Remember when I mentioned that I was going to try something different, posting an interview with the wonderfully talented Jenn Lyons? Well, I found that I really enjoy doing interviews, so that might become a more regular feature here.
Like, today’s post, for example.
I’m really happy to post my latest interview this morning–this time, with the fantastically brilliant Rowenna Miller, author of Torn and the upcoming release, Fray, which comes out in LESS THAN A WEEK.
But, you’re not here to listen to me ramble, so let’s get right to it.
Thanks for agreeing to stop by my corner of the internet, Rowenna! Warmest welcome, to start! Would you mind starting off by telling me how long have you been writing and what sparked your interest in the first place?
I don’t remember not loving books or wanting to be involved in the magic of making books. I wrote picture books as a small child; I dabbled in novels in high school. But what shifted me toward writing “for serious” was the recession. I had my first post-college job, and my hours were cut. I figured I might as well invest that extra day a week into something I cared deeply about, and I turned back toward writing.
That’s awesome you were able to turn a negative, like cut hours, into something more positive. That’s not an easy thing to do.
I have a lot of writers who follow my blog, so I’m always keen to gather writing advice, especially for those writers still trying to break into the business. Would you mind sharing your publication journey, highlighting any tips you discovered (or wish you knew) along the way?
My tip: Always be writing “the next thing.” That’s been my biggest lesson, and it comes from having trunked multiple manuscripts! Whenever I set out to query a project, I started writing the next thing. In a kind of unusual situation, I signed with my agent on an incomplete manuscript—I had queried her with a project she didn’t think she could sell, but when she asked “Are you writing something new?” I was. And she loved how that sounded, so we signed. When I went out on sub for the first time, I started writing something new. The first subbed novel didn’t sell. The project I started while out on sub became Torn. It’s pragmatic, because if you want to make a career out of writing, there’s going to always need to be a Next Thing. It’s also the best sanity-saver in the world. You write something, you’re in love with it, it’s the book of your heart…and the icky truth is that no matter how wonderful it is, it may not make it to publication. You have to be writing something new to fall in love with.
Such an awesome reminder—or new lesson, for those who might not have heard that tip before. Thank you for sharing that!
In Torn, I immediately felt drawn into the world from the first page (seriously), thanks to how real the setting felt, the voice you spoke in and how we’re just thrown in headfirst. How did you create such a compelling first chapter that refuses to let go?
Thank you! The first chapter was rewritten multiple times, but the first line—Sophie asserting her ethics with a prospective client—never was. It was important to me that the reader get a glimpse into Sophie’s worldview, ethics, and personality right away, not only because these things become very important in the course of the plot, but because for me and for this story in particular, the setting was all seen through her eyes. She’s your guide, so I wanted the reader to connect first to her, and then to the city she calls home through how she experiences it. For me, centering the characters clears the path for how the rest of the writing will go—having “people-centric worldbuilding” in a sense.
Gosh, I love that. I guess I didn’t realize how character-centered that beginning was, but the way you describe how you did it, makes so much sense. *scrambles away to take notes*
Speaking of Sophie, I absolutely loved her and felt like I connected to her, rooting for her the entire way. In fact, I thought all of your characters were really fleshed out and made me feel some sort of reaction towards them. Any tips on writing a cast of fully-dimensional, yet each personally distinct, characters?
One thing I really believe (in fiction and in life) is that everyone is the protagonist of their own story (even if they don’t realize it—and I’ve had a character or two who doesn’t!). So even if they appear for two pages to sell the actual protagonist of your book some fish fillets for dinner, in their head, they’re the Fishmonger Hero of the West End. They all have goals, they all have obstacles to those goals, and your protagonist might be someone who’s helping them, hindering them, or just set dressing. When I folded in the political elements of this story, that took on a whole new element (and doubles down in Fray!), that all those characters have an angle they’re playing in one way or another. As for developing the character traits of my cast, I don’t tend to do many worksheets or brainstorming sketches, but I do let the characters talk to one another a lot. Dialogue in my early drafts tends to ramble and get pared down—sometimes edited out even before I move on to writing the next scene—but it lets me dig at my characters’ personalities and reactions and flesh out the trends that keep them unique and distinctive. And as you’re seeing characters frequently through dialogue, I tend to pay attention to speech patterns and how those reveal character, too.
Fishmonger Hero of the West End. Is it weird I’d honestly read a book about that character?
An element that I loved was how you tackled writing romance. It played a factor, but it didn’t distract or take over from the story. In fact, I was just as invested in the revolution plotline as I was with Sophie’s romance (and I usually deter into romanceland pretty quickly, personally, my cares for the main plot dwindling). Was this a purposeful balancing act or did writing the two simply come together?
It was definitely intentional, and part of the overall outlook I had in writing. One thing that I love about a lot of, especially more recent, fantasy and sci-fi is how the main “quest” or “goal” or “giant epic space battle” is intertwined with personal relationships and a web of responsibilities and goals. I don’t want to be too overarching or to stereotype, but I feel like the influx of women and nonbinary folks writing genre fiction has been a fantastic influence on this element of story, because we’ve been embracing for years that we have this giant challenge in our lives, to balance all these elements. We talk about “work/life” balance a LOT. We live balancing acts every day, so it feels inauthentic to write stories where any one identity completely wipes out the others. So of course I’ve got a small business owner with a strained family life and a budding relationship and, oh right, a potentially violent political coup happening outside her door because that’s life for most of us (except hopefully the violent coup part…).
I didn’t look at it as a balancing act, but that makes a lot of sense. Whoa.
What is your favorite aspect about writing? Opposite, what’s the most difficult challenge?
I love just sitting down and drafting. I’m rarely intimidated by a blank page; it’s an invitation to fill it up with literally anything. I enjoy the development of revision, and even the nitpicking of copy edits (you get to internally debate about hyphen use and whether to repeat a word—does it get any better for word nerds?!?). Honestly, the part I don’t love is self-promo. I feel like I’m a poser who’s trying too hard or, alternately, a slacker who isn’t trying hard enough. Fortunately, everyone agrees that writing the book—and then writing another one, and another!—is more important than promotion 😉
Haha, as someone who personally always fights against herself about hyphen usage (and the hyphen always wins), I definitely understand where you’re coming from, here!
As a reader who doesn’t know how to sew, at all *hides*, I was surprised how the elements of Sophie’s charmcasting didn’t seem too jargon-y or over-my-head. How did you make it so inviting for readers who might not connect with Sophie’s talent?
I’m relieved to hear that the story appealed to non-sewists as well! It’s kind of a general worldbuilding conundrum that a fantasy world (or historical world or sci fi world or pretty much any world other than that in which the reader lives) is going to have terms, concepts, plenty of stuff right down to food that’s unfamiliar to the reader—but depicting the world authentically hinges on including those new things. In this particular case, there were a lot of sewing concepts and types of clothing, and I used the old, tried and true ways of introducing new vocab many writers have deployed before me—using the word alongside synonyms and descriptions to familiarize the reader without slowing the narrative for it and folding the concepts into action that’s actually imperative to the storyline itself.
Well, this non-sewist appreciates how you managed that, because nothing is more off-putting than not being able to understand the jargon.
Speaking of your novels, I am ridiculously excited about Fray, coming out June 4th. It’s the “dreaded sophomore novel,” as some coin second novels. Did you experience any sophomore syndrome writing it and, if you did, how did you combat it?
One thing that really helped in this area was that I had a fairly long road to get to the first published novel, so I’ve been pretty used to diving into the next thing. Fortunately (fingers crossed!) I didn’t bog down in terms of the drafting or revision of the book itself. But expectations change. I think the big shift when you’re looking at published work is that suddenly the stakes in terms of “do people like this?” feel more immediate. They’re not actually more immediate when you’re drafting, but they feel that way because you’re getting tagged in people’s GoodReads reviews of your first book and maybe ruminating too much about trade reviews. I have to remind myself to put a cork in those concerns.
I wish you luck in being able to block out those concerns whenever they arise! I can’t imagine that is easy at all.
What are you most excited about in Fray?
The action in Torn takes place entirely in Galitha City, but Fray takes Sophie (and the reader) out of the city and into other regions of Galitha and abroad. World building—and showing Sophie engaging with new places and people—was such fun, and I hope readers enjoy the travels. There are also new characters who are absolute scene stealers and had to be actively restrained from taking over the entire book for their own stories.
Oooh, I am so excited that we get to travel and see more of the world!
You introduced a few different types of charmcasting in Torn: through sewing, singing and through music. Will we get to see any new types of magic in Fray?
Without giving away any spoilers, to some degree, yes, there is more exploration of magic in Fray. Sophie in Torn doesn’t really understand much of how or why casting works; in Fray she’s forced to dig in a bit more.
Because I always want to see cinematic adaptations of all my favorite books, I have to ask: if Unraveled Kingdom ever got optioned for the screen, do you have any dream castings?
I am TERRIBLE at these questions, ha—mostly because I can never keep up on who’s who in the acting world and my answers are like twenty years out of date 😛 Mind if I skip? OR—you tell me 😀
Oh gosh, I was not prepared for you to throw that back my way. I mean, I’m always looking for excuses to cast Idris Elba or Kate Beckinsale, but I’m not sure if either of them would fit, honestly.
We’re reaching the end-stretch, here. What’s a question you’ve always wished you could have been asked during an interview, yet haven’t yet? Please answer it here!
There’s obviously a lot of historical influence in Torn and Fray, but it’s certainly not a perfect analogue to any particular historical place or time. I haven’t ever been asked to speak to that—I think too much nitpicking as to “what comes from where” can derail enjoying your reading, but for fun, some clarification—it’s not 100% eighteenth century France! Though there’s a French Revolution feel, there are some big departures. I don’t establish the Church as a major player; there’s definitely a lot of Georgian British (and especially London street life) influence. A big thing is the fear of rioting and the exploration of potential political change without open revolution, which is in many ways the arc of British domestic policy in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
That’s so interesting, because I totally would have guessed France to be the major influencer. I love that it’s more of a blend!
Anything else you’d like to speak to fans about or want readers to know?
SFF fans, hang onto your hats—I feel like we’re in an exciting age of fiction right now! Can I just gush and recommend all the GREAT work out there right now that challenges genre assumptions, plays with language and tropes in such fun ways, and opens up new worlds to readers? Tasha Suri’s Empire of Sand, Tade Thompson’s Rosewater, Melissa Caruso’s Tethered Mage, RJ Barker’s Age of Assassins, HG Parry’s The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heap, Alex White’s Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe, Alexandra Rowland’s A Conspiracy of Truths…I keep running across readers who have this “ugh, fantasy is all white dudes on medieval quests and sci fi is all white dudes having space battles” mentality and CATS AND KITTENS! Not so! There is literally not enough time to read all of the gorgeous new stuff out there.
I am so glad I’ve read (and by read, I mean devoured) most of those novels, but my TBR is apparently not safe around you. Duly noted. 😉
Finally, where can people connect with you and buy your books? In what ways can readers support you?
You can find Torn and pre-order Fray anywhere you like to buy books—which includes your local indie, and of course Amazon.
Thank you so much for taking the time and allowing me to pick your brain a little bit. It’s been a sincere pleasure and I wish you the best of luck on your next writing adventure!
Thank you so much for having me!
And there you have it!
Seriously, it was such a pleasure to talk with Rowenna, who was kind enough to let me pick her brain after I was truly floored by Torn. I cannot wait to read the sequel, which comes out NEXT TUESDAY. Pre-order it now or ask your local library if they have it ordered. Because trust me: this is a series you want on your shelves. 🙂