When my Luminous Sister Emily and I started writing together in 2012, she sent me several chapters from a beautiful fantasy novel that takes place in a world called Lethemia. Her poetic language hooked me immediately. The intricately imagined details of the story’s world—its fashion, magic systems, cultures, and languages—fascinated me. The epic story enchanted me so much that after three years and several revisions, I still love to read it. Now that story is finally available for everyone to read and to love! Luminous Creatures Press released The Gantean, Tales of Blood and Light Book One yesterday. To celebrate, I’ve invited Emily to answer some questions on my blog. She covers a lot, including how her writing process works, how she developed her love for editing, and the trouble with the STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER. Enjoy!
You’ve been working on this series—especially book one—for a long time. What has surprised you over the course of writing / revising / editing the books?
Mainly I’m surprised that I’ve kept at this particular story for as long as I have. I still don’t entirely know why I’ve spent so long on it—I have suspicions, but it’s also just another story among many I want to write, yet for some reason I’ve trained my determination on it for decades. So many times I read it and thought—this just isn’t working. Or: I clearly have no idea what I’m doing. Even so, I’d start over again and try to make it work.
One reason I’ve invested so much energy in a story that was so difficult is that I’ve written other books in the series, and I want to make the whole series happen. This first book is an essential piece of that puzzle. All the Lethemia books have been difficult, and all for the same reason: they flowed directly out of my unconscious without any structural planning. I’ve never been able to sit down and plot a Lethemia book at the macro-level. They are character-driven and complex. For many years, I also never had what I would call “a point” for The Gantean. I only knew I wanted to write it, and the reason I wanted to write it was because I wanted it to exist.
My revising process lacked focus for a long time. I didn’t know what this book had to say on a global, abstract level, and I didn’t like not having that as a touchstone. I figured out at least part of why the story was important to me about a year ago after some beta readers were making complaints about my main character, Leila, being too passive and wanting her to be a stronger, more hero-like heroine. When I first begin writing TG, I was a twelve-year-old girl, a weird mix of tomboy and ballerina. The fantasy stories I loved—Arthurian legends, Lord of the Rings—generally had heroes, not heroines, and if they did have heroines—or female characters of any note—they fell into three categories: 1) love interests, 2) slightly annoying secondary characters, or, a bit later, 3) STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS trudging the hero’s path.
The twelve-year-old girl in me wanted a character who felt—perhaps as I did—both insignificant and important, able to act but afraid to do so, and—and most important, a character who adapted and accommodated instead of constantly taking charge. I still believe there is a great feminine strength in this capability, and we do a disservice to female characters in all kinds of books by forcing them to follow the hero’s path. That belief has kept me gnawing at this piece. Though it has been a difficult story, it has been important for me, personally, to explore this character, even if it meant throwing away the mold about how to write a fantasy on my very first attempt.
As I deliberated (and agonized) over comments urging me to turn my lead into a more typical active character, I realized I wanted to stay true to the girl I’d been who wanted a different heroine, who wanted to see more of her own psyche reflected in a lead character—a lead both passive and active, who rarely turns to violence to solve problems, who is introverted, quiet, shy, and strong all at once. A lead who questions who she is, what she stands for, and never entirely knows. A lead with a fluid, watery identity. A lead who sees the value in adapting rather than struggling.
I guess I’m surprised by how steadfast I’ve been able to be, while making “risky” choices with The Gantean, knowing that it won’t appeal to some readers, knowing that I was wrestling tricky issues that I maybe should have avoided on my first attempt at writing a novel…
As always, the world of your books is richly detailed and thoroughly imagined. What research did you do to help you create the language, customs, architecture, belief systems and other areas that make up Lethemia and Gante?
Two things I knew right from the beginning: 1) I had a stark northern culture and 2) the element I wanted to represent in my heroine was water. Both of those are pretty standard fantasy tropes—connecting a character to an elemental power and having a “northern” cold culture pitted against a “southern” warm culture.
I wanted to do it a little differently. I didn’t want Leila to actually have an elemental power relating to magic; I wanted her to have a watery, fluid presence, a way of being in the world that was represented by water’s ability to adapt and flow and become whatever vessel held it. I see this ability to react to change fluidly as an underexplored aspect of what it means to be a “strong woman character.” It has been the condition of women for centuries to adapt—to life in their husbands’ families, to the changes brought on by politics and wars, to the cyclical fluctuations that are the essential part of female existence. This is an uncelebrated strength of women the world over, this ability to adapt and survive despite changing conditions over which they have historically had little control. I wanted to show that strength in Leila—not that she be some fantastical warrior assassin. I wanted her to be able to move like water around stone.
As far as the cultures go, one of my Pilates clients grew up in an Inuit village in Alaska, and I picked her brain about what it was like to grow up in cold, survival-intense conditions. She gave me great insights about the deep importance of community in this kind of culture—how if you get abandoned by the community, it’s essentially a death sentence; you cannot survive without the group’s support. I used this notion of interdependency to shape Gantean culture, though I took it several steps further by tying the magic into this communal way. I also took communalism to possibly negative extremes, giving the Ganteans rigid and unbending rules of how to behave and what to believe. I wanted the Ganteans to have a dark side—and this rigidity offered a starting point for that.
I researched people living in cold climates—the Inuits, the Sami, the people of the Siberian Steppes—to understand how Gantean society might survive, as well as to decide which natural resources they might use. Ultimately these details fused with my own ideas about what I needed, story-wise, to make something bizarre and (hopefully) unique. The Ganteans are certainly not meant to represent any particular culture, though I did use the Inupiat and Inuit language sounds to help guide my Gantean language—most of the Gantean words are made up, except for a few, which I loved too much not to use: tormaq, Pamiuq, The Cedna (a variation of Sedna, a female figure from Inuit mythology). I investigated the plants and animals that might survive in cold conditions and tried to make some of these species relevant to the Ganteans. I also wildly invented: snowcats (apparently no species of cat does all that well in Arctic conditions—their delicate ears freeze), Shringar fish (like sharks, but not), and arctic musk goats (I wanted to Ganteans to have access to wool, so I gave them some goats).
For the magic system, I really wanted the Ganteans and Lethemians to have different beliefs that described the same phenomena, similar to how all the cultures on earth have different beliefs that describe the same basic problems of existence: what happens after death, how the world was made, etc. So the two magic systems—Gantean and Lethemian—dovetail to hint at a universal logic of magic, while diverging to help show what the two cultures value.
Lethemia was an easier culture to shape than Gante, as it more closely resembles something common in fantasy books: a western feudal society. I gave the Lethemians a great deal of power and a great deal of magic. I also made them pleasure-loving, a more emotionally free people to contrast with Gantean starkness. They have a culture of privilege. That was fun, because I could include any extravagant or depraved thing in their world. I turned to other wealthy, powerful societies for inspirations, mostly empires of the past that commanded vast wealth and resources. There are dark realities underpinning all this luxury: the use of unpaid labor by the power classes to get work done. Lethemians own slaves and slavery helps power the economy on many levels. Nobles command nearly all the power, and the castes beneath them lead more difficult lives.
For Lethemia, I looked at lots of pictures online. Whenever I saw some detail of architecture or costume that inspired me, I collected it for future use. You can see some of these pictures on my Pinterest boards:
Imagine that you have full creative control over the film version of The Gantean and that money is no object. You get to hire everyone:
I’m not that much of a movie or TV watcher. I try, but I usually end up opening my book halfway through. I prefer my stories in words. But everyone always wants to know the answer to this question, so I’ll try.
I picture Leila looking like a cross between Adriana Lima and Vanessa Hudgens, but could either of them pull her off as actresses? I don’t think so. So I’m going to go with Ksenia Solo, who has the right eyes and build, and is, apparently, a solid practitioner of her craft.
Costas could be Hayden Christensen, though I find him hit or miss as an actor. Max Irons would be a better choice, but either of them would need some contact lenses because Costas has noteworthy amber eyes.
Laith might be Jonathan Rhys-Meyers. He certainly has the edge, if not quite the more Arabic or Persian look I imagine. He’d be able to handle what’s coming in Laith’s story after The Gantean.
Miki would be a previously undiscovered major child talent, of course.
Tiercel might be well played by Richard Armitage.
Ghilene Entila, I just have no idea.
The Cedna could be Saoirse Ronan. She could do the acting, and her look is great (with a few modifications). She could also manage the age span that The Cedna has to go through in the series.
Angelina Jolie really is the only possible Lady Malvyna Entila. Hopefully she’ll consent without too many contractual add-ins.
Whew, I find this very difficult and would like to hand the rest of the characters over to a casting director.
Director: Someone who can handle complex fantasy without making it cheesy. Ang Lee was suggested to me.
Cinematographer: whoever did Peaky Blinders, so it’s nice and artsy.
Costumes: Sandy Powell, who did Disney’s recent “Cinderella.” She has a great sense of history and fusion.
Production Design: Patrick Tatopoulos, who did Dark City, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and 300, for that darker edge.
Locations: Gante: Iceland or Greenland. The Hinge might be Reed Flute Cave in China. I fear Lethemia would largely need to be a built set, though some parts of Ireland or New Zealand might serve for the surrounding countryside.
Thank you for your fabulous answers, Emily!
About The Gantean
After she is violently kidnapped from her stark existence on the cold island of Gante, Leila must learn to survive in a southern culture her native people hate. She has no choice but to adapt to a foreign new world. In this lush, intricate society, exotic temptations greet her at every turn, including a dangerous love affair with a man she never should have known. When civil war threatens, Leila is forced to choose between southern love and northern rituals.
But at what price?
Her choice may have widespread consequences even she cannot predict.
Available at Amazon!
Emily June Street is a true Gemini: she teaches people Pilates by day and edits, writes, and formats by night (and very early morning). She is the author of three novels, The Gantean, Velo Races, and Secret Room, and her short stories have appeared in numerous publications. She likes to pretend she’s a superhero on her bike, and she has a collection of magic wands. She lives in California with her husband and her shoebox puppy, Stella.