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Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Interview with Ilana C. Myer (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order Last Song Before Night HERE

Ilana C. Myer burst onto the speculative fiction scene last year with her fantasy debut Last Song Before Night. It was a spectacular debut IMHO and I enjoyed it so much that it was #3 in top 10 debuts for 2015. I very much enjoyed Ilana's writing style and her subversion of fantasy tropes. Since then I've gotten to know her a little more thanks to Twitter. She was very kind to accept my request for an interview and so read ahead to know more about Ilana, her writing credentials, & her thoughts on her book, the fantasy genre and much more...

Q] Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic. For starters, could you please introduce yourself, tell us what inspired you to write in the first place, and describe your journey to becoming a published author.

ICM: Thank you, it’s such a pleasure be here! Last Song Before Night is my debut novel from Tor Books, with two follow-up novels on the way. I have also done quite a bit of writing about books for publications such as the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Globe and Mail, the Huffington Post, and Salon.

My journey to becoming an author began in my teens, when I wrote my first novel—an epic fantasy. I was new to Israel and didn’t understand a word in school, so I wrote a novel instead. My teachers knew what my notebooks were, and were exasperated, but I think they didn’t know what to do with me.

For me, becoming a published author meant working around the other demands of life—school, work, making rent—toward a dream that seemed as likely as winning the lottery.

Q] Please elaborate how the genesis of the Last Song Before Night occurred. How long have you been working on it? Has it evolved from its original idea (if any)?

ICM: Writing Last Song Before Night took seven years. During that time I was a college student, administrative assistant, journalist in Jerusalem, and book critic.

The seed of the novel was planted in college, in a course on Celtic Myth and Literature. I loved the idea of the Celtic Poets, whose words could shape the fate of a kingdom. The concept of art as power. That was the starting point. I went on to incorporate the troubadours into my research, because I love them too. Later on, Greek mythology went into the mix. The first book—as opposed to the one I’m working on now—is laser-focused on touchstones of Western culture.

Q] For someone who hasn't read any of your novels, how would you describe the type of stories that you write? What would be your elevator pitch for your work?

ICM: My work is at the point where psychological complexity and mythmaking intersect.

Q] Your debut novel while being a standalone can also be considered an opening salvo into your world. Could you give us a progress report on the next book, offer any details about the sequel (hints or title), and outline your plans for the series (if it can be considered as such) as a whole?

ICM: While Last Song Before Night was meant to be a standalone, I soon realized that there was still so much to explore—in the world and the (surviving) characters. The second novel is called Fire Dance, and explores the consequences of the events in Last Song on a larger geographical and political stage—incorporating Middle Eastern myth, cosmology, and history along with the Western mythos already in place.

The third and final novel will complete the series.

Q] Within your debut, you write about many characters some heroic and some vile. However all of them were three dimensional and had their own agendas and reasons for their behavior. What’s your secret for writing such believable and vivid characters?

ICM: I think empathy is the secret to writing three-dimensional, believable characters. The ability to put ourselves in the position of people who are nothing like us, and to understand their motivations even if we’ve never felt that way ourselves. There’s another component to this, too—being aware of our own motivations, being really honest with ourselves about who we are, can be an asset in exploring the depths of a character. Being unafraid to look at the most uncomfortable truths and acknowledge them can make us better writers.

Q] In your book, besides the actual characters, music plays quite an important role. Especially since the main plot is focused on a poem and the main protagonist is a musician. What drove you to focus such a vital part of the story on it?

ICM: This evolved naturally from choosing to focus on Celtic Poets and troubadours, both of whom worked with music and verse together. I came to the idea as a writer, and then had to do some research about music. It didn’t hurt that music has always been an important part of my life and creative process.

Q] Could you talk about the research you undertook before attempting to write this book. What were the things you focused upon? Were there any fascinating things that you unearthed amidst your research?

ICM: This is hard to answer as my research process began in…2004? But I can tell you that I steeped myself in Celtic myth, from the Mabinogi to more obscure texts to Seamus Heaney’s magnificent (and actually life-changing) Sweeney Astray. I explored the history and verse of the troubadours of medieval France, and this was crucial. While a lot of Last Song was influenced by Celtic myth, the interrogation of idealized romance and love came from the troubadours.

I also read a lot about Irish and Welsh harps, and was able to visit Dublin and see one. In the course of my research I was surprised to learn that the strings of these early harps were made of metal, and that poets actually plucked the strings with their fingernails, which they grew long. A sign of prestige was if you could afford a harp with strings of gold.

Q] You also talk about the difficulties of self-promotion & how new writers are unprepared for book signings. What would be one thing that you can tell newbie writers with regards to book tours that they might not know?

ICM: You will need to develop social skills. That’s a process I began as a journalist, but was definitely compelled to up my game when it came time to promote my book. I still don’t know how to pitch my book in a sentence and I am not sure how much I really value that as a skill.

Q] You have previously worked as a freelancer and worked with several prestigious publications such as Huffington Post, Globe and Mail, Salon, Los Angeles Review of Books, Jerusalem Post, Strange Horizons, etc. How have your experiences been? And are there any particular experiences that have helped you in your writing?

ICM: Writing about books is something I’ve always done. Fiction is my great love, and I always have an opinion. The opportunity to share my thoughts about fiction has been irresistible and has led to more attention than I anticipated. I certainly never envisioned writing a piece about Tyrion Lannister that would go viral and make a lot of people angry. (But on the other hand, I wrote a piece in defense of HBO’s Game of Thrones when it was maligned by the New York Times!)

Being a journalist in Jerusalem was a different sort of thing altogether. Long ago, I read some advice from Tad Williams—maybe it was in an interview—that urged aspiring writers to learn as much as possible about everything, even things that seemed irrelevant to their writing. That’s something journalism did for me. I researched topics ranging from cleantech to earthquakes to social issues in Jerusalem and the plight of African refugees in Tel Aviv—and I always, always, learned something new. Even better—something that came as a surprise to me. I learned that it’s human nature to make assumptions, and that our assumptions are often wrong. I learned to value open-minded inquiry and respect for people who spend their lives carving out expertise in a field of study.

Q] You have lived in Israel and often talk about it on twitter. What do you think of the complexities of life in the Middle East? Plus what do you think of the general narrative that is propagated by both the left & right?

ICM: I hesitated to answer this question because I’m not sure there is a topic that is more toxic than that of Israel, especially on the left where I most often identify politically. What I think is the greatest problem with the current narrative is that it does not allow for complexity. When a left-wing intellectual like Moshe Halbertal is boycotted from speaking on an American college campus, conversation becomes impossible. And that’s a loss for everyone.

Q] Your essay about strong female characters generated a lot of debate and still provokes heated discussions on social media. If you had to provide an update or revise it in any way, what would you add? Conversely is there something in it that you would like to change?

ICM: I had no idea the piece had led to heated debate! That’s great.

There’s only one way to make an opinion piece acceptable to everyone. It’s to write something anodyne.

Q] In Last Song Before Night, you expound about history and how surreptitious events in the past often cause giant problems in the future. I found this to be a very fascinating thing and it reminded me of a book I had read quite a while ago (Song Spinners by Sarah Ash) and coincidentally both you and her share similar traits such as being Jewish and having a familial legacy of writers. I was wondering how much emphasis of history helped fuel the story for you?

ICM: Nothing happens in a vacuum…not in our world and not in an invented world. Everything that happens is in context of what has come before. I think this is very important.

In Last Song there is a question of whether events were history or legend, if enchantments are real, and in that sense it’s about how the stories that drive us are often the ones we choose or create for ourselves.

Q] World-building is one of the key ingredients of epic fantasy; your series is very strong on this factor. What is it about world-building that you love, and what are the keys to successfully crafting such a believable, yet fantastical world like that seen in debut?

ICM: When I think about world-building I always come back to Ursula LeGuin’s marvelous essay, “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,” where she makes a case for language as the basis for worldbuilding in fantasy. I do exhaustive research, certainly, and if you ask me which details I think are most integral to an invented world, I’d say—probably—history and religion. But as LeGuin writes of fantasy world-building, “There is only a construct built in a void, with every joint and seam and nail exposed.” That construct is made of words. LeGuin’s Earthsea novels are very slim—they don’t go on for pages about worldbuilding. Yet despite that, Earthsea is the one of the most real fantasy worlds we possess, because the words take us away.

Q] Please tell us about the books and authors who have captured your imagination and inspired you to become a wordsmith in your own right. Similarly, are there any current authors you would like to give a shout out to?

ICM: When I was growing up, “books with magic in them” were my favorites. There was no other way to describe them—we didn’t have the publishing term fantasy, not yet. I devoured the works of E. Nesbit, Lloyd Alexander, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Frances Hodgson Burnett, T.H. White. I also loved beyond reason Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game, which is not fantasy at all.

In my teens I discovered contemporary fantasy and the works of Robin Hobb, Tad Williams, Guy Gavriel Kay, Ursula LeGuin, and Robin McKinley were formative.

NOTE: Both author photos courtesy of the author.


Kathryn Troy said...

Excellent interview, I loved seeing how another author is thinking about myth, religion, and world building, things that find strains in my own fiction and I try to work out at, and in my academic background as a religious historian. What I wouldn't give to travel in account on my writing to see something like a harp. That is simply fabulous.


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