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Interview with Cate Tiernan, Author of Balefire

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A native of New Orleans, Cate Tiernan is the author of the young adult fantasy series, Sweep, Balefire and Immortal Beloved. She's here today to talk about her books, writing, inspiration and the challenges she faces as a writer, among other things.

Thanks for this interview, Cate. As a child, you used to explore cemeteries in New Orleans. Surely not the usual pastime for a child! What about cemeteries fascinated you?

Oh, is that not normal? Cemeteries in New Orleans are called “Cities of the Dead” because people are usually buried in little concrete mausoleums, aboveground. I loved looking at the family names and the dates — you could put together a whole story of who married whom, when they had kids, whether catastrophe hit their family. I still love looking at tombstones in any new city or country I’m in — the older, the better.

What was your inspiration for Balefire?

I wanted to set something in New Orleans, because I love the city and thought the setting would be evocative and mysterious. I was writing the fourth book of Balefire when Katrina hit, and I had to keep writing, describing the city as it would never be again. I sat there and cried — it was hard to finish that book.

Do you plot your novels in advance or do the stories and characters develop as you write?

Both. In general I work from an outline, but the outline is often a bit vague, just reminding me of certain elements I have to put in or develop. But I try to get the structure in place, so I can be sure to end up where I need to end up. But the characters and the book’s universe always develop more and more as I go, and become more real, and therefore more self-determining. I’ve been really surprised by some of the decisions some characters make.

Who is your favorite character in Balefire? Why?

I love the twins, of course, and it was their story I wanted to tell. But I developed a real fondness for Richard, even though he was abrasive and emotionally unavailable and calculating. I still love Riche.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing this novel?

Having to suddenly wrap up all the plot lines in book 4, when I hadn’t expected to. (And readers noticed, and weren’t thrilled about it.) With Sweep, it was planned to be only four books, but then it went going, and the story wasn’t necessarily structured to keep going. So I always feel like the books after #4 felt a little patchwork. So for Balefire, I set it all up to go on for 12 or 15 books, gave myself lots of characters and plot material to work with, but then it was decided to end it after four books, and I had to cram a lot into the last book, so it feels kind of clumsy and unfinished. Still kind of bummed about that, but those are the realities of publishing.

Did you keep a disciplined schedule? How long did it take you to write it?

I do work just about every day, and I do sit at my desk and try to make my page quota so I can turn in the manuscript on time. But it’s not like I work every day, nine to five, without fail. Sometimes I work at night or on the weekends, on vacations, etc., and sometimes I have to take a day off to deal with all the rest of my life. I don’t remember how long it took me to write. More than a year. Two years? Almost three?

Please share with my readers a bit about your road to publication. Was it easy or difficult?

It was weirdly easy, so I’m not a good role model of what to expect or how to go about it. I was an assistant at Random House, in the juvenile department, and so reading lots of kids’ books. I thought, “Oh, I could do this,” so I locked myself in my office for ten days at lunchtime and wrote a book, and submitted it to another publisher (I thought it would be tacky to submit it to RH; later I found out that they felt just the opposite). And they bought it and I revised it and then they bought my next three books. And from there I just made more connections and got other writing jobs. This method would not work in general, and I can’t recommend it.

What is your greatest challenge as an author?

Getting it done. My life is really full and busy and there’s always a million things that need doing. And I love thinking about the book and doing research — the actual writing, while it can be fun and is usually satisfying, is a bit more of an uphill slog sometimes. Not always. But I love it when I’m finished and happy with a book, and I feel proud of it.

What is the single most important tip of advice you’d give new writers?

Clarify for yourself what audience you’re writing for. Clarify for yourself what the message is that you’re trying to get across. Writing a book because it feeds your soul is often not enough, actually. Writing is communication: what are you trying to communicate, and why, and to whom? I guess that’s two tips. Third tip: everyone needs an editor. No one, no matter how genius of a writer, does not need editing. I’ve been lucky with my editors, and feel they’ve greatly enhanced my work.

What is the best writing advice you have ever received?

Don’t just put in everything cool you can think of because you like it — understand why you’re writing it, and make sure every sentence forwards the plot or character development and isn’t just a fabulous one-liner you’re dying to use. I do tend to overwrite. Still.

New Orleans is also the hometown of author Anne Rice. Are you her fan and have you ever had the opportunity to meet her?

I thought Interview With a Vampire was incredible — I’ve reread it several times. But I haven’t been able to get into any of her other books, though she has millions of fans and people have raved about her work. I’ve never met her.

I hear you have a new book coming out this fall, Immortal Beloved. Leave us with a little hook!

Immortal Beloved is the first book of a trilogy, and I’m having a great time with it. Love, love these characters and this story. I’ve previewed about ten pages on my website, but in a nutshell, it’s the story of an immortal, Nastasya, who has finally hit a wall, after 459 years. She can find nothing positive or of worth in her life, including herself. A desperate instinct for survival forces her to try to reclaim her life and her soul, rehabilitating all the beliefs and actions of her past. But is she even worth the effort it will take? Plus of course aching, unrequited love; a shocking, secret family legacy; much magick; stolen kisses; friends and enemies; and the painful exploration of a life that hasn’t seen light of day in four centuries. Whew! I love it.

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About Mayra Calvani

Mayra Calvani writes fiction and nonfiction for children and adults and has authored over a dozen books, some of which have won awards. Her stories, reviews, interviews and articles have appeared on numerous publications such as The Writer, Writer’s Journal, Multicultural Review, and Bloomsbury Review, among many others. Represented by Serendipity Literary.