Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Annie Douglass Lima and the Prince of Interviews

Someday, when television is respected
as the premier storytelling medium,
they'll erect statues of this man.
I may have mentioned before that I am a bit of a connoisseur of fine television. The small screen is producing some remarkable storytelling feats these days, and I love great storytelling. As a serious student of the medium, I of course frequently peruse the criticism offered by such great teleanalysts as TV Guide’s Matt Roush and HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall. Both are well respected giants in their field, and the world of television criticism would be significantly darker for their absence. Why do I bring them up? Because I've been thinking a lot recently about a statement that Matt Roush makes frequently: It’s not necessarily the premise that matters, but rather the execution.

He’s right. When it comes to quality television, execution is almost everything. Sometimes, sure, we get a wonderfully original bit of television such as Pushing Daisies or Andy Richter Controls the Universe that are a joy to watch in part because they are so delightfully unique, but even an original idea is unsustainable without great execution (for example, back when I watched Glee, I marveled at how good it could be if it had good writing and actual characters instead of cartoons who changed entirely depending on which songs they wanted them to sing).
If Glee and American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy
ever turns up murdered, lovers of quality television
will probably be at the top of the suspect list.

Of course, most shows on TV are either medical, cop, or lawyer shows. But execution matters. There’s a great difference between The Wire, Chicago PD, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, even though they’re all cop shows (the latter's pretty good, the former's completely untouchable in terms of quality, and we won't even deign to discuss the middle). Make a show about people just hanging out and you can have Seinfeld or Friends or hundreds of other shows that didn’t work nearly as well.

Where am I going with all this? Glad you asked! It just so happens that what I am doing is introducing my interview today with Annie Douglass Lima, in which we will talk about her book Prince of Alasia, the first novel in her Annals of Alasia series. So I don’t forget, let me tell you now that you can find Annie online at her blog: http://anniedouglasslima.blogspot.tw/

I am talking about execution so much because I did not feel that Prince of Alasia was a terribly original tale, and yet it is well written and there is surely joy to be found in the journey. The story is familiar, but the execution is generally very good. As always, I’ll do my best in this little mini-review and in the interview to follow to give you all the data you need to determine whether this book is one you ought to pick up or not.

"Hullo! It's me, your neighbor. Just
popped over to borrow a cup of sugar
and murder everyone you love."
The book focuses on Jaymin, the eponymous prince of Alasia, a kingdom in a different world but similar to the swords and castles of medieval Europe. It has a fantasy setting, but is not a fantasy story in the sense of having any fantastical elements such as magic or mythical creatures. This is something we discuss at length in the interview so I won’t get too much into that side of things here. But Jaymin wakes in the middle of the night when his best friend and personal bodyguard, Erik, makes him get up. It doesn’t look good: the castle is under attack by the Malornians from the next kingdom over, his parents are dead, and he will be too if they can’t get away. Alas, they’re caught right outside his bedroom door and he’s killed. It’s a really short book.

Just kidding! Jaymin escapes the palace with the help of Erik and Sir Edmund, an older and trusted advisor. The boys have to hide out in a village far from the palace and pretend to be commoners to blend in with the villagers and survive the Malornian occupation of Alasia—and, of course, if Jaymin is discovered to be the prince, he’ll surely be executed like the rest of the royal family.

Like I said, I don’t consider the plot itself to be the reason to read this. It’s pretty familiar, and even a late twist is easy to see coming. But it’s still a good read. The author does an admirable job of painting pictures with words and she injects a lot of life into the two boys at the core of the story. I recommend the book for the privilege of spending time with Jaymin and Erik, for enjoying their friendship, and for getting away into the world of Alasia. I think you’ll probably enjoy your time there.

And if I can’t convince you? Well, I’m sure some time spent with the author will!

Brad: Hello there, Annie. Let me just say that it’s a pleasure to have you join me today, all the way from Taiwan! I don’t think my interviews have strayed too far from the United States thus far (although I did once travel back in time, but those were extraordinary circumstances). In my efforts to empathize with the average American, I’m utter crap at geography. Will you tell us what brought you to Taiwan and how far you are from Alasia, the land where  Prince of Alasia takes place?
This is Thailand. Lots of people think that Annie lives there.
She doesn't. She lives in Taiwan. Now you know!

Annie: Well, I've always loved living overseas.  I grew up as an MK (missionary kid) in Kenya, and I've traveled to a total of eighteen different countries.  My husband and I lived in America for our first few years of marriage.  But we prayed for God's timing, and when both our careers showed signs of being close to a good transition point, we started looking into jobs in other countries.  I applied to teach at a number of different international schools, and Morrison Academy here in Taiwan was just the one where God opened all the doors.  So here we are!

As to how close this is to Alasia - it's only a thought away.  Like every place I've ever been.  :-)

Brad:  Ooh! Good answer. I’ll refrain from asking whether you simply moved there so you could get untold weeks off for Chinese New Year, even though Taiwan isn’t in China, and just give you the benefit of the doubt.

We’ll get more into the questions about the book in a minute, but this seems like as good a place as any to discuss, ahem, The Nature of Fantasy Itself. After all, my blog visitors have paid good money to get here, so we need to give them a show. Prince of Alasia is advertised as a fantasy, but, aside from taking place in a made-up kingdom that seems to be almost identical to real medieval settings in European history, there are no fantasy elements. There’s no magic, no fantastical creatures or items, no talking animals, and the world seems pretty identical to our own. So what, in your opinion, makes a story fantasy? Is The Andy Griffith
This clearly is *not* The Andy Griffith Show because this is in color.
Show
fantasy since it takes place in fictional Mayberry, for example?

Annie: To me, a fantasy can be either a story involving magic or one taking place in a different world.  If it's a made-up but realistic setting in our own world, I wouldn't consider that fantasy.  But when the entire world is one that has never existed—or a setting in our world that COULD never exist, like Hogwarts—to me that's fantasy.

Brad: Let’s talk about this some more. Hogwarts doesn’t really seem similar to me at all since it’s a magical castle full of fantastical objects, mythical creatures, and magic. In other words, it’s not just an invented locale, but one that has fantasy elements in spades. It sounds like you’re saying that you consider these books to be fantasy simply because Alasia doesn’t exist in our world, despite the fact that the world itself greatly resembles medieval Europe.

Annie: Alasia is in some ways similar to the Europe of centuries ago, but it's not set in any part of Europe; its geography doesn't match, and the events in it conflict with what actually happened in European history.

I think setting and elements can both be important in defining fantasy - in most fantasy (e.g. Harry Potter, Narnia) the elements make it obvious.  I guess I would say that when it isn't obvious from internal elements like magic, setting can help define the genre.

In my two books that come later in the series, I introduce some sort-of-almost magical elements. Somewhat unrealistic ones, at least, like a minstrel who, when he plays his instrument, has the ability to influence people's emotions (more than music can normally do) and change their states of mind. And a particular breed
These magic horses can even play hide and seek!
But they really, really suck at it.
of horses that can be far more easily trained than "regular" ones, and who are so loyal to their owners that they will never run away or stray even when they're left untied.

Brad: Sounds like a question we should open up to the audience! Especially if you’re a fantasy fan, do you feel like a fantasy book needs to have magical, mythical, or other fantasy elements to qualify? Or are you satisfied simply being in an imaginary world where the geography and history is different, even if the people and the rules operate very much like ours (either now or in our history)? Share your view in the comments, and I’ll see if we can get Annie to swing back by to respond!

Back to this story specifically, tell us about Jaymin. And, while you’re at it, tell us about Erik too. After all, we can’t have one without the other!

Annie: Jaymin is a young prince who has lived a very sheltered life.  When tragedy and danger thrust him out into the “real world,” he struggles to cope, not only with his new surroundings but with his own role.  He loves his kingdom, but has always assumed he would have decades longer to prepare to rule it.  Now he is Alasia's only hope, and he has to figure out not only how to survive and to help his people but also how to become the king they will need.

Erik knows a lot more about the real world than Jaymin does; he spent the first several years of his life on the streets, so naturally he's street-smart and has great survival instincts.  He's spent most of his time since then learning how to be a bodyguard, but this is the first time he's ever had to actually apply what he's learned.  So it's a new experience for him too, as he's forced to keep his wits about him to hide and protect Jaymin, and of course himself, from the enemies all around them.

Brad: Who is your favorite character from this story? Why?

Annie: That's like asking a parent who her favorite child is!  They're all special to me in their own ways. 

But, well, if I reeeally had to pick, I guess I'd say Erik.  I admire his single-minded dedication to duty as well as his loyal friendship and willingness to risk his life for his friend.  I enjoyed developing those qualities more in a chapter from his perspective in another book that I'm currently working on.

Brad: That brings me to my follow up question: Which of your children is your favorite? Let’s talk about inspiration. Are there any other stories—whether books, movies, television, whatever—that helped inspire Prince of Alasia or any of the characters?

Little known fact: In Twain's original manuscript for The
Prince and the Pauper
, neither were anthropomorphic mice.
Annie: The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain and One Thousand and One Arabian Nights.  Both of them feature royalty secretly living as commoners (or at least visiting commoners) and learning first-hand how
ordinary people in their realm live.  I enjoy the idea of a prince interacting with regular folk who have no idea who he is.  In a way, I guess it was similar for a lot of the people Jesus interacted with on earth.  Not everyone knew or believed he was God. I like to picture how shocked they would have been if they had been found out, just like the townsfolk who knew Jaymin in Drall.

Brad: It’s a bit of wish fulfillment, isn’t it? Admit it: you want to be wealthy royalty and then you visit the commoners and then you reward the ones who were kind to you, riding on your elephant. Admit it!

I think it’s wonderful how you’ve used your day job and your passion for writing to inspire the same in young minds (as evidenced by your collected anthologies of 5th grade poetry: Sunshine Leaking and A Boom in the Room). Share some stories with us about your class of budding writers.

Annie: I love teaching children to write!  We just finished up a unit on poetry, and my students enjoyed learning about the different elements of poetry and different types of poems.  I had a moment of pure joy the other day when one of my boys announced, as he worked on a poem he was writing, "I love poetry.  I never used to like it, but this year I do!"

That child, of course, would grow up
to be Lord Byron! So maybe, ah, some
lessons on character and morality
might have been squeezed in amongst
all the poetry, yeah?
Brad: That’s great. One of my top priorities with my eldest daughter was to instill in her a love of reading, and I’m very happy to have succeeded (and now she’s one of my biggest fans when it comes to my Christian fantasy, Emaline’s Gift). I need to do the same with my youngest! What do you consider to be your greatest strength as an author?

Annie: I guess that would be creating characters, scenes, and stories as a whole that appeal to young readers.  I have a big advantage in that I've got a captive audience in my classroom.  I read all my books to my students before (and after) I publish them, and their feedback is tremendously helpful in improving my writing.  When the kids start yawning and playing with things in their desk as I read, I know I need to liven up that scene.  When they stare with wide eyes and don't even notice the bell for recess, I know I've done something right.  And their questions and comments help me see what parts don't make sense or go over their heads.  So, I change what I need to and try to do more of what they respond well to.  I also have a club for middle schoolers that meets in my home after school once a week.  I read my books to them as well (but not the same ones those students heard when they were in 5th grade).  That way, after I've made changes after reading a book to my class, I can see how the new version works with my club, or vice versa.

Brad: Hey now! You’ve got your own focus group! That’s cheating! Well, what about your greatest weakness?

Annie: That would be marketing my books.  With my day job and all, I just haven't been able to do very much in the way of letting the world (beyond my immediate circles) know that my books are out there.  Plus, I'm just not very good at it, though I am learning and starting to get a little better.

Brad: Ugh! Marketing. I should start a Kickstarter project to hire someone to do marketing for me! As with many of the authors I have the privilege of sitting down with, it will not surprise the reader to know that I first met Annie through my Christian indie authors group on Facebook. And your book, Annie, begins with a dedication that I believe is intended for the Lord (or possibly the Greek god Apollo). That being said, there are no over Christian themes in Prince of Alasia. Some Christian authors that I’ve interviewed have felt very strongly that they have a responsibility to point toward Christ even through their fiction. If this book is indication, you disagree. Why? Do you believe that your faith gives you any obligations or even guidelines when writing?

Not to blame owls for how much anyone
sucks at analogies, but wouldn't a better
example be to say that not all clergy
are required to serve in a Christian church?
(Pictured: A Unitarian Universalist minister.)
Annie: Absolutely!  Every Christian has the responsibility to do whatever they do in life for the glory of God.  But I don't believe that necessarily requires all Christian authors to write "Christian" books, any more than all Christians are obligated to join the clergy.  There are lots of ways to honor the Lord in what we do, and I believe that primarily means giving Him our absolute best.  I made Prince of Alasia the best book I knew how to write at the time, and I wrote the dedication poem to reflect the fact that I intended it as my gift, my offering for God. 

I did consider trying to turn the story into an allegory, but I think there are few fantasy authors who can pull that off well.  We're all familiar with amazing allegories like the Chronicles of Narnia, but I've also read quite a few that I considered lame and cheesy.  Trying too hard to force in Christian symbolism, themes, or messages can, in my opinion, achieve the opposite effect from what the author intended.  I've read Christian fantasy that just made me roll my eyes and groan, and I don't think that kind of writing is honoring to the Lord either. 

Having said that, if I ever have an idea for a Christian book or series that I think would really work well, I will gladly write it.  I pray often that God will use my writing for His glory, and that probably does happen more often with specifically Christian books.  But so far He hasn't given me inspiration for that kind of book, so in the meantime I'll continue to write general fantasy and try to honor Him with the quality of my work.  Also, I do try to promote Biblical values in my books; for example, in Prince of Alasia I bring out the themes of honesty and forgiveness.  The second book of the series, In the Enemy's Service, emphasizes honesty and grace.  The third one (not yet published) features the idea that no matter how great a ruler is, his people aren't likely to care much about him or listen to his message unless he will humble himself, give up his rights and titles, and become one of them.

Brad: As regular readers will know, this is a question that comes up a lot: whether an artist who follows Christ needs to use their art to directly point to Him or not. There are as many different answers as there are artists, and the only thing that really bothers me is when one tries to answer it on behalf of everyone.

There are two points that jumped out at me in your answer. The first is that book three in your series again deals with a ruler without his crown. I guess you weren’t kidding when you said that you liked those kinds of stories!

But I wonder if you could speak a bit more about how Christian fantasy that you consider to be poorly written does not or cannot honor the Lord. You probably don’t want to sit in front of me during a worship service. Although not particularly blessed with a golden voice, I love to sing out praise songs to the Lord. I do so because I believe this pleases Him, and that He appreciates a joyful noise even if it’s not on key. So I think of this anonymous fantasy writer who strives to write a God-honoring work but makes Annie Douglass Lima roll her eyes. While I think Scripture makes it clear that God equips us for the different roles He gives us to play, and thus the primary ministry focus of this would-be writer might be elsewhere, is it really so bad
God has been known, on occasion, to use a giant fish to
bring about glory for Himself. 
if, in his spare time, he spends time writing in an attempt, even a cheesy attempt, to point to his Savior? As an indie author who takes the position very seriously, I despair to see clearly inferior works on the market, especially when filled with typos and errors. But do you have any evidence that God cannot or will not bring glory to Himself with a cheesy but well-intentioned story?

Annie: I, too, have a terrible voice but love to sing to the Lord.  However, I would not create and sell a CD of my singing!  Still, you have a good point.  I suppose God really can be glorified through anyone's efforts if their heart is in the right place.  I certainly have no right to judge Christian writers who haven't perfected their skills - before God they stand or fall (yes, I know that's out of context, but I think it still applies).  I just think that if the secular world knows a certain writer is Christian but perceives her published work to be of low quality, it could end up reflecting poorly on the Lord she's trying to honor.  But I suppose that's really between her and God, and if she feels that God is calling her to present a certain message in her books, then she had better do it.  Who knows, the Lord could still use it to reach someone out there.  But I think that we as Christian writers have a particular responsibility to strive for the highest possible quality in our writing (as in everything else we undertake).  After all, our books may be the closest thing to the Bible that some people may ever read.

Brad: If a certain type of author has no qualms about attaching their own name to something that hasn’t been edited, I wonder if it would bother them at all for it to also reflect upon Christ. We ought to offer Him our best, as you mentioned. However, I wonder if any of us could get caught up in that particular fear—that our best is not good enough and may reflect poorly on the Lord—and get caught in scared inaction. Lots to think about in this interview, anyway!

There is a follow-up to Prince of Alasia: the second book in the Annals of Alasia, called In the Enemy’s Service. Do you have some idea of how many books will eventually fill out these annals? Is there an overarching story, or are you sharing different episodes that simply all share the same world?

Annie: There will be at least four in the series, though I'm purposely leaving a few loose ends that may turn into more books eventually.  In the Enemy's Service takes place during the same time period as Prince of Alasia, but focuses on different characters.  It tells the story of what happened to those left behind in the palace after Jaymin and Erik escaped.  The third book, which I plan to publish later this spring, is from the
perspective of Prince Korram.  It starts a few months earlier, though the story progresses through a longer time period and overlaps with the other two books by the end.  Those three will form a trilogy, and then there's a fourth book that takes place five years later.  I've nearly finished that one, but I'm waiting to publish it in chronological order; Lord willing, it will be available before the end of the year.
I was bored so I hacked Annie's calendar to see her plans
(you may need to click on this one to enlarge it).

Brad: Sounds like you’ll be a busy little bee in 2014! Can you tell us what you’re working on right now?

Annie: I actually have four writing projects in the works right now!  There are the two books in the Annals of Alasia mentioned above, plus another one that I drafted this last November for National Novel Writing Month.  That one is called The Collar and the Cavvarach, and may end up being the start of a different series.  It takes place in a modern world much like ours, except that slavery is legal there.  The main character is a 14-year-old enslaved boy who is trying to rescue his little sister from the system.  I'm having a lot of fun editing and improving that book; it's completely different than anything I've written before. 

My fourth project is called Better than Cotton Candy; it's another anthology of my students' poetry, and it should be available for purchase as a Kindle book in the next week or so.  My 5th graders have written the poems; I just have to compile and format them.  Properly formatting poetry for Kindle is MUCH more complicated than formatting prose, so it takes awhile!

Brad: Did you know that the Malornians are looking for you? They are indeed! Apparently, they think you’ve made them look bad in your books and so aim to kill you. They knew you were coming round and so I’ve locked them all in that room behind you. I may have to let them out, though. We’ll see. You can appease me by sharing with me your favorite book. You can only pick one!

Annie: Yikes!  How can I possibly pick just one?  I guess I'm doomed!  But maybe I can at least delay their escape from my laundry room by narrowing it down to one series.  I absolutely love the Tales of Goldstone Wood series by Anne Elisabeth Stengl.  She has created an incredibly rich and detailed world.  Some of her stories take place at the same time but to different characters (with some connections between them), much like mine; others take place thousands of years apart.  But they all combine to give a vivid and seamless picture of the world and its history.

Annie kebobs? Well, Mrs. Lovett would approve, anyway.
Brad: Do you hear that rattling? I wonder if the lock will hold. I hope they don’t all decide to run against it at once. That might be bad. Of course, you’d deserve it, naming a series instead of a book! These cheeky authors. The only reason you’re still alive is that you make those books sound really good and now I want to
read them. But the danger still lurks. Best tell me who your favorite author is so we can let you scamper out of here before they get out. Unless you can’t answer my question, in which case I’ll have to just let them out to make an Annie Douglass Lima shish kebob.

Annie: Funny, I thought that was just the noise my washing machine makes when it's got an uneven load.  Well, once again, there's no way I can pick a single favorite author.  But before they ruin my laundry appliances, I'll say that another one whose writing I love is Francine Rivers

Brad: A very sensible move. Washing machines are expensive! One more question. I do tend to ask my indie authors this. I happen to know that you’ve rejected some offers from interested publishers and have chosen, for now, to remain an independent author. Other than purchasing your books, how can fans best support you and other indie authors?

First, get your non-reading friends
this to prep them.
Annie: If they read and enjoy our books, writing a review on Amazon or other sites is always a blessing to authors.  Similarly, they can recommend them to their friends.  Connecting with us on social media is also
helpful; it's a great way to help us build our fan base and get the word out when we have new books available.

Brad: That’s it! Thanks for coming by today, Annie! Now, before you go, reader, don’t forget to—

Annie: You're welcome.  Thanks for the fun and challenging questions!

I beg your pardon, madam! The interview’s over! That thank you was rhetorical.


Anyway, beloved reader, don’t forget to weigh in below about what you expect and what you’re looking for when you pick up a book that’s been touted as fantasy. You’ve heard Annie and me wax poetic, but we’d love to get your feedback, too! Thanks, as always, for stopping by. And don’t forget to pick up a copy of Prince of Alasia if it sounds like your type of book. Adios!

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