Susan Dennard didn’t always know she would be an author.
“I like to think of myself as a person who wears many hats and I’m currently wearing the author hat,” she says. “In a former life I worked in marine biology—I have a master’s degree in that and I used to work with fisheries. But then I married a French guy, and we moved to Germany where I couldn’t get a job. So I wrote a book.”
Dennard may not have always known she would be an author but she has always written for fun—which shines through brilliantly in her latest fantasy book, Truthwitch.
We chatted with Dennard just before it’s release about writing, social media, and being inspired by the women authors (and internet fan girls) who have come before her.
You’ve completed a whole trilogy–the Something Strange and Deadly series. What are those books about?
The first book in my first series, Something Strange and Deadly, came out in 2012. It follows Eleanor Fitt, a 16-year-old living in 1876 Philadelphia. When Eleanor’s brother is taken by a necromancer and his army of dead, she has no choice but to join a ragtag, ghost-busting team to get him back.
So it’s kind of like alternate history with zombies and magic and romance. It was a huge undertaking because of the whole historical aspect–especially since I was in Germany and I was researching American history. To be honest, I don’t know what I was thinking!
What is Truthwitch about? How is it different from the first series and how is it the same?
Truthwitch is about two best friends named Safiya and Iseult, who live in a world where magic is dying and three empires are battling for power. When an unexpected announcement upends the girls’ lives, they have no choice but to set off across the Witchlands—hunted by mercenaries, royalty, and something much, much darker.
I won’t lie: writing this series has been really different from my first because there are four main characters (instead of only one, like in Something Strange and Deadly). And on the one hand I love the broader scope because I can hop heads, but wow!
It’s also a lot more work. It wasn’t too tough drafting book one, Truthwitch, but it’s proving to be a bigger challenge to keep things streamlined in later books.
The book is narrated by four characters, two of which are male.. Is it difficult to write a male POV?
Well, it’s not the same as writing a girl—that’s for sure. There are definitely times when I’ve asked my husband, “How would you feel in this situation? What does it feel like to get punched here?”
Ultimately, though, it’s just a different voice in my head that happens to be male (or female), and I just do the best I can to write that gender. People connect with characters based on who they are, and I don’t think that has much to do with gender at the end of the day.
Truthwitch is a four-book fantasy series with tons of magic– what’s your magic system like?
The magic in Truthwitch is elemental. There are six main elements: Aether, Earth, Water, Air, Fire, and then this mythical Void element that people don’t really believe exists.
Under those elements there are all of these different kids of magic. For example, you have Safi, who’s a Truthwitch, which falls under the element Aether (the magic of the spirit and mind).
What sort of research did you have to do for Truthwitch?
If you look at the map and shape of the continent it’s vaguely European, and the book itself has a Renaissance European feel—so I researched a lot of historical Europe, specifically for cultural inspiration. At the same time, I made up a ton since it’s a world that has developed with magic (meaning technology is completely different).
I also spent a lot of time researching ships, life on a ship, and nautical terms. I tried to be as accurate as I could, but, at the same time I had to strike this balance between what the reader will know and be able to follow versus what sailors might actually say or refer to. I didn’t want to bore a reader with too much terminology, you know?
Truthwitch has this crossover, YA/Adult appeal. Do you think you’ll write something not-YA in the future?
I have one work in progress that I think pushes more into adult. I also have some Middle Grade on my hard drive. I don’t see myself ever writing for just one age group. I also just really love Middle Grade readers. I think they’re a fun, bright-eyed group. And of course, with adults, you can explore a lot of darker things you can’t touch with the younger age groups.
In addition to writing, you also give a lot of writing advice – how did you fall into that?
When I first started to write a book for publication, everyone said: You need a blog! So I started a writing advice blog–not realizing that there are thousands of those on the Internet. But I think I have a knack for breaking stuff down in a way that people get. And as a result people started following what I was saying. The blog grew organically from there.
Now that’s one of the many hats I wear—the hat of “teacher”—and I think I spend as much time on the writing advice as I do on my books. Helping others with their writing—giving back what I’ve been given—is very important to me and it’s a huge part of my identity.
There’s a lot of excitement on social media about Truthwitch – how much of that do you think is fan-made and how much of that is because you went out there and made it happen?
Hard question! It’s almost impossible to tease that stuff apart. I will say, though, that I think a lot of the buzz began as an extension of my writing advice. I’d built my little corner of the Internet for aspiring authors, and I honestly used to receive way more fan mail about my writing advice than I ever got for my books.
Over the past 3 years, whenever I gave advice, I put it in the context of Truthwitch, because that’s what I was working on at the time. As such, a lot of my writing advice fans feel very connected to the book and very invested in its success.
So when it came time to start promoting Truthwitch I had a lot of really generous and kind people come out to help me spread the word. (At this point Susan gets a little weepy.) Because of all those amazing readers who helped spread the world about Truthwitch from the beginning, other people have started to hear about it. Now, it’s kind of became the “cool thing” to want to read, and I seriously can’t thank the early fans enough!
As a fantasy writer, I’m assuming you have a lot of favorite authors – care to share some?
Actually, the blurb on the UK cover is from Robin Hobb, who is the Queen of Adult Fantasy. I’ve been reading her since I was a kid and, honestly, I’m about to cry thinking about that blurb. Jacqueline Carey’s another favorite of mine who also—miraculously—blurbed the book.
Basically, there’s this group of women in the adult fantasy world who have done more for me than anyone else in this industry. And I don’t mean that as a negative to other people in publishing (authors are amazingly gracious people!), but these particular women have been so generous—it’s truly incredible and inspiring.
What are your favorite video games?
Mass Effect. The Dragon Age franchise. The Longest Journey series. Oh, and I love the Fallout games too. And Assassin’s Creed, of course. Legends of Zelda—duh! I could keep going for a long while. I really like RPGs but I also want story driven games—then it’s almost like playing my favorite book.
How about TV?
We don’t have cable so I just watch what’s on Netflix. Lately, I’ve been watching iZombie (because I’m such a die hard Veronica Mars fan) and my husband and I are binging Scrubs, which is surprising hilarious and clever. I also love Brooklyn 99.
Do you think talking about TV and video games on social media detracts from the book-related stuff?
I think the exact opposite happens! Talking about TV and games draws in new potential readers!
Felicia Day, who is like my biggest hero of all time, just released her memoir in August. The book’s whole message is that her life got better when she started to be authentic and true to herself.
She was a big gamer and when she stopped trying to hide that part of her life from her acting career and instead combined the two, she made The Guild, and became a huge sensation. Now she is The Felicia Day.
Her advice is something I feel like I’ve always preached and practiced: be authentic and talk about the stuff you love, even if it would’ve gotten you stuffed into a locker in junior high. Being true to yourself online is the way to find the people who are not only going to enjoy your books, but they’ll also be your friend.
And if you can’t find your tribe, then build your own!
Wait. Did you ever get stuffed in a locker?
I didn’t get stuffed into a locker. Thank God. But I won’t lie: junior high was brutal.
-Interviewed by Gaby Salpeter
See more from our Winter 2015/2016 issue below!