Teresa Frohock Interview
Today we have the pleasure of interviewing Teresa Frohock, author of several ground breaking fantasy novels and novellas including The Broken Road, Miserere, and the recently completed trilogy of Los Nefilim novellas (In Midnight’s Silence, Without Light or Guide, and The Second Death).
Can you tell us a little bit about when you first got the writing bug and how you turned that into being a published author?
The truth is really rather dull: I wanted to be a writer when I was in my early twenties. I had an agent, a great group of women that supported me, and I drank it all away. And then one day, I woke up and realized that wasn’t the kind of person that I wanted to be, so I quit drinking and began to make proactive changes about myself. I had a lot of cleaning up to do in my life, so I put off writing until I was in my forties.
I began writing again from scratch. I took an online course that helped me understand plot and story structure. I wrote Miserere during that class, and then I joined the Online Writing Workshop (OWW) and got feedback from other writers. While I worked on the story, I reacquainted myself with the publication industry, which had changed dramatically since the eighties.
Then I worked to make the story the best that I could make it, hired an editor to help me with my blurb and synopsis, and I began submitting.
Writing, like parenthood, is an occupation that presents challenges but needs no formal qualifications. However, in both cases one would be wise to learn as much about it as possible to ensure your progeny/novels can survive and prosper in the outside world.
What have you found to be the most effective ways of honing your own writing skills?
I once had an agent, whose philosophy was that any idiot can pick out what is wrong with a novel or story. However, a pro can look at a book or story and tell why it works. So he told me to always be on the lookout for the good aspects of a story.
Because of his advice, I don’t read fiction anymore, I study it. When I’m reading a novel, I’m looking at what that author does to make their work successful. I examine voice, technique, and prose to see how I might implement those techniques to make my writing better.
Writers of fantasy and speculative fiction, with the ability to write their own social rulebooks and contexts, have always been uniquely well placed to not only tell a good story, but coincidentally illuminates our world from a fresh and thought provoking direction. For example, in just a few short years I have seen a strengthening acceptance from authors and readers that fantasy literature has an obligation to demonstrate and respond to diversity in stories, characters, readership, and even authorship.
One of the distinctive features in both The Broken Road and the Los Nefilim trilogy is the way the protagonists’ sexuality is so smoothly and tenderly threaded into the story – heroes who happen to be gay, rather than characters who are heroes despite or because of their sexuality.
Particularly in the troubled times in which we live, how far should any writing be inspired by, reflect, challenge, or even change the way people see their own world? More importantly perhaps, how does the author ensure such elements are seamlessly built-in to the story rather than clumsily bolted on?
The thing is simply this: your reader is more intelligent than you think they are. No. Seriously. People are smart. Okay some people are dumb, but more people are smart. And most people can tell when the author is overt about the themes in their stories. My philosophy is simply this: if I want to convince my reader of a viewpoint, I am going to write an argumentative essay that promulgates my stance. That is the purpose of an essay: to tell the reader what I’m thinking and to support my polemics with substantive evidence.
However, a story isn’t about telling—a story is about showing the reader a different way of thinking. So for me: I envision ways to connect the reader to a character through empathy, because empathy, quite often, breeds understanding. Empathy isn’t generated by expounding on differences, but through emotive connections based on similarities. Once empathy is triggered, then I can ease the reader into the differences, which no longer seem so startling or foreign.
For example: when I wrote In Midnight’s Silence, I presented Diago as this guy who is trying to make a living in a new city. He is not feeling Barcelona at all and just wants to be back in Seville. I think we’ve all experienced those feelings of displacement and a need for security in our lives at one time or another. As the reader follows the story, they are slowly drawn into the intricacies of Diago and Miquel’s relationship. I never come out and say, “Look at what they have to endure,” because that is telling. I show you through the characters’ interactions and through the societal conflicts they must navigate, and then I embed these interactions and conflicts in an entertaining action/adventure story.
I don’t want to tell people what to think. I want others to discover ideas within themselves, because when someone unearths the seeds for a new way of thinking, that person owns the idea, and when we own something, we become a little more willing to fight for the principles surrounding the concept.
So I believe we should always challenge our readers, because reading–both fiction and nonfiction–is about discovery. You know, I love the Carlos Ruiz Zafón quote about books being like mirrors–they show us what we already have within ourselves. At the same time, a different angle can lend us a new perception, both of ourselves and the world around us.
It’s not my job to bang someone over the head with the mirror. My job is to keep tilting the glass until the reader says, “Ah-ha! Now I see!”
Thank you for such a detailed and passionate answer.
Moving on, much is made in fantasy literature of the importance of magic systems, the need for an underlying logic to spell casting that borders on a science. At the same time readers like a wow factor that keeps the magic still magic. In Miserere, The Broken Road, and Los Nefilim the magic systems are built around song and delivering power through music, in a way that I have not seen elsewhere.
What inspired you to take that direction with the magic of your worlds and can you tell us a little bit more about the mechanics of how it works?
In Miserere, it was more about the poetics of the language. Most Psalms were chanted (think Gregorian monks) and the power of their combined voices were powerful. However, in Miserere, it was less about song and more about the actual intent of the practitioner.
The Broken Road (and the short story “Naked the Night Sings”) were kind of a dry run for Los Nefilim. Sound simply fascinates me. One day, I happened upon a website that showed sound waves as electronically simulated vibrations, which simply exploded in color. I was hooked and thought about what would happen if a person could shape sound by changing the vibrations through various vocal ranges. Then I found a website that played the sounds heard in space, and everything about Los Nefilim clicked into place for me.
Another feature of your work is the theme of parallel worlds – fantastical planes linked with some version of our own world filled with politics, geography, even conflicts, that mirror, track or even lead the tribulations of our own world. Ordinary mortals and some extra-ordinary ones can pass between the worlds and play a part in saving, one, the other or both.
Why did you decide to tether your stories to some representation of the real world in this way, and what advantages and disadvantages does it bring as an author?
When I was a child—and yes, there was such a time—I loved the idea of being swept away into another world. I first encountered the idea in Where the Wild Things Are, and the possibility of worlds other than our own have simply fascinated me since I first learned to read. As I grew up, I realized that these themes of portals and other worlds have been prevalent in mythology since the beginning of time—the seen and unseen It’s simply a concept that fascinates me and that I enjoy working with.
You work in a library and, for an author, I would think that is right up there with working in a bookshop as the perfect “day job” apart, perhaps, from the salaries.
How far do you find the day-job helps in your writing? And what is the most irritating thing a customer has ever said, asked or done?
My favorite part of working in a library is coming across books that I would not have otherwise found. I love discovering new authors, new histories, and reading across genres.
I work at a community college, so our patrons are mostly students in various stages of their education. I love the sheer variety of people that I get to meet. They’re all wonderful.
I saw a recent reddit thread titled “I like my fantasy like I like…”. The best response was definitely “I like my fantasy like I like my men: thick and bound in good leather.” However, one that appealed to me was “I like my fantasy like I like my onions: Consumed daily, Layered, Sometimes makes me cry.”
I think the last point is one that particularly resonates with me (as someone who cried at the closing credits of Lilo and Stitch). I think fantasy works best when it triggers an emotional response from the reader and even the author. I remember hearing J. K. Rowling cried at one scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows as she was writing it.
Have you ever made yourself cry with your own writing?
Oh, for heaven’s sakes…of course, I do. I got all broken up at the end of Miserere and sobbed like a baby during Lucian’s final scene. And I still have a hard time getting through the end of Without Light or Guide when Rafael goes to Diago. And all of that is okay. If the story isn’t affecting me, it won’t affect the reader.
Long ago at school I performed in a drama representation of T. S. Eliott’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and had to recite the poem about Macavity the mystery cat who’s called the hidden Claw, for he’s the master criminal who can defy the law, so I was particularly struck to see you had a cat with the same name. I have seen photographic evidence of his enthusiasm for helping with editing and audio book creation.
How else has he contributed to the writing process?
Macavity contributes to the writing process by making sure I take at least one, preferably more, breaks in order to groom and pet him. He likes to step onto my lap and work himself down between me and the laptop. If he is pushed away, he then walks around the living room and tests gravity by knocking my nice things off the shelves. He also knocks books off my work table, teases the dog unmercifully, eats the dog’s food, and then cavorts throughout the house like a maniac.
Never name your cat Macavity.
Thank you so very much Teresa, for taking the time and thought to give such detailed answers in a very busy writing life. The best of luck with the all your projects not least of course your contribution to the Evil is a Matter of Perspective Kickstarter – an enticing anthology of short stories seen from the viewpoint of an established antagonist. If you wish to find out more about Teresa’s wonderful work, you can explore her website or follow her on Twitter!