Catching Fire: An Interview with Sam Taylor by Jen Michalski

Sam Taylor has won the Tassy Walden Award for New Voices in Children’s Literature and twice received the Young Adult Romance Writers of America Rosemary Award. She’s worked as a proofreader, copywriter, and instructor of university writing courses before deciding to write her own books. We Are the Fire is her debut novel.

Jen Michalski: Congratulations on We Are the Fire. I’m always interested in a book’s journey. Can you tell us how you came to work with Swoon Reads?

Sam Taylor: Back in 2018, I’d been slogging through the query trenches for three years, sending out one manuscript after the other. We Are the Fire was the third manuscript I’d queried. Along the way with my previous manuscripts, there were a few times I’d seemed close to having that agent offer, but it never worked out. I was very discouraged, especially when agents weren’t showing a lot of interest in Fire, because so many of my critique partners and beta readers had been wildly enthusiastic about this book. “This is The One,” so many of them had told me. But aside from that, I had a passion for this story that I hadn’t felt with my previous manuscripts. It was absolutely a story I did not want to give up on! I thought to myself, “This book is struggling with agents, but readers love it. Maybe readers can help me get this published.” So I put it on the Swoon Reads website. With Swoon Reads (an imprint of Macmillan), writers can upload their completed YA manuscripts of any genre and collect feedback, ratings, and reviews from readers. Stories that receive a lot of positive ratings and reviews can catch the attention of editors at the imprint. That’s exactly what happened for me. I put my story on the website in July. In November, I received an email from editor Emily Settle saying she wanted to talk with me about my book. It was an offer of publication! We Are the Fire had finally found its home.

JM: Love it! I hear this story time and time again—beta readers and others loving a book but it not getting traction with agents/publishers, so I’m so glad to hear a happy ending! I can see why readers did love We Are the Fire—the world building is very strong. Can you talk a little bit about that—how you went about it? Did you have a general idea for the story and the world-building came as you wrote it, or did you imagine the land of Vesimaa and the other territories and people beforehand?

ST: A little bit of both, to be honest. I knew from the start that I wanted the Vesimaan empire to be a society founded upon fire imagery and the magic that had made their nation so powerful. So as I drafted the story, I created folklores and histories to explain these people who live by fire. That was when I came up with the fables of the ancient fire demons, the Tuliikobrets, once said to guard Vesimaa. The fire soldiers—named after these ancient demons—are created through alchemical transformations using an incendiary stone that’s said to have been left behind by the demons. That alchemy was something I didn’t come up with until partway through the first draft. Some of my most original and imaginative story ideas never strike me until I’m neck-deep in in the drafting woods, after I’ve become better acquainted with the story world and have gained a stronger feel for all the elements it needs to function.

JM: I thought the dual narrative of Pran and Osanka worked well. Was this how you conceived the original POW, and did the novel see any structural changes during the course of revisions? Lately I’ve been finding that the hardest thing about writing novels—framing (I guess because I’m more acquainted with it than when I first began years ago!)

ST: Yep, I always planned for this to be a dual-POV story, with the conflict between Oksana’s and Pran’s different goals driving much of the plot. Fun fact: Oksana and Pran were originally intense rivals who hated each other! But when I got the end of the first draft, I realized the emotional stakes would be stronger if they were in love and deeply invested in each other, yet also at stark odds with their contrasting visions and approaches to freedom.

As for structural changes… I’d always envisioned this story as a duology, but when I went into the first round of edits at Swoon Reads, I was told this book needed to become a standalone. Initially, that request was overwhelming! But, the first book did have pacing issues that absolutely benefited from tightening. Trimming two books down to one became an exercise in simplifying my storytelling—a much needed lesson, as I’ve often overcomplicated my plots. Sometimes, the simplest, most straightforward solutions to a story problem really are the most effective. That round of revision was a lot of hard work, but I’m proud of what I accomplished and this story’s new, final form.

JM: That’s interesting to know, as I thought publishers preferred multi-book series! And I can totally see Oksana and Pran being rivals at first, although it does seem to make more sense to have them be in love from the start. If they fall in love during the course of the novel it’s expected, so it feels more realistic that they’re already a couple. It mirrors real relationships, where people can love each other and yet have entirely different approaches to live. The tension is how we compromise for each other and yet keep our core principles intact. It felt like there could be other romantic interests in the book as well—not to introduce spoilers, but they revolved around Oksana. Was this intentional on your part? I admit, at some points in the novel I thought “well, maybe?”

ST: I think preference for multi-book series depends on the publisher. These are common, especially in SFF… but in publishing, nothing is ever guaranteed. I advise writers to make sure their book can stand on its own, that the story isn’t dependent on sequels to be complete, because editors and even some agents aren’t always looking for multi-book projects. Even in fantasy, standalones can be easier to sell. (And let’s face it, sometimes readers, especially older teens, are searching for standalone books even in SFF. Look at how many lists have been popping up over the internet for standalone fantasy! There’s definitely an audience for it.)

As for the romance… I did have some early readers pushing me to follow a more traditional romantic arc, with Oksana and Pran falling in love over the course of the book, but I wanted to explore the relationship from a different angle, show first love being tested. So I opened the book with them already together, already having an intense history together. And all of that is challenged as they take the huge step of trying to win back their freedom. Is their love strong enough to survive so many obstacles? That’s not a story I’ve seen told as often in YA, but it’s one that I think can still resonate with teen readers, as their own first relationships are often challenged by diverging life paths.

Other romantic interests for Oksana… oooh, I think I know who you’re talking about! 😉 Well, I’ll say while that wasn’t exactly my intention, I know part of the fun of any story is readers coming up with their own ‘ships. I’ll be curious to see which ones arise for the characters in this book.

JM: There’s a lot of darkness and moral ambiguity in the novel. There’s never a choice that’s made by the characters that doesn’t impact another character, usually in catastrophic ways. I wasn’t sure of the intended age range of your reader, but I admire your willingness to treat your reader as an adult and introduce them to death and suffering and sacrifice. Can you talk more about this?

ST: From the start, I’d wanted this book to explore how the “right choice” isn’t always easy to come by. Sometimes the right choice isn’t clear at all. Sometimes, it doesn’t come without steep cost. Doing the right isn’t always rewarded and doesn’t always mean life becomes easy and full of sunshine. This book came out of a dark time in my own life, when I was stuck in a work environment among some rather corrupt people. I didn’t always know what the right choice was—and certainly wasn’t rewarded for it when I tried to make better decisions. I wrote this story in part to explore such difficult questions and situations. We Are the Fire does get really dark at times, but it was important to me to be completely honest—especially to teen readers!—about the struggle to make good choices in a world metaphorically and literally on fire. And looking at the kind of year we’ve had in 2020… I’m glad I stuck to that conviction. Even teens aren’t being spared during this immensely difficult year. They need to know they aren’t alone in their challenges. And they need to see there’s hope, a way through, even when so much seems dark and overwhelming.

JM: I agree—I think it takes the right risks! I think all writers, even if just for a second, start to think about audience and even what one’s beta readers would say, especially if we’ve worked with them for a long time and know their tendencies. Was this book a departure in any way from your previous work? How did writing We Are the Fire help you grow as a writer? Are there elements of craft that you approach differently now?

ST: We Are the Fire is certainly a lot darker and grittier than my previous projects! It pushed me to be bolder and braver in my writing, and to trust readers more. It was also my first project with more than one POV. Learning to weave together two different storylines, along with exploring the same world from different perspectives and creating distinct narrative voices, was another challenge for me to master. Add to that, this project was the first time in a long time I’d written a male POV character. It took me many, many drafts to get a handle on so many new writing skills. I certainly got ambitious with this story, didn’t I? Sometimes I felt a bit in over my head… not unlike a certain pair of characters, I suppose!

But this story also showed me how much I could accomplish in my writing, when paired with careful study of the craft (through books, workshops, and most of all, working with the feedback of insightful critique partners). I like each of my new writing projects to tackle something new–whether that’s an aspect of craft, or a different subgenre. I think We Are the Fire showed me that I don’t have to be afraid to challenge myself, or shy away from exploring difficult and scary questions.

JM: What was your experience working with Swoonreads, and do you have any advice for writers trying to break into the YA market?

ST: I am so, so happy that they picked my manuscript (out of all the amazing stories on their website! That’s really mind-boggling to think about) and that they are making my dream of becoming a published author come true! I’m happy that this story of mine gets to be a book, and gets to be my debut novel. It was a manuscript I didn’t want to give up on, it’s a story other readers told me not to give up on, and I’m thrilled that the team at Swoon Reads also saw something special in it and decided to add it to their list. In all honesty, the road to publication is a journey filled with ups and downs—there’s so much that goes on behind the scenes while transforming a manuscript into a book. There’s so much for a debut author to learn! But whenever I become overwhelmed, I try to slow down and focus on the simple truth that a story I love, that I’ve poured my heart into, is being published. I’m achieving a dream I’ve had since I was a teenager.

To authors trying to break into the YA market, I say: Read widely. Know what’s out there, what’s already been done, and what you can uniquely add. Write the stories that call to you, the stories that you need to tell. Because that passion behind your work will shine through on the page to industry professionals and readers alike, and it will carry you through the doubts, the setbacks, and all the wild turns publishing can take. And Find. Your. People. Whether you’re working on your very first manuscript or you’ve landed a multi-book deal, you need the support from other writers who understand the joys and the struggles of writing, who can help answer some of your questions, who will listen to your venting, who will celebrate with you because they understand publishing milestones, and who can keep you going whenever you need a boost. No one gets through publishing without good people at their side.

JM: So what happens after publication? In this new area of social distancing, I imagine there’ll be lots of Zoom book clubs! It feels like we’re all in new territory here, regarding promotion and connecting with the reader as an author (beyond the book).

ST: I think all of us new authors are still trying to figure that out, what happens next! It’s been a strange time to debut, and required a lot of adjustment and flexibility. Since my book releases in February, and COVID is likely to still be an issue, I’m planning on all-virtual events. To be honest, I’m looking forward to that. While I will miss the opportunity for in-person signings and getting to meet readers face-to-face, I’ve really loved the accessibility of online bookish events. I’ve been able to attend events with authors and participate in conferences that otherwise would have been out of my reach. Right now, I’m looking into a virtual launch event, and possibly a virtual book tour as well, in conversation with other authors.

JM: What are you working on now?

ST: I currently have my Icelandic historical YA fantasy on submission to editors, trying to find that book a home—it’s Inception in 1904 Iceland, with Viking-age magic. In the meantime, I’ve started another YA fantasy inspired by Greek mythology, and I have a couple middle grade fantasy projects in the works as well. I won’t say too much about those yet. It’s a new category for me, but I think some projects that are more whimsical in nature are exactly what I need right now, with so much heaviness going on in our world.

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