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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Interview with Rachel Aaron (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Rachel Aaron Website
Read FBC’s Review of "The Spirit Thief"
Read FBC’s Review of "The Spirit Rebellion"
(Photo Credit: Marshal Zeringue)

Last year was a good year for me in terms of discovering new authors. Among those authors I had the pleasure to chance upon was Rachel Aaron. Rachel Aaron’s Spirit series was acquired by Orbit in 2008 and published in quick succession in the last quarter of 2010. In this interview, Rachel touches upon various topics such as her hobbies, the evolution of her ideas, and what the future holds for the remainder of the series. Please note, there are a couple of very mild spoilers in the interview, but these should not detract anything from the reading experience. Lastly, on behalf of Fantasy Book Critic, I would like to thank Rachel very much for taking time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions. Now on to the interview!

Q: Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic. To start with, could you tell us what inspired you to be a writer in the first place, what experience you went through in finding a publisher, how you ended up with Orbit, and anything else you’d like to share about yourself?

Rachel: Well, I've yet to meet an author who didn't always want to be one, and I'm no different.This was all I wanted to do. I even chose English as my major thinking it would help me become a writer. Turns out English majors spend most of their time picking apart other people's books rather than writing their own, but it was still a good choice. After I graduated from college I got a job with low expectations and lots of downtime and started writing in earnest. Four years and two books later, I got “The Call” from my now agent offering representation. This was the happiest day of my life, beating out the day I was married and the birth of my son (sorry, family!). We sold The Spirit Thief and two sequels to Devi Pillai at Orbit a few months later.

I'd like to take a moment to say that I've been amazingly lucky in my publisher. As a new author I've only worked with one, but if you hang out around author blogs you hear some publishing horror stories. Orbit, however, has been nothing short of 110% amazing for me and my series. I really could not fantasize a better publisher. Even if they hadn't bought my series, I'd be a total Orbit fangirl. Their covers are beautiful, their books are amazing, and their people are incredible.

Q: It has been mentioned that you are a Manga/anime fan. Which books and characters are your favorites, and do you have any manga recommendations for us?!

Rachel: Oh wow, you've done it now. Let's see, where to start? First off, I like fighting shows for pure cheesy fun. These tend toward the adolescent and ridiculous, but they can also achieve dramatic heights that simply can not be reached without a hundred episodes of back story. Of these, my personal favorites have been Hajime no Ippo (which is about boxing, and amazing), Bleach, and the ever astounding One Piece. I've been watching One Piece for eight years now and I still haven't caught up to the current episodes. The show can be really silly at times, but if you can get past the absurdity it's got some of the most emotional, uplifting, and kick ass stories in anime.

Outside of fighting stories, the shows I would recommend without reservation are Death Note, which is the smartest, twistiest thing I've ever watched, Serei no Moribito (incredibly beautiful and moving), Mushi-shi (quiet and ethereally beautiful), and my all time favorite ever, Legend of the Twelve Kingdoms (Juuni no Kokki). Twelve Kingdoms has everything: an amazing and interesting world, an incredibly strong female lead, high drama, dynamic characters who not only change, but change multiple times through each season. I first watched it when I was in high school and I still watch the series through once every two years.

Q: Your five-book series seems tailor-made to be converted into films and if this were to happen (say on an unlimited budget) who would you cast as Eli, Nico, Josef and Miranda?

Rachel: I would be lying if I said I hadn't thought about this, but unfortunately some of my people aren't actually actors. Still, since this is a fantasy scenario, Eli would be David Tennant, Josef would be David Beckham (I know, I know, but have you seen that man sneer? Perfect Josef. Also, his body is the perfect kind of musculature for a swordsman.) Nico would be a scared Zooey Deschanel, and Miranda would be a very determined Felicia Day.

These are, of course, only my first choices. I'm sure I could come around to any well cast choices a production company could find for an Eli movie or mini-series (Syfy, Disney, HBO, CALL ME!)

Q: Your blog has a rather funny title. Is there any particular reason for choosing it?

Rachel: That's actually a very old joke. Back when I first decided I wanted a writing blog, I spent days trying to think of a clever, funny, erudite name. After almost a week with no strokes of brilliance, I gave up and called it “Pretentious Title Goes Here.” This eventually got shortened to blog's current name, Pretentious Title. I like it; I think it conveys a certain understanding of the nature of blog titles. Also, I still haven't come up with that clever name.

Q: You have created quite a delightful world in your books. The quirkiness in it is very reminiscent of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. What was your inspiration for its creation?

Rachel: I want to say it was something deep and meaningful, but really it was as simple as “OMG what if everything could talk?” And then I started working out how that would work, how these objects would interact, what would the hierarchy be, who would keep order, why did they talk, what did they talk/care about, and so on and so forth. By the time I was done poking at all the angles, I had a complete magical system. Unfortunately, I didn't have a story for it at the time, so I shelved it for years until I got the idea for Eli. The two went together like it was meant to be, and after that the story flowed on its own.

Q: Whilst reading your books, even though they are fantasy, one also gets quite an SF-al feel from them. This is especially felt in the third book (for eg. the scene with the Shepherdess and the claws). Will you be exploring more about this in the remaining books?

Rachel: Yes. I don't think I'm spoiling anything here by saying that The Shepherdess and the “what is going on with this world” questions are the big plot of the series, and the closer we get to the end, the bigger these problems get. They play a big roll in book 4 and book 5 pretty much is nothing but dealing with these problems because things are really going to hell. That said, I'd like to mention that the title of Book 5, which is now "Spirit's End", was originally The Other Side of the Sky. Anyone who's read book 3 will know what that's referring to :D

The best part of writing fantasy is that you're free from any of the rules of the real world that don't fit your story. Want to throw physics out the window? Go for it, but be prepared to deal with the consequences. Setting your own rules means playing by them, and when you build a world from scratch, you've got to think all the way to the edges or the world is going to ring false. For example, the Eli world, while it has a sun and moon, does not actually orbit a star. This means it has no seasons. I knew this from the very beginning, but it was only when I started planning book 2 that I knew what I was going to do with that. But whatever I was going to do with it later, the no seasons thing was always a fact, and it was reflected in the story from the very beginning. This way, when it did become important, everything is consistent. Good planning is the foundation of fictional godhood!

Q: The first three books were released in such quick linear fashion. I, of course, thoroughly enjoyed reading them back-to-back. What was the thought process behind this? How much time did you take/get to write the first three?

Rachel: I can claim no merit, it was Orbit's decision to release all the books back to back. From a book seller's perspective, it makes sense. After all, if you've got a book that encourages people to run out and buy the sequel, but the sequel isn't out for a year, the number of people who are going to still remember they wanted that book a year later is much smaller. It's in everyone's interest to release a series quickly: readers get books faster and publishers get higher sales. Also, it lets the publisher spend their ad budget for a series all at once rather than break it up for each book as it releases. This means instead of three small campaigns you get one large one, which is a lot more bang for your buck when it comes to reaching people. It's just a great system all around, I actually don't understand why more publishers don't go this route.

Of course, this also meant there was a 2 year gap from the sale of The Spirit Thief to actually seeing it on shelves, but it was totally worth it. I got to work on three books with the luxury of being able to go back and change things it I needed to, which you don't get when the books are already out. It was a great safety net for writing my first series and totally worth the wait.

Q: I loved the idea of a thief who wanted to have a huge bounty on his head. What do you think is the reason for Eli’s fascination with the number one million and will he get there?

Rachel: Eli chose the one million mark when he was pretty young. It's one of those nice, round, highest-number-you-can-think-ofs that kids like so much. Because of circumstances that I get into in book 5 he's stuck with it more fervently than he might have otherwise, but since Eli equates bounty with self worth, he'd always be shooting high. As for my thoughts on whether or not he'll get there, I can only answer this: Eli will get to a one million gold bounty or die trying. The real question is whether he'll get there before the series end, and on that point I'm keeping my mouth shut :).

Q: Even though your series embraces a number of fantasy tropes, you also have made a rather strong effort to twist reader expectations and keep them entertained. What are your thoughts on fantasy tropes in general and how did you decide what tropes you wanted to utilize, to entice the reader?

Rachel: I love fantasy. LOVE IT! I've read fantasy since I started reading, I play RPGS, both console and dice varieties, I just can't get enough of it. I also love the tropes of fantasy – the hero, the quest, the vague medieval setting. They're part of what gives fantasy its flavor. But even delicious foods get boring if you eat them all the time, so I try to mix things up. Fortunately, the ubiquitous nature of fantasy tropes makes this easy. I can count on my audience to have certain expectations, which means I can pull off jokes and arrange surprises just by twisting things around and we can all be in on the joke.

But even though I do poke a lot of fun at fantasy, the Eli books are true to their adventure fantasy roots. My goal was to create a world that felt extremely comfortable and familiar, but was new and exciting at the same time. I wanted people to laugh along with me, to have as much fun as I was having and to remember why we love fantasy.

That said, I still haven't figured out a way to get dragons in. Epic fantasy fail!

Q: Recently I have heard that books four and five in the series have been pushed back to 2012, any particular reason this happening?

Rachel: A couple reasons, most of them boring. The long and short of it is that the series has changed. If you've read the first three books, you've noticed they get darker, longer, and much more serious as they go. This was because I set myself up with some very powerful main characters right from the get go. As any GM knows, if you're going to challenge powerful characters, the stakes have to get higher and the situations have to get more desperate or your characters are just going to bash their way through any problems without being forced to really fight, which is no fun for anyone. Also, all of the characters in the Eli books have fairly dark pasts. If they were going to grow, they were going to have to deal with their demons, Nico literally! Also, the cast grew, so the complications got more complicated because there were more people involved. All of these things added up to bigger, darker books, and the light humor covers and marketing Orbit had set up wasn't really right for the series any more. So Orbit, being awesome, decided to rebrand my books to be truer to what was actually inside. But rebranding takes time, so the books had to be pushed back. The first three will be re-released in omnibus format with a new cover that has a more serious tilt to it in Spring 2012. Books 4 and 5 will follow quickly after that, and readers can expect the whole series to be out by the end of 2012.

I'm sad that people have to wait so long, especially since I think book 4 is one of the best things I've ever written and I want people to read it RIGHT NOW, but I think this method will be good for the series in the end. You'll be able to buy the whole thing in three books rather than five, and hopefully changing the photo covers to illustrated ones will help people stop thinking the books are urban fantasy, which was another problem.

Book selling is hardly an exact science. Sometimes you've just got to tinker with things. Fortunately for me, Orbit is 100% behind the series. Have I mentioned how amazing they are?

Q: You once posted about a writing quote by Hemingway. Why do you think it is so sacrosanct to this field?

Rachel: Because it's so freaking true. As I said earlier, I've always wanted to be a writer, but, like most people who want to be writers, I didn't actually write much. It wasn't that I didn't want to, but I was busy. I had school, I had work, etc. Then, one day, almost by accident, I saw the quote in question. “Those who say they want to be writers, and aren't writing, don't.”

I don't like Hemingway much, but those words hit me right in the gut. Here I was saying I wanted to be a writer, but I wasn't making any time in my life to actually write. I was failing at the verb from which the noun I wanted to become was derived. So, I changed. I started trying to write every day. I didn't always make it, but I tried, and the more I tried, the more I became a writer.

All writers write in their own way. I can't teach someone else how to tell their stories more than anyone could have taught me how to tell mine. But there is one thing all writers do; they write. Writing is what makes a writer a writer, and if you're not doing it, then no matter what you call yourself, you're not a writer. So whenever people email me saying they want to be writers, that's the quote I send them. Want to be a writer? Write. Everything else comes later.

Q: Could you explain how the genesis of the Spirit series occurred? How long have you been working on it and how much has it evolved from its original idea (if any)?

Rachel: As I said earlier, I came up with the magical system for Eli long long before Eli himself entered the picture. The idea has matured greatly from “what would a world where everything could talk be like?” but the two things that really took the magical system from a fun thought experiment to the world setting for a five book series were the idea of demons and the Shepherdess, Benehime. Once these two elements, a predator and a controller, entered the picture, the world's power structure and all the problems that go with that sprang into being.

Slightly off topic, I'd like to confess that I often feel guilty about the Shepherdess. I'm a feminist and as such I try not to play to female stereotypes, one because they're boring, and two because I don't want to give them any more power through repetition. That said, Benehime is manipulative, emotionally abusive, and obsessed with a boy. Siiiigh! Don't worry though, as with everyone else in this series, she's not that simple. Book five is as much Benehime's book as it is Eli's, and I'm REALLY looking forward to letting all the big secrets out.

Q: You have listed Sarah Monette as your favorite writer. What is it about her books that you find so appealing and read-worthy?

Rachel: I love Sarah Monette because everything that comes out of that woman's mouth is genius. I read her blog, and even her posts about taking her cats to the vet has some observation or turn of phrase that just makes me want to give up and never write again because I can never be that clever. Her books are so visceral, so physical, you can smell them and taste them and feel them. I can't even call it reading, her books are an immersive experience. Whenever I want to be transported to another world, I read Melusine.

I think I enjoy her work so much because it's nothing like mine. Lots of times I'll read books and think of what I would change or I'll pick apart the story, but with Sarah Monette I just experience and enjoy. She's a very personal favorite, and I'm not holding Melusine up as the best book ever written from a craft standpoint (that honor is shared by The Last Unicorn and Ender's Game so far as I'm concerned), but she is the author I enjoy more than any other when it comes to reading for fun.

Q: You have this wonderful Three hooks test. Can you summarize what this is for our readers and also give an example of how you utilized it in your books?

Rachel: The three hooks are three standards I apply to my scenes. See, I tend to fall in love with my own writing. This is dangerous as an author because you start including scenes just because you like them, not because they're good for the book. To prevent this, I created the three hooks as a sort of mental checklist to make sure I didn't have my head up my ass. For any scene to be included in a book I write, it must:

1) advance the story
2) reveal new information
3) pull the reader forward.

For example, there's a scene in The Spirit Thief where Miranda (the cop to Eli's robber) is explaining how magic works to Marion, a young woman from a country where wizards have been banished and magic isn't allowed. Now, this could be the baldest sort of info dumping, (Why hello ignorant person! You don't understand how magic works, you say? Let me explain!) but with the three hooks, I was able to save it.

First, I put Miranda in a tight spot – she's a wizard in a country that is not only ignorant of what she does, but extremely prejudiced against any sort of magic. Miranda's attempts to find Eli on her own have been fruitless. To keep going, she's going to need help. Unfortunately, Marion, the one person in the kingdom who's actually interested in magic and willing to listen to Miranda, has some rather wrong ideas about how wizards work. So Miranda has to set her straight all while keeping her own prejudices against magic ignorant people under control. This tension keeps the scene rolling and turns an info dump into a sort of social combat between Miranda and Marion, one that eventually wins Miranda an important ally.

So, we've advanced the story by winning Miranda an ally and moving her Eli investigations forward, we've revealed new information through the talk about how magic actually works, and we've pulled the reader forward through the tension created when two people have to examine conflicting long held beliefs. Bam bam bam, three hooks, scene stays in. Most scenes hit the three hooks without trying, but when a scene has problems, the hooks are the first thing I check. Sometimes just thinking about the base roll a scene has to play in a story can be enough to unstick things and move your novel forward. The three hooks are less a rule and more a tool, a way of breaking down story to see the flaws so I don't have to constantly rely on my gut to tell me if something works.

Q: Besides Sarah Monette, who are some of your other favorites? Also, what types of books do you like to read, and lastly, who do you feel is an underrated writer that deserves more attention and why?

Rachel: I love imaginative worlds beautifully described. This means I read a lot of China Mieville (the grand master of this sort of thing), Sarah Monette, and Jeff VanderMeer. I also love books that fundamentally change the way I look at fiction and the world, so I love Ender's Game (God that book is so good) and anything N.K. Jemisin touches. Seriously, “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” and “The Broken Kingdoms” have changed the way I think about divinity, gender, and love. Full disclosure, Nora and I blogged together at The Magic District and are both Orbit authors, but none of that matters a jot when it comes to her books. If you haven't read 100k Kingdoms, go read it. You owe it to yourself.

Of course, I also love classic epic fantasy/scifi – Robert Jordan, Ann McCaffrey, Frank Herbert, Elizabeth Moon, the YA giants – JK Rowling and Diane Wynne Jones, and the genre bending masters Ursula Le Guin and (very different but still mind blowing) Tanith Lee. But these people don't need me to sing their praises. (If you haven't heard of them, I'm very interested in the protective qualities of your rock.) As for the author/books I feel aren't getting the attention they deserve, I'd have to say T.A. Pratt's Marla Mason books. I can not understand why these books are not best sellers. They have everything – dark magic, an amazing world, terrifying evils, and a leading lady who is one of the most innovative and fun to watch asskickers in urban fantasy. Just goes to show that great books don't always get the sales they deserve.

Q: In closing, what are you working on now and do you have any parting words for your fans?

Rachel: I'm writing the final Eli book right now, and while I'm sad it's ending, I'm very excited to go on to a new project. I'm playing with a couple of ideas, including a SciFi/YA romance with battle armor, a story about girl raised by unicorns, and an urban fantasy/horror about a changeling. What I eventually end up writing will depend on which of these ideas are ultimately strong enough to hold up a whole novel, but I'm having a great time figuring that out.

When I first got my book contract and started talking to other authors, everyone told me that the best part of this business was the fans. They were totally right. There has been such an out pouring of love and support for Eli and his little team, I can't even think about it without grinning. To everyone who reads my books, especially those of you who have written comments and reviews, all I can say is THANK YOU! You are the reason I keep writing. It's so easy when you're writing to get lost in the daily grind of word counts and seemingly unsolvable problems and forget why you're doing this, but then I go to GoodReads or Amazon (or Fantasy Book Critic!) and it all comes back into focus. My goal is always to create the most entertaining experience for you, and my greatest hope is that you enjoy it. It's a rare and beautiful thing to find your purpose in life. Thanks to my readers, I've found mine, and I will always, always be grateful for that.

Thank you to everyone for sticking it out through my giant walls of text, and thank you especially to Mihir and Fantasy Book Critic for hosting this interview and asking such lovely, thought provoking questions. I had a great time! If anyone has any other questions for me, please feel free to ask and I'll do my best to answer. As always, thanks for reading!

-Rachel Aaron


Elfy said...

Thanks for the interview. Can't say I'm happy about the rebranding, the original covers were one of the things that originally attracted me to the series and something about it I really like, they fit it perfectly. Plus it means I have to wait until next year to read the concluding volumes.
I've always thought that it's tailor made for a film and I love Rachel's casting choices, except for Beckham. Get someone who can at least act and Josef is way smarter than David 'Squeaky Voice' Beckham.

redhead said...

I've been meaning to get started on these books for a while, and I gotta say, they just moved up my "gotta read this" list a handful of notches.

Visualizing David Tennant as Eli didn't hurt eitherl. . . .

Rachel Aaron said...

Haha, Elfy, what can I say? I saw Beckham and I was like "that's Josef!" I don't actually like him very much, and I know he can't act, but the "I'm a professional badass and the best at what I do" attitude and his musculature are perfect. He's also easy on the eyes :D. So it was a purely aesthetic choice on my end.

I'm so glad you enjoy the series!

Also, for anyone wondering what this is all about, you can find sample chapters and more information about Eli and the gang at my website:



Bastard said...

You had me at anime/manga fan. Completely agree with your take on One Piece, too bad the former license holders in the US (4Kids) completely ruined it.

The manga is better though, but for a shounen series, one of the best adaptations out there. Don't like Bleach at the moment though, but was a huge fan.

Do yourself a favor and read/watch Hunter X Hunter.

Anyways, great interview. I would've liked to see the current cover theme in the next two books so that they match what I've had bought already, but the change is understandable.

Stefan said...

Great interview! I enjoyed the books, and quickly had the feeling things were going to get darker and more complicated when reading the first book. I look forward to book 4!

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