Tonya Adolfson: Author Spotlight
One of the biggest draws for a convention are the guests. Actors, artists, writers, and cosplayers bring their fan base where ever they go. I had the great fortune to not only attend several panels conducted by the incredibly talented Tonya, (also known as Tanglwyst de Holloway) but also to speak with her about her book series ‘Souls of the Saintlands’.
She describes it as a fantasy romance, where in “a guy tries to get a woman to kill the King, but he is unaware of her relationship with the King. You can imagine how that works out for him”. The series then expands on the ripples from that, and culminates in a war between Heaven and Earth. “It definitely goes epic”, she responded when I commented on that sweeping plot line. There are currently six books published, with the most recent coming out June 1st, just in time for Phoenix Comicon! New books in the series come out every June, and there are nine books planned. Additionally, there are short stories with background material on her website and blog. Commenting on the creative process Tonya half jokingly said she “loves this story, but I have nothing to do with it”. How many writers out there can relate to that? The story tells itself, and sometimes won’t leave you alone. Tonya says she just writes down what the characters do. More than once they’ve done something, she’s written it down, and then gone “Whoa! That’s interesting. Are you sure about that”? Rarely has she had a situation where she didn’t think it was good idea. Having the characters tell her the story makes it feel like the flow keeps going.
Most of her characters are based on real people, so she can ask them how they would react to a particular outside stimulus. On that note, I inquired about the legalities of basing characters on real people. Without missing a beat, she said she asked them. Every single one agreed, and loves that they are in a book. Even her villains and characters that die in the books are people she knows. Most people, writers especially, have heard the phrase, “don’t make me angry or I’ll put you in my book and kill you”. For Tonya, there’s no reason to immortalize someone she doesn’t like. “I never put anybody in the books that I don’t love. There’s absolutely no reason to immortalize somebody like that. I never want to see that person cosplayed by some young impressionable person…if you’re getting rid of them, now you have the entire book dealing with the sympathy and grief of loss. If it’s a murder mystery, now it’s devoted to solving that. Even if you bring out how horrible the person is, people are still taking about it. Why would I ever want to devote emotional energy to someone I can’t stand?” With a laugh she said, “I’d much rather kill off someone I love”. So if a character in her book doesn’t exist in history, they are most likely based on someone she knows, and likes. A restaurant owner Tonya knows is the real life Wise Wench Tavern owner, and author of one of the books quoted in the headings of the series. She is based in Grace, Idaho. Also the woman who runs the mill in ‘Full of Sound and Fury’ is based on one of Tonya’s avid readers, and Facebook friends.
During our conversation, I mentioned the Bechdal test, having seen something connected to it recently. Tonya said in order for any work of fiction to pass the test it has to meet four criteria. Simply put, are there any women, with names, who speak to each other, about something other than a man? Lord of the Rings fails, The Hobbit fails. In fact, women had to be added to The Hobbit or there would have been no women at all. Just adding women doesn’t always work. Sometimes two named female characters end up talking about the male child with the ‘oh so important destiny’. While the conversation is not about a sexual relationship with a male, the subject is still male. Also known as the Bechdel-Wallace Test, (according to Wikipedia) named after the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, author/creator of the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. The rules first appeared in 1985 in a strip titled “The Rule”. Wikipedia further states that Ms. Bechdel credited the idea to a friend, Liz Wallace, and to the writings of Virginia Woolf.
Another problem with most fiction is ‘fridging’ – killing a female character to provoke a male character to action. Often the female character is raped, or murdered, or both, to motivate the man to do something heroic. Game of Thrones was her first example. The last two books she read had 75 chapters, and in 70-72 of those chapters rape was mentioned, threatened, or acted upon. Eventually, she says, you have to realize something is wrong. Why is this being mentioned so often? What are you trying to say? For people who would play the ‘historical accuracy’ card, please keep in mind that very young boys were also raped just as often during various historical periods through out the world. Try substituting ‘sodomizing six year old boys’ for any reference to raping a woman. Now does that make you question the frequency of those incidents?
In Tonya’s books, there is a more ethnically diverse cast than typically seen in fantasy novels. One of her main characters is a mixed race woman, and there is a black skinned man, still alive as of book six. Often, when people of color are represented in books, they are marginalized. Some universes make them rare or non-existent. Often they are written as stereotypes, which further marginalizes them. In a way this makes sense (though I do not justify the practice), because originally, fantasy worlds were set in a pseudo northern European setting and given all the cultural attributes of the Middle Ages of those regions. Fortunately many writers are breaking that strict mold, and adding vital characters of color, and bringing forward strong women as well.
One person Tonya follows on Facebook and Twitter, is author Nora Jemisin. Ms. Jemisin is a Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award nominated author this year. Being a person of color, she brings characters like herself and people she knows to the page. However, ultimately, the reader’s culture will influence how they interpret the characters once the initial description fades. The author does not know how readers will interpret the work. They can only hope they will get it. Tonya recommends Nora’s series “as an example of well-written people of color with relatable characters in fascinating circumstances”. To learn more about Ms. Jemisin and her series The Broken Earth, go to her website nkjemisin.com.
A key component to any author’s success is editing. Lucky is the author who has a friend with that skill. One of Tonya’s business partners has this amazing ability to find errors by just opening the book. “It’s a gift for him”, she says. “He was reading [book five] and a thing happened. He got very mad and threw the book across the room. He left it there, shaming it for three moths. ‘You know what you did’!, he said about the book to Tonya. He forgot it when he left his father’s after a visit. One day he got a call from his father asking if he wanted the book back, and he said “No I don’t. It knows what it did.” He eventually read it, which is good since he is also the narrator for the audio version of the series.
Information about Tonya and her ‘Souls of the Saintlands’ series can be found here http://www.fjpublishing.com/our-staff/authors/tonya-adolfson/