I’m an anthropologist by training and a fiction writer for fun. I’ve been reading fantasy since I was way too young for it. I live in Quintana Roo, Mexico, with my wife and daughter. I’m a cat person; we’ve got one extremely long cat and we feed any strays brave enough to handle petsies from my daughter.
Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?
My mother absolutely loves to read fantasy. Since I was little, she always had battered fantasy books around. As a little kid, I read what she let me read, which was pretty advanced stuff. I particularly remember loving Terry Brooks’ Magic Kingdom of Landover series. As I got older, I became a dramatic teenager who thought most fantasy was cheesy, and I only read very grimdark stuff. Eventually I realized that some fantasy IS cheesy, but that’s a good thing. After working as a journalist and with nonprofits for many years, I’ve seen and heard about some dark things in real life, so these days, the fantasy I read tends to be hopeful. I haven’t entirely gone down the cozy fantasy path, but I’m on my way.
What inspired you to start writing this book?
This book started off as a joke my wife made about bureaucrats who were literally devils. The joke evolved into a Dungeons and Dragons character that never got used, so I started telling her stories about the character to make up for it. The plot, I hope, is fun, but what most people have really enjoyed is the main character Essie, whose attitude, fussiness, and awkward sense of humor set her apart from a lot of traditional fantasy heroes. She wants to do a great job in her new position, and it confuses her that nobody else cares quite as much about the rules as she does. Her bosses are also clearly villains in the making, but Essie’s too busy dealing with her impostor syndrome to look up and realize it. I’m glad folks like her, because she’s got a lot more stories in her, some of which are already written. (Luckily, she does eventually realize her bosses are jerks…)
Tell us the story of your book’s title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?
The title has been a ton of different things, and I don’t totally love it even still. I still kind of think of it as “Essie 1” because that’s the name of the main character and that’s what it was called in my drafts for so long. But the title is inspired by Mesoamerican poetry: It’s an example of diphrastic kenning, something the ancient Maya used frequently in their inscriptions. Diphrastic kenning is metaphorically pairing two opposites to talk about a whole. Scribes who needed to say “time passed” might write “It day-and-nighted,” for example. In the book, there are two rival political factions on an island nation that go to war. One deals with internal trade and policing, so they’re the “river,” and one handles international trade and warfare, so they’re the “sea.” But they need to remember they’re all part of the same entity.
Describe your dream book cover.
I tried to get a cover for my book that was pretty simple, because I wanted it to look kind of like paper cutouts. I get a little lost in the super complicated covers to be honest. I’m also not a huge fan of books with real people on the cover. I love putting my own spin on the stories I’m reading, and seeing images of real people limits my imagination a bit, I think. I’ve commissioned a few drawings of my main character that I’ve shared on Facebook and Instagram, but a drawing and a photo are very different. The same way it’s hard to picture Harry Potter without thinking of Daniel Radcliffe, I think photo covers limit a reader’s imagination. That’s not to be insulting for people who choose them! Just my opinion.
What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?
I’ve been and worked all over the place, but most of my jobs have been at least writing-adjacent. I worked as a daily journalist for close to a decade in Mexico and on the Texas-Mexico border. Then I moved to teaching. I went back to university for anthropology, and I studied archaeology in Belize, but before I could do much with my degree, I had an allergic reaction to medicine. While I was recovering, I wrote a ton of fiction. This novel was meant to be a one-off, but while I recovered, I accidentally managed to write two sequels and a few YA books in the same world. These days, I live a relaxed life compared to my journalism days. We live in a small town, and we joke that my daughter’s the mayor because she seems to know every child in a 50-kilometer radius.
What books did you read (for research or comfort) throughout your writing process?
I was going to school when I wrote the first book, so I was reading absolutely a ton about anthropology. This definitely comes out in the details about cultures in the book. I assembled the cultures using a method that was inspired by ethnography. Ethnography is a tool used by anthropologists when we interview members of a culture to understand the culture better. My fictional cultures were built outward from my characters, and I hope that means that the details you learn are the ones that are most relevant. I wasn’t intentionally doing research for my book when I was reading books like Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens, and I don’t intend for my characters to live in a world that feels Mesoamerican. If you say most fantasy is inspired by Europe, my work is definitely inspired by the Caribbean and Mesoamerica, but just like most fantasy countries aren’t exactly England or France, you won’t find the Maya or the Tainos here. But just based on where I live and the kind of nonfiction I read, you can bet there are some jungles, some beaches, and a pyramid or two.
What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?
My ideal reader was my wife, and she’s already read it, so now my perfect reader can pretty much be anyone. But I imagine you like fun fantasy, you’re not too serious about your literature but you don’t mind thinking a little, and you like stories with strong female leads. I used to call Essie’s story the anti-Game-of-Thrones. “If you think it has a happy ending, you’re mostly right.” It does have some dark spots, but I hope folks who read it are reminded that it’s possible to get through tragedies with your sense of humor and wonder intact.
Are you a writer, too? Submit your manuscript to Atmosphere Press.