An interview with science fiction & fantasy author JM Stephen
About (Who, why, when, where, what)Tell us something about your books, including your genre and your characters and/or themes.
I write literary fiction under the pen name Jessica Stilling and fantasy, mostly young adult fantasy, under the pen name JM Stephen. I’ve also been known to dabble in a little poetry. I love writing fantasy because it lets me get lost in the world and my characters. I love creating dynamic and complicated characters that make people think.
The good guy is tortured by his past. The bad guy isn’t what you think. I love exploring the gray area. I believe, in many ways, we all live in the gray areas.
Where are you based?
I live in Southern Vermont right now, in a tiny town called South Newfane but I grew up just outside of Chicago and lived in New York City for about 15 years.
Latest releases and upcoming titles?
My tenth novel, Between Before and After, was published on November 8 th under the pen name Jessica Stilling. The Emergence of Expanding Light, Book IV of my Hugo nominated young adult series, The Pan Chronicles, will be published this February and Book II of my new YA fantasy series, The Seidr Sagas, will be coming out later next year.
What are you currently working on?
I just finished a novella length sequel to Between Before and After that I plan to give away for free on my website and other venues after the book has been out for a couple of weeks. I really like the main character of that book, and I didn’t love the way I left him.
Though his end was right for the book, it was kind of mean and I wanted to leave him in a better spot. I’m also working on Book II of The Seidr Sagas, a YA Fantasy trilogy about Viking witches and I’m working on a literary novel called Beatrice and Persephone.
What inspires you to write?
I believe in the Muse. The Muse is to be respected. I usually know when the Muse is tapping on my shoulder with a great idea and helping me to find what I need to write next. I also know when the Muse is having a bad day and trying to mess with me. And yes, hard work is a big part of writing, but creating anything is not merely a paint by numbers, but something that comes from many aspects of the universe.
When and why did you get into writing fantasy?
I honestly wrote Book I of The Pan Chronicles on a dare just after graduate school. One of my friends dared me to write a YA fantasy novel and the idea for this book just sort of fell into my head. Once I started working on it I really fell in love with the way the world was being built, I loved writing in a genre where I got to make up the rules and where implausible things could happen as long as I obeyed by own rules. After I wrote Book I, I was hooked, and I’ve been writing fantasy for almost ten years now.
Who are your favorite fantasy writers/ fantasy authors?
I love Ursula K. Le Guin, which is maybe a cop out because she’s more science fiction, but I find her world building, and her themes really well done and intelligent. Neil Gaiman’s imagination also truly amazes me. Every book he writes just seems a little more original, a little more creative than what has come before.
What is your favourite fantasy series and why?
I really like the Adam Binder series by David R Slayton. I’m usually not a huge fan of Urban Fantasy (I much prefer frolicking in the woods with fairies to hanging out in series in my books) but this one is just so raw and real. It cuts through a lot with just how emotionally vulnerable the characters are.
What are your favourite fantasy genres?
I like historical fantasy as it allows you to look back on other times but also play around with the time period a bit. When I started writing The Seidr Sagas, it was mostly because I really, really wanted to write about Vikings (I have a thing for Vikings), but I did not want to do the insane amount of research a literary novel on Vikings would have required. I still had to do research, but literary readers can sometimes just be sticklers for esoteric “facts” that have no bearing on story. I also really enjoy dark fantasy and on the other side of that coin, fairytales.
Who are some of your all-time favourite fantasy characters? And why do you think they became your favourites?
I love Adam Binder. I find the realism in that character very surprising and relatable. I love Tristian Thorn from Stardust. He is such a screw up to start, but there’s goodness in him and while he’s not perfect at the start he is quite honorable.
I also love, love, love Lettie Hemstock from Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane.
Even without all the magic, she is an awesome, headstrong girl who knows herself and is willing to help others.
Do you follow any fantasy entertainment outside of books? (Video Games, Board games, Comics etc)
I missed the video game boat, but my children are really into The Dragon Age and
Elden Ring and my son was Link from the Legend of Zelda a couple of years ago. As a
Gaiman fan I love the comic, or graphic novel Snow, Glass and Apples.
What’s going on in the next few months? Anything on the Horizon?
The Emergence of Expanding Light, Book IV of my Hugo nominated fantasy series will be out this February and Book II of the Siedr Sagas will be out early next year. I also have a literary novel, After the Barricades, coming out in May. That book is about the May 1968 riots in Paris and their aftermath.
What kind of books did you read that contributed to your upbringing, as far as fantasy and science-fiction?
I loved Tolkien growing up. I was definitely one of those. I got lost in the Goosebumps books as a kid (perhaps that’s not quite fantasy, but I will say that I briefly sat on a jury with R.L. Stein the year I graduated from college).
Was your upbringing pretty geeky?
I wouldn’t say my upbringing was pretty geeky, but I was pretty geeky growing up. My parents weren’t huge readers, and they didn’t really get into things. I got into things. I loved The Lord of the Rings series way before it was cool (and way before the movies). I loved the Dark Crystal and Prince Valiant as a child. I grew up in the Midwest, to pretty normal parents in a pretty normal world and so much of me just wanted to get out there and see what else there was.
Why should anyone read your book?
The Pan Chronicles explores that gray area, especially in my characters. I believe very
strongly in the power of a complicated character and a complicated situation. My villains are dark, but there’s light in them and that’s important to see. While adversity is important in fiction and the cornerstone of plot is conflict, it’s important to see that what is right and good can cause conflict as well.
The writing process ( Inspiration, discipline, planning, software, editing)
I have used basically the same writing process since I started taking writing super
seriously in college. I start with a notebook, preferably a pretty one with shiny pages. I take notes and create character and setting sketches as well as outlines in that
notebook. Then I start to write chapter outlines as I go, based on my longer outline. I
write a character at a time, sometimes that’s seven pages, sometimes that’s 25 or 30. I outline and write, chapter by chapter, only really going over each chapter for a few
minutes before I move on. Then, when I’m finished, I started to draft. Drafting consists of reading the book over and taking notes and then diving in and rewriting scenes and moving things around. I do that for a while, back and forth with reading and writing drafts, until I’m almost finished. Then I employ a line editor to check my grammar, etc. I write mostly inside and mostly in my room. I can write almost anywhere, however, as long as it’s quiet and there are few distractions.
Do you have a process, do you plan, or do you fly by the seat of your pants?
I plan to start. I will write a longer outline for the whole book I’m about to write. Then I will write chapter sketches as I go. I find this allows me to have a plan and to lean on that plan, but it gives me room to change the book, the structure, the plot, the anything.
Both are important for me. I need to see what the whole will look like, but I also need to feel that I’m free to create and change as I go.
How has your writing process changed since you first started writing?
Much of the process I describe above, I fell into slowly but surely until that became the way I write, and it really works for me. I do find myself drafting a lot more now than I did at the start. I will go over a draft many times, over months and sometimes years. I believe that a book is not truly ready until I have upended the entire thing, turned it on its side and reworked it. I also get more feedback. About seven years ago I started working with my own personal workshop and I love them to pieces. Everything goes by my workshop now.
How long does it normally take you to write a fantasy novel, and what proportion of the time is spent doing what?
Now that I have a contract that basically says I need to finish a fantasy novel a year, I
take a year to write a fantasy novel. Sometimes I wish I had more time, but alas….
I spend some time outlining and prewriting, then it takes me about three to five months writing a first a draft. I use the rest of that time to edit. I do wish I had more time…but that’s the price you pay for a multi-book deal.
What is your favourite part of the writing process?
I love the whole process. My absolutely favorite part is the moment when you get a
really good idea, and it really starts to take focus. You feel it go from a whim of an idea to something concrete and real. That feeling is awesome. I also love the first reading, after Draft I has been written. You really get to discover your story that way.
Have your previous vocations influenced your writing?
I studied literature in college and graduate school, and I was an English teacher for
many years and my love of literature, of the classics, of British Modernism, does show up in my work.
Do you involve other people in your writing, as collaborators or editors? How do youmake this work?
I’ve never co-written a novel, I think I might make some enemies that way. I feel very
close to my work and don’t like to share when I’m writing. I do, however, really value
feedback after a draft has been finished. The right workshop can be the most helpful
thing for a writer. A workshop that is not afraid to criticize but understands the author and their work and genuinely wants what’s best for them goes a long way in the drafting process.
As far as writing goes, what do you use? Software, Apps, Hardware etc?
Just a really nice journal and good old Microsoft Word.
Do you do a lot of research for each book? If so how do you conduct your research?
I usually do a fair amount of research for a book, but it does depend on the subject
matter. When I write literary fiction, I find the readers are pickier and I really have to get my facts, my details, my minutia right. And I love doing research, it allows me to learn so much about so many things. When I wrote my novel The Weary God of Ancient Travelers I did a ton of research on memory loss and amnesia, for my upcoming novel, After the Barricades, I researched the hell out of the May 1968 riots in Paris, so much so that part of me felt like I’d gone back in time. I also think it’s important to understand how your book fits into a larger continuum. What are other fantasy author’s publishing? What are the topics, how are they approached. These things really matter.
How do you overcome blank writing spells?
I’ve been lucky in that I have had very few of these since I was in college. I can’t seem
to stop myself from writing. But, since I started publishing with DX Varos, I seem to have a novel due every five minutes (perhaps that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but only a bit!) and so having a signed contract and a deadline, really pushes you to write and write often.
A number of fantasy/sci-fi authors have been known to use art, music, exercise, alcohol and even drugs as a way to find inspiration to enter the zone! Do you use any tools to enter into your creative headspace?
Star gazing helps a lot. It lets me contemplate the very largeness of the universe and
that has always inspired me. Reading also helps, sometimes just wrapping my mind
around a great book and hearing that author’s voice, helps me to better hone my own.
Do you prefer to write in silence and or have some sort of sound in the background?
Silence. Always. I’m an introvert and I really need my alone time and my quiet time. I’m not the type to write in public, though I know many people who do. I need to be as far from humans and noise as possible when I work.
Publishing (formatting, cover design, formats, marketing)
Describe the road you took to publishing your first novel? And how that has changed.
For my first novel, Betwixt and Between, I really tried to go the traditional route. And I had a lot of traditional clout behind me. I had majored in Creative Writing at the New School. I had an MFA and had worked in publishing. I knew the road and how to drive it. But finding and agent is tough. And this was about fifteen years ago I started looking for an agent. It’s tougher now, but even with my contacts, it was still tough then. The last straw was when an agent called and said she liked my work and wanted to talk to me. I went to her office, and we talked for a long time. She said she was going to get back to me. Then she wrote back a few days later saying, “No, I changed my mind.” She wasn’t quite that abrupt, but I’m still bitter about that. Anyway, that’s when I decided, screw it all, I’m going to small presses. I wrote to several small presses and within an hour the press I went with Ig Publishing asked for the manuscript. A few weeks later, they had decided to publish the novel. It was one of the most amazing days of my life.
Will your next book be traditional or indie published?
I’m going with an indie publisher. I’ve been going with him for a while. DX Varos has
been super supportive of my work, and they do a good job with the cover, the editing,
they’ve even stepped up their marketing game.
Would you recommend self-publishing to aspiring authors, or would you suggest a more traditional path?
I think every author has to find their path for themselves. Self-publishing takes a lot of work, and you take on the initial costs up front. Also, you have to market you, which can be expensive and tough on people who just want to sit in a quiet room and write. But for some, traditional publishing it still really out of reach and I’m beginning to believe the bigger presses at least are really out of touch with the literary community. I like small presses because they are a nice in-between. Someone has your back and takes on the costs, but they listen to the author and are much more approachable.
What sort of input do you give to formatting, cover design, marketing?
I discuss cover design with my publisher, and he generally listens. But honestly, I have found that I am not the best at choosing great covers. Apparently I like things that are objectively boring (or so people say) and so I leave it up to my publisher most of the time. My publisher is really helpful with marketing, but again, I still go out there and hustle for myself.
What do you do pre- and post-release to help get your books noticed?
I solicit any and every reviewer possible. I write articles and blog posts. I rely on my
mailing list and word of mouth. Social media is sometimes helpful, but I’m not sure
what’s going to happen now that Charles Foster Kane bought Twitter.
Marketing is so important nowadays, what’s your best advice to fellow authors?
Start marketing early and market as often as possible. Try not to pay for marketing, it
will add up, but also, do what you need to do. Goodreads is a great resource for
authors. Connecting with your readers is also super important.
What legal publishing advice can you give?
Make sure your publisher is going to have you back if there’s any copyright infringement issues. Get it in the contract. Also make sure you have the right to look at all records to make sure they’re paying you fairly. Again, get it in the contract.
How did you decide the pricing of your material; how did you go about promotion/advertising and distribution of your work?
My publisher does all that and I am so grateful for that.
InspireAdvice on making an impact in today busy Sci-Fi and Fantasy markets.
Connect with other authors. Help them out. Review them and they will (hopefully) return the favor. Utilize social media as much as possible but also make sure to reach out to sci-fi and fantasy places. It’s a great genre, but it is not for everyone and so you have to be careful, the wrong reviewer, who just doesn’t “get” sci-fi can be a problem.
Must Read Fantasy novels?
The Dark Towers by Stephen King
American Gods by Neil Gaiman (Anything by Gaiman)
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Worfhus
Kindred by Octavia Butler (okay, also anything by Octavia Butler)
Must read non-fantasy novels?
The Waves by Virginia Woolf
The Strange by Albert Camus
Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse
Most prized fantasy book in your collection?
Probably The Ocean at the End of the Lane, if only because it was the very first fantasy book that just grabbed me and I could not put it down.
Do you read digital, paperback or hardback or do you listen to audiobooks?
I read books on paper, mostly paperback, because they are easy to haul with me
everywhere but also in hardback when absolutely necessary.
What are some difficulties you’ve experienced in your writing career; how do you handle book critiques/criticism?
Getting reviews is still an issue and will always be an issue. It’s really tough to break in and it’s really tough, it’s constant, to stay there. There are times when I read a review and it kills me because the writer just did not get what I was doing. I try not to let them get to me. Or I drink half a bottle of wine and watch too many hours of Dr. Who…one or the other.
What are the best experiences in your writing career?
As much as publishing is nice and affirming, the writing is still the best part. Getting to know my characters better with each draft, getting lost in my own stories, honing my language so it’s just right…all of that has always been the most amazing part of my writing career and it still is. If I didn’t absolutely LOVE to write, I wouldn’t be able to handle all the rest that comes with it. I tell my students in my Novel Writing class that, “I can’t guarantee you’ll be published or famous or make any money on your book. But I can guarantee that if you write your book, you will have experienced writing your book, and hopefully, that is its own reward.
What are some encouraging words you’d give to another author/writer?
Keep going, even if you feel like you’re only howling into the wind. Someone will
eventually howl back.