Please welcome Lara Elena Donnelly to The Qwillery as part of the 2017 Debut Author Challenge interviews. Amberlough will be published on February 7th by Tor Books.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
LD: I started writing in Ms. Pettiford’s 5th/6th grade classroom. To kickstart our imaginations, she used pages from Chris Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick as prompts. For a very long time I was convinced Harris Burdick was a real person. I don’t think I was disillusioned until college.
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
LD: I’m so totally a plotter. I used to be a pantser, but when I attended the Clarion writers’ workshop I got the same critique over and over again: my characters were passive. Things happened to them, but they never did anything. Once I started outlining, and asking myself why I was making my narrative decisions, and what the consequences of those decisions would be, my passivity problem mostly went away. Also the long-form projects I’ve been working on, Amberlough included, have seriously convoluted plots. Now I shudder at the thought of pantsing.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
LD: Often, the “ass to chair” aspect. I’m an extrovert, and I like to be social. Voluntarily shutting myself up inside, alone, to put words on a page, can be very difficult sometimes.
TQ: What has influenced / influences your writing?
LD: Often my writing is a kind of wish-fulfillment—a way to create an aesthetic or experience I want to see in the world. The first novel I ever wrote, I wrote because I couldn’t find anything I wanted to read at the library that day. So I guess the major influences on my writing recently have been real life experiences and interests: swing dance, vintage parties, menswear, working in the service industry, dating disasters, and a host of other tangible things.
Media-consumption-wise, I’ve been reading a lot of pop histories and salacious biographies. This is partly a function of research, but also usually relevant to my interests. Pop histories and salacious biographies tend to involve vintage parties and menswear, and usually some pretty scandalous dating disasters.
TQ: Describe Amberlough in 140 characters or less.
LD: Amberlough is a queer and glittering cabaret of love, lust, friendship & betrayal set in a country teetering on the brink of a fascist coup.
TQ: Tell us something about Amberlough that is not found in the book description.
LD: This book includes so many cigarettes that it should come with a surgeon general’s warning.
TQ: What inspired you to write Amberlough?
LD: My mental construct of writing is a stew pot that I’m constantly adding ingredients to, always simmering on the backburner of my brain, which I eventually empty out into a bowl/novel/story. Amberlough was a really, really long time cooking, and there were a lot of ingredients that went into the pot to make it.
But there are two big things. One, I first watched Cabaret in the summer of 2008. Two, I studied abroad in Ireland in 2010 and went on a road trip that took me through the Sheffrey Pass, one of the most beautiful and desolate places I’ve ever been. On the face of it, Sheffrey and Weimar Berlin don’t have a lot in common. But when I was driving through that rainy, cloudy, windy place, covered in blooming gorse, a scene and a name dropped into my head. Aristide Makricosta, waiting for someone on a hillside. I didn’t know who he was, or what had happened, or who he was waiting for. I only knew he was a glamorous person from a lush, doomed place (Cabaret, creeping in), and that he familiar with this rural setting, though he clearly didn’t belong.
From there, it was just a matter of figuring out the how and why.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for Amberlough?
LD: A LOT. And I still feel like it wasn’t enough. I read so much Isherwood. Mr. Norris Changes Trains, The Berlin Stories, Christopher and His Kind. Also, obviously, le Carré: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. Ben Macintyre’s Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies. D.J. Taylor’s Bright Young People.
Then there’s the incidentals: when were cigarette lighters invented? When did the wristwatch replace the pocket watch? How many studs on a proper white tie dress shirt? How much cyanide do you need to kill a grown man, and how fast will he die? Does the poison react in any way with alcohol? Assuming medical technology consistent with the early 1930s, what were your odds of surviving surgery on a perforated gut gone septic? The more context-specific the questions, the harder they were to answer.
TQ: Please tell us about Amberlough's cover.
LD: Victo Ngai is a genius. Everything she’s done is gorgeous. If you don’t believe me, open a new tab and google her right now.
The cover came about when my editor (Diana Pho) and I had a phone call to compare secret cover inspiration Pinterest boards. Hers was very much a black-and-white photo aesthetic, reminiscent of Brassaï’s Paris. Mine was all art deco advertising art. She showed me some art Victo had done for a Tor.com story and I was like “yes. YES.”
The great thing about the cover is that it depicts a scene that wasn’t in the original draft. When I got my first edit letter from Diana, she asked if we could see Aristide and Cordelia onstage. They both perform in the Bumble Bee Cabaret, but in the first version of the book, we only ever saw them backstage or mingling with the crowd. I guess I hadn’t felt like their acts were plot-relevant. But I’m so glad Diana asked me to show them, because the sizzling strip tease in chapter fifteen became the most beautiful cover in the world.
TQ: In Amberlough who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
LD: I found it equally easy to write from Cyril and Aristide’s points of view—they’re different in some superficial ways, but similarly calculating. They’re both running constant analysis on every interaction they have. They approach their lives very much like I write: questioning every decision they make, mapping consequences, weighing the merits of every relationship. It felt very natural to write them living like I write, if that makes sense.
Cordelia was much harder. She’s less esoteric than the boys, less intensely analytical. Her actions are more instinctual, her relationships more genuine. Also she speaks in an entirely different register, and I had to constantly police my word choice. My first instinct is elevated vocabulary and lyrical description, but Cordelia doesn’t go there, so much. I had to ask, every time: would she say it this way?
But for all the struggle—maybe because of that struggle, and the extra attention she required—nine out of ten readers agree: Cordelia is their favorite character.
TQ: Why have you chosen to include or not chosen to include social issues in Amberlough?
LD: From its earliest drafts, Amberlough has been a queer romance. It wasn’t a choice, per se. It was just how the story arrived.
But Amberlough is also a book about the forcible homogenization of a diverse society, and that’s impossible to write without including diversity. As I drafted, though, I noticed that whenever I introduced a new character, my default was white and male. So I started to be more deliberate in choosing identities, and eventually those choices played into the narrative.
As Cyril explains it: “[The Ospies’] aim was unification: the loose federation into one tightly controlled entity. The manifold diversity of Gedda’s people into one homogenous culture.” But you can’t homogenize something that isn’t diverse in the first place.
In the beginning of the book, there are women and people of color in positions of power. Cyril’s boss, Ada Culpepper, is a dapper, masculine-of-center black woman, the child of refugees, who’s having an affair with her younger white male secretary. She up-ends a lot of contemporary, real-world assumptions and stereotypes.
As the book goes on and the Ospies gain power and influence, I deliberately started bringing in more old white men and putting them in charge. Women are placed in subordinate positions, belittled. Queer people, immigrants, and people of color face violence and prejudice. It becomes, sadly, a lot more like our world. I hope the juxtaposition highlights that the power dynamics we often take for granted don’t have to be the norm.
TQ: Which question about Amberlough do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
LD: I honestly wish someone would ask me to explain the organization of the government, and the system of border tariffs that’s causing so much political tension. I feel like there wasn’t a way to include the nitty gritty details of taxation and election conventions in the book that wasn’t staggeringly boring.
That said, I feel like explaining it here might be staggeringly boring too.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from Amberlough.
LD: The paragraph has been in the story since its very first iteration. It’s a description of that drive through the Irish mountains, transposed to my invented world:
“[Dusk] came quickly in the Currin Pass, especially at the waning end of summer. As soon as the sun slipped behind the peaks of the Culthams, the temperature dropped and the air turned heavy with dew. Gentian light softened the edges of the crags and made the streams run black and spangled. A distant herd of sheep—pale smears in the gloom—trotted home over the tussocks of tangled grass that grew up the steep hillsides.”
TQ: What's next?
LD: I’m working on several short stories, and co-writing a novella. I’m also working on an exciting long-form project I think I’d better keep hush-hush for now. The only thing I’ve got coming up publishing-wise is a reprint of my story “The Dirty American” in Lethe Press’s anthology The Midas Clutch (summer 2017).
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
LD: Thanks for having me! This was fun!
Tor Books, February 7, 2017
Hardcover and eBook, 400 pages
From author Lara Elena Donnelly, a debut spy thriller as a gay double-agent schemes to protect his smuggler lover during the rise of a fascist government coup
Trust no one with anything – especially in Amberlough City.
Covert agent Cyril DePaul thinks he’s good at keeping secrets, especially from Aristide Makricosta. They suit each other: Aristide turns a blind eye to Cyril’s clandestine affairs, and Cyril keeps his lover’s moonlighting job as a smuggler under wraps.
Cyril participates on a mission that leads to disastrous results, leaving smoke from various political fires smoldering throughout the city. Shielding Aristide from the expected fallout isn’t easy, though, for he refuses to let anything – not the crooked city police or the mounting rage from radical conservatives – dictate his life.
Enter streetwise Cordelia Lehane, a top dancer at the Bumble Bee Cabaret and Aristide’s runner, who could be the key to Cyril’s plans—if she can be trusted. As the twinkling lights of nightclub marquees yield to the rising flames of a fascist revolution, these three will struggle to survive using whatever means — and people — necessary. Including each other.
Combining the espionage thrills of le Carré with the allure of an alternate vintage era, Amberlough will thoroughly seduce and enthrall you.
"James Bond by way of Oscar Wilde." —Holly Black
"Sparkling with slang, full of riotous characters, and dripping with intrigue, Amberlough is a dazzling romp through a tumultuous, ravishing world." —Robert Jackson Bennett, winner of the Shirley Jackson Award and the Edgar Award
"An astonishing first novel!" —World Fantasy Award-winning author Ellen Kushner
LARA ELENA DONNELLY is a graduate of the Alpha and Clarion writing workshops. Her fiction won the Dell Magazine Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy; she has been published in Icarus, Strange Horizons, Grim Corps, and Mythic Delirium. Donnelly has worked as professional fire performer, belly dancer, and is knowledgeable in aerial acrobatics and burlesque. Amberlough is her debut novel. You can visit her online at: http://laradonnelly.com/ and on Twitter under @larazontally.