#SPFBO6 Finalist Interview – Suzannah Rowntree

Suzannah, welcome to Lavender Lass Books again. Thank you for agreeing to this finalist interview and best of luck in the competition!

A Wind from the Wilderness is the first book in the Watchers of Outremer series. Here’s the blurb:

Hunted by demons. Lost in time. Welcome to the First Crusade.

Syria, 636: As heretic invaders circle Jerusalem, young Lukas Bessarion vows to defend his people. Instead, disaster strikes.

His family is ripped apart. His allies are slaughtered. And Lukas is hurled across the centuries to a future where his worst nightmares have come true…

Constantinople, 1097: Ayla may be a heretic beggar, but she knows one thing for sure: six months from now, she will die. Before then, she must avenge her father’s murder—or risk losing her soul.

Desperate to find their way home, Lukas and Ayla join the seven armies marching east to liberate Jerusalem. If Lukas succeeds in his quest, he’ll undo the invasion and change the course of history.

But only as long as Ayla never finds out who he really is…

Dark magic, bloody warfare, and star-crossed love collide in this “utterly enthralling” historical fantasy perfect for fans of Outlander and City of Brass (The Fantasy Hive). Read 2020 SPFBO finalist A Wind from the Wilderness today! 

(Content Warning: The author has provided a content warning for character death and child harm/endangerment)

And now to the interview:

1.  Is this your first time making the final round in the #SPFBO?  Why did you decide to enter this book?
Yes, this is my first time as a SPFBO finalist! I decided to enter A Wind from the Wilderness because I thought it had a decent chance of appealing to the judges, and because, let’s be honest, I’m really proud of it. I have poured untold hours of study and thought into this story (and the other instalments in the Watchers of Outremer series), and I wanted it to be recognised. Making finalist was one of the highlights of 2020 and I’m so thrilled to be here!

2.  Why do you write in the fantasy genre?  What make this genre particularly appealing to you?
I love fantasy for the kind of storytelling it fosters. I like books where anything is possible and there’s a bit of magic in the world. I love the action/adventure and court intrigue that is a staple of the genre, as well as exploring mysterious otherworlds whether they’re entirely made up, or whether they’re our own world with a magical twist. But I have to say that the main thing that draws me to fantasy is the opportunity this genre (like science fiction) gives to discuss deeper thematic questions.

My entry is pretty accurate historical fantasy, and some might ask—some have asked—why I would choose to include fantasy elements in this story. One answer is that one of the things I wanted to explore in the story is the concept of family, heritage, and bloodlines, and the best way I could think of to do this was to take the members of a single family, all from the same time, and then scatter them through time, and follow their adventures as they yearn for the past, try to turn back time, or discover that their actions are rippling back and forth through time to impact each other, but with greater meaning because they know each other personally. I couldn’t do that with a standard generational saga. Another reason, of course, is that for the people who lived back then, they lived in a fantastical world, not the rationalist/materialist world we experience today. They really believed in demons, angels, djinn, and magic; and those beliefs were a genuine motivation. In a way it feels more historically accurate to treat those things as real than it would to write them as “mere” superstitions. In fact I’ve found that the modern academic historians treat these things as though they were all real: not because they believe in them themselves, but because the people of the time did.

3.  Why did you decide to self-publish this book? 
I’d already self-published a number of books by the time I published A Wind from the Wilderness, so it was a logical choice. Moreover, this is a nine-book series—so, a significant commitment for any publisher—and if it was going to fail, I wanted it to be my fault, and not a result of a publisher deciding to drop an underperforming series halfway through.

4.  Are there advantages to self-publishing?  What about the challenges?
For me, one of the big advantages is not having to get past gatekeepers. I don’t mean as regards quality; more as regards what editors are interested in acquiring, and what they think will sell. The challenging part is that self-publishing is becoming an ever more competitive market, with authors competing to produce more and more professional products and learning how to market them. Another challenge is that it’s hard to get recognition for artistic quality—which is why I’m so thrilled that SPFBO exists.

5.  As a reader and author, what changes (if any) would you like to see in the fantasy genre?
One change I’d absolutely love to see is female-penned fantasy breaking out of the YA ghetto. I’ve heard a number of female authors of adult fantasy (Naomi Novik, or SA Chakraborty) complain that their fantasy is often automatically shelved as YA even when they insist it isn’t. I’ve heard from female author friends who felt compelled to write stories as YA even when the books would have fit better or were conceived as adult works. Time and again I’ve had people assume that I am writing my own books for an audience of children or young adults even though I conceived Watchers of Outremer as adult fiction…and recently I succumbed and put Wind in some YA categories on Amazon, not because I wrote the book for young people, but simply because the YA categories are where I think a lot of people are looking for the kind of book I’m writing. This leads to a great deal of tension within YA, I believe, between the books that are genuinely written for teens and the books that are simply written by women with the kind of tropes that are popular among their own demographic. It would be awesome to see more female-penned fantasy break away from the YA label…which was one of the (many) reasons I was so excited to see ML Wang, Angela Boord, and Alicia Wanstall-Burke hit the SPFBO top three last year.

6.  Do you write (or plan to write) in any other genres?
Watchers of Outremer is medieval-set historical fantasy, and everything I write has fallen under the historical fantasy umbrella so far. I’ve long dreamed of making the jump into science fiction or at least space fantasy, but I’m not sure I have anything resembling the science-fiction chops necessary to do that.

7.  What do you look for in a story?  Especially in the fantasy genre?  (Original ideas, plot lines, character development, world building, etc.?)
Apart from the non-fiction I read for research, I read almost exclusively fantasy (though I’m trying to change that up a bit in 2021). However, it doesn’t tend to be epic or high fantasy. I don’t love secondary world-building or highly technical magic systems—I’m more into low, urban, and historical fantasy. I love fantasy inspired by diverse real-world cultures. I’ll always go for a court intrigue fantasy over a quest fantasy. I want to see morally grey characters who are ruthlessly confronted with the good or bad consequences of their actions.

8.  Are you working on a new book?  Can you share any details?
As of right now, I’m working like mad on Miss Sharp’s Monsters, a gaslamp trilogy set in a version of 1890s Europe where all the royal families are vampires, werewolves, sirens, etc! It’s an absolute romp (if you’ve seen Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or the 2004 Van Helsing movie you know the sort of thing I mean), it’s not at all historically accurate, and my beta readers have been telling me it’s exactly what they needed to take their minds off the pandemic. I’m hoping to publish the whole trilogy in the first half of 2021!

9.  Do you have any advice you would offer authors who plan to enter next year’s #SPFBO?
I think the best advice I can give is to cultivate a thick skin! The vast majority of books don’t make it to the finals, and I can tell you from personal experience that the intense scrutiny you receive as a finalist isn’t always a comfortable thing, as people freely discuss and criticise your book. But, I will say that if you can roll with the punches it’s absolutely worth it. Take your time to produce the best book you can, and may the odds be ever in your favour!

You can find Suzannah Rowntree’s book at Amazon!