It’s been awhile since I did a “Catching up with” article, and I wanted to get the ball rolling again; with a bang. So I interviewed the lovely L. Jagi Lamplighter, with whom I first became acquainted (via her blog) in 2009. The saying in the science fiction and fantasy genre is that everybody knows everybody. And that’s not much of an exaggeration. I’ve known Jagi (both on-line and through mutual acquaintances like my WOTF roommate Jeff Young) for awhile now. I find her to be a delightful and provocative thinker, who lends a welcome voice to the speculative arts. Thus I am ever so pleased to bring you this extensive and illuminating Q&A.
FORMAL BIO: L. Jagi Lamplighter is the author of the YA fantasy: The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin. She is also the author of the Prospero’s Daughter series: Prospero Lost, Prospero In Hell, and Prospero Regained. She has published numerous articles on Japanese animation and appears in several short story anthologies, including Best Of Dreams Of Decadence, No Longer Dreams, Coliseum Morpheuon, Bad-Ass Faeries Anthologies (where she is also an assistant editor) and the Science Fiction Book Club’s Don’t Open This Book.
When not writing, she switches to her secret identity as wife and stay-home mom in Centreville, VA, where she lives with her dashing husband, author John C. Wright, and their four darling children, Orville, Ping-Ping Eve, Roland Wilbur, and Justinian Oberon.
And now, to the interview . . .
BRAD: You spend a fair amount of on-line time doing blog discussions about aspects of writing craft. Who would you say have been your major teachers or influencers of craft? And in what ways do you think they’ve helped to make you a better prose artist, as well as a better storyteller?
JAGI: Nice question! The answer falls into two categories: authors and teachers of writing.
I will address the second category first, because it is the easier of the two. I was extremely impressed by Donald Maass’s Writing The Breakout Novel and the Workbook that goes with it. Maass is an agent. He reads thousands of manuscripts a year. One day, he decided he wanted to read a hundred breakout novels—novels that sold significantly more than was expected of them, usually with very little advertising—and see if they were actually better than other books. Remember—he really knows what the average submitted book is like!
Maass discovered that these 100 were better, and he set out to analyze why. His look into what makes these books better and how we can bring these qualities to our own writing really speaks to me. I have found his work to be extraordinarily helpful. Whenever I get really stuck, I pull out his Workbook and try the exercises until one gives me that insight I had been looking for.
In particular, his work made me aware that each story needs public and private stakes. (ie. You can’t just be trying to save the world. You also have to be trying to save the part of the world that most affects you . . . your child, your marriage, etc.) He emphasized the power of forgiveness and sacrifice in a story. He also has some great exercises to help secondary characters spring into three-dimensional life.
Other than that, I think I have been influenced by the writers I love the most. These would include:
Tolstoy (odd as it sounds, my all-time favorite book is War and Peace.) I love the scope and breadth of his story and his amazing insight into character. I would love to be able to have characters who had that kind of depth to them.
Tolkien—I love his descriptions of nature. I used to copy them when I was first out of college, to try to get a feel of the way his language flowed.
Roger Zelazny—his Amber series tends to influence everything I write. Both my two published series and my unpublished Visions of Arhyalon series started as Amber roleplaying games. I like the cleverness of his characters, how they bluff and turn things to their advantage.
Lloyd Alexander—his Prydain Chronicles, with Taran, are among my all time favorite books. I love the vividness of his storytelling and his characters. His characters have the most wonderful, distinct voices.
C.S.Lewis—I think of myself as being in Lewis’s shadow, the way so many fantasies are in Tolkien’s shadow. I love both his storytelling and his message.
Other authors I love and that I am sure have influenced my work would include: Barbara Sleigh’s Carbonel books, Alan Garner’s Brisingaman books, and Harry Potter.
An early writer once described my books as: Neil Gaiman meets C. S. Lewis or, for an American equivalent, Roger Zelazny meets Lloyd Alexander. I love that description. I endeavor to be worthy of it.
BRAD: With the Prospero books, you have conjured a quasi-mystical reinterpretation of a classic story. Would you call yourself a classical fantasist, and to what degree do you “wax Shakespearean” in any of your books?
JAGI: I fear the only degree to which I “wax Shakespearean” is that I quote Shakespeare occasionally. Ariel, in particular, repeats some of his lines from the Tempest and then continues in like vein for a bit.
Truthfully, I stumbled into writing about Shakespeare almost accidentally. I have always been a fan of The Tempest, partially because I have a cousin named Ariel. When I had a chance to join an Amber roleplaying game, I decided to play a girl name Miranda who lives on an island amid airy spirits. I chose this because it struck me as amusing.
The game did not last very long, but I liked the character. So I started writing about her. Originally, there was very little Shakespeare in the story. Just a reference or two to characters from the original.
However, my many years experience moderating roleplaying games included weaving background material into the active plot. Automatically, as I continued to revise the Prospero’s Daughter series, I started going back to the original play and drawing more of it into the story. By the time I was finished, the series actually was a sequel to the Tempest, with the events of the novel building directly upon the events of the play.
So, no. I don’t think of myself as a classical fantasists. It happened more by accident.
On the other hand, I did choose to attend St. John’s College—the Great Books program, where I steeped in the Classics the way a teabag steeps in hot water. So, I may be more of a classical fantasy writer than I think!
BRAD: For those aspiring writers liable to be watching, what would you say have been the five most important lessons you’ve learned during both the submission and publication process?
JAGI: My first lesson in publishing came when I got out of school and read the book The Awful Truth About Publishing. It made it clear that each step of the process has its own pot holes and that one should be both cautious and wise. So, I would say that my first piece of advice would be: read up.
My second lesson came when I followed up on the first lesson. The book suggested that it was easier to get published if you knew someone in the business. I knew no one. So I attended a Science Fiction Convention and asked an editor if I could be an intern. My first day as an intern for a publishing company, I was given the task: read the slush pile, pass on anything that is really, truly good, reject the rest.
So my second lesson was: if your work gets rejected, it might be a kid just out of college rejecting it. Don’t let it discourage you!
My third lesson was: don’t give up! It took 17 years to get Prospero Lost to print. I rewrote it from stem to stern at least six times. But I would not give up. I just kept trying to improve it, to make it worthy of being printed. Eventually, I succeeded. So: Don’t give up!
My fourth lesson was writing is not as important as you might think. On July 29th 2009, I finally held my actual, printed book for the first time, after a 17 year wait. I also saw the picture of the girl who was to become my daughter for the first time, after a four year wait to adopt.
The book was cool! Don’t get me wrong, I was ecstatic, but the daughter was even more wonderful. So: writing is important, but life, family are even more important.
(For more on this day: http://www.ljagilamplighter.com/about/why-i-write-fantasy/)
My fifth lesson was: Publishing is changing!
When I started out, there were hard and fast rules about how a serious author would proceed. Now, everything is up in the air. I know of people who went with traditional publishing and failed due to things entirely out of their control. I know of people who are self-publishing who are doing extremely well. I know of people with small publishers who would never had considered a small publisher a few years ago.
Everything is changing. The only advice I can give is: ask questions and remember that the answers might be different next week!
If anyone is interested in the specifics of how I originally became published, my essay on that topic is here: http://www.ljagilamplighter.com/about/a-writers-odyssey/
BRAD: Also for the aspiring writers: if you can permit yourself to be open about them, what have been your five most important blunders, ad what cautionary tales might they offer?
JAGI: This is harder, because in many cases, I’m not sure I know what my blunders are. Not saying I don’t have blunders…just that I am not sure I am yet wise enough to recognize them all.
A few things: no matter how many times one rewrites, one can’t cover everything. – A while back, someone asked me why I never had two characters in the Prospero books have comeuppance for something they did wrong. I had to tell them truthfully, I didn’t think of it. I thought of a LOT of things. But not of that.
Spelling. My spelling is very, very poor. I have people spellcheck it for me, but there seems to be a magic spell that adds mistakes. I once had 16 people read the same book over. The sixteenth found hte for ‘the’. Some of the others were really good copyeditors, but they all missed it.
With my more recent series, The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin, the publisher copyedited the work and I paid a copyeditor myself. They caught a lot of errors. And yet, a few made it into the final book. This is embarrassing and sad.
Other than that, not sure. I may have to come back in a few years and let you know.
BRAD: As the spouse of a writer, what have been the unexpected challenges of balancing parenting and work with someone working in the same creative profession?
JAGI: For the most part, having two writers in the house is a great thing, because it means that we understand what the other person is up to, and we both put the same amount of importance on having time to get our writing done.
This means we don’t have moments like the following:
A writer friend told me that he was spending a lot of his time in his office. His wife called in suspiciously, “What are you doing?”
“Watching porn,” he called back happily.
Not fooled, his wife replied with great annoyance, “You’re writing, aren’t you?”
This friend is not the only one who has told me of unsupportive spouses. That never happens in our house.
What does occasionally happen in our house is things such as this September when both John and I were at the very end of our latest book at the same time. So, we both wanted to write with ever spare moment.
This meant that nobody wanted to do mundane things: like feed the kids dinner.
We DID feed the kids dinner, mind you…it was just that neither of us wanted to be the person who stopped and did this.
So, I would say that the hard part was not having a non-writer to do the non-writing tasks. Other than that, I definitely recommend a writing-spouse, should one be available!
BRAD: For future books, what ideas, concepts, worlds, or themes do you want to tackle?
JAGI: I have so many projects going that it is unlikely I will ever finish them to pick a new one, but, briefly, they are:
My current project is the Unexpected Enlightenment series. Book one is out. Book Two is finished in draft. I have begun Book Three. But there are many, many more to write. It will be a long series. I can’t wait to get farther into it.
It is a delightfully fun series that goes in all sorts of interesting directions. (Think Harry Potter meets Fringe Meets Narnia.) Rachel Griffin, a young sorceress with a perfect memory, discovers the world is a much larger place than her family knows…more magical and wondrous but also more horrible and more dangerous. Yet, she learns that she and her friends may be the key to making the world permanently a better place…if they can survive longer enough.
My husband describes it as Harry Potter meets Doctor Who—without the time travel. It even looks a bit like Doctor Who. John and author Jack Campbell did a survey at a convention and found that more than half of the people, upon seeing the cover, said something like: Don’t Blink, Rachel!
(Should anyone like to read more, here is the first four chapters of Book One: The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin: http://www.ljagilamplighter.com/chapter-one-the-treacherous-art-of-making-friends/)
The Visions of Arhyalon series— When a dragon who appeared in a story written by a missing friend attacks Washington DC, college grad Victoria Woods withdraws all her money and buys plane tickets, going in search of the one person she thinks might be able to stop the dragon: the possibly evil magician from a story written by her other missing friend.
Turns out, people on Earth have a magic power. We can see into other dimensions…but we think it is fiction. But out of the writers and artists of earth, a handful of Creators will be chosen—people who can make worlds and rewrite destiny. Victoria is determined to become one of these Creators. Armed with this new power, she plans to stop Ragnarok, and free star-crossed lovers from the tyranny of fate. (The first book is written. It is called Uncross the Stars.)
The Lost Boys books are a middle grade series based on the Boy Scout Law (Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, etc.) Jacob and Nicky Lost travel to a magical land where they solve problems and fight evil in hopes of helping their sister. I have written the first one of these, but won’t get back to them for awhile.
Finally, I hope one day, in the far future, to write a story called Against the Dying of the Light. It will be a mix between a woman’s book (think And the Ladies of the Club . . . ) and a fantasy, set in the background of stuff people see in Near Death Experiences. It will be about the End of the World and what happens when a very small determined band decide that, even though the Earth has been abandoned by those from above, they will remain—the last defenders against the dying of the light.
(One of the characters from this series has a cameo in the Prospero’s Daughter series.)
If I should ever be so blessed as to actually finish all that, I’d love to write a stand-alone book called The Pig-Girls Club, about quarreling half-sisters, ages 15 and 3 who discover, when they meet a girl from China, that the three of them have something in common: they were all born in the Year of the Pig.
BRAD: Back to the Prospero series, are there any specific sentences, paragraphs, or passages you are particular proud of, and which you could share with readers? As teaser material?
JAGI: The Prospero series has many bits I really love in it. The characters are especially delightful. (I don’t mind saying that myself because I didn’t make most of them up. John did. I just borrowed them for the book, with his permission, of course.)
But, in particular, there are two passages that I really love, above all others. Both deal with Heaven. One is a fallen angel’s description of what it is like to live on earth when you once lived in Heaven. The other is Miranda’s memory of coming upon an untouched cloister in the middle of a battlefield. This memory reminds her of the peace she feels when an angel visits her.
Here is the first one:
Imagine you went to live in a house that looked a great deal like your father’s mansion, only nothing was ever quite right. The doors would not close properly. The well did not work. The servants were rude. The walls were moldy. The halls smelled of rotting fruit, and no matter how many logs you put on the fire, you were always cold.
Nor can you ever grow used to this new house, precisely because it reminds you so much of your old home. You cannot see the blighted rose without recalling the beauty of your old gardens. You cannot walk the corridors without its layout bringing to mind the house you loved. You cannot look through the dingy windows at the overcast sky without remembering the glorious skies above the mansion of your youth. Everything you see makes you heartsick for the original, of which this current place is but a dark reflection. That is what it is like to remember heaven and dwell on earth.
To see the second one, you’ll have to read the book.
BRAD: Of your current work in progress, what timelines are you dealing with? What kind of hours must you put in daily/weekly?
JAGI: My first Unexpected Enlightenment book—The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin, is now officially out. The second one, The Raven, the Elf, and Rachel, is finished but needs revising. I hope to have that done by March, with the book to appear in September.
I am now writing the third volume, Rachel and the Technicolor Dreamland. These books are so much fun to write. It’s almost hard to put into words how delightful it is to see these characters and events come to life. Like watching a dream literally come true.
As far as writing time, I have four children. and it takes them two hours to leave the house (different schools, different timetables.) I get up about 6:10, but I get to sit down and start writing about 9am, after they have all left. I try to write at least until 2:30, when the older ones come home. Some days, I keep going. Other days, I stop and help with homework, play in the D&D game that the kid’s godfather runs for two of the boys, or help with Snoring Beauty, a puppet show my eldest son and I have been working on for some years now. (Think Sleeping Beauty meets Rashamon . . . or Hookwinked.)
I don’t get much done Mondays or Fridays, but I try to be serious about writing on Tues—Thurs.
BRAD: Would you consider conventions and convention-going to be essential for new writers wanting to become acquainted with the field of Science Fiction and Fantasy?
JAGI: I don’t know if it is essential, but it certainly is extraordinarily useful!
Both John and I sold our books due to connections made at conventions.
Conventions are wonderful things. All at once you can: meet other authors, keep tabs on current market issues, mingle with future fans, meet agents and editors, and just generally keep abreast of everything that is going on in the wonderful world of SF and Fantasy publishing.
Not only are they excellent professional experiences, but the more often you go, the more they become social experiences as well, as you befriend people who you can now meet again the next time.
I love conventions. I think they are invaluable. Right now, John and I only hit a few each year, because our kids are at an age where we are reluctant to leave them. But we hope to hit more conventions in a few years, when they are older.
This spring, if all goes well, we will try a new thing and—for the first time since they were babies—bring some of the kids with us. Two of the boys are very excited about this. They can’t wait to come and discover all that there is to see and do.
BRAD: What are your final thoughts, about your total body of work to date? Dreams? Aspirations? Hopes? Regrets?
JAGI: So far, I am very pleased with how my work has turned out. I love the Prospero books. I’m so glad that they have touched people. I absolutely love The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin book and am so delighted by the enthusiasm with which they have been received.
If I have a dream for the future, it is two thing:
One, I would like to get more writing done more quickly. You saw my list of things I want to write. I won’t get to it all unless I can pick up my writing speed.
Two, I would like to see my work reach a larger audience. It is so humbling to see the joy with which the books are received by readers. I’d like to find a way to bring the stories to the attention of others who might possibly enjoy them.