Please welcome Karina Sumner-Smith to the blog! The first book of her Towers Trilogy, Radiant, will be out this month, and she stopped by to answer a few of my questions about it, and more!
Congrats on the new book (which is already getting great buzz)! Will you tell us a little more about Radiant, and what inspired you to write it?
Thank you! I’ve always had something of a challenge describing Radiant, as it sits between so many genres. I once told a curious acquaintance that I was writing a far-future post-apocalyptic urban fantasy about magic, ghosts, and economics, and memory of their bewildered expression still makes me laugh.
At its heart, I think Radiant is the story of two very different young women from opposing walks of life trying to understand and work with each other in order to survive. Everything sprang from what is now the novel’s first scene, in which a homeless girl, Xhea, takes possession of a ghost who insists that she’s not dead. I wrote a short story version of the tale, “An End to All Things,” and yet I knew there was so much more to the characters and the world. Because I don’t outline, each story is an act of discovery – and to find out what happened to either Xhea or Shai I had to keep writing.
Tell us more about Xhea, Shai, and the City. Why do you think readers will connect these very different girls? What did you enjoy most about writing their characters?
I think what I found most interesting about these characters are their contrasts. They’re from the total opposite ends of their society, and spend much of the book struggling to understand each other.
In the City, magic – a natural energy created by your body – is used for everything, most notably as money. Yet the amount of magic you generate is both an innate trait and a signifier of your worth. On the far end of the spectrum is Shai, a Radiant, a person who generates so much magic that she’s used as a power plant – or a money-generating machine – for her Tower. Shai has literally never wanted for anything; yet the flip side of so much power is that it’s killing her, even as various Towers fight to possess her at any cost. On the other side is Xhea, who has no bright magic at all. She’s so poor that she doesn’t even live in the ruins on the ground, but in the crumbling subway tunnels beneath the Lower City. And yet it’s the very things that make Xhea an outcast that also allow her to be Shai’s very unlikely protector.
I also just loved writing a story that is, at its heart, about a friendship between two young women. Friendship is often overlooked in favor of romantic ties, yet I think it can be such a powerful force in both fiction and our lives.
In books like Radiant, worldbuilding is very important. What are a few of your favorite literary “worlds”?
Of course, I read this and my brain immediately cried, “Pern!” Oh, nostalgia. Anne McCaffrey’s world was a true escape for me for many years, and I think will always be among my favorites. More recently, I read N.K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon, and the worldbuilding there really made me sit up and take notice. Layered and complex, with a truly interesting magic system.
Imagining new and different worlds, cultures, and magical systems are very much a part of why I feel so drawn to fantasy, as both a reader and a writer. Even if a story builds on a real-world location, culture, or history, it’s fascinating to see the cascading impacts of the fantastic element on the workings of that world and the people that live within it.
Radiant is part of a planned trilogy with the other two books, Defiant, and Towers Fall, coming in 2015. When you started to write the series, did you already know that it would only be three?
Honestly, when I started, I thought I was writing a short standalone novel. (Oops.) When I finished the draft, I was happy with where the story had gone – but there was so much that I knew about the characters, world, and magic system that just didn’t fit into this book. Though the story is much bigger than I first thought, it’s definitely a contained entity. While I love sprawling fantasy series, this isn’t going to be one of them!
What is your writing process like? Is there anything you need to do to get you in a creative mood?
I’m an organic writer. While I do a lot of work to understand the world and the characters before I start writing, I don’t have a set outline. Story, to me, is something that comes from the interactions of the characters within the world – and while I try my best to anticipate what will happen, I’m often totally wrong. (For example, the endings of both Radiant and the recently finished sequel, Defiant, took me totally by surprise – which is a fun and very odd feeling as a creator.) The story seems to have much better ideas than I do.
In terms of day-to-day process, it’s a whole lot of forcing myself to sit at the computer and keep typing, always hoping for those moments that the words suddenly spark and come alive. Entering that writing flow state – the mental place where the real world falls away and words flow like water – is, for me, very much about tone and rhythm. It’s entirely possible for me to sit down and write out a scene in which all the right things happen, but which sounds and feels totally wrong. (This, invariably, is what happens when I attempt to write to an outline: thousands upon thousands of words that should be right, and yet lie on the page like so many wilted leaves, limp and uninteresting.)
It helps to re-read earlier pages aloud to kick-start my brain into the right tonal grove. Foolishly, this is also something of which I need to remind myself on a regular basis: “Read it aloud, Karina; no, seriously, do it. Listen to the words. Stop reading Twitter.” And if that’s not working, I sometimes read aloud a page or two of another author’s work that reflects the tone or mood I’m aiming for in an attempt to spark that inspiration.
Tea is also a mandatory part of the writing process. I’m an unrepentant tea addict, and always have a cup beside me.
You’ve already got a Nebula nomination under your belt, but have you always wanted to write? Will you tell us more about yourself and your background?
I wanted to write since I was thirteen, and it was something that I always took very seriously. I started working towards publication when I was fifteen, and amassed a huge pile of rejection letters – and then, slowly, some short fiction sales. I attended the Clarion Writers’ Workshop in 2001, which really accelerated my learning process.
Then I got a day job as a business proposal writer. It was something that I became very good at very quickly, and loathed with an unholy passion. But you have to pay the bills somehow, right? Or so I kept telling myself. Unfortunately, I discovered the hard way that it just wasn’t possible for me to spend eight (or, more realistically, ten or twelve) hours a day writing in a high-stress, deadline-focused job and have absolutely any creative energy left for fiction. This lesson took about eight years to drill its way into my stubborn head.
You know how everyone says, “Don’t quit your day job”? I’m so glad I didn’t listen. A little over a year ago, I quit to go freelance (and write novels, of course!). My husband and I left our home and friends in Toronto and now live very cheaply and simply out in rural Ontario by Lake Huron.
What’s one of the first things you remember writing?
Would you believe that I once wrote a short story called “The Telepathic Goldfish”? It was not a humorous story – at least not intentionally so – but rather about how the titular fish attempts to save a woman from murder charges after a complex corporate espionage plan goes horribly awry. Of course, at the time I knew as much about working in an office, dealing with corporate politics and white-collar crime as I did about goldfish – which is to say, nothing at all. Shockingly, it was never published.
What are a few of your favorite authors or books?
I’ve loved Octavia Butler since I first read Wild Seed in my teens. For years I read and re-read her work and studied her prose, trying to understand how she made such simple words resonate so powerfully. I actually have her recently released short fiction collection, Unexpected Stories, waiting on my Kobo – and keep not reading it, because the moment I finish I’ll never again get to read a new Octavia Butler story.
Guy Gavriel Kay is a favorite for the depth and richness of his work. Many of his novels would be historical were they not set in a world not quite our own, yet they feel magical to me. I rarely cry when I read, but Guy Kay’s work has reduced me to sobs.
For comfort reads, my hands-down favorite is Robin McKinley. When winter’s at its worst, and I’m at my coldest and most ill-tempered, I always re-read Sunshine, The Blue Sword, and The Hero and the Crown.
What are you currently reading?
I’m getting a new puppy in a few weeks, so my reading list is currently stacked high with dog training books. For fiction, right now I find myself reaching for fast-paced, fun fantasy novels. I’ve just started reading Cursed Moon, the second in Jaye Wells’ great new urban fantasy series, and have Seanan McGuire’s Sparrow Hill Road waiting on my bedside table.
What was one of your favorite books as a child?
I was the child who never, ever tired of Goodnight Moon.
What’s next for you?
After I finish the Towers Trilogy, my next project is a surreal contemporary fantasy, set in a city trapped out of time. It’s a standalone – no, seriously this time! – and a story that I’m just loving writing. I also hope to make a dent on the towering stack that is my to-read pile.
Xhea has no magic. Born without the power that everyone else takes for granted, Xhea is an outcast—no way to earn a living, buy food, or change the life that fate has dealt her. Yet she has a unique talent: the ability to see ghosts and the tethers that bind them to the living world, which she uses to scratch out a bare existence in the ruins beneath the City’s floating Towers.
When a rich City man comes to her with a young woman’s ghost tethered to his chest, Xhea has no idea that this ghost will change everything. The ghost, Shai, is a Radiant, a rare person who generates so much power that the Towers use it to fuel their magic, heedless of the pain such use causes. Shai’s home Tower is desperate to get the ghost back and force her into a body—any body—so that it can regain its position, while the Tower’s rivals seek the ghost to use her magic for their own ends. Caught between a multitude of enemies and desperate to save Shai, Xhea thinks herself powerless—until a strange magic wakes within her. Magic dark and slow, like rising smoke, like seeping oil. A magic whose very touch brings death.