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Interview with Nikky Lee (The Rarkyn’s Familiar)

Nikky Lee is a multi award-winning author of science fiction and fantasy. She’s twice been placed in the Aurealis Awards for Best Young Adult Short Story and Best Science Fiction Novella. She’s been published in multiple presses and magazines, including Deadset Press and Breach Magazine. 

Lee’s debut novel, The Rarkyn’s Familiar, will be released in April. I was lucky enough to read an ARC copy and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Read my review here.

Most of your works are rooted heavily in science fiction and fantasy, what is it about this genre that sparks your interest? Was it a conscious decision to stick primarily to one genre?

I’ve always been drawn to the unreal. I think it comes from my inner child who’s always wished magic was real. There’s a sense of wonder and wanderlust wrapped up in it too, I love exploring strange lands and different cultures—real or in my head. And intellectually, I enjoy playing around with ‘what if’ scenarios and imagining how worlds, technology, social structures and culture would develop if they have (or don’t have) certain magic or technology.

I don’t think it was ever a conscious decision to write primarily in the spec fic genre. It’s my favourite genre to read and I never imagined myself writing creatively in any other genre.

It’s no secret that you are a prolific short story writer, snapping up many awards and appearing in many publications, do you have any tips for writers who are looking to submit work to magazines, anthologies or short story competitions?

For the longest time I didn’t think of myself as a short story writer, my ideas were always these big, sprawling epics. Then I discovered that writing to a specific theme—be it a submission call out or even just a prompt—helped me narrow down my options and come up with a “small(er)” idea. The more short stories I wrote, the more I realised that limiting myself in this way actually makes me more creative. 

It’s been said that learning to write a good short story can help tighten your prose and sharpen your plot in novel writing. How has your experience in short story writing helped you with writing your debut novel? 

Not so much with my debut—I’d finished writing The Rarkyn’s Familiar before I fell in love with short stories. But writing short stories did make a massive difference when I was writing the second book in the series. I could rave for paragraphs about how good they were for experimenting with voice, style, tense—even just to practise elements that I knew I was weaker on or wanted to improve on. For example, Dingo & Sister, which won two Aurealis Awards, began because I wanted to prove to myself I could write a story with deep characters. Short stories have also been excellent for teaching me word economy. 

On the project front, they have also been a great palette cleanser between bigger projects. Because they’re short, you can write one and then move on to the next idea pretty quickly. Plus the writer’s high you get from completing a short story is just as good as finishing something longer. 

I know that you’ve been careful with which publisher you’ve chosen to work with. Could you talk us through your decision process? What advice can you give to aspiring authors?

I knew that I wanted to try and get published in the US or the UK since the markets there are so much bigger than little Aotearoa! I’d been querying The Rarkyn’s Familiar for about a year and a half, and had some nibbles of interest but they eventuated to nothing. At the same time, I was learning a lot about self-publishing and getting quite tempted there after seeing several Kiwi indie fantasy authors do exceptionally well. There was also the potential to earn a good return off a series, which is what The Rarkyn’s Familiar would be. However, the initial outlay to get even the first book professionally edited, formatted and cover designed was very off-putting. 

Then I participated in #PitDark on Twitter and got an invitation from Parliament House Press to submit to them. I went to their website, checked out their books on Goodreads and Amazon and liked what I saw. The covers were fantastic and the quality of the interior samples was high, so I submitted. When the offer came through, I hired an agent from Australia to vet the contract and make sure there were no red flags that I hadn’t picked up. I also contacted a few of Parliament House’s authors to ask how their experience with the publisher had been. They all came back with glowing reviews—with the usual caveats of choosing to go with a smaller publisher: I’d be expected to do some marketing and self-promotion myself and not to expect bestseller sales. I was okay with that. I view publishing as a long game, it takes most authors several books to start earning a decent income. So I don’t expect to quit my day job anytime soon!

In other interviews, you’ve mentioned how you’ve drawn on your own experience with anxiety in The Rarkyn’s Familiar. From my experience reading your book, you dig quite deep into this topic and I can imagine it might have been difficult to write. What did your self-care routine look like when writing this book?

I was very fortunate to write the majority of The Rarkyn’s Familiar when I was in a good place mentally. I hadn’t had an anxiety flare up for a couple of years and was fairly confident I had it under control (all that changed when Covid arrived!). When I was searching for a way to deepen Lyss’s internal struggles, I realised my journey of understanding and accepting my anxiety was very similar to Lyss’s journey of discovering and accepting her magic: at first she doesn’t understand what is happening to her, then she initially tries to suppress it and fight it off, until she finally realises that accepting it lessens its power over her. 

In terms of self-care, exercise is one of the best things for me. When I’m starting to feel stressed or anxious, it’s a sign I need to get up and move, even if it’s just a walk around the block. It does wonders for my sleep too, which then sets me up for the next day. Routine also helps (hence why Covid threw a spanner in the works). For managing a flare-up, I find square breathing works well along with making a conscious effort to set aside time for relaxation—be it some yoga, a hot bath and a book, or a short guided meditation. Lastly, the biggest leap forward in my self-care was the decision to go to the doctor and get professional advice—that has made a world of difference. 

There are no real heroes or villains in The Rarkyn’s Familiar, which is one of my favourite aspects of your debut novel. To write such morally complex characters, what were some of the challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?

I’m of the belief that villains aren’t born, they’re made. When I started writing The Rarkyn’s Familiar, I wanted to do more than the standard good versus evil setup. The antagonist’s motivation needed to be more than “because they’re evil”. I wanted to show characters who are the product of their society and their experiences within it; characters who think they are the heroes of their story, even when from another point of view, their behaviour is heinous.

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Interview with Fran Laniado (Beautiful)

Hello Fran, you’ve recently released a stunning debut novel called Beautiful. What was the journey like to getting it published?

It was a long process. After I had a draft, I was unsure how I wanted to go about getting it published. I started by querying agents, but as I learned more about the publishing process I started to wonder if “traditional” publishing was right for me. You can spend years querying agents, revising and resubmitting your work according to their specifications, before finding the right agent. Then an agent can spend years submitting it to publishers, who then take a few years to publish! I felt like, if I was lucky, readers might see something resembling the book I originally wrote in 5 years! 

So, I started to research other options. I spoke to several “independent” authors who published their own work and used various online resources to get it to readers and get the word out. In some ways that seemed very doable: I could have control over the process, and I could make the changes that I felt were appropriate. But it was also very scary! In a traditional publishing environment, you have different people who take care of editing, formatting, marketing etc. If I decided to publish independently, I’d be more or less on my own. But different blogs and groups were very helpful in helping me find beta readers, and freelancers who edited it, formatted everything, did the cover, and helped me put it all together. I’ve found that the writing community is generally very encouraging and supportive.

Beautiful is a Beauty and The Beast retelling. I know you’re releasing a sequel based on the Snow Queen. There have been a few series inspired by fairytale retellings over the last two decades – the Lunar Chronicles, The Kendra Chronicles, Ella Enchanted and Fairest – what sets this series apart?

I’m a big fan of several of those series! One thing I love about fairy tales is how many different variations there are. If you look at a single fairy tale, the Disney version may be very different from the Grimm’s brothers telling, and that might be different from the traditional French version! I think that gives a writer a lot of freedom. You can borrow elements from the different versions, but personally I don’t feel constrained because there’s always room for something new and different. 

My “Beauty and the Beast” is a bit different from other retellings because it’s centered around the character who curses the Beast. She takes on the love interest role eventually, though I wouldn’t call her “Beauty” … But then again, I wouldn’t be so quick to call Finn, the character she curses, a “Beast” either. They have elements of both in their characters. That’s why I gave it the subtitle “A Tale of Beauties and Beasts” The line between the two isn’t always clear. 

How many books do you intend to have in this series?

Right now, my plan is to do one book for each of Eimear’s (the protagonist of Beautiful) sisters. My next novel, based on The Snow Queen, is centered on her sister Aoife. I’ve started some very early drafting for a third book about Deidre, another sister. There are four girls in the family altogether and I’d love to have one book for each sister. But I’m not as fast a writer as I’d like to be! I have a lot of ideas, but they take a lot of time to develop and work my way through. So, things may change…

What’s your favourite fairytale and can you tell us a bit about why it’s your favourite?

To be honest I think Beauty and the Beast has always been a favorite. I love almost every version I’ve read/seen (yes, including Disney!) It’s strange that one of the elements that always appealed to me was the forgotten, enchanted, castle where the Beast lives, but that’s an element that I didn’t include in my retelling at all! I definitely like that it tries to debunk our conventional notions about beauty, but I do think that if it’s done poorly it can end up reinforcing them, so that’s something I wanted to avoid. Another common pitfall is having the central relationship resembling Stockholm Syndrome. I don’t think that’s the intention at all, and that was another pitfall I was anxious to avoid. 

Are there any fairytales you wish were retold more often? Are there any that you feel have received too much attention from writers?

It’s strange: I think Beauty and the Beast gets a bit too much attention, but that’s the one that I felt like I had something to say about! So, I found myself writing my own version. I’m having a similar experience right now with Cinderella. We have a million variations on that story already, but I started to have ideas for my own. So, I’m exploring that currently. 

As for fairy tales I wish were retold more often, I think a lot of lesser-known fairy tales are wonderful. East of the Sun, West of the Moon, and The Six Swans are definite favorites that I feel like I’d love to tackle at some point. I’d also love to see more from non-western cultures and learn more about their fairy tales myself. 

If you could be a mythical creature, which would you be?

I like the idea of being a selkie. I like the idea of being able to take off my skin in a different environment and become something else entirely.

You mention on your website that you are particularly fond of theatre and used to act in high school and summer camp productions. How does your love of theatre influence the way you write, if at all?

That’s a really good question. I think that some of the questions I ask myself as a writer are similar to the questions that an actor asks him/herself when creating a character: how does this person walk/talk? Does this person have any habits or unconscious, nonverbal ways of expressing themselves? Sometimes you can convey a lot about a character very efficiently by “showing” what they’re doing. Little gestures like tapping a toe when you’re nervous or putting objects down with more force than necessary when you’re angry, say a lot. And sometimes it’s better if the character doesn’t say “I’m nervous” or “I’m mad”. Maybe that particular character wouldn’t be that open about his/her emotions. So, you find other ways to get it across to the reader/audience.


Interview with Paullett Golden (The Enchantresses series)

I have the honour to start off this series of Q & As with celebrated Historical Romance author, Paullett Golden. She’s won several awards for her works including the Reviewers Choice award, which she won in 2019 and again in 2020. Check out her books here.

I really admired the way you developed Duncan in The Colonel and The Enchantress. What kind of research did you do while developing his character?

A great deal of my research focused on survivors of spinal hematomas, which is what his injury is, although it didn’t have that name at the time. I researched the condition, the treatment options, the recovery, the rehabilitation options, etc. Since this injury would not have had a name, much less a treatment method, at that time, I also had to research about medical diagnosis, surgeries, etc. at that time, which ranged from the simplest forms of sawbone approaches to the more complex spinal studies being conducted on the continent—some of which is mentioned in the story. There needed to be a realistic and believable combination of his injury, surgery, and recover during that time. 

Since this isn’t just about the injury but about Duncan as a character, there was also a good bit of research about military life at the time, life as a Light Dragoon and officer, PTSD, and the campaign he was involved with, which all influenced his self-perceptions, decisions, and reactions to being injured and recovering. At times we see him determined to recover and other times feeling helpless and hopeless. 

I’m particularly interested in the way his injury is drawn. What was the writing process behind it?

I based Duncan’s condition on a similar scenario of a fellow I know. He had suffered from the same injury. Much of Duncan’s approach to recovery is based on the recovery methods of the person I know. I did make quite a few changes to be more in keeping with Duncan’s personality and the time period, but the stages of recovery are nearly identical to what my friend experienced. I didn’t want to rely completely on one person’s experience, so I studied the journeys of other survivors to see how they carried on, each with a different experience. Some were able to walk out of the hospital after surgery, while others never walked again. 

The rehabilitation methods Duncan uses of hippotherapy is based not on my friend but on my research into spinal injury rehabilitation methods. There are so many inspiring cases of people suffering from paraplegia who have found relief and even recovery through hippotherapy. Here’s a brief bit I wrote about hippotherapy, including some great links to get to know it better:  There is quite an impressive number of hippotherapy centers in England, all trained and designed to assist with rehabilitation and treatment of conditions ranging from paraplegia to autism.  

I will admit that although I based the injury recovery on a friend, I attempted to do and experience as best as I could the methods Duncan uses to recover, especially the exercises he does, just to see how it would feel, what could be done, what difficulties might result, etc. I had a few bruises and some rug burn, but it was an educational and inspiring experience to put myself in Duncan’s shoes. There was a time that due to blood clotting of my own, I couldn’t move my legs with ease, so I was able to relate to some of what he experiences, but it’s been quite a few years, and so it was challenging but important to try his methods of recovery. 

The Enchantresses series begins each book with a new generation of characters, which I find very original. What was the inspiration behind deciding to write a series that follows a family through several generations? What were some of the challenges you faced when writing using this concept?

Confession time! I did not begin with the plan to do a series. Originally it was only The Earl and The Enchantress. Once I finished that book, beta readers were dying to know the stories of the other characters. When that plan took root, it grew and blossomed into not only one series but an entire world build. 

I decided that at some point I would have another series with the children of these characters (a la Johanna Lindsey’s Mallory family)—the children of this set of characters will be marriage age during the Regency. Each book and each series I have planned outside of this family tree will see cameos of this family or perhaps a cameo from another book or series, as they’ll all live in the same world. 

In the upcoming Sirens series, for instance, the MCs from The Earl and The Enchantress as well as The Baron and The Enchantress play pivotal roles in the conflict and resolution of the romances, even if they’re no more than tertiary characters in the story. 

The challenge has been that I didn’t set out with this plan, so I’ve had to make some adjustments here and there to make it work, as well as dig through the books themselves for details I might have missed to avoid inconsistencies. Had I planned the series from the start, I would have taken much better notes!

You mention in some earlier interviews that you didn’t expect being an author to require quite so much marketing and social media presence. Was it difficult finding a healthy balance between marketing, writing and other life duties? How has the aspect of being an author affected your mental health and what do you feel is an ideal balance between managing your social media, writing and everyday life?

It all comes down to good time management and planning. From time to time I have to adjust the weekly schedule to provide more time for something else, but once a strategy is in place, it’s fairly easy going. For the most part, my day is scheduled so that I have time for everything. While I wouldn’t mind having a personal secretary sometimes, things run smoothy as long as I plan ahead and stick to the schedule. 

I think the ideal balance depends on the person and their commitments—do they have another job? Children? Dinner parties? Travel? Etc. With a strict schedule and good planning, it’s possible to do everything. Just one hour per day, for instance, would be great to post on social media, reply to comments, scroll and reply to other pages, and answer messages. The tricky part for some people is in the scheduling and planning. Not scheduling everything or looking ahead at which days will require different time commitments will likely result in things not getting done—too much time on social media; not enough time on social media; too much time watching Netflix; not enough time writing, etc. 

In terms of mental health, I’m so much happier and healthier with my writing career underway. It’s incredibly fulfilling knowing that I’m accomplishing my dreams. 

I hear you’re working on a new book in The Enchantresses series called The Gentleman and The Enchantress. Can you tell us a bit about the book? Where does it fit in the series? I notice, throughout the series, a strong theme of challenging social hierarchy. How does social hierarchy play in this book?

The final book in this series is The Gentleman and The Enchantress. That won’t mean we’re finished seeing these characters, especially since we’ll circle back for the stories of the children, as well as see a few of the secondary characters outside of the family tree get their own stories (Like Winston who we see in Duke and Colonel) but for this immediate part of the family tree, this will be the final book. 

This book is about Cuthbert, who is Hazel’s brother and the father of Lizbeth and Charlotte. His story will touch on the entailment of his family home and how he thinks it came about (although we learn the truth in Hazel’s story—The Heir and The Enchantress). Cuthbert’s story revolves around his father’s scheme to recoup money losses by trying to take over a local tin mine. While helping his father, he ends up falling for the tin mine owner’s daughter. He then must choose between loyalty to his father and his love for the heroine. 

I would say the social hierarchy drama in this particular book is with Cuthbert, the gentleman son of landed gentry, falling in love with the daughter of a man of industry. Regardless of how wealthy the daughter’s family might be, the fact remains that they’re of the merchant/industrial class rather than gentry. Since the hero’s father is determined for Cuthbert to become a Member of Parliament, it could hurt Cuthbert’s reputation to align with someone so far below his own social status. His marriage should be something politically and socially advantageous. 

I am particularly interested in your upcoming new series, The Sirens. What’s the premise for this and how did you come up with the name? is the series about sirens or is it a metaphor?

Each of the heroines in this story is a kind of siren to the hero—she somehow uses deception to entice the hero, be that deception intentional or unintentional, and once enticed, he experiences his downfall (initially). Think in terms of false identities, misrepresentation, and survival schemes. In each case, the heroine is in a situation in which she needs to hide or seek refuge. In steps the unwitting hero as a potential savior, however temporary. 

While all of my books focus on resolving internal conflicts rather than external conflicts and villains (I honestly can’t say that I ever will have “villains”), this trilogy does involve a bit more external conflict and an instigator of that conflict (I say instigator since they’re not really villainous, just someone who doesn’t necessarily mean our heroine well). Interestingly, the instigator in the first book becomes the heroine of the second book (oh my!), so that even though she seems a bit, well, villainous in the first book, we get her side of the story in the second book. 

What advice can you give authors who are planning to write a series of books held together by a running concept rather than character?

I’d recommend that the stories remain character-driven even while sticking to a central concept. If you make it all about the concept, then the book becomes moralizing and preachy, but if it’s still character-driven, then the concept is subtle as well as multi-faceted. 

Let’s take a concept like “having faith.” If you want all the books in the series to be about that underlying theme, then really focus on what that means for the characters. Having faith will mean something completely different to one character as it does to another. How enriching, then, is the series to see various perspectives and approaches, all while still focusing on the characters. We end up feeling the theme more than having it pounded into us. 

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