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Interview with Author Bishop O’Connell

Bishop O’Connell is the author of the American Faerie Tale series, published by HarperVoyager. The fourth book, The Returned, released last week on July 12th.

Photo of Bishop O'ConnellThanks for joining us at Legendarium, Bishop. Let me start with: how long have you been writing? How did you get into it?

The credit for me being writer goes to my mother. She grew tired of how restless I was in the womb so she swallowed a portable typewriter and told me to start earning my keep. When I was born, aside from the after birth, there were also several short stories and a novel. The doctor stole them and I’ve been fighting for my royalties since.
Or, I might’ve started writing short stories in kindergarten. Simple, two and three page stories that were probably terrible rip offs of whatever cartoon/Disney movie/children’s book I’d recently encountered. The teacher was very supportive though and she often read them at story time. This brought me my first taste of adulation in the form of other students being impressed and adoring my stories. And my first taste of brutal criticism in the form of having my lunch money taken by the kids who were less than impressed. It’s retrospect, that was an excellent primer for the literary world. Assuming that’s the true story.

Assuming. So, who are some of your favorite authors and influences?

I count the usual suspects in my favorites list: Tolkien, Pratchett, Piers Anthony, Terry Brooks, and the like. I really enjoy Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series, and his inspiration is pretty clear, though I think less so as the series progresses and I find my own voice. I also really like John Scalzi, Richard Kadrey, Seanán McGuire, and Mary Kowal.
Naturally those authors all influence me to some degree, some more than others, as does just about every book I’ve read and enjoyed. Overall though, I’d say Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig has had the biggest impact on me in my life and writing. I majored in philosophy in college, in no small part because of that book. It taught me to think critically, to analyze the world around, and see things in new ways. Additionally, it holds the world record for bestselling book rejected by the most publishers, 121. That tidbit kept me going when my road to publication got rough.

You’re not the first person to tell me Pirsig’s book changed their life. On to your own work: your stories are based on centuries old tales about faeries. What inspired you to bring these tales into a modern day setting?

I love mythology, folklore, faerie tales, and the like. I always have. I remember when the first Dungeons and Dragons rule book I really got excited about was Legends and Lore. It was like a Wikipedia of the day for me! It had just enough to tantalize and send me digging to learn the whole story and history of all the different myths and legends. Faerie stories were always of interest to me as well, especially Irish/Celtic stories. I was the D&D player who could be counted on to play an elf (usually with red hair), and also bitch the loudest because they couldn’t be bards. I mean, seriously? WTF TSR? Sorry, I’m totally over it now…. Anyhoo, as I grew older and discovered urban fantasy books, as well as the game Shadow Run, I saw that magic and myth didn’t have to exist in the traditional fantasy setting. My childhood was also less than nice (and I’ll leave it at that) and urban fantasy was an especially effective form of escape. It was so close to this world, it was almost like the stories could be true. When the time came and I started taking writing seriously, I knew I wanted to bring the old stories into the modern age, for a modern audience. I wanted to give the reader not only an escape, but one that felt both familiar and exotic at the same time.

What kind of research is involved in telling stories like this?

I drink a lot.

Naturally.

Actually I spend a lot of time learning about the mythical creatures from various cultures. In some cases it’s so I can take the idea into a new direction, in other cases it’s so I can treat that culture with the respect it deserves and maybe hasn’t gotten over the years. A lot of the Celtic stories and creatures I’ve used as a springboard to tweak and adjust to my own. They are familiar enough to welcoming, but different enough to be interesting. For The Forgotten and The Returned I used Lakota (Native American), Haitian, Cajun, and Creole influences. People of color and their cultures aren’t always treated well, so I wanted to make sure I did treat them respectfully, and didn’t just make them into shiny props. Of course Wikipedia is a good starting point, but I never use it as my final source. I’ve worked with Universities (Oglala Lakota Tribal College, Oxford, Tulane) and other experts in various areas to ensure I get it right, a rather nice conversation with a County Coroner. It’s amazing what the phrase “I’m a writer” will get you with people.

Are there any particular challenges – or perhaps, opportunities – in bringing stories from the “Old World” into an American setting?

The most obvious challenge is dealing with the biases held by the people at the time. Racism, bigotry, sexism, anti-Semitism, and every other kind of prejudice can be found in old stories. Irish culture isn’t too bad sexism wise; there are plenty of stories about warrior women and wise queens, and a lot of Native American tribes have very progressive and inclusive stories, but there are a lot of stories filled with bad stereotypes. Some would argue that keeping those is part of historical accuracy, but I’m a fantasy writer and I want everyone who picks up my books to feel welcome and represented well. There is also adjusting the context of those old stories. They were intended for an audience that lived hundreds of years ago, or more. Life was very different then, as were the cultures. Things the author could freely assume the reader would understand are mystifying to modern audiences, and vice versa. But like the biases, therein lies the opportunity. If you dig past the superficial and find the heart of the story, you can then wrap it in modern context and make it relatable to people who’ve never seen a cassette tape, much less wandered through a dark forest on a journey from one small village to another.

Well said. In your world, the general population is unaware of the secret world of the fae. How do you pull off managing to present that world as secret and mysterious, and yet at the same time so deep and immersive?

I’m not sure the two are mutually exclusive. I’m lucky in that my world is the one we all know, so I can wrap my mythology in the familiar. It’s easier to draw people in when they recognize so much. From there, I do a lot of “hiding in plain sight,” meaning that I can give explanations that suspend disbelief long enough to pull the reader in. I’m also a visual writer, meaning I see the scenes in my head like a movie and transcribe what I see. I’m honestly not sure how common this is with writers, but it’s what allows me to make things especially vivid. It’s a talent for sure, but also a skill in that it’s something that I’ve had to work at. A big key is giving the readers enough to start and let them fill in the blanks. If you give them enough, they will run with it and think you gave them a lot more than you did. And of course there is the fact that I’m just super awesomely awesome.

It definitely helps. I can’t help but notice that the world of the fae is featured in a number of present-day television shows, such as Grimm and Lost Girl. How do you feel about what TV does for the popularity of the genre? Is there anything TV is doing particularly well, or falling short at?

I love that the fae are finding a place in pop culture! For a long time, the only decent movies and TV shows were science fiction. Until the Lord of the Rings movies, the fantasy movie offerings were usually mediocre at best, and not many were the best. I think Lost Girl gives an interesting twist to the fae. I really like Grimm, no surprise, for how they use the old stories and legends. They also have the added benefit of working under the premise that the mortal/mundane world is clueless of the “reality” all around them. I’m not entirely thrilled with how Grimm works the whole woge thing; when a creature changes to their supernatural appearance. I have a hard time understanding where the fur, teeth, scales, etc go when in human form. The show doesn’t really do “magic” except in rare occasions so they can’t even really fall back on “because, magic” explanation. I’ve gotten to where I can ignore it for the most part, but I don’t like leaving obvious questions unanswered. With just a little effort I think they could make it a little more believable, but they don’t. I’m also a fan of Ever After, especially because of how they do use magic. However, I think in that series they sort of get off easy by having it all limited to a geographic region. Seems like an easy out to me. Though I admit I’m a couple seasons behind so maybe they’ve resolved it.

The four books in the American Faerie Tale series are all in the same setting, but they are all standalone stories. Give us a quick idea of the gist of each.

The ReturnedThe Stolen is an introduction to the world. Caitlin, one of the main characters, is a single mother who thinks (like everyone else) that faeries only exist in children’s stories and Disney movies. Right up until they accost her in a dark alley and then kidnap her daughter, Fiona. Since you can’t tell the cops that faeries took your daughter without being sent away to a place with padded walls, she has to get Fiona back herself. This is when she learns that not only are faeries real, but they’ve been living alongside us for countless centuries and evolving with us. Now they drive sports cars, use cell phones and machine guns, own nightclubs, and have stock portfolios.

The Forgotten follows Wraith, a homeless teen girl who uses magic through her understanding of math and quantum mechanics. She has large gaps in her memories and often doesn’t know what’s real or not. However, other street kids, mostly changelings (half fae, half mortal) are being snatched off the street and sometimes turning up dead. But people don’t tend to notice when those from the bottom rung of society go missing, so she is left to figure out what’s happening. Where The Stolen shows the fae world from the side of nobles and the “haves,” The Forgotten shows it from the view of the “have-nots.”

Three Promises is a collection of short stories. Each focuses on a character, or pair of characters, and gives some insight into who they are, outside of the bigger stories (novels). It’s really character focused rather than plot focused.

The Returned follows Caitlin and Edward on their honeymoon to New Orleans. Because it’s outside the area controlled by the fae, Wraith is sent in to keep an eye on them. However, the world has more supernatural creatures in it besides just the fae. Edward, Caitlin, and Wraith encounter members of the “First House” who hold dominion in Louisiana, and discover that their world of magic and fae isn’t quite as hidden as they thought. All this while “something” is bringing back the dead and sending them on missions of violence. You know, just the kind of honeymoon everyone dreams of.

Obviously, you’re hard at work with this series. Anything else in the works that you want to tell us about?

The first novel I ever wrote is the first in a trilogy. I’m currently rewriting it for both quality (dear lord have I improved as a writer since then!) and also to connect it to my American Faerie Tale universe. In the end it will be a side series, giving the readers some deeper understanding and history. Additionally, I have a literary fiction novel that’s written, but needs to be edited, and just because I hate being bored, I have a fantasy-western short story I want to make into a novel, possibly a whole series.

A book deal is a big goal for a writer, but once one becomes published, they often find themselves at the beginning of the journey, not the end. With the publication of the fourth book in your series this week, what’s your next Big Hairy Audacious Goal?

TOTAL WORLD DOMINATION! MUAHAHAHAHA
Um, let’s just ignore that (for now). My next BHA (I’m stealing that acronym) goal is to make a comfortable living at my writing, enough to where I can quit my day job. I’d also love to come across a book of mine in the wild, as in finding someone reading it. That would sort of define “awesome.”

I went camping a few weeks ago, deep in the Mount Hood National Forest in Oregon. Everything was green, and the campsites were isolated, surrounded by thick swaths of trees, bordered by a bubbling brook. In the middle of the night, I was awoken by a sound and/or the complaints of my bladder. I laid still, listening, but the din of white noise from the stream’s constant rush was all I could hear. The flow of water also intensified the aforementioned complaint, so I grabbed a battery-powered lantern – keeping it off, as not to disturb my sleeping wife – and climbed out of the tent.

It was dark; the deep kind of darkness that only the forest can achieve. And yet my eyes could perceive dim shapes. It was then that I noticed, about a dozen paces from the tent, a figure.

It was a man, though only about two-thirds the size of a normal-sized person. He had a hat and a beard, and seemed to be clothed, though it was too dark to really tell. He looked at me, frozen, as though startled by my presence as much as I by his. I got the sense that he’d been watching the tent for some time.

Shaking, I flicked on the lantern. Before me stood a mossy, narrow tree stump, maybe nine inches in diameters and cut off at about four feet. Thereafter, so it remained.

Tell me, Bishop, expert on fae folk and their ways: what did I encounter? What did he want? Are there any measures I need to take?

There are a few possibilities. It could’ve been a pùca (they can shapeshift) which while not precisely friendly, aren’t often malicious. In fact, I hope you hurried back to your wife, and that she didn’t talk about a passionate quicky you didn’t remember having. It could’ve been a pixie messing with you, or protecting his/her territory. Lastly, it could’ve been a leprechaun (don’t get excited about gold!) who was spying on you to get some information it could trade. I wouldn’t be worried unless there are gaps in your memory, or the aforementioned one-sided tryst.
Or you were drunk an imagined the whole thing.

Gaps in my … what were we talking about? Well, anyway, I guess I’m out of questions. Thanks for joining us today, Bishop!

Where to find The Returned:

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About Jason LaPier

Jason W. LaPier is a multi-genre writer, delving into science fiction, speculative fiction, horror, slipstream, literary fiction, and surrealism. He is the author of noir space operas UNEXPECTED RAIN and UNCLEAR SKIES, the first two books of The Dome Trilogy.