Hey all! I’m SO ecstatic to bring you all an interview with one of my favorite authors, Melissa Caruso. Melissa wrote The Tethered Mage (Swords & Fire series) and it was one of my favorite reads last year! I’ve been looking for more Adult Fantasy books with YA pacing, and this totally hits the mark. I also read the sequel, The Defiant Heir, and the third installment, The Unbound Empire comes out at the end of the month. I couldn’t be more excited! Be sure to check it out!
But what I love about Melissa even more is how absolutely kind and giving she is. If you can’t tell by her interview below, she’s so fun and sweet, and even more so, she’s passionate about helping others learn. Be sure to follow her Twitter, where she constantly gives fantastic writing advice. And not just little tid bits either! She spends time crafting threads that have honestly helped me out so much!
Let’s jump into the interview!
Hi Melissa! I loved Amalia so much. She’s so admirable, always putting her country and others before herself. And Zaira is such a great contrast to her character! What’s your favorite part about their dynamic?
Melissa: Oh, wow, I love so many things about writing their dynamic—it’s just really fun. Probably my absolute favorite has been watching it evolve throughout the series. By Book 3 they have their own sort of rhythm to their relationship, where they’ve come to understand each other deeply even though they’re so different. It was so fun writing their dialogue and all the little unspoken interactions between them in THE UNBOUND EMPIRE, because at this point they’ve been through so much together and the readers know them so well that a very small thing can carry a lot of meaning.
I’m blown away by all the cool political scheming going on in the series. You’re a worldbuilding pro! For writers starting out, do you have a top worldbuilding tip for establishing a believable, nuanced world?
Melissa: I could write pages about worldbuilding! If I had to pick a top tip, though, it would be to write your worldbuilding through the lens of your viewpoint character. The stuff they don’t bother explaining because it’s a commonplace part of their lives can be even more important than the big flashy stuff. Things like daily frustrations (is that traffic snarl on Main Street your characters are bitching about due to a magical explosion, a public duel, an epic haggling war between merchants, a bloodworm incursion?) and fiddly bits of regular business (how they deliver messages, how they pay for things, is that lace jabot itchy, etc.) are often easy to work into a scene casually without stopping to deliver a lecture, and they carry a lot of flavor and help readers feel more viscerally what it’s like to live in the world. And whether it’s little details or big stuff, think about what your character would focus on—what would catch their attention, how it makes them feel, how they filter and interpret the world around them—when you’re delivering your worldbuilding on the page.
Same question, but for magic! Do you have any methods you find helpful when establishing a magic system?
Melissa: For me, consistency is key. I personally like to figure out what the magical forces in play are and how they operate, and then think from there about how people might use the powers and tools they have available to them to manipulate those forces—both individually (when heroes have a clever idea about how to use their magic) and at a societal level (how magic has affected everything from national power structures to daily life). I love it when a magic system is clearly defined enough that someone who’s not the writer could imagine what THEY would do if they had that magic. (This doesn’t mean everything has to be meticulously defined and sciencey—I think even hand-wavy, unpredictable, dreams-and-feelings magic can be internally consistent enough that we can get a feeling for how it works and imagine what else could be done with it.)
Okay so Vaskandar is SO COOL. Can we expect to see more of it in book 3?
Melissa: Thank you! And yes! Amalia and Zaira do return to Vaskandar for a little while in THE UNBOUND EMPIRE. Plus you’ll get to see even more of it in my new as-yet-unnamed trilogy (set in the same world, coming from Orbit Books in 2020)…The first book takes place mostly in Vaskandar, actually!
If Zaira had an Instagram profile, what would she take pictures of?
Melissa: I think Zaira would post pictures of all the stray cats and dogs in the Tallows (and also feed them and give them nicknames). Probably under some ridiculous username so no one would guess it was her!
If you could ship any of your characters with an outside character from another series, who would it be?
Melissa: Ooooh. I would totally ship Zaira and Hail from K. B. Wagers’ Indranan War trilogy (BEHIND THE THRONE, etc), because they would get into SO MUCH TROUBLE together. It would be a train wreck, but it would be such a glorioustrain wreck! Also Amalia and Irene from Genevieve Cogman’s Invisible Library series. Even better if I can then send these two couples on a double date mission together and watch the unfolding brilliant catastrophe from a safe distance!
Who would be the first two characters to volunteer for a karaoke standoff?
Melissa: Hmm…I’ve got to go with Terika and Kathe. But now I’m picturing some kind of ridiculous anime filler episode style sequence where Terika and Kathe get started, Zaira and Jerith jump in, then Istrella and Marcello…Amalia inevitably gets pulled up and embarrassed against her will, of course. And then Ruven dramatically crashes the karaoke battle and tries to win in some cheaty fashion, and just when it looks like he’s going to triumph, suddenly La Contessa and Ciardha unexpectedly show up rocking crazy outfits and do a spectacular duet and run off with the prize, leaving everyone else shaking their fists (and the stage probably a smoking ruin).
If Marcello lived in the real world, where would he choose to live? How would he dress?
Melissa: Melissa: Well, Venice might remind him most of home! Any which way, I see him probably in a city studio apartment somewhere. As for what he’d wear, I’m clueless about contemporary fashion (heh, or anything after about the 19thcentury), but I’m thinking he’d try to dress in a relatively crisp & utilitarian kind of way, but he’d wind up with a bunch of bizarre, super-colorful socks and scarves and stuff that Istrella randomly got for him which he’d wear most of the time because he adores her so much.
Was there any scenes that hurt you to write?
Melissa: I always feel a bit bad when I do something really mean to my characters! Probably the worst was a particular scene in THE UNBOUND EMPIRE, though I can’t say why (because spoilers). And the outcome of Amalia’s big decision at the end of THE DEFIANT HEIR was tough, too.
What scene in the first two books was the most fun to write?
Melissa: Oh, wow, this is so hard to pick! Kathe’s introduction was a ton of fun (and really any scene with Kathe, honestly). Amalia’s “I am the Empire” moment in THE TETHERED MAGE was incredibly satisfying, because I hadn’t been sure how I was going to resolve that confrontation and then it just came to me in this big swelling rush while I was walking my dog, and I had to run home and write it down before I forgot the words. But the winner probably has to be the scene about halfway through THE DEFIANT HEIR where Zaira…uh…burns some stuff. I don’t want to give spoilers, but if you’ve read it, hopefully you know the one I mean. I was really in the balefire groove writing that scene.
So, I have a serious weakness for a well done villain, and I super love Ruven (I mean, he’s awful, but also great). Were there any villains in other fictional work that inspired you?
Melissa: Thank you! I adore a well done villain, too. As you can probably guess, I especially love villains who the protagonists have to talk to even though they hate them. So while Ruven wasn’t directly inspired by any particular villain, I’ve definitely been inspired in general by villains like Bestor in Babylon 5, who you wanted to punch in the face SO BADLY but couldn’t politically, and also super-suave villains you can’t help liking a little, like the Goblin King in Labyrinth. I also love ambiguous villains who are sometimes on your side, like Loki. Really, anyone with style who you either love to hate or just plain love even though you really shouldn’t, who’s dangerous because they’re smart, and who’ll trade barbs with you and have you over for dinner between (or during) attempts to murder you/take over the world/destroy everything you care about/etc.
I’d love to know more about your writing journey. Was there ever a time you felt like giving up? How did you push through?
Melissa: There were definitely some times when the road felt really, really long and hard. I queried for around 20 years on and off with several different books before finding an agent, starting with a novel that wasn’t remotely ready when I was about 20 years old. Then when I had kids, I really struggled with finding time to write. But I kept writing and kept learning and kept trying again.
I actually almost gave up on the very book that got me my agent! I’d already queried over 50 agents when I had a revelation about a way to make the book much better…But it would mean a complete rewrite. I’d already queried so many agents, and it would have been easier to give up on the book entirely, but I did the revision anyway and learned a TON in the process. I got a MUCH more positive response with the new version, and soon got an offer from my wonderful agent, Naomi Davis.
And that wasn’t even the book that got published! I wrote another book while I was querying, and THAT book turned into THE TETHERED MAGE. When I finished it, I knew it was The One. Since we hadn’t had any bites yet on the previous book that was on sub, my agent and I both agreed we should switch to subbing TTM because it was just a stronger book. And then TTM sold to Orbit in a three book deal!
Which brings me to how I pushed through in the face of the 150-ish rejections I ultimately accumulated between the several books I queried over those 20 years: I was always working on the next thing. (And not a sequel—something fresh and new that didn’t have its publishing fortunes tied to the previous book.) I always fell in love with whatever new thing I was writing, and each time I’d learned so much from writing the previous book that I was sure the new one was better. So if the previous book was racking up rejections, I could just think “That’s all right—this new one is better anyway, and THIS is the one that will knock their socks off!”
What authors have inspired you in general?
Melissa: So one of my biggest inspirations is Hiromu Arakawa, the creator of the Fullmetal Alchemist manga, who is SO GOOD at everything from characters to pacing to plot twists to breaking and fixing your heart. For fantasy novels, so many wonderful writers have inspired me that it’s hard to pick a couple, but for example I learned a ton from the tight plotting and clever twists of Steven Brust, and from the incredible worldbuilding and deep, nuanced character relationships of C. J. Cherryh. One of my most recent inspiring reads was Genevieve Cogman’s THE INVISIBLE LIBRARY, which just has so much funinfused in the characters, world(s), and action!
Lastly, is there anything you’d like to say to aspiring authors currently digging their way through the query trenches, or even authors on sub?
Melissa: For querying writers: Keep writing, keep editing, keep learning, and don’t give up! Edit your book until it’s not just good enough, but as good as you can possibly make it, however many drafts that takes. Don’t be afraid to throw stuff out, start over, or rewrite things that are already good (you can make them even better). Once your book is as good as it can be, start something new to work on while you’re querying, so your hopes aren’t all tied up in one book! Rejections are really hard, but every author gets them, for all kinds of reasons, and it doesn’t mean your work isn’t good. Don’t lose hope, and keep trying!
For writers with agents on sub: Sub is THE WORST, and I have so much sympathy for you! Hang in there. One of the best tricks I found for surviving being on sub was to promise myself a specific nice treat for each rejection, like going out to dinner or buying some nice tea for myself, so that when a rejection came in I’d actually be kind of excited because it meant I got a special treat. Try to work on a new thing and do your best to keep busy so the waiting won’t destroy your soul!
For all writers: Good luck! I’M ROOTING FOR YOU!!!
Thank you so much, Melissa! To learn more about Melissa Caruso, please visit her website! https://melissacaruso.net