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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Interview with Rachel Aaron (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

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Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of "The Spirit Thief
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Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of “The Spirit Eater” & “Spirit’s Oath” 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of “The Spirit War” 
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Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of "Fortune's Pawn"
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of "Honor's Knight"
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of "Heaven's Queen"
Read Fantasy Book Critic's Interview with Rachel Aaron
Read Eli Monpress series completion interview with Rachel Aaron
Read Fantasy Book Critic's Interview with Rachel Bach

Rachel Aaron is an author who since the past five years has become one of our favorite authors. She also is very kind enough to talk about her recently completed Paradox trilogy & reveals certain secrets about the books as well as her forthcoming self-published work The Heartstriker series. Be warned that the below interview has some major and minor spoilers for the Paradox trilogy so avoid it if you haven't read the trilogy. For those who have read and loved her previous works, read and enjoy Rachel's thoughts...

Q) Sup! Since you have (now) become our most interviewed author & thereby one of our supreme favorites. How does it feel to ascend to this pedestal? ;) 

RA: A little nerve wracking, honestly! I’ve been at this full time author gig for just a month shy of five years now, and I still feel like I should be looking for a real job, just in case. All I can say is thank you so so sooooo much for the continued support and I will endeavor to continue being as entertaining as possible!

Q) With Devi’s trilogy now complete, do you feel that you have managed to hit all the points (action, romance, space opera, fantastical aliens, etc.) that you set out to write with this trilogy? 

RA: For the most part, yet. There are a few things I just didn’t have the narrative space to get to—more info on Paradox itself, the history of human expansion into the universe, that sort of thing. But there’s only so much room in a book, and at the end of the day, you have to go with what’s most important to the story you’re trying to tell. Plus, this leaves me with lots of fodder for future Paradox novels! In hindsight, I do wish I’d handled the love story a little more smoothly, especially in book 1, but overall I’m very pleased.

Q) I want to talk to you about the romance aspect of the story. I very much enjoyed how you made it an important part of Devi’s story without it becoming over or under-whelming? How did you achieve this fine balance? 

RA:  A lot of rewrites :D

I knew right from the get go that this was going to be a Romance “capital R”, but I also had a much larger story I wanted to tell, and balancing the two quickly became the central challenge of the narrative. The key, I discovered, was always to think of the books not as action or Romance, but as Devi’s story. Just like the rest of us, her personal relationship drama occupies a big part of her life, but not all of it. Similarly, struggles with her job and all the craziness that comes after disasters are massively important, but they’re not her entire world. This is how I tried to balance the books: a personal struggle to keep up with everything that is happening. Devi’s just trying to survive and do the right thing on many levels, which means a lot of narrative juggling.

A more singularly focused character would have been much easier to write, but that’s not how real people are. We’re messy, we worry about multiple problems at the same time, our personal lives impact our professional work. It was this balance—or rather, this struggle for balance—that I think made Devi’s story feel so real to so many people, and it was an absolute bear to get right. I can’t tell you how many times I rewrote the end of HONOR’S KNIGHT trying to make everything tick over at the right time. In the end, though, it was definitely worth all the work, and I’m very pleased with how the series turned out in that regard!

Q) Now like your previous interview after the completion of the Eli Monpress series, I want to talk about the deeper mysteries of Devi’s universe. Namely one area that was never clarified was the Terran-Paradox split in humanity’s history (or future). Could you talk us through what caused it? 

RA: This was one of those details I always meant to work in but just could never find the right place. Basically, when humanity first left Earth (about 1000 years before the start of Devi’s story), we did it on the very first version of the hyperdive. Unfortunately, we didn’t yet know enough about the drive to use gates, which meant a lot of ships suffered from massive time distortions, while others went much further than they’d originally planned. One of these far jumping colony ships crashed into an Eden-like planet that would become known as Paradox.

The original human settlements on Paradox were tiny. Only a few hundred people survived the crash, and those who did fought amongst themselves for the few remaining shreds of still-working technology. Many held out for help from Earth, but thanks to the incredible distance of their jump, there was no way the rest of humanity could possibly find them any time soon. Generations without contact later, Paradox had devolved back to a primitive agrarian society with little to no memory of the cultures they’d left other than stories and legends. Then, in a miraculous turn, a minor warlord named Stephen rediscovered the lost technology. Using it, he conquered all of his rivals in a matter of days, uniting Paradox under a single king for the first time.

This power, which he claimed was god-given, led to him becoming the first Sainted King. (It should be noted here that modern historians don't believe he rediscovered the crashed colony ship since the ship he used for his initial conquest was far above Earth technology of the time. Even saying that much is heresy on Paradox, however, and the mystery of King Stephen I's rise to power is not one the Royal Office permits investigation into.) All of this happened 700 years ago in Devi’s time. Stephen’s line has maintained their absolute rule of Paradox ever since.

It should also be noted that Paradox did not rediscover the rest of humanity, who’d been off forming what is now the Terran Republic, until barely a hundred years before Devi’s story. Before this time, Paradox was developing in virtual isolation, which explains why their culture is so radically different. Of course, after an initial period of excitement at finding other humans, the two powers began fighting almost immediately. These wars continued on and off until a final peace treaty was signed fifteen years before Devi joined the crew of the Glorious Fool. As can be expected from a century of war, there’s still a lot of bad blood between the two major human civilizations. There’s a lot more history here, of course, but that’s the basic gist.

Q) Thank you for the background reveal about Paradox’s past, moving on to the Sainted King? When he makes an appearance, we only get a glimpse of his powers. What makes him so powerful? Is it faith or something more at work? 

RA: As I hinted above in the history, there’s a LOT more going on with the Sainted King than we see on the surface. I’m actually planning a second trilogy set in the Paradox universe focusing on the Sainted King himself and the darker side of Paradoxian culture that Devi never had to deal with as a simple, loyal merc who happily drank the Sainted King Kool-Aid. So I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for the answer to these questions, but I promise you, they are EPIC.

Q) In an interview you mentioned that you rewrote Fortune’s Pawn seven times and also the sequel books also had a lot of changes. Can you tell us as to what some of the changes were or what were the previous iterations to the story? 

RA: As I mentioned earlier, this was the series of rewrites. I have never re-done my books as many times as I rewrote these. Funny enough, the plot itself never changed. Pretty much every event currently in the novels was always there, with one notable exception being that Anthony originally showed up again in the beginning of book two rather than book three. Other than that, though, there were no major plot changes. All the extensive rewrites I did were to address issues with information reveals and relationship progression.

This is a series with a lot of secrets and conflicting moral gauges. The reveals for who-knows-what-when were the most insanely intricate clockwork of secrets I’ve ever tried to write. Getting that right took a lot of tries, as did Rupert and Devi’s relationship. Progress too quickly and it looks like Devi caves or worse, insta-love. Go too slowly, and the relationship won’t be where it needs to be for the final sacrifices to be believable.

These are the primary issues I rewrote for, often writing the same scene from multiple different narrative angles until I found the right one. I’m not actually sure how many times I redid certain parts, but let’s just say it’s a damn good thing I’m a fast writer, or I’d still be working on these books!

Q) Devi as a narrator is unreliable to say the least as her view is prejudiced because of her upbringing. Throughout the story, this partially limits the readers from the minutiae & mystery that are unfolding via the plotline. How did you counteract this issue or was that something (the confusion) you specifically intended with this story? 

RA: Devi’s prejudice was actually a vital narrative tool for me. One of the big conceits of this series is that there is no real villain. With a few minor exceptions, everyone in the books is a decent person trying their best to make something good out of a terrible, terrible situation. But an action space adventure without someone to fight just don’t fly, so I used Devi’s prejudices and tendency to snap judge situations (a life saving habit in combat, but not so good with people) to artificially create perceived villains which I would then make understandable and sympathetic by showing their part of the story. But then, just when they’re starting to look sympathetic, I hammer in again that what they did was still really freaking bad even if they did it with the best of intentions, and so the morals quandaries of the novels get stickier and stickier.

This sort of good guy/bad guy bait and switch was only possible through Devi's first person narration. Since the reader only knows what Devi knows, I was able to put them through the same series of discoveries and realizations Devi herself went through. But Devi isn't a perfect lens. Sometimes, she gets stuff wrong, and that's where the story gets really interesting.

Fortunately for us, Devi has zero tolerance for bullshit. When faced with the aforementioned moral quandaries, she can always be counted on to cut right to the heart of the matter, which nicely keeps the narrative from getting bogged down in its own weighty questions. This is yet again why these books are truly Devi’s story. She’s the main show around here! And though her prejudices do get her in a lot of trouble, her ability to admit she was wrong and stubborn determination to do the actual right thing make her the only hero who can fix such a horrible and sad situation.

Q) As the trilogy ends, we see that there’s more to this universe & so when you return to this milieu & what other facets and personas will you be exploring? 

RA: Yes! As I mentioned above, my next target is the Sainted King himself, and the books will again be narrated by a female powered armor mercenary who is very different from Devi, though hopefully just as fun to read. I’ve already got the major plot points sketched out, and I think the new series will be a lot of fun. Unfortunately, my plate is very full at the moment, but I promise more Paradox will be coming soon, hopefully with the announcements in 2015. Then all your questions will be answered! (And then replaced with new ones!)

Q) You also are self-releasing an urban fantasy series next month. Please talk to us about the Heartstriker series & what readers can expect from it? 

RA: The Hearstriker novels are a major gearshift from my Devi books (though I have every faith readers of one would still enjoy the other). They’re much closer in tone to my Eli books, also published as Rachel Aaron, though they’re not as openly farcical or as simple as The Spirit Thief began. Of everything I’ve written, I’d say Nice Dragons Finish Last is closest to The Spirit War. It’s full of fun, funny, slightly outrageous characters dealing with serious, complex, and dangerous problems that have no easy solution.

The books are Urban Fantasy, meaning they’re set in more or less the real world, only I’ve moved things a century into the future and added a cataclysmic event brought magic rushing back into our world, creating mages and awaking sleeping powers. The story centers on Julius Heartstriker, the youngest and smallest dragon of an extremely large and ambitious clan looking to seize power now that magic has returned to Earth and dragons rule over a cowering human population is a real possibility again. Julius, however, is completely unsuited for his family’s agenda owing to his extremely un-draconic niceness, pacifism, and fondness for humans. This is unendingly embarrassing for his powerful and ruthless mother, who’s threatened to eat him if he doesn’t shape up and start acting like a dragon should.

There’s far more to it, of course! This is me, after all, and I can't write a sentence without burying world secrets. Suffice it to say, things get epic. So if you liked my previous books and want more, but different, Nice Dragons Finish Last will probably make you very happy. But don't take my word for it, read the first few chapters free on my site and see for yourself!

Q) You have mentioned to me in our correspondence as to why you went with the self-publishing track. Could you kindly elaborate on this decision for our readers? 

RA: There were a lot of reasons I made the decision to go it alone, none of which have to do with my publisher, Orbit, whom I adore and who has done a very stand up job with my titles. That said, I think my decision to go it alone could best be summed up as one of control. I'm the sort of person who likes to do things herself, but the very nature of a publishing house means an author has very little say over what happens to her book after she turns in the final draft. Cover choice, how my books are branded, sale price, even who gets to review my work early—these were all things I had next to zero control over, which is very frustrating for a control freak like myself.

Self-publishing is the exact opposite. I had total control over everything, which is a different sort of frustration but also extremely fulfilling. It was deeply gratifying to finally get to do everything just as I wanted it, and even if the whole enterprise flops, I'm happy I tried self-pub for that alone. Plus, the money in self-pub isn't bad either. Assuming I don't fail utterly, of course ;D

Q) Talking about the world you have created in this series. Why did you choose to focus the series around the Great lakes region? 

RA: I've always had a fascination with the urban decay of Detroit. Here we have this giant city just rotting away from neglect in the middle of America. Likewise, I've always been intrigued by the Great Lakes, which are larger than some seas when you put them all together. Also, I wanted an American city that hadn't already been done to death in modern UF, which ruled out LA, New York, and Chicago. Once you factored all that in, Detroit just felt like a perfect fit. Also, the weather there is very dramatic—cold winters, hot summers. Add in some crumbling infrastructure and magical environmental problems and you've got one hell of a dramatic setting!

Q) Also Dragons, I loved that you have chosen to go this way. As a reader I haven’t read about dragons in an urban fantasy series as main characters (if you discount PNR) or otherwise they feature as diabolical villains usually. How do you imagine your dragons to be and why would you say they are different from the usual fanfare? 

RA: The initial inspiration for my dragons actually came from the role playing game Shadowrun (third edition, for those who were wondering). In the game, there's an aspect you can take on your character sheet called “Pirate Family.” This means your character is related to a giant family network of hoodlum relatives that will either help you or make your life miserable depending on if you take Pirate Family as a positive or negative aspect. One day, years ago, my husband took this aspect on his character who happened to be a dragon (what? It's table top role playing! You can be a dragon if you want). We immediately realized this meant he had a Dragon Pirate Family, which is just about the best idea ever. Once I had that, everything else fell into place.

Personally, I think the best part about my dragons is their diversity. These aren't your D&D color coded dragons, or even Shadowrun dragons, which numbered in the dozens. My world has thousands of dragons of all shapes and sizes, all arranged into different clans that vary enormously by region.

For example, Julius's dragon clan, the Heartstrikers, are actually descended from the Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent of Meso-American lore, and they look like beautiful feathered serpents (and, for Bethesda especially, native Central Americans in their human forms). I tried to draw from dragons of all folk lore traditions, especially in appearance. I also tried to make them diverse as individuals. Dragons in my world have their own culture that prizes the typical draconic traits of ruthlessness, cunning, and lust for power, but the individual dragons who make it up are as different as you'd expect from smart, strong willed creatures. My main character Julius, for example, doesn't fit in at all with what's expected of him, and he's not alone (though, like any misfit, he certainly feels that way). 

The most fun part of the books for me was showing how few of my dragons are actually “typical” dragons. Oh sure, they all put on a show of being ruthless and cold and everything that's expected of them in an incredibly competitive dragon hierarchy, but under the facade, they're all just weirdos just like the rest of us. Once you get past the high stakes and the twisty plots, the whole series is basically one big dragon drama, and wow, was it fun to write.

Q) Talking about the story and the world it’s set in. I enjoyed the collaboration you showcased between magic & capitalism in the DFZ. Can you walk us through why you chose to combine these completely unrelated subjects? 

RA: It just felt natural. If magic suddenly returned today and people starting being born mages with the ability to control reality-altering power, you know corporations would be all over that. Corporate mages would start appearing on pay rolls and performing paid-by-the-hour miracles before the government could even convene to start arguing over magical legislation. In the books, we're sixty years out from the original return of magic, so the craziness has mostly worked itself out, but there was definitely a gold rush (and all the unscrupulous things that go with that) in the early days of magic, and the echoes of that linger still.

Q) How many books will you be writing in this series and what can you tell us about the second book? Also what will be the release schedule considering that you control all aspects of it? 

RA: Right now I'm planning on five, though it could be six depending on how long it takes me to cover some of the trickier aspects of the Meta plot. I'm hoping to put out one book every four months with the second volume, One Good Dragon Deserves Another, due out this fall. Probably November, barring disaster.

Honestly, I'd hoped to have the second book ready for release in August, but due to an onslaught of family emergencies (my grandfather's death, a medical emergency and lengthy hospitalization for my son, and then the sudden death of my father-in-law... 2014 hasn't been a good year for the Aaron/Bach family -_-) I've had to push the schedule back. But this is another place where doing it yourself works out. At last I didn't have to worry about deadlines!

If everything goes well, the whole Heartstriker series should be done by 2016. That isn't as fast as I'd hoped, honestly, but I'm determined to take my time, hire the right people, and do everything in my power to make sure these books are every bit as high quality as any of my New York books. Just because I'm doing it myself doesn't mean standards go down. My readers deserve nothing less than my absolute best.

Q) Talking about the Heartstriker and other dragon clans in your world? Are their physical characteristics corresponding to their geographical affinities? If so what location are the Hearstrikers from? 

RA: Yes! The Heartstrikers are originally from the former Aztec Empire in what is now Mexico, and though many of them look a bit odd now from Bethesda the Heartstriker's interesting choice in mates, they all have a Meso-American heritage. That said, they are dragons first and foremost, and that is the primary source of their culture and values. Their human forms are really nothing more than a form of magical camouflage, which is why they look like whatever humans were around the dragon's claimed territory at the time they were born plus any traits they inherit from their parents, such as Julius Heartstriker 's green eyes.

Q) Will you be exploring other corners of the world? If so can you give us a hint or two as to what readers can look forward to? 

RA: The majority of the story takes place in the Detroit Free Zone because that's where Algonquin, the Lady of the Great Lakes, resides (and I don't think it's a spoiler to say she's going to be very important). But I do have a major arc planned for China and at least a few big scenes in magical Las Vegas (because how cool is magical Las Vegas?), so we'll definitely be seeing more of the changed world. 

Q) First epic fantasy, then SF action-romance & now urban fantasy, you truly are covering a lot of varied genres. Talk us about this wanderlust and what genre are you looking to conquer next? 

RA: Wanderlust is a good way to put it. I'm an agent's worst nightmare, always hopping from one genre to the next. That's another reason I wanted to try self-publishing. If I had to change my name every time I switched genres (which my publisher required when I signed for Fortune's Pawn), I'd never be the same person twice!

To answer your question, I've got a bunch of stuff in the pipe, including the previously mentioned new Paradox books and a gas light Alt-History adventure staring an artist who creates custom alternate dimensions and the spell breaker detective who has to help prove her innocence when people start turning up dead in her custom worlds. I'm also going to be trying my hand at a fantasy YA at some point, but this is where my ideas get ahead of my ability to write. There's just too much I want to do! For now, though, you can definitely expect new Paradox books and the rest of the Heartstriker series in the near future.

Q) Thank you very much for undertaking this long list. As a fan, I am glad that you are releasing new books. Any last thoughts or comments to share until your next visit with us? 

RA: Only to ask that people please consider following me on Twitter or Facebook or visit my site for my blog. I'm always doing something new with my books, and this is also where I put up information about sales, give aways, and other fun stuff. Or, if you don't want to bother with any of that and just want to know when I'm releasing a new title, I also have a new release mailing list that does just that—no spam, no bother, just lets you know when and where I have a new book available.

Thank you so so much again for having me and for asking such amazing questions! I hope you all liked my answers, and if you haven't read my stuff, I hope you'll give it a try. Thank you a million times over for reading. It's because of you lovely people that I can make a living writing, and I never forget that. Thank you from the bottom of my heart!

Yours sincerely,

NOTE: Quetzalcoatl picture courtesy of Genzoman. Shadow picture courtesy of Shadowthief.


mk said...

Yay! I'm totally psyched for more books coming eventually int eh Paradox world! As well as more of the new ragons :-)

Anonymous said...

Definitely looking forward to more Paradox books. Not every author can do a good sci-fi action and romance story, so double kudos. Hoping to see some more of that in future stories. :D

RobB said...

What a great interview gang!

Where's the SAINTED King picture from, that looks cool.

April said...

I really enjoyed Nice Dragons Finish Last and am very ready for the next one to come out! And yes, I've read the Eli Monpress series and the Paradox series and have liked all of them so they do cross genres.


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