Callie Bates on Nature, Magic, and "The Waking Land"

Callie Bates - photo credit Jim SchumakerCallie Bates’ debut novel, The Waking Land, sets a young woman on a path that awakens her latent powers while forcing her to confront decisions about loyalty and leadership.

With a nature focus similar to Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and a political rat’s nest as twisty as early George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire novels, The Waking Land was one of our picks for best books of the month in science fiction and fantasy in July.

We spoke with Callie Bates over drinks when she was in Seattle about The Waking Land, hacking her writing habits, and the bracing honesty of an editorial critique.

Amazon Book Review: Can you tell us about The Waking Land and how the power of nature is integral to the story?

Callie Bates: It’s about a young girl who is taken hostage for her father’s failed rebellion against the king. She’s taken hostage by the king and raised by him, but she has this nature magic that she spends her life repressing until she’s about nineteen. And then the king is murdered, using a poisonous mushroom—I had a lot of fun with fungi in the book—and she’s framed for killing him. She goes on the run and ends up being picked up by her father’s people and being brought back to her homeland, which she hasn’t seen since she was five years old, and [she is] put forth as the leader of their resurrected rebellion—which she’s very reluctant to do. So that’s the basic premise, but there is a very strong environmental theme.

I live in a very rural area, so the natural world is at my fingertips and it really colors the way I see things. It was a natural step for Elanna to have those characteristics as well. The position that she is supposed to hold is called the Steward of the Land. I was convinced that I had read about the Steward of the Land in a book by Aldo Leopold called A Sand County Almanac. He’s one of the founding environmentalists of the 20th century. I was convinced that there was this quote [about the Steward of the Land], and I wanted to use it for an epigraph in the book, and I went into A Sand County Almanac looking for it, and I could not find it. It’s one of those things where I just made it up, but what I thought I was doing fit the role that I wanted Elanna to have.

Is the power of nature something that’s been a theme in your other writing as well?

I think the natural setting has been for sure…. Come to think of it, yeah, nature magic has definitely been a theme. But this didn’t really coalesce until I was actually trying to do a much larger manuscript that was basically this book and the second book kind of mashed together. It didn’t really work. But out of that, I got these two paragraphs I wrote about Elanna nature magic. And that really gave me the idea that I could write a whole book about her journey to becoming a Steward of the Land and discovering her magic.

Waking LandIs The Waking Land the first book you ever wrote, or the first book you got published?

This is the first one I got published. I’ve been writing since I was a kid, so this is the first one where I really figured out how to actually get to the ending and then go back and revise it. I revised it a number of times before I got to the right voice and storyline.

Are you in the middle of writing the second book?

I am. I’m in revisions.

Is it harder being under contract when you’re writing?

I don’t know if it’s harder; it’s just really different. I really like it because I can go to my editor and have her vet my ideas and say “This sounds like a good plan” instead of just bumbling through on my own. It’s different knowing somebody else—several somebodies—are going to read it, and I have to get it to them in a timely manner. It’s totally different.

How does it feel to get the editor’s critique?

I’d never gotten raw manuscript editorial feedback [until the second book, in revisions now]. But Anne [Groell] is so brilliant, I trust her absolutely. But it was a little traumatic, to be completely honest. But I got to the point where I was like, “She is right, and I’m so grateful for her telling me that the voice needs tweaking and emotional depth needs to be added and the pacing needs to be better.” I don’t want someone to read The Waking Land and then come into book two and be like, “What the hell? What happened?” I think that [book two] has become a much better book. But it take a while for your brain to come around and think, “I can do this.” I think the raw response is, “I can’t handle it! I don’t know what to do next!”

Is there anything you did to change your own process as you’ve developed as a writer?

For the second book, I’ve definitely been trying to hack my own habits. One of the things that has really helped me, just in terms of approaching a manuscript, is that a couple years ago, I started writing the first draft by hand in a notebook. I’d always used computers, because I grew up with computers. But I switched to doing it by hand, and I felt like that really grounded me into the story a lot more. It was part of a tactile experience, to be inhabiting the scenes of the characters. And that might mean that I still threw a scene out, but I had at least thought things through on a deeper level. So that was really helpful.

One thing I’ve really learned is I need to know the ending and I need to at least have steps in place to get there. I don’t know if you do this, but there’s this great book called Save the Cat, and I totally use his bulletin board technique, where you take your novel and you break it down into beats. So I had all the major scenes and reveals, and I pinned them up on the bulletin board, and then I shifted them around as I thought things through. That really helped me at least get the shape of the book going in generally the right direction. So oftentimes when I’m revising, the story itself fundamentally stays the same, but how things happen changes.

Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? Or the opposite: a writing tsunami?

I’ve gone to bed and tried to go to sleep, and an idea, like the character voice, will not let me go to sleep, so I have gotten up in the middle of the night and written. I’m like, “OK, Muse, I surrender.”

 


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