An Interview with Emily Duncan

DH: When you started writing Wicked Saints, did you always know that you were going to take the universe to such an expansive level? 

ED: I always build too big, so that was inevitable. I had it planned as a duology because I had two points of view, which was to write book one and then book two would be about Serefin. My agent said, “You have three main characters though. So, that’s not a duology.” Because I don’t plan, I always have scenes that I know I want to write. I went into Ruthless Gods knowing that I wanted to write the salt mines, and I wanted to write one element of the end. The other four elements of the end were complete surprises to me. It didn’t end up turning out as I was expecting or planning for, because I didn’t write this thing expecting it to get so big. Now I’m at a point where I’m like, I don’t actually want to leave this world for a while. I would like to keep playing in this sandbox. But because I’ve poured so much research time into it, I don’t want to start that anew with something else. 

All your books shift between your three character’s perspectives. Was that always planned or was that decision made later?

Wicked Saints was always Nadya and Serefin. When I started writing Ruthless Gods, I knew I didn’t want to use Malachiasz yet, because he gets the third book. So as I was writing Ruthless Gods, I thought it was going to end up being the same structure as Wicked Saints, I wasn’t expecting all of the other point of view chapters that I ended up using. I kept splitting up the cast in ways that I needed other cameras. I needed to be able to look at different things and have Serefin in chapters that weren’t in his point of view, but I had split him off from literally everyone else, so I needed a new character. It worked very well in Ruthless Gods, but it ended up being a nightmare in book three because going from two strict points of view to three meant I turned in a 178,000-word draft which has been edited down to about the same size as Ruthless Gods, which is around 135,000. 

You wrote both in your acknowledgments and social media that compared to Wicked SaintsRuthless Gods pretty much murdered you. Why do you think it was so hard? How fast did you write Ruthless Gods?

I had never written anything that could be considered horror adjacent, so I was working with a whole new framework. I had the bones of Ruthless Gods down by the time Ruthless Gods started circulating. But Wicked Saints started circulating extremely early because we sent out a million bound manuscripts super early. So, on top of all of the craft side of things, I felt the pressure like, oh people like the first one. So now I have to do it again somehow. And I don’t know if I can.  I’m really glad I got the bulk of it done before I started getting reader opinions, so I could be like, I don’t care, the book is already done. There was a lot of pressure on all sides when I was writing Ruthless Gods. I never had to write a book that fast before.

I started Ruthless Gods in September of 2017 and it took a little over a year to write.

Did you get to take time off of work from your career as a librarian to write?

With Ruthless Gods, I wrote the beginning a bunch of times, and then I wrote a draft of 100,000 words. I emailed my editor and said, “I am just broken and I’m going to start over. I’ll turn it in on time, I promise, but I’m starting over.” I that was before summer, and summer at my day job was horrible, because Summer Reading is like Black Friday, but every day for two months straight. So, I lost that summer and I was behind because I had decided to start over at 100,000 words. I had gotten back to the 60,000 point of the book with a month left before my deadline and I slammed through it in less than a month. I would get home from work, I would eat something, and I would go to a Starbucks and write until they closed. 

Did your publisher ask you to release your books so close together? 

In the YA genre, it’s a book a year. Some of the authors who debuted the same year as me have ended up with their second books coming out next year. But the general expectation is to try to hit it the same time your last book came out.

How long was the editing process? When is the editing done?

I have no shame and I will turn in a draft to my editor that had entire chapters missing. She knows that I’m going to write it because I always do, and it’s fine. If we weren’t on this book a year timeline, I think I would not turn in drafts that have just scenes in brackets. It’s such a fast turnaround that I can’t self-edit because I need months of distance before I can look at a book and think, “Oh there are problems!” But the way the process works is I turn it in and my editor gives me a list of notes to edit, usually structurally. Because I don’t outline, I tend to spin in circles a lot as I’m trying to figure out how things put together. Line edits are when my editor says, “Okay but we didn’t actually need any of this. That’s where the bulk of my editing happens because at a prose level I write really messy. 

It’s interesting that you were tapping into horror while writing Ruthless Gods. What was it like to bring in those horror elements to this book?

It was so much fun. I didn’t grow up reading or watching horror. I haven’t seen most of the staples and I definitely haven’t read most of the staples. When I started Ruthless Gods, I thought there’s only one way to take this, it’s classic horror and I don’t know what that means. Then I started reading classic horror books, and I found that they’re kind of boring? Because it’s focused on being cerebral, nothing happens. It was hard because I don’t like gore and I don’t like things being shocking, but I really love horror movies that make you feel kind of uncomfortable and bad the whole time. Visually it maybe isn’t gross, but you just don’t feel good. Tapping into that in writing is really hard because how everyone reacts to horror is so different. I think Ruthless Gods is uncomfortable and there are people that said it wasn’t scary. It wasn’t supposed to be, it was supposed to be uncomfortable. So, it was hard to figure out how I wanted to handle that. 

In a trilogy, the first book has to feel like it can stand alone. The second book usually sets up a redemption arc that comes full circle in the third book. Was it liberating not having a big pitiful climax to work towards in the second book?

No, I loved it. The second books of trilogies are always my favorites. I really like the installments that are super dark the whole time, nothing is resolved, and then it’s just over. I know that YA readers hate this, but I love books that are like, I know you had questions from the first book. I will answer two of them. Then I will ask ninety-seven more and I will answer none of those. I kind of did that. I remember going to my editor and saying, “I can handle this two ways. I can end it and readers will think he’s dead. Or I can write the epilogue and let them know everything’s fine.” She said, “Emily, if you pick the first way, you would have to not talk about him for a year and you can’t do that, so write the epilogue.” I thought, you know what? That is a fair point. I admire authors who can be super coy and not reveal anything, but I just can’t do that. 

What was it like expanding an already super complicated mythology?

I like world-building where the entire point is to crack everything open. I don’t plan for anything, and I was feeling a little constricted. I like presenting things in a way where the reader has to bring in something of their own to the book. However, I wanted to be able to open doors so that if I were to go to other areas in this world that aren’t these two countries, I wouldn’t be rehashing a magic system that I already used. 

Are we to expect the same sort of jump in mythology expansion we experienced from book one to book two? 

No, because part of what made book three so hard was I hit a point with Ruthless Gods where I couldn’t go bigger. I had to keep it close, resolve things, and I hate resolving things. Because Ruthless Gods was so big and blew things open, I knew that I couldn’t do that again because book three is closure. I feel like each book has a very different vibe to it. Wicked Saints was a lot more high fantasy and Ruthless Gods is a little more horror, so it is paced more like an adult novel. Book three is not quite as dark, yet the cast gets split up in a different way. I’m trying to answer the questions from earlier in the story instead of posing new ones. It felt like there was less room for it to be so overwhelmingly dark. 

You’ve obviously developed the characters at an intimate level throughout the book. We have new beautiful romances coming to life, we have a lot of angst about trust, we have people growing as people, couples, friends, and enemies. What was it like to build the intimacy alongside this huge mythological concept? 

It felt extremely self-indulgent. The things that I like writing are the moments between the characters. I really like stepping back from the big things that are happening to hone in on character interactions. I have found that it’s more fun when it’s self-indulgent. But also, there’s that feeling in the back your head questioning if you are pushing the plot forward. I think it worked. My first drafts are always very sweet, nobody’s really mad at each other, because I don’t want them to be. In my first draft I built in the avenues for when I was going to pause and have a character moment. When I revised, I decided okay, we’re going to keep this character moment here, but we’re going to change how it’s happening because they should probably be mad at each other. I also wanted conflict between characters that had zero conflict in book one. The character relationships were the easiest part of the book because those are the things from Wicked Saints I knew I wanted to write.

Can you give us a preview of what we will get to experience in book three

I am going to leave a lot of things open because I’m not done with this world. We’ll see how readers react to that because I’m not going to answer all the questions. I’m going to answer the ones that I feel are the most important, but I know that there are questions readers think are super important that I do not. And so, we’ll see what happens. I’ll answer more than two questions, I promise. 

Are you planning on continuing with this world in a short story or comics?

Nothing is currently set in stone. What I’m working on now is set in the same world, but it’s two countries to the west and it’s happening at the same time as book three. It’s a lot more insular and has two settings and four characters. What I wanted to do is play around with something else, play around with a different country. Honestly, I have another trilogy’s worth of material about this specific cast. I feel like I ended the trilogy and I answered the questions that were asked in this specific trilogy but for a bunch of the characters, there is still more to do. But it’s publishing, so there are no guarantees. I don’t want to say I’m going to go back and write more because I don’t know, but I really want to. All I can do right now is work on something slightly different in the same world and see how that goes. 

Do you think you’ll stay with the YA genre?

Landing at a publisher that does, “crossover YA,” has meant that they let me play with these things that I think other publishers probably wouldn’t. I feel if I were somewhere else, Ruthless Gods probably wouldn’t haven’t ended up being so weird, long, and slow. I feel like I’m being allowed to inhabit an in-between place that I want to be. I don’t think I’m going to leave YA, but I feel like I have my foot in other areas already. 

Your book came out when a global pandemic struck the world. How has Covid-19 affected publishing your second book?

I was expecting it to be worse. I hadn’t really planned on doing many events so that didn’t really affect much of anything. There was the knowledge that the first week sales could have been better because there would have been actual bookstore foot traffic. There’s nothing really that could have been done to change it. I don’t think pushing the book later would have done anything, except cause problems. It does feel weird because there’s usually a rush of attention when a book first comes out and then months of quiet, and it’s hard to know if the quiet now is the normal cycle of things or if everyone has already forgotten about this book because it came out in the middle of a pandemic. I can’t let myself worry about it because there’s no doing anything about a global pandemic. It is what it is, you write the next book. 

Emily Duncan, Interviewed by Dani Hedlund

Emily A. Duncan was born and raised in Ohio and works as a youth services librarian. She received a Master’s degree in library science from Kent State University, which mostly taught her how to find obscure Slavic folklore texts through interlibrary loan systems. When not reading or writing, she enjoys playing copious amounts of video games and dungeons and dragons. She is represented by Thao Le of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.

After the publication of her first novel at the age of eighteen, Dani Hedlund founded the international literary nonprofit Brink Literacy Project (formerly Tethered by Letters). Over the course of the last decade, Brink has grown into one of the largest independently-funded literary nonprofits in the nation, with bases across the US, UK, and Southeast Asia. She is also the founder and Editor-in-Chief of F(r)iction, an art and literary collection specializing in boundary-defying work. Since its inception in 2015, F(r)iction has risen to critical acclaim, becoming one of the fastest growing literary journals in the world. In her ever-elusive free time, Dani lectures about the ins and outs of the publishing industry, writes very weird fiction, and runs a strange little board game company called Bad Hipster Games.