Earlier this year, Orbit were kind enough to send me the first novel in Rachel Aaron’s Legend of Eli Monpress series. Despite my mind continuously re-spelling his name (I always seem to think it should be Moonpress, for some inexplicable reason), I read The Spirit Thief in two sittings and couldn’t wait to read more – I have the second two novels – The Spirit Rebellion and The Spirit Eater – on my shelf, glaring at me reproachfully for not having done so. Soon, I promise.
Considering how much fun the series is, I am rather surprised that I’ve never seen it for sale in a single bookstore... This may very well be because it’s mis-filed, or because it’s rather difficult to categorise (as Rachel admits herself, below). Nevertheless, if you like your fantasy with a little more fun than ‘grit’, then I’d recommend you pick up The Spirit Thief and enjoy.
In order to find out a little more about the series and the author, I decided to contact Rachel, and see if she could give us some more information…
The first three books of The Legend of Eli Monpress have already been published by Orbit, with more to come (a fact that is very welcome indeed). How would you introduce the series to a new reader?
Whenever I tell someone about my books I always introduce them as fun fantasy – swordfights and wizards with a con-artist heist twist; think Ocean’s Eleven with magic and you’re on the right track. The most important aspect of the books is that you’re going to have fun reading them, even if you’re not usually a fantasy fan. After all, who doesn’t want to have fun?
Also, I’ve found that if people like the first scene, they’re going to like the books, so I always point new readers to my website where I have the first two chapters posted and tell them to give the thing a whirl. It’s a great way to see if my books are for you without having to find them in the store. The first two chapters are very representative of the book as a whole.
I am particularly taken by the heist-aspects of your novels, something that does not often feature in the genre, which often seems more interested in great and noble quests, or (increasingly) brutal warfare. What is it about heists and thieves that make such good protagonists, and how did you come up with Eli Monpress and his cohorts?
I think thieves are so much fun because they give you a chance to inject a little levity into what is often an overly serious genre. Even light fantasy can be very heavy stuff, theme-wise. Whereas a mystery novel might involve a few FBI agents and a small town fighting to save a woman from being murdered, fantasy involves kingdoms of millions, deities, and the nature of reality itself. Noble heroes have to deal with all sorts of responsibilities that would suck the fun out of anyone, but a thief is different. Thieves are outside of the normal structure of society, and the good ones have to be clever, silver tongued, and quick on their feet. This combination automatically makes a thief character interesting, especially when you surround them with dutiful, responsible people to exasperate.
Similarly, I wanted to do a heist story specifically because you don’t often see them in fantasy. I wanted to have a fantasy story where a wizard uses his magical powers not to take over a kingdom or save it, but to profit. It’s easy with all that world-saving and magic to forget that other things have value as well, simple things like money. Because fantasy gives writers the freedom to change the world, a lot of writers feel they have to shake the very foundations of the cosmos. But Eli’s not after power or magic or godhood, he’s after cash and fame. Like all good sneaks, he’s subverting the rules of the world for his own gain and laughing all the while. Of course, things don’t always go his way, but that’s part of the fun.
As for the rest of the crew, I’m almost embarrassed to say this, but they were invented for Eli. Eli was always the center of the story, everyone else was created to play off him. Miranda was created as Eli’s foil, Josef was his straight man, Nico was his relationship with power, so on and so forth. But that’s the great thing about characters, once you’ve set down a personality and the past that made them that way, they tend to start doing things on their own. I’m very happy to say that all of my characters have now broken free of their Eli-centric rolls and emerged as forces in their own right. Book 4 [The Spirit War], for example, is all about Josef, and Miranda is almost a main character in her own right considering how much page-time she demands. I want to say that I planned all of this, but more and more my job seems to be setting the characters up and recording where they go from there. That said, this series still belongs to Eli. He’s what ties everyone together, and the climax at the end of Book 5 will be entirely up to him. Good thing for me, then, that he’s so fun to write.
Where do you see your series going in the future?
Haha, I’m actually in the future right now. Because of the nature of publishing schedules, I’m actually almost done with Book 5, the final book of the Eli series. If you’ve read the first three books, you know the story gets significantly darker. This isn’t because the characters suddenly decide to stop being smart-asses, or because I went on a Joe Abercombie binge; the trend toward the serious was a natural and unavoidable consequence of the stakes getting higher. One thing is absolute, however, the characters may grow, but they never stop being who they are. The Legend of Eli Monpress is a character-driven series. These books are all about the people who inhabit them. So while the stakes get higher and secrets are revealed, the people are the same people you got to know and love in book one. It’s their story, and that never changes.
For those keeping track at home, the first three books are going to be released in omnibus format next year, so you’ll be able to get all three in one very sharp package. A month or so after that, Orbit will release the fourth and fifth books one right after the other. I was a little worried when I first heard the schedule, since I know people are chomping at the bit for the next books, but doing things this way means you’ll get all the books all at once. Trust me, when you read the end of book four you will be VERY HAPPY Book 5 is only a month away.
Where do you draw your inspiration from? Who would you say are your biggest influences?
I’m a huge nerd and I get a lot of my energy and ideas from manga and anime, especially One Piece, Bleach, and various shojo titles. The manga that inspired me most profoundly would have to be Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. I still reread that series about once a year. I also love fantasy RPGs, both paper, console, and online. And of course I’ve always been a big reader. I grew up on my parent’s fantasy and sci-fi collection, so I read lots of Mercedes Lackey, Ann McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, David Brin, Patricia Wrede, and Elizabeth Moon (The Deed of Paksenarrion was probably the book I read the most as a child). I also read the genre classics like C.S. Lewis, Tolkien (duh), Herbert, and Asimov.
I was truly blessed as a child to have such unfettered access to books and to be in an environment where reading was considered a sign of intelligence and I was encouraged to do so as often as possible. I consumed a lot of stories as a kid, and all of those stories, even the bad ones, have become part of me as a writer. I am who I am because I read widely and well, and I’m doing my best to keep up that trend as I learn to be a responsible adult and mother to my own child.
I have to confess that I do tend to get on runs with things I really like. If I’m reading a series that I love or watching a show or movie that really catches my imagination, you’re going to find traces of that in whatever I’m writing at the time. So I guess you could say my biggest influence changes based on whatever I was into at the time.
What’s your opinion of the genre as a whole today? How do you see your Legend of Eli Monpress series fitting in with the contemporary fantasy scene?
I think we are living in a golden age of fantasy. Years from now we’ll look back with awe and wonder and talk about how good we had it. Thanks to the blockbuster titles like Harry Potter, Eragon, Twilight, and the Lord of the Rings movies, as well as the phenomenal success of fantasy video games, fantasy is coming out of the back shelves and into the spotlight. Fantasy, dare I say it, is cool right now, and it is staking a big claim in the YA and adult markets. This attention means more books and more publishing houses willing to take chances on new authors and ideas. It is a really, really exciting time to be a fantasy author and a fantasy fan, especially if you like YA fantasy.
To answer the second half of the question, I’m actually not really sure where Eli fits in to this flowering of the genre. The Legend of Eli Monpress isn’t really epic fantasy because of the aforementioned lack of gritty battles and dark heroes, but it’s not pure Pratchett-esque comedy either. One reviewer described the series as feeling more like urban fantasy than a traditional swords and sorcery tale, and I think they hit it on the nose. The Eli books are fast and snarky with modern pacing (no slow grinding epics for me), but at its heart The Legend of Eli Monpress is a story about doing what has to be done even when you REALLY don’t want to do it. So, being a hero, which is a very traditional fantasy theme. I think that’s why the books have had a little trouble catching on, actually. They’re hard to pigeon hole. However, I maintain that if you enjoy the idea of a witty gentleman thief with a glib sense of humor, you’ll probably enjoy The Spirit Thief. If nothing else, the sword fights are killer. I worked really hard on them, and I still consider Josef’s fight with Coriano at the end of Book 1 to be the best fight I ever wrote.
How do you enjoy being a writer and working within the publishing industry? Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practice?
I. Love. My. Job. LOVE IT. I set my own hours, wear comfy clothes at all times, and I get to write off fantasy books as business expenses. So far everyone I’ve met in the industry has been 100% wonderful and getting fan mail never ceases to be the best part of any day. So for all of you dreaming of becoming authors, it really is amazing and worth fighting for. Keep it up!
The only part I don’t like about being an author is social media self-promotion. This isn’t because I’m shy or antisocial, quite the contrary. Meet me in real life and you’ll probably be put off by how outgoing/loud I can be. My problem is that when I sit down to write a blog post or send a tweet, I just don’t know what to say. See, there are some writers who are spectacularly clever by nature (cough, Neil Gaiman). For these people creating entertaining blog posts, tweets, and Facebook updates about the day-to-day minutia of their lives comes natural as breathing. Not me. You’d think as the creator of a witty thief I could come up with 140 characters, but no. See, every one of Eli’s witticisms is the product of hours and hours of edits and polish. You know when you have an argument and then the next day you think of that perfect comeback? That’s how I write. I write a scene and then a day later I think how I could have said it better, so I go back and change things over and over until the deadline comes and I have to stop. It takes 100% of my brain to not be a moron in my paid work, and sadly this means there’s not much left for internet cleverness.
That said, though, keeping a blog and Twitter and Facebook are the realities of the modern author, so I do my best. I should just give up and do nothing but post pictures of my fat dog wearing hats. I’d probably get more hits.
When did you realise you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
Like most authors, this was the only thing I ever really wanted to do. I flirted with other dreams, but they were always things I was going to do along with writing. I remember writing a book when I was in elementary school for some kind of contest. I didn’t win. In fact, I think my teacher really didn’t like the book. I remember it very negatively and this stayed with me for YEARS. I was convinced I was a bad writer really for no reason. It took me a long, long time to pull out of that.
I think the single worst thing you can do to a new writer is to be overly critical. We’re already our worst critics, outside rejection only proves us right. I remember there was a time when I loved poetry, and then I went to a poetry class at some summer camp. The instructor, a college lit major, ripped my poem a new one. I think I was twelve or so. Anyway, to this day I’ve never had an idea for another poem. It’s like the poetry side of my brain abandoned ship right then and there. I’m not trying to say that criticism isn’t valuable, but there’s a big difference between pointing out how a story can be better and just laying it out there, ESPECIALLY when you’re a kid.
Ok, wow, that was a bitter tangent. I did recover, obviously, but I didn’t really sit down to write a book until right after college. At that point I was in the perfect writing environment. I had a crap job where I could write at work and no responsibilities other than paying rent. I knew if I couldn’t write a book under these optimal conditions, then I’d NEVER be able to. So I got my rear in gear, set a daily word count, and just wrote the sucker – a 220k fantasy epic tome that took a year to write and got rejected by everyone. But I’d never trade that failed book for anything. I learned a ton, but most importantly I learned that I could write a book, and that it wasn’t even that hard. The next book I finished was The Spirit Thief, and we all know how that turned out.
What projects do you have in the pipeline?
As mentioned earlier, I’m finishing up the fifth and final Eli book right now. Once that’s done I have mountains of editing both for books 4 & 5, but I’m also moving on to some new projects. I have a Sci-Fi romance in the works as well as a very weird novel that could be amazing or could fail utterly, but I won’t know until it’s done. There’s also an Urban Fantasy series, a couple more fantasies, a modern YA series about a girl who becomes a swordswoman, the list goes on and on. That’s not just hyperbole either: I actually have 22 novels I want to write at the moment. The only thing in my way is my own inability to write fast enough to keep up. Always something on the burner here at the Rachel Aaron Novel Factory!
Who are you reading at the moment (fiction and/or non-fiction)?
I just finished Jacqueline Carey’s Sundering duology, which I loved beyond reason. I’ve also been reading Less Wrong’s Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, which is the sort of thing that would technically be called a fanfic, but is more appropriately named a work of sheer genius. It takes the basic Harry Potter story and asks “what if, instead of a boy locked in a closet, he was a child genius raised by a loving pair of adoptive parents who brought science, reason, and modern thinking to the wizarding world?”
If you’ve ever read and loved Harry Potter but thought “cool as magic is, have any of these wizards ever considered that the entire stretch of human achievement might have something to offer? Also, why is Hogwarts a vocational school? Where’s wizard literature?” LOVE. IT. Read it, seriously. It will change your way of looking at the world.
On the non-fiction front I’ve been on a self improvement kick with The Four Hour Body. It’s really got me in a “question everything, we’re all being lied to!” mood, which might just be paranoia. That said, the diet is working, so there you are. I’d also like to plug Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, a book that asks the question, “what would happen to the world if humanity just vanished?” What would happen to our cities? Our houses? Our pets? It’s beautifully written and incredibly interesting. I just reread it and as always it was a very worthwhile experience.
What are you most looking forward to in 2011?
Finishing the Eli series. I love these people beyond words, but after living with them every day for close to five years now, I’m ready to move on to other stories. Last year I achieved my life-long dream of becoming a published author. Not bad for 28, but I’ve been sort of floundering since then. I’d defined my life by that goal, and once it was achieved I felt a little baseless. Now, however, I’m getting on track to new goals, goals like “become a NYT best seller” and “see one of my books as a movie.” Impossible? That’s what people told me about becoming a published author in the first place. Gotta keep your eyes high or you’ll forget why you’re climbing.
Thank you very much for the interview. I had a really great time with the questions!