Interview with Indie Fantasy Author Andrea K. Höst
I have recently reviewed The Silence of Medair, and it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s an emotionally powerful epic fantasy that deals with loss, colonialism, and the morality of using artefacts that could alter the fate of entire peoples. I’m pleased to be joined here by the author, Andrea K. Höst, and she talks about her books and her experiences with indie e-publishing.
Frida: I really enjoyed reading The Silence of Medair, especially with how it uses fantasy tropes differently. A lot of epic fantasy seems to be structured around the threat of an invasion–it builds up to a large-scale war, the protagonist’s faction wins, then it’s all back to status quo. But Medair doesn’t do that. It starts with the heroine’s side losing the war, and she has to learn how to cope with the aftermath of invasion and colonization. Where did your ideas for Medair come from and how did they develop? Did you consciously think “I’m going to subvert this trope” or did it just happen?
Andrea: I’m a discovery writer, so trope-subversion definitely wasn’t my starting point. I don’t as a rule set out to write a book “about” a particular theme, but instead start with a scene or very general idea (such as “I want to write a fantasy murder mystery with a herbalist”) and then themes develop as I move through the novel. Medair started from an image of an unhappy woman sitting in the sun high on a mountainside – until a voice from nowhere abruptly tells her to “Leave!”, warning her of hunters approaching. The story was originally called “Voices” and involved an enchanted Tarot deck this woman had found. I had no idea why she was there, but knew she was deliberately isolating herself, and possessed a bag full of powerful magical items, including those cards (which were subsequently ruthlessly edited out as they weren’t really relevant to the story).
By the time I moved my unhappy woman down the mountain, I had blocked in a rough background for Medair – she had quested for a weapon to fight off an invasion, and had found a Hoard of enchanted items, but been time-shifted, ending up on that mountain because she couldn’t cope with the political changes to the world. Once I understood the bones of the story – the failed hero – I set out to force Medair to not only decide what to do with all those weapons she was carrying, but to find a way to go on with her life instead of remaining trapped by something which happened five hundred years ago.
This bogged me knee-deep in some very complex issues and I began to tentatively explore them through the lens of a highly honourable (and also a somewhat vain and proud) woman whose identity was tied to this image of a shining, Utopian Empire where she was on the side of Right and anyone who threatened that was Wrong. From there I was definitely working to invert the usual “Evil Hordes” enemy. The Ibisians are not Right – after losing their home they reject an offer of refuge and decide to conquer – but they’re just as stiff with Honour as Medair and her shining Empire. And then cracks begin to show in the shining Empire – because a continent-spanning Empire certainly didn’t get that way without a lot of invading on its own account.
I worked very hard to make neither group completely right, nor completely wrong – because how often does any situation fall so easily into right and wrong? Both the Palladian Emperor and the Kier of the invaders are doing what they think is in the best interest of their people. And the time-shift removes even the presence of two easily identified groups – Medair is dealing with the mixed-blood descendents of invader and invaded and the question of right and wrong has become hopelessly muddied.
Frida: One of the things that interests me in speculative fiction is the opportunity to explore a different set of gender dynamics in a fictional world. Authors seem to cover a range of gender systems. Just mentioning the books I’ve reviewed so far on this blog, Lovers and Beloveds has the gender system of the era it’s most comparable to (aristocratic Victorian era), The Emperor’s Edge shares some similarities to the Victorian era while different in others (women not included in major sections of society but dominate commerce), and God’s War is a complete subversion of what is typically portrayed as Muslim society (the protagonist’s country is dominated by hardboiled women). In this book, gender relations are egalitarian even through the world’s technology and class structures are comparable to the European Middle Ages. What made you decide on this particular gender system?
Andrea: I’ve read a lot of books where women are (1) not there, (2) victims, (3) rewards, (4) harpies/monsters or (5) gutsy young things proving they’re capable of making a contribution. Unsurprisingly, I tended to gravitate toward (5) in my reading, and thoroughly enjoy those books. But after a while any theme will feel repetitive, and the “overcoming the social limitations placed on women” theme seems to limit female characters from meditating on other major issues which I enjoy in fantasy (such as the nature of honour and sacrifice, or the inner wellspring which gives rise to heroism – or simply kick-ass adventures with lashings of ginger beer).
In other words, if Medair existed in a world where women were cloistered, or dismissed, or unable to travel alone for fear of rape, the story simply wouldn’t exist. Medair would spend much of her time and effort thinking about those things, instead of her tremendous internal struggle over whether it was an honourable thing for her to kill or not kill or help or ignore the descendents of the people who invaded her Empire. She would never have been made an Imperial Herald. She would not have been permitted to go off questing alone for a mythical magic weapon.
I only very rarely write non-egalitarian worlds. It’s simply more interesting for me to not restrict either my male or female characters from having adventures – and the ability to create those egalitarian societies is one of the reasons I write in the fantasy genre. I’m really quite surprised that it’s not more common, and I’ve written about this recently as part of a series on worldbuilding, speculating on the impacts of actual working magic in the formation of a world. Magic is a great leveller, and in a world where a woman could easily be the strongest person in the village/clan/kingdom, it’s hard to credit that the same old, same old “women are property” society would evolve.
Frida: What has been your experience with submitting Medair to traditional publishers? I read that you submitted the manuscript to the submissions editor of an SF/F publisher that was accepting non-agented submissions. It’s crazy how you sent it to them back in 2000, and they kept on making excuses for ten years instead of giving an outright answer. When did you begin to consider withdrawing the manuscript, and how did you decide to act on it?
Andrea: Medair was the sixth novel I wrote, but only the second I submitted. The previous novel, Hunting, had a few full readings from publishers, and then ended up languishing on an editor’s desk for two and a half years, before I withdrew it. So going in with Medair, I knew that further consideration from a publisher could take time. Slush pile manuscripts are generally either rejected quickly (within three months) or take quite a few months to work their way through the various tiers of the publisher. At the time I was submitting Medair, common wisdom was that a year wait was not out of the ordinary. And these were exclusive submissions – unless you ignored the publishing house’s submission rules, you worked through one publisher at a time.
I started considering withdrawing Medair after around the same time I started considering withdrawing Hunting – two years in. And I considered withdrawing it every six months after that. And would query, and receive some generally encouraging reply, and decide to stick it out. I was writing and submitting other novels, so it’s not as if it was the only book I had out there. When they lost the book nearly nine years in, I almost let the whole thing go, but figured that the senior editor (one of the only people who could buy books at that house) would surely be hugely embarrassed at having lost it, and would read and reply quickly. When I queried a few months later, and it was clear that the submission wasn’t even on the senior editor’s radar, I decided then to indicate that it would be withdrawn soon if nothing happened, and began to investigate self-publishing (while making a last shot at gaining an agent, and submitting other manuscripts to non-agent publishers). There is a huge advantage to an author in establishing your name with a publisher before going into self-publishing, and even though I was feeling more and more inclined to self-publish (and doubted I could have a good author-editor relationship with someone who had jerked me around for ten years), I knew that the most sensible thing in terms of marketing was to publish with a respected publishing house at least for a book or two, and then decide whether to stay on the submission rounds.
However, that round of submissions was met with complete indifference (the industry has become a lot more competitive and my particular genre is a much harder sale now), and so I finally cut the chains and left submissions behind me. I’ve never been happier to give up on anything.
Frida: What are your experiences with indie e-publishing so far? Are you planning to publish other books through a traditional publisher, or do you plan to go with indie e-publishing all the way? What will the world of publishing look like in future?
Andrea: Overall, I’ve really loved self-publishing. I guess you could say self-publishing took away the negativity which the submission process had attached to my writing. I love having a say on my covers. I love not having to wait 18 months after signing the contract to get the book to readers – I’ve published six novels in ten months, which would be an insane rate in a traditional publishing environment. Most of all, I love not having to submit my books any more. I love being the final arbiter, and I’m proud of everything I’ve put out.
I also enjoy being able to step out of the boundaries of “marketable” and try new things. My most popular books by far are a YA space adventure trilogy written in rambling diary form, in “Australian”, sprinkled with Australian slang terms, stuffed with about a million named characters, and happily ignoring established novel structures. It would never have even occurred to me to submit this to a publisher, since I’d written it as a “break” from serious writing and I’ve never seen anything out there like it – yet it consistently gains enthusiastic reviews. Self-publishing really opens up my options for what I can share with the world. That said, I’m certainly not making any real income from self-publishing. I’m earning ‘pocket money’ rather than a living wage from my books. Of course, I’ve only been out there for ten months, and self-publishing is often a slow build option. And even pocket money adds up after a while! I’ve gained a tiny following, who look out for my next books. Reviews have shown me that I’ve really connected with some people, that I’ve become a “to buy” author for them, and that means an incredible amount to me.
There are frustrations, of course. It’s hard to resist comparing yourself to other books (from a publishing house or self-published) and wondering why they seem to be selling so much better. And you have to accept, going into self-publishing, that there are a large number of people who will simply not come near your books with a ten foot pole. I’ve more than once had someone write to me to tell me they bought one of my books because they loved the cover, then realised it was self-published and almost didn’t read it – but ended up trying it and loving it.
Curiously, making the finals of the 2010 Aurealis Awards (which is a judged award recognising the year’s best Australian SFF) made little to no difference to my sales. Despite making the finals in a field of over fifty books (most from publishing houses), I’d say I sold no more than a dozen books as a direct result of the Aurealis short-listing. I had fun seeing my name pop up on all manner of sites – I even got added to Wikipedia! – but for self-publishers even the credibility associated with a ‘recognised’ award isn’t necessarily going to result in significant sales.
I think that “Also bought” recommendations in places like Amazon, and book bloggers are what’s driving the main number of sales. I’ve gained most of my readers either from running giveaways at Goodreads and Librarything, or from a review of Champion of the Rose at a book blogging site which has a couple of thousand followers. Book bloggers are definitely where a lot of people are turning to decide what’s worth reading these days.
I don’t see self-publishing or the big publishing houses going away any time soon, and we’re more likely to continue to see the two aspects of publishing grow together – with known authors self-publishing, and self-published authors accepting offers from publishing houses. The important thing is that there’s no longer only one real option to publishing – authors can mix and match and choose what’s most comfortable for them and I think – hope – that in the end authors generally will be getting a somewhat better deal and even gain back a little of the creative freedom which the drive to be “profitable” has taken away.
As for me – I no longer submit my books to agents or publishers, and have no intention of doing so. I like the freedom too much to go back to that. I don’t know what I’d do if a publishing house came to me with an offer – I don’t think I could give up control over my ebooks, and doubt I’d ever manage to get the kind of “print only” offer which I would be comfortable with. But I do see myself slowly increasing my small following, continuing to have fun with covers, and just straightforwardly enjoying myself!
Frida: What can readers expect in the sequel, Voice of the Lost? Also, how would you describe your other books?
Andrea: In Silence, Medair is weighed down by the burden of the weapons she carries, and is struggling with the question of what, if any, side she should pick in a coming war. In Voice, she has to deal with what comes next. Not only the consequences of picking a side – which naturally means that the other side would very much like to see her dead – but whether she can find some role in her current time, rather than constantly running off or keeping herself separate. It becomes a question not only of who she should be trying to protect, but whether it is wrong for her to seek some measure of happiness after all that has happened – to “move on”.
My other books tend to jump around in theme and style, though it would be fair to say they all share a focus on women getting to do interesting and important things. Champion of the Rose revolves around a question of identity, of being forced into a role by circumstance or birth. It’s also my only bi-normative world, where I explore the kind of social conventions which would develop if a different sexuality was the norm. Stained Glass Monsters is one of my “morality of mages” books, and touches on how the situations you face, and the way you resolve them, can subtly lead you to become a different kind of person. The Touchstone trilogy is a YA space adventure which toys with the question of how you decide on a career once you leave school – or perhaps is just about psychic space ninjas, scads of battles with monsters, rather too many hot guys, and the unfortunate matter of the universe tearing itself apart. My next release, after Touchstone is done, will be Hunting – a YA fantasy about a teen girl who has been playing vigilante, and now wants to track down her guardian’s murderer.
And I think it’s fair to say that I like a bit of unpredictability in my stories.
Posted on September 21, 2011, in Andrea K Host, epublishing, Fantasy, fantasy ebooks, indie fantasy books, Interview, SF Chatter, The Silence of Medair and tagged gender bending. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.