A Female Sort of Revenge – a Shana Abé Interview

shana abe

Shana Abé is a bestselling author normally found in the Romance section, but whose latest books are fantasy (or at least fairy tale) crossovers.  She’s also a personal favorite of mine–verify on our favorites page, if you doubt–and has just finished up her fabulous historical-fiction shapeshifter series that started with 2006’s The Smoke Thief and continued through five books to last month’s The Time Weaver.  I was beyond pleased when she agreed to an interview and completed my trifecta of conversations with my favorite writers.

Here I’ve got her talking about the inspiration behind her magical series, where she might go next with a spin-off, how she approaches writing her stories, and more.  In case you’re not familiar with all the books we’ve tried to attribute what we’re talking about to a specific title, so, fan of hers or not, come listen in!

Elena Nola: I want to talk mostly about your current series, but before we jump into that I wanted to start with its genesis, which means going back to your last book before the series, The Last Mermaid.  It seemed to me that you were playing with the fairy tale motif somewhat in those three novellas…did that have an influence on the creation of the drákon, or the way you chose to tell their story?

Shana Abé:  The truth is, I had a wonderful time creating a world where mermaids could exist, and I wanted to explore that creative freedom even more deeply. As a child I was entranced with fairy tales—the consequences of both light and dark magics, the notion of destiny and all manner of mystical possibilities—so I suppose it’s become a natural part of my voice as an author.

The truly fairy tale part of the series is told in the prologues and epilogues (and a few other random chapters) of each book. They have a different rhythm and feel than the main text, I think, because I made them deliberately more narrative. I wanted to conjure a mesmerizing, magical feeling for the opening and closing of each story.

What was the inspiration behind the drákon scenario in the first place?

After I had finished The Last Mermaid, I knew I wanted to write about shapeshifters of some sort. I’d just done mermaids, and the obvious next choice was vampires or werewolves, but I felt there were already so many good authors out there tackling them that I didn’t want to enter that field. I needed something different. I wanted to have a clan of secretive shapeshifters whose very lives depended upon hiding their true identities from humans.

One day I was outside watching the skies above my house. A pair of hawks were soaring above me, so graceful and deadly. Something clicked. I thought, “Ah ha! Dragons!” Because in my mind, dragons could fly like that—plus, I could make them sexy. 😉

Was The Smoke Thief written to be a stand-alone novel?

Kind of! I started with just this one simple idea: shapeshifting dragon people, hiding away from humanity but still enmeshed in humanity. Then Rue came to me, the rebel drákon heroine who escaped the confines of her tribe’s rules to become an eighteenth-century master thief. Then Kit, the dragon hero who had to catch her. Then Zane, Rue’s utterly intriguing criminal apprentice, who happened to be just a young human boy.

By the end of The Smoke Thief, I knew that Zane had his own story coming, and that I had to create a heroine as strong and unique as he was for him, and that she had to be a drákon. So that’s where Lia came in…and it just kept going from there.

At what point did you realize you had a series on your hands?

I think I realized it had to be a series during The Dream Thief, but I thought perhaps it was just going to be a trilogy. But the folks at Bantam Books were so excited about the entire concept that we decided there would be more than just three books.

How much of the story arc for the series did you have in place from the point when you realized it was a series?  Did you find that you had written yourself into any corners based on what was set up in earlier books?  When did you realize Honor/Réz was the ultimate villain, and what her Gift must be?

I am very much an intuitive kind of writer, and by that I mean I’m not a stickler for following detailed plans. I typically don’t know what’s going to happen from scene to scene. Somehow this seems to work. I try not to overthink it! The series grew in a very organic kind of way. The only thing I really regretted was smashing up the evil diamond at the end of The Dream Thief, because I realized almost right away that it was too valuable to just eliminate! But it still worked in the subsequent books by having it in splinters.

I wish I could say I knew all along how Honor would turn out, but actually all I knew when I first wrote about her, about the middle of Queen of Dragons, was that she would have her own story, and it had to be distinctive. By the end of Queen of Dragons, though, I realized who she had to be.

Now that all 5 books in the (initial) drakón series are out, have you been surprised at the stories your fans pick out as their favorites?  Has there been a kind of consensus, or has each story gotten a pretty equivalent number of “I love THAT one” nods from fans? 

You know, it’s kind of all over the board, seriously. When I began the series I wasn’t thinking about the natural human inclination to rank favorites of similar things, but it’s totally what has happened. I’m just glad that people like the series overall, and if they do have a favorite, that’s cool too.

Moving through time is a theme that you seem drawn to, since it showed up both in the final drakón book and the mermaid stories.  Why does that idea fascinate you?

Time can be dissected on so many levels. It isn’t fixed, although it feels as though it is. It isn’t tangible or visible, although its effects are. No one, not even our most brilliant minds, has entirely figured it out. Certainly I haven’t! But wouldn’t it be cool to be able to manipulate it personally, to visit your past and your future at will, and perhaps to change your own fate or that of your loved ones for the better?

That would be a pretty hard temptation to resist. 🙂

Another theme in several of your books is the ability to cut through time or space to connect two people, with Lia Dreaming her future(s) with Zane, Honor Weaving into her future to see how things turn out, and Zoe Seeing ghosts and Rhys’s disembodied spirit in reflections.  Why is that such a powerful idea for you?

I truly believe there is more to our world, more to ourselves as sentient beings, than what simply appears skimming across the glassy surface of our lives. You might call it spirituality or faith or superstition; all those words encompass the belief that we are beyond mortal. We are creatures connected in unseen and often surprising ways. I love that thought.

Several of your drákon heroines were Gifted in unusual ways, ways that they had never known were possible.  Do you think they were really the first drákon ladies to have those talents, or that the others who had them kept them hidden?—to me it seems a very female sort of revenge on that patriarchal council, to have these amazing Gifts and never tell the men, lol.  But perhaps these talents only developed after the females lost the ability to Turn?

LOL! Female sort of revenge! I like that!

It makes excellent evolutionary sense that once one ability is taken away, others may be heightened to compensate for that loss. But what I really needed was to mix things up a bit while staying true to my initial assertion that it was very, very rare for a female drákon in the timeline of the series to have the ability to Turn into smoke or dragon. It’s what made Rue so extraordinary, and her daughter Lia as well. Also Princess Maricara, who was of an entirely different tribe of drákon, and the only female among them with this Gift.

However, it wouldn’t make sense to just keep producing a heroine for every book with this supposedly rare Gift. So Zoe (The Treasure Keeper) and Honor (The Time Weaver) got something entirely different. It kept things fresh.

Do you think you’d ever go into the past from where you started, and do, say, a medieval drákon story?

It’s a lovely thought, but when I moved away from medievals I really felt I’d explored that universe as much as I could. Still, adding actual dragons to the mix would shake things up! So never say never, LOL.

You’ve got a teasing little comment on your website that you might have an idea for another series in mind.  To me the logical point is the time where Honor and Sandu ended up.  Yes, no?

Yes. 🙂

How far along in the creative process are you…still just developing characters and scenarios or actually underway?  Do you think you’ll be writing another series proper with a long arc that takes several books to resolve, or using more of a “loose series” as many romance authors do—that is, taking intriguing minor character(s) from one book and giving them their own separate story?

I’m very much underway with this new story. I’m probably about halfway through. For this particular series, I think it’s going to be a combination of a long arc and something more loose. At this point I’m planning to bring back the same characters for new situations. That may change. As I’ve mentioned, I’m a very fluid, intuitive kind of writer, and oftentimes I’m surprised at where things end up. 🙂

Do you think you might change the style/tone of your writing for books set in that different time period?  It would almost be a Steampunk sort of landscape, and that would lend itself well to more adventurous sorts of stories (in a more light-hearted sense of adventure).

Possibly! I honestly don’t know that I can change my tone that much, or if I should. It might sound forced, or just plain bad! I love what I’m writing now, and I think the storyline itself is sufficiently different, but my voice is my voice, for better or worse.

Ah, your voice…something else I want to ask about!  Do you feel like it’s changed much since you started out?  I confess I haven’t read anything earlier than the mermaid book to judge for myself, but that one seemed to me to be written in a style in between a more traditional romance narrative voice and the way you write in the drákon books, which is more…elegant, ornate, poetic than a typical historical romance voice.  Regardless of when you developed your style, did you have a conscious sort of intention with it, with what you wanted it to be and evoke?

I think you’ve touched upon a truth I hadn’t deeply considered before. When I said “my voice is my voice,” I suppose mostly what I meant is that I write the way I write without attempting to overanalyze my particular style, because I feel that would be counterproductive for me. But there’s no question that it’s evolved over time and with experience. I think that’s natural. The Last Mermaid was rather a bridge between my old genre (historical medieval romances) and the new. I’ve found it’s much more fun to abandon traditional notions of the way I used to think a romance should read, vs. the way I want now it to.

I did deliberately add the more poetic, lyrical voice to the legend part of the drákon series, because I thought it framed the main story so nicely. I had explored that style somewhat in The Truelove Bride (one of my very first books and amazingly still in print!) by creating a Scottish legend about a wicked fairy in love with a mortal woman that was central to the plotline. I remember at the time marveling at how beautifully it had worked. But back then paranormal romance just wasn’t selling well, so I went back to straight historicals.

I can only hope that whatever my “voice” truly is, it continues to improve as I write. That would be lovely, LOL.

Speaking of writing, I always like to ask writers about their actual writing process.  Do you work from an outline, or let the story develop as you write?  Do you find yourself developing ideas in the same way or does it vary from book to book?

I work from an outline because publishers usually require that. I try to make my outlines as detailed as possible, but in reality, they are not excruciatingly detailed. I like the freedom of making things up as I go.

And honestly, inspiration varies from book to book. You’re probably not surprised to hear that from me, LOL. It could be an intensely charismatic character (Zane), a paradoxical situation (secretive dragons), a great plot question (Rhys from The Treasure Keeper: is he alive or is he dead?) or sometimes just a single line that haunts me (“Wilt thou have me?” from my first book, A Rose in Winter), and I whip up a tale around each. It changes all the time. My imagination is pretty much always turned on High.

What made you decide to start writing in the first place?

My other great talent is singing in the shower, and no one will pay me for that. LOL!

Seriously, I’ve just always loved to write. I’ve loved creating fantasy worlds with words. Even as a child, I used to write horrible plays and force my siblings to act in them. From the moment I learned I could, I can’t remember a time I did not write.

You started writing historical romance, and have moved to a sort of fantasy-romance hybrid.  Do you think you’ll ever abandon the romance completely?  If not, what draws you so strongly to writing romance?

Like a lot of people, I like happy endings. It’s that simple. I can appreciate the literary sting of a bittersweet tale, or even just a flat-out bitter one, and frankly I think I weave a lot of that bittersweet into my own stories. It makes them richer. But real life has enough melancholy. I want my characters to end well, to be fulfilled. I want them to love, and love forever, because I believe in that.

And I think it’s not at all counterintuitive to apply that philosophy to a fantasy tale. I’m writing fantasy romance not because I don’t like “ordinary” romance, but because I’m having so much fun with the fantasy part.

I don’t truly know what my writing future holds in terms of genres. But that’s where I sit right now. 🙂

– originally published 7/20/2010

Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.