AUTHORESS: We first met over TRIPTYCH, your award-winning novel that is truly one of the best time-travel stories I've ever read. Can you tell us a bit about how this story came to be and how it has propelled you forward?
JM: D'awww thank you! TRIPTYCH was the second novel I wrote, and the first I really thought about in terms of a book I wanted to publish. The first novel I never really thought was publishable, and I trunked it, but I really worked and polished TRIPTYCH because of that. I came up with the concept for TRIPTYCH on my mother's 50th birthday. I was living overseas at the time, and I was chilling in the local onsen and thinking about Mom; that was when I realized I was turning 25 that year, and that Mom had had me when she was my age. And there I was, not married, no kids, no career, living on the other side of the planet studying nihon buyo, seiyuu, and teaching at a high school. We had cone down very different paths. And then I wondered if 25 year old Mom would like 25 year old me. I thought we'd get along (I got my wanderlust from her). But of course, story comes from conflict, so I then I wondered... what if we didn't?
AUTHORESS: I absolutely LOVE that the time-travel aspect of TRIPTYCH is derived from your mom-and-me soul searching!
So, you wrote it, and at first it didn't fly. Can you share a bit about your journey from first draft to sale?
JM: TRIPTYCH started life as a novella titled (Back), which I sold to Silverthought Press for online-only publication in 2008. I got a lot of really positive feedback from that, and most of it was some version of "And then what happened??" So I started thinking about what happened next, and seeing as I still had all the rights for (Back), I expanded the story into a full novel.
I wrote several drafts, working and rewriting constantly for a year. When I thought it was ready, I started querying agents and sometimes small presses. Every time I heard back, I tried to tweak and edit the book to address the notes or concerns the rejects included. (All in all, I logged 64 drafts between start and publication, and that included the ones I did with Dragon Moon Press. You read draft 64. But a lot of those drafts were alterations suggested after a rejection, like cutting a scene, or adding just a few lines for clarification in the midst of dialogue, etc.)
I'd had a lot of rejections by April 2009. I went to a SF convention in Toronto, as an academic guest, and after a panel I stopped by the hotel bar to hang out with some nerds I knew from the SPACE Channel here in Canada. There were some people I didn't know in the group, but at this convention especially, people are very friendly and welcoming. So when we all relocated to a room for beer and pizza, everyone was invited.
At that party, I was talking to some authors I know about my frustrations, and a woman came over to ask about the book I was talking about. So, having no idea who she was, slightly drunk and kinda bitter, I pitched her the book. I thought she was just being polite when she kept talking about the book, and then, strangest of all, she requested the full! I had no idea who she was!
Turns out she was Gabrielle Harbowy, acquiring editor at Dragon Moon Press!
I sent her the book that Monday, and a little while later got her response. She really liked the characters, but was rejecting it because she felt that there were issues with the structure of the narrative that was irreparable. Well, trust me to take that as a personal challenge.
I asked her if she would be willing to read it again if I revised, and she agreed (I am going to project a little here and say reluctantly agreed), and I spent the summer pulling it apart and rewriting large swaths of the book to address the issues she had pointed out. I returned the book to her that autumn and heard... nothing.
I was anxious, and then I was upset, and then I was devastated. Surly that meant she didn't want it and didn't feel the need to break it to me gently. Right? Wrong. Gabrielle later told me that she held off on reading it so long because she had really liked the characters and really didn't want to read the revisions and have to tell me that they were rejecting the book. Except, that when she finally did read the revisions, she liked them!
I think, though I can't be certain, but I think I got the email offering publication sometime around Christmas? It might have even been on Christmas Eve.
We announced the sale at that same convention in 2010, and then launched the book there in 2011.
AUTHORESS: And the rest is history!
So now you're launching your second novel (with other goodies on the horizon). Can you tell us how THE UNTOLD TALE came to be?
JM: Well, after TRIPTYCH, I wrote another novel (THE SKYLARK'S SONG) and leveraged TRIPTYCH'S success to pitch to agents. I was actually approached by some too, and in the end I had three phone calls. I chose an agent, and we started working on SKYLARK. It was clear pretty quickly, however, that I hadn't made the right choice. He absolutely mangled the manuscript, had no idea what I was trying to do with it, and was extremely condescending. I regretted my choice nearly instantly - the good news was, one of the other agents regretted not pitching me harder. We met again a little later, when I was horribly upset with my then-current agent, and just chatting with her made me realize I had to fire the jerk.
So I fired him. I was worried that I'd completely screwed myself, and that I'd never be represented again, and that THE SKYLARK'S SONG was beyond saving now. The other agent heard I was free, and jumped on the chance. From what I understand, she invited Gabrielle out to dinner, and borrowed her phone to call me randomly out of the blue and offer representation. I actually missed the call, though, because I was busy being the Maid of Honor at my friend's Bachelorette party! She left a lovely message, though.
I decided that if I was going to go to Laurie, I wanted to bring her something that The Jerk hadn't touched first, before we began to work on SKYLARK. I wanted to do with Fantasy what TRIPTYCH did was Sci-Fi - that is, something left-of-center, something issue-laden without being issue-driven or issue-burdened. That was when the buzz for this new TV show started to fill the air - Game of Thrones. I'd never heard of George RR Martin, or read his books, prior to the series coming out. But it sounded right up my alley, so I watched.
It gave me a lot of ideas, but mostly what it really sparked in me was a kind of low-level resentment. It wasn't at the show per se, but at the guy friend I was watching it with. We had an argument about intended audience, and I couldn't get him to understand how much it sucks to not be the center. I mean, I literally couldn't get him to understand that Game of Thrones, while not horrible, was not made for me, but for people like him. White. Male. Straight.
I was so angry I went off to my office and wrote a scene where a female character yells at the hero of a standard fantasy series.
The next morning I reread it and thought... "I think there's something in this. This... anger at always being on the edge."
Turns out there was!
Laurie ADORED the book (only gave me three notes). We had a hard time shopping it though, because it's very self aware and some publishers thought it would be difficult to market. Everyone really liked the book itself, but in general the editors who read it weren't certain how to handle it. Last November, Laurie was giving a keynote at a conference and mentioned the book. As soon as she was finished speaking, she was cornered at the tea table by REUTS. And to borrow your phrase - the rest is history!
Though I was very surprised when they offered a three book deal. I had never intended the story to continue, but now that I have the chance, I really relish the ability to dig back in to this world.
And yes, I did finally bring SKYLARK around to a place I liked with Laurie, and REUTS snapped that up in a three book deal as well.
AUTHORESS: So, as a "self aware" fantasy, what kind of reader will THE UNTOLD TALE beckon to? What do you think the readers will find most surprising? Most challenging?
JM: I think the book will really resonate with readers like me, readers who love fantasy books but are frustrated at never seeing themselves in the books (or, if they are, as villains, exotic "others", or savages). I mean, it's no wonder the weird kids always fall in love with monsters, and bad guys, and mutant characters - it's the only place we see ourselves.
THE UNTOLD TALE points out that fantasy novels have, for a very long time, (And I'm talking The Epic of Gilgamesh here) have been power fantasies for straight males. And my book isn't saying "No, that's bad", it's saying, "Uhg, this is boring. Another one?" The heroes in these books are the side characters, the overlooked ones, the voiceless ones. That, I think, will be the surprise.
As for challenging, it is hard for us nerds to be told that something we have accepted as a staid fact of our reality is problematic. (I mean, #GamerGate/Sad Puppies are the perfect example.) Nerds and Geeks like us often internalize our favorite stories and base a lot of our personalities and self-worth on them. So when someone else finds fault with those stories, it can feel like a personal attack, even though it isn't. It's never a personal attack or an attempt to oppress. It's a question that says, "Don't you see how harmful these stereotypes can be? Not just for me, but for you too? Please, can we make room for everyone?" And I think the book might be challenging for those readers who've never had the flaws and problematics of classic fantasy novels pointed out to them before.
AUTHORESS: Wow, thanks for that very deep glimpse into not only your writer-mind, but your deepest self. Writing is so much more than simply "telling a story", as you've just made clear.
Thank you so much for this interview, and best of luck as THE UNTOLD TALE flies into the wild!