Friday, September 2, 2016

INTERVIEW with E.D.E. Bell

Today Nerds of a Feather welcomes fantasy author E.D.E Bell, whose newest novel The Fettered Flame, second in the Shkode Trilogy, hit shelves yesterday. I am a big fan of both The Fettered Flame and the trilogy's fist book The Banished Craft (you can buy both here) and am really excited to talk to Bell about her awesome characters, story, and publishing company!

E.D.E. Bell is a graduate of the University of Michigan with an MSE in Electrical Engineering and works as an advisor in technical intelligence. After hours, she pursues her dream of writing epic fantasy with the support of her husband and three amazing children. A passionate vegan and enthusiastic denier of gender rules, she feels strongly about issues related to human equality and animal compassion and loves to inspire thought through her writing. She loves cats and trees.

NOAF: The Banished Craft, which is the first in the Shkode trilogy, introduces us to some pretty awesome characters - particularly some awesome female characters. These females (the humans at least) exist in a world that openly discriminates against them, but your characters are constantly challenging the status quo. Here is one of my favorite articles about female representation in SF/F and all media really. To summarize, the author breaks down some of the major issues surrounding female representation, primarily that of the ‘strong female character.’ Her major points are that a) strong does not mean physical strength; b) having a female be the chosen one does not alone qualify them as strong character; c) a female does not have to shed femininity to be a strong character; and finally d) there is more than one kind of woman in the world. I feel that the Shkode series hits all of these notes. Cor, Francie, Ma’Bay’, Mica, etc. are all distinct individuals - they are mothers, doctors, scholars, wizards, carpenters, and alcoholics. When you set out to write, do you purposely focus on developing your main female characters in opposition to traditional representation, or do you just write them the same way you write all your characters?

BELL: For me, those are very close to the same thing. By understanding that females and males are equally diverse and complex, we’re already defying the narrative that somehow females must be either “traditional” or “strong” or otherwise binned into restrictive roles. In many ways, I have my parents to thank for that—being raised in an equalist household I didn’t understand sexism until I was exposed to it in the outside world.

If you’re already in that mindset, the characters will naturally have deeper personalities, strengths, and weaknesses. On that note, I’ve also noticed that readers are more apt to criticize the personality flaws in female characters than in the male—a statement, I think, on the expectations society places on women, and very often that women place on other women. Even in fiction, readers expect the females to either be mysterious and beautiful or strong and flawless. It’s not how it works.

NOAF: Building on that, two of your main characters are expectant mothers. They are also forces to be reckoned with, fighting to save the world. Usually in books, film, and TV, women get to be mothers OR warriors, not both. Also, in the case of Jwala, it was not lost on me that some of the other dragons comment that she is perhaps too old to be a new mother. When you wrote these characters and scenes, did you specifically want to address some of the issues women face during pregnancy, or rather was the purpose to include this aspect of womanhood that SF/F usually ignores?

BELL: I answer a lot with “both,” but first, that’s how engineers answer questions, and second, the world is complex. I do like challenging traditional views of pregnancy as well as motherhood. When I was first pregnant, I was shocked how differently people began to treat me, from seeming to judge every aspect of when, why, and how I was pregnant, to assessing my every bodily function and treating me like I was going to shatter if I moved. It was invasive and nearly inescapable. And then it was surprisingly more invasive when I became a mother without pregnancy—the questions people ask! And then, as your children get older, it doesn’t stop. People think your parenting is their business, much more so, I think, when you’re a woman.

Also, pregnancy is so often treated in SF/F as the means of producing a treacherous or secret heir to the throne, or eliciting a pinnacle of vulnerability in a character. In the real world, people are just pregnant. And they still need to pick stuff up at Kroger’s and call their mom, and it’s not always such a plot twist. I loved the idea of exploring all of that. The other mothers in the story showcase different aspects as well. Calci raises her own son, plus her friends’ child for whom she has the same motherly bonds, but whom she does not feel able to claim in the same way. And Ma’Bay’ has the most children in the story, but has never been pregnant. And she is no less of a mother, or a woman, for it.

NOAF: I want to talk about Cor a little bit, particularly her cultural background. Cor doesn’t eat meat or animal products, and you write her sharing her home cooked food with others. There was one scene in particular in The Banished Craft, when Cor and Iohn are at an event and Cor buys a pear to hold herself over until she can eat at home. Iohn proceeds to confront her about her diet, saying it isolates her from everyone. I don’t think many people realize how discriminatory others can be over something so seemingly insignificant as what another person doesn’t eat. This scene is particularly poignant because Cor never tries to push her cultural beliefs on anyone, especially Iohn. I personally don’t eat a standard diet and it is something I have faced a lot of resistance over. I bring emergency food places when I know there won’t be anything for me to eat, and I’ve even heard that line Iohn spouted more than once. You talk about including vegan themes and characters here, but did you include this particular scene primarily to highlight some of Iohn’s characteristics, or to bring to light how discrimination comes with even the slightest deviation from the norm?

BELL: Am I allowed to say “both” again? The story is always first and foremost. And, so, a scene like this does highlight the characters’ personalities and relationships in ways that just telling the reader would not. Cor’s feelings toward Iohn, Iohn’s discomfort with her affection, the tension between them, the strength of Cor’s own convictions, these are all highlighted in a scene like that. Flaws and struggles are important in any believable personality, and certainly in a hero.

I also have a lot of readers who are vegans, interested in the topic, or people of other beliefs who sympathize with these little cultural angles, such as the situation above, or someone offering to get you food and having to caveat their generosity to prevent them giving you something you won’t eat. Or having to ask a street vendor about their ingredients or fabrics. And, yes, having to take your own food to social events. Those aspects provide familiar moments to people like you and me that are not present in most fiction.

This also goes back to your previous question about gons (dragons) commenting on Jwala’s age. I think it’s important not to forget the broad range of prejudice: age, personality, relationship status, background, speech, appearance, ability—I could go on forever. There are so many ways people can suffer when we aren’t thoughtful. I am still waiting for society at large to recognize there is a chasm of difference between political correctness and respect.

NOAF: Continuing with the theme of compassion towards animals, and moving on to the dragons(!), I found the gons’ compassion for animals very heartwarming - from Atesh’s mice to Londew’s dog. It is also comforting to see the male characters as the ones with these strong compassionate connections. Male representation also suffers from biases, with males often pigeon-holed into the machismo role, but you allow Atesh and Londew to embrace their compassionate side as well.

BELL: A common trap of intended female empowerment is to denigrate males. I detest and reject anti-male sentiments, such as men are stupid, or only think with their __, yet I so often see these sort of barbs praised as hilarious or witty. I don’t think these sort of comments are funny at all, nor justified as a response to female oppression. I get how women are treated by our society and we’ve got to fix it, but I don’t think the solution is this “girls rule” mentality – honestly, the concept offends and frightens me - for so many reasons. I want to live in a world where people are equal partners, with different personalities and skills, working together to make society a thriving environment. And that means we’ve got to address sexism in all forms, from all genders and to all genders. That means women need to readdress the pressures we put on each other (a whole separate topic) as well as our attitudes toward men. In the real world, the men I know are compassionate, emotional, vulnerable, and often subject to as many pressures as women are of subduing or hiding these traits. I reject the ideal of the “compassionate male” to the same extent I do the “strong female” - in my opinion, these labels only serve to reinforce prejudice and societal restriction. My advice to the world: if a woman is strong, just call her strong. Don’t sound so surprised that she’s also a woman.

Shale is another character who aspires to a female profession in his world: cooking and catering. I hoped the rigidity of his own societal boundaries helped accentuate that point, that the resistance people face in being their true self is by no means a female-only problem.

To the animal welfare themes, I’ve learned that I have to walk a delicate line. (I actually think this is unfortunate; so many people have become closed to open discussion and differing points of view.) This story is meant to be enjoyable, first, and thought-provoking, second. It’s meant for all open-minded people, not for any one group. However, I do have a lot of vegan readers, and I want to create a friendly space for them. Yet it feels like if I even nod to a character’s veganism, it bothers people. So my message to readers is: if you’re a vegan, yes, me too—hugs, and I hope there are elements you enjoy. If you’re not, well, I’d love you to read also. Most of my best fans are non-vegans, who understand that my trilogy, as well as me, are about so much more than one subject.

NOAF: Some times when authors try to incorporate diversity, especially a lot of different types of diversity, it comes out feeling forced. This is not the case with the Shkode trilogy. I’m thinking particularly of Ma’Bay’ (the town doctor) and Lav’der, who are very obviously in a same sex relationship but are presented to the reader naturally and not at all as something out of the norm. In fact, your writing of diversity as a whole is very natural, as if you have a deep understanding of the internal and external struggles people face when they live on the fringes of what is socially acceptable. Is it your compassionate nature that allows you to really embrace what your characters are feeling in the moment?

BELL: Ma’Bay’ is probably my favorite character, after the narrator, known as Mother. Ma’Bay’ plays a pivotal role in the series, and yet remains understated throughout it. Not all heroes in life are heralded. Sometimes they are just good people that contribute to society, help people out, and never get much credit. Ma’Bay’ and Lav’der’s relationship is not a prominent topic of discussion for a variety of reasons. First, it’s a bittersweet nod to hundreds of years of LGBT+ culture in our society – good people living wonderful, productive lives, being forced to describe each other as friends or roommates while there’s no real secret to protect. Second, it presents their family as a wonderful, normal entity. If they don’t have an issue with it, why should the reader? It also speaks to a level of cultural hypocrisy, where these women live in a society so firmly against same-sex relationships, yet if they’ve got a good doctor in town and she helps their families, they’re willing to give it a pass. Honestly, it’s this sort of soft oppression that fires me up the most. The idea of oppressing people you’ve never met, but looking the other way for people that one knows and respects. It’s got to stop.

As for my own nature, I don’t think it’s all nature. I think a lot of compassionate behavior is learned and practiced, which is why it’s important for people to talk (and write) about these subjects. I also believe in the ancient philosophy that to hold a point of view, you need to be able to see all points of view. So despite my own strongly-held views, I am a very open person. So, I do tend to see all my characters in a compassionate light; what makes them tick as well as what holds them back, and the ways they may view life differently than other characters, and sometimes than me. I do hope this adds a richness to the story.

I also explore other types of gender diversity in the story. There are main characters who are pansexual as well as asexual, but I didn’t address this overtly in the story, because I look forward to the day where identity and sexuality aren’t always the headline. As the trilogy goes on, a transgender dragon is introduced—a character not defined by this aspect of her life. Besides the fact that transgender dragons should totally be a fantasy trend, I wanted to contrast that against other gender and orientation themes that emerge in the series. I can’t get into it without spoilers, but I saw people not understanding an important distinction (a character outwardly appearing to be one gender does not necessarily mean they have that gender identity or that they are transgender) so I wanted to make that point.

One last note: for readers specifically interested in the LGBT+ themes, they are more prominent in the second book. So keep reading.

NOAF: Building upon this theme of diversity, the Shkode trilogy has a ton of different diverse characters, human and dragon, some that have just passing roles in the story. I found that the many different points of view allowed for more engaging world building. Was this your intention when including so many different characters, or did they all just kind of come into existence as the story progressed?

BELL: There are two related issues here. One is the number of characters, and one is the use of passing characters to help world-build or portray a specific element of the story. I received a fair amount of criticism in Spireseeker for the simplicity of the plot-line. In fairness, it was my first novel. But I took the challenge to heart, perhaps too much to heart, coming up with a cast of characters rather complex for three books. Some people have criticized that and others have praised it. Either way, I’ve learned a lot for the future. That said, I would never abandon the use of passing characters. I want every scene to read like its own short story, and I do think an occasional outside perspective helps build the larger picture.

NOAF: The Banished Craft and The Fettered Flame are published by Atthis Arts, LLC, which is your own independent partnership publishing company. Can you tell us a little about Atthis Arts and what big plans you see for the future?

BELL: Yes, I’d love to. I’m very proud of Atthis Arts. From a business standpoint, what makes us different is we provide a hybrid between traditional publishing and self-publishing, balancing the pros and cons of each. From an artistic perspective, having a publisher owned by an author ensures that the author’s artistic vision is always at the center of the process, while still maintaining an appropriate balance.

Besides my own books, we’ve published the first book in the Anna’s Nightmare Series, When They Come Calling by Kansas City author Sarah Fleming Mountford. It’s a fresh-feeling adult urban paranormal that’s getting great reviews, and we hope to publish the sequel next year. We’re also working now with New Zealand author E.G. Wilson on her young-adult dark urban sci-fi story, the Voiceless Duology, for which we have a crowdfunding campaign online right now. We’re also providing author services to assist other indie authors. It’s an exciting time for the company.

Something I’m very proud of is our philosophy of non-discrimination, which brings a very non-forced type of diversity to the team. That means our primary criteria for publication include a strong author with a strong voice, but don’t include thinking like I do. An Atthis Arts title could be very different than an E.D.E. Bell title, and I’m fine with that. People are all in different places with their views and how it affects their art.

NOAF: Attis Arts also utilizes crowdfunding for other projects like the Lyric Poets Project (which sounds amazing by the way!). Tell us a little more about the Lyric Poets Project and what needs to happen for it to get off the ground.

BELL: The Lyric Poets Project was our first big crowdfunding failure, which is a shame, because the team had a really stellar idea, I think, and put a lot of love into moving it forward. I just think we didn’t have the right exposure to get it off the ground, and maybe not the right model to get to parents. The basic concept of The Lyric Poets Project is to get a complete, but not fully edited, manuscript into the hands of middle-grade readers, who walk through the editing process, providing inputs that are considered by the professional editing team. In the end, each Lyric Poet gets a copy of the published novel to see their editing skills in action. A group of Michigan 4th graders participated in a pilot last fall, and we received some great edits to this year’s LPP novel, Foreverafter: An Odd Adventure by Virginia author K.J. Quint, a fun and imaginative story filled with big and colorful imagery. We are now reaching out to 3rd-5th grade classrooms to complete Foreverafter this fall and spring. If you know of any young fantasy adventure lovers, please have their parent or teacher visit to find out how they can participate.

NOAF: Your Shkode books in particular are very beautiful, from the full dust covers to the chapter illustrations. Do you have a lot of say in the design or do you give full artistic license to your artists? 

BELL: Oh, thank you. I love them too. As for the covers, Anna Rettberg is an amazing artist and since she’s very busy now, I’m really honored and grateful she’s finishing the cover art for the trilogy. It’s a funny question you’ve asked, because I think I’ve driven her crazy with specifics as to the layout and details (though, she insists it’s fine). That said, I can barely draw passable stick figures, so while the concepts and some of the details are based on my design and vision, the art itself and the way it comes together so beautifully is all Anna. As for the chapter illustrations, the idea of the hands to introduce the setting was proposed by artist Ben Riddlebarger as a simpler, more elegant alternative to the idea that I had. And I love Ben’s maps so much – they are conceptual rather than literal, meant to give the reader a sense of the world(s) rather than be an exact depiction. I also encourage readers to note the individual chapter title illustrations throughout Spireseeker. The stylist who has cut my hair for many years, Kyle Walblay, lovingly crafted each of them, and I think they add so much to the story.

NOAF: And finally, I have to ask… When can we expect the final Shkode book, have you started writing?

BELL: I wrote the finale over the summer, and while it needs some rasslin’ around, I think it’s a pretty effective first draft. I’m particularly pleased with the ending. I’ll be working with editors over the fall and winter, and then we’ll run a crowdfunding campaign in February to help with the production costs. (Me and my hardcovers, you know.) I currently expect a 01 September 2017 release date for the finale – each book being released a year apart. There is always a temptation to rush it out, but I’d rather take the time to go through the editing stages and get it right.

As I discussed in the Foreword to The Fettered Flame, each of the books in the trilogy is different. The first was introductory, and I went a little out there on the second book. I am personally a Book 2 person, but I’ve learned there are people who prefer the directness of Book 1 to the more exploratory themes of Book 2. And I have good news for both camps: Book 3 is focused on being a finale, in many ways a balance between the first two books that should appeal to most readers. I’m very proud of it, and most of all, I hope people read and enjoy it.

Tia, thanks so much for this interview; great to be with you today, and I’m so honored that you and your team at Nerds of a Feather enjoy what I’m doing!

NOAF: We do! I think I can speak for the whole team when I say that diversity and inclusion are really important to us, and we all care a lot about representation in our treasured genre. We also have a soft spot in our collective heart for independent artists who stand apart from the mainstream and do something beautiful, wonderful, and meaningful.

If you would like to check out all of E.D.E Bell's books, visit her author pages at Amazon and Goodreads. You can get your own signed hardcover of The Banished Craft and The Fettered Flame from Atthis Arts Bookstore or get e-verisons here and here (Kindle/MOBI) or here and here (Nook/EPUB).