A Few Quick Questions With…Sarah Chorn

So I just posted my thoughts about Seraphina’s Lament and now we get to hear from the author herself, Sarah Chorn. By the way, if you haven’t checked out her blog, Bookworm Blues, you should fix that. But before you do, read this. Chorn knocks it out of the park here.

I don’t know how to ask about Seraphina’s Lament short of handing you a dozen and a half spoiler-ific questions. And, boy howdy, do I have questions. Still, I hope you don’t mind if I don’t touch on the book too much – would you care to start things off with an elevator pitch?
I pretty much fail at elevator pitches. Here goes nothing. Seraphina’s Lament tells the story of a group of people trying to survive in spite of the fact that the world is dying, magic is changing, there’s widespread famine, and the government sucks. They are all tragically flawed and completely unready to face what is happening to them. Basically, I take a handful of the most unprepared, wrong-for-the-job people I could possibly dream up, and just push them and push them and push them until they break and then… things get interesting.
For what it’s worth, I think that’s a pretty good pitch.

While you talk on your site about a long-standing desire to be a writer, this is your first novel after years of reviewing and editing. Was it just a matter of coming up with the “right” story, or was there something that made you decide it was time for you to give it a shot? How do you think years of reviewing shaped your novel?

I think it’s a combination of a lot of things. First, I’ve written novels before, but they are all terrible. I mean, T-E-R-R-I-B-L-E. This isn’t really my first book, it’s just the first one I think is ready to see the light of day. The rest will live on eternally in some dark corner of my hard drive.

It was also a matter of coming up with the right story. All the elements were there, but it took me a really, really long time to figure out how they all worked together, and build the world (this took an absolutely insane amount of research) and characters. Once I had that all sorted, the book really just burst out of me.

I think editing and reviewing has been essential to my writing process. I’ve been reviewing for about ten years now, and editing for almost three. Editing and reviewing has taught me how stories are told, how sentences flow, how to use words, add details, build a world, keep a story moving and so much more. People talk a lot about how to write a novel, and I don’t think there is any one answer. We all do it differently. I can say, my book never would have been written, at least not the way it was, if it wasn’t for all that reading and picking-apart of books I’ve done over so many years. Knowing how words work, and how stories are shaped, was crucial to my writing.

I don’t want to ask “where do you get your ideas?” But combining a magic-filled fantasy world and a Stalin-esque character? How do you get to that? It’s brilliant, by the way, I can’t shut up about it.
Oh, I do so love my tortured Stalin-esque character. I had great fun writing him.

I do a weird thing when I can feel a story brewing in the back of my brain. I head to the library and check out just about every historical nonfiction book on the shelves that I haven’t read yet. About two years ago, this happened to be a bunch of books on Russia, the Romanov dynasty, Stalin, Lenin, and the Holodomor. Well, something in this mélange of books completely unlocked whatever was stewing in the back of my brain. Suddenly, these elements to this story I wanted to tell but couldn’t figure out just sorted themselves out.

Specifically, the Holodomor. It’s a tragic, horrible genocide that took place from 1932-1933 in Ukraine that I knew literally nothing about until I started reading books about it. In the process of reading these books, I came to the idea that sometimes events are so big, so powerful, so dramatic that they become characters in and of themselves, and so two characters in the book were born, both of whom represent the Holodomor. One, the physical aspect of it – the starvation and wasting away, and the other represented the more soulful aspect—a sort of loss of spirit and heart due to tragedy.

Eyad, my Stalin-esque dude wasn’t actually in my first draft. In fact, my first draft of this book was really dialed down on the communism and all these elements of the book. He never had a perspective. I think, if I remember right, I had some lord in a castle who never really had a face or even a name. Then, when I was getting ready to do my rewrite, I saw a tweet that said something along the lines of, why are all the fantasy worlds set in these medieval countries with kings? Where’s the communism? Where’s the industrialization? I read that tweet and I realized that communism was the entire aspect that was missing from this story, and I really, really needed to have someone driving the government. And you know, there aren’t many fantasy books featuring communist government systems so why not give it a go?

Insert my Stalin. Now, I humanized my dude a bit, and I took some liberties, but I really wanted to bring him to life, to show his perspective. Villains very rarely realize they are villains. Stalin was a horrible person, but he thought he was doing the right thing, and man, trying to bring that to life in Eyad was hard. There’s a scene in the book where he’s talking about grain requisition quotas and it just about killed me to write that because I’d read about it. Stalin had to know what he was doing, but he did it anyway, and in the process, he damned millions and millions of people who didn’t deserve it.

It took a ton of research to write all of this. I’ve got a series of books on Stalin on my bookshelf that clock in at a grand total of 6,000 pages, and that’s only a fraction of what I’ve read on him. Probably equally as much about communism in Russia. There aren’t as many books about the Holodomor, because the research is fairly new and it is, unfortunately, not an acknowledged tragedy to most of the world, but I read every bit I could get my hands on, and talked to some people who either survived it, or had relatives that did.

The magic itself came about because I’m personally fascinated by the idea of elemental magic, but not the kind where you point and fire shoots out of your finger. Man has been controlling fire for as long as we’ve existed. I’m fascinated in the idea of, what happens when fire controls man?

When it came to writing Seraphina’s Lament what was the biggest surprise about the writing itself? Either, “I can’t believe X is so easy!” or “If I had known Y was going to be so hard, I’d have skipped this and watched more TV!”
I was really amazed by how much research I had to do into the Holodomor, communism, and Stalin in order to write this book. I use barely a fraction of what I learned, but once I got started writing, I realized that in order to put so many things in context, I had to understand what happened before. I had to know about the things that laid the groundwork for this particular situation. For example, you can’t understand Stalin without understanding Lenin (and life in Georgia). You can’t understand Lenin until you understand elements of WWI, and Tsar Nicholas. You can’t understand Nicholas until you understand the two Tsars before him (at least). And then I had to understand how all of this impacted the average person living in this area of the world, so I ended up falling down all these really wild rabbit holes about village life in Russia, and turn-of-the-century Russian culture.

I had to do this with Ukraine, as well. In order to understand the Holodomor, you’ve got to understand the politics in Ukraine, into the relationship between the Ukrainian people, and the Russian people (which goes back well over a thousand years and is really, really interesting). I had to learn about how Ukraine is the breadbasket of that region (and the gateway to the West), with fertile soil and lush crops, and how the insertion of Stalin’s obsession with modernization fundamentally impacted life, cultures, and traditions. I had to read about land owners, and village life, and so much more.

All of these things mixed together to give me a ton of context that I could use to hopefully give events in my world a bit more grounded, well-rounded look to them.

What’s the one (or two) book/movie/show in the last 5 years that made you say, “I wish I’d written that.”?
I have a toddler and a seven-year-old. The past five years of my life has been filled mostly with Paw Patrol and Peppa Pig.

This is going to be a boring answer, but there are a lot of authors I admire and learn from, but I’m glad they’ve written the books they wrote because those books just need to exist, and I probably couldn’t have done it half as well as they did.

Lastly, I (mostly) jokingly told your publicist that I’d read the book because it was probably the best way to get that cover image out of my mind. That’s one of the most striking covers I can remember – did you have any input on that, or did your designer just hit you with it? I don’t know how to ask something coherent about it, so let me just say – what would you like to say about the cover
Pen Astridge is the bomb. Seriously. I sent her the first few chapters of my book (which I ended up rewriting in edits). She asked for some inspiration, if I had any, and I basically drew a blank. I told her something along the lines of, “basically everyone dies and it’s really dark so just death this sucker up.” I think I attached a picture of a dead tree and some skulls, too. I mean, I impressively suck at that sort of thing. Somehow, Pen took all that total crap and then handed me this book cover.

I say it in my acknowledgments, but I’ll say it here, too. Everyone should hire her. Pen is the absolute best in the business, and I am beyond lucky to have her create my cover. It was better anything I could ever imagine and exactly what the book needed.

Thanks for your time, I hope you nothing but success with Seraphina’s Lament and I hope the work on volume 2 is going well.

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