Interview with Emma Törzs (INK BLOOD SISTER SCRIBE)
Emma Törzs lives in Minneapolis, MN. INK BLOOD SISTER SCRIBE is her debut novel, and will be published simultaneously in the US and UK by Century/Del Rey with rights having sold in eleven countries including Brazil, Spain and Germany. Her fiction has been honoured with a 2020 NEA fellowship in Prose, the 2019 World Fantasy Award for Short Fiction, and an O. Henry Prize. It has been published in journals such as Strange Horizons, Ploughshares, the Missouri Review, Uncanny Magazine, and is forthcoming this year in American Short Fiction. She received her MFA from the University of Montana, Missoula, and is an enthusiastic member of the Clarion West class of 2017.
Welcome to the Hive, Emma! Congratulations on your fantastic debut, Ink Blood Sister Scribe. Can you tell us a little about it please? What can our readers expect?
First, thanks so much for reading, and for your excellent questions! Ink Blood Sister Scribe is the story of two estranged half-sisters and their family’s secret library of magical books; it is also the story of a wealthy young man living in a gilded cage of power. In one way or another, all three of these characters are fighting for their lives—and in order to survive, they’ll have to work together to uncover a world of magic far bigger and more dangerous than any of them ever imagined.
Cue suspenseful music!
Aside from family drama, magical intrigue, and globetrotting suspense, a reader can also expect a surly bodyguard, enchanted mirrors, an Antarctic research base, a stately home on the misty moors, candlelight, several descriptions of pine trees, a girl who looks really hot in coveralls, and one or two beloved animal companions.
Your book wonderfully blends together many genres such as fantasy, thriller and dark academia. Had this always been your intention or was this something that developed throughout the writing process?
I read quite widely in most genres myself, and I think the multi-genre nature of this book was an outgrowth of my own reading habits and pleasures. I was really trying to teach myself how to write what you might call a “plot,” so it seemed only natural to look to some of the plottiest, most tension-filled books I knew, in order to figure out how to do it—and many of those books were mysteries and thrillers. As for intention: more on that below in your question about character!
I absolutely loved the magical elements in Ink Blood Sister Scribe – the secret magical books that could be heard and felt by those attuned to it, the Scribes whose blood could write magic… What was your inspiration behind them?
Aside from the sheer ~vibes~ magical books bring, I wanted a magic system I could use to subvert the trope of the Chosen One—a magic system that would allow for multiple Chosen Ones, as well as none at all. So it had to be a magic system in which some people were special in some way, but also a system that could technically be used by anyone. Writing felt like such a system.
If you had the choice would you rather have the ability to sense magic but never create it or create it but never sense it?
For some reason, I immediately interpreted this question metaphorically to mean, “Would you rather read but never write, or write but never read?” And I think in that sense I’d rather read but never write. So I suppose I’d rather sense magic but not create it—though it’s a tough choice!
Let’s discuss your characters. Can you tell us a bit more about Joanna, Esther and Nicholas? What inspired their personalities? (I absolutely loved Joanna’s introverted nature!)
I think this question directly relates to your genre question! Purely for my own entertainment, I wanted to write three characters who each embodied a different genre feel: Joanna in the New England gothic, Esther in the adventure-romance, Nicholas in the dark academic mystery. I didn’t adhere to this strictly, but I kept the overall vibes in mind as I wrote. (Vibes are important to me, as you can perhaps tell.)
With Joanna and Esther, I wanted to explore two different sides of loneliness and isolation: the isolation of never moving, and the isolation of never staying still. Nicholas, too, embodies isolation, though his is the isolation of privilege and protection. It was a real joy to bring them together. Regarding Joanna’s introversion, I always thought of her as sort of an Emily Dickinson-like figure; not worldly, per se, but capable of huge emotion and understanding.
I also appreciated how ambiguous your side characters, Collins, Maram and Richard were. Did you find these characters easy to flesh out or was keeping their motives and ambitions hidden particularly tricky?
Collins was the most surprising for me, I’d say. He started out as a sort of comic relief minor character, but as I wrote, he became more and more complex and more integral to the plot—which, come to think of it, sort of mirrors Nicholas’s understanding of Collins, too. Richard and Maram were tough because I figured most people would clock pretty quickly that there was something a bit suspect about them (hope that’s not a spoiler), but I wanted to keep the particulars a surprise, while still making it feel reasonable that Nicholas would care for them.
Through these characters you really dig deep into exploring the various ways one can experience loneliness and how these characters journey through self discovery. How important were these themes to you?
Very important! As a person, I’ve always been torn between a deep sense of love for and responsibility towards my community, and a deep desire to travel and experience new things. Balancing these two opposites—roots vs. wings, so to speak—has been one of the recurring challenges of my life, to be honest. So in some ways, Joanna and Esther embody the two extremes of my own life. Too, I wrote the majority of this novel during Covid-19 lockdown, which was easily the most isolated I’ve been in years—and I had five wonderful housemates to hang around with, so I was far less isolated than most! Only in retrospect do I realize the extent to which this is truly a Covid novel. It’s so much about isolation and paranoia and the longing to break free.
Can you tell us more about your career as a lecturer – the History of Fantasy must be a great subject to specialise in!
I don’t actually specialise in the History of Fantasy! The history unit is part of a Fantasy Fiction class, which is just one of the many creative writing classes I teach. I am extremely lucky that the English department chair at Macalester College lets me design classes based on my current interests and whims, which means I’m always enthusiastic and curious about my own subjects. For example, next spring I’ll be teaching a class called “Parties,” which will look at how social gatherings have been used in fiction over the years, from Joyce’s The Dead to Kirsten Valdez Quade’s Night at the Fiestas to the classic “Unexpected Party” in The Hobbit!
Are you planning anything fun to celebrate your release? Do you have any virtual or in person events our readers may be interested in?
I had a big launch party here in Minneapolis at my favorite local bookstore, and I’ve been joking that it felt like my wedding—so many people from all parts of my life came out to celebrate, and it was a truly magical evening. And I am extremely excited to come to London for the UK release! I don’t know all of their plans for me, but I know I’ll be stopping into some bookstores, and—so stoked for this—interviewing Naomi Novik at Waterstones Piccadilly on July 14th. I have read everything she’s ever published and also regularly give money to the Organization for Transformative Works, so it’s a job for which I feel exceedingly qualified.
Ok, this one is just for fun and it’s one of our favourite questions here on the Fantasy Hive: which fantastical creature would you ride into battle and why?
Me, ride into battle? LMAO. I’m more of a behind-the-scenes diplomatic type, so I’d probably sit astride a Sphinx and let her riddle my enemies into submission.
Emma, what’s next for you? Can you tell us a little something about your current work(s) in progress? Have you any upcoming projects which you can share?
I am working on a new novel, wish me luck! Also a fantasy novel of sorts, though I expect the genre-blending will continue. I’m very superstitious about my writing and hold it pretty close to the chest until it has its final form, so I will give you four keywords: loon, moon, loom, broom. Though I might have to change the last word… I just deleted a big broom scene.
Finally, what is the one thing you hope readers take away from your writing?
I hope readers can find that rare, magical space of complete immersion in a story, where the real world fades away for a while and the world of the novel takes over.
Ink Blood Sister Scribe is available now, you can pick up your copy from Bookshop.org