Interview with Melissa Caruso (THE OBSIDIAN TOWER)
Melissa Caruso was born on the summer solstice and went to school in an old mansion with a secret door, but despite this auspicious beginning has yet to develop any known superpowers. Melissa has spent her whole life creating imaginary worlds, and in addition to writing is also an avid LARPer and tabletop gamer. She graduated with honors in Creative Writing from Brown University and has an MFA in Fiction from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She lives in Massachusetts with her video game designer husband and two superlative daughters, and has been known to do battle in ballgowns. Melissa’s first novel, The Tethered Mage, was shortlisted for a Gemmell Morningstar award for best fantasy debut.
Welcome to the Hive Melissa! Firstly, congratulations on your new release – The Obsidian Tower book one of Rooks and Ruin!
This new series is set in the same world as your previous trilogy Swords and Fire, but can this be read without having read the previous trilogy? What can long-standing fans of the first series and new readers expect?
You can absolutely read The Obsidian Tower without reading Swords & Fire first! The two trilogies are set in the same world, but The Obsidian Tower is 150 years later with all new characters and focuses on a new conflict. If you were definitely going to read both trilogies I might suggest Swords & Fire first as the slightly better order for worldbuilding reveals, but if you’re more intrigued by The Obsidian Tower or are more of a spooky castle person than a courtly intrigue person (though both trilogies have both of these things), then you could absolutely start with Rooks & Ruin without having to worry about getting confused or missing anything.
I suspect Swords & Fire fans will enjoy getting a book set in Vaskandar and from a Vaskandran perspective, and they can expect more fancy parties, morally ambiguous people in great outfits, murder, mystery, and dangerous magic. New readers can expect all those things in a rambling castle full of ancient secrets, a door that must not be opened, and a protagonist who is just trying to do her job as one dramatic meddler after another shows up to make a bad situation increasingly worse.
When writing this second series, was the process any different from when you wrote your debut? Was the experience easier or harder? And have you come across any continuity issues so far?
One really fun difference was that I knew from the start that this would be a trilogy, which I didn’t know when I was writing THE TETHERED MAGE. I’ve been able to think of the whole series arc, put in hints and foreshadowing, and add layers to certain scenes and conversations that will read a little differently on a second read once you know all the twists and turns the story will take.
I feel like every book is hard in some new and exciting way, and one of the ways The Obsidian Tower was hard was because I’d been writing the same characters for three books with Swords & Fire and suddenly I had to write new ones, and I felt like I’d forgotten how! I had to shake off the familiar voices of my old characters and learn who these new characters were. It was a bit of a struggle figuring them out.
I also had to try not to worry about whether people who liked Swords & Fire would think The Obsidian Tower was too different (or too similar), and whether people would like it. It can be hard to silence those worries and just listen to the story, especially at the beginning. Once I got really into it, though, it got easier!
I haven’t found any continuity issues yet…Here’s hoping that stays true! My editors and copyeditors at Orbit have been invaluable in helping catch anything like that, too.
During these current uncertain times, have you found yourself with more time to write or less? Did it help as writing motivation, or was it more of a hindrance?
Definitely much less! I have a lot of trouble writing with distractions or interruptions—once my immersion is broken, it takes me a while to refocus. So I used to always write when my kids were at school, my husband was at work, and the house was empty. Now everyone is home all the time, and even though they’re being completely supportive there’s just no way to avoid that there are a lot more interruptions and distractions. Plus I’ve had a lot more work to do supporting the kids with their remote learning, running the household with more people in it all the time, and so on, so I’ve had less time AND the time I’ve had has been broken up into smaller, less useful chunks. It’s been pretty rough!
We can absolutely sympathise, and applaud anyone who’s managed to get work done during 2020!
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 there did the exact opposite?
The writing advice I dislike the most is any piece that presents itself as an absolute: You must do X or you are not a real writer/can never get published/will fail. Everyone’s process is different, and everyone faces different particular challenges in their writing lives, and brings different strengths to overcome those challenges! For instance, writing on a schedule every day works well for me (when circumstances allow it), but would be terrible advice for my teen daughter (who’s working on a novel), who has ADHD and writes best in irregular big hyperfocus bursts. Advice to read voraciously is great, but not always possible for someone working multiple jobs, taking care of dependents, etc. I like to plan things out and focus a lot on structure, thinking about things like agency, conflict, and through line—but trying to follow my methods might be the kiss of death for someone who writes best immersing themselves in voice and mood and feeling their way into the book on instinct. I think it’s so important to do what works for you, and take the advice that resonates with you while leaving what doesn’t.
As for the best advice I ever got, it was really the best example. Long before I got published, I was in a writer group with a bunch of friends who were unpublished writers. One of them had done so much more research into publishing than any of us, and was willing to do these dramatic revisions which I at the time couldn’t even conceive of, throwing out whole drafts and starting over. She really opened my eyes to what it looked like when you took your writing seriously enough to be willing to put in a ton of work making it as good as it could be, and to give yourself the best chance of publishing well that you could. Unsurprisingly, she was the first of us to get published—her name is Deva Fagan, and she’s an incredible middle grade fantasy author, and her latest book RIVAL MAGIC just came out and it’s a ton of fun with great characters and magical hijinks and girl power! But seeing how much work she put in made me realize that I needed to do the same if I wanted my stories to reach their full potential. And I did, and it made all the difference.
Which do you find is the toughest element of writing in general? Is it the plot, characters, dialogue or action scenes?
So normally what annoys me most is transitions—getting from one time or place to another in a quick and elegant way that doesn’t drop the dramatic tension. In the first two books of Rooks & Ruin, I’ve set the action of the book almost entirely in one place over just a handful of days, so I’ve largely avoided my dreaded transitions, and now I’d say the hardest part is really nailing character. It’s so crucially important, but it’s such a delicate and complicated thing trying to make these entirely imaginary people so absolutely real that you feel like you know them, have met them, would recognize them in the street. There are so many ways to not quite hit the mark—inconsistent voice, decisions or actions that feel not quite in character, emotional reactions that are too strong or too weak or not suppressed in quite the right way, relationships that unfold too quickly or go in a direction that doesn’t feel earned, and so on. Character is WAY more fun to put in the work on than transitions, though!
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!)
I grew up reading SFF by so many wonderful women! Robin McKinley’s HERO AND THE CROWN was hugely formative for me. Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books and Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books meant so much to teen me, and then as I grew up I admired and learned from writers like C. J. Cherryh, Barbara Hambly, Patricia McKillip, Lois McMaster Bujold, and so many more. But possibly my greatest influence, and the storyteller who I feel really helped propel me into becoming a more mature writer, is Hiromu Arakawa, the author and illustrator of the incredible manga FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST. I am so utterly in awe of her capabilities as a storyteller, and I learned so much from that manga. Her pacing is so perfect, her storylines so tightly woven with every little piece counting, her characters so incredibly good—and she’s so good at letting the emotional impact of a scene gut-punch you SO HARD all on its own, without overplaying it. I could fangirl about Arakawa all day long—she’s a true master.
What are your favourite kind of female characters to write?
I love writing all kinds of female characters and showing all kinds of strength in them, but one of my favorite archetypes is a mature, confident, powerful woman—La Contessa or the Marquise of Palova in Swords & Fire or the Lady of Owls in The Obsidian Tower would be examples. They turn up again and again. I also have a soft spot for utter badasses (like Ciardha in Swords & Fire or Ashe in Rooks & Ruin).
Honestly though, a lot of my characters spring to mind initially as women, and I often have to remind myself to include other genders! So I like to write the same kind of female characters that I do characters of any gender…Characters who are trying hard but flawed, who hold themselves together as best they can but might be broken up on the inside (by the end of the trilogy, anyway), who are highly competent or powerful in certain areas but keep having to operate well outside their comfort zones.
What’s a good SFF book (written by a woman) you’ve read recently?
Oooh, so many! For train wreck personal drama, stabby action, and page-turny pacing, I really enjoyed THE WOLF OF OREN-YARO by K. S. Villoso; for sheer fun hijinks and a romp with delightful characters, I loved THE BURNING PAGE (Book 3 of the Invisible Library books) by Genevieve Cogman; for shivery atmosphere and delicious worldbuilding, I really enjoyed THE UNSPOKEN NAME by A. K. Larkwood; and I’m currently reading and greatly enjoying THE BONE SHARD DAUGHTER by Andrea Stewart.
If in the future your books were to be adapted for the small or big screen, who would you cast for the main characters?
Much to my regret, two of the things I’ve had to sacrifice in order to keep up with my writing schedule on top of various other life obligations are movies and TV! So I’m pretty clueless about current actors, alas, and wouldn’t know where to begin dream casting!
What do you most love to do, other than writing?
My favorite hobby is larping (live action roleplaying)! I love the combination of storytelling, social, and physical activity. There’s honestly nothing quite like dressing up in fantastic costumes and going out in the woods with several dozen friends to experience high drama and stab each other. I’m really missing it during the pandemic!
What can readers expect to see further down the line in the Rook and Ruin series, Melissa? What juicy bit of info can you tease your readers with?
I am so excited for Book Two! It’s the turning point of the trilogy, and some big stuff goes down. There’s a creepy palace, lots of stabbing, a mirror maze which I’m sure is totally fine, shocking revelations, and an extremely tense tea party.
Oh a mirror maze sounds like it could be so eerie!
Lastly, and of course we save the most important question for last! What is your favourite fantastical creature? Which would you ride into battle on?
So it’s REALLY HARD to beat dragons! They’re gloriously badass, they fly, AND they breathe fire. SO epic. But I do think battle unicorns are underrated, and if I were going for a more gothic aesthetic I might go for a sinister dreamy black flying unicorn.
Thank you, Melissa.
Thank you so much for having me!