Today, I’m interviewing Heather Rose Jones, who writes lesbian historical fiction, fantasy, and historic fantasy. Her most well-known work is the award-winning Alpennia series, which takes place in an alternate regency setting.
Heather is giving away an ebook copy of the latest part of that series, Floodtide, so don’t miss the giveaway at the end of this blog post.
Welcome, Heather. Please tell us a little about Floodtide, your latest release?
Floodtide is something of a bildungsroman—a coming of age story—about a teenage servant in early 19th century Alpennia who develops from a good-hearted but disastrously hapless girl into a young woman confident of her choices and goals, with an unexpected talent for bringing people together in teamwork. But it’s also the story of a not-entirely-natural disaster and the different ways it affects the people of the city of Rotenek. After writing several books featuring well-connected and powerful protagonists, I wanted to explore an entirely different part of my fantasy landscape and see some of the same events from a new angle.
Floodtide is part of the Alpennia series. How are the books connected? Will readers be able to enjoy Floodtide if they haven’t read the rest of the series, or is it better to start with Daughter of Mystery, The Mystic Marriage, and Mother of Souls?
I designed Floodtide to be an “independent on-ramp” to the series. You should be able to enjoy it without reading any of the other books, although existing fans will have fun spotting familiar characters as they pass by in the background. I wanted a way to bring in new readers in the middle of things without having them feel lost and confused. Of course, I still throw a lot of world-building at the reader and expect them to keep up, but that’s just my preferred style! You get that effect even if you start with Daughter of Mystery. I certainly hope that readers who come into the series through Floodtide will love it enough to go back and read the older books.
The Alpennia series combines a historically inspired setting with fantastical elements. For example, Roz from Floodtide performs house-charms, yet considers herself not to have any mystical talents. Can you explain how the magical system of your world, and how the people populating that world view magic?
The basic premise of the fantasy elements in the world of Alpennia is that forces and effects that we might consider superstition or pseudo-science produce actual effects in the world. Sometimes. For some people. If they invoke them the right way. So there isn’t a single, simple “magical system”, rather it’s a jumble of different historic traditions like praying to patron saints for particular results, and doing alchemy to transform matter, and fortune telling or healing charms. Some people can produce reliable effects—or at least claim they can—but other people treat magical practices as the equivalent of crossing your fingers for good luck or blowing out candles and making a wish. It’s just something you do and you don’t think of it as “magic.”
I imagine you probably like doing research for your books as much as I do. What was one of the most surprising or fascinating things you learned in the process of doing research for Floodtide or the other books of the Alpennia series?
I always love digging up something unexpected when I’m doing background research. Most of my research is deep-background rather than for a specific plot element. I go in planning to get a better understanding of a topic and then turn up fascinating details that might work their way into the plot. For example, the little charity houses built between the buttresses of St. Nikule’s church were inspired by seeing exactly that detail when I was visiting a friend in Deventer, Netherlands. With most medieval churches, they would have been cleared out long ago, so we don’t envision that kind of mixed use of architecture. It wasn’t a topic I was doing research on specifically. There was no particular reason to include it, but it added a lived-in touch. I’ve gathered a whole library of books on the history of magic in Europe, both folk magic and the more “learned” magic that goes into the formal mysteries. So any time I describe a mystical practice, it’s probably based on something that people actually did and believed would work.
Does writing fiction energize you or exhaust you?
Writing energizes me—if it didn’t I wouldn’t do it. There’s always a point in writing a book where I want the world to go away and let me just write until it’s done. I don’t get to do that very often, though. When I was finishing the first draft of Mother of Souls, I took a stay-at-home vacation for a couple weeks and wrote a chapter a day until it was complete. Maybe I can write that way all the time after I retire.
Even though writing itself doesn’t exhaust me, I fall into the trap of committing myself to a lot of scheduled activities around my blog and podcast and then feeling like I don’t have time for writing fiction. I love all my projects, but the different structures and timelines pull at me in different ways.
What is it that makes the difference between a great fantasy novel and a mediocre one for you?
The answer is different if we’re talking about theory or practice. When I’m reading a fantasy novel, the make-or-break aspect—the difference between plugging away until I finish reading, or staying up late until it’s done—is mostly beautiful writing. And by that, I don’t mean things like spelling and punctuation and basic grammar. Does the prose sing? Do I constantly notice the writing or does it slip into my eyeballs as smoothly as fine brandy goes down the throat? Ideas are dime-a-dozen. World-building can be a matter of engineering. But making the words dance and skim across the page like an Olympic skater is something that takes work, practice, observation, attention to feedback, and a certain amount of just plain talent.
But if we’re talking about theory—if we’re assuming the ability to write well—then the difference between a great fantasy novel and a mediocre one is doing something original. Is the book simply re-mixing favorite tropes and characters, or does it ask questions in a different way? Does it take you somewhere you didn’t know existed? Not geographically, but experientially? Does it feel like a third-hand retelling of a story or do you feel like you’re living it? Do you come out of the book thinking, “Huh, that’s not what I expected and I’m so glad it wasn’t!”
A third aspect of the greatest books I’ve enjoyed is the memorable characters. Characters who feel utterly real. Societies that have complexity and nuance. Stories where you feel like you’ve met folks you want to be friends with the rest of your life. Or maybe not—not all characters have to be likeable—but you know them as well as you know your best friends.
You have written a series of amazing essays for your Lesbian Historic Motif Project, and you’re also presenting a weekly podcast where you discuss books and interview authors of historical fiction featuring WLW characters. Can you tell us more about the Lesbian Historic Motif Project?
The Project originally was a way to motivate myself to read all the historic research on gender and sexuality that I’d been accumulating over the decades. I’d pick up books or copy articles that looked interesting and useful for my writing, but if I didn’t need them for an immediate project, they sat there gathering dust. I always work best if I have a structure and a schedule, so I decided to start the LHMP blog and post a summary of a research publication every week (sometimes more frequently). Working that way has been very useful for my own writing because layering together all of the different topics and different opinions has helped me shape an overall understanding of both the reality and the complexity of past experiences of queerness. The fiction I can write now is much more interesting than it would be if I’d only researched narrow topics for particular books.
But the second purpose for the blog was to share access to all this research. I know from my time in historic re-enactment that for most people, the greatest bar to doing research is knowing what information exists and where to find it. Most people don’t know their way around a university research library, or the myriad of journals where some of the most interesting tidbits get published. So one major purpose of my blog is to say, “Here’s a book or an article that is talking about this thing. And if you want to know more about this thing, I recommend that you go read it for yourself, now that you know it exists.”
One of the things I’ve found in interviewing authors of f/f historical fiction is that few of them research the history of sexuality as part of their process. I hear a lot of “I just used my own experience” or “people are people, aren’t they?” With that approach, you end up writing what is, in essence, a time-travel story like Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, where you have a character with modern sensibilities and reactions interacting with a historic setting (even if that’s not what you think you’re writing). This problem isn’t limited to the history of centuries ago. If a 30-year-old today wrote a novel about lesbians in the 1970s and didn’t do any research about how people understood and experienced their own sexuality back then, they’d write characters that were unrecognizable to those of us who actually lived queer lives back then. The difference with older settings is that there’s no one around to say, “But that’s not what it was like at all!”
That brings us to the third purpose for the LHMP, which is a bit selfish. Just like contemporary authors, contemporary readers often have a distorted understanding of the past when it comes to gender identity and sexuality. I know people who assume that acceptance of same-sex love has always progressed from less to more tolerant, so if you look at attitudes in the early 20th century, you can assume that any era before that was massively less tolerant. But that’s just not true. Both understandings and expressions of queer sexuality have undergone cycles in the past. The ways that people experienced same-sex desire could be vastly different from how we experience it today. A writer can find herself caught between wanting to write historic characters who are true to their times and wanting her audience to find her stories believable. I want to take a third path and educate my potential audience so that they’ll find the entire variety of “true” historic queer lives believable.
The podcast developed yet another purpose on top of that. It felt to me that the audience for f/f historical fiction was so scattered. There isn’t a single place to go to find out what’s being published or to talk about the field, although there have been several blogs and websites that attempted to do so in the past. If I wanted more people to be writing the sorts of books I wanted to read, I thought maybe I could contribute to creating a community for f/f historicals. I don’t know that I’ll ever succeed at doing that. It isn’t something that a single person can create, and I don’t really have the charisma to bring people together that way. But I do the things I can do.
If you had the ability to travel across time, what historic time and place would you most like to travel back to?
I’ve read too many time-travel stories to answer that without a lot of qualification! What class am I? Will I have social connections? Will I be fluent in the appropriate language? Have I been vaccinated for the common diseases? And, of course, the most important question for a researcher: what sort of recording equipment can I take with me to bring back records?
I have no interest in actually living in the past. (Except maybe…could I go back and re-live the Obama presidency?) If I could do a research trip, as a linguist it would be fun to go back and do field recordings of the transition from Brythonic to Early Welsh so I could check out some of the theories in my PhD dissertation. For the rest…I’m happy creating my own re-envisioning of the past where I can filter out some of the down side.
What are your three all-time favorite historical novels featuring WLW characters?
I’ll make this easier by sticking to solidly historical books (no fantasy elements). Hmm, still really hard, especially because I’d make different lists for “literary” novels or for genre novels. OK, let’s make two lists one for each. On the “literary” side, it would be Goddess by Kelly Gardiner (about real-life 17th century bisexual swordswoman and opera singer Julie d’Aubigny), Life Mask by Emma Donoghue (another fictional biography, this time about 18th century sculptor Anne Damer), and it may seem odd to classify this one as literary, but The Ghost and the Machine by Benny Lawrence. Now for the genre-fiction list, it’s going to be Spring Flowering by Farah Mendlesohn, The Covert Captain by Jeannelle M. Ferreira, and I’m very tempted to add a very recent read, The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite (even though I feel I should let books sit for a while before deciding they’re on an all-time favorite list).
When’s your next book coming out, and what are you working on right now?
Because of my day-job work schedule, I can’t really predict how long it will take me to write a book and bring it to publication. For my third novel, I set myself a schedule and deadline when I first started writing it, and sticking to that schedule nearly broke me. So although I’m already writing Mistress of Shadows, I won’t be able to predict when it will come out until I’m pretty close to having a first draft. I have a very detailed outline so half the work is done there. But at the very earliest it won’t be out until 2021. I’d write faster if I weren’t doing the blog and podcast, but since those are essential components of my publicity plan at this point, there would be a tradeoff.
I have a novella out on submission that might possibly be published earlier, but it’s on submission to the sorts of places where it might sit in a slush pile for two years before being read, so there’s no predicting. I always have a handful of short fiction in process, though I generally only finish those when I have a solid deadline for some particular publication.
Where can your readers find out more about you and your books?
Check out my website at Alpennia.com for my blog, information on my books, and links to all my social media. The blog isn’t just the Lesbian Historic Motif Project—I also blog about my writing and think-pieces about books and ideas in general. I also have a monthly newsletter for fans that gives insider information about my world-building and the development of the Alpennia series, as well as updates on what events I’m attending, and sometimes special offers and announcements.
I tend to be fairly active on twitter (@heatherosejones). I have a facebook author page, but it’s mostly automatic links to my blog posts, and my personal facebook account tends to be restricted to people I’ve met in person. I hang out on several book-related facebook groups, but haven’t found any that are a good match for the sort of thing I write. So if you want to chat with me about books, Twitter is your best bet.
Heather is graciously giving away an e-book copy of her newest release, Floodtide.
Anyone can enter. To be entered into the drawing, leave a comment on this blog post.
Entries close on Friday, December 27, 2019, 10 a.m. CET, when I’ll draw the winners using a random numbers generator. I’ll notify winners via email. Your email address won’t be used for any other purpose.