! Travel maps, histories, character arcs, world design, etc. and all the research that goes into these elements is very important. But if that’s all a writer is doing, it’s going to be flat. To me, imagining is most important. I’m enthralled by Idris and Eod. I’m struck by their beauty and I care for their vulnerability. I’m repulsed by the sterility of the Palace of Light and the blind ambition of the Azantium kingdom. I have feelings for these settings. I care for them in one way or another.
"Travel maps, histories, character arcs, world design, etc. and all the research that goes into these elements is very important. But if that’s all a writer is doing, it’s going to be flat."
So my rough draft is probably like 90 percent imagining. I might get stuck on a detail I need to look into, but I try not to get stuck there in the first draft. Then in the second draft I first go in and clean up, add in those other more concrete details. How long it takes to travel from point a to point b. What is the history behind Queen Druscilla’s hatred of the Lumani… surely it goes beyond just ignorance and bigotry. What else is there?
Once that is complete, I return to the second draft and imagine again. What does this scene look like, feel like, taste like, smell like… and weave some more of that in there. So my advice is, please do not get tied up in the concrete details. This is a pit that can suck the life out of your work. I know people who this has happened to. Feel your story. Immerse yourself in your own story. This has been the greatest help to me in my writing. And then weave in the more concrete elements as you need to. When it’s time.
Your protagonist Mæve Faolái is being held captive in the Palace of Light by the Crown Prince when she learns of how the Lumani’s sacred Chrysillium Trees are being woefully exploited. In the shadows around this perilous court, a rebellion is brewing with the aim of setting the world right again. There seems to be an interesting contrast here with the traditional reference to light as primarily ‘good’, with darkness representing evil; here it is flipped around. What inspired you to spin this trope on its head and how do you use that throughout the story in terms of imagery?
I do not appreciate the idea that light is good, dark is evil. In other cultures, white is the color of death because it is the absence of color. Whereas black is life or all colors. As a privileged American white woman, I see how our narrative is spun in light to hide very terrible things. Genocide, slavery, exploitation, rape - what is this other than light behaving as evil? It’s dishonest. It’s meant to trick so that violence can continue. Like a white bone demon. And if people don’t have a mind to discern what they are being told, then the trick goes on and so does the violence. This is not just American history, it's European history too, it’s modern history. This is the Azantium kingdom.
"I do not appreciate the idea that light is good, dark is evil.
I am currently working on the final edits for the third book in my trilogy titled The Elder Trees, so I am really deep in a headspace of thinking about the lore of trees. Which mythology or cultural narratives inspired your world-building around the Chrysillium Trees and what draws you to write about these incredible wonders of our natural world?
I love the title of your book! I would like to look at your work. It sounds like something I would be interested in. And yes, that is also difficult to say. Truthfully, it was 98% imagining. Having said that, the imagining does not come from a void. A few academic texts I read shortly before writing The Chrysillium Tree and have had a paradigm-shifting impact on me include: Shamanism by Mircea Eliade, Making a New World: Founding Capitalism in the Bajío and Spanish North America by John Tutino, Why Indigenous Literatures Matter by Daniel Heath Justice, Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, Civilization & Capitalism: The Structures of Everyday Life by Fernand Braudel, and Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés. I’m especially interested in scholarship pertaining to Indigenous narratives, critiques upon the social and environmental impacts of capitalism, and spirituality.
"I’m especially interested in scholarship pertaining to Indigenous narratives, critiques upon the social and environmental impacts of capitalism, and spirituality."
So I had these ideas ruminating around in my head at the time I came up with this story. And now that I look at them, I can see how they helped form the framework from which the more imaginative world was built upon. I think taking what we know already and using that as a framework to create the fantastical.
My appreciation for the natural world comes from being in it. I grew up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Nature, especially forests and mountains, were sanctuaries for me, they were sacred places. Then I left and lived in big cities - London, New York, Boston - for the next ten years of my life. I appreciate now how scarce these sacred, green places are becoming. And I spend as much time in them as possible. What draws me there? I don’t know but it is a calling. And when I’m there, it’s a listening. There is a language beyond words that exists in the forest and mountains, the oceans and rivers. I feel it when I’m there, I can sense it, and I also feel like my receptors to that message are dulled. So maybe the process of creating these natural wonders in The Chrysillium Tree are, in part, just remembering the magic that innately exists in nature.
Can you tell us about your next upcoming project? Is it the sequel? Another story altogether? And, if you’re able, can you give us a sneak peek or a little teaser?
Yes. The Star of Shalik is the sequel to The Chrysillium Tree. As of today, the 29th of October, I’m at 40k words and a little more than half-way finished. It’s a little light, but my first drafts usually are.
I cannot say too much about it. It is a little darker than the first one. The stakes are higher. The setting is very different. It begins on the plains of Ulli, which we are familiar with from The Chrysillium Tree. Then we travel to Kråshain, which is only mentioned in The Chrysillium Tree. It is the Lumani library housed within the obsidian cliffs on the outer rim of Eod. Then in part II of the story, we journey to Thalis. A desert land of rolling red sands and forgotten histories. Part III is set on an island amongst a glass city.
"It begins on the plains of Ulli, which we are familiar with from The Chrysillium Tree. Then we travel to Kråshain, which is only mentioned in The Chrysillium Tree. It is the Lumani library housed within the obsidian cliffs on the outer rim of Eod..."
Some of the characters from The Chrysillium Tree return and there are some new ones. There is a young girl who can call down the stars, there are sinister wizards, a beautiful demon, and desert nomads.
Even though this is a continuation of the same story, the feeling, the settings are quite different. They need to be and you’ll see why.
Last, but not least, where can readers find your books and keep up with your future publications?
I am most active on Twitter. But Goodreads and Instagram are also good places to find me. I have a newsletter where I provide monthly updates on my work as well as book recommendations, and updates from my blog.
Laken also hosts a blog that highlights the work of independent authors. Check it out here!
Welcome Ian! Thanks for taking some time to chat about writing. First, a few quick-fire questions: Spicy or sweet? Coffee or Tea? And if you could ride any mythical creature to work every day then which one would it be?
Spicy! I’ve been pickling banana chilis all week and they are perfect on top of pretty much everything. I love coffee, I’ve been trying to get a bit more adventurous with my preparations but most of the time I just end up drinking it black. I’m quite forgetful so I have to be careful not to accidentally drink too much! If I could ride a mythical creature to work every day it would be a gryphon - no traffic in the sky!
"If I could ride a mythical creature to work every day it would be a gryphon - no traffic in the sky!"
Talk to us about your writing routine. Do you write in the morning or evening? Do you write little bits at a time or do you enter a trance-like state and write for hours on end? Do you schedule your writing or do you fit it around everything else you have going on in life?
I try to treat it as professionally as possible, making sure I’m at my desk and working away during the day. I used to be much more sporadic with timings but now I’m a lot more focused! I tend to start with world-building, and spend a long time making maps and writing little summaries, what different places are like, how their cultures act and interact, what the history of the land is. From there I move to character, and once I have a good sketch of my main characters I just get going! I normally have a pretty detailed plot outline, but it always ends up being discarded or utterly changed as I think of better ideas whilst I’m writing! I tend to work in iterative drafts- my first draft is a skeleton, functional but lacking depth and very messy (tone, pacing, character, you name it…) - but I find having that messy structure in place allows me to go back and analyze and build from it. If I’m frustrated or can’t get a scene to work I go back to world-building, or work on a different scene or story - for me it’s important to keep momentum!
Congratulations on your debut, The Gauntlet & the Fist Beneath, which launched in August 2021. What were a few highlights from the book launch? Any unexpected surprises? Any memorable moments? And last, but not least, any advice for other writers with upcoming debut launches?
Thank you! It was a fantastic experience. I was able to spend a few weeks in the UK around the launch, and one of the highlights to me was travelling around different bookshops and being able to sign copies. It was such an amazing feeling to have copies of my book up there next to some of my SFF heroes, in stores where I’ve bought a lot of books! Places like Forbidden Planet, Brick Lane Books, Foyles, and Waterstones, were all really supportive and it meant I was able to meet some of the booksellers out in the wild.
There were a few lovely surprises - The Broken Binding, a new online SFF speciality bookstore that launched in early 2021- they bought a huge pile of copies, and commissioned a special collectors version of the map at the front of the book. I was able to meet up with them and sign all their copies which was really fun. The other surprise was being chosen as the Goldsboro Books SFF book of the month for their SFF subscription - they produced a beautiful special edition with sprayed lightning bolt edges, which is absolutely gorgeous. That was a lovely moment for me to have someone objectively choose the book as something they wanted to share. In terms of advice for other authors around a debut launch, I’d paraphrase what my agent told me: you only get one debut launch, make sure you have a party to celebrate!
"The other surprise was being chosen as the Goldsboro Books SFF book of the month for their SFF subscription - they produced a beautiful special edition with sprayed lightning bolt edges,
The Gauntlet & the Fist Beneath is set in the Ferron Empire amid political, military, and environmental desolation. Captain Floré battles to ensure that a dying empire dies amid the horrors of the rotstorm. To do so, she must pursue searing celestial orbs which, as they fall, may portend the return of the slaving empire’s old strength. This is a rather grim and dire setting and I am curious to know whether you had a specific historical context in mind or if this was purely a fictional realm? What were some of your inspirations and where did you go when you felt stuck?
There are inspirations from many places, but the world of Morost is an entirely fictional realm. My initial inspirations for the project came from some etchings of a mass sighting of ‘celestial phenomena’ in Nuremberg in 1551 - these fantastic woodcuts that show strange lights over a medieval European town. From there I spent a long time thinking about the world I wanted to build. There are elements inspired by the traditions and legends of Celtic animism- I found it intriguing to think of how a society in a similar clime to Britain might have developed into the middle ages without the spread of monotheism. Morost is a world where magic is a force to be reckoned with, and the gods are demonstrable as potent forces- I wanted to ask how that might influence a world, and a society.
"My initial inspirations for the project came from some etchings of a mass sighting of
Most of our story takes place in the Undal Protectorate, a state built from the ruins of a colonial outpost - what I liked and wanted to explore was the decision of the people not to go back to how things were before the Ferron empire came, back to their chieftains and clans and old societal structure, but actually the decision to build forward - to try and make something new, and better, for all. The actual physical world is heavily influenced by Scotland - I wanted to evoke that sense of existing at the end of the world, in a place wild and raw and beautiful. I took a lot of inspiration from the ruins of Scotland and England, and I wanted to bring forward that feeling of an old world, where there was always someone before, and the traces of those people are indelibly marked on the land.
Beyond Undal, there is the rotstorm - an arcane storm that has raged for three centuries, beneath which lies the ruined empire of Ferron. Here, I took a lot of inspiration from science fiction and space exploration, the idea of this utterly inhospitable and alien place that doesn’t follow the rules we expect - but where nevertheless people must try to survive. This is perhaps the most fantastical region in the book - a nightmare of geography made real! Whenever I got stuck on the dynamics of the world I’d refer back to history books, to try and find how people act under different types of pressures. For inspiration I’d also refer a lot to concept art, ancient maps, diagrams of old forts, or a walk in the woods where I can soak in the atmosphere and feeling.
"Whenever I got stuck on the dynamics of the world I’d refer back to history books, to try and find how people act under different types of pressures."
As a bit of an aside, some might be interested to know that you have a PhD in clinical epigenetics. Many might think this suggests that you would be a Sci-Fi writer rather than an author of Fantasy. How do you think that science, specifically biological sciences such as genetics, can aid authors in creating fantastic worlds full of intriguing magic?
I think one reason I chose to write this fantasy novel rather than a science fiction novel was partly due to the large focus I have on science! When I wrote Gauntlet I was working as a scientific editor, and so working on fantasy allowed me something of a release from those strictures. The magic system and mythology within Gauntlet is on the softer side of magic (more like Tolkien than Brandon Sanderson)- something inherently impossible to define, but perhaps possible to harness. I think my background in biology is helpful with regards to this as biology is so intricately amazing and complex and bizarre and to an extent unknowable: even as we understand more and more the constituent parts and patterns that create life, it remains a field where there is always mystery and discovery. My love of biology also stems from a deep love of the natural world, and I hope that my passion for nature is something that underpins the world-building for the series.
This is a bit of a selfish question for me to ask as it’s specifically of interest to me, but how has your experience as a Scotsman living in Algiers been? I recently co-edited an anthology of historical fiction with Muhammad Augrangzeb Ahmad exploring the historical interactions between Vikings and Muslims; there are saga attestations of Viking journeys to Northern Africa as well as well-documented raids into Islamic Spain. I’m interested to know, do you draw on any Algerian history or on your experience of modern Algerian society for your writing? If not, what has been the best part of living in Algiers?
That sounds fascinating, I’d love to read it! I moved out to Algiers a little over a year ago, after I’d completed The Gauntlet and the Fist Beneath - it has been a difficult year to try to get to know a new country with all of the restrictions on life that have come with COVID, but I’ve been able to travel a little within the country and dive into some of its incredible history. In terms of influence, it is interesting to me how much the themes of empire and colonialism I was working on with Gauntlet are so clearly mirrored here at varying stages in history - how that influences my portrayal of these power dynamics and their legacy in book 2 and book 3 of the series will hopefully incorporate some of what I’ve learned. It has been invaluable to be able to spend time living somewhere so culturally and geographically distinct from so much of my experience. As a Scottish person living in Algiers, I have struggled quite a lot with the heat though! And you can’t get hold of Irn-Bru for love nor money.
"...it is interesting to me how much the themes of empire and colonialism I was working on with Gauntlet are so clearly mirrored here at varying stages in history- how that influences my portrayal of these power dynamics and their legacy in book 2 and book 3 of the series will hopefully incorporate some of what I’ve learned."
Can you tell us about your next upcoming project? Is it the sequel? Another story altogether? And, if you’re able, can you give us a sneak peek or a little teaser?
My current project is book two of the trilogy that began with The Gauntlet and the Fist Beneath! I can’t yet reveal the title, but I’m just polishing up the final text based on some editorial notes and then it should be moving into the world of production soon. After that I’ll be working on Book 3 to finish off this tale. For Book 2, Floré must race to cure her daughter Marta from the encroaching skein-sickness she has inherited, whilst trying to rally the Stormguard as the remnants of Ferron press into their lands. And in the shadows, older foes bide their time, ready to step into the light… It is even more action packed than the first book, and a chance to explore more of the world of Morost and spend more time with your favourite characters!
"For Book 2, Floré must race to cure her daughter Marta from the encroaching skein-sickness she has inherited, whilst trying to rally the Stormguard as the remnants of Ferron press into their lands."
Last, but not least, where can readers find your books and keep up with your future publications?
You can find me on Twitter or on my website - that has all of my publications and contact information. Stop by and say hi!
Joshua Gillingham is an author, editor, and game designer from Vancouver Island, Canada.