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Today’s guest is Jeffe Kennedy! She’s the author of many fantasy, romance, and fantasy romance books, including those in The Twelve Kingdoms trilogy, whose conclusion won the RT Reviewers’ Choice Award for Best Fantasy Romance, and The Uncharted Realms series, whose first installment won the RITA Award for Paranormal Romance. Her work has also been nominated for multiple RT Reviewers’ Choice, RITA, and PRISM Awards. The Fate of the Tala, the fifth book in The Uncharted Realms series and her latest novel, was released earlier this year—and her next novel is coming soon with the release of The Fiery Crown, the second book in her romantic fantasy series Forgotten Empires, on May 26!

The Fiery Crown by Jeffe Kennedy Book Cover The Fate of the Tala by Jeffe Kennedy Book Cover

I am a straddler of worlds. A longtime member of Romance Writers of America (RWA), I’m also a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA)—and serve as a Director at Large on the SFWA Board of Directors. In the Venn diagram of genres, my work sits squarely in the overlap between epic fantasy and romance. My stories are almost always built on a variation of the Hero’s Journey, except it always belongs to the heroine.

I’m also a heteronormative girly-girl. I like wearing makeup and flowing dresses, and people often recognize me by my high heels and big hats. At romance conventions, no one ever blinked at my personal style.

I entered the romance arena first, because that’s how my cross-genre books were first embraced. Romance publishers were much more willing to publish books with heavy fantasy settings and worldbuilding than fantasy publishers were willing to publish epic fantasy with a romance structure.

I feel like that’s an important distinction, as fantasy with romantic elements isn’t the same animal, mostly because it uses a different plot structure.

At the SFWA Nebula Conference in 2019, Mary Robinette Kowal led a panel I participated on where she challenged us to define a standard science fiction or fantasy plot structure. Everyone on the panel—notably all women—wrote a blend of SFF and romance. We could all come up with examples of commonly used science fiction or fantasy plot structures, and for every one we could think of numerous exceptions. After much discussion, we finally came to the realization that science fiction and fantasy elements serve as setting, while the plot structures can vary. They can have mystery, horror, action/adventure, literary, and a host of other familiar story arcs.

They can also have romance plots.

This was a huge revelation to me. I’m an intuitive storyteller, and I’d been simply writing the books that came to me. I never wanted to write cross-genre. I’d gotten great advice from many generous authors and I knew building a career as an author would be more difficult than if I wrote squarely in one genre. And I’d tried to groom my books to fit a single genre, but never seemed able to do it. That’s not where my voice led me. I didn’t even know I wrote fantasy romance/romantic fantasy until my first book was (finally!) published and that’s what my publisher called it.

After that Nebula Conference panel, I realized that I write naturally in a romance structure: very character-driven, with a focus on transformation and self-realization. My cross-genre sweet spot is when the abyss of the Hero’s Journey—the death and rebirth that allows the protagonist to transform, atone and return—coincides with the romance Black Moment and sacrifice required for them to embrace love and the personal transformation that brings.

I also love romance because I believe that joyfulness and love are profound emotions that deserve as much exploration and attention—perhaps more—than the darker experiences of our lives.

All of this is to say that I found my footing as a writer first in the romance community. Then, as my publishing credentials allowed me to join SFWA—and as readers recognized my books to be fantasy as much as romance—I began attending SFF conventions also. And I wore my big hats, my high heels, red lipstick and flowing dresses.

So, sure—we all know there will always be that guy. The socially awkward one who asks me about how hot the sun must be for me to wear a hat indoors, the one who figures me being pleasant at my signing table gives him license to relentlessly hit on me. That’s all par for the course. What surprised me were the women in SFF who told me I shouldn’t be so performatively female. One woman author became quite angry with me on a panel when I pointed out that skirts provide greater freedom of movement (if full enough) and that wearing skirts and dresses is the equivalent of going without pants—a state often touted by men as the best way to relax.

These conversations happened repeatedly at various events, with a few women earnestly advising me that I didn’t “have” to dress that way, and others suggesting that I’d never be taken seriously if I continued in my girly-girl ways. To think that I’d believed I’d be judged on the intelligence of my work and conversation.

All of this gave me pause. Why would femininity be a mark against being “taken seriously”? Especially in this day and age when we are embracing self-expression. At one SFF meeting, another woman literally threw her hands up in the air at the sight of me, commenting that everyone else was dressed comfortably while I was wearing a fancy dress. (It was a very comfortable sundress.) But I wanted to ask why it was okay for her to criticize my appearance.

Yes, we have a long history in the SFF genre of women writers being held in lower regard than male ones. The examples of female authors taking male names, and even complete personas, abound. It’s fascinating—and viscerally satisfying—to read about James Tiptree Jr. and how Alice Bradley Sheldon had so many people utterly convinced she was a man. Arguably women felt they had to masquerade as male authors to be treated the same way.

But… aren’t we supposed to be past that now?

Connie Willis has talked about a similar experience, how she was relentlessly teased for years because she wore a Laura Ashley dress with a lace Peter Pan collar to her first Nebula Conference. And Willis goes on to say that it was the feminists in the field who raked her over the coals for writing stories with housewives as heroines.

I’ve had similar experiences, of attending feminist SFF conferences—where I expected to be utterly at home as a feminist who writes SFF—only to come away feeling excluded and unworthy of interest.

Everyone should have their gender expression respected. We’ve made strides in normalizing that pronouns should be asked for and honored. In the field of SFF, more authors who are trans, non-binary, ace, bisexual and homosexual are being read and welcomed for the diverse perspectives they bring. So why are we still treating heteronormative femininity as somehow less than?

I believe this bias extends to the works also. It always dismays me when a female author chooses to give a male protagonist all the agency and action in the story. Male authors do this, too—and many male authors are making the effort to give female protagonists exciting stories—but overwhelmingly I still see SFF focusing on, if not male protagonists, then masculine qualities.

For example, the female protagonist who dresses as a boy in order to be “taken seriously.” This is a time-honored trope, and it can be interesting to explore, but it becomes insidiously present in all kinds of stories. The “strong female character” is portrayed as hating traditional female roles and activities. She must wear pants. She hates sewing and cooking—to the point of being terrible at it. She chops off her hair and she even eschews the company of other women, seeing them as frivolous, vain, and empty-headed. The reader is to understand that she is Not Like Other Women, because stereotypical femininity is weak.

She doesn’t have to dress that way. Much better to be like a man.

But, do women have to be like men to be equal? Or, more pointedly, while we’re working hard to recognize that sexuality and gender can be a spectrum, why would we scorn the far ends as less than others, even as toxic? (I have seen performative femininity compared to toxic masculinity.)

Then there’s the perspective that our SFF protagonists must engage in “big conflicts.” War, battles, individual fights—those are the exciting drivers in many novels. I’ve done them, too. In these scenarios, the women must be warriors or magic-wielders. They are not staying home to bake bread or weave cloth. The activities of hearth and home are simply not interesting in these scenarios. Interpersonal conflicts aren’t the drivers of many epic fantasy stories—unless the story is romance.

Finally, in a frequently well-meaning effort to give female characters agency—and to avoid the noxious trope of the Woman in the Refrigerator—a number of authors have declared they will not use rape or sexual assault of female characters in their books. They are rejecting the—admittedly overused—shorthand of a backstory of sexual trauma as motivation for a female character to be fierce and kickass.

The problem with this blanket rejection is that it effectively whitewashes a pervasive truth of many women’s lives. As was amply demonstrated by the #MeToo revelations, nearly every woman has faced a spectrum of sexual peril, from harassment to rape. Declaring that a female character must never have experienced any of this is akin to pretending that a female character can only be interesting if she loathes traditional female skills and activities.

She must be Not Like Other Women. Because this vast, faceless and apparently mindless mass of stereotypical women are ipso facto not interesting.

Aren’t we still looking on these women with a male gaze? They’re painted with such a broad brush, these giggling females interested only in ribbons and gowns, spending endless hours gossiping over pointless embroidery projects. Never mind the immense skill and effort that goes into textile work of all kinds. Or the near magical craft that goes into getting bread to rise properly. Or the careful tending of the garden so it produces food.

In the gaze of male-dominated stories, the heroes return home to cozy cottages that have been meticulously maintained in their absence. There’s wood for a warm fire, a meal that magically appears before them, and a restful bed with linens and blankets that somehow miraculously manifested. Of course this is all due to the women’s work, those who stayed at home and labored to put all of this in place. The labor and skill that’s so uninteresting that it rarely merits mention in an epic fantasy tale, except to be scorned by the one who is Not Like the Other Women who live such boring lives.

I’m positing that female characters may be as varied in appearance, skills, interests, thoughts, ambitions, and dress as any other character. We can move past the staid trope where “female” is a character definition. Instead of the group of protagonists with the Lead Boy, the Nerdy Boy, the Athletic Boy, and the Girl, we might find that there are other ways to characterize a person who is female. And I don’t mean presenting the Pretty Girl vs. the Nerdy Girl.

Female characters in fantasy can take on many kinds of roles, and possess many skills. In my Forgotten Empires trilogy, I have a queen who loves fashion—and is a canny politician. There’s also a warrior woman who’s vain about her hair, a female general with a hard, pragmatic outlook, a lady-in-waiting who’s exceptionally good at comforting people and another with grand ambitions. There’s also a woman who is a proficient weaver—and bomb maker.

The kinds of female characters we can portray in fantasy are as varied as all of humanity. Fantasy stories portraying lesbian, bi, ace, and other non-heteronormative female characters have made great strides in showing other ways of being female. They’re fantastic (in every sense of the word) to read. But, being a heteronormative female who likes classically feminine things doesn’t make your brains leak out of your ears. A woman with a sexual preference for men shouldn’t be subject to the male gaze any more than any other person.

“Strong” doesn’t equate to masculine, and femaleness doesn’t mean a person too oppressed to know better. Everyone should be able to dress however they like, without being criticized for it—and they should still be taken seriously.

Jeffe Kennedy Photo

Jeffe Kennedy is an award-winning author whose works include novels, non-fiction, poetry, and short fiction. She has won the prestigious RITA® Award from Romance Writers of America (RWA), has been a finalist twice, been a Ucross Foundation Fellow, received the Wyoming Arts Council Fellowship for Poetry, and was awarded a Frank Nelson Doubleday Memorial Award. She serves on the Board of Directors for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) as a Director at Large.

She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with two Maine coon cats, plentiful free-range lizards and a very handsome Doctor of Oriental Medicine.

Jeffe can be found online at her website: JeffeKennedy.com, every Sunday at the popular SFF Seven blog, on Facebook, on Goodreads and pretty much constantly on Twitter @jeffekennedy. She is represented by Sarah Younger of Nancy Yost Literary Agency.

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Thank you so much to all of last week’s guests! The last two guest posts are going up tomorrow and Tuesday, but before announcing the schedule, here’s how to catch up on anything you’ve missed so far.

All of the guest posts from April 2020 can be found here, the first week in review can be found here, the next week in review is here, and in last week’s guest posts:

And the recommendation list project has been updated and opened for new recommendations! In 2013, Renay from Lady Business asked readers to submit some of their favorite science fiction and fantasy books written by women and we’ve been collecting submissions every year since. After updating it to include last year’s submissions, the list now includes 2,710 titles, many of which have been recommended multiple times. (There’s one book that’s been recommended 58 times!) It’s also possible to add more books to the list: you can add up to 10 of your favorites (or, if you’ve already done that, 10 of your favorites read over the last year).

A Note on the Recommendation List Project Search: It was brought to my attention this weekend that the search on the list was no longer working—something must have changed with the API sometime after I tested it earlier this month, which is odd timing since there’s never once been a problem when testing it each year and then it suddenly stopped working after I’d tested it this year. In any case, the search is working again, and I’m sorry if you ran into any problems with trying to add books. Please do let me know if you run into any further issues, and if you have some books you’d like to add, please add them!

Next week, Women in SF&F Month 2020 continues with guest posts by:

Women in SF&F Month 2020 Schedule Graphic

April 27: Jeffe Kennedy (Forgotten Empires, The Twelve Kingdoms)
April 28: Reni K Amayo (Daughters of Nri, “Andromeda”)

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Today’s guest is Robin Kirk! She’s an award-winning poet and essayist, and her short fiction appears in Beyond the Nightlight, Tomorrow: Apocalyptic Short StoriesWicked South: Secrets and Lies: Stories for Young Adults, and more. The Bond, her science fiction debut novel, received the 2018 Foreword INDIES Bronze Award for Young Adult Fiction and was a finalist in the 2019 Manly Wade Wellman Award for North Carolina Science Fiction and Fantasy. The second book in the Bond Trilogy, The Hive Queen, is coming out on August 3!

The Bond by Robin Kirk Book Cover The Hive Queen by Robin Kirk Book Cover

Science Fiction and Human Rights
By Robin Kirk

Science fiction is one of the greatest and most effective forms of political writing.”
Nnedi Okorafor, award-winning author of the Binti series


Science fiction is often credited for inspiring advances in technology. Jules Verne, author of adventure stories like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, may have inspired submarines. Arthur C. Clarke imagined using satellites for global communications. Lillian Cunningham’s gripping “Moonrise” podcast, produced for the Washington Post, traces how science fiction helped propel both the Soviet and American space programs.

As a longtime human rights advocate as well as a sci-fi writer, I believe this genre has inspired more than objects. Through the lens of story, we’ve also explored ideas about how society could or should function. Women writers especially have tested the boundaries of what it means to be human and live in connection with other humans.

And that shapes what rights we think we do or should have—even who should have rights at all. This observation is almost as old as science fiction itself. As the world careened toward World War II, H.G. Wells—author of War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, and The Invisible Man, among other works, and a committed socialist—wrote “The Rights of Man,” a prescient treatise that proposed not only political rights, but rights to nourishment, housing, health care, and a home.

In “Imagining Human Rights: rights through the lens of speculative fiction,” a class I taught this semester at Duke University, I relied on authors like Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia E. Butler, and Nnedi Okorafor, among others, to explore how women writers have compelled us to examine the complexities of rights and how they may shift—or explode in our faces.

I started the course with Le Guin’s deceptively simple short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” For me, the story presents a powerful allegory for our willingness in modern society to accept the suffering of others so long as we are comfortable. In a 2018 Paris Review interview, N.K. Jemisin described a category of what she called “Omelas stories,” which, like Le Guin’s spare tale, “gut punch(es) you with the fact that this is the reality of living in a modern capitalist society. You are living at the expense of, amid the pain of, a lot of people who have suffered to bring you the wonderful lifestyle that you’ve got—if you’ve got that wonderful lifestyle at all, which a lot of folks in this country right now do not.”

Some students had read the story in high school and remembered the relatively simplistic moral they’d gleaned. Of course, they stated, one should walk away from such suffering. Using Jemisin’s analysis, I pressed them. Walking away changes nothing for that child. How, exactly, are you looking for that metaphorical child in your life? While some of my students come from wealthy families, others are first-generation and overcame immense obstacles to go to a place like Duke. They felt they had “earned” the right to be there. But what would it mean to really open that door and peer in at the child whose suffering helped make their success possible? Would any of them—could they—walk away from the Omelas that is Duke’s verdant campus?

Postcard from Octavia E. Butler
Postcard from Octavia E. Butler at Duke’s Rare Book and Manuscript Locus Archive

The class came alive on the day we discussed Butler’s “Bloodchild.” Previously, we’d visited Duke’s Locus Archive and I’d helplessly fan-girled over a Butler postcard to her editor (“I am Octavia E. Butler in all my stories, novels, and letters. How is it that I’ve lost my E in three places in Locus #292? Three places! You owe me three E’s.”). “Bloodchild,” winner of a 1984 Nebula Award and a 1985 Hugo Award, forced the students to detach from gender norms and ask what assumptions they had about rights when faced with survival.

Butler’s protagonist, Gan, is a male human born on an alien planet. With his family, Gan lives in a protected reserve run by T’Gatoi, a Tlic noble. T’Gatoi is a gentle, though firm, ruler. The pact with humans is simple. Each family commits one male child per generation to incubate a Tlic egg.

As with Butler’s other stories, including the mind-bending Xenogenesis series, the relationship can’t be distilled into a simplistic narrative of slavery or gender-bending. Butler maintained that her inspiration for “Bloodchild” lay in issues of sex and gender. These categories presume trade-offs around rights, especially as we edge into worlds where bodies (and body parts) are purchased and hired to create and carry children. In many areas, gender fluidity is replacing gender binaries. My students went over allowed class time as they discussed how this story related to their own lived experience around consent and future plans to have or not have children.

We even drew the Tlic, an exercise in disgust and fascination. I certainly could not have written the books in my own gender-bending fantasy series, The Bond and The Hive Queen, without having first read Butler.

Sadly, our in-person discussions were interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. I’d managed to somehow pair the cancellation of classes with the assignment of M.R. Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts, planning to frame a discussion of rights and climate change once students returned from Spring Break. As it turned out, Carey’s apocalyptic tale and his unforgettable heroine, Melanie, were just as suited to a discussion of pandemic as rebirth and reveal.

Our final assignment is Nnedi Okorafor’s “Spider the Artist,” which takes place in a future Nigeria where multinational corporations defend oil pipelines with spider-like zombies. Fitting for an end-of-class discussion, the story introduces students to a woman who chooses to stand up for justice. In an interview posted to her blog, Okorafor says this story was the first she wrote consciously as pure science fiction.

The story is so rich in sensory detail that I wonder if my students will enjoy feeling transported from their quarantine homes into a Nigerian village so damaged by exploitation that “The air left your skin dirty and smelled like something preparing to die. In some places, it was always daytime because of the noisy gas flares.” Okorafor gives us a rich palette of Nigerian folklore, current politics, and the life experience of so many oppressed people, at the mercy of savage capitalism yet still determined to be human and fight for their rights. For Okorafor, “science fiction is one of the greatest and most effective forms of political writing.”

Only recently have women been fully recognized as having shaped our science fiction imaginary (despite the fact that the creators of the genre include writers like Frankenstein’s author, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, whose mother was a women’s rights champion). In some cases, the contributions are seismic in terms of rights and not confined to the page. Sometimes, just the fact that people of color, women, and the disabled, among others, are visible, regardless of what they are producing, is a rights advance.

For instance, Nichelle Nichols, the actor who played Lieutenant Uhura on Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek, famously considered leaving the show to return to her first love, musical theater. After telling Roddenberry, she happened to attend a fundraiser where the organizers asked to introduce her to a fan. She was shocked when that fan turned out to be the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

King told her that Star Trek was one of the few shows he and his wife, Coretta, watched with their three children. When she told King she planned to leave the show, he protested. With the role, he told her, she was showing the world that African Americans were accomplished and capable of doing anything, including traveling the universe.

Nichols chose to remain. She went on to push NASA to recruit more women and people of color, helping to bring in Sally Ride, Guion Bluford, and Mae Jemison, the first black woman to go into space.

When I teach the class again—hopefully with this pandemic in our collective rear-view mirror—my challenge will not be to find material but to pare down the richness of what’s available. My students have helped me see science fiction in a different way, now through the lens of a generation shaped by pandemic and profoundly familiar with how life and their prospects can change in an instant. My one hope is that these stories will help them cope with those changes and feel less defeated by them. It’s a challenge to all writers to find ways to help people understand that they matter and that stories can help us see each other and our planet as precious.

Robin Kirk Photo Robin Kirk is the author of The Bond and The Hive Queen, released on August 3, 2020, books one and two in a fantasy trilogy from Blue Crow Books. Her short story, “Love is a Wild Creature,” is featured in Wicked South: Secrets and Lies: Stories for Young Adults, also by Blue Crow. Her short stories and poems have also appeared in speculative fiction and other publications. Kirk has published three nonfiction books on human rights in Latin America as well as essays, articles, short stories, and opeds. She teaches human rights at Duke University. She is reachable at RobinKirk.com, @RobinKirk on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. She is represented by Jacqui Lipton at Raven Quill Literary Agency.

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Today’s guest is Andrea Stewart! Her story “Dreameater” was selected for Writers of the Future Volume 29, and her short fiction has also appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Galaxy’s Edge, and Mothership Zeta, as well as other publications. The Bone Shard Daughter, the first book in her debut epic fantasy trilogy, is coming out on September 8—but you can read an excerpt from it right now!

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart Book Cover


When I was a kid, I had a big book of beautifully illustrated fairytales that I read until both covers fell off. Most of the tales ended the same way. Man marries princess, woman marries prince. They lived happily ever after.

But what happens next?

Don’t get me wrong, I love stories filled with the flush of new romance, tales of unlikely love that end up somehow working out. A man or woman from a humble background, through ingenuity and/or integrity, wins the heart of royalty. And so they are lifted from poverty, rising into the upper echelons of society.

Two characters in my book have embarked on just such a romance. By the time the story starts, the meet-cute has already happened, hearts have already been won, class differences and caution tossed to the four winds. Ranami is a commoner who started life as a gutter orphan, scraping a living from the streets. Phalue is the daughter of their island’s governor, set to inherit both a palace and rule of the island.

Phalue wants Ranami to marry her. Ranami wants to start a revolution.

Before I started this book, I saw a tweet yearning for the coupling of a princess and a female warrior, and that got me thinking. First, I don’t think I see enough F/F pairings in fantasy novels. Second, I loved the idea of these two disparate women as a couple, as a team, both skilled in different ways. I changed things up a bit, though. Phalue is the warrior, and Ranami is the one who is well-read and political. They’ve been together for three years. They fight sometimes, but they each have a deep respect and regard for the other.

So they’re in love. But, spoiler: this isn’t all they need to live happily ever after. If it was, there wouldn’t be any story left to tell. And I think there is so much more story left to tell within the context of an established relationship. Even the best relationships with the two most perfectly suited partners experience conflict. What matters isn’t that there is conflict; what matters is how they work through it.

Neither Phalue nor Ranami is a bad person; each wants her partner to be happy. But differences in perspective can make it hard to see eye-to-eye.

As a child, I took the fairytales at face value. Of course the couple lived happily ever after. They were in love! The commoner wasn’t poor anymore! All their problems were solved! I could close the book and that was the end of it. The story was over. As an adult, I thought more about the complexities the characters in such a relationship might actually face.

The commoner grew up in poverty. They have people that they care about, friends they’ve made, empathetic connections formed with people from similar circumstances. The royal lives in a palace, surrounded by sycophants and wealth; they’ve never gone to bed hungry.

Would the commoner be content to then be lifted into wealth? What about the people they’ve left behind? Would the royal, no matter how kind and generous, understand the structural inequalities that led to their wealth? How could they, together, form a common understanding from which they could tackle the world as a team? I’ve realized as I’ve grown older, as I’ve left fairytales behind, that part of understanding one’s partner is understanding where they’ve come from. Even small differences can form gaps in understanding. I grew up biracial, both my parents having immigrated from their respective countries. My parents had many disadvantages, but eventually, by the time I could form memories, they were well off. My husband is white and was raised by a single mother in a small house with two siblings.

We…don’t always understand one another when it comes to food.

Larger differences in backgrounds mean that any problems, in the relationship or otherwise, are going to be seen through two very different lenses.

When farmers can’t meet their quotas, Ranami sees the quotas as unfair. Phalue sees farmers who have been given a fair bargain and simply aren’t working hard enough. Somehow, if they want to make their love work, they need to bridge this gap.

I still love fairytales. There’s something about them that resonates through time, that feels true despite the fairies and talking animals. But now, when I close the book, I can imagine a world in which the princess of “The Golden Bird” finally divorces the gardener’s son (because let’s be honest, the guy’s just a tad too foolish), Beauty and the Beast need to figure out how to survive the French revolution, and Cinderella and her prince start a social services bureau to check in on the well-being of orphans.

Even a happily ever after has an aftermath.

Andrea Stewart Photo
Photo by Lei Gong
Andrea Stewart is the daughter of immigrants, and was raised in a number of places across the United States. Her parents always emphasized science and education, so she spent her childhood immersed in Star Trek and odd-smelling library books.

When her (admittedly ambitious) dreams of becoming a dragon slayer didn’t pan out, she instead turned to writing books. She now lives in sunny California, and in addition to writing, can be found herding cats, looking at birds, and falling down research rabbit holes.

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Today’s guest is Jennifer Marie Brissett! Her short fiction has appeared in FIYAH, The Future Fire, Lightspeed Magazine, Motherboard VICEUncanny Magazine, and many other publications, and she’s also contributed to anthologies and collections such as Sunspot Jungle and Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler. Her science fiction debut novel, Elysium, won the Philip K. Dick Special Citation Award, was a finalist for the Locus Award for Best First Novel, and was selected for the Tiptree Award Honor List. Destroyer of Light, her second novel, is coming out this summer!

Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett Cover Image

The Sophomore Book
by Jennifer Marie Brissett

“It takes a lot of work to make it as a writer, and the writing isn’t the hardest part.”

These are words I wish I had heard years ago when I started this journey.


My career began “late” by many people’s standards. For most, I suppose this would be about my age. For others, it would be because I didn’t begin writing when I was eleven years old. But for me, “being late” means that I don’t have several rejected books under my bed. Folks who have those have no idea how much of an advantage they have. I know that to them it feels like they are accumulating failure. Yet, I can clearly attest to anyone that a bunch of unsold books gathering dust under their mattress means that they are literally lying on a pile of gold like a sleeping dragon.

Completing a first book is a major milestone for any writer. Whether that book remains under their bed until the day they die or sells to a publisher, it tells a writer that “yes, you can do this!” The second, or sophomore, book tells a writer that the first book wasn’t a fluke and that “yes, you can do this again and again!” It is possible, maybe even likely, that neither of these books sell—at least not right away. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

It can take years to get a writing career going and that’s not always a reflection on the quality of the writing. Sometimes the work simply is not in tune with what’s selling at the moment. 90% of success is just showing up. So aspiring writers should be constantly writing and sending out work. So, what do you do if you are producing all this writing but it’s also constantly being rejected? Well, we writers have a saying, “Trunk it,” which means that we file it away somewhere. But that doesn’t mean that the story or even novel is dead. On the contrary, one day when your career is finally moving, you will find that pile of rejected and/or unsold work will be a wealth of material to draw from to either present to your agent or publisher for publication, or to gather ideas from for your next new project. You will be able to basically steal from yourself!

This may be all well-and-good for those who’ve been working for years and years at their writing—you lucky so and so’s 🙂—but what about folks like me who started “late”? I began writing in my late 30s; went to grad school of creative writing when I was 40; and, sure, I now have a bunch of stories in print and a book that did very well with a small publisher (Elysium, Aqueduct Press). But… this is the point at which a “normal” writer could pull from that pile of unsold books and stories that have been rejected over the years. I have none of that. Everything I have is being produced right now in the moment. That’s a huge disadvantage I have. It makes me slow to turn out new books and seem less prolific in a field that prizes the next book yesterday.

So what has it been like working on my sophomore book—it’s been exhausting. Life happens when you’re a writer even when you would like it to stop for a minute so you can catch your breath. There are so many distractions. Like every other working writer, I have a life that I have to manage while I produce my work. And I’ve felt under pressure while writing this very emotionally difficult book—my sophomore book—because I’ve felt (feel) that this book could make or break my career. In all fairness, this is probably not true. Regardless of what happens with this book, I probably still will be able to continue writing and publishing. The important thing to understand is that feeling that my career depended on how this book turned out helped to make writing the book maybe a bit more difficult than it should have been. This is how having books already gathering dust under my bed would have been helpful. I wouldn’t have been starting from zero. There would have been a little crutch for me to lean on when I was feeling terrified of the blank page.

But there are advantages to writing by the seat of my pants. One of them is that all my writing is guaranteed fresh and immediate. I’m writing about what I’m thinking now at this age—not what I was thinking at twenty. I’m writing with all the wisdom of a lifetime to guide my prose. There is a no-nonsense sensibility to what I write, too. Playtime for me is over. There’s no slackness of trying something “just cus…” When I write and publish something, know that I have not compromised on content and that I fought like a lioness for every word that I thought mattered.


Another aspect of having my sophomore book come out is that I have the experience of the first to teach me a lot about the field. Not everything, but a lot. I have learned that whether someone can make a career of writing has less to do with their writing as it does with a writer’s business sense. Talent actually is not rare. I’ve met a lot of talented people. I’ve taught a lot of talented people, too. But having the good sense to treat people with decency, and even to help others along the way, are not lessons that everyone learns, but are also a part of a writer’s success. Knowing who to associate with (other writers, agents, publicists, mentors, etc.), who you choose to support, who has chosen to support you, even knowing who to leave behind because they are holding you back, are all factors in the success, middling, or failure of a career. This is hard stuff.

At this point, I’ve encountered a lot of people in the science fiction and fantasy field. It’s amazing how easy and fast it is to meet folks, especially if you have a book that is doing well. Some people have been absolutely lovely; others have been the devil’s own. I have learned not just as a writer, but as a person, that along with being kind, it’s also important to be smart. Not everyone you meet in this field should be your friend. Watch what a person does, not just what they say.

Another thing I’ve learned since my first book came out is that writers have a tendency to hear the criticism louder than we hear the praise. At least I can definitely say that about myself. It’s important to learn to be tough enough to tune out the noise. A critique on a work-in-progress from your writer friends is far different than a published review. One is for the benefit of the writer. The other definitely is not. Even as I received a lot of praise for my first book there were those who went out of their way to personally accuse me of some very unkind things. Is this because I am a woman? Is this because I’m black? Is this because I’m both? I don’t know. I can’t read into their minds. But now I have the experience from my first book to tell me how I can’t afford to be distracted by this stuff. Distractions can fill my head, and all my next books are only in my head. Since I don’t have a pile under my bed to draw from, I have to stay doubly focused because these distractions can hamper my writing.

Whether I have what it takes to make it as a science fiction and fantasy writer depends on how I handle the next few months. Which bridges I choose to build, and which I choose to napalm, can determine how far I go in this field. I need to choose wisely. Moving from a small press to a large one has required more compromises than I ever imagined. It has actually been quite difficult. I’ve truly needed the group of more seasoned authors that I’ve built over the years to gather advice from, and I’ve tapped that wisdom pool several times. (Thanks, guys!!) The image of the solitary writer creating a masterpiece all by themselves is a complete utter (excuse the pun) fantasy. It simply doesn’t happen that way. Every successful book has tons and tons of people behind it—and not just the editors, agents, and publishers—but the friends, fellow writers, and the loving spouses (who patiently listened to you go on and on about how tough this writing game is for years on end) are also a part of the success story.


In the end, I feel that I have to trust the instincts that I have developed over the course of a lifetime to guide me. My sophomore book may or may not be successful. Only time will tell. But I will lean on the lessons from the publication of my first book as well as my life experiences to carry me through. For me, this means trying hard to stay focused and to tune out distractions. It also means that I won’t be messing with people who are problematic. As Maya Angelou once said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

This is my life now. I chose this. I write because I love writing. It’s given me much joy to share my stories with others. But everything comes with a cost. That’s what James Baldwin meant by the “Price of the Ticket.” How much am I willing to pay to be the thing I want to be, which in my case is a successful science fiction and fantasy writer? We’ll find out in the next few months and years. Wish me luck.

Jennifer Marie Brissett Photo Jennifer Marie Brissett once owned an indie bookstore in Brooklyn called Indigo Café & Books. Now she is an author and has written the novel ELYSIUM (Aqueduct Press) which won the Philip K. Dick Special Citation Award and was a finalist for the Tiptree and Locus Awards. Her sophomore novel DESTROYER OF LIGHT (Tor Books) will be published in the summer of 2020! She currently is a professor of Creative Writing in the MFA program at Southern New Hampshire University. She lives in NYC. Her website can be found at www.jennbrissett.com

Women in SF&F Month Banner

Today’s guest is fiction writer and poet Shveta Thakrar! Her story “The Rainbow Flame” was a selection in Year’s Best Young Adult Speculative Fiction 2015, and her work can also be found in Beyond the Woods: Fairy Tales Retold, Toil & Trouble: 15 Tales of Women & Witchcraft, A Thousand Beginnings and Endings: 15 Retellings of Asian Myths and Legends, The Underwater Ballroom Society, Uncanny Magazine, Mythic Delirium, and many other publications. Star Daughter, her debut novel, was described in the Rights Report as “contemporary YA fantasy inspired by Hindu mythology [that] follows a half-mortal/half-star girl who must win a celestial competition to save her human father’s life”—and is coming out August 11!

Star Daughter by Shveta Thakrar Book Cover
Artwork by Charlie Bowater; design by Corina Lupp of HarperTeen

As a writer and someone whose expectations of relationships used to be deeply shaped by the books I devoured as a kid, I think a lot about the messages in stories. We tend to get trained by the things we’ve already read and watched to think stories have to go a certain way—the parents must be out of the picture in a kidlit adventure, the lead characters must end up together even if the story in question isn’t a romance, the main character must keep her magical identity hidden from everyone, and so on.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a good trope, but as a writer, I’m interested in exploring how I might build on them in the stories I tell. Why, for example, can’t girls support one another throughout the course of a story? Sure, our world is a patriarchal one for the most part, but that doesn’t mean caring people and loving, supportive female friendships don’t exist. It’s not all Mean Girls out there, and there’s no reason our fiction can’t reflect that.

In the earliest drafts of Star Daughter, even though the main character Sheetal and her best friend Minal have known each other since they were tiny, for most of their lives, Sheetal kept her stellar heritage secret from Minal. Of course, when their big Moment of Revelation finally happens, Minal is left feeling betrayed and scared of this person she’d thought she’d known. I showed that draft to a friend, who rightly asked me why: Why did Sheetal have to hide who she was from someone who loved and would support her? More importantly, my friend added, how did that even make sense? They’re best friends; there’s no way the truth wouldn’t have come out a long time ago.

Click. My friend had pulled the cord on the lamp in the room of my thoughts, and suddenly I could see what had been hidden in the shadows. Why had I done that? Because I had internalized the way fantasy stories went: the heroine always suffered in isolation. But once I really thought it through, that didn’t actually make any sense, and also, it wasn’t the kind of story I wanted to tell. The story of my heart was one that celebrated friendship and family even as those things complicated and enriched the situation for the protagonist. What I really wanted was to write a female friendship like the kind I wish I’d had as a teenager.

So I did. In the final version of Star Daughter, Minal knows the truth. She’s the first—and only—person Sheetal can turn to when the crisis begins, and she helps Sheetal stay grounded (sometimes with wry humor and blunt commentary). In return, there’s no question of Sheetal leaving her bestie behind when she sets off to find her starry mother. The story is still Sheetal’s, as are the obstacles she has to overcome, but that doesn’t mean she has to go through any of it alone, nor does it mean Minal can’t have her own arc alongside Sheetal’s. And that decision seems to have worked; one of the repeated comments I’ve gotten from early readers is how much they enjoyed the girls’ friendship.

But I also made that decision because I have no use for the toxic idea that women and girls are always at one another’s throats, that we can’t be celebrating our sisters’ success as well as our own. That we must be in competition instead of working together to find solutions and make things happen. That’s not what my life looks like, and I want my readers to know it doesn’t have to be like that for them, either. I’m tired of compassion and kindness being undervalued, even derided, in our media. I want there to be room in fiction for the things that lift us up, too.

I want my work to say it’s okay to lean on others—that, in fact, we have to. So many of our stories are about the Lone Hero(ine), but there’s no such thing as success in a vacuum. Human beings need one another both to survive and to flourish. We help one another grow and balance one another with our individual flaws and gifts. As a person who firmly believes in and seeks out enchantment and inspiration in her life, I know we make some of the best magic of all in collaboration.

If there’s a takeaway from Star Daughter, it’s this: you don’t have to go it alone, and there is a place where you belong, along with people who will help raise you up and catch you when you stumble. And if you choose to read Star Daughter, I hope Sheetal and Minal leave you feeling that way, too.

Shveta Thakrar Photo
Photo by Lindsey Márton O’Brien of Lumina Noctis
Shveta Thakrar is a part-time nagini and full-time believer in magic. Her work has appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies including Enchanted LivingUncanny MagazineA Thousand Beginnings and Endings, and Toil & Trouble. Her debut young adult fantasy novel, Star Daughter, is forthcoming from HarperTeen on August 11, 2020. When not spinning stories about spider silk and shadows, magic and marauders, and courageous girls illuminated by dancing rainbow flames, Shveta crafts, devours books, daydreams, travels, bakes, and occasionally even plays her harp.