For today’s interview, I’d like you all to welcome Jonathan Pembroke, a SPFBO 2017 Finalist! He was a pleasure to interview.
STARTING OFF WITH A BANG
Introduce yourself! An easy question to start off with. Who are you, what do you write?
Hi, Michael, and thanks for having me. Well, about me…. I’m a 40-something living in the high desert of the American Southwest. Our son is grown and out of the house, and blessed us with an adorable granddaughter. So now it’s just me and the wife and a bunch of lazy dogs. I’m retired from the US military and was a meteorologist in a former life.
I’ve been writing off and on since I was a kid, and steadily for the last fifteen years or so. As to what I write…well, it’s odd fantasy. I think it’s hard to toss my books into a specific genre, which is good and bad. Good to be a little unique, but also harder to market. I used to write a lot of short stories but I’ve kind of gotten away from that. For the past few years, it’s been novels, which I’ve really come to enjoy. I also write contemporary romance, though under an androgynous pen name.
Is this your first time in SPFBO?
Second. I entered SPFBO 3 in 2017 with my first self-published book, Pilgrimage to Skara. I was lucky enough to have Booknest (and they’re still judging away today!) select me as their finalist, though results in the finals were mixed. So I know the drill with the contest. It’s a great experience. I have no expectations about how my current entry will be received. I just love the networking and the community. I’ve met so many folks, including several I now consider to be legitimate friends, and the whole process is a ton of fun. I hope everyone that enters take advantage of getting to know people and learning as much as they can.
What book did you enter into this year’s event?
This year’s entry is Rumble in Woodhollow, the first book in The Holly Sisters trilogy. The story concerns two sisters: Sydney (the protagonist and POV character) and her older sister Marla, who are faeries from the Holly Clan—one of nine tribes of faeries (differentiated by wing markings) in the faery homeland of Sylvan Valley. Years earlier, Marla left Sylvan Valley to seek her fortune. Sydney stayed behind and worked in her aunt’s shop, getting progressively more bored with her life. When Marla asks Sydney to join her in the crime-ridden industrial slum of Woodhollow, Sydney leaps at the chance, only to find Marla running a street gang and competing with other criminals for control of the crime in the city. Almost immediately, Sydney gets entangled in the gang’s dealings and…well, more stuff happens.
I published Rumble in Oct 2019. The sequel, The Mauler, cleared beta reads and should be out in August. I’m aiming for the series finale for Feb-Mar 2021.
Does one of the main characters hold a special place in your heart? If so, why?
Yeah, I really like Sydney. She’s intelligent but a naive, quick-thinking but clumsy, and physically-attractive but riddled with self-doubt. Guiding her progress and growth over the course of the series has been one of the best parts of writing it.
There’s also Vivian, one of the other faery gang members. She’s a complete ditz on the surface but has a bit more going on underneath. She was fun to write.
What was the inspiration for the story?
Definitely took inspiration for this from the film Gangs of NewYork, and readers familiar with that film will notice some strong parallels to the themes. At the same time, I wanted to write a story with no humans in it and then tinker with the races a little. Woodhollow is a melting pot of faeries, dwarves, gnomes, elves, dryads, brownies, and other races but they’re not quite sterotypes. Faeries are human-sized and can fly but they’re sarcastic hedonists. The dwarves are venture capitalists but lousy smiths and forgers. Elves are long-lived and pointy-earred but are militaristic rednecks. That kind of thing. Having that background setting played right into the gang theme.
What are the key themes and/or messages in the book?
It’s about Sydney finding her place in the world and figuring out who she is, where she belongs, and what’s important to her. Or, if I could quote the character Dwight from the comic Sin City, “It’s time to prove to you’re friends that you’re worth a damn. Sometimes that means dying. Sometimes it means killing a whole lot of people.” That’s kind of where Sydney has to go.
What were the key challenges you faced when writing this book?
Keeping details straight. For the first time, I had so many characters, I had to start doing character blurbs so I didn’t get eye colors or faery Clan affiliations mixed up.
What is the future for the characters? Will there be a sequel?
This story arc will wrap with the third volume and sadly it will be the end of the line for some characters. I have another trilogy roughed out for Sydney and one companion, including her leaving the “known world” around Woodhollow and venturing into some areas populated by mythical races based on Middle-Eastern and Indian mythology. I have a few spin-off one-shots planned for some of the other characters who suvive.
MORE RAMBLES ABOUT WRITING
What is your favorite book you’ve written?
Oh, definitely Rumble, this year’s entry. I still feel like I am growing and improving as an author and this one has been my best full effort so far.
Who are your favorite authors?
“Favorite” is a tough one. For “influential,” I would have to say Stephen King and Michael Moorcock—the former for, if nothing else, his skill at a turn of phrase and his sheer productivity is inspiring. The latter because I love his worlds and angst-ridden characters. I read Elric back in the 80s as a teenager and it was my first exposure to that type of not-everything-ends-well story.
What makes a good villain?
Relatability. You don’t have to empathize with the villain or their goals but flashes of feelings or moments where they aren’t massively evil serves to humanize them, which I think makes them more frightening. One of the most (simultaneously) terrifying and fascinating things to me about Adolf Hitler is that he was personally kind to animals and (reputedly) against animal abuse. The sheer mental gymnastics involved there are staggering, and frightening.
So seeing Mistborn’s Lord Ruler express angst over the atrocities he feels forced to commit, or a genocidal maniac like Thanos in obvious pain over losing his daughter…these types of things humanize our bad guys. And if they’re more human than you thought, then they’re not as different from us as we like to think. And that’s scary.
Do you have any writer friends you’d like to give a shoutout to?
Just to everyone in this year’s SPFBO: good luck and hang in there!
Did you learn anything from writing your latest book? If so, what was it?
Yes, I am not as much of a pantser as I thought I was. And with a larger cast, I start blurring together details. With Pilgrimage to Skara, my first draft I pretty much winged it. It had a more limited cast, I knew how I wanted to begin, how I wanted to end, and I bled some extra details in as I went. The second draft smoothed those out and helped integrate everything. With Rumble in Woodhollow, I tried it and the first draft was an incoherent mess. Too many loose threads, too many characters vanished, too many holes. I had to start sketching out some waypoints between beginning and end. When I started writing The Mauler (Rumble’s sequel) I planned out the major milestones from the beginning.
If you had to give up both snacks and drinks during writing sessions, or music, which would you find more difficult to say goodbye to?
Coffee when writing is crucial around here. I can write in utter silence.
Which is your favourite season to write in, and why?
Winter, for sure. I’ve always got stuff to do outside in the other seasons, which takes away from writing and reading time.
What is your writing process? Do you have one? What is your workspace like?
Really, just me an my laptop, wherever that is.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
For my fantasy books, I usually start with a character. In the case of Rumble in Woodhollow, I had this snarky but lacking in self-confidence young woman in mind. I wanted to put her through the wringer and see if she could come out better on the other side. While I was doing this, I stumbled on an old short story I wrote inspired by Gangs of New York as I detailed earlier, and I melded the two ideas. (That short story was about the final battle between the gangs, the framework of which is largely unchanged in the book). For Pilgimage to Skara, I started with the character of a grizzled veteran, hung up on a past love and refusing to move forward. I started thinking about what catalyst would cause him to grow or fade and the plot developed from there.
Ironically, with my romance, I typically find inspiration by hearing something on the radio or see a stray news story. I start with the plot and go from there.
How many plot ideas are just waiting to be written? Can you tell us about one?
Oodles. Tons. I have more ideas and concepts than I have time to realize them. I had drawn up an entire concept about a common soldier, who is drafted into war after a series of world-shattering calamaties and times are desperate. He returns home after the fighting (ie, after one side destroys itself and the soldier’s side by accident) only to find his home ravaged and his wife and daughters missing. There’s an overarching story about harnessing the four elements but the core was to be about one person’s search for their family, in a world where nobility and wealth reign supreme and they have neither.
Do you have any new series planned?
Well, after I finish this series, I decided to write a sequel to Pilgrimage to Skara. I haven’t fleshed out all the details yet, though it is going to jump forward in time ten years and switch POV from the previous protagonist to a new one.
I’m also getting ready to start a separate trilogy, about a middle-aged woman with a hard past who is a part of a specialized military force guarding civilization from the threats from a permadark, corrupted fragment of the world. The tone of Holly Sisters is cynical but still basically upbeat. This new series is going the other direction. I’m really looking forward to working on this one.
MORE ABOUT YOU
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Work in my gardens when I can. Many folks that have never been to Arizona in the southerwestern US think of cactus and rattlesnakes and we do have that stuff…down south. I live in the northern part of the state, where it is more pine forest and the winters are quite cold, frequently getting below 0F/-18C in the winter. So the growing season is limited to May-Oct.
Other than that I write a lot. I play some video games (RPGs mostly). I have also been tying to step up my fantasy reading for the last year, especially indy books.
If you couldn’t be an author, what ideal job would you like to do?
Frankly, anything where I didn’t have to talk to people. I’m a natural introvert—not in the sense of being awkward or anti-social but I find extended interaction with others exhausting. I can do it for a while, it just wears me out and I spent 20+ years doing it as a weatherman, so I’ve had my fill.
Actually, I wanted to be a comic book artist for a long time but my natural drawing talent is abyssmal. Maybe I would try again.
Coffee or Tea? Or (exult deep breath) what other drink do you prefer, if you like neither?
Tea with meals. Coffee outside of meals.
What superpower would you most like?
Super speed. Get through my chores faster so I can get back to writing.
Share something your readers wouldn’t know about you.
When I was seventeen, I fell out of a moving car. When I was thirty-four, I was thrown from a horse. When I turn fifty-one, believe me, I am going to spend a whole year not getting on a plane or a boat.
It’s a very difficult time right now for the world. When quarantine and pandemic comes to an end, what is the first thing you would like to do?
Not much will change for us. While in the military, I traveled all over the world and got my fill of it. We’re kind of homebodies now and even before this, we’d go days without leaving the property. So maybe go for a local fish fry one Friday but that would be about it.
Finally, what is your preferred method to have readers get in touch with or follow you (i.e., website, personal blog, Facebook page, here on Goodreads, etc.) and link(s)?
Best way, honestly, is through Facebook, either by friending me or sending me a DM (link to me here). Goodreads works too (me there). I rarely check my Twitter and I don’t have Instagram or anything (I’m a social media neophyte). If someone really wants to reach out, they can email me at email@example.com.
Thanks for having me, Michael. Cheers!