Welcome to the latest installment of Breaking In, where I interview authors about their experiences breaking in as writers – how they did it, what it felt like to get there, and how it differed from what they were expecting.
Today I’m delighted to welcome Leah Bobet to the blog. Leah is a Toronto-based author, bookseller, freelance copywriter, editor of the online fiction magazine Ideomancer, and all-around Word Ninja.
Her short fiction has been widely published and critically acclaimed. Leah’s first novel, Above, was published in 2012. I am on record as thinking rather highly of it.
Her new novel, An Inheritance of Ashes, was published earlier this month, by Scholastic in Canada, and by Clarion Books / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, in the US.
The strange war down south — with its rumours of gods and monsters — is over. And while 16-year-old Hallie and her sister wait to see who will return from the distant battlefield, they struggle to maintain their family farm. When Hallie hires a veteran to help them, the war comes home in ways no one could have imagined, and soon Hallie is taking dangerous risks — and keeping desperate secrets.
But even as she slowly learns more about the war and the men who fought it, ugly truths about Hallie’s own family are emerging. And while monsters and armies are converging on the small farm, the greatest threat to Hallie’s home may be Hallie herself.
An Inheritance of Ashes is available now from your preferred bookseller, either bricks-and-mortar or online.
[SGM] Welcome to the blog, Leah! To begin, when did you feel like you’d broken in as a writer?
[LB] “Breaking in” – that makes me feel like I need a catsuit, lockpicks, and possibly rappelling equipment. Do those crimes, Badass Me!
More seriously, though, it almost implies someone was trying to keep me out—or that I wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place!—which is not what my relationship to publishing and writing has been. I’ve found it to be frequently a hard job, and a pretty unglamorous one; it’s meant having to do some personal and emotional growth in service to the work, and that’s not easy stuff. But the doors were not locked, and I was not trespassing. I just had to hone my craft enough to tell the stories I have well, and find the ways to describe them that help publishers and editors see how they might connect with an audience. I’m still honing both those skills, really.
So I’m not sure I’ve ever felt that I’ve broken into something hallowed and out of my league, or Made It™; I’m very aware I will never be at the stage of my career where I get to sit back, know It Is Accomplished, and rest for a while, because that thing just doesn’t exist. Publishing’s a very organic field, and this year’s Big Deal can be absolutely obscure in two or three years’ time—or just completely irrelevant, because the focus of readers’ interest has changed. Classic books fall out of print all the time. Schools of thought die out. Just because you were nominated for an award once, it doesn’t mean you will be next year or the year after. In some ways, what you get in publishing, you do not necessarily get to keep. You earn it all over again every time, with each new book.
Or to say it more positively: As a field, literature is a conversation, and conversations move. And there is always, always room to grow within them, or along with them.
So, fourteen years into my career as an author—my first short story was accepted and published fourteen years ago this month!—I’m still quite aware that this is only the beginning. Two books is an accomplishment; at the same time it’s really nothing much at all. There is very little in my career that it would be smart—or appropriate—to take for granted except the skill I’ve worked to put into my hands. There are always goals I have for my craft that are distant, a whole journey away and a whole mountain high, and I don’t expect I’ll ever get to a point where I’ve broken in, where I’ve accomplished, where I’m at the end of the quest. This is one of those disciplines where the walking is the point. It’s a process discipline. If I reach all those goals, I’ll just make up more goals, after all, and keep on down the road.
What was your path to breaking in? Did you have a strategy? Did it work, or did you end up getting there another way?
I wish I could say I’m one of those people who has grand master plans. Very few of my plans ever survive contact with real life, especially if they presume anything about life more than six months down the road, which is usually when I look at the plan, laugh hysterically at the gap between the life I’m living and what I thought I’d still be living six months before, and scrap it for a whole new plan.
I wanted little things when I sat down at eighteen to write my first published short story. First, I wanted to get the story in my head out properly. Then I wanted to see if I could sell it. Then I wanted to figure out some techniques so I could do that better and more easily next time, or write something that would work for a specific magazine, or make a professional sale, or get an honourable mention—and then a reprint!—in a Year’s Best anthology. Write a book! Get some grants! Sign with an agent! Sell a book! Do some school visits! Support myself writing full-time! Appear at my favourite literary festival! Jump genres, reverse every epic fantasy trope I know, and still have a functional novel! Plan a multi-city or multi-author tour!
This has been a short summary of the last fourteen years.
So while I followed what some agree is the conventional career path of learning on short stories, using those credits to show a literary agent you can deliver (once you’ve cold-queried ones who represent something like what you write), and moving into novels, this wasn’t quite so deliberate as being a strategy. It was just the process of what interested me as a craftsperson, my tendency to learn on the job and just claw my way upward, starting young enough to plainly not have the skills for novels at first, and a certain amount of adapting to the curve balls as they flew at me—a series of best-fit solutions at the time.
For example, I didn’t expect Above to sell into a YA publisher; that was a strategy my agent pursued with what I felt was very much an adult novel, because she thought it would have traction in that market. With An Inheritance of Ashes, I had to learn to write a young adult novel on purpose: I had an option to fulfill, and I’d never actually done that before. It’s not at all where I thought I’d find myself, but circumstances required it, and so I learned an interesting new thing.
Writing as a career has taught me that big things are made out of little things. I mostly get interested in seeing whether I can pull off a short step: Whether I can do something I find interesting well. I always started with “Hey, can I do that? It would probably be neat. I’d love to learn that. It’s a good challenge.” I am old enough in terms of industry-years that I’m less and less concerned as time goes by with how my goals or interests look to outside parties. I don’t waste a lot of time on “should” or appearances anymore. I mostly just find interesting challenges and do the work, one step at a time.
And following up on that, knowing what you do now, what would you do differently?
It’s hard to say which choices I might have made differently now. So much of how we move ourselves in an arts career has to do with what options we have and where we are as people at the time of those decisions: What choices Past Self actually had open and could reasonably make. It’s also about not beating Past Self up for not having invisible foresight or unattainable knowledge, once we’ve got the hindsight.
I think there are situations where I’d have liked to stand firmer on my boundaries, in terms of business practice, or trusted my own instinct about something being a bit fishy before it got apparent that it was very fishy, and I had to do damage control. But some of those things I wasn’t sure I wanted—see above, about having no idea how to write a YA novel deliberately and being thrown face-first into a whole different publishing subculture—have really turned out to be amazing gifts. I’m glad, four years down the road, that I didn’t stand on principle about submitting Above to YA publishers. It’s a great, supportive, amazingly talented writing subculture that lets you blend genres like crazy without blinking an eye, and you know? I feel pretty lucky that it found me. I wouldn’t have known enough to go find it.
So: That’s why it’s hard to say what I might have done differently. It’s the classic time-travel problem: What difference in the iffy decisions would take out the things you’re really happy to have now? Best to not get into that machine to kill Hitler, maybe.
Now that you’ve broken in, is it like or unlike what you expected? How?
I had the enormous luck to be part of a writers’ group that saw a lot of success in both adult and YA SFF. People I Knew When and workshopped with at the beginning of all of our careers include Elizabeth Bear, Rae Carson (NYT bestseller as of this month, and I am so happy for her it is ridiculous), Jaime Lee Moyer, Amanda Downum, Jodi Meadows, C.C. Finlay, Ilona Andrews—the list kind of goes on. There’s also a very supportive YA and middle-grade community in Toronto and Southern Ontario, which also makes a habit of working together to make the most of opportunities, talking frankly about business, and bringing back information and datapoints on how publishing works to the group.
Between them, I’ve had a very clear idea, for a very long time, of what a full-time writer’s life entailed. I had very few illusions re: champagne, suitcases of money, or custom-rigged fleets of corgis when I sold my first book.
So in some senses, I was pretty solidly prepared. In other senses, though, life is a thing that does not sit still. I write full-time right now, but that day is divided between fiction and freelance copy writing and editing, and I didn’t anticipate how much professional satisfaction I’d get from the freelance side of operations. I didn’t anticipate that I’d fall face-first in love a few months after going full-time and that the ambitions I’d planned for—me, enough sleep, and enough money to keep writing the next book—would expand, after a few short years, to finding ways to afford a wedding and wrestle with whether we’ll ever be able to afford a house as a pair of arts professionals.
So I think that even if the industry doesn’t change, we’re people, our lives change, and what we want from writing and publishing can change pretty radically. Very quickly after jumping into a life built around fiction being enough, life changed and fiction was not enough for me. Now, if it doesn’t help me afford the time and money to be a stable and good parent in a few years’ time, I’ll go back into the day job model and be glad to do it.
What are you working on now?
I’m deep in the promotional work for An Inheritance of Ashes, and that’s been my core focus for the last month or so. But writing-wise, I’m a decent way into a very different manuscript: an experiment in whether I can take the Battle School from Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and write it as a place that is compassionate, that values agency, and that wants the best for people. So: Ender’s Game with ethics. And robots. Very large robots.
Like all the other experiments: We’ll see if it turns out!
How can people keep up with you online?
I’m most responsive on Twitter, at @leahbobet, chatting about everything from books to politics, baking, sociology, narrative theory, neighbourhood dog reports, and Final Fantasy VII replays where we give the characters funny names.
If you’re strictly into the authorial goods, check out my Facebook fan page or the website, www.leahbobet.com, which are much more business-oriented and focus on the latest authorly doings.
Thank you to Leah for an interview that was amazingly informative while also challenging the fundamental premises of my questions! In a month that, as others have pointed out, is astoundingly full of wonderful new books, An Inheritance of Ashes is one of the ones I’m most looking forward to.
Coming up next on the blog: After a year-long drought, it’s raining Breaking In interviews! Stay tuned for interviews with Nicole Winters and SL Huang.