I'm so excited to host author Mary Fan on the blog today! In addition to writing sci-fi/fantasy, Mary graduated Magna cum Laude from Princeton University in 2010 with a Bachelor of the Arts in Music, specializing in composition. With over ten books under her belt, her latest, Starswept, was released yesterday to rave reviews. Kirkus calls it "...a sophisticated commentary on art, society, and how we perceive our own worth. The beginning of an elegant, spirited rebellion saga."
And now, here's my chat with Mary!
Hi, Mary! Welcome and congrats on the release of Starswept. Can you tell us a little about the story and what inspired it?
Thank you! STARSWEPT combines two of my favorite subjects: classical music and space operas. I’ve played violin since I was three and spent pretty much my entire childhood and teen years in various orchestras and chamber groups (though sadly, I’m now horribly out of practice). I’d always seen books written about other types of classical performers—ballerinas, actors, and singers, for example—but not so much orchestra members. So it started out as, “I want to write a story about an orchestra member.” Now, I’m also a huge sci-fi/fantasy nerd, and to me, writing a speculative fiction story comes more naturally than anything real-world, be it historical or contemporary. So it soon became “I want to write a story about an orchestra member… in space.”
STARSWEPT tells the story of Iris Lei, a teen viola player (I picked viola because I always wanted to play it, and because I’ve been asked “What’s a viola?” too many times and decided the instrument needed a little love). The book takes place in a future where Earth is allied with a race of humanoid telepaths called the Adryil, who are obsessed with human arts. Born penniless, Iris’s one shot at a better life is to attract an Adryil patron, but competition is fierce. One day, she encounters a mysterious Adryil boy who sends her down a path that takes her to a strange planet across the stars… and shatters everything she knows.
So it’s a bit of an artist’s tale, a bit of a space opera, and a bit of a paranormal romance. The romantic element really came out of the nature of classical music… so, so much of it is all about love and longing—operas and symphonies and ballets depicting forbidden romance and fairy tales. I’ve always been a sucker for old-school, operatic romances… Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, Cinderella, etc. And so it seemed only natural to weave that into the story as well.
Ultimately, everything Iris does is for love—either for her music or for the strange young man she’s falling for..
As the author of more than ten books, what’s one of the greatest lessons you’ve learned in your publishing career?
Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned is: Nothing’s absolute. There are no set-in-stone rules. Not for writing, not for getting published, not for marketing… Everything—EVERYTHING—is a matter of opinion. And the “rules” are simply the most popular ones, expressed by the most powerful people. Sometimes, you have to play by them to get where you want to go. Other times, you can bend over backward to fit into a box, only to walk away empty-handed nonetheless. And still other times, you can throw the rules out the window and do whatever the heck you want… and bypass all the rule-followers. Or you might end up sinking without a trace. Who knows. It’s one huge whirlpool of uncertainty, and what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another.
What does that mean for a writer? It means: Write what you love because you love it. I’ve heard some authors joke about switching genres because something’s more marketable than what they write. Thing is, nothing’s guaranteed. You could end up abandoning the weird horror you love for the contemporary romance you find boring and still not sell that romance. Because if your heart’s not into it, it’ll show… And meanwhile, there are people who absolutely love writing contemporary romance.
Of course, there are certain guidelines writers should be aware of—the basics of story structure, characterization, and the like. Even if you plan to throw it all out the window, you have to understand it to know what you’re breaking. It reminds me of how the music department at my university (I was a composition major) spent two years teaching us music theory and counterpoint—and then had us throw it all out the window when it came time to compose our senior theses (and, in fact, docked grades if anything we turned in sounded too much like the Bach-style compositions we’d just spent two years learning to write).
What part of the writing process do you find most challenging and how do you tackle it?
Hm… I feel like that varies depending on the manuscript. In the case of STARSWEPT, the most challenging part was the character interactions, since so much of the story hinges on character relationships. I had a pretty firm grasp on Iris’s character from the beginning, since she’s the protagonist and based on people I know (as well as parts of myself). For some of the others, I had to stretch my imagination a bit more, and I wound up imagining the story from their points of view. What would the story look like if it were told from a different character’s perspective? That helped me get a firmer grasp on what was going through each character’s mind in any given scene, which in turn helped me figure out how a scene between Iris and another character should play out.
As a fantasy writer, I’m always interested in world building. What’s your advice for writers who may be struggling to create a cohesive setting?
Follow your own rules. That’s the biggest one. Speculative fiction readers are imaginative—no matter how bizarre a reality is compared to our world, they’ll accept it… as long as it has structure. For instance, if you create a world where Earth is ruled by talking giraffes—awesome! But maintain consistency within your world, and give explanations wherever possible. If giraffes can talk and other animals can’t—why is that? And whatever you do, don’t show another animal talking… unless there’s an in-story explanation for that as well, and the twist is part of the plot. I guess it’s also helpful to act like an obnoxious, questioning toddler when building your world. “Giraffes can talk and they rule the world.” “Why?” “Because aliens visited and gave them speech and superhuman intelligence.” “Why?” “Because the aliens thought that humans were mistreating the Earth, and it’d be better off ruled by a different species.” “Why giraffes, though?” Etc., etc., until you want to tell yourself to go stand in the corner.
Starswept centers around a young woman’s passion for music. As a music major, a composer, and an opera singer, how does your own love for music influence your writing? Do you find there are similar techniques intrinsic in both musical composition and novel writing?
Absolutely! In fact, I think being a musician and composer helped me with some of the… psychological… parts of writing. For instance, finding the balance between technique and artistry—and taking feedback on both. I’m sure every musician has a story about a strict teacher who hammered home certain rules and techniques. Yet you can’t just place your fingers on the strings where they’re supposed to go and expect something beautiful to emerge from your instrument… you have to give it life. And when your teacher tells you that you’re overplaying and that your rendition of the song lacks subtlety, you swallow your pride and try again. You might not do exactly what they told you to do, but something isn’t right, and it’s up to you to find your own way to fix it. That mentality has been hammered into me since I was a little kid, and I think it subconsciously impacted the way I approach working with editors (and listening to readers). Of course, both music and writing are highly subjective, and what one person loves, another person can’t stand.
Another thing is that, when you’re a classical musician, you’re used to telling the same stories over and over—different variations on “happily ever after” or “they all die at the end.” When you attend a classical opera or ballet, the synopsis is printed right there in the program. There’s no such thing as spoilers—it’s expected that you know how it all ends, and the enjoyment is in seeing the process unfold. I think for that reason, I’ve never been concerned about spoilers. And I actively enjoy trope-y stories full of genre conventions. In fact, I crave them. I think that shows in my writing as well—I don’t care about flouting conventions or being “different.” I want to write “in the style of.” And yet, even when doing just that, you have to add something new. But there’s no shame in continuing a tradition
What has been your most rewarding experience as an author so far?
Definitely the part where I get to meet readers and other writers. Which is not something I expected to say, since I’m a full-blown introvert. An indoor cat, if you will. But I just love connecting with fellow book lovers and talking about the ins and outs of this whole crazy book world. I love brainstorming with fellow writers—bouncing ideas off them or serving as a sounding board. And there’s always a thrill when a new reader picks up my book at a convention and asks me to sign it.
What are you reading, or otherwise currently obsessed with?
My current reading habits are all over the place. I tend to go through genre “mood swings” where I’ll find myself craving, for example, high fantasy or space opera or even contemporary at times. Right now, I’m sort of all over the place. I just finished reading an early copy of Karissa Laurel’s steampunk fantasy, Quest of Thunder (the second book in the Stormbourne Chronicles, about a lightning-casting princess trying to survive after being ousted form the throne), and I’m currently in the midst of Tales of the Crimson Keep, a collection of short stories that take place in an ever-shifting castle full of magic. Hmm… come to think of it, I may be in the middle of a fantasy phase.
And finally, what’s your best piece of writing advice?
Write what you love. Seriously. If you try to force something out of you, it’s just not going to come together. You’ll make yourself miserable, and you won’t even have anything to show for it, because whatever you wind up with will be missing… something. It’ll be an intangible something, an indescribable something, but people will sense it. More importantly, you will sense it. A book is a huge commitment. It can take months to finish a manuscript, and from there, it can take years for a book to be published. And after the book comes out, it’s there for the rest of your life. It’s a piece of you. And it’s a lot of work. Sometimes, you’ll give it your all, and thanks to circumstances out of your control, you still won’t get that big publishing deal. You could end up with a manuscript you have to put in the trunk and bury from sight. So you’d better be sure all that work was worth something to you for its own sake.
Ask yourself: If you were the last person in the world, and there was no one left to read your book… would you still write it?
I hope you enjoyed this interview with Mary as much as I did! I want to thank her for taking the time to talk about musical composition—what it's taught her and how it relates to writing—as well as sharing her advice on world-building. Be sure to add Starswept to your Goodreads list, or order your copy RIGHT NOW from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your local indie.
If you want to connect with Mary (and tell her how much you love #Starswept!), please hop on over to Twitter to tweet her at @AstralColt. And for more information, check out her author website at maryfan.com.
And, as always,