What inspired you to write this book?
This may sound petty, but in all honesty, a lingering sense of disappointment over some of my favorite movies and TV series. I used to love the Star Wars prequels as a kid (to a somewhat unhealthy degree—I once had a Jedi braid halfway down my back), but as I grew older, I started to see that the tremendous potential of the story—former friends tragically turned against each other! The epic fall of a once-great nation due to treachery and political intrigue! Civil war with heroes on both sides! A secret, twisted romance!—wasn’t exactly done justice by a script that contained some pretty questionable dialogue choices (pro writing tip: never have a character respond to “you’re so beautiful” with “it’s because I’m so in love.” And definitely don’t follow that with “no, it’s because I’m so in love with you.”).
And then there was Game of Thrones, which I loved even before it was a hit TV show…but one aspect I didn’t love as much was how in the end everything came down to dragons burning CGI armies and cities in orgies of fire while the character development and grounded, gritty complexity kind of got sidelined. The Chrysathamere Trilogy was sort of my loose “remake” of those well-known series.
I also really love historical and “literary” fiction, just as much as fantasy, and I wanted to do a book that blended the genres. One of my aims was to some of the structural conventions of historical and literary fiction—which, often much more than fantasy, are able to explore the impact childhood has on adult characters by exploring those characters over a longer period of time—and combining them with the grand scope, the thrilling sword fights, the blood feuds and intrigue that drew me to the fantasy genre in the first place!
Do you have any “side stories” about the characters?
No. Or maybe, yes, but none I would ever show to anyone, because they’re trash. I did write a prequel-esque story in high-school about a duel between Marilia’s adoptive father and an evil warlord named Kanadrak, but being written in high-school, it’s not exactly my finest work. I feel like all the story that demands to be told is contained within the trilogy itself. Maybe someday, years down the line, I’d do a sequel (I got a few glimmers of inspiration from the history of the Borgias family!). But who knows…I like how the story ends, and if Hollywood has taught me anything, it’s that unnecessary 20-years-later type sequels can be a really bad idea if they’re not done right…
I’d rather work on my other novel (still deciding if it should be a series-starter or a standalone), which is about a disgraced queen’s bodyguard dealing with grief, a wayward young priestess with serious parent issues, and their journey together through a very weird heart of darkness. It’s sort of like The Last of Us meets the Princess Bride.
Can you tell us a little bit about the characters in the series?
I once read a brilliant article about the two types of strong female characters: the tough girl, and the tough girl “plus.” The tough girl is strong and independent and badass. She kicks ass, takes names, is always ready with a quip and a lethal combat move. She never really or cries, or has a breakdown, or needs to be saved, because I guess the fear is that would send some kind of sexist message that women can’t be strong.
The tough girl plus is strong, but in a different, more subtle way. She does have weaknesses, and flaws…often serious ones. As a character on Game of Thrones once said, the only time someone can be brave is when they are afraid. A strong character, to my mind, is one who overcomes a flaw or fear, not one who’s strong all the time. All my favorite heroes, male or female, fail, and weep, and have crises of faith, and sometimes need to get rescued by their friends From the get-go, it was very important to me not to have my protagonist be that first, under-developed kind of tough girl. She’s clever, and brave, but she’s not a badass, at least not as that term is traditionally understood, and she’s rarely ready with a wry quip. She’s first and foremost a struggling teenage girl doing the best she can in a new world.
In the book, Marilia challenges a lot of traditions and gender roles, and constantly strives for recognition, but it was very important that the reason for that fight weren’t that she believes in social justice and hates the patriarchy—it irks me deeply when characters in a story set centuries ago just happen to have moral values totally in line with those of a modern, liberal society (don’t get my started on all those historical Hollywood movies where all the feudal/ancient heroes are all about spreading that good old ‘Murican-style democracy!). I wanted to make sure the reasons Marilia became a warrior and challenged the society she was born in were deeply personal, and that her struggle was relatable to a modern reader while still feeling like her thoughts and feelings were appropriate for the time period (yes, I know it’s fantasy, but it’s definitely pseudo-Roman).
Besides Marilia, there’s a whole host of love-able and hate-able side characters. Since the first book is so Marilia-centric, a lot of them don’t fully come into their own until books 2 and 3. Karthtag-Kal, the stoic, honorable, samurai-like knight, with a closely hidden secret that informs every action he takes. Petrea, a femme fatale with a host of secrets of her own. The Graver, the ultimate social climber, constantly trying (and failing) to outrun his insecurities by becoming the best he can be at everything—top sword-fighter, brilliant general, second richest man in the empire! And Marilia’s twin brother, Annuweth, who, like Marilia herself, is deeply ambitious and filled with envy. In a way, he’s the mirror image of Marilia, showcasing a different side of toxic sexism. She suffers for being dismissed and overlooked because of her gender; he suffers under the weight of expectation that comes with being the sole surviving male heir of a mighty warrior.
How did you come up with the concept and characters for the book?
Quite a few places.
When I was a kid, I loved to play fantasy-esque games with my brother. I’d always wanted to recapture that childhood sense of adventure by writing some kind of epic fantasy novel, but I had a few rocky starts. Finally, after a few months of brainstorming, an idea began to take shape…
They say writers put a lot of themselves into their work, and I won’t lie…I certainly did so. There are aspects of myself in both Marilia and Annuweth, and in a couple of the side characters as well…and in the characters in my other books. Sometimes the best way to deal with a negative emotion—whether it be guilt, or anxiety, or alienation, or a feeling of powerlessness or inadequacy—can be to write about it.
Where did you come up with the names in the story?
That’s a whole story. A lot of the names used to be quite different. For a while, a lot of the side characters’ names were more Greco-Roman…that’s because some of the political intrigue in the series (especially in book 2!) was inspired by a Roman History class I took in college. I must have had the best professor ever, because, as a homework assignment, she had all the class play this mafia-style social media game where a bunch of undercover conspirators tried to assassinate the empire (by posting an assassination gif on his wall all at the same time) while a bunch of others, playing as the Praetorian Prefect and his guards, tried to figure out who the would-be assassins were and stop them. I’m proud to say that my character, Rufyllys, pulled off a smashingly successful coup.
My ex-literary agent pointed out that the names in my book were a little all over the place…some were Roman, some were Egyptian inspired, and a lot were inspired by a video game called Morrowind. To her mind, I ought to strive for consistency. It was a sensible suggestion, so I slowly went back and de-Romanized a lot of the names. Verginius “Rufyllys” Rufus became Rufyllys Vergana, Seneca became Senecal Ikaryn, Petreyus became Ilruyn…and so on and so forth. They’re now all a sort of Morrowind-Roman hybrid.
The only names that never changed at any point were those of Marilia, Annuweth, and Karthtag-Kal, who were not named after Roman characters in a role-playing game, but after childhood/teenage creations of mine (Karthtag-Kal was once an orc warrior in a role playing game!) Coming up with cool names is hard, and if I have one I like, I try to find a way to squeeze it into a book somewhere.
What did you enjoy most about writing this book?
When it was over and I could finally move on to books 2 and 3! Mostly because, at that point, I’d been writing and re-writing this book for so long that I thought I’d never have a draft I’d be satisfied with. The second and third books, while challenging at times, weren’t nearly the ordeal book 1 was (knock on wood, since I’m not 100% done with book 3 yet). I think, of the original 600-page draft of Marilia, the Warlord, maybe only about 300 words in the final novel are left…which is kind of insane. I basically re-wrote the book largely from scratch not once, but twice. While I think it was for the best, and I learned a lot from the process, I hope never to have to do anything like that again!
I also really liked the ending. I won’t spoil it, but it was one of the parts of the book I struggled with the most. Maybe because it was initially so problematic, it got a lot of extra attention devoted to it, and now it’s one of my favorite parts of the story. That feeling when all the thematic elements finally clicked into place was truly wonderful.
How did you come up with the title of your first novel?
I hate coming up with titles. I struggled so long to come up with something catchy. The literary agent I was working with, often so wise, kind of dropped the ball on this one. Her suggestion was The Painted Girl Who Won Her Freedom…which just wasn’t doing it for me. Too long, and too suggestive of a happy ending. Plus, for some reason, it makes me think of painted hyenas. Is it just me?
Finally, I settled on a title I was really happy with: Marilia, the Bastard. A bit gritty, a bit risqué, a bit mysterious. Is she a literal bastard, or also a metaphorical one, too? But of course, that wasn’t to be. Amazon considers the word “bastard” profanity, you see, and wouldn’t let me run any ads under that title! So, with mere hours to spare, and no photoshop skills to my name, I was left with a cover that said Marilia, the Bastard and the task of changing it to something inoffensive. In order to not have to do any font re-sizing, I couldn’t pick a word with more or fewer letters than Bastard…so I settled on Warlord. It was all I could think of, and involved only changing five letters.
If that isn’t the most banal, anticlimactic way to name a book, I don’t know what is.
If your book was made into a film, who would you like to play the lead and why?
A brand new actress! I mean, Marilia is pretty young, so I figure it would have to be someone new, right?
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I first knew I wanted to be a writer in high school. Back then, I hoped it would be my full-time job. Things didn’t exactly work out that way. For a while, since I had another career to pay the bills, I didn’t know whether I had earned the title of “writer.” But then I learned just how many writers have other jobs, and I felt less guilty about it. Now that I have two books out there and another two in good shape, I feel like I can comfortably call myself a writer without bringing down bad voodoo on my head or something.