Of Ash & Shadow by Sarah King

1. What was the most difficult thing about world-building the fairy realms? 

Making them all different, especially from the Human realm. In OAAS the reader only sees glimpses of three Courts – Summer, Dark, and Shadow – as well as the destroyed human realm. I knew going in that Earth was going to be post-apocalyptic and that the Shadow Court was going to be very monotone, burned down-ish, and foreboding as if it had been rotting for a long time. Considering those things can be said about Earth as well due to its current state, I tried to make sure that I described each differently. One more a world destroyed, while the other was left to rot. As for the Summer and Dark Court…oh and the tiny glimpse of the Winter Palace…I had to do the most work with the Summer Court seeing as we spend probably the most time there outside of the Shadow Court. Obviously, it’s a place of eternal summer, so everything is going to be lush and beautiful and at the peak of its growth cycle, but it wasn’t just about describing that as it was trying to come up with different looking flora that would help make the Summer Court feel like this other place. I didn’t want the reader to feel like they were just experiencing an Earth summer, but one that was magical and ethereal and eternal.

I think the second hardest was the creatures. Celtic mythology – world mythology in general – has such a vast array of creatures that I didn’t just want my fae to be beautiful humanoids, although there are those types. So I had to do a lot of research and play with a lot of different creatures to work them into the story. I also wanted to represent different versions of creatures we already know like Siorc the Merrow – mythology tends to focus on the women so I wanted a male. I intend to play more with all of this in Book 2, bringing in the Celtic mythology around vampires and also dipping into other world mythologies. I talk a little about Moroccan magic in book one, so I’m excited to possibly play with djinn mythology in book two.

2. Of Ash and Shadow handles some pretty rough subjects of abuse. How did you approach writing this part of the story?

Yeah, I shocked some family members with how dark Wyn’s past is and how I portray it. My brother called my mom and was like “Do you know what she’s alluding to in this first chapter?!” and my mom, who has read the book from day one, was like “Yeah, that’s my happy little girl.”  Oops.

But, I knew Wyn needed to have a damn compelling reason to hate a whole species.

Obviously, it wasn’t hate taught to her by family or friends or the world. Until Earth’s fall, she didn’t know about the Fae. Her world was destroyed and while she might hate them for that, she may not have been spurred on to necessarily train and eradicate them the way she does after her imprisonment in Faerie. When I realized where that hatred stemmed from and really dug into the story and found my voice, I also realized that I couldn’t shy away from the darkness of the subject matter. To me, it felt like I’d be betraying Wyn and her story and doing her a disservice to not share the rawness of her experiences the way it came to me. What was done to her was absolutely horrible and unacceptable, but I also knew her journey was one of growth and overcoming the darkness she suffered. While I leaned into the darkness, I also wasn’t going to put the actual act on the page, so I tried to pick moments that would bring out a reaction in the reader, even if it was a negative one, and hopefully make them empathize and care for Wyn while also showing why she sometimes makes the decisions she makes or says the things she says. Because, in the beginning, she isn’t the most likable character, but she also doesn’t like herself and has a massive death wish and I wanted to take her and the reader through this journey of her learning self-love. While I have not suffered abuse like Wyn or any person who has suffered such abuse, I was going through my own journey of self-love at the time dealing with my anxiety and so a lot of the things I was re-learning due to my beliefs formed from having anxiety were able to be translated over to Wyn.

3. How long did it take you to write this novel?

God, hopefully, book 2 won’t take as long, but four years. OAAS began as a daydream in March of 2016. It was right before my final semester of graduate school and I’d finished my thesis and was looking for a new project to work on. My mentor advised me to not write dystopian or post-apoc due to them being out of trend…so of course, I went against her advice and did just that. It took about a year and a half to write the first draft. Which was the bare bones of what OAAS is now. When I finished the first draft it clocked in at 62,000 words with far less world-building or voice as it has in its final form. I ended up submitting it to a publisher and receiving a revise and resubmit. Based on the comments, I looked into classes at the Margie Lawson Academy to help me improve my story and ended up rewriting the whole thing doubling it in size to 126,000 words. I spent the next two years doing another final rewrite to fix plot issues before I put it out to my awesome critique partners. February 2020 I took another Margie Lawson course on loving your voice, taught by the wonderful Julie Rowe. She read my first three chapters and essentially told me to get off my butt and publish the darn thing. And the rest, as they say, is history.

4. Will we see different realms of fairies?

Yes! I’m super excited about this. Obviously, based on the ending, we get to see some cool stuff go on with the Shadow Court, but in book 2 Wyn and friends will be visiting all of the different courts for various reasons. So, we’ll be going deeper into the Winter and Dark Courts due to the animosity still there between Wyn/Keir and Tynan/Eira, but I’m most excited to visit the Light Court, which has not been mentioned in more than passing in OAAS. Obviously, the Autumn and Spring Courts are a bit self-explanatory for what we might see, but I cannot wait to bring the Light Court in my mind onto the page and have Wyn explore the Court, especially with its leader who may or may not be an ally.

5. What about the book surprised you the most?

I wanna say the tone lol but in all honesty, it was the themes that came out as the book came together. When I started writing I knew obviously this was a book about growth and overcoming the hardships Wyn faced, but the idea of life and choices and redemption wasn’t something I was entirely conscious of as I wrote the back half of the book. More and more the story became about the choices we make, the choices others make for us, and the choices we thought were the right ones, but aren’t. At the time, I’d just started on anti-anxiety medication and I was finally anxiety-free and realizing that a lot of the choices I made all these years were based on false fears created by the underproduction of serotonin in my brain. I poured a lot of that into Wyn’s journey and the book, not meaning to, but also needing that outlet as I worked through everything.

6. What do you think Wyn would think of the book if she were real?

Oh god…I think she’d probably stab me for writing about her life, but also secretly love it. I feel like she’d read dark fiction similar to what I write, so the attention to that darkness in the story, not to mention her weaponry and fighting prowess would probably delight her, but I can’t imagine she’d admit it or that it would stop her from kicking my ass. There are a lot of feels and personal moments in OAAS, if I were her I wouldn’t want my personal crap put out there for all the world to see haha.

7. What was your favorite character to write for?

Wyn was by far my favorite. Obviously, the book is from Wyn and Keir’s POVs, but Keir sometimes gave me so much trouble. I had a couple of chapters where I wanted to throttle him because he just did not want to tell me his story. Wyn was so much fun to write from because I could pretty much let every snarky, bitchy thought that ever passed through my brain come out of her mouth. Her thought process also really intrigued me, but really writing from Wyn’s POV was the equivalent to hitting a punching bag to get all my frustration at life out. I think two secondary characters though who don’t get a POV chapter but were fun to write through the other’s eyes were Hella and Cre. I enjoyed the banter I got to write between the three of them.

Ohhhhhhh I totally forgot about Babd! I don’t know how I forgot about her, but the chapter she appears was one of my favorites to write. I’m excited to say she returns in book two!

8. How far ahead do you plan a book series?

Not far enough. When I started writing OAAS I went into the story with every intention of it being a standalone novel. Based on the ending I knew there was potential for more, but I had no plans of writing more books for Wyn. Of course, then I finished the book and realized how much I loved the characters as well as the fact that I couldn’t leave their story where it ends, so I decided to make it a trilogy. When I made that decision – around June of 2020 – I sat down with my sister-in-law to talk book two. She’s great at just peppering me with questions until I figure out where the story is going, so after about three hours I had book two figured out. At present, I have no idea where book three is going to take Wyn and the gang, I haven’t gotten that far, but I’m excited about where Wyn’s story goes in book two.

9.  Were there any moments where you didn’t like the main character?

Wyn is brutal and can be an absolute bitch when she wants. There were moments where I was like ‘damn, harsh.’ and yeah sort of didn’t like her. Like when she’s sitting with Orin and instead of sympathizing with the loss of his parents, she gives him snark and sass. But, I also know why she is the way she is and I sort of don’t want you to necessarily love her in the beginning. She’s super rough around the edges and I want her to rub the reader the wrong way – at least a little bit. I think writing the will-o-the-wisp scene in (i think) chapter 8 was the hardest. I don’t wanna spoil the scene, and I feel for Wyn and what she’s going through in that scene, but if you think about what she’s doing…it’s pretty damn dark.

10. Were any places or characters based on real places or people?

*evil laugh* Yes. So, Wilton, CT is actually my home town. I grew up there and we didn’t move away until I was in college, so I spent many days in all the places I mention – minus the sewer obviously – and Wyn’s childhood home is actually my childhood home. Because I was writing a post-apocalyptic story, I wanted to be as familiar with the town as possible. I also wanted a small town instead of a city due to the differences between the destruction and how things run in either location is vast. Setting it in my hometown really allowed me to sink into the location and use details I remembered from growing up. It felt much more intimate writing it that way, but also allowed me to make Cyrus and the other fighters feel more like a close-knit family that Wyn, while an integral member of, could still distance herself by returning to her actual childhood home.
As for people…the only characters who are based on real people are Wyn’s parents and dog. Sophie the golden retriever was my dog growing up and Wyn’s parents are based on my own parents, again because I was able to draw from those really happy moments in my childhood to set those scenes and bring those characters life. It wasn’t really a conscious choice to use them, but the moment I started writing them into the story, I realized that it just made sense to base them on my parents. My mom has read the story from draft one and she was very appreciative of how I portrayed them haha. A small detail in the book about Sophie is actually true, she did take herself for walks when my father would forget she was outside and couldn’t hear her barking due to his hearing. I still remember opening the door as a teen to the neighbor kids bringing her back to us after she made the rounds.

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