Teresa Frohock doesn’t really need an introduction. She’s an incredible author (whose work I think everyone should read) and an amazingly kind woman with a wonderful internet presence. She was also nice enough to answer my armload of questions, despite her incredibly busy life. I was beyond thrilled that she was willing to answer all of them, and I hope you find them as interesting as I did.
About the author
Raised in a small town in North Carolina, Teresa Frohock learned to escape to other worlds through the fiction collection of her local library. Teresa is the author of the dark fantasy, Miserere: An Autumn Tale. She has long been accused of telling stories, which is a southern colloquialism for lying.
You can find out how to contact Teresa on her website.
Onto the interview…
When you aren’t writing, what could people usually find you doing?
I am probably the world’s dullest person: I work full-time in a library as a cataloger. My family is important to me, so my husband and I travel when we can. I love to read (everything—fiction, non-fiction). I enjoy walking/jogging. I have a cat. Um, I know, I know … the excitement … moving on to the next question …
I almost hesitate to ask this question because it could be a sensitive topic, but you are fairly open about your hearing impairment. Do you think that’s affected your writing at all? If so, how?
I don’t mind talking about it at all, and yes, it has greatly affected how I deal with character interactions. Because I have such difficulty hearing, I am more conscious of relying on non-verbal clues such as inflection and body language than a hearing person might be. Inflection can sometimes tell me more than a person’s actual words; the tilt of a person’s head; the way they hold their body—pushed forward and in another person’s space, or reclined and relaxed—all these are clues about the individual’s state of mind, which can sometimes contradict the person’s words.
I translate those actions into some of my dialogue tags or in how one character assesses the intent of another. That is one reason why I believe that writing is a much harder storytelling medium to execute than movies or television—authors must communicate those shifts in mood and tone by writing convincing dialogue and body language.
Your website says that you have an interest in the grotesque. What is the most memorable grotesque thing you’ve seen?
I remember being incredibly fascinated with the Elephant Man (Joseph Merrick). The deformities he suffered were horrific; however, when I started reading about his life, I found something far less grotesque and much more interesting, namely, Joseph Merrick. He had an incredible attitude and was an extraordinary individual. It’s a bit much to go into here, but if you ever get an opportunity to read about him, do.
Do you have any guilty pleasures (besides the grotesque)? If so, care to share what they are?
Life is too short for me to take guilt in any of my pleasures. If I must pick one thing, then I choose chocolate. It is terrible for me, but I love it so.
Once I got a bunch of books in the mail. I shared a picture of them on Twitter and the author wrote back, “Have fun with six years of my life.” That statement really put things in perspective for me. How much of your life have you invested to the writing of Miserere?
Two, I think. It’s been a while now, so it’s hard for me to recall the exact length of time. I took five months to write the first draft, then another sixteen months learning how to put a coherent story together. I ended up rewriting large chunks of it. It seemed like it took forever.
Miserere is a sprawling novel. You have an incredibly vivid world, populated with amazingly real people from myriads of diverse backgrounds. Was building such a layered, well-realized world daunting? How did you go about creating your world, cultures and people? Do you have a wonderful process you’d care to share?
I don’t world build so much as I character build, then I construct my world around my characters. Miserere began with Lucian and Peter. Once I decided the novel was Lucian’s story and not Peter’s, then I worked on two biographies for Lucian: his pre-Woerld life and what his life was like after reaching Woerld. One question led to another and as I answered each question, I added another layer to Woerld. How did children from Earth reach Woerld? Who controlled the Crimson Veil and why? And so on.
The whole process wasn’t as daunting as it was confusing. It’s very difficult to remember all the details involved, so I found it helpful to keep something called a series sheet. This is just a document for my use that outlines the names and the details of the world-building that I use, like a reference cheat-sheet. I’ve used one for The Garden too, and it has kept me out of several messes.
Miserere deals a lot with religion. While the book focuses on Christianity, you mention plenty of other world religions as well. The way you use religion to shape cultures and people is fascinating. Did this require a lot of research to accomplish as realistically as you accomplished it? Religion is a touchy subject for nearly everyone. Were you nervous about placing it in such a central role in your book?
In response to your comment about using religion to shape cultures and people, I really didn’t make a lot up—if you look back through history, you’ll see how various religions have shaped our world and cultures, our attitudes and prejudices. I just translated those ideas into a fantasy setting.
There was a lot of research involved with Miserere. I read a lot of early Church and medieval writings to get the feel and flow of the liturgical cadence of speech that Lucian uses. I had some college background with Christianity and Judaism that helped me immensely.
It is very difficult to strike just the right balance between dogma, ritual, and spiritual aspects of any religion, especially when it involves a place like Woerld where the political and cultural aspects are redefined and shift away from some of the inherent prejudices that we have on Earth. The friction on Woerld is still there, but it is much more subtle.
John (the Citadel’s Seraph) loves Ephraim (the Rabbinate’s Seraph), but he resents the implication from the Rabbinate’s Inquisitor that the Christians have lost control of one of their members. Worse still is the underlying threat that if the Christians can’t bring Lucian to heel, the Rabbinate intends to step in and take control.
The conflict here is subtle but two-fold: there is the political threat of a take-over followed by the doctrinal friction between the two groups. This is the kind of tension that remains between all the Seraphs on Woerld and it’s exhibited in restrained jabs and asides that test the patience of all of them. I may call them Seraphs, but they are all quite human.
As to your next question about whether I was nervous about placing religion in my novel: yes and no. I was more nervous about finding an agent or publisher. Fantasy readers, as a group, are extremely diverse and usually quite open to new concepts and new ideas. That is one reason that I’ve always loved genre fiction.
I’ve had a few readers that fell into the “Christians! Ew, ew, ew!” camp, but they have been few and far between. Any novel is going to have naysayers, so those people aren’t a big deal. There are plenty of other novels out there for them.
I wanted to do something different, and I wanted to treat my subject matter with the respect that it deserved. I have a wonderful agent who saw the story and she loved it. We discussed making it a third world fantasy if we received a negative reaction from publishers and were prepared to go that route, but Weronika also saw the potential for stepping outside the box. I really appreciate her taking that risk and staying close to my original vision.
The characters in your book span a wide age range. Were some characters easier to write than others due to their ages? If so, which ones? Why?
The only character that was incredibly difficult to write was Lindsay. She is twelve. I am not. I don’t think I ever was; my friends used to joke that I was born thirty years old. It was incredibly difficult for me to get into the head of a child like Lindsay, who is good and basically hasn’t lived through any significant trauma. My beta readers and Weronika were amazing. They helped me define Lindsay’s character. Don’t worry, though, she got roughed up a bit in Miserere, so now I have something to work with.
Lucian and Rachael are both suffering from disabilities. I think a lot of people connect deeply with your characters, partly due to their own personal struggles. You do a great job at showing each character’s personal issues, but how they also accomplish a lot despite their limitations. Did you consciously decide to have characters with limitations, or was that their natural development? Did you have any inspirations for them?
Thank you for the compliment! Yes, I did want them both disabled for characterization and plot reasons. I didn’t believe that either of them would have lived so long unscathed in such a harsh environment.
Rachael’s disability is simply a by-product of her possession, but I didn’t want her possession to exhibit itself in bad behavior or evil. I wanted something more sublime, the loss of her mind to something she could not control.
My father died of Alzheimer’s and I remember how he slipped away from us. He was a fiercely intelligent man and it was horrible watching him lose everything that was good about him to such a terrible disease. I tried to imagine what it would be like to lose your mind to something so insidious, and I incorporated that into Rachael’s possession.
For Lucian, I needed a way for Catarina to control Lucian’s movements. I didn’t want him imprisoned, yet I also didn’t want him so crippled that he had to rely on others to move about. At the time I wrote Miserere, my husband was recuperating from surgery for a knee replacement. That was when I discovered the key for Lucian, and let me say, the knee is a very important joint.
A lot of reviewers have said that Miserere is dark fantasy. What I think is interesting is how much goodness you pack into the book to balance out the darker moments and themes. Was that balance between darkness and light hard for you to attain?
No, because while the subject matter in Miserere is dark, the characters are not (well, except for the antagonists, but SOMEBODY has to be the bad guy). I’ve read countless biographies of regular people who have overcome tremendous obstacles in their environment and they never lost hope. They sought the good in people and circumstances; they have faith, either in themselves, a higher power, humanity as a whole, whatever, and they have hope.
Lucian is, deep down and at his core, a good man. He has been misguided and deluded in his thinking, but he is not an evil person. He has the ability to step outside of himself and see how his actions affect others, and he has an enormous amount of faith and hope. He has the ability to grow emotionally.
I am not a nihilist; it just does not align with my belief system. If I write a misanthropic character, that character is usually the antagonist, because in my heart of hearts, I like to believe that people are good and seek to better understand themselves and the world around them.
Likewise, I don’t believe that every antagonist must suffer some mental illness. There are people in the world who are evil and truly have no empathy for others. I don’t try to explain antagonists like that. I don’t think anyone can.
Did you learn anything about yourself when you wrote Miserere?
I learned a great deal about communication both in my story and through my blog. I also learned that if I applied myself, I could achieve my dreams.
What is your history with writing? Have you always dabbled with writing, or is it a newly discovered talent?
I wrote my first novel during my late teens and early twenties, landed a literary agent, and never sold a thing, because I was too stupid to listen to my agent. I don’t consider myself talented at all. I’m a hard worker, though.
Miserere is your debut novel, and it is a huge success. Has anything about being a successful published author surprised you?
I don’t know about the “successful” part, but the marketing that I’ve had to learn has surprised me. I thought I had prepared myself for the amount of work involved, but I’m afraid I short-shifted precisely how many hours I’d spend marketing in addition to trying to write a second novel. It really got overwhelming at times.
Some writers have a “system” they use to help them get their writing done each day. Some write in the morning. Some go to coffee shops. Some authors write at night. Some are more organic and let the writing happen when it happens. Do you have a system that works for you?
I write in every spare minute that I have. I know that doesn’t sound magical, but when the day is only given to twenty-four hours, you gotta do what you gotta do. I write during my breaks at work; lunch hours are devoted to editing or writing blog/interviews/guest posts; and every evening between the hours of 7:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m., I write. I devote my weekends toward editing. Like I said: I work hard.
Your fans are probably wondering what you are working on now. Do you care to share what your next projects are?
Hopefully, by the time this interview goes live, I’ll have completed my edits on The Garden. This is also a dark fantasy, but it’s more historical than Miserere was. The Garden is set in the Iberian Peninsula in 1348, or at least, that’s where we begin. I’ve always loved the Celtic land of fey, so I put a spin on that concept.
The Garden shot me out of my comfort zone on many levels. The amount of research was incredible, and I spent some time talking to several patient gay men who were able to give me some super suggestions for Diago’s character. They answered my questions and pointed me to superb resources. I’m really very, very appreciative of their time, and I feel like the relationship between Diago and Miquel is much more solid and real given their input.
Do you think you’ll always write fantasy, or are there other genres you’d like to dabble in?
I don’t know. I’d like to write horror, and I’m really drawn to gothic novels. I’d like to spin in that direction someday.
I think writing often requires a support system. Do you have a support system? If so, what/who is it?
Oh, yes, I have a lovely group of writers and reviewers online that I communicate with and I have just begun meeting with a critique group in my immediate area once a month. I have an awesome agent, who is supportive and wise. I trust her judgment completely.
You have held a wide variety of jobs in your life. You have been a waitress; DJ, legal assistant and now you work at a library. How have these jobs affected your writing?
The best parts of each of those jobs are the various people that I learned about. Each of those occupations has brought me in contact with people from various walks of life and has taught me more about myself than anything else. I’ve been very lucky.
Thank you so much for your time!!
Thank you for having me here!!