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Monday, February 22, 2021

SPFBO: Interview with Suzannah Rowntree

Official Author Website
Order A Wind from The Wilderness over here: USA/UK

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFO: Hi! I'm Suzannah Rowntree - author of historical fantasy fiction. I live in a big house in rural Australia with my awesome parents and siblings, drinking fancy tea and writing historical fantasy fiction that blends real-world history with legend, adventure, and a dash of romance.

​If you like the mythic fantasy of Stephen Lawhead, S. A. Chakraborty or Naomi Novik, you'll probably like my stories too!

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

Thanks for having me! I hail from Australia, where I spend most of my time writing or studying history. I live with my parents and some of my siblings, who are the best people on the planet. I enjoy knitting, paintball, and being judgemental about architecture; and last time I went for a walk, I saw a koala boxing a cockatoo.

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

I studied to be a lawyer, but at the moment I have the opportunity to write full-time, which I do. I also have a side gig designing and selling gemstone jewelry on Etsy, which gives me a break from words and is very soothing to my inner jewellery addict.

Who are your favorite current writers and who are your greatest influencers?

The dead authors who have most influenced me include JRR Tolkien, the all-time master, and Anthony Trollope, who taught me the dubious lesson that it’s perfectly fine if an audience spends most of a 900-page novel feeling wildly frustrated with half the characters. Tim Powers is a living author who’s had a profound influence particularly on the kind of historical fantasy I’m trying to write in Watchers of Outremer. The first Powers book I ever read blew my mind for the sheer level of historical there was this amazing fantasy adventure embroidered into the gaps.

Some of my favourite living writers include SA Chakraborty, Naomi Novik, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and Rosamund Hodge from the trad side of publishing, and WR Gingell, ML Wang and Angela Boord from the indie side of things.

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’ve gravitated to words for as long as I can remember. I’ve always wanted to tell stories, but for years I spent a lot of time simply practicing my writing, working on a novel whenever I had a chance in between other life commitments. About eight years ago I had a lightbulb moment in which I judged I was already writing at a higher level than some other authors I knew, some of whom were already published. So, I decided to finish the novel and publish it. (That was Pendragon’s Heir, a YA retelling of Arthurian legend).

I look back now and laugh a bit, because I still had so much to learn. I still have a lot to learn.

What do you think characterizes your writing style? 

My readers usually mention three things: vividly written historical settings, love interests who stab each other in the back, and themes that leave them thinking for a long time after closing the book. I also have a weakness for writing terrible people, because I don’t think any of us are above doing ghastly things for our own self-interest.

What made you decide to self-publish A Wind from the Wilderness as opposed to traditional publishing? 

I had committed to self-publishing sometime before AWFTW was written, so it was very natural to release it the same way as my other books. I think the main consideration for me in choosing self-publishing was that to me, the traditional publishing industry was very much based in the US. At the time, all the advice said it took years courting agents and publishers in person, at writers’ conferences. It also seemed quite a cutthroat business, with only a few lucky writers benefiting from serious marketing attempts, and underperforming series being unceremoniously axed halfway through.

This was my passion project, and I was reluctant to put it in someone else’s hands - even if I had the patience and resources to find someone else to take it.

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

There are lots of advantages, but for me the greatest advantage is the creative freedom, and the knowledge that if my book fails, it’s not because someone else messed up.

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

Not having been through traditional publishing, I don’t know very well what I’m missing. For me, the biggest thing I envy traditionally published authors for is the artistic credibility. This doesn’t bother a lot of self-published authors, as it’s not something everyone is chasing with the same fervour, but it’s important to me. I hope my books are still being read and talked about long after I’m dead. Of course the first step in that process is actually writing something of that calibre...but the second is getting people to recognise it, and that still seems to be a type of recognition people are more willing to accord to traditional authors.

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

Oh, for sure. I haven’t been the greatest marketing expert. I’d much rather be writing. And I haven’t paid much attention to writing to market. And I did that thing at the end of AWFTW that keeps getting me traumatised text messages from readers.

Why did you enter SPFBO? 

As I said, artistic credibility is something that means a lot to me. As far as I can tell, SPFBO is currently the best way for a self-published fantasy book to get genuine recognition from genuine critics. I’m incredibly grateful to Mark Lawrence for creating the competition.

What would you do if you won the SPFBO?

I’d wake up and realise it was a dream? Honestly, I genuinely don’t expect to win - at least not with this book. I suspected when I entered that the lightness of the fantasy elements, which some of the judges have already noted, would be a strike against the book. I haven’t read any of the other finalists yet, but last year I read The Sword of Kaigen and Fortune’s Fool and knew I would quite likely be going up against something of a similar calibre, which would wipe the floor with me.

But...I certainly intend to submit other books in the future, if possible. I’d be ecstatic to win the thing. I would brag about it insufferably, and probably make a layer cake to celebrate. I don’t know.

How would you describe the plot of A Wind from the Wilderness if you had to do so in just one or two sentences?

AUGH. You had to ask that, didn’t you?

When an evil sorcerer's spell misfires, sending him four hundred years into the future, Lukas Bessarion must join the armies of the First Crusade in an attempt to find his way home. But complications ensue when he begins to realise there are enemies from the past on his trail...and when his only friend in this terrifying new future, the tough and streetwise Ayla, turns out to have a very good reason to kill him.

What was your initial inspiration for A Wind from the Wilderness? How long have you been working on it? Has it evolved from its original idea? 

My idea for the series came nine years ago when I read a children’s novel set in the twelfth century crusader states. Until that moment it had never quite hit home for me that the crusades weren’t just something you came back from, like King Richard always does at the end of Robin Hood. Some people who went on crusade stayed in the east. In collaboration with the (very diverse) indigenous populations, they built this fascinating, unique, amazing society out there. I realised I’d always had a very westernised perspective on the crusades, and that there was this local perspective I’d never even considered. Not just the Muslim Turks and Arabs, but also the local Christian populations and the Frankish nobility, generations of whom lived there and had a culture very, very different to that of the crusaders proper who came and went from Europe.

“Someone ought to tell this story,” I thought, but it took me another three years - the end of 2014 - to decide that that someone should be me. Originally my plan was one massive book in nine parts, which I drafted in one year from 2015-2016. When I was finished, it was only a skeleton, but it was nearly as long as The Lord of the Rings. So I decided to split it into a series.

In some regards it has evolved a long way from its original form. The major plot beats are the same, but my understanding of the history has grown from almost nil and I’ve also wound up seriously reconsidering a lot of the things I’d always thought about the crusades.

If you had to describe A Wind from the Wilderness in 3 adjectives, which would you choose?

Gutwrenching. Vivid. Weirdly theological. Did I cheat?

How many books have you planned for the series?

It will be nine books - a sort of trilogy of trilogies. There will be three books about the protagonist of AWFTW, Lukas Bessarion, during the First Crusade in the late 1090s; three books about his sister, Marta, during the near destruction of the kingdom of Jerusalem in the late 1100s; and three books about their father, John, during the ultimate fall of the crusader states to the Mamluks in the late 1200s. The books aren’t published in chronological order: book 1, AWFTW, is about Lukas, but book 2 is about Marta, and book 3 is about John; and the cycle repeats twice more. Right now (November 2020), I’m finalising edits on book 3 and drafting book 4, in which Lukas returns for his second instalment.

I know it isn’t the intuitive way to get the story, but as we jump back and forth through time to each different character, more and more links between their stories are revealed, as well as the ways these family members are affecting each other through time. 

Who are the key players in this story? Could you introduce us to A Wind from the Wilderness’s protagonists/antagonists?

The book follows three protagonists:

Lukas Bessarion is the son of a Roman aristocrat in 600s Syria, who’s unexpectedly transported into a world where family and feudal connections are everything and he suddenly doesn’t have any.

Ayla is a streetwise Turkish girl who knows the exact date she’s fated to die...before which, she’s determined to avenge her father’s death against the secret society that killed him.

Raymond of Saint-Gilles is a Frankish count leading an army to Jerusalem and trying his best to keep as many of them alive as possible while grappling with the cunning politics of the east.

And on the side of the antagonists we have Lilith, a disembodied spirit with a sinister agenda; Armen, a sorcerer under Lilith’s influence; and a couple of spoiler characters I won’t tell you about!

Does your book feature a magic/magic system? If yes, can you describe it?

There is a magic system, and it’s mostly theurgic in nature, with power coming from various good or evil spirits. Because Watchers of Outremer is intended to be so historically accurate, I mostly wanted to draw out and exaggerate what the real historical people at the time would already have believed about the supernatural. So, there are angels, demons, saints, and djinn taking a hand in things. Some spirits are territorial, acting as the Guardians of a specific city or kingdom or house. Some might be enslaved to sorcerers or might possess them, making them immortal. There are people with various supernatural giftings, like the Messengers, who have prophetic visions, or Healers, who heal people, or Perceptors, who can see into the spiritual realm. Most of it is based in Christian, Jewish, Islamic, and older Mesopotamian folklore.

It’s true that we don’t get a really good look at this magic system in A Wind from the Wilderness, although the magic is very prominent by the time we’re following the adventures of an amnesiac djinn enslaved to an immortal assassin in book 3, A Day of Darkness! In retrospect, it might have been wise to open the series with a much clearer look at the magic system, but one of my failings as an author is a tendency to keep too many surprises up my sleeves for too long. You know what they say about hindsight….

Cover art is always an important factor in book sales. Can you tell us about the idea behind the cover of A Wind from the Wilderness? 

I wanted to give an idea of the setting of the story, and the sense that Lukas Bessarion’s world was crumbling away to give rise to something new and unaccustomed. I also asked for the colour scheme to reflect Byzantine religious icons, with very bright and clear reds, blues, and golds. The legendary Jenny Zemanek did a fabulous job bringing that concept to life!

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

Why did I choose to write historical fantasy rather than straight historical fiction? There are so many complicated reasons for this. There’s the fact that while I love (and these days almost exclusively read) fantasy, my favourite fantasies are always those that are inspired by real-world history. All the things that appeal to me about history are the same things that appeal to me about fantasy. Myth and legend, court intrigue and quests. The incredible, the unknown, the strange; the feeling that the past is an alien world where attitudes are different and wild things happen. While most authors of historical fiction build on the history with romance tropes, if they’re writing for women, or thriller/military tropes if they’re writing for blokes, I’m driven to build on it with fantasy tropes.

Then there’s the fact that most people throughout history have had a worldview deeply imbued with the supernatural and that these beliefs had a deep impact on their everyday behaviours. They already lived in a fantastical world. They believed in magic, gods, demons, saints, miracles, relics, djinn. For me, accurately depicting history means leaning in to these elements. And being a fantasy author means exaggerating these elements and employing them to mythologise and explain the history - speculative fiction has always provided unique opportunities for symbolism and philosophical or theological meditation.

What are you most excited for readers to discover in this book?

Most of all, of course I hope the story sweeps you away and makes you feel something. But beyond that, a big part of my motivation in this series was to take the latest academic scholarship on the crusades and distill it into a form that’s readable, entertaining, and memorable. For a long time (and you can thank Sir Steven Runciman and his monumental, if thoroughly outdated history for this), popular conceptions of the crusades have been dominated by the idea that the crusades were the violent outburst of a pack of barbarians - a conception that has now been weaponised by white supremacists who want to appropriate this image of the crusaders as role models. It’s not that the crusaders were really sensitive and reasonable people. They did terrible, terrible things. But they were not mindless xenophobes, and many of those who settled in the crusader states were forced to find ways to live in some form of harmony with the very different peoples around them, whether Christian or Muslim. I hope my story does something to inform people about that.

Can you, please, offer us a taste of your book, via one completely out-of-context sentence.

How could they find peace when everything they believed, everything they hoped for, stood at such stark odds?

What’s your publishing Schedule for 2020/2021? 

I’ll be releasing book 3 of Watchers of Outremer early next month (December 2020). A Day of Darkness features John Bessarion, the father of Lukas from A Wind from the Wilderness, as he searches a besieged city for a spirit powerful enough to send him back to his native time. 2021 will be a busy year in terms of publishing. Not only do I hope to release Outremer #4, A Conspiracy of Prophets, but I’ll also hopefully be publishing a trilogy I drafted this year. This one is pretty different to the Outremer books: a completely frivolous gaslamp romp set in an 1890s Europe ruled by monsters. Think The Crown, but with better female characters and a ton more werewolves. It’s called Miss Sharp’s Monsters, and working on it has brought me some much-needed light relief!

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? 

Thanks so much for having me! To conclude, I’d like to extend my sincere condolences for that thing I did at the end of A Wind from the Wilderness. I did what I thought best for the story, but I know it’s a kick in the teeth!



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