Hey there, friends! Chances are if you’re here reading my website you are a fan of fantasy stories featuring magic and complex characters. If so, I have quite the treat for you today! The fantastically talented author, editor, formatter, and digital artist, Emily June Street was kind enough to stop by to discuss her newest release in the Tales of Blood and Light series, Mage and Source. Read on to explore self-annihilation in writing, learn a bit about the unique magic system this series has to offer, and a bit about Emily’s process in designing her eye-catching covers.
TNK: One of the pitfalls of writing (and reading) fantasy is the dreaded “Mary-Sue.” However, your three heroines featured in the Tales of Blood and Light so far, Leila, the Cedna, and Sterling, are anything but clichéd. What steps do you take to write such well-rounded characters?
EJS: The short answer is that I torture my characters so much no one would ever imagine that I want to be them. I steal their children, imprison them, betray them, and play upon their weaknesses.
TNK: Ha! That’s one way to do it. I think we might share that propensity…
EJS: I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the dreaded Mary-Sue criticism in general. We all want to write sympathetic characters, and I guess the idea behind that criticism is that it is a delicate balance between empathy for a character and fantasy-wish-fulfillment? Or that a character doesn’t have enough weaknesses? (I admit I might consider the Mary-Sue criticism sometimes more indicative of the critic’s state of mind than the state of the writing. It seems to me that a critic who claims “Mary-Sue” is being rather presumptuous to claim he knows what an author’s wish-fulfillment fantasy might be…it’s kind of patronizing.
That said, I think the meat behind a Mary-Sue criticism boils down to a character not showing enough psychological depth, especially in terms of her weaknesses. I’ve never met a single person who doesn’t have insecurities, so every character must have them. Insecurities emerge from a complicated brew of past experiences, temperament, thought process, and training. So for every character I write, I try to have a psychological profile organized for them—what are their fears, what are their foibles, what are their blindspots, their skills, their hidden strengths.
There’s another aspect to this that I find hard to put into words. I write and read to lose myself, in a sort of Buddhist sense, a kind of annihilation. The whole fun of writing isn’t to inject my own self, my own desires and fantasies, onto my characters, but rather to explore differences—what would a person who thinks in a completely different way from me do in this particular sticky situation, how can I try to inhabit another mind as fully as possible?
TNK: The magic system in ToBaL is very unique. Can you describe it briefly, and discuss how you came up with such a different system involving “aetherlights” and magical “sources?”
EJS: Uh…uh…uh. This is hard. There wasn’t as much planning as there should have been. The entire concept of the magic system started with the two different cultures, Gante and Lethemia. I wanted to have the magical world be something real to both cultures, the way God is real for various religious faiths, but explained and defined in different ways.
So, the one irrefutable tenet of magic in this world is that magic has a cost, no matter what, but how Ganteans and Lethemians pay that cost is completely different. Ganteans pay with blood, Lethemians pay with aetherlight the “life/light energy” of living things—the mage expends it and then has to replenish it. I had mages replenish by taking aetherlight from others, which gave rise to the idea of a Source—a person who provides her own aetherlight to a mage after he has used up his own performing magic.
I guess the seed kernel idea for the idea of aetherlight was the New Age concept of auras. I do a very loose kind of meditation in which I have often conceived of people and the connections between them having specific color tones. I also have a meditation for pain that I do during my severe migraine attacks that involves colors and shapes, and so these visualizations may have formed the initial ideas for this particular magic system.
TNK: Do you have a favorite out of your books so far? Or even a favorite protagonist whose perspective you most enjoyed inhabiting?
EJS: I like each one the best as I write, read, and develop it. And then I let it go and never want to see it again! Laith (one of the narrators of Mage and Source has been quite fun to write. And write. And write. He’s very long-winded; he’s the kind of character who still pops lines into my head at inopportune times.
TNK: He’s also quite fun to read!
TNK: Are you a pantser or a plotter? Did you have an idea for the series direction when you began The Gantean, or did it all come together as you went along?
EJS: When it comes to Tales of Blood & Light, I am a pantser who must then go back and plot retroactively. It is exhausting. I’m trying to be more of a plotter for other books I am writing—but it doesn’t always work. My true writing comfort zone is probably pantsing.
TNK: Tell us about one of the characters in Mage and Source.
EJS: Well, I feel like I’ve discussed Laith more often and more thoroughly (he so loves the limelight) so I’ll tell you about Elena, who does not want the attention. Elena is my other narrator in Mage and Source. She’s the Source to Laith’s mage. She’s from the Eastern Empire, where life is dangerous because the Emperor is a bit of tyrant whose power is unchecked. She is a potion-master’s daughter, and she is sent to Lethemia on a mission to learn about the west’s magical power and to assassinate Lethemia’s King.
Elena has had bad experiences in the Empire, which is not a friendly place to grow up female. She carries those bad experiences with her, and part of her character arc is about coming to some kind of terms with them. She is largely driven by her fears. Elena is a bit harder to get to know than some of my other characters (ahem, cough, Laith) because her basic nature is extremely reserved, and she isn’t one to loudly express emotions or desires. All my narrators have an elemental theme. Elena’s is earth. She gets her power from steadiness, regularity, and living things. She wants to cultivate, not destroy, but the circumstances of her life make that difficult. She is a fairly turbulent character; her actions and beliefs don’t always line up, she may say one thing and do another. She’s a fierce mix of fears and courage.
TNK: You designed the cover for Mage and Source, as well as the other books in ToBaL. What is your process for creating such eye-catching covers?
EJS: I always start with a color—the aetherlight color of the narrator (or narrators). That has to be the basic background color for the cover, so I search through all kinds of images looking for the color I want, expressed in the way I want. I look for luminous backgrounds with strong light and glowy qualities. I look for interesting light textures. Then I go to stock sites and try to find a good portrait for the narrator. I went with portraits on my covers, even though I don’t always like to see a character’s face on a book cover, because ultimately, I feel like my books are portraits: they are character-driven stories. Once I have background and portrait images, I try to identify at least one “story element” to represent on the cover, and search for a good image of that. On Mage and Source’s cover, Laith and Elena got a flower that is supposed to represent the night queen bloom that plays a role in the story. Finally, I make a big composite image collage out of all those elements and add the text.
I really enjoy making the covers although I have no formal schooling in digital art, and I probably take the long way around on things that a pro could do in a heartbeat. Even so, I have fun, and that is what makes it all worthwhile to me. I’m always learning.
TNK: Check out all of Emily’s gorgeous covers on Amazon. She may not have formal schooling, but you wouldn’t know it looking at these.
TNK: What is next for you as an author?
EJS: I’ll keep plugging way at Tales of Blood & Light—three more books, all mostly drafted. I have two co-written books with Tamara Shoemaker that we’ll be pitching at a conference in New York in a couple of weeks. And I have a few other fantasy series bubbling and simmering. Now I just need more time to get all this done!
TNK: You can say that again! I for one can’t wait to see what happens next.
The next world arrives in a shattering fall.
The Cedna is dead, and magic is broken. Laith Amar, a famous mage, must learn to live without his skill as all of Lethemia reels from the Fall. Fighting despair and skeptical colleagues, Laith seeks any solution that can return his talents.
From hidden sources, hope emerges.
Angered by losing the war against Lethemia, the Eastern Emperor dispatches Elena Rith, a trained potion-mistress, to assassinate the Lethemian King Costas Galatien and to learn what she can of the West’s fallen magic. Alone in a foreign country, Elena battles new hazards and old fears as an Eastern hunter tracks her.
A new alchemy ignites an old power.
After fate throws them together, Laith and Elena discover an intriguing method to revive magic that depends on them both. But when Elena’s foe finds her, can Laith save her from a past of pain and violation?
Only love can resurrect Laith’s faith and Elena’s hope, but darkness surrounds them as their enemies close in.
Magic’s restoration hangs in the balance.
Read Mage and Source here
Check out Emily’s complete published works here