Over the years, I’ve given lots of interviews with book bloggers and reviewers, so I thought why not pull together some of those questions and answers on my website? Read on if you’re curious about my writing process, favorite characters, and how I survived my debut publisher abruptly folding a month ahead of the release date…
- Tell us a little about yourself and what do you do when you aren't writing.
- When did you develop your interest in Persian mythology?
- Did you have to do any research?
- Has the story changed from initial idea to finished novel? And where did you get the inspiration for this series?
- Who created your covers and what do they represent?
- What is the character that you loved the most to write and the most difficult one?
- In a hypothetical movie, who would you want to play Nazafareen and Darius?
- Of all the characters you’ve ever written, who is your favorite and why?
- When and why did you begin writing?
- When did you first consider yourself a writer?
- What inspired you to write your first book?
- How would you describe your writing style?
- Do you write an outline before starting a book or just write?
- Can you tell us about your challenges in getting your first book published?
- I know authors get asked this a lot but do you have any advice that you would give to aspiring writers?
- What are some of your writing/publishing goals for this year?
- Do you feel that writing is an ingrained process or just something that flows naturally for you?
- Do you have a character that you have been working on for a long time that still isn't quite ready, but fills you with excitement to work on the story?
- Do you find it hard to juggle writing and parenting? Any tips for time management or sneaking in writing time?
- Is there a theme or message in your work that you would like readers to connect to?
- If you could spend one-week with 5 fictional characters, who would they be?
- What are some of the pros and cons of being traditionally published verses being self-published in your opinion?
- What is your favorite quote, by whom, and why?
Tell us a little about yourself and what do you do when you aren't writing.
I was born and raised in New York, but live far enough north of the city now that I can keep a chicken coop in my front yard. Having grown up in Manhattan, I really enjoyed researching New York in the Gilded Age (the 1870s to about 1900) for the Gaslamp Gothic series. It was very Wild West in a lot of ways, but also quite sophisticated. The raw energy and attitude haven’t changed much, but at least there aren’t thousands of children sleeping barefoot in the streets anymore.
I love old maps, and have a giant one of London from 1890 on the wall next to my desk. I used it to plot the various routes the characters take on foot and by carriage in The Thirteenth Gate. Apparently, the memory centers in the brains of London taxi drivers are a lot bigger than those of average people. To pass the notoriously grueling cabbie test, you have to memorize a labyrinth of 25,000 streets—all within a 10-kilometer radius of Charing Cross train station! It takes people years and years riding around on mopeds.
When did you develop your interest in Persian mythology?
I like to poke around in Wikipedia’s religion and mythology pages. All the folktales and legends from different cultures are fascinating—and a great place to find inspiration for my own writing. The daevas come from Zoroastrianism, which emerged around the time of the early Achaemenid empire (550 to 330 BC) and is still practiced today. When I discovered that the daevas embodied evil and sin, and yet once had been deities, I got to thinking about how that fall might have come about. In my story, there are specific historical reasons for the daevas’ demonization (which I won’t reveal in the interests of keeping this spoiler-free!).
Then I also find the idea of being unwillingly tied to the emotions of another person or creature to be intriguing. Nazafareen and Darius are very wary of each other when they meet, and yet they have an immediate forced intimacy because of the cuffs that join them. The story took shape from there.
Did you have to do any research?
Lots! The setting for the Fourth Element series is an alt Persian Empire during the Achaemenid period, about 330 BC, so it’s a mix of fact and fiction (mostly the second). My last book was sci-fi, and I’ve also written an historical mystery, so I’m used to doing lots of research, but this was a bit different. It’s the first time I had to design my own system of magic, with consistent rules, along with various other non-human species and a new timeline for an entire empire, so it was definitely a lot of work (and all that is still evolving). But I also wanted to be reasonably accurate about what people did and didn’t have at that time, so every time a character needs a pair of scissors or something, I have to look that up! Some of the results have been surprising: for example, they had wigs but not rice (not until after the Islamic invasion centuries later). It can feel daunting at the beginning to create an entire world, but once my imagination starts flowing, it’s one of my favorite things on earth.
Has the story changed from initial idea to finished novel? And where did you get the inspiration for this series?
I actually wrote an entire manuscript with the major elements of Midnight Sea, but set in contemporary times, and ended up throwing it in a drawer and starting again from scratch. I realized I needed the origin story, and that meant going way back in time.
Who created your covers and what do they represent?
The designer is Damonza, and they’re amazing. The cool story behind both Fourth Element covers is that the snarling lion of The Midnight Sea and the griffin bracelet of Blood of the Prophet are actual pieces of jewelry dating back to the Achaemenid Empire. So if you ever go to the British Museum, make sure you stop by the Oxus Treasure collection to check out these gorgeous artifacts! The bracelet on the Blood of the Prophet cover was found in the late 1800s somewhere on the north bank of the Oxus River in what is today Tajikistan, but was then the Emirate of Bokhara.
What is the character that you loved the most to write and the most difficult one?
I liked writing Ilyas a lot. Without giving any spoilers, he’s complex and driven by many conflicting motivations. Heroes are great, but morally grey characters (like Balthazar) are the most interesting to me.
Nazafareen was a bit of a challenge because while she’s the protagonist and you need the reader on her side, characters are boring if they have no flaws. Her temper causes her quite a few problems.
I think that if you want to see what people are made of, you have to methodically strip away every illusion they hold dear. I spent a lot of time pondering exactly what my characters’ worst nightmares would be and then making them come to pass. It might sound silly, but I felt pretty bad about it, especially toward the end. They all seemed so real to me, I found myself muttering apologies as I typed. But there’s redemption too, and a reasonably happy ending, so I made peace with the horrible things I did!
In a hypothetical movie, who would you want to play Nazafareen and Darius?
Oh, so hard. I’d love to see a Middle Eastern actress play Nazafareen, and I always imagined a young James McAvoy as Darius. He has those crazy intense blue eyes!
Of all the characters you’ve ever written, who is your favorite and why?
I really love Balthazar. He’s a former necromancer who’s done some truly horrible things, but is now semi-reformed. I say semi- because he’s on the side of the good guys, but he’s also two thousand years old and stays young by stealing the life forces of the women he beds. Their…mojos, shall we say. He doesn’t kill or hurt them—in fact, they have no idea he’s doing it. But it’s not very chivalrous, is it?
He despises himself for doing it, but he’s afraid to stop because he believes he’s going to Hell when he dies. I first imagined Balthazar in an epilogue to The Midnight Sea, the first book in my historical fantasy trilogy set in ancient Persia. He appeared on a whim, and ended up becoming a major character in the series. I couldn’t resist carrying him over to The Thirteenth Gate, but anyone who’s curious about his whole backstory can find it in the Fourth Element series.
When and why did you begin writing?
I adored creative writing as a kid but found myself drawn to journalism in college. Honestly, it seemed like a more sensible way to actually make a living. I worked as a reporter and editor for many years, and I think it taught me discipline in story-telling (with a very limited number of words, you can’t waste any) and also crushed that fear we all have of putting our work out there for public inspection. You meet your deadline with your best effort and…that’s it. You just move on. It made it easier to push through and finish a book when I decided to try my hand at fiction again a few years ago.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
In the back of my mind, I always knew I wanted to return to fiction. And it was very exciting to land an agent, and then a publishing deal. But we all have our bad days too, where everything seems like dreck and you wonder if you should even be doing this in the first place. I think pushing past the doubts – whatever it is we do – is just part of creative work.
What inspired you to write your first book?
My first novel is set in a future where humanity has been driven underground by massive continent-sized storms called hypercanes. When I sat down to write Some Fine Day back in 2012, there was no question that climate change would be a big part of the plot. As a journalist, I’d been covering it for almost a decade, and every year, the predictions got scarier. Some stopped being predictions about the future and started actually happening.I was struck by the massive disconnect between what scientists and the public were saying – like hey, can we do something about this? – and the total lack of government action. The elephant in the room there is obviously the fossil fuel lobby, among others. They spend billions of dollars spreading “doubt” about the science, which is ludicrous. It’s even worse now, of course. But I think fiction can be a great way into a conversation about these issues, especially with young people.
How would you describe your writing style?
I try to blend all the elements I personally enjoy in fiction: suspense, humor, romance, a bit of darkness and unpredictability, and characters that make you feel something, whether that’s love, hate or some combination of the two. Although I do write epic fantasy set in fairly complex worlds, I try to keep the pacing fast and avoid information overload. I will put a book down without hesitation if there are too many made-up names for things and characters and backstory in the first few pages.
I write in a few different genres, including historical fantasy/mystery—like The Thirteenth Gate—so the narrative voice is different depending on the series and also the character POV. What you won’t find in my stories are MCs who are drama queens, or hopefully any scenes that are boring!
Do you write an outline before starting a book or just write?
Oh, I’m a huge outliner. I can’t imagine trying to write a mystery by the seat of my pants; there are just too many moving parts. The same with my fantasy books, although I’ll admit, I didn’t outline the trilogy in advance. I wrote each book as I came to it. Somehow it all worked out! There’s definitely a balance between knowing enough that you can write a scene with confidence, and leaving the story with some breathing space for spontaneity. Otherwise it’s very easy to get bored and end up writing by the numbers.
Can you tell us about your challenges in getting your first book published?
It’s a crazy story, actually. I signed with Strange Chemistry, which was a division of the UK publisher, Angry Robot. The contract was for a three-book deal, very exciting for a debut author. And then, a month ahead of my release date, in the midst of my blog tour, Strange Chemistry abruptly folded. My agent called me with the news the very same day boxes of bookmarks and postcards I’d ordered arrived on my doorstep.
The whole fiasco did have a happy ending. We got the rights back and sold the book to Amazon Skyscape for a bigger advance. Some Fine Day came out within the same year. But that was quite an early lesson about the unpredictability of this business.
I know authors get asked this a lot but do you have any advice that you would give to aspiring writers?
This probably isn’t all that original, but it’s really true: you have to think long-term. A few people have magical overnight success, but for most of us, it happens more around book four and beyond. Stuff will happen. Some things will succeed, some will fail. Don’t pay too much attention to income or copies sold, just keep putting your work out there. If it’s good, you’ll find your audience. And make sure you have a beautiful cover!
What are some of your writing/publishing goals for this year?
I’m trying to write faster and be less judgmental about first drafts. It’s hard because I tend to be a perfectionist—even though I know it’s a bad habit to polish too much as you write, the forward momentum is lost. I’m also trying to loosen up a little about plotting. My outlines generally run into the thousands of words, but I’m still almost always surprised by new characters or twists that spontaneously appear in the act of actually writing the book. So I’m experimenting with a much simpler outline and only getting really granular with the 2-3 chapters I’m currently working on.
I do have to know the very end before I begin. But I love that E.L. Doctorow quote: “[Writing is] like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
Do you feel that writing is an ingrained process or just something that flows naturally for you?
I can’t even answer that as I veer so wildly between the words pouring out and feeling like I’m extracting each one with a painful dental tool. This is on a daily, even hourly basis. Even though I’ve written eight books and published six of them, sadly, it doesn’t seem to get easier. I just show up each day and do the best I can. And I know if I continue to do that, even if some days feel horrid and unproductive, I will get to the end eventually.
Do you have a character that you have been working on for a long time that still isn't quite ready, but fills you with excitement to work on the story?
Oh yes! I’m starting a new multi-book series, so I have a whole list of major and minor characters who I’m just getting to know (alongside other characters I’ve already written tens of thousands of words about). It’s no secret that villains are my favorites so I’m really looking forward to writing the chapters with the Oracle of Delphi, also known as The Pythia. She can work fire magic, and she’s not nice at all, lol. But of course, every villain is also the hero of his or her own story, so the Oracle isn’t just a one-dimensional mustache-twirler.
Do you find it hard to juggle writing and parenting? Any tips for time management or sneaking in writing time?
My son is twelve now, so things have definitely gotten easier. But I wrote my first book, a dystopian thriller called Some Fine Day, starting when he was about four and a half. I cobbled the manuscript together from stolen moments on commuter trains, doctor’s office waiting rooms, literally anytime I had a few minutes to myself. I would carry a spiral notebook and scribble in longhand. The funny thing is that when you’re under intense time pressure, you tend to get a lot done. Now that I have hours-long blocks of writing time, I struggle against procrastination and spacing out. But I guess the lesson is that if you really want to do something, you can find time for it. And even though it seems like tiny dribs and drabs, eventually you’ll be writing “The End.”
Is there a theme or message in your work that you would like readers to connect to?
I’m interested in what makes people tick, and I find the best way to do that is by forcing them into really agonizing choices. I used to be more merciful to my characters (personally, I’m very laid-back and easygoing), but that got boring. So I’ve learned how to peel back the layers of self-delusion one by one to see what’s underneath, which is usually a fairly brutal process. At the end of The Thirteenth Gate, Vivienne Cumberland is placed in an impossible position. How she resolves it shows the truth of her feelings toward Alec Lawrence, even if she can never express them in words.
If you could spend one-week with 5 fictional characters, who would they be?
– Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, of course!
– Bartimaeus the Djinn (The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud). Smart, sarcastic, highly entertaining.
– David Wong (John Dies at the End, This Book is Full of Spiders). If any of you have read those books, no explanation is needed.
– Haplo from The Death Gate Cycle by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. He’s badass and covered with powerful rune tattoos and I’ve always been more than half in love with him.
What are some of the pros and cons of being traditionally published verses being self-published in your opinion?
There are some nice perks of traditional publishing: trade reviews, visibility, placement in brick and mortar stores. But personally, I prefer to have control over things like pricing, covers, release dates, etc. I feel like traditionally pubbed ebooks in particular are incredibly expensive. When you’re trying to build an audience, asking people to shell out five or six dollars (or much more) is going to be an uphill battle. My self-pubbed books are already doing much better than the book I published with Skyscape. The other issue is that I write full-time and can release three books a year on my own schedule. That wouldn’t happen with a trad publisher.
What is your favorite quote, by whom, and why?
There’s a Chinese proverb that says, “You cannot prevent the birds of sorrow from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from building nests in your hair.”