Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Interview with Heather Rose Jones, author of Floodtide, a novel of Alpennia

Today on the Speculative Fiction Showcase, it gives us great pleasure to interview Heather Rose Jones, whose new release, Floodtide, a novel of Alpennia, we are featuring on November 16th.

Can you tell our readers something about the world of Alpennia. How did it begin for you?
It all started with wanting to write a Georgette Heyer-style historical romance only with a female couple. That combined with some imagery from a dream that gave me the shape of the initial story. But a great deal changed from that starting point. I’ve found that I’m not very good at writing straightforward romance novels without tossing in lots of complications and subplots, and some of the books in the series don’t fit the romance mould at all. Fantasy just sort of showed up in the plot and when it did, everything made more sense. Some day I’ll write my plain and simple f/f Regency romance, but Alpennia went its own path.

In your bio, you describe the series as an “alternate-Regency-era Ruritanian adventure” and as historical fantasy. This crystallises a problem I have experienced myself; how best to categorize alternate world fantasy. What are your thoughts about this problem – if it is a problem?
I don’t think it’s a problem for the story itself, but it can make a book or a series hard to market. The Alpennia books are a lot of things at once while not landing solidly on any of them. It helps that I’m not the only person writing in this fuzzy, nebulous literary space, and new sub-genres are emerging and being named based on what people are interested in writing and reading. So Alpennia can be classified as “fantasy of manners” or as “Regency fantasy” or as “Ruritanian fantasy” depending on what aspect you’re considering. And, of course, if I’m pitching it to people looking specifically for lesbian fiction, I’ll call it “lesbian historical fantasy.” When I’m talking about the series to people who have no idea what it’s about, I like using the long string of descriptors simply because it helps define the space it occupies and lets people know they’re in for a combination of themes.

The other important aspect of your writing is its focus on women’s lives and particularly lesbian experience. Does this pose any particular challenges for you as a writer?
The biggest challenge is that, no matter where a reader is coming from, they’ll have fixed ideas about what a “lesbian novel” is. And my series won’t fit any of those ideas. Readers who focus primarily on lesbian fiction tend to expect strongly romance-focused plots with erotic content. If you tell them it’s a historic fantasy, they’ll expect Xena. Readers who don’t ordinarily read books with queer characters are even more likely to expect erotica and to think “this isn’t for me” before giving the books a try. I suppose those aren’t so much challenges for me as a writer, but rather challenges as a marketer.

As a writer, the big challenge is to know what romantic relationships between women would look like in my historic setting. The fact that it’s an invented country doesn’t let me out of needing to make it feel accurate. People who haven’t researched the history of sexuality tend to have serious misconceptions about relationships in the past. For that matter, modern readers often have misconceptions about women’s lives in the past. As an amateur historian, it’s as important for me to get my characters’ psychology right as it is to get the clothing or the food or the politics right.

All of that is one of the reasons I spend a lot of time tracking down academic research on gender and sexuality in history. But more about that later.

In some ways the literary and genre markets are more vibrant and diverse than they have ever been before, but discoverability is a problem. How do you deal with that, and what have your experiences been with marketing and marketplaces?
The biggest difficulty in discoverability is working across reading communities. I’m published by one of the major names in lesbian fiction, and if I were writing their core product (contemporary romance), that would be all the discoverability I’d need. 

Unfortunately, historical fiction isn’t very popular within the lesbian fiction readership. If I were depending entirely on that market, I don’t think I could have sold my second book.
My most natural readership is mainstream fantasy readers, but they expect books to be discoverable through standard publicity and review channels, or in their local SFF bookstore if they’re lucky enough to still have one. My publisher doesn’t do any promotion outside of the lesbian fiction field, and the mainstream SFF venues end up treating my books as if I were self-publishing. My local SFF bookstore won’t carry my books. So that’s a problem. My advantage is that I’ve been active in SFF fandom for nearly 40 years. Fandom is my “native tongue” as it were. It’s one of the practical reasons why Alpennia took a turn into historic fantasy rather than sticking with plain history.

I’ve gotten a lot of traction from word of mouth. The first Alpennia book, Daughter of Mystery, is still selling consistently after five years because the readers who loved it are hand-selling it to their friends and the ripples continue going out.

As well as your writing, you also blog about research into lesbian-relevant motifs in history and literature. Can you tell us a little about that?
Back when I first started playing with f/f historical fiction ideas, I noticed that all my ideas ended up being “coming out” stories where my characters thought they were the only women who had ever experienced same-sex love. I realized those weren’t the stories I wanted to tell. I wanted to write books about women who knew that same-sex love was an available option. Women who had heard stories or seen artwork or knew of rumors of women like them. To do that, I needed to know what they could have experienced. What information might have been available to a woman in a given era and culture?

I’ve always been an amateur historian, and starting back when I was in college in the late 1970s I started collecting books and articles about the history of sexuality. Gradually, I put together an understanding of what the possibilities might have been. But I don’t only want to write f/f historicals, I want to read them too. I didn’t see why everyone should have to re-invent the wheel when it came to that research. One of the things I learned about amateur historic research in my decades in the Society for Creative Anachronism is that the biggest bar to embracing historic accuracy is knowing that the research exists and where to find it.
I had a head start on that, because I’d done a liberal arts PhD and had access to a world-class university library. Plus, I’d been collecting my own library on the topic for decades. So I decided to start blogging an annotated bibliography of research that could be useful to other authors writing f/f stories in history.

The organizing principle is deliberately subjective. I’m not focusing only on the history of lesbians, or worrying about how the people in my research might have understood their own lives--although that’s part of it. Instead, I’m focusing on research that an author of fiction can use as building blocks for developing their own stories. For example, I look at a lot of work on cases of cross-dressing or gender disguise, including many topics that are better classified as transgender. But the idea is that whether or not this specific historic figure understood themself to be a woman or a man, it was a social concept that someone who did understand herself to be a woman had access to as a tool for moving through the world in gender-bending ways. Similarly, I look at research on singlewomen and women’s economic opportunities to know the spaces in which women could opt out of the marriage economy and still make successful lives for themselves.

Like a lot of my research projects, I started out thinking, “This won’t take long. There can’t be that much information to cover.” And instead the project keeps growing faster than I can read the research and write the blogs.

Your forthcoming novel, Floodtide, is a stand-alone book in the Alpennia series. Can you tell us a little about that and how it relates to other books in the series?
For the most part, the Alpennia series has an over-arching long-term plot that will be complete in seven books. (I didn’t know how many books it would be until I was in the middle of it.) Each book has a completed story, but as the series progresses it becomes more important to know the background and be familiar with the characters. That can make it hard to promote later books!

When I started plotting the third book, Mother of Souls, I noticed that my primary characters were accumulating a crowd of teenagers as secondary characters and I thought it might be nice to do something YA-ish with them before they “aged out” and became adults. As the idea developed, I also wanted to focus on a working-class protagonist--someone who wasn’t busy with balls and gowns and university careers. From a more practical side, a story that wasn’t solidly intertwined with the ongoing “big plot” would be more inviting to new readers. I also wanted to look more at “low magic”--at how ordinary people understood and interacted with the mysticism that underlies my world building. The major non-viewpoint character in Floodtide is learning to be a “charmwife,” someone who sells magical charms and amulets for everyday purposes. I wanted to contrast her work with the formal ceremonial magic that dominated the previous books.

I call Floodtide my “independent on-ramp” to the series. It doesn’t entirely stand alone, in that the viewpoint characters from the previous books appear as background characters, and the crisis that the characters of Floodtide deal with was told from a different angle in Mother of Souls. But if you’ve never read an Alpennia book before, you can read Floodtide and not feel like you’re missing anything important.

Chronologically, Floodtide overlaps with the later part of Mother of Souls and then continues on for the next month or so after the end of that book.

Have there been any particular books or writers who influenced you, whether in or outside the genre? [I’m a Jane Austen fan and live in Bath, which has featured in many dramatizations of her work]
As I mentioned previously, one of the inspirations for Daughter of Mystery was wanting to write a Georgette Heyer novel with lesbians. But the other major inspiration--if maddening frustration can be a form of inspiration--was Ellen Kushner’s novel The Privilege of the Sword. That book came so close to being the perfect novel of my heart...and then turned out to be a different novel. A perfectly wonderful novel, but not the book I desperately wanted. So that was another influence, not so much in writing style, but in the “feel” of the story--a story about brave and clever girls who love and rescue each other.

Jane Austen is something of an underlayer, if only in providing examples of the world of women in early 19th century Europe. One of the historical realities that modern readers aren’t always aware of is how strictly gender-segregated 19th century life was. Women--especially unmarried women--spent most of their lives socializing with other women and living with them in intimate proximity. It makes setting up same-sex relationships much easier! It’s been very important to me to center the series on women and their connections and community with each other. Too many historical stories allow women only as isolated characters, always interacting with men. In reality, if a woman had a problem or a puzzle or a project, the first people she’d turn to would be other women. I wanted the series to reflect that.

But I’m not always good at identifying specific influences in my writing. I tend to throw all my influences into a compost heap, which makes it hard to sort them out when the seeds sprout.

Why is it that the idea of Ruritania (and its iterations) continues to appeal to us? And how does the form adapt over time to appeal to modern sensibilities?
I have to laugh, because I used an invented country, not so much to be part of the Ruritanian tradition, but because I needed to set up some specific legal and social traditions for my plot to work. Those traditions didn’t match any existing country so I needed to make one up. In the very beginning, Daughter of Mystery was going to be set in France, but it simply didn’t work because I needed to do things with inheritance law that wouldn’t work in France.

But I think that is the appeal of Ruritania: the ease of the familiar with the flexibility of invention. It’s easier to suspend belief by plopping an invented country down on the map than to ask readers to believe that a bastard daughter could inherit a title in a culture where we know that wasn’t the case.

You also have a podcast covering the field of lesbian historical fiction. What made you decide to start a podcasting and how has it developed?
The obvious answer is “because it’s fun” but to a large extent the podcast is part of my larger marketing strategy. The history blog is fun too, but not everyone wants to read summaries of academic research. I wanted to reach out to a different audience and distill the research into a more popular format. The head of the TLT podcast group (formerly The Lesbian Talk Show) asked me about doing a show at the same time I wrote her to inquire about the idea.

At first, I was only doing a monthly essay on some person or topic in history--subjects that lent themselves to a more sensational and dramatic presentation. After about a year, I was encouraged to increase the frequency to weekly and that meant I had to come up with a different format because I couldn’t write four times as many essays! I’d been wanting to do more to support the field of f/f historical fiction and that helped the ideas click. So I rotate through a round-up of new titles with other general news and announcements, then an author interview, a book recommendation show, and continuing the essay series. Two years ago I decided to add an original fiction series to fill in the times when I air five shows in a month. It’s a bit terrifying to have become a publisher on top of everything else!

The best side effect of the podcast is that it helps me promote my own work. It gives me a lot more visibility and an excuse for making connections with other authors, bloggers, and podcasters. It’s also a lot of work and takes up time I could use for my own writing. The blog does that too. But if it weren’t for the blog and podcast, I think a lot fewer people would be reading what I do write.

What are you working on at the moment and what can your readers expect in future?
Currently I’m collecting notes and background research for a number of projects. I need to get started on the next Alpennia book, Mistress of Shadows. I have it all outlined, but I need to find my writing routine again. I’m also working on several Alpennia short stories. There are bits and pieces that don’t fit into the novels well but that provide interesting background about the setting and characters. It’s a bit like writing fan fiction for my own series!
I’ve also been working on notes and outlines for a couple of ordinary historical projects. I dither between thinking I should focus on Alpennia until it’s done and thinking I should have some other content out there so people get used to the idea that I can write non-Alpennia stories.

How do you research your books? Is historical fantasy more demanding than regular fantasy?
I probably do as much research for my Ruritania as I would for ordinary historical fiction. The stories still exist in the historic timeline we know, so I need to know what the politics are in France that inspire the events in Mother of Souls, and what the travel conditions would be when my characters take a trip to Prague, and what the Franco-Egyptian community in Paris would be like in the 1830s, and all sorts of real-world things. I still need to know how far you could travel in a day with post horses, or what a servant’s wages would be, or what the university calendar would look like.

I also do a lot of research for my fantasy elements. All the mysticism and alchemy and low magic are based on actual historic beliefs and practices. When I wanted to create magical gemstones by alchemy in The Mystic Marriage, I researched the actual history of synthetic gemstones, and how their chemical processes could be aligned with alchemical symbolism. Maybe I don’t need to do that much research, but I get feedback from readers that tells me that it makes a difference, even when they don’t know why.

How do you fit your writing round your day job?
Awkwardly! My writing routine keeps evolving, so it’s never the same for any two books. I tend to have my best writing brain in the morning, so my alarm goes off at 5:30 am, I leave the house by 6am (ideally, earlier) to try to avoid the worst of the traffic on my commute. When I’m actively writing, sometimes I dictate into a mini recorder while I’m driving. I go to a coffee shop near my workplace to write before I get in to the office at 8am. On my lunch hour, usually I’m reading and taking notes for the history blog. I do my pleasure reading while working out at the gym after work. And then weekends are for working on the podcast, getting blog entries set up, and getting as much fiction writing in as possible. (Along with the gardening, housecleaning, and all the other usual stuff.)

I’ll be changing up my routine a bit in a month or so to take the train to work rather than driving, so I’ll probably switch to taking notes for the blog on the train, and then writing fiction on my lunch hour. The only thing that makes this all possible is that I live alone--no dependants who need my time and attention.

Tell us a little about your short fiction?
I have a couple of ongoing short story series in various genres. There’s a series of linked stories I sold to the Sword and Sorceress anthologies that will be wrapped up with a final novelette, which I plan to self-publish as a collection when I find the time for the logistics. That one is a secondary world fantasy with shape-shifters that also evolved a same-sex romance, just because. I’ve written two stories out of a planned quartet inspired by the medieval Welsh Mabinogi, but with queer story lines. The two that exist were published by PodCastle. I know the content of the other two but haven’t written them yet. I’ve also sold a couple of stand-alone short stories with Arthurian themes. I have a novella out on submission that I hope will see the light of day at some point, which is a dark retelling of Beauty and the Beast. I don’t tend to get short story sized ideas very often, but I’ve managed to sell most of the ones I’ve written.

Fantasy fiction continues to thrive despite the occasional disparaging article in the mainstream press. What do you think this tells us?
The mainstream press also disparages romance and that doesn’t stop people from loving it and buying it. Fantasy fiction thrives because people enjoy reading it. We want to imagine different worlds than the one we live in day to day. Not all of them are better worlds--sometimes you just want to try on a different skin or take a trip to Elsewhere.

Given that fantasy fiction is more diverse and divergent than ever before, why is its image so dated?
That’s tough. Images aren’t always reality, so the reasons behind the image don’t always follow logical pathways. I think it’s circular, to some extent. People have an image of “fantasy” as being all Olde Tyme and conservative, so the stories that don’t fit that image get classified as something other than fantasy. Look at the types of fantasy that make it big on television. If you ask someone about TV fantasy shows, they’ll jump to thinking of “Game of Thrones” and that sort of thing, but if you point out that something like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was also fantasy, you might find that they classified it as something else entirely. Fantasy is anything that can’t actually happen that way in the world we know. There’s no reason for that to be dated.

About Heather Rose Jones

Heather Rose Jones is the author of the Alpennia historic fantasy series: an alternate-Regency-era Ruritanian adventure revolving around women’s lives woven through with magic, alchemy, and intrigue. Her short fiction has appeared in The Chronicles of the Holy Grail, Sword and Sorceress, Lace and Blade, and at Heather blogs about research into lesbian-relevant motifs in history and literature at the Lesbian Historic Motif Project and has a podcast covering the field of lesbian historical fiction which has recently expanded into publishing audio fiction. She reviews books at The Lesbian Review as well as on her blog. She works as an industrial failure investigator in biotech pharmaceuticals.

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