Welcome to Part Two of Calico In Conversation with J.L. Gribble. If you missed Part One: Boosting Confidence, feel free to click here to catch up!
Editor’s Note: this interview was originally conducted in March through June of 2016.
Let’s move on to influences: as writers, we all have them. What do you think influences your writing the most?
There’s never a simple answer to that question! I draw my inspiration from the other media I consume (books, television, movies, graphic novels, role-playing games, etc.), courses I’ve taken in school, and the people I meet around me. But that’s a pretty cliche answer in and of itself, so instead I’ll talk more about the challenges I’ve set for myself in my writing.
My favorite take on the concept of immortality is that presented in the television show Highlander: The Series, where even people who live forever are still people. I wanted to write about paranormal monsters who are also still people first. In addition, my debut novel, the thesis I wrote for graduate school, started out as a reaction to the Twilight craze. I wanted to write about a vampire who can be a romantic creature, but whose story wasn’t necessarily a romance. Thus, the character of Victory, a vampire in a mature, adult relationship, was born. But characters don’t exist in a vacuum, so I gave her a family, friends, and a career. The conflict of the novel was born from taking all of those things away, one by one.
The rest of the Steel Empires series continues along the vein, with other challenges that I decided to set for myself. Steel Magic could be considered a coming of age story for Victory’s daughter, inspired by a class I took in college on the female coming-of-age novel. Book 3, Steel Blood, was deliberately structured around the scenes set by William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. And book 4 is going to be a time travel book…because I freaking love time travel stories.
Interesting…. It’s funny, because you’re reminding me of a Tor.com post written by Alex Bledsoe regarding his Eddie LaCrosse series, wherein each book of the series was written in response to a particular THING the author was inspired by or wanted to explore. I can’t begin to explain HOW MUCH I LOVE THIS APPROACH. While I haven’t read Bledsoe’s series (and I’ve only read your first book), I imagine it gives each book a unique approach, despite the characters and the world tying it together into one series. Thoughts?
I certainly think so! While I do have a meta-plot for the entire arc of my series, there always has to be more to the story than that. If I’m not challenging myself as an author, I’m not writing the best book that I can, and I consider that a disservice to my readers. Another way I challenged myself for the sequels was to split up my main point of view characters: warrior-mage Toria is the narrator of book 2, Steel Magic, while her adopted mother, the vampire Victory, is the one for book 3, Steel Blood. This way, I could have both characters explore different areas of my world-building and even different areas of the world itself. I’m bringing them back together for book 4, but I sincerely hope that this doesn’t turn off readers who wanted to read more about the city of Limani, the setting of the first novel!
So with that in mind, do you have an ideal reader/audience? Who are the readers you try to the please the most?
All of them? In all seriousness, I hope to appeal to fantasy and urban fantasy readers who want something a little different. I’m writing for people who are okay with a world that’s a little unexpected, with things like werebadgers and sarcastic elves. A badass mercenary vampire who’s also just a mom trying to raise the best kids she can. A world that looks sort of like ours technologically, but very different historically and culturally. If you enjoy books like that, then the Steel Empires series is written for you.
I’ve seen some interesting reviews on Goodreads that lead me to believe your books would really appeal to those who are also gamers. Any comment on that?
Some writers dream of getting optioned for television or film. I wouldn’t say no to either of those, but I would almost rather see my world get adapted for a table-top (and/or live action) role-playing game system! The possibilities for character creation and conflict are endless, especially as more books in the series are published and the world of Limani becomes larger. A gamer’s single character can play politics in Limani, solve a murder in swanky New Angouleme (New York), fight mutated monsters in the Wasteland, and travel across oceans to rescue a kidnapped noble in vampire-controlled Roma or hunt for the treasure of an ancient weredragon in the heart of the Qin Empire. I’ve been playing RPGs as disparate as Dungeons & Dragons (sword and sorcery), 7th Sea (swashbuckling and fantasy), Rifts (science fiction and monsters), and Mage and Vampire (classic urban fantasy) since high school, and there’s definitely room for a game that could embody all of those elements and more in a single world. A film adaptation tells one story a different way. An RPG can tell whatever story the readers want.
That’s a powerful ability! So while it looks like your Steel Empires series has a little something in it for everyone, tell me, who’s your favorite author in the genre you’re writing in?
I’m currently a huge fan of the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews. In fact, the naming scheme of my titles is a direct homage to their books! (Ilona Andrews is the moniker for a writing couple Ilona and Andrew Gordon.) Though the presence of the supernatural in my novels is never a secret, Kate Daniels lives in a post-apocalyptic future where the appearance of magic has drastically shifted the human world and landscape. Part of why I enjoy it so much is that the authors also break a lot of the rules that have started to define “traditional” urban fantasy, such as a distinct boundary between magic and the regular world and tragic romantic storylines. Though I wrote Steel Victory years before reading the first Kate Daniels novel, Magic Bites, my goal with future books is to write stories that are just as exciting, adventurous, and downright fun, so that my readers feel the same way I do when I read their novels.
I’m a big fan of that series myself, though like most urban fantasy series, it took a couple of books to get rolling. It takes time for authors to find their footing/voice. One of the things I run into is this: “Oh, [insert series here] is SO GOOD. But you have to read through book [insert book number here] before giving up, because that’s where everything just CLICKS.” The Ilona Andrews series is through book 2; Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series is through book 3; and I hear Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series is through book #3 as well. As a reader: I TOTALLY GET not wanting to waste time on something that’s not grabbing you. But I also find it a bit hypocritical when authors say the same thing, as if everything should be firing on all cylinders right out of the gate: authors, more than anyone, should recognize that craft can and should improve with each book (this is also true in television), and that sometimes, you just need a bit more time to get everything set up the way you want. As an author of a debut UF series, as well as an avid reader, what are your thoughts on this?
I completely agree with you. I appreciate that there are plenty of awards for debut authors, and I don’t argue that debut authors who do write really amazing books for their first published works shouldn’t get recognized for that fact, but it’s almost a double-edged sword. If you start out on top, there’s nowhere else to go. In “the old days,” you could almost guarantee that any book you picked up would be at least written well, even if the story it told wasn’t quite your cup of tea. But since there have been so many changes in the publishing industry lately, almost nothing is a sure bet. However, readers should listen to other readers and give series a chance. For example, I was never going to read anything else by Gail Carriger after her first Parasol Protectorate novel, Soulless. Not because the story was bad, but because there were some “first book” writing issues that kept turning me off. At the urging of a friend, I took a chance on the sequel, and now it’s one of my favorite series! The stories continued to be excellent, and as Carriger gained more writing experience, the improvement in quality absolutely showed. In that same vein, I firmly believe that authors can support each other. Though obviously all readers have different financial limitations, a book is not like a car. A reader can buy more than one. Ultimately, very few authors are in direct “competition” with each other.
Carriger’s another one of my favorites, and I’m glad I kept going with her work too! So speaking of the things that can make us stop reading, what trope in urban fantasy are you most tired of, and here’s the kicker, what’s your favorite book that uses it?
I think that 1st person point of view (POV) from a female “kickass heroine” in urban fantasy will always make me roll my eyes a little when I first start reading. Especially if the book (or first book, if a series) involves a romantic secondary plot with a “brooding hero.” But of course it can be written well! The Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews, which I’ve already mentioned previously, and the Kitty the Werewolf series, by Carrie Vaughn, both manage these POV limitations deftly, giving us well-rounded secondary characters and fully realized worlds. In addition, both of these series also manage to subvert the “brooding hero” trope, dropping the heroines into adult, committed relationships fairly early in the series rather than stringing the reader along with endless plot devices of romantic hijinks.
Oh, how I hate the unnecessarily drawn-out, will-they-or-won’t-they storylines. I’ll second your selections for mature relationships! So since most urban fantasy stories are told through the first person, what are some favorites of yours (besides your own, of course) that are told through the third-person?
This is an incredibly difficult question because first-person narration in urban fantasy is one of the distinctions of the genre. Off the top of my head, I can list both the Parasol Protectorate by Gail Carriger (first book is Soulless, which we [discussed above]) and the Milkweed Triptych by Ian Tregillis (first book is Bitter Seeds). Of course, both of those are “historical” urban fantasy, set in the Victorian Age and World War II eras, respectively. For something more modern, I’m a huge fan of Indelible Ink by Matt Betts, which includes superpowers, government conspiracies, and crazy assassins. On a whim, I just looked up some compiled lists of other third-person urban fantasies, and everything else I found listed (of which there wasn’t much) was by authors I don’t tend to read or trended more toward young adult urban fantasy, which I don’t regularly read.
Next week on July 19th: J.L. Gribble puts on her people hat and talks about conventions, criminally under-read books, and how she manages to write a book a year while holding down a full time job!