I haven’t had much time for interviews lately between revisions and working on my book 2, but I’m so excited for the opportunity to jump back into it with WAKING FIRE author Jean Louise!

WAKING FIRE is a YA fantasy in which a young girl named Naira must fight to save her small desert village from an army of undead creatures. Jean Louise was interested in storytelling from a young age, but much like myself, she didn’t consider the possibility of becoming an author until her twenties because writing as a career felt like something only more privileged people were allowed to pursue. Read on to learn how she made the decision to follow her calling and embark on her unique publishing journey!

1. Thank you so much for joining me today! Could you share what first got you interested in writing? What were your early influences and which authors made you feel seen?

I’ve always been a storyteller. When I was a kid playing with my sisters, I’d come up with all sorts of adventures for our toys. I’ve also always had an overactive imagination, and I’d spend hours daydreaming whole scenes and character journeys, replaying them over and over in my head until I got them right (I’m still a daydreamer, but these days don’t have as many free hours to spend on daydreaming!).

Growing up, I loved Judy Blume’s Just As Long As We’re Together, L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series, and the Anastasia Krupnik series by Lois Lowry. Reading those books was very comforting to me, and I knew I wanted to do something that moved others and made them want to spend time with those characters so much so that they kept re-reading even though they knew every word. I’m also a huge fan of the Chronicles of Narnia series by C. S. Lewis—growing up, we had a really old boxed set that was missing pages but I read and loved those books anyway, even though I didn’t know how they defeated the Queen in The Silver Chair until I bought my own set as an adult because the book I had as a child was missing all the pages with the final battle!

2. I loved Judy Blume and the Chronicles of Narnia series growing up too! So when did you first get serious about pursuing traditional publishing?

I grew up poor, in a rough neighborhood, where the most people expect you to do is finish high school. After that, you got a job at a local factory, or grocery store, or someplace down the street, and you worked hard just to barely scrape by. Writing for anything other than school was a luxury that was reserved for other people—ones that didn’t have it so tough. Growing up, people always pushed me toward practical careers: teacher, lawyer, etc. Being a writer or pursuing any kind of creative outlet was never an option. Creative writing was something other people got to do—lucky people. And I didn’t think I was one of the lucky ones. So I dreamt of being a librarian or working in a bookstore because then at least I’d be around books, even if writing books of my own was unfathomable to me.

In my early twenties, a friend challenged me to write a romance story after I pointed out the flaws in one we had just finished reading. I took on the challenge and wrote a short story which turned out to be pretty good. After that, I realized that maybe I was one of the lucky ones who could be a writer and I decided to keep writing and honing my craft with the dream of one day being published on the far horizon.

3. I can definitely relate to growing up feeling like writing professionally wasn’t a viable option. That’s great that you were inspired see things differently and follow your passion!

Can you talk a bit about your writing history? How many books did you write and query before you were agented?

I wrote my first story in seventh grade, but I was too afraid to share it with anyone out of fear that it was terrible, so I hid it away for years. I’d always been a good writer when it came to things like school essays and reports, but creative writing was scary because I was putting those daydreams that I had nurtured for years and years on paper for others to see.

Eventually, I got over my fears and pursued writing diligently. I’ve written a handful of short stories but my main focus is YA fantasy novels. I wrote my first novel in my early twenties and sent it out to one publisher who accepted unagented submissions. I never heard back from them (which, nowadays I’m not surprised because first novels are usually awful, and mine was no exception, but at the time I didn’t understand why they weren’t beating down my door to offer me publishing deals!), so I moved on to another idea. In total, I wrote six novels before getting one of them published (three of those ended up being the Waking Fire series and then two more rewrites of the first book in the series until I got to the version that’s being published in January).

4. What is your writing process like? Are you a pantser or a plotter during the drafting stage? How did you approach revisions to get your manuscript query ready?

I am a total plotter. I cannot write if I don’t know what’s going to happen at the end of the book, in the chapter, and in the scene that I’m working on. I write summaries of everything I want to happen, and sometimes I outline my summaries chapter by chapter. Of course, not everything always goes to plan, so some ideas that I think will take two chapters to cover are finished in one and vice versa. I’m open to change and revising my ideas as needed, but I have to have something in mind before I can begin, even if I end up going in a totally new direction.

5. I would love to hear about how you found your agent. Any advice or tips for writers in the querying trenches?

So, like most things in my life, my path to getting an agent isn’t a typical one. Things started out normal—I sent out queries of my book to nearly 100 agents over two years and received a few requests for fulls, some partial requests, and lots of rejections or no responses. Then a friend sent me an Instagram post from Inkyard Press that mentioned they were looking for submissions from unagented BIPOC authors. I sent them my book in August and the following April they said they wanted to publish it, but they suggested I find an agent before we made any deals.

Once I had a publisher interested in my book, finding an agent was much easier! Within a month, I signed with Claire Friedman at Inkwell.

Even though traditional querying didn’t work out for me, it’s still a process that helped me refine my book and how I talk about it, so it was useful. My advice would be to query the traditional way, but also keep an eye out for other opportunities to get your work noticed. There are all kinds of contests, mentorships, and open submission periods for authors who want to be published, so while you’re looking for an agent, be on the lookout for those too.

6. Can you share a little bit about your editing and sub journey after getting representation?  

Because I got a publication offer before finding my agent, I didn’t do any edits with my agent and my book never went out on submission. I jumped directly from signing with my agent to working on edits with my editor.

Working with Claire Stetzer, my editor at Inkyard, has been a wonderful process. She’s helped me make the opening to my book stronger and bring in more emotional elements (which is an area I struggle with). I actually like editing and revising so I’m always looking forward to that part of the process. To me, editing what I’ve written is much easier than actually writing it.

7. What inspired you to write WAKING FIRE?

If you noticed in my first answer, all of the books I loved growing up featured white, middle class young adults, and that is not my story. I knew I wanted to write an epic fantasy about someone who was truer to me—someone who got angry, who didn’t always understand her emotions, and who jumped in headfirst and asked questions later. I also wanted to create a fantasy world that wasn’t rooted in European mythologies, tropes, and aesthetics. I wanted a setting unlike anything I’d ever read in a fantasy book, one that was as far from Europe as possible. As a bi-racial woman, it was important to me that I create a world that reflected my diverse background and was filled with all the things that fascinate and inspire me.

After I changed the setting from a cliché European-style castle to a mudbrick house, the rest came together. I found my protagonist, Naira Khoum, in the desert gripping a pair of daggers. She’s more comfortable throwing a punch than talking it out and she’ll fight to the death to protect those she loves. Her sense of justice is strong, she’s stubborn, and she’s a little cocky, but she’s also loyal, brave, and super awkward around her crush. Naira is someone you can feel good rooting for, because even if she makes a mistake, you know she’ll do whatever it takes to make things right

8. Naira definitely sounds like one of my favorite kinds of characters, I’m so excited to meet her in WAKING FIRE!

What advice would you give to yourself as a writer when you were just starting out?

Don’t be afraid to be different. And take your dreams seriously. Don’t keep pushing them aside because they’re scary, or difficult, or impractical. You dreamt them for a reason—they’re yours, and you need to nurture them until they become a reality.

9. That’s really great advice, thanks for sharing. What’s something great you read recently?

I recently finished the final season of Locke & Key on Netflix and now I’m reading the graphic novels that the show is based on. What I love about this show, and the graphic novels, is how this family broken apart by tragedy comes together to protect and heal each other. I love stories where the characters start out so far apart from each other but by the end not even the biggest threat they’ve ever faced can separate them.

Check out Jean Louise on Twitter and Instagram. WAKING FIRE will be released with Inkyard Press on January 10th, 2023. Click here to find all the links to preorder it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Bookshop, IndieBound or Books-A-Million.

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