I’d like to welcome Jean Lee, author of the recently released Fallen Princeborn: STOLEN which blew me away – see my review here. I’ve been reading Jean’s amazing blog for a while now and it’s always a pleasure so I was delighted to have a chance to chat to her about her writing.
How does Wisconsin inspire you as a writer?
Wisconsin breeds the fantastic.
We are home to peculiar, toothsome beasts like the Hodag, devourer of all-white bulldogs.
We are home to unique, word-some writers like Neil Gaiman: “There’s that tiny off-kilter nature in the Midwest that’s in the details,” he says when asked about writing…
Neil Gaiman says ‘American Gods’ is
rooted in Minnesota-Wisconsin weirdness
The writer found a strange quality in the Midwest that fuels his “American Gods.”
We are home to hidden towns, small growths of community where railroads and highways meet, places that no one finds unless they mean to find it. Picturesque, perhaps? Plainfield was indeed picturesque once—until Ed Gein was arrested in November of 1957. You may know the rest. Basically, Gein inspired many of the fictional horror icons we know today: Norman Bates, Leatherface, and Buffalo Bill are all rooted in the reality of Ed Gein.
We drove through the wild patches between the hidden towns often when I was a child. I never tried to occupy myself with books or toys in the car. There was too much to see, out there in those scattered homesteads, too much to wonder about. What happened inside that dying barn? Why is that gravel drive roped off, and where does it lead? Where are all the people for those rusted cars littering the field?
This is the Wisconsin I live in now. The land dips and rises in unexpected places. The trees may crowd a rural highway so much you can lose yourself driving, only to have the tunnel burst open to sunshine and a white-crested river running beneath a bridge you’d swear had never seen a car before. In the small farming town of my youth, I could stand on the lone highway through town and hear snowflakes land beneath the orange street lights.
Wisconsin is filled with hidden towns, small growths of community where railroads and highways meet, places that no one finds unless they mean to find it. Rock Springs was a town of 600 when I was a child, a little grain-fill stop for the railroad. We didn’t even have a gas station until I turned 5, and our library, a small portion of the town’s community center, could fit in a utility closet (it probably was a utility closet at one point). Farms and wild wood filled the gaps between towns. Unless, of course, you went towards Wisconsin Dells, where the wilderness is trimmed and prepped and ready for its mandatory close-up before the tourist rushes to the proper civilization of water parks and casinos.
We drove through those wild patches often. I never tried to occupy myself with books or toys in the car. There was too much to see, out there in those scattered homesteads, too much to wonder about. What happened inside that dying barn? Why is that gravel drive roped off, and where does it lead? Where are all the people for those rusted cars littering the field?
This is the Wisconsin I live in now. The land dips and rises in unexpected places. The trees may crowd a rural highway so much you can lose yourself driving, only to have the tunnel burst open to sunshine and a white-crested river running beneath a bridge you’d swear had never seen a car before. In Rock Springs, one could stand on the lone highway through town and hear snowflakes land beneath the orange street lights.
Both Charlotte and Liam, the Fallen Prince, are strong, nuanced characters – when you first started writing this book whose story did you most want to tell?
At the outset, the story was all about Charlotte. It was strictly in her point of view, the story opened with more of Charlotte and her sister’s life before boarding the bus, and so on. I wanted Charlotte to escape her wretched life and fly. But once I got her into River Vine, I began to see an ensemble take shape, a family of characters bearing their own shames and despairs, all struggling to free themselves and find hope in the future.
Liam wasn’t much to me at the outset–just a pompous artist who had some growing up to do. It was Arlen, the teacher, that got me to slow down and see what he saw: a kind heart that had been brutalized so often it had forgotten what it meant to feel. The more I drafted, the more I came to see Liam’s inner struggle to grow beyond his cage.
When did you start writing Fallen Princeborn: Stolen?
2010. Yup, that’s a while ago, but life tends to fill the years, and in my case, I had just become a mom. Postpartum depression hit hard. Very, very hard. I felt very cut-off from life. I couldn’t feel the joy of motherhood. I found myself often staring out a window, trapped in walls yet somehow exiled outside of feeling. I’d look upon my sleeping baby and feel nothing but guilt because I couldn’t feel complete with motherhood. Then a friend introduced me to the awesome challenge that is National Novel Writing Month. From November 1st-30th, you are to write 50,000 words of a story not yet started (that’s cheating. Outlines are permissible, though.). The story may need more than 50K words, but what matters is that you reach that length in thirty days.
I swung it that year, and felt AMAZING. I was escaping the trap, driven to feel with characters outside of this world. I couldn’t just sit and dwell on individual lines or plot points—I had to keep going, and because I had to march on in the narrative, I found myself marching on in real life, too. I wasn’t staring out the window waiting for minutes to pass. I was…I was back, you know?
I felt a part of life again, enjoying the touch of my daughter’s tiny hands around my finger and her boundless grey-blue eyes. I reveled in these things. I felt…complete.
How did you figure out the names of your characters?
Charlotte’s name came from a baby book in the long, long, LONG process of choosing a name for our firstborn. After weeks of highlighting and crossing out names, we had narrowed ourselves down to Charlotte and ____. Well, we went with ____ for our kid, so I kept the name Charlotte for my heroine. I’d grown attached to the name over those weeks. It carries both feminine and masculine traits, both delicacy and strength. A perfect fit.
Nature was ripe for names, since this small society has been cut off from the rest of the world for centuries. From this I uprooted names like Poppy, Ember, and even Campion (it’s a kind of rose). Many of the other names I chose after studying The Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook. I loved having this broad overview of names across various cultures. It’s through this book I discovered names that fit some aspect of my characters’ nature, such as Dorjan—“Dark Man” and Liam—“strong-willed warrior.” It’s important to have names that matter. Be it the history, the meaning, or because my child almost carried it—the name needs to matter.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Writing’s a must. When I write, I channel the depression away from my family and into a universe where my characters can fight it.
It’s never completely gone, you know, depression. We can slay it, burn it, bury it—but it never dies. Only by spinning stories can I transplant some of that darkness into villains, heroes, and worlds. From the darkness grows the adventure and the hope.
What has it been like – juggling writing, teaching and three kids?
Three years ago, you may as well have asked what it’s like to juggle three bowling pins with spikes on fire. Back when I was trying to write in bedlam, I stole whatever time I could before dawn. The television usually bought me at least an hour in the day to outline, draft dialogue, or keep up with my blog. The children’s naptime never felt long enough, but I made due.
Once the boys began preschool, I could at least promise myself one hour of writing time a day. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? But that’s the thing about writing and keeping a job and running a household: every minute to write’s a blessing. Sometimes those days crash and burn. Other times—like when the boys didn’t have school—we found other ways to be creative.
Now that Blondie, Biff, and Bash are in school all day, I always have time for writing, be it for the blog, editing, drafting, etc. Granted, summer’s still a trial, but because I didn’t give up on writing when time was scarce, I have many stories to share here in the daylight hours.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
Research can feel like a big time-suck, but when it comes to publishing, DO YOUR RESEARCH! There are so many scammers out there with their “author services” and “exclusive anthologies.” They’re going to talk you up, make you feel amazing, and before you know it you’ve paid four digits for lousy editing on a slap-dash affair no one’s going to see. Scope out the small presses. Join author groups online to gather recommendations for editors, book designers, and cover artists. Your story deserves to be seen, but when it’s ready.
Yes, an author platform really does help. Don’t think of it as yet another time suck; rather, treat it as the regimented prose exercise. Reading countless other voices, writing tight posts on a regular basis—all helps the craft, not hinders it. No, it’s not the novel you dream hitting the best-seller list, but making a website, commenting on social media—these simple actions give your name an author’s history. Other writers/publishers/agents/readers can trace your name back to studies, comments, and whatever else you write. You build that platform, you build a writer’s resume for the publishing business to see.
What is your writing Kryptonite?
When my sons’ principal calls. Nothing f***s over the creative mindset when you have to come and talk about one son, or the other, or both. Again.
Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?
I do write under a pseudonym, actually. When you’re a preacher’s kid, all your actions and talents are scrutinized—“you play piano just like your mom!” “You sing just like your dad!” “You write just like your father.” “You should be just like your mom and become a teacher.”
There comes a time when you get sick of all the comparisons, and just want to be known for something YOU do, not what your parents do. So when I started my site Jean Lee’s World, I wanted to see who’d like my writing for my writing, NOT because of who I am or whomever I’m related to. Writing under another name’s also allowed me to work through past traumas and current depressions without bringing any family members under fire, which is important to me. These are my demons, not theirs.
How did you begin writing the short stories that accompany your novel?
The short stories began as a writing experiment last year. My husband had been listening to John Carpenter’s Lost Themes, and a story began to shape in my head of a child dying at the hands of a cuddly creature before a dark skulking thing gets involved. When I showed the short story to my publishers, they encouraged me to write more short stories as little introductions to the universe of Charlotte and these imprisoned shapeshifters. Thus Tales of the River Vine was born, with stories following both antagonists and protagonists across the years.
The challenge with such “prequels,” as they are, was to find emotional centers without chipping away at the emotional arc of Fallen Princeborn: Stolen. Take the last story of the collection, “Tattered Rhapsody.” Originally I intended the story to be called “Dirty Charlie,” featuring Charlotte the Wise-Ass taking on some gang members at her high school for profit. Girl’s got to earn bus money somehow, right?
But the story felt wrong. I couldn’t pin it at first. Charlotte’s there, she’s showing her strength, her protective instincts for her kid sister. And yet, the story felt…heartless.
Then it hit me: Charlotte’s heart doesn’t speak with her fists. It speaks with her music.
And just like that, the story’s heart found a pulse, a rhythm both despairing yet defiant. Just like Charlotte.
I hope you enjoy reading “Tattered Rhapsody” and the other Tales of the River Vine and telling me what you think. They’re all FREE on Kindle, Nook, and other publishing platforms!