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Ren Iwamoto: Exclusive Sirens Interview

As we look toward Sirens, we’re pleased to bring you exclusive interviews with this year’s brilliant Sirens Studio faculty. These conversations are a prelude to the workshops that these faculty will teach as part of the Studio later this year. Last year, Sirens content coordinator Cass Morris spoke with Ren Iwamoto and today we’re thrilled to be republishing this interview.

 

CASS MORRIS: Your graduate studies are focused on twentieth-century East Asian literature, Japanese colonialism, and post-colonial discourse. What drew you to that cross-section of topics? What impact do you think greater awareness of them can have on fantasy fiction?

Ren Iwamoto

REN IWAMOTO: It’s a topic I actually shied away from at first; I think I saw a post on Twitter about the erection of a statue commemorating the Korean comfort women who were abused during the Japanese occupation. I didn’t want to acknowledge it. Growing up in the diaspora, there is a certain degree of nostalgia for “the homeland.” But I’m also Canadian. I demand Canada be held accountable for concentration camps, residential schools, its well-buried history of slavery, the continued forced sterilization of indigenous women—why should I excuse Japan? Especially when even now, many people deny that such events as the Nanking Massacre even occurred. I deliberately fought my impulse to brush past the initial discomfort and instead sought out content that educated me.

Politics and history always have impacted the literary landscape, so as an academic my next step was to source material in my field. This was actually the most difficult part. My Japanese is too poor to read untranslated texts, so I, despite my best efforts, turned to manga (this isn’t a knock against manga, but unfortunately it’s a little difficult to get academic clout as an undergraduate studying comics). This turned out to be fortuitous, because Japan’s manga industry turns a multi-million dollar profit every year and is rife with magic, high strangeness, and future imaginings. As such, my interest in topics like nationalism, war, and industrialization found a fantastically large puddle to splash around in. The aim of my research is to unearth patterns in how the Japanese cultural context informs these themes.

To speak broadly of impact, any and all knowledge of real-world events alters how we interpret science fiction and fantasy. On a more personal level, seeing fantasy elements “inspired” by East Asia (but that actually just fetishize East Asia), or people who watch anime and think that means they understand what it means to be Japanese, I kind of want to smash someone over the head with a chair WWE-style. So I think awareness of the academic discourse—even on a relatively shallow level—helps generate a more complete knowledge and hopefully operates as a gateway for further investigation. There’s no ultimate goal for this sort of endeavor, but I do think compassionate, intellectually robust fiction helps compassionate, intellectually robust people bloom in the world. So.

 

CASS: You’re also an intern at P.S. Literary Agency. Tell us a little about the agency and the work you do there.

REN: I was, from May to November 2019. It was a wonderful experience. I worked for Eric Smith and Kurestin Armada, both of whom represent SFF for teens and adults, amongst other things. My primary duty there was reading slush and writing reader’s reports, which essentially document what works, what doesn’t, and whether I felt the piece was worth the agent’s time to look at. I loved reading the slush. There’s something deeply personal, and yet anonymous about it. I was consistently impressed by the quality of submissions.

I’m hoping to leverage the experience I earned at P.S. Literary to pursue a more long-term career in fiction publishing, but for now I’m content to apply what I learned there to my freelance practice.

 

CASS: Speculative fiction has the wonderful potential to hold mirrors up to the past, present, and future. What are some topics you hope to see speculative fiction explore? What’s on your wish list?

REN: I’ve almost certainly said this before, but speculative fiction should destabilize. Topic is almost irrelevant to me so long as the story turns some stone over; then something meaningful was accomplished. Magic, futurism, historical reimaginings, whatever it is that straddles the line between science and magic—these all have the potential to interrogate heterocentrism, patriarchy, gender, race, and so on. Even concepts like time and space open themselves up to deconstruction. That’s very exciting to me as both a pleasure reader and an academic, so whether the story is about war or star-crossed lovers or two kids riding their bikes around the neighborhood becomes secondary.

 

CASS: How and when did you fall in love with fantasy literature?

REN: In the interest of honesty, I have to say H*rry P*tter. They were the first books I read for my own pleasure, not for school or because my parents had picked them out for me. But given current circumstances, I’ve had to re-evaluate exactly what I liked about them. The conclusion I came to is that they taught me to love magic. I was and am deeply interested in the idea of there being another layer to reality, a secret layer, which only a few could access. It appealed to my fantasy of being a Special Person who could see and do Special Things. Fortunately, there is an abundance of precisely that kind of content created by people I’m not morally obligated to throw hands at on sight.

On a less commercial level, Gabriel Garcia Marquez was the first “fantasy” writer I engaged with on an academic level. So lush and ripe with sentiment! I’m still in love. To me, magical realism and its cousin genres do the same thing as the portal fantasies I loved growing up—they reveal something secret. If you know, you know. You know?

 

CASS: At this year’s Studio, you’ll be teaching “Seasoned with Soy Sauce: Asianization in Western Speculative Media and What It Means to Be ‘Asian-Inspired.’ ” What do you hope attendees will take away from your session?

REN: In my experience, everyone at Sirens has come already having done much of the groundwork regarding cultural appropriation. So my goal isn’t to teach that, nor is it to discourage people who aren’t East Asian from creating content which draws upon East Asian inspirations. Rather, I’m interested in conveying how the fascination with “the Orient,” which has featured so heavily in Western colonial history, has translated into modern storytelling practices. The aesthetic of East Asia is very sexy to a Western audience. Westerners love the image of Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai, Bangkok, and so on. It appeals to their idea of the Far East as either a hyper-sophisticated, hyper-urban paradise, or otherwise an overpopulated mega-slum riddled with opium dens and wet markets. Because this depiction is fundamentally shallow, and most often created by white people for white people, it’s impossible for its audience to fully appreciate the nuance of the East Asian experience (I, as a Japanese person, am only slightly more equipped). This is a rambling way of saying I hope the audience learns a little bit of colonial history in East Asia and world-building.

 

CASS: Sirens is about discussing and deconstructing both gender and fantasy literature. Would you please tell us about a woman or nonbinary person—a family member, a friend, a reader, an author, an editor, a character, anyone—who has changed your life?

REN: This is a cop-out, but I’ve become keenly aware of how every social movement which has benefited me as a queer person of color has been championed initially by Black women. Some of the most innovative and inspiring intellectuals in my field are Black women. And, because this is Sirens, some of the most exciting literature I’ve read this past year, both within and beyond the confines of SFF, has been written by Black women. So: Black women.

 


Ren Iwamoto is a Japanese-Canadian grad student from the tenth dimension. Her areas of interest include studies in death, gender, memory, grotesquerie, and post-colonialism; she is in eternal search of the thesis topic that combines all of the above. Her poetry has been featured in multiple publications. For more information about Ren, please visit her Twitter.

Cass Morris works as a writer and educator in central Virginia. Her debut series, The Aven Cycle, is Roman-flavored historical fantasy released by DAW Books. She is also one-third of the team behind the Hugo Award Finalist podcast Worldbuilding for Masochists. She holds a Master of Letters from Mary Baldwin University and a BA in English and History from the College of William and Mary. She reads voraciously, wears corsets voluntarily, and will beat you at MarioKart. Find her online at cassmorriswrites.com or on Twitter and Instagram @cassrmorris.

Marie Brennan: Exclusive Sirens Interview

As we look toward Sirens, we’re pleased to bring you exclusive interviews with this year’s brilliant Sirens Studio faculty. These conversations are a prelude to the workshops that these faculty will teach as part of the Studio later this year. Today, Sirens registrar Erynn Moss speaks with Marie Brennan.

 

ERYNN MOSS: Can you believe it has been a decade since you were a guest of honor at Sirens? Our theme that year was faeries and you were in the midst of publishing your Onyx Court series, a centuries-long epic following the fae of London. But I recall you also led us in a workshop on writing fight scenes and your methods, like your writing, were so clear and enjoyable that it’s no surprise you’ve continued to dedicate time to teaching. Recently you held a similar workshop at Clarion West in Seattle and your New Worlds Patreon is essentially a world-building encyclopedia of knowledge gleaned from your folklore and anthropology background, which some of us love for the nerdy sake of human culture factoids. How are you balancing your time/efforts between teaching/essays and your own writing?

Marie Brennan

MARIE BRENNAN: This really has been the year of me diving back into teaching—not just the in-person workshop for Clarion West, but also a slew of online ones, plus I’ve taught for Cat Rambo’s Academy for Wayward Writers and the Kelly Yang Project, which works one-on-one with students in Hong Kong. The good news is, unlike when I taught in an academic context, I don’t have to do any grading!

To some extent I’m able to do both because they come out of different buckets in my brain. Writing nonfiction doesn’t make the same demands on me as fiction does—which isn’t the same thing as saying it doesn’t make any demands, but I’m able to shift gears and work on A when I’m tapped out on B. I’ll admit, though, that the Patreon is intermittently draining: it’s been running for over three years now, with an essay every single week, and I’m not anywhere near done yet. I’m still excited by the project as a whole, but I go through periods where I drag my feet on actually writing that week’s essay, because ugh didn’t I just do this last week?

In the long run, though, the New Worlds project has also been really good for my fiction. Brainstorming possible topics of discussion doubles as reminding me of cool things I could be doing with my worldbuilding—which has particularly fed into the Rook and Rose trilogy I’m writing with Alyc Helms. They’ve got the same academic background I do, and I’m only sort of joking when I call the trilogy “When Anthropologists Attack.” We’ve been having a blast thinking through all the different elements of the setting and how they could feed into our story. And hey, the other day I re-read my own Patreon essays on security systems as a refresher before Alyc and I worked out a plot problem—so they’re becoming a resource I can use, too!

 

ERYNN: A mythically rare and majestic beast, your dragon-naturalist heroine, Lady Trent, is—gasp!—an older female main character. Her story starts off in her youth but continues over a lengthy career of adventuring and all told from her post-retirement perspective. She frequently stops the flow of her story to inject humorous details and opinions from her mature viewpoint. As a reader, I felt like you were having a lot of fun with her. Can you tell us a bit about writing from this particular point of view? And to follow up, your latest book in that world, Turning Light into Darkness, is the story of Lady Trent’s granddaughter, Audrey Camherst, and written in an entirely different style. What was it like continuing in this world, but with such a different voice?

MARIE: I don’t think I’m the type of writer typically cited as having amazing character voices…but man, when they click, they click. It took all of a paragraph for Lady Trent’s voice to materialize when I first started poking at her story. And although I didn’t realize it at the time, the approach I took to the viewpoint was absolute gold for the story. It isn’t just first-person; it’s her consciously relating her life story to an audience presumed to exist in her own world. Which meant I could get away with absolutely everything, because in the end, it’s all characterization. I need to describe a jungle? You’re not just getting the jungle; you’re getting Isabella’s experiences and opinions of the jungle. I need to explain something about the setting? Drop in a line where she says, “You young people won’t realize this because things have changed so much, but here’s how it used to be.” I can play freely with foreshadowing and irony, because she has fun pulling her audience’s strings on purpose. I won’t say that suits every kind of novel, but for this series, it worked out perfectly.

As for Audrey, figuring out how to make her different was pretty much the first challenge I faced—especially since I decided to keep up the conceit where every story from that world exists in the world. Audrey’s novel is assembled out of many different kinds of documents, from diary entries to letters to newspaper articles to police reports…and yes, that did make for some interesting hurdles along the way, as I had to figure out how to get certain bits of information across. Audrey primarily shows up via her diary, which was a more immediate kind of first person than Isabella’s—told immediately after the fact, rather than decades later—but I also tried to modernize her tone, since she lives in a period that’s more like the 1920s than the late Victorian era. A lot of it also boiled down to thinking about the ways in which her situation is different from her grandmother’s: Her drive to prove herself comes less from facing sexism and more from feeling the burden of having famous relatives. She’s much more rash in some ways, and also much more careless of the consequences, because she trusts that her family will always be there to help her out.

 

ERYNN: You’ve got a reputation for very structured worlds and defined characters—and there was talk of color-coded reference charts on your coming collaborative trilogy. By contrast, one of your amazing short stories, “This Is How,” is so poignant and elegantly pared-down that it’s almost a poem. It’s essentially about transformation and makes me wonder how you, consciously or not, go about achieving that kind of squishy organic space for your characters when they might have the span of an epic series or less than 2,000 words.

MARIE: Now, let’s be clear: Those color-coded charts for Rook and Rose are very much an anomaly! On my own, I tend far more toward the “discovery writing” end of the spectrum, figuring out my plot as I go along. But when you’re working with someone else, and furthermore when you’re writing a two hundred thousand-word novel with complex intrigue and multiple viewpoint characters, you can’t just hold it all in your head as a vague cloud and hope the other writer can read your mind. Especially not when you find yourself describing your characters’ lives as “a layer cake of lies and deception”—that’s when you wind up having to chart who knows what, which persona of theirs knows it, who knows they know it, and when they learned it. There was a point along the way when Alyc and I realized our cleverness had looped clear around and stabbed us in the back; it took something like two hours of chewing on the problem before we found a way to un-break our plot.

A short story is not only a different beast, I think it might belong to a different taxonomical kingdom entirely. “This Is How” fell out of my head when I was getting ready for bed one night: I sat down and wrote the whole thing in a single go, and when I was done I wasn’t even sure what I had. Was it a story? Was it just a weird pile of words? It’s an intuitive creation, not one I consciously built. I’ve yet to have a novel happen that way, though I know for some writers it’s possible.

So I think part of the answer is that they’re different skill sets. I used to be abysmal at writing short stories, because I was a natural novelist first; it took me years before I even learned what a short story-sized idea looked like. But at this point I’ve published more than 60 short stories, so I’ve had lots of practice in how to do cool character stuff both in a few thousand words and in tens or hundreds of thousands.

Articulating how to do it, though…? Let’s just say there’s a reason I teach things like worldbuilding and fight scenes, not short story techniques. Just because I can do a thing doesn’t mean I can explain it.

 

ERYNN: As I mentioned, you are currently working with fellow anthropologist, Alyc Helms, under the joint pseudonym M.A. Carrick on a series called Rook and Rose, the first book of which (The Mask of Mirrors) is currently expected in January. The two of you met on an archaeological dig in Wales, which is a great backstory. You’ve mentioned how helpful travel and richness of experience has been to getting the factual historical details of your books correct. Since your Sirens Studio workshop will be “Faith in Fantasy: Building Believable Religions,” what sort of non-academic experiences have been helpful for you to accurately and sensitively represent cultural practices and beliefs?

MARIE: It’s a bit of a fuzzy boundary between academic and non-academic experiences, because a lot of it boils down to “I’ve read things.” For any kind of worldbuilding, I think one of the most valuable things you can do is read about actual cultures in the real world; don’t just draw all your ideas from novels and other forms of fiction. And while it’s fine to start with the simple, Wikipedia level of research—especially when the topic is one you aren’t very familiar with, and you need that kind of basic orientation—you can’t stop there. It takes an investment of time and energy, not just to understand X, but to understand the things around X that affect it and give it context. Especially since that can help you find the places where you have unexamined assumptions coloring how you process everything else.

But it helps not to rely entirely on books, either. That’s why travel is good, if it’s something you can afford, and anything else that helps get you out of your familiar zone. Sometimes I think the brain has a range of motion just like the body does, and building up mental flexibility means it’s that much easier to learn about New Thing #17.

 

ERYNN: Speaking of your Sirens Studio writing workshop, what can attendees expect from “Faith in Fantasy: Building Believable Religions”?

MARIE: It’s going to be a ground-up approach, focusing not on high-level theological concepts like “let’s design a pantheon” or “write a myth for how the world got created,” but on what it means to be a character in that world who follows that religion. When a faith is strongly felt, it tends to permeate people’s lives in a hundred different ways—and those ways are what’s going to show up the most frequently in a story.

 

ERYNN: Sirens is about discussing and deconstructing both gender and fantasy literature. Would you please tell us about a woman or nonbinary person—a family member, a friend, a reader, an author, an editor, a character, anyone—who has changed your life?

MARIE: There’s no contest: Diana Wynne Jones.

Some of you reading this probably recognize her name, but for those who don’t: She was a British fantasy author, writing primarily for children and young adults (though the YA category didn’t really exist as we think of it now for most of her career). I credit her with turning me into a writer.

Like most kids, I made up stories. But when I was about nine or ten, I read her novel Fire and Hemlock—which, in addition to starting my fascination with the ballad “Tam Lin,” featured two characters who were writing a story together. It was the first time in my life I’d thought about that as a thing I could do, not just to entertain myself, but to entertain other people. I more or less decided on the spot that I wanted to be an author, and never let go of that decision.

(Though if you want to sample her work, I’m not sure I would recommend Fire and Hemlock as the place to start. It’s amazing, but its ending is also…really weird, and it was decades later that I found out part of the reason for its weirdness and half-comprehensibility was that I hadn’t read the T.S. Eliot poem woven into the logic and imagery of the climactic scene. Basically, I love that book even though I can’t entirely explain it.)

 


Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for material. She recently misapplied her professors’ hard work to Turning Darkness into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of the Doppelganger duology of Warrior and Witch, the urban fantasies Lies and Prophecy and Chains and Memory, the Onyx Court historical fantasy series, the Varekai novellas, and nearly sixty short stories, as well as the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides.

For more information about Marie, visit her website or her Twitter.

Erynn Moss is an enthusiastic reader who likes refreshing her soul by spending time with the brilliant people she finds at Sirens. She’s into comics, sewing, knitting, costumes, and camping. She currently lives in Louisville with her bff spouse and their toddler trainee-Siren.

Anna-Marie McLemore: Exclusive Sirens Interview

As we look toward Sirens, we’re pleased to bring you exclusive interviews with this year’s brilliant Sirens Studio faculty. These conversations are a prelude to the workshops that these faculty will teach as part of the Studio later this year. Today, Sirens co-founder Hallie Tibbetts speaks with Anna-Marie McLemore.

 

HALLIE TIBBETTS: When we interviewed you in 2018, when you were a Guest of Honor at Sirens, you said of your then-newest release, Blanca & Roja is also a reimagining of Swan Lake, so in many ways it’s a story about the roles we get cast in—as women, as queer women, as women of color—and how we can write our own stories instead.” You’ve since come out as nonbinary and I imagine that this idea of writing our own stories is as important to you as ever. How do writers push back on expected roles and claim their own stories? Do you have recommendations—fiction, nonfiction, anything—that you think exemplifies people claiming their own stories?

Anna-Marie McLemore interview

ANNA-MARIE MCLEMORE: It’s strange and wonderful coming back to Sirens knowing so much more about myself than I did a couple of years ago. And it’s funny that you mention Blanca & Roja, because I think I was trying to tell myself something with that book. There’s a passage where Page, who uses alternating pronouns, is talking about gender identity, and says “what you are is more beautiful than what you once thought you had to be.” My writer heart was basically screaming at me to hear those words, but it took me months to get that. Sometimes our storyteller hearts just know things first.

Thinking about claiming our stories, two books that come to mind are Dark Triumph, by Sirens community star Robin LaFevers—Sybella is an unforgettable example of a character who accepts that trauma is part of her but decides it won’t determine her—and This Is My Brain in Love, the latest from I.W. Gregorio—this book just gets what it’s like to have your brain buzzing with anxiety, while showing the characters as the fully complex people they are.

 

HALLIE: You’ve described your newest work, Dark and Deepest Red, as “sort of the secret history of a fairy tale.” Fairy tales are important to you: you re-tell them, you write new ones, their themes are inherent in your work. What is it about fairy tales that makes them so important to you?

ANNA-MARIE: Fairy tales are not just universal—every tradition has them—they’re also a way to talk about things that sometimes go unaddressed. In my own writing, fairy tales—whether I’m creating my own or reimagining a classic—are a landscape where magic speaks when something goes unspoken. When the Moon Was Ours is a fairy tale about a boy who paints the moon and a girl who grows roses from her wrist; it’s also about transgender identity and recovering from trauma. Wild Beauty brings readers into a world of queer Latina girls and murderous gardens; it also brings them into a conversation about colonialism and worker exploitation. When I reimagined “Snow-White & Rose-Red” and Swan Lake in Blanca & Roja, I was writing about colorism, queerphobia, and ableism while writing about enchanted forests and vengeful swans.

 

HALLIE: How and when did you fall in love with fantasy literature?

ANNA-MARIE: I fell in love when I stepped into Narnia as a little kid, and I kind of never left. But my dyslexia meant that I had a complicated relationship with reading. I was slow to identify myself as a reader because I was slow at the actual act of reading. But there were books that drew me in, overcoming my self-consciousness about whether I was really “a reader.” Many of them were fantasy novels. Two that were huge for me were Grave Mercy, by the above-mentioned Robin LaFevers, and Ash by Malinda Lo.

 

HALLIE: Since you’re coming to teach a writing workshop at Sirens, let’s talk writing! You’ve now published five young adult novels. How have you evolved as a writer, and how has your process evolved with you?

ANNA-MARIE: With every book, I get a little braver, and louder, about who I am, the communities I come from, and the stories I want to tell. My most recent book, Dark and Deepest Red, reimagines “The Red Shoes” in the context of the 1518 dancing plague. To tell that story in a way that felt honest and true, I knew it had to be about two brown girls five centuries apart, and it had to be about the ways they take the worst things the world says about them and use them to fight back.

I’m rallying all those little scraps of bravery as I look toward my next book, The Mirror Season, going out into the world. It’s the book of my SA survivor heart. It’s a story about two survivors, a secret forest, an enchanted pastelería, and the ways we find magic within our broken hearts.

 

HALLIE: This fall—fingers crossed!—you’ll be teaching “Finding Magic: Enchanting Characters and Their Worlds,” a writing workshop on magical realism, as part of the Sirens Studio. What can attendees expect from this time with you?

ANNA-MARIE: “Finding Magic” will be part primer on magical realism, part workshop on interweaving the idea of magic and character. Magical realism is a point of view I often come from as a Latinx storyteller, and it’s going to be the starting point to get us talking about crafting unique and vibrant magic as an integral part of a story’s landscape, no matter what the particular magic in your story looks like.

 

HALLIE: Sirens is about discussing and deconstructing both gender and fantasy literature. When we asked you this question a couple years ago, you talked about how your mom would be a brilliant and stylish queen or the most glamorous of witches. Would you like to shout-out someone else? Could you tell us about a woman or nonbinary person—a family member, a friend, a reader, an author, an editor, a character, anyone—who has changed your life?

ANNA-MARIE: Oh wow, thank you for reminding me that I said that about my mom, because I don’t think I ever told her, and that’s going to make her day.

I dedicated Blanca & Roja to two women who changed my life in a way they probably didn’t even realize at the time. But I’ve been trying to get in touch with them ever since. I’m a little heartbroken today, because I just found out that one of them died recently. She and her wife were together for over six decades. Still working on getting in touch with her wife. I’m really hoping I get to tell her how the two of them changed everything for me. Wish me luck <3

 


Anna-Marie McLemore (they/them) is a queer, Latinx, non-binary author who grew up hearing la llorona in the Santa Ana winds. Their books include The Weight of Feathers, a 2016 William C. Morris YA Debut Award Finalist; 2017 Stonewall Honor Book When the Moon Was Ours, which was longlisted for the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature and was the winner of the 2016 James Tiptree Jr. Award; Wild Beauty, a Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Booklist best book of 2017; Blanca & Roja, a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice; Dark and Deepest Red, a Winter 2020 Indie Next List title; and the forthcoming The Mirror Season.

For more information about Anna-Marie, please visit their website or Twitter.

Hallie Tibbetts has been involved with Narrate Conferences since its inception in 2006, serving variously as education officer, communications officer, and vice president, along with chairing a number of conferences (including many years of Sirens). She works in editorial at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers on books for children age zero to eighteen, but doesn’t mind if grownups like those stories too.

Meet your Sirens Studio faculty: An interview with Jae Young Kim

As we look forward to welcoming—and welcoming back—attendees at Sirens this fall, we’re pleased to rerun last year’s interviews with our brilliant Sirens Studio faculty by members of our conference staff. These conversations are a prelude to the workshops that these faculty will teach as part of Sirens Studio, a two-day, pre-conference event that requires a separate ticket. . You can learn more about the Sirens Studio, with full course descriptions and faculty biographies, on our page here.

 

CANDICE LINDSTROM: You’ve spent your career as a non-profit attorney providing free services to survivors of domestic violence and immigrants looking to start a new life in the United States. Did you always know you wanted to work as an advocate for those who can’t defend themselves, or did something draw you to this specific area of the legal profession?

Jae Young Kim

JAE YOUNG KIM: I went to law school in part to appease my parents, because they believed, as Korean immigrants, that the way to succeed would be getting a professional degree. In some ways, I was a disappointment because I did not go to medical school, as that was the pinnacle of achievement in their minds! I always received pressure to take the socially acceptable path and strive for mainstream acceptance. But once I was in law school, I knew I wanted to work for the public interest at a non-profit. I had always had a strong moral sense of justice. I had understood racism and sexism permeated the United States, but I had not ever really thought about using my degree and my work to fight those structural oppressions. In law school, I was fortunate enough to become friends with organizers and folks committed to fighting for social justice and realized that this was an option. In my third year of law school, I was in a year-long clinic defending immigrants in the legal system. I felt like this was a perfect fit for my passion for justice and my critical thinking and advocacy skills. Also, when I was in law school, the world of immigrant legal advocacy was much smaller and I knew there was a need for smart, competent immigration attorneys. Immigration legal work was not being funded; it took me a while to find a job where I could provide immigration legal services, so I started my legal career representing survivors of domestic violence on family law matters.

 

CANDICE: What do you love about your work, and what is challenging about your work that might surprise those of us outside it?

JAE YOUNG: I love that my work immediately and materially improves the lives of my clients, as orders of protection (restraining orders in New York), custody orders, and immigration status can dramatically change their lives. One of the challenges I face in my work is balancing the tension between knowing what may be “best” from a legal perspective while acknowledging that clients are human and ultimately, they must make the decision about their lives that extend beyond a case. Making informed choices in the legal system is not easy and, at the end of the day, I have to take comfort that I have done everything I can for a client, but they must make the decision they can live with. Law is still a service industry, which lawyers forget a lot.

 

CANDICE: What keeps you strong and hopeful in the face of the adversity that your clients face?

JAE YOUNG: Knowing that lawyers are not the way we will achieve justice. I am answering these questions while the protests sparked by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and countless Black people take place.

 

CANDICE: Did you have any assumptions about or expectations of your clients that changed after you had been in this field for some time? Do you tend to see a lot of similarities or overlap in the legal problems faced by the different groups you serve, or is every case dramatically different?

JAE YOUNG: I mentioned this in my earlier answer, but I learned very quickly that clients make the decisions that are best for themselves and that is not always the decision you counsel them to make.

I would say that racism, sexism, classism, ableism, heteropatriarchy and other points of oppression can really inform the legal issues my clients face. I have worked with people across race, gender, class, disability and sexuality, and those with privilege engage in legal systems usually more easily than those without.

 

CANDICE: Does a successful career in non-profit work take a different set of skills or values than regular for-profit office work? Is burnout more of an issue here than with traditional for-profit legal work, and how does one work around or overcome that?

JAE YOUNG: I don’t think there is that much of a difference between the skill set for non-profit services work and regular for-profit services work. Law is a field whose guiding principle is zealous advocacy and that is true whether you work at a corporate firm or a non-profit. Strong written and oral communication skills, relationship building, critical thinking skills, creativity, thinking on your feet, crisis management—these skills are essential across the board. The values may be different in that a for-profit legal office has to focus on making money, but I think the same is true of non-profit organizations. We are funded by local, state and federal government and foundations and have to provide deliverables and outcomes to justify our funding. The metrics are different, but no organization can function without money within capitalism.

Burnout is common in both non-profits and for-profits because zealous advocacy is the polar opposite of healthy boundaries and self-care. With non-profits, we have the added burden of vicarious trauma as most of our clients are marginalized people who have suffered often many forms of trauma throughout their lives. I always remind people to take care of themselves and be a bit selfish. If you quit, they will always find someone else to replace you. You have to sustain yourself and take care of yourself, no one else will. I learned this lesson after being very hard on myself in my twenties. Drinking water, eating regularly, taking breaks, moving more, vacations are all important to survive in this field!

 

CANDICE: What one thing would make the biggest difference in your work? Changes in governmental/law-enforcement policy? More donations? More lawyers choosing to advocate for the marginalized members of society? Something completely different?

JAE YOUNG: I do think social change has to happen outside of the courtroom. I think non-profit lawyers do important harm-reduction work, but the legal systems are created by those with power and protect those in power. Marginalized people having competent lawyers reduces the harm the systems cause but that doesn’t change the laws that work to maintain the same power structures. So I guess I am saying change the government!

 

CANDICE: Do you find that your work influences the stories you’re drawn to in fantasy? Do you need an escape, or stories where justice is served? If the latter, are there any books where you feel justice (through the courts or otherwise) was served in a satisfying way?

JAE YOUNG: I definitely use fantasy as an escape in that I don’t necessarily want to read stories about law or deep political intrigue. I also really love stories that focus on relationships between characters: friendship, romance, family, all of it. Sometimes I wonder if there could be books that really critique the legal systems and the injustices in fantasy versus a legal thriller.

 

CANDICE: This fall, you’re presenting a career development workshop intensive titled “Working for Change: Can We Wear Capes in Real Life?” as part of the Sirens Studio. Would you please give us a preview of what Studio attendees can expect to discuss and learn?

JAE YOUNG: I hope to share my real-life experience as a non-profit attorney and provide insights into legal systems. I can share what it’s like working for social change as part of your job and the good and the challenging parts of my work. Also, as someone who has also worked as manager for several years, I can talk about my transition to becoming a manager and share my experiences working with interns and staff with different strengths and weaknesses.

 

CANDICE: Sirens is about discussing and deconstructing both gender and fantasy literature. Would you please tell us about a woman or nonbinary person—a family member, a friend, a reader, an author, an editor, a character, anyone—who has changed your life?

JAE YOUNG: I would say Darshan, one of my best friends from law school, a South Asian queer woman. She has really been a mentor and the big sister I never had in many ways, sharing ways of navigating being a daughter of Asian immigrants and a woman of color in the non-profit world. She has also taught me so much about centering myself and my self-care and doing what is right for me.

 


Jae Young Kim has worked as a nonprofit attorney advocating for immigrants, people of color, survivors of domestic violence, and low-income people for fifteen years in New York City. Currently, she is Director of the Family and Immigration Unit at Bronx Legal Services. The Family and Immigration Unit (FIU) is an interdisciplinary team of attorneys, paralegals, and social workers that provides holistic services to meet the family law and immigration law needs of low-income residents in the Bronx. She received a JD from New York University School of Law and a BA in Philosophy, Politics, and Law from Binghamton University. Jae Young is also a lifelong fan of fairy tales and speculative fiction. In her free time, she tries reading for the book clubs she cannot stop joining, looking for the next meal, and watching too much reality TV.

For more information about Jae Young, please visit her Twitter.

Candice Lindstrom is an assistant editor for a business magazine publisher covering women, LGBT, minority, and disabled-veteran enterprises. In a past life she edited young adult and adult fiction for a paranormal publisher. When not reading for work, she’s reading for pleasure in almost any genre, but speculative fiction is her first love.

Ren Iwamoto: Exclusive Sirens Interview

As we look toward Sirens, we’re pleased to bring you exclusive interviews with this year’s brilliant Sirens Studio faculty. These conversations are a prelude to the workshops that these faculty will teach as part of the Studio later this year. Today, Sirens content coordinator Cass Morris speaks with Ren Iwamoto.

 

CASS MORRIS: Your graduate studies are focused on twentieth-century East Asian literature, Japanese colonialism, and post-colonial discourse. What drew you to that cross-section of topics? What impact do you think greater awareness of them can have on fantasy fiction?

Ren Iwamoto

REN IWAMOTO: It’s a topic I actually shied away from at first; I think I saw a post on Twitter about the erection of a statue commemorating the Korean comfort women who were abused during the Japanese occupation. I didn’t want to acknowledge it. Growing up in the diaspora, there is a certain degree of nostalgia for “the homeland.” But I’m also Canadian. I demand Canada be held accountable for concentration camps, residential schools, its well-buried history of slavery, the continued forced sterilization of indigenous women—why should I excuse Japan? Especially when even now, many people deny that such events as the Nanking Massacre even occurred. I deliberately fought my impulse to brush past the initial discomfort and instead sought out content that educated me.

Politics and history always have impacted the literary landscape, so as an academic my next step was to source material in my field. This was actually the most difficult part. My Japanese is too poor to read untranslated texts, so I, despite my best efforts, turned to manga (this isn’t a knock against manga, but unfortunately it’s a little difficult to get academic clout as an undergraduate studying comics). This turned out to be fortuitous, because Japan’s manga industry turns a multi-million dollar profit every year and is rife with magic, high strangeness, and future imaginings. As such, my interest in topics like nationalism, war, and industrialization found a fantastically large puddle to splash around in. The aim of my research is to unearth patterns in how the Japanese cultural context informs these themes.

To speak broadly of impact, any and all knowledge of real-world events alters how we interpret science fiction and fantasy. On a more personal level, seeing fantasy elements “inspired” by East Asia (but that actually just fetishize East Asia), or people who watch anime and think that means they understand what it means to be Japanese, I kind of want to smash someone over the head with a chair WWE-style. So I think awareness of the academic discourse—even on a relatively shallow level—helps generate a more complete knowledge and hopefully operates as a gateway for further investigation. There’s no ultimate goal for this sort of endeavor, but I do think compassionate, intellectually robust fiction helps compassionate, intellectually robust people bloom in the world. So.

 

CASS: You’re also an intern at P.S. Literary Agency. Tell us a little about the agency and the work you do there.

REN: I was, from May to November 2019. It was a wonderful experience. I worked for Eric Smith and Kurestin Armada, both of whom represent SFF for teens and adults, amongst other things. My primary duty there was reading slush and writing reader’s reports, which essentially document what works, what doesn’t, and whether I felt the piece was worth the agent’s time to look at. I loved reading the slush. There’s something deeply personal, and yet anonymous about it. I was consistently impressed by the quality of submissions.

I’m hoping to leverage the experience I earned at P.S. Literary to pursue a more long-term career in fiction publishing, but for now I’m content to apply what I learned there to my freelance practice.

 

CASS: Speculative fiction has the wonderful potential to hold mirrors up to the past, present, and future. What are some topics you hope to see speculative fiction explore? What’s on your wish list?

REN: I’ve almost certainly said this before, but speculative fiction should destabilize. Topic is almost irrelevant to me so long as the story turns some stone over; then something meaningful was accomplished. Magic, futurism, historical reimaginings, whatever it is that straddles the line between science and magic—these all have the potential to interrogate heterocentrism, patriarchy, gender, race, and so on. Even concepts like time and space open themselves up to deconstruction. That’s very exciting to me as both a pleasure reader and an academic, so whether the story is about war or star-crossed lovers or two kids riding their bikes around the neighborhood becomes secondary.

 

CASS: How and when did you fall in love with fantasy literature?

REN: In the interest of honesty, I have to say H*rry P*tter. They were the first books I read for my own pleasure, not for school or because my parents had picked them out for me. But given current circumstances, I’ve had to re-evaluate exactly what I liked about them. The conclusion I came to is that they taught me to love magic. I was and am deeply interested in the idea of there being another layer to reality, a secret layer, which only a few could access. It appealed to my fantasy of being a Special Person who could see and do Special Things. Fortunately, there is an abundance of precisely that kind of content created by people I’m not morally obligated to throw hands at on sight.

On a less commercial level, Gabriel Garcia Marquez was the first “fantasy” writer I engaged with on an academic level. So lush and ripe with sentiment! I’m still in love. To me, magical realism and its cousin genres do the same thing as the portal fantasies I loved growing up—they reveal something secret. If you know, you know. You know?

 

CASS: At this year’s Studio, you’ll be teaching “Seasoned with Soy Sauce: Asianization in Western Speculative Media and What It Means to Be ‘Asian-Inspired.’ ” What do you hope attendees will take away from your session?

REN: In my experience, everyone at Sirens has come already having done much of the groundwork regarding cultural appropriation. So my goal isn’t to teach that, nor is it to discourage people who aren’t East Asian from creating content which draws upon East Asian inspirations. Rather, I’m interested in conveying how the fascination with “the Orient,” which has featured so heavily in Western colonial history, has translated into modern storytelling practices. The aesthetic of East Asia is very sexy to a Western audience. Westerners love the image of Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai, Bangkok, and so on. It appeals to their idea of the Far East as either a hyper-sophisticated, hyper-urban paradise, or otherwise an overpopulated mega-slum riddled with opium dens and wet markets. Because this depiction is fundamentally shallow, and most often created by white people for white people, it’s impossible for its audience to fully appreciate the nuance of the East Asian experience (I, as a Japanese person, am only slightly more equipped). This is a rambling way of saying I hope the audience learns a little bit of colonial history in East Asia and world-building.

 

CASS: Sirens is about discussing and deconstructing both gender and fantasy literature. Would you please tell us about a woman or nonbinary person—a family member, a friend, a reader, an author, an editor, a character, anyone—who has changed your life?

REN: This is a cop-out, but I’ve become keenly aware of how every social movement which has benefited me as a queer person of color has been championed initially by Black women. Some of the most innovative and inspiring intellectuals in my field are Black women. And, because this is Sirens, some of the most exciting literature I’ve read this past year, both within and beyond the confines of SFF, has been written by Black women. So: Black women.

 


Ren Iwamoto is a Japanese-Canadian grad student from the tenth dimension. Her areas of interest include studies in death, gender, memory, grotesquerie, and post-colonialism; she is in eternal search of the thesis topic that combines all of the above. Her poetry has been featured in multiple publications. For more information about Ren, please visit her Twitter.

Cass Morris works as a writer and educator in central Virginia and occasionally moonlights as a bookseller in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. She completed her Master of Letters at Mary Baldwin University in 2010, and she earned her undergraduate degree, a BA in English with a minor in history, from the College of William and Mary in 2007. Her debut novel, From Unseen Fire: Book One of the Aven Cycle, is a Roman-flavored historical fantasy released by DAW Books. She reads voraciously, wears corsets voluntarily, and will beat you at MarioKart.

Marie Brennan: Exclusive Sirens Interview

As we look toward Sirens, we’re pleased to bring you exclusive interviews with this year’s brilliant Sirens Studio faculty. These conversations are a prelude to the workshops that these faculty will teach as part of the Studio later this year. Today, Sirens registrar Erynn Moss speaks with Marie Brennan.

 

ERYNN MOSS: Can you believe it has been a decade since you were a guest of honor at Sirens? Our theme that year was faeries and you were in the midst of publishing your Onyx Court series, a centuries-long epic following the fae of London. But I recall you also led us in a workshop on writing fight scenes and your methods, like your writing, were so clear and enjoyable that it’s no surprise you’ve continued to dedicate time to teaching. Recently you held a similar workshop at Clarion West in Seattle and your New Worlds Patreon is essentially a world-building encyclopedia of knowledge gleaned from your folklore and anthropology background, which some of us love for the nerdy sake of human culture factoids. How are you balancing your time/efforts between teaching/essays and your own writing?

Marie Brennan

MARIE BRENNAN: This really has been the year of me diving back into teaching—not just the in-person workshop for Clarion West, but also a slew of online ones, plus I’ve taught for Cat Rambo’s Academy for Wayward Writers and the Kelly Yang Project, which works one-on-one with students in Hong Kong. The good news is, unlike when I taught in an academic context, I don’t have to do any grading!

To some extent I’m able to do both because they come out of different buckets in my brain. Writing nonfiction doesn’t make the same demands on me as fiction does—which isn’t the same thing as saying it doesn’t make any demands, but I’m able to shift gears and work on A when I’m tapped out on B. I’ll admit, though, that the Patreon is intermittently draining: it’s been running for over three years now, with an essay every single week, and I’m not anywhere near done yet. I’m still excited by the project as a whole, but I go through periods where I drag my feet on actually writing that week’s essay, because ugh didn’t I just do this last week?

In the long run, though, the New Worlds project has also been really good for my fiction. Brainstorming possible topics of discussion doubles as reminding me of cool things I could be doing with my worldbuilding—which has particularly fed into the Rook and Rose trilogy I’m writing with Alyc Helms. They’ve got the same academic background I do, and I’m only sort of joking when I call the trilogy “When Anthropologists Attack.” We’ve been having a blast thinking through all the different elements of the setting and how they could feed into our story. And hey, the other day I re-read my own Patreon essays on security systems as a refresher before Alyc and I worked out a plot problem—so they’re becoming a resource I can use, too!

 

ERYNN: A mythically rare and majestic beast, your dragon-naturalist heroine, Lady Trent, is—gasp!—an older female main character. Her story starts off in her youth but continues over a lengthy career of adventuring and all told from her post-retirement perspective. She frequently stops the flow of her story to inject humorous details and opinions from her mature viewpoint. As a reader, I felt like you were having a lot of fun with her. Can you tell us a bit about writing from this particular point of view? And to follow up, your latest book in that world, Turning Light into Darkness, is the story of Lady Trent’s granddaughter, Audrey Camherst, and written in an entirely different style. What was it like continuing in this world, but with such a different voice?

MARIE: I don’t think I’m the type of writer typically cited as having amazing character voices…but man, when they click, they click. It took all of a paragraph for Lady Trent’s voice to materialize when I first started poking at her story. And although I didn’t realize it at the time, the approach I took to the viewpoint was absolute gold for the story. It isn’t just first-person; it’s her consciously relating her life story to an audience presumed to exist in her own world. Which meant I could get away with absolutely everything, because in the end, it’s all characterization. I need to describe a jungle? You’re not just getting the jungle; you’re getting Isabella’s experiences and opinions of the jungle. I need to explain something about the setting? Drop in a line where she says, “You young people won’t realize this because things have changed so much, but here’s how it used to be.” I can play freely with foreshadowing and irony, because she has fun pulling her audience’s strings on purpose. I won’t say that suits every kind of novel, but for this series, it worked out perfectly.

As for Audrey, figuring out how to make her different was pretty much the first challenge I faced—especially since I decided to keep up the conceit where every story from that world exists in the world. Audrey’s novel is assembled out of many different kinds of documents, from diary entries to letters to newspaper articles to police reports…and yes, that did make for some interesting hurdles along the way, as I had to figure out how to get certain bits of information across. Audrey primarily shows up via her diary, which was a more immediate kind of first person than Isabella’s—told immediately after the fact, rather than decades later—but I also tried to modernize her tone, since she lives in a period that’s more like the 1920s than the late Victorian era. A lot of it also boiled down to thinking about the ways in which her situation is different from her grandmother’s: Her drive to prove herself comes less from facing sexism and more from feeling the burden of having famous relatives. She’s much more rash in some ways, and also much more careless of the consequences, because she trusts that her family will always be there to help her out.

 

ERYNN: You’ve got a reputation for very structured worlds and defined characters—and there was talk of color-coded reference charts on your coming collaborative trilogy. By contrast, one of your amazing short stories, “This Is How,” is so poignant and elegantly pared-down that it’s almost a poem. It’s essentially about transformation and makes me wonder how you, consciously or not, go about achieving that kind of squishy organic space for your characters when they might have the span of an epic series or less than 2,000 words.

MARIE: Now, let’s be clear: Those color-coded charts for Rook and Rose are very much an anomaly! On my own, I tend far more toward the “discovery writing” end of the spectrum, figuring out my plot as I go along. But when you’re working with someone else, and furthermore when you’re writing a two hundred thousand-word novel with complex intrigue and multiple viewpoint characters, you can’t just hold it all in your head as a vague cloud and hope the other writer can read your mind. Especially not when you find yourself describing your characters’ lives as “a layer cake of lies and deception”—that’s when you wind up having to chart who knows what, which persona of theirs knows it, who knows they know it, and when they learned it. There was a point along the way when Alyc and I realized our cleverness had looped clear around and stabbed us in the back; it took something like two hours of chewing on the problem before we found a way to un-break our plot.

A short story is not only a different beast, I think it might belong to a different taxonomical kingdom entirely. “This Is How” fell out of my head when I was getting ready for bed one night: I sat down and wrote the whole thing in a single go, and when I was done I wasn’t even sure what I had. Was it a story? Was it just a weird pile of words? It’s an intuitive creation, not one I consciously built. I’ve yet to have a novel happen that way, though I know for some writers it’s possible.

So I think part of the answer is that they’re different skill sets. I used to be abysmal at writing short stories, because I was a natural novelist first; it took me years before I even learned what a short story-sized idea looked like. But at this point I’ve published more than 60 short stories, so I’ve had lots of practice in how to do cool character stuff both in a few thousand words and in tens or hundreds of thousands.

Articulating how to do it, though…? Let’s just say there’s a reason I teach things like worldbuilding and fight scenes, not short story techniques. Just because I can do a thing doesn’t mean I can explain it.

 

ERYNN: As I mentioned, you are currently working with fellow anthropologist, Alyc Helms, under the joint pseudonym M.A. Carrick on a series called Rook and Rose, the first book of which (The Mask of Mirrors) is currently expected in January. The two of you met on an archaeological dig in Wales, which is a great backstory. You’ve mentioned how helpful travel and richness of experience has been to getting the factual historical details of your books correct. Since your Sirens Studio workshop will be “Faith in Fantasy: Building Believable Religions,” what sort of non-academic experiences have been helpful for you to accurately and sensitively represent cultural practices and beliefs?

MARIE: It’s a bit of a fuzzy boundary between academic and non-academic experiences, because a lot of it boils down to “I’ve read things.” For any kind of worldbuilding, I think one of the most valuable things you can do is read about actual cultures in the real world; don’t just draw all your ideas from novels and other forms of fiction. And while it’s fine to start with the simple, Wikipedia level of research—especially when the topic is one you aren’t very familiar with, and you need that kind of basic orientation—you can’t stop there. It takes an investment of time and energy, not just to understand X, but to understand the things around X that affect it and give it context. Especially since that can help you find the places where you have unexamined assumptions coloring how you process everything else.

But it helps not to rely entirely on books, either. That’s why travel is good, if it’s something you can afford, and anything else that helps get you out of your familiar zone. Sometimes I think the brain has a range of motion just like the body does, and building up mental flexibility means it’s that much easier to learn about New Thing #17.

 

ERYNN: Speaking of your Sirens Studio writing workshop, what can attendees expect from “Faith in Fantasy: Building Believable Religions”?

MARIE: It’s going to be a ground-up approach, focusing not on high-level theological concepts like “let’s design a pantheon” or “write a myth for how the world got created,” but on what it means to be a character in that world who follows that religion. When a faith is strongly felt, it tends to permeate people’s lives in a hundred different ways—and those ways are what’s going to show up the most frequently in a story.

 

ERYNN: Sirens is about discussing and deconstructing both gender and fantasy literature. Would you please tell us about a woman or nonbinary person—a family member, a friend, a reader, an author, an editor, a character, anyone—who has changed your life?

MARIE: There’s no contest: Diana Wynne Jones.

Some of you reading this probably recognize her name, but for those who don’t: She was a British fantasy author, writing primarily for children and young adults (though the YA category didn’t really exist as we think of it now for most of her career). I credit her with turning me into a writer.

Like most kids, I made up stories. But when I was about nine or ten, I read her novel Fire and Hemlock—which, in addition to starting my fascination with the ballad “Tam Lin,” featured two characters who were writing a story together. It was the first time in my life I’d thought about that as a thing I could do, not just to entertain myself, but to entertain other people. I more or less decided on the spot that I wanted to be an author, and never let go of that decision.

(Though if you want to sample her work, I’m not sure I would recommend Fire and Hemlock as the place to start. It’s amazing, but its ending is also…really weird, and it was decades later that I found out part of the reason for its weirdness and half-comprehensibility was that I hadn’t read the T.S. Eliot poem woven into the logic and imagery of the climactic scene. Basically, I love that book even though I can’t entirely explain it.)

 


Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for material. She recently misapplied her professors’ hard work to Turning Darkness into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of the Doppelganger duology of Warrior and Witch, the urban fantasies Lies and Prophecy and Chains and Memory, the Onyx Court historical fantasy series, the Varekai novellas, and nearly sixty short stories, as well as the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides.

For more information about Marie, visit her website or her Twitter.

Erynn Moss is an enthusiastic reader who likes refreshing her soul by spending time with the brilliant people she finds at Sirens. She’s into comics, sewing, knitting, costumes, and camping. She currently lives in Louisville with her bff spouse and their toddler trainee-Siren.

Anna-Marie McLemore: Exclusive Sirens Interview

As we look toward Sirens, we’re pleased to bring you exclusive interviews with this year’s brilliant Sirens Studio faculty. These conversations are a prelude to the workshops that these faculty will teach as part of the Studio later this year. Today, Sirens co-founder Hallie Tibbetts speaks with Anna-Marie McLemore.

 

HALLIE TIBBETTS: When we interviewed you in 2018, when you were a Guest of Honor at Sirens, you said of your then-newest release, Blanca & Roja is also a reimagining of Swan Lake, so in many ways it’s a story about the roles we get cast in—as women, as queer women, as women of color—and how we can write our own stories instead.” You’ve since come out as nonbinary and I imagine that this idea of writing our own stories is as important to you as ever. How do writers push back on expected roles and claim their own stories? Do you have recommendations—fiction, nonfiction, anything—that you think exemplifies people claiming their own stories?

Anna-Marie McLemore

ANNA-MARIE MCLEMORE: It’s strange and wonderful coming back to Sirens knowing so much more about myself than I did a couple of years ago. And it’s funny that you mention Blanca & Roja, because I think I was trying to tell myself something with that book. There’s a passage where Page, who uses alternating pronouns, is talking about gender identity, and says “what you are is more beautiful than what you once thought you had to be.” My writer heart was basically screaming at me to hear those words, but it took me months to get that. Sometimes our storyteller hearts just know things first.

Thinking about claiming our stories, two books that come to mind are Dark Triumph, by Sirens community star Robin LaFevers—Sybella is an unforgettable example of a character who accepts that trauma is part of her but decides it won’t determine her—and This Is My Brain in Love, the latest from I.W. Gregorio—this book just gets what it’s like to have your brain buzzing with anxiety, while showing the characters as the fully complex people they are.

 

HALLIE: You’ve described your newest work, Dark and Deepest Red, as “sort of the secret history of a fairy tale.” Fairy tales are important to you: you re-tell them, you write new ones, their themes are inherent in your work. What is it about fairy tales that makes them so important to you?

ANNA-MARIE: Fairy tales are not just universal—every tradition has them—they’re also a way to talk about things that sometimes go unaddressed. In my own writing, fairy tales—whether I’m creating my own or reimagining a classic—are a landscape where magic speaks when something goes unspoken. When the Moon Was Ours is a fairy tale about a boy who paints the moon and a girl who grows roses from her wrist; it’s also about transgender identity and recovering from trauma. Wild Beauty brings readers into a world of queer Latina girls and murderous gardens; it also brings them into a conversation about colonialism and worker exploitation. When I reimagined “Snow-White & Rose-Red” and Swan Lake in Blanca & Roja, I was writing about colorism, queerphobia, and ableism while writing about enchanted forests and vengeful swans.

 

HALLIE: How and when did you fall in love with fantasy literature?

ANNA-MARIE: I fell in love when I stepped into Narnia as a little kid, and I kind of never left. But my dyslexia meant that I had a complicated relationship with reading. I was slow to identify myself as a reader because I was slow at the actual act of reading. But there were books that drew me in, overcoming my self-consciousness about whether I was really “a reader.” Many of them were fantasy novels. Two that were huge for me were Grave Mercy, by the above-mentioned Robin LaFevers, and Ash by Malinda Lo.

 

HALLIE: Since you’re coming to teach a writing workshop at Sirens, let’s talk writing! You’ve now published five young adult novels. How have you evolved as a writer, and how has your process evolved with you?

ANNA-MARIE: With every book, I get a little braver, and louder, about who I am, the communities I come from, and the stories I want to tell. My most recent book, Dark and Deepest Red, reimagines “The Red Shoes” in the context of the 1518 dancing plague. To tell that story in a way that felt honest and true, I knew it had to be about two brown girls five centuries apart, and it had to be about the ways they take the worst things the world says about them and use them to fight back.

I’m rallying all those little scraps of bravery as I look toward my next book, The Mirror Season, going out into the world. It’s the book of my SA survivor heart. It’s a story about two survivors, a secret forest, an enchanted pastelería, and the ways we find magic within our broken hearts.

 

HALLIE: This fall—fingers crossed!—you’ll be teaching “Finding Magic: Enchanting Characters and Their Worlds,” a writing workshop on magical realism, as part of the Sirens Studio. What can attendees expect from this time with you?

ANNA-MARIE: “Finding Magic” will be part primer on magical realism, part workshop on interweaving the idea of magic and character. Magical realism is a point of view I often come from as a Latinx storyteller, and it’s going to be the starting point to get us talking about crafting unique and vibrant magic as an integral part of a story’s landscape, no matter what the particular magic in your story looks like.

 

HALLIE: Sirens is about discussing and deconstructing both gender and fantasy literature. When we asked you this question a couple years ago, you talked about how your mom would be a brilliant and stylish queen or the most glamorous of witches. Would you like to shout-out someone else? Could you tell us about a woman or nonbinary person—a family member, a friend, a reader, an author, an editor, a character, anyone—who has changed your life?

ANNA-MARIE: Oh wow, thank you for reminding me that I said that about my mom, because I don’t think I ever told her, and that’s going to make her day.

I dedicated Blanca & Roja to two women who changed my life in a way they probably didn’t even realize at the time. But I’ve been trying to get in touch with them ever since. I’m a little heartbroken today, because I just found out that one of them died recently. She and her wife were together for over six decades. Still working on getting in touch with her wife. I’m really hoping I get to tell her how the two of them changed everything for me. Wish me luck <3

 


Anna-Marie McLemore (they/them) is a queer, Latinx, non-binary author who grew up hearing la llorona in the Santa Ana winds. Their books include The Weight of Feathers, a 2016 William C. Morris YA Debut Award Finalist; 2017 Stonewall Honor Book When the Moon Was Ours, which was longlisted for the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature and was the winner of the 2016 James Tiptree Jr. Award; Wild Beauty, a Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Booklist best book of 2017; Blanca & Roja, a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice; Dark and Deepest Red, a Winter 2020 Indie Next List title; and the forthcoming The Mirror Season.

For more information about Anna-Marie, please visit their website or Twitter.

Hallie Tibbetts has been involved with Narrate Conferences since its inception in 2006, serving variously as education officer, communications officer, and vice president, along with chairing a number of conferences (including many years of Sirens). She works in editorial at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers on books for children age zero to eighteen, but doesn’t mind if grownups like those stories too.

Sarah Gailey: Further Reading

Have you already loved Sarah Gailey’s work? American Hippo? The Fisher of Bones? Magic for Liars and Upright Women Wanted and When We Were Magic? Are you looking for more? Have we got a treat for you! As part of Sarah’s Guest of Honor week, we’re pleased to compile some of their short fiction, essays, interviews, and other work from around the web.

Sarah’s Short Fiction:

  • Drones to Ploughshares (2020): “No one ever had to know that he noticed things he didn’t log.”

  • Away with the Wolves (2019): “I can’t feel anything, really. That’s how it always is when I wake up. I can’t feel anything, because I have not yet tried to move. When I do try to move, there will be pain. There’s no telling where it will be—my hips, my shoulders, my spine, my thighs, my hands. Some days it lives in the muscles between my ribs, making every breath feel like an argument.”

  • The Thing That Hides in Your Home (2019): “Knowing where it is won’t protect you from it, but that won’t stop you from reading, because some part of you believes that knowing is the same thing as safety.”

  • Reynard Is Coming (2019): “Reynard used to be just like you. He thought he was clever. He thought he was above the rules. He thought he didn’t have to watch his back when he was stretching his legs and straddling the centuries.”

  • An Augmented Reality (2018): “Denise was already late, even before her augmented-reality glasses decided to perform another endless system update.”

  • From the Void (2018): “The way I miss Esther is a slow-spreading bruise.”

  • Bread and Milk and Salt (2018): “The first time I met the boy, I was a duck.”

  • The Catch (2018): “They didn’t usually come right up to vessels, not without being lured in by chum over the course of an afternoon, but there she was. Lean, chap-lipped, hungry eyed. Her hair was black — no, blacker than that — and it fanned out in the water as she smiled up at him.”

  • STET (2018): “Anna, I’m concerned about subjectivity intruding into some of the analysis in this section of the text. I think the body text is fine, but I have concerns about the references. Are you alright?”

  • There Are No Hands in the River (2018): “All that I wanted: to escape the ghost-rattling chains shackled to the thing at the center of me.”

  • All the Stars Above the Sea (2018): “All the stars are closer now than they have ever been. If you were still beside me you’d reach up on tiptoes, fingers spread to touch the brightest one.”

  • An Introduction to Pain (2018): “How badly are you hurting? Please identify your pain by weight and measure it from end to end, please rank the force and flavor of this guest that’s wedged itself into your life.”

  • Anne and the Stairs (2018): “Anne told Edgar that she was barren on the day that the stairs appeared.”

  • As Simple as Vanishing (2018): “When Maurice decided that he wanted to vanish that first time, all he had to do was try.”

  • What Grew (2018): “Before I knew I was pregnant I would stand before the mirror and wonder why I was different why I was growing what was wrong with my too-small skin.”

  • Worth Her Weight in Gold (2018): “Winslow Remington Houndstooth had a problem. The problem was Ruby.”

  • The Legend of Tania and Lula (2018): Lula’s gold tooth glinted in the light of the dying sun as she stared into the barrel of Tania’s Pulsar-1500. Sand swirled in eddies around her dust-clouded boots. Her eyes watered, but she didn’t blink. The sweat that had beaded across her forehead during the hike back to the ship evaporated in the rising wind as she came to understand her situation. She would die at Tania’s hand.”

  • Go Home, Go Home, Go Home (2018): “Earth’s gravity pulled at Anton’s bones like an insult.”

  • Our Collection (2018): “She died in a sea of wind-swept fury, her arms spread wide to catch the waves, she died with her cheek to the wind.”

  • The Nightmare Stays the Same (2018): “In the nightmare, Bess is having a fistfight. In the nightmare, she is winning.”

  • Anonymous Croupier (2018): “It was a hot night. One of those nights that would feel like mid-afternoon anywhere other than Vegas, you know?”

  • Single Parent (2017): “The monster in my son’s closet is so fucking scary.”

  • A Lady’s Maid (2017): “Isaac hadn’t taken the news of the engagement well. Nadia reflected on this as she pressed her cheek against the cool wall of her washtub. She was strong, and Isaac Cornette was a small man, but wrestling his dead weight into the tub hadn’t been easy.”

  • The Art of Asterculture (2017): “Star-wine is very difficult to make. It’s a complex and sometimes dangerous process. But one must have a hobby, and this is mine.”

  • Rescue (2016): “When they went to the dog park, Malachai had to wear sweatpants to blend in with the humans that congregated there. Going to the dog park required him to use very un-demonic magic: a careful layering of glamours to make him look like a small, balding human male, rather than the top-tier demon that he was.”

  • Homesick (2016): “I close my eyes, but it doesn’t really help, because it’s more the feeling than the seeing that’s the problem. I feel Moira’s dry lips scratch closed around my finger; I feel her split tongue wrap around my knuckle and slide up and down my fingernail. Then, a blessed numbness creeps up my hand, all the way to the wrist, and I don’t have to feel anything she’s doing anymore.”

  • Haunted (2016): “When he came inside, he kept his shoes on. That was my first clue. She took her shoes off, and looked around like she was standing in a cathedral. He rapped his knuckles hard on a wall, and I flinched.”

  • Stars (2016): “Maria can feel his voice, the vibration of it, but she cannot hear him over the ringing in her own ears. The ringing is loud, and she isn’t going to try to hear over it because she knows it would be impossible, like trying to see over the top of the horizon.”

  • Bargain (2016): “Malachai worked exclusively with those humans who had found themselves at the limit of how much power they could possess. They called him to bend the rules of time and space around their whims, so that they might be even more feared and loved by the other mortals.”

  • Look (2015): “Caroline raised her head a few inches to see the thing the doctor held up—a loud, purple thing, covered in white smears of vernix. She let her head drop. Her vision blurred with fatigue. The past thirty-seven hours had been pain and blood and screaming and working and waiting and then pushing, pushing, pushing, pushing. She knew the moment should be beautiful, but all she could think was ‘finished.’”

Sarah’s Articles and Essays:

  • Aging, Which Is Linear (2020): “I’ve decided, with this birthday, to let some things go.”

  • What Makes a Story Queer? (2019): “Magic for Liars is a book that is immensely concerned with identity, and whether or not identity is immutable.”

  • Magical Accessories, Definitively Ranked (2019): “A staff is a great magical accessory… for your great-grandfather to wield. A staff tells everyone who looks at you that you’re a very powerful wizard who doesn’t know how to use email and will never be on time. It’s the rotary phone of spellcasting.”

  • The Enduring Legacy of Bunnicula, a 40-Year-Old In-Joke That’s Still Hilarious (2019): “James and Deborah Howe were two struggling actors in their late twenties, married and underemployed, and they thought the idea of a vampire rabbit was funny.”

  • Imposter/Abuser: Power Dynamics in Publishing (2019): “We tell ourselves that we’re not important for a lot of reasons, many of which boil down to self-protection.”

  • Leave the Hookhand Murderer Alone (2019): “This story punishes the would-be-killer by taking away the device that functions as his prosthetic hand. This is a punishment that’s repeated often in media across genres: a disabled villain is separated from his adaptive device, and the audience is asked to view it as justice.”

  • Whiskey, Trauma, and The Doctor (2019): “[U]ntil recently, whiskey has tasted to me like burning death.”

  • Between the Coats: A Sensitivity Read Changed My Life (2018): “I thought I was writing in-genre. Fantasy stories have magic. Science fiction stories have rules that I don’t always understand because I somehow got through high school without taking a physics class. Queer stories have death.”

  • Iconic Outwear of Science Fiction & Fantasy Literature, Ranked (2018): “When I was in grade school I would have given my right arm for a way to get through my day without anyone seeing me. But does this cloak really deserve to beat out all other forms of fantasy outerwear? I say no.”

  • Fear No Evil: On Sorting Hats and Forest Gods (2018): “The hat does not require your input. The hat knows.”

  • The White Mountains (2018): “Occam’s razor: if you’re walking among gods and something is strange, think magic, not physics.”

  • Gods and Beggars (2018): “Simply put, a God disguised as a beggar isn’t testing the individual–they are testing the world that has created that individual. They are testing the health of the community.”

  • Fear of the Female Voice (2017): “For millennia, Western society has insisted that female voices—just that, our voices—are a threat. We’re afraid of wolves, and we’re afraid of bears, and we’re afraid of women.”

  • Harry Potter: A Beginner’s Guide to Evaluating Authority (2017): “Harry Potter is not a resistance manual. Harry Potter is a guidebook.”

  • The Hubris of Icarus: Women Who Fly into the Sun (2017): “There are two kinds of hubris. There are two kinds of hope. And the sky is so wide. If she could only fly.”

  • A Woman, Explaining Things (2017): “If they had the opportunity—if this new woman arrived at their front door with an extended hand, inviting them to come into the blue box with her and see a universe full of new and frightening things—I wonder what these furious people would do.”

  • River Song in Hades (2017): “She loves the adventure. She loves the journey. Like Persephone, she knows that winter and death are coming for her, but she rushes at them headlong, because she knows that the path she’ll travel to get there is one to be savored.”

  • Why Millennials Yearn for Magical School (2017): “We were told that a better world was waiting for us. We were told that a letter was on the way. We’ll just have to write the letter ourselves.”

  • On Feasting (2017): “You are a character in a fantasy novel. Congratulations: you have been invited to a feast.”

  • Finding Facts: American Identity Is Based on Alternate History (2017): “It’s the story told in my American History textbook, and it’s one of the most comprehensive works of fiction I’ve ever read.”

  • The Ecology of Alt-History, Or: The Hippos, the Hippos, the Hippos Are on Fire (2017): “The water hyacinth was a problem, and the meat shortage was a problem, and for a time—for a brief, glorious time—America saw a solution. We were going to fight an invasive species with the power of our big, important brains. We were going to get ourselves some hippos.”

  • Storytelling Through Costume: The Woman in White (2017): “In a blood-soaked world where survival is dependent upon grit and determination, the woman in white is spotless. She is radiant. She is pure.”

  • Storytelling Through Costume: The Badass Black Tank Top Walks the Line (2017): “She can wield a flamethrower the size of a Prius while biting out the word “fuck” and lighting a cigar, her boot firmly planted on the jugular of the man she just finished beating up for calling her a girl.”

  • Storytelling Through Costume: The Allure of the Red Dress (2017): “But the red dress isn’t just a costume; it’s an archetype. When we see the red dress, we already have an idea of what we can expect from the woman inside of it. She’s not bad; she’s just drawn that way.”

  • Mentally Ill Women Belong in Your Stories, Too (2016): “[R]egardless of the treatment mentally-ill women receive at the hands of literary authors, we are seen. We exist, and we participate in the world, and we hurt and heal and struggle and live. But we are not invited into space. We are not invited to attend on the Faerie Queen. We don’t attend Hogwarts or fly TIE fighters.”

  • Why We Write About Witches (2016): “When we write witches, we are writing about our expectations of women, and what we hope—and fear—they would do if they had access to power.”

  • Do Better: Sexual Violence in SFF (2016): “I want to be furious that SFF writers seem to have an easier time imagining faster-than-light travel than they do imagining a world in which sexual assault isn’t a constant threat.”

  • In Defense of Villainesses (2016): “We love her and we hate her in equal measure. We feel that way because she revels in being all the things that we are told we aren’t allowed to be.”

  • Dissociation Is Scary. Dissociation Is Safety. (2016): “And when I’m in the little dark room of memory, surrounded by words that remind me who can hurt whom, the only thing to do is to grope around in the blackness, trying to find a doorknob.”

  • The Harry Potter Series Is Actually One Long Story About PTSD: “When you read Harry Potter through the lens of trauma psychology, what you start to realize is that these books explore the aftermath of trauma in a surprisingly deep and compelling way.”

Sarah’s Interviews:

  • Q&A: Sarah Gailey, Author of When We Were Magic (2020): “I’m proud to have written something that, as I was writing it, reminded me that things can be good even when they’re messy and hard.”

  • Talks at Google (2019): On bringing fantasy and noir together in Magic for Liars, “I was really able to answer them with each other. They fit together like puzzle pieces.”

  • Spotlight On: Sarah Gailey (2019): “Some characters grow best in haunted houses, and others grow best in spaceships, and still others will only be able to put down roots in the house next door to mine.”

  • Interview with an Author: Sarah Gailey (2019): “I would definitely be into theoretical magic. It’s dangerous and ambitious and will kill you if you do it wrong, which is totally my jam. Also, it’s hard to explain at cocktail parties, which seems to be a central theme in all of my interests.”

  • An Exclusive Interview with Sarah Gailey (2019): “Everything I write has a queer perspective, even if the characters aren’t engaged in a storyline that interacts directly with queer sexuality or relationships. Themes of isolation, self-examination, identity, and found family are common in my work.”

  • Author Interview: Sarah Gailey (2017): “Fortunately, like any good writer, I happen to have a close relationship with an explosives expert.”

  • Sarah Gailey Talks Heists, Hope, Feral Hippos, and Defiantly Joyful Characters (2017): “River of Teeth imagines that Broussard’s dream came true, and that hippos came to America…and immediately did what hippos do—which is to say, whatever the hell they want because you try telling a hippo it has to stay behind a fence.”

  • Sarah Gailey on Sexual Violence in SFF (2017): “Everybody’s argument is, ‘Oh, we need to reflect real life.’ But really when you look at genre fiction, that’s not what we’re about. We’re not writing in order to reflect real life; we’re writing to paint new worlds and new social norms.”

  • Hugo Award Winner Sarah Gailey on Self-Care, Self-Imposed Deadlines, and Where Ideas Come From: “If I can get outside with a good book and some fresh fruit and maybe a glass of wine, I’m the happiest I can be.”

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Roshani Chokshi: There’s not a one-size-fits-all when it comes to the Chosen One


We’re pleased to bring you the fourth in a series of candid, in-depth interviews with this year’s Sirens Guests of Honor, covering everything from inspirations, influences, and craft, to the role of women in fantasy literature, and discussing our 2019 theme of heroes! We hope these conversations will be a prelude to the ones our attendees will be having in Denver this October. Today, Sirens co-founder Amy Tenbrink speaks with Roshani Chokshi, our first ever Sirens Studio Guest of Honor.

S15_author_interview_graphic

AMY: What does heroism, especially in the context of speculative fiction, mean to you? How did you set about reimagining the Pandava brothers as Aru and Mini, reluctant, contemporary seventh-grade heroines? And please tell me that you knew how girls would react to their heroism! Because my seven-year-old niece—who demanded to know why everyone in Harry Potter was a boy—can’t get enough Aru and Mini.

Roshani Chokshi

ROSHANI: To me, heroism is the act of celebrating the individual. There’s not a one-size-fits-all when it comes to the Chosen One. You can have the bravest, most compassionate mermaid in the world try to rise up against the forces of a Cheeto Overlord, but if the second she hits land, she’s barking in the eloquent lexicon of elephant seals, we’re still kinda fucked. A ridiculous example, of course, but to me it reflects how each of these character’s strengths and weaknesses makes them—and only them—uniquely fit to tackle the story’s situation. Kids need to see a thousand versions of heroism. They need to see themselves and feel that greatness and valor doesn’t belong to one type of person.

The Pandava brothers all had defining characteristics—the strong one, the beautiful one, the wise one, the responsible one, the one who’s good at everything wtf. I loved reimagining how their strengths and, more importantly, their weaknesses would translate in the modern world. For example, Arjuna—the main hero of the Mahabharata and whose soul Aru possesses—has a lot of doubt. And it really struck a chord with me that in the struggle to be brave, we often question the paths we’re on.

As for the girls’ reactions, that grew out of the Sailor Moon fanfiction I used to write. In those stories, me and my best friends became sailor scouts. Our reaction to this newfound strength and responsibility??? UTTER PANIC. “WHAT NO, TAKE IT AWAY, DO NOT WANT.” So, very similar to Aru and Mini. 🙂 I’m glad your niece enjoyed!!

Aru Sha and the End of Time Aru Shah and the Song of Death

 

AMY: Relatedly, perhaps, how do you set about writing gender in your work? Your characters frequently defy and subvert stereotypes, such as in A Crown of Wishes when Gauri’s go-to problem-solving technique is violence, while Vikram’s is charm. Your characters also often address gender issues on the page, from the gods’ relentless assumptions that Aru and Mini could not possibly be the reincarnated Pandava brothers to Laila’s admonishment of Tristan in The Gilded Wolves that “If you get in the way of a woman’s battle, you’ll get in the way of her sword.” How do you build these characters that are wholly themselves, despite our societal expectations of their gender?

ROSHANI: I love this question mostly because it makes me feel very smart. Woohoo! Characters take me a long time. They don’t come naturally to me, and it’s one of the parts of my craft I’m always working on. I think the reason why I struggle with building characters is because they demand a part of your soul, and I’m loath to make more Horcruxes and end up as a noseless Voldemort. I give each of my characters a part of myself. Either a part I’m ashamed of or a part I’m proud of, and then I put those characteristics in situations that move in the opposite direction…that which made me feel shameful becoming a benefit, that which I was proud of becoming its own poison. That is how they stay themselves despite the expectations the world may shove upon them. When it comes to societal expectations of gender, it makes me happy when a character celebrates who they are relentlessly, even if they’ve got other flaws. For example, Vikram is a prince and he knows he’s smart and adorable and celebrates that in himself. He would walk around in a shirt that says “BETA HERO” and really not think less of himself. Laila is different. She is a character aware that she exists on the margins; aware that she’s exoticized; aware that she sometimes must participate in exoticizing herself to live in this world. But she thinks no less of herself. I think knowing how your characters think of themselves is key to making them feel more alive.

The Star-Touched Queen A Crown of Wishes

 

AMY: Your dad is Indian and your mom is Filipino, and in an interview with Rick Riordan, you said, “The way that we bridged those cultural gaps at home was fairy tales and stories…. The more things that you read, the more stories, fables, etc., the more you see that they’re all the same across every cultural spectrum.” And you can see that, so readily, in your work, from your contemporary, America-set version of the Pandava legends, to your latest novel, Paris-set The Gilded Wolves, which features both Indian Laila and half-Filipino Enrique. You’ve also spoken eloquently about trying to bridge those gaps in your own life, including in your wedding this year! What is it like to put these cultural bridges, and related colonial deconstructions, into your work?

ROSHANI: It’s honestly sometimes awkward. I never know if I’m crossing into the realm of TMI or if I sound like a broken record. At the end of the day, all I can reassure myself with is that I needed to hear these perspectives when I was younger and those resources weren’t available to me. The very least I can do is try to help someone else avoid that situation of feeling erased and invisible. I think about this a lot when I look at some of my earliest stories. I was 22 before I wrote my first story with a character who looked like me. Until then, they were all named Erin or Hailey or Alice. I didn’t write myself in because I felt like I needed permission from the books I read.

 

AMY: Just when I thought I couldn’t possibly love any of your work more than Aru Shah, along you came with The Gilded Wolves: a dazzling, dizzying heist novel set in Paris during La Belle Époque. But your Paris is not all champagne and magic and courtesans, it’s racism and colorism and colonialism. Then you layered in a series of riddles based on things like the Fibonacci sequence, a cast of gloriously unique and hilarious characters, and a lush, slow-burn sensuality. How did you even begin to create this work? And perhaps more importantly, how did you get it from your head to the page?

The Gilded Wolves

ROSHANI: I’m so glad you enjoyed!!! The Gilded Wolves really challenged me both craft-wise and imagination-wise, and is far different from anything I’ve ever written. I rewrote the story top to bottom about eight times, and there were so many points at which I thought I should just throw in the towel and beg my publisher to let me write something else. The Gilded Wolves had innocent, jovial beginnings. I just wanted to write a National Treasure-esque tale without Nicolas Cage (lol). But the setting and deciding to put imperialism on the page changed the emotional scope of the book, and when I dug deeper into the characters and their motivations, I realized this couldn’t just be “Ooh! A thing! Let’s go to where the thing says!” I had to think about what this trilogy was saying overall and that took a lot of failed attempts! Getting it from my head to the page was like an organized, military attack. My whole apartment was taken up with plot/emotional schematics. The door to my office had red notecards in a vertical line that outlined every plot beat and plot twist. Beside those cards were the individual emotional arcs and beats that needed to be hit. It was…rough. But it taught me a lot!

 

AMY: You’ve shared how Aru Shah came to be: You’d heard about the new Rick Riordan Presents imprint and emailed your agent that same day to ask about the opportunity. Then you wrote the first three chapters in a “fugue state.” And they bought the books! So often we’re taught that ambition is unseemly and unlikeable. Would you please share what it was like to chase that dream—and what it felt like when you heard that Rick Riordan Presents would be publishing the Aru Shah series?

ROSHANI: Ambition is riotously attractive and let no one tell you otherwise! I think with any dream chasing, there’s a certain amount of feeling like you’ve lost touch with the ground. You’re drunk and floating on external validation, your head feels like it’s in the clouds, and it’s great until you start wondering if you’re too far away to hear commonsense. Like, how DARE you be so happy? How DARE what you wanted and worked hard for suddenly happen? Being a woman of color makes me especially awkward when it comes to talking about my accomplishments. I always deflect it, thinking that the happier I am, the higher the chances that the universe will snatch it away because of arrogance. The wonderful thing about an experience like RRP was that it was harrowing. For the first time, I felt very…public…in a way that I hadn’t experienced with my other books. I got bullied. I got weird Insta comments and DMs. And not taking ownership of my words was no longer an act of modesty but cowardice. It taught me to articulate that I was proud of the story I’d written, that someone couldn’t take this from me and don’t you dare chase me because I chase back.

 

AMY: Sirens is about discussing and deconstructing both gender and fantasy literature. Would you please tell us about a woman or nonbinary person—a family member, a friend, a reader, an author, an editor, a character, anyone—who has changed your life?

ROSHANI: I have dutifully spoiled my moms, sisters, grandmother and aunts so I know they’ll forgive me for not writing a novella of their wondrous and noble qualities for this answer and picking someone else for a change. I would say my eighth grade English teacher, Ms. Koscik. I did not like my seventh grade English teacher (except for that one and ONLY time she liked my writing) and I had a deficiency in her class. More than that, I always felt foolish. But in eighth grade, Ms. Koscik nurtured my imagination. She made me feel that what I said was worth saying. Eighth grade was when we tackled Arthurian myths and World Mythology, and read Shakespeare and engaged with the language. It was awe-inspiring. Sometimes it only takes one person to say they’re listening to make us have the courage to speak up.


Roshani Chokshi is the New York Times bestselling author of the Star-Touched series and Aru Shah and The End of Time, Book #1 in the Pandava series. She grew up in Georgia, where she acquired a Southern accent but does not use it unless under duress. She has a luck dragon that looks suspiciously like a Great Pyrenees dog. Her work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Uncanny Magazine, Shimmer, and Book Smugglers. She is a 2016 finalist for the Andre Norton Award, and a 2016 Locus finalist for Best First Novel. Her short story, The Star Maiden, was longlisted for the British Fantasy Science Award.

For more information about Roshani, please visit her website or her Twitter.

 

Nilah Magruder: Art is a storytelling tool writers can use to make their work stand out

Sirens Studio takes place October 22–23, 2019, just prior to the official start of the conference, and gives attendees the opportunity to enrich their learning in the form of small-group workshop intensives. We’re thrilled to interview a few members of our tremendous faculty on their work, reading, inspirations, and workshop topic! Today, we’re chatting with Nilah Magruder, who will lead the writing development workshop “The Visual Narrative: Developing Illustrated Projects and How to Write Like an Artist” this fall. To learn more and register, please visit our Sirens Studio page.

 

AMY TENBRINK: Your work is amazing—anyone who hasn’t glanced through your portfolio or spent an afternoon with M.F.K. should do so at once—but the scope of your work is also amazing! You’ve storyboarded for Dreamworks and Disney; you’ve created comics for Marvel; you’ve illustrated for other authors, such as Daniel José Older’s Dactyl Hill Squad series; and you’ve written and illustrated both a children’s book (How to Find a Fox) and a graphic novel (M.F.K.). How did you find your way into doing all these wonderful things?

Nilah Magruder

NILAH: Actually, I think Twitter had a lot to do with it. That’s how I first met Daniel José Older. He was editing an anthology, Long Hidden, and I may have tweeted at him or retweeted one of his tweets, but he saw I was an artist and reached out about contributing to the anthology. So we’ve known each other since then, and then when he sold Dactyl Hill Squad, he suggested my name to Scholastic and luckily they thought it was a good idea. I actually asked Kathleen Wisneski—the editor at Marvel who hired me for A Year of Marvels—recently how she became familiar with my work, and she suggested it might have been through Twitter, too. It helped that I was doing a webcomic at the time, but meeting other webcomic artists and finding a community through social media was also instrumental in building M.F.K.

Dactyl Hill Squad A Year of Marvels

 

AMY: I imagine that each of your projects is quite different. For example, storyboarding or creating for someone else must be very different from crafting your own graphic novel. And creating a children’s picture book must be very different from a graphic novel—and certainly your artistic style is very different in How to Find a Fox and M.F.K. How do you approach these different types of projects?

How to Find a Fox

NILAH: The needs of each project come first. When I’m working for a client, usually they tell me what those needs are, haha. It can be difficult to switch from project to project, so I always take time to research and reset my brain. For picture books, I’ll go to the bookstore or library and check out what’s new. For graphic novels, I’ll do some exploratory drawing, or read through notes or scripts I’ve already written. It’s similar for storyboarding, though in addition to scripts there’s usually also animatics or design sheets to reference. And for illustrating book covers, I keep Pinterest boards of illustrated book covers to inspire me.

 

AMY: What do you love about all the different things you do? Do you have a favorite type of project or a soft spot for something in particular that you’ve done?

All Out

NILAH: I have a background in marketing and journalism; in those jobs I often had to shift focus at the drop of a hat. Or maybe I just have a short attention span, LOL. The point is that I enjoy moving around and juggling multiple projects. When I get stuck on or bored with one, I can move to another. The glue that binds them together, though, is story. I love storytelling in its various forms, and I gravitate to whatever medium has the best storytelling potential at any given time. It’s hard to pick a favorite because each type of project has its challenges, but I guess I’ll always gravitate to stories about girls and women on journeys of discovery, whether they’re searching for home, love, or foxes.

 

AMY: In 2015, you won the Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity in Comics for M.F.K. What advice do you have for creators generally, but in particular for creators who are not white, cisgendered, heterosexual, and male?

M.F.K.

NILAH: I usually answer this question with “finish something,” but this time I’ll add: trust your instincts. Because of the homogeneity in creative industries, you’ll sometimes find that you don’t have very many role models or examples for the type of story you want to tell or the type of creator you want to be. Get used to throwing caution to the wind and forging your own path. I usually create for myself and say, “If I like it, then it’s likely at least one more person in the world will like it, too.” So I create for me and that person; just the two of us.

 

AMY: This fall, you’re presenting a workshop intensive for writers titled “The Visual Narrative: Developing Illustrated Projects and How to Write Like an Artist” as part of the Sirens Studio. Would you please give us a preview of what Studio attendees can expect to discuss and learn?

Marvel Rising

NILAH: As a visual artist who also writes, I’ve noticed that there can be a disconnect between the two sides. The conversations I have with artists are very different from the conversations I have with writers. With this workshop, I hope to bridge the divide. We’ll be discussing art as a story-telling tool, the responsibilities of the writer on illustrated projects and the responsibilities of the artist. We’ll cover where to find artists for your project and how to approach them. We’ll also be discussing some design techniques that writers can employ to make their writing stand out. Visual arts as a medium and as an industry can feel intimidating and exclusive, but I believe there’s a lot that writers can learn about their own craft by embracing the visual arts.

 

AMY: Sirens is about discussing and deconstructing both gender and fantasy literature. Would you please tell us about a woman or nonbinary person—a family member, a friend, a reader, an author, an editor, a character, anyone—who has changed your life?

NILAH: Haha, I told my mother I was stumped on this question and she said, “Well, you always have to answer with your mom!” She’s certainly where I got my deadpan sense of humor. There have been a lot of influential women in my life who have shown me the value of strength, kindness, commitment, and creativity. One such woman was my art professor Joyce Michaud. My final year at Hood College was a big one for both of us; just as I was preparing for graduation, Joyce was reinstating the art program, which had ended ten years prior. I’d been majoring in communication arts up until that point, but with Joyce’s encouragement and guidance, I took art as a second major… in my last year of school! I took more classes that year than any other year in my schooling history. It was challenging and frustrating, and Joyce pushed me hard and I was not always grateful, haha! But I made it through my senior thesis, I aced all my classes, and I graduated.

A couple years later, when I decided I was ready to look into animation programs, I went back to Hood and met with Joyce for more guidance. She hardly gave me a chance to tell her what schools I was considering when she said, “Oh, you have to go to Ringling.” I’ve since attended Ringling and graduated, and now work as a storyboard artist and writer for animated television in Los Angeles. Joyce had a pretty huge role in getting me from a college student who was particularly good at drawing to a working professional artist. Have I given her copies of my books? I should really do that.

 


Nilah Magruder is a writer and artist based in Los Angeles. From her beginnings in the woods of the eastern United States, she developed an eternal love for three things: nature, books, and animation. She has written and storyboarded for television studios like DreamWorks and Disney. She also illustrates children’s books, including the Dactyl Hill Squad series by Daniel José Older from Scholastic. Nilah is the author of M.F.K., a middle-grade graphic novel from Insight Editions and the winner of the Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity, and How to Find a Fox, a picture book. She has published short fiction in the anthology ALL OUT (edited by Saundra Mitchell), in Fireside Magazine, and for Marvel Comics. When she is not working, Nilah is watching movies, growing herbs, roller-skating, and fighting her cat for control of her desk chair.

For more information about Nilah, please visit her website or her Twitter.

 

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