Open Book Society, reviewer Scott, is back this week with another great interview with Rebecca Chastain author of MAGIC OF THE GARGOYLES. Here they discuss transition between series, the influence of genres in her stories, scenes left out in the writing process, gargoyles as inspiration, characters, future projects, and more. Enjoy!
Scott: After Fistful of Evil, Madison Fox Illuminant Enforcer Book 1 (which I thoroughly enjoyed), this novella must have been an awkward change – how difficult was the transition of moving from a series, in which you can develop the backstory to your heart’s content to the more (and more rare) constrained format of the novella, which is an art of its own?
Rebecca Chastain: Building a backstory for a novel and a novella are pretty close to the same thing for me. To write a genuine character in an alternate world, I need to know a lot more details than the reader ever sees no matter what the length of the final product. That said, the backstory of Magic of the Gargoyles was more difficult because it wasn’t familiar. I set A Fistful of Evil in my hometown, and the main character lives in a close approximation of my apartment, works pretty much the same office I used to work in, and fights evil on the same streets I drive daily. In MotG, I made up the entire world, from the socioeconomic structure of the country down to the floor plan of Mika’s apartment, so it took more imagination and notes, but in many ways was more fun.
Scott: Magic of the Gargoyles reads almost like the old pulp serials, with chapter breaks at cliffhanging moments and a nefarious villain, a heroine who constantly underestimates herself, I could go on. Have you been influenced by the pulps, and if not, what were the influences that pushed this story?
Rebecca Chastain: This novella’s influences are polar extremes: Robert Jordan and feng shui. I started reading Jordan when I was 11, and I think his Wheel of Time world is imprinted on my brain. I see its influence in a lot of my early writing and in my love of creating full, rich worlds filled with magic. (I’d also love to write a sprawling epic fantasy, but I’ve yet to find the right characters.) As for feng shui, I’m intrigued by the use of the different elements in the movement of chi, especially the constructive and destructive cycles. I’ve always seen feng shui as a form of mundane magic; this belief system translated to the physical world has worked too often for me for it to be pure coincidence. When I set up the magic rules of MotG, it was the perfect opportunity to translate pieces of feng shui into genuine magic.
Scott: The tale seems to follow a three-act play structure with the action starting in media res building to a climax and then the denouement; very few authors I’ve read, within the novella genre, seem to be able to pull this off with the grace shown here. How much of the yarn wound up on the cutting room floor?
Rebecca Chastain: Thank you! It’s hard to say how much got cut. It depends on what stages you count. I brainstormed this novella about five different ways, from having the gargoyles be creatures only Mika could hear to having Mika be a teacher on a campus where students misused gargoyles to enhance their test scores. Right there, about 90% of my ideas got chopped (and with good reason!). In the outline phase, I slashed every single scene that didn’t serve a dual purpose before I set cursor to page. After writing, I was ruthless in my cuts and rewrites. I’d say about half of what I wrote is original text. As you can see, a great deal of my process is trimming, so the cutting room floor was mounded with scraps by the time I finished.
Scott: Gargoyles are neat, having travelled the world most of my life, I grew quite used to their visages across cultural boundaries; but what inspired you to re-invent the creature into the urban fantasy magic enhancing creatures as they appear in the story?
Rebecca Chastain: I’ve lived on the West Coast of the United States almost my entire life, and gargoyles are about as rare here as unicorns. They hold the appeal of the exotic, they come in just about any shape you want—even better, they’re often an amalgamation of magical creatures—and I hadn’t seen them a lot in other fantasy novels. I’ve been trying to fit gargoyles into my stories for years, but this was the first time it worked. A society permeated with elemental magic would obviously have gargoyles. After all, they’re on so many important historic buildings. Once given life, they had to have a magical purpose. From there, the idea of enhancing magic was born.
Scott: Your stories generally feature a main protagonist that constantly underestimate their own abilities, only to find the inner strength through desperation in order to pull off what they do and this seems to propel the tale. Is this “overcoming anything despite the odds, and you’re stronger in the end” type of character one that resonates strongly with you?
Rebecca Chastain: I believe that everyone is capable of amazing feats, especially when tested and pushed (okay, forced). At the time of writing FoE and MotG, every urban fantasy I was reading had strong protagonists who stepped onto the page with a history of experience and invisible signs hanging from their chests, proclaiming “I can kill anything.” As fun as these characters are, I wanted to explore characters who started out ordinary and, through internal strength, moral choices, and circumstances beyond their control, achieved extraordinary accomplishments. As a rather ordinary individual myself, I love putting myself in the shoes of these everywomen.
Scott: The blend of urban style and fantasy tropes that populate Magic of the Gargoyles is unique in its execution. There is no attempt to explain the fantasy elements (such as the abundance of magic) nor justify how a mundane item (like a shower or Victorian style homes) fit; they just do. Once again, very few authors can pull this off without a jarring effect within the confines of such a short work. How did this become a facet of your distinct style?
Rebecca Chastain: I think this is a testament to world building more than my style. MotG is technically an alternate American history, where magic is and always has been a fact of life, though few probably recognize it from the story. I set MotG on the East Coast of the United States in the late 1800s / early 1900s, and there are hints of true history. The Blackwell-Zakrzewska Clinic is named after two of the first female doctors in the United States, Marie Zakrzewska and Elizabeth Blackwell. Mika crosses Lincoln River to get to the temple. Even the Victorian architecture is part of the time period. But since the novella is about Mika’s adventure and not a history lesson, few of my grand ideas for exploring a magical alternate history of our world made it into the story.
Scott: And speaking of distinct style, although I pay lip service to author’s names, when I read this I said to myself, “I’ve read something I enjoyed by this author before.” Your style is unique enough for someone who reads virtually anything voraciously to instantly recognize it. How do you manage to keep your “signature” writing style?
Rebecca Chastain: I have absolutely no idea. Not the answer you expected, right? I try to tell a character’s story in the most succinct way possible, and I’m not a fan of writing that takes itself too seriously. The same goes for people/characters. Perhaps that shapes my style? I know I can tell if another author’s style has crept into my writing, and those passages always get reworked in edits. There are phrases and cadences to certain author’s writings that are instantly recognizable, but I’ve yet to pinpoint my own. I’m thrilled that you think I have a unique style!
Scott: You mentioned in the acknowledgements that Magic of the Gargoyles was originally supposed to be in the short story range. Pushing it to the novella point without losing perspective on the original thought must have been quite the feat. You thank the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror specifically. How important do you feel that the internet has been beneficial to your writing?
Rebecca Chastain: Funny that you say “pushing it.” Writing longer is never a struggle for me. Short and concise? That’s the challenge. The reason MotG turned into a novella was that even after writing it as tight as possible and trimming absolutely everything I could from it, I still couldn’t stuff it down into the negligible word count allotted to short stories. I’m terribly proud it didn’t balloon into a novel (as did my next attempt to write a novella, but that’s a story in a different series). Some writers have to coax extra words and scenes into their manuscripts; I have to play mind games with myself and pretend I’m writing to a much shorter word count goal so I don’t end up with a trilogy every time I sit down to write a novel.
As for the benefit of the Internet, I can’t stress enough how important it is to have a trusted feedback on your writing, and for me, it was an online critique group. Without OWW, I might have released MotG without ever clarifying the gender of Mika (first-person narration meant I wrote the entire story knowing she was a woman, but the reader had no clue in early drafts!). It’s so easy to be too close to your own writing and not see the obvious problems, let alone the little details your eye glosses over.
Scott: Finally, are we going to be seeing any further short fiction from you; perhaps an anthology? Or have you got more professional concerns (e.g. furthering Madison’s story; hint, hint)?
Rebecca Chastain: There’s definitely more short fiction coming in Mika’s universe. Readers have been voting in their reviews and sending me emails letting me know they’d love another Mika story. I’m more than happy to oblige. I want to spend more time with baby gargoyles, too! First, though, I’m working on Madison’s next story (a full-length novel). In fact, I finished the rough draft of the sequel to A Fistful of Evil this week!
- Read our review for MAGIC OF THE GARGOYLES here at OBS.
- For more information about the author and her books visit her at her Official Website here.
Thank you to author Rebecca Chastain for a wonderful interview!
Thank you for the interview, Scott!