Emily June Street is one of my favorite people AND one of my favorite authors, and the combination is a double-whammy. I’ve read the books she’s placed on the market thus far, and of all of them, I’m likely most excited about Sterling. Emily was kind enough to give me an intimate look at the book in its construction stages, asking me to do a developmental and line edit on the book, and I am in awe of not only the skill with which she writes, but the themes which she explores, the sheer strength of her world, and the intricacy of her magic systems and character descriptions. A master of her craft, Emily can most certainly hold her own in the annals of stellar fantasy literature.
So when I sent her my list of questions, I expected nothing less than amazing, well-thought-out answers, and Emily delivered. Come see what she has to say about the crafting of her latest work of art, Sterling.
1.) In three sentences, tell us what Sterling is about.
When an unexpected tragedy throws Lethemia back into civil war, shy Sterling Ricknagel must flee for her life. Wanted as a traitor, she still seeks to restore her family’s crumbling honor. Assisted by the notorious rake who was once her fiancé, Sterling sets out on an epic journey, facing despair, deceits, and danger to discover the truth about her family—and herself.
2.) Many authors base their characters on people who inspire them in real life. If you had to narrow down Sterling’s character to a person or an inspiration from real life, who would you base her character on?
Sterling was one of the first characters I’ve ever actually modeled on a real person—at first. She veered away from that inspiration pretty quickly, as characters will do. I tend to write lead characters who are very gritty (in the sense of being determined and tenacious) and also rational instead of emotional, especially in decision-making and reactions to adversity. They are tough rather than soft. I really needed/wanted Sterling to be different, more uncertain, more anxious, more doubtful of herself and her place in the world. She’s a little ball of FEELINGS. I needed a model for that, since I didn’t fully understand it as a way of being, which is why a certain person inspired me. In the end, I think Sterling turned into an interesting combination of emotional and rational. I’m abstaining from a specific answer to your question, as you can see…
*Editor’s note: I narrow my eyes in your general direction… 😉
3.) What was the most difficult part of writing this book? What was the easiest?
When I began Sterling, I literally began it as a fun story I wanted to write just for myself—I never saw it expanding into a book or even being read by anyone other than me (This is what I say about all the books, but it held true for a lot longer with this one.) Because of that, I felt very loose and free while I wrote; I gave myself permission to let the story go wherever it would. This made it easy to write as a first draft; I was able to get into the flow. What came out ended up being a romance story vaguely based on Beauty and the Beast, with a twist (or two). So that was the easy part, getting down the bones—and that isn’t always the easy part for me; it just happened to be so in this case.
The difficult part was everything that came after. The decision to include the story in my Tales of Blood & Light series made it imperative that I connect the book to other plot lines from the earlier and later books in the series, so that was a big part of the editing process, taking what was essentially just a romance story and “plotifying” it to match it up with the rest of the series. I’ve never had to do that particular kind of surgery on a book before, and it was difficult.
The other difficult part has been accustoming myself to the lighter, romance-y nature of the book. I think I’m more naturally a dark/grey-space writer, so producing this romance book surprised me, and it may surprise readers as well. I know some readers may find the romance too “light,” but now that all is said and done, I think the whole idea of “romance” adds an important element to my series and what I am trying to explore inside it at the thematic and creative levels.
4.) Every author learns from other authors around them. If you had to sit down to dinner with some of the well-known fantasy-fathers, Tolkien, Martin, Lewis, etc, what is one strength of your book you could isolate in Sterling that they may not have considered for their books?
Oh, gosh, that is a hard question. Maybe exploring the interiority of women through a first person voice? I think most writers have themes they return to again and again, and that’s one of mine.
Tolkien and Lewis were really wrangling with good vs. evil as a dominant theme, particularly how that plays out in the minds and hearts and actions of men (or hobbits or Puddleglums), sometimes in relation to overt spiritual themes, sometimes not. You can see their fantasy books reflecting the construction of good and evil in the world during their era. Martin’s books are similarly concerned with good vs. evil, but in a whole different way, deconstructing rather than reflecting, showing how so much of human “good” or human “evil” is a matter of perspective, relationship, and motivation.
I’d say my books are more similar to Martin’s in that respect—I’m a creature of my era, after all, and we live in a very “grey” time, where the lines we draw between good and evil have grown complicated and fuzzy as we try to hold, respect, or just comprehend multiple conflicting viewpoints at once.
In my ToB&L books I’m not so concerned with defining what is good and what is evil, but rather with showing why people do what they do. Every book in the series is a psychological exploration of that question, which is why I favor the first-person narrative—the basic kernel of why I’m writing is to go inside that interior space to seek understanding. I think my books differ from a lot of fantasy in that—I’m interested in the individual and her perspective and how an individual’s story intersects with and deviates from “the truth” or what is commonly accepted as “the story.” I’m also interested in the differing voices and internal realities of the characters, and how those voices can come together to form one cohesive story. Martin does this, too, but in a less intimate fashion, using third-limited instead of first-person narration.
I could really go on about this topic for hours, pointing out reasons why I think Tolkien and Lewis worked in third omniscient and what that says about the world they lived in and why trends have shifted away from that voice and what that says about the world Martin and I write in, but it I should probably save it for the next time I take a literature course!
5.) Do you write with music on in the background? If so, what’s your favorite score to write to? How does music affect the way you write?
Sometimes I write with music, sometimes I don’t. It depends on my mood. If I do use music, it must be instrumental or without very recognizable lyrics. I don’t like to hear too many words in the background while I write. One reason I don’t always use music is that I get pretty caught up in the music itself when I’m listening—I had a lot of dance training when I was young, and music tends to make me want to move. That would be the really short answer to the question. A longer answer is:
Generally, if I use music, it has to match the story I’m working on. With the ToB&L books, they are set in a fantasy world that is loosely “historical,” meaning the level of technology is probably 18th or 19th century, though some of the other societal structures may be older—from Ancient Rome or Greece, Medieval, etc. I listened to a lot of piano and cello sonatas by Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert while writing Sterling—that kind of regal, classical style suited her. Also ballets and waltzes for the court dances.
For The Cedna, I worked with entirely different music, much later classical stuff, often Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff—heavier and wilder and less harmonious.
The Gantean I wrote for so long that I’m not sure I could say I favored any particular music. I feel like there was a Chopin phase in there that lasted for quite a while though—piano sonatas, mostly.
For a later, not yet released ToB&L book that features a cultural group you only get to see for a moment in Sterling, the Esani, I listen to a modern cello fusion music that combines eastern and western motifs (namely, Adam Hurst). I also like Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances for this.
For some of my books that are set in a more contemporary world or even in the future, or when I’m formatting, I listen to electronica like The Glitch Mob, Tycho, or Son Lux.
My favorite score to write (or do anything) to is probably Beethoven’s 7th Symphony.
6.) Say one of your characters from Sterling accompanies you to work at your Pilates studio and you make him or her teach a class. Which character would you choose to lead the class, and why?
Well, there’s one who is the very obvious choice, but nobody has met her yet except as a baby, so I don’t think I can pick her. And she won’t come into the story until Book Five, I think, so there’s a ways to go before we meet her.
This is perhaps going to shock you, but I choose either Costas Galatien, the King of Lethemia, or Laith Amar, a mage. Teaching and speaking to a group would make poor Sterling too anxious, and Erich wouldn’t feel comfortable touching the students, which can be an important part of the job, helping people develop awareness via touch cues and helping them reach beyond their edges a bit.
Laith would be a good teacher if he could be bothered to care—which might be difficult, since he’s quite independent. But he has a depth of knowledge about unseen things, and that’s important, I find, for communicating about movement—so much of the teaching Pilates has to do with teaching awareness inside the body, and Laith is good at that because of his magical prowess. He is also a natural healer, and the two professions have a great deal of overlap.
Costas, for all his arrogance and privilege, might be the best teacher of movement in the series. First of all, he has great skill at martial arts, which requires deep physical knowledge. He invented his own system of martial arts (The Thirteen Forms) and then, of his own accord, taught that system to many young orphan boys from the streets of Galantia, so he has motivation, inspiration, and experience. He might need to work on his compassion factor, but he certainly already has a sense of responsibility, which is an important aspect of a teacher, too.
7.) What’s next for you?
I’m just going to keep plugging away on the ToB&L. I have four more books in the series to edit, revise, or rewrite. Book Four is undergoing a massive rewrite right now. Lead characters are changing; major timeline issues are being addressed. I’m surprising myself every other sentence. I also have at least twelve half-written novels on my computer desktop that are not part of this series. I want to finish them all. Time is a limited resource in my life, but I try to find room for everything.
Life can change in an instant.
Shy, shunned Sterling Ricknagel never expected to become High Princess of Lethemia—or to be betrothed to the handsomest lord in the land. Though she fears rejection, she dutifully represents her House.
Every privilege comes with a cost.
When an unexpected tragedy throws the country back into civil war, Sterling flees for her life. Anchorless and alone, she knows she must restore her family’s crumbling honor.
Love can prevail over any obstacle.
Sterling’s only possible ally is the one man she cannot trust: her former fiancé, a notorious rake who harbors his own secrets.
Seeking redemption, Sterling sets out on an epic journey, facing despair, deceits, and danger to discover the truth about her family—and herself.
Emily Street began writing as a child and never stopped. Writing is the way she relaxes at home after a long day of rolling like a ball at her real job as a Pilates instructor.
She lives in California with a husband and two mutts. When not hanging upside down in her Pilates studio or banging on her keyboard, she can be found cycling or swinging high on a flying trapeze.