#SPFBO6 Interview – Olivia Atwater

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

Half a Soul is the first book in the Regency Faerie Tales series.  Here’s the blurb:

It’s difficult to find a husband in Regency England when you’re a young lady with only half a soul.
Ever since a faerie cursed her, Theodora Ettings has had no sense of fear, embarrassment, or even happiness—a condition which makes her sadly prone to accidental scandal. Dora’s only goal for the London Season this year is to stay quiet and avoid upsetting her cousin’s chances at a husband… but when the Lord Sorcier of England learns of her condition, she finds herself drawn ever more deeply into the tumultuous concerns of magicians and faeries.

Lord Elias Wilder is handsome, strange, and utterly uncouth—but gossip says that he regularly performs three impossible things before breakfast, and he is willing to help Dora restore her missing half. If Dora’s reputation can survive both her ongoing curse and her sudden connection with the least-liked man in all of high society, then she may yet reclaim her normal place in the world… but the longer Dora spends with Elias Wilder, the more she begins to suspect that one may indeed fall in love, even with only half a soul.

Pride and Prejudice meets Howl’s Moving Castle in this enthralling historical fantasy romance, where the only thing more meddlesome than faeries is a marriage-minded mama. Pick up Half a Soul, and be stolen away into debut author Olivia Atwater’s charming, magical version of Regency England!

And now to the interview:

1. Is this your first time entering #SPFBO? Why did you decide to enter this book?
This is my first time entering SPFBO, yes. I hadn’t had the intention of entering until about a week before it began, actually–I was reading another book in my genre (historical fantasy) and when I went to review it, I saw a different reviewer mention that the book had been entered into a previous SPFBO. That got me very curious! I looked up SPFBO after that and realized that the competition was only a week or so from starting again, which seemed charmingly convenient! I’ve been really pleased by the whole experience so far, and I’m happy that I stumbled upon it so fortuitously.

2. Why do you write in the fantasy genre? What make this genre particularly appealing to you?
I’ve read fantasy ever since I was a little girl. I think what must have originally drawn me to it was the fact that my mother read The Hobbit to me and my sister, before we were old enough to read things ourselves. She did a fantastic impression of Smaug. My mother kept reading to us, and we kept asking for more books like The Hobbit, so naturally she had to go searching for more fantasy… and I suppose it became a bit of a self-perpetuating cycle. I remember that my mother later lured me to go on a long camping trip with her over the summer by promising that she would read the Lord of the Rings to us in the tent each night (I hate camping with a passion, and so the revelation that there was a series that came after The Hobbit was the only thing that might have convinced me). Little did she know, I had snuck the books from her backpack while we drove and secretly read them while her attention was on the road and my sister was in the front seat. I still listened to her read them every night, though. She did the voices much better.

I’ve stayed in the genre ever since, both as a reader and as a writer. I think what I took away from my Tolkien-esque beginnings was a genuine love for the sense of hope and wonder and importance that fantasy carried with it. Tolkien had a gravitas in both his style and his choice of subject matter, and no one could ever convince me that fantasy was mere ‘fluff’ after my experiences with his writing.

3. Why did you decide to self-publish?
When I was younger, I was convinced I was going to be an author. I wrote some (very dreadful) stories, which I enthusiastically submitted to a lot of agents and editors who probably wished I hadn’t. One or two of them were very supportive in their rejections, though, and my parents were also very supportive. I went to a few conferences when I got older, but while I never did stop writing, I have to admit that the sheer probabilities involved finally wore me down. I decided to study something that would make me a comfortable enough living that I would have the time and resources to write on the side, purely for fun.

Not long ago, though, a friend of mine got very excited about the idea of becoming a self-published romance author, and she shared all kinds of resources with me. She encouraged me to give it a try alongside her–she was incredibly generous with her time and energy and all of the research she had done–and she convinced me that self-publishing was both eminently doable and not nearly as taboo as it had seemed when I was younger and all the agents were scoffing at it. I’m so pleased to say that she was right. The indy author community is fantastically supportive, and the ability to reach readers directly online is a major game-changer.

4. Are there advantages to self-publishing? What about the challenges?
The obvious double-edged sword of self-publishing is that there are no real gatekeepers. Anyone can publish–even if maybe they shouldn’t be publishing. And to be clear, my fear there is for myself. I wonder very often whether I’ve somehow leapt past a barrier I shouldn’t have ignored, and whether a more professional writer or editor would tell me here’s this obvious thing you shouldn’t have done, and it’s why you would never otherwise be published. But every time I get that niggling worry, I remember the loving emails and reviews I’ve received from my readers already, telling me how touched and hopeful they felt after finishing my book. And I tell myself that the real reason I wanted to write was to give other readers the same enjoyment I once had as a child–and since I’ve managed to do that, the rest is really immaterial.

That said, the technical challenge of self-publishing is the same challenge as with any other online content: how to make sure the signal isn’t lost among the noise. Readers have more options than ever, and few official gatekeepers, which means that authors must find a way to both get their work in front of readers and reassure those readers that they’ll enjoy the writing. The upside to this is that a self-published author has as much control of their marketing as they would like. Major publishing houses don’t often put their resources behind mid-list authors, so it can be reassuring to know that you have your fate in your own hands, knowing that you will work harder for your own success than anyone else would do. The resources are all out there to learn how to market, if you’re sharp enough to find the right resources and humble enough to learn from them.

5. As a reader, and now author, how has the fantasy genre changed over the last several years? How has it stayed the same?
When I was growing up, I saw fantasy as a genre of hope and wonder and deep thought–obviously, the sort of thing you might conclude if your first exposure was Tolkien. I spent an interlude with Tamora Pierce, whose books revealed to me how badly I’d been craving well-rounded female characters in my fantasy. I would say that my last great stumble took me into Terry Pratchett, which did little to disabuse me of the idea of fantasy as a witty, constructive sort of genre. I have said very often that Terry Pratchett is a big influence on me: he was skilled at taking difficult, complex subjects and making them both simple to understand and entertaining to read. Terry Pratchett was very successful at making people think, and that is mainly due to his expert grasp of the fantasy genre; when you take people’s day-to-day assumptions and put them into unfamiliar terms, they are suddenly able to see those assumptions in a new light. I think that is an incredible strength of the genre, and it’s one that I try to exploit myself, when I can.

I will admit that the sudden turn toward grimdark fantasy in the last few years absolutely turned me off from the genre for a while. It can be so hard to find things to believe in right now, and I’d rather come away from a fantasy book with my faith reaffirmed that there are things worth fighting for. I draw a lot of my strength from stories–and even if the real world is a great deal darker, I think we sometimes need the lie that the world can be better in order for us to go out and make it that way. To be clear, I don’t prefer my stories to be utterly without conflict or ugliness… but my spirit is mortally injured by nihilism. If there is a sacrifice, it should be worthwhile, even if all it accomplishes is a reaffirmation of the hero’s indomitable spirit. If there is a villain who cannot be redeemed, I would at least like the contrast of a villain who can be redeemed. Er… in short, I suppose I am an existentialist. I also harbour a warm love for Antoine Saint-Exupéry and Le Petit Prince, so I suppose that makes sense. (I do consider Le Petit Prince to be fantasy of the best sort, and I have citations with which to fight anyone who considers it too childish.)

I have heard that there is at least a minor trend back toward optimistic fantasy in the last little bit, and I really do hope that’s true. Either way, I think it’s safe to say that optimistic fantasy will be my own personal niche for a while to come.

6. Do you write (or plan to write) in any other genres?
I have written a handful of paranormal romances, a Lovecraftian police procedural, and a dark epic fantasy, some of which will likely never see the light of day. My husband and I are currently collaborating on a steampunk fantasy with faeries called Echoes of the Imperium, which we hope to release sometime next year. He brings a bit more swashbuckling and humour to the writing process, and his characters have a way of grasping unexpectedly at people. Since I am involved, the book draws heavily on real social history, but I suspect one will have to squint to see it through all of the pirates and aethermancy duels. I will definitely be publishing Echoes of the Imperium under this pen name (along with my husband’s pen name as co-author), so people can look forward to learning more about it at a later date.

I do hope eventually to release the dark fantasy, but I’ve been working on it since my teens–and as most authors will tell you, the First Epic Fantasy You Ever Wrote tends to malinger endlessly at the back of your mind. A few agents actually expressed serious interest in the novel’s concept, so perhaps it will end up traditionally published. I do worry that it would be a bit too crass and heavy for this pen name, though it definitely touches on many of the same social issues and questions of power and responsibility.

7. What do you look for in a story? Especially in the fantasy genre? (Original ideas, plot lines, character development, world building, etc.?)
In general, I prefer stories with solid character development. I have discovered, for instance, that while I can talk endlessly about Isaac Asimov’s story concepts, I really don’t enjoy the process of reading his work, because he spends more time on his big ideas than on his characters. (I feel more or less safe saying this, for I have never met anyone who tried to argue that Asimov wrote characters as anything other than a necessary vehicle for his admittedly-fascinating settings.) Good characters can make you care about the fate of a single town; bad characters can make you feel apathetic toward the fate of an entire world.

I do also enjoy a good plot twist, especially when I can go back to the beginning of the book and see the setup for it when I read for a second time. I hesitate to say that I enjoy world-building, but only because I have seen so many authors try to bite off more than they can chew when they world-build. If I need to have three different cultures explained to me before I can understand what’s going on in the prologue, I tend not to continue reading the book. I know I miss out on some fantastic reads that way, but I want to be emotionally attached to a story from the get-go, and too much nitpicky exposition utterly ruins that for me.

8. Are you working on a new book? Can you share any details?
I am currently working on both Echoes of the Imperium, mentioned above, and Ten Thousand Stitches, the sequel to Half a Soul. Ten Thousand Stitches takes place in the same general setting as the first book, but it follows new characters. The main character, Effie, is a chamber maid at a country estate. A faerie named Lord Blackthorn takes an unusual interest in her problems, and decides to help her. Faeries, by the way, are terrible at helping people. If there is anything one ought to find more frightening than an angry faerie, it is a helpful faerie.

But that is Ten Thousand Stitches from a plot perspective. From a thematic perspective, I have realized that part of the appeal of the Regency genre, for me, is disabusing readers of certain overly-romantic notions regarding the time period. In Ten Thousand Stitches, I’ve put much of the focus on the servant class of the era, who were treated just abominably. Many Regency writers prefer to show their aristocratic characters as being unusually kind and loving toward their servants, but that simply wasn’t the norm at all. First-person resources paint a picture of servants treated much like furniture, rather than like human beings. You do not cry when you accidentally break your table and have to throw it out–you simply purchase a new one and go on with your life. I suspect that many readers will assume that I have exaggerated some of the awful things that Effie’s employers say and do in Ten Thousand Stitches, but I am so far actually underselling how bad it was, in order to keep the book somewhat family-friendly. I look forward to revealing more of the ugly underside of the Regency’s faerie tale veneer, while still offering a very different, hopeful sort of faerie tale on top of it.

And of course, I will never get tired of writing about faeries. They’re so delightfully odd.

9. Do you have any advice you would offer to writers who plan to self-publish in the fantasy genre?

I have seen all manner of advice on writing from a technical perspective, so I will instead offer my most useful, least popular advice: keep your job, and learn how to budget both your time and your money. Self-publishing requires a lot of effort and some amount of up-front investment, and if you aren’t careful about your numbers, you can easily end up outspending what you make from it. I will also add the natural follow-up to this: you will need to release more than just one book before you really make back your money. I’m sure that there is the rare breakout novel that makes lots of money from the get-go, but I will be frank and say that Half a Soul performed beyond my wildest dreams–and it is still not enough to match my normal paycheque. Given a few books in the series, I have calculated that I will be able to make up the difference, but that will require a lot of dedicated time and effort, and probably pitch-perfect marketing on top of that.

That said, there is nothing quite like calling up your mother to tell her to pick up a package on her porch and having her open your very first physical book. I made that phone call today, in fact. I wish I could have signed the book–something like To Smaug, Chiefest and Greatest of All Calamities–but I suppose I’ll simply have to take a pen to it the next time we’re all allowed outside again.

You can read Olivia Atwater’s book on Amazon!  https://www.amazon.com/Half-Soul-Regency-Faerie-Tales-ebook/dp/B086825NZ3

half soul cover