Today I am very excited to be speaking with debut fantasy author Callie Bates! Callie’s novel The Waking Land has only just been released but has already received praise from some of the industry’s biggest names in fantasy. Terry Brooks called Callie “clearly a writer of real talent” and Tamora Pierce said that her novel is “a heartbreaking, enchanting, edge-of-the-seat read that held me captive from start to finish!” Other admirers of Callie’s novel include Robin Hobb, Charlaine Harris, and Scott Sigler.
A warm welcome Callie, thank you for being here 🙂
It’s a pleasure! Thank you so much for having me!
1. Please tell our readers about your wonderful novel The Waking Land.
The Waking Land is the story of a young woman, raised as a hostage for her father’s failed rebellion, who longs to be a botanist but struggles to suppress her wild, forbidden nature magic. When the king dies, she’s framed for his murder and flees…and her nearly forgotten past catches up with her.
2. Tell us about your writing process – are you a plotter or a pantser by method?
I’m something of a hybrid. I used to be a passionate pantser…but I realized that I never actually finished anything! Now I create a loose outline—often several of them, continually evolving—tracking major plot points, reveals, emotional arcs, and scenes I can’t wait to write. I also write first drafts by hand before moving to a computer; it helps me silence my inner editor!
3. As well as being a writer, you describe yourself as a harpist, harp therapist, and a sometimes artist. What came first for you, a love of music or a love of writing/story?
Words have always come first—though I started writing and playing the harp at about the same time. I’m much more comfortable in the behind-the-scenes role that writing requires, than in the performative aspects of being a musician. But I love both, and they certainly complement each other!
4. Writer Christopher Hitchens has a theory about the relation between musical ability and fiction writing ability. He says: “the distinction between people who can write prose and fiction and poetry, and those who…should stay with the essay form, I think is this. All my friends who can do it have musical capacity”. Do you think your musical ability has impacted your writing? Do you have any writing friends whose creativity is also multifaceted like yours i.e. musician, artist, writer?
I love that quote! And he may be right. I do “hear” the words on the page as I write. To me there is a definite rhythm to a novel—from the most basic sentence level to the overall arc of the story. That’s, I think, why many of us write to playlists, especially soundtracks from movies; the music provides an emotional template for setting and scene. It’s also why we’re given advice to match sentence structure to scene, for example in hinting at tension through short, taut lines. Hmm, I’m not sure how many of my writing friends have a music background, but I wouldn’t be surprised if many have at least some training in it!
5. Let’s talk genre. What drew you to writing in the fantasy genre? Was it a conscious decision to write The Waking Land as a fantasy novel or did this organically occur during the writing process?
I love fantasy because it allows you to tackle big, meaty metaphorical stories head-on; you’re able to work in the realm of myth and archetype in a way that is more difficult in other genres. The Waking Land has a lot of real-world historical influence, and in some ways, I could happily have written a historical epic! However, I knew from the beginning that I wanted to explore Elanna’s magical connection to the land, so this was always a fantasy novel.
6. It is clear that your main protagonist Elanna has a reverence for the natural world and her magical ability is tied to the land. The passages where you describe her sensing the earth and being able to will it to do her bidding are so evocative and sensory. You describe yourself as a “nature nerd” – do think your love of nature directly influenced Elanna’s magical ability and your development of the Caveadear legend?
Absolutely! I grew up surrounded by woods and water, and it influenced me more than I would ever have admitted as a teenager. If I gave anything of myself to Elanna, it’s my love of the natural world. The Caveadear concept actually came from a mis-remembering of Aldo Leopold’s classic environmental work, A Sand County Almanac. I was convinced he’d talked about “being the steward of the land”…turns out his “land ethic” section didn’t actually say that, but it was the concept I needed for my book!
7. What I loved most about your novel is that, ultimately, it is a tale of a woman reclaiming her identity and autonomy (as well as embracing her magical destiny). It was wonderful to see Elanna transform from being dependent on others for her welfare, to being autonomous and powerful in her own right. In a time when certain world events are bringing to the surface the fact that women and men’s voices are still not equal, I found Elanna’s story arc particularly satisfying. Did you foresee that this would be Elanna’s arc through the novel or did it naturally occur through the writing?
Thank you! I always knew that was where Elanna’s character needed to get to, but it took a lot of revision to actually give her the agency and strength she deserves. (It’s strange how we women sometimes unconsciously undercut our own female characters.) I hope the other female characters have similarly strong arcs. In an early draft, El’s destiny was to become the queen, but I changed that basically so more women could get into power at the end!
8. When the novel opens Elanna has been a prisoner of the Ereni people for fourteen years. Part of her journey is learning to discern the truth about her capture and the true history of her own people, the Caerisians. This made me think that Elanna has been suffering from a form of Stockholm syndrome before the book begins. Was this your intention? If so, did you have to do any research to understand the condition?
Yes, Elanna’s Stockholm syndrome is deliberate. History is written by the conquerers, as they say, and so she, and to an extent the larger population, have been brainwashed with a history full of holes and half-truths. I was interested in creating a character who’s been taught to despise her own people and land, yet has this indelible connection to her origins, thanks to her illegal magic. Especially since she’s taken hostage so young, it seemed natural that she would identify and sympathize with her captors, even if she’s at the same time told she’s different from them. I wanted a character who, at the beginning, thinks she knows who she is—and then, as her beliefs are uprooted, is forced to grapple with her identity.
9. Did you draw on mythology or historical battles/civilizations in the building of your fantastical world?
Elanna’s world is very much inspired by our own 18th century, particularly in Scotland, England and France. In particular, there are some parallels to Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. However, I really used this as a jumping-off point, rather than a commentary on actual historic events. Especially since, as far as I know, Bonnie Prince Charlie was not colluding with any sorceresses… 😉 The landscape is inspired both by that of the UK and Ireland, and the Upper Midwest where I live.
10. Tamora Pierce said that she has to know what her characters look like before she starts writing and that she will often have a specific actor in mind for each character – i.e. Jeff Goldblum was the inspiration her character Numair. Do you have a process for creating your characters? Their physical appearance, traits, histories?
I need to know what a character wants—where they’re hoping their lives will go, so I can knock them off course! Then I have to ask, how does this upheaval transform their desires? How do they react when they’re thwarted? If the character seems to be following a trope, I try to twist that trope into something a little different. For me, it’s key that even minor characters have goals and desires, so they can be dynamic on the page. I also spend some time on Pinterest hunting down pictures of people who look similar to my mental image!
11. You recently attended the Emerald City Comic Con and were on a panel about women in fantasy with Robin Hobb and Kristen Britain. This must have been an amazing experience! What was it like sharing a panel with them?
It was amazing! To be honest, as a debut author, I was pretty flabbergasted to be put on a panel with the two of them. They are both incredibly brilliant and gracious, and I just wanted to sit there soaking up their wisdom.
12. Did you always want to be an author? Please tell us what your journey to publication has been like.
I’ve been writing novels since I was ten, and assembling lists of places to send my work since twelve, though I didn’t actually sell a novel until my late 20s! I spent a long time learning how to revise—not to mention learning how to write a novel with an actual arc and an ending. (And I feel like I’m still learning all the time!) I took a ton of creative writing classes in college, and kept plugging away afterward. I cold queried The Waking Land and had interest from an agent; I did a massive revision and eventually signed with her (she’s wonderful!). Then Del Rey bought the book a few months later.
13. What advice would you give to a writer just starting out?
Two main things: one, write for yourself first; and two, finish things! To the first point: if you don’t love what you’re doing, it’s less likely other people will. (And if it’s not lighting you up, why do it?!) Which is not to say writing isn’t hard—it is—but ideally it’s a challenge that’s meaningful to you. To the second point: as Neil Gaiman says, “You will learn more from a glorious failure than from something you never finished.” Without finishing, it’s difficult to learn how to revise—and without revision, it’s hard to take your work to the next level!
14. What are some of the things you learned about writing through the editing process?
Editing a book is a humbling experience, and I feel like I’m learning every time I sit down to write. A key thing I’ve learned is that I need to take the character—and the reader—on a journey. The character(s) needs to be challenged and evolve over the book, and the reader needs to experience that with them in an emotional way. I’ve also learned that doing things the long, hard way is often most rewarding in the end!
15. Big fantasy names like Robin Hobb, Terry Brooks and Tamora Pierce (*fangirl squeal*) have highly recommended your novel. What has that been like – receiving praise from masters in the genre?
It’s thrilling and surreal and humbling all at once! I am still overwhelmed by their generosity, and I still can’t believe they read my book! I’ve met both Robin and Terry now, and they’re both absolutely wonderful and gracious!
16. The Waking Land is the first book in a trilogy. Can you give us any insights about what is coming next in the series?
Book 2, The Memory of Fire, picks up roughly where the first left off—but with a new narrator: Jahan. Saving Eren, and Elanna, will require him to return home…and face all the secrets he’s spent so long evading. I can’t wait to share it with the world!
The Waking Land is available at all good bookstores or can purchased online through vendors like booktopia.
To learn more about Callie and her work, you can follow her on her social media pages:
Or visit her website: https://calliebates.com/