An interview with Karina Sumner Smith
Posted November 23, 2015on:
Karina Sumner-Smith is a fantasy author and freelance writer. She is the author of the Towers Trilogy from Talos Press: Radiant (2014), Defiant (2015) and Towers Fall (2015), which just hit bookstore shelves last week.
Prior to focusing on novel-length work, Karina published a range of fantasy, science fiction and horror short stories, including the Nebula Award nominated story “An End to All Things,” and the ultra short story “When the Zombies Win,” which appeared in Ellen Datlow’s The Best Horror of the Year, Vol 3.
Though she still thinks of Toronto as her home, Karina now lives in a small, lakefront community in rural Ontario, Canada, where she may be found lost in a book, dancing in the kitchen, or planning her next great adventure.
Karina was kind enough to chat with me a bit about the Towers trilogy, how plotting can sometimes be a plot-killer, her Sci-Fi filled youth, and her dance troupe.
Little Red Reviewer: The big idea in your Towers Trilogy is that magic is currency (you even wrote a Big Idea post at Scalzi’s Whatever!). How did you get the idea to develop a story around naturally occurring magic that is used as a currency of sorts? Once you got the idea, how did you develop the plot of the books around it?
Karina Sumner-Smith: It seems like the idea should come first, shouldn’t it? The idea that magic is currency—that magic is the driving life force of this entire society—is central to the novels, and shapes the two main characters’ lives in very different ways. Yet the idea actually stemmed from an entirely different source.
The Towers Trilogy began as a short story, “An End to All Things,” which garnered me a Nebula nomination back in 2007. I had an idea to write about a girl who can see ghosts; I sat down at my computer, and this world just opened up before me. The first scene of the short story is very similar to the opening scene in Radiant, and that’s where everything came from: the world, my entry to the story, the magical concepts, all of it. It’s all there in seed form in that tense exchange between a homeless girl, Xhea, negotiating with a distraught man who had a ghost tethered to the center of his chest.
The importance of magic-as-currency came to the fore, though, with a deeper understanding of that ghost, Shai, and why great powers were willing to go to such lengths to retrieve her, dead or alive. The idea, at its base level, is really looking at the idea of value in society, and how we decide the worth of a person. All of which makes it sound very constructed, as if this book was an intentional rant on the role of privilege in society. While that’s definitely a thematic core, the books themselves are about people: a homeless girl with no magic, living in the abandoned tunnels beneath the city; the ghost of a girl who generates magical fortunes unthinkingly; and what happens when they save each other. Xhea and Shai. Those two are where the plot came from, and (for me, at least) the source for all the book’s thematic resonances.
LRR: Towers Fall, the final book in the trilogy, is now available. Without giving us any spoilers, what was your favorite scene to write in Towers Fall? What scene was the most challenging to write?
KSS: My favorite scene and the most challenging scene are actually the same, and it comes near the end of the book. (Now I’m pondering what I can say without giving too many spoilers!) Endings are hard to do right—and an ending that doubles as the end of a trilogy, even more so.
Everything has been building to that point—plot, character, narrative tension—and the challenge, I think, is to do something that justifies the weight of words that have come before. Something that delivers both a narrative punch and an emotional release for the reader.
This scene was, the pivot point for the ending of the book and the trilogy, and I knew it. It was the absolute worst thing that could happen to both of my main characters, on both a physical and emotional level. So: difficult to write; emotionally wrenching, even traumatizing. And yet, it also led to a moment of perfect joy and catharsis—for me and for the characters. It’s a scene that’s the disaster and the promise of redemption in one.
I have cried writing before. As I finished this scene, I cried because I was happy.
LRR: Who is your favorite character in the Towers series?
KSS: Oh, easy: Xhea. These books exist because of Xhea, though she is (in so many ways) a difficult character. She’s wary of people, fiercely independent, defensive, and often speaks before she thinks—traits, all, that can make her less sympathetic to certain readers.
Yet I’ve never wanted to blunt her sharp edges. For all her sarcasm and the layered emotional defenses she’s built to protect herself from hurt, Xhea is also loyal, and brave, and will seemingly sacrifice anything—anything—for someone she loves. Which is why, now that Xhea’s story and emotional journey has become so inexplicably linked with Shai’s, I can’t imagine writing one without the other.
But isn’t it also cheating to say that I love my main characters? The character that I never expected to like—or to enjoy writing quite so much—is actually Daye, one of the pair of Lower City bounty hunters who appear in all three books. Daye is not expressive. She says very little.
And yet she became such a presence that sometimes I’d actually find myself laughing at her scenes, at the raise of her eyebrow, at her refusal to be moved. It was also delightful to write Daye from Shai’s point of view, because while Xhea understand this rough, loyal, slightly amoral woman, Shai finds her a total enigma. It was such fun creating that contrast in the way that the two people read (or fail to read) the exact same character.
LRR: Tell us a little about your writing methods. Are you a plotter or a pantser? Did you know how the Towers trilogy would end when you started writing the first book?
KSS: Pantser, all the way. Of course, in a fit of insanity, I decided that I had to try to do a “high level” outline of books two and three in the Towers Trilogy. At the time, I thought it made sense: I was on a tight deadline, I had to keep focused, and I had an editor and publisher wanting me to deliver books that matched what we’d discussed.
“I’ll just write out a few key plot points in advance,” I said to myself. “I’ll put them on post-it notes, so that I can move them around. That’s not really outlining, it’ll be fine.” Hah. I wish.
Those post-its are the reason that I had to throw away 60k of the first draft of Defiant, and why my original attempt at Towers Fall had to be discarded entirely and rewritten from scratch.
It’s not just that plotting in advance kills the story for me, it’s that it makes me fight the story and the characters. Even knowing that a post-it doesn’t mean that plot point is written in stone doesn’t help; I subconsciously try to force the book to go in that seemingly logical direction, even when it’s the totally wrong path. Every word becomes a battle. It’s awful.
Now, after accidentally destroying and near-destroying multiple books, I finally understand: don’t plot books; I build a world. Which is why I both knew where the story was headed, and didn’t know anything at all.
Radiant was intended to be a standalone novel. After all, it was based on a short story; how big could the story really be? (Again: hah.) When I started the book, I knew some core things about the world and how the magic worked, and some of the secret things that were happening in the background. Yet by the time I reached the end of the emotional arc of the story, I’d barely scratched the surface of that worldbuilding. I hadn’t explained it all! There were so many things still to be discovered! So I kept writing. It took me three full books to get to the end of those “core things about the world” that I knew from the beginning—and, along the way, other things changed wildly. Writing is often about discovery, and some of the big moments along the way were revelatory for me, too. (Which is a nice way of saying that some things literally made me gasp and swear and pace the house muttering, “No, no, if that’s true, then … no!”)
LRR: How did you first get hooked on science fiction? Did you know SciFi was something you’d write one day?
KSS: I was lucky enough to be raised by two nerdy book lovers. I was always surrounded by rooms full of books, and my parents read me stories every night throughout my childhood. And, like them, while I was interested in reading everything, books about magic and dragons, space ships and aliens and adventures were always the very best.
I decided that I wanted to be a SF writer when I was thirteen. I remember finding ads in the back of Popular Science magazine saying things like, “Publish your book!” They were, of course, ads for vanity presses, but I didn’t know that at the time. It just made me realize that publishing a book was possible—and that if I wrote a book, then maybe I could get it published. It was a revelation: I, too, could be a real, published author. At fifteen, I switched to writing short fiction and sending it out for publication (following the oft-repeated advice at the time to build a name in short fiction first), and made my first short fiction sale four years later.
If you had told thirteen-year-old me that I’d work and write for years, but not sell a novel until I was in my thirties, I’d have been shocked and appalled. But, even now, after working on my craft for so many years, and with book number three heading out in the world, I still feel like I’m at the beginning of my writing journey. It’s a long road, and really, there is no end destination. Just more books and stories and the joy one can find along the way.
LRR: Now that the Towers trilogy is wrapped up, what’s next for you?
KSS: Adventure! The great unknown!
Truly, I’m still figuring that out. I’m writing, of course; my current project is a standalone fantasy novel set in a modern city where belief and will can change reality—often to disastrous consequences. But I also have other projects cueing up in my brain for attention: a secondary world YA; a historically inspired epic fantasy about a secret war, incense, and mind control; and a quirky SF project that I think of as Master and Commander meets Pacific Rim.
LRR: You did a great interview over at SFFWorld where you briefly mention a dance troupe you are part of. Can you tell us a little more about your love of dancing and the ATS troupe you are part of?
KSS: Thank you! I sort of fell into dancing when I was in my twenties, living in Toronto. Some friends and I decided we spent too much of our days sitting in office chairs and that we needed some sort of non-gym exercise, like fighting with swords or a dance class. A local studio offered a free introductory dance class, and … well, the rest was history. At the time, I had an exhausting day job that devoured my life (and energy, and motivation), and yet for the hour a week when I went to dance class, all that just disappeared. I didn’t think about stress or deadlines or my exhaustion; I just laughed and listened to the music and moved.
Which isn’t to say that I was good. On the contrary, I was awful: uncoordinated, struggling to overcome damage from an old knee injury, and clumsy. I fell over in class more than once; sometimes I fell over from laughing. But it was such a wonderful escape that I kept going, increasing to two classes a week and then sometimes three—and suddenly, after a full year, my body seemed to realize, “Oh! We’re dancing.” It all clicked.
Where I really fell in love with dancing, though, was when I switched to ATS. ATS is a created dance form that brings together elements from a variety of world dance styles, including Flamenco, Raqs sharqi (traditional Egyptian belly dance), East Indian dance, and more. (As you can imagine, we also have some pretty serious, fraught, in-depth conversations about cultural appropriation in dance and costuming—though that could fill an essay in itself.) What made it a particularly compelling style, though, is that it’s a group dance and entirely improvised. Always.
So you have two to four dancers, all trained in the same vocabulary of movement, who send each other cues as they dance, allowing every movement to be synchronized as if it’s been choreographed. More advanced ATS involves complicated cross-over movements, changes in formations, back-and-forth play between duets, level changes, and more.
when it all works, it’s this perfect moment of connection between the dancers as a group, between movement and music, and with the audience. It’s glorious.
For a while, I performed regularly with my troupe, both at public shows and private events — we even travelled internationally. But when I left the city to focus on writing, I had to leave dance behind, too; there’s no real way to practice a group improvisational style when you’re on your own. I miss it, though.
LRR: Who are some of your favorite authors? Why are they your favorites?
KSS: Oh, goodness, there are so many.
Michelle Sagara/Michelle West, because though our writing is very different, there are similarities in her rhythms and her phrasings that speak directly to my writing brain. I fall into the cadences of her language without thought, and will happily stay there, immersed in her worlds, for as long as there are pages for me to keep turning.
Robin McKinley, for writing the books that my heart needs when everything is cold and dark and bleak. I re-read Sunshine most years in February (oh, how I hate February), and The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown when life seems overwhelming.
Julie E. Czerneda for her amazing alien races, for her bold and interesting take on science fictional adventure, and for her characters who come to feel like old, close friends. Sean Stewart, for the vivid sharpness of his writing and his characters, and who I dearly wish would write just one more novel. Guy Gavriel Kay for the richness of his historically inspired fantasies, the depth of his worlds and the poetry of his language. Naomi Novik, because—well, did you read Uprooted?!
Let’s just say my house is mostly books, and it’s the books that make the rooms and halls of even unfamiliar places feel like home.
LRR: Thanks Karina!