Author Spotlight – Gabriela Houston (THE SECOND BELL)
Gabriela Houston is a London-based writer. She was born in Poland and raised in a book-loving household on the nourishing diet of mythologies, classics and graphic novels. She had spent much of her early school years holed up in the library, only feeling truly herself in the company of Jack London’s trappers and Lucy Maud Montgomery’s red-headed orphan, among many others.
She came to the UK at 19 to follow her passion for literature and she completed her undergraduate and Masters degrees at Royal Holloway, University of London.
After her studies she worked in publishing for a few years. She now lives with her family in Harrow, where she pursues her life-long passion for making stuff up.
Her debut Slavic Fantasy novel THE SECOND BELL is coming out March 2021 from Angry Robot Books.
She’s the cohost of a YouTube channel, Bookish Take, which focuses on a writer’s journey from the initial idea through to the publication process and beyond!
Welcome to the Hive, Gabriela. Congratulations on your debut, The Second Bell!
Is it nerve-wracking to know soon enough your book will be out there in the wild? Are you planning to take part in any virtual events, or do you have any other plans to celebrate your release?
I prefer to think about it as pure excitement! Inevitably there will be some things that can go wrong and some people who don’t like my book, but why worry about it and deprive myself of the sweet, joyous anticipation?
For the launch event, there will be a live event co-hosted by Angry Robot and the beloved UK institution, The Super Relaxed Fantasy Club!
It’s completely free and people can come and see it on the 9th of March at 7PM GMT/ 2PM EST on the Angry Robot YouTube Channel (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYr1tX9z5Z) or The Super Relaxed Fantasy Club’s Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/groups/srfclondon)!
If you have any questions there will be a live Q&A. I’m very excited about it!
Also the lovely Caroline Lambe, Angry Robot’s publicist, has set up an online book tour for me, with reviews, articles and podcasts coming out with increasing frequency up until the publication date. So plenty to look forward to!
I have also created a YouTube video mini-series, called Bookish Take (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC9VrtdBae7YgWGodbeYIoVg), with a fellow AR debut author, Caroline Hardaker (whose beautifully haunting book, Composite Creatures is coming out in April). The first episode airs on the 1st of March, and the series is us chatting about our experiences of writing, from the initial ideas up to querying agents. It’s been a real joy to do, and I hope people find it useful!
Can you tell us a little bit about what readers can expect?
Shifting relationships in a world ruled by taboos, the need for self-discovery, women of all ages with agency and a whole lot of survivalist stuff.
Nature that is beautiful, stark, and wholly unforgiving.
And, of course, Slavic legends reimagined.
The cover of The Second Bell is very striking, I particularly like the shadowed wolf with the hawk for its eye looming over the young girl. It feels so ominous! How involved were you during the design process? What was your reaction when you were shown the final image?
I’ve been extremely lucky to have a publisher that is so open to the authors’ input as regards the covers! I’m interested in design and I would have found it very hard to be quiet on the subject!
In the end my suggestions were met with a whole lot of understanding. Glen Wilkins, the designer of the cover, has created exactly the feel and the energy that I’d been hoping for.
Glen Wilkin is a great designer!
I’ve been lucky enough to read an ARC of The Second Bell and as a fan of all kinds of mythology, I thoroughly enjoyed your Slavic folklore tale. Having spent several years living in Poland, did you grow up reading or hearing a lot of mythological tales? What inspired you to write a novel centred around Strigas?
Thank you for the kind words! I’m thrilled you liked it!
I’m Polish and have spent my entire childhood in Poland, so a lot of my formative years were spent reading and listening to the taped Slavic fairy tales and legends, which all have a very particular kind of aesthetic.
I find in Slavic folklore and mythologies, the creatures many of the stories really centred on were the demons, the monsters, the evil spirits. They were the characters which held the most fascination. The usual protagonists without a blemish couldn’t hold a candle to them, in my opinion.
The reason I decided to write about the strigas is partially because within the folklore itself the strigas lack the depth than many of the other Slavic monsters have. They are evil, bloodthirsty and grotesquely horrifying. But they do not necessarily begin like that. Depending on which stories you go with, strigas are either humans cursed, the dead that come back to life as monsters as a result of a curse, or humans born with two hearts, and therefore doomed from the start to transform into a demon.
Looking at those myths, I began to wonder about what would happen in a small community, should such a two-hearted child be born. What would be the feelings of the child’s mother? If there was the unspecified, yet daunting, promise of a threat hiding within the child’s breast, would people even see it as human?
And what would it do to a person to grow up with this fear surrounding them? If the threat of their nature, though unknown and unexamined, hang over their head since the day they were born?
Those are the questions that really made me want to write The Second Bell.
Are there other mythological beings which you would love to write about?
Oh, many and varied! I have always been particularly drawn to the elemental spirits and I have a few books in the works, but can’t say much more for now!
Your novel focuses on themes of motherhood, prejudice and of surviving against all odds. Were these themes something you had planned to write about from the onset or did it naturally emerge as you began writing?
I set out trying to answer the questions I have mentioned above. The survival aspect kind of naturally sprung from that. I’m fascinated by the natural world and humans’ place in it, and I loved the contrast between the small and closed communities ruled by taboos, fear and prejudice, and the magnificence and the sheer expansive scale of the world surrounding them.
The motherhood theme was the one I knew from the outset I was going to write about. I’m fascinated by the aspects of motherhood that I feel are severely underrepresented in traditional fantasy fiction. I wanted to show a cast of characters of whom many are mothers, but who don’t lose their agency. Mothers are human, and it was important to me to show the nuance and the complexity of their internal lives and the decisions they have to make.
Absolutely, and it was so great to see different kinds of mothers represented.
You also feature many strong female characters, which was fantastic to see. Was Salka a fun protagonist to write about? Did you have any other characters which were your favourite, or perhaps least favourite to write?
I love Salka, but I want to emphasise that I see Salka’s mother, Miriat, as an equal co-protagonist of the book. She’s a woman in her forties who has to make incredibly hard decisions and has her own internal battle to fight in order to assure her child’s and her own survival in a world which definitely doesn’t make it easy. Their dynamic and their love and loyalty were a joy to write.
Ah yes, Miriat was very well portrayed too.
As regards the strong female characters, I’m a woman writing about women in the world, and so I see the strength of the character as related to the strength of their characterisation. Historically speaking women in an overwhelming majority of fantasy books have been limited to a few archetypes, so I think it’s doubly important to show them as humans first: there is no person so strong that they never falter and none of us are infallible.
So while I write a lot of capable female characters, I write the weak ones too. I like to have a cast of characters that creates contrast. When faced with the same situation two people will not react the same way. So for me, the important thing is to show that nuance.
One of my favourite characters, in fact, might come as a surprise to those who have read the book. Kalina, the striga village’s self-appointed rule-enforcer and snitch, is self-conscious, awkward, aggressive, unloved. She is unlikely to be anyone’s favourite character. But what I wanted to show when writing her is how deeply unhappy and lonely she is. Without a family to claim her, she has created a place for herself within the village life that centres around the things she can control. There is a tragedy to her which I hope the readers recognise, even if they can’t forgive her.
What (or who) are your most significant female fantasy influences? Are there any authors whom you dream of working with someday?
There are so many!
As a child I loved The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley for the women-centric retelling of the Arthurian legends in a way that felt so fresh and so rare at the time. I was very saddened when I recently found out about the horrific allegations made against MZB, which have somewhat soured the memory. But the book itself had a very profound effect on me and I can’t ignore the influence it’s had on my writing.
More happily and more recently I have completely fallen in love with Robin Hobb’s books. The richness of the world she’s created and the subtlety and depth of her characters’ journeys is masterful and deserves every accolade. I find there is so much to learn from her craft!
In the last few years I’ve especially enjoyed the works of Holly Black, Tracy Deonn, Leigh Bardugo and Tasha Suri. I love their books for their originality and inventiveness. It is voices like these that to me really help make this the golden age of speculative fiction.
Tell us about a book that’s excellent, but underappreciated or obscure
I grew up loving Lucy Maud Montgomery’s books. Anne of Green Gables was such an influence on me. I think in many ways I resembled that character as a child, and it was, I think, my first experience of really seeing myself in the character, if that makes sense.
But most people overlook Montgomery’s less famous novel, The Blue Castle, which is still my absolute favourite book even after all these years. It’s about a woman completely subjugated by her cold and domineering mother, who at 29 feels any hope of a happy life and excitement has passed her by. She feels trapped, unloved and unlovable. The butt of her family’s endless jokes, she finds escape in books. Then one day she receives the diagnosis of a serious heart condition and is told she only has a year to live. This spurs her on to find the joy that’s been entirely missing from her life.
It’s often portrayed as a romance novel, but to me it is primarily a beautifully nuanced study in loneliness and courage.
As a debut author were there any stumbling blocks you came across whilst writing The Second Bell? Were there any particular challenges you faced, such as the dialogue, a difficult chapter or character arc?
Although The Second Bell is my debut, like in the case of many writers, it is not the first complete novel I have written. My first, frankly unpublishable, novel, was a great growing and learning experience. In a way you have to make mistakes in order to learn from them, and I’m grateful for the lesson.
In terms of the stumbling blocks, I found The Second Bell quite easy to write as I had such a clear idea of the journey I wanted the main characters to take. Then the editorial stage is when you really start to grapple with the plot bunnies, the dialogue issues etc. But again, I’ve been so lucky to have feedback from so many people from both the Bell Lomax Moreton Agency and Angry Robot. They really helped me to see where the book fell short so I could address any issues.
What’s the most (and/or least) helpful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
My favourite bit of advice is Jack London’s “You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club”. No matter how good the idea is, there is no writing fairy that will turn it into a book for you. You sit, you write, even if it’s nonsense. From the nonsense something worthy will eventually grow if you focus your mind. The worst thing you can do is stare at an empty page, letting your mind go blank with terror.
The least helpful advice is any that tells you to write in a very specific way.
How do you motivate yourself on days when you don’t want to write?
I have a writing buddy I meet with on Zoom on most days. It keeps you motivated and honest. Mind you, if you’re really not feeling it, sometimes a walk can be the best thing – it will clear the mind.
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?
I’d go hiking or walking in the forest with my kids. Being in nature is how I recharge.
One of our favourite questions here on the Fantasy Hive: which fantastical creature would you ride into battle and why?
A battle? A dragon probably. I imagine a flower pixie wouldn’t be much help in the situation.
Finally, without giving away too much can you tell us a little something about any future projects you may be working on?
I have another adult book in the works inspired by Slavic folklore, but this time I was more drawn to the water…
Ooh, that sounds very intriguing!
I also have a MG project I hope I’ll be able to share soon!
Thank you so much, Gabriela!
THE SECOND BELL is out on March 9th and is available to pre-order now from Angry Robot.