Lilies in Bloom: Interview with Vanessa Fogg

Welcome back! This week’s featured writer is the amazing Vanessa Fogg. Vanessa is the author of The Lilies of Dawn, a fantasy novelette from Annorlunda Books. In addition, her short fiction has appeared widely in outlets including GigaNotoSaurus, The Future Fire, Mythic Delirium, and Luna Station Quarterly, among others.

Recently, Vanessa and I discussed her inspiration as an author as well as what she hopes to see for the future of the fantasy genre.

A couple icebreakers to start: when did you first decide to become a writer, and who are some of your favorite authors?

Vanessa FoggI was one of those kids who was writing, always making up stories; I remember stapling pages together to make “books.” I wrote throughout my childhood and adolescence—short stories, sketches, and wretched poetry. In college, I even minored in creative writing. But I majored in biology, which was another love. After college I took a long break from creative writing as I concentrated on trying to build a scientific research career. I only slowly made my way back into writing, after more than a decade away. I started off submitting a little bit here and there to literary journals. In 2013 I left the laboratory bench for good, and decided to finally take my writing seriously.

Early writing influences: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, Ursula LeGuin, Patricia McKillip. Current authors and works I love: Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy; Sofia Samatar’s Olondria novels and everything else she writes, everything. Ken Liu. Carmen Maria Machado. Aliette de Bodard. Short fiction by Alyssa Wong and Isabel Yap. I could keep going forever.

Your novelette, The Lilies of Dawn, which was released last year through Annorlunda Books, is such a beautiful work of fantasy. What was the inspiration for the book, and what was your process as you were writing it?

Thank you for your kind words!

The Lilies of DawnThis story grew from a single image: a girl standing in her boat on a lake of blooming lotus flowers, staring up at a flock of cranes.

Where did this image come from? Two different sparks. The first one: this travel article about a beautiful lotus flower-covered lake in northeast Thailand. The second spark: a crane sanctuary that my family and I stumbled upon while visiting the Wisconsin Dells. I’d never seen crowned cranes up close before.

The central image came to me, and then I had to work slowly to understand what it meant and to unfold the plot.

As for my process? A lot of brainstorming and mulling of ideas before ever setting anything to paper (or Word document, as it were). I usually need at least the basic plot points and ending set in my mind before I can begin writing. The writing itself is slow, for I often revise as I write. I usually know where the story is going, broadly speaking, but the unexpected twists and details along the way make the journey all the more fun.

You have written both short fiction as well as longer works. Do you find that your process differs depending on the length of the story?

Not really. I suspect my typical Outline-Only-in-my-Head-and-Revise-as-I-Go method would not fly for a novel, but I’ve yet to attempt a novel. I think novel-writing would probably kill me. But as the saying goes: never say never.

In addition to your fiction writing, you also review fiction on your site, It’s a Jumble. What inspired you to start reviewing, and how, if at all, has it affected your own fiction writing?

I’m gratified to see my reviews getting more attention of late. When I wrote those first reviews, I don’t think anyone was even reading. I wrote them for myself, and for the off chance that someone might stumble upon them and be inspired to read the linked story or book. I wrote on the off chance that the author of a story might stumble upon that review and know that someone loved their work. But at the beginning it was really for me. There is a pleasure in analyzing a book or story and trying to figure out what makes it work. Trying to articulate what I loved about it, and why. My short story recommendations tend to consist only of short summaries (because I don’t want spoilers for such short works), but I’ve written more extended analyses for some books. Now that I know that people actually are reading these posts—well, that’s a big motivator now, too! I just want to boost the stories I love, and metaphorically grab others by the shoulders and say, “Read this!”

As for how reviewing has affected my own fiction writing? I can’t point to anything specific, but I am sure it has helped me. To critically review something is to pay attention to it—real attention. It means looking at craftsmanship, at how the story is put together and how it has its effect. That attention to others’ writing can only help my own writing (or so I would think!).

Fantasy is a constantly evolving genre. As a writer whose work is mostly in the realm of fantasy, where do you see the genre going over the next ten to twenty years? What would you like to see more of? Conversely, what would you like to see less of in fantasy?

Oh, what a question. The future is often unpredictable (as this last year of geopolitics has driven home). But there are certainly trend lines, many of which I’ve found hopeful for fantasy publishing if not elsewhere. Literary forms are always evolving, and in speculative fiction I think there’s always been a particular hunger for the new. And what I’ve been seeing the last few years is an impressive influx of talented new voices representing new backgrounds and perspectives that were not represented well before. Tolkien basically established medieval European-based epic fantasy as a genre. I think Tolkien-esque fantasy is still popular, but we are now seeing more and more books and stories exploring fantasy worlds based on other myths and cultures—African, Asian, Central American and South American, and more. We’re seeing these new perspectives, these global voices, extended into urban fantasy and other fantasy modes as well. No one can stop the increasing globalization of our world, and I for one think it’s great to find writers from Singapore, Malaysia, Nigeria, India, and more in the pages of my favorite journals. And of course, there are the many Western-born and-based writers who have cultural connections to non-European cultures and draw literary inspiration from them–of which I am one.

Another trend I notice is the increasing overlap between “literary” writing and “fantasy” writing. I always thought it was a false dichotomy, but the boundaries between the two seem more porous these days, and I know of writers who are publishing in both prestigious literary journals and prestigious genre magazines. I see “experimental” literary techniques appearing in genre work. Style and technique are always evolving, of course. I’m very interested in seeing how these techniques will change fantasy writing. As an example, Sofia Samatar and Carmen Maria Machado are very different writers, but I think they both bring what many would term a certain “literary” feel (though very different “literary” feels!) to their works.

I think overall that fantasy publishing is becoming more accepting of different voices, styles, and stories. I think that can only be a good thing. I think American publishing is becoming more open to voices right here in America which were not well-represented before, and I think that is a very good thing.

Stories are always reflective of the real time and place of their authors—even when they’re fantasies of dragons and spaceships. The political upheaval of this time is certainly going to be reflected in the stories told now. I don’t think we’ll fully appreciate how until much later.

As for what I want to see more of? What I want to see less of? I want to see more good stories. That’s it. Stories of all kinds, stories of all types of people, stories told in mind-bendingly innovative ways as well as more traditionally-told narratives that still delight and break my heart. I want to see fewer boring, cliched, badly written stories. I want stories that surprise and dazzle and move me. That’s all.

What is your favorite part of the writing process: outlining new ideas, crafting a first draft, or polishing an almost finished piece?

This differs for each piece. There have been stories where I loved revising, and it was my favorite part. There have been stories where revisions were painful and like pulling teeth. There were first drafts that went down easy and first drafts that were hard (usually the latter). I will say that background research is most consistently fun. To the extent that research often becomes a procrastination tool against actual writing.

Out of your own published work, do you have a favorite piece?

The Lilies of Dawn is one of my favorites. But I will also always have a soft spot for another fantasy novelette I published, “Between Sea and Shore” which appeared in GigaNotoSaurus in 2014. This was the first story I wrote after leaving academic science and deciding to finally get serious about fiction writing. I still think it’s one of my best in terms of character development and emotional complexity—there are things you can do at novelette length that you simply can’t achieve at shorter wordcounts. Like Lilies, “Between Sea and Shore” is set in a secondary world which draws inspiration from Southeast Asia, and like Lilies it draws on themes of family, duty, and belonging. There are ways in which I think Lilies and “Between Sea and Shore” are in conversation with each other. Although I guess you can say that an author’s works are always in conversation with one another, at some level.

What projects are you currently working on?

Ooh, I hate talking about works-in-progress because I always think I’ll jinx them! Um, I’m doing some background research for a dark fantasy that might just veer into horror.

Huge thanks to Vanessa Fogg for being this week’s featured author! Find her online at her author site as well as on Twitter and Goodreads.

Happy reading!