Your book, The Willow Branch – Book One of the Daermad Cycle, is coming out in October. This is the first in a series, obviously. How many other books will there be?
Epic fantasy series authors tend toward long-arc storytelling. The Willow Branch started as one really long book that I decided to break into a trilogy, but I ended up with five books drafted and already written material for about half of each.
So, the squishy answer is four books, but probably the series will get longer as I flesh out the later books because I’ve discovered that Daermad (the world where the Willow Branch takes place) is a lot larger than I originally thought.
You’ve been calling it Science Fiction/Fantasy. That’s a powerful combination! Would you say one or the other of these genres has more of a pull on this work, or is it about even?
It’s definitely a epic high fantasy. I’m confused by Authonomy’s cojoining the two genres, myself. There are no science fiction elements in the series, really.
The non-native peoples of Daermad arrived from Earth cultures by portals that I don’t really bother to explain, and the native peoples did (once) have technology that could hint at sci fi, but I’m not techy enough to write a good sci fi, so it’s very much a fantasy. Swords, sorcery, ale, horses, all that good earthy stuff, plus elves, dwarves, sentient animals and Celtic deities. It’s a good versus evil struggle with some conflicted characters who live like real people.
The book is complex in part because there are two distinct time lines. I think that might be a gutsy choice on my part. My druidess (whose writings will appear throughout the series) explains in the opening quote that the present is built upon the past and when we forget the past, we put ourselves and the present at peril. That’s something I believe in my personal life (and especially in the life of a nation or culture) and I brought it into the book.
In Founding Year 931, the royal family was completely wiped out … or maybe not. Are they all accounted for? What about their heirs? Who killed who and why? For the last 90 years, the kingdom has been tearing itself apart fighting over who should be king, but there is a True King who has now been born. As you go further into the story, you find that the present (Founding Year 1023) actors are ignorant of that past that may be extremely relevant. I treat the True King as a major mystery and I have our “hero” (the healer Padraig) really as much in the dark as anyone else. He’s tasked with finding the True King, but he just has prophesy to go on and his interpretation of that is definitely going to be hindered by his cultural assumptions.
The other complexity comes through the various cultures of the book and their history. The Celdryans don’t know that history and their cultural amnesia really threatens the whole land. The Kin (an elven race) do remember that history and they don’t trust the Celdryans at all. They have very different cultures and religions and racial bigotry is hindering cooperation. Cooperation is absolutely necessary before the Svard sweep down from the north and destroy both races.
Tell me what gave you the idea for this storyline. Did it come to you all at once, or did it take many years?
I’m always suspicious of epic fantasy writers who claim the breadth and depth of a complex story came to them all at once like some bolt out of heaven. Although I’ve been writing since I was 12 and love to read fantasy, I had never turned my hand at writing fantasy until I got a computer. World-building is just too complex for long hand, in my opinion. More power to Tolkien and the masters, but I couldn’t imagine doing it old school.
I was really absorbed in trying to write mysteries after I went digital when portions of The Willow Branch began floating in my head about 15 years ago. I wrote a gravel draft centered on Padraig meeting Tamys about 12 years ago. It was maybe a 20-page short story set in Annan’s tavern. A writers’ group I was involved in encouraged me to develop it into a book. Writers’ group dissolved into the ether in the ensuing five years.
I have a hard time holding my attention to any one writing project, so I probably spent a year writing The Willow Branch over that five year period. Without alpha and beta readers who could be objective (cough, not my husband and best friend), the book sat forgotten on a floppy until I learned about Authonomy around four years ago. Critique reached a point of critical mass in 2012, which happened to coincide with the end of a long-term job and about six weeks of down time before the next career move.
I broke up the book then stared at the first section and realized that it was interesting travelogue, but really nothing happens with Padraig and Tamys in that section of the original book. My characters write themselves, so they have opinions about what they will or will not do and I couldn’t get them to do anything really exciting. If they wouldn’t cooperate, it was going to be a short book, so I turned to Ryanna (who in the original book was introduced much later) and that was okay, but I really wanted some powerful sorts of scenes where characters’ lives were at stake. Padraig, Tamys, Ryanna would not cooperate and you can’t kill off your bad guys too soon, so – hey, there’s this wonderful back story that my characters talk about. Why not show it instead of tell it?
I killed my first character and from there, the past timeline really wrote itself in about two months. Then, as in any complex piece of writing, I had to edit and fix continuity errors, etc.
The people in this novel speak with a particular cant. Do you find yourself thinking in that language after you spend a lot of time with the book?
Yes. The opening scene for Padraig, when he’s riding across the prairie to his first farmstead, was written one Saturday while I was listening to Enya on the stereo. That was really the genesis of the lilt in the narrative voice and the Celdryan dialogue. It’s absent in the Kindred and Svard narratives, by the way, so I have to provide myself with a clear break between writing the three cultures so that I don’t carry that lilt where it shouldn’t be. I find writing to music helps with that.
Which character calls to you the most? Did any character take you by surprise?
I have a lot in common with the character of Lydya, I think. She is really one of the few created characters in the series – meaning that I gave her life instead of her just cropping up in my head the way most of the other characters did. She is a mother and a woman of faith who loves her children through her faith, which gives her immense power. She hasn’t had an easy life. She’s had to make some tough choices. She has regrets, but she’d probably do it again.
My characters take me by surprise all of the time because they mostly write themselves. Even the ones like Lydya whom I created for a story-line reason often take off on their own after I give them birth. Probably, if there’s a character that surprised me the most in The Willow Branch it was Pedyr, who was never supposed to have a life beyond the first scene when he witnesses Maryn’s encounter with fate, but he had a story and he wanted me to tell it, so I did.
I understand you’re a Christian. Does your faith play a part in what you write?
My faith plays a role in everything I do – my money job, my marriage, my parenting, how I vote, how I treat people in traffic … just every part of my life, so yes, it plays a role in what I write.
That said, I am a Christian who writes, not a Christian writer. My faith informs my writing, but I did not set out to write a “Christian” fantasy. I think artists who are Christian should strive to create at the highest level of their talent without trying to manipulate and massage a Christian message from their art. Christianity is definitely part of the tale, but I did extensive research on Celtic religion and I try to present it sympathetically and to show non-believing characters living fulfilling lives. My believing characters are humans who make mistakes and have passions that sometimes cast their faith in a bad light. I try to tack against stereotypes and avoid the “Christian bookstore” fiction syndrome.
You’ll be self-publishing this novel, is that correct?
I will. There is a very limited publication market for “Christian” fantasy. According to one agent I dealt with, “Christians don’t like sorcery”. Yeah, okay, so that explains why I can’t find a lot of fantasy novels in the Christian bookstores, although I see that many of my reading friends from church have “secular” fantasy novels in their home libraries. I think the agent meant that Christian publishers don’t like sorcery. Christian readers turn to the secular market to scratch their fantasy itch.
I can either be true to the art or write to make an agent and a publisher happy. I think I write a more authentic and, hopefully, appealing story if I tell both sides of the tale. I sent out proposals. I got letters back that indicated interest, if I would remove either the Christian elements or the sorcery/Celtic religion/violence/sex elements. I really thought about it and I could write a banal Christian story about a Celtic society. Gag! I could write a good fantasy and not mention Christ at all, but that didn’t set well with my spirit, so ….
Self-publication is really a wonderful opportunity, especially for writers who are Christians, but I think for writers of any genre. It allows us to write what we want and feel led to write without having to please some middleman whose goal it is to homogenize fiction to some marketing demographic. I think a lot of potentially great stories have sat unread in the past because publishers deemed them unmarketable while they were busy deluging the market with a certain kind of genre fiction that was “in” that decade. Of course, the other side of this issue is that I had to be meticulous in editing and find beta readers willing to be tough on me to turn out a professional product.
When will it be available? And where?
It will be available mid-October. I set a soft deadline of October 10, but my firm deadline is October 20. That should allow for my technical inexperience. It will be released on Amazon and Smashwords and direct from me as a PDF. Prices are still in question. That’s next week’s decision. I’m going to start as an ebook and see if there is an interest in POD.
What other books are you working on now?
I’m always writing something. A Well in Emmaus is a very work-in-progress dystopian that I have up on Authonomy. I’ve got a YA sufficiently written to seek critique and a story of a young man trying to redeem himself from killing a loved one in a car accident. I’m thinking of putting the prequel short story of that up on Authonomy to see what people think. I’m working a murder mystery/political thriller set in Alaska, which is where I live. My husband and I have been conceptualizing a fantasy-sci fi about pre-Noah’s flood society. I need to get him to shut up about the plot so I can let the characters develop.
Realistically, I have a fantasy series to advance toward completion. The second book in the Daermad Cycle – The Shadow Forest is tentatively planned for publication October 2015.
Do you have a blog?
I babble about a variety of topics here:
I am more writer specific on The Willow Branch’s page:
Interested readers can find the first couple of chapters of The Willow Branch there and on Wattpad.
I’m also on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Tumblr.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Like most writers, I would write if nobody else read my scribblings. People who check out The Willow Branch will find a fantasy with Christian influence, but also a Christian fantasy with human realism. That was a deliberate choice on my part, in hopes of writing a book that is more than just a market share.
Well, that concludes this interview. I encourage readers who get into epic fantasy to take a look at Lela’s offering when it becomes available. Thank you Lela, for allowing me to interview you!