Interview with author Rachel Hartman

Rachel Hartman is the author of the acclaimed and New York Times bestselling YA fantasy novel Seraphina, which won the William C. Morris YA debut Award in 2013, and the New York Times bestselling sequel Shadow Scale and Tess of the Road. Rachel lives with her family in Vancouver, Canada. In her free time, she sings madrigals, walks her whippet in the rain, and is learning to fence. To learn more, please visit SeraphinaBooks.com.

I had the opportunity to interview Rachel which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT. Could you tell us a little about yourself?

My name is Rachel Hartman, and I was born in Medieval Kentucky, nearly 50 years ago. I’ve lived in a variety of fascinating places, such as England, Japan, and Philadelphia, before finally settling in Vancouver, Canada. In the before-times (sigh) I loved to travel, sing with a madrigal choir (the QuasiModals), and fence with my 80-year-old swordmaster. Nowadays I walk my whippet in the rain, sing sean nόs songs all on my own, and teach creative writing at UBC.

When did you know you were first interested in writing, and what drew you specifically to young adult fiction and fantasy?

I had always been a voracious reader, but I first became interested in writing in sixth grade. That teacher, Mrs. Chamberlain, was the first to give me creative assignments, and I would write twenty pages if she assigned five, that’s how interested I was (by contrast: I could barely find time to finish my math). As for young adult fiction and fantasy, that’s what I loved most and was reading in those days, so that’s what I started writing. After a detour in university, when I decided it was time to “grow up” and read “real literature,” I got right back to fantasy and YA as soon as I graduated, and I’ve never looked back.

I write for young people, really, because that’s the age I was when books were still magic to me, when a single book still had the power to change my life, and to say thank-you to all the authors who’d helped me through difficult times at that age. I might attempt an adult novel at some point, but I would never not write fantasy, or some kind of speculative fiction. I use fiction as a laboratory for thought experiments, and as a way of mythologizing my experience. Setting something in the real world would feel very constricting and uncomfortable for me.

How would you describe your upcoming book, In the Serpent’s Wake? Where did the inspiration for this story come from?

In the Serpent’s Wake is the second book in a duology, and is most easily understood in context with the first. The first book, Tess of the Road, asked, “After grief and trauma, how do you find yourself and become the protagonist of your own life again?” The second book then asks, “Once you’ve become the protagonist of your own life, how can you learn to set yourself aside occasionally and help other people become the protagonists of theirs?”

Honestly, both my duologies seem to follow this same pattern: first you address your inner issues, then you take that new knowledge out into the wider world and see how (or whether) it applies.

In the Serpent’s Wake is a continuation of your previous work, Tess of the Road. How do you feel you may have changed or evolved as a writer since that book and since the publication of your debut novel, Seraphina?

I change with every book. Novels are so long (at least, mine are) that by the time I get to the end, I am a different person than I was at the beginning. I’ve learned so much, not least about myself. It’s challenging to go all the way back to Seraphina and remember how I was different then. Certainly there are tropes I used then that I wouldn’t use now. There was some fatphobia, alas. But, we screw up and we (hopefully) learn.

I will say, on a less abstract level, I’ve learned to handle a complicated storyline better. Shadow Scale, the sequel to Seraphina, was really too much story to be contained in one viewpoint character. I’m learning to let other characters carry some of the burden of narrative.

Since Geeks OUT is a queer centered website, could you tell us a bit about the LGBTQ+ characters featured in your latest book?

I have tried to give LGBTQ+ characters prominent positions in all my books. I am bi myself, and have abundant queer family and friends, so a fictional world would not feel complete to me without characters of varied orientations and presentations. I made up a six-gendered civilization in my second book, Shadow Scale, just to give a trans character a comfortable place to live, so this has been an ongoing interest of mine.

The first one you’ll meet in Serpent is Spira, since the first chapter is from their perspective. Spira is a dragon (in human form), who ends up questing after their proper pronouns (they does not end up being exactly correct, but I’m using it here because that’s where they start). Then there’s their human love interest, Hami, who I hesitate to label because I still don’t know everything about him. There’s Argol, a Porphyrian sailor, who uses a neutral pronoun in her native language but is content with she in Ninysh. The quigutl – a subspecies of dragon – change sex several times over their lifespans. And there are hints of Tess being bi (which she is), but the book was so long and she doesn’t have a romance subplot, really. You’d kind of have to know it was there to even see it, haha. Kind of like me, I suppose.

Growing up, were there any books or authors that touched you or inspired you as a writer or made you feel seen? Are there any like that now?

Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown was an early inspiration, I would have to say, as well as Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Cycle. I actually got to meet Lloyd Alexander a few years before he died, and say thank you, which is such a rare thing. As an adult, the books that have touched me most closely are Lois McMaster Bujold’s Chalion books, particularly The Curse of Chalion, and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books.

When Terry Pratchett died, I was supposed to do a school presentation that day. I was terrified that the kids would ask “Who is your favourite author?” and I would burst into tears in front of the entire 8th grade. Well, they asked, and I did, in fact, cry. But I was able to say to them, “This is the power of books, kids – someone I never met has touched my life so profoundly that I’m crying because he’s gone.” And that moment of vulnerability worked some kind of strange alchemy, and it was like we were all friends after that. I was singing to them, by the end, which I never do.

How would you describe your writing routine or process? What are some of the enjoyable, hardest, and strangest parts about writing for you?

I’m not great about routine. The one constant is that I get up early to work. You might suppose this means I am a morning person, but not really. My Inner Editor – that critical voice that tells me I suck – sleeps in late, so I like to get some work in before she starts yammering at me. All my strangest, wildest ideas come to me then, and there’s no Voice to veto any of it. It’s great.

One of the strangest, most enjoyable, and simultaneously frustrating parts of writing, for me, is that I am a very intuitive writer. And by “intuitive” I mean my brain works by taking in lots of information, turning it over and over (picture a composter), and letting it all ferment into something astonishing. It takes time, and you can’t force it, and that can get frustrating in a world of deadlines and obligations. If I can be patient, however, my brain always comes through with some delightful surprise.

What are some of your favorite craft elements when it comes to writing?

I hate confessing this because it makes me sound like a weirdo, but I love syntax. Like, what order the words go in. I can sit with a single sentence and change the order of words for hours, until finally I end up with… almost the sentence I started with, but for a slight change that no one will register but me. This, to me, is a joyous occupation.

I’m also a big fan of a really good metaphor. They’re not easy to get just right, but when they’re spot-on, they almost feel more true than the unadorned truth.

Did you draw on any resources for inspiration while writing your debut book, i.e. books, movies, music, etc.? Where do you draw inspiration or creativity in general?

For my first book, I was inspired by Medieval and Renaissance music. Actually, who am I kidding, music inspires all my books – you can find egregious madrigal and prog rock references all over the place, mostly song titles, if you know what to look for. Shadow Scale was largely Pink Floyd, I recall. In the Serpent’s Wake contains a lot of YES titles.

I am also deeply inspired by nature. This has always been the case for me, but I usually forget to credit it because it just seems like part of my day. The pandemic has underscored for me that I have to go outside amongst living things every day. If you looked at the pictures on my phone, you’d think there was nothing in my life but flowers and mushrooms. Ironically, I can’t keep a houseplant alive. I figure my proper orientation to plants is to observe them quietly and let them do the growing all on their own, outdoors. They know what they’re doing.

Aside from writing, what are some things you would want others to know about you?

I’m a very introverted individual, and it’s a big challenge just opening up about the writing!

What advice would you give to other aspiring writers?

Writing is never wasted. “Anything worth doing, is worth doing badly,” according to comic creator Carla Speed McNeill. Art is an ongoing conversation that you are worthy to participate in. Publishing, on the other hand, is a business that is often soul-sucking and terrible. Be patient and persistent, and above all else, be kind and gentle with yourself.

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet and wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?

What’s one thing you wish you had known before you were published?

I wish I had understood that writing was my art therapy. Once you’re published, suddenly writing becomes all bound up with income and ego. It becomes the source of stress, and as such is not as therapeutic as it used to be (you can get back to it eventually, but it takes time and effort). I had to find something else that could be my art therapy. I settled on singing, but I know writers who draw, dance, do calligraphy, craft, all kinds of things. You need something that’s just for you, and not for the consumption and approbation of other people.

Can you tell us about any new projects or ideas you are nurturing and at liberty to discuss?

Well, I’ve just sent the draft of a middle grade book to my agent. I had been describing it as The Graveyard Book x The Decameron, but it ended up being nothing like either of those, so I’m going to need a new comparison. It’s about plague, ghosts, and moral injury, and I’m not even sure it’s really a middle grade book. I feel certain my agent will have an opinion on this.

Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

Because it’s my special party trick (as a Canadian), I will recommend you some CANADIAN LGBTQ+ authors who I’ve enjoyed very much.

·  Xiran Jay Zhao – Iron Widow has been so popular and done so well that you may have read it already, but maybe you didn’t realize they are my fellow Vancouverite. No, we don’t know each other in real life, but I hope to correct that someday, if the pandemic ever ends *weep*.

·  E. K. Johnston – Aetherbound is her most recent space opera, but That Inevitable Victorian Thing is also a delightful place to start. Like Iron Widow (and like my own Shadow Scale), she gives us poly resolutions to love triangles. It’s a Canadian literary tradition, maybe.

·  Erin Bow – The Scorpion Rules is probably my favourite underrated post-climate-disaster AI-rules-the-world book. I’m always surprised more people haven’t read it.

·  C. L. Polk – Witchmark! The Midnight Bargain! Don’t make me choose! Polk is one of the best fantasy writers out there, bar none, and if you haven’t read their books yet, you are in for a treat.

Interview with Author Freya Marske

Freya Marske lives in Australia, where she is yet to be killed by any form of wildlife. She writes stories full of magic, blood, and as much kissing as she can get away with. Her short fiction has appeared in Analog Science Fiction, Andromeda Spaceways, and several anthologies. In 2020 she was awarded the Australian National SF (Ditmar) Award for Best New Talent. Her debut novel, the queer historical fantasy A MARVELLOUS LIGHT, is available now in hardcover.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Sure! I’m Freya Marske, a writer and podcaster based in Australia. I’ve moved through various flavours of geekdom in my life (shout out to my high school self, who was passionately into anime and also first in line for the opening screenings of the Lord of the Rings movies) but I’ve always been a reader of fantasy, so I’m delighted to have my debut fantasy novel published this year.

Where did you get your start in writing? How did you realize you wanted to be a storyteller?

I can’t recall a conscious choice being involved; I had a poem published in the newspaper at age 5, and never looked back! By which I mean I wrote on and off for years, including a lot of time in my twenties writing fanfiction and building my skills before I actually finished my first original novel.

Where did the idea for your latest book, A Marvellous Light come from?

The first seed of an idea that grew into the book was the question of who would liaise between a hidden magical society and an unmagical civil service, and what would happen if the wrong person ended up in that job. Because I always knew it would be a romance, too, I began to build the two protagonists—their backgrounds, their personalities, their relationship—at the same time as building the plot outwards from that initial idea.

What was the process like working on this story? Did you consult any resources while developing the background of your Edwardian magical fantasy?

I did quite a bit of reading about Edwardian society at the time, especially the daily life of the upper and upper middle classes and the kind of country manor house party that the book features. Plus I had to look into a lot of nitty-gritty details as they arose: the sort of cars that were popular, what the London Underground looked like in 1908, what a young man in mourning for his parents would have worn, etc. I enjoyed the process of learning about that time period and then weaving my own magical worldbuilding through it!

Regarding magical systems, oftentimes writers will build one based off familiar magic systems used in the past, i.e. magic schools, or fuse it with various other ideologies or systems, like Maggie Tokuda-Hall, author of The Mermaid, The Witch, and The Sea, fusing her magic system with marine ecology. Which makes me wonder how di you approach your worldbuilding?

…improvisationally.

Honestly, the magical system was the part I had the most fun with during the drafting process. I’ve always enjoyed those magic systems that don’t necessarily come easily to practitioners, and which have rules or constraints on what can and can’t be accomplished, but which also allow for creativity and wonder. The idea of using cat’s cradle string as a building block for gesture-based magic was my own, and I enjoyed teasing out the implications of it as I went through the book.

In a genre like historical fiction (much less historical fantasy), it can often be tough to describe queer identities without the queer language we have today. How did you work your way around that?

Absolutely—neither of my protagonists would describe themselves as gay, the word homosexual was I believe only just coming into English parlance, and they would feel uncomfortable with the word queer as it was used then. Despite having sexual experience with other men, neither think of themselves as part of a queer community, and a lot of their awareness of their own sexuality is around the necessity of it being secret. With all of that said: I wasn’t interested in telling a story about internalized homophobia or shame. Robin and Edwin take some time to recognize this aspect of one another, but once they do, the barriers to their love story unfolding are related to who they are as people, and the ways they’ve been hurt in the past. Not the fact that they’re both men.

What are some of your favorite parts of the writing process? What do you feel are some of the most difficult or frustrating?

I love the very beginning: when the outline is done and I’m leaping into a first draft, wrapping prose around my ideas and characters for the first time. And I find the final round of editing to be very satisfying, too. As an over-writer, I will always end up needing to trim unnecessary sentences and stray words, and I enjoy the process of making the end product as lean and punchy as possible.

There’s always a frustrating time for me around two-thirds of the way into a book. Now that I’ve written a few, I’ve learned to look out for those 66.6% doldrums! Somewhere around there I will become convinced that the book is terrible, I’m terrible, the entire thing is a waste of time, and nobody will ever enjoy it. It always passes. I just have to grit my teeth, trust the process, and write through it.

What can we expect from the main characters of A Marvellous Light?

I’ve been affectionately referring to Robin Blyth as a ‘sunshine himbo jock’, which tells you most of what you need to know. He’s good-hearted and straightforward and spent his university years on the cricket pitch or the river rather than studying hard, and he sincerely believes in punching his problems.

Edwin Courcey, the magician assigned as his liaison, is prickly and self-protective and vastly prefers books to people. With an analytical mind and a weak magical gift, Edwin has always been both interested in how magic works and frustrated by how little of it he can do.

Aside from writing, what are some things you would want readers to know about you?

In my spare time I can be found having strong opinions about wine, gin and whisky, lurking in art galleries, and figure skating. Everyone always seems keen to hear about that last one—it’s certainly an unusual sport to have chosen in Australia! But I did it as a kid and then picked it up again as an adult. I love how it calls for the slow improvement of individual skills, but also demands musicality and performance.

What advice might you have to give to other aspiring writers?

Don’t give up! You’ll write thousands upon thousands of words as you’re honing your craft, and you’re always going to be looking ahead at the people who you admire and want to emulate, and feeling frustrated with where you are in comparison. It’s human nature. And remember that any book you read has been meticulously revised and polished: first drafts are allowed to be, supposed to be, a bit of a mess! Let yourself have fun discovering your own stories.

And finally: write exactly the kind of book you most want to read yourself.

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but wish you were asked, as well as the answer to that question?

Hmm! Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever been asked which books I’ve reread the most times in my life. I’m a huge comfort rereader, and there are some books I return to again and again. Topping the list are: Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle, Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, Megan Whalen Turner’s The King of Attolia, and Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather.

Are there any other projects you are currently working on and at liberty to talk about?

I’m about to get started on book 3 of the Last Binding series; I can’t say much about it yet, except to say that one of its protagonists appears briefly in A Marvellous Light. But I’ve also written a couple of contemporary romance novels which my agent has just taken on submission—it’s very exciting to be back at the beginning of the process in a new genre!

Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?  

This year alone I’ve really enjoyed Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo (m/m Southern gothic horror with fast cars and revenants) and The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri (engrossing high fantasy with a central f/f pairing). In the romance sphere, married cowriters Mikaella Clements and Onjuli Datta brought out an amazing celebrity fake-dating story in The View Was Exhausting, and my favourite romance author KJ Charles finished up her Will Darling Adventures (a 1920s adventure series with stabbing, spies and m/m romance) with Subtle Blood.

However, to finish us off: one of my favourite books of all time—Regeneration, by Pat Barker—is a historical novel set just after the time period of A Marvellous Light. It’s about gay war poets, and trauma recovery, and no magic beyond that of kindness.

Interview with Author Amina Luqman-Dawson

Amina Luqman-Dawson loves using writing to tell stories and to build an understanding of race, culture and community. Her published writing includes op-eds in newspapers, magazine articles, travel writing and book reviews.  She authored the pictorial history book Images of America: African Americans of Petersburg (Arcadia Publishing) as well as the novel Freewater. She’s worked as a policy professional, researcher and consultant on issues of education and criminal justice. She has a BA in Political Science from Vassar College and a Master of Public Policy from UC Berkeley. She’s a proud mother of a 13-year-old son.  She, her husband and son reside in Arlington, VA.

I had the opportunity to interview Amina which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I was born in New York City yet raised in Lynwood, California (that’s in Los Angeles County). I am trained as a policy professional, however, part of me had a desire to write. For years I moonlighted as a writer. I did op-eds for newspapers that appeared in the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle and more. I also did travel writing for a magazine and some journal article writing. I wrote a pictorial history book entitled Images of America: African Americans of Petersburg (Virginia). These were all wonderful experiences. Still, I had a desire to write fiction. Over several years, I undertook the project to write Freewater. 

What can you tell us about your newest book, Freewater? Where did the inspiration for the story come from?

Freewater is the story of two children, Homer and Ada, who escape enslavement on a plantation. They run into a nearby swamp and deep within it, they discover a clandestine community of formerly enslaved runaways, called Freewater. Homer and Ada meet other kids while in Freewater and they learn what it means to be free and find lots of adventure along the way. 

I was inspired by a very cool nugget of history—maroons in America. Enslaved people who sought refuge deep in the swamps and forests of the south. Many were caught, but some managed to survive and live free. That’s quite an inspirational piece of history. What was equally motivating was using that maroon setting to connect young readers to the lives, hearts and minds of enslaved children. That felt like important work. Inspiration also helps when you have a great support system around you. 

As a writer, where did you find your love for storytelling? And what drew you to the realm of historical fiction, as well as fiction for younger readers?

Growing up I loved reading fiction. I always think of my middle grade years as the best reading time of my life. The stories felt so vivid and I truly felt like I was being taken to new places through them. I think that’s why I chose to make Freewater  a middle grade book. I wanted to create that same feeling for my son, and for other kids in their middle grade years. I’ve also always enjoyed learning about history through storytelling. As an adult I see the importance of sharing history, particularly history that has been overlooked or rarely told.  In particular, I was struck by the way our nation tends to treat its history of slavery and the enslaved people within that system. There’s great avoidance, fear, pain and awkwardness surrounding how we feel about the subject. I knew historical fiction could address that shortcoming. My book creates an opportunity to place hope, empowerment and love at the center of how we feel about enslaved people and decenters feelings of victimization and pain. 

How would you describe your writing process? What helps you become or stay inspired and motivated?

This is my debut novel so I can only speak to this experience. I researched and wrote this novel off and on over several years. I began with a very rough draft of about fifty pages. Those fifty pages had the basic arc of the story.  From there I revised and revised more times than I can recall. Each time the story became more layered and the characters deepened. I felt inspired to continue because I thought it was an important story to tell. I was lucky because I also had a wonderful support system of people who kept encouraging me to continue, particularly my husband. 

What are some of your favorite parts of writing when it comes to craft? What do you find are some of the most challenging or difficult for you personally?

I think I most enjoy crafting a great story. In Freewater  I was always preoccupied with the movement of the story and keeping the reader’s attention in a way that made sense. It’s great fun taking readers to the edge of their seats. In writing I most feared character development. It was new to me and I wanted the characters to resonate with readers. As a result, I started writing the story using very few characters. During revisions I layered on each one separately. It was a laborious process, and in the end I’d say the characters in Freewater are what I’m most proud of in the book. 

Aside from your work as a writer, what are some things you would want readers to know about you?

I’m also a mom of a fabulous thirteen-year-old son. Hmmm, here’s some other random stuff. I love historical documentaries. I have a bird’s nest outside my window and I spend lots of time peeking in at the birds who choose to nest there. There’s nothing better than a nice urban park. 

What are some things you would want readers to take away from your book, Freewater?

I want readers to leave feeling that they’ve connected to people who were enslaved. If they feel connected, some of the awkwardness, pain and fear we tend to carry around about the nation’s enslaved ancestors will have been washed away. 

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet, but wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?

What are some great things to take your manuscript from an idea to a published work?

It really takes a team. First, it’s great to have your personal team. Your partner or friends and family cheering you on. Then it’s great to have your writing team—a seasoned writer as a mentor, a new writer like yourself who is also trying to figure things out and other people whose opinion you trust. Then it’s great to being open suggestions and to taking chances with your writing. 

What advice might you have to give to other aspiring writers?

Keep writing. If you aren’t finding the success you seek, bring other writers (new and seasoned) into your life for feedback and support. Don’t be afraid to experiment with your writing, it can always be revised or re-written. FREEWATER is my debut novel and at several junctures I wasn’t sure of my ability to write in one way or another. I soon learned the value of taking the leap and trying to do the things I most feared.  

Do you have any books to recommend for the readers of Geeks OUT?

I have a fabulous picture book I just purchased for my niece and nephew! It’s entitled When Langston Dances, by Kaija Langley. It’s a wonderful story of a Black boy who loves dance despite feeling the pressures of only doing other things like basketball. It’s great for readers to see kids outside of their typical gendered spaces.


Header photo taken by Zachariah Dawson