Interviewing a Writer: Jessica Leake

by Gurpreet Sihat

Earlier this year, I discovered a new YA fantasy novel: Beyond A Darkened Shore by Jessica Leake. Despite the fact that it was 450 pages, I finished it within two days. To say I struggled to put it down is an understatement. I was in love from the very second I opened it and as I turned the last page, I found myself going into instant withdrawal, one which was only made worse when I learned it was a stand alone.

I found myself unable to review it, desperate instead to talk to the author, to beg her to write another novel that followed Ciara and Leif’s story. To give me more Celtic and Norse mythology. To make my heartbeat faster and faster with each and every chapter. My reading buddy, Ginny Cuthbert, took over the task of reviewing it for me, while I got in touch with Jessica. I’ve no doubt in my mind that she thought I was a crazy stalker at first, a mad woman that wanted to find a way to jack herself, Matrix style, into her brain so she could live with these characters for a little longer. She humoured me, and after I’d let go of hopes for a second novel with the same characters, we ended up getting on rather well. So much so, that she even agreed to indulge me in an interview!

So, rather than listening to me gush for three hours straight (a very easy thing to do, I assure you), though, here’s the moment you’ve been waiting for:

Almost everyone that sent in questions for you, Jessica, had this to ask, so I thought we’d get it out of the way first: When we spoke, you said that Ciara and Leif will appear in Through The White Wood, but are there going to be any more books with them as main protagonists?

I would love to write more books centeredaround Ciara and Leif! Unfortunately, it’s not up to me—it’s up to the publisher. But most of all, it’s up to the readers! If enough fans ask for a sequel, then hopefully my publisher will listen to your pleas J.

And what about mythology?

I absolutely adore mythology and folklore, so that’s always a possibility for future books J.

Right! Now those are out of the way… Before Beyond A Darkened Shore, which was your YA debut, you wrote Arcana and The Order of the Eternal Sun. What made you take that switch?

YA has always been my first love, but Arcana and Orderjust worked better as adult. I started working on Beyond—or at least early versions of it—soon after Order was finished. Beyondcould have been written as adult, but I really wanted to make it YA and show that coming-of-age aspect of Ciara’s life.

Were there any specific books or authors that inspired the change?

So many! Some of my favorites are Robin McKinley (basically everything she’s written), Leigh Bardugo (Shadow & Boneseries), Cassandra Clare (my favorite is probably the Clockworkseries), SJM (that’s a recent favorite), and Maggie Stiefvater (I adored Scorpio Races and The Raven Cycle).

Focussing mainly on Beyond A Darkened Shore andThrough The White Woodnow, what inspired your storylines?

For Beyond, I was definitely inspired by Celtic folklore and mythology, Norse folklore and mythology, and the show Vikings. Through was inspired by my love for Russian folklore, which started when I was really little and watched these super beautiful Soviet-era cartoons like The Magic Pony. Books that played a hand in its inspiration were also the Shadow & Bone series and The Bear and the Nightingale.

Before you were a writer, you were a psychotherapist. I’m really curious how that affects your writing – especially when you’re writing characters such as Ciara and Leif who have so much to hide when we first meet them.

The most useful aspect about being a psychotherapist and a writer is that I can use my counselling experience to figure out the psychological impact on a character for whatever sadistic situation I put them in. I thought about how Ciara would be impacted growing up as she did, being ostracized and feared, and yet still being forced to use her powers. Or Leif, who lost so much, and channelled his grief into a single-minded desire for vengeance.

With Marvel making Norse mythology a hot topic again, I have to ask, did you secretly see Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston whenever you mentioned Thor and Loki?

ABSOLUTELY. Maybe a little younger, but with all the swagger of Chris Hemsworth as Thor J.

Can you give an outline of what Through The White Wood is about?

I’ve been saying Throughis like The Bear and the Nightingale meets Frostblood. It has Russian folklore and elemental magic, all set in a snowy, early Russian setting (modern-day Kiev, which is actually part of the Ukraine now). It’s about a girl (Katya) with ice powers that have raged out of control, causing death and destruction in her home village. Because of this, she’s brought before the Grand Prince for sentencing. Instead of executing her, he offers her the chance to join his army of others with power against a powerful army that threatens to take over all of Kievan Rus’. But there’s so much Katya doesn’t know about herself and her powers, about the prince and his allies, and about the threat to her country and everything she loves. She’ll have to join forces with the prince and learn to harness her abilities if they hope to stand against the prince’s enemies. Only together can they defeat the powerful earth elementals, but they have to learn to trust each other first.

What’s your writing process? And has it differed between Through The White Wood and Beyond A Darkened Shore?

When I’m drafting, I work on a reward-based system, where I can only do fun things (like read or watch Netflix) if I meet my word count quota for the day. I’ve found that 1k is the best number for me to shoot for as it’s just enough for me to feel productive but not so much that I feel like my eyes are bleeding by the end of it J.

Have you got any pre-writing rituals?

Usually just finding a semi-quiet area of the house to write, trying to convince myself not to waste any precious writing time by looking up random stuff on the Internet, and finally, after about twenty minutes of mindless checking of my email and social media…writing.

What are your best procrastination techniques? I’m going to out on a limb and say it’s not cleaning the chicken coop…

I mean, sometimes…I really do go out there and clean the coop to procrastinate lol! The thing is, I have 4 kids, chickens, and dogs, so there’s always something I could do around the house or with them. I struggle with procrastinating for sure, especially when there legitimately is a lot of stuff I need to get done in a day.

What was your publishing journey like?

A little bit long and arduous, TBH. It took about a year to get my agent, and that was on my third queried manuscript. After that, it took almost a full year to sell my first book, Arcana, and that was after many rejections and a full rewrite. I can’t remember how long it took to sell Beyond, because I was pregnant at the time it was on submission, so I wasn’t paying attention (which was pure bliss…usually I check my email obsessively every few minutes when on sub). Publishing is so subjective, so you really have to get comfortable with criticism and rejection and want to be published bad enough to stick it out.

For every success, there is always an amount of rejection. How did you deal with it and stay motivated through the whole process?

I have pretty thick skin. I think maybe because I worked as a psychotherapist? Lol, you never knew what a client—especially someone going through a really tough time like in the hospital setting I worked in—will say. What helped is wading in slowly. I started with a super kind website like Scribophile. That taught me how to receive constructive criticism. But most of all, I just really cared about my characters and wanted their stories to be told.

Is there any piece of advice you were given when you first started writing that really helped?

I think critique partners and critique groups, even if they’re online only, are essential to a writer’s journey; receiving criticism on your own work, yes, but also learning to read over manuscripts with a critical eye can help in your own writing process.

What advice would you give to other writers attempting to publish their first novel?

Research helps tremendously: researching agents, researching query letters, researching genres and comp titles to your own, and just general research on the publishing world. Remember that a big part of it is luck: getting it to the right person at the right time. But most of all, good writing always shines.

What’s next for you, Jessica? Can we look forward to seeing a third book in this universe?

I would love that! It’s up to the fans (and the publisher), though!

∞ ∞ ∞

Onto a speed round (try not to think too much about these):

What book do you think everyone should read at least once and why?

The Chronicles of Narniabecause I think C.S. Lewis perfected the “hidden realm” fantasy J

If you could meet any author, living or dead, who would it be and why?

I agonized over this because there are SO MANY. Every time I go to some sort of bookish event, I get so excited about meeting other authors—fan-girling all over the place J. But I’m going to stick with my thought: Jane Austen. I’m just such a big lover of historical (even though it was contemporary fiction for her at the time haha), that it would be so much fun for me.

What’s your favourite book to film adaptation?

I’m going to cheat a little and sayPride and Prejudice even though the version I love isn’t the film—it’s the BBC 6 hour version with Colin Firth. Any time I was sick in high school (or college…or now haha) that was my go-to show to watch.

What’s your favourite myth?

Hades and Persephone

What’s your favourite opening line from a book?

I’m not sure it’s my favorite, but it’s an example of a really compelling line, and I love all her books:

“Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she’d been told that she would kill her true love.” –Raven Boys, Maggie Stiefvater (because she’s the queen of opening lines)

Who’s your literary character crush?

Most recently: Rhysand because I’m a sucker for a misunderstood bad guy with a secret heart of gold

Always: Mr. Darcy

Where’s your preferred reading spot?

In bed or on the couch—anywhere comfy

What book/s are you currently reading?

I just finished the Illuminae Files trilogy which I absolutely loved—the dialogue and plot twists were to die for—and now I’m reading Strange the Dreamer because I just keep hearing so much about it.

Jessica Leake is the author of ​Beyond a Darkened Shore​ and ​Through the White Wood f​rom HarperTeen and the adult novels ​Arcana​ ​and ​The Order of the Eternal Sun​. She worked for years as a psychotherapist, but even though she loved her clients, she couldn’t stop writing. She lives in South Carolina with her husband, four young children, lots of chickens, and two dogs who keep everyone in line.

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