Today I’m interviewing Joanna Hathaway, author of DARK OF THE WEST (May 2018), a breathtaking YA Fantasy debut. When I first heard of Joanna’s book on Twitter, I quickly looked it up and swooned so hard when I read the blurb:
“Dark of the West is the first in a WWII-infused fantasy series about a princess and a fighter pilot on opposite sides of a labyrinthine conflict. Both must choose between national loyalty and each other as they try to stop their families from igniting world war…”
Not only did her book intrigue me, but I really came to appreciate Joanna herself. I consider her to be one of the most genuine, supportive and humble writers out there. That’s why I was incredibly honored when Joanna agreed to join me here on this blog!
* Your novel Dark of the West is a reimagining of Europe’s world wars. I’ve actually never read an “alternative history” novel but have always wanted to. Why are books that reimagine history important? What makes it so powerful?
Such great questions! To be honest, Dark of the West doesn’t quite fall into “alternate history” the way, say, Ryan Graudin’s fantastic Wolf by Wolf series does. The West world is entirely made up—it doesn’t take place on the timeline of our history, or any variation of it. However, the flavour and feel and technology are meant to mimic the 1940s from our world. The fighter planes, for example, are all based on WWII-era models, with details like how fast and far they can fly, and their different armaments, pulled from the actual advancement of aircraft during the course of the war. The story also deals with a familiar inciting incident: an assassination which launches world conflict. As a teen, I loved films like Band of Brothers and Empire of the Sun, so part of this book is definitely a military adventure, following my fighter pilot as he learns that war is no game. But the other half is pure Downton Abbey, full of fancy parties and people with secrets making veiled insults around the dinner table, and I love both sides equally! I wrote everything that I enjoy into this story—family drama, forbidden romance, court intrigue, airplane dogfights, realpolitik maneuvers. My obsession with the Wars of the Roses also ensured there are plenty of squabbling royals and old feuds as well!
In sum, the West world is meant to be an impression of our world, but not a perfect reflection.
As for why I feel these kinds of books are important… Well, I know a lot of readers don’t consider historical fiction to be their jam, and I get it. You know who wins, who loses. You know the inevitable twists and turns. For some of us, that’s the intrigue of those books—we know the Titanic will sink, and Anne Boleyn will lose her head, but we want to experience how it all happens. But for others, the excitement of fantasy is that anything is possible! It’s all new and unexplored. This is partially why I wrote a book like Dark of the West. It’s fantasy, it’s not real, and yet it feels like it could be our world. I think the old adage is still very true, that those who don’t learn from the past are condemned to repeat it, and I hope that I can take some of those lessons and warnings, and weave them into a fantastical place that will feel fresh and new and intriguing to readers.
I also want to add that I think there are nowhere near enough historical stories told from beyond the European/white experience. Familiar historical events are oft-told in our media culture, and yet there are so many other corners of history to explore. We have an entire world of stories waiting to be shared, far beyond the realm of Europe, and it’s why I get so excited knowing that writers like you, June, are bringing those stories to readers. I think more Own Voices Historicals will spark such great and necessary conversations, and really be a powerful force. We can’t learn from the past if we’re only hearing one side over and over again. I love that you switched from a British Historical to a Korean Historical, and I’m wildly eager to read it!
* I got the goosebumps reading about the historical and fantastical aspects of your novel! And I appreciate your enthusiasm for non-Western history. This is such an encouragement, not only for me, but for all writers out there who are writing their own non-Western fiction!
One thing I’ve been wondering since I first heard of your book is, how long did it take you to write Dark of the West? What was the experience like?
The “seed” of Dark of the West began sprouting when I was about 19, so quite a while ago! It looked very different back then, and I set it on the backburner for a long time. I never imagined being published, and, truth be told, it wasn’t even a goal of mine. I wrote simply for myself—for my own pleasure. I think I’d have been mortified at the thought of anyone reading my work back then! But about four years ago, as I finished the first real draft of DotW, I began to wonder if maybe, just maybe, others would enjoy this story too… I shared a few chapters on an online writing community (Scribophile) to receive feedback, and wonder of wonders! Strangers—real people—read and enjoyed what I posted! They also had a ton of feedback for me—essentially, everything about craft I’d never considered before that point, writing as I was for my own pleasure, and spoiler alert, I wasn’t a very good critic for myself. But instead of being intimidated by the intense critique, I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. I knew that other people genuinely wanted to read this story, and that helped me endure the slog of endless revisions and blunt criticisms that inevitably come along with writing a halfway decent book.
Many of those original CPs are still at my side, as we exchange work and push each other to be better with every draft. (Shout out to Radhika Sainath who just offered me incredible Book 2 feedback, and who has her own book that I truly hope the world will get to read soon!)
A year later, I entered the writing contest Pitch Wars and was picked by my wonderful and wise mentor, Katie Bucklein. Through that experience I got my brilliant agent, Steven Salpeter, and the rest is (I suppose) history!
* I’m so glad you took that first step of courage, sharing your work with the online audience. How much has DotW changed since draft one of the story?
It’s changed a ton! The story is built around the premise of two feuding families marching towards inevitable war, with the star-crossed lovers in the middle of it, and between the two mc POVS you get to see the same conflict from opposite sides—and wonder who is right and who is wrong. But originally, it was only one POV—that of my princess, Aurelia. After the first draft of her story, I decided to experiment and write a chapter from the POV of my fighter pilot, Athan, and discovered he had an entire story (and family!) demanding to be shared as well. His world came to me quickly, in a flurry of typing sessions, and soon I had a book for her and a book for him, on a parallel timeline. I originally imagined they would be two separate books—hers first, and then his. But then I realized: a-ha! If I weave these two stories together, perhaps they’ll work in tandem… So, that’s what I did. The two sides had to be condensed and merged, which was its own wild chore since I always have too many words pouring out of my pages, but they illuminated one another wonderfully. It felt meant to be. Those were the largest changes, but I also bounced around between first person and third person, past and present, multiple prologues and beginnings and endings and middles. I like to say that I “grew up” as a writer with this one book. Instead of trying multiple stories, testing my wings, I stuck with this one story and kept working through the sweat and tears until something a bit readable (and apparently publishable) finally appeared.
* I absolutely adore dual-POVs! They add so many layers of complexity to a story. How are we going to wait till May 2018 to read DotW? For now, maybe you could share one of your favorite quotes from your book?
You know, this is a question I’ve never considered before. I’m going to share a line from Athan’s mother in the earlier part of the book. For background, Athan’s father is a violent and ambitious general who has led a revolt and seized control of a new nation, and Athan has two older brothers, one in the army and one in the navy (while Athan is in the air force). They’re a bit of a tragic trio, the three brothers. When I was writing this scene, I heard Athan’s mother speak these words, out of nowhere, and they were absolutely perfect for her character, for her futile desire to keep her children safe, even from her own husband. Here’s the little passage:
“I know you’re confused,” she says softly, but firmly. She’s been made tiny from years in his shadow, light worn away, but somehow she’s still outside of it. A distant star. “A mother knows the depth of her saddest child. She feels the pain of her most broken one. You were mine, but I gave you up long ago. Please don’t leave your brothers alone in this. Don’t choose me. I fear for what he will ask of them.” She peers up into my face, her grief holding the weight of an entire family.
I look at her helplessly. “But I’m not like them.”
“No, you’re not. They are earth and sea. They can only go so far until they run up against one another.” She touches my cheek. “But you are the sky, my love. You are limitless.”
* Honestly, that was such a gorgeous, heart-wrenching passage. I’ll probably need a box of tissues while reading your book…! While working on this project, what scenes were hardest to write?
I find the hardest scenes to write are the “connecting” scenes. I’ll have a really exciting scene over here, and then another exciting scene over there, but something has to come in between and bring them together… and that is often my writing hell. I have to sit with that scene for a long time and find the one true thing in it. The heartbeat. The thing that jazzes me and makes it come alive. These are often the scenes that get tossed or rearranged once the draft is complete and I’m into edits/revisions. If they’re not pulling their weight, I recycle them into something better until they’re finally what they need to be.
* Writing definitely isn’t easy and it can be scary, especially for those working on their very first novel. If you could give one piece of advice to unpublished writers what would it be?
I think it would be to seek out feedback and don’t be afraid if it hurts. Don’t be afraid of work. Do whatever you must to make your gem shine and gleam, even if it means killing some darlings along the way. But right alongside this advice, of equal importance, is to also make sure that this feedback is coming from someone who gets the heart of your story. If the feedback isn’t pushing you closer to that heart—the theme, the essence, the reason you wrote your book—then quietly disregard it and find another CP who truly understands your vision. Critique can pull your book apart at the seams, for better or for worse. You need to treasure your own voice and learn to distinguish between the things that will make it stronger and perhaps more marketable—and the things that will erode away at the unique flavour you have to offer the world.
* Great points! I hope this will encourage more writers to share their work, and at the same time, to fiercely guard the heart of their novel. Also, what advice would you give to writers tackling writer’s block, imposter syndrome and self doubt?
The best cure for writer’s block (I find) is to read!!! Pick up a book by an author you love and let the words fill you. Also, it’s important to take breaks. Never underestimate the power of stepping away and enjoying life for a week or two. I guarantee there will come a moment when things suddenly clear and you’re ready to sit down at the computer again, words on fire.
And imposter syndrome is a real thing! I honestly don’t have an answer to that. I’m a bumbling debut with not much to show, so I definitely feel that most days. But I think it’s best to not focus on those things. I focus on my writing, my life beyond my books, and if I’m lucky then maybe I’ll get to keep doing this a while longer yet.
* I really hope to see more of your books out in the world! One last writing-related question: How do you personally relate to the main character in your book?
Ha, interesting question! I have two MCs, and I think I relate to them in different ways. I share a love of horses with Aurelia, the princess, but she’s definitely more bold and fearless than me. She was based, in part, on my younger sister who is a talented artist and equestrian, fiercely independent, and also adorably stubborn at times. Aurelia isn’t afraid of conflict. The pilot Athan, on the other hand, is much more non-confrontational and will do whatever he can to keep the peace, even if that means avoiding reality. I suppose I can relate to that more. But mostly, I relate to their humanity. They have weaknesses and flaws, struggling with their own cognitive dissonance, as we all do, but they truly want to do the right thing—even as the unjust world around them grows darker and more deceptive with the fog of war.
* Your characters—and you, yourself!—sound absolutely fascinating. Before we end the interview, what is one interesting/quirky fact about yourself?
I have a very fluffy cat and I call him all sorts of weird things, not limited to: Puffkins, Puffster, Fluffles McGee, Babyboo, Kittykins, Squeakers, and so on. I don’t know what half of them mean. Sometimes I just look at him rolling around on his belly and get inspired!
May I conclude this by saying how absolutely honoured I am that you invited me to do this, June! I so appreciate your enthusiasm for Dark of the West, and your thoughtful questions, and I’m really excited to see all the good things 2018 holds for you. ☺
* Thank you so much Joanna for your enthusiasm and support for writers like myself, and for joining me here on this blog! Getting to know more about your book and yourself was an absolute pleasure!
Born in Montréal, Canada, Joanna Hathaway is an avid storyteller who was inspired to write after reading her great-grandfather’s memoirs of the First World War. A lifelong history buff, she now has shelves filled with biographies and historical accounts, and perhaps one too many books about pilots. She can often be found reading, traveling, or riding horses. Follow her on Twitter @hathawayjojo and on Instagram @spitfirewriter