Happy Friday, Book Dragons!
Today is my stop on The Ember Days blog tour! Awhile ago I was given the opportunity to do a Q&A with Rose, which I can finally share with you. I loved The Harm Tree (which I highly recommend) and can’t wait to start The Ember Days asap! Keep and eye out for review!
1. For those who aren’t familiar with it, can you tell us a little about The Harm Tree?
The Harm Tree is the story of two friends, Torny and Ebba, who live in Arngard, a land that is still healing from a terrible civil war between two princes. They stumble into a plot to revive the conflict, and find themselves separated. Reckless Torny finds herself headed back to the home she ran away from. Accompanied by Galen, an old warrior haunted by the nightmares of the war, she must deliver a warning. Meanwhile, quiet Ebba catches the eye of the merciless priest Grimulf, who has grand plans for the future of Arngard…and Ebba has her part to play. The story follows the two friends as they find themselves on opposite sides of a brewing war between the old gods and the new. There’s a lot of stabbing.
2. Where did the inspiration for the story come from?
I started with the idea of Joan of Arc – the fact that a teenage girl could convince a prince, an army, to follow her into battle, although of course at terrible cost to herself. I didn’t want to stay too close to the high medieval period, because it’s been so thoroughly mined for fantasy narratives, so for real-world inspiration I moved back another 500 years to the period when Christianity was spreading through the northern reaches of Europe.
I’ve always been interested in Norse history and mythology, and I wanted to explore what living in that world might be like – a world where spirits and gods and the dead are as much a part of the world as the elements, or the weather. Again, I avoided the major myths, as they have been very heavily used in fantasy, but I tried to dig into the logic of them – the bargains even gods must make to learn the secrets of the world, the ubiquitous presence of violence and struggle.
Finally, I wanted to write the story I had so often wanted to read when I was a teenager. The story was a kind of gift to my younger self, with heroines who walked the paths before them, even though they lead through dark places.
3. The Harm Tree is told through multiple perspectives, what was the writing process like?
My biggest challenge when writing multiple first-person perspectives was differentiating the voices. Torny and Ebba are both teenage girls, both engaged in similar actions at the beginning, and at first I really struggled to make sure readers could tell who was talking. Probably about a year into writing, I hit on Ebba’s voice. That helped a lot, visually, but there was still the question of the character behind the voice.
Torny appeared almost fully formed from the beginning, I think partly because one of the things I put into her was my confidence. So I knew that part of her intimately, and it’s what carries her through the beginning of the book. Ebba was harder. For a long time, I wasn’t sure exactly what her story was, and where she was coming from. I wrote a huge portion of Torny’s story first, because I was so stuck with Ebba.
I can’t remember exactly what the lightbulb moment was, but there came a point where I realised what drove Ebba, her motivating force. Once I had that, everything fell into place. I knew how she’d react, the kind of things she’d think but not have the courage to say, what had brought her to this point in her life. It was interesting seeing her overtake Torny, in a way, as she realised her own strength, just as Torny was losing hers. It always surprises me how alive characters feel during writing.
4. Do you have a favourite character from the books. If so, why are they your favourite?
In The Harm Tree I loved Galen; he pays such a tragic part in the story, but he is also a force for good, and in the end he finds his freedom. In The Ember Days, I really love Serke, a healer and wise-woman who gives the heroines a glimpse of parts of themselves and their world that they never expected. She’s not a major character, but she was a wonderfully uplifting person to meet and spend time with. And of course, I have a special affection for villains. Writing a villain allows you to really dig down into the darkness we carry inside us, and bring it into light.
5. Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I used to be a pantser, but now I try to be a plotter. I mark out important beats in the narrative, I note when and where certain plot points must happen to carry the story…but I can only see so far ahead. I treat this plotting like those markers you see when you’re walking in the mountains, the poles that will mark the path even if a meter of snow falls. I start writing, the story covers the bare bones of the plot – and I keep an eye out for my markers. I have to be flexible. I’m never quite sure if the story will stick to the plan.
6. What are the most important elements of good storytelling to you?
Fleshed out characters, good pacing, internal symbolism and meaning, and a sense that the plot is in the hands of someone capable. I think I’m currently solid on about half of those, but the great thing about writing is that every new piece offers the opportunity to get better. I find plotting the hardest. One day I want to make it look as effortless as someone like Terry Pratchett did. I admire the way that in his best books, the characters, their lessons, and the plot all slot together into an enjoyable yet profound story. I particularly like the way you can track that development over time as you read his books. Storytelling is a craft, and practice makes…not perfect, but proficient.
7. The sequel is coming later this year. Can you tell us anything about The Ember Days?
The Ember Days takes Torny and Ebba and sets them free in a much wider world. There are deadly attacks from the merciless Raiders, a deranged new cult growing up in the wake of a strange plague, a beautiful soldier hunting them as they flee the threat of imprisonment, and Aisulu, a new friend who seems to promise freedom, but whose own motives remain mysterious. The stabbing continues.
8. We all love a good book recommendation, have you read any recently you would recommend?
I recently read and really loved The Five by Hallie Rubenhold. It’s a non-fiction book about the untold lives of the women killed by Jack the Ripper. It’s an astounding piece of historical investigation, not into the killer, but into the women themselves. The five lives Rubenhold uncovers offer a cross-section of working class Victorian society, and bring into focus the fact that the women’s murders took place in a social context that enabled violence against the least protected. It’s a fantastic book, and despite the subject matter, strangely uplifting.
9. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Sitting down and writing trumps just about any other advice I can give. Nothing can happen until you write, so write. Other things help, but you have to write.
10. What are you working on next? (If you’re able to tell us).
Since I’ve spent the last year using my all my holiday and spare time to finish The Ember Days, I’m going to concentrate on my professional development for a bit. My non-writing career is also important to me. I’m a project manager in a non-profit organisation that helps people integrate into society, and I’m learning a bunch of new skills and taking on new responsibilities. However, that’s not to say I’m stopping writing. I’ve been mapping out a book for younger readers set in the Gallo-Roman period. It’s a test to see how good at pacing and storytelling I can get – I’ll have to keep it short and fast moving, and I think it’ll challenge me in all the right ways. I can’t just rely on stabbing to carry me through every story I write.