Interview With Jennifer A. Nielsen
Jennifer A. Nielsen is the New York Times bestselling author of The Ascendence Trilogy and a two time recipient of the Whitney Award in 2013 and 2014.
She is also the author of the The Mark of the Thief Series.
Hello Ms. Nielsen, everyone who reads Tales Untangled is thrilled to have the chance to hear from you today. It always feels like a special event to hear from busy authors.
Because many readers dream of becoming authors, it’s inspirational to hear your story of becoming a successful author. How and when did you decide to start writing?
I never intended to be a writer. I always had stories in my head and enjoyed writing, but it had never occurred to me that I could be a writer. When my oldest child was born, I quit my job teaching to stay home with him and…it turns out, new babies are rather boring. I felt like my brain was melting, so I began reading a ton, which was great, but I enjoyed every book a little less than the one before it. I wished the author had done something different, or I felt a scene was predictable, or I thought if I had written this book, here’s what I would’ve done.
One day I realized that the only way I would get the exact story I wanted, was if I wrote it. So I began to write, just for fun. and midway through that first, truly horrible manuscript, I realized that someone had to be publishing all these books I’d read. And if they could do it, why not me> That’s when I became serious about writing.
One of the things I love about you becoming an author is that you didn’t just know you would write from the moment you could first string a sentence together. It sounds like you have taken your time to learn the craft to become successful.
Recently you released THE TRAITOR’S GAME, another New York Times bestseller.
(I’m hoping the next will be out soon.) It pulled me in multiple directions and I couldn’t put it down. Sometimes I was laughing and sometimes screaming. What was your original inspiration to write a novel about the dilemma of becoming a traitor?
Many inspirations came together for THE TRAITOR’S GAME. We own some property in Wyoming and the summer I was working on the book, a fire tore through the land leaving large acres completely burnt. Those images became the inspiration for All Spirits Forest. I was also heavily inspired by the song “Run” by Snow Patrol, a song about two people who clearly loved each other but were being forced apart. I wanted to know more about them and the answers led me to Simon and Kestra. Finally, I studied the true stories of people in history who were considered traitors, looking at who was later considered a hero, and who was a villain.
And since you asked, the second book of the series, THE DECEIVER’S HEART, will be out in early 2019. I know it’s still a long time to wait but I’m very proud of this story, and really push Simon and Kestra to their limits, so I hope readers will think the wait is worth it.
I love how you have more than one inspiration for the book; that explains why it is multi-dimensional. I’m marking my calendar for THE DECEIVER’S HEART. It is worth the wait!
I’ve liked your characters in previous series, and also love the dual point of view you’ve used this time between Kestra and Simon. Starting with Kestra and Trina, how do you create strong characters and differentiate them from each other? Especially when two characters have similar circumstances which have isolated them from others. I easily could have hated Trina, but I actually felt compassion for her even though she is abrasive to Kestra.
I think it’s easy for me to differentiate characters because in my head, I treat them like different people. They each have such different backgrounds and motives and wounds, that they would also naturally have different voices. Trina and Kestra interest me too, since in slightly altered circumstances, each of them might have become the other and no wonder Trina resents Kestra for that. Their relationship will continue to evolve in THE DECEIVER’S HEART, and they will discover that for better or worse, their fates are bound to each other.
I’m even more interested to see what happens with these two women. Next, we have to talk about Simon. Talk about a guy to swoon over!
I loved how you give us one small, seemingly insignificant piece of information at a time with Simon. Too often, characters can become a cookie-cutter of the hero, the country bumpkin or the villain. How do you flesh out a character like Simon to make him unique and have layers of depth?
I adore Simon as a character. He is passionate and committed about his beliefs, intelligent, and willing to take risks to get what he wants. But he can also be ridiculously stubborn and often becomes so entrenched in what he believes that he is blind to other realities around him. Those opposing traits give me so much to work with in his scenes, and they only become richer the more I get to know him. Simon will eventually have to choose between his heart and his destiny, just as Kestra will have to decide who she intends to be, and what price she will have to pay to become that person. Suddenly, that Snow Patrol song begins to make sense.
It’s so interesting that as the author you also have to get to know your characters. Secondary characters play a pivotal role, which can be seen in your novel with the twists created through their machinations.
Captain Tenger, the leader of the Corack rebellion, and Sir Henry Dallisor, Kestra’s father are both motivated by a desire for power – and big game changers in THE TRAITOR’S GAME. Under different circumstances do you think they would work together or tear each other apart? Are they more similar than they know or more different than we might guess?
Captain Tenger is one of my favorite characters, because I don’t think it’s entirely clear whether he can be trusted, or whether he should be trusted. You’re right – just like Sir Henry, Tenger desires power and believes the ends justify his means, but if he ever attains that power, would he be any better a leader than Sir Henry? Through the end of THE TRAITOR’S GAME, Simon has been a bit of a buffer between Kestra and Tenger, but that will begin to change as her role in the future of Antora changes.
Equally complicated will be the relationship between Kestra and Sir Henry. If not for Lord Endrick, Henry would be king, so there is always a question of just how far his loyalties go.
I’m loving the clues for the next book. You novels have an element of magic within your world building. How do you guarantee that the magic is essential to the plot?
I look at magic as another element of world-building, of equal importance to the history of the world, its current conflicts, its governmental structure, and so on. I don’t want it to feel like magic was tacked on to the world, but rather that it’s inherent in that world, as natural to the interplay of events as any other facet of life.
Except with this series, magic is viewed with deep suspicion because it is believed to have a corrupting element, to work against a person’s normal instincts toward right and wrong. This skepticism over magic will play an increasing role in the series and threaten to shatter several relationships and bonds of trust.
I can tell the stakes are being raised as you continue this series. When you lay out the plot for a book, where does it fit in during the initial planning stages? Do you have method that works particularly well for you as you develop the plot to arc over several books in a series?
I start with the general story concept and spend time to find my main characters and define the central problem of the book or series. From there, I jump to the very end (or in the case of the series – there are two jumps. One to the end of the book and the other to the end of the series) and make myself come up with five possible endings. The reason for this is that it forces greater creativity than if I’d simply picked my first idea. Once I have my ending, I start to fill in the gaps of where the story begins and how to get to that ending. Anytime I hit major scenes, I repeat the same idea of five possibilities, which is how I keep the plot twisting.
Nothing I outline is ever written in stone of course. Characters are very alive to me and so I listen to them as I write and often they will lead me in directions I had not intended, or reveal secrets in bits of dialogue that I must explore. In fact, discovering those unintended secrets is one of my favorite parts in the writing process.
My first reaction is “Wow”, five possible endings and repeated for every major scene. That completely changes the way I see writing.
Your books always have comments that make me laugh, usually in the dialogue. Are you simply a born stand-up comedian? How do you write such funny moments, and make it work, through battles and other angsty situations?
Thank you, though my kids would say I’m not nearly as funny as I think I am. A lot of the humor gets added in during the editing phase. As I read through certain scenes, sometimes they’re just so intense that a little humor is necessary to allow the reader to breathe. I also believe the humor is a great way of helping the reader bond to the characters, to say to themselves, “That’s how I’d have responded (or how I wish I would respond) too.”
My kids never think I’m funny, so if your think you’re funny sometimes that’s a win!
Please tell us about upcoming project with a few tidbits to peak our interest.
OOh – so much excitement! I’m already at work on TRAITOR’S GAME 3, which is going to be epic! Then on Aug 28, I’ll release another historical novel, RESISTANCE, set in World War 2 Poland. It is based on the true story of the Jewish teenagers who fought back against the Nazis. And I’m outling a duology that – if I can pull it off – will be incredibly cool. Titled BLACK INK, all I can say about it for now is that it’ll involve a boy with no memory of who he is, a Boggle set with dice that occasionally communicate to him, and an international conspiracy that will take the reader out of the pages down a rabbit hole that will be far bigger than a book alone can contain.
Here’s Jennifer’s first historical novel, A Night Divided.
Resistance can be pre-ordered! It’s getting amazing reviews.
So much to look forward to!
I’m so glad you have plenty in the works to keep me reading! It sounds like a lot to keep track of – you must keep extensive charts.
What advice do you have for other aspiring authors?
My suggestion is to decide now who they want to be and then to make the writing choices that will get them there. Do they want control in their career, do they want to be considered for major awards, do they want a movie deal, or to write on important niche topics suited for small audiences? Do they want to hit bestseller lists, write books primarily for friends and family, or have the freedom to write anything they want and release it at any time they want?
There is no right or wrong career choice, but there are hundred of choices offered to writers these days and not all choices lead to the same destination. So if the aspiring author can focus on where they are headed, the only remaining question is what is the best route to get there. If an opportunity arises, they can ask, “Does this get me closer to my goal, or is it a distraction from my goals?” Staying focused will help the aspiring author make only their strongest personal choices.
That is valuable advice. I think some of those questions are things a writer could ask of their characters. I really like the goal oriented approach.
I appreciate all your time spent on answering questions and look forward to your next book! And the next, and the next…
For additional writing helps I highly recommend you check out Jennifer’s website, jennielsen.com and specifically read through the For Writers tab. She has included many pitfall inexperienced writers tend to use and helps for what a writer should do to become successful.