An interview with science fiction & fantasy author Justine Johnston Hemmestad
Author Biography: Justine Johnston Hemmestad is an editor, the author of three novels, and is included in several anthologies, including Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries (after having been in a car accident that left her severely brain injured at 19). She is a graduate of The University of Iowa and has also graduated from the English Literature Master’s Degree program with distinction at Northern Arizona University. Her personal webpage is at https://know-your-craft.webnode.page/ , her amazon author’s page is at https://www.amazon.com/Justine-Johnston-Hemmestad/e/B01DHSLN0M?ref_=pe_1724030_132998060 and she’s on facebook at https://www.facebook.com/JustineJohnstonHemmestadauthor
Tell us something about your books, including your genre and your characters and/or themes.
My first two books Truth be Told and Visions of a Dream were both grounded in history but had enough fantasy elements to be classified as sci-fi/fantasy, and all my books have been therapeutic to write in different ways. When I was 19, three months after I was married, I was in a severe car accident and sustained a traumatic brain injury, and the road to recovery was very long. Working through that injury was a major theme of my first book, Truth be Told, as all the characters of the story were symbolic of different aspects of myself and how I faced my recovery. I could never have even hoped to tell my story of near death and the hardships I faced due to my injury if not within the context of fantasy.
Visions of a Dream also helped my recovery because the amount of research I did not only achieved accuracy of history and places, but also the people, cultures, and my primary characters. The work involved helped my focus and organizational skills when my injury had severely hindered them. My research was also intertwined with fantasy because it stretched the boundaries of what was possible. I gave a supernatural effect to Alexander the Great’s motivations because he believed in it, which in itself was a historical fact (I loved delving into his belief).
For Macbeth’s Spinners I was able to really enjoy what I’ve learned as I’ve recovered. I loved every second of the fantasy, both imagined and derived from dreams, and I loved the historical research I did for the surrounding facets of the story. Often for me, fantasy simmers up from historical research. I’ve always been interested in the Picts and the ancient Scots in general and I got to really delve into that with a sprinkling of ancient Greek myth (which is also something I’ve always been interested in). I’ve also studied Shakespeare, both as a person and as a writer, and I was fascinated by his assertion that he modeled the three witches in Macbeth on the three fates of ancient Greek lore. I wanted to explore that fascinating tid bit in itself – I asked what their lives were like, if the three witches were the three fates, and what brought them to Scotland – what did they do there and what drove them across the world and time to Middle Ages Scotland. Why would they have wanted to play a part in Macbeth’s ascension of power? Those were the questions I wanted to answer, and of course I could only do that through fantasy.
Where are you based?
Latest releases and upcoming titles?
Macbeth’s Spinners is my latest release, and the release post is on my publisher’s website at https://aelpress.com/index.php/2022/08/31/macbeths-spinners-cover-reveal/
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently trying to get the word out about Macbeth’s Spinners, and I’ve also written about ancient literature for Mental Floss at https://www.mentalfloss.com/posts/oldest-literature and about Gold Hill for Wild West magazine (to be published) on historynet. I’m also working on a fantasy novel about the disappeared colony of Roanoke (sixteenth century).
What inspires you to write?
My greatest inspiration is wondering ‘what if’ about a deep historical mystery. Time, and the manipulation of time, offer the best questions that can only be answered through a story.
When and why did you get into writing fantasy?
Because there’s so much possibility in fantasy. I think I wanted involve that possibility into my own life, since I was recovering from a traumatic brain injury and had so many limitations. Fantasy is like a window into another world without limitations.
Who are your favourite fantasy writers/ fantasy authors?
Besides Mary Shelley, one of my favorite fantasy writers is Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle in the mid 17th Century. I also love Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and ancient Egyptian stories like The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor (where a giant snake talks to the shipwrecked sailor on a desert isle). Also, A Descent Into The Maelstrom by Edgar Allan Poe.
What are your favourite fantasy genres?
Who are some of your all-time favourite fantasy characters? And why do you think they became your favourites?
Sam in LOTR (because everyone needs a Sam). I also loved the characters in the first season of ABC’s Once Upon a Time, so I love the fairy tales of old with a new twist.
Do you follow any fantasy entertainment outside of books? (Video Games, Boardgames, Comics etc)
No, but my oldest son plays fantasy video games, D&D, and is a fantasy graphic artist.
What’s going on in the next few months? Anything on the Horizon?
My youngest son’s (Sam’s) wedding!
What kind of books did you read that contributed to your upbringing, as far as fantasy and science-fiction?
I used to love Shel Silverstein and The Giving Tree, which isn’t classic fantasy, but it has life. I also loved archaeology growing up, and I think a lot of the myth stories of different cultures are mind-bending.
Why should anyone read your book?
I like to write about historical fact intertwined with my fantasy, but usually little-known historical fact. I want the reader to feel enlightened by something I’ve written. I would also love the reader to feel possibility and see things in a way they never thought of before.
The writing process ( Inspiration, discipline, planning, software, editing)
Dreaming is an essential part of the process for me, then writing down my dreams and integrating them into my storyline. Discipline is equivalent to a need for me – I need to write so I can’t not do it. I’ve tried to write outlines for a book but the story and characters have always veered from them, so I mainly write notes of ideas as I go along. Editing is my favorite part of the process, which is when I interject more detail or historical fact, or fill in aspects of the story I feel are missing.
Do you have a process, do you plan or do you fly by the seat of your pants?
I think Virginia Woolf was right, one has to have a room of one’s own and money to write. However, raising seven kids I’ve never had either – so focus, wherever I’m at, no matter what is going on around me, is key to my ability to write. Focus is the greatest asset I have.
How has your writing process changed since you first started writing?
I don’t need to hold one of my babies when I write anymore (that also includes my first grandson when my oldest daughter went back to work after he was born).
How long does it normally take you to write a fantasy novel, and what proportion of the time is spent doing what?
Some of them have taken me twenty years, off and on, interchangeably, and some take under a year. Sometimes the first draft goes pretty quickly, then the revision is what takes the most time.
What is your favourite part of the writing process?
Research (because I’m inspired by the history from which fantasy stems, as well as revision and editing. Also, dreaming, and going deep into myself to understand the meanings or to use it as an image. I have to feel like I have a reason to write, a purpose, a question to answer.
Have your previous vocations influenced your writing?
My car accident has influenced my writing most because it occurred when I was nineteen, before I was really able to acquire a vocation, and writing was the most effective form of rehabilitation I had until I enrolled in college over ten years after my accident.
Do you involve other people in your writing, as collaborators or editors? How do you make this work?
As far as writing goes, what do you use? Software, Apps, Hardware etc?
I used to use pen and paper and still do – I love using my favorite colors of gel pens because I feel like I’m painting words onto paper. But when I write on the computer I use Word.
Do you do a lot of research for each book? If so how do you conduct your research?
Yes. I LOVE research. I research mostly on the internet because that’s what’s available to me, but to do research in an old library would be my dream. My second book Visions of a Dream, about Alexander the Great, was all from research, even the very intimate things of the time and place. It’s labeled as a sci fi/ fantasy story with some alternative history, but it is very much founded in factual history, down to the facets of Alexander the Great’s personality according to ancient Greek historians, taking into account that he was tutored by the judgmental Aristotle and had an over-domineering mother. There was as much psychological and spiritual research as there was historical research for Visions of a Dream, I believe. I researched ancient historical beliefs of the regions he conquered, like Ahura Mazda in Persia, Yahweh in Israel, Amun Re in Egypt, and Brahma and Vishnu in India.
I loved the research for Macbeth’s Spinners as well, and I wrote the story specifically for the research, because I knew the land was full of fantasy and it’s also my ancestral home. I wanted to write about the factual Macbeth and the factual history of Scotland, intertwined with both the Medieval belief in witchcraft as well as ancient Greek mythology, with Shakespeare’s Macbeth serving as a loose guide. I loved the darkness of ancient Scotland and the possibility in its myth; I loved researching witchcraft of the time and location. Shakespeare himself based his three witches in his play on the three Fates of ancient Greek lore, and from this bit of research my story was born. I loved researching the Greek mythological gods. Fantasy not only allows for more possibility in the storyline, but it makes the story itself intriguing, as well as gives life to otherwise mundane surroundings. For the past to live in the future, you need to make it appear possible with solid, factual research. The more fantasy is grounded in fact, the more the scenes and characters feel real.
How do you overcome blank writing spells?
I push through them and keep writing, even if it’s not exactly what I want because I know I can revise later (revision is where the real writing happens). And I liked that you used the word “spells” in your question because I think of the spells that the three sisters use in Macbeth’s Spinners since I feel like I’m using magic when I write, as if I’m coaxing something into being with the words I use. Ancient Egyptians believed their hieroglyphs brought reality into existence, which was where the idea came for one of the writing scenes in Macbeth’s Spinners.
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?
Good question! Dreams expand my belief for what is possible, as there are no boundaries. One of my favorite authors, Toni Morrison, wrote Beloved (magical realism) with her dreams as her roadmap. My dreams often give my story a direction I never thought of. On occasion music, but that isn’t a typical thing.
This question makes me think of my study of shamans when I was writing a Master’s thesis about the Arctic bookends of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I loved the descriptions of historical Polar explorers who called the Arctic dreamlike and ghostly, essentially otherworldly. Their interactions with the shamans of the area involved dreaming, seances, and spirit-travelling, and the “shaking tent.”
Do you prefer to write in silence and or have some sort of sound in the background?
Silence, but once I know where I’m going my mood can direct the scene. Not often, though. Usually, I like silence, or natural sounds. Everything else distracts me and doesn’t allow me to be completely lost in what I’m writing.
Publishing (formatting, cover design, formats, marketing)
My oldest son is a graphic design artist and has created all of my covers. As far as formatting, my publishers have been in control, and I’ve tried to be proactive about marketing, such as going to book shows and blog publicity, but it’s not really my strong suit and I need a ton of help.
Describe the road you took to publishing your first novel? And how that has changed.
I went with a small, female-owned publisher for all three of my novels, which hasn’t changed.
Will your next book be traditional or indie published?
My books have all been published by traditional, small publishers owned by women, which may be considered indie because they’re so small. Having that relationship is something I don’t want to lose if I try to go with an agent later down the road (which is the only thing I haven’t legitimately tried).
Would you recommend self-publishing to aspiring authors, or would you suggest a more traditional path?
In between, which would be a small publisher. I think that in order to make indie publishing and even small publishing work, the author has to be adept in marketing. There are seemingly an endless number of books out there and yours really has to stand out. I’ve tried to stand out with beautiful digital art on my book covers that is designed by my son Bradley Hemmestad. Key interviews and publicity also help. Knowing the right people is best. If all the stars don’t align though, it’s so hard to be noticed.
What sort of input do you give to formatting, cover design, marketing?
My publisher has always done the formatting, and my son has done all the graphic designing for my book covers, so the art has been his concept and I trust him. I’ve never really had the money to do a successful marketing campaign before publishing or after publishing, though – I think in order to do so you must have money to publicize your work, AND you need to know the right channels to go through.
What do you do pre and post-release to help get your books noticed?
I’ve sent press releases to newspapers I have a geographical connection to, I try to get interviewed in order to get the message of my book out there, as well as have book blasts on book sights on the internet. Having my books in local libraries used to be helpful for my first two but I don’t have a library connection anymore (but I would recommend donating a book to a local library if possible). Book stores in our area have completely died out, but I took several of my books to be sold in our local bookstore – just their presence in the store was beneficial.
Marketing is so important nowadays, what’s your best advice to fellow authors?
I wish I knew but I’m not successful at the marketing part. I try to be proactive as much as possible in the publicity of my books, getting them out to as many places as possible including libraries and bookstores, if possible. Try local newspapers, too.
How did you decide the pricing of your material; how did you go about promotion/advertising and distribution of your work?
My small publishers have decided the pricing, so I don’t do the giveaways because the pricing isn’t up to me. I do have my website and my Amazon author page, and I’ve also gotten in touch with a few of those who have published my work in the past because they may also advertise my work (which has happened on several occasions). Niche groups I’m involved with are also helpful, such as groups that are involved with medical rehab, like http://tbihopeandinspiration.com/brain_injury_books.html (Macbeth’s Spinners is the second to last listed).
Inspire: Advice on making an impact in today busy Scifi and Fantasy markets.
I think writers need to have their hands in as many things as possible to get name recognition. Write guest posts and articles on things you know about. Publication is even more important than money in that regard.
Must Read Fantasy novels?
I also love The Blazing World, by Margaret Cavendish. She was considered eccentric and a freak because of what she wrote (I studied her when I was gathering research to study the Arctic portions of Frankenstein for my Master’s Degree), and she wasn’t liked because of those things and she was so shy.
Must read non-fantasy novels?
These wouldn’t be considered fantasy but they fantastical elements as well as magic realism: Beloved, and I love the dark supernatural element of Wuthering Heights. I love how distance and death are merely barriers that can be bent.
Most prized fantasy book in your collection?
Dracula, Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, Beloved, The Arthurian tales, even the tales of the Brothers Grimm…books and stories that use fantasy or science fiction to go deep into the human psyche. They present the greatest situations to reveal who characters really are.
Do you read digital, paperback or hardback or do you listen to audiobooks?
Hardback and Paperback, but I’ve come to read digital as well when studying in college, and now Macbeth’s Spinners is digital which is very satisfying.
What are some difficulties you’ve experienced in your writing career; how do you handle book critiques/criticism?
I’ve had a person who didn’t even read my book but gave it one star. I know they didn’t read it because the part they cited as being so bad wasn’t even in my book. I do know that it came from a book review service I paid for, where they make your book available to reviewers and the reviewers give honest reviews, but this was just someone who was giving negative reviews without reading the book, and now it has to stay out there in the public. My advice would be to never go through a book review service unless you have vetted where they get their readers from and whether they really read the books.
What are the best experiences in your writing career?
I participated in a book show in Iowa City several years ago, which was a big learning experience and amazing to do, and my son came with me. Having my books in libraries and our small local bookstore is another high point. Being able to work with my oldest son (he’s created all my book covers) is my biggest high point.
What are some encouraging words you’d give to another author/writer?
That was one of the themes of an interview I recently did with Horrorific Podcast https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OkjRoL0AaG0 At the time it was hard for me to focus on any one thing, but I think the bottom line is to know why you write and never lose sight of that, regardless of any discouraging people or events along the way. If you remember why you write you will have your purpose, which is larger than monetary success. In order to sustain yourself in the writing world, I think you have to know what your purpose is (hence the title of my website: Know Your Craft).
Get in touch with author Justine Johnston Hemmestad
Justine Johnston Hemmestad Social Channels?
Justine Johnston Hemmestad Website?
Any final words for the readers? (Anything, open platform)
My second book, Visions of a Dream, as well as my first book, Truth be Told, are available on Amazon, as well as are all the anthologies I’ve participated in including Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries. My publisher and I are also donating part of the profits of Macbeth’s Spinners to Laughing at My Nightmare charity https://www.laughingatmynightmare.com/