It's National Poetry Month and Wildling is diving in deep. Poetry is so much more than just pretty words. Poetry is community, poetry is healing, poetry is a revolution. Don't miss this powerful conversation with spoken-word poet GM about how making space for poetry in your writing community creates a safe space for all of us.
Mary-Peyton Crook 00:23
Welcome to How Do I Book? by Wildling Press. We like to chat about book writing, book publishing, book marketing, and of course, the book reading. We're trying to help new and experienced authors develop their craft, widen their perspectives, and learn to get a little wild every once in a while.
Mary-Peyton Crook 00:26
I'm Mary-Peyton, and today I have a very special guest with me! I'm so excited to be joined by GM. GM is a twenty-two-year-old trans non-binary poet and dessert baker based in Richmond, Virginia. Over the past year, they have dedicated themself to introducing the writing community of the city to the experiences of qtpoc individuals. Before debuting as a slam poetry artist, they wrote an anthology of poetry and prose, which they plan to publish--a body of work that removes the burden of gender from its characters. You can find them and more of their work on Instagram @o.k.gm. Welcome, GM, and thank you for being with me today!
Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
Mary-Peyton Crook 00:45
Of course. So GM, what are your pronouns?
Mary-Peyton Crook 00:54
Okay, perfect. I know we just did an intro about you, but tell us a little bit in your own words about you and your life so far with poetry.
I actually love this question. Because I feel like, in short, I've been writing my whole life. I grew up with readers--me, my mom, and my sister, we used to go to restaurants together, and when we would wait for our food, we'd all pull out our books and we would read.
Mary-Peyton Crook 01:49
Oh, I love that.
Yeah! For most of my life, my sister (she's seven years older than me) . . . we would all kind of pass around our books after we were done with it. And seeing their love for reading made me want to write something that they would be proud of, and that they would enjoy. So I've spent my entire life trying to craft something that would bring my family joy in a way that tethers us.
It's really exciting because even though I've been writing for such a long time, it's been very recently that my family has started to see me actually on stage. I'm a little bit of an introvert and perfectionist, so I try to like . . . once I'm proud of it, that's when I want to share it with them. So it means a lot that they've stepped in on this journey once I feel like I'm in a place where I'm proud of the work that I'm sharing.
Mary-Peyton Crook 02:36
That's awesome. That's got to be a great feeling.
Mary-Peyton Crook 02:39
So for listeners who may be unfamiliar with the poetry that you specifically do, which is performance poetry, spoken word poetry, and specifically slam poetry, give us a little insight into what that is.
So for a really long time, I was mostly a poet on paper and I was going to a lot of slam events, but I never saw myself getting on stage. But I think that I grew such a respect for the vulnerability that people displayed in front of audiences of people that don't know them. And there's something so special about work that is meant to be shared through oration. You can feel the emotion, you can feel like there's a there's a cadence, there's a rhythm. Especially in Richmond, Virginia, there are so many powerful people with powerful stories, and hearing it come from their mouths and seeing the whole room share in this experience and hold the artist on stage . . . I think that's what spoken word is about. I think poetry in and of itself is very important, but I think there's something very niche and specific about sharing the story through oration.
Mary-Peyton Crook 03:43
Yeah, absolutely. A lot of people, when they think of poetry they think of on the page. But poetry started as an oral practice. So, naturally, poetry is about that cadence like you're talking about, that sound. And so hearing it spoken out loud is a completely different experience than reading it on the page. It's an important part of that experience.
Mary-Peyton Crook 04:02
I love that I'm getting to talk to you today just in general, but also because I used to be really into watching and listening and going to spoken word and slam poetry events. I never did it myself. I never got up the courage to do that. But I love listening to it and I used to listen to videos all the time because of that. There's something so soothing--even a really strong, intense poem--something so soothing about hearing another person's voice speaking those words, especially when they've written it beautifully in that cadence, you're right. And hearing, like you said, hearing the audience respond when they hear a really good line is so cool. It gives me goosebumps.
Yes. It's my favorite part to hear. I love being on stage and knowing something resonated with someone because I can I can hear that response.
Mary-Peyton Crook 04:48
It's very like we're experiencing this all together.
Mary-Peyton Crook 04:52
I love that. Yeah, I feel like a lot of parts of the writing community are very formal, you know, on-the-page kind of stuff. And I feel like a lot of people should really check out performance poetry, because it is such a beautiful experience you can't get from just reading on a page.
I think it's very similar to performance art, when people are demonstrating a piece of art and there's like . . . the audience is there to watch them and take what they want from it. I feel very similarly about poetry being on the page versus seeing it in real life.
Mary-Peyton Crook 05:22
And you mentioned being an introvert, which doesn't surprise me--a lot of writers tend to be introverts, you know? But then you do this performance . . . and I've gotten to see a few of your performances through your Instagram account, which are fantastic! Absolutely shook me. They were so good. And so I really was like, "Wow, here's a writer who is not an introvert, because they're out here performing, and performing so confidently and beautifully." How do you do that? What is that like for you?
I think that's an interesting question, and I think that it is slightly tethered with gender in a way. When I get on stage, it feels like I'm performing drag. I am a very characterization of myself, whether it's like the outfit . . . the energy that's coming from me is very not what is offstage. It's a lot of getting myself into this mindset of like, "I'm a performer right now."
Mary-Peyton Crook 06:14
Yeah, and so many of my loved ones perform drag as well, and so there's so much inspiration. . . . I love that art form, and having them support me in that way. My roommate (who I live with, love him to death), he's a drag performer. And so he's a very big part of building me up before I get on stage . . .
Mary-Peyton Crook 06:30
. . . as GM versus who I am in real life. Yeah, I think a lot of times, I think that when you get on stage, it does seem like I'm a lot bigger than I actually am. I love crafting a space for myself to be loud, while also having space for myself to be small and alone and enjoy that time with myself.
Mary-Peyton Crook 06:54
Oh, that's awesome. As an introvert myself, that makes sense to me where that would really help, you know? The idea that when you are performing, you can put on this persona, even if it's not like in drag where there's that full costume, right? You're still thinking of yourself as a different person in that moment, so that you have that confidence and that ability to say these things out loud, especially since a lot of your poetry is very personal, that you're able to say these things to the audience and perform it in a more comfortable space for yourself.
I feel like GM is kind of like the shield for the person that I am.
Mary-Peyton Crook 07:29
I know that you have also written poetry for the page. What does your process look like? Do you make an active choice to make something performance versus written? What is that like, that decision when you're writing a poem?
I think that when it comes to performance . . . well, one of my favorite prompts of all time is The Audre Lorde Questionnaire to Oneself. And it's a four question prompt, asks you: What are the words you do not have yet? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies that you swallow to make your own? And lastly--and this is in short, but--what is the worst that can happen if you speak this truth?
And I feel like when I really have something that I want to say that I want to share, I feel like those are the things that I bring to the stage especially because, differing from that, one of my favorite messages from Toni Morrison--and I may misquote this, but--she talks about how if there's something that you want to read that has not been written yet, it is up to you to write it.
Mary-Peyton Crook 08:27
That's one of my favorite quotes too!
I spent a really long time in the audience of slams. And though I felt this connection with the poets, I also felt that I wasn't seeing enough queer and trans people of color on stage. And I think that's when I decided that I would like to do that. I would like to create a space for us within this space. And it's been a really beautiful process of when I feel like I have something to say, it gets really scary getting on stage, but for . . . I want to say the last couple of times I've done it, there's always been at least one queer person in the crowd that comes up to me and says, like, "I have never seen someone share our story on stage like that, and I really appreciate that." And I appreciate them! Because I feel seen and I feel held in those moments. And I'm like, "You are here with me, and we are sharing this experience together." So that's definitely what I bring to the stage, what I want to spread awareness [about]. I want to share these stories that I think that we're either not listening to or moving past, if that makes sense.
Mary-Peyton Crook 09:26
Yeah, absolutely. It's very cool that you can see the need that you felt going to those events and seeing that space that's open for trans non-binary people, and deciding that instead of waiting for someone else to make that happen and make that safe space, that you're like, "I can be this person for other people."
Mary-Peyton Crook 09:44
Have you read--not to put you on the spot about what you've read, but--have you read All Boys Aren't Blue?
Uh uh, I should write that down.
Mary-Peyton Crook 09:51
It's a series of personal essays by George M. Johnson, and he's a queer Black man and also a journalist and activist, and (I actually just read this quote earlier this weekend) apparently when he wrote it and he wanted to publish it, he said [something] like, "I don't care if this book is a huge success, or if it's a flop, as long as there's one person out there who sees this, sees themself in it, feels seen, then . . . that's the goal." And that book has become a really huge success and also is banned in a lot of places, unfortunately. But yeah, that just sounded very similar to your experience of wanting to get up there and make that space for someone else too.
Yeah, I think--speaking of things being banned, and like there's a little bit of unsafety of sharing stories--I recently made the Writer's Den poetry slam team, and the nationals competition that we're going to is actually based in Tennessee . . .
Mary-Peyton Crook 10:48
. . . which, I don't know if you know what's going on right now, but it's a very daunting feeling going into a space like that and still speaking, because I know, I know that there's going to be someone there that needs to hear it, especially in a place like that.
Mary-Peyton Crook 11:05
That's so scary, though. I am a straight, cisgender white woman--my experience, my fear of getting up on stage is, like, "I'm afraid because I don't want to be embarrassed," you know? And so I don't have that perspective of real fear of something like that, like being in a space that's unsafe to exist in.
But I will say that I think it is like a genuine fear to get on stage regardless. Roscoe Burnems, the poet laureate of Richmond, he always says that the number one fear amongst the populace is public speaking, and that death is number two . . .
Mary-Peyton Crook 11:41
Oh my god.
. . . so, completely . . .
Mary-Peyton Crook 11:44
I believe that.
I one-thousand-percent get it.
Mary-Peyton Crook 11:48
Well, congratulations on making the team! That's so exciting.
Thank you. I'm really excited regardless. I know it's gonna be a fabulous time.
Mary-Peyton Crook 11:56
Good. Why do you think that it's important for a community to have a space for poetry, whether spoken word or on the page? Why do you think that's important for a community? To you, what does poetry do for a community?
I find that poetry spaces are incredibly therapeutic. Especially because therapy in a lot of spaces [is] inaccessible to a lot of people, but the ability to write down and share an experience and be held in those moments is really important. And I think fostering artistry, no matter what age you are, even just for yourself, or for other people, I think that it's incredibly important to have that ability to release in front of people and have people give you that, "Yes, yes, I see you, I hear you, and you are valid for feeling this way. And you're not alone."
Mary-Peyton Crook 12:45
That's cool. So you're based in Richmond, Virginia, which is where I am based as well. Do you feel like Richmond has a decent space for that? Do you think they have that space for poetry?
I think there's definitely a lot of spaces, you just kind of have to look for them. A lot of people reach out to me and they're like, "Ah, you're doing open mics! Where can I go to?" And I have done my digging. So I will send them away. There are so many lovely spaces. I think my favorite space has to be The Verses [aka Tuesday Verses] open mic, happens every Tuesday at Addis Ethiopian downtown. It's the best open mic in Richmond! Maybe I'm a little bit biased, but you have poets that are going there and singers and you have rappers and there's a band in the background, and everybody kind of just enjoys having this experience together. It's always so much fun and I always meet so many different people. It's beautiful, being able to come back and be like, "Oh my gosh, you're here again!"
And then so many of them they also go to these other open mics, like there's Open All That Soul, which I don't remember exactly where it is, but it's on Instagram at @openallthatsoul. The Writer's Den, they have slams every month. I want to say it's every Sunday or every first Sunday. There's so many spaces, you really just have to look for them, because I feel . . . At the Visual Arts Center yesterday there was the Poetry Festival--so much fun, so much fun--but I feel like there are a lot of people in Richmond that are like, "I'll go next year, I'll go next year, I'll go next year." And it's like, "You should come now!"
Mary-Peyton Crook 14:15
I think that's a human thing to always put things off, you know? To be like, "I'm too busy right now. I don't want to go right now. I'll go next time." That's such a human thing to just keep putting things off.
Mary-Peyton Crook 14:25
What would you . . . What advice would you give to someone who is looking to get into either writing poetry or performing poetry?
I would say to write as yourself and not as another person. I think a lot of times, especially when you're in the audience at first, you have this knee-jerk reaction to be like, "I want to write like this person." But truly I think that you should write the best version of yourself. I journal constantly and a lot of my poems actually come from journal entries where I'll take a specific feeling or a specific image and then I will translate that into an artistic piece to share. Definitely writing all the time . . . and again to talk about Toni Morrison, I've watched her documentary multiple times. It's incredible. I want to say it's called The Pieces of Me [correction: The Pieces I Am]. But she talks about how she always writes in the morning because she's more tender, and I think that after you wake up, there's something so soft about yourself. And I always find that that is the best time to write, starting the day that way and starting the day off peacefully, and crafting a good space for yourself to be vulnerable. I think it definitely has to do with writing as much as possible.
Mary-Peyton Crook 15:33
It's the people who actually write every day and get into that practice that really find themselves open to ideas. And so therefore, they end up having more to write about in the future, because they're in that practice.
I think a lot of people will judge themselves before they actually start writing. And the real tea is that you've got to just throw it out there! Like mad-man writing . . . no one can judge you but yourself if you are in your journal. You just write as much as possible and let yourself sound cringy or not good or . . . a line doesn't actually work. You can always go back and change something or alter something or flesh out an idea more.
Mary-Peyton Crook 16:14
Yeah, I love that. I love the idea of having your writing space to be a journal. I feel like people . . . a lot of times writers will separate their kind of journal-writing from their "Okay, now it's time to write something that I want to get published," or "I want to write something more formal to share with other people." And they separate those. And I also hear a lot of writers say, like, "Sometimes it's hard to sit down with my writing [notebook] or at my computer to actually start writing something. It's hard to freewrite." That's a good point that maybe if it's your journal where you do your writing, you can be comfortable with the fact that "No one's gonna read this, I can embarrass myself, I can write something ridiculous, I can write an inner thought that I'm ashamed of." And you never feel like you have to share it with the world. But you can take from that, which is very cool. I like that. That's smart.
I'm also a bit of an eighty-year-old man on the inside, so the computer is very, very daunting. I'm very much so a handwritten person, and then when it comes to a final draft, or when I was writing my manuscript, it was transferred from writing onto the computer. Thankfully I have friends that love me a lot, and so when I get tired, they'll read what I've written to me so I can jot it down.
Mary-Peyton Crook 17:23
Aw that's beautiful! I love that, that's so nice.
It means so much to me, because it's always something that people have heard before, or that I've been talking about a lot. And I think it's also very vulnerable between the both of us, seeing something that I wrote and seeing my handwriting and seeing the smudges on the page, or maybe it was something really sad, so you can see some wet spots. There's a very, I don't know . . . I feel very connected in those moments when people are reading my own work to me.
Mary-Peyton Crook 17:48
I feel like that would be a really strong friendship moment to be able to share that with each other, and also supporting your art, they're supporting your art. They're also there to listen and to read your thoughts. You're open to sharing that with them. That's a beautiful exchange in a relationship.
Mary-Peyton Crook 18:06
How do you then take something that's so personal and try to edit it? Especially something like poetry where poetry can be so freeform, can be so open to however the writer wants to put it together. How do you take it and then sort of edit your own work and get it ready for either page or stage?
I really like to read everything out loud, whether it's meant to be read or meant to be listened to. If I'm not comfortable saying something out loud by myself, then I know that that's probably something that I won't like to share in front of an audience. Or, it's kind of like when you're writing an essay, I feel like teachers are always like, "You should read it out loud, so that you know that it flows really well," almost kind of like a song in a way. And I feel like, especially when it comes to spoken word, a lot of times you have this cap of three minutes, and so you've got to fit "What do I need to say?" versus "What do I want to say?" So once all the necessary information I feel the need to share is in there . . . and also if I finish reading a poem and I'm able to deep sigh, I feel this release and I feel like it's done. I feel "chef's kiss"!
I also love talking to other poets and collaborating with them. One of my favorite poets, she doesn't live in Richmond anymore, but Ayana Florence, she actually just won Women of the World Poetry Slam. She's the number one woman in the world.
What?! Oh my gosh
Yeah! You can find her on YouTube, on Button Poetry's YouTube . . . one of her pieces that she did at WOWPS, which is Women of the World [Poetry Slam], it's called "Boy Calls Me Pretty." It's fantastic. I love sharing my work with other people and having their eyes on it. And seeing, like, "You should say more here. This is where this part can grow. I think you can extend this part. I think this part is unnecessary." I think that once you start sharing with other writers you kind of get a feel of "This is where I can grow." I also feel like when it comes to writing, you grow by other people being able to see your work, whether they're listening to it or seeing it on a page. I feel like that collaborative process, as a community . . . I think you can build yourself individually.
Mary-Peyton Crook 20:22
Yeah, if you want to write and keep it in your bubble that is totally fine. Writing is good for a lot of things. But I agree if you want to grow, then you've got to be allowing others to see your work, give you feedback (even if it's feedback that you don't eventually end up taking, that's fine). But you know, being open to learning from other writers is crucial, for sure.
Mary-Peyton Crook 20:45
So what do you think--this might be a little hard to to answer, but--what do you think is the hardest part about writing poetry, for you?
That's a great question. I want to say, I think it's hard to be honest and vulnerable with another person if you're not honest and vulnerable with yourself. I think once you overcome that hurdle within yourself, it's so much easier to do it with another person.
Mary-Peyton Crook 21:11
Do you feel like you had a time in your life where you finally broke through that? Because I know that you are open and vulnerable with the with the room when you're performing; do you feel like there was a time in your life when you were younger that you finally understood that honesty actually helps in your writing?
So I think there were a lot of things that were happening in childhood that I had a really hard time processing on my own, and so in my poetry, I felt like I was expressing these feelings and I was saying something without saying something. And I still think that that was very powerful, and I look back on these pieces and I . . . I think I started being really honest on stage once I was able to process things in therapy. For instance, one of my favorite pieces that, if I'm able to share, I would love to . . .
Mary-Peyton Crook 21:57
. . . I talk about something that happened [that was] really hard, after I came out to my family. And this is now eight years ago, and I had only shared it for the first time this year. It was in February.
Mary-Peyton Crook 22:12
It was really scary getting on stage with it, because, prior to that, most of my friends had no idea. It's not something that I talk about. But after that, being able to be honest, not only with myself, and relinquishing blame and just saying, "This is what happened and these were my emotions," being held by that audience and being appreciated, even with people that don't have that shared experience, honestly propelled me to get more raw on stage. But it definitely took a really long time processing those feelings on my own.
Mary-Peyton Crook 22:47
That's wonderful. It sounds like being on stage and having that moment and having people react positively and kindly and with gratitude when you're sharing those stories is almost like the opposite of what can be really traumatizing in life, [which] is when you're expressing yourself and what you need and people respond negatively to that. That just is such a beautiful . . . it sounds like it's such a beautiful full-circle moment to come to that and realize that you can help other people through being that honest, even if it's hard to do.
I remember after I performed it for the first time, there was this lady who was kind of in the front row, and after I got off stage, she pulled me and she was like, "Can I give you a hug?" and just embraced me so tightly. And it was someone that I don't know, and someone that does not share that experience. Being validated and [told], "It's okay that this hurt," made it not hurt as much anymore. It was a very healing process. It feels really special to be able to share something that was buried deep for a very long time. And then in conjunction with seeing other queer people in the audience when I share that story . . . I know that they know. I know that they know, and they feel it as well.
Mary-Peyton Crook 24:04
That's so beautiful. I love . . . you know, I think about how much I love writing and reading and books and poetry all the time, and it's for moments like that, that really solidify how magical writing and communicating with each other can be. That's the whole point there.
I would say poetry is for everyone. And above that I think poetry and sharing spoken word is a revolutionary act.
Mary-Peyton Crook 24:35
Especially . . . I'm so excited to go to nationals. It's called the Southern Fried Poetry Festival. I feel like that is such a revolutionary space that all of these people, and above that, queer folk in the South, are coming together to storytell with one another. I think that that is a revolutionary act. I think it's an act of rebellion being able to connect in a community, because I feel there's an emphasis on being an individual and doing things solely by yourself. And I don't think that that is a way to heal. I think that we heal together in a community and lift each other up.
I think that even if you are in the audience, there's just so much love in the room. It's such a healing experience of like, even if you're not getting on stage, feeling fulfilled in the art that you have heard and knowing that you were able to hold someone, whether or not you went up and spoke to them. It's a beautiful thing. I think that poetry saves lives; especially in the spoken word community, a lot of times we're talking about really niche, taboo things, and saying that it is okay to talk about them, and feeling not alone when someone shares it or you share it and someone gives you those good snaps! I feel like it removes you from isolation in a way, being able to share experiences.
Mary-Peyton Crook 25:56
Would you be willing to share with us a piece of your poetry?
I would love to. I'm gonna flip through my little journal really quick.
This poem is titled "Mirror".
When I was a child,
my mother and sister, seven years my senior,
would sit me down on my childhood home’s porch
and beg me to use my angry voice.
to get mad at my tormentors in grade school.
but little did they know,
that the bully who would truly bend me
until my spinal cord folded
had at one point lived in our house.
And that even as a teenager,
I still hadn’t found the angry voice in me to talk back–
to tell that middle aged black boy
that the privilege he chewed up and spit in my face
made his breath smell
like that of a deadbeat uncle
rather than a father of two black women–
one he would disown at 15 for being transexual.
outside of a Starbucks
that I can’t bare to step foot in again,
drinking black coffee that would claw its way up my gullet
every time someone would express care towards me,
and I would feel the decade old caffein high
every time I felt that bittersweet abandonment again.
Ironic to now know,
that I was raised by a raging narcissist,
destined to become his warped reflection,
yet I left home a shattered mirror,
and promised to never harm someone the same way,
whilst piercing the skin of every soul
that attempted to scoop my fragments
into uncalloused palms
and I told each of them
not to look too closely,
as they would only witness the worst of themselves staring back at them.
I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder
in February of 2020,
five years after he promised to pray for me
but I gather that his words weren’t holy enough for God.
Though he cries he is a christian man,
I guess he believes that thou shalt love thy neighbor,
but not thy children
that you should not pass judgment
unless it’s to shove his youngest child into a box
where their pieces would just never fit.
That if he did not like what he saw in the mirror,
he should shove his fist through it.
A few years back,
I had a spiritual awakening
and cried so hard that the breathless silence resonated off the walls of my church,
and felt inside me that my father
would die before I celebrated 20 years.
And the summer before my birthday,
he stumbled into a fire.
Barely survived but now walks around carrying the trauma on his now scorched skin,
and if my life were written by Toni Morrison,
then this would be symbolic.
And the flames that engulfed him,
were actually just my angry voice
and God had heard his hateful prayers and smited him
so that he could no longer avoid the mirror to hide from his sins.
I do not look much like him,
I have my mothers dutch facial features.
Yet I still sometimes contemplate my reflection for hours,
just to see him again.
And I realized that my eyes actually belong to this boy,
And we were witnessing the world through the same brown orbs.
And if I let reality slip through my fingertips
like polluted sand,
I could wave goodbye to his memory at any time.
And only hope he saw me looking back at him,
and his own mirror would begin to crack.
Episode transcribed by Mary-Peyton Crook
Christina Kann 00:24
Welcome to How Do I Book? by Wildling Press. We like to chat about book writing, book publishing, book marketing, and, of course, book reading. We're trying to help new and experienced authors develop their craft, widen their perspectives, and learn to get a little wild every once in a while. I'm Christina.
Grace Ball 00:41
Christina Kann 00:43
We are so excited because we have a very special guest with us today: Lucy Holland, author of Sistersong and the Worldmaker trilogy, host of Breaking the Glass Slipper, an intersectional feminist podcast celebrating women in genre fiction, and a pretty freakin cool person. Lucy, welcome to the show.
Lucy Holland 01:03
Thank you! That makes me seem cooler than I actually am. I'm really happy to be here.
Christina Kann 01:09
I just read facts. That's exactly how cool you are.
Lucy Holland 01:13
Well, thank you. It's really nice to be here, too.
Christina Kann 01:16
We are so excited to have you here. Before we move any further, please tell the listeners your pronouns.
Lucy Holland 01:22
She or her.
Christina Kann 01:24
Awesome. Thank you so much. We invited you on this podcast because last year, Grace and I both read Sistersong. Not to fan girl too hard, but I read 100 books last year, and it was my favorite book of the year.
Lucy Holland 01:43
Oh, wow. Okay! Thank you very much.
Christina Kann 01:49
I'll just let you tell the listeners a little bit about Sistersong, in case they haven't read it.
Lucy Holland 01:55
Sistersong is a reimagining of an old English murder ballad called "The Twa Sisters." It is also called "Bonny Swans," "Binnorie"; it has many names. It is basically the story of sibling rivalry. Two sisters fight over a man in the ballad. The older one kills the younger one, and the younger one gets made into a harp. It's usually a harp; sometimes she turns into a swan. But the version of the ballad that I heard first was when the sister gets made into a harp. That intrigued me so much that I wanted to do a retelling of it. So my retelling is set in sixth-century Britain. It restores and resituates the history of the stories of women in the period. At the same time as retelling the ballad, I thought it would be a really great opportunity to look at women in the period, and also marginalized identities in the period as well.
Christina Kann 02:56
It does such a wonderful job of all of those things. We read it with a book club that we're both a part of, and someone did share that legend. I'm the person where, when I'm reading, I can really turn off my critical brain. I'm just like, "Wow, what a cool story!" But other people were like, "This seems like it's based on something." But they were sure to say, "Don't read this if you don't want any spoilers." Reading the myth and then reading your story was a really cool thing.
Grace Ball 03:24
Yeah, I went into it in a similar way as you did, Christina. I'd never heard the myth or the ballad or anything. So I was along for the ride. Let me tell you, I had no idea what was coming.
Christina Kann 03:35
And what a ride it truly is. Yeah, it can be a bit of a shock if you're not expecting the -- the "thing." Read the book to learn more about what we're talking about.
Grace Ball 03:55
Lucy, you mentioned that you'd heard the ballad and the myth, but what actually inspired you about the ballad so much that you wanted to write this book?
Lucy Holland 04:06
I heard the ballad first by Loreena McKennitt, who is one of my favorite artists singers.
Christina Kann 04:13
Oh my gosh. I know her!
Lucy Holland 04:19
Wow, fangirl moment!
Christina Kann 04:23
Oh my god. Yes. I've watched her live concerts or whatever, her concerts on streaming. I love that so much.
Lucy Holland 04:32
I love meeting Loreena fans as well.
Christina Kann 04:34
She has Celtic Women energy, you know, like, very ethereal and timeless. I don't know. You'll just have to check it out for yourself.
Lucy Holland 04:50
I love Loreena's music and her version of "The Twa Sisters," which is called "The Bonny Swans." It's my favorite rendition of the ballad, and I've listened to quite a lot of them. There are many, many good versions out there. But Loreena's remains my favorite. I first heard it about, gosh, getting on for 10 years ago now. My colleague at work brought Loreena in one day and played it to me. From the first moment I heard it, I was intrigued by the weirdness of the story. The sibling rivalry is not weird; we see this quite a lot, especially jealous women. We often see tensions between siblings in ballads, but not at this extra level, which is this girl being dismembered and then made into a musical instrument. In the ballad, I just thought that was such a weird image, and also a powerful image, this heart that is made of bone that sings the story of what happened to her and condemns her sister. I just thought that was so so weird. But at the same time, because it is, after all, just a ballad, we don't really get a good idea of who these women were. We have no idea what really motivated them. They've become very stereotypical. On one hand, we have the evil older sister who is jealous and lustful and scheming. And on the other hand, we have the younger, chaste, virginal, innocent victim. And these two very different roles, our women often have to play them. We see them a lot in traditional folk ballads and throughout stories. It's why it's one of the reasons why I feel like women's stories are important, because we just don't get to hear them actually speak authentically. They all too often fall into these very broad, very tropey, very stereotypical roles. So I wanted to get behind the ballad and find out what really happened.
Christina Kann 07:01
And you did a wonderful job! Teading this, I felt so much for Riva the whole time. I didn't necessarily support her actions, her positions, but I really understood where she was coming from. And Sinne as well. It is pronounced like that? "Sinnuh"?
Lucy Holland 07:17
I mean, you can pronounce it however. I just made it up. It was the one name in the book that I literally made up.
Christina Kann 07:28
Sistersong has three siblings in it. Is the eldest sibling part of the original ballad?
Lucy Holland 07:38
In lots of versions of the ballad, there are two sisters. And it is called "The Twa Sisters," two sisters. Loreena's version was, I think, adapted from James Child, who was a folklorist in the Victorian age. He collected about 10 or 11 variations of the same ballad. But a couple of those variations have a third sibling in there. This third sibling is mentioned in the first verse, and then totally disappears from the rest of the story. This was another one of the reasons why I wanted to retell or reimagine the ballad: I was so intrigued as to why there was a third sibling, and they just didn't do anything, and they didn't feature in the story. That was fascinating. I will talk about this a bit later, but it was the idea of erasure, and how some people are erased from history, and why are they erased from history? What was it about their identities that the dominant narrative has overridden? So that is a really big part of Sistersong as well.
Christina Kann 08:46
How did you conduct your research? I know that you said you read like, a million different versions of this ballad, but what other kind of worldbuilding research did you do for this?
Lucy Holland 08:56
My first idea was to write it as a secondary-world fantasy novel, which is where I came from, because I've also written epic fantasy. And then I felt like I wanted to grow a bit as a writer, and I also thought it might be really interesting to choose a real time period in which to set the story. But I obviously hadn't decided which one that would be. I don't even know how it happened. I just got really interested in very early medieval Britain. The great thing about this time period is that there's not a lot of information about it, which can be a boon because it means you can slot your story in there.
Christina Kann 09:45
Right, it's hard for historians, but it's good for writers.
Lucy Holland 09:49
Exactly. Once I'd settled on the period, I started doing research. The internet is an amazing, amazing resource, particularly things like local archaeology sites by amateur archaeologists. Sistersong is set right here where I live in Sidmouth in Devon. So it's set really right here, and in Dunbriga, which is the main settlement in Sistersong, where all the siblings live. That was inspired by, about a mile and a half from my house, up on Peak Hill, they discovered the remains of the Neolithic settlement. On top of the Neolithic settlement were sub-Roman remains, which date exactly to the time when Sistersong is set. So conceivably, there could have been a Dumnoni settlement up there. The Dumnoni tribe controlled this area of Devon in the sixth century AD, and they were kind of itinerant; they moved their capital around the area, and this conceivably could have been one of the places that they had their capital. So I was really interested.
Christina Kann 10:59
That's so cool! And you can just walk there easily in like under an hour. Oh, my God, that is so cool. I have chills right now.
Grace Ball 11:12
Lucy Holland 11:13
So that was part of my research. I went up there and stood on the hill. And there's nothing there. It's just a hill. And there's a bit of information. But I had a look at the cliffs. You're right on the cliffs. On one side, you're looking out across the ocean. And the other side, it's forest and fields. And I just went up there, I came back down, and I did some stream-of-consciousness writing to try and get the feel of what this location was like at the edge of the world, because that's kind of what it feels like for the characters.
Christina Kann 11:45
Oh my god. Wow. So cool.
Grace Ball 11:49
So you're obviously very versed in the fantasy genre. So what's the importance of the fantasy elements in Sistersong?
Lucy Holland 12:00
The magic in the book is chiefly the means of articulating one of the central narrative tensions, which is the conflict between Christianity and the established paganism of the native Britons. That came slightly later in the novel process, and it really came from me reading about Gildas. Gildas is pretty much one of the only contemporary sources we have from this period. His treatise on the ruin and conquest of Britain is not so much a history as a rant. He's very angry, angry man, and he rants a lot about the state of Britain, how the Saxons are the natives' punishment for not being very pious and not embracing Christianity as they should. He had a very big rant about Constantine, one of the British kings, as well as another four British kings. In fact, he devotes one entire half of this tract to insulting them and calling them all sorts of names. I thought he would make a great character because of that.
Christina Kann 13:24
He probably didn't realize how much he was discrediting himself by being so violently opinionated.
Lucy Holland 13:31
So opinionated! I'm sorry, Gildas, you're 1500 years dead, but you're a character now. The other part of the magic was also a vehicle to illustrate the bond between the king and the land, which is another really big theme in Sistersong. Obviously, it showed the disastrous consequences of forsaking the bond we have with the land. A reader pointed out to me later -- and this shows how everything is subconscious -- they were like, "Oh, it's more relevant than ever," because we live in the era of climate change, where humans are basically shitting all over the world in which we live, which nourishes us. This is more relevant than ever, that we recover what was lost. I feel like it's very important to remember that we are the world and the world is us; we come from the world, and we come from the Earth, and to the Earth we return, and that kind of cyclical nature.
Paganism includes the idea of living as one with the seasons -- like the sun, the moon, the stars, the earth itself. These elements were so important to the native Britons, early practitioners of paganism, across a whole region. That was really, really intriguing for me to dig into too, and that again feeds into the encroaching Christianity and how that was not always a good thing. People who preached Christianity thought they were saving the natives. And native Britons were like, "Well, hang on a second! We've already got our own beliefs." And they possibly didn't sit very well together.
Christina Kann 15:24
That kind of answered our next question about how you balance fantasy with historical facts. It seems like a lot of the fantasy came from things that were inspired or directly connected to historical facts. Do you have anything else to add to that?
Lucy Holland 15:38
The facts are so scarce or contradictory. As I mentioned before, it's a really interesting period to set a story in. This carries over with the rest of my work that I'm still doing with this time period. I'm really interested in the line where history becomes myth, and you can't begin to distinguish between the two of them. A perfect example of this is the Arthurian legend. This time period is basically squarely in Arthur's time. I was quite careful not to belabor anything, because the Arthurian myth is so powerful, if you let it into your story, it can overtake what you want to say. So I was quite careful not to make too many references to that. But the Legend of Arthur is so powerful that multiple nations have adopted it as part of their country's cultural narrative. That began with Geoffrey of Monmouth in this country, and but it's amazing how powerful it became.
This is a little like mini anecdote. I went to Glastonbury Abbey a few months ago to do some research. The history of the abbey is really interesting. At one point in the 12th century, I think, there was a big disaster, some of the abbey crumbled, and they ran out of money. And amazingly, soon after that, the monks were digging in the gardens, and they unearthed these amazing skeletons. And the skeleton was a grant of a grand man and a beautiful -- well, as much as a skeleton can be beautiful -- and delicate skeleton lying beside him. They decided that these were obviously the bones of Arthur and Guinevere themselves, lying in Glastonbury all this time, amazingly! These people have no proof that they actually lived. They're mostly just a folk story. But it was such a big deal that the bones were removed, and they were reburied in this lavish ceremony that Edward I came and attended in the beginning of like the 1300s or so. Obviously the abbey needed money, and lots of people came and donated money. The fact is that the Arthurian legend is not history, it's not fact. But it's so strong and so powerful. People want to believe it. It's part of the fabric of Britain now.
Christina Kann 18:19
I think most cultures have those stories that are not proven or patently false. I'm thinking about here in America, some of the super false historical narratives we get taught in elementary school.
Grace Ball 18:34
Yeah, absolutely. Getting to the actual characters in the book, how did you conceptualize the three siblings? How are their similarities and differences important?
Lucy Holland 18:49
With Riva and Sinna, who are the sisters -- the two sisters of the ballad title -- I began by using their basic characters, just how are they described in the ballad, identified those traits, and then explored why each sister might have those traits. This is all part of trying to make them less stereotypical. You know, there's always two -- or in this case, three -- sides to every story. For example, the bitterness in Riva; she is described as bitter in some of the ballads, she's jealous. There's obviously a darkness in her, and I wanted to think about that and how it could be more nuanced. And Riva had a really tough hand. She had a terrible accident when she was young. It's left her with disabilities, and she's shunned in some respects by the people around her. They don't like how she looks, how her injuries have made her look. They've made her feel like she's not ascribing to the perfection that a young princess has to ascribe to. I thought that there's got to be a reason for this seed of this jealousy. Where did it come from? And with her, I thought, it's got to come from somewhere.
Christina Kann 20:32
Very real trauma.
Lucy Holland 20:34
I mean, it's physical trauma, and then it's mental trauma and emotional trauma from having to live in a society with such strict gender roles and assumptions about how women should look and what women should do. And then on the other side, we have the innocence of Sinna, who is the younger sister, who is always described as the wronged character, the victim. She didn't do anything wrong, her only crime is to be beautiful, all of this stuff. For me, that ended up becoming the immaturity of a slightly spoiled child, who was the youngest, she'd been given everything she always wanted. She didn't have Riva's problems and her difficulties. She chafes against -- like all the siblings do -- they chafe against the rules of their society and the bones of the cage that they're locked in.
Christina Kann 21:31
So to speak.
Lucy Holland 21:35
Yeah, so that's where I began with that, trying to dig down past, "You're lustful and jealous; you're chaste and innocent." I wanted to find out what traits those actually were, where they came from. For Keyne -- or Constantin --
Christina Kann 22:04
We've been ducking around his character because I don't want to spoil anything, but he makes it pretty clear on like, page three that he is trans. There's not really ever any question about it. So it's not really a spoiler.
Lucy Holland 22:19
No, no. And Sistersong was published in the UK in April 2021. My God, almost two years ago.
Christina Kann 22:29
Lucy Holland 22:30
I just don't know where the time has gone. Yeah, I'm just gonna call him Constantine. Hey, spoiler, Constantine is his name by the end of the story. Constantin is a little bit more complicated, because this is the person who was missing from the ballad. And it's a difficult one, because a lot of people say that he is the main character of Sistersong.
Christina Kann 23:09
I totally agree.
Lucy Holland 23:10
Yeah, I would agree as well. But the irony is that he's still invisible in the ballad, because the ballad is a binary song. It's actually a horrible song that I do recreate in Sistersong. It is a horrible song. And it doesn't tell the truth. It's literally just about a murder. It's not fair. It doesn't portray either of the women in truthful, or at least in three dimensional, terms.
I wanted to echo the fact that Constantin is not part of that. He belongs to a better world, a world that is forward thinking, forward looking, that is embracing every different identity. It's not prescribing to people all the roles that we should play when we're just children. It was a journey of discovery, because I'm cisgender. I don't share Constantine's life experience. So it was a journey getting to know him and figuring out how I could tell his story. I did my own bits of research for that. I have a couple of friends who were very, very helpful early on in the book, and he was so kind to share their insights. My sensitivity reader, she's wonderful. She's a transgender historian. I learned an absolute ton. Some of the transgender history in the book wouldn't be the same without her insights. So I was so lucky to find her and so so happy that she agreed to sensitivity read for me.
But yeah, I suppose, obviously, Constantine was my favorite character to write, because it's wonderful, right? It's wonderful writing any sort of human being who discovers themselves and blossoms and fights and achieves what we all deserve, which is to be ourselves and to be recognized as who we are and lauded and respected for who we are. So that was very close to my heart. It was really wonderful to go along the journey with him.
Christina Kann 25:28
During his story, particularly in the third act, I was just weeping. I was nannying when I was reading it, and I was like, "I hope they don't come home and find me just like blathering on their couch." Because it's hard to explain to people who don't read, "Sorry, this book is just really affecting me right now."
Lucy Holland 25:50
Thank you. The extra theme running through the whole book is that it's the power of stories. The fact that we like to tell stories, and stories have a life of their own. They outlive us by thousands of years, and they always will. But, you know, their stories have power. And it depends who's telling the story, as to what survives throughout the years. It's really important to reclaim our stories. It's important for women to reclaim their stories. It's important for marginalized people to say, "We lived in this time period. We have always been here." Kameron Hurley's essay "We Have Always Fought," I love it. I love "We Have Always Fought," this idea that women have always been warriors. We've been here. It's only the dominant narrative has overridden the roles and the very existence of people who've always existed. So that idea of reclaiming stories, reclaiming identities, reclaiming the truth of ourselves in the world is at the heart of Sistersong.
Christina Kann 27:08
Amazing. So is Constantine your favorite of the three siblings in this book?
Lucy Holland 27:15
I mean, it would be a lie to say no. He's definitely my favorite. But because I feel like she she's probably the least liked of the siblings, I always like to give a shoutout for Riva, because she is dealt a really tough hand. And like Constantine, she really struggles with being different in a very unaccepting and intolerant world. And she chooses to defy tradition. She trusts her instincts. And even though everyone tells her that those instincts are monstrous, she sees it through. She sees her choices through to the end, and that takes integrity. And it takes self belief. So I feel like giving her a bit of a shoutout.
Grace Ball 28:09
Christina Kann 28:11
She follows through on her choices way farther than I would ever have a dreamed. That was very shocking. No spoilers, but the end of her story really shocked me, which is cool. I love when a book just really catches me by surprise.
Grace Ball 28:31
So on the flip side of your favorite characters, which character did you hate the most?
Lucy Holland 28:39
It would be easy to say Gildas, but I think he's a love-to-hate character. I so enjoyed writing him. I loved coming up with the image of him gliding around as a kind of carrion bird. I thought he was actually really enjoyable to develop as a character because he's so he's such a great antagonist and a great foil to Myrdhin. They kind of play off one against the other.
Grace Ball 29:16
I liked that dynamic a lot.
Lucy Holland 29:18
They were great rivals across the board. I don't know. I actually think the most horrible characters are like the kings and lords who are just so intolerant. Even when Constantine is standing in front of them saying, "I am king. It's my right. I am your lord. I'm going to give my all to preserve our people's lives and our traditions," they're still going, "This is wrong. You're a woman," and trotting out that level of ignorance is in a way more dangerous than Gildas's active defiance. In a way is a defiant ignorance. "No, this is the way it's always been, and I'm continued going to continue to behave like you don't exist and you haven't changed anything." Unfortunately, it's that kind of character that we see a lot in the people around us. It's a really horrible thing to say, but you know, they're out there. They're exemplified by those lords who cling to what they know.
Christina Kann 30:41
Yeah, I think for similar reasons, I also had a really hard time with the mom. The unwillingness. You're making changes in the wrong direction with this Christianity thing, girl. Come on.
Lucy Holland 30:58
She's not a lovable mom. Definitely not a lovable mom.
Christina Kann 31:04
Yeah, she's cold. And that one scene with Constantine and the clothes was awful.
Lucy Holland 31:10
Yeah, that was not a nice scene to write.
Christina Kann 31:13
Lucy Holland 31:15
That was really an unpleasant scene. I think I actually ended up toning it down slightly. I think the first version was just a bit worse. It was physically painful for me to write this. I think I made her a bit more sympathetic as well, in the sense that she knows she's done wrong. She knows what she's done is wrong, and I'm not sure if she was quite so sympathetic before then. But I thought it was important to know that she has this internal struggle, that there is a voice in her saying, "I don't think what you're doing is a good thing." That was important to have, because I think every character has to have a little degree of sympathy and also a bit of nuance. But ultimately, she is a headstrong person who sticks to her beliefs to the detriment of those around her.
Christina Kann 32:14
Yeah, absolutely. You touched on this earlier, but I definitely want to drive this home considering that this is Women's History Month. Why is writing history from women's perspectives important?
Lucy Holland 32:26
I mentioned the need to challenge the dominant narrative already is really important. We're going through this amazing, like, a renaissance. It's this wonderful movement with reclamation of women's voices in established epics, stories, we think we know. I know everyone's doing Greek myth at the moment, and actually, it's almost too much.
Christina Kann 32:56
Um, yes. We've read Ariadne, Circe. I know there's more than just those two, but those are the two that come to mind.
Lucy Holland 33:06
Yeah, there's like a dozen Persephone retellings, Medusa.
Christina Kann 33:10
People are very into the Persephone/Hades as like a sexy thing right now. There's a lot of it, but I'm still down.
Lucy Holland 33:20
I'm a massive Hadestown fan. So yeah, I'm really into that. But yeah, women's stories. Yeah, it's great. This is happening. It's really, really wonderful to see. And I think it's very important to say, "Hang on a second. Women are present in all of these stories." Like Penelope, Odysseus's wife, is obviously a named part. But in the original Odyssey, what does she do, but remain as a shadow figure far away? And when we do get to meet her, she's not had the best of times. She's never given any kind of chance to say what's actually been happening from her point of view.
Christina Kann 34:04
If you think about the strength she must have had all that time, not knowing anything about her husband. And the tapestry! Isn't it that she unravels every night to try and keep the suitors at bay?
Lucy Holland 34:18
It's like Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights.
Christina Kann 34:24
It's like exactly like One Thousand and One Nights!
Lucy Holland 34:26
Yeah, she's obviously very clever. She's come up with this plan, but it's awful because it's also a plan born of desperation, because her husband's off somewhere and might never return. I love that we're getting these stories. I love that these these women are like, "Hang on a second. We've always been here." It's not only important, but it's also extremely entertaining and vital. I just love reading their stories. It's not just like, "This is something that must be done so we can have a broad understanding of women's stories." They are exciting stories. I want to see women on the page; I want to see mothers especially on the page. Mothers have always been a group of people who are unfairly dismissed in so many great mythological tales. Grendel's mother from Beowulf is a wonderful character, but does she have any time to shine? She almost defeats Beowulf himself, and this is the great undefeatable warrior. And in the end, she's just slaughtered, so it's kind of frustrating. But here was a great character; you could have done so much more with her.
Grace Ball 35:51
Do you have any advice for people who are interested in writing historical fiction?
Lucy Holland 35:58
I suppose I'd say read some historical fiction.
Grace Ball 36:02
That's a great start.
Christina Kann 36:03
That is a very good start.
Lucy Holland 36:04
I don't actually read that much historical fiction. I know it's bad. I should read more historical fiction. I tend to read a lot of speculative fiction, because it's my genre. Breaking the Glass Slipper is mostly focused on women in speculative fiction. It's interesting, because I'm trying to develop a workshop at the moment that looks at cross genre writing, specifically historical fiction and fantasy, and how to weave these two genres together, and how they complement each other. So it's difficult to talk about advice for specifically historical fiction.
I think the exciting stuff that I've watched and things that have excited me is like looking into my local area. Wikipedia gives quite a broad sweep of what's been going on, but you don't really get the interesting details that you get on a local historical level, things like visiting the Abbey and hearing the stories about Gweneviere and Arthur; finding out that Peak Hill, a mile from my house, had a settlement there. You can't, say, type in "sub-Roman Britain" and Google will say, "Oh, there was a sub-Roman British settlement in Devon!" You just can't find out that sort of stuff on these broad Google searches. Rather than starting from a very broad place, how about you start from a very narrow place and expand outward? Because I learned a lot about the Saxon invasion just from focusing on how Devon changed how Dumnonia, this area where I live right now, how it evolved from the departure of the Romans, through to the invasion of the Saxons, and that really turbulent liminal period. It was vying for power; it was also the birth of the country. But all of that came from a very local angle. What was happening right here, where I live on this soil? What impressions have those kind of cataclysmic events left behind? I feel like that's a nice way to get into it.
Christina Kann 36:27
Yeah, that's awesome. Probably makes the story you're telling so much more important to you because it hits close to home. It super literally does. I guess that's where the expression comes from. Is there anything else you'd like to say about Sistersong or about women's history in fiction in general?
Lucy Holland 39:08
I feel like I've talked for ages. I feel like I've covered quite a lot of what I wanted to say. It is a serious book, I suppose it is a serious book. But I also hope that it's -- I hate to use the word "entertaining," but it also is a fun story to read. It's got characters you come to care about and maybe leads some people to have a Wikipedia page open at the same time and learn a little bit about history as you go along. That's the best thing, when you open a book and you're like, "Oh my god, this is made me interested to find out what else was going on at the time because I didn't know anything!" That's a wonderful thing when you can enjoy a book but it also makes you think about like the wider concerns.
Grace Ball 40:00
A bit of a selfish question. Are you working on any other book projects right now that we can be looking out for? Because we definitely are.
Lucy Holland 40:12
The next book is waiting to be edited. Actually, it's taken me two years to write it. It's been through a rewrite. And I'm now waiting on the verdict. So let's hope it's -- fingers crossed -- a bit more book-shaped than it was the first time. Don't ever say you can write a book in seven months. Especially when you only have a 50-word concept. You haven't sat down and asked yourself, what do you really want to do with that concept?
Christina Kann 40:51
Writing a book idea and writing a book could not be more different things.
Lucy Holland 40:55
Yeah. It's very different. And it's been the most challenging thing I've ever written. Sistersong benefited from a lot of fallow time, because I couldn't write Sistersong when I first had the idea for Sistersong. I was working on my trilogy.
Christina Kann 41:12
Lucy Holland 41:15
Yeah, it sat on the back burner for four years or so, and I never forgot about it. But I think that time allowed me to mature as a writer, so by the time I started writing Sistersong, I had the skills to write it, which I wouldn't have had before.
Christina Kann 41:32
Oh, my god, that's so cool.
Lucy Holland 41:34
It is really interesting, especially in the context of my struggles with writing a loose followup. It's had no time. You know, the thing about publishing and the capitalist world in which we live: you feel like, "I've got to be relevant, I've got to keep writing fast, I've got to produce another book." But art doesn't really work like that. And ideas don't work like that. And a lot of thet really good stuff comes from just lying fallow in the back of your mind for an interminable amount of time -- not necessarily very long, but longer than I thought I could write the book in. But it's okay!
Grace Ball 42:22
You just take your time. We'll be here. Okay?
Lucy Holland 42:26
It's coming out next year. It should be here around spring, this time next year, in the US as well as in the UK. I think they're going to be out at the same time. It's called Song of the Huntress. You can read about it on Goodreads. That's the most up-to-date place. I've seen the UK cover. It's amazing. I can't share it yet because it's not finished. They're still tweaking, but it's an amazing, amazing cover. And it retells the story of the Wild Hunt which is a motif that lots of people have probably heard of. The story is just really really fascinating. Actually, because you've read Sistersong, you'll know that Constantine tells the story of Herla and the Wild Hunt in as a mini story.
Christina Kann 43:16
Oh my God. Constantine knew what was gonna happen next all along.
Grace Ball 43:22
We should have known
Lucy Holland 43:24
Actually, that was what gave me the idea. I was retelling the story as Constantin was telling it, and I was like, "This would make a great novel. Maybe I should do this next!"
Christina Kann 43:34
Thanks for the idea, Constantine! Right, I've read a couple of different books about that. It never goes well.
Lucy Holland 43:35
I did do it next. But my my King Herla is not an old British king. My King Herla -- she's actually a woman, for starters. She's an Iceni war chief fighting against the Romans. She's the lover of Boudicca. Yeah, she makes a pact with the king of the other world, which you should never do! You should never make pacts with the fae! It does not go well. You get cursed, and you become the Wild Hunt, and you have to ride eternally reaping souls.
Grace Ball 44:17
Tale as old as time.
Lucy Holland 44:18
So if you don't want to become an immortal reaper, don't do that. Yeah, I love the story of Herla. I love the story of the Wild Hunt, the incarnation of the Wild Hunt, and all of the mythology that goes along with it. And I also wanted to write another historical novel, so this one is even more historical than Sistersong. I think if I redid it -- I wouldn't want to -- but I would want more history. There's few things, a few mistakes I made. I'm a bit better informed now about the period and how things worked. And this this book is set in around 705 AD, so about 175, 180 years after Sistersong, but it's in the same world. If you've read Sistersong, there'll be some Easter eggs in there. The biggest easter egg is that one of the main characters is the direct descendant of Riva.
Christina Kann 45:25
Ah, that's very exciting.
Grace Ball 45:27
I'm really excited.
Christina Kann 45:28
I can't wait to read that. That's amazing. Awesome. Are you reading anything yourself lately that you're excited about?
Lucy Holland 45:35
I am reading this book! *shows in Zoom* It's Sam Shannon's book. It's the prequel to The Priory of the Orange Tree.
Christina Kann 45:51
The cover has a similar tone.
Lucy Holland 45:56
Have you seen how long it is?
Grace Ball 45:57
Wow. That's a chonk.
Christina Kann 45:59
That's like Order of the Phoenix. That's a chunky one.
Lucy Holland 46:03
It's so impossible to read when you're lying in bed.
Grace Ball 46:10
Christina Kann 46:11
Drop it on your face. Knock yourself unconscious.
Lucy Holland 46:15
It's really good. I'm really enjoying it. I'm interviewing Samantha Shannon, the author, in a week's time in Cornwall. I think she is in the US at the moment doing her US leg of the tour for the book, but I'm gonna meet up with her in Cornwall, so I get to talk to her about it. It's really good. It's really good.
Christina Kann 46:36
I'm excited for you. Because, you know, it's fun to meet the authors you love.
Grace Ball 46:41
Yeah. We're doing it! It's happening right now.
Lucy Holland 46:43
That's very sweet.
Christina Kann 46:46
Lucy, where can people find you on the internet if they want to connect with you?
Lucy Holland 46:50
I am on Instagram mostly. That's my platform of choice. I am on Twitter as well, which is now less my platform of choice. I'm the same handle. I'm @silvanhistorian. "Sylvan" with an I, not a Y, because some other person stole the Y. So I'm @silvanhistorian everywhere. I have a Patreon if you like my work so much that you'd like to pay me some money to carry on writing every month. I post extra stuff about the books and behind the scenes things and research. So if you're into that, then check out my Patreon.
Christina Kann 47:39
Lucy, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today. It's been a delightful conversation.
Lucy Holland 47:47
Oh, it's been so fun. I don't get to talk about Sistersong as much as I did a year ago, so it's lovely to carry on revisiting the book.
Christina Kann 47:56
I just love that throughout this conversation, we've been able to really feel your passion, and that's really awesome, having read it and felt the passion through the words and you obviously put so much of yourself into it. Thank you for writing it.
Grace Ball 48:09
Lucy Holland 48:10
Thank you for reading it!
Christina Kann 48:14
And that's how you book.
Join us for a chat with C.K. Fullerton as we talk about all things romance: how she got into the genre, her tips and tricks for writing in the genre effectively, book recommendations, and more!
Grace Ball 00:23
I'm so excited today because Mike and I are joined by Wildling's very own C.K. Fullerton, author of the upcoming Blood and Brujeria.
C.K. Fullerton 00:54
Hi, I'm so excited to be here.
Michael Hardison 00:56
Yeah, we're definitely happy to have you here. Thanks for joining us.
Grace Ball 00:59
Thank you so much for coming on the pod today. Okay, first things first, what are your pronouns?
C.K. Fullerton 01:05
She and her.
Grace Ball 01:06
Awesome. Well, Happy Valentine's Day, everybody. We asked C.K. to come on the show on this particular day of love because we want to talk about romance baby. We consider C.K. to be an expert on the romance genre, so we want to pick her brain a bit. But before we get into it, C.K., do you want to tell the listeners a little about your book and how you got started writing in general?
C.K. Fullerton 01:37
Yeah, definitely. Blood and Brujeria: In the Shadows is the first book of three. And it's a paranormal urban romance about a half witch half vampire named Cassandra, who comes from a family of vampire slayers that protect the city of San Diego. And while she's out slaying vampires, she discovers an influx of all these new vampires coming into the city causing trouble. And so she works together with her friends to try and figure out where all these vampires are coming from. And on the way she rescues a troubled vampire named Landon, who ends up kind of being a part of the mystery, but not everything is as it seems with him. So the first installment of this book of the series features a plus size Chicana female lead, a diverse found family, lots of magic, and lots of unapologetic smut.
Grace Ball 02:26
Michael Hardison 02:27
Grace Ball 02:29
We are so excited about this book. I've had the pleasure of working with C.K. on it throughout production so far, and we're super excited about it. It's going to be awesome.
Michael Hardison 02:40
Yeah, even with the sneak peek that I got of it, it was just really exciting. I can't wait to read more of it.
Grace Ball 02:45
Yeah, C.K., I don't know if you know this, but Mike is actually the one who, like, acquired and like recommended your book to the rest of us.
C.K. Fullerton 02:53
Oh, how cool! I didn't know that. Well, thank you.
Michael Hardison 02:55
Yeah, that was me. It was one of my first like entrances into reading romance. And I've read a few before, but this one just really piqued my interest, because of the paranormal side of it too, just that combination was just, it was fun to be part of, and you know, dive into that world.
C.K. Fullerton 03:10
Awesome. Yeah, and I feel like the genre is really exploding right now. So I consider like paranormal romance to be a subgenre of fantasy romance. And in general, it's just having a huge upsurge. You know, one of the reasons I got into writing again, I wrote when I was a teenager, and then kind of fell out of it in college. But during the pandemic, I rediscovered reading, like so many people, and I used to love fantasy, YA fantasy, and then I discovered fantasy romance. I was like, oh my god, this is like the adult version of what I loved as a teenager. But these characters are dealing with things that I deal with, you know, and so I got to still get my fix of escapism with fantasy, and it was like going into a new world, but also it was for an adult. So I actually related to the characters because when I would read YA as a thirty-year-old woman, it was like, it wasn't really hitting the same way because my life changed. So that was really what inspired me to get involved in the genre as well.
Grace Ball 04:11
That's so cool. So you said you did some writing in like high school?
C.K. Fullerton 04:14
Grace Ball 04:15
What kind of stuff would you write?
C.K. Fullerton 04:18
Still paranormal. I mean, I was a huge Anne Rice nerd, so lots of witches, lots of vampires. Some of the stuff I read back, I'm like, that was Anne Rice fanfiction. I read like so many fantasy romance novels in 2020 and 2021. Like once I got into it, I was like I'm gonna just immerse myself, and I read like, probably forty books in two months. Like it was like really intense. And like a book a day sometimes. Yeah, and then not all of them were great. Like I feel like I went from like the really top tier down into like, some of the stuff that was not so great. And that's when I went you know, I could . . .
Grace Ball 04:55
Kind of spiraled
C.K. Fullerton 04:55
Yeah, I was like, I could probably write something, and like I want to because I'm running out of good stuff. So I really wrote it because I was like, I am at a loss here like I'm, I haven't found anything good. I think it was like I read like, probably four or five just really bad books back-to-back, and then I was like, okay, I'm gonna do something about this.
Grace Ball 05:15
C.K. write the book you want to see in the world, am I right?
C.K. Fullerton 05:18
Exactly. Yeah, and then you know the other thing too is that so many of the books I was reading were really focused on white characters. There are not a lot of brown vampires out there. And then not a lot of like representation in the genre, and then plus sized characters as well. I feel like, even if there is that representation, it's still in kind of, sometimes a fatphobic lens, where we're still kind of focused on their body size, almost like hyper-focused.
Grace Ball 05:49
Yeah, that's so true. And I feel like that comes up a lot in the romance genre, just as like an issue, because, you know, there is so much body description.
C.K. Fullerton 05:59
There is and it can be so unrealistic as well.
Grace Ball 06:03
Yeah, that is so true. So, you said that you read just an insane amount of books, particularly during the pandemic, were they all sort of romance related?
C.K. Fullerton 06:15
Yeah, I like kind of hyper-focused on fantasy romance right at the beginning of my reading journey. Now, I've really gotten into contemporary romance as well.
Grace Ball 06:24
Do you have any recommendations?
C.K. Fullerton 06:25
Oh, yes, I wrote them down. For contemporary romance, anything by Emily Henry, like she deserves all the hype she's getting on social media. I'm so glad they're making a movie out of one of her books. And like they're just all fantastic. Great romance, but also just wonderful, like character development. And she's just really smart and her characters have really great voices. So I love her. I also really enjoyed It Happened One Summer by Tessa Bailey. Really good dirty talk in that one, if that's what you're into.
Grace Ball 06:58
C.K. Fullerton 06:59
And then, Set on You by Amy Lea has great plus size representation. Delilah Green Doesn't Care is a super cute sapphic romance, if you're looking for that, that female/female. And then from the fantasy romance perspective, I really love Scarlett St. Clair's Hades X Persephone series. Also, we can't talk about fantasy romance without mentioning the queen, Sarah J. Maas.
Grace Ball 06:59
C.K. Fullerton 07:01
She's popular for a reason. They are really good. The hype is true. Crescent City is like one of my all time favorite books. So you really can't go wrong with those.
Grace Ball 07:35
Do you think that's a good place to start for anyone who's wanting to get into the genre?
C.K. Fullerton 07:40
I would actually recommend Scarlett St. Clair's Hades X Persephone series to start, or "The Bridge Kingdom" series by Danielle Jensen. They're just not so long. So with Sarah J. Maas, they get really long and there's a lot of them, so that one's an investment. So if you know you really like the genre, after you kind of do some of these smaller series, then you can really dive into those books. Because, you know, buying books is expensive. I mean, I'm a library person. So that's, that's great, too.
Grace Ball 08:00
Oh my gosh, that reminds me that we also have to wish, in addition to Valentine's Day, wish everyone a happy Library Lovers Day. Because that's what today is too!
C.K. Fullerton 08:22
That's so cool!
Michael Hardison 08:23
I'll celebrate that one. That's a single one. I'll celebrate Library Day. I love the library!
C.K. Fullerton 08:30
Me too! Thank god I have a library because I would have gone broke reading all those books.
Grace Ball 08:37
We love our libraries. So with writing romance, there's probably a particular approach to this genre. It sounds like maybe you've written just mostly in this genre, but how would you say that it might be different from writing in another genre, if that makes sense?
C.K. Fullerton 08:55
Yeah. I think that, you know, falling in love takes a particular kind of self-awareness and some compromise and empathy. And so I think if you're going to write about that experience, as an author, you really have to be able to dive into that. And so you really need to come from an empathetic place, you've got to dive into your characters' thoughts, their emotion, and really look at your characters' personal grow, because usually they need to do some sort of growth in order to make a relationship work. And so you can build the most complex world with like, epic fantasy, like, you know, this great world building, but if you are not rooting that love story in some very familiar human experiences, it's just not going to click. So I think that's the biggest aspect of it, and that I see across the whole genre--contemporary fantasy, paranormal--and that's one of the things I really love about it is that it does have this very human aspect to it no matter if you're on a planet with blue aliens, like you still have this very familiar experience that most people have had. And so I think that's the the thing to focus on.
Grace Ball 10:06
That's a great way to approach writing in the genre, because that's ultimately what people are looking for is to like see a human experience reflected in a story. And it's fun to have all these cool, different realms and settings, but I think you're right that people are looking to really read that human experience. So I love that. So when you are writing, are there any aspects particular to this genre that you find to be difficult? And if so, how do you meet those challenges when come up against them?
C.K. Fullerton 10:44
It's so funny, because, romance, of course, we're talking love, love scenes, sex scenes, and those were actually the hardest parts for me.
Grace Ball 10:52
C.K. Fullerton 10:53
Yeah, because you can just get so in your head about it, and you kind of have to let go of it feeling a little cringy sometimes. Particularly when you have characters like talking about being in love, it can feel very cliche and cheesy. But you want these heightened experiences and moments, you want it to feel climactic, you want it to really jump off the page. And so you've got to be able to go there and laugh at yourself and let go of the fact that some of the things that you're saying, maybe seem cheesy, but if it's rooted in the truth of the character and what they're feeling, and it makes sense, then it works. So to overcome that, definitely, I just let myself be playful with it. And part of that was I wouldn't read over anything that I had written while I was writing. So I was only allowed to go forward, I wasn't allowed to go backward until the scene was fully fleshed out. Because I felt like if I was in a good flow with it, whatever they were saying, or whatever was going down, it was meant to happen that way. And then I could go back and say, oh, that line didn't work, or does this physically make sense? Like, logistically, how are they doing this? But I will say it did help to have Grace as an editor because you did an amazing job of of being like, I don't think that they would say that or, like how, how is this happening? Which is one of my biggest complaints in romance in some of the sex scenes is like, I just don't understand, like, physically, I can't see it in my mind.
Grace Ball 12:25
Yeah, because you are visualizing.
C.K. Fullerton 12:28
Grace Ball 12:28
So if all of a sudden somebody's doing something crazy, you're like, well, I'm not sure exactly how we got from point A to point B.
C.K. Fullerton 12:36
Michael Hardison 12:38
That makes me think too, talking about the logistics of the scene and everything, and I wish I had pulled some up before we started this interview, but when you go back and read the excerpts people find of men writing women badly in romances.
C.K. Fullerton 12:51
Michael Hardison 12:52
That brings me so much joy to read how cringy those sections are, just like, you didn't go back and read that? Is the woman's body really shaped in a way that you can do that?
C.K. Fullerton 13:03
Michael Hardison 13:04
And it's so funny to me. You need to know what you're doing before you write it.
C.K. Fullerton 13:09
Some basic anatomy.
C.K. Fullerton 13:10
Yes. Yeah. And so like, I learned to really love writing those scenes, because once you build up the relationship, and it finally happens for your characters, it's so fun. But even as a super sex positive person, it's still like, kind of weird at first to actually put that down on paper.
Grace Ball 13:34
Well, you do a great job with it. I feel like I didn't really edit too many things in the spicier scenes of your book, because I was like, she nailed it. So on the flip side, what kind of brings you back? What makes you really, really excited about writing romance?
C.K. Fullerton 13:52
I think that the community of readers is the thing that inspires me the most, like everyone is usually just so welcoming and inclusive and excited about sharing different books. And throughout my writing journey, I've just found so many different little pockets of wonderful people that I can reach out to that are also writing. And I feel like a lot of people in the community felt the same way I do, where they didn't see the books that they wanted so they just started writing, which is super inspiring. And also I just love good banter. So I feel like that's one of the great tropes of romance is there's always some good back and forth. And so that's one of my favorite things to write. It just really like helps build that tension. And then those are the scenes that I hear in my head, where I can't keep up with the characters because it is just going and I'm just trying to type it as fast as I can. So that's where I get like the most excited.
Grace Ball 14:46
That's cool. So you mentioned that you talk to people in the community. What is like the most effective way you found to connect with other people because I'm sure that our listeners, you know, would be interested in hearing about any sort of groups or platforms that you that you're able to share?
C.K. Fullerton 15:04
Definitely, I really found going on Instagram, finding other people that are writing in my genre. So other like indie authors. And then a lot of them have Discord groups or are part of different Discord groups, and so if you message them and see what groups they're a part of. I'm part of a couple of different Discord groups. And we'll do writing sprints together on there. So that's been really helpful and really fun. And then you know, you hype each other's books up when they come out. And you're just kind of there to brainstorm with other people, even about like making reels, or marketing ideas, and how to use social media, kind of picking other people's brains that have already been doing it, too, has been really helpful. So I think Discord has been like the best platform for me personally in building those relationships.
Grace Ball 15:50
That's so cool. That's awesome. Alrighty, so what are some strategies you use to effectively build tension in a romance novel? I think, you know, you said, the banter is really important. How do you make that happen on the page?
C.K. Fullerton 16:00
I wish I could give like an a, b, and c to like how that happens. But honestly, like I said, the characters start talking in your head, for me, at least. And that's when like the best banter comes in. I think, of course, you need to set up a situation where there are obstacles for your characters, you can't really have sexual tension, if the characters have nothing stopping them from hooking up and seeing where it goes. So you have to have a very clear reason why these two people who are attracted to each other can't get together, or else it's just pointless. It doesn't make sense.
Grace Ball 16:41
C.K. Fullerton 16:41
I think, yeah, having that conflict, knowing what that is, having it be something that is a true obstacle, that isn't something that a reader would go like, really, that's the reason why they're not getting together? Like it's got to have higher stakes. And then I think that having a good idea of how the attraction started, and how it builds--kind of the middle of that tension--that is making it maybe go from a physical attraction to an emotional attraction. And then finally, knowing what the catalyst is going to be for them to overcome that obstacle. I think, you know, depending on how high stakes your obstacle is, your event that's going to make them finally get together needs to match that.
Grace Ball 17:26
Yeah, there's obviously the physical element, but there's the emotional element too that could even be potentially more important to make convincing.
C.K. Fullerton 17:34
Yes, yes. I mean, you know, that kind of idea, like insta-love. And I think a lot of readers in the genre don't necessarily love that trope. And I feel like it is very based on the physical, and if they don't bring in the emotional later, it just, it just really falls flat. So I do think that ultimately, to make it feel like that human experience we were talking about earlier, you really do need to find that connection between these two people. Otherwise, just watch porn?
Grace Ball 18:07
Yeah, that's so true. There's a story there. Just kidding! So I forgot to ask you, I meant to ask you earlier. Do you have favorite romance tropes? I think we all do.
C.K. Fullerton 18:24
Yes. Yes, I do. I mean, I'm a sucker for enemies to lovers. I just love it. I can't get enough. If anything has it, I'll read it. And I also love a good "who did this to you?" scene. Those are always fun. And I feel like those are very specific to fantasy romance. That's like a very popular trope. Also, friends to lovers, I read a couple friends lovers books, I did not think I would like it as much as I did. But those have a great emotional connection because there's already a backstory, they obviously are good friends, so they trust each other, and so it kind of builds from there. And then I do love a good fake relationship, but it has to be a believable reason why they're faking. If it's not a good reason why they're faking, I just can't buy in. So that one I feel like it's hard to do, but when it's done well I enjoy it. And then of course the one bed trope, you can't go wrong.
Grace Ball 18:24
Oh my god, I was gonna say, I always have to mention the one bed trope. That's my favorite.
C.K. Fullerton 18:49
Yeah. So good.
Grace Ball 19:27
Classic. I love that. Okay, so we've touched on this a little bit, we've talked about some of the ways that the genre is kind of currently evolving and how its evolved in terms of inclusion. So what kind of changes in that vein are you seeing and like, what do you see for the future of the genre?
C.K. Fullerton 19:48
Well, I think that because more readers are taking it into their own hands and writing their own things, I think we're seeing much more realistic sex scenes, in particular. Women aren't orgasming by penetration alone or like fifteen times in a row or like the anatomy doesn't make sense, like we're really seeing realistic female pleasure focused sex scenes, which I think is really important. And I think it's really empowering. When you're able to have a language to talk about what you need, you kind of close that orgasm gap in your own relationship. And readers are also really talking about that as well. So it's taking away a lot of the shame around sexuality. And that's something that I think is really changing the way that people are writing. I also think that the group of people who grew up reading YA, we're older now, we want different things. And we want to see older characters too. So I feel like there was so much focus on like teenagers for such a long time. And now I'm seeing a lot more books about people in their 30s--I read a book about a woman in her 50s--you know, like we're starting to see age inclusion as well, not just different body types, not just different races, but also different ages. And I think it's really important because sexuality doesn't stop. And so I think representing different phases of life as well is really cool to see.
Grace Ball 21:06
Yeah, me too.
Michael Hardison 21:08
Y'all are lucky with YA, and growing up on that--that wasn't really a category when I was young. And my actual first like romance book I read when I--because there wasn't YA accessible--so I grabbed a book from like, my mom's shelf.
Grace Ball 21:21
Michael Hardison 21:21
I started reading it, and it was seventh grade, and it was V.C. Andrews. I don't know if you're very aware of them or not, but they write some pretty like, wild stuff. And after she passed, they continue to use her name to write more, but it's just all of this really like grocery store level, trashy novels, about like rich, rich families, and there's a whole lot of sex, and all these things, and I'm in seventh grade earning my like, Pizza Hut points reading V.C. Andrews books. I read an entire, like seven book series my seventh grade summer, and I was like, wow, adults are weird.
C.K. Fullerton 21:59
Oh, there is certainly a place for that, too.
Grace Ball 22:02
That's so true. Oh, man, this has been so fun! Okay, so, C.K., could you give our listeners like one final piece of advice about writing romance, just to wrap it all on up?
C.K. Fullerton 22:16
I think I'd want to go back to just letting yourself be uncomfortable a little bit. You know, there are going to be times when I think writing the emotions and writing about love can sometimes feel awkward and cheesy. But if you are really rooting it in your characters' truth, if you've really set up scenarios that put them in a place where they can be vulnerable, I think you can't really go wrong. And so also being very clear about "the why" they're getting together. What is it about these two people that they're relating to each other about? And why are they attracted to each other beyond the physical is really important. And from there, I think you'll have a great foundation, and then you can start to play, then you can start to work on the banter, then you can start to add in some tropes, then you can create your world around them, and give them some different conflicts. But ultimately, you need to have that foundation there to build on.
Grace Ball 23:17
Beautiful. Wow, thank you so much for talking with us today, C.K., and being the first guest on our new season of "How Do I Book?"
C.K. Fullerton 23:27
Thank you. I'm honored!
Grace Ball 23:29
Really, yeah, it was truly such as such a pleasure talking with you. And thank you for sharing your valuable perspective.
C.K. Fullerton 23:36
Thanks so much for having me. Happy Valentine's Day, everyone.
Grace Ball 23:39
Happy Valentine's Day!
Michael Hardison 23:40
Happy Valentine's Day!
Grace Ball 23:41
And that's how you book!
transcribed and edited by Grace Ball
Follow CK Fullerton online!
Christina Kann 00:00
Welcome to How Do I Book? with Wildling Press. We like to chat about book writing, book publishing, book marketing, and, of course, book reading. We're trying to help new and experienced authors develop their craft, widen their perspectives, and learn to get a little wild every once in a while. I'm Christina, and I'm really excited because joining us today on the show is one of my favorite authors of all time, ES Christison, author of The Blameless series, and a person who I like a lot. Hey, Liz, thank you so much for joining us.
ES Christison 01:01
Hey, Christina. I'm super excited to be here today.
Follow Christison online:
Christina Kann 01:05
For starters, what are your pronouns?
ES Christison 01:09
She and her.
Christina Kann 01:11
Thank you so much. Tell us a little bit about The Blameless and your other work.
ES Christison 01:18
The Blameless is about a 13-year-old princess named Briana. She lives a safe and happy life in her kingdom, until one night, her kingdom is attacked, her city is overthrown, her family is killed, and she's being hunted. She's on the run. She gets rescued by a group of three mysterious magical people who take her under their wing. They teach her how to use her own magic. It's about her learning how to use her own magical gifts and how she recovers from this devastating loss she's experienced.
Christina Kann 01:56
And let me tell you, listeners: I have been working with this book for a long time, I helped publish it twice -- the first edition and then the second edition. I've read it probably probably going on 10 times now. And I'm not sick of it yet. I think that's incredible. I don't think I've read a book this much besides the first couple of Harry Potter books.
ES Christison 02:19
That's very flattering. Thank you, Christina. Sometimes I shudder to think how The Blameless would have turned out without Christina. She has elevated this book and prodded my brain and helped me so much. You deserve a huge amount of thanks for how it turned out.
Christina Kann 02:37
Oh, my God, thank you. It's just so fun to work on a book that you love so much. So what inspired you to write this story about Brie and her Blameless powers?
ES Christison 02:53
I am actually not a writer by trade. I didn't go to school for writing. I'm a nurse, and I'm a busy person. I've got a large family, so it's not like I didn't have anything to do with my time. But one night, I had this dream, actually. It sounds a little cliche, but I had this dream, and I woke up in the middle of the night. It was about this girl whose family had been killed, and she was in hiding, and someone came and rescued her. I woke up at that point. It was basically the first seven pages of my story, and I couldn't get back to sleep. I normally don't dream in such a detailed way. I just couldn't get it out of my head. I told my husband about it the next morning, and I said it would just make an amazing book. And he said, "Well, sell the idea to Disney and make a movie out of it." He just laughed about that. Then I continued on with my busy life. But the dream didn't leave me. It just stayed with me for months and months and months. I couldn't get this girl out of my head. I wanted to know what happened to her. So then I just decided after about six months that I was going to try to write the story. And since I've been writing, I have fallen in love with it more. I'm very invested in this book and invested in getting this series completed.
Christina Kann 04:17
Tell us about the sequel. I happen to know that there's a sequel in the works.
ES Christison 04:21
Yes, my sequel is called The Tarnished, which is coming out in November 2022. It's Brie's continued journey, and her goal now is to basically avenge her family and take back her kingdom. We're going to read more of that journey in The Tarnished.
Christina Kann 04:40
Yes, I'm so excited. I've read it. It's amazing. Liz, you mentioned a couple of minutes ago that you're a nurse; you have a large family, many children. You got other stuff going on in your life. We're here to talk about "butt in chair"; that's the name of this episode, which is a bit of a PG-rated version of Stephen King's quote. I'll adapt it for our audience. Stephen King has this quote that the the first step to writing is "butt in chair." I think a lot of writers can relate to this. It's so hard to just sit down and get writing. You've managed it, though, with all that you have going on in your life. So I want to talk a little bit today about how you make it happen.
ES Christison 05:28
Sure. The way that I make it happen is, first of all, I've always been lucky to be a night owl. My most productive hours for thinking and doing things is typically in the evening. A lot of that writing has happened in the evenings after work and after my kids are in bed, at least the youngest ones. That's where I spend most of my writing time. However, I also have made it a motto of mine that I'm going to write a little something every day. It has actually happened many times -- or a few times, in any case -- that I've sat down, I've opened up my book, and I've written about a sentence. I've looked at that paragraph and thought, "Okay, I'm done for tonight." So it's not like I have to do huge amounts. My most productive times for writing are probably Saturday mornings when the house is waking up. I sometimes will get up early and work on Saturday mornings. I just have been devoted to being consistent. I listened to a podcast about how to write a book. I think all of us can relate to this: when we open up our story, we start reading what we wrote, and we immediately want to start editing it because we want to tweak it, it doesn't sound quite right. I forced myself to just continue; I just move forward, and I don't go back and reread it and re-tweak it. That's for the second draft. So the first draft is very much a skeleton. If I'm writing along, and I know that I need to have some witty dialogue but it's not coming to me in the moment, then I write in parentheses, (tell a story) or (add dialogue). And then I keep going. Or if I can't think of a character name, I'll just put it in parenthesis, you know, (name the character). And then I just keep going. That first draft is really the skeleton of my book, and then I go back through on the second draft, and I add the meat.
Christina Kann 07:34
A couple episodes back, we talked about writing drunk, editing sober. No alcohol required. It's more about the mindset of just being able to get your first draft down, because that's the hardest part. It's so much easier to fix what's there than it is to produce something from nothing.
ES Christison 07:53
If I'm in the middle of a thing, I'm writing and I'm really passionate about it, then I also occasionally have been known to have my laptop open on the counter. And if I'm cooking dinner, and it's taking a while and it's got to simmer for a while, then I'll click away on the laptop a little bit as I'm cooking. I do squeeze in as many moments as I can, and I really try my hardest to be consistent.
Christina Kann 08:16
I do a lot of reading while I'm cooking, while stuff is simmering. My husband comes home from work, and I'm just leaning against the counter with a book. So, Liz, it's a weekday night, maybe a Saturday morning, and it's time to write. What's your writing routine? Do you do anything to get ready? Do you like to have anything with you?
ES Christison 08:33
I like to have coffee or water, something to drink. Other than that, I try my hardest to be in a quiet environment. Sometimes in the evenings when I'm writing, I'll just sit in the living room with my husband, and he'll have the TV on, so there's a little bit of a distraction, and I am not as productive then. My most productive times are when I'm alone in my room or an office space. If I'm alone and I've got a keyboard and I've got something to drink, I just go. I don't listen to music. I don't really do anything else. I just type.
Christina Kann 09:05
Laser-focused. I love that. You kind of alluded to this: What's your ideal writing environment? You mentioned you write in your room. I guess maybe the living room with a TV on maybe is not your ideal writing environment. What's the ideal?
ES Christison 09:22
Actually sometimes not even in my room is ideal, though, because I have children who often will knock on the door and want to come in. Sometimes I've actually gone to my father's house when he's been gone, and I have sat down and just used his place as a quiet space.
Christina Kann 09:37
Nice. That's awesome.
ES Christison 09:38
Sometimes I have gone to a coffee shop when I have a chapter I really need to finish or an edit I need to finish, and I've got to get it done. Then I will leave my house and try to focus on that. But just a quiet space for me, just an uninterrupted, quiet space.
Christina Kann 09:56
I feel like every time I go to work at a coffee shop, I go with Grace and/or Mary-Peyton, and we end up doing so much more chatting than working, it always backfires. Maybe I should go by myself one day.
ES Christison 10:09
There was actually even one time when I was in my car, and I pulled up my laptop, and I had to finish the scene. I just clicked away there in my car, you know, and finished a really important chapter.
Christina Kann 10:24
People podcast from their cars. Cars are safe spaces.
ES Christison 10:27
They are, they're quiet spaces. When I am alone, my writing speed is probably at least four times as quick as when I am sitting with distractions all around me. But I still get work done that way. I try to focus some of that time with things like maintaining an author presence on social media.
Christina Kann 10:48
That's a great thing to do when you've got the TV on.
ES Christison 10:51
Posting and marketing and emails and things like that.
Christina Kann 10:54
My husband's not a big reader. I'm a big reader. Obviously, I spend a lot of time editing and writing. So my husband knows that if I'm reading or writing in the living room, he can only watch his anime, because it's in Japanese, so it doesn't distract me the way English language does.
ES Christison 11:12
That is priceless. I love that.
Christina Kann 11:16
What motivates you to write when you're not really feeling it? When the creative juices aren't flowing? When you've had a long, hard week, but you gotta get in that little bit every day? What what do you do to motivate yourself?
ES Christison 11:26
First of all, my kids are a huge motivating factor. I feel like I'm kind of doing this for them. That really is the reason I wrote the story, in one way -- to give it to them. They ended up sharing it with their friends. It has spread into something actually a lot bigger than I originally expected it to be, really, honestly. But so they have been a huge motivating factor for me. Also, now that The Blameless has been out in the world for a long time, I have a lot of readers who, every time I see them, they ask me when the next book is coming out. My fans are motivators. I don't want to disappoint my fans. I want to give them this next book in the series.
Christina Kann 12:09
It's really important for authors to take their platform seriously. You can't can't start a story for people and then never finish, George RR Martin! I've given up waiting for his next book. Do you ever get writer's block?
ES Christison 12:26
I do sometimes. It's more like Where am I going to go next? And needing that motivation to use up my mental juices or capacity to try to figure out what it is. Sometimes there's a scene or a moment that I'm struggling with. Those are moments where I will put it down, and I will walk away from it. And I will come back in maybe a week. If I need to, I will just put it down for a minute and focus on some other aspects of being a writer, and then I'll come back to it. In that time when I am not writing, I am mulling over all the possibilities of things, different ways I can take my plot.
Christina Kann 13:08
Yeah, absolutely. I find that when I'm trying to figure out next steps in a story or how to approach a developmental edit with an author, the best ideas always come to me when I'm driving. You're not expecting it; you gotta stop sometimes and let the answer come to you. I have this long series of voice memos -- because you can't write anything down, you're driving! -- a long series of voice memos on my phone that are like, "Wait, I figured it out. What if, in the third act, you learn that they were brothers all along?"
ES Christison 13:38
Yeah, that's incredible. One more thing I do that helps with my writer's block: I have three boys. I call them boys, but they're men. They're in their 20s. Okay. But I have three sons who are into DnD, and they're super creative. Sometimes my husband and I will just go sit down and hash out something. Sometimes, I'll ask my sons' opinions on something and get a little bit of feedback. That's been a lot of fun too, that they have helped me get through plot.
Christina Kann 14:07
DnD is a really wild, different kind of storytelling. It is so immersive, and you have to think on your feet and be so confident of every choice, because there's no going back. I'm sure that their storytelling skills are really refined because of playing Dungeons and Dragons.
ES Christison 14:25
Absolutely. I mean, sometimes they've said to me, "Hey, we're gonna play DnD over Christmas break, or over the holidays," and then the days are ticking by, and I'm like, "When are you playing DnD?" "Mom, we're creating our backstories!" So yeah, it takes days. It's involved.
Christina Kann 14:43
It's a very involved process. Is there anything that discourages you when you're writing or when you're percolating?
ES Christison 14:44
I do put a lot of pressure on myself that it needs to be done quickly. So as far as being discouraged, I sometimes feel like I don't have enough time, or as much time as I feel as necessary to dedicate to it to get it completed. My lack of time is sometimes overwhelming, because I am such a busy person.
Christina Kann 15:20
How do you combat those moments?
ES Christison 15:23
I have to be realistic with myself, and I have to think I can only do what I can do. I can only do so much, and that's got to be enough. That's enough. If my readers like my story, then they'll be patient and wait on it. I have to kind of talk myself off the cliff sometimes. "Don't put this unnatural pressure on yourself. Just do what you can do, and do it as well as you can do it."
Christina Kann 15:50
You gotta keep it fun! If it turns into really hard work that you're not looking forward to -- Oof.
ES Christison 15:58
Yeah. I was not a writer before. I was a nurse. I don't know if you know about nursing documentation, but it is cut and dried, and simple and short, and abbreviations, and very minimalistic. To start writing in a creative way is a huge learning curve for me, but I have really learned to love it. I do enjoy it. It's not so much a burden for me when I sit down and write it. You're exactly right. If it becomes heavy, then why do it? You know, you gotta love what you're doing.
Christina Kann 16:33
I think most writers can probably relate to "I love this craft. And yet, I also dread spending time on it. It makes me so anxious." It's a balance, just like anything else in your life that you care about.
ES Christison 16:48
Also, there's your own self doubt that the work is good enough. I personally have huge amount of imposter syndrome. Sometimes I'm like, "This story isn't good enough. Nobody's gonna like it. The plot's terrible." You know? Sometimes those doubts can come in too.
Christina Kann 17:12
I hope that gets a little bit better every day. Liz, we've been on this journey together. We both were working on this book before many people had read it, before it was out in the world. Both of us were like, "I think this is good! Yeah, I think this is pretty good." But you don't really know for sure until people you don't know start approaching you randomly to talk about it. So every time a new person is like, "I just discovered The Nlameless and I love it!" I'm like, "Really? Oh, my gosh, that's so exciting."
ES Christison 17:44
I know. Every time I hear that, it still blows my mind. Just today, I got a message from a mother who said, "I bought this book for my 13-year-old son, and he's read it twice this week and loves it and can't wait for the sequel!" I was just like, "How did you find out about it?" "Oh, I saw it on on Instagram."
Christina Kann 18:02
Shoutout to everyone who's posting about it on Instagram.
ES Christison 18:05
Yeah, thank you. I feel like I need to say that. Thanks to every single person who has opened their mouth and spread the word and shared things on social media. Thank you.
Christina Kann 18:15
Just because we have a little bit of extra time here at the end, I have a couple fun questions. Are you a pantser or a plotter? Do you fly by the seat of your pants, or do you plot your story out scene by scene before you get started?
ES Christison 18:29
I am absolutely a pantser. For example, with The Tarnished, I had about six to eight things that I knew had to happen in the book. And I kind of knew chronologically how they would occur. But that's about all I knew. When I sit down at my keyboard, that is really when this story flows for me. I know everyone is different. I have tried my hardest to do a teeny bit more of an outline on the third book, but for the most part, it's coming to me as I type. I'm fortunate that it happens that way.
Christina Kann 19:07
Do you ever find yourself stopping and being like "Wait, I need to figure out where the trajectory of the story is going"? Or is it usually just a "what happens next?" kind of inquiry?
ES Christison 19:19
I haven't typed myself into or written myself into a spot I can't get out of. I kind of know where it's going, and normally I just think, "What's the next phase?"
Christina Kann 19:31
I meant to ask earlier -- but I feel like you kind of addressed this. The question I have written down here is How do you balance writing time with family time? But it seems like you also manage to incorporate the two by writing this book that your kids can enjoy and including your super cool DnD sons in on the storytelling. I feel like that maybe sounded sarcastic, but it's not. I also play DnD.
ES Christison 19:54
It is super important that it can't take over. My writing can't be my priority. I have a lot that needs to go on. I work full time as a nurse, and I have seven children. They range in age from 12 to 25, so it's not like they're babies, they're all fairly self sufficient, but I'm still extremely busy. I'm still very much needed. If I know I have a deadline, for example, then I make sure I spend time with my kids first. We do something first: we maybe go shopping, or we go out to dinner, or we spend a little bit of family time together first, and then I'm like, "Okay, guys, Mom's got to get this done. I'm going to be really busy for the for this weekend. So we can plan other things. We can get you together with your friends. You can have a friend over if you want." And on vacations and things like that, of course, I don't take my book stuff with me. 100% of my focus is on what we're doing in that moment.
Christina Kann 20:56
I feel like I always take work stuff on vacation, and then I ignore it the whole time. And I'm like, "Why did I bring this?"
ES Christison 21:03
It's not worth it. Live in the moment, and enjoy your vacation.
Christina Kann 21:07
Absolutely. Well, Liz, it has been just such a pleasure talking with you today. You know, we chat a lot all the time via email, but I don't often get to talk to your face. So thank you so much for joining us on How Do I Book?
ES Christison 21:21
Thank you so much, Christina. I feel like everyone at Wildling Press is amazing. Your talent is amazing. I love listening to your podcast. And if anyone has any doubts about if Wildling Press can do a good job with publishing their book, they absolutely can.
Christina Kann 21:38
Well, thank you so much, and we feel the same about you. Please, everyone, go grab your copy of The Blameless it's available in paperback, hardcover, ebook, and audiobook. The Tarnished is coming out soon, so you definitely want to get that first installment read so you're ready when the sequel comes out. And that's how you book!
How Do I Book?
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