An Interview with Heather Rose Jones

MotherOf SoulsHeather Rose Jones was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her latest novel, Mother of Souls. To get things started, I’ll make introductions by shamelessly stealing from her author bio…

Heather Rose Jones writes fantasy, historic fantasy, and historical fiction, including the Alpennia series with swordswomen and magic in an alternate Regency setting. She blogs about research into lesbian-like motifs in history and literature at the Lesbian Historic Motif Project which provides inspiration for her fiction. She has a PhD in linguistics, studying metaphor theory and the semantics of Medieval Welsh prepositions, and works as an industrial failure investigator in biotech. Find her on facebook and on twitter as @heatherosejones.

Welcome, and congratulations on the publication of Mother of Souls! Without giving too much away, would you care to tell readers a bit about your latest novel?

The Alpennia series follows a loose network of women in a fictitious early 19th century country inserted roughly around the intersection of France, Switzerland, and Italy. It’s a combination of a collection of personal stories and an overall political intrigue plot. Mother of Souls is about Serafina Talarico, an Ethiopian immigrant to Rome who is struggling to master her mystical talents and thinks that she can find a teacher in Margerit Sovitre, the Royal Thaumaturgist to Princess Anna of Alpennia. And it’s about Luzie Valorin, a widowed music teacher who discovers an unexpected talent when she sets her sights on composing an opera about the philosopher Tanfrit. It’s about Margerit Sovitre’s ambition to found a women’s college. And it’s about a sorcery that has the entirety of central Europe locked in a mystical storm that is beginning to break down the structures of magic that have stood for centuries. It’s…complicated.

This is the third book in your Alpennia series. Each novel seems to focus on very different characters – are they traditional sequels, or standalone books set in a shared world? When you wrote the first book in the Alpennia series, did you always intend to return to the world? Are there more Alpennia stories to come?

When I wrote the first book (Daughter of Mystery), it was supposed to be a standalone, but even as I was polishing it up the second book (The Mystic Marriage) grabbed me. By the time I’d finished that manuscript, I had a fairly good idea of the scope of the overall series, though the details are still working themselves out. At this point I’m planning seven books in the main series (with short fiction to fill in some of the cracks), plus an entirely independent novel set earlier in Alpennian history. It isn’t a traditional series that follows one central character throughout. I’m very much writing about community, and each book has a slightly different set of viewpoint characters.

As an author of historical fantasy and historical fiction, what is your research process like? What’s the strangest, most intriguing, or most obscure bit of history you’ve ever come across while researching? Have you ever written something into a novel that’s based on actual history, but which readers assumed you must have invented from whole cloth because it was too fantastical to believe, or vice versa?

I’ve been a history fanatic all my life and fell in love with European history when I was ten years old and my family lived in Prague for a year when my dad was on sabbatical. Most of my research is the background information I’ve been storing away over the last five decades. But it was a bit of a surprise to me to write a series in the 19th century because most of my research interests previously have been medieval and Renaissance. So I’ve had to do a lot of delving into post-Napoleonic politics and timelines to integrate the story into real history. It’s hard to identify the strangest thing I’ve turned up. That would probably be some very obscure bit of textile technology! But in terms of what I put in my novels, I do a lot of research on queer women in history, and the most surprising thing is probably finding all the ways that women managed to live outside the norms of society in different times and places. But for unbelievable details in my own fiction, I think I’d have to step outside Alpennia and point to my novelette “The Mazarinette and the Musketeer” which is a romp involving various outrageous women in late 17th century England and France. Since I self-published it as a freebie, I went so far as to include endnotes laying out how none of the most unbelievable bits were invented.

On a somewhat related note, in addition to your fiction writing, you also launched the Lesbian Historic Motif Project as a resource for other writers and researchers. Could you talk a bit about how LHMP came to be, your goals for the project, and how you’d like to see if grow in the future?

Originally the Lesbian Historic Motif Project was just my own research notes, gathering background for a variety of historic romances I wanted to write. I had this urge to write stories that were both historically accurate and fun escapist romantic adventures. So I needed to know as much as possible about what it could have been like to be a queer woman at various times and places. And then…well, I have the soul of a cataloger. I know that the hardest part of doing research is knowing that the information you want actually exists and having some idea how to find it. So I wanted to summarize my research in a way that was useful for other interested parties. Back when I started, I was thinking in terms of a published sourcebook, but fortunately the web came along in the meantime and a blog is a much more practical way to present it! The main idea is simply to say, “Here is information; here’s what these publications cover; here’s where you can find them.” Not everyone has the same goals and interests, so it was more important to me to be a conduit than an interpreter. As for the future, I don’t anticipate running out of material to cover anytime soon, so mostly I’ll just keep plugging along. I’d love for more people to know about the Project and use it as a start for their own research.

How does your academic background in linguistics inform your fiction writing process? Do you have any tips or recommendations for authors looking to incorporate the development or evolution of language into their world-building? Are there any invented fantasy language tropes you’ve seen used (or misused) that bother you as someone with a background in linguistics?

As a linguist, my main advice would be: “Kids, don’t try this at home!” But seriously, it’s easy to include over-simplified approaches to language in world-building; much harder to do it in a realistic way. The language aspects in Alpennia are two-fold. The more superficial aspect is in how I’ve created an underlying system for creating Alpennian proper names and small bits of vocabulary, so that it “feels” like a real language without being identical to one that exists. The deeper way I’ve used my linguistics background is in how the characters think about and use language in a multilingual society, and in a framework for using mystical talents that relies heavily on the structure and symbolism of language. It’s more a matter of an awareness of the importance of language than using any specific elements of linguistics. I think the language-related tropes that bother me the most in fantasy is sloppy use of personal names. For example, borrowing names or naming systems from an actual culture without thinking about what baggage those elements carry with them. But conversely, I think authors shouldn’t twist themselves up in knots about “getting language right.” In a very real sense, all historic or secondary world novels are “translated” for the reader. The question is only how well the translation works.

Now that Mother of Souls is out in the world, what are you working on next? Any other projects or works you’d like people to know about?

The next Alpennia book will be a bit of a change-up. I plan it to be a YA novel that can be a new starting point into the series. Floodtide will introduce a new protagonist, as well as bringing in several of the younger minor characters from the existing books. It overlaps a fair amount of the timeline of Mother of Souls but with an entirely different focus. But in the mean time, I’m working on a non-Alpennia project. I wrote a series of connected short stories about a shape-shifting clan in a sort of Iron Age not!Europe for the Sword and Sorceress anthology series, and now I’ve written a novelette that ties up the series and plan to collect them all up in a single volume and self-publish it. Working title is Skinsinger: Tales of the Kaltaoven.

Thanks for stopping by!

Thank you for inviting me!

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