Interview with author L. Penelope

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today I’m pleased to be interviewing L. Penelope! Penelope has been writing since she could hold a pen and loves getting lost in the worlds in her head. She is an award-winning fantasy and paranormal romance author. Equally left and right-brained, she studied filmmaking and computer science in college and sometimes dreams in HTML. She lives in Maryland with her husband and furry dependents. Sign up for new release information, exclusives, and giveaways on her website: http://www.lpenelope.com.

Let’s start by talking about your latest release.  Give us the details.

L. PENELOPE: CRY OF METAL & BONE is the third book in the Earthsinger Chronicles series. It’s epic fantasy with a touch of dieselpunk, set in an alternate 1920s world. In this entry, the two countries of Elsira and Lagrimar, which have been at war for centuries, are now entering into a tentative peace, and Lagrimari refugees are flowing across the border seeking better lives in Elsira. A terrorist attack by those not so keen on the new state of affairs occurs and the king and queen put a team together to investigate and prevent more deaths. Among them are a legendary rebel with incredible power, a streetwise smuggler, and a socialite with a debt to repay.

VENTRELLA: Was this originally planned as a series?

PENELOPE: The first book in this series, SONG OF BLOOD & STONE, was the first book I ever completed, so at that point I hoped it would be a series, but I was just focused on actually writing one complete novel. Then, during the editing process, once I was fairly certain that this was something I could do again, I conceived of the other books in the series. The overarching story arc became more clear to me and I figured out what I wanted to say with these books.

VENTRELLA: Do you expect you may write more in the series?

PENELOPE: I’ve just turned in the fourth and final book in the series to my editor. There are also three novellas that go in-between the main novels, and the last one of those is with the copyeditor now and will release in November. I’m looking forward to having a break from this series, which I’ve been working on for seven years, but at some point in the future I may go back to it with spin-offs for some of the characters.

VENTRELLA: Romance plays a part in many of your stories as well. How important is that for a story?

PENELOPE: I honestly don’t see myself writing a story without a romantic element in it any time soon. It may happen eventually, but part of what I love to read the most are stories about people finding love and how that changes them. I miss finding that in the occasional book I read without so much as a romantic subplot. Reading about falling in love allows you to experience it over and over again on a micro scale, and that’s honestly what I want to be doing with my free time.

VENTRELLA: What themes do you see yourself visiting in your stories?

PENELOPE: I find myself returning again and again to the same themes: identity, finding one’s place in the world or society, and finding something to believe in. It’s definitely not conscious, but every time I have a new idea, these things seem to be present, so I’ve accepted it.

The Earthsinger Chronicles deals with issues such as racism, xenophobia, a refugee crisis, and civil unrest – but ultimately I think these are outgrowths of my main personal themes as well. They’re rooted in specific experiences that I’ve had but they’re also universal. I think everyone knows how it feels to be isolated or not fit in and be looking for a soft place to fall. So those are stories that most people can relate with.

VENTRELLA: Unlike many fantasy novels, yours has technology comparable to early 1900s or so. Why did you make that decision?

PENELOPE: Trying to balance my love of fantasy with my love of modern technology is most likely what led me to set my novels in their early 19th century feeling world. I was inspired initially by THE SCORPIO RACES by Maggie Stiefvater, a YA novel that takes place in an unspecified time period that feels like the past but has cars and telephones. I was so struck by how unique it was and the kind of mood that the setting helped create that I wanted to try my hand at that as well.

Also, I’ve never been drawn toward the traditional medieval fantasy setting where everyone is homogenous. In order to make things a bit more interesting for myself as the author and hopefully keep things fresh for readers, using a different time period just felt like the right thing to do. It helped that my first image of my main character was her standing on the porch with a shotgun in her hands. So the story needed firearms at the very least, which helped me with the timeline.

VENTRELLA: Did you have any training to be a writer and do you think that is necessary?

PENELOPE: I’m a writing craft junkie, so I sought out classes and workshops because I love to learn. In one such class (a highly recommended one called “Write Better Faster” with Becca Syme) we take personality tests along with the Gallup Strengthfinders test. My top two strengths according to that system are Intellection and Input—my number 5 is Learner—which really explains so much.

While I’d written all through childhood and worked on literary magazines in high school and college, I got back into writing as an adult through workshops and classes at a local writing center when I lived in Virginia. From there, I explored longer classes and attended a few week-long workshops: VONA/Voices, where I studied with Junot Diaz one year and Marjorie M. Liu the next, and the Hurston-Wright Writer’s Week where I worked with Dolen Perkins-Valdez and David Anthony Durham.

But while I love diving deep into the craft, I don’t think it’s strictly necessary. Some people write very intuitively and will never need a craft course. However, those people are quite rare. Most writers can benefit from a book on craft or an online course, at minimum. There are a lot of books that I DNF due to issues that could probably be fixed had they focused a bit more on training before hitting publish.

VENTRELLA: Do you think fiction writers should stay away from political messages in their stories?

PENELOPE: While I can certainly understand the motivation behind the advice to stay away from polarizing topics and political messages, writers should understand that that is a privilege. Recently, an organization for historical writers took down a blog post on their website on the topic of people of color living in the Regency period of England, saying it was “political.” As a Black American, if the mere discussion of people who look like me existing in a time period is political then it would be impossible for me to stay away from such messages. But I also don’t feel the need to.

Writing “what I know” necessitates writing about topics that might make people who’ve had different lived experiences feel uncomfortable. It might turn some folks off from reading my work, and I’m okay with that. I believe that fiction represents the worldview of the writer whether we want it to or not. I also believe that fiction creates empathy and, at its best, can show people how to live harmoniously with one another by imagining themselves in someone else’s shoes.

Ultimately, we have to write what we feel comfortable with. But comfort isn’t everything and pushing a few boundaries, encouraging people to view things from a different perspective, is why I wanted to become a writer in the first place.

VENTRELLA: Why did you decide to just use your initial instead of your first name?

PENELOPE: My use of the name L. Penelope wasn’t in any way to hide my gender. I studied film in college and had come up with that nom de plume (which is just my first initial and middle name) way back then for when I was a famous director. I ended up on a different career path and will, alas, never be the next Scorsese, but my family and friends all knew that name for my creative endeavors. My father passed away when I was in my mid-twenties and when I began publishing a decade later, I felt that using the name I’d told him about was a way to still connect with him. If there’s a way for him to be aware of what I’m up to now, I didn’t want any barriers.

VENTRELLA: What writing projects are you working on now?

PENELOPE: Now that I’ve finally finished my long series, I have several new projects that I’m excited about. I’m doing research for a historical novel—a heist story—this time set in the real world—a big departure for me. And I also have a contemporary fantasy and a series of short fairy stories that I’m working on.

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I recently had a nice chat with Leslye and Gail Z. Martin about inserting romance into your stories. Check it out!

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