One of my favorite YA books this month is Elizabeth May's debut novel, The Falconer, the first book in a planned trilogy. A mash-up of a Victorian setting, faerie fantasy, and steampunk, I fell right into the world May created. Her protagonist, Aileana, is a young woman straining against the rituals and requirements befitting a Victorian lady of her standing while she would much prefer crafting new inventions, many designed for her primary activity: hunting faeries and other nasty creatures surfacing from beneath the city. There is suspense, romance (a bit of a love triangle), and Scottish lore in abundance and I can't wait for the next book.
Best-selling author Jennifer Armentrout (her latest novel is the edge-of-your-seat thriller, Don't Look Back) interviewed Elizabeth May for Omni and got the scoop on faeries (good or bad?), living in present day Scotland, and more.
Jennifer Armentrout: Lady Aileana is a faerie killer? I thought fairies were good? Tell me more about the evil fairies!
Elizabeth May: Yesss! I love talking about faery lore! Friendly faeries are really a result of the Disneyfication of certain stories, so they’ve gotten a lot of great PR during the last century. The Falconer follows traditional Scottish lore, in which faeries are considered to be dangerous creatures that people should avoid at all costs. Some are considered “friendlier” and they help humans from time to time, but are still both temperamental and capable of a great deal of harm. The majority of faeries in Scottish lore tend to be considered evil; they slaughter on a whim, kidnap the helpless (including children and babies) and are capable of cursing people.
“Faeries” in stories were really something like a genus that consisted of a number of species, and all supernatural creatures in Scottish lore were considered fae. So there were faeries that were like vampires, werewolves, demons, spirits . . . and people wore charms to protect themselves from these creatures, and sometimes left offerings to appease them. Faeries were believed to be quick to anger, and their wrath capable of a great deal of destruction. These are the types of stories and ideas I kept in mind when I came up with The Falconer. I wanted to write about the types of faeries people felt the need to ward themselves against.
Jennifer Armentrout: You were born in the US but you live in Scotland now. How has living in Scotland influenced you as a reader and writer? What are some of the differences between Americans and Scots?
Elizabeth May: I’ve lived in Scotland for years now, so it’s definitely influenced me a great deal. I grew up in a not-so-safe city in Southern California, amid a concrete expanse with very little green space and smoggy, brown air. When I moved to Scotland, it was completely different. Though I still live in a city (Edinburgh), the atmosphere and the buildings have character and atmosphere that feels so much like something out of an urban fantasy novel. If you walk in the dark during late hours in Edinburgh, it feels very eerie, very haunted and sometimes even empty.
When I moved here I definitely noticed myself appreciating setting and sense of place more. The smells and seasons and changing from day into night. At first because it was all unfamiliar, and then later because it really affects the way the city and landscape looks and feels: from bright and friendly to grey and foreboding. A lot of Scotland is like that. I start to notice when certain types of flowers bloom to cover the countryside, and how different the light is in summer and winter. Living here has given me the ability to travel all over the country – from the Highlands to the Isles – and take in the differences in landscape. There’s certainly a mood to Scottish cities and the country’s rural landscape that is inspiring for fiction.
As for differences: many, many, many. But I suppose the most immediate difference – at least for me – is how easy it is to strike up a conversation with people here. I’m a socially anxious person by nature, so I find it very difficult to meet new people, and yet I’ve had hours long conversations with strangers in pubs. No awkwardness, no contact info exchanged afterward. Just a bit of banter and a goodbye at the end.
JA: You’ve gone from modeling for YA SciFi book covers to an author photo on the flap. How did become a cover model? I’ll bet you have good stories to share.
EM: It all started by chance. I used to have a really active and popular photography account on Deviantart, and a cover designer for Harlequin Australia saw my photos and messaged me about possibly using one for a cover. Honestly, I got so many weird messages through DA that I had no idea if she was legit. So I just forwarded her message on to the agent who handles my photos, and she followed through with buying the license for it. And that was my first cover. From there the covers just snowballed: a few more that year, then a dozen more the year after...I’ve been on almost one hundred covers internationally by now. Some of them I’ve seen and some I haven’t. I think the best part is when I end up on the repackaged covers for books I grew up reading, or on covers for authors I admire. I still get a fangirl thrill!
I read L.J. Smith as a teen, so I pretty much died when I found out I was on the cover of this one. One of my other photos (not of me) ended up on the Volume Three, as well. So exciting!
JA: Aileana and her mom are the original makers. How did you research inventing and tinkering? What’s your favorite invention in The Falconer?
EM: It was difficult to research certain inventions in the world of The Falconer, because they either don’t exist (the stitchers), or they’re still in the design stages (the lightning gun), or they’re beyond my knowledge of technical know-how (pretty much all of them, to be honest). Next to the historical information, the inventions took up a great deal of my reading time. Mainly, I started with a general idea of what I wanted and then researched accordingly.
For example, the lightning pistol Aileana uses was something I had in mind before I researched. But I wanted to have a general sense of how something like that would work (because Aileana would know exactly how it would work), so I looked into a lot of prototype ideas on the internet for lightning pistol designs. For other inventions, I merged ideas. Like with Aileana’s flying machine (which was definitely my favourite), which was a combination of Leonardo da Vinci’s designs for ornithopters and steam powered vehicles of the Victorian age.
This is the original da Vinci design, which was a single person ornithopter. It was the primary inspiration for Aileana’s flying machine.
I do have to say: researching for the inventions was so fun! I’m sure I’m on a government watch list for my searches (“how to make a flame thrower”!), but I learned a lot to make the technical aspects sound authentic.
JA: How would you have fared with all of the social restrictions on a young lady in Victorian Scotland?
EM: If modern me were suddenly plunked down into Victorian-era Scotland, I’d probably find it very difficult to adapt. The restrictions put on upper class unmarried ladies are so removed from contemporary Scottish society that my habits would probably be considered really uncouth and vulgar. But if I were brought up in the 19th century, maybe I would have bucked against certain societal expectations. Plenty of women in the Victorian-era challenged traditional women’s roles, and I like to think that if I were raised then, I would have been one of them.
JA: What books were your favorites as a tween and teen? What influence did they have on your writing?
EM: I grew up reading such a wide range of books in different genres. I loved fantasy novels by Garth Nyx, Charles de Lint, Mercedes Lackey, Anne Bishop, and Marion Zimmer Bradley. Science fiction by Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Ray Bradbury. Historical romance novels by Julia Quinn and Georgette Heyer. I had a huge collection of books growing up; I went to the library every weekend and picked up new things to read. I’ve tried bits of everything, and I honestly believe that accounts for my habit of genre mashing. I had a review in Starburst Magazine that referred to The Falconer as “a Scottish-monster-hunting-steampunk-adventure-romance.” When I read that, it really struck me for the first time that instead of writing books in separate, distinct genres that I enjoy, I’ve formed a habit of spinning them together in my writing.
JA: Who would you cast in the movie version of The Falconer?
EM: I don’t really think of any actors when I write, but I loved Rose Leslie in Game of Thrones, and I think she would make a fantastic Aileana!
JA: As a debut author, what’s surprised you about the process of publishing?
EM: Definitely what an emotional journey it is. I wrote a lot of manuscripts before The Falconer that never made it to publication, so I never went through the long process of cleaning them up and watching them change for publication. The Falconer went through so many different incarnations, so it was rewarding to see how different the final, complete draft is compared to the first one I ever wrote. Being invested in a single work for that long . . . it’s a really emotional thing for me to see it finally completed for people to read.
JA: How excited were you when you saw the cover of The Falconer?
EM: So excited! I’ve been blessed with great cover work for The Falconer that really brings out Aileana’s character and the feel of the book. I literally gasped aloud when I saw the cover. It was that perfect.
JA: I’m on the edge of my seat for the next novel in The Falconer series! How much of the trilogy is planned, and how much happens as you’re writing?
EM: Thank you! :D Such a great question! The largest plot points have been planned since I started working on The Falconer. I always imagined Aileana’s story would take place over three books, so I mapped out the major events in each book, as well as the final book’s ending, so I have a general sense of where I’m going. From there, the events in each book follow a very fluid outline. I know where I want the stories to go, and even have certain scenes plotted, but how I get there and how the scenes play out are very spontaneous. Working this way gives me an equal sense of structure and seeing how the characters guide me.
Thank you so much for the lovely interview! It’s been wonderful!