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!
After he died we just got all the Good Guys teaming up like the freaking Avengers. Blech. (No hate on the actual Avengers, though, to be clear). As far as actual devastation goes, though, I have to say Brienne of Tarth in the books. IT WAS A FAKE OUT, I know that now. But I genuinely cried when I read that passage. She was my favorite in the books and in the show, and I was so upset when I thought GRRM killed her off.
So, my current only-child cat’s name is Thorin Oakenshield (after the Tolkien character, of course). If I got a second cat I would name her Tali’Zorah, after everyone’s favorite quarian from Mass Effect! If my husband gets his way Tali will end up being a puppy, which sounds pretty great to me too!
"If I got a second cat I would name her Tali’Zorah, after everyone’s favorite quarian from Mass Effect!"
I recently read a blog post you wrote about the required (and/or forcibly acquired) virtue of patience as a writer. As you shared in your post, you are not a particularly patient person, nor am I. Yet we somehow managed to survive the publication process! What are some tips for writers in the ‘weary middle’ of this grueling journey?
Oof, let me just say, writers, if you’re in that ‘weary middle’ right now, I feel you. Though, let’s be honest, there are about fifteen ‘weary middles’ throughout the writing and publishing process. You wait for feedback from beta readers, responses from agents you’ve queried, responses from editors you’ve been subbed to, the list goes on. My best tip is always to keep busy. Sink yourself into something new. For me it’s always a new writing project - something else I can fall in love with and let myself get distracted by while I’m waiting for [insert part of the process here].
"Oof, let me just say, writers, if you’re in that ‘weary middle’ right now, I feel you. Though, let’s be honest,
But there’s the other half of patience too - the half where you’re being patient with yourself. Brainstorming/Drafting/Editing a novel takes time - weeks and months and years of it. So I think it’s also important to have hobbies outside of writing to help reset your brain a little bit. For me it’s fitness - kickboxing, weightlifting, all that good stuff. Maybe for you it’s the same, or maybe it’s running! Or knitting! Or puzzles! Whatever it is, my advice is to find something else you can sink yourself into aside from writing.
"But there’s the other half of patience too - the half where you’re being patient with yourself. Brainstorming/Drafting/Editing a novel takes time - weeks and months and years of it."
Time management can be a huge issue for writers. I constantly hear newer writers complain that they would write if they could only find the time. How do you manage to balance your career, your personal life, and writing schedule?
I am super lucky to have a really supportive husband who viewed my writing as a second job long before I even got an agent, which makes things easier. I also don’t have any kids, which I know makes things way easier.
So, to sum up, no one has the time, everyone has to make the time. But the great part is, if you write for eight hours every day, sure, you will end up with a book. But if you only write for one hour? Twenty minutes? You can still end up with a book if you keep at it long enough! Write however much you can fit in without going absolutely crazy or shirking other important responsibilities, and don’t let other people bully you into thinking you’re “not a real writer” if you can’t squeeze in some massive, arbitrary word count every single day.
Fantasy, as a genre, has historically struggled with diversity of representation. How does diversity play into your character cast and what advice might you give to writers who struggle with implementing this in a meaningful way?
This is such an important question. I’ll start by saying I think this ties in with the world-building question below. Part of building a vivid and realistic world is populating it with vivid and realistic people. If all your fictional people look and sound the same, I think it’s safe to say you’re not doing that. The main cast of Among Thieves is made up of characters from every corner of my fictional world.
"Part of building a vivid and realistic world is populating it with vivid and realistic people. If all your fictional people look and sound the same, I think it’s safe to say you’re not doing that."
My biggest advice to other writers, though, would be to make sure you’re reading broadly in the genre. In other words, if all the fantasy authors you’re reading look a lot like me… you need to expand your selection. There are so many awesome fantasy authors of color out there! N.K. Jemisin, Sabaa Tahir, Tomi Adeyemi, R.F. Kuang, I could go on naming all day. I also think it is important to remember to make sure you're telling a story that's yours to tell. Ask yourself if you’re really the right person to be writing the story you’re thinking of writing. Lastly, make sure you seek criticism on your work early and often to make sure the representation present in your story is not harmful.
Your first novel, Among Thieves, is set to be released in 2021 by Saga Press. It takes place in the Five kingdoms of Thamorr where Ryia Cautella is deftly navigating the criminal underworld of the port city of Carrowick. What inspired this story and what kinds of feelings are you hoping to awaken in readers?
Not to give too much away, but Among Thieves involves a high-stakes heist. I personally love a good heist in any genre. What tips do you have for building the mystery and suspense around a heist without letting it detract from the overall narrative?
Let me tell you, it’s a tough balance, haha. You want to give enough info that the reader can follow what is happening without giving away all of the fun. The heist elements in Thieves went through about… ten(?) full rewrites to try to get that balance right. And god, I hope I got it in the end! My best tip for any story that has several complicated webs woven together (like a heist) is to outline.
For Thieves I had a giant Excel spreadsheet with tons of rows and columns for all my plots and subplots, planning out every aspect of the heist. That meant having solid plans for how each individual character wanted each step of the heist to go so I could make sure their motivations and actions would be clearly blocked out and fit together with each major plot point. Then, of course, I made sure to have a solid plan for how things actually turn out.
"For Thieves I had a giant Excel spreadsheet with tons of rows and columns for all my plots and subplots,
Moral of the story, the most important part of building mystery is making sure you know all the secrets yourself. That way you can pick and choose which parts of the puzzle to reveal when.
I don’t let any Fantasy writer get through a Q&A with me without talking about world-building. Talk us through your world-building process for the book. What were its evolutionary stages? How did it evolve? What was the greatest challenge you had and how was it resolved?
Where on the map is this particular kingdom located? What are some of the customs here? What sport or game is most popular? What kind of foods do they prepare? Holidays, religions, rulers, kingdoms they’re allied with - all of these things are crucial. Even if the details never make it into the pages of the actual book, you can’t make a world feel real to a reader if it doesn’t feel real to you.
"Even if the details never make it into the pages of the actual book,
For the world of Thamorr (the world in which Among Thieves is set) I actually had done a good portion of the world-building before I even started this particular story idea. The basis of the magic system and a good part of the geography actually comes from an old, dead project of mine. I’m a big fan of cannibalizing old projects for parts. The plot of that old story was not workable, but there were parts of this world that I still loved, so I stole them and built them up to ultimately create the world of Thamorr!
The biggest struggle for me was deciding which pieces actually appear on the page and which don’t. I always want to put too much in the MS, which can get info-dumpy. Then I usually reel it back too much in my early edits and beta readers have no idea what is happening. Finding that balance is always a challenge for me.
"The biggest struggle for me was deciding which pieces actually appear on the page and which don’t."
Where can readers find more information about the release of Among Thieves and about your future works?
Among Thieves is scheduled for release in early 2021, but does not have an official release date yet! I will keep everyone posted about Thieves and any future projects on my website, on my Facebook page, or my Twitter account.
Also, don't forget to add Among Thieves to your Goodreads!
Joshua Gillingham is an author, editor, and game designer from Vancouver Island, Canada.