Interview with Olivie Blake (THE ATLAS SIX)
Olivie Blake is the pseudonym of Alexene Farol Follmuth, a writer based out of Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of multiple novels, anthologies, graphic novels, and film scripts, including the internationally bestselling THE ATLAS SIX from Tor Books, with forthcoming TV adaptation from Amazon Studios and Brightstar Productions.
Welcome to the Hive, Olivie. Tell us about your book, The Atlas Six, by describing it in five words!
Group project attempt goes awry. (That, or “magicians maybe have to murder.”)
Tell us a little something about your writing process – do you have a certain method? Do you find music helps? Give us a glimpse into your world!
Things are a little different now that I have a baby—time is something of a luxury on a good day. (On a bad day it’s an impossibility.) But at the time I wrote Atlas, I was playing my usual gently manic game of writing 2-3 manuscripts at a time. I’m easily bored, and historically it helps me to unlock something in my primary manuscript if I write several different genres simultaneously, ideally drastically different projects at varying stages of production (something that’s first draft, something in a more stylistic stage of revision, and then something short or episodic, typically mood-driven). In the past, my process was to listen to music for a bit to daydream myself into the appropriate headspace, then I’d turn it off and sit down to write in complete silence for 10-12 hours at a time. Stopping for snacks, obviously, and to walk the dog, but little else.
Now that I have a one-year-old, I only get about 4 non-consecutive hours to work under the very best of circumstances, which means that the moment my husband takes over on goblin duty, I have to immediately sit down and begin writing—no music, no prolonged period of introspection, no juggling multiple projects. Just sit down and write. It’s very interesting, actually, because that kind of exigency forces me to make spur of the moment plot decisions that I often find in retrospect to be a little shocking. Like… did I actually write that? No telling how effective it is—get back to me when you’ve read The Atlas Paradox—but it’s giving me a bit of necessary dauntlessness that helps a lot now that people are more aware of my existence. It removes the existential concern of how one is supposed to write a sequel to a viral sensation and makes it instead a very simple matter of getting from point A to point B. And of course I revise heavily, which I usually do from my phone while the baby naps.
Speaking of worlds, what inspires your worldbuilding? What about the Library of Alexandria caught your attention? Why choose this as a focus for your novel?
Everything for me is character first. I knew I wanted high stakes, fluid morality (and sexuality), and a very claustrophic environment, so that the characters in the story would be forced to re-examine their personal beliefs. I knew academia was the right fit because it’s naturally competitive—the stakes are inherently high because someone always wins and someone always fails. Then, when I started thinking about a world where magical knowledge was both secret and worth potentially killing for, it made sense that it should be rooted in something significant enough for the audience to recognize it. The Library of Alexandria was just a convenient starting point for this idea that all the knowledge in the world could have continued uninterrupted—as opposed to being disturbed by, say, imperialism. Or the Dark Ages.
In The Atlas Six, you have some pretty powerful female characters, such as Naturalist Reina. Was there a temptation to create more damsel-in-distress female characters, or were you driven to create astounding and memorable characters?
I wanted to explore power, the way that our natural talents determine not only our strengths but our blindspots, and the way they can form a sort of fundamental irony for who we are. Everyone in the book is powerful. Everyone is flawed. There are no true heroes or villains. It seemed most interesting to me to explore that kind of dynamic because it felt familiar to what I was pondering as I was considering the morality of bringing a baby into a world with an uncertain climate future (and, in my home country, reproductive rights and gun control). My personal thought exercise was essentially how do we exist ethically in a world where it’s impossible to be ethical? Which is of course a very cerebral way of saying that I wasn’t driven to create anything astounding so much as just… familiar. I wanted them to feel like people. And most importantly, I wanted them to be interesting, even if (especially if) they weren’t good.
We always appreciate a beautiful book cover! How involved in the process were you? Was there a particular aesthetic you hoped they’d portray?
Thank you! My US cover designer is Jamie Stafford-Hill and my UK designer, who beautifully riffed on Jamie’s design, is Neil Lang. For this book, I was not especially involved in the cover’s design. For books 2 and 3 I have been much more involved because I’m the only one who knows the thematic contents. (Very alarming for everyone else, I’m sure.) I love the eye and sword symbol! And I think Jamie and Neil are both so talented.
What do you think has made The Atlas Six such a huge success?/Many of your books, including The Atlas Six and Alone With You, have become really popular on Book-stagram and TikTok – Was this expected? How does this online presence affect how your novels are received? (if it does)
I have to work through this backwards with an anthropological examination of the pandemic’s effects on publishing. Basically, bookish communities developed on social media in response to our collective isolation. Right? Makes perfect sense. It also makes sense that readers would gravitate to fantasy books with strong setting potential—the escapism factor. The dark academia aesthetic is perfect because it is inherently isolated, it’s naturally romantic… it’s a vibe, as they say. And with the birth of every major social media platform has been a very zeitgeist-y book, a la Fifty Shades of Grey coinciding with the growth of Twitter. All the pieces make sense here! A dark academia book went viral on a new social platform in a time of unprecedented online activity. The fact that it was my book is where I always get lost in the calculations. I don’t know how to account for that. I mean, I wrote it. I like it. It’s a reflection of what most interests me, so yeah, I obviously think it’s an interesting read. But I don’t know how to explain how it became big enough that you and I are here right now talking about it!
It definitely helps that I have a baby and don’t have much time to ponder the response to my work on Bookstagram or BookTok (or BookTube or BookTwt…). My book is very present, but I am largely not, partially because I haven’t slept through the night in a year and partially because it’s not the safest space for the mind. There’s a very fine line between underrated and overhyped and I think I got to live there for about… a week? So it helps to focus on the work and not listen to the noise. Much of which is very, very good and kind and supportive! But I’m only human. Stumbling over a negative review is like re-opening an old wound. (And anyway, no one has ever been as critical as my inner voice, so joke’s on them!)
Your writing is vibrant and refreshingly addictive, although you are confronting quite heavy concepts of living and emotions connected with being-human (not to mention a cocktail of Magical Realism, capitalism and greed), did you find it challenging to keep your writing from becoming monotonous and depressing?
Well, being allowed to reimagine things with magic makes for a very invigorating thought experiment compared to the real world.
If you could pick one of the powers of your characters, which would you choose?
Telepathy. I’m very nosy and people interest me. (I think my style of character development probably reflects that.)
One of our favourite questions here on the Fantasy Hive: which fantastical creature would you ride into battle and why?
Hm, something that spooks less easily than a horse. Maybe something armored, too. Does this battle involve hand-to-hand combat or are we talking nuclear grade explosives? I might be overthinking this. Definitely something that can fly. Griffin, maybe. Or Appa from ATLA.
Tell us about a book that’s excellent, but underappreciated or obscure.
Hm… I don’t think it’s that obscure, really, but Henry and June by Anais Nin is definitely something I keep around in the back of my head because of how sublimely seductive every sentence is. It’s wild that that’s just her journal. Who can just casually throw around brilliance like that? I’ve been wowed that way by so many books recently. Siren Queen by Nghi Vo and Sundial by Catriona Ward are two that leap to mind.
Can you tell us anything about any upcoming projects? Or can you tell us a few teasers for your sequel, The Atlas Paradox?
This is a big year for me! My YA rom-com My Mechanical Romance released May 31, The Atlas Paradox comes out October 25, and Alone With You in the Ether comes out in hardcover December 6—and that’s just what’s been announced so far (eyes emoji). But since we’re here for Atlas, I’ll say that one of the funniest conversations that I have ever written (in my opinion obviously) is in The Atlas Paradox, along with one of my most troublingly honest revelations about life. My publishers say hearts will break, but I’ll leave the veracity of that to my audience.
Finally, what is the one thing you hope readers take away from your writing?
I like to think that I reward the reader who is willing to really engage with the work. I have a very Chekhov’s gun dramatic sensibility and I came of age with books that intentionally left behind clues, so my style of reading is an active one, where I often think about the story while I’m not reading it, and from book to book I’m considering what certain things could mean and what might come next. In The Atlas Six, none of the characters are being honest; the truth lies somewhere between their perspectives for the audience to find. I try to write for that kind of inquisitive reader, and not strictly with regard to plot, but also… observations and thought exercises and moral dilemmas. Basically, I hope there is something here that makes your brain whir a little. Something that makes your thoughts vibrate at a slightly higher frequency. I like to think that’s where my inspiration and yours get to reach out and high five.
Thank you so much for joining us today!
Thank you for having me!
You can find out more about Olivie’s titles, and how to order or pre-order them, on her website!