Today, we have a special treat for you. Ladies and gentlemen, J.M. Frey, Professional Geek:
She’s here today to celebrate the release of her masterpiece (seriously, I can see it winning a Hugo) THE UNTOLD TALE.
We sat down with J.M. over a cup of tea and the Internet to chat about the new book, and long story short, we ended up with way more than what we needed for this post. So, spoiler alert, she’s going to be our featured client in next month’s newsletter, where subscribers can get the whole interview and learn about her creative process, what aspiring SF/F writers can do to start off strong, and even how to make a good cup of tea.
As for now, here’s a bit of that interview:
You refer to yourself as a Fanthropologist. Explain that for those who aren’t familiar.
I stole the term “Fanthropologist” from an old LiveJournal community. “Fanthropology” is a portmanteau of fandom and anthropology. The focus is on the social and anthropological study of fandom and it’s various online and offline tribes. Fanthropology as a study, however, was popularized in the academic mainstream by Prof. Henry Jenkins and his book Textual Poachers. (He’s not only a great researcher but also an engaging writer. I’ve devoured all of his books.)
Basically, it’s applying sociology, anthropology, philosophy, and critical theory studies (especially women’s crit and queer crit) to fandom. It’s basically like studying Shakespeare’s plays, his life, his society, and his influences. Four hundred years ago, Shakespeare was the rock star super-writer of the day, his work was pop culture, and everyone was discussing his latest play around the Elizabethan water cooler.
But instead of waiting four hundred years for say, Buffy and Doctor Who to become stodgy, canonized ‘classics’, we’re studying them now.
I was a part of the community all through my undergrad career, and their articles coloured my view of everything I was learning in school and very heavily influenced my undergrad thesis and major papers. When it came time for me to decide what to do for my Masters Degree, I decided to find a program that would allow me to get a degree in, essentially, Fanthropology. I wrote my MA thesis on Mary Sue fan fiction, and I’m still super proud of it.
How did that influence your writing of THE UNTOLD TALE?
I think a lot of the influence of being both an academic and a fanthropologist were most obvious and influential in the early stages of developing the book. I wanted to tell a fantasy story from the POV of those who are often marginalized or absent in classic epic fantasy. That’s sort of my signature modus operandi – I never tell the story from the expected centre or POV. I always tell it from the side. And being so steeped in critical language and thought as I am, it all naturally influenced the way I decided to develop the plot, characters, and world. Essentially, I wanted my main character Pip to be a fanthropologist, and to approach the world she falls into through the same lenses that I would.
THE UNTOLD TALE seems to turn a lot of standard SF/F tropes upside down. Is that something you set out to do on purpose?
Absolutely! I love SF/F but I was finding that I was getting exhausted with the novels, They were the same thing over, and over, and over again. A friend’s husband lent me a trilogy he really loved and thought I would like too, and maybe I would have ten years ago. But when I tried to read it then, I just found it… predictable. The novels use the same tropes, the same plot arcs, the same kinds of lead character. I mean, I love Marvel, but look at all those white men. I can’t tell them apart from far away. The same with video game protagonists lately. Two decades ago there was more diversity in video games than there are now. Now it’s all vaguely tanned, scruffy, brunette, fit guys.
I was exhausted. I wanted to write a story that not only was different than what was normally told, but points out why diversity is important. That not only contains it, but also discusses it. I wanted to write a book that makes the readers intensely aware that it is a book. And yet still be entertaining.
At over 600 pages, THE UNTOLD TALE is no lightweight, and the story itself is quite intricate. What drove you to take on such an ambitious project?
Thank you for saying it’s ambitious! The intricate layers in the book really did all develop slowly. I finished the book, then went back through and added hints and clues and scenes to support the b-plot, the second layer, and then went back through again to add the foreshadowing and scenes for the next, and so on. I had a whiteboard that was about eight-feet by four feet (well, a wall painted with white-board paint) where I kept meticulous notes and reminders to myself. I didn’t mean for the book to exceed 140k words, but by the time I’d layered in everything that needed to be there, it was that long! I’m lucky Reuts was up for publishing such a large thing!
I also don’t think I knew how ambitious it was when I first came up with the characters. I didn’t really know the plot when I began it, and when it kept getting more complicated, when the rose (or cabbage) kept unfurling, I just kept plowing on ahead. It wasn’t until I stepped back and looked at the whole thing that I realized how many little extra secrets and plots had crept in.
To be really honest, my biggest fear right now is that the next two books won’t live up to book one. That I might try too hard to make it clever and it will flop, or be overburdened.
You’re also a hybrid author, having released HERO IS A FOUR-LETTER WORD through our Short Fuse Publishing arm as well as several stories through self-publishing. Tell me a bit about what being a hybrid author is like.
For me, the most important thing about publishing is putting the right kind of story in the right kind of place. There are some tales – niche, very specific – that are better suited for selfpub, and some tales that are better suited for tradpub. I always try to give them the right home.
And it also sort of seems a shame to sit on a good story – or in my case, collection of stories – and let them collect dust when they’re perfectly fine and publishable. Self-publishing is the perfect place to give a platform to the stories that I wrote, and like, but didn’t find a home in anthologies or magazines that they were originally written for. It doesn’t make any sense to me to sit on something good and do nothing with it.
And the great thing about Short Fuse is that it is like a proper publishing house in that you take care of some of the more difficult details that I, without experience, would maybe screw up, like typesetting and interior design.
I like being a hybrid author because it means that I’m never wasting my time writing, especially since I always ensure that what I’m self-pubbing is the same quality of what I’m trad-pubbing. It also gives me the freedom to write what I want. I’m not fretting if the story is mainstream enough, or relatable enough, or normal enough. If it is, great, off for shopping it goes. If not, then it’s still got a home.
What’s next for you?
This is my first series! THE UNTOLD TALE is Book One of THE ACCIDENTAL TURN series. I’ve never had such tight timelines and turnarounds before. In some ways it’s really inspiring and motivating, and others it’s scary as heck! The series is comprised of three novels and two novellas.
They are: THE UNTOLD TALE (Dec 2015), THE FORGOTTEN TALE (June 2016), THE SILENCED TALE (Dec 2016) and THE GARRULOUS GHOST OF GWILLFIFESHIRE (early spring 2016) and THE WONDROUS WOES OF THE WRITER (summer 2016). There’s a also a prequel comic, “Ivy” that’s being serialized right now on Tumblr, and I’ll be releasing a special short story on Christmas Day. What I love about book two is that it follows our heroes after their Happily Ever After, and talks about what sorts of domestic issues might arise when you end up with the Perfect Book Boyfriend.
There’s also a website and social media for the faux-author of the fake fantasy series I created for the books, The Tales of Kintyre Turn, and it’s been a lot of fun commissioning fan artists to draw fan art of the series, posting as Elgar Reed, the author, and encouraging people to write fan fiction about the non-existent fantasy books.
Right now the first two novels and the first novella is written. I’m in the midst of writing novella number two, which I will probably finish in January. Then novel number three is next.
I also just turned season one of a web series over to a producer and finished another feature-length screenplay and turned it over to the editor about…. seventeen hours ago!
And as of this interview, I am putting myself on writing hiatus! No more writing until the New Year!
(Of course, as soon as I finish THE SILENCED TALE, I have to start in on books two and three of THE SKYLARK’S SAGA trilogy! Woo!)
Thanks, J.M.! The rest of this interview, including tips for new SF/F writers, will appear in our January newsletter. THE UNTOLD TALE is available now wherever books are sold.