Women In SFF Author Spotlight – Sarah Chorn (OF HONEY AND WILDFIRES)
Sarah has been a compulsive reader her whole life. At a young age, she found her reading niche in the fantastic genre of Speculative Fiction. She blames her active imagination for the hobbies that threaten to consume her life. She is an editor, author, a semi-pro nature photographer, world traveler, three-time cancer survivor with hEDS, and mom to two rambunctious kids. In her ideal world, she’d do nothing but drink lots of tea and read from a never-ending pile of speculative fiction books. She has been running the speculative fiction review blog Bookworm Blues for eight years.
Welcome to the Hive, Sarah. Let’s start small: tell us about a great book you’ve read recently!
I just finished a book called The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism, and the Crises of Democracy in the 21st Century by Thant Myint-U, which might make you yawn when you read that title, but it was honestly one of the most fascinating books I’ve read in a long while. It really delved into the lasting legacy of colonialism, how it changed their society, and Burma’s various more recent military leaderships, how things have improved, and then how things got worse and it really painted a picture of modern day life in Burma. Highly recommend to anyone who is interested in that sort of thing.
Okay, time to escalate things: reality warps and you suddenly find yourself leading a D&D-style party through a monster-infested dungeon. What character class are you, and what’s your weapon of choice?
I’d probably be chaotic evil, and I’d use a garrote. I like the idea of taking off someone’s head like you’d cut off a hunk of cheese.
When you’re not trawling through dungeons, how do you like to work? (In silence, with music, or serenaded by the damned souls of a thousand dead shrimps? Do you prefer to type or to hand-write? Are you an architect or a gardener? A plotter or a pantser? D’you write in your underwear, or in a deep-sea diver’s suit?)
Tell us a little bit about your writing method!
I’m a pantster, big time. I cannot, will not outline. Outlines suck the marrow from my bones and make my soul shrivel up like a raisin. I just can’t do it. So, I generally start out with an idea, some general theme I want to play with, and then I put on some music (must be instrumental, no words… like Two Steps from Hell) and plug in my headphones. Headphones are a must. I have to completely close myself off from the world around me. Also, pyjamas help. Then, I sit down, and let it flow.
What (or who) are your most significant female fantasy influences? Are there any creators whom you dream of working with someday?
Carol Berg is a huge influence to me. She is such an emotional, evocative writer. She makes her characters really hurt, and she can almost always pull tears out of me. I’ve always loved her work, and I’ve read almost everything she’s written. She got me into fantasy when I was a teenager, and her continued superb work has heavily influenced my own creative efforts, both the character-driven aspect of what I write, and the emotional landscapes I love to play with.
Jacqueline Carey was also hugely informative for me. She has a lyrical way of writing that just works for me, and her characters are always so complex and emotional. She’s an author that really makes you FEEL what she’s writing.
More recently, Madeline Miller has been the author who has really, really influenced me. I read both of her books about a billion times just to experience how she uses words. She left me with a feeling that a book is more than the story it tells, but it’s the words used to tell that story, and it’s important to measure and choose each one carefully.
What was the last thing you watched on TV and why did you choose to watch it? Alternatively, what games have you enjoyed recently?
I just finished a Great Courses lecture series on Mediterranean cooking. It was magnificent. My husband and I just finished watching Unsolved Mysteries on Netflix. It was good, but not as good as I remember it from my childhood. As for games… I’m not a gamer so…
The world shifts, and you find yourself with an extra day on your hands during which you’re not allowed to write. How do you choose to spend the day?
Gardening, and/or doing photography. My two loves. I’d kill for an entire day to just get lost in either of them.
Can you tell us a little something about your current work(s) in progress?
I’ve got two I’m floating between right now. An Elegy for Hope is the book set right after Seraphina’s Lament. It picks up sometime after the events of the last book. Seraphina’s Lament was about pushing people to their breaking point. This one is more about what happens when you’ve broken and survived. How do you pick up those pieces? This one is more about the agony of growing. Things happen. It’s dark. I’ve missed that world.
Glass Rhapsody is a book set in the same world as Of Honey and Wildfires, though a different part of it, with different people and etc. I’m attempting to make it a standalone, but I have this really funny feeling that it’s not going to be one. Of Honey and Wildfires set up the importance of shine (similar to oil), and really the power of it both personally and industrially. Glass Rhapsody deals with… expansion, I guess. Shine (oil) empires, trading routes, colonialism a bit. It’s a lot of fun to write.
What’s the most (and/or least) helpful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Least helpful? “You have to write for twenty minutes a day or you aren’t a real writer.” Please. That’s pure gatekeeping nonsense. Just write. Write when you can, for how long you can, how often you can. There aren’t any rules. There’s no club where you have to fill out a form, “I write x amount of minutes each day” and sign it with blood. You do not have to write each day to be a writer, and please don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Most helpful was some advice I got very early on—like years ago—about reaching out to sensitivity readers when you need to, or feel like maybe you should. Talking to people about their experiences, and making sure I’m portraying parts of their stories accurately in the books I write not only informs me as a human, but it helps my books be so much more real, and diverse. It can be scary to reach out at times, but sensitivity readers have been absolutely invaluable to me.
Every writer encounters stumbling blocks, be it a difficult chapter, challenging subject matter or just starting a new project. How do you motivate yourself on days when you don’t want to write?
I don’t write if I’m not motivated to write. I know that’s basically against what everyone tells you to do, but if I force myself to write, all that’s going to come out is trash and I guarantee you I’ll just delete it tomorrow and start over again, so what’s the point. For me, I need to listen to myself. I don’t force the story to happen. It happens if it’s meant to.
However, sometimes I do hit a roadblock where a chapter or something just doesn’t come out, or the book refuses to progress. I’ve learned, through trial and error, that this happens for me when the book is going in a direction it’s not supposed to. If I give it a day or two, and think about it, what is ‘wrong’ will be made clear, and once I go back and fix that, the book flows. Writer’s block, for me, is less, “I can’t write” and more my hindbrain trying to tell my forebrain that something is wrong, and you need to fix it before you can keep going.
And also, writing is all about the mood. I have certain music I listen to for certain things. Really dramatic instrumental stuff for my Bloodlands trilogy. For my Of Honey and Wildfires and Glass Rhapsody stuff, I listen to more piano and violin music. Music is hugely important to set my writing mood.
If you could visit any country at any point in history, where/when would you go, and why?
Alright, let’s say that there are no dangers, and no risk, and nothing could possibly harm me if I went anywhere in the world, and there were also no political implications of this visit. I’d kill to go to both Iran and Saudi Arabia. Those civilizations are so old, and just so interesting. I’d love to see it in person, and experience the food and cultures, to check out the old historical sights and look at some of that fantastic artwork inside of some of the mosques. Things being what they are, I will never get to, but in a perfect world, I think it would be really interesting.
Who are your favourite female characters in literature or pop culture? And do you have a favourite type of female character you enjoy writing?
This question is really hard for me to answer because there are so many female characters that I love, and I tend to love them all for very different reasons. I will list two here.
Mercy Thompson is a fantastic female lead. She doesn’t need help, but asks for it when necessary. She stands on her own two feet, and makes her own way through the world. She’s strong and resilient, but not so much so that she doesn’t bend.
Phèdre nó Delaunay is another one that has always stuck out to me. She’s a character that feels so profoundly, sometime her emotional notes overwhelm her plotline, and I just LOVE it. She owns who she is, and finds strength in that which makes her unique and is completely and absolutely unapologetic. She’s a character that has hugely influenced the characters I develop.
As for the characters I enjoy writing, I tend to pour a bit of myself into everyone I write, and so I feel a bit of connection to all of them. They all represent different parts of me. I will say I enjoy writing disabled characters, or characters who feel “other” because that feeling resonates so powerfully with me. Seraphina in Seraphina’s Lament was given my spine and leg injury, and chronic pain. In Of Honey and Wildfires, Ianthe is dealing with an incurable illness, and a whole lot of my feelings when I was dealing with cancer went into her, and the emotional trials faced by those around her as they watched her battle her disease.
Going forward, as far as I can see, the rest of my characters developing in a similar respect. I have a real soft spot for those of us who get overlooked, or don’t typically fit, so I fill my books with them.
Tell us about a book that’s excellent, but underappreciated or obscure.
The Millennial Manifesto by Michael R. Fletcher is fantastic, and I think it’s a crying shame that more people haven’t read it. It’s his first (and only) foray into fiction. It’s knife-sharp and sure to offend (which, let’s admit, is half the charm). I was really blown away by this book when I was editing it, because it’s written so well but it also is one of those books that has something to say. It’s important, and a real uncomfortable examination of society. Nonstop action and plenty of carnage just puts the cherry on top of this sundae.
Finally, would you be so kind as to dazzle us with an elevator pitch? Why should readers check out your work?
Oh dear god, this is my least favorite interview question in the world. I think the people who read my books enjoy them because I do not write the typical fantasy. I tell stories differently. I play with perspective, and I enjoy the emotional landscapes so much, they tend to overshadow the physical ones. I like metaphor, and messing with timelines, and… I mean, there’s enough stereotypically told stories out there. If you want something off the beaten path, then I might be the author you’re looking for.