Miranda Suri‘s very first novel admitted her into Viable Paradise. No pressure, Miranda, but we expect big, big things.
Tamago: My understanding is that the novel you submitted for Viable Paradise was the first novel you ever wrote. How did you come to be motivated to write that novel?
Miranda: I started the novel in 2004 while working on my dissertation in Mesoamerica archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania. I need a non-academic outlet to keep myself from going crazy. I’d always loved speculative fiction, especially big epic fantasy novels, and my Dad was always encouraging me to write one, so I did. At the time, of course, I knew nothing about writing. I only knew what I liked as a reader. George R.R. Martin’s Songs of Ice and Fire had a big impact on me, so I decided to emulate him and create a vast sprawling novel with tons of characters. It never crossed my mind I didn’t have the skill to pull something like that off! It took nearly five years to finish writing and revising it, and, of course, it ended up being 700 pages long, had no real ending, and followed about ten too many POV characters. At VP, Laura Mixon called it a “shiny mess,” and she was right. There were some great things about it, actually – especially the characters and cultures that I’d created – but the structure was a disaster.
Tamago: I know that you have published academically, and you work in a college environment. Do you use any of the knowledge you gain from teaching and researching in your field in your writing?
Miranda: I’ve published a number of articles on my archaeological research in Honduras, as well as co-edited a book on Feminist Anthropology, and I definitely draw a lot on my academic background as an anthropologist in my fiction writing. I think it especially influences my world-building. The novel I’m currently revising, titled “A Blood Red Sun” revolves around a culture based on the ancient Aztec. Another project, which I’ve just begun, focuses on an adjunct college professor who inadvertently sends some of her students back in time to the Ice Age Americas. For the former project I drew a lot on my first-hand archaeological research of Pre-Columbian cultures, for the latter I’m incorporating my experiences working in a college environment.
Tamago: Why did you decide to become an author?
Miranda: For most of my adult life I’ve focused on pursuing a career in academia. I finished my PhD and immediately went on the market looking for a tenure-track position. Unfortunately, jobs are thin on the ground in the field of archaeology (only a handful of positions open each year) and most openings didn’t happen to be in places that meshed with my husband’s career. I started teaching part-time while still trying to do fieldwork and publish—all with very little institutional or financial support. It wasn’t making me happy. I’d been working on my first novel for a long time and I thought, “Hey, maybe I can pursue writing as a career instead of a hobby.” So, last year I applied to Viable Paradise and I got accepted. Since then—and thanks to the support of my amazing husband, friends and family, and my fellow writers–I’ve been working seriously on learning the craft of writing. Now I teach part-time for the pleasure of teaching and I focus on writing as a career goal…and I’m 110% happier.
Tamago: Tell us about what you’re working on now.
Miranda: I’m currently revising my second novel, “A Blood Red Sun.” It’s a fantasy novel about an ambitious young woman who gets tangled up in a war between the gods. There’s plenty of war, blood sacrifice, romance, and intrigue. The novel is actually based on one of the characters from the first novel I wrote. Meanwhile, I’m drafting my third novel, tentatively titled “Absent.” It follows the adventures of an archaeology professor who, after being cursed by an envious colleague, starts accidentally sending her students back in time during her lectures. She becomes the focus of a Missing Persons investigation, and when she realizes what’s happening, decides to attempt a rescue. This takes her, the Detective running the case, and the colleague who cursed her to the Ice Ages, as well as to Sir Leonard Woolley’s dig at the Sumerian site of Ur in the 1920’s.
Tamago: Which authors influence your work?
Miranda: As I mentioned, one of my earliest influences was George R.R. Martin. The first three books in his Songs of Ice and Fire series completely blew me away. Instead of a bunch of stiff fantasy archetypes, he’d created characters who felt like real people – warts and all. The shot of realism that he infuses in his work is inspiring. I’ve also been influenced by Joe Abercrombie. His First Law trilogy took Martin’s emphasis on realism to an almost unrealistically gritty extreme. He strips down characters to their basest instincts and exposes the flaws behind the notion of a ‘hero.’ Sometimes, though, his writing is a little *too* bleak! I’m considering writing an Urban Fantasy for my fourth novel, and writers like Stacia Kane and Illona Andrews have both been inspirations.
Tamago: Where do you see yourself in 10 years as an author?
Miranda: That’s really hard to say. I hope I’ll be establishing myself as a published novelist, but I’m realistic about how difficult that goal will be to achieve. All I can do is keep writing, revising, practicing, and hoping.
Tamago: Many people who have careers dream of being an author, but they might be reluctant to start. What advice could you give them, based on your experience?
Miranda: If you think you’d like to be an author, you to stop dreaming just do it. Sit down and write. If you find you don’t want to put in the work, or you don’t like it as much as you thought you would, then ‘oh well,’ you gave it a try. If you find you DO like it, then I’d suggest getting yourself into a writers’ workshop as soon as possible—there’s lots of good ones out there, including VP, Clarion, Odyssey, and Taos Toolbox, among others. Getting your writing to a level where you’ll be accepted at a workshop may be a lot of work in itself. Enlist help. Contrary to popular opinion, writing isn’t something you can become good at on your own. As with any other profession, you need to learn a particular set of skills. You must practice, every day if possible, and you’ll need feedback from people who know what they’re talking about. Joining a local or online writing group can be a good start—you’ll find there’s a big difference feedback from people who like to read vs. people who actually write.
Tamago: Do you have themes you find you return to in the stories you write?
Miranda: Well, I wouldn’t have thought it when I first started writing, but I’m a little bit bloody-minded. I really like to have action, fighting, and war in my stories and I strive to make them as realistic as possible. I’ve have an underlying conflict in my beliefs about human nature: on the one hand I strongly believe that people are inherently selfish, short-sighted, and cruel; on the other hand, I think people can generous, strive to live up to noble ideals, and be self-sacrificing—especially for the people we love, and sometimes even for the greater good. So, I think that balance of concerns often emerges in my writing.
Tamago: What is your dream writing project?
Miranda: In the short term, I’m eying a series of related but stand-alone Urban Fantasy novels about a paranormal archaeologist. In the long term, I would love to someday accrue the skill and talent to write a huge, sprawling epic fantasy – just like I dreamed of when I first sat down to write my original novel.
Tamago: What do you think is the most valuable thing you gained from attending Viable Paradise and other writing workshops?
Miranda: It would be hard to overstate the value of Viable Paradise. By far the most valuable and lasting impact of attending VP was discovering a network of fellow writers. A lot of people describe this as finding your “tribe,” and I guess this description is as good as any. Before VP I didn’t know any other writers. Now I have many friends who are writers, and through them I’ve met others. We give each other support and encouragement, feedback and critiques, information on markets, agents, and publishers, and much more. The critiques and lectures at VP also helped me a lot with professionalization. I learned about the skills a writer needs to develop, as well as how to practice them. Finally, attending VP gave me a small measure of validation: yes, with work and sweat and maybe a little blood, I can do this.