Jonathan Pembroke is the author of the Holly Sisters series, and with the third book, Sylvan Valley Aflame, just around the corner, he took some time to answer a few questions for us.
1. Your author bio says you spent twenty years as a professional liar, and that this set you up for a career as a storyteller. Did you have an interest in writing even before that, or is it a more recent endeavor? Tell us a little more about yourself?
Yeah, I like to say that being a meteorologist (AKA, a professional liar) set me up for a career in telling stories. In both, you have to take all the fine details, spin them into a cohesive theme, and communicate it to the audience… and sometimes the stuff you say is pretty wild.
But, I’ve been interested in writing stories since I was a kid. I wrote off-and-on, through my school years and into my time at college. I even took a creative writing class as an elective. Most of it was fan-fic type of stuff, and most of it was awful. I really only started buckling down with serious writing in the last fifteen years—and with novel-length fiction the last five or so. It was all short stories before that.
And here’s the thing: fantasy was my love even back then. I wrote a war story here and there, one or two romantic stories but I always gravitated back to the fantastic, to the unusual. A friend told me recently that was because I have a vivid imagination. I told him it was a case of borderline psychosis.
As for the rest of me? Normal run-of-the-mill guy in his late 40s. I live with my wife Lisa on our ranch in northeastern Arizona (in the southwest desert part of the US). When not reading or writing, I play some PC games (RPGs and action-adventure, mostly) and when the season is right, work in my garden.
I grew up in a military household and then served for twenty years myself. I spent forty-plus years with short hair, so now it’s longer than it has ever been in my life. People ask me when I am going to cut it. I just say, “No time soon. Look what happened to Samson.” And don’t let the shirt fool you. I’m not antisocial… too often, anyway.
2. You took part in the SPFBO recently and did pretty well, and you then moved on to write the Holly Sisters series. Why did you decide to go the indie route and self-publish?
I could say I was indy all the way but in truth, I did try to get my first book, Pilgrimage to Skara, traditionally published and was unsuccessful. I was at it for about eighteen months before I decided that if I wanted to see if published, I was going to have to get off my butt and make something happen. So I self-published on Amazon. I really had no idea what I was doing. As a learning process, it was the best thing I could have done.
Then, I entered it in the SPFBO 3 in 2017 and was shocked when it made the finals. I mean, flabbergasted. I think Skara has a pulp-adventure feel and is somewhat of a page-turner focused on the journey. Unfortunately, the characters are kind of stilted and the book did not resonate with a majority of readers. Skara took—and still takes—a beating in reviews. It remains, through six iterations of SPFBO, the lowest-rated finalist of all time… which is quite a dubious honor. Ratings aside, the exposure and experience was invaluable.
Along the way, I fell into the self-publishing community and got to meet so many great people. I also learned a ton, and still am learning, every day. And, I was exposed to so many awesome and well-written books, which was good and bad; good, because they’re great to read and bad because I knew I had to up my game if I wanted to be at that level. And at some point, I realized I was having the time of my life doing this.
Even if I finagle a trad-publishing contract, I wouldn’t give up on indy publishing. I like the freedom, the breadth of choice, and the ability to work at my own pace. There’s too much latitude to give it up altogether. While the top-cover of a big publishing company would be fantastic, I’ll always want to keep doing some of this myself. No reason why I could not do both.
Oh, and about Skara? Even with as much abuse as the book got, it has a handful of fans who asked about a sequel. I’m happy to say I’m drafting it now and am looking to have it out toward the end of the year, along with a new cover and some editing work for Skara.
3. Talking of publishing: you’re one of those people who go by the idea of not judging a book by its cover, but from what I’ve heard, you learned the hard way that not everyone feels like that. Could you talk a little about your experiences and thoughts about that?
I’ve never been a cover guy. I’ve always picked books based on the back-blurb or strong recommendations from friends, so I kind of assumed other people did things the same way. Was that arrogant or ignorant? Probably both. The more I read in the fantasy communities on Facebook and Reddit, the more disabused of that position I get. It doesn’t much matter if I don’t pick books based on covers because many people do, and if I want to sell to them, it’s foolish of me to ignore that.
The cover to Skara was done by a family member who’s a graphic designer but who unfortunately had no experience with book covers. Still, she did it as a loving favor to me, so I thought, What’s the harm? Well, it didn’t go over well. It probably cost me some sales. That same member has done a number of other covers since then and has offered to redo it, so I’ll be looking at that this summer.
The final word on covers? They matter. Doesn’t matter if it’s irrelevant to me, because it’s relevant to many, many readers. That was a hard lesson to absorb. I think I’ve done better since then. People seem to generally like the Holly Sisters covers.
4. Now about the Holly Sisters – Sydney and Marla. What can you tell us about them? Why should we care about what they get up to?
Ah, my girls. Sydney and her older sister Marla are faeries of the Holly Clan, one of nine faery clans in Sylvan Valley. Marla runs away to Woodhollow and joins a street gang, where she ultimately rises to lead it.
Years later, bored with her safe, dull life in the Valley, Sydney joins her and hijinks ensue. Sydney was largely rejected and ignored by the Holly Clan because she was not born with the clan wings—which made her a little bitter and unsure of herself.
Time in the gang has made Marla terse, vulgar, and a bit ruthless. Writing them play off each other was a lot of fun. At the beginning, Sydney is kind of the idealist and Marla the pragmatist but over time, I think they swap positions.
At its core, I think this trilogy has two thematic threads. One, is Sydney (the POV protagonist) trying to find her place in the world and come to grips with her self-worth. The other is a story of the two sisters together. In my opinion, there are not a lot of good sister relationships in fantasy. Antagonistic, yes, but not healthy positive ones.
With Sydney and Marla I tried to show that their relationship grows—from estrangement, to tolerance, to camaraderie, to fondness, to love. They tease each other and give each other a hard time but I wanted to show that they genuinely love and look out for each other. Hopefully the writing will convey that to the reader.
5. I have to admit I was a bit skeptical of a story about fairy gangsters selling drugs. Where did that come from? Where is it going? Will book three be the last one, or do you have more ideas up your sleeve?
The idea actually came from me watching the movie Gangs of New York. As I took in the spectacle of a melee between Civil War-era gangs, I started imagining what it would be like if it was mystical races who were brawling for control of the streets. That led me to write a four-thousand word short story that focused on the final fight between the faeries and leprechauns.
My wife, God bless her, has long told me I needed to expand this story, so I finally listened to her and started thinking about the main characters and how their backstories might work. I started writing, moving well beyond that street fight, and the whole sage opened up.
I changed a lot from the short story’s concept but the names of the main characters and framework of that final battle are the same in the book as they were in the original story.
The third book in the series, Sylvan Valley Aflame, will wrap up this story arc and brings Sydney full circle on her journey. I actually have a lot of ideas for future tales with these faeries, though I can’t get into too much detail without spoilers.
I see splitting the surviving characters into three separate book series (thinking two-book duologies to explore their adventures) that occur simultaneously, with a common threat in the background, before bringing them all back together for a final series. Ambitious but it’s good to have some future plans. I’ll be sketching out the basic plots this year, though I many not start writing for a while.
6. One thing I didn’t pick up on right away when reading was that there are no humans in Woodhollow, or in your setting at all. This must have been a conscious decision. Can you elaborate a little on that, and on the world in general?
It was a conscious decision. In all the stories set in worlds with multiple races, humans seem to be the “default” race of the setting. I wanted to avoid that. Sure, I use familiar races, many of whom are human-like, but none are exactly human, and I think the faeries only feel like the default of the setting because it’s their story.
I also tried to twist each race a little from what might be expected. Faeries are human-sized, but fly and perform magic by eating poisonous mushrooms. Elves are long-lived but come off as militaristic rednecks. Dwarves are capitalists but are crappy smiths and metalworkers. Brownies are four-feet tall and look like children but are insanely strong and tend to fly into berserker rages. Leprechauns are magical but are sociopaths and sadists.
I feel like the world is interesting but the story didn’t lend itself to explore very far. The follow-up stories will allow more of that. I have a map of the world that I really want to include in subsequent volumes. With that, and showing more areas, I hope to give the setting even more life and depth.
7. And a few quick questions: What’s your favorite…
…book, in recent times?
For trad-published books, I will say Midnight Falcon, book two of the Rigante series by David Gemmel. Perfectly paced and an excellent, old-school fantasy. I really loved the whole series. For indy books, Black Stone Heart by Michael Fletcher was grim and wonderful.
…game, in recent times?
Again, I’ll split. Big company, Batman Arkham City. A decent story, great action, lots of content and really, just a fun game. Indy, Catquest, a game I played last year. It felt like playing an old Nintendo game from the 90s, but cleaner and smoother. Cartoon violence only, which makes it good for kids.
If you’re writing and loving it, then no matter what, don’t quit. You will want to at some point. Don’t.
…advice for someone who wants to publish their own book?
Talk to authors who’ve gone before. Join writing AND reading communities. Ask questions and listen to what they tell you. Get involved and make yourself known, in a good way.
…source of inspiration?
Seeing, hearing, or reading something and thinking, “Yeah but what if …” and away I go.
…way to clear your mind when everything gets a bit much?
Play a mindless PC game while listening to podcasts on various topics. Just let the brain go
into neutral. An hour or two later, I’m usually primed again.
8. And finally, any last words?
Sylvan Valley Aflame will be on Kindle and Kindle Unlimited on 31 Mar, and in paperback a few days later. Hit me up on Facebook or Goodreads to say hi, tell me my book was great or awful, or just talk about books. You can read my blog, though I only update it once in a while and it’s mostly mad rambling from a mad mind.
Thanks for reading and have a great day. Cheers!
Books by Jonathan Pembroke
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