Today’s guest is Ilana C. Myer, whose debut novel Last Song Before Night was released last year. I read this epic fantasy a few months ago and found it so absorbing I had difficulty putting it down for inconvenient necessities like laundry and sleep. In particular, I enjoyed following the various characters’ journeys, especially the heroines Lin and Rianna, and I’m very much looking forward to reading Ilana C. Myer’s next book!
It turns out, when you publish a fantasy novel, you’re often asked about worldbuilding. One of the challenges of talking about a novel that took seven years to write and four more years to publish is that, sometimes, it’s hard to remember exactly what I was thinking when I was 23. There’s a great deal of layering that goes into the process of writing—at least for me—and those earliest layers, while foundational, might be obscured and changed by what comes next.
But I do remember one phase of the worldbuilding that was crucial. As with various aspects of Last Song Before Night, it combined artistic development with life changes…because this debut was, very much, a book that grew with me. Another thing that makes talking about the process of writing this book a challenge—I have no choice, it seems, but to get personal.
My first draft, which I wrote in my early twenties, was 100,000 words without an ending. I was three-quarters done but it wasn’t working, and I knew it. Rather than finish the draft, I decided to start over. But first I had to figure out what was wrong.
When I began writing the novel at 23, I was deeply—albeit painfully—religious. To detach myself from the concept of religion in order to create a fictitious religious system seemed impossible. It also seemed unnecessary—there is no system of religion in Tolkien, almost none in the Wheel of Time (just for example—I’m sure there are many more), and that sort of vast, mythic universe appealed to me. At the same time, I was skeptical of depictions of religion in fantasy. Often you could tell they’d been written by people who thought religion a silly pastime for silly people…and conflicted as I was, I had no choice but to know better than that. It was not silliness that had drawn me to pour out my heart—and tears—at the Western Wall many a time. It was not a triviality to rise at dawn on Yom Kippur to get a head start on the day’s prayers for repentance, redemption.
But I came to realize that the absence of a religious system in my book had made the world curiously flat. This ran alongside another realization: fantasies that reduce religious practice to shallow pieties and superstitious fears are missing something fundamental in their world creation. Belief systems traffic in the questions of who we are, where we come from, and where we’re going—the most compelling questions there are. There can be no world without them. Certainly, there can be no story.
By this time I was 26, and could survey these questions with a cooler eye: my religious observance had grown complex. I was a long way from the girl who had poured out her heart at the Western Wall. This distance allowed me to take on the task of creating a belief system for my world with excitement instead of trepidation. At around the same time, I traveled to northern Greece and visited the ruins of Ancient Dion at the foot of Mount Olympus. It is a temple complex that seems to go on forever, grown over with flowers, serene under drifting clouds. I can’t say how that visit to Ancient Dion went into the religious system in the book—I only know that it did, and the book was transformed. Religion emerged to undermine or bolster the characters’ faith in themselves; to exercise tension against the older beliefs of myth and magic; and was responsible for the existence of heresies and persecuted minorities. My own transformations figured into it, too. They had to. Some books may be separate from their authors’ inner lives; I doubt I will ever write one of them.