Interview with Timandra Whitecastle (QUEENS OF THE WYRD)
Timandra Whitecastle lives on the original Plains of Rohan (Lower Saxony) in Germany, with her family. She is a native speaker of both English and German, but she’s also fluent in Geek, Gaming, and Whale.
Reading is an obsession that borders on compulsion most days.
Tim has never bothered to get a life because she feels like she’s been trying to lead three different ones already – and, yes, she totally stole that line from Terry Pratchett. Also, she’s partial to Mojitos and Baileys … er, just in case you meet her in a bar and want to buy her a drink, say. (She knows people don’t actually read author’s biographies, but feels mentioning this might be worth a shot … or two.)
Welcome back to the Hive, Timandra.
Thanks for having me!
So, first off… Your book covers are AMAZING and we’ve loved hosting your cover reveals. Could you tell us something about the process behind them and the artists you worked with?
Sure! So way back in the day (2015?) I had finished Touch of Iron and was looking for a cover. So I did what everyone in the self-publishing podcasts I was listening to told me: get your cover through 99designs. And hey, I did try. But the experience was … not good. The final cover art I had chosen had a copyright infringement and so I couldn’t use it and ugh.
I got to talking to an acquaintance of mine and whined a bit, and he said: welp, you’re doing it all wrong. What you do is, you browse all the fantasy books you own or like and see if there’s a cover artist that stands out to you. Unfortunately John Howe and Alan Lee never got back to me, along with a number of others XD … but! I stumbled upon a short story by Joe Abercrombie on Tor.com that was illustrated by Tommy Arnold. Then I came across Tommy’s art again in Fran Wilde’s The Jewel and her Lapidary.
So I started actively seeking out his artwork and have been blown away ever since. The great thing about Tommy–apart from being insanely skilled and fast and responsive– is he’ll actually READ the book he’s supposed to be illustrating. And I think it’s why he can get such a good grip on the characters in those stories. And for me, characters always come first.
I got to work with Felix Ortiz by lucky chance. I was writing Bloodwitch, the accompanying novella to the Living Blade series, when I came across a post by Felix in one of the Fantasy groups I was in on Facebook. He said something like he had a free weekend and was looking to do some art and if anyone had a cool idea for a cover to just pitch it to him. If he ended up painting that piece, he’d give it to you to use FREE of charge. I pitched Bloodwitch and lo! He went with it, although … I think he said he doesn’t have much experience with water? But man, he nailed it, IMO.
Queens of the Wyrd is different from my other covers in that it’s not artwork, but stockart. It was arranged by James T Egan over at BookFly Design who managed to parse through a very rambling series of emails and me basically throwing my Pinterest board at him. He then came up with this very thematically strong cover. James is a great guy. He has done the typography for the Living Blade trilogy so beautifully, to compliment Tommy’s artwork, and I would absolutely recommend him to anyone looking for professional looking quality stock art covers, but alas! Bookfly Design aren’t taking on new clients anymore. Sorry. 🙁
For those out there who don’t know, what can readers expect from your books?
My favorite tagline for my own books is: I write stories about female heroes who punch you in the face and in the feels. So there’s grit and violence and darkness … but I also try to gut punch the reader with emotions.
What kind of female characters do you most enjoy writing about?
The kind that fails and struggles and takes the hits, but always ALWAYS gets back up on their feet again.
You have some awesome titles for your books – Mother of Slag and Queens of the Wyrd really draw a reader’s attention! What’s your process here, do you start off with a kick ass title? Or do they come later?
Depends? I’m not good with titles, generally. It takes me forever to come up with decent sounding ones. My working titles are usually not cover worthy. Mother of Slag, though … that WAS my working title for that book for a long, long time. And it’s very tongue-in-cheek so I hesitated for a moment, but then thought ah. It’s too fitting to NOT use it. 😉
On the other hand, Queens was simply called Viking Moms while writing. And I was relatively certain I couldn’t put that on a cover. Additionally, Shieldmaidens is too generic and wouldn’t fly. I touch on the Norse concept of Fate in that story several times and Wyrd is a good, fantasy-esque word to put in the title. But Wyrd Sisters … wasn’t going to work. Wyrd Shieldmaidens … is a disaster title. But each of my Shieldmaidens tries to master her own destiny in their own way. So Queens fitted quite nicely (there are also a slew of fantasy titles out there with the word Queens in them, so that’s a winner) and that’s how it became Queens of the Wyrd.
Queens of the Wyrd has a strong theme of motherhood; which three fictional mothers are your favourite?
Hmmmm. My favorite mothers are:
- Pratchett’s Nanny Ogg who is kinda like everybody’s mom, with all the lovability but also frightening power over others that matriarchy entails. There’s this line in Studio Ghibli’s Ponyo in which a character says: I love my mom but she’s scary sometimes. And this is how it should be.
- I also love Aunt May in every iteration. Have you seen Into the Spider-verse? My heart! But also Marisa Tomei’s performance in Marvel’s adaptation is incredible. I love her so much. That final scene in Homecoming where she opens the door on Peter and then they cut to the credits? :chef’s kiss:
- And lastly … I was impressed and moved by RJ Barker’s Assassin’s mother/mentor character, Merela. I’d want her to be my mom.
(And to all those going EHRGEHRBLERGH what about Sarah Connor?!? What about Ellen Ripley?!? They don’t count?!? My dude, relax, they probably do. But I have only ever seen the first Terminator and then … one of the other ones which I can’t remember clearly. Same goes for the Alien franchise: I’ve watched the first one. That’s it. So. Your point is likely valid, but I just don’t know.)
Over the course of writing The Living Blade trilogy and then Queens of the Wyrd which has been the toughest aspect of writing? Is it the plot, characters, dialogue or action scenes? Were there any books that were easier to write than others?
Listen. The toughest aspect of writing is sitting down and doing it.
Now, I’m a slow writer. I manage maybe 1000 words per hour. A novel of 100k words takes me 100 hours to write. And that’s just the rough draft. (I also don’t write full time. I write in bursts and snippets when I can. This isn’t the most …productive way of writing.) The next toughest part is going over all that word vomit and not despairing about the mess. So I invest another handful of tens of hours in story shaping. I will say this much: my strength has always been in the re-writes.
Writing is a marathon skill. Some parts you might be able to do at a quicker pace, others you might be panting and heaving and just making sure you’ve got one foot in front of the other while you’re eyes are closed from exhaustion. Some parts you can train yourself to do quickly, efficiently. Other parts will simply take you time.
The reward you get for crossing the finishing line on one project? You start another damn marathon.
This is what makes writers strange folk.
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!)
Here’s a confession … for a long time I was content to be that one nerdy girl who read all the guy books, who decried romance as silly and girly and haha look at me I’m not like those other silly and girly girls. I’m cool and nerdy like you, man. I knew The Silmarillion before Jackson’s movies came out, bro.
Especially in Fantasy there’s a whole bunch of white male authors who dominate the idea of what this genre is. You know their names.
Could women write SFF? Of course, I’d scoff even back then, but I only knew a handful of names and I hadn’t read much by women. So I missed out on many, many great women writers, and then the common erasure of their names through lack of recommendations made me think – wrongly! – that there weren’t that many out there anyway.
Since becoming aware of how much I’ve missed out on, I have tried to widen my own horizon significantly. The only problem is … there’s so much great and diverse SFF fiction coming out RIGHT NOW and I still have so much catching up to do by reading the backlist of Fantasy women writers and … I only have so much time to read in a day. Granted, this is a good problem to have!
So here are two names that popped into mind when I read this question: Jen Williams. You’ve had her on the Women in SFF spotlight already, so I am just here to say: her Winnowing Flame trilogy is epic. EPIC. And criminally underread! It has monstrous alien bugs and flying beasts and fire-wielding witches and blood-drinking elves and it has an older lady explorer named Vintage whom you all should really meet!
Second: Seanan Maguire. I keep reading anything by Seanan and her pen names that I can get a hold of and let me tell you … every book by her, you are in the presence of a true Master. I don’t know how she writes so well and fast and deservedly gets all the awards and argh! So inspiring!
And those are only two! Listen. You and I need to spend a rainy afternoon or two at at tea shop somewhere so I’ll have a few hours to rave about all the brilliant ladies writing excellent books out there! I’m currently reading Good Luck Girls by Charlotte Nicole Davis and I am shocked at how much it is my jam. Sooooo gooooood.
History has always marginalised women, with so many amazing women’s stories being left untold. Whose stories would you most like to see shared?
The site you’re looking for is Rejected Princesses. There you’ll find some fantastic stories of real life women that are aching to be written. Some of my personal favorites are Josephine Baker! Mary Anning! Takeko Nakano! Lyudmila Pavlichenko (OMG YOU MUST READ THIS STORY!), and last but an absolute inspiration: Noor Inayat Khan. You’re welcome.
Personally, I’ve always been mad at George Lucas for casting Natalie Portman as Padme Amidala and then ….not doing anything with that character except giving her like … two memorable lines. So what I’ve always wanted to do (if Disney Star Wars came knocking and gave me a metric ton of artistic license with their IP lolololol) is re-mix Padme’s story with the real life story of Empress Elizabeth of Austria. A Bavarian princess who fell in love with the heir to Austria-Hungary’s imperial throne and married him starry-eyed only to be broken down by the rigidity and psycho-terror of the court.
Sisi, as Elizabeth’s been affectionately called, became an important political figure especially as a spokesperson for the Hungarians, and she understood quickly that image is everything which is why she never commissioned a painting of herself after a certain age and stuck to a daily workout. At the same time, she had to watch several of her immediate family members succumb to madness and her children die of sickness and suicide. [That whole shooting the Archduke that led to the First World War? At that point Sisi’s husband the Emperor had lost his son and regent already so he had to appoint a nephew to follow him on the throne … and then that nephew was shot]. She spent most of her later years in life travelling alone without her husband and was finally stabbed by an anarchist.
Now mix that with a Padme who falls in love with that Anakin guy, only to find out he’s Darth Fucking Vader. But she’s like fuckit, I’m pregnant, I’ve handled difficult political situations and people before, let’s see if I can make this family thing as Queen of the Empire actually work … and then while she’s trying to help steer the galactic empire to maybe not fully embrace the dark side, she gets more and more bitter and resentful. Leia tells Luke later: She was always so sad.
She tours the galaxy with her daughter (Luke has still been hidden on Tatooine by Obi Wan in this version) and champions the rebellious underdogs as much as she can. So instead of LOSING THE WILL TO LIVE OMFG SERIOUSLY?!? she eventually meets her end by being stabbed in an elaborate plot of the rebel scum led by none other than her daughter … who wants to use her death to rattle Vader into a heedless course of action, causing a full throttle war between the rebels and the Empire that will lead to the Empire’s eventual destruction.
Anyway … that’s just one example. I have more. Tea shop. Rainy afternoon. I will talk until I’m hoarse.
What are your favourite mythological creatures? What would you ride gloriously into battle upon?
I can’t actually ride. I never had any lessons. So I don’t think I’d be able to gloriously ride anything into battle. I might just be able to hold on for dear life while something charged at you, though. Preferably something huge and imposing like those Oliphaunt creatures in the first few scenes of Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur. I mean they carry pyramids on their backs. Pyramids! So. That’s cool. I could probably hang on to a pyramid on an oliphaunt’s back.
My favorite mythological creatures have always been sea creatures. Our planet is covered with ocean and in its depths are creatures that we couldn’t even imagine. I’ve always been fascinated by that. I know I’m not alone with this, either. Think of all the folktales in which lakes and rivers and seas and the oceans have been populated with creatures. We humans know that water is necessary for our life, but we also understand that it can be dangerous,even murderous, and we’ve been passing that information on for generations.
We know you’re a big fan of The Witcher so we must ask an important question: who’s the better witch – Yennefer or Triss?
Nice way to avoid my question Tim, just distract me with Geralt!
I had a whole TED talk there but then thought… THIS INTERVIEW WAS ALREADY FAR TOO LONG NO ONE IS GOING TO READ THIS RANT.
Anyway, I think Geralt can feel my pain on this question.
What’s the most (and/or least) helpful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? Was there any piece of advice which you strongly disagreed with and therefore did the exact opposite?
Don’t write what you know. Write what you love. You want to write a book? Make a list of all the things YOU really really love to read in books. Your absolute favorite tropes. And then figure out how to include every single one in the narrative somehow.
I can’t guarantee it’ll make for a good book (whatever that means for you), but you’ll enjoy writing it and that’ll lead to the perseverance you need to finish it and one day you’ll have a story that maybe someone else has been waiting to read.
There is so much bullshit advice out there, I can’t even. Let’s not go there.
Listen. This is what I’ve learned in the writing trenches. The terror of being a writer (or any kind of artist, I guess) is that you have to learn what works for YOU by doing it. You can read craft books (and you should). You can study creative writing at Uni or read blogs and Tumblr posts and author interviews on how to write. Understand, though, that there’s a lot of survivor bias in all those wise words. Understand, though, that the thing is, right … the actual thing is … at the end of the day? You learn what’s best for you by just doing it.
And the other terror is … once you have that figured out for one piece, the next piece will require something entirely different and you and your creative process will have to adapt.
Panta Rhei, the old greeks say. Everything flows. So must you.
What’s next Timandra? Are you planning on writing another series, or perhaps another standalone? Give us some teasers!
I’m always planning something or other, always writing bits and pieces. But what’s actually next? Hm. Good question. I have a plan. Yes. I do. A list of things that need to get done. Things that need to be written. Things I want to write. I am going to be running a cool project over Kickstarter in September. So stay tuned!
But then, as you know, the fire nation attacked and everything changed.
2020 has been tough so far, hasn’t it? I don’t think I’ll have a book out this year.
I know it’s not good business practice, especially as a self-publisher, to not have at least a new book or two (or three) out every year. But with this pandemic situation … I’m really just hunkering down and trying to follow my own advice: make a list of all my favorite tropes and figure out a story from there. So this year is going to be something of a sabbatical year for me. I’ll be around (see the Kickstarter), but not have anything new for a while.
But you can sign up to my monthly newsletter and be the first in line when something new turns up! Toss a coin to your writer, oh valley of plenty …
That’s brilliant! Thank you so much for joining us today, Timandra.