Inspiration comes from everywhere and anywhere. I’ve been inspired by landscapes, by vivid dreams, by other books, by movies, by museum visits and art history lectures, by concerts, by passing comments, by a fleeting emotion, by misremembering an entry in a dictionary.
I don’t draft written outlines, but I outline extensively in my mind and do a lot of research before I begin writing. In other words, I’m a plotter, not a pantser! I’m also an edit-as-I-go writer. Any flaws or inconsistencies have to be fixed before I can continue. As a result, it takes me longer than some writers to complete a first draft, but less time to revise and polish it.
My best-known work is the Kushiel’s Legacy historical fantasy series, which is dense and ornate, with big sweeping plots filled with intrigue, romance and adventure. The first trilogy, beginning with Kushiel’s Dart, features a courtesan-spy heroine marked by the gods to experience pleasure in pain. The duology that comprises The Sundering is epic fantasy in the vein of Tolkien reimagined as epic tragedy, with a perspective sympathetic to the losing side. And then Santa Olivia and Saints Astray are a pair of coming-of-age stories set in a (somewhat) dystopic near-future, although I like to call them post-modern fables.
In telling the story of Daisy Johanssen, you’ve really switch gears. What led you to write an urban fantasy story, and was it an easy transition to make?
Urban fantasy is fun! I’ve always enjoyed reading it. And I thrive on tacking different creative challenges. It keeps the process fresh and new for me, and allows me to maintain my love of writing. I’d wanted to write something inspired by the very quirky town I live in for a long time, and when I was thinking about what might cause magic to function in a contemporary setting, I hit on the idea of having an underworld present. That’s my inversion of the Hermetic Principle: As below, so above. When it occurred to me that my actual community is built above a lumber town buried beneath the sand dunes, I knew I’d found my hook.
After that, it was a fairly easy transition. It wasn’t as hard as, say, switching to a first-person male point of view in the second Kushiel trilogy.
There’s been a strong sense of history behind your other novels, but the Agent of Hel series feels more steeped in mythology than history. Did you have to do a lot of research or did you find lamias and Norse goddesses slipped in of their own accord?
Ever since I was a child, I’ve been fascinated by mythology. Over the course of a lifetime of reading, and a liberal arts education focused on the humanities, I’d absorbed a lot. So when it came to undertaking the Agent of Hel series, it was more a question of editing my mythological selections than searching for elements to incorporate.
Daisy is a rather fascinating protagonist since her own inherent nature and flaws make her as dangerous as the creatures and situations she’s trying to contain. She seems to perceive herself as a ticking bomb…can you tell us how much of that is solely her perspective and how much of that is real? There’s a hint in this last book that her understanding of her heritage might not be entirely correct.
Oh, it’s real! Although you’re right that her understanding is imperfect, the existential threat that Daisy represents is a genuine one.
I am sure you did a lot of research into obeah, but I’m curious what, if any, of it you had to adapt to fit the story you were telling? And where did the idea of including it in a town like Pemkowet come from?
Obeah isn’t anywhere near as formalized as most of the syncretic belief systems to emerge from the African diaspora like Vodou, Santería or Candomblé, and not nearly as extensively researched and documented, which means there’s a lot less material on which to draw. There was nothing I came across in my research that I had to change, although there’s a great folkloric tradition about a terrifying duppy known as the Rolling Calf that I couldn’t find a way to incorporate beyond one fleeting visual nod.
Living in a small Midwestern town, I don’t expect people to recognize the name when I’m traveling abroad; and usually, they don’t. But some years ago on a trip to Jamaica, I met a guy at a local dance club who laughed when I said, “Oh, you won’t have heard of it.” It turned out he lived an hour away in Kalamazoo, Michigan and was home visiting family on the island.
Because it tickled me, that encounter stayed with me and very, very loosely inspired the character of Sinclair Palmer. Since I was writing urban fantasy, giving him a background in obeah was a logical extension.
There’s a strange sense of time in this town. You’ve got the Outcasts talking about two hundred years of history. Then you’ve got the locals calling the local vampire house Twilight Manor. Is it difficult to write such differing perspectives?
No, it’s fun! I love playing with contrasts. The disparity between the characters who are firmly rooted in contemporary culture and those whose sense of history is far greater echoes all of the imagery contrasting the fantastic and the ordinary in this series; a frost giant driving a dune buggy, the lamia in the swimming pool.
One minor character’s story arc took a surprising and touching turn in Autumn Bones – probably one of my favorite parts of the book. You took someone who was easily dismissed as the ridiculously foolhardy groupie, and turned her into a much more strong and complex character. Was this twist already planned when you first introduced her in Dark Currents?
Do you mean Jojo the joe-pye weed fairy? No, I didn’t have her arc in mind until I began fleshing out the concept—no pun intended—of Autumn Bones. I liked the idea of taking a minor character that was essentially introduced as comic relief, and bringing an unexpected resonance to her story.
Do you have an overall idea for this series, and a set number of books in mind, or is it coming together one book at a time?
It’s going to be a trilogy. When I first embarked on it, I gave myself some latitude—since this series is more episodic in nature than anything I’ve written before, I could have played it out longer. But when I began conceptualizing the third book, I decided to pull the trigger and play out my endgame. It just felt like the right thing to do.
In the next book, events that transpired at the end of Autumn Bones will have serious repercussions for the entire Pemkowet community as the mysterious hell-spawn lawyer Daniel Dufreyne unveils the first phase of a dire plan. Daisy’s attempts to counter the rising threat—and navigate her complicated love life in the process—are overshadowed by a warning from one of the Norns that the fate of the world might hinge on the choices she makes. No pressure, right?