Interview with Teresa Frohock (WHERE OBLIVION LIVES)
T. Frohock has turned a love of history and dark fantasy into tales of deliciously creepy fiction. A real-life cyborg, T. has a cochlear implant, meaning she can turn you on or off with the flick of a switch. Make of that what you will. She currently lives in North Carolina, where she has long been accused of telling stories, which is a southern colloquialism for lying.
Today we are joined by Teresa Frohock, author of the recently published Where Oblivion Lives, a continuation of her tales of daimons, angels and the mysterious Los Nefilim, set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. Teresa is an accomplished author of diverse and genre defying works which began with Miserere and The Broken Road, and continued with the original trilogy of Los Nefilim novellas that first introduced readers to the great husband-and-husband team of Diago and Miquel. But onto the questions…
History is an infinitely rich resource for the writer, but what drew you to the Spanish Civil War as a setting for Diago, Miquel and Los Nefilim?
The characters of Diago, Miquel, and Guillermo originated in an earlier historical fantasy, which was set in Spain in 1348. That book didn’t sell, but for some reason the three characters never quite left my imagination. When I found myself between projects, I thought I’d try writing a novella. Rather than go to the work of creating new characters, I decided to resurrect Diago, Miquel, and Guillermo.
I wanted something along the lines of Robert McCammon’s The Wolf’s Hour, which is one of my all-time favorite books. At the same time, a lot of books seemed to be set during the World War II era. Given that the characters were Spanish, and that I wanted to keep them Spanish, I decided to set the novella during the Spanish Civil War.
The more I read about that conflict, the more I realized that most American audiences had little or no context for the events leading up to the Spanish Civil War, myself included. It simply wasn’t taught in our schools to the same extent as World War II, because information was very limited until after Franco’s death in 1975. Prior to that date, researchers were generally limited to the Nationalist point of view on the causes and outcome of the war.
The more I read, the more I realized that I’d be throwing portions of my audience into a conflict without context, so the stakes wouldn’t feel as high. Given all those reasons, I chose 1931 for the novellas, because I wanted to touch on some of the factors that lead to the conflict without the history overwhelming the story.
Fantasy has its share of child characters portrayed with and without their families, but usually such children are venturing into teenage years before their adventures start. In Rafael and Ysabel you have two much younger children with Diago and Guillermo at much earlier stages in parenthood than what might be considered the fantasy norm.
What particular challenges and opportunities did writing such young children present?
I know I did it in the novellas, but I do hate writing stories where young children are in danger. It’s not a plot device that I often employ. Unfortunately, if I avoided Rafael’s peril in The Second Death, the story wouldn’t have enabled me to show his strengths quite as quickly. So with Where Oblivion Lives, I had the opportunity to show the youngsters safe at home and give some insight to their developing personalities. Seeing how both Guillermo and Diago parent also gives the reader some deeper insight into both of them, as well.
Diago is, in some ways, the over-permissive parent who wants to spare his child any sorrow. Because his father was so awful and his childhood was so broken, Diago wants to give Rafael the childhood he never had. Miquel thinks Diago is over-protective, but he doesn’t push the matter.
Ysabel, on the other hand, has had a stable home life and has been groomed to one day take command of Los Nefilim. She wants to move into the next level of training, but Guillermo is in full-blown denial of his daughter’s abilities. He isn’t quite ready to admit that she is mature enough at eight to move forward, while Juanita is very clear-eyed about their daughter’s abilities.
Putting the kids into the story enabled me to explore the characters and their associations a little more deeply. I enjoyed writing about these tough guys, who work through all of these clandestine operations and are so sure of themselves in fights, but when they’re home with their families, they’re totally different. They’re balancing fatherhood on top of their many adventures, and I thought that was a lot of fun to explore.
You are meticulous in your research – but much research, like the frames that prop up the set for a stage play, remain invisible to the reader.
What piece of near-invisible research would you most want your readers to appreciate, perhaps for the effort it cost you, or the enjoyment it brought you?
That’s a hard one, because there was so very much! You mentioned Ernst Issberner-Haldane and the Ordo Novi Templi in your review and both were real. Most of the information regarding Issberner-Haldane and the Ordo Novi Templi came from Nicolas Goodrick-Clarke’s The occult roots of Nazism: secret Aryan cults and their influence on Nazi ideology. I also managed to find a copy of Liebenfels’s Theozoology online, which made for some mind-numbingly dull reading.
While all that was fun to research and place within the story, I had another problem. I had to find a way to inform my American audience (or any readers unfamiliar with the Spanish Civil War) of some of the background. A lot of people automatically assume that Franco led the rebels against the Republican government from the beginning.
In actuality, the Nationalists wanted to make General José Sanjurjo y Sacanell the leader and eventual president of Spain. General Sanjurjo, though, jumped the gun and instigated a failed overthrow of the government in 1932, which became known as the sanjurjada (or the Sanjurjo affair). He was sentenced to prison, eventually released, and exiled to Portugal. At the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Sanjurjo prepared to return to Spain to lead the rebels against the government. Because he wouldn’t be parted from a trunk of uniforms that he intended to take, the small bi-plane was overloaded and crashed. The pilot survived, but Sanjurjo was killed.
My job was to find a way to draw my readers into these events without giving them a history lesson. In the case of Sanjurjo, I wanted to entwine Sanjurjo’s story with that of the nefilim, so I have Jordi explain everything to his lover, Nico, who is an Italian rogue. With Jordi detailing how he intends to manipulate these events, the reader gets the history and an added level to the plot.
If anyone is interested, I keep bibliographies on my website, and I’ve also started a series called Fieldnotes, where I talk about my research and some of my findings, and you can scroll through some of those posts here.
Reading Where Oblivion Lives, I found resonances for me with some other works; masters of spy-craft like Le Carre, or of enigmatic country houses, like Charlotte Bronte’s Thornfield Hall. Are there any particular resonances or influences that you find yourself recognising as you wrote the books?
You know, I wanted to throw genre to the wind with this one. I get so tired of trying to force my novels into the constraints of marketing expectations. While genre categories make for easy placement in bookstores and marketing algorithms, it totally sucks when I want to write the things I love.
That’s why when I started the Los Nefilim novels, I thought about THE SHADOW, the old radio serials. They were supernatural spy/detective stories that adhered very loosely to formulas. You knew there would be adventure and a cliff-hanger, but the good guys always managed to win, and even though it doesn’t happen nearly enough in real life, I do like stories where the good guys prevail.
I wanted something that was one part spy novel, one part gothic horror, with gripping characters my readers can care about all wrapped up as historical fiction. It’s difficult to impossible to come up with something brand spanking new, so I wrapped up all the old things I love to read and write about into one story.
The Los Nefilim novellas and novels are complete stories in themselves, yet at the same time, they have an overall arc as the stories progress. Readers that don’t want to get caught up in a series can read each book individually and get the whole story. Meanwhile, those who enjoy a series can get a broader arc for both the characters and the time period.
In a film of Los Nefilim, who would you have play Diago, Miquel, Guillermo and Juanita? (Bonus points of you can source an image for any of them).
Diago: Saïd Taghmaoui and this is the picture I think of when I imagine him:
Miquel: I based most of Miquel’s physical characteristics on a famous flamenco singer, José Monje Cruz, who was more well-known as Camarón. There are a couple of Netflix documentaries about his life right now. However, in terms of working actors, having Oscar Isaac as Miquel wouldn’t hurt my heart one bit.
Guillermo: I had harder time finding a physical fit for Guillermo, so I went with an actor who might embody his attitude—that weird mixture of levity and gravitas that he maintains at all times—and I came up with Javier Bardem.
Juanita: Juanita was very easy. I’ve been madly in love with the Spanish actress, Maribel Verdú, ever since I saw her in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and as the evil stepmother in Blancanieves, so it was exceptionally easy to make her an angel.
When Harper Voyager was considering cover art, they asked me to put together a Pinterest board of all the characters. If you want to see my picks for Jordi and Nico, they’re all here.
Where Oblivion Lives is a standalone story, but there are a few dangling threads that could (have?) run forward into a sequel if not a series of novels. How far do you see Los Nefilim carrying us? All the way up to the Second World War?
We are going into World War II. The next novel, Carved from Stone and Dream, begins at the end of the Spanish Civil War. Right now, it reads more like military fiction. That wasn’t what I wanted it to do, but this was one time the story won. It was a tough novel to write.
The third novel begins during World War II. I’d initially thought about beginning it just before D-Day, and I may continue that route. The synopsis is in the works as we speak. I’ve got a very clear idea of how I want the story to go, but then again, I had a clear idea about Carved from Stone and Dream, too, so there is that.
I’d really like to take the stories into Ysabel taking over Los Nefilim with Rafael at her side. I think she is going to be a dynamic commander with Rafael to temper her more impulsive decisions. I began setting up her inner circle of nefilim in Carved from Stone and Dream by introducing Carme’s daughter Violeta. They’ll definitely be a lethal lot, that’s for sure.
I’ve got a ton of ideas for novellas and short stories for the characters during the Spanish Civil War, but I’m kind of holding back on a lot of them to see if the series takes off and works for readers. If that happens, I’d love to write more stories with them.
The world of Los Nefilim shares much of the language of formal religion, with angels and daimons and a divine authority in The Thrones, though faith and religion still appears almost incidental to the plot. What connections of inference, or influence, did you find between earthly religion and the immortal creatures and eternal conflicts of Los Nefilim?
Not a lot. The supernatural creatures in my novels tend to see religion as being something of a mortal construct. The angels in the Los Nefilim novels are actually invaders from another dimension that fought the daimons for control of the mortal realm, rather than control of the mortals themselves. Because they are half-human, the nefilim are caught between these two worlds and they help shape the mortal imagery in order to disguise their true nature and existence. While the angels and daimons take advantage of the mortals’ desire and need to worship, such as Prieto using Doña Rosa’s religious devotion to make her trick Diago, they didn’t invent it.
I know you have been very kind with your advice and support both to me and to other budding authors we know. A while ago you, amongst others, kindly volunteered to put yourself forward as a mentor for as-yet unpublished writers. What drew you to do that and how is it working out?
Michael Mammay invited me to apply to Pitch Wars as a mentor last year. They had a lot of people volunteering to mentor Middle Grade and YA, but they needed more mentors for their adult categories, so I decided to give it a shot. It was an application process, and I was delighted to find out that I’d been picked to participate.
I found the whole experience to be extremely rewarding. All of the expectations, between mentor and mentee, were laid out from the beginning, and I liked that kind of structure in the process.
Pitch Wars is the kind of thing that I wish I’d known about when I first started writing. The mentors themselves were very supportive, both to their mentees and to one another, throughout the whole process. Choosing one person to mentor was extremely difficult, but once Elvin Bala and I started to work together on his manuscript, Shade & Shadow, it was an absolute pleasure.
I was, quite frankly, surprised as to how invested I became in the pitch process at the end. Every time he got a request on his manuscript, I went around grinning all day. It’s just a great experience.
Time permitting, I’d like very much to do it again this year.
Thank you for joining us today Teresa, and for your wonderfully insightful answers!
Teresa Frohock is the author of the LOS NEFILIM historical fantasy novels. The latest, WHERE OBLIVION LIVES, is available now!