Account Login Winnipeg Toll-Free: 1-800-561-1833 SK Toll-Free: 1-877-506-7456 Contact & Locations

An Interview with Rhiannon Held

Sunday, Jun 10, 2012 at 10:57am

Silver, a debut urban fantasy novel by Rhiannon Held, released Tuesday June 5th (and was our Book of the Day). Rhiannon was kind enough to answer questions about her her novel, writing and what her day job as an archaeologist adds to her work.

CG: Can you describe the evolution of Silver from idea to finished book?

RH: The character of Silver herself came to me first. I got the idea for a werewolf who had been injected with silver nitrate, giving her visions, and I developed it the same way I'd develop a short story. At the time, I wrote exclusively short stories, and didn't really think novels were for me. I tried writing the short story, but the ending felt wrong and tacked on, like the story was too big for that format. Parts of the first section of Silver's POV in the novel had their start in that short story, all those years ago. I set the story aside and wandered back a few years later, when I tried revising it. It still didn't work, but I'd attempted the revision more as an exercise in developing the character voices for a hypothetical novel, and it accomplished that. But I still didn't feel quite ready to write a novel.

Soon after, I went through a very rough patch in my life, and I realized that what I needed was a project to distract me and use up my energy so I didn't have any free for worrying about what I couldn't change. I had the character of Silver and I had the rough novel idea, so I threw myself into it, writing every spare moment. After about three months, I had the rough draft finished. It was extremely rough, too, since I'd had Silver all along, but Andrew was a later addition, and it took me quite a while to figure out what drove him. That draft also had a lot of beginning novel troubles, like the characters going back to places they'd already been because I thought of something else that had to happen there.

Fortunately, critiques and revisions straightened that out. Silver went through something like four drafts, if you combine a couple of more minor "half drafts". A couple were through my local critique group, and one was through the alumni reunion session of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. After I got those critiques, I stalled out, because there were so many, and I wasn't yet practised at balancing sometimes contradictory advice with my own vision for the book. I let the book rest for a while, or so I told myself. Six months later, my friend John (who writes as J.A. Pitts) started asking me why I hadn't submitted it yet. He kept asking me until I'd run out of lame excuses. So I revised quickly based on the waiting critiques and did sentence-level polishing. That was the version of Silver that I sold! My editor didn't have too many edits to request, so it only got one more pass after that (besides copyedits, obviously), to become the finished book.

CG: When and why did you decide to be a writer?

RH: In my Junior year of undergrad, I started thinking about grad school. I knew I didn't want to join the working world yet, and while there are plenty of archaeology jobs available when you have a bachelor's, you need a graduate degree for the stable ones that aren't a few weeks on a project here and a few weeks on a project there, with dead time in between. So I started asking all my professors about how I should pick where to apply, and how to increase my chances of getting accepted. One of them told me that--or whatever he said, I heard it as--I needed to have my thesis topic already picked out, and be ready to convince the admissions committee that it was my whole world. I needed to be passionate about that topic.

And I wasn't. I liked archaeology, sure, but I wasn't passionate to the degree that I'd sacrifice the rest of my life on the altar of my research topic. So I didn't know what to do. Was I not cut out for grad school? What in the world would I do instead? Rather than discussing it with anyone, I squashed my doubts down to fester for a few weeks until a vacation took me home to my parents. By the time I confessed what was bothering me to my father, it had assumed dire proportions. I was going to fail at adult life! I would wander directionless forever!

So Dad looked at me, and asked, "If you could be absolutely anything in the world, what would it be?"

And I said, "Well, it's stupid. But if it's anything at all, I guess I'd be a fantasy author." I'd been writing for several years by then, but as a hobby. One I knew I loved, but I was too darn practical not to internalize all the warnings out there about how you'd never make any money.

And Dad said, "Okay. Do that. And archaeology can be your day job."

And it sounds so simple and obvious from outside, but in that moment, those were exactly the words that I needed to hear. So I did go to grad school, and I did find a research topic I didn't mind, and I did get my degree, and I was passionate about writing.

CG: What do you think it is about werewolves that resonates so strongly with the fantasy reader? What appeals to you about writing werewolves?

RH: There?s plenty of scholarship out there about werewolves representing man's base, animal nature, and all that sort of thing. I can only speak for myself, and for myself, my enjoyment of werewolves was never because I felt like life was a struggle with my baser urges. For me, werewolves and other human-based creatures are fundamentally animal in a biological way, exactly as we are. Whether vampires and other undead are "dead', they are clearly running on some kind of magical energy, and other magical races like fae are just that--magical. They're cool because we're not magical and they are, and that's different. Werewolves are cool because they're biological and we are too, and that's the same. I like both things, but I think when vampires became so popular, it created so many stories about magical different people that I started craving stories about biological same people to balance things out. But not completely the same--just with some of the existing characteristics exaggerated.

I carried that into the werewolves in the world I created, in that they're a species, not the product of some magical curse. Werewolves can only be born, not turned. That way, I can have fun with all the cool biology and anthropology of pack dynamics, breeding populations, resource pressure, and all kinds of stuff, nudging them in non-human or exaggerated directions, but still keeping a group that will resonate as "biological same people" with my audience.

Also, I love writing werewolves because they're a perfect metaphor. Everyone already has the basics of a shared common language about them, so I can establish the specific details of mine quite quickly, and move on to showing, for example, how their culture being buried in a larger human culture is like an immigrant struggling to maintain their native culture. If I made up a new race, I'd have to spend much of my time establishing the basic characteristics of the new race rather than playing with cultural metaphors. If I liked new races, that would be cool, but I like cultural metaphors more!

CG: Werewolves, vampires, and demons are as likely to be the heroes as the monsters in urban fantasy fiction. Why do you think this role reversal came about?

RH: Again, I'm sure literary critique has made a stab at answering this definitively, but I think one could argue that this also has to do with metaphor. Evoking a thing is very often significantly more affecting than just saying a thing flat-out. So a hero with poor impulse control is one thing, but a vampire who must fight a magical Hunger pulls on our emotions in a more visceral way. Non-human characters can also take our own characteristics and make us see them anew because they're set in a different environment.

CG: Silver can no longer change into a wolf. Why feature a werewolf that has lost her wild side?

RH: There's a number of different aspects to that decision. The first (and most prosaic) is that it seemed most realistic, that if she's been injected with enough silver nitrate that it affected her brain, there's no way she'd retain her wolf form. But more than that, I didn't want Silver to be yet another urban fantasy heroine who was physically kick-ass. Strong, capable, kick-ass in all other respects, yes, but not physically so. A lot of heroines who are forever busting out spinning roundhouse kicks leave me cold because that's just one aspect of strength; it's bad, I kick it. What about coaxing it, or negotiating with it, or tricking it, or calling in your allies to help you kick it, or building a kicking machine? Since my werewolves are physically stronger than normal humans, Silver could have gone that direction, and so I took away her ability to shift and also gave her her injured arm to give her a chance to show how strong she could be in other ways. When I read a story, that's what speaks to me, because personally I'm more likely to negotiate my problems than kick them.

Finally, I wanted Silver to illustrate the unexpected balance life sometimes has. The skewed way Silver sees the spirit realm instead of the real world--or hallucinates, depending on your point of view--is very beautiful, in a way. Losing her wolf form wasn't really the price of that, because she didn?t decide to pay one to get the other, but they're light and dark aspects of the same event. It was terrible to lose her wolf form, and it's sometimes terrible to hallucinate, but sometimes it's beautiful too. And it's definitely a part of who is she is. So I wanted both the light and the dark in her life, balanced.

CG: I loved the mythology you created in Silver, deifying the moon as The Lady, as well as the weres' personification of Death. Why did you give your werewolves their own religion?

RH: I gave my werewolves a religion because religion is an integral part of a culture. In the beginning, it was something of a thought experiment: what would a werewolf religion be like? Obviously it would probably have something to do with the moon, but saying "they worship the moon!' or "they worship the Earth Mother!" is like saying Christians worship an omnipotent guy with a son. The intriguing part, the emotional part, the resonating part is all the stories, and the parables, and the lessons, and the songs, and the rituals. I wanted to give my werewolves a religious force in their lives that would resonate with the readers, since religion is a force in nearly everyone's life, even if you're an atheist and it's not your religion that's the force. That's also why I made the conscious choice never to show whether the gods were real in terms of the novel's world. We all struggle with that decision for ourselves in this world, so the characters have to also.

CG: In your day job, you're an archaeologist. What benefits do you feel this training brings to your writing?

RH: Archaeology affects my perspective in a big, big way. If you know where to look, you can see its fingerprints in several of the answers above, like my concept of human cultures and religions. I think the benefit of having been trained in it rather than doing research only as I started developing my werewolf culture is that it gives me a deep foundational understanding of how humans and human social structures often function in general. With that foundation under my werewolf culture, I could build up the specifics as I needed. I think being a North American archaeologist specifically has also helped me. Though people sometimes mentally blend Native American tribes together, they have such an amazing variety, that the differences provide lots of cool ideas for me, and the similarities provide that foundation again. I found this especially with crafting my werewolf religious stories. They have their roots in several Native origin stories.

CG: What was the most interesting research you've done as part of your writing?

RH: I'll start with a disclaimer: I'm not one of those writers who likes research for research's sake. I understand its importance and necessity, but I tend to save it for when I need it. At least the looking up facts kind of research. If you count seeking out experiences you're going to use later in your writing, I enjoy the heck out of that. I often plan my vacations now to include places I want to write about. If I had to pick one experience I used for Silver, there's a place called Wolf Haven here in Washington. It rescues wolves that people tried to keep as pets, or from other bad situations that made them unsuitable to be released into the wild. They're very careful to put only those wolves on their educational tours, and keep those in the breeding program they share with zoos away from human contact. Since the rescue wolves are a little less stressed by being near humans than others, you can get closer to the enclosures than in most sanctuaries, and it was a great experience to get to watch them. I came away with lots of ideas for different coat patterns to use, right off the bat, but I'm sure seeing their movement and behaviour also helped me subconsciously. It's a long drive, but I try to go back as often as I can.

CG: The missing Roanoke colonists have been an intriguing mystery for centuries. Why did you tie their disappearance into history of your werewolves in Silver?

RH: The Roanoke pack was something of a happy accident. I wanted a name for the pack that suggested some age, rather than just another city, so I decided to go with an early colony. I remembered the name of the Roanoke colony from school, but not the story until I read up on it and refreshed my memory. The mysterious disappearance was just the kind of thing I wanted to use to integrate my werewolves into history, without changing it or recasting a major human event as really a cover-up for a fantastical one. History has so many cool mysteries and unexplained corners that I've never much liked the idea of recasting what we already know. Perhaps that's my archaeology background again, because I have a very visceral sense of how much we don't know, so why bother messing with what we do?

In any case, when I sent my manuscript to my first readers, they surprised me with how much they loved the Roanoke part. I finally figured out that in parts of the East Coast, the lost Roanoke colony has become sort of a cool myth that children learn about in elementary school. I went to elementary school in Oregon, so we learned about the Oregon Trail and Lewis and Clark in that mythic way. I got the stuff about Roanoke much more academically through other channels. Watch the later books, because I'll be working in the Were with Lewis and Clark to give West Coast residents that same sort of childhood-based glee!

CG: Can you give our readers a tease about what's coming up next for you?

RH: Well, what's coming up next for the readers is Tarnished, the second book in this series, where several important people from Andrew's past show up to cause trouble. For me, I'm in the middle of revising book 3, which I can't really tease about without spoilers! I also can hardly wait to start book 4, which is going to be a hell of a ride. Tor bought the first three books in the series, but I'm hoping that everyone will be interested enough in those that they'll also want to pick up book 4 and onwards!

Categories: Interview, SciFi & Fantasy

More articles from books, teens