Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Interview with Amelia Atwater-Rhodes

Please welcome Amelia Atwater-Rhodes to The Qwillery as part of the 2016 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. Of the Abyss was published in digital format on September 27th and is published in print on November 1st by Harper Voyager Impulse.

TQWelcome to The Qwillery. You've written over a dozen novels for young adults. Of the Abyss, the first novel in the Mancer Trilogy, is your first adult fantasy. What are the biggest differences for you between writing fantasy for young adults and adults?

Amelia:  To start, coming of age is a major themes of most young adult novels. The individual stories in my YA series are all different, but at the heart of most is the question of, “Who am I?” What does it mean to grow up? How do you balance taking responsibility, asserting your independence and individuality, and still needing the support and protection you’ve had since childhood?

In my adult novels, I have more freedom. One fun part of writing Of the Abyss is that all of my main characters start as established adults, two of which are highly-respected in their fields. They’re at the point in their lives where they can look to the future and say, “Yes, I’m on the path I chose and that is my future.” It all goes to hell of course (fairly literally), the way real life often does, and the characters certainly need to grow and discover and reevaluate… but it’s a very different perspective, and it’s not the central theme of the story.

TQAre you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?

Amelia:  I'm absolutely a pantser. I'll make a handful of notes before I start writing, but when I start a new book, I rarely have more than a kernel of an idea, and I'm quick to add new things or throw out earlier ideas if I think something new will work better.

Of the Abyss had one page of notes before National Novel Writing Month in 2006. At the start of the month I intended for it to be a 50 thousand word throw-away project- a fun vacation from the series I was in the middle of at the time- responding to a friend's challenge to write a gay erotica story with no particular plot. I failed the challenge; I became too invested in developing my characters and discovering their story, so by the end of the month I had 50,000 words, my main characters hadn't yet hooked up, and I was typing "Part Two" instead of "The End." What was meant to be a silly story turned into an epic trilogy that included my favorite books of all those I had written. Later I looked back at my pre-NaNo notes and realized they were almost unrecognizable as the series of books that actually emerged.

TQWhat is the most challenging thing for you about writing?

Amelia:  I would have to say the middle third of a first draft, because that’s when a book is most likely to die on the table. There are other parts that are hard or unpleasant, including portions of the editing process, but that middle third is the make-or-break moment for a novel.

The first part of a first draft is easiest for me. I love scene-building, meeting the characters and starting the ball rolling. This is when I get to explore the world and learn about it; I love to build geography, culture, religion, trade, and even popular food of an area. When I revise I often end up reworking a lot of this, because in my rough drafts I "pants" it and let myself run and explore as much as I want.

The beginning is also where I get to introduce the big issues. What is the plot? How do my characters feel about these problems, whatever they are? This part, and their first reactions, is always fun and the easiest part of writing a book.

Then I hit the second third of the book. Characters have moved past immediate reactions, first plans may have failed or caused additional complications, wacky hijinks have begun and I need to figure out how to get from there to the end. This is the point where, because I'm a pantser, half of my books just stop and fizzle. This is the point where I either decide, "yes, I have an idea and it's strong enough to see me through" or "wow, this idea is boring me and I'm not going to keep going." Books in the second group go into a folder I consider my file graveyard.

To refer again to Of the Abyss, this was the point when Hansa (one of my main characters) has escaped being convicted of practicing sorcery and sentenced to death, and has gone home. His fiancée comes running up to him... and, as a writer, I stop and go, "now what?" If all goes well for Hansa and Ruby, it's "happily ever after," which is boring and would end up in the graveyard. Sometimes problems, as a writer, are a seeming lack of problems! In some books the characters dig in their heels and need a reason to get involved, and in other books they're so overwhelmed they (and I) can't see a way out. That's what makes this part so hard - as author, I often need to solve a problem I've set up to appear impossible, or discover a problem the character hasn't realized exists.

Not-really-a-spoiler: Hansa realizes his problems are just beginning.

TQWhat has influenced / influences your writing?

Amelia:  Everything influences my writing.

I know that seems like a glib answer, but I don’t know any other way to respond. When we get to the questions below about inspiration and fantasy and research, I think you’ll see what I mean.

TQDescribe Of the Abyss in 140 characters or less.

Amelia:  Asking me to be brief- my kryptonite! Okay, here goes…

To escape execution, they must travel to the Abyss- a realm of hedonism, violence and grief- and reevaluate all they once knew about sorcery, love, evil, and even death

(This answer took me longer than any other answer in this interview! Yes, I had to cut out the period to get to 140...)

TQTell us something about Of the Abyss that is not found in the book description.

Amelia:  Though Of the Abyss focuses only on Kavet, that small country is a tiny piece of a much wider world called Castra. We don’t see much of that larger world in Abyss because, since the revolution sixty years ago, Kavet has become an isolationist backwater that participates little in trade or international culture.

One or the odd little facts that differentiates Castra from Earth is a scarcity of iron. Iron is strictly regulated by the Osei, dragon-like creatures who dominate the seas, because it is one of the few materials that can harm them. This makes the value of something like a steel sword (such as Hansa carries as a guard in the 126) a significant symbol of status. The purchase of an iron plow blade is a major investment, which inevitably affects industries like farming. This is one of those little facts that I love to discover, research and consider in depth while barely mentioning in the text because few readers actually care about the intricate nature of smelting iron into farm equipment (and none of my point of view characters are overly affected by it in this particular story).

TQWhat inspired you to write Of the Abyss? What appeals to you about writing Fantasy?

Amelia:  I've already said what my original "inspiration" was, so I'll address how the silly, throwaway story I intended turned into something much bigger and became an entire world I've fallen in love with.

Part of my original “decision,” in the original notes I didn’t stick with, was that this wouldn't be a quest story. I put my characters on an island country, made it winter so all the ports were closed, and said, “There! You’re stuck now!” So instead, they traveled to hell.

The Abyss isn’t really hell, though; that’s just the easiest descriptor to give it. Living mortals tend to describe the Abyss and the Numen as the infernal realm and the divine realm, domains of evil and good, but they’re actually both fairly amoral. Their inspiration came not from traditional Judeo-Christian views of Heaven and Hell, but instead came from Freudian theories about the id, ego and superego.

The Abyssi aren’t devils set out to torment people; they’re just entirely id. They're focused entirely on their own immediate needs and pleasures. The Numini on the other hand are entirely superego, so they are only able to see and understand the world in absolutes and imperatives. The Numini consider themselves the supreme, loving and righteous guardians of humanity... but, like the Abyssi, they don't fully understand human needs or desires, or the complex range of full mortal emotion (in this model, humans represent the ego).

I was also influenced by the song "Imagine," though I'll admit I heard it in an ominous way instead of the optimistic one I’m sure was intended. "Imagine there's no heaven... [and] no hell," and we'll all be able to live in peace, is the heart of the philosophy of the Quinacridone. Followers of the Quinacridone (Quin) believe that dwelling too much on the future or past, or especially dwelling on the Other realms, is a dangerous, slippery slope to destruction. The belief isn’t entirely destructive in itself (it’s based partly on concepts of mindfulness, which I respect and try to adhere to in my own life) but since the Quin make up most of the population in the purely democratic Kavet, their beliefs guide policy, which in this case results in an aggressive, institutionalized ignorance where most people are taught, “Let your leaders decide what’s right and wrong, don’t question, and don’t think too much about it, and you’ll be safe.”

Finally, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that real-world politics and religion played a huge role in inspiring this book, during its first draft and even more so during its revisions. I graduated high school a few months before 9/11, which means I feel like my entire adult life has been set against a backdrop of rising tensions and increasing religious bigotry. The Patriot Act, and other “security” measures since (and they just keep coming up), was a major inspiration for Citizens Initiative 126, which decreed that sorcery of any kind was punishable by death and established the guard force responsible for enforcing that law.

I’m also a queer woman living in the first state to legalize gay marriage, back in 2004-- which means we were also the first state to see the vicious backlash as people tried to ban it again. I started to become actively involved in politics and civil rights in early college, and this too shows in Of the Abyss, both in terms of how sexuality is viewed in Kavet and what rights, responsibilities and freedoms the characters in Kavet have-- or lack, often in the name of “security,” or because in a pure democracy the majority’s beliefs decide the law for all.

That was a long-winded answer. In short, a lot of things inspired the Mancer trilogy, which is part of why it couldn’t stay a simple NaNo, and evolved into a tapestry I’ve loved working with for the past decade.

TQWhat sort of research did you do for Of the Abyss?

Amelia:  Developing the world for Of the Abyss took a great deal of research, the majority of which I completed between the conclusion of the first draft and a completely rewritten second draft. Much of the research went into little things that aren't obvious in the final draft, like establishing the economy, ecology and international position of the country of Kavet.

I chose a lot of real-world analogs on which I could base my decisions. For example, Kavet has approximately the same climate as the state of Maine, which influences what they can farm, what kind of weather they expect or fear, and of course the seasons where shipping trade can or can't happen. In deciding how far or how fast an individual can travel via sea, I decided the naval technology would be roughly analogous to late 18th century, which influenced how difficult it is to go anywhere or ship goods. Some things didn’t have direct equivalents because they are intrinsically different from our world, like the iron scarcity. I needed to learn a great deal about iron and the evolution of its use in our world to consider how this would have changed Kavet.

One of the stranger, obsessive bits of research I did was about ducks. In Mancer 2, one of my main characters was a duck farmer. I famously spent nine hours researching ducks for what eventually became ONE PARAGRAPH in the entire trilogy. I must have ranted about it a great deal, and made a great many duck jokes, because my long-time readers and close friends still make duck and bird jokes about my writing.

TQIn Of the Abyss who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?

Amelia:  The easiest character to write was Alizarin. Rin is a prince of the third level of the Abyss (a demon), which means he is beautiful, sensual, and has the capacity for incredible destruction. As an Abyssi, he literally has no concept of shame or guilt. He evolves throughout the book, gaining more depth as his understanding grows, but every time he was on stage I enjoyed writing him.

The hardest character to write was Naples, an Abyssumancer (a sorcerer whose power comes from the Abyss) we meet in the second half of the book. I don’t want to write spoilers, but Naples is in a very difficult, complex situation, and the actions he takes as a result are morally beyond gray (they get pretty black). It was hard to write him in a way where he remained understandable and not just irredeemable.

TQWhy have you chosen to include or not chosen to include social issues in Of the Abyss?

Amelia:  This came up earlier when I talked about the inspiration for this book, but I’ll reiterate and rephrase here: I included social issues in Of the Abyss because I couldn’t leave them out. I’m a rabble-raising beyond-progressive gay Jewish woman with disabilities with a day job as a special education teacher. I am too constantly in the middle of or otherwise aware of too many social issues for me to ever create a fantasy world without them.

We live in a flawed world, and all we can do is try our best to improve it, day by day. In that way, my characters are exactly like us all.

TQWhich question about Of the Abyss do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!

Amelia:  I was having trouble with this question, so I discussed it with my writing group and the barista at Starbucks (which is where my writing group meets) and they suggested, “Have you tried being less thorough?”

The hardest question here to answer was the one asking for 140 characters! I love this series and I love talking about it. It’s hardest to be brief!

TQGive us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from Of the Abyss.


It was a place of glistening black sand, venomous beasts, creeping vermin, and of course the Abyssi—those perfect, beautiful predators who ruled the infernal realm by fang and claw.

(The description of the Abyss and the Abyssi playing and plotting within at the start of the book was actually one of the last pieces of the book to write.)

He looked up at her with a gaze gone flat and ugly, with no hint inside it of the boy she had once known. “The power gets hungry,” he said, utterly unapologetic.

(This entire scene with Baryte was also a later-version addition, which is odd considering how important it became in the trilogy as a whole. When I went to revise and rewrite for the first time, I realized that Hansa and Cadmia are supposed to be high ranked and respected in their field but we never saw them actually doing their jobs. I also wanted to bring in some pieces of the larger overarching plot, which weren’t developed early in the first draft, since I didn’t know about them yet at the time)

"You taste uncomfortable, and a little angry," Alizarin pronounced. "But you also taste of power. A little dusty, cold like the Numini, but still power."

"Okay. I'm awake," Xaz snapped. "What did you want?"

"I don't remember," he said.

(As I mentioned, I loved writing Alizarin. His interactions with Dioxazine were especially fun. She’s used to dealing with Numini, and simply doesn’t know how to handle an Abyssi. He’s equally at a loss with her.)

TQ:  What's next?

Amelia:  Well, Of the Abyss is the first in a trilogy. I believe we’re aiming for a book each year, with Of the Divine coming out in 2017 and Of the Mortal Realm in 2018.

Divine goes back in time about sixty years, to the time of Kavet’s revolution, when the royal house was deposed. It isn’t a prequel, though; I think it’s more accurate to describe it as a companion. Either way, it provides the next puzzle piece readers need to unravel mysteries that come up in the first book, and sets the stage for the third book. Last, Of the Mortal Realm picks up where Abyss leaves off, and sees the story through to the end.

I’m currently editing both Divine and Mortal. I also, always, have other projects going, ranging from more work in this world (though not in Kavet) to futuristic Earth sci-fi.

My NaNoWriMo novel this year takes place several thousand miles away from Kavet, at the border of warring Silmat and Ilbian, and is inspired by a strange combination of Mulan and… and I have no idea, actually, but I think it’s going to be fun. Between the recent controversies over trans rights and my own experiences with friends who have recently come out or transitioned, gender has been on my mind a lot, so that’s going to be on the list of topics I explore this year as well.

TQ:  Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.

Amelia:  You’re welcome- Thank you for inviting me!

Of the Abyss
Mancer Trilogy 1
Harper Voyager Impulse, September 27, 2016
      eBook, 400 pages
Harper Voyager Impulse, November 1, 2016
      Mass Market Paperback, 496 pages

After decades of strife, peace has finally been achieved in Kavet—but at a dark cost.  Sorcery is outlawed, and anyone convicted of consorting with the beings of the other realms—the Abyssi and the Numini—is put to death. The only people who can even discuss such topics legally are the scholars of the Order of the Napthol, who give counsel when questions regarding the supernatural planes arise.

Hansa Viridian, a captain in the elite guard unit tasked with protecting Kavet from sorcery, has always led a respectable life. But when he is implicated in a sorcerer’s crimes, the only way to avoid execution is to turn to the Abyss for help—specifically, to a half-Abyssi man he’s sworn he hates, but whose physical attraction he cannot deny.

Hansa is only the first victim in a plot that eventually drags him, a sorcerer named Xaz, and a Sister of the Napthol named Cadmia into the depths of the Abyss, where their only hope of escape is to complete an infernal task that might cost them their lives.

About Amelia

Amelia Atwater-Rhodes wrote her first novel, In the Forests of the Night, when she was 13 years old. Other books in the Den of Shadows series are Demon in My View, Shattered Mirror, Midnight Predator, all ALA Quick Picks for Young Adults. She has also published the five-volume series The Kiesha’ra: Hawksong, a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year and VOYA Best Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror List Selection; Snakecharm; Falcondance; Wolfcry; and Wyvernhail.

Website  ~  Twitter @AtwaterRhodes  ~  Facebook


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