Please welcome Ilana C. Myer to the blog! Her new book, Last Song Before Night, just came out last night, and she kindly answered a few of my questions about it, and more!
Will you tell us a bit about Last Song Before Night and what inspired you to write it?
I’ve known my whole life that I wanted to write, and from a young age wrote continuously. It was when I hit adulthood that I began to understand that certain sacrifices would have to be made if I was to take writing seriously—financial sacrifices, of time, possibly of sanity! It meant not fitting in where I came from—a strict religious background—and not necessarily fitting in among my peers, either. My college roommates were studying sensible things like speech therapy and education, and had a more or less assured professional future.
When I encountered the idea of Poets in Celtic myth, saw that here was a mythology in which artists were placed at the center, I saw an opportunity to explore this difficult thing at the core of my life—this drive to create art.
What makes Kimbralin Amaristoth such a compelling character?
I suppose what I’ve said about feeling like an outsider is most relevant when it comes to Lin—she is the ultimate outsider, cut off at the roots, yet also barred from where she most needs to go. Yet I never saw Last Song Before Night as having a single protagonist. All the major characters—Darien, Rianna, Marlen, Ned—are essential in their own way. Twining together their stories was one of the central joys, and challenges, of the shaping of this book.
What other characters did you particularly enjoy writing?
I love them all, even the terrible characters, because I can’t help but see a glimmer of what’s human in even the worst of them. But if I have to choose, I adored writing Ned, discovering the layers to him. One of the most rewarding aspects of writing, for me, is being surprised by a character.
What kind of research did you do for the book, and what is your writing process like?
Over the years, as I was writing, I read many, many books. There are different kinds of research. There’s the kind where you read a lot of books, make notes on what might be important, and absorb what you can. And there’s the smaller things you have to look up, constantly, to make sure the details are right. For example, I wanted to introduce a coffeehouse into my book at one point, and this necessitated a dip into the history of coffee and coffeehouses just to make sure it wouldn’t be historically embarrassing. The Internet is wonderful in this regard.
But for the most part, books are the focus, and I try to read a lot of nonfiction, myth, and primary sources.
My writing process is best summed up by a quote from Margaret Atwood that I love, which she declaimed from onstage at an event. She compared writing a novel to using a torch to explore a cave—“It’s dark in there.” I could relate to this. I can’t work from an outline. I try to plan as much as I can in advance, but it’s usually no more than a sketch—and it changes. As I said, I like to be surprised.
You’ve wanted to write books for a long time and have journalism background. What’s one of the first things that you can remember writing?
In high school I wrote a novel, longhand, that I was going to try to get published. (In the cold light of early adulthood I abandoned this.) It was the first of a trilogy and was about a protagonist whose powers were innately evil and how this affected the people around her. It was going to open up in scope into the usual structure of a second book with a siege, a third book with many armies converging in a final battle, and so forth. I don’t think the idea was terrible. But my desire to write that kind of trilogy evaporated somewhere along the way.
Why fantasy? What do you enjoy most about reading, and writing, in the genre?
I want to explore the human experience all the way down deep, and I think few genres afford a writer this opportunity like fantasy. Tolkien’s work is far more psychologically complex than most give him credit for, Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea showcases a wild magic at the core of our experience of the world, and Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana explores themes of identity and memory in ways that are unique to the fantastic.
There are many other examples, too. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the origins of my love for fantasy, and will explore it further in an upcoming monthly column at Tor.com.
If you could experience one book again for the first time, which one would it be?
This is a great, and really hard question, because how do I pick just one? I’ll go with a book I read fairly recently for the first time, Mary Renault’s The King Must Die. I read that book with my mouth hanging open, simply awed by her astonishing language and myth-building. I’ve reread it since, but that first time had echoes of an experience that I thought was lost to me—the hours of astonishment that defined much of childhood reading, when everything was still new.
What are you currently reading?
I am currently between books. I just finished rereading The Beggar Maid by Alice Munro because I wanted to be immersed in mastery (it worked) and now I have Patricia McKillip’s collection Harrowing the Dragon and Catherynne Valente’s Radiance waiting on the nightstand. I’m very excited and may try reading both at once.
What’s next for you? Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I’m working on a sequel to Last Song Before Night, even though the book itself is a standalone. I was planning to leave it a standalone, until a trip to southern Spain derailed my plans. The next book will be set in the same world but introduces new elements—the vast, powerful kingdom across the mountain border, more magic, more political complexity. And of course, more heartbreak, because I can’t leave that alone.
About Last Song Before Night:
A high fantasy following a young woman’s defiance of her culture as she undertakes a dangerous quest to restore her world’s lost magic in Ilana C. Myer’s Last Song Before Night.
Her name was Kimbralin Amaristoth: sister to a cruel brother, daughter of a hateful family. But that name she has forsworn, and now she is simply Lin, a musician and lyricist of uncommon ability in a land where women are forbidden to answer such callings-a fugitive who must conceal her identity or risk imprisonment and even death.
On the eve of a great festival, Lin learns that an ancient scourge has returned to the land of Eivar, a pandemic both deadly and unnatural. Its resurgence brings with it the memory of an apocalypse that transformed half a continent. Long ago, magic was everywhere, rising from artistic expression-from song, from verse, from stories. But in Eivar, where poets once wove enchantments from their words and harps, the power was lost. Forbidden experiments in blood divination unleashed the plague that is remembered as the Red Death, killing thousands before it was stopped, and Eivar’s connection to the Otherworld from which all enchantment flowed, broken.
The Red Death’s return can mean only one thing: someone is spilling innocent blood in order to master dark magic. Now poets who thought only to gain fame for their songs face a challenge much greater: galvanized by Valanir Ocune, greatest Seer of the age, Lin and several others set out to reclaim their legacy and reopen the way to the Ot