I can’t really express how delighted I was to chat with this week’s guest. She is actual proof that, when good things happen, time seems to move at breakneck speed because I still remember hearing about her work for the first time via the Pitch Wars showcase several years ago. As her debut’s release date nears (4 days away!), I’m incredibly excited to talk with her about her process, motivations, and the drive that has led to her success. Please welcome the lovely Rena Barron.
Hi Rena! I’ve already given you a bit of an introduction, but for the sake of tradition, do you mind telling us exactly where you are in your writing journey and how you got there?
My Young Adult Epic Fantasy KINGDOM OF SOULS is out September 2019 from HarperTeen. It’s the first book of a trilogy that explores a magic system inspired by voodoo.
The first book in my Middle Grade Contemporary Fantasy, MAYA AND THE RISING DARK, will be out Spring 2020 from HMH. It’s been described as PERCY JACKSON meets STRANGER THINGS.
I'm familiar with both titles and so excited to read each one! Can you tell us a bit more them?
KINGDOM OF SOULS is about sixteen-year-old Arrah who hails from a powerful family of witchdoctors, but she doesn’t have magic of her own. When the Demon King threatens her kingdom, she must trade years off her life for the magic she needs to stop him. But each trade brings her closer to death and to a devastating truth.
MAYA AND THE RISING DARK is about twelve-year-old Maya who discovers that her father is the guardian between our world and the Dark. When the Lord of Shadows kidnaps her father, Maya and her friends bravely charge into the Dark and fight a horde of spooky creatures in their quest to find her father.
Having read one of these books, KINGDOM OF SOULS, I can attest to the fact that it is BIG book with a vast, expansive world? I’m thinking that required a lot of planning--how do you go about worldbuilding for a story like this?
I always start with creating the framework for the world prior to drafting. A lot of times that framework will evolve as I write, but it’s a good roadmap for my first draft. For KINGDOM OF SOULS, I built out the political structure and the geography early on to get a sense of the world and how the people would interact in it. I wanted the different cultures and beliefs in the book to reflect the complexity of our world. When I was growing up, I heard whispers of people in my community who practiced voodoo, and it has always been something that has stayed with me. This book was the perfect opportunity to explore my relationship to how that knowledge helped shape my thinking as well as continue the journey of better understanding my family roots and history. From there, I included some in-world specific language, descriptions of each nation, and a pantheon of gods. In a sense, with KINGDOM OF SOULS, I wanted to build a mythology that could reflect how I navigate my own identity.
Ooh, I love a story with a deep sense of legacy and mythology, and love the world you've woven in KOS. That makes me wonder more about your writing process. What is your favorite/least favorite part of the writing process?
Hands down worldbuilding is my favorite part of writing.
My least favorite part of writing is the dreaded first draft. You know there’s potential, but it’s hard to see it when the story is still so rough and underdeveloped.
Same. So, where do you find inspiration for your stories? How do you know when an idea becomes a fully-realized concept?
I get most of my inspiration very randomly. A previously unpublished manuscript was inspired by this idea of a woman looking out of her window—and I thought what if she sees a broken world and what would that look like? KINGDOM OF SOULS evolved in a different way. It was one of those stories that had been brewing for years. It’s actually the first story I wrote about black people because I grew up in an era when it was harder to find science fiction and fantasy books with people who looked like me. In a sense, I didn’t see myself reflected in the type of stories I loved, so when I started writing, I unconsciously practiced self-erasure. It’s for this reason that KINGDOM OF SOULS is so dear to me. It took me a long time to fully embrace who I am and the kind of stories I want to tell.
And we're so glad you did. Now, Rena, you still hav a life outside of writing books--How do you manage that and other life responsibilities alongside your writing?
It’s definitely not easy, and I’m constantly trying to find the right balance. Sometimes deadlines make it impossible to balance. Sometimes I reach a point that I have to force myself to balance for self-care.
Take care of yourself! What has been your most useful writing/publishing resource?
I really enjoyed Query Shark when I was still in the trenches, and I have many books on writing. Some of them are too formulaic for my style, but I’m a fan of Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook for worldbuilding tips. I remember some years ago that a critique partner didn’t finish a sample I’d share because they said I didn’t follow the “save the cat” model in the first 50 pages, and I knew then that while I will be mindful of formulas, I didn’t want them to define the structure and style of my stories. I think we’re seeing such a refreshing mix of storytelling style now as new voices from diverse backgrounds enter publishing. My writing can be a little bit of trial by fire, as I need to figure out what structure and style will work for a particular story as I’m drafting.
I love Wonderbook too. Okay, a fun question: if you could only watch one movie for the rest of your life, which would it be?
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
SOLID CHOICE. What advice do you have for aspiring writers, particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds?
Keep writing, keep fighting, and keep supporting the type of books you want to read. I’m so thankful to the people who paved the way for me, and I hope to pave the way for others to come.
Another fun one: What’s your “anthem,” the song that would play if your life was a music video?
Sia’s Elastic Heart. Writing for publication is not for the faint of heart, and you’ll definitely need to have thick skin to weather the ups and downs. Some will be expected, and some will catch you off guard, but it’s important to develop a support system to help you through publishing’s road bumps.
Question supplémentaire! (Bonus question) If you could take one of your characters on vacation, where would you go and who would you bring?
I’d take Arrah to a tropical island so she can get some well-deserved rest and relaxation. My girl has been through a lot.
She deserves it!