2020 is the year for Sapphic YA fantasy, and I’m thrilled to have on the site two of its authors with new releases that are not to be missed! Linsey Miller’s first book after the Mask of Shadows duology is Belle Révolte, a French-inspired dual-POV about two girls who switch places so each can get her desired education, and it just released on February 4! E. Latimer’s first YA is Witches of Ash and Ruin, about a recently outed bisexual Irish witch named Dayna whose beloved coven is facing down a potential serial killer, and it comes out on March 3rd! But they can both describe their books way better than I can, so let’s let them get to it!
E: I’m so excited I get to do this interview with you! I absolutely loved Mask of Shadows and Ruin of Stars (is it okay if I think Sal is dreamy and have designated them one of my top fictional crushes? That’s normal, right?)
(Linsey: Sal would be thrilled to be considered dashing and dreamy after Rath laughing endlessly about their inability to rob Elise.)
E: For the past few months I feel like I’ve been seeing the gorgeous cover for Belle Révolte EVERYWHERE, and I was so excited to see Witches of Ash and Ruin on some of the same “anticipated” LGBTQ lists, so cool!
Belle Révolte came out February 4th. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Linsey: Sure! Belle Révolte is the story of two girls—Emilie des Marais and Annette Boucher—who are both unhappy in their lives. Because of the strict social hierarchies, neither of them is able to achieve their dreams. Noble girls are not allowed to study the magic required to by physicians because of the damaging effects it has on the boy, and Annette cannot afford to attend university to pursue the only magical career path available to her: life as a hack. Hacks are people able to use magic but not wealthy or noble enough to pursue higher education. They work as assistants to the rich so that they are worn down by the powerful magic they use in place of their employers.
So Emilie and Annette swap places. Annette takes Emilie’s place at finishing school to study magic and get an education, and Emilie attends university to become a physician’s hack and prove her worth. While at their respective schools, they both decide that the state of their nation is unsustainable and join a brewing rebellion.
But when their nation instigates a frivolous war, the girls must work together and decide what they’re willing to sacrifice in order to stop the fighting and save their nation.
I’m excited we both have a book coming out in the same year, and 2020 seems like an amazing year for YA fantasy. Your previous book, The Strange And Deadly Portraits Of Bryony Gray, was so atmospheric and fun! (It’s fine if I think of spooky books as fun, right? There’s something exciting about having to glance over your shoulder when reading.) I know Witches of Ash and Ruin is a completely different sort of book, but I can’t wait to see how the world comes alive in it.
Do you want to talk a bit about the world of Witches of Ash and Ruin and how you navigated creating a fantasy story within the real world?
E: I’ve always been very drawn to witchy women, both real and imaginary, so when the tag line of “rival covens have to come together to defeat a serial killer” popped into my head, I knew this was the perfect story for me, and that I had to write it.
The story is set in Ireland, because that’s the mythology I really wanted to delve into, but I actually think of the witches’ kitchen as the “heart” of the world, if that makes sense. It’s where they learn their craft, where they meet the other coven, and where they solve a lot of the mysteries in order to hunt down a killer.
Just like the rest of the story, the witch’s kitchen is a strange mash-up of fictional and real. I grew up homeschooling, which meant that I associated with a strange, eclectic bunch of people (other homeschoolers). One of the families I spent loads of time with was a lovely, chaotic family with nine children and a massive, disorderly kitchen where everything was hand built, knitted, patched, baked, sewn. It was all so rough-spun and homemade, and it was done with the utmost love. I don’t think I truly realized how special that place was until much later. In fact, I now realize it was a lot like the Weasleys’ kitchen in Harry Potter.
The farmhouse in Witches of Ash and Ruin is basically that house. The table the witches sit around was one I sat around every Tuesday.
Linsey: I love the idea of that kitchen. There are so many memories I have in my grandmother’s kitchen that I find fueling my writing too. Witches of Ash and Ruin also features a serial killer, which feels terrifying but also separate from those real-world inspirations. Did you base that off of anything in history, and what draws you to this marriage of our world and fantasy?
E: I’ve always had a fascination with serial killers, but the motivation was always something that bothered me. I love magical answers to mundane questions. So the question might be, “What kind of person kills multiple people, and why?” And the answer might just be, “Because he’s evil” or if you want to get more technical, something about the right combination of nature, nurture and a potential head injury.
But that’s kind of depressing. Not only that, it’s boring. I want to put a twist on it, and I want a reason that blows your mind, and makes you realize there’s more out there than you ever dreamed.
Ever since I was a child, I wanted there to be magic. I still do. If there isn’t any magic in the real world, I’ll slip it into the cracks. I’ll make it fit, so that people can uncover it and think, even for the most fleeting moment, This might be real. That’s the magic of blending reality with fantasy, it unlocks something in you as a reader and lets you glimpse the possibility of a bigger world.
Linsey: That’s really interesting. There are so many personal things, not all of them as tender as a warm kitchen or happy memories, we can associate with ourselves that putting them into books can be hard sometimes. Apart from the lighter dark topic of serial killers, how do you navigate the harder to discuss challenges and triumphs your characters face? Mental health in fantasy works can be difficult to explore sometimes because of the nature of the worlds. Do you take any steps to ensure you give it and your characters enough space on the page, and do you find writing about such personal experiences affects you?
E: It’s such a tricky thing to balance mental health depictions and a fantasy plotline, which is why I feel we don’t see much of it. You want to write that big magical battle where the characters are throwing spells back and forth, but you know if she has anxiety she’s probably going to be freaking out. But if you have her just sort of collapse in the middle of things, it’s all going to be over pretty quick.
Also, you can’t just have all the chapters dealing with the mental illness when you’ve got a serial killer to track down. I found it particularly tricky finding the balance for Dayna. With OCD, a completely accurate depiction would just be pages and pages of obsessions, just endless internal dialogue with her obsessing and checking and obsessing and checking, but honestly who wants to read that?
I had to try to pepper the obsession through here and there, and not have it completely take over the narration. It’s considerably pulled back from what it was to begin with. As for questions of how writing this affects me, the answer is “profoundly.” I’d write a scene with her OCD and then I’d have to step back for a bit and concentrate on a different part, and for some reason editing it was just as hard. It really did feel cathartic in the end though. I couldn’t even get through John Green’s Turtles all the Way Down, so to be able to step back and go, “I did it!” at the end of Witches of Ash and Ruin, well, it felt good.
And it meant writing Witches of Ash and Ruin was a deeply personal experience, and many of the character’s struggles and challenges surrounding her bisexuality, and with her mental illness (OCD) are directly inspired by reality. Do you take inspiration from your life, and if so, how does that effect the process of writing for you?
Linsey: I do. It can honestly make it really hard and challenging to put out there. Annette, especially, was hard for me to write at times because her inner narration is tinged with grief and her asexuality. I knew I wanted to create a world where Annette’s asexuality would make her feel like she’s giving into the power structures around her—women are traditionally calm, collected, and sometimes cold in the world of Belle Révolte—and so she questions if she’s actually asexual or just as she is supposed to be and missing something. It’s hard to get at the heart of that but also important.
It took me ages to figure out how Annette would verbalize her aceness, and that’s because I never really knew how to verbalize. So in a way, she is expressing my experiences for me. I hope it’s made me a better writer, but it has certainly made me a better me. It also feels less threatened to be able to do it in a dark fantasy world because the rules are different. Annette can go after her villains with abandon, which isn’t something we get to do too often in the real world. I think it’s why I’m drawn to dark fantasy. It’s cathartic in a way.
Even though the words tend to leave us once they’re off the page and writing them can be emotionally freeing, getting them there can still be very affecting. Do you have any advice for writers who may want to write about something personal but aren’t quite sure how to start?
E: Writing is a great way to work through things you’re dealing with or have dealt with in the past, but if you’re just starting out be sure to “check in” with yourself. Assess how you’re feeling, how it’s effecting your state of mind and mental health.
Keep in mind also, you may deal with different subjects in different ways. I have to go slow and take breaks if I’m writing about a trigger (OCD) but if I’m working through stuff I’ve been repressing, that’s making me angry, it kind of all comes out. Like rage-induced writing, it’s incredibly therapeutic. Better on the page than in your head.
I know that both Witches of Ash and Ruin and the Mask of Shadows duology explore themes of mental illness: OCD and PTSD. For me, writing about mental illness can be both challenging and rewarding, but I have to be careful with myself, and pay attention to how I’m feeling before I dive into writing a scene with (for example) a full-blown panic attack.
In Belle Révolte are there similar themes of mental illness? If so, what motivates you to explore this, and what is your experience with writing about it?
Linsey: There actually aren’t. For Sal, I found writing their experiences with PTSD and grief extremely challenging and upsetting even thought I was glad I did it in the end. Grief, neglect, and war come up in fantasy a lot, and when I was writing Sal’s story, that was something I didn’t want to shy away from. I wanted to make sure that Sal was on the road toward developing healthy habits by the end of the series and wasn’t made to feel lesser for their PTSD. Reading about trauma can be traumatic, so I wanted to make sure readers had a chance to recover with Sal on the page instead of having to assume it after the epilogue. But it was hard to write. In Belle Révolte, I didn’t feel like I would have the proper space to write it, and I sort of needed to give my mind a break.
It became more important for me to give other aspects of the book that page space, too.
E: In your Mask of Shadows duology you play with stepping outside of and challenging gender norms and expectations society has. Are there similar themes in Belle Révolte surrounding Emilie and her desire to be a physician? Can you tell us a little bit about why this is a recurring theme in your books, and what you’d like your readers to take away from this?
Linsey: There are some tangential themes. I have some pretty complicated feelings about gender, and on top of that, a lot of the books available to me as a child had female characters who could only be female in specific ways. Additionally, almost every world had a similar gender binary to ours and identical ways to present gender.
In Belle Révolte, I wanted to explore that in a way I was familiar with while also dissecting some of the inspirations of my past. Magic, like traits, clothing, and careers, is socially gendered, and Emilie has only ever pushed back against that aspect of her life. She doesn’t feel like she fits into the way her world tells her to be female, and so she does that thing that I think is relatable to some of us where she utterly rejects everything she is told she should be. I’ve always felt a bit odd in my own skin, and I wanted to write about a character navigating that same uncomfortableness without throwing other people under the bus.
Or carriage, I guess.
Annette likes things that are traditionally feminine in the world of Belle Révolte, as do many of the people Emilie meets, and it was important to me that Emilie personally hate those things for herself without projecting that hate to those things and the people who liked them.
Ultimately, I hope readers can take away that there’s no wrong way to be their gender. Women who love traditionally feminine things aren’t giving into the system, men who love those things aren’t less masculine, and non-binary folks shouldn’t have to present in some androgynous middle ground for their identity to be believed. We should all be able to live as we are, but I think we also have a responsibility to let others live as they are without considering their truth to be less.
Also—and this is something I always hope to live up to—that cis readers take away a willingness to protect the truths and lives of others since we have more social power. When we have power and say we want to help, we have to follow through.
At the same time, I like seeing happy endings in fantasy. We don’t get them in real life, sometimes, and reading about them can feel like hope. Writing about Annette’s experiences were hard but worth it.
I know that part of Dayna’s story is that she is outed as bisexual in her small, conservative town. Even though that’s something that a lot of people may experience, it’s not something we see often in YA fantasy. Were you writing to fill a void, and do you find that contemporary fantasy allows you to do things other genres may not in regards to writing to fill that void?
E: This is actually a great question. I find it really interesting that I’ve had a few people protest that Dayna is outed in the book, because I feel like this happens. All. The. Time. And not necessarily all at once, the way it happens to Dayna. It’s sort of like coming out by choice, and then having to come out and again and again and again. Being outed can happen that way too. I still remember a friend outing me. It was so casual, that’s what got me. She told a boyfriend, who I had just met. It was so off-hand, the way she said it, but it felt shocking to me, because that was something I’d just started sharing with my close friends. No one else knew.
It happened again later. Both times from a supposed friend who didn’t seem to think it was a big deal, both time I dealt with unpleasant reactions from others.
It was something I was angry about for a long time, and I tend to process a lot of my emotions by writing about them. I also think there’s a lack of books dealing with this that aren’t contemporary, which can leave genre readers sort of adrift.
I know that I never had queer YA growing up, both because my family is extremely religious and it wouldn’t have been allowed in the house, and because I didn’t really know such a thing existed. Years later, I’ve read almost everything I could get my hands on, but up until recently I didn’t seem to be able to find a lot of traditionally published books about bisexual girls, and even less about F/F relationships. I think we’re always on a quest to see ourselves in our fiction, and for me, not finding my reflection was discouraging. I know filling that void has been a big influence on the books I write.
What about you? What draws you to queer fiction and motivates you to write the identities you write about?
Linsey: Like you said, there’s a void. My favorite characters growing up, the ones I related to the most, were the ones I could believe were ace even if I didn’t have the words for it then. Their romances were almost devoid of lust or non-existent. I didn’t even think I would ever be in a romantic relationship as a child, so I clung to characters who felt the same as me. Tris from the Circle of Magic who pushed everyone away so that she wouldn’t be disappointed and Mel from Crown Duel felt closer to me than anyone else, and I want to do that for someone out there so that they feel less alone, except now I want to hopefully give them some words that feel like home. Found families and finding people who love you are very important to me in fiction, and I love reading and writing about characters finding a place where they are comfortable and respected, even if the characters don’t think they deserve that. Emilie is arrogant and a bit oblivious, and I wanted her to find her footing and grow without losing her ambition. Annette is kind but she can be shrewd. Belle Révolte has a bunch of angry people in it all coming together as a happy, angry family, and their anger isn’t dismissed.
Do you have any similar feelings about your characters, anger, and “unlikeable” female characters? Your characters have been described as “achingly real.” What do you think makes them real?
Likewise, relationships—platonic, familial, and romantic—seem to feature heavily in Witches of Ash and Ruin. Can you talk a bit about how you developed those and what sort of relationships readers will be able to enjoy?
E: There are actually a lot of angry characters in Witches of Ash and Ruin as well! Dayna is more on the chill side, but Meiner and Cora work through a lot of anger in the story. They don’t do anything that a male character would be labeled “unlikeable” for, but I’m almost sure one or both of them will get stamped with that. Honestly, male characters could probably run around punching babies, and as long as they’re halfway attractive, it’s fine. Female characters are unlikeable the moment they show a little anger, or do something slightly uncharitable. I think as readers we need to step back and take a good hard look at why that is, and what it is society has implanted in us that makes us think that way.
I think what makes the characters real in Witches, is that they are angry. And jealous, and competitive, and impulsive. Every last character is deeply flawed in some way, and all of them are morally grey at best. I think people are like that. They’re not black and white or good or evil, they’re just people.
I also love exploring relationships in fiction, all types. I think that’s what makes things so interesting. I want to see tension in families, chosen families who are tighter knit than “blood,” betrayals you never saw coming, and the type of friend who’s only question upon learning you’ve accidentally murdered someone is, “Want me to bring a shovel?”
I love genre fiction, but my favorite kind is filled with compelling relationships, both the good and the bad. And of course, I’m a terrible sucker for, “I hate you, but I also kind of want to lick your face,” type meet cutes. I mean, come on, who doesn’t love a good enemies-to-lovers trope?
Ahem, speaking of lovers, Mask of Shadows will forever hold the record for one of my all-time favorite romances. Sal and Elise are precious cinnamon buns who must be protected at all costs. Their chemistry is so great, and I was literally giggling out loud as they flirted with one another. They’re just the right amount of sweet and mischievous, and Sal has that edge of “dangerousness” that makes you fan yourself just a bit, if you know what I mean.
Can you tell us a little bit about the romance/relationship in Belle Révolte and give us a hint about what we have to look forward to?
Linsey: Oh, my precious assassin. I am so glad.
The romance in Belle Révolte is a bit toned down. It’s not as steamy, I guess. Emilie and Annette both have romantic arcs, but they’re similar in that their romantic inclinations are very quiet. Romance sneaks up on them after they become comfortable with a person and learn to trust them. Their romances are built on respect and trust, even if Emilie’s relationship with their future partner is a bit prickly at the start.
Their romances stem from friendships, and platonic love is something I deeply appreciate. Emilie, who doesn’t really know how to express love because no one’s expressed it to her in a way she recognizes, realizes she loves her friends slowly, and then that she romantically loves one of them. Annette, who’s been burned because of her aceness is a bit too hesitant to admit she’s romantically attracted to someone until after it’s brought up a few times by friends.
Whereas Sal and Elise met and sort of mutually went, “Hellooooooooo,” I wanted the Emilie and Annette to have quieter romances bolstered by their friendships and bonds.
E: Okay last question. You have to pick from Sal, Elise, Annette and Emilie in each of the four scenarios:
- You’re stranded on a desert island and you need to survive for two weeks before help arrives.
- You get drafted into the Hunger Games.
- You have to go to an extremely fancy royal dinner party with strict dining rules, and negotiate for peace in your country. It’s imperative you don’t offend anyone, lest you lose your heads at the end of the night.
- You’re on a strict deadline to write an entire novel and you have to co-write with someone.
- My ever-helpful medical nerd Emilie.
- Sal, though I feel like they would not need me at all and Snow should be very
- Elise (but also maybe Annette, who I feel would get along very well and probably have more fun than me at a dinner party).
- She is an excellent diviner, so hopefully she can just divine the future novel and dictate it to me.
And you’re not getting away without doing this as well. Who would be your savior in these scenarios: Dayna, Meiner, Cora or Reagan?
- I think Cora would probably eat me for sustenance, so I’m going to say Reagan. She knows the most spells and would probably be able to keep us alive.
- It was between Cora and Meiner, but I suspect Cora might backstab me once everyone else was dead. Meiner would actually attempt to keep me alive, I think.
- Dayna is literally the only one in the entire cast of characters who wouldn’t get our heads chopped off.
- Reagan or Dayna. Probably Reagan, because I feel Dayna and I would be too neurotic together and wouldn’t get much writing done.
E: This was awesome, I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun in an interview. I am seriously SO pumped for Belle Révolte to come out, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it! Thanks Linsey!
Linsey: !!! Thank you AND thank you for chatting with me. I am so glad Witches of Ash and Ruin will be out in the world this year, and I can’t wait to read it.
Linsey Miller grew up in Arkansas and has previously worked as a crime lab intern, neuroscience (undergrad) lab assistant, and pharmacy technician. She is represented by Rachel Brooks of Bookends Literary and has an MFA in Creative Writing. Her debut duology, containing Mask of Shadows and Ruin of Stars, was about a genderfluid thief out for revenge who fought their way through auditions to be the next royal assassin. Linsey can currently be found writing about science and magic anywhere there is coffee.
E. Latimer is a fantasy writer from Victoria, BC. Her middle grade novel, The Strange and Deadly Portraits of Bryony Gray was published by Tundra Books, and was nominated for the 2019 Red Maple Fiction Award.
In her spare time, she writes books, makes silly vlogs with the Word Nerds about writing, and reads excessively. You can find her on her website http://www.elatimer.com/ or over on twitter as @ELatimerWrites.