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Saturday, February 1, 2020

SPFBO Interview Lisa Cassidy (interviewed by Łukasz Przywóski)

Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Before we start, tell us a little about yourself.

Ok, here goes... I’m a massive book nerd – reading is my second favourite thing after writing. I stick mainly to the fantasy genre when reading, not because I don’t like other genres (I’m a bit partial to crime/thrillers too), but mainly because I have so little time for reading and fantasy is my absolute favourite. Randomly, I’m also a bit of a basketball nut – I love the NBA and am an adoring New York Knicks fan. I used to play a lot too, but writing/publishing kinda took that time away and also I’m getting old 😊 My first ever movie crush was Han Solo in Star Wars and I don’t think I’ve stopped loving Harrison Ford to this day. My first book crush was The Obernetyn Chronicles by Australian author Isobelle Carmody. Ok, I’ll stop there!

Do you have a day job? If so, what is it?

I do! I work in a fairly mundane admin job, but it pays the bills and allows me the financial freedom to work on this authoring gig, so I’m very grateful for it! However, I am determined that one day my books will do well enough that I’ll be able to be an author full time.

Between us, self-confessed coffee-snobs, what’s the best coffee brewing method and why is it Aeropress? 

Hands down an espresso machine using freshly ground beans, and yes I own one at home and make my own coffee on weekends. I’m also particular about the beans I buy (shout out to Canberra’s famous ONA and Lonsdale Roasters). During work hours I have a few favourite baristas at local cafes. I’ll happily concede that Aeropress is an excellent backup if no handy espresso machine is lurking about...

Follow-up question – where do I get Kahvi beans?

One of my readers suggested I should write a companion novella – ‘A cup of kahvi: recipes from the AToSaS series’ I’m giving it serious consideration...

How old were you when you first sat down to write a fantasy story or novel? And how old were you when you made your first professional sale? 

17! And then 33!

Serious writing takes not only a story to tell, but the craft of writing to tell it well—can you comment on your journey as a writer? 

I started writing in my late teens, and for many, many years had absolutely no intention of trying to publish. I wrote only as a hobby, basically, because I loved it. I always feared (in my ignorance) that an editor would mess up my story, and then of course there’s that whole intimidating process of ‘traditional publishing’ and how hard that is to get into. It just wasn’t what I wanted. And then, as these things sometimes do, three years ago it changed. I saw an article about self publishing somwhere... and my whole mindset changed. I think as I was getting older too, I started to realise this writing might be what I really wanted to do with my life, and I didn’t necessarily want to be in the job I was in in ten years time. 

In terms of learning craft... I tried a creative writing course or three over the years and couldn’t stick with any. Writing is so intuitive to me, I struggled to sit in a class and apply lessons... yes, my brain is weird. My learning has come on the job – my first published book had two different editors, and the learning curve was exponential... I soaked in all their comments and advice with enthusiasm. I get better as a writer every time I have a book edited, it’s fantastic!

What do you think characterizes your writing style?

I’m a pantser, which means I write without plotting anything. I get bored with a story if I know where it’s going, so for me the most exciting way to write is to discover the story as I go along. That isn’t easy... especially when it comes to a fanstasy book with lots of different layers that need to weave together, and I spend a lot of time editing! But I’ve discovered I love the editing process as well, so it’s a win all round 😊 And for me, it’s usually characters that draw me into a story...and the plot comes around that. A character – or a character dilemma - will pop into my head one day – from watching tv, reading a book, sitting in my car on the way to work, and it will start nagging at me. Somtimes they never let go, and those are the ones that become books!

How often do you write? Do you have a set schedule for writing, or are you one of those who write only when they feel inspired? Do you aim to complete a set number of pages or words each day? 

I struggle to write much during the week around my day job, just because of the mental energy required.. plus when you self publish you have a lot of business stuff to take care of as well. But I always try for at least half an hour to an hour a day during the working week. Then when it comes to the weekend I usually write for hours each day, 2-3 hours in the morning, 1-2 hours in the afternoon. While it can be really hard work at times, and I do have periods where I’m struggling to get through a particular bit of a book, I always love to write, no matter what.

What made you decide to self-publish A Tale of Stars and Shadow as opposed to traditional publishing? 

A Tale of Stars and Shadow is my second self-published series, so I made the decision back in 2016 when I self-published DarkSkull Hall, the first book in my YA fantasy series. Before going down that route I did a tonne of research on both options, and at the end of the day, self-publishing was the best fit for me. I wanted the control over editing, cover design etc, not to mention getting to publish when I’m ready rather than the longer timelines for traditionally published books. That’s not to say I don’t listen to everything my editor tells me (she’s amazing)... but I like that I get to choose an editor and cover designer that I and my stories fit with, if that makes sense.

What do you think the greatest advantage of self-publishing is?

What I didn’t quite realise fully at the time I made the decision, but which I do now, is that with self-publishing you very much have your destiny in your own hands. If you can get the business side of it right (which I’m still working on) you can make a real, sustainable career from it, and it’s one that’s all yours... you’re not beholden to a publishing company making tiny royalty percentages. Like with anything, though, there are of course downsides, and I see that is your next question!

On the other hand, is there anything you feel self-published authors may miss out on? 

Visibilty and availability are the two big things traditional publishing can give you that are more difficult with self publishing. It’s a long, hard slog as a self-publishing author to build your brand and get visibility for your books. And when it comes to print and hardback, a self-publisher just can’t match a traditional publishers ability to get books into bookstores everywhere.

One of the big challenges with self-publishing is finding readers. Was that your experience? 

I touched on this just above, and yes, it was absolutley my experience. I really strugged with getting visibility for my first series, and it wasn’t until I started learning advertising that that started to change. And I’ve still got a long way to go.

Why did you enter SPFBO? 

I came across Mark’s post announcing this year’s competition (I’d never heard of it before – shame on me!) and thought to myself, ‘this is a fantastic initiative!’. My second thought was, ‘I have a lot of faith in A Tale of Stars and Shadow, I should give this a go’. Of course, I had no expectation of becoming a semi-finalist, let alone a finalist, and I’m still pretty shocked and delighted, to be honest. I really and truly don’t mind what the outcome is from here, just being in the competition has introduced me to so many awesome people – yes, fellow finalists, I’m particularly talking about you and the Murder Club – that I feel very blessed and lucky.

What would you do if you won the SPFBO?

Stare blankly at the screen and wonder where the mistake was? No, seriously, I’d be utterly flabbergasted, and humbled, and delighted. Imposter syndrome is a real thing for me though, so I’d take a bit of time to really believe it. And having read many of my fellow competitor’s books – there’s no way I’m winning this thing, but that doesn’t matter to me one bit. I just love that I’m here and get to hang out with those guys for the next few months!

For those that haven’t read A Tale of Stars and Shadow, can you tell us a bit about it? 

At it’s heart, it’s a story about two people. A woman who was riding high, at the top of her game and her profession, who had it all ripped away in one tragic event... and now she’s trying to put the pieces back together and figure out if she can ever get back to what she was. And a man who’s doing what he can, where he can, to try and improve the situation in a society that makes life incredibly hard for a particular group in that society (trying to avoid spoilers here!)... but he never feels like he’s doing enough, and that weighs heavily on him. And then there’s magic, political intrigue, sword fights, and a motley crew of lovable characters. And kahvi 😊

What was your initial inspiration for A Tale of Stars and Shadow? How long have you been working on it? Has it evolved from its original idea?

I answer this a little bit below in your question about spin-offs, so I won’t go into two much depth here... suffice to say A Tale of Stars and Shadow came out of another series I wrote set in a much earlier time period of the same world. I probably first started it 10-15 years ago, and have been working on it off and on since then. Once my first self published series was under my belt and I felt I’d learned enormous amounts about writing and publishing... this was the story I wanted to do next, because of everything I’ve ever written, it’s always been my secret favourite.

Could you briefly tell us a little about your main characters? Do they have any cool quirks or habits, or any reason why readers will sympathize with them? 

Talyn is a master of self control. Despite what happened to her, and the terible grief she feels, she fights to keep it all beneath the calm mask of a warrior that she presents to the world. But the most fun part about her is that little voice inside her head...

The Shadowhawk is a very intense and troubled guy. He does what he can, but he feels like he should be able to do more, be more, and he’s constantly beating himself up over it. He feels a very strong sense of responsibility for those he’s trying to help.

Then there are the Wolves. Halun, who doesn’t speak because of his traumatic past. Theac, who is gruff and bad tempered and drinks too much but has a heart of gold. Zamaril who refuses to trust anyone but might be the smartest of all of them. Corrin who’s young and beaten down by the world already but doesn’t give up. And Tiercelin, the man with wealth and privilege but doesn’t feel like he belongs in the world he’s from.

What was your favorite part about writing A Tale of Stars and Shadow? 

Writing Talyn and the Wolves. Their dynamic is so special, and writing her journey coming back from what happened to her was really enriching.

You’ve created rich world with unique magic system, different races, and challenging economy. What challenges did you face not just in making it accessible, but in incorporating all the information that needed to be conveyed to make the story work?

World building I find very challenging! To fit all the detail required to help a reader feel immersed in a place without having info dumps or so much detail it gets boring is HARD. So I try to keep the background stuff in little snippets that I weave through the story as I tell it and try to make it as organic as possible. I usually do this in my editing process, where I can see the story as a whole and layer in little bits and pieces without topping the whole thing over into something that’s too dense or boring. I can only hope I’ve gotten the balance right in this story!

Logistically - I use Scrivener, not to write (yes, I’m weird), but to keep track of all the characters and details of my worlds, down to place names, sigils for various fighting forces, command structure etc. I have that up on my second screen while I write so I can refer to it all the time.

I have to say I love the world you’ve created. I feel it gives you plenty of space for future spin-offs and explorations of its furthest reaches. Will we ever learn more about, say, Aimsir Riders or Montagni Berserkers? 

Absolutely. I’ve actually written two other series set in a much earlier time period in the same world which were amongst the first fantasy stories I ever wrote (read – the writing is bad!). These stories set up the backstory for how the Dumnorix monarchy came to be and why Firthland is a vassal state. I plan to publish those at some point, and there is a lot about the formation of the Aimsir in those – they weren’t always a combat unit, for example. And I often have little bubbles of ideas about other spinoffs I could write. They might turn into something one day 😊 I’d love to hear from readers about what they’d like to read more about too!

Writing the sequel to a well-received book can be stressful :) How was writing A Prince of Song and Shade different from A Tale of Stars and Shadow? Did the final version of this book differ from how you envisioned it as you were completing A Tale of Stars and Shadow and looking ahead to the series as a whole? 

I have a self-imposed rule that I won’t publish the first book in a series until I’ve at least drafted, or mostly drafted, the final book. Because I’m a pantser, I can get bored with things, or just run out of steam, and I would never want to let readers down by starting something and never finishing.  So while there were of course changes to the sequel as I went through editing for A Tale of Stars and Shadow (and then as I polished up the drafts of the subsequent two books) it hasn’t changed much in its fundamental bones. I think because I know the whole story before I even publish book 1, I don’t feel as much pressure about the subsequent books. If Book 1 is well-received, that’s awesome, because I know what’s coming next, and readers should (fingers-crossed) love that too.

How many books have you planned for the series?

As alluded to above, there will be four. And they’re all drafted. Book 3 (title still a secret) is going through final edits as I write this. I just finished the first draft of Book 4 the other day... it’s quite the ending 😊

What sort of research did you do for the series? 

Not a huge amount... one of the benefits of writing in fantasy is that you can make everything up. But I did do quite a bit of reading and watching You Tube videos on Sai fighting techniques because it’s Talyn’s main weapon and I wanted it to be realistic. And this comes out more in the earlier series I’ve written, but the Callanan unarmed combat form of sabai is loosely based on karate, which I am a black belt in. I also did a bit of research on ships and nautical terms given the Shadowhawk likes to rob them occasionally!

Would you say that A Tale of Stars and Shadow series follows tropes or kicks them? 

Hmmm – I wasn’t really trying to do either when writing this. Not sure whether it’s a flaw or a good thing, or both, but I don’t pay a lot of attention to tropes or ‘hero’s journey’ arcs etc when I’m writing (refer back to those creative writing classes I dropped out of). I just type out the ideas that fall out of my brain and then try and weave them into a good story. I certainly wouldn’t say A Tale of Stars and Shadow is anything trend-breaking or super unique. But I do hope it is a good story 😊

Cover art is always an important factor in book sales. Can you tell us about the idea behind the cover of A Tale of Stars and Shadow? I must admit, and forgive me for saying it aloud, I find it rather uninspiring :

No worries at all! The Fantasy Hive didn’t really like the cover either 😊 Obviously I like it, or it wouldn’t be the cover, and this competition was the first time I’ve had feedback that maybe it doesn’t work well. But one of the great benefits of being in this competition is getting that sort of constructive feedback. So it’s something I’m definitely mulling over... whether the cover needs changing to be more marketable.

Having said that – the cover is the Dumnorix heraldry: the crossed swords on the black background wreathed in amber lightning (the colour of the current monarch’s eyes). And the lightning works doubly because it’s the Shadowhawk’s symbol.

Which question about the series do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it! 

Ohh, this is a tough one. Hmm...
.....still thinking....
Ok – is it all right to plead the fifth on this one? I do have a few (one in particular) questions I’d love readers to clue into/ask me about, but they are 100% spoilers and I don’t want to give the game away just yet 😊

What’s your publishing Schedule for 2020/2021? 

I’m aiming for Book 3 to come out in April, and then (somewhat ambitiously) the fourth and final book to come out in September. That will be it for this year, but soon I’ll need to start pivoting towards what I’ll publish next. I’ve got a few options for that and I’m trying to decide between them!

Do you have any other authorial goals that you are striving towards that you want to talk about? 

I want to do this full time. That’s my over-arching, primary goal. So I’m going to keep working hard until I can achieve it.

Can you name three books you adore as reader, but that make you feel inadequate as a writer/in awe of the craft? 

I can probably name more than three 😊
o Jay Kristoff’s Nevernight series
o Anything written by Victoria Schwab
o Patrick Rothfuss – The Name of the Wind

Thank you for taking the time to answer all the questions. In closing, do you have any parting thoughts or comments you would like to share with our readers? 

Thank you so much for having me, it’s been an honour! SPFBO is such a great initiative, so a big thank you to Mark Lawrence, but also to everyone interacting on the Facebook group and supporting all these awesome indie authors. It’s an absolute delight being part of it all.

I sincerely hope you all enjoy not only A Tale of Stars and Shadow but all the other great self-pubbed fantasy books out there. I love chatting with my readers (about anything and everything, but particularly books), so please feel free to reach out if you have any questions or want to know more about any of my answers here!

Lisa Cassidy



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