We have an interview with Rhiannon Held author of Silver, Tarnished and Reflected. Reflected was released today by Tor. Let’s welcome her.
Congratulations on your latest novel TARNISHED, which has just been released. The second in your Silver series, it’s about a werewolf named Silver who’s unable to shift due to being maliciously poisoned with a silver injection. It also features a strong romance element with her boyfriend and fellow werewolf, Andrew.
And my third book, Reflected, comes out February 18!
Your books are defined as urban fantasy as opposed to paranormal romance, even though there is a strong romance element to the books. Tell us your thoughts on the differences between the two sub-categories and how they manifest in SILVER, TARNISHED and REFLECTED.
As I conceptualize it, in paranormal romance, the external plot supports the romance. In urban fantasy, the romance supports some kind of other emotional arc for the character, driven by the external plot. So in a paranormal romance, needing to go goblin hunting might crystallize the leads’ feelings for each other, while in urban fantasy, feelings between the leads might complicate their intricate plan to take down the head goblin. And of course, it all gets mushy in the middle with books that have elements of both. Really, when I’m trying to define the two for people, I think of a lame joke my parents liked to use on me as a child. I loved ketchup, so when I'd loaded up my plate they’d ask me “Do you want any fries to go with that ketchup?” and smirk. Romance and external plot are like that—one’s what you’re eating, and the other is garnish. But neither is inherently more garnishy than the other, no matter what people who like to eat the other might say!
In my books, the romance definitely affects my characters’ emotional state as they try to deal with the external plot. I figure that’s something that will resonate with readers—rarely when you have to deal with something important in your life are you absolutely rested up, emotionally balanced, and raring to go. No, you’re probably short on sleep, and your sibling is going through a terrible divorce and calling you every day and your job wants you to work overtime…and then you have to solve the mystery of who’s sending the goblins to attack the city. Romance can be the same way. You really like the person, but you’re too busy to go on any dates, but you don’t want them to slip away…
In Silver, Andrew is focused on finding whoever injected Silver and thinks he doesn’t need the distraction of any feelings for her. Besides, she’s kind of crazy! So the romance complicates his emotional state and makes it even harder for him to find the attacker he’s searching for. In Tarnished, the romance element revolves around the Seattle alpha and his human girlfriend, which is a troubling thing for a werewolf to have. That’s another difference between urban fantasy and paranormal romance—the romantic element isn’t always between the protagonists in urban fantasy, since the romances of people around the protagonists can still cause them trouble! The Seattle alpha exasperates Andrew to no end with the bad choices he makes in the name of love. In Reflected, a younger pack member is the one endangering the pack with her bad romantic choices.
Why did you choose to write within the subgenre of urban fantasy?
Urban fantasy lets a reader hit the ground running. As a reader, rather than a writer, I love that, so I write what I love. In traditional fantasy, a talented writer can smoothly work in all the many details of the world, but there’s still a whole, entirely new world to take in and understand before you can get to the plot. Some readers like the feeling of being immersed in another place, and want lots of world details. Me, I want to be thrust into the character’s emotional arc and zoom ahead. Having a world that is similar to ours saves time explaining, and allows fast zooming.
Urban fantasy also allows some nicely robust metaphors. When you’re using creatures and types of magic that the reader is already somewhat familiar with, their attention will go to whatever metaphor you’re building more easily. Maybe your vampires are a metaphor for the perils of addiction and drug use, so you give the readers some basic info about how they don’t mind crosses but they do burn in sunlight, and then start spending the bulk of your time describing their addictive behavior. If, on the other hand, you wanted your immortal race of kanistae in a traditional fantasy land to be a metaphor for addiction, you have to explain that they drink emotions. But only by touching people. And they have to feed every two weeks. And they have red eyes. And they usually hunt in packs of three. And they can only be killed by a spike through the eye. And…wait, what were you saying about addiction? The reader gets so focused on learning about their basic traits, they don’t think on a metaphorical level so quickly.
And I really love working with metaphor! So urban fantasy is ideal for me, because it offers a shorthand in common with the reader for me to use in building my metaphors.
If you were going to “movie rate” your novels for sex, violence, and adult content, what would you label your books?
Silver and Tarnished are probably both PG-13, while Reflected has evolved to R. The first two books both have violence and sex that occur, but it’s not described in graphic detail. After all, both things have a strong impact on a character’s emotional arc, but unless it’s a really unusual kind of sex they’re having, for example, the reader knows enough to fill in the details from their own imagination. Sometimes that’s even better! If you tell a reader to imagine amazingly hot, passionate sex, they’ll imagine what’s hottest to them, which you, as the writer, could never have known. In Reflected, on the other hand, the sex is part of a process of two younger, inexperienced characters learning each other and themselves, so the actual details of how they do that—and sometimes fail at it!—is important to their emotional arcs.
I sometimes like to joke that all of my books are about mature themes…like forgiving yourself for a mistake you made twenty years ago. There are a lot of complex themes that you can’t, by definition, explore until a character is older, because there’s a huge difference between the guilt you feel when you’re 19 and you screwed up a year ago, and when you’re 40 and you screwed up 20 years ago. I’ve always felt that that kind of “I’ve picked myself up, I’ve kept on living my life, but trauma lingers, if ever so slightly” isn’t explored as much as “I’m young, the trauma is looming large, help, how do I deal with it!?” in fiction. But picking yourself up and learning to live a full life again is so much a part of being an adult that I really enjoy exploring it.
I imagine you get asked this continually, but it’s very intriguing for potential readers - you are an archaeologist by profession; tell us about how you use your professional background when writing your novels.
I enjoy using my archaeology background in ways people don’t expect. When you talk about archaeology, most people focus on large sedentary (settled) societies with writing. It’s understandable—they are the ones that create impressive monuments and leave us tablets so we can read about those monuments. As an archaeologist working in North America, however, I deal much more with Native American cultures. Plenty of those were settled and building monuments as well, but many tribes were hunter-gatherers, who moved around a lot, had few possessions, and kept their history through oral traditions. Despite being less sexy for Hollywood archaeologists to investigate, hunter-gatherer cultures are incredibly intriguing, and follow a lifeway humans have used for the majority of the time they’ve been around. That’s what I based my werewolves’ culture on. A pack structure is similar to a tribal structure, with small bands of people who trade in vast networks with the tribes around them. My werewolves also rely on oral history rather than writing anything down, because writing anything down would expose them to danger if a human ever found and read it. So I focused on giving my werewolves the feel of a real culture that has been around for thousands of years, by creating their myths and culture and religion.
I also tapped into my background in evolutionary theory. My werewolves are a species, born rather than turned or cursed, so they’re subject to evolution. This allowed me to build them so they feel like a species you’d actually encounter. For example, imagine two werewolves were attacked by a mob with pitchforks on the night of the full moon. One has to shift involuntarily and the other can control herself just enough not to shift. The one who had to shift would be pitchforked to death, never have any kids, and her genes would die out. The other, who could control herself, would pass her genes on. So through evolutionary pressure, my werewolves don’t shift involuntarily at the full moon—though they really want to! Having werewolves be born rather than made means that they’re born into their culture and religion, as well, setting up the history and traditions I talked about above.
Tell us about your creative process. For example, do you dream your ideas or do your characters speak to you?
All right, I’ll answer the question properly…the trouble with tapping into your unconscious to the degree that either of those methods do—and conceptualizing your characters as speaking to you really is tapping into your unconscious by allowing them to break away from what your conscious mind would expect by saying “they” are talking, instead of you—is that your unconscious doesn’t always know how to make things interesting to other people. It is great at creating something that has gut-wrenching meaning to you, the writer, and if readers have similar unconscious needs and desires to you, hurray! You’ve lucked out. But if readers have completely different unconscious desires, your writing can end up seeming shallow or wish-fulfilling. The unconscious mind is great for the shivering, jumping spark of inspiration, but I always get my conscious mind involved to make sure I know what meaning is going into my stories, and to make sure that meaning will resonate widely, rather than resonating only with people who think exactly like me.
So my actual process is fairly simple. I daydream, and free-wheelingly imagine my characters in various situations. Once I feel like I have a book’s worth of imagined events, I sit down—sometimes with a brainstorming partner—and give events at least a basic structure. First X, so Y, then those cause Z. It’s not a hugely formal outline, but it keeps things in order, makes sure I don’t forget anything, and allows me to look at my daydreamed events with my trained writer’s eye. Does the protagonist have an arc? Is there tension throughout the story? That careful structuring is what makes it into a compelling novel, as opposed to a collection of cool scenes, or a list of events that happened. Good novel structure can happen by instinct, but you never want to count on that! After that’s all done, I settle in to writing the first draft. Each day, before I sit down to write, I make sure to imagine the scenes I’ll write that day in detail. It’s a lot like buffering streaming video when you have a slow connection. If you try to watch as it downloads, it stutters, so it’s better to buffer a big chunk while you wander off and do the dishes, and then come back. So I “buffer” a few scenes ahead, and then write them out all at once as I would watch the video all at once.
There are a lot of books about werewolves out there. What’s special about your Silver series that will make readers want to read them?
I consider my archaeology-informed worldbuilding to be one of the unusual things about the series. It makes the werewolves feel culturally rich and real, and it provides an opportunity for other metaphors. Werewolves as a metaphor for our instinctive or animal natures have been done to death. Instead, I use werewolves to provide a metaphor for the feeling of being a cultural immigrant or outsider, when you have to balance your traditions at home with the dominant culture that you have to swim in every day at work and school.
The other thing I do is reject the sort of odd creature the “kick-ass heroine” has grown into over time. In urban fantasy, we seem to have lost our way somewhat, and female strength for the kick-ass heroine has become only about kicking and punching things. What about all the other ways to be strong, male or female? Besides, so often the ass-kicking in urban fantasy is achieved through some kind of magical means. Her physical strength is greater because she’s half demon, or whatever. As a reader, I always feel like, “What does that have to do with me?” I can’t ever be a half demon. But I could totally secretly poison someone’s drink and then act all weepy, so when a character is strong in that manner, it really resonates with me. So I purposely made the character of Silver not physically strong at all. She can’t use one arm, where she was injected, and even in later books, she still sees the world differently because of the brain damage. But she’s strong, I hope in a way that anyone can identify with. We all have physical weaknesses of some kind or other, and we all see the world a little differently sometimes.
Rhiannon Held is also the author of Silver and its sequel, Tarnished. In her day job, she works as a professional archaeologist. Held lives near Seattle, Washington. For more information, please visit: www.rhiannonheld.com.
About REFLECTED: Rhiannon Held continues the secret lives of the werewolf packs that live and hunt alongside human society in Reflected, the third book of the series that began with her debut novel, Silver. Silver and her mate Andrew Dare are pack leaders of the entire North American werewolf population, and that makes the more traditional packs in Europe very nervous indeed. It’s getting hard to hide from human surveillance.
Tor Books | 2/18/2014 | Trade Paperback | 336 pages