Interview with K. S. Villoso (THE WOLF OF OREN-YARO)
K.S. Villoso was born in a dank hospital on an afternoon in Albay, Philippines, and things have generally been okay since then. After spending most of her childhood in a slum area in Taguig (where she dodged death-defying traffic, ate questionable food, and fell into open-pit sewers more often than one ought to), she and her family immigrated to Vancouver, Canada, where they spent the better part of two decades trying to chase the North American Dream. She is now living amidst the forest and mountains with her family, children, and dogs in Anmore, BC.
Hi Kay and welcome back to the Hive, thank you so much for joining us for Women In SFF.
First off would you tell something about your different series? Which one should new readers start with?
It depends on people’s individual tastes and their overall patience. I do a little bit of everything, and every series functions as a starting point. So, let’s break it down to three scenarios:
- Are you a reader who already know you’re going to love my work? Do you want to experience the story as it unfolds and don’t mind a slow or potentially ambiguous beginning? Do you want to just immerse yourself in character relationships, a little bit of slice of life, and then watch it blossom and escalate into something more with every page, complete with magic and war and monsters? Then begin with Jaeth’s Eye and continue on per order of publication. The story grows, and grows, and grows, and will give you a newfound appreciation for just how much it expands. Save the best for last (in this case, Chronicles of the Bitch Queen), and enjoy all the little easter eggs that only fans of the previous series will notice, along with the feel of a living, breathing world. Watch the Butterfly Effect in motion, as actions taken in the previous trilogy play a part in the next.
- Are you a typical fantasy reader who is on the fence? Who is a little unsure about the immersive experience of an unknown world, or not sure how much introspection you can handle? Do you prefer fast plots, lots of fighting, and an easy-going MC who learns as he goes along? Start with Blackwood Marauders. Luc’s adventures are meant to mirror the classic farmboy adventure, with a side of grimdark. It is easy to read, self-contained, and will give you a bit of a feel for how the plots in my stories work.
- Or do you want to dive straight into the rollercoaster ride of your lifetime, from the perspective of a badass woman? Then join Talyien and begin with The Wolf of Oren-yaro.
What has it been like seeing readers’ reactions to your work? Could you even begin to pin some of those emotions down for us?
I always feel honoured that people enjoy my work. But it’s been particularly humbling to see people relate to Talyien’s story. I wrote this story as catharsis—I let Talyien borrow a lot of my own anxieties and struggles, that line between trying to find your place in the world and fulfilling your responsibilities while finding a way to be happy. Maybe it was a very elaborate metaphor, but it’s amazing how many people get it.
You’ve often spoken about your characters as if they are entities that you, their creator, have little to no control over – Talyien in particular! Can you give us an example of a time she rebelled against your chosen path?
Much of this actually shows up in the later books, so I can’t talk about them too much without spoilers. On a smaller scale, this is what usually happens with Talyien: the outline will say “she goes along with Character’s plans,” and what actually happens is she gets into an argument, tries to kill Character first, gets into a fight, gets into trouble she has to get fished out of, and because of all this, the story then changes.
And now, on a grander scale: I’m looking back on the original outline of the trilogy and though The Wolf of Oren-yaro is very similar to the final book in the end, the last book’s outline looks nothing like the final product. Talyien’s decisions and rebelliousness all throughout that first book opened up this alternate ending scenario that proved to be better than what I had planned for her. And this is killing me that I can’t say what it is because it is a massive, massive spoiler: but whoever is reading this interview now—go, bookmark this page, read the sequels, finish that last book (it’s out next spring!), then come back to hear me say yes, that thing at the end there? That was her, 100%.
You are well known for your depictions of food in fantasy; if we were to rock up in the world of The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, what would you prepare for us?
Depends. Are you adventurous? Then we can try one of the dishes that Talyien and Rayyel enjoyed during their ill-fated dinner date: sisig. I described it as chopped pig snout in the book, but it’s actually a bit more than that: it’s normally prepared using a whole pig’s head which includes a bit of brain or liver, pan fried with mayonnaise and lime, then served with onions. It’s ridiculously delicious.
Otherwise, we can play it safe and do the roast pork. Since I can’t fit a whole pig in my oven, I’ll use pork belly and season it with garlic, lemongrass, and salt.
And of course this is all eaten with rice. Rice is life. ?
Since this is our Women in SFF month, who were the women in SFF (or beyond) that influenced or inspired you? (Authors and/or characters!)
This time around, I want to talk about Hiromu Arakawa because Fullmetal Alchemist truly showed me how to write something and just fill it front to back with women. Powerful women, intelligent women, wise mothers, fighters and scholars and assassins and mechanics…I think it’s one of my first encounters with material where women weren’t just the background.
In which ways has your childhood spent in Taguig inspired your writing?
Looking back, I kind of find it amazing how us kids were pretty much left to our own devices. As young as six years old, I could walk out of our front door and mingle with the neighbourhood kids, or explore the immediate streets with all its nooks and crannies. Every day was an adventure. Sometimes that adventure verged into the fantastic, because the Philippines retains a lot of the age-old animism beliefs in myths and spirits. We were constantly terrified of duendes and engkantos, especially when some of the other kids would talk about meeting them, or fall ill, or were led astray. We knew where the banyan tree stood in the parking lot next to the compound and why we weren’t supposed to disturb it. Sometimes we would lose electricity for weeks at a time—during these blackouts, we would live under a cloud of terror as rumours of aswang circulated through the neighbourhood.
On top of those, there were the usual everyday, physical concerns. Some of the kids would form groups to gang up on other children, so there was a lot of conflict or learning to avoid conflict. I’ve picked fights with other kids to defend my cousin. A lot of these happened without grown-up intervention. And because these were the slums, I grew up without a lot of common comforts and learned to make do. We didn’t have a car or a telephone line. We didn’t have running water in the compound and for years we would have to travel all the way to another neighbourhood to fill up containers and take them home.
A lot of this has inspired my unsanitized, from the ground, gritty approach to my writing. I think about how people live given the limitations of the environment, and the kind of social connections or politics that arise from there. And nearly every society I’ve created is rife with “superstition” and fear of the supernatural, because that’s what I grew up with! All I have to do is look back in my memories and I can recapture the experience on paper.
If you could go on an adventure anywhere in any world, where would you go, and why?
My answer to this probably changes every time the question is asked but lately I’m thinking of Lord of the Rings and all those mountains (so, New Zealand?). I love climbing mountains and panoramic views, can’t get enough of it.
Could you tell us something about your writing process? Jaeth’s Eye has such a sprawling plot of many story lines. How did you make them all tie up so nicely in the end?
In the case of Jaeth’s Eye, it’s actually fairly simple. There is a catalyst, the monster, and then the three different characters whose lives are affected by it. Each of the three characters represents a specific plot and feel (Enosh is the mage plotline, Kefier the mercenary plotline, and Sume the Jinsein royal plotline). Each character also represents a theme (ambition, purpose, choice). But regardless of their differences, they’re united by their desires (which converge) and of course the family connections.
Having said that, a lot of my process really is the act of balancing a narrative design with strong character arcs and the craft of storytelling. Each of my stories (I see each series as one story) have a design built into them. In Blackwood Marauders, it’s classic fantasy. In Chronicles of the Bitch Queen, it’s con games. The design tells me what the structure of the series will look like, where the beats and turning points will be. From there, I build the plot. The characters feed the plot, but the plot now in turn affects the characters, because my goal is that they should be indistinguishable at the very end.
The process doesn’t look the same for every story. Some concepts are harder than others and require more work. Others just fall into place.
Having self-published your work and now also been ‘traditionally’ published, what has been the most challenging difference between the two processes? And the most rewarding?
In self-pub, you get a lot of control. In trad pub, you get a lot of help. Depending on the day (and the amount of money in my bank account), one is more attractive than the other.
Generally though, my process in the background has remained the same, regardless if it’s meant for traditional publication or not. And that’s because the most rewarding part for me is in the storytelling. In the end, I don’t care who publishes it, how it’s published, how much money I make off it, or if it gets critically acclaimed or forgotten in the dust. All I want is to write stories that sing and soar.
History has always marginalised women, with so many amazing women’s stories being left untold. Whose stories would you most like to see shared?
I want to see more stories about women of colour from women of colour, because the issue of race further complicates gender-related marginalizations and that intersection is rife with issues we need to address. I want stories of resilience, survival, strength, and resistance from cultures that have lived with trauma, from writers who truly understand how privilege and power works, who can dig at the nuances of how to navigate a world that’s out to get you the moment you are born. I want stories that go beyond that, to a place where we get to define our own narrative. Where we get to have adventures and overcome challenges and find our happily-ever-afters, free of baggage and exploitation. Where we are visible—truly visible. Where our voices are heard so we can carry them forward to guide our children and their children before them. I want us to be the heroes of our own stories.
Those would be truly momentous stories to read Kay.
You seem to have found a strong writing community on social media with far-flung fellow writers you may not have ever met irl. How important is that community to what can be a very solitary job?
Community is very important! I learn a lot about the business side of publishing from my fellow self-published authors—the dearth of knowledge they have on marketing, algorithms, everything to do with commercially selling books in an online environment is just amazing. I’m always eager to learn and humbled by my colleagues’ willingness to teach (if you’re reading this, you know who you are!). I’m also learning a lot about ethics and the power of storytelling and our responsibilities in the grand scheme of things from fellow traditionally published authors, especially fellow BIPOC authors. I’m not perfect but I’m listening, and I do my best to do right by my community and use my platform to help where I can.
Finally, what’s the one thing you hope readers take away from your stories?
I’d like people who finish my stories to feel, even just a little, and be in as much awe of the power of human connections as I am.
Thank you so much, Kay!