Stina Leicht is an author I’ve wanted to interview since I read her first book, Of Blood and Honey. I really respect her quite a bit, and found myself afraid to approach her for an interview for a long time. Stina is a phenomenal author and a vibrant, thoughtful person all around. Due to how much I admire her, I had a very hard time narrowing down the questions I was going to ask. Instead of sending her a few questions, like what I’m sure she would have preferred I’d done, I sent her a ton of them. Stina handled the load I heaped on her with incredible grace, especially taking into consideration that she’s a very busy woman. I really appreciate the time she took answering my whole slew of questions, and I’m sure you will enjoy learning a bit more about the amazing Stina Leicht.
Please welcome her warmly.
About the author
Stina Leicht was born in St. Louis. She went to Catholic school, learned to skate, fought pirates, and rescued her sister’s dolls from terrible fates. Her father, being a practical-minded person, didn’t wish for his children to believe in anything that wasn’t real. Unfortunately for him, her mother soon hired an Irish babysitter with a gift for storytelling and then armed her with a three inch thick volume of fairy tales. Thus, Stina’s future as a practical-minded person was forever doomed. (Not that practical-minded girls are known for pirate fighting). Reading on her own didn’t come easily. So it wasn’t until she was eight that she discovered the magic of books. Strangely, the first story that motivated her to read wasn’t fiction. It was a biography of Hellen Keller. She hasn’t stopped reading since. Currently, Stina is a fantasy writer. She lives in central Texas with her husband, their shared library and a cat named Sebastian. She still fights pirates but traded in her trusty wooden stick for a rapier and dagger. Of course, pirate ships being somewhat rare in central Texas, she makes due with her friend’s back yard — which is fine because she gets stabbed quite a lot and would only end up in the sea anyway.
Click here to visit her website.
Onto the interview…
First, could you tell your readers a little more about you? What do you do when you aren’t writing?
I like watching films, live theater, television, reading books, and even some role playing games. It’s all storytelling. I also like to bake, go for long walks with my husband, play with my camera, do art projects, and believe it or not, quilt. I listen to a lot of music too. If I had enough money, I’d travel a lot. Of course, if I had a lot of money I’d also rally race regularly and own a fully restored ’69 Mustang CobraJet 429 or a ’60s era Shelby. I like old school muscle cars.
Could you briefly tell your readers about your journey as a writer? When did you start writing, and how has your writing evolved over time?
I’ve been writing with the intent of being a professional since 2002. First, I joined a local Sci-fi/Fantasy writer’s group. Then I started going to SFF literary conventions. I met my best friend, Melissa Tyler, at my first writer’s group, and we formed our own group. (We called it Wyred Sisters because we met in coffee shops.) I worked at a bookstore then. (BookPeople.) Got my first real break at the Armadillocon Writer’s Workshop when the visiting editor, Jim Minz, asked me for my novel manuscript after he read my short story entry. From there, I started talking to agents and professional writers pretty regularly. Because of the workshop, I have two wonderful and patient mentors: Charles de Lint and Sharon Shinn. Also during my six years at BookPeople, I met Holly Black when she came to Austin for a signing. (I’d personally hand sold around 100 copies of the hardback edition of her book, Tithe.) She was extremely nice to me, and we exchanged emails over the years. Eventually, she introduced me to my agent, Joe Monti. Joe loved Of Blood and Honey right away but wanted me to revise it, and I agreed but I wasn’t all that hopeful. Eventually, I ended up ditching 66,000 words of the original per his suggestion and then he offered representation based on the rewrite.
Understand, this is the super-short version of an eight year process. The big disappointments have been glossed over–for example not being able to sell short stories, also Jim Minz didn’t buy that manuscript, and the very first agent I started to work with (not Joe) decided not to represent me — even after we’d worked together for a year on edits. However, in the end those were great lessons and helped me get through tougher times later. Experience is a wonderful teacher. Anyway, I now have the best agent for me and a much better novel was published too. Sometimes life throws you loops for good reasons, you know? Patience isn’t the easiest thing to have, but I believe that’s part of the process of becoming the best writer you can be.
Oh, and I always want to evolve as a writer. There’s so much to learn — too much. You can’t know everything about writing. That’s what’s so wonderful. I want to improve–always.
You have released two books now – Of Blood and Honey and And Blue Skies From Pain. Has anything about being a successful author surprised you? Do book releases get easier after your first one?
Back when I was first writing I thought all would be well the instant I got an agent. Then I had one, but the fairytale ending didn’t happen. So, I thought once I sold my first book my life would be perfect. I sold my first book. (Or Joe did.) Still, no fairytale ending. Then came the day I was writing that second book. I woke up and understood that a writing career isn’t about fairytale endings and resting on laurels. It’s a journey. The achievement markers are always moving. There’s no “and then they lived happily ever after.” In some ways, it’s scarier from this side of all those milestones. The markers are less standardised. It’s hard to think of what is next in terms of factors that you can control because you control so little. You’ve also so much more to lose. Everything cycles, and it’s a rare writer whose career doesn’t contain bumpy parts. That aspect of it did surprise me. Very much.
That said, I love being a writer. I love writing. I’m very lucky to be able to make money at it. I’m even luckier to be married to someone who supports my writing career — otherwise, I’d starve.
If you had to estimate, how long would you say it takes you to write a book from gestation of an idea, to the finished product?
It takes me about a year to eighteen months. I understand that’s a bit slow, but that’s how I work. I revise quite a bit before my agent ever sees it–or even my alpha and beta readers for that matter.
(Just because I’m curious…) I have noticed that you are really into Kung fu. What got you started with it? How long have you been doing it?
I’ve been interested in martial arts since I was a little kid. I really did play pirates with stick swords. I thought Errol Flynn was amazing. I also grew up watching David Carradine in the ’70s TV series Kung Fu. So, I’ve alternated between Western and Eastern martial arts my whole life. I took Kendo at University of Texas, and studied it for almost two years before I had to quit. I had foil fencing at ACC. Kendo is far more aggressive than western fencing, and no one expects an aggressive female on a western fencing line. My western coach thought it was awesome. He also had to drill it into my thick skull that I needed to learn to be more defensive — or at least defensive enough to survive. When I graduated college I dabbled in saber, epee, rapier and dagger and buckler. Then I stopped because I’d started writing Of Blood and Honey and well… that style of fighting just didn’t fit with what I was writing.
Then last November and December there were a series of attacks against women in my neighborhood. Two young women were murdered. I stopped feeling safe in my own house. A local Kung Fu school (Moy Yat Ving Sung Kung Fu Academy http://www.txkungfu.com/) offered free self defense classes. I decided to sign up because, while I felt confident in defending myself with a sword, I couldn’t exactly carry one. (I don’t like guns, by the way, and refuse to own one.) The instructors at the school turned out to be amazing, and I’ve been studying at Moy Yat Kung Fu Academy ever since. Kung Fu is the only martial art designed by a woman for women, by the way. It isn’t about He-Man strength and overpowering your enemy. It’s about the geometry and angles and the mechanics of the human form. It’s the beauty of simple leverage. I adore it.
General questions about The Fey and the Fallen:
Why did you choose to set your series in Ireland during a very bloody, tense period of Irish history?
In part, it was one of those moments when my imagination took me in a direction, and I had to go with it. Liam showed up one day in a short story. Charles de Lint read it and wisely asked me where the rest of the story was. (Did I mention I’m a novelist and not really a short story writer?) I began thinking about Liam, and his background started forming up in my brain. At the same time, I stumbled upon the non-fiction book Those Are Real Bullets by two British reporters Peter Pringle and Philip Jacobson. It’s an eye-witness account of Bloody Sunday, January 1972. I knew then I was on to something wonderful, but at the same time I didn’t feel I was the right person to write that story. In short, I kept telling Liam to piss off and find a Northern Irish writer to tell his story, and well… Liam’s one stubborn bastard. He absolutely wouldn’t leave me alone. It’s ridiculous, but Elizabeth Moon sort of had to give me permission. She told me to write what I love and not what I know. She also told me to interview people who’d lived through the Troubles. She’s one very wise woman sometimes.
A lot of reviewers and readers think that authors have a hard time writing realistic characters of the opposite sex. Your character Liam is (obviously) male, and he is incredibly realistic, well rounded and beautifully created. Was it hard for you to write a male protagonist? Do you have any tips for individuals writing opposite sex protagonists?
It’s a genre writer’s job to write about Other, if you ask me. Monsters, aliens, fantasy creatures… they’re a huge part of what makes Science Fiction and Fantasy Science Fiction and Fantasy. If writing about the opposite sex is too overwhelming for you — a large group of people who are easily accessible — then I don’t know how you’ll ever make a believable alien. Always start with the mundane and then move into the unreal. People are people. Men do have unique characteristics that are different from women, but it’s really not that hard to find out what they are. Talk to men. Talk to women. Be observant. Above all, listen don’t talk.
Liam as a male was dead easy to write. He’s one part me and many other parts my husband and many other parts totally made up. (My characters are always a mix.) Men are easier for me to write than women are for some reason. (I know male writers who find female characters more comfortable. So, it’s not that odd, really.) Largely, I double-check with my husband to make sure my male characters are male. I will say that the aspect of Liam that was particularly difficult was making him an Irish male and not an American male — even more specifically, a Northern Irish Catholic male. There’s more to that kind of thing than getting the dialog right. There are cultural and psychological factors too. Add in the PTSD and well… it takes a lot of thought to make sure everything fits just so. I’m still not sure I did it right, but it’s clear I got close enough.
One unique aspect of The Fey and the Fallen series is that Liam, as well as most, if not all, of the characters in this series are Catholic in the Protestant north. This really portrays the conflict in a very interesting light. Is there any specific reason you chose to feature Catholics rather than Protestants? If so, why?
First, I was raised very Catholic and went to Catholic school. I know what that’s like. Irish Catholics aren’t drastically different since the Catholic Church tends to keep things fairly standard all over the world. Therefore, I wasn’t starting from scratch. I had some level of comfort zone. Protestants on the other hand, not so much. The Protestants I’m familiar with are southern American Protestants not British Protestants. The feeling I got from my research was that these two groups are pretty different. Also, I live in the Bible Belt. I know what it’s like to live as a Catholic minority among a Protestant majority in the U.S.. So, in a way, I was making it easier on myself. Second, I mentioned earlier that I’d read Those are Real Bullets. It had a huge influence on the direction I took with my work.
When I started reading Of Blood and Honey I thought you were from Ireland because your research was so incredibly well done. Northern Ireland really shines. I was shocked to learn that you haven’t been to Northern Ireland, but despite that, the world comes alive. You even included small details like common slang terms. I am incredibly impressed with this. I would absolutely love to know how you managed such in-depth research which allowed you to let the area, people and conflict come alive for the reader.
I immersed myself as much as I could. I took Irish language lessons, studied Irish culture, read about Irish foods, Irish history, watched Irish films, looked at Northern Irish photos of the time, listened to Irish music and Irish audio books written by Irish authors and read by Irish readers, or at least narrators with credibly real Irish accents. I soaked in Ireland as much as I could manage from thousands of miles away. I even slept with Irish novels playing in my ears at night — all this for three years.
Funny story: I discovered about a year ago that I’ve a neighbor two doors down who is from Dublin. We invited him and his wife over for a big BBQ. Per usual, I gave them a tour of the house with the other guests and was promptly embarrassed when I noticed just how much Irish stuff I have around the house. Yeah. i still cringe about that one.
On your webpage, you say that your babysitter was Irish with a gift for storytelling. She then gave you a thick volume of fairy tales. The magic system in The Fey and the Fallen is loosely based on Irish lore. I can’t help but wonder if the stories you were told as a child helped influence the birth of the fantasy elements of this series. Is this true? What else influenced the creation of your fey, and the conflicts that surround them?
Honestly, I think the biggest influence my babysitter had was a love for fairy tales and beautiful accents. She had a lovely voice. I remember making her read “Froggy Would A-Wooing Go” about twenty times one night until she begged to stop. I just adored listening to her. However, the influence on the Fey in my books are the old stories. I read The Tain among other things. The Fey in those stories have very little in common with the Fey written about in most American novels. They’re more like Paul Bunyan and John Henry and absolutely nothing like Cecily Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies. (Although, I like those fairies too.) I thought it’d be interesting to see what would happen if I wrote Urban Fantasy the way someone living in Ireland might. So many Urban Fantasy books have been written about fairies in the United States. I was curious to see what would happen if they were in their home environment. I read a review not long about about how my fey fit so seamlessly into the backdrop of Ireland, and I admit I laughed a bit. Of course they do.
Questions about And Blue Skies From Pain
One interesting aspect of From Blue Skies And Pain is how you don’t shy away from showing prejudice and fear from Liam’s perspective, as well as the perspective of the Catholics, and it is a huge driving force behind many of the perceptions and events in the book. You really don’t shy away from any of the uncomfortable situations or details. This is both humbling and very somber. However, you write about these uncomfortable situations in such a way that the reader can see why Liam feels the way he does, as well as the Catholics. It’s very interesting. Was it hard for you to write so candidly about prejudice? I would be interested in hearing about why you chose to use prejudice and fear as such powerful driving forces behind many events and perceptions in your book, and how you managed to write about it so realistically without going overboard.
Americans live with prejudice every day. Racism exists. Sexism exists. Even Agism and Classism. And now we’ve even got prejudice against persons with opposing political views. (I don’t even know what “ism” that is.) I felt prejudice was something that needed to be examined because we seem to spend so much time denying the power of these problems, and in some unfortunate cases, denying they even exist. We need to start talking about these problems and thinking about what all this means before it consumes us. I also wanted to look at terrorism. I wanted to understand why terrorism exists, and why someone would resort to it. Of course these things were difficult to write about, but I feel it’s a writer’s duty. Literature, good literature anyway, asks questions. It doesn’t provide answers. The instant you provide the answers to readers you’re in propaganda territory. The answers should always be up to the reader. You have to have faith in your readers and respect for them. They’re smart people. Treat them like smart people. I know I appreciate it when I’m treated that way.
And Blue Skies From Pain focuses quite a bit on fey and church politics. How was the research and writing of these politics different from writing about Irish politics?
I had a lot less solid information for a start. So, I had to make up quite a bit more. But it was still fun. I don’t feel I did enough research around the Church, but there wasn’t a huge amount of time for that, I’m afraid. I was almost as afraid of getting those aspects wrong as I was the Irish politics on some days. However, the knowledge that I could make it up anyway was very freeing.
One thing that I loved about And Blue Skies From Pain is how, after everything Liam went through in Of Blood and Honey, you didn’t shy away from showing how these events effected his emotional state. His emotions are so raw and powerful they are absolutely chilling. I’m amazed by it. You should get a prize for depicting realistic emotions of well-rounded characters. Some of his thoughts and actions were hard for me to read because they were so incredibly real. I can’t help but wonder; if they were hard for me to read about, were they hard for you to write about? Was it difficult to get into Liam’s head?
It wasn’t hard to get into Liam’s head. It was hard staying there. There were moments when I had to write a few lines and get up out of my chair, walk around the room, go outside, and then go back and write a few more lines. The scene in Malone (a fictional prison based on Long Kesh, by the way) was one of the hardest things to write that I’ve ever written. Mary Kate’s fate was tough. Oran’s was equally so. There were scenes in Blue Skies that were difficult too — such as Liam finally coming to terms with what happened to him in the first book. I wasn’t sure how that was going to work out. He just sort of staggered through it with Mary Kate as a guide. There’s Bran having to allow Liam to make all the mistakes he needs to make in order to grow up — all the while knowing what the consequences could be. I don’t have children, but I have watched my sister raise two kids. That has to be heartbreaking.
Father Murray plays a much larger role in this book. He is a very sympathetic character who seems to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. He also has a sort of parental role for Liam. In a dark, gritty book, Father Murray is a point of light and hope. I sometimes wonder how much of characters are planned, and how much of a character’s development is a surprise to the author. In that respect, how much of Father Murray evolved during the writing of this book, and how much of his traits were planned beforehand?
I’m an organic writer. So, not terribly much is pre-planned. That said, Father Murray surprised me a lot. I wanted him to be kind and strong and a good male role model for Liam because Liam didn’t have one in his life, and if Liam was going to be a convincing and sympathetic protagonist, he absolutely needed a male role model. Also growing up, I was lucky. I knew more priests who were wonderful human beings than I did who weren’t. And even though I’m not a Catholic any longer — nor a Christian, I miss that sense of community. So, I made Father Murray all the things about the Catholic Church that I miss and don’t exist any more. He’s the part of me that didn’t lose faith. The times he surprised me most were his loyalty to the Church pushed him over the line ethically. But it would. He’s an assassin for Pete’s sake.
For the record, I’m Pro-Choice, but Father Murray wouldn’t be.
And Blue Skies From Pain is a wonderful continuation of an impressive series. Was writing this book different from writing Of Blood and Honey? What did you learn from writing Of Blood and Honey that made And Blue Skies From Pain different in both writing and content (if anything)?
Blue Skies was very different. For a start, Of Blood and Honey contains more history, horror, and mystery than fantasy. Blue Skies is more of an urban fantasy, horror, and crime caper combination. Plus, Liam is aware of what he is in Blue Skies, even if he doesn’t know how to control it. He’s learning and changing — growing as a person. As a result, he’ll be happier for it. So, I believe. We’ll see what happens when I start book three.
For those of us going through Stina Leicht withdrawals, what can readers expect from you in the future?
I’m working on a new series right now. The working title for the first book is Cold Iron. It’s a fantasy set in an 18th century world. Expect standard fantasy races with my own twists, including racism, war, small pox, and magic. I hope you don’t mind my being vague. I don’t like to talk about projects much until they’re finished. There’s a part of me that starts to think the project is done when I spend too much time talking. I can’t allow my subconscious to shut down the storytelling shop yet. I have to finish and get it to my agent this month.