A Conversation with Lucy Hounsom

Interview by Alicia Cole

Photo Credit: Lou Abercrombie

In between writing fantasy novels, Lucy Hounsom works as a bookseller for Waterstones. She has a BA in English & Creative Writing from the University of London and went on to complete the MA in Creative Writing in 2010. She lives by the sea in Devon (UK) with two cats (who are really dragons) and a bedroom full of stories. She loves long walks in the surf, cultivating a personal library, and playing the piano. Starborn is her début novel and the first book in the Worldmaker Trilogy, due to be published by Tor UK in May 2015.

 

BF: How was your first novel, Starborn born?

LH: I had the spark of the idea for Starborn back when I was 17 and reading a silly amount of epic fantasy – The Wheel of Time, Sword of Truth, Shannara etc. These early epics are somewhat frowned upon today by the critics, but they had a massive impact on me as a teenager and filled my head with possibilities. I knew I wanted to write a sweeping story told through the eyes of characters that readers could come to love. I knew I wanted it to be a trilogy and a paean to the books that helped me through some tough years. After a few chapters, I put the story that became Starborn aside and didn’t resurrect it until I needed a project for my creative writing MA. By then I was a much better writer – though I still have a great deal to learn about the craft – and I finally felt I could do the idea justice. While I hope I’ve written a story that fires a reader’s imagination, I also hope I’ve stayed true to the ideals of the girl who loved fantasy and wanted to share her own stories with the world.

 

BF: Do you have any sequels or follow-up novels in mind?

LH: Starborn is the first novel in a trilogy called Worldmaker. I’m currently working on book two.

 

BF: What has been your training?

LH: It’s funny to think of writing in terms of training, but it’s as much a discipline as any other occupation with a specific skill set. On paper, I have a BA in English and Creative Writing and an MA in Creative Writing, both from the University of London. I loved studying English Literature and found it a perfect complement to writing as a craft. It’s a subject that helps to develop a critical eye – invaluable when it comes to juggling the thematic and structural elements of storytelling – and introduces you to a wide range of texts across multiple mediums and eras. Plus, it’s a veritable cauldron of inspiration just waiting to brew up new stories. I had some excellent teachers (and fellow students) on both courses and I wouldn’t be the writer I am today if not for their guidance and shared experience. However, taking the time to read as much as possible is equally important. Reading is an act of creation which flexes the imagination in a way that’s not dissimilar to writing. You don’t come across a writer who isn’t also a prolific reader.

 

BF: What was your experience like acquiring an agent and signing your first novel?

LH: The first draft of Starborn was a mess. I edited it and started sending it out to agents, probably earlier than was wise. I got a few rejections and one manuscript request. After an eight week wait, it was turned down, and I was pretty devastated. Their main complaint was that the story lacked tension. So I stripped it down, reworked it, and started sending it out again. During this time, I read a lot about good submissions practice and worked on improving my synopsis and cover letter.  I received a few “positive” rejections and then, in the summer of 2013, two manuscript requests. The first ended in a no, but the second was from my current agent who replied only a couple of days later to say that she loved the story and wanted to represent me. We worked on the manuscript for another month before it went on submission to publishers. I was overjoyed when it was picked up so quickly by Tor UK. My editor put together the best email I’ve ever received, which included her plans for publishing the book and a collection of comments from readers who’d read and liked it. My story could not have found a more perfect and dedicated home.

 

BF: As a writer and bookseller, what are your preferred genres and favorite authors?

LH: Predictably, my favorite genre is SFF (sci-fi & fantasy), and that vast realm is peopled by so many fantastic authors. Grandmaster Tolkien is always at the top of my list. Then there’s Robin Hobb, Patricia A. McKillip, J. K. Rowling, David Eddings, and Laini Taylor, to name but a few. I’ll always recommend Carlos Ruiz Zafon and the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges and a good deal of literature from the fin de siècle period including Bram Stoker and the adventure narratives of Jules Verne.

 

BF: Why bookselling?

LH: For someone who has harbored the dream of being a professional writer since the age of 15, working with books was the next best thing.  In November 2009, I landed a Christmas temp job in my local Waterstones – one of the only chain bookstores left in the UK. I was lucky: bookseller roles are generally seen as the best of seasonal retail work and are therefore highly sought after.  The employment ran until January and during that short time, I learned a few things. Chief among these was the fact that stacked books are incredibly heavy and will hurt if dropped on your toes. But the real piece of life-wisdom I took regretfully away with me was this: booksellers are librarians, reviewers, and publicists rolled into one, and many are very close to being writers. They are united by a love of all things literary and their top priority is spreading the joy of reading. That’s not to say they ignore the need to make a profit. Bookshops are businesses too and can’t survive without convincing customers to actually buy the books recommended. My experience, however, culminated in the realization that booksellers engage in more than commerce. They are the champions of the written word and their overarching goal is to raise levels of literacy and cultural awareness among the general public.

It’s a worthy aim and one entwined with the publishing industry. Bookshops sit at the end of the authorial process from initial idea to publication, and they play an indispensable part in getting books to readers. So when the opportunity for an open-ended contract came up five months later in May 2010, I jumped at the chance to return to bookselling. Since then, my role has been slightly different: I work primarily in account sales, which sells books on account to numerous institutions. The job comes with some definite perks. I’m still based in the bookshop, where I host Storytime every Friday, and I am now directly involved with events, which range from running bookstalls at festivals to taking authors into schools and selling their books on site.

My advice to all aspiring authors: if you’re looking for a day job, consider bookselling, as it sits really well alongside writing. There’s usually the option to work part-time hours (like me), but the role also enables you to hone a certain set of skills that will stand you in great stead at all stages of the writing and publishing process.

 

BF: Why would you recommend bookselling to other aspiring authors?

LH: Below, I’ve attempted to distill six major positive links between writing and bookselling, all of which helped me in various ways.

Reading: If you’re a writer, you’re also a reader. I’ve already said that reading and writing are two sides of the same coin – both are acts of creation. When you read, you exercise the same imagination that you’ll use to craft your own stories. It’s therefore incredibly important that you read as much as possible. And as a bookseller, you’ll have access not only to a vast array of books which you can usually buy at staff discount, but also the exciting world of proofs and review copies. If you have a favorite author, I can’t tell you how awesome it is to get your hands on a copy of their new book months before it’s published. All that’s required is a review in exchange.

Reviewing: Another skill guaranteed to improve your writing. Booksellers and book bloggers are the prime recipients of advance copies of all sorts of books because their opinion matters and they have the power and wherewithal to convince the public to invest in a title. Read and review all the books you can. Not only will you earn the gratitude (and freebies) of publishers, but every critical piece you write will help you to spot the flaws in your own writing and how to avoid them. Being a good reviewer is part of being a good bookseller, and both friends and customers will learn to trust your judgement.

Handselling: This has helped me a great deal when talking about my own book. It’s not surprising that writers tend to be introverted types – we spend a lot of time on our own and are happy to do so. But getting out and talking to people is now expected. Authors have to engage in their fair share of marketing, which often means public appearances and – the bane of many – public speaking. The retail industry is naturally people-facing and bookshops are no different. Talking to strangers who are all potential customers is the chief role of a bookseller on the shop floor, and the more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll feel when you’re asked to read or speak knowledgeably about your own writing.

Meeting authors: Events allow you to interact with published writers and as a bookseller, you have the advantage of being on the “inside” – meaning there’s more opportunity to hang around with authors before and after their event. I’ve met some great writers during the last few years, and it’s always an inspiring and valuable experience, which leaves me itching to dash off and do some more work on my own novel. One YA writer gave me advice on how to phrase a cover letter to a literary agent, which in no uncertain terms worked wonders.  He also bought me and my colleague lunch, thus earning himself a permanent place in my Anthology of Excellent People.

Spotting trends: I would never dream of telling any writer to jump on the current bandwagon, but being in a position to watch the rise and fall of certain trends can offer a constructive perspective on the industry. Stephenie Meyer, for example, thrust vampires into the limelight and ushered in a tidal wave of new writing. Werewolves and zombies followed in their wake and dark “fae” stories remain popular. Publishing is a competitive market, and it doesn’t hurt to keep abreast of what’s currently selling, especially if you plan to self-publish. As well as a familiarity with your contemporaries’ work, you’ll need to know your audience, and bookshops are good places to chat to potential readers about what they look for in a story.

That intangible something: It makes sense to work in the area you’re interested in. A significant number of booksellers end up as writers, almost as if you imbibe the ability through some sort of osmosis. That might sound outlandish, but spending your days immersed in a world of publishing, books, authors, events and – above all – words, builds a powerful sense of purpose. Bookselling suggests a union of inspiration, literary skill, social interaction, and that intangible something which permeates the air of the best bookshops. The poet in me would say it’s the scent of the stories themselves. I still work two days a week as a bookseller, which gets me out of the house and into the company of the books that inspired me to write in the first place. I like to envision a bookshop as the beating heart of the publishing world, common ground where writers and readers can meet in celebration of the written word.

 

BF: What are the challenges to being a bookseller?

LH: With the advent of the ebook, bookselling entered a new era complete with new challenges. Websites like Amazon are a major threat to traditional bookselling, since their emphasis on discounts tends to reduce books to commodities. To some degree this has affected the way people perceive books and how much they expect to pay for them. Everyone loves a bargain, but it’s frustrating to spend time recommending books to a customer in-store only for them to turn round and tell me they’ll be buying online. We need to challenge this perception of books as discountable objects instead of art. A book is the end result of a lot of hard work and it represents an author’s livelihood. Not only does this attitude bode ill for authors, but it will eventually lead to the demise of bookshops themselves. As both writer and bookseller, I can’t bear to see the love and expertise of bookshop staff disappearing from the high street. Independents and chains are in this fight together, and our survival is up to all those people who take pleasure in bookshops, and for whom bookshops continue to provide havens in an increasingly frenzied urban world.

 

BF: Would you be willing to give us a sneak-peak at your new novel?

LH: Here’s an extract from the opening chapter of Starborn, to be published in May 2015 by Tor UK.

 

CHAPTER 1

            “When Kyndra awoke on the day of the Ceremony, she believed – for one dream-tangled instant – that it was her last.

She sat up, gasping. Beneath her shift, her heart hurtled through its beats, and she pressed a sweaty palm against her chest. She couldn’t remember the dream now. Only the vaguest sense remained like a threat, urging her to flee.

            I don’t run.

            Kyndra rubbed the sleep from her eyes. As her blood cooled, so did the sweat on her body, and she pulled the woollen blanket back up. The Ceremony is my Inheritance, she reminded herself. It marked the start of her adult life. She had counted the years until this morning, savoured the ripening sense of anticipation.

            But an hour later, returning home from a walk through Brenwym’s muddy streets, Kyndra realised it wasn’t just the cold that peppered her arms in gooseflesh. Each breath took her closer to the Ceremony, closer to her fate. She glanced up. The sky was a mass of dirty white clouds, and the rain flattened both her hair and spirits. She didn’t want to see her mother’s look of strained pride, the sad inflection in her voice that plainly said she was losing her child. Today Kyndra would become a woman and her town would put her to use.

As long as we don’t drown first. She grimaced. The spring blossom had brought only clouds and, two wet weeks later, petals fell to settle like snow on a town underwater. Kyndra thought of being dry with a wistful sigh. Her shirt stuck to her skin and her woollen trousers clung horribly. The rest of her clothes hung from a rafter in the attic at home and were only slightly less damp. She’d have to wear a dress for the Ceremony, she realised sourly. Even in this rain.

Kyndra brushed the wet hair off her forehead and wrinkled her nose. The town smelled of rotten green and people packed into a space too small to contain them. Brenwym provided the only haven within easy reach for families flooded out of their homes in the lower Dales. And now of course the rest of the Valleys had arrived for this year’s Inheritance Ceremony.

Kyndra stopped short. Her chosen route home led through the main square, which had become a lake overnight. Its surface mimicked the bloated sky and around its edges, rubbish piled up against cottages and shops. She allowed herself one unenthusiastic sigh before shrugging and wading in. After a moment, the cold water came creeping across her toes and Kyndra gritted her teeth. Her boots would never dry by this afternoon’s Ceremony and she’d outgrown her mother’s. Maybe a walk to clear her head hadn’t been the best of ideas either. She shivered, catching her reflection in a window. The cheap glass blurred her face into a pale, disgruntled oval.

Teeth chattering, Kyndra increased her pace. Her mother’s inn would seem welcoming after this, even filled as it was with the stale smell of drink. The wind picked up, so that she heard the shutters of The Nomos before she saw them. Chinks of firelight spilled out into the street and she fought her way around the side of the building to the back door.

“…Wish you’d make more of an effort, Jarand. Sometimes I don’t think you care.” Kyndra’s mother, Reena, turned to throw out a sack and caught sight of Kyndra dripping on the step. “What are you doing?” she gasped. Jarand winked at Kyndra over her shoulder.

“I went for a walk.”

“I thought you had gone –” the sack slipped from Reena’s hand. She didn’t seem to notice.

“Mother?”

Reena stared at her for a few, stunned moments, then swallowed and shook her head. “Never mind,” she said. “I…I just thought you were upstairs getting ready.”

Kyndra frowned. “What’s the matter?”

But Reena stepped back inside and deftly took down a towel. “Boots off.” She thrust the ragged cloth at Kyndra. “You’ll have to wear mine.”

Kyndra shook her head. “They don’t fit.”

“I’m not having mud traipsed over everything.” Reena’s voice hardened and chased some of the blood back into her face. “People are paying good money to stay here.”

Irritated, Kyndra rubbed the towel over her head. “Is it always about money? Even today?”

Reena tucked a curl of hair more red than Kyndra’s back under her kerchief. “You want to eat, don’t you?”

Kyndra didn’t reply, but broke the awkward silence by kicking her boots onto the mat. A thick swell of heat and smoke welcomed her into the hall, and she battled to close the door against the wind that blew through the backstreet.

“It took the families from Caradan Hill a week to get here,” Reena said, as she watched Kyndra’s struggle with the door.

“Really,” Kyndra said without interest. The door latched shut and she leaned against it. Jarand had disappeared. He always did when a foul mood puffed out Reena’s chest. Kyndra didn’t care. Her wet clothes chafed and all she wanted was to escape upstairs. “Why are you so worried about impressing visitors?” she said. “They’ll never come back.”

Her mother’s face darkened. “You are about to become a woman of this town, Kyndra. Whatever future you’re shown, you will find it in Brenwym.” Reena paused. “This is your home.”

She was right. Brenwym was her home. Kyndra had never been outside the Valleys. And I’m not likely to either, she thought despondently.

“Go and clean yourself up,” Reena sighed. “I managed to dry out some of your underclothes. They’re on the bed.” To Kyndra’s trouser-clad legs, she added, “I’ve always thought that blue dress looks nice on you.”

The blue dress was ready and waiting. Kyndra scowled at it. Moving slowly, she filled a basin, peeled off her sodden clothes and scrubbed her skin clean. The water was cold and quickly turned brown. She shivered. The rain sounded more like hammers up here, a relentless pounding that threatened to split the rafters. She shared the garret with Reena and Jarand, her mother’s husband. A thin partition split the space in two.

Once she was dry, Kyndra wriggled reluctantly into the dress. Its tight sleeves stopped her from raising her arms and twice she tripped over the skirt whilst hunting for her mother’s boots. She tugged at it fiercely, but stopped when she remembered that Reena had paid for it. Flushed and ready at last, Kyndra dropped onto the bed and laid the backs of her hands against her cheeks.

What had her mother seen during her own Inheritance Ceremony? Kyndra assumed something to do with an inn, or Reena wouldn’t be here running The Nomos. Jarand was an outsider, from Dremaryn to the south, so he didn’t count. He had only become an innkeeper when he married Reena.

Kyndra let her feet carry her to a small mirror set in the corner of the room. “It will be fine,” she told herself. An uncertain face looked back, framed by dark red hair that ended untidily just above her shoulders.

She picked up a comb and tapped it against her palm. The Inheritance lay at the heart of Valleys life. The first survivors of the Acrean wars to settle here had brought the Relic with them: an artefact that revealed a person’s true name and calling. The Inheritance Ceremony had taken place every year since, five centuries of young people looking into the Relic and seeing their future in its depths.

Kyndra dragged the comb through her hair and then twisted the damp strands into a knot. She had longed for this day as much as her friends had. Now she dreaded it. The full force of those centuries bore down upon her, thousands of lives lived as the Relic intended. Its power reached into your soul, people said. It showed you the truth of yourself. To stray from the calling it gave you was not only unheard of, but it was also a sin.

What if it gives me a future I don’t want?

Kyndra spun away from her reflection, threw open the door and stalked downstairs. Her fear clung as close as her own shadow.

The common room was packed with people and pipe smoke. Dark varnish coated the walls, obscuring the kind of stains an inn racked up over the years. Patrons crowded between tables, idly keeping an eye out for empty places. The spectre of rain hung over everything and Kyndra couldn’t suppress a smirk when she recalled her mother’s words about the floor. Mud smeared the usually spotless boards.

A finger jabbed painfully into Kyndra’s ribs. She flinched and looked down. The woman sitting there studied her crookedly, lips stretched in a leer. “So, girl, your day has arrived,” Ashley Gigg said. “But bud or blossom, you’ll always be a chit to me.”

There were stifled guffaws and Kyndra’s face grew hot. Ashley’s rude to everyone, she reminded herself. And you did push that tinker’s weasel through her bedroom window. She probably hasn’t forgotten. Kyndra pressed her lips together. She hadn’t played that trick alone. Her best friend Jhren had been a willing accomplice.

“Don’t you listen, Kyn.” Hanna leaned over her bench. She was a plump, fair-haired woman with slightly large teeth. “We know how much you’ve looked forward to this day. Me an’ Havan have come up specially to see Jhren’s Inheritance.” Her dimpled cheeks were flushed with the heat.

Kyndra grinned and muttered thanks. Jhren’s aunt and uncle were traders and Kyndra had sat up many a night, listening to tales of a world beyond Brenwym. Those candlelit evenings seemed far away now. Nodding to Havan, she slipped past, eager to get away.

She pushed through the crowd to an un-shuttered window and cleared a patch of condensation with her sleeve. The rain continued to swell the streets into brown rivers. Idly she drew a pattern on the glass, a star with only three points.

“Blue suits you.”

She jumped, hearing him laugh softly. Jhren stood behind her, so close she could feel his breath on the exposed skin of her neck.

Kyndra spun and punched him lightly on the arm. “It doesn’t. And don’t creep up on me.”

“Ow,” Jhren protested. Then, seeing her frown deepen, he added, “All right, I take it back. You look awful in blue.”

“Better.”

Jhren’s bright smile faded a little. “It is a nice dress though, Kyn. You should wear it more often.”

“And what about my dress?”

Colta appeared beside Jhren, arms folded, lips pursed. She looked as lovely as ever. A red ribbon held back her curls and at the same time somehow sent them tumbling over her shoulder. They were dark, like her eyes.

Obediently, Jhren turned to look. Kyndra watched his gaze rake across Colta’s neckline and, despite her best efforts, felt a flash of annoyance. Colta’s dress hugged her form and fell in attractive folds to the floor. Pretty woven sandals peeped from beneath its hem.

A little smile curled Colta’s lips. She laughed. “I didn’t sleep a bit last night,” she told them. “I’m just too excited.”

If that were true, Colta showed no sign of it. Her face had none of a sleepless night’s shadows, but was fresh and bright. A scent clung to her. Rose, Kyndra thought.

“How do you like my outfit, Kyndra?” Colta asked her. “Gerda made it especially for today. The shoes too.” She eyed Kyndra’s dress with just a hint of disparagement. “You should have asked her to make yours.”

“I know what Gerda charges,” Kyndra said. “Why pay so much for something I’ll only wear once?”

“She’s the best dressmaker in town.” Colta stroked her skirt defensively. “She can charge whatever she wants.” Giving up on Kyndra, she said to Jhren, “I really wanted the bodice cut lower. But you know Gerda.” She rolled her eyes and smiled a dimpled smile. “She has such old-fashioned ideas.”

“Shouldn’t you put some boots on?” Kyndra said a touch more harshly than she’d intended. “It’s raining. You’ll spoil those shoes.”

“I know it’s raining, Kyndra,” Colta snapped. “But we all become adults today and I intend to look the part.”

“There’s more to growing up than looking the part,” Kyndra said before she could stop herself. She tried to stuff her hands in her pockets and then realised that she didn’t have any.

Colta gave her a pitying look that made Kyndra grind her teeth. “If you’d had some made yourself, you wouldn’t have to be jealous,” the other girl said sweetly. She turned to Jhren. “See you later. I’ve still got lots to do.” With a bat of her lashes, Colta swept off.”

 

Text © Lucy Hounsom 2014

 

BF: Thank you so much for your time!  On behalf of Black Fox Literary Magazine, it’s an honor to interview you. 

LH: Thank you for having me!

 

To find out more about Lucy, visit her website: www.lucyhounsom.com

 

 

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