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[GUEST INTERVIEW] Bishop O’Connell (AN AMERICAN FAERIE TALE) on Compelling Characters, Publishing and (of Course) Faerie Tales

Bishop O’Connell is the author of the American Faerie Tale series, a consultant, writer, blogger, and lover of kilts and beer, as well as a member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. Born in Naples Italy while his father was stationed in Sardinia, Bishop grew up in San Diego, CA where he fell in love with the ocean and fish tacos. While wandering the country for work and school (absolutely not because he was in hiding from mind controlling bunnies), he experienced autumn in New England. Soon after, he settled in Manchester, NH, where he collects swords, as well as drinks, writes, revels in his immortality as a critically acclaimed “visionary” of the urban fantasy genre, and is regularly chastised for making up things for his bio. He can also be found online at A Quiet Pint (aquietpint.com), where he muses philosophical on the life, the universe, and everything, as well as various aspects of writing and the road to getting published. Bishop O’Connell on Amazon.  Bishop O’Connell on Good Reads.  Read sample chapters from “The Forgotten.”

Carl Slaughter wrote many reviews for Tangent before moving to Diabolical Plots as a reviewer and later an interviewer. He conducted 50 plus interviews for Diabolical Plots before moving to SF Signal. For the past 14 years, he has traveled the globe teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) in 6 counties on 3 continents. Carl has traveled to 18 countries and counting. (He’s tired.) In college, Carl studied journalism, broadcasting, advertising, English, speech, and history. For several years, he was a stringer for the Associated Press. His essay on Chinese culture was published in Beijing Review. His essay on Korean culture was published in The Korea Times, as was his expose on the Korean ESL industry. His travel/education reports about Thailand occasionally appear on the Ajarn website. Carl subscribes to the Mike Resnick philosophy of fiction: It’s all about the characters. Click here http://www.diabolicalplots.com/category/interviews/ to read Carl’s interviews on Diabolical Plots. Click here https://www.sfsignal.com/archives/category/interviews/ to read Carl’s interviews on SF Signal. Click here https://www.facebook.com/ESL-Around-the-World-530658247094335/ to see Facebook photos of Carl with his students of all ages from around the world. Click here  to watch a short Youtube video of Carl with some VERY excited Thai kindergarteners.

Harper opened a brief submissions window to unagented authors.  They received 4600 manuscripts.  Only 12 were selected.  One of those 12, The Stolen launched Harper’s Impulse line.  The Stolen was written by debut novelist Bishop O’Connell without the benefit of workshops or first readers.  Harper editor Rebecca Lucash told O’Connell, “The thing that stands out to me the most was that you had an incredibly compelling cast of characters.”  O’Connell talks about his characters.  He also talks about blending quantum mechanics into a fantasy story and responds to reviewer criticism that his first novel doesn’t have any strong female characters.

Carl chatted with Bishop about publishing, An American Faerie Tale, and more!


Carl Slaughter: The manuscript for STOLEN was one of 4600 submitted to Harper and was one of 12 accepted. STOLEN launched Harper’s Impulse line. What was the book’s appeal to the editors?

Bishop O’Connell:  It wasn’t until I read this question that I actually realized I didn’t know for sure. It sounds bizarre, I know, but these past two years have been rather busy and more than a little hectic at times so I never really sat and thought about it. I obviously can’t speak for the editors, so I decided to ask the question. Here’s what my editor said:

“The thing that stands out to me the most was that you had an incredibly compelling cast of characters.  Caitlin, Brendan, Edward, and Dante are all complex and real-feeling – meaning, they aren’t perfectly equipped to handle everything that life throws at them (okay, maybe Dante is), but they’ve got the wherewithal to figure things out.  It’s also fast paced without being rushed, and manages to be gripping and tense while still having enough light-hearted moments to be a fun, enjoyable read (something I think is key to a great urban fantasy).”

This is really what I strive for in all my stories. Obviously the story itself has to be good, but I think a lot of readers will look past a weaker story if they feel drawn to the characters. It’s harder the other way around. I’m sure the notion of a modernized faerie tale had some draw as well; something familiar with a new spin on it, but it’s reassuring to know it was the cast that really sealed the deal.

CS: Why magical beings with mobile phones and sports cars and pistols instead of castles and horses and swords?

BO: I’ve always been fascinated by faerie stories, the old and traditional ones, not the watered down kids stories we have now. Faeries to me where such an interesting group of creatures, so close to humans (and not just in appearance) but also able to embody the very best and worst of us. I knew going into this book that other creatures had been done to death, vampires and werewolves in particular, so I wanted something new. Additionally, I wanted my stories to connect with a modern audience. Sure, a lot of fantasy fans love sword and sorcery stories, myself included, but it’s sometimes harder for the wider public, and I wrote my stories for the broadest audience possible. So I started with the premise that faeries were real. Then it occurred to me: why did faeries have to be static creatures? In fact, wouldn’t it only make sense that if faeries were living among humans that they’d change with the society they lived in? More than that, wouldn’t it be necessary to evolve and change if you were going to blend in and hide? I know readers of fantasy and science fiction can and do suspend their disbelief, but I think it’s better to not ask them to if it isn’t necessary. In the end, it just made sense to me. Why always have a magical means of communication if cell phones are so readily available? Swords and magic have their place but sometimes it just doesn’t make sense not to use a gun. As for the sports cars, fae have ever been vain creatures who delight in beauty, and let’s be honest, sports cars are just freaking cool!

CS: If The Forgotten were a TV series, which actors would play the major characters?

BO: I never really considered the casting of The Forgotten, but a lot of that was due to very little downtime after the book was published. I decided on Dante in The Stolen however: Ezra Miller. He has the kind of almost unisexual beauty I imagined Dante having, as well as being young in appearance. For Brigid, I’d love for Christina Hendricks to play that role. She’s able to project, sex appeal, confidence, and a truly caring nature, all without being a bad stereotype. I could also see Alexandra Pell or Jessica Chastain as well. I think Jennifer Lawrence or Michelle Williams would crush the role of Elaine. Wraith, the main protagonist, is a lot harder for me. Or it was. I had a vision in my head, but never saw anyone who really jumped out at me. Then, coincidentally enough, a couple of days ago I saw a picture of Emma Watson I don’t remember where. She didn’t have short hair, and wasn’t dressed in rags, but the look she had was it. That was Wraith, and now I’m not sure I can shake that.

CS: How do you blend quantum mechanics and magical powers?

BO: I love quantum mechanics! Superposition, entanglement, and the like are endlessly fascinating to me. It seems to defy everyone we know about the physical universe. But the real inspiration came when I learned about the double slit experiment. There are some good videos out there that break it down, but this is the key I found inspiring; the results of this experiment can change based on nothing more than if it’s being observed. That was amazing to me.  Just by watching you could change how an electron of photon behaved (wave of particle). So I ran with that. What if it wasn’t just observing that changed the result?  What if it was our consciousness played a role? That grew into the idea of hacking the quantum information of the universe.  And what if that was all magic really was, and we just don’t understand how to do it? At what point would the science become magic? Would there even be a difference? Arthur C. Clarke’s third law says that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” With the discoveries we’re making, that line between magic (fantasy) and science (reality) is becoming ever more blurred. This path has the added benefit of explaining magic in a way that helps with the suspension of disbelief. Quantum theory is challenging so much of what we thought we knew about the universe. So much so that while someone might dismiss the idea of a “real” wizard throwing fire. But if you wrap that same notion in what sounds like a reasonable scientific premise, modifying the quantum information of the particles in the air and causing them to reach a state of energy so high it combusts, that is just enough to get the reader to buy in.

CS: Wraith and her friends, and a lot of other half human/half faerie children are homeless and targeted. Is this literary activism?

BO: I wouldn’t use that term, but mostly because I think it has a negative connotation to it. Maybe literary advocacy is a better way or wording it. With The Forgotten, it was important to me to give voice to a group that doesn’t have one. In 2013, it was estimated that about 2.5 million children (under the age of 18) were homeless. I’ve personally had some experience in this during my college years so it’s something that has really stuck with me. That being said, I don’t want to preach. I’m not out to make anyone feel guilty. I think I did a decent job of presenting it in the story without being heavy handed about it. What I tried to do was wrap the message in a way that makes it more personal. I put a face on it, and so maybe as people feel for Wraith and what she is going through. Maybe that will make readers more aware, even if just in the back of their heads, about others out there like Wraith. I admit, I also slipped a second message in; a bit of advocacy for LGBT homeless kids. Roughly half of the kids on the street are LGBT. Some wind up there because their families didn’t accept them, or they just didn’t think they belonged anywhere. I use half human/half faerie kids to represent this population. Again, I tried to do it subtly. The point of just about any story is to make the reader see the world in a new way, I’m just adding some depth to it. Could someone read the story and never see this advocacy? Sure, but to me, the message was important. Maybe I could be accused of being too soft in the delivery of my message, and that would be fair, but I think you’re much more likely to get change when you do it by inches, instead of by feet or miles.

CS: Some reviewers claimed THE STOLEN lacked a strong female character. Was this criticism justified?

BO: This is a bit of a double-edged sword, isn’t it? If I say no, I’m discounting the opinions of my readers. If I say yes, it sounds like I’m bashing my own book and possibly discouraging people from reading it. But it’s also a fair question, so I’ll answer it. Yes, I think it is justified. In as much as I’ve always believed that every reader’s opinion of a work is valid. That being said, do I think Caitlin was a weak character? No. I think she was a strong character with weaknesses. I could’ve done a better job in presenting her strengths and weaknesses, but I’m a better, more mature writer now. The Stolen was my first published work. Prior to Harper picking it up, it had been rejected by 118 agents (seriously) and two publishers. Obviously I didn’t give up, but to say that kind of rejection had no impact on my confidence as a writer would be ridiculous. Additionally, I didn’t have much experience with the larger literary world. It wasn’t as clear to me that I was using some tropes and stereotypes that were overused. Clearly my publisher didn’t think the story suffered because of it, but a writer I always want to be better. So as I matured and my skill increased, I was better able to see the trip point and strove to move past them. I think if those people who felt The Stolen lacked a strong female character (however cringe worth that phrase has become) read The Forgotten, they’d see how I’ve improved as a writer and actually took their criticism to heart.

CS: The snatchers are Agent Ford-esque, and while posing as FBI agents, Dante and Brigid are Men in Black-esque. Did you draw on popular culture for these or other characters?

BO: Absolutely. In my heart, I’m a geek. While that influence wasn’t always intentional, you can’t immerse yourself in something (like pop culture) and not be influenced by it. I don’t pull directly from any single source (at least not intentionally) but more the archetypes that those familiar characters represent. None of my characters or stories are direct stand-ins for any other story or character, but they do possess pieces from a myriad of sources. Brendan has more than a little Wolverine in him, Dante and Brigid both have a bit of James Bond, and Wraith some Harry Dresden, but I think I did a pretty good job of taking my influences and making something new from them.

CS: There seems to be an implied subtext with Dante and Brigid. Do they have a romantic/sexual history or just strong personal chemistry/professional respect?

BO: Well, I don’t want to give away anything that will come up in future books, but I will say they do have a history and it is both personal and intimate. What they have now is really more of a deep respect for each other that has been built up over centuries of friendship and working together. A bit of backstory that is brought up in The Stolen is that the Rogue Court is a (relatively) recent creation. Prior to its existence the members belonged to either the Dusk or Dawn court. The split that brought about its creation wasn’t a pleasant one, not least of which because it brought together groups of fae who had always been foes. When something like that happens, it tends to draw people together.

CS: What’s Nightstick’s role? He’s entertaining, but he never intervenes or contributes. He seems to exist solely for the purpose of annoying wraith.

BO: Again, I don’t want to give anything away, but I will say his motivation is ultimately to protect Wraith. However, just as readers can and should question Wraith’s sanity, so to should they question Nightstick’s. His antagonism stems from the fact that Wraith is a scared kid. She doesn’t know who she is or what happened to her. Sometimes, she isn’t even sure what’s real. This fear often causes her to not take action when she should, so Nightstick is there to prod her when she needs it. Additionally, he often finds himself being that sarcastic, snarky, inner voice we all have when we do something stupid. His utter lack of people skills is explained near the end of the book.

CS: Wraith’s parents bring in a priest to perform an exorcism on her. The suspicious foster parents pose as devout Bible believers. Why the Christianity element?

BO: I suppose this could be called literary advocacy as well. I have nothing against Christianity, or any religion in and of itself. It’s the zealots I take issue with. Wraith’s parents are truly an extreme case; they believe all math and science is the work of the devil. They could’ve been of any religion but since I set the story in the US and the most common religion is Christianity, I went with it. The foster parents are more about filling a role, or wearing a mask. How could anyone suspect anything of those good, God fearing Christian folks who take in foster kids? Again, it’s not a criticism of Christianity or any religion, it’s about how people’s suspicions can be diverted, and done so quite efficiently from a distance. Look at how long it took before people began to take the reports of child sex abuse at the hands of Catholic priests seriously. We all have preconceived notions in our head, and I was playing on those.

CS: All of your novels and short stories are in the American Faerie Tale universe. Are you planning to venture out of that universe?

BO: Definitely. I love the AFT universe and its characters, but I want to branch out into other worlds and stories. I currently have in the works a science fiction story, an epic fantasy, and a fantasy western. I also have what was intended to be non-genre fiction (or literary fiction if you prefer) but it’s probably going to wind up being put into the fantasy/paranormal genre. No spoilers though, people will just have to wait to see what comes.

CS: Why do you encourage readers to post negative reviews?

BO: Just to clarify, I encourage readers to post reviews period, good and bad. I do this because every review helps. Amazon has a system in place, though there is much debate about the specifics of it, that when a book reaches a certain number of reviews, regardless of being good or bad, it gets better promotion. Additionally, if the average person looks at the reviews for a book and they’re all good, they’re likely to doubt the sincerity of those reviews. We all know there is nothing that everyone likes. I’m sure somewhere out there is a person who doesn’t like pizza. People should feel free to express their opinions. After all, reviews aren’t for writers, they’re for other readers.  Once a book is published, it doesn’t belong to the author anymore. Now, I personally don’t believe in being needless harsh in reviews, and certainly not attacking the author directly. We all have different tastes and the reason you disliked something maybe a reason someone else loves it. That doesn’t mean authors don’t read their book’s reviews and none of us like bad reviews. After all, one negative review can erase the impact of fifty positive reviews in our heads. But sometimes those reviews can help the writer grow and improve. This was the case for me. It was because of a specific negative review that I started looking more closely at my writing and how I presented my characters. I don’t agree with all of the points the person made, but I did look for and found some criticism I felt had some validity and used it to improve my writing. I think the problem is that people equate negative reviews with being mean. There are certainly plenty of reviews that are both, but a bad review doesn’t have to be mean.

CS: Any advice to aspiring novelists?

BO: Never give up. If you really want to be a published author, remember its long, hard path. You’re going to get rejected, probably a lot, and some of them will be harsh. Keep in mind though that while others get to decide if you’ve succeeded, only you get to decide if you’ve failed (when you quit). It could take a month, a year, or a decade, but if it matters to you, never stop trying.

Along with that, keep writing and keep improving. Any rejection with feedback is gold. Mine that rejection for anything that will help you become a better writer. Always be improving yourself and your writing. This means you need to be open to criticism, and the ability to take it and also to sift through it to find something meaningful is a vital skill.

To improve, you’ll need help. Find a good beta reader, or writing group, or if you must, hire a freelance editor. There are things you will never see in your own writing that are obvious to others. Even the most prolific authors need someone else to look over their work. There’s a reason we have editors.

Lastly, before making any decision, do research! There are a lot of people out there who prey on authors. Before signing with a publisher or agent, check them out online. Editors and Predators, and Writer Beware are invaluable tools. If you’re considering self-publishing, do some research. There are pros and cons to both traditional publishing and self-publishing. Make sure you understand them going in and how much work you’re signing yourself up for to be successful.

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